One of the most heated debates in contemporary feminism tests the validity of corporate feminism. Though this new strain of feminism is worth considering as a symbolic gesture for women, it lacks the practical momentum necessary for inclusivity and material equality. Unfortunately, it breeds more sinister implications. It illustrates the evolution of feminism as the tool for meaningful change to the tokenization of empowerment.
In a piece about Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, columnist Jessica Valenti validly points out that it is shortsighted to assume that success contradicts feminism. Though Sandberg’s feminist brand reeks of the classic bootstraps-uplift narrative, she also rightfully addresses issues such as paid maternity leave and affordable child care. Still, Sandberg’s brand of feminism, which takes on the tone of a motivational exercise program, is problematic and should be critiqued. In a TED talk, she lists the means to stay in the workforce as follows: sit at the table, make your partner a real partner and don’t leave before you leave. Corporate feminism prioritizes the climb to the top, emphasizing assertiveness and negotiation in the workplace. But it fails to hold elected officials responsible for institutionalized change that helps women who aren’t at the top. Though success is not a bad thing, it is myopic, even contradictory, to reserve feminism for privileged women.
So what happens when activists prioritize branding? They downplay the importance of policy for uncritical, often expensive, gatherings and capitalize on the grandiose rhetoric of “empowerment” and “human rights.” Over the last few decades, feminist grassroots gatherings evolved into what Jessica Bennett calls star-studded events with corporate sponsors such as Wal-Mart, a multinational notorious for its poor labor practices. Unsurprisingly, tickets at conferences like TEDWomen cost around $1,000, coming with lavish catalogue-order gift bags. In the virtual world, Lean In, Sandberg’s organization, takes advantage of superficial success stories. For example, it features Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on its Tumblr page, ignoring her poor track record for women’s rights. As a representative, Ros-Lehtinen voted to withdraw funding from organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Title X. She also voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gave women the ability to sue over equal-pay violations. Yes, she is a successful woman, but is she a women’s advocate? No.
Capitalistic feminism quiets conversations that aren’t novel or marketable. Valenti herself writes that conferences like TEDWomen, an epicenter for do-good white, upper-class feminists, avoid critical issues such as abortion. In response to comments about the lack of abortion talks, TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel evasively replied that abortion was not a “wider issue of justice, inequality and human rights,” citing abortion as “more of a topical issue.” Last year, 22 states passed 70 anti-abortion measures, which included doctor and clinic regulations, limits on medication abortion and bans on insurance coverage of abortion. But abortion issues aren’t unique to the United States — a study in 2013 reported that about 26 percent of the world generally prohibits abortions. When governments pass laws over how women should conduct their bodies, it is most certainly an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights.”
Elite empowerment feminism further overlooks crucial nodes of identity such as race and class. Last Wednesday, The Curve, a blog on the Nation, released an article titled “Does feminism have a class problem?” Indeed it does. While the article underplays the cultural underpinnings of patriarchy, it fairly critiques Lean In, pointing out that the problem of sexism is structural, not personal. It argues that icons such as Sandberg address women who are advancing in their careers, rather than women who are struggling to keep and find economically sustainable jobs. In 2012, 7.1 million working families with children in the United States were headed by women, and of this number, 58 percent were low income. In the same year, women made 77 cents to every dollar that men made. The numbers are more drastic for women of color. For every dollar that white men made, Latina women made 54 cents and African American women made 64 cents.
The downfall of elite empowerment is that not all women have the same starting position. Rawls’ veil of ignorance — minus the patriarchal language — casts a valuable framework for understanding this. Under the veil at the original position, no one knows his or her place in society, class position, natural assets, abilities, etc. Here, people must decide the society they would choose. To ensure fairness of opportunity, Rawls proposed the difference principle, in which inequality of the distribution of goods would be tolerated as long as those inequalities benefited the least well-off. To translate into terms of policy, the Curve suggests that raising the pay floor to $25,000 would help more than 3 million female retail workers. Half of these women make less than this amount a year, and one-third of them work for more than half of their household income and have children.
The brand of “empowerment” is not only prevalent in the United States but also in other countries. A few weeks ago, the Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam stepped down from her eponymous foundation after Simon Marks released an expose in Newsweek about Mam’s dishonesty in her personal narrative as an alleged former victim of trafficking and how she forced girls in her organization to reiterate crafted stories of trafficking. One might ask what the role of money has to play in this scenario. Ever since Mam brought attention to the issue of trafficking, NGOs have appeared, creating jobs for women. Jobs are good — but these jobs are at garment factories with poor working conditions and compensation. Of the 350,000 garment workers in Cambodia, 90 percent are women and make on average two-thirds below a living wage. Seventy percent of the clothes go to the United States. This is hard to swallow, considering how corporations such as Nike, which thrive on cheap labor, funded the film Half the Sky, a film by Nicholas Kristof that featured Somaly Mam. It is further unsettling to think about how Kristof has branded and capitalized upon the structural violence against young women. Kristof and Mam seek to “empower” women and make the task of “freeing” women seem simple. But how can they be empowered without a living wage? As Marx contends, we ascend from Earth to heaven — not the other way around. The call for female workplace assertiveness and the brand of “empowerment” are banal at best. They assume simple solutions and dilute political complications. But difficult problems require complex solutions. Feel-good trickle-down feminism that preserves the cult of unregulated capitalism isn’t enough.