We Can’t Solve American Women’s Political Problems With Lifestyle Tips

Are we too focused on who does the dishes and who will change the diapers and not enough on making big structural changes?

On Monday—the day after Sweden held elections where the country’s Feminist Initiative political party, with the help of the likes of Pharrell Williams and Abba’s Benny Anderson, won some 3.1% of the vote—the Guardian’s Ellie Mae O’Hagan issued a call for the U.K. to follow suit: “Women of Britain, let’s form our own feminist party.”

Our primary aim—O’Hagan writes—would be to ensure female autonomy: that no women should be economically dependent on men, confined by sexist social norms, and at risk of violence, or have their destinies determined by their sexual organs.

All rather reasonable-sounding, if you ask me, but what’s most striking about this conversation is the near-complete absence of voices echoing this political call-to-arms for women in the United States. (The American professor Christian Christensen did back O’Hagan up, arguing that “Every country needs a political party like Sweden’s Feminist Initiative,” but he’s clearly been infected with the political gender-equality bug by the fact that he lives in Sweden himself.)

I’m actually not going to make that call, either, for probably the same reason other U.S. feminists are avoiding this conversation: It’s never fun when people respond to your suggestions by laughing in your face.

In fact, I agree that is indeed laughable to believe that we in the U.S. (with our 300-million-strong population and two-party system, where some 50 years after The Feminine Mystique we have yet to secure equal-pay legislation or any national provision for paid family leave) could solve all of our gender inequities by simply aping Sweden’s politics (with its 10 million inhabitants and coalition parliamentary system, universal high-quality childcare, and the highest proportion of working mothers in the EU).

But there’s more to these political differences between U.S. and European-style feminism than simple problems of scale and funding of public services.

As an expat, I’ve been watching the rhetoric of U.S. feminism develop from the outside for the past six years. On my reading, the clearer it becomes to feminists that U.S. politics is hopelessly mired in a dysfunctional gridlock, the further we distance ourselves from political activism in general. 

We may still believe that the “personal is political,” that mantra of Second Wave feminism recently re-aired here at Role Reboot, but with a Supreme Court now openly hostile to reproductive rights and a Senate peppered with women who have voted against equal pay for their own gender three times in two years, it’s understandable that we as feminists have turned our attention from politics to something we feel we actually have a bit of control over—our own lives.

The United States is now the global propagator par excellence of “lifestyle feminism,” with its inordinate focus on issues like body image, glorification of maternity, and who’s doing the childcare/breadwinning. In other words, we’re preoccupied with figuring out how to build more equality into our relationships without making the structural changes to our country’s business and political institutions that would palpably increase our autonomy as women.

There are a couple problems with this abandonment of politics in favor of “lifestyle” or relationship feminism. Firstly, for feminist women who go out with men, it enormously complicates the business of building constructive romantic partnerships. Our understandable emphasis on strict relationship equality can, when not paired with an effective political agenda, quickly morph into a hawkish monitoring of romantic power dynamics and undermine the good-faith back-and-forth of interdependency that characterizes any healthy relationship.

(Last week, for instance, the New Republic posted an article on Facebook with a caption wondering how Cosmo could consider itself a feminist publication while still offering women advice on how to “please your man” in bed. They provided no explanation, however, as to how providing sex advice to straight women could in any way hurt the cause of gender equality.)

Furthermore, lifestyle feminism only offers a (semi-)effective substitute for feminist political activism for women who are already relatively protected against the structural failings in the country’s economic and political institutions that keep women vulnerable. Using feminist arguments to convince your husband that he should be doing more childcare, for instance, is an option only available to women with partners in the first place. Families headed by single mothers—a third of which live in poverty—will benefit far less from a cultural push for men to be more active caretakers than from policies that ensure women receive appropriate pay for their hours worked and offer them concrete assistance with their childcare needs.

In short, I won’t go so far as to echo Ellie Mae O’Hagan in calling for U.S. women to organize our own version of Sweden’s Feminist Initiative—I may be politically naïve, but not to that extent. Nevertheless, I do share her belief that before our culture, before our relationships, it’s our politics that we need to change to ensure that women’s interests are represented at the highest—and lowest—levels of American society.

High time, I think, that we acknowledge the futility of our endless domestic spats over who’s doing the diaper-changing and instead start demanding more from the democracy that our politicians love to exalt as the world’s greatest.

Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

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