Class: The Elephant in the Feminist Room

Artist: Oscar Grønner

Image caption: colourful, interconnected, squiggly ovals.

Over the past decade, feminism has emerged as a mainstream political and social movement. Politicians take pains to identify publicly with feminist issues. Celebrities broadcast their feminist credentials. Even brands declare their commitment to the feminist cause.

Feminist activism has produced some huge wins for women, including increased representation in the media, more women in politics and changing attitudes towards sexual assault and domestic violence.

Yet mainstream feminist discourse too often ignores issues of economic justice, poverty reduction, security of work and escalating inequality. The movement has arguably lost sight of the material reality of women’s lives.

Feminism for the white and wealthy

“Corporate feminism” and “neoliberal feminism” are both terms that describe this vein of elitist, class-exclusionary feminism. The term “white feminism” often also implies a critique of class exclusion.

Neoliberal feminism fights to place women at the top of exploitative power structures, rather than subverting or destroying them; this is exemplified in the push to have more women CEOs of major corporations. Yet such a narrow focus clearly can benefit only a select, well-educated, predominately white and lucky few.

Jessa Crispin, in her book Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, criticises this kind of feminism as “a fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor”. A powerful woman does not necessarily create a flow-on benefit for other women.

Perhaps the most famous exemplar of this strain of corporate feminism is Hillary Clinton. While she undoubtedly broke down barriers in a way that benefitted her and other educated and wealthy women, she also enacted policies that had harmful effects on other women and communities of colour.

Clinton was the first woman on the board of Walmart, yet at no time advocated to improve the low wage conditions of its predominantly female workforce. She was also instrumental in designing policies implemented by her husband that gutted social security and deprived poor women and children of a basic safety net.

As former president Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton lobbied for Haitian women in garment factories not to receive an increase in the minimum wage, supported foreign regimes that enact misogynistic policies, and championed drone strikes on civilian populations.

Why don’t we talk about class?

Class remains the elephant in the room in many feminist circles. The exclusion of class politics from the mainstream feminist narrative is a direct result of the movement’s makeup.

Media organisations and university feminist groups, which are largely homogenous cohorts of educated upper- and middle-class women, play a large role in shaping mainstream feminist discourse. As a consequence, feminist discourse centres around these women’s experiences of sexism and misogyny.

Issues of poverty and rampant wealth inequality in Australia are consequently often seen as separate and secondary political issues. This attitude is evident in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign, which prioritises individual advancement over a movement based on solidarity.

Neoliberal feminism systematically excludes the concept of class because neoliberalism is an inherently individualistic ideology. This results in a movement that cannot and does not speak for a huge proportion of women.

Big business, the state and structural inequality are entangled in ways that will never be addressed by individuals taking a seat next to powerful men. Our feminism must challenge the foundations of systemic inequality.

Centring economic oppression in feminist activism

As feminists, we must put economic issues at the core of our activism. Labour struggles are profoundly gendered and affect many more women than the few championed by corporate and neoliberal feminism.

Feminism should acknowledge the material reality of women’s lives, by addressing and then going beyond the gender pay gap. Otherwise, we risk missing the broader issues of economic inequality and the devaluation of traditionally female-dominated industries.

Women remain heavily over-represented in industries dominated by insecure work practices. Insecure work places women in perpetual financial precarity, limiting their access to services, housing, health and education.

Issues like sexual harassment in the workplace are made more complex when women can’t afford to leave these jobs and find new ones, particularly in regions with high unemployment or for women who are unskilled.

Australia’s industrial laws are skewed in favour of employers rather than employees — as shown through the rampant casualisation of the country’s workforce. This reduces women’s options when it comes to issues like underpayment. A casual employee has very little bargaining power — their employer can just stop giving them shifts.

Poverty and wealth inequality have such profound impacts on women’s lives. It is surely unacceptable that they should languish unattended.

Class-based politics are intersectional

Our feminism cannot be intersectional without including class in a framework alongside gender, race and sexuality.

Merely saying that feminism must be intersectional is not enough. Hillary Clinton herself co-opted this language during the 2016 US election. We cannot let neoliberal, corporate feminism dictate the terms of our movement. Our feminism must incorporate class politics if it is to better the lives of all women, rather than just the lucky few.