Introduction: The New Feminism

Artwork by Imp Kerr


A feminist conspiracy couldn’t have planted the number of trend pieces about women we’ve seen this year. Touting the new economic dominance of women, Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men became a bestseller alongside Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography. The Atlantic published popular articles such as “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter a former high-ranking State Department official, and “All the Single Ladies,” by Kate Bolick, on the trials, and ultimately the joys, of being single in a world of independent, amazingly well-housed women.

Bolick describes the sisterhood:

Deb gave me the use of her handsome mid-century apartment in Chelsea when she vacated town for a meditation retreat; Courtney bequeathed her charming Brooklyn aerie while she traveled alone through Italy; Catherine put me up at her rambling Cape Cod summer house . . .

Marissa Mayer, now of Yahoo, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook have become the new faces of modern femininity, happily juggling high-powered CEOships, children, and—for Mayer—the creation of numerous “diaper cakes” for colleagues’ baby showers. Women, it would seem, are economically dominant and empowered by everything from their vaginas to their beach houses.

Good for them.

But this celebration is one part toast to the wealthy exceptions, and one part nonsense. Despite the sound of Mayer and Sandberg crashing through the glass ceiling, Rosin’s assertion that women are now economically dominant is pure fantasy. Her claims have been thoroughly debunked by writers such as Bryce Covert, Stephanie Coontz, and Nancy Folbre, who note that the economy is so bad that women and men are finally converging on the same low wages and contingent employment. As of this past summer, men had regained 46.2 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession, while women had regained 38.7 percent of theirs. Cutbacks in the feminized public sector have been brutal.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media treat the few women at the top—fewer than 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women—as if they are the first to discover the difficulty of raising children while working twelve hours per day. These narratives smoothly elide the fact that women have always worked outside the home. Mayer’s nanny is probably working twelve hours too, though this feat didn’t make the cover of New York magazine.

Stories about women like Mayer reflect the media’s absorption into business culture and its favorite trope: celebration of the heroic CEO. Business Insider recently published a slideshow of “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep” (Mayer topped the list). They offer a model of success to which you, mid-level investment banker, should aspire through the sacrifice of your basic biological needs. Female CEOs have merely added another layer of superhuman strength; everyone knows that women are supposed to have babies, but CEOs aren’t—Omigod, can she do both? The very biology of women is co-opted to laud an increasingly unsustainable set of corporate values.

And the reaction harks back to gender panics in recent decades. Rosin suggests we are living under a new matriarchy. Men are becoming irrelevant and women are too adaptable to the personality-driven service sector. While viewers take pleasure in watching the Mad Men squirm over the introduction of women into their whiskey-swilling ad agency, a similar anxiety pervades discussions of twenty-first century work. The subheading to one of Rosin’s chapters is “Asian Women Take Over the World.” Never mind that women have to have a Ph.D. to make what a male with a B.A. will. The Rosin line sounds suspiciously like an intellectual coping mechanism for the recession-battered male masses. There are too few jobs. You don’t have a job. Who took your job? Women.

The problem with such discussions of women and feminism is that most women still work in female-dominated industries that have long been underpaid, precarious, and without benefits. Most women are not economically dominant—they’re doing the same work women have always done and suffering for it. Take the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a basic piece of legislation helping women challenge pay discrimination by extending the window during which they could sue. The act was necessary of course, because women still make about seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar.

Most women are not economically dominant—they’re doing the same work women have always done and suffering for it.

Meanwhile, it is hard to tear the feminist blogosphere away from endless debates about the sitcom Girls and whether “ladyblogs” are, in fact, feminist. A heavy focus on reproductive rights is necessary, but it crowds out much else. Domestic work more often refers to the division of work between career ladder-climbing husbands and wives than to full-time domestic workers. The online world of feminist commentary has made a diversity of voices available, but navel gazing often predominates.

For the most interesting thing happening in feminism right now, we shouldn’t look to Yahoo, but rather at the terrain that Sarah Jaffe explores in the first article in this section. The fastest growing sector of the economy is care work, a realm long considered an organizer’s nightmare. This 95-percent-female workforce is spread throughout individual homes, has no governing labor standards, often exists in the underground economy, and includes many undocumented immigrants.

Excluded from New Deal labor reforms at the behest of Southern Democrats, care work suffers from a perception that it is not “normal” work. Nannying, homecare, elder care are more intimate than factory or retail work. Families often call domestic workers “part of our family.” The future of labor in the American economy will be determined in part by whether care work can become organized work, and Jaffe draws on women’s labor history and the Wages for Housework movement to discuss how this might occur.

Following Jaffe’s article is a personal essay by a certified nursing assistant in a California elder care facility who uses the pseudonym JOMO. JOMO speaks of the struggle to organize fellow care workers as well as the psychological and physical toll of the labor. The choices the workers face embody the contradictions of a society that turns care into a commodity and then sweeps it under the rug.

White-collar work carries an interlinked set of challenges. Madeleine Schwartz turns a feminist lens on the organization of interns, temp workers, freelancers, and clerical staff who are experiencing the precariousness and dead-end status long associated with “pink-collar” work.

The Government Accounting Office has classed nearly a third of American workers as contingent. In her analysis, Schwartz draws on feminist tools—the consciousness-raising group, the identification of labels like “caring” and “educational” to transform work into voluntarism—to point toward possible modes of resistance to an economic system that requires the smile of a wife and the flexibility of an intern.

Melissa Gira Grant examines this dynamic in its newest realm—Silicon Valley, birthplace of the social media we use every day. The industry thrives on the visual exploitation of women in many of its products, but also in its offices. Grant’s starting point is a new book by Katherine Losse, the sole woman before Sandberg to occupy a place of prominence in the boy-nerd culture of Facebook. This essay exposes the tension between an online world that relies for clicks on images of women and the office struggles of the people who run that world.

Stepping back from the workplace, we asked co-editor Michael Walzer to reconsider his classic philosophical work Spheres of Justicein light of analysis from his sharpest feminist critic, the late Susan Moller Okin. She challenged him to think differently about how the family fit into his framework for justice. Why, he asks, has increased gender justice in politics, economy, and education failed to create more egalitarian family relationships?

We conclude with two pieces about Roe v. Wade on its fortieth anniversary. Carole Joffe notes that the contours of the modern feminist movement have been shaped by the right-wing assault on reproductive rights. Women’s rights advocates concentrate energy on a single topic, while other feminist projects languish. Yet it is not a fight we can abandon. As she unwinds post-Roe v. Wade history, Joffe points toward some of the central strategic dilemmas that feminism must overcome.

Akiba Solomon, who came of age years after Roe v. Wade, addresses the tensions between the experiences of women of color and white, middle-class reproductive rights activists. Solomon draws on her teenage experience teaching sex education to mostly black and Puerto Rican peers and looks to emerging movements that are strengthening feminism and broadening its reach.

Elsewhere in this issue, Chelsea Szendi Schieder addresses the history of Japanese radical feminism in light of the “baby bust” in Japan, asking “are young women in Japan on a wildcat baby strike?”; Mari Jo Buhle writes about a little-noted coalition growing between labor and women’s groups in the Wisconsin battles against austerity; Jonah Raskin reconsiders Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook; and Megan Erickson confronts Arlie Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times.

Left magazines have taken heat along with others for their low score in the numbers ranking of VIDA, an organization of women in the arts that counts how often women are published in leading magazines. Too often, left magazines take up feminism occasionally, and out of obligation, not frequently and as a core concern. But if you ignore gender, you can’t think seriously about the future of the economy or about any other concerns of the Serious Men of the Left.

The mirror image of this charge to leftists is a challenge to feminism. Most women spend time in the workforce, often in contingent labor and un(der)paid care work. This, then, is where feminists, to change the lives of women, must spend their time. Few feminists would disagree that we care less about Marissa Mayer’s choice not to take parental leave than whether all women have access to leave and to childcare and that men share the burden. But the former conversation often trumps the latter.

There are always generational debates in feminism: first through third waves, mother- daughter conflict, the misunderstandings bred by generationally divided pop culture and work experiences. You can find sparkling pieces throughout the history of Dissent that reflect each stage. This issue’s special section takes a certain continuity as its premise. If the new feminism is going to address the biggest changes altering our world—work and immigration patterns, the power of labor, the self-determination of half the population, the very structure of our days—we must look back to a feminism that assumed the centrality of these issues in order to see feminism’s future.

Sarah Leonard is associate editor at Dissent. She is an editor at the New Inquiry and a contributing editor to Jacobin.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.