A letterboard reads "The Future is Female" against a pink background

By: Nick Santangelo

In 2018, it's more socially acceptable than ever before to self-identify as a feminist. But while doing so emits cheers or showings of support from many corners, it still elicits blowback from others. Feminism has come a long way, but it still has a ways to go. What's more, the movement has many forms, some of which seemingly clash with one another.

To make sense of all this, University of Nottingham Associate Professor Catherine Rottenberg recently visited the Center for the Humanities at Temple University (CHAT). Rottenberg was visiting as a guest of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. She came prepared to engage students about her latest book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism. The findings she shared outlined the tenants of neoliberal feminism and contrasted them with progressive feminism.

Neoliberal feminism, explained Rottenberg, came to prominence thanks in no small part to opinions espoused in books by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump. Rottenberg first began untangling connections between neoliberalism and feminism before those works were published, during the years Barack Obama was in office. However, she believes the ties have strengthened since 2017.

"All of the sudden, public and high-profile women were coming out as feminists," Rottenberg told College of Liberal Arts (CLA) students.

Celebrities in particular began identifying themselves as feminists in large numbers. That ensured that "today the f-word is everywhere," said Rottenberg. In recent years, she noticed feminism being namedropped in popular books and media throughout the U.S. and U.K. As a result, the word has now been defanged some—though certainly not entirely.

Returning to neoliberalism's role in all of this, Rottenberg said she understands neoliberalism to be more than a set of policies or an economic system meant to intensify privatization and deregulation. She sees it as recasting the individual into the role of entrepreneur, an agent for enhancing capital. In this worldview, every element of the individual is reduced to a capitalist market metric.

Public and high-profile women were coming out as feminists

It's a theme the professor found to exist in Trump's Women Who Work. The book was heavily criticized by the media, and Rottenberg agreed with many of the criticisms. However, she also found it to contain a key message. Women should work on improving all facets of their life: their careers, relationships, families, friendships, hobbies, passions, etc. This causes them to change how they view themselves.

"The self becomes indistinguishable from a business," said Rottenberg.

photo of Catherine Rottenberg presenting to audience

Under a more liberal form of feminism, there is a separation between the private and public self. Not so in neoliberal feminism, which tells women that finding hobbies, making friends and raising a family are things that are done not for their intrinsic values. They're done because they can forward the woman's growth as a business. Even motherhood is strictly managed to create planned "memorable moments" while family goals and date nights with spouses are scheduled and tracked.

In this way, argued Rottenberg, women are being told to internalize the revolution, propping up neoliberalism. But the professor believes structural obstacles to women's success still loom large, even if Women Who Work spends only one page out of 212 discussing them. And Trump isn't alone in framing things in such a manner. Rottenberg said Megyn Kelly's Settle for More and Anne-Marie Slaughter's Unfinished Business tout similar ideologies.

But it's not all bad in Rottenberg's view. She remains "a little bit more hopeful today" about feminism than she has in years past. And she noted that "neoliberal feminism has also, and perhaps paradoxically, helped to pave the way for more militaristic feminist movements."

A student asked Rottenberg to clarify where these feelings of hope were coming from given all that she presented. How can the neoliberal splinter of feminism really further the movement?

"It has become a threat in certain ways," concluded Rottenberg, "so we have to incorporate that threatening momentum and continue to reorient feminism."