This elitist vision of feminism has been around for more than one hundred years. In the early twentieth century Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian socialist organizer and writer who would later become the only woman in the Bolshevik government, denounced “bourgeois feminists” who wanted access to the same class privileges as their husbands but were never, she argued, going to support the working-class revolution that most women needed if they were to be liberated, either at work or at home.
Today we are more likely to use terms like “liberal feminism” or “girl boss feminism,” but the meaning is the same: a vision of women’s liberation available only to the one percent. It hasn’t gone away, but its once-toxic intensity seems to have lifted. And its worst manifestations have apparently faded, including the worship of rich, powerful female politicians and CEOs, and the political habit of deploying feminism against the working class or the Left.
Maybe — if we’re feeling optimistic — a more democratic, working-class vision of women’s liberation is even gathering strength.
If bourgeois feminism is in fact receding, what accounts for its relative decline?
During Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, leftist women supporters vigorously critiqued not only Hillary Clinton, but the type of feminism she represented, arguing that most women would benefit more from Sanders’s democratic socialist agenda than from Clinton’s enthusiastically pro-capitalist feminism. Much has happened since 2016: attacks on abortion rights, the rise of democratic socialism, increased labor militancy, the deepening of the climate crisis, the 2020 George Floyd protests, the pandemic crisis of care, and the emergence of a truly insane far right. Liberal feminism has not met the moment, and its failure to do so has curbed its appeal. It’s pretty obvious that adding a few more women CEOs and presidents to the world won’t help; Starbucks workers are fighting for a union, not a female boss.
In our century, bourgeois feminism has been hopelessly linked to an oppressive workaholic culture, in which people are expected to sacrifice family life, social activities, interests, and their physical and mental health. One of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic is that even many relatively well-off workers have been rejecting that culture. Once you’ve decided that there is more to life than work, Lean In feminism doesn’t have much appeal.
Still, it would be premature for the followers of Alexandra Kollontai (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to do a victory dance. While the liberal girl boss may be on the wane, we are also seeing — in the United States and globally — the rise of the right-wing, even fascist, female icon, in figures like Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni. As Hillary Clinton herself has observed, right-wing women often get more support than liberal women because their followers know they won’t challenge the patriarchy. Liberal feminism may be dying, but it could be replaced by something much worse.
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