Catherine Rottenberg, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism
Preface Sneak Preview (Ruth O’Brien, Series Editor)
In recent years, feminism has seen a resurgence in the popular media, with celebrities proudly declaring themselves feminists and best-sellers teaching women how to shatter the glass ceiling without neglecting their families. In this book, however, Catherine Rottenberg shows us how such “neoliberal feminism” forsakes the vitally important goals of emancipation and social justice, substitutes positive affect for genuine change, and adopts the theory and often the very language of neoliberalism—which, in turn, needs feminism in order to resolve its own internal contradictions. With passion and rigor, Rottenberg reveals that neoliberal feminism is not a philosophy but rather a self-help program for upper-middle-class women, one that leaves behind those who do not fit the template of a privileged professional.
She begins by mercilessly dismantling neoliberal feminism’s preoccupation with maintaining “balance” between family and career. Rottenberg shows how this focus on the self dovetails with neoliberal rationality, particularly in its emphasis on the individual’s “cost-benefit calculus” of personal fulfillment (which relies on low-paid, outsourced care work to make the numbers come out right). Instead of benefiting all women, neoliberal feminism divides women into aspirational and non-aspirational cohorts, with different roles and expectations for the two groups.
Rottenberg carries this provocative analysis further with her counterintuitive exposure of the way neoliberalism needs feminism. In neoliberal rationalism, people are “human capital” consisting of ungendered productive units—yet for the neoliberal system to be sustainable, women must also play a reproductive role by creating future workers. To resolve this contradiction, neoliberalism embraces “a new ‘technology of the self’ structured through ‘futurity,’” which encourages women to postpone maternity (notably by freezing eggs) until a time when it will interfere less with their productive capacity. The popularity of neoliberal-feminist books by women from across the political spectrum shows how widespread approval of this brand of feminism is.
In detailing the deficiencies of neoliberal feminism, and the fissures within the feminist movement that its rise has accentuated, Rottenberg eschews any calls for unification based on compromise, accommodation, or commonly agreed-upon goals. Instead she advocates “alternative feminist visions [that] not only challenge but also constitute a profound threat to our contemporary neoliberal order. Indeed, given our grim and frightening reality, it is precisely such a threatening feminism that we need to cultivate, encourage and ceaselessly espouse.” She concludes by invoking Judith Butler’s concept of “precarity” as a unifying factor—not only for women, but for all who are marginalized or who struggle for social justice. With the times ripe for converting neoliberal feminism into a more vigorous and inclusive ideology, women can turn around the unfortunate “mutual entanglement of neoliberalism with feminism”—and subvert neoliberalism by killing it from within.
Like all works that challenge convenient untruths, this book will disturb some readers and ruffle some feathers. By disputing a widespread notion of what feminism is; by elucidating the insidious ubiquity of neoliberal thought; by demanding that we pay attention to the oppressed and marginalized; and by paradoxically finding hope in the current dark times, Catherine Rottenberg gives us the hard truth, takes us to the edge of a cliff, and then maps the way back. For all these reasons, her book makes an outstanding addition to the Heretical Thought series.#