What Is Mainstream Feminism?
As the name suggests, ‘Mainstream Feminism’ is the brand of feminism that is most well-known (mainstream) in Western society. Since the second wave, liberal feminism has taken centre stage in discussions about gender equality.
This form of feminism focuses (almost exclusively) on politics and economics. Liberal feminists advocate economic equality and pragmatic legislative change for women.
Liberal feminism is a term that has been heard by most and, ironically, antagonises both the right and far-left wings of the political spectrum. However, for very different reasons.
Political Support for Mainstream Feminism
For the right-wing, hearing the word ‘feminist’ is enough to start a screaming match. In fact, considering the raging misogyny you’ll likely find the very first syllable (‘femme’) is enough to set them off. On the left wing, there is a spectrum of acceptance and advocacy when it comes to liberal feminism.
In the centre-left of the political spectrum, there is heavy support for liberal feminism. This comes from both the men and women of this area. However, as you go further left (towards leftism and far-left ideologies) the advocacy for liberal feminism begins to rightfully decrease. Liberal feminism has gained a lot of popularity among the white and middle-class community, which includes men (to a certain extent). But the span of its aims, to support and empower women, do not extend further to women of other social circles.
Lack of Intersectionality in Mainstream Feminism
One of the main critiques of mainstream feminism is its lack of intersectionality. Intersectionality is such an important and significant topic that needs to be brought into every discussion about equality. We need to be paying attention to the fact that there are multiple systems of oppression that form strict social hierarchies and these systems are not mutually exclusive. White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and all other social hierarchies can’t simply be separated and tackled independently.
Even worse: mainstream feminism doesn’t pay attention to any of these systems at all – including the patriarchy!
People’s identities aren’t singular. For many people, there isn’t one single system that is the root cause of their issues. People’s identities overlap. I am a black woman. Neither racism nor sexism is exclusively to blame for my oppression. They amplify each other to provide me with an experience that neither white women nor black men could understand. The same goes for transwomen, disabled women, queer women, Muslim women, women in poverty, queer Muslim women, disabled women in poverty, and so on…
There are multiple systems that intertwine and worsen the experiences of women. The manifestations and examples can change depending on the contributing aspects of a woman’s identity. For example, Muslim women in France are facing a hijab ban, which would stop them from practising and expressing their faith and culture. In another example, black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women.
There is the added fact that mainstream feminism is an entirely western concept. Genuine feminist activism can be seen all over the world with women advocating and attempting to communicate the structural issues of their region, nation or culture. There are extreme anti-woman practices rampant in low-income countries (such as femicide, female genital mutilation, trafficking, forced marriage and more) that provide much worse and much more dangerous conditions for those women.
It’s glaringly obvious that liberal feminism was definitely not initially designed with ALL women in mind. Today’s mainstream feminism doesn’t take into account the intersecting issues revolving around race, class, ability, region, political state, or even gender.
“White feminism” focuses exclusively on the struggles and adversities of white women. White feminism isn’t only followed by white women. Some women of colour also buy into this idea because this is what we’re taught as children. We tend to focus on the gender pay gap in major industries and the lack of women in politics. While these are important issues, they clearly lack an intersectional lens that considers the different experiences of other women.
Mainstream feminism presents the idea that sex-based discrimination is the only issue facing women. This encourages us to believe that there is only one experience of ‘woman’. It’s very clear which type of woman this experience applies to. She is white. She is private-school educated. She usually meets beauty standards. She is cisgender. She is definitely heterosexual. She is financially stable. She is well-spoken and firm but obviously not loud and b*tchy. She has absolutely no disabilities (visible or invisible). She wants to be a CEO. She wears pantsuits to work.
This image is the image of one woman. This is a woman of extreme privilege. Her experience is not in any way going to communicate the adversities that face other women. Her experience shows only one battle. This image does not account for the added oppression of lower-class women or black women or transwomen, who’s experiences with gender inequality are multi-layered.
Mainstream feminism only accounts for the singular experience of one woman – a woman of privilege.
Sustaining Systems of Oppression
If we look into the aims of mainstream feminism, there is a sole focus on “empowerment”. Empowering women and making women feel like they can take on anything. To be honest… it’s bullsh*t.
Liberal feminism speaks directly to the power centres of society. They advocate legislative change and the political representation of women.
The fight for “gender equality” by mainstream feminists is so inherently flawed that it’s not actually possible at all. Mikki Kendall, the author of Hood Feminism, explains how “they [mainstream feminists] have chosen to take a seat at the table instead of trying to build new ones”. They claim that women should be CEOs and that more women should join the military. They ignore the fact that these institutions are responsible for death, abuse, exploitation, rape, subjugation and oppression all over the world.
“They [mainstream feminists] have chosen to take a seat at the table instead of trying to build new ones”.Mikki Kendall
Mainstream feminism claims that “women can do everything that men can do” and that “women just want equality” – well, they can speak for themselves. The future for women is liberation from oppressive systems. We can talk about equality after that.
We should not be attempting to sustain and perpetuate the same systems of oppression that have worked against women for thousands of years…
Women can’t do everything that men can do. We shouldn’t want to. When people claim that “women can do everything men can do”, they idealise the system that provides men with the primary power to rape, murder, abuse and exploit others.
They idealise a system where 99% of rapists are men and 97% of those rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell (source). They idealise a system where 97% of women have been sexually assaulted or harassed and 96% did not report it at all (source). Mainstream feminism ignores the fact that the oppression of women is a structural issue. We will never be free if we continue to operate under these same structures.
Getting a high-paying job or joining the military or running faster than all the boys in school is never going to solve the problem.
To think about it realistically, there can be no such thing as the ‘equality of the sexes’. For this to be possible, there would need to be an entire reversal of gender roles and some sort of inverted social structure where women oppress men sexually, economically, politically, socially and culturally for centuries. Men would need to go through everything women have been through for them to truly understand our perspective. For the experiences to match, this oppression would need to look the exact same as it does with patriarchy. This involves violent and aggressive control over personal autonomy, political autonomy and economic status.
Additionally, in the spirit of true equality and abiding by the rules of intersectionality, the conditions for men would need to be the same as conditions currently are for women. There would still need to be classism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and more that all contribute to the anti-femininity, anti-woman sentiment in global society.
Why Is Mainstream Feminism so Popular?
So, how did it get to be so popular? Why did this type of feminism become mainstream? And why does it continue to do so well spreading its message?
There are several significant factors contributing to the popularity of mainstream feminism. One is the fact that mainstream feminism actually promotes oppressive structures to a wider audience. Mainstream feminism is designed to engage women in the current systems of oppression. The “empowerment” comes from being active – by working, achieving and essentially fuelling these systems of oppression (capitalism especially). By doing this, capitalism and white supremacy can appeal to a wider audience while masked in pro-woman activism.
Mainstream feminism also commercialises activism for women’s liberation. Mainstream feminism focuses closely on the economic inequality between males and females and promotes the economic value of women. This provides economic value to high-income nations and the dominant globally oppressive structures. While it’s extremely important that women have their own economic stability, it’s even more important to consider the multi-layered oppressive conditions for women who are negatively impacted by classism. These social and economic systems have rendered women economically reliant on men (our oppressors) so we shouldn’t be trying to work with them.
The whole ‘Girlboss’ feminism idea didn’t gain popularity until the 2010s. In the 2010s there was a major spike in support for Girlboss feminism. More importantly, there was much more advertising and promotion of the #Girlboss image by major corporations and organisations. This came just months after the economic crash and Great Recession of 2008 that shook the entire world. All of a sudden, women were being encouraged by multinational corporations to be financially stable, to be rich, to work hard, to be a #Girlboss. The Girlboss image was basically just capitalist propaganda that encouraged middle-class white women to enter the workforce after one of the biggest recessions the world has seen.
Mikki Kendall describes the privilege of wealthy women and women with financial stability. All forms of oppression will manifest economically be exploited for capital gain. This is because the economic system of the world (capitalism) is designed to thrive on inequality, polarity and unfairness. Mainstream feminism proudly ignores this and further commercialises itself for western consumption, whilst doing absolutely nothing for women of colour, women in other regions/cultures, Muslim women, disabled women, transwomen, lesbians, women in poverty and queer women.