The phrase ‘gender equality’ is bandied around a lot in politics, in recognition of the myriad ways in which (cis) men are generally more privileged than women – particularly by female politicians like Theresa May, Diane Abbott, Hilary Clinton, and Nicola Sturgeon. Solutions offered to bridge the gap vary significantly – some pay little more than lip service to the issue, while others offer real, tangible change.
The centuries-long battle for gender equality is testament to how huge the barriers are and how we still aren’t close to achieving it. For a real shift, structural change is required. This is why feminism bleeds into politics so frequently. It is a much bigger problem than employers not promoting women to higher levels, or men not having an equal right to parental leave, or increasing awareness of violence against women and girls. All these are symptoms of one overarching problem: that cis, white men retain power. And only marginal changes are possible until the wider system is overthrown.
Is this starting to sound familiar? It should. It’s a key tenet of socialism. Simply replace the cis, white men who retain power with ‘bourgeoisie’ and use ‘proletariat’ for almost everyone else. Which brings me to the real point: feminism and socialism are one and the same. We cannot achieve one without the other.
The problem with the feminism of, say, Theresa May, is that it does not seek to challenge the structures which have led to inequality. Instead, it seeks to ‘level the playing field’ by reducing barriers to cis women achieving the same as cis men. No consideration is given to whether the success of cis men is worth replicating.
At the same time, the very nature of capitalism ensures power and wealth stays with a few at the top. The system is rigged to ensure this hierarchy is protected above all else. Capitalism is also very smart. Proponents know the system would be untenable if it did not appear to be making efforts towards equality – and so feminism in a capitalist system allows a few women to reach the upper echelons. These women are labelled courageous, ambitious and admirable, reinforcing the idea that anyone that works hard enough has a chance to make it, even women. These women also largely happen to be wealthy, white, straight, cis and abled.
This is not real feminism. Real feminism supports equality more broadly – it runs hand in hand with other equality movements, including those from LGBTI+ and BAME communities. This type of equality is impossible in a society which has inequality at its core. The system will always be rigged against all but the top one per cent. Capitalist feminism only masks this truth. It allows capitalists to point towards vague improvements, which are actually only improvements for the most privileged women.
“Universalism promoted by socialists falls neatly with the broad-brush strokes of intersectionality.”
Let’s take the example of the recent furore about Zoella’s advent calendar. When people began questioning the £50 price tag, others leapt to her defence by suggesting it was positive that Zoella – a woman – was able to charge that much. This is exactly what I mean when I use the phrase ‘vague improvements’. Cheerleaders welcomed the hefty price tag because it defends capitalism by wrapping up an individual’s success with success for women more broadly. But the truth is, this is no benefit for anyone except Zoella – most people (and particularly those who are not cis, white women) will never be able to replicate this ‘success’.
Likewise, governments often focus on supporting women in business – promoting female entrepreneurs, getting women on boards and encouraging women back into the workplace after having a child. While these women do deserve support, so too do the millions of women who do not ‘make it’ in business because of other priorities, such as caring responsibilities. No political ideology really offers a solution to this with one exception: Universal Basic Income. Universal Basic Income is a strictly socialist idea, this would see every person receive a minimum income from the government – and therefore quite literally ensure caregivers are paid for their vital role.
Universalism promoted by socialists falls neatly with the broad-brush strokes of intersectionality. It ignores the differences between people and offers all the same support – thus reducing the lead given to some by accident of birth. That isn’t to say we should ignore the diversity, rather we should be celebrating it. But creating equality relies on providing everyone with the equal chance to succeed, and this might mean providing some people with more help than others.
Make no mistake, I absolutely mean taking from the rich and giving to the poor, Robin Hood-style. The most privileged people should pay a higher proportion of their income to assist those who are less fortunate. This is not, as is often framed, a tax on success, but a recognition that that success comes from starting off in a more privileged position. These individuals are likely some combination of wealthy, white, straight, cis, not disabled and male. It is not an attack on anyone that falls into some or even all of those categories because it is the system that has made is easier for them to succeed. They may not have asked to be born to such privileged circumstances, but they can be held responsible for pretending that privilege does not exist. The evidence is clear – as you take away each other of those elements, individuals are less likely to be (the traditional, capitalist definition of) successful.
“It is impossible to push for equality without unhinging capitalism itself.”
Wealth redistribution could go a huge way to rebalancing this. Providing people with the means to overcome barriers often (though not always) comes down to whether they can afford it. The other key barrier is social attitude. Socialism would also help to deal with this by demonstrating success is not – or rather does not have to be – a zero-sum game. In a non-capitalist society, success would have a broader definition and the success of one would not mean the non-success of another.
Capitalism will never deliver for all. By its very nature, it values profit over people and in doing so seeks to collate all the profit to the hands of a few. Feminism in a capitalist system softens the harsh edges by widening that few to include a small number of the most privileged women. It is impossible to push for more without unhinging capitalism itself, because sharing the profit is anathema to its purpose.
Feminism in a capitalist system will never lead to true equality. Capitalism limits success to the top one per cent and the so-called equality achieve so far is nothing more than lip service. To reach its goal, feminism must be socialist.