The world needs feminism??2.0

2014-09-12 06:45

Feminist professor Nancy Fraser recently wrote about the movement being hijacked by neocapitalism. Dhaya Pillay unpacks her assertions and presents a few ways to act against genderised poverty in SA

As an internationally acknowledged academic and feminist, Nancy Fraser worries about the direction feminism and the movement for women’s liberation is taking. Her concerns are first that the critique of sexism is providing justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.

Women’s liberation has become dangerously entangled with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society, she laments.

Once a movement for social solidarity and care, feminism now encourages individualism and meritocracy. Gender emancipation should have been part of the struggle for democracy and social solidarity, but it is a new form of liberalism. She advances three reasons for saying that women themselves have been complicit in aiding and abetting neoliberalism.

First, feminists’ criticism of the male breadwinner- female homemaker family model legitimises “flexible capitalism” characterised by low wages, job insecurity, declining living standards, increasing hours of work and escalating poverty.

The new norm of the two-breadwinner family does not empower women, but assures capital accumulation.

Second, feminists have become preoccupied with class inequality and gender identity at the expense of non-economic injustices such as violence against women and reproductive oppression.

Third, feminism and neoliberalism find common ground in rejecting the welfare state as paternalism. Fraser cites as an example micro credit or unsecured lending to poor women as the feminists’ panacea for women’s poverty.

It also coincides with states abandoning macrostructural efforts to fight poverty.

Instead of empowering people, microlending legitimises marketisation – it converts a national economy from a planned to a market economy, subject to all the risks of market forces.

Optimistic about retaking control of the feminist movement, Fraser advocates three angles for activism. First, replace family wage and flexible capitalism with unwaged activities like care work.

Second, integrate identity politics with economic issues to transform masculine cultural values. Last, participate in strengthening democracy.

Responses to Fraser

You may agree or disagree with some or all of Fraser’s lamentations and solutions. For instance, you might say that the feminist’s critique of the male breadwinner-female homemaker is necessary to achieve a more equitable distribution of power and domestic work as an end in itself and as a means to empower women economically, psychologically and emotionally.

You may argue that unravelling the cultural constructs of gender difference has yielded economic rewards in South Africa.

You may cite examples of how merit has transformed South Africa. In the corporate sector, the board of the JSE comprises six men and six women.

Equally important in the South African context is the racial diversity. Crucially, women fill the critical positions of chairperson (black), chief executive (white) and the chief financial officer (Indian).

The JSE’s executive committee comprises eight women and three men. The JSE is one of the top 20 exchanges in the world in terms of market capitalisation.

Turning to the judiciary, in 1994 there was one white female judge. Today, there are 164 male and 79 female judges.

As remarkable as the transformation of the judiciary has been, women remain underrepresented, considering that they constitute 51% of the population of 54?million people.

Many commentators criticise the slackened pace of gender transformation. Some of the obstacles identified are the small pool of senior female practitioners in the advocate and attorney professions, and inadequate support from corporates for female practitioners, resulting in them not having enough experience.

The absence of adequate child and family support is a recurring impediment.

Although gender transformation has not been sufficiently swift, in 20 years South Africa excels over other older democracies. Worldwide, women represent 27% of judges.

You may agree that unsecured lending exacerbates poverty, especially when the lending is as reckless as African Bank’s has been to poor people. But you should also note that microlending can be successful if loans are granted for developmental rather than consumptive purposes.

Evidence of genderised poverty

However much you differ with Fraser, the undeniable evidence is this:

»?Internationally, the pool of unemployed women is greater than that of unemployed men;

»?Employment growth rates for women are below those for men;

»?Women endure vulnerable employment more than men;

»?Women are more limited in their choices for employment across sectors; and

»?Women dominate in “care” occupations such as nursing, teaching, social care and childcare.

These findings were made in an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report and were corroborated by a report from the UN. South Africa mirrors these international trends, but with a racial twist.

According to a report in 2012, top management employs mostly white men. Unskilled workers are mostly women or African. Female representation is always lower than male representation at middle to senior levels. African men and women of all races who populate unskilled jobs are inevitably also the lowest-paid workers – so poverty is not only genderised in South Africa, but also racialised.

What’s to be done?

The ILO report recommends the following policy guidelines to help reduce gender bias:

»?Reduce the burden of housework through better infrastructure, principally by providing easy access to electricity, water, sanitation, mobility and school;

»?Reduce the burden of unpaid care work by providing care services for children and the elderly;

»?Balance the gender division of paid and unpaid work by increasing the fathers’ share of parenting;

»?Compensate for unequal employment opportunities based on gender; and

»?Campaign to challenge gender stereotypes, and for proper implementation of legislation against discrimination.

To this list I add as a priority the protection of women against violent crime. Rape, the threat and fear of it, impedes women’s mobility and their employment choices.

In conclusion, the goals of feminism or the women’s movement for social change must target the elimination of poverty. Anything less will subvert the movement away from achieving our constitutional goals of equality, dignity and freedom.

» Pillay was appointed as a judge of the Pietermaritzburg High Court and Durban in 2010. Prior to this, she was a judge of the Labour Court of SA for 10 years

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