Sitting Pretty on a Sinking Ship: Neoliberal Feminism


Orientation:

For a number of years now I’ve been confounded by watching many of the straight upper-middle class women in the United States appearing to slide backwards in time into much more traditional roles. Why do so many women still do the heavy lifting of childcare, grocery shopping, housekeeping and cooking? Why do so many of them put the needs of their male partners and bosses first and their own needs last? Why have so many of them whole-heartedly embraced sports when I doubt that most of them were not sports fanatics before they were in relationships with men who are? These were the roles we struggled to break out of in the 60’s and 70’s. Yet in the seven cases I will present I will describe six women who consider themselves feminists. How can we explain this?

What does it mean to be a feminist in the United States today? Historically we have had liberal feminists and radical socialist feminists, but what do we make of the Pink Pussycats? Granted, they are not radical feminists, but are they liberal? The term “liberal” has become a moth-eaten word used by both sympathizers and demonizers. For now, we will put the word aside. First I will describe experientially what second-wave feminism attempted to do. Then I will describe the lives of seven women I know, six of whom claim to be feminists and certainly see themselves as Pink Pussycats. Finally, I will address the relationship between the Pink Pussycats and liberalism. My claim is that the Pink Pussycats are not liberal in the sense of second-wave feminism and the New-Deal liberalism of Roosevelt. Rather, they are instead “neo-liberal” feminists, who follow the neoliberal trend of the mid 1980’s, started by the Democratic Leadership Council. The reference to the sinking ship refers to the decline in the standard of living under capitalism, in which they are mightily trying to keep their heads above water.

Women in the four ages

In the first age, during the 1950’s, women were classically traditional. These roles included being the perfect wife and mother, always putting their own needs last and usually deferring to their husbands. They dressed in relatively conservative, soft styles and colors and many of them didn’t work outside the home because, though the times were conservative, the economy for the middle class was good. Think of the mothers in Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best (the name of the show says it all). They even dressed like that when they were cleaning the oven! They’d have the messes cleaned up before we, as children, made them.

Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer led second-wave feminism among others. They led the charge to challenge the long-accepted picture of a woman’s role.

During the second age, as our “consciousness” was becoming raised, we began to reject our traditional roles. Many of us started working for the first time. Because the pay for middle class women was higher at that time, some of us could afford to divorce our husbands and work in traditional male jobs such as middle managers. We started wearing more practical clothing, ditching the spike heels that hampered our walking – let alone running away from predators – letting our skin breathe without all the makeup and our hair turn naturally grey.

At the same time other women, less politically aware, embraced being seen as sexual objects, rather than as sexless as in the fifties. We started wearing provocative clothes, lots of makeup, ridiculous high-heeled shoes and laughed off or rationalized the catcalls on the street as well as sexual harassment from our bosses and male co-workers. I know all of this because I was one of those women.

In the third age, for roughly thirty years, from the early 1980s through 2008, the conservatives held power as the economy continued to contract. In reaction to this, the Democratic Party started sliding further to the right to keep up with the times, and those women who continued to see themselves as liberal slid right along with the Democratic Party. (For the Democratic party slide rightward, see Adam Curtis’s disturbing documentary Century of the Self Part IV)

In the fourth age, after 2008, and the election of Barack Obama, many upper-middle-class and middle-class women saw the election of a well-educated black man as a victory for them, too. The glorification of Obama and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton produced the seeds of the Pink Pussycat phenomenon. These women had to work harder than the women of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s because the economy is now worse. Most middle-class and upper-middle class women can no longer afford to stay at home and take care of the children. They must work to supplement their husband’s earnings or, as single mothers, they are the family’s sole support. Most of them also do the bulk of the childcare and housekeeping. Because no feminist movement has been able to convince men to fully take on the responsibilities of raising children, these responsibilities fell to the women as their “second shift”. Perhaps as compensation for a surprisingly difficult life, women used their appearance to regain some of their lost power. Being sexy and the promise of attention was a bargaining chip.

My experience of second-wave feminism

I got married when I was 19 years old to a conservative Irish Catholic Naval officer. By the late 1960’s we had become friends with a group of officers and their wives, all of whom were vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy in general. These conversations woke me up politically and I started moving further to the left. In the early 1970’s I attended community college where I met Mary, who became one of my longest standing friends. Mary was a strong feminist, and along with two gay men I became friends with, got me to take feminism and gay rights more seriously. I also joined the anti-war groups while at San Francisco State and started facing the growing differences I had with my husband. My marriage did not survive these changes. I did what many women did: dragged their husbands into therapy kicking and screaming, only to be told I was the one who had the problem.

At the same time, we liberal women were being exposed to books like Our Bodies, Ourselves. This book detailed for us information about our own health and sexuality that formerly had been secret, considered too crass to talk about publicly. Consciousness-raising groups sprang up everywhere, which aimed to help us understand the patriarchal system and how it oppresses all women. We were being taught that it wasn’t our job to please and cater to the men in our lives. We felt stronger together as we began making demands for equal pay, greater opportunities in the workplace, better support systems for single mothers and the right to be seen as equals to men, rather than as objects for them.

Women’s Success Teams

In the mid 1980’s I attended a weekend-long seminar entitled “Women’s Success Teams”. I was a single, working mother and could barely afford the seminar but managed to scrape together the money to pay for it. This turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve ever made. The goal of this workshop was to empower women to fulfill their highest potential and learn how to deal with any barriers in their way – and there were many barriers. I, as had many women, been subjected to sexual harassment on the job, lower pay than my male counterparts, the accepted belief that certain occupations and positions were simply not available for women – as well as the belief that a woman’s primary job was the care and feeding of her family and husband. This seminar fit perfectly into the liberal Women’s Movement of the time, which advocated consciousness-raising and self-realization. As a white, middle class, newly divorced single mother I welcomed the support and guidance I hoped it would give me.

At this seminar I was taught how to develop a career and financial plan for myself so I could achieve my goals. I was also taught skills like networking, becoming organized, budgeting and defining a career path. Most importantly, I was taught that I needed to articulate those goals, write them down and monitor them. I still do this on a regular basis. After the hard work of the first weekend workshops, our large group was then broken up into smaller working groups, called teams, of about 5 – 6 women each. These teams met once a week to set goals and objectives, and then assign themselves tasks as homework to reach those goals for the week to come. The following week we would report on any accomplishments or difficulties from homework and to ask for support from the team in a multitude of ways. This could include asking someone to call you for a pep talk before going on an interview, help figuring out transportation or childcare or simply moral support.

The slow slide backwards

It’s been with alarm and great disappointment that I’ve watched the slide backwards, away from the values I learned from Women’s Success Teams. As a university career and academic counselor working with many young women students, I’ve come to realize that many of them know almost nothing about the feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s. In the workplace I’ve seen so many women of all ages slip back towards wearing provocative clothes, lots of makeup, high heels and coloring their hair. They spend thousands of dollars on weight loss programs, the latest hairstyles and colors, plastic surgery, Botox treatments and even breast implants. I see so many older women dying their hair to cover the grey and spending thousands of dollars on products and procedures to make them look younger. I watch as women celebrities go to extremes to present themselves as eternally young, sexualized creatures. Many of them are in my circle of friends, and, indeed, in my own family. All of this is painful for me to see. I would like to share with you some of their stories.

Pink Pussycats on display

Jasmine

Jasmine is a very smart, naturally beautiful, 70-year-old woman who was a member of the generation of women who were told they could have it all – career, family, relationship – everything. With that propaganda playing in the background and coming from a firmly middle-class background, she went back to college in her 30’s, divorced her husband and moved into her own apartment in San Francisco while her two sons remained with her husband.

She did, in fact, seem to have it all as she completed her degree in political science, her career blossomed and numerous men lined up to be in relationships with her. She was successful in sales and real estate and managed to buy a condominium in San Francisco, not an easy task for a single woman to be able to do in the 70’s.

After leaving a second marriage, she married a professor at UC Berkeley and moved with him into a home in the Berkeley hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. She “retired” when she was 53 and settled into a life of travel with her husband who was sent on all-expenses-paid trips to lecture at institutions all over the world. This has been her upper-middle class life for the last 15 years or so. Any attempt at finding meaningful work or a vocation was forgotten long ago. She has also spent many thousands of dollars on facelifts, Botox injections and all manner of procedures to hang on to her beauty.

Suzy

Suzy is a 48-year-old elementary school teacher with a husband and two children living in southern CA. While she has always made more money than her husband and has provided health care benefits for the family, her husband is firmly in charge of managing their money. He gives her an allowance – in cash – because she has proven she can’t be trusted with a credit card. She has no concept of money management, not even being able to report what their monthly utilities are or mortgage payments. In addition to working full-time, she is the primary caretaker of their children and her identity as a mother is the predominate one. Her husband decides where and when they will go on vacation, if they will buy a new car or pay for improvements for their house.

Politics is beyond her comprehension and she has shown no interest in trying to understand it. She loves wearing costumes and jewelry depicting Wonder Woman, demonstrating the public persona that she can do it all. Paradoxically, in many ways she has become another child in the family, taking direction from her husband.

Maria

Maria is an extremely smart, accomplished woman. She is the operations manager for a branch campus at a university. She is able to come up with solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems and last-minute emergencies without even breaking a sweat. She is kind, beautiful, funny and loyal to her friends.

However, she has convinced herself that she must remain in a marriage to a man who she mostly can’t stand. She defers to him, going to places she loathes like Las Vegas, football games and on cruises. He loves to gamble and buy a new car every year or two. While she shakes her head at these activities, she does nothing to try to dissuade him from them. She cooks meals for him that include all kinds of meat even though she is a vegan. Although she works about 50 to 60 hours a week, she is the one primarily in charge of all the household chores – cleaning, cooking, and shopping.

At the same time, she is a workaholic at the office, always cleaning up everyone else’s messes. She functions as the office wife to her boss, taking calls from him and checking in even while she’s on vacation and often taking on the responsibilities that, according to his job description, belong to him.

Helena

Helena got her MA in counseling psychology and then married. Until their daughter was born she worked at hourly-wage jobs. Since the year before their daughter was born 15 years ago she hasn’t worked full time and her husband has been the sole support of the family and provider of benefits. She worked for a brief time as a therapist with an organization in San Francisco until she got into an argument with the director and left. All the other jobs she’s had have been short-lived like that one, usually with her leaving in a huff after some kind of disagreement with senior management.

Her whole life revolves around her family and she epitomizes the definition of the helicopter parent. Her great love, besides her husband and daughter, is cooking. While she has tried to find jobs that would allow her to use these skills, all of them have not worked out.

Even though she doesn’t work to contribute to the lifestyle, she wants desperately to live the life of the wealthy. She is a devoted social climber, always looking for jobs or opportunities with “influential people”. She longs to live in a much more upper-class neighborhood and larger house in San Francisco than where they currently live. She considers herself a feminist.

Margaret

Next we look at the life of Margaret. After living a traditional life as a wife and mother during the 60’s and 70’s, she was also influenced by the new-wave feminism movement. She found the courage to divorce a husband she had long since fallen out of love with and who shared few of her core beliefs. Relying on his and her father’s financial support after her divorce, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and even though she never worked in the field, she never misses an opportunity to give therapy advice, unsolicited or not. She met and married a psychotherapist not long after her divorce. She worked for a time as the City Manager for the town of Chevy Chase, MD, a wealthy suburb of Washington DC. She retired early from this job in her early 50’s.

Since then she has spent her time travelling and buying decorative objects for both of her homes – which look like museums. She is a devout follower of the dharma as well as deeply interested in humanistic psychology, the core of which is the belief in the importance of the individual.

Deborah

Deborah is a 65-year-old chiropractor who has her own small practice. She works extremely hard to support her husband who has been an eternal student and whose contribution to the family income was to occasionally help clients with software issues. All the while she paid for the schooling that allowed him to get a PhD in psychology at the age of 65. She also supports two extremely dysfunctional adult children who, in my opinion are the result of her permissive parenting style. She is a classic enabler who puts herself last. Deborah has virtually no friends because she works to support three “children” through their various crises. Unbelievably, Deborah considers herself a child of the 60’s and does everything she can to relive what she thinks were the hippie days, going to hear old 60’s bands, wearing hippie clothes and attending Burning Man.

Natasha

Lastly we have Natasha. She is a 43 year-old woman who married a man 25 years older than she. She works as a substitute teacher and is a very good artist. The problem is, as usual, her husband and two children come first. She does her art “when no one is around”. Her studio is the only room in the house that is not heated or insulated. She can’t seem to get up the nerve to tell her husband, who earned good money as a military engineer, to invest in heating her studio so she could work there year-round. Natasha is very smart, has a degree in art and yet she shies away from stepping into the limelight.

What do these women have in common?

All of these women are, with the exception of one, upper-middle class. Two are in their 40’s and the rest are in their 50’s or older and all have college degrees. Half have master’s degrees. They all play a version of the “good wife”, doing all the holiday shopping, wrapping all the presents, making a huge meal, cleaning the house, and polishing the silver. Most of them go along with their husband’s desires even though they don’t share those desires, and in some cases they actively dislike their husbands. With all of them their husbands pretty much call all the shots. The ones who work – 4 of the 7 – have not been relieved of the primary responsibilities of taking care of the house and raising children. The rest don’t work because their husbands support them so then they have become over-involved with their kids. They also travel or redecorate their homes to give their lives meaning. The sum total of their political involvement is to very occasionally go on a Pink Pussycat march. If they do have a political perspective of any depth, it’s the belief that if they can only get the Democrats back in power, and more importantly, a woman Democrat, all will be well.

In terms of national politics most of them are apolitical. Most of these women blame the mess we’re in on Trump, never bothering to look back at the long slide we’ve been in through numerous administrations, regardless of which party was in power. There is not one of them who follow geopolitical relations, and they pay little attention to the role the U.S. is playing across the world. Over breakfast, lunch or dinner never, in all the years I’ve known them, has the center of a discussion been politics or economics. It is always about children, relationships or health. The macro world is too big for them.

Qualifications

Isn’t this about Euro-American women?

No it is not. Jasmine is Filipina; Maria is from Argentina; Helena is from Iraq; and Natasha is from Russia. The slide toward putting yourself last can’t be reduced to ethnicity or culture. What is also interesting is these women are not poor women who “don’t know any better”. They are well educated and see themselves as running their own lives and not subject to propaganda. They have internalized their lives of subservience. 

Are you saying it’s against the rules to be pretty?

Some women may be saying – “Aw, c’mon – lighten up! Are you saying that in order to be a real feminist it’s against the rules to be pretty? Do we all have to dress and act like Protestant men? Do we all have to leave our husbands and strike out on our own?” What I am saying is that we need to look at our priorities. How much time and money are we spending on our appearance and why do we need to do that in order to feel good about ourselves and attractive to men? This seems to have taken priority over:

  • Controlling our own money management: Maria has little idea of her monthly expenses. Suzy is in the same boat.
  • Giving up full work lives: Margaret hasn’t worked in 25 years; Helena has never had a full time job for more than a few months; Natasha does part-time substitute teaching; Jasmine is now completely dependent on her husband’s income; Maria works very hard as an operations manager, but her salary alone would not be enough to support her lifestyle.
  • Having time to enjoy yourself without your husband or children: Not one of these women asks their partner to be a househusband while they work.

Are you saying there are no strong women?

No – I’m not saying any of these things. Nor am I saying that I see this slide backwards in all women. There are still plenty of strong, smart, self-sufficient women out there. There are some, but they’re not very visible in the mainstream media. Today, in the midst of the Pink Pussycat craze, women joining “The Resistance” by denouncing Trump while blaming those who didn’t vote for Hillary, we can look to some women as role models. Kshama Sawant, the Seattle City Council member is one. María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, a Nahua indigenous healer, The Zapatistas and National Indigenous Congress’ (CNI) selection of as their spokesperson and presidential candidate for the 2018 elections in Mexico, is another. Gloria La Riva, presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is a third. All of these women are, and have been, fighting for social and economic equality, including the rights of women. But their primary focus has always been to see capitalism as the problem and the reason for inequality. In my mind, feminism can’t be separated from socialism. Further, all the women I mention are strong, not because they are liberals, but because they are socialists.

Isn’t the “Blue Wave” of Democrats in the recent elections a sign of women having more power?

My response is that is not new-wave feminism – it is neo-liberal feminism. The Democratic Party hasn’t been liberal since the 60s. Because the DNC is not a liberal party they don’t push for real change. Rather they push for tiny, centrist reforms. What they want is naïve. Women like Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein – considered the “left” in Congress – have done little to nothing to support women’s rights. Women continue to make $0.80 for every dollar men make. The Hyde Amendment, which bans abortion coverage in federal health insurance programs, has been upheld every year since 1976, blocking Medicaid, the Indian Health Service, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program from funding abortions. Democrats argue that the ban disproportionately impacts low-income women who rely on Medicaid for health care, yet they have been unable to overturn it during many Democratic administrations.

Planned Parenthood is facing threats of being denied federal funds and Roe vs. Wade is in danger of being rolled back. The Pink Pussycats have not managed to achieve any significant change in this area and their platform is vague, primarily focused on upper-middle class women. The women who desperately need this protection seem to be invisible.

The Pink Pussycat movement was vague in its goals and initially focused on expressing outrage at the election of Trump. Other than that, there seemed to be no specific goals or strategies beyond “women’s rights are human rights”. Additionally, there was honest criticism of the use of what are classic feminine symbols; the color pink, knitting, vaginas. The demographics of the marchers were clearly middle and upper-middle class straight, neo-liberal women. It was supported and funded by the DNC, George Soros and other neo-liberals who have their own agendas to push.

Aren’t you romantically pining for the return of second- wave feminism?

No, I am not. I am simply saying that the Democratic Party is not liberal and the values of the Pink Pussycats are not liberal so long as they take the Democratic Party seriously. If women were real second-wave liberal feminists, the National Organization of Women would have formed a women’s party thirty years ago when it was clear that the Democratic Party was not doing anything much for women, even middle and upper-middle class women.

Alexandra Kollontai, an important figure during the Russian Revolution, is an historical alternative to the Pink Pussycats. She fought for real equality for women in practical ways. In particular she fought for the rights of the working class and poor women to have access to food, medical care and education. In my article, A Historical Alternative to Pink Pussy Cat Hats, this is my answer for feminism, not a return to 2nd wave New Deal liberalism.

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