Content warning: article mentions sexual harassment, violence against women, exploitation
According to bell hooks feminism is for everyone; it’s a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. Remarkably, given the stream of allegations of sexual harassment and violence against women, triggered by the exposure of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, today’s popular media appears to have moved on.
An onslaught of anti-feminist criticism has been given ample space to vent. For example, take the spectacular rise of Canadian academic and bullshit artist Jordan Peterson. Alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos has to an extent been knocked from his pedestal, but he continues to toxify the airwaves.
it is fair to say that Me Too has failed to smash the patriarchy that undergirds a system of sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression from the home to the workplace
However, the campaign has been criticised for its disproportionate focus on the lives of the well-healed, and promotion of a discourse of victimhood rather than empowerment. It is said that Me Too is overly white, does not address police misconduct, and excludes sex workers – there is substantial value in these views.
While we have seen Weinstein – the arch-patriarch – fall, it is fair to say that Me Too has failed to smash the patriarchy that undergirds a system of sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression from the home to the workplace.
As Susan Faludi argues, the problem for the feminist left is that it is ‘easier to mobilise against a demon, as every military propagandist — and populist demagogue — knows. It’s harder, and less electrifying, to forge the terms of peace.’ After Weinstein comes the difficult part: how to steer this energy into meaningful everyday struggles against sexist exploitation and oppression?
Of course, this must begin in the home and the workplace. Capitalism operates through the exploitation of human labour; workers need to be clothed and fed on a daily basis for capitalism to function. It is very much in the interest of employers that this work is done for free in the private sphere of the home. Traditionally, at least, this role is performed by women alongside their “duties” as mothers and wives.
That being said, according to World Bank statistics approximately 40 percent of the world’s labour force are women. It is safe to say that these statistics are most probably fairly conservative. Problematically, they do not account for the rapid expansion and growth of informal economies since the 1980s. Women are massively over-represented in the informal sector; informal workers are not protected by labour laws and do not have access to pensions, health insurance, and paid sick-leave or maternity pay. Desperately low wages, unsafe working conditions and, you guessed it, sexual harassment, are all routine.
For those women with the seeming privilege of formal contracted employment, many will concur that sexual harassment has long structured the workplace. As Alice Kessler-Harris has argued, the workplace remains very much to this day a male domain. From at least the early nineteenth century, ‘to ensure that women remained in their places, labouring men, as well as employers and supervisors, deployed sexual innuendo, demanded sexual quid pro quos, and intimidated women with aggressive sexual commentary about looks, dress, and body language’.
Desperately low wages, unsafe working conditions and, you guessed it, sexual harassment, are all routine.
Given that domestic work and child-raising is necessary to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist system – and crucially remains un-waged – women in the workplace are subject to a form of super-exploitation, often before they have even left the house.
Many talk up the lack of women in the highest offices of state as a key problem for the feminist movement. Of course, any representational body should reflect the demographic it is set up to serve. Yet women in office does not necessarily dovetail with a feminist agenda in the way that many would hope.
As we have seen, 86% of cuts under Theresa May’s austerity agenda have fallen on women. Margaret Thatcher had no time for the feminist movement; her political project was in fact the antithesis of equality and a fairer society.
Conditions in the workplace are ultimately regulated by government. Yet sexism and its wilful perpetuation remain deeply embedded in the highest offices of state. Looking to the top for meaningful social change is a mug’s game; power, as always, lies in numbers.
In this vein, feminist political strategy must base itself in a rejection of the capitalist social relations that undergird sexist exploitation and oppression. Armchair critics will continue to find fault in the Me Too campaign, but they would do far better to join, radicalise, shape and organise. After Weinstein, the pressing question for a genuinely feminist politics is how to channel the outburst of rage against ‘men behaving badly,’ into the larger battle for women’s equality.
Featured image: Women’s March | Winchester, VA. January 2017; Coy Ferrell / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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