“If Hillary was president, we’d all be at brunch right now” became a liberal requiem in the months that followed Clinton’s 2016 presidential loss. The phrase was designed not only to excuse fellow protesters of their political lethargy during the Obama era, which became their modus operandi, but also to infuse a budding movement against Donald Trump with detachment from the legislative consequences produced by Hillary Clinton and their own history of political apathy. The Obama administration’s legacy of human rights abuses, of which Clinton was a benefactor, included surveillance programs, extensive drone warfare and extrajudicial assassinations, as well as mass deportations, and made use of powers that are now at Donald Trump’s disposal.
This is symptomatic of liberal feminism, which is embellished with ill-defined trappings of “solidarity” and “gender equality” — an evocative landscape of raised fists and cultural icons like Princess Leia turned resistance figures, but little political substance.
We saw this throughout the “Year of the Woman,” as 2018 midterm candidates shamelessly marketed the “girl power” brand — a whitewashed version of feminism that confuses women’s military or political power with liberation.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, the call to diversify the legislature by “elect[ing] more women” became inescapable, leading to campaign advertisements that bear down on “girl power.” The most aggressive example was a campaign video by MJ Hegar, former Air Force combat pilot and author of Shoot Like A Girl. In the ad, the now former Democratic candidate for Texas’ 31st congressional district is decked out in leather and riding a motorcycle as viewers are made to consider her three tours in Afghanistan. Responding to her opponent, Republican John Carter, who had referred to the fight to hold on to his congressional seat as “a war,” the video flashes images of Hegar in uniform.
“Respectfully congressman, you don’t know shit about war,” Hegar says, implying that her participation in a ruthless occupation is proof of her “girl power” toughness.
The campaign’s pièce de résistance was the voice of Hegar challenging Carter with a tired but effective question: “Are you just afraid you’ll lose to a girl?” The digs at Carter are part of Hegar’s long-settled approach to politics. Hegar was first introduced to the public on a wide scale after the release of Shoot Like A Girl, in March of 2017. In the era of “Nasty Women,” a pejorative reclaimed by racially unconscious liberal feminists with the intention of channelling a kind of cool-girl toughness, Shoot Like A Girl was a hit, and a film adaption of the memoir is currently in development, likely to star Angelina Jolie.
Hegar’s advocacy on behalf of imperial feminism — which appropriates the language of women’s rights to advocate for wars of imperialism — was further emphasised by her nationalism. In an essay for Fortune on the 17th anniversary of September 11, Hegar echoed the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric fueling the War on Terror, warning of “the danger of growing enemies” while describing the events as her generation’s moment “to look around and take stock of who was with us and who was against us.”
Yet Hegar’s campaign, which gained the support of the nation’s leading political action committee for women candidates, Emily’s List, was widely categorized as an answer to traditional power structures. Standing up for women’s rights suited Hegar insofar as it ignored the role of the United States, and specifically Western institutions, in the domination and extermination of Third World women, including the countless women killed in the ruthless war on Afghanistan that Hegar proudly took part in.
Where left-wing feminism necessitates transnational resistance against capitalism and imperialist violence against women, liberal feminism — as illustrated by Hegar’s campaign — tells women that they too can take part in this violence if they would only develop their own cruel and militarized girl’s club.
The drive to organize more women into office, in other words, is not enough. Despite the glamorization of the electoral process, the ballot box is no great liberator of women. In this moment, it is imperative that there be a distinction made between socialist feminism and liberal feminism — and to be cautious of the way that the latter is increasingly adept at dressing itself in the cloth of radicalism.
The type of liberal feminist ideology espoused by Hegar and others, has divided the emancipation of women from its revolutionary foundation. Instead of directly challenging imperialism, this ideology works diligently in the service of violent capitalist hegemony. In the United States, the mobilization of women for combat is characterized as a disruption of static gender roles within the military, and yet their purpose within these military institutions reaffirms the patriarchal undercurrents of war and the moral bankruptcy of the patriotism which reinforces it. Feminism in the service of capitalist imperialism demands women abdicate responsibility and solidarity for one another, without concern for the global implications of their gendered military fetishism. This pursuit of violence requires that women exert power over communities regarded as alien in order to civilize them. It is here that we see women become vessels of hegemony, indulging in imperial domination schemes in order to “liberate” other women, denying them not only their livelihood but various forms of capital.
Socialist feminism, on the other hand, demands not only international solidarity, but an understanding of imperialism as a calculative force of suppression and, in the words of Vladimir Lenin, “if it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.”
Hegar’s campaign was no anomaly, and her face quickly joined the roster of other women who’ve decided to run for office or seek reelection in order to establish a legislative foothold in a political environment mired by prejudicial and violent attitudes towards women. Here we find candidates with establishment bona fides like Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), a deficit hawk who cast the deciding vote against closing Guantánamo and voted against the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill when she served in Arizona’s first district from 2009 to 2011, and again from 2013 to 2017. This time around, her campaign was a top recipient from the Wall Street-backed House Victory Project. An anonymous donor who was approached by the organization and later declined joining told The New York Times that the House Victory Project “is taking the Wall Street theory of ‘other people’s money’ and applying it to politics. They want to be the ones to deliver the check, to be the players.” Mega-donor financing in support of Kirkpatrick and other Democrats undoubtedly means that venture capitalists, investors and leading Silicon Valley figures are looking to use their funding as a means to exert political influence.
Then there’s Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who was just elected a congressional representative of Michigan and is heiress to the Hygrade’s hot dog fortune. Slotkin opposes Medicare for All and ran primarily on her experience in the CIA and George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Much like Hegar, Slotkin relied heavily on the language of military servitude during her campaign, using patriotism as a bipartisan unifier. In an interview with TIME, Slotkin emphasized the Democratic Party’s duty to cooperate with Republicans and reclaim their “American values,” and railed against what she described as political “vitriol.” Like Hegar, Emily’s List advocated on behalf of Slotkin, describing her as a “national security leader.” Republican Women For Progress PAC went as far as to run a $50,000 ad for Slotkin, which turned out to be a winning venture for both: Slotkin defeated Rep. Mike Bishop and handed Democrats another House seat.
Rewriting history in service of “girl power”
“Girl power” is not just a banner in which women candidates wrap themselves to add a veneer of feminism — it’s also used to rewrite history.
In Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, a book series marketed as an “anti-princess” chronicle of heroines in the vein of liberal feminism, readers are not only introduced to Frida Kahlo, the artist behind “Marxism Will Give Health to the Ill,” but also to Margaret Thatcher, who had once categorized feminism as “poison.” Rebel Girls is material explicitly produced in order to furnish young girls and women with feminist icons, but which simultaneously whitewashes the role of figures like Thatcher, whose brutality not only defined her political career but her very character. Kahlo, the steely communist whose coffin was adorned not only with flowers but the hammer and sickle, is now remodeled as a “boss lady,” a puerile expression of feminist “‘empowerment.” Kahlo was depicted alongside the likes of Gloria Steinem, who once knowingly worked for — and even defended—a CIA-funded anti-communist front group, and former Secretary of State Clinton.
The illustrated book was a foreseeable crowd pleaser, breaking fundraising records and raking in a mind-numbing $1.2 million. The project’s success was encouraged not only by way of superficial media coverage, but also an all-star cast of celebrity endorsers who lent their voices to the audiobooks, including billionaire Melinda Gates, as well as Hillary Clinton, whose widely predicted victory the authors had intended to use as an accompaniment to the book’s release.
This pop-feminist exhibitionism is ideologically empty, and demands not only that adherents ignore the crimes of their imperialist heroines — but compels women to confront patriarchal institutions by mass producing feminist apparel, glorifying women engaging in the barbarity of imperialist war and encouraging the proliferation of women CEOs. Where left-wing women confront the global exploitation of women workers, establishment “girl power” responds with a toothless game of dress up where “the future is female” and the workplace overseer is a bad bitch.
Wendi Muse, host of the Left POCket Project and a Ph.D. Candidate in History at New York University, argues that emphasizing the “right” words — and not liberatory actions — has resulted in the celebration of those whose conduct has directly harmed others, especially women and girls. “What we see, for example, is a liberal feminist embrace of Hillary Clinton and disgust toward the young Black Lives Matter and climate change activists who protested her,” she contends.
Another elemental feature of such displays is the dilution of historical, left-wing women, and the exploitation of their likeness. The insurrectionary aesthetic of Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black lesbian feminist socialist” whose work has pioneered the way our movements engage with race, womanhood, homophobia and capitalism, was so convenient for the ideologically hollow masterminds behind the viral “Nasty Woman” T-shirt that she was sandwiched into a deck of playing cards. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde reads prophetic as she describes the importance of defining her own legacy or else “be crunched into other people’s fantasies … and eaten alive.”
And in the lead-up to Inauguration Day, a campaign to print and distribute “new images that reject the hate, fear and open racism” of Donald Trump was launched with the intention of creating a visually striking response to his election. The effort, spearheaded by an art coalition that is partnered with the Women’s March, raised a staggering $1.3 million. The viral hit from the series was a poster featuring a Muslim woman, her hair covered in an American flag. “We the people are greater than fear,” it reads. Hoda Katebi, who writes the blog JooJoo Azad, explains that “this simplification of identity and essentialization of symbols — be it a hijab or ‘womanhood’ — and liberals’ inability to hold accountable their heroes of representation are also directly responsible for allowing many violent, anti-feminist policies or cultural outlooks to exist simultaneous to progressive politics or ideology.”
Katebi, who is the author of Tehran Streetstyle, host of #BecauseWeveRead and a Chicago-based community organizer, continues, “It’s so deeply integral that we do not lose sight of ourselves for representation that is shallow, simplistic and not all-encompassing. And compromises after all are the destruction of our true histories, ideologies, and movements for liberation.”
Toward a socialist feminism
While domestic U.S. concerns occupy most — if not all — space within liberal feminist discourse, understanding the conditions of global struggles is a requirement to build internationalist coalitions against capitalism. Muse, whose dissertation investigates Portuguese Africa’s impact on the Brazilian Left, argues that, in spite of the victory of fascist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil provides an example of women vigorously reclaiming their space in society in the face of economic austerity. “We see so much rigorous left feminism coming out of places like Brazil, where its first woman president was removed from office in a 2016 coup and replaced with someone who froze public spending,” she argues. “A large part of their struggle has been an insistence on the state to implement policies that explicitly seek to provide an environment in which women and girls of lower economic backgrounds are no longer restricted from access to basic rights,” says Muse.
Liberal feminism’s answer to global white supremacy is not an internationalist vanguard but self-indulgent patriotism, costumed in milquetoast sloganeering and imagery. Its impotence is most conspicuous in the face of militant white nationalism, where it speaks affably and urges political civility.
In Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, socialist author Frances M. Beale asserts that “If the white groups do not realize that they are, in fact, fighting capitalism and racism, we do not have common bonds.” White women, Beale argues, must realize that the reason for their condition is found “within the System” and that absolute liberation is only attainable through the destruction of capitalism.
As we gear up for another roster of women candidates in 2020, we need to be alert to the dangers of “girl power” trappings and reject any attempt to disguise militarism as feminism or racism as radicalism. It is for this reason that any examination of the revolutionary transformation of society is incomplete without addressing the pivotal role of leftist women such as Lorde and Kahlo, especially their contributions to the history of working-class struggle. Their commitment to women’s liberation is not only bathed in fierce anti-capitalism but is inseparable from confrontations with imperialism, and the advancement of internationalism, making them pivotal forces in disrupting the institutional feminist tradition. It is left-wing women who — despite having had their convictions doctored and the chronicles of their lives dismembered of nearly all subversive energy — remain inspirational forces in our past and present history of the fearless, liberatory struggle against capitalism.