Monday, 10 March 2014

Can feminists be right-wing?

Since attending a talk by a well-known feminist writer in which it was asserted that ‘to be feminist is to be left-wing’, I have been pondering the question of whether this is irredeemably the case. Does being a feminist - and the attendant pursuit of equality for women in every sphere of life - lead inescapably to left-wing or welfarist views of economic issues?

Initially, my overwhelming intellectual instinct is to answer the above question with a simple ‘Yes’. If feminism is fundamentally about working towards parity and equality between men and women, in both the public and private spheres, then one of the key means through which this is pursued is economic, alongside education and attitudinal change. In order for women to enter the workplace on equal terms to men then (financial) provision must be made not only for children to be looked after when their mothers are back out in the public sphere smashing glass ceilings, but for medical and financial support and employment rights during pregnancy. Such rights and services are expensive, and so states with a left-wing socialist or welfarist bent are usually much more disposed to use public money to provide them to women on a universal or quasi-universal basis. In short, women require more healthcare and social support services during their reproductive years (18-45) and this, combined with their well-documented lower earning power, seems in itself to lead logically to female support for a welfarist state, which can provide these services universally regardless of individual means.

This somewhat knee-jerk opinion of mine seemed to be borne out in the (admittedly narrow) range of literature I then consulted. Academic studies have found evidence that men with daughters tend to vote for more left-wing parties, and this is postulated to be because raising girls makes men see the necessity of public services in health, education, welfare and so forth. An analysis of feminist policies across 27 countries found that in 13 cases of strong feminist policy success, over half of these bore fruit under the influence of left-wing governments. A classic study by Edlund and Pande in the United States found that women were more likely than men to support the more economically redistributive and socially liberal Democratic Party. In their view, this was due to increasing divorce rates which had led to greater relative economic poverty for women compared to men. These findings make sense to me because I personally believe that women need the full support of the state in an economic sense to fully achieve equality with men in employment, education, childcare and presence in public life.

Yet this not a wholly uncontroversial view, and as someone who would classify myself as a liberal socialist feminist (honestly, I’m a hoot at parties), I’m wary of mandating one economic world view for any woman who wants to call herself feminist. Feminism famously comes in many (contested and sometimes contradictory) forms. As counterintuitive as it may seem to someone of my political orientation, right-wing feminists exist and declare themselves proudly in opposition to what they view as the movement as a whole’s support for ‘nannying’ left wing economics. A cursory search of the interwebs throws up blogs like ‘Feminism for Tories’, which carefully outline why they do not support dirigiste methods for female emancipation.

The key argument for why feminism should not be tied to left-wing statist interpretations in the view of neoliberals or libertarians seems to me to be twofold. Firstly, that equality between men and women falls wholly in the social sphere, and cannot be legally regulated by the state. Secondly, that the economic regulation and welfarism of left-leaning governments undermines individual agency and freedom. Women’s traditional reliance on men is simply replaced by reliance on the state, undercutting the very aim of women’s empowerment that characterises feminism.

Both these arguments at least grasp at truths, and should not be wholly dismissed out of hand. There are indeed aspects of the relationship between the genders, in terms of perceptions and socialisation, which cannot be dealt with by legislation alone, that require awareness-raising, education and civil society action. It is the last goal of any feminist to reduce a woman’s ability to be self-determining and a productive and educated economic agent.

However - and you know there had to be a ‘but’ of some form coming - such arguments suffer fatally from the very flaw of which right-wing pundits are so quick to accuse socialism: utopianism. Of course in an ideal world, there would be no need to legislate in areas of gender relations at all: education, awareness-raising and campaigning alone would be sufficient. In addition, women would be able to secure the gainful, well-paid employment that would enable them to pay privately for any healthcare related to pregnancy and reproductive issues, childcare and save for any maternity leave they might take. (I personally question whether this vista of privatisation is actually the ideal scenario, as in my view provision for mothers and children is part of the fundamental collective responsibility of a civilised society, but let us accept that for many neoliberals this is in fact the ideal). Now this could all work very well in a situation where women are financially and economically equal to men; where they are not disproportionately represented in lower-paid, part-time and transient work, disproportionately underrepresented on company boards and in higher-paid professions and positions, and where they do not face discrimination due to maternity considerations, or even according to their youth and looks, as the Iowa Supreme Court in the US recently ruled to be legal.

Once (or if) we reach a situation of an equal playing field between men and women in terms of employment prospects and security, talk to me then about how welfarism equals molly-coddling or dependency. But as of 2014 we are categorically not there yet and therefore state support and intervention remains crucial to the feminist campaign. Reliance on more libertarian-friendly policies has seen women’s representation in public life stagnate and in some cases even regress (see David Cameron’s current cabinet and the fact that in 2013 the pay gap between men and women increased). It therefore seems that, rather than further questioning or reduction of state involvement in the fight for gender equality, it instead needs to be stepped up to break the seeming state of deadlock, through targeted early intervention in terms of female education and career aspirations, economic support for women struggling to manage childcare and work (and recognition that many men desire greater involvement in the raising of children and should be supported with parental leave and paternity pay to do so). The case for initial quotas for female representation or all-women shortlists grows stronger every year that we see the same old composition in our parliaments, businesses, courts and media.

This is not to conclude that libertarian feminism is wholly without value. The emphasis on individual freedom provides a reminder that states should try to steer clear of one-size-fits-all policies with regards to gender equality, and more broadly the right-wing feminism emphasis on ‘female characteristics’ and gender difference may seem misplaced and erroneous to many feminists, but provides a useful inoculation against a tendency to sometimes forget that feminism is primarily about choice, and that those women who choose motherhood and traditionally female occupations are no less feminist than those who prioritise careers and public achievements. Fundamentally, however, it is a right-wing caricature that socialism is antithetical to choice and individualism, and an analysis of current economic conditions and inequalities means that any meaningful way forward for female equality requires some economic redistribution and state involvement for the near future at least.

Finally, feminism is not just about giving choice to individual women, though this is of course central, it is also as a movement and a cause about the recognition of social bonds within and across genders, about mutual support, about ‘sisterhood’ and more generally about bonds of equal humanity. In this sense I believe that my personal affinity towards socialist or ‘left-wing’ economics goes hand in hand with my commitment to feminism. I acknowledge that not every feminist would agree with this. In future, social conditions might change to such an extent that the role of the state in women’s equality might need to be re-evaluated. But until then, my conclusion is that, while not the only means of achieving gender equality, left-wing economic policies are the most practical and realistic instruments for achieving real change in women’s economic position, which is central to their achieving equality in other spheres. Also, I don’t know about you, but I would rather my feminism was achieved through collective, socially responsible policies that seek to reduce inequality and recognise the needs of the most vulnerable in society, rather than rendered part of an undermining of society in favour of dog-eat-dog individualism. Socialism in its various forms makes for a comfortable and in many ways more natural ideological bedfellow for feminism than its right-wing counterparts.



  1. Really thorough and balanced analysis, I have to say I totally agree. One additional point that occurred to me: in Britain, libertarianism and neo-liberalism are only one aspect of the political right. Another huge one is small-c conservatism, the whole point of which is maintaining the status quo against the horrors of progress. As men and women are not at the moment equal in terms of economic and political participation, I'm afraid conservatives (again, note the small c) are by definition not feminists.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.