The Neoliberal Feminist Subject

By Catherine RottenbergJanuary 7, 2018

The Neoliberal Feminist Subject

Women Who Work by Ivanka Trump
Settle for More by Megyn Kelly
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

IN THE PAST few years, a flurry of feminist manifestos have appeared, garnering intense media attention and reenergizing debates, most prominently around the question of why well-educated middle-class women are still struggling to pursue careers and raise children at the same time. Two of these texts — the 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by president and CEO of the think tank New America Anne-Marie Slaughter, and the best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013), by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — initiated a trend of powerful women publicly and unabashedly identifying as feminists. When considered alongside the 2014 speech by Emma Watson for the UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign, as well as Beyoncé’s appropriation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” it would appear that we have moved into a new era characterized by the cultural visibility and widespread popularity of feminist discourse.

Feminist themes have not merely been popularized and “mainstreamed,” however; they have also been made increasingly compatible with neoliberal political and economic agendas. Take Ivanka Trump’s how-to guide, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, which was published last May. Given the angry reviews the book received, it seems that Trump may have stretched the feminist label a bit too far. Indeed, many commentators excoriated the volume as a gathering of artless jargon that could just as easily have been assembled by Googling “inspirational quotes.” Notwithstanding this criticism, Women Who Work became a New York Times best seller and has been viewed as part of the recent trend of feminist manifestos.

While it is true that Women Who Work is littered with de-contextualized clichés and unabashedly endorses the Ivanka lifestyle brand, the book nonetheless warrants serious analysis. Trump’s main message is that women should work on all facets of their life: “career, relationship, family, friendships, hobbies, and passions.” As she puts it: “[W]hen we are happy — when our mind-set and our mood are positive — we are smarter, more motivated, and more inclined to succeed.” Success is defined as facing obstacles with resilience, initiative, and creativity, one’s aspirations being “limited only by one’s own hunger, drive, passion, and execution.” According to Trump, empowerment consists of individual women consciously choosing to create the life they desire and proactively crafting such a life through hard work and perseverance.

Women Who Work effectively captures the key neoliberal expectation that individuals, particularly women, should never cease attempting to enhance their socioeconomic value. The book enshrines an ideal female subject who is encouraged to conceive of herself as “an individual firm” or business enterprise, with all her activities understood as investments geared to improve the value of the self-as-firm. Trump’s guide repeatedly encourages women to “prioritize [their] time so that [they] are always adding value.” Planning well, which translates into making endless lists — from mission statements to color-coded to-do lists — is central to ensuring that one’s hard work enhances value and yields the proper results. The self thus becomes, in the words of feminist theorist Angela McRobbie, a “neoliberal spreadsheet.”

Even hobbies, friendships, and other intimate relationships traditionally seen as separate from economic calculation are reconceived as forms of investment and value management. Trump suggests that decisions about marriage and childbirth should be part of this calculus, and explicitly encourages women to foster friendships and hobbies not as ends in themselves but rather as part of the self-as-firm’s capital enhancement process. Discussing the importance of networking for women just embarking on their careers, Trump urges readers to make one new strong bond each time they meet people at parties or conferences. Although, to be fair, she attempts to play down the naked instrumentalization of others, her emphasis is nonetheless on any new contact or friend as a potential for enhancing one’s own value. Thus, the cultivation of intimacies, as well as self-care and leisure activities, are ultimately transposed into business strategies.

Neoliberal visions such as Trump’s constitute an increasingly dominant strand of feminism that has been disturbingly unmoored from such key concepts as equality, justice, and emancipation. As a result, neoliberal feminism hollows out the traditional power of feminism to illuminate and critique the structural contradictions of liberal democracy, whose proclamations of universal rights and equality have historically excluded women in significant ways. Ignoring the socioeconomic and cultural structures shaping women’s lives, and disavowing any collective commitments or mobilization, the neoliberal feminist subject is an atomized individual who focuses on her own well-being and self-care.

Paradoxically (and counterintuitively), childbearing is posited as part of this new feminism’s normative trajectory, and crafting a felicitous work-family balance becomes its ultimate ideal. Neoliberal feminism thus helps to ensure that all responsibility for reproduction and childcare falls squarely on the shoulders of individual women. But upwardly mobile women usually outsource this work, managing the women who actually carry out the labor. Given the reality that, most often, it is women of color, as well as poor and immigrant women, who serve as the unacknowledged caregivers who enable professional women to strive toward “balance” in their lives, neoliberal feminism serves to reproduce and legitimize the exploitation of these “other” female subjects while simultaneously disarming the very vocabularies with which feminism might address the resultant inequalities.

Trump’s message is uncannily similar to that of several other much more positively received texts, including Megyn Kelly’s 2016 memoir Settle for More (recently released in paperback) and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2015 book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, a sequel to her 2012 Atlantic article. Reading Trump in conjunction with Kelly and Slaughter is a fascinating and disturbing exercise. First, all three tomes espouse the by-now-familiar notion of a happy work-family balance as the ideal of female accomplishment. Second, all three ultimately place the responsibility for social change on the shoulders of individual women. And, finally, each one reflects — and reproduces — a cultural-political landscape in which more and more domains of life are reduced to and understood through an economic framework. In her 2015 book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, political theorist Wendy Brown refers to this sort of reductionism as neoliberal rationality, a dominant mode of governance that recasts social life as a business enterprise driven by financial calculation.

No longer deeply interested in the struggle for equal rights or for an end to gender discrimination, neoliberal feminism focuses principally on the notion of work-family balance. Megyn Kelly uncritically embraces this ideal, extolling the virtues of pursuing motherhood as enthusiastically as a career. Being both a doting mother and a tough, ambitious professional is what, for Kelly, “settling for more” ultimately means. For her part, Trump deploys the term “work/life rhythm” to describe the challenge involved in balancing the demands of being an involved parent and a successful businesswoman. And even the more liberal-leaning Slaughter’s overall message, while claiming to change the terms of the “have-it-all” debate by affirming care work, can be summed up as follows: women must learn to transform themselves — how they think, how they talk, how they plan and work and vote — before they can hope to craft a felicitous equilibrium between work and family life.

Interestingly, Trump and Kelly do frankly acknowledge that gender parity has yet to be achieved in the United States. Trump declares that, despite the many advances women have made since her mother’s generation, “we’ve still got a long way to go,” while Kelly admits that sexism still exists and gender bias in all its forms must be eliminated. Moreover, both women advocate for limited structural changes, such as paid maternity leave. Yet neither spends much time expounding on the structural obstacles to women’s success. The overwhelming bulk of the advice and instruction given by these two famous and wealthy women to their less privileged readers revolves around the labor individual women are required to invest in themselves in order to succeed.

Trump and Kelly’s agreement on so many key issues is not particularly surprising given their conservative political alignments. Yet even self-identified Democratic feminist Slaughter has produced a volume that not only reads like a self-help manual but also focuses almost exclusively on women’s individual responsibility for self-improvement. “It is still up to you,” she insists, “to start thinking now about what might happen later.” One of the most revealing moments in Unfinished Business is when Slaughter states that, while managing money may be difficult, so, too, is managing children; after all, they are both investments in certain kinds of capital. We must learn, Slaughter argues, how to measure the true “economic value of care for children and adults” if we are ever to achieve proper compensation for such important forms of labor.

On the one hand, such an agenda is clearly laudable, since care work has traditionally gone unacknowledged or, if acknowledged, has been vastly undervalued. On the other hand, Slaughter’s proffered solution to what she calls the “care problem” must be understood in the context of the neoliberal conversion of all social life into a balance sheet of profits and losses, capital appreciation and depreciation. Slaughter’s book fully participates in this process, while helping to eclipse other possible frameworks through which we might evaluate our relationships, actions, and emotional attachments. Given Slaughter’s willingness to subordinate affective ties to economic calculations, it becomes less surprising that she was responsible for firing a New America scholar who openly criticized Google, one of the think tank’s biggest donors.

Despite their individual idiosyncrasies, these three books have all been forged within an increasingly dominant neoliberal environment, one that collapses and reconfigures traditional distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. Neoliberalism is increasingly becoming our cultural modus operandi, molding all spheres of life into the model of the market, where competition and capital appreciation override all other considerations. A feminism animated by such an agenda is a feminism only in name.


Catherine Rottenberg is Marie Skłodowska-Curie visiting professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her book The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism will be published next summer by Oxford University Press.

LARB Contributor

Catherine Rottenberg is Marie Skłodowska-Curie visiting professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature (2008) and editor of Black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East Side: Narratives Out of Time (2013). Her new book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, will be published next summer by Oxford University Press.


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