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Why we need to look beyond Justin Trudeau’s ‘Scandalous’ feminism

by Adrienne Roberts on April 11, 2016

Being both a Canadian and a feminist, I cannot help feeling just a little bit proud every time Justin Trudeau, Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister, proclaims that he is a feminist. When asked about his reasons for appointing a cabinet that was 50% women, Trudeau infamously responded: “Because it’s 2015”. A few months later, during a discussion on gender equality at the United Nations, he reiterated his commitment to being a feminist…along with his insistence that this is a normal and natural thing to be. Lamenting the explosion that occurs in the Twitterverse every time he calls himself a feminist, as if it were some sort of scandalous admission, Trudeau explained: “I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug”.

This discussion is exciting and important, and Trudeau’s leadership might have some genuinely positive impacts on gender equality in Canada. Though it is only one aspect of feminist struggle, gender equality in political representation does matter and a cabinet that is equally divided between men and women is surely a positive development. Trudeau has also committed the government to investigating the national tragedy of thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. This stands in sharp contrast to the position of the former (Conservative) Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who insisted that most cases had been solved and that this was a ‘law-and-order’ problem rather than a social problem rooted in a long and complex history of colonialism, poverty, racism and sexism.

However, we also need to remember that there is no single feminism, and while few would doubt that feminism involves a belief in the equality of men and women, at least in part, debates continue to take place about what this means, and about how we get there, and about what gets left out when we maintain a narrow focus on ‘equality’ between men and women without considering how this is further shaped by the social relations of class, race, nationality, sexuality, ability, etc.

ScandalCritical feminists of various theoretical persuasions – many of whom are featured in Scandalous Economics – have pointed to the limitations of the way that gender equality has been mobilised by particular politicians and state actors, global institutions, corporations and business leaders, philanthropic foundations and others. A central concern of these scholars relates to the ways in which the ideas generated by a movement for women’s liberation have increasingly been articulated in terms of individual rights. As Nancy Fraser explains, ‘Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy’. Feminism, it is argued, has become quite commensurate with neoliberal capitalism, and might even be implicated in helping to legitimise this politico-economic project.

My contribution to Aida Hozic and Jacqui True’s compelling collection takes on some of the mainstream narratives about gender equality. Specifically, I seek to document, unpack and critique three overlapping narratives that have emerged in recent years regarding the supposed benefits of liberalised finance for gender equality. These narratives have been perpetuated by a coalition of public and private forces focused on promoting a particular version of feminism that I have called “transnational business feminism” (TBF).

The first “women as saviors” narrative asserts that the greater integration of women, particularly women from the Global South and emerging market economies, into formal financial and labour markets will help to alleviate poverty, to sustain communities, and to stimulate stagnating national economies in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. I outline the ways in which this narrative engages in what Hozic and True call “scandalous gendering”, by positioning women qua women as uniquely qualified to assess and manage financial risk, while systematically ignoring the extent to which the extension and deepening of global finance has perpetuated inequalities at the intersections of gender, class, race, and nationality. In these narratives, gender is also deployed as a means of saving, rather than challenging, neoliberal finance-led capitalism.

The second “technocratic equality” narrative argues that new financial technologies have helped to eliminate gender-based discrimination in financial and credit markets by standardising risk assessment models and ultimately removing the physical markers of gender, race, and class that may cause discrimination. I argue that in so doing, this narrative performs what Hozic and True refer to as a “scandalous obfuscation”, which erases gendered and racialised bodies as constitutive of the social relations of finance. That is, while this popular narrative assumes that risk assessment models and other innovations have eliminated discrimination in finance, this ignores the fact that gender, race, class and other factors play an important role in determining who has access to employment, who is able to accumulate assets, who is able to use formal banking services and other factors that determine these supposedly neutral scores.

The third overlapping narrative is the “womenomics” narrative, which emphasises the profits, or “gender dividend,” that can be made by promoting women to the highest ranks of banks and investment firms. I argue that one of the problems with this narrative is that it scandalises reimaginings of approaches to gender equality that do not conform to the dominant neoliberal model that has been formulated by corporations and that understands empowerment in terms of individualised forms of economic empowerment through labour and financial market integration.

So, while I’m pleased that the leader of Canada isn’t afraid to call himself a feminist, I also wonder what he means when he says that “equality is not a threat, it is an opportunity”. What kind of equality are we talking about and for whom is it an opportunity? Does ‘equality’ entail the redistribution of resources in a way that is more gender-equitable and supportive of domestic labour (the majority of which is done by women)? The Liberal Government’s first federal budget doesn’t give much indication that this is the case. Is it an ‘opportunity’ for women’s groups to articulate collective visions for social change that might include the redistribution of power and resources between countries and social classes? Trudeau’s invocation of Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda Gates and Zhang Xin as “powerful and vocal role models” who show that “women belong at the management table, the corporate board, the science lab, or running large tech and engineering firms” suggests that the ‘opportunity’ he has in mind is an invitation for certain elite women to join men at the helm of the institutions of global capitalism. There is also an ‘opportunity’ for these companies to benefit from women’s labour and their growing power as consumers. As Jacqui True notes in her contribution to Scandalous Economics, “[c]apitalism is driven to bring everyone with purchasing power into the fold, while erasing the political salience of the unequal gendered relations that position women working double days for love and for money”.

While a feminist Prime Minister offers ‘opportunities’ for progressive social change in Canada, as I argue in my contribution to Scandalous Economics, contestations over the meaning of feminism continue to matter. I want Trudeau to continue to dismiss those who think of feminism as a threat. However, I want him to do so from a position that sees beyond the business case for gender equality and challenges the neoliberal commitments of Transnational Business Feminism.

Adrienne Roberts

Adrienne Roberts is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her work, which focuses on feminist political economy, social reproduction, debt and finance, has been published in journals that include the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Critical Sociology and Global Society. She is co-editor of the Handbook of the International Political Economy of Gender (forthcoming with Edward Elgar) and co-editor of the Rowman & Littlefield International book series ‘Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality’.

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