Beyond Girl Power: The Answer to the Commodification of Feminism Is a Women-Led Socialist Movement

Liberals are whitewashing feminism and watering down the legacies of socialist women. We mustn’t let them rewrite history.

Roqayah Chamseddine

Singer Lorde performs on the Coachella Stage during day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival (Weekend 1) at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2017 in Indio, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

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.

Roqayah Chamsed­dine is a writer, researcher, and host of the Delete Your Account pod­cast. Her work has appeared in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, ELLE Mag­a­zine, Splin­ter, Over­land Jour­nal, among others.
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