Here is one picture of feminism and women’s experience in the contemporary United States: women advancing up the ladder in professions, public administration and management; making steady inroads into political office; changing attitudes and cultural images; winning legislation against discriminatory practices in education and employment; feminist scholarship transforming academic disciplines; local and national women’s organizations effectively defending many different women’s interests.

Here is another: deteriorating conditions in women’s lives; enduring male domination in the home and outside it. Violence against women persists, perhaps is even increasing; sado-masochistic representations of heterosexuality are more widespread than ever; increasing numbers of women are impoverished; occupational sex-segregation continues; previous gains, like abortion rights and affirmative action, are under attack.

Both pictures are true. What then can we conclude about the future? Can feminism be rebuilt as a mass movement? Are the recent mobilizations in defence of abortion rights the beginning of a third wave? Or are they an exception, the echo of past militancy in a backlash era? Will the fate of second-wave feminism be the same as the first: almost from the moment of greatest victory—winning the vote in 1920—feminism was politically marginalized over four long decades. One way to understand what has happened to feminism and to assess strategic possibilities is to locate ourselves in the frame of a broader historic transformation of the gender order and the political economy of us capitalism.footnote1 This transition is very like that of the 1920s, when previous decades of capitalist restructuring and political conflict congealed in a new cultural and social order which selectively incorporated feminist aspirations, while undermining the social base of feminist organization. It was left to the second wave of feminism to complete the central political project of the first wave: to attack and dismantle the web of discriminatory laws and exclusionary social norms which reproduced women’s subordination in family, economic and political life. This was the second wave’s historic victory and its enduring legacy. Moreover, unlike the 1920s, in our time feminist organization has been institutionalized, not marginalized. And while there is no longer a radical, grassroots movement, it is still possible to mobilize women, particularly around issues of discrimination or violation of individual rights. In 1992, three-quarters of a million marched in Washington to demonstrate support for abortion rights. Thousands of women met in protest against the Senate’s disregard of Anita Hill’s testimony about her sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas.footnote2

It is clear that we are living through a period of capitalist restructuring on a world scale which has both accelerated the unraveling of the old gender order (for instance, through the disappearance of ‘family wage’ jobs for men) and exposed the limits of the liberal feminist project. While the gains of the second wave are still hotly contested by a reactionary Right bent on restoring the old patriarchal system, over the 1980s feminist demands for equality have been increasingly institutionalized and culturally incorporated as women’s right to compete and contract free from limitations imposed on account of our sex. Assumptions about natural gender differences in intellect, character or capacities have been widely challenged. Yet within the context of a rapidly restructuring economy and the (related) political collapse of welfare-state liberalism, the emerging gender order has brought new hardships as much as new freedoms to the majority of women. Increasing autonomy is matched by increasing economic insecurity; economic independence is purchased at the cost of doing a double day; greater personal freedom is accompanied by a frightening vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

The dilemmas facing women in the new gender order for the most part cannot be resolved through expanding anti-discrimination legislation and enforcement, no matter how broadly sex discrimination is defined. Required solutions—a significant redistribution of wealth, reordered priorities in and expansion of government spending and increased regulation of employer practices—directly threaten powerful capitalist interests. Feminist organizations, despite their success in defending and extending the accomplishments of the second wave, have here been frustrated at almost every turn. Second-wave feminism has come up against a deep impasse that stretches across us politics, rooted in the decline of working-class organization in the face of the employers’ offensive and the increasing centralization and mobility of capital.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was possible for feminism to make gains alongside a trade unionism that was for the most part bureaucratic and demobilized. Today feminism’s fate is tied to the fate of trade unionism and other forms of collective resistance to corporate capital. But the organizations for mobilizing such resistance are weaker than ever before. Falling profits and competitive demands in an internationalizing economy have generated capitalist attacks on working people and their institutions. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has no strategy for or interest in confronting corporate capital, and faces no pressure from below that might even push it in that direction. Feminist organizations, along with the other interest groups—trade unions, civil rights organizations, environmental and peace groups—have tended to rely on building relationships with the Democrats in order to wrest concessions from the state. Now they find themselves tied to a party abjectly capitulating to capital. And they are powerless to stop the attack on working-class standards of living and the rollback of pro-working-class state interventions demanded by corporate capital in order to protect profit in an intensely competitive global economy.footnote3 Working-class women and communities of color have born the brunt of this assault. The solution to the political impasse facing feminism cannot come from feminists alone. It will require a serious and disruptive challenge to capital, a broad and militant ‘rainbow movement’, including new, more social and political forms of trade-union struggle and national political organization independent of the Democratic Party.

From the founding of the Republic, women’s subordination (like pre-capitalist exploitation) was organized through explicit constraints legitimated by an ideology of inherent gender differences in talents and capacities. Women’s assignment to the care of dependent individuals within the private household and their exclusion from public life were reproduced actively and directly by various exclusionary rules and practices (governing education, political participation and the labour market) as well as marriage and property law and legalized male violence against women. The historic victory of first-wave feminism was to make women citizens. The historic victory of the second wave has been to make women fully free sellers of our own labour-power, by substantially dismantling the legal and normative edifice which had mandated women’s subservience in marriage, denied us rights in our bodies and reproductive capacity, and legitimated our economic marginalization. This victory has helped to force a reorganization of the gender order—materially, culturally, politically. In the emerging gender order, women’s subordination continues to rest on a gender division of labour, but one that is reproduced (like the exploitation of wage labour) ‘behind the backs’ of women through an ostensibly gender-neutral system of contractual relationships—in education and employment, in sexual intimacy, in household formation. Women are more free to negotiate their relationships and responsibilities with employers and with men. And some, indeed a significant stratum of affluent, well-educated women, strike relatively good bargains. On the other hand, most women negotiate from a one-down position.