In the public perception, feminism has mostly been concerned with female suffrage, getting us human rights and allowing us to work outside the home. Now that we’ve ‘reached’ (at least in the mainstream understanding) all of those milestones, what seems to remain is the sad fact that there are still far too few women* in positions of power – this being presented as one of those things that society will just have to catch up with in time. So, on international women’s day and other celebratory occasions, articles are written about the number of female entrepreneurs, CEOs and politicians and about the wag gap (often not accounting for part-time work, and rarely ever providing data for women of different ethnicities, but I’ll get to why this is so problematic a little later). And the public perception of feminism largely follows this narrative, which I would argue – and here’s probably the most unpopular opinion of this entire article – is a myth that keeps women* as a group small and controllable. But let’s start at the beginning.
I’ve written quite a bit about why feminism needs to be intersectional and how traditional white feminism largely goes at the expense of women of color. I won’t elaborate on the specifics of how middle-class white women’s liberation from unpaid care work has so far only been made possible by the exploitation of poor/immigrant/marginalized women (often of color) or on how fast fashion permits ‘Western’ women individual expression only at the expense of what is essentially slave labor done by women in the impoverished regions of the world. But if you’re even marginally informed on feminism and/or anti-racism you already know all of this.
Instead, I want to explore why the exclusive focus on putting more women* in positions of power disadvantages most women* with highly similar identities who are living in the same country. In order to understand these mechanisms, it is crucial to look at how most of traditional feminism (which is still the kind most popular in politics for numerous different reasons) caters to those women who already have a comparatively large amount of privilege over others. The (I admit historically important) fight to work for pay is a concern that’s been raised by women from wealthy, bourgeois homes. Most women have always had to work outside the home or in addition to care responsibilities (despite this being largely misrepresented even in respected media). Whether it was female farmers or factory workers in Europe, enslaved women in the Americas or contemporary fast fashion laborers in Asia, the question usually isn’t whether or not they were allowed to work, but rather if they could choose the kind and place of work themselves, whether they could leave if they were treated badly, if they had workers’ protections, if they were paid a living wage and if the fruits of their labor were stolen from them.
Capitalist economic systems cannot allow for most women* to ‘only’ be concerned with emotional labor and care work, so the ‘liberty’ of having those be your only responsibility could only be afforded to the wealthy few. This dynamic also explains why it should come as no surprise that the persmission to work hasn’t liberated women in a way that enables us to lead autonomous lives independently from men. For most women – even in the Global North – it’s next to impossible to be economically independent from partners during their adult life; many pay grades simply don’t allow for taking care of a child alone (see the above-mentioned statistics on Britain). Forget children, these wages don’t even pay the rent in a number of Northern cities. The result is that women* often have to rely on money either from their parents (often the father because men on average earn more, and while in today’s version of capitalism young men often share their fate, it is women* for whom the ‘good behavior’ this financial support depends on is defind extremely narrowly in society) or from partners willing to pitch in when it comes to living expenses and the corresponding work. And yes, despite laws for mandatory child support, the amount of contribution is still very much up to men and to the morals they happen to have.
The way out, it seems, is to become so (economically) wealthy and have so few children that you don’t experience these dependencies. Even if we dismiss the fact that this proposes another narrow corset of behavioral rules for women*, it’s also – even with a completely ‘correct’ behavior – simply an illusion. Where I live, arguably the most important factor in a person’s level of education is their parents’ education (I’m a teacher, and my experiences mirror these statistics perfectly). Despite women’s higher degree of education on average (Austria, USA), this dynamic is reversed as soon as we look at the jobs people hold (see above). The phenomenon of the working poor is spreading more than ever and women* again are disproportionately affected, especially women* of color. Even women with a full-time job do significantly more unpaid labor than their male partners (statistics on same-sex partnerships or non-binary people are unfortunately scarce but would be highly illuminating in this context. US, UK). Looking at all of this evidence, it becomes clear that women* simply do not advance economically based on merit, talent or work ethic. While this sad reality is shared by working-class men (often of color), the female gender presents an additional barrier that often cannot be broken through.
But what about the women who do break through? Well, if they do not want to continually be on the brink of exhaustion (as seen in the statistics above, and during Covid, several statistics have shown that women* shoulder most of the additional work), they will have to hire a nanny and a cleaner and rely on the grandparents and still have to work harder than their male colleagues to receive the same degree of recognition. Notice how all three areas of help I’ve mentioned are female-dominated. Notice also that most of them employ already marginalized women. The system in place now therefore only allows very few women* to rid themselves of parts of their disadvantages, and only if they’re willing to take on much of the traditionally male position of shifting the corresponding work onto women* who are dependent on them. If they won’t or can’t afford to do this, they are often forced into part-time paid work, lowering their wags further and increasing dependance on the (relative) wealth of a male partner. This is also why leaving part-time jobs out of gender pay gap statistics is a huge mistake: the percentage of women working in part-time jobs in OECD countries is so big compared to that of men that the graphs for the respective genders use a different scale to show the numbers.
The few women* who manage to enter male-dominated spheres of power can often only do so because they behave in traditionally masculine ways in order to keep their seat at the table. Having a female boss consequently doesn’t mean that you as a female employee will automatically be treated better than you would be under a male boss. It can, of course, but it really doesn’t have to. The solution would natually be more women* in positions of power and a rethinking of those positions in general, but instead women* leaders are vilified as “queen bees” who make life hard for everyone else instead of questioning the structural inequalities that require traditionally male behavior from women* or lead to more judgement on them when they show the same behavior as thei male colleagues.
To adapt an economic term, trickle-down feminism is not a broad societal phenomenon. Having more women* in high-paying jobs doesn’t necessarily mean a better treatment of women* in the lower ranks or our improved position in society as a group. Don’t get me wrong, getting women* there still matters and is important work. But it won’t liberate most of us and it needs to be merely a part of a much more holistic approach to the improvement of society. A minimum wage that enables a life in dignity (for men, too), compulsory paternity leave, real consequnces to paying women* less than their male colleagues and the abolishment of goods and services relying on exploitation would be a start. And then maybe, just maybe, the publicly portrayed version of feminism wouldn’t only be concerned with the needs of already wealthy, mostly white women anymore.