Revolution from Within: The Interiorization of Feminist Self-Help by Michaele Ferguson
March 14, 2014 at 12:30–1:30 pm[1h]
Old Main 05
Speaker: Michaele Ferguson, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Colorado-Boulder
Mainstream feminism in the US has undergone a shift from radical structural analysis of gendered oppression in the 1970s, to a neoliberal model of individual responsibility for gender inequality today. In this paper, I trace this shift in terms of changing practices of self-help within the US feminist movement. I read Gloria Steinem's 1993 Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem as a pivotal text signaling this shift in feminism from a political movement oriented towards identifying and redressing structural causes of gendered oppression, to a comparatively inner-directed movement promoting individual self-help and the empowerment of individual women. I supplement this reading of Steinem with historical accounts of shifting conceptions of self-help in feminism. In the 1970s, feminist self-help was distinctively collective: feminists organized women's shelters to address domestic violence, they trained one another to provide abortions and reproductive care, and Steinem herself was involved in the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which in 1971 published Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book designed to disseminate women's health care information. While in the 1970s feminists were actively engaged in building institutions to collectively address structural problems, today self-help has a much more individual resonance: mainstream feminist organizations instead encourage individual self-transformation, the empowerment of individual women to make their own health care decisions, and (in the case of Baumgardner and Richards' Manifesta - 2000) an individualized account of feminism that each woman can define however she wishes. I call this shift away from radicalism a neoliberalization of feminism. Drawing on Foucault's account of genealogy, I argue that we can trace this neoliberalization to a variety of influences in American culture since the 1970s: the self-help movement, the therapeutic turn in the 80s, and a fear of political disagreement that is particularly noticeable in Steinem's work.
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