Examining ‘militant feminism’

March 14, 2021

The book maps out its goals, inspecting social crises across the world

On a Thursday afternoon on March 8, 2018, more than five million people partook of a feminist strike in Spain that sought to highlight issues of gender violence, sexual discrimination and unequal pay. It was the country’s first nationwide feminist strike and an event that became etched in historical accounts for future generations to remember. The walkout was supported by some of Spain’s most prominent female politicians, beckoning crowds to come out on the streets and preaching equality.

One of the organisers of the feminist strike announced, “Today, we claim a society free of oppression, exploitation and sexual violence.” She went on to say, “We call for rebellion and struggle against the alliance between patriarchy and capitalism that wants us to be docile, submissive and silent.”

The emergence of coordinated strikes such as these forms the basis of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, written by Cinzia Arruza, Tithi Bhattachariya and Nancy Fraser. The authors highlight the importance of a ‘militant feminism’ that debunks the insolvency of liberal feminism and instead, forges a path for another ‘kind’ of movement that speaks to those who face oppression at the hands of capitalism; the bitter reality of the 99 percent burdened by socioeconomic constraints and waged work. These are, they say, the poor, working-class women, the migrant women, the disabled women and the queer and trans-women. These are the ones, they say, whose labour goes unpaid, unnoticed and unvalued. These are the women, they say, to fight for.

Consolidating its main premise into eleven theses, the book maps out its goals, inspecting social crises across the world, and offering an alternative in the form of an anti-capitalist and eco-socialist feminist movement.

While it is certainly commendable to envision a more ‘inclusive’ kind of feminist movement – it is worth asking, what have feminists been doing wrong all this time?

The manifesto begins with a brief introduction of the issue. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her book, Lean In, describes the need for women to take up leadership roles in business as a stepping stone to achieving gender equality. The problem with this is that it clearly caters to the one percent of white, wealthy women who have access to the resources necessary to make that happen - the privileged lot that does not take into account the majority who don’t have the means to achieve that dream. The women slaving away in poorly paid jobs, living hand-to-mouth, returning home to cement their role as the ‘housemaker’, dealing with assault every day without knowing what it is and why it is happening; who gets to give them a voice?

The authors provide an astute explanation for the culprit: capitalism. Capitalist society has nothing but to gain from gendered, unpaid work that lets women become the victims of sexual harassment, assault and restrictions. There are few options for them to break out from the capitalistic cycle because every individual is prompted to advance professionally. Thus, the system ends up elevating the few who can afford to climb up the ladder, while the rest are miserably stuck beneath.

The book draws inspiration from The Communist Manifesto and follows up on the theories argued in Marxism. Dating back to 1884 when Friedrich Engels first explained the origins of family structure, wealth and social hierarchy in his treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, Marxist feminism grew as a concept focusing on women, work and power on the hinges of class politics.

In retrospect, the arguments in the book are nothing new. They remind us, however, that the fight for emancipation is ongoing. What particularly stayed with me after reading the manifesto is how the authors stress that they wrote the book as a ‘course correction’ - to re-orient feminist struggles in the context of today’s crises. It is harder to revisit theories of a departed era and try to place them in a time plagued with more upheaval than before. For this reason, Feminism for the 99 % is a crucial instrument in creating a movement for the future. Across 85 pages, the manifesto makes its proposition clear: it is not in favour of a movement that singles out a crisis but aims to address all crises by “connecting with anti-racists, environmentalists, and labour and migrant rights activists.”

Professional academics Azzura, Tithibhattacharya and Fraser arrived at this project after working together on the 2017 women’s strike in the US. Fraser, also a prominent critical theorist, has continually worked to provide a refined solution to feminism. Although hopeful at best, Fraser’s essays have been criticised for being too ambitious and often, too determinate. Her recent work proves unflinching in its aim, but the theory-laden language renders the work inaccessible to the many who aren’t familiar with sociological terminology. In that sense, the manifesto has potential to lose out on catering to the demographic it desperately wishes to reach.

Regardless, the book is a must-read for feminists everywhere. It succeeds in broadly illustrating how liberal feminism, as a handmaiden of capitalism, is creating more problems than it is famously known to be solving. As the world tussles with ensuing crises, the need of the hour is to keep working towards a revolution that challenges the current order and pushes for equality at every chance. A powerful call to action such as this is therefore, essential, for the sake of a just and equal tomorrow.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto

By Cinzia Arruza, Tithi Bhattachariya and Nancy Fraser

Publisher: Verso

Year: 2019

Pages: 96

Price: $7.4

The writer is a freelance journalist and book reviewer

Examining ‘militant feminism’