Catherine Rottenberg talks neoliberal feminism in Janet Wallace lecture hall

Rebecca Edwards, News Editor

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“Women Who Work,” Ivanka Trump’s New York Times best-selling self-improvement book, dominated discussion in a tightly-packed Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center lecture hall on Thursday, Nov. 7. 

Among other similar books, blogs and TV series, Trump’s work was the subject of prominent gender studies scholar Catherine Rottenberg’s talk “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.” 

The discussion was co-sponsored by the women, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS), American studies, media and cultural studies, political science, and religious studies departments.

Rottenberg’s presentation explored the argument that high-powered, wealthy women have inverted feminism from a movement focused on undoing “the unjust, gendered distribution of labor” to one that espouses economic achievement and work/life balance above all else.

Rottenberg attributes this change to a few key publications that greatly influenced modern feminist discourse — including acclaimed political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and former Facebook Chief Operations Officer Cheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” both of which were published in 2012. 

“In reading these manifestos, I was struck by the circulation of what I came to see as a new feminist vocabulary.” Rottenberg said. “Words like happiness and balance were replacing key terms traditionally inseperable from the public feminist discussions and debates, namely, autonomy, rights, liberation and social justice. 

“What’s really interesting,” Rottenberg continued, “is that in the wake of these publications, more and more high power and celebrity women were coming out as feminists… which was something we just hadn’t seen before.”

Rottenberg asserted that this paradigm shift has been fundamentally important in the advancement of the neoliberal cause. Trump’s book, she said, is engaged in the same work..

“Trump spends approximately one page of her 212-page book expanding on structural obstacles,” Rottenberg said. “The overwhelming majority advice and instruction given by Trump to less famous and less wealthy women is on the labor individual women are required to invest in themselves in order to achieve success.”

This labor, she said, expands well outside of the workplace — the onus remains on the woman to maintain a successful home life, and maintains that the women’s priority should be constant advancement in each domain. 

By blurring the boundary between the public and private spheres, home and care work is subject to the same neoliberal influences that Rottenberg says dominate the workplace. 

“‘Women Who Work’ can be read as exposing the processes in which aspirational women are interpolated as potentially capital enhancing subjects who are constantly — and it is constant — subject to the exhortation that women invest in and work on all domains of their lives,” Rottenberg said. 

“Trump reveals, informs, and helps to reprouce the conversion of women from ostensible autonomous, rights-bearing liberal subjects who need to fight discrimination in order to gain access to the marketplace to sell their labor, into subjects who must work tirelessly on themselves in order to produce and cultivate themselves as human capital,” she continued.

Rottenberg followed her presentation with a Q-and-A session. 

Zoe Berkovitz ’20 was among the students who engaged with Rottenberg.

“Your main examples are from more conservative women, but you also mention some high-powered liberal women,” she said. “I was wondering if you noticed significant differences in language used, and if so, does that difference matter?”

“There are slight idiosyncratic differences in the different texts,” Rottenberg said. “Indeed, what you find in the more conservative manifestos is an emphasis on wifehood and also on the feminine, which you don’t hear from any of the liberal authors — any good liberal feminist would never touch that word. But really what’s interesting is the ways some of the similarities outweigh those differences.” 

Berkovitz was impressed by the discussion overall, noting its relevance to the Macalester community. 

“I think what’s important about a talk like hers is that it brings back a specificity to things like feminism which have lost or changed their meaning a lot,” Berkovitz said. “The idea of self improvement is present here as well — I hear about it in classes, and even in the Weekly there are articles on self-care as a means for bettering yourself.

“In a general sense, the idea of balance is kind of toxic and puts a lot of responsibility on the individual,” she continued. “There are so many structural things that are causing us to be in the position that we have to work so hard and then put so much labor into creating balance as well — and it’s not an even amount of labor for everyone. “

Willow Fortunoff ’21 left the talk looking for ways to reclaim radical feminist values in her own life. 

“How can I counter this neoliberal feminist mindset? I think the answer is focusing on community,” Fortunoff said. “I want to leave behind this idea that if you’re not constantly improving your capital you’re disposable.”