Boardrooms and burned bras: questions at the intersection of feminism and capitalism

Boardrooms and burned bras: questions at the intersection of feminism and capitalism

I haven’t written much about feminism on this blog, save for a few posts around International Women’s Day. For the most part, I feel sort of redundant writing about feminism, because I don’t feel that I’m bringing many new insights to the table. I try to write posts that reflect an idea or viewpoint that I haven’t seen or read much about and many of the feminist basics have been well covered in books, blogs and across the Internet in general.

However, if you’ve read many of my other posts, especially my monthly reading round-ups, you’ll have seen that I’ve been reading a lot about economics and capitalism. I’ve been reading these books because my job has opened my mind up to just how much the market and economic forces affect every aspect of the world and our lives and I want to educate myself so I can think about these issues in a more nuanced way. Within this, I think that the intersection of feminism and capitalism is important, controversial and under-discussed. I spoke a little in a previous blog about whether working in finance as young woman is positive, as I am bringing some diversity to an otherwise very male-dominated industry, or negative, as there are lots of issues in finance around perpetuating inequality and I remain one of the most privileged people alive today. As with lots of things, there isn’t a clear answer either way, and I feel like my tiny personal conundrum plays into the bigger conversation of how the emancipation of women in rich countries depends on the continued oppression of other, poorer women (and men) in other countries and circumstances.

Crucially, though, I don’t believe there isn’t work to do in terms of gender equality in developed countries. Many industries are still massively dominated by men, harassment and sexual assault abound and many women who are in relationships with men still find themselves trapped in antiquated, patriarchal “partner”-ships where they find themselves either doing most of the domestic work alongside paid work or still doing the lion’s share of the domestic work along with being economically powerless by relying solely on their male partner’s wage and all the power dynamic issues that often brings. There are so many women living in globally incredible living standards who still find themselves frustrated by gender norms and outright sexism on a regular basis, which is depressing.

I believe strongly that the responsibilities associated with childrearing and home management are work, an opinion that is best supported by the fact that when a women works outside the home, someone is typically paid to care for the children or manage the house in their absence. As more women head into the professional workplace, there is a gap in terms of who does the very real work associated with looking after a family, a gap that tends to be filled by those same women stretching themselves even thinner.

The clear solution, if you can afford it, is to outsource those tasks to others. This is where this issue hits one of its toughest hurdles. Most of the people filling these roles are other women, especially women of colour, who – I think any feminist would agree – deserve all the same opportunities for empowerment and emancipation as the woman whose house she’s now cleaning. In order for wealthier women to go out to work, someone has to find the time to perform the tasks they were doing at home and if it’s not her, it’s statistically likely to be another woman. Once a family becomes wealthy enough, it doesn’t make sense for two likely overstretched partners to come home and start on their home responsibilities when they can easily get someone else to do it. Regardless of how much you pay that domestic worker and how much you treat them with respect, we can’t avoid the uncomfortable issue that for some women to go to work, other women must fill the role they were previously occupying in terms of home and childcare. It feels awkward to admit that the visions I have of my future career involve someone else working to take care of my future children while I go out and follow my dreams during the day. What about her? What about her dreams? But then again, what about me? If I want to work and my partner wants to work and someone else will take that job, then what’s the solution?

No one talks about shattering the glass ceiling for those women. In fact, whichever women do end up breaking that fabled glass ceiling are probably going to let a lot of shards fall down on the rest of womankind, whether deliberately or not. There’s a lot of emphasis on how many women sit on executive boards and take home six-figure pay packets to match their male colleagues’, but not enough questions about whether the entry-level administrative assistants are living paycheck to paycheck. The obsession with elevating a few women to the top of the corporate pyramid plays right into the hands of capitalism rather than exemplifying the truest aims of feminism.

Of course, this is not a new consideration for all women. The idea that it’s only since the 1950s that women have been trying to break into the workplace is limited to middle-class women who would previously have been supported by their partner’s wage. Less well-off women have always had to work alongside their spouses, if they weren’t a single parent supporting a family all by themselves. While not being able or allowed to work will still have been an oppressive force for the women staying at home despite their other aspirations, it was a financial privilege even then to not have both partners working. We’re talking about the kind of jobs that bring long-term personal fulfillment, career growth and some kind of social recognition. Having it all does not mean merely having a job and a child, it means having a corporate career and 2.4 kids and a husband, and, if you’re lucky, the money to employ someone else to worry about doing the laundry and making the lunches. As with many issues of social inequality, this arrangement only works for the winners, and the thought of not being a winner is so terrifying that trying to win seems like the only option. But as a few women drink champagne and buy t-shirts with ‘feminist’ printed on them (made by women who the fashion industry sees as cheap and disposable labour) the rest remain held back and tamped down by the gender roles, wage gaps and violence that disproportionally affect poor women, single mothers, women of colour, queer women and anyone who isn’t white, wealthy and straight. Good intentions still leave people behind.

But, honestly, I can see it from both sides. I grew up being raised by a woman who ran and grew a company. I work at one of the only City firms with a female CEO. I feel the difference profoundly in having women at helm, both as a daughter and as an employee. For as long as the capitalist structure stands, I think raising women to the top has to remain pertinent. Making it so that a single group of dudes don’t control every major industry in the world seems like a reasonable aim for a world that looks set to be guided by the invisible hand of the market for the foreseeable future. We may better serve other women by asking the women in charge – the women who do triumph in the capitalist economy – how they continue to support the development of other women, especially women who are not exactly like them and may face challenges that they themselves did not.

I know the answer everyone comes to eventually is that there’s no way to elevate all women – all humans – in a system that is literally predicated on inequality. I understand that. But my reading and work on economics and capitalism makes it seem like dismantling these structures globally may be an impossible task, especially given how experiments in communism have turned out and how globalisation has changed the world. Indeed, the effect of capitalism over the past 250 years has been to lift many people of all genders – though not in equal numbers – out of poverty and ill health. While we are beginning to hit more and more stumbling blocks as we enter late capitalism, it would be good to talk about these issues by offering solutions rather than just problems.

In terms of the emancipation of a certain class of wealthy, professional women not relying on a permanent underclass of domestic workers, automation might be the answer. While the work involved in keeping a life and a family running must be done by someone, that someone may not need to be human. But that still raises the same questions that come up whenever we discuss automation, which are: what happens to those people who lose their jobs? Given that the step between service jobs and professional jobs won’t happen in one fell swoop, how do you look after everyone in the interim? Is it just another way for people to be left behind, as has been the case every time automation has changed an industry?

There are a lot of important issues to be discussed at the intersection between feminism and capitalism. I have a limited viewpoint and only the beginnings of an opinion – my eyes and ears are open. I want to think and learn more. But I want to talk about these issues in a way that moves us toward a conclusion and evaluates these core tensions within the confines of reality. Only by grappling with how these dynamics operate in the world as it is, right now, will we be able to build a better future, rather than just imagine one.

2 thoughts on “Boardrooms and burned bras: questions at the intersection of feminism and capitalism

  1. One of my faves so far! ‘No one talks about shattering the glass ceiling for those women. In fact, whichever women do end up breaking that fabled glass ceiling are probably going to let a lot of shards fall down on the rest of womankind, whether deliberately or not.’ — killer.

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