In recent years, it has become increasingly uncontroversial in parts of mainstream discourse for women to identify as feminist. In much of popular culture, feminism is no longer depicted as a marginal, radical ideology and has instead become a desirable ethical stance promoted even by the elite. But what is actually meant by ‘feminism’ in these instances, and how does it relate to a project to improve the rights and freedoms of women in general?
In her 2018 book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, Catherine Rottenberg explains how the popular concept of feminism that has emerged actually tends towards supporting the status quo and the dominant rationality of competitive individualism. In the following interview I discuss with her the ideas and issues she raises in the book.
Catherine Rottenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent book is The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (Oxford University, 2018). She is also the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature (UPNE: 2008) and the editor of Black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East Side: Narratives out of Time (SUNY, 2013). Her research interests span 20th-century American literature, feminist theory, cultural studies, feminist media studies, and critical race studies.
What are the core characteristics of ‘neoliberal feminism’?
Catherine Rottenberg: In a nutshell, I understand neoliberal feminism as a particular variant of feminism that has emerged and become dominant on the Anglo-American cultural landscape in the past decade.
This feminism is a hyper-individualising feminism, which exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve ‘a happy work-family balance.’ It also incites women to perceive themselves as human capital, encouraging them to invest in themselves and to be empowered and ‘confident.’ Ultimately, it produces a new feminist subject who is incessantly pressed to take on full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care.
This feminism can and does acknowledge the gendered wage gap and sexual harassment as signs of continued inequality, which, I suggest, distinguishes it from what Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill call postfeminism or a postfeminist sensibility. Yet, the solutions it posits to such inequalities are also individualised – such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse – ultimately eliding the structural undergirding of these phenomena. Neoliberal feminism is thus a form of feminism that not only disavows the socio-economic and cultural structures shaping our lives, but one that has abandoned key feminist terms such as liberation and social justice.