• Gina Schouten

The Pandemic May Set Gender Equality Back by Decades. Should Liberal Feminism Declare Bankruptcy?



The Coronavirus pandemic and associated economic, educational, and childcare crises have hit women especially hard. A United Nations policy brief warns that that the pandemic may set gender equality back by decades. It reports that “gender-based violence is increasing exponentially,” with many women forced into lockdown with their abusers and support services disrupted, inaccessible, or overburdened. For example, an activist in Nigeria reports that a partner organization saw gender-based violence caseloads triple during the spring lockdowns.


Meanwhile, activists across Europe have warned that women are carrying the extra burden of childcare disruptions and that decades of progress toward gender equality are being rolled back. In Spain, for example, over 200,000 people signed a petition calling for urgent measures to redress the situation of women forced to give up paid work to care for their families. In the spring, as lockdowns eased and workers were asked to resume work while schools and childcare facilities remained closed, one of the group’s founders drew a stark contrast: “Right now we have no idea what will happen in September. But we know that the bars will be open.”


That remark will resonate with readers in the U.S., where nearly half of all districts began the school year with remote instruction and where—as a result—women left the workforce in September at four times the rate of men. Mothers are three times as likely as fathers to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, in part because women-dominated sectors like hospitality have been so hard hit and in part because women have been shouldering such a disproportionate share of added parenting work. One-third of working women who are unemployed said that childcare demands are the reason, compared with only twelve percent of unemployed men. Meanwhile, an analysis of U.S. census data found that over half of what we now regularly call “essential worker” jobs are filled by women, and that one in three jobs held by a woman is an essential worker job. Nonwhite women are likelier than anyone else to be doing this work. Though essential, it is notoriously underpaid and undervalued: “Of the 5.8 million people working health care jobs that pay less than $30,000 a year,” the analysis finds, “half are nonwhite and 83 percent are women.” The suffering wrought by the pandemic has fallen heavily on low-income and minority women and single mothers, who do the bulk of jobs that involve virus exposure and the bulk of work in the service industry that has seen the greatest job losses.


When I think about what has gone wrong here, about how these myriad harms are related, and about what exactly we should demand on behalf of the many who are suffering or vulnerable, I reach for the evaluative lens of liberal feminism. That lens focuses the eye on our stark failure to protect women’s freedom and equality in the face of these crises. Because freedom and equality are values of the first importance, liberal feminism calls on all of us to act, both politically and interpersonally, to remedy this failure as an urgent matter of justice.


The suffering wrought by the pandemic has fallen heavily on low-income and minority women and single mothers, who do the bulk of jobs that involve virus exposure and the bulk of work in the service industry that has seen the greatest job losses.

But arguably the dominant view for the past half century has been that liberalism is no ally to feminism. For example, reflecting on liberals’ notorious commitment to preserving individuals’ freedom to live their lives according to their own value commitments, Alison Jaggar wrote in 1983 that the “inevitable result” is “the tacit acceptance of conventional or dominant values.” I think liberal feminists have subsequently responded powerfully to this criticism, but plenty remain unconvinced, and opposition to liberal feminism seems to be growing sharper. A case in point: The second thesis of the brilliant manifesto Feminism for the 99% reads, “Liberal feminism is bankrupt. It’s time to get over it.” The manifesto equates liberal feminism with corporate, or “lean-in” feminism, which I think is a mistake. Properly understood, liberal feminism is radically egalitarian feminism—both as feminism and as liberalism. Properly situated, the values it espouses demand structural reform to redress economic disadvantage. That’s why, as a liberal feminist, I agree with the manifesto’s criticism of lean-in feminism.


Of course, plenty of readers will think that I’m wrong on the substance. Maybe liberalism can’t condemn corporate, “lean in” feminism. I don’t find the argument for that in the manifesto, but the view that liberalism is capitalism’s handmaiden apparently underpins a lot of opposition to it. Some of my writing makes the case for a different picture of liberalism—one that calls for egalitarian structural change as a demand of justice on distinctly feminist, egalitarian, and liberal grounds. I argue, moreover, that by the lights of liberalism properly understood, egalitarian structural change isn’t optional. It’s a demand of legitimacy, and those who invoke liberalism to oppose it are making a mistake about liberal values and the reasons they generate.


I’m hardly alone in thinking that liberalism condemns corporate excess, or that liberal feminism condemns lean-in feminism. The manifesto declares liberal feminism bankrupt not by arguing that a radically egalitarian liberal feminism is impossible, but, seemingly, by dismissing the possibility as irrelevant. So it’s fair to ask: If a radically egalitarian liberal feminism is possible, what could explain its irrelevancy to the movement that the manifesto aims to build?


One possible explanation rides on second-wave feminism’s contributions to the rise of neoliberalism. Elsewhere, Nancy Fraser argues that feminists should “break off our dangerous liaison with neoliberalism and reclaim our… ‘contributions’ for our own ends.” But liberals too can condemn feminist complicity with neoliberalism, and they can do it without relinquishing their characteristic commitment to preserving women’s autonomy and choice.


Another explanation is worth considering. A lot that gets cast as criticism of liberalism is more charitably understood as criticism of liberals. The manifesto claims that liberalism is more focused on the women “breaking the glass ceiling” than on the women left to “clean up the shards.” I don’t think that’s true of liberalism, but it’s undeniably true of some liberals. Lean-in feminists, are, after all, recognizably liberal, even if they are non-exhaustive of the category. But non-corporate liberal feminism is vast, and it has the theoretical resources to criticize corporate feminism from within. Plenty of liberal feminists do just that.


Liberalism offers a strong evaluative grounding for demands of justice on behalf of women across the social hierarchy—and indeed for demands that that hierarchy be demolished.

Critics of liberalism have a ready retort: that even non-corporate liberal feminists overlook the women left cleaning up the shards. Liberals can deny that sociological claim, but I think it’s an apt moment for self-reflection. I’ve focused a lot in my own work on things like expanding subsidized childcare and paid caregiving leaves, and it’s true: Paid childcare relies on exploited labor, and caregiving leaves are relatively more valuable to those whose work is relatively more remunerative. I’m open to the charge of practicing middle-class feminism.


How do I answer it? Part of my answer involves making the case that the social value of the policies in question is primarily about their potential to erode the gender norms that oppress all women—most acutely those cleaning up the shards—and many men as well. Part of my answer is that I also write about economic justice, and, while I endorse intersectionality, I think that we’d ideally not have to rely on caregiver support policy to compensate for the lack of needed structural reform. Of course, we should be concerned if such policy exacerbates economic injustice. But we shouldn’t conclude that the caregiver support policy is flawed; rather, we should conclude that the depth of economic injustice makes everything else go wrong.


There’s a third part of my answer, and it takes us back to the substance: Liberalism offers a strong evaluative grounding for demands of justice on behalf of women across the social hierarchy—and indeed for demands that that hierarchy be demolished. The social subordination to which we subject the women sweeping up the shards is unjust on grounds of the freedom and equality that liberalism celebrates. Precisely because I think liberal feminism furnishes compelling diagnoses of these injustices and illuminating prescriptions for rectification, it strikes me as important to address the hard cases that it faces. These are cases wherein apparent choice seemingly shields inequity from censure—the cases that have long been regarded, by Jaggar and others, as poison for liberal feminists. Redeeming liberalism’s promise as a radical evaluative framework requires addressing the cases wherein deference to choice appears to be justice-undermining. For liberal feminists, this notably includes cases of apparently voluntary compliance with gender norms, including gender norms about caregiving.


And just to make the obvious explicit: Focusing in one’s writing on the hard cases for liberal feminism is fully consistent with focusing as an activist and citizen on the cases of manifest injustice. Compartmentalizing scholarship and activism in this way might be objectionable. If liberal evaluative commitments surface the needs of the women sweeping up the shards as the most urgent needs to attend to, then maybe liberal scholarship should all or mostly be addressed to just those needs. This criticism raises deep and important questions that I think are worth taking seriously. But the questions draw in a lot more than liberal feminism, and however we answer them, it won’t entail that liberal values neglect gender and economic justice.


Focusing in one’s writing on the hard cases for liberal feminism is fully consistent with focusing as an activist and citizen on the cases of manifest injustice.

There remains one good explanation for the choice to cast liberalism as the enemy, and that’s strategic: Maybe the movement that the manifesto aims to build needs a foil and liberalism fits the bill. After all, distortions of liberal values have been used to rationalize grave injustice. Liberalism may be a mobilizing foil even if the real culprit is not liberalism but its distortions.


But how broadly mobilizing is it?


The manifesto’s authors are clear that they have no interest in “celebrating women CEOs who occupy corner offices,” but rather want to “get rid of CEOs and corner offices.” I think that aspiration could rest comfortably atop liberal values properly understood. And I think, too, that resting that aspiration atop liberal values could make it politically mobilizing to a broader public. That’s not to say that the manifesto should have been directed to that public, nor that its authors should have grounded their theses atop liberal values. But why not leave a door open for others to continue that work? If this pandemic is indeed setting women back by decades, then we desperately need the movement this manifesto aims to build. If the movement’s demands can rest on the liberal commitment to equal concern and respect for each individual, so much the better.


We don’t need liberal egalitarianism to impugn corporate feminism. And even though liberalism properly understood does impugn corporate feminism, critics may insist that it takes too many steps to get there. But liberalism can be a tool for building the movement this catastrophic moment demands—and it’s a tool the movement should be slower to cast aside.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

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The views expressed in these posts are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Public Ethics blog or associated organisations.