Supping with the Devil? Second Wave Feminism and Neo-Liberalism

Beatrix Campbell takes issue with the view that feminism has lost its bearings and is now a willing bed-fellow of globalisation and neo-liberal capitalism.

Feminists are familiar with grandiose complaints that the goddess has failed, that it hasn’t delivered, the world hasn’t changed enough. And they are just as familiar with the howl that it has delivered too much: the pendulum has swung too far, feminism has made life not better but harder, more complicated and more competitive.

But Nancy Fraser offers a novel hypothesis: she wonders whether there is “some perverse, subter- ranean elective affinity” between feminism and neo-liberal globalisation, whether feminism lost its critical moorings and harbours a “dangerous liaison” with capitalism — that feminism is neo-liberal, global capitalism’s happy and willing bed-fellow. A moment arrives in her self-confessed heresy when the provocation goes too far and apostasy becomes absurdity.

Fraser has to be taken seriously — she is an important theorist of feminism, socialism, the state and post-modernism. Many feminists of a certain generation, formed by the Women’s Liberation Movement — the Second Wave — have assimilated her writing, it is part of our collective common sense.

But she has fired an arrow into its heart: this same Second Wave stands accused. Her essay, “Feminism Co-opted?” in New Left Review 56, is a critique that consummates a decade of debate orchestrated around her original intervention in 1995, “From Redistribution to Recognition?” and published in a 2008 anthology, Adding Insult to Injury.

Her case is not merely that feminism has fragmented or faded. That would be sad rather than bad. It is that feminism has taken a turn for the worse, it sups with the devil; it has changed its priorities, from a politics of redistribution to recognition (identity) politics — a discourse that may be valid and important in its own right, but does not challenge capitalism where it hurts: the redistribution of power and resources. Recognition can be accommodated; re-distribution can’t.

The decade of debate and some stalwart rebukes have not chastened her critique. This is how it goes: looking at 40 years of Second Wave feminism, an epochal social movement, she measures its “emancipatory promise” and its expanded sense of injustice against outcomes in the new millennium.

Her case is not merely that feminism has fragmented or faded…it is that feminism has taken a turn for the worse, it sups with the devil.

Feminism’s critique of the patriarchal family and the gendered division of labour expressed in the family wage — as she nicely describes it, the ethnic majority male breadwinner’s wage — has been amended by women’s permanent presence in the global labour market. But that has not altered power relations between men and women and capitalism; cultural struggle has established primacy over the socio-economic, and the preoccupation with culture has been “part and parcel of another social transformation — a transformation in the social organisation of post-war capitalism.”


And so the movement’s ambitions have been “conscript- ed in the service of a project that was deeply at odds with our larger, holistic vision of a just society.” Exemplifying the “cunning of history” our “utopian desires have found a second life”: legitimating a new form of global capitalism. This post-Fordist capitalism is sustained by ideologies in which markets tame politics — rather than politics taming markets — and by labour markets liberated from national border restraints.

Fraser discerns a “disturbing convergence” of some feminist ideals and global capitalism. Feminism’s critique of state-organised capitalism and the sexism of a left that that was unduly productionist, that asserted the exclusive primacy of class, has, she suggests, been assimilated to legitimate the new capitalism.

How did it happen? Second Wave feminism, the Women’s Liberation Movement born out of the contradictions within the liberation movements of the 1960s, coincided with “a historical shift in the character of capitalism.” Is coincidence causal? And is a critique of butch labourism a felony because it happened to resonate across both right and left?

Feminist critique of the ethnic majority male bread-winner and the family wage, she agrees, was a pioneering insight into the way that capitalism modernised a patriarchal division of labour by polarising public and private, production and reproduction.


Second Wave feminism always challenged liberal – and indeed socialist – cultures of equality that assumed that women’s entry to the public world and the proletariat would complete their historic mission to become citizens.

There were of course diverse strands and streams within feminism, but it would probably not be too much to say that broadly speaking the Second Wave insisted that gender was a political project, and far from simply aspiring to catch up with men, it believed that feminism insisted that masculinities and femininities were subjectivities structured by gender and a matrix of difference and dominance were its effects. So far so good.

Women’s Liberation not only aspired to transform femininity, it also imagined the transformation of masculinities. This approach transcended the limits of equality – a kind of belief that women were evolutionary failures. But Fraser wonders whether the equality project has merely liberated capitalism’s free- dom of movement, its valorisation of waged work at the expense of unwaged work, and its exploitation of any and all labourers, young and old, male and female.


In this context, she says, “feminism thrived.” It did? Oh yes, insists Fraser, its claims for justice ebbed away from redistribution and flowed into claims for recognition of identity and difference; and so it was that feminism “effectively traded one truncated paradigm for another.”

Where is this promiscuous, flighty feminism? Do you recognise it?

Sure, we can spot it in Grazia or Cosmopolitan magazine, or the X Factor or Supernanny – but these are not the discourses of the political movement of which she speaks.

Fraser’s concerns may be echoed by women worried that feminism’s intellectual presence has shrunk to the academy, and that there, above all, there is a suspicion that there has been a turn from socio-economic justice to culture.

This, however, obscures some decisive developments. Let’s think of Britain where there has been a rich expansion of feminist scholarship in science, economics, history, social studies, politics, geography – where, for example, the laureate of radical geography, Doreen Massey, professor of geography at the Open University, has been acknowledged as having a transformative influence on the discipline. All this despite the growing hostility to, and fading resources for, feminist scholarship as such.

Feminism does not live in the academy alone, and in any case feminism is not reducible to the generation of the Second Wave – there is a surprising growth of networks and websites among another generation of feminists finding their own voices.

And feminism lives as a medley of ideas nesting in popular cultures; some traduce its radical purpose,

During the mid 1970s, the implementation of the Equal Pay Act converged with a historic social contract between a Labour government and the unions that for the first time prioritised the low-paid.

Some morph into generational priorities; but much to many people’s amazement feminism is not dead.

Finally, and most important, it is not possible to think about the fate of the Second Wave outside its context and the niches where it sought space. Nor, when feminism stands accused of providing legitimacy to its enemy, can we dodge asking the question: what does the Second Wave bring to the new times?

It “thrived” not in the neo-liberal era but in the 1970s before the global assault, sponsored by the US and the UK and the world’s financial institutions, on welfare states and public sectors. In the early 1980s its institutional presence expanded, but thereafter it survived, rather than thrived.


Feminist values were traduced in the tendency – encouraged by New Labour’s “year zero” take on ideology – to re-interpret feminism as “the past”. Judith Williams argues beautifully that thus what becomes past “isn’t the sexism, which is doing just fine, but the concept of sexism …” and sexism, like the feminism that described it, becomes a “Sixties-Seventies phenomenon, to be enjoyed as kitsch.”

Après le deluge wrought by the global turn towards neo-liberalism and the new imperialism, feminism’s trajectory in the institutions was a case, shall we say, of uneven development: at the global level, patriarchy’s loss of legitimacy was expressed in some UN values and projects, in modest EU legislative reform – it was the EU that drove the UK’s belated and minimalist legislation.

In Britain the Second Wave found some expression in municipal socialism, trade unions, in the cultures of professions at the interface between the institutions and citizens, in survivor movements and public service.

During the mid 1970s, the implementation of the Equal Pay Act converged with a historic social contract between a Labour government and the unions that for the first time prioritised the low-paid. That didn’t last – one of the causes (among many) of Labour’s undoing towards the end of the decade was the revival of macho ascendancy and anti-egalitarianism within trade unionism. And yet this had been a unique moment in the post-war history of Labourism, largely underestimated or opposed by the left. It had been an economic/political context in which feminism could thrive.

Why? Because the state, in that moment, was disposed to take the side of women and the lowest-paid; organised working class power for the first time in peace and relative prosperity, embraced a thoroughly egalitarian economic ethos. It was a moment of democratic modernisation; it was enlisted to reform the practices of organised labour’s political bargaining so that social benefits and social power could be shared across the working class, rather than economic power being focused on short-term gains for the labour aristocracy. Women in employment were the major beneficiaries.


The social contract was a complex and hugely controversial moment; it split the left, but it was revelatory about the context in which feminism might thrive.

Its ultimate rejection by the labour movement provoked what was to become three decades of neo-liberal economics and the new imperialism. The effect on feminism was shattering.

The political landscape became barren. The Second Wave became endangered.

Feminism is always contingent – as a social movement it has an institutional presence which is precarious, it is both there and not there, its impact depends on champions and consensus, its priorities always risk being lost in translation, they are mediated through other political parties, professional and workers’ organisations that have been constructed in the image and interests of men.

The Second Wave had influence but no power.

Nonetheless in the 1980s, its impact was still palpable, particularly on the renovation of peace politics and municipal democracy: Greenham Common peace camp and the peace movement’s resistance to the deployment of Cruise missiles in the UK changed the way that artful direct action could be performed; in the welfare professions particularly, anti-oppressive practice, though sometimes experienced as brutal, was on the intellectual horizon; municipalism was radicalised and modernised, pluralistic notions of citizenship and popular planning became embedded in the big cities and so provoked the Thatcher government that it abolished an entire layer of metropolitan government. Feminism woz there.


The defeat of social democracy was, then, overwhelming; it was epochal. Not only were there four successive Conservative election victories, but Thatcherism’s legacy lived on in the metamorphosis of Labourism into New Labour.

New Labour was nothing if not a repudiation of the new social movements. It followed the neo-liberal direction of travel, promoted privatisation and endorsed the new imperialism that took Britain into more wars than at any time since World War II.

For feminism that was even worse than it seemed – New Labour had been the beneficiary of feminism’s insurgency within Labourism. By the 1997 election the party fielded more women than ever before and dragged women’s presence in Parliament up to a meagre – but hugely better – 18 per cent.

Labourism had been a men’s movement, its egalitarian rhetoric had been compromised by the overwhelming influence of the trade union “block vote” – a proxy for organised men. The women’s presence in the 1997 election, therefore, came to be represented as the marque of modernisation.

If Fraser’s hypothesis is to work, then this is its moment. But it isn’t – the women’s presence was instantly muted. New Labour had strenuously distanced itself from the radicalisms that were not to its taste; movements and interests struggled to find a niche in the big tent and insofar as they flourished it was when they articulated with other populist initiatives.

One of New Labour’s biggest positive achievements …was an effect of feminists within the government (Second Wavers).

Insofar as women’s interests were favoured it was typically conjunctural – when feminist champions within the Cabinet (Second Wavers) converged with other interests. An exemplar was the law on domestic violence and the prosecution of sex offences which was radically reformed – an effect of feminist pressure on a tough law and order orientation.


One of New Labour’s biggest positive achievements – the expansion of public child care (the UK has the lowest level of public child care provision among its European equivalents) – was an effect of feminists within the government (Second Wavers) plus crime prevention preoccupations. The feminists were alone – New Labour didn’t like lily-livered pinkos anywhere.

New Labour’s social welfare agenda was modelled on the esprit of Clinton’s welfarism, a moralism towards mothers and populist anxieties about crime, gender and generation. It was not affirmed by the Second Wave, nor was it ideologically endorsed by the movements for social justice in civil society. What they did was put up and shut up.

Economic strategy, however, became impregnable, characterised by low direct tax, liberation of the Bank of England, privatisation plus retention of the restraints on trade union activism and a robust refusal to bankroll equal pay. Within a decade relative inequality had widened to levels unknown since the 1960s and the pay gap between men and women actually increased. The 2009 Equality Bill explicitly refused to reform the equal pay law and withdrew from the limited requirements on pay audits, as the pre-condition of campaigning for equal pay, recommended by the outgoing Equal Opportunities Commission, to the chagrin of the Women’s Budget Group (Second Wavers) the Fawcett Society, an influential feminist lobby (many of them Second Wavers) the Equality and Diversity Forum and a firmament of activists.

None of this was the fault of feminism: it had not abandoned the politics of redistribution, indeed it held out for redistributive mechanisms. One of the Cabinet’s feminist stalwarts, Harriet Harman (Second Waver) who had survived some humiliating calvaries on her road to the deputy leadership of the party, insisted that social class be introduced as an element of the equality bill.

Feminism was, however, disabled, by New Labourism, and by its disempowerment of the trade union movement.

But Westminster did not exhaust the narrative. The end of the century re-configured these islands.

The Green Party’s two Members of the European Parliament are Second Wave feminists who share and push the feminist agenda for sustainable development and social justice – indeed they see the Green agenda as a progressive programme of re-distribution and sustainability.



Within the devolved jurisdictions around these islands, feminism has been instrumental in the movements for constitutional reform and the devolved assemblies’ political cultures. It is there that we witness the most collegial and consensual practice, and there that the political centre of gravity (courtesy of proportional representation) tilts towards social justice. All of these administrations are simultaneously more representative and more redistributive. Within constraints imposed by the dominant parliament in Westminster, they offer a challenge to Fraser’s polarisation of identity and redistributive politics: they exemplify, to some extent, the radical matrix of recognition and redistribution.

For example Wales fielded a cabinet with a majority of women members, and Wales like Scotland adopted a raft of re-distributive measures.


In Northern Ireland the impact of Second Wave feminism on the peace process has been most dramatic – but not in the oft-cited women’s Peace People, a movement that in some sense reinforced the representation of women as nice, as innately non-violent, as being above or below the squalid conflict, but not in it.

The Women’s Coalition formed in the 1990s was resolutely in the conflict; it did not demand of its people that they abandon their affiliations and histories, but merely that they co-operate amidst their differences.

The Equality Coalition was an alliance co-sponsored by a trade union led by feminists (Second Wavers) and human rights activists. Its stakeholders spanned a remarkable diversity of community organisations across the arc of the confict, women’s groups and human rights activists. It used European directives on equality, impact assessment and appraisal, to engage the dispossessed on all sides of the conflict in a transcendent prospectus. The Equality Coalition’s ideas found their way into the agreement’s radical requirement that the state itself change, and that the production of change should enlist those with an interest in it.

The Equality Coalition did not insist on the erasure of difference in the name of reconciliation, it insisted on naming interests, on promoting equality as the condition for conflict resolution. In effect, the deal constitutionalised the duty of the state to change itself, to do something to deliver equality and anti-poverty outcomes.

Not for the first time in Ireland, women had carved out their opportunities in the context of crisis and states of emergency. The political culture was malign, patriarchal and polarised. A dominant portion of the (protestant) working class asserted ascendancy in a historic compromise with the unionist establishment and capital. The result was a profoundly sectarian and sexist polity.

Not for the first time in Ireland, women had carved out their opportunities in the context of crisis and states of emergency.

From the early 1980s, when no settlement to the armed conflict seemed possible, in the face of Thatcher’s deadly intransigence, feminism helped to stimulate a “parallel peace process” that not only aimed to bring an end to armed conflict but to create the conditions in which there could be redress and above all transformation.

During the conflict sectarianism ceaselessly asserted and denied identity (recognition) politics. The Equality Coalition tried to transcend the limits of representative democracy – and the ferocious resistance to both recognition and redistribution – by finding ways to make policy-makers change the form and content of policy-making processes.

In the conditions of peace and what Gramsci would describe as the war of position, the promotion of equality was not envisaged by this movement as merely the re-distribution of goods, but an ambition vested in social relationships between citizens and citizens and states.

This was vital: it radically re-interpreted the British state’s account of itself as a neutral arbitrator – rather than a war-maker that sponsored a sexist and sectarian regime buttressed by emergency powers.

And by naming identities and interests it enabled them to be addressed. The categories specified in the deal ranged from religion to sexual orientation to age and caring responsibilities.

This was identity politics with a difference. The nine identities and interests specified in the Agreement were not equivalent, they were not biological, they were not fixed; by naming the nine grounds the deal did not freeze citizens in one or other category.

The new constitution named identities as interests to be answered, as grounds to be considered and consulted during policymaking; they were mobile and mutable, they were moments of belonging, moments in a life cycle, they were cultural, they were material. But they were the irreducible base from which transformation might spring.


If this detail seems parochial, the aim is to challenge the grandiosity of Fraser’s claims. It is not acceptable to harvest mighty and malign generalisations from a historical narrative emptied of actual, lived, political activity. She burdens Second Wave feminism with both too much and too little power; these details from recent history in these islands throw light on the empty space left by Nancy Fraser: the context. She offers a hypothesis but no empirical evidence. The evidence here exemplifies not the collapse of either recognition or re-distribution but in the most dispiriting conditions their necessary synergy.

Beatrix Campbell is a feminist, campaigning journalist and author of several books, including Diana, Princess of Wales: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy and, most recently, Agreement: The State, Conflict and Change in Northern Ireland.


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