One of the most damning things to result from the modern liberal feminist movement is the discourse surrounding the gender pay gap. The myopic lens through which the pay gap is analyzed has contributed to the rise of GirlBosses and a fixation on breaking metaphorical glass ceilings. Whenever the pay gap is discussed in mainstream media, it’s always portrayed as an obstacle to total women’s equality—supposedly, if feminists are able to solve this problem, there’s nothing stopping managerial, mainly white, women from being as successful as men. These “pay-gap feminists” love to highlight this idea so they can continue to perpetuate the myth that female liberation lies in the corporatization of women. Not only does this serve to universalize bourgeois aesthetics by implying managerial women are leading the frontier of female liberation, and that only through embracing their lifestyles can a woman truly stick it to the patriarchy, but it also allows liberals to perpetuate this facile discourse without actually taking any steps toward actual female liberation.
Of course, I’m not denying that a gender pay gap exists. I’ve seen the research reiterating that white women make 79 cents to a white man’s dollar, Black women 62 cents, Native American women 57 cents, and so on. My dispute is with the claim that this inequality stems from the toxic masculinity intractably embedded in our society. Instead, it stems from the inherent tenet of capitalism: underpaying workers and exploiting their surplus labor so capitalists can make a profit. Feminism’s goal of emancipating women through capitalism is what is keeping them in patriarchal shackles. Women have only further contributed to their own oppression by focusing on joining the workforce rather than on abolishing the notion of wage-labor, which has oppressed working-class women for centuries. I understand why housewives from the 50s saw the workforce as an emancipatory space—they were desperate for an escape from the socially mandated mindless domestic work they were forced to do. But, as the lauded writer Joan Didion herself states, these women’s “inchoate yearning for ‘fulfillment’… [was] absolutely devoid of any ideas and therefore of any but the most pro forma benevolent interest.” These early feminists saw the labor force as a place where they could express themselves or feel gratified that they were doing something “beneficial;” this goal was for their own self-interest and has contributed to the current feminist movement’s drive to diversify the most oppressive institutions with women and people of color. They seek self-fulfillment via representational power but are unable to substantiate themselves materially by overthrowing these repressive systems.
The problem quite literally is the fact that women want to be paid the same as men, instead of abolishing the exploitation of surplus labor upon which capitalism depends. The focal point of feminism is this inane aspiration to be the same as men, in every regard, even if that means droning people (as presidents do) or ruthlessly exploiting employees (as male CEOs do). Aspirational feminists center managerial women in discussions of oppression, as they see individual corporate success as the pinnacle of feminist achievement. This monomaniac infatuation with corporatocratic liberation completely ignores the exploitation that undocumented immigrants, imprisoned people, and people overseas (both men and women) endure at much more detrimental rates than PMC (professional and managerial class) women.
These people quite literally work under abusive conditions only to receive slave wages in return. Capitalists ruthlessly exploit undocumented and low-wage immigrants because they have no protections whatsoever—they can make immigrants work long, excruciating hours and reward them with virtually nothing so they can increase their profits. They do this with impunity. They won’t be punished for their crimes; in fact, Americans see the exploited immigrant as the villain, not the iniquitous capitalist profiting off of practically free labor. The misplaced vilification also applies to workers overseas—Americans detest the foreign workers that corporations like Nike exploit, not because it’s an egregious display of abuse, but because they also need jobs to survive America’s capitalist economy—jobs they are prevented from obtaining because the federal government “protects” them from similarly exploitative conditions. Finally, convicts—who Americans despise solely because they’ve been labeled a “criminal”—harvest our potatoes and sew our lingerie for ignoble compensations. All these workers slave away for what essentially amounts to scraps, while corporate overlords grow richer off their surplus labor. Yet, the pay gap discourse patently omits these conditions and circumstances and focuses instead on the farcical plight of the PMC woman. The omittance of the struggle endured by anyone who is not a corporate woman succeeds only in abstracting the working class and positing bourgeois environments as what people should aspire to while ignoring how the luxurious conditions that comprise that lifestyle are produced.
Of course, this is by design. But Focusing on the working class would force pay-gap feminists and GirlBosses to recognize that it’s not toxic masculinity that systemically subjugates women, but the capitalist class that enriches itself by exploiting their labor. They would have to acknowledge that no one will be paid what they’re owed so long as workers are forced to produce surplus labor value so that the capitalist can make a profit and grow wealthier. Furthermore, by claiming the patriarchy is the sole cause of pay disparity allows these feminists to use this sophistry to further victimize themselves, as well as inoculate themselves against criticism. It’s easy to blame oppressive masculinity for one’s own failures or setbacks, rather on your own competence. It’s also easy to do so when you know that the singular belief in this social oppression will allow you to reject any criticism of your poor work performance (though, working poorly for your corporate boss would be much more reflective of “girl power” than actually prospering). Rather than reflect on their own individual incompetence or the fact that the true source of their problems is literally our capitalist society, liberal feminists insist that overprivileged, underqualified, oppressive men are the cause of their professional problems. The persistence of this myth is the underlying current of the obstinate idea that if women can be president, or can be CEOs, then we will finally witness female liberation.
A white woman won the popular vote in the 2016 election, and now a Black and Indian woman is the Democratic nominee for Vice President. They’re some of the most materially successful politicians in America right now; I would not say they’re oppressed by any means. In fact, they’ve used their considerable political power to do evil things—Hillary Clinton used her position as Secretary of State to help establish AFRICOM, a political operation meant to increase U.S. military presence in Africa and tap into its natural resources, while Kamala Harris has a ghastly record of mass incarceration. They’ve reached the same playing field as men, yet women are no more liberated than before. Clinton and Harris, and other women in the PMC class, might have to deal with interpersonal sexism, but systemically and materially, they are not oppressed by any means. Liberal feminists have gladly accepted capitalism as a channel for emancipation, and while that’s worked out for them, it’s only further oppressed women (and men) who are undocumented, imprisoned, or forced to work in low-paying, exploitative conditions. The modern feminist movement has made great strides for managerial women, but it’s time they start rejecting capitalism and fight for workers.