Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World

Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009)

Hester Eisenstein’s Feminism Seduced presents a powerful intellectual history of the development of second wave Western feminism in order to argue that in its hegemonic form as liberal feminism it has become co-opted by the forces of capitalist corporate globalization. This book’s Marxist-feminist approach anchors it firmly in an empirical argument that re-frames the classic feminist theoretical debates – for example, between reform and revolution, or between a gender-based essentialism and a social construction of gender identity grounded in intersections of class, race, sexuality and other social structures – as based in turn on ideologies that either highlight or obscure the workings of economic and political policies that promote or challenge Western ruling economic elites. As a materialist feminist myself I find this approach to basic questions of who has the material power to control the lives of others a welcome return to earth, in a feminist academic theoretical terrain otherwise marked by increasingly obtuse and/or intractable disagreements.

The key insight to Eisenstein’s book is the thesis that mainstream feminism, even when it thinks of itself as progressively bucking the established order, has in fact lost any radical edge it had in the initial phases of the movement, and, in spite of its many accomplishments in bringing increased civil and political rights to women, has become co-opted into the service of corporate capitalist economic globalization, or neoliberalism. She argues that neoliberal capitalism, through its military and economic policies to create so-called “free markets” and democracy around the world, supports as a central political ideology the view that the extension of capitalist democracy is the best hope for the world’s women. Although Eisenstein would reject the facile conclusions of radical feminists like Robin Morgan that the similarities among women under worldwide systems of patriarchy automatically provide the base for a global feminist movement, she also rejects the relativist views of some postmodernists and poststructuralists that women have no interests in common because of our intersectional differences from each other (of race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, etc.) that are hidden by an essentialist discourse of “womanhood.” Rather she argues that the majority of women are harmed by the present global capitalist system so we require a socialist alternative to capitalist democracy for true liberation, an alternative she calls a “maternalist” materialist (socialist) feminist vision. Although her analysis is a brilliant critique of mainstream feminism overall, I will suggest a modification of it that may be more plausible.

Eisenstein argues that one of the reasons that many feminists have missed the nature of the cooptation process of feminist ideas and values by corporate globalization is that in fact most middle and upper class women in developed countries (she uses the US as her case study but implies it is true of other Western capitalist democracies as well) have actually benefited from the development of capitalism. This is so because of two things: first, such women have been incorporated more fully into the paid labor force which has given them more economic independence in relation to men in their families, and second, the second wave women’s movement has won civil and political rights for women, from rights to equal pay and non-discrimination at work, rights against sexual harassment and domestic violence, to challenges to male bias in rape prosecutions and affirmative action policies in education, job hirings and sports. This has lured the majority of feminists into a liberal feminist view which holds that reforms such as these will make women equal citizens, and this is all that is necessary to bring about women’s liberation from patriarchy. Meanwhile, they do not see the process of capitalist neo-liberal globalization as a threat to feminist goals, a belief challenged by Eisenstein.

She argues that corporate (or economic) globalization has allowed multinational corporations to develop a new female proletariat. These women in the old and new working classes of the world have not benefited from capitalist development but instead have been exploited in ways mostly ignored by the better-off feminists in the global North. She argues that corporate globalization took off after World War II, powering growth in many countries. The US dominated this new world economy, in part because of its control of the loan policies of the newly established World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The US economy became a consumerist one, aided in part by government social spending at home (Keynesianism) as well as increased military spending because of ongoing wars (Korea, Vietnam, Central America).  However, Keynesianism was dismantled after the fall of the Soviet Union, and neoliberal lending policies were imposed on countries of the global South, further impoverishing them and leading to civil war and failed states. This in turn led to increased US military spending, based on the view that corporate globalization required US military preeminence as a way to deal with the ongoing threat of “terrorism.” Military invasions were further rationalized by invoking the woman question, citing liberal feminists like Martha Nussbaum and Jean Bethke Ehlstain. These thinkers support US intervention into states that exclude women from their political processes. They support the view that imposing Western democracy on other nations would benefit the world’s women – ignoring the disproportionate impact on women of the attendant death, destruction and destabilization.

Arguing that the unprecedented opportunities that opened up for women in wage labor set the preconditions for contemporary feminism, Eisenstein gives a social history of changing ideas of how to handle women’s labor. After an era of protective legislation supported by social and labor feminists which assumed that married women should be at home doing unpaid labor as wives and mothers, the mainstream second wave middle-class women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s changed its focus to hold that women had the right to have a life career in paid labor. This view gradually undercut the protective legislation mandate for women’s labor.

Eisenstein argues that the modernist feminist idea of empowering women through paid work has been adapted by multinational corporations to justify establishing factory work for women in free trade zones and encouraging entrepreneurial economic development policies involving women. Furthermore, the whole Western-led development plan for poor countries in the South has become a neoliberal-led plan which has emphasized small projects seeking to develop women as entrepreneurs and workers as a substitute for state-led models of development which prevailed previously (and still prevails in some socialist-oriented states such as Venezuela and Cuba).

Mainstream feminists have not really critiqued this cooptation of feminist ideas because they have an inadequate analysis of the exploitative aspects of global capitalism. The weak US welfare state which does not adequately support motherhood undergirds mainstream US feminist ideas that women should be judged on their paid work rather than on a vocation of wife and mother. The overemphasis on achieving job equality to the exclusion of dealing with racism, poverty or the environment means that mainstream feminism did not forge coalitions with other social justice movements. This led to white liberal feminists being criticized by women of color for not understanding the need to broaden the feminist agenda to include fighting poverty, racism or environmental injustice. Narrow goals like supporting abortion rights and laws against violence against women led to ignoring wider reproductive rights to have and raise healthy children, and also to ignoring official racism in using gender violence charges against men of color. In addition, most feminists who lack an intersectional analysis of power inequalities do not support a challenge to the racist policies of the state in incarcerating such a disproportionate percentage of people of color, both men and women. The inability to make cross-class coalitions weakened national feminist organizations like the National Organization of Women, who failed to stop the punitive welfare reform bill of 1995 which decimated welfare support for single mothers.

My own view is that this particular critique is not a fair one against NOW, which did work against the bill, but should be seen as a more general critique of the weakness of the American Left as a whole. I also do not agree with Eisenstein’s suggestion that the feminist emphasis on the abolition of gender roles can be partially blamed for putting pressure on men downsized from manufacturing jobs to take feminine-defined service jobs, thus co-opting resistance to corporate restructuring. In fact the re-gendering of working-class jobs is not really an effect of any pressures from feminism and is not necessarily cooptive: each case must be studied on its own merits.

While I agree with most of Eisenstein’s important analysis, I find several of her conclusions questionable. Her contrast between Equality or sameness feminism and what she calls the “maternalist feminism” of Australian and Nordic welfare state femocrats is not well developed, since it assumes the old binary choices between Sameness/Equality feminism and Difference feminism that have been rightly critiqued by radical and poststructuralist feminists alike. Although Eisenstein valorizes the feminisms that are developing among the various anti-corporate capitalist anti-globalization movements and networks such as the World Social Forum, the Zapatistas, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) of Brazil, and the food sovereignty movement, she does not make the connection between her maternalist feminist ideals and some of the more promising gender practices in these worldwide solidarity economy networks. These networks, which include economic cooperatives, sustainable bartering and fair trade practices, squatters on non-productive land, and advocates for communally-held property and environmental justice, involve groups that have created gender commissions to address concerns such as domestic violence among their members, fair representation of women in leadership positions, and reproductive rights. While she mentions that there are women activists in these movements, she fails to note that new values of solidarity justice are developing in this alternative political and economic space that are not simply based on the social democratic welfare state model. Such solidarity justice practices mandate relations not just based on women’s maternal caring, but involving both men and women in caring relations to meet human needs for their family, community and wider networks.1 Perhaps only such multi-issue social justice movements from below involving feminist-inspired androgynous caring practices can bring about the kind of democratic socialist caring state we need in order to promote not just women’s but human liberation.

2010 Ann Ferguson, Professor Emerita of Philosophy and Women’s Studies
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


1. See Ann Ferguson, “Feminist Paradigms of Solidarity and Justice,” Philosophical Topics, vol. 37, no. 1 (Spring 2009) and “How Is Global Gender Solidarity Possible?” in Anna G. Jo´nasdo´ttir et al. (eds) Sexuality, Gender and Power: Intersectional and Transnational Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2009; also J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Post-Capitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006, and Julie Matthaei, ‘Beyond Economic Man: Economic Crisis, Feminist Economics and the Solidarity Economy’ (2009; contact jmatthaei@wellesley.edu).

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