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The Rise (and Fall?) of Neoliberal Feminism

Research Framework: Subjectivity

Anna Reynolds Cooper (Film and Television Studies)

Lecture (open to the public)
9 October 2021, 6-7:30pm PDT

9 October 2021, 11:00am

Gender and Meritocracy +
The Rise (and Fall?) of Neoliberal Feminism


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This lecture is comprised of two 30-minute talks on aspects of neoliberalism and gender.

Jo Littler, “Gender and Meritocracy”

In this session I will explore the relationship between gender, meritocracy, neoliberalism and populist culture. Meritocracy in contemporary parlance broadly involves the idea that if we work hard and activate our talent, we can and should be able to climb up the social ladder to success. The idea has a complex history, with varying historical and social roots; but notably the word first existed on the left as a term of slander, and gradually became appropriated as a right-wing prescription for the common good. In this session I trace how, since the 1980s – the period I term ‘neoliberal meritocracy – the idea of meritocratic achievement has expanded to include those groups who fought for liberation in the 1960s. Women, for instance, have been encouraged to think there is no barrier to success apart from themselves and that hard work alone can liberate them. This talk will analyse what I term such ‘neoliberal justice narratives’ through such figures as the ‘mompreneur’ – the mother who solves her childcare / work crisis by setting up a business whilst her baby sleeps. It considers how such figures have been enlisted by neoliberal meritocracy — rather than a settlement including, for instance, more expansive maternity/paternity leave and employee rights. Finally, it will address the volume of criticism now levelled at meritocracy; its re-tooling by Trump; and the challenges to it by a new generation.

Catherine Rottenberg, “The Rise (and Fall?) of Neoliberal Feminism”

In this talk, I will discuss the emergence and entrenchment of a new variant of feminism—neoliberal feminism—which has become dominant on the Anglo-American cultural landscape in the past decade. This feminism not only disavows the socio-economic and cultural structures shaping our lives but also abandons key feminist terms such as social justice, whilst simultaneously devolving all responsibility for reproduction and care onto the shoulders of individual women. I will also discuss why identifying as a feminist has increasingly become a source of cultural capital for high-profile women: from Hilary Clinton to Ivanka Trump, arguing that neoliberalism may actually need feminism in order to “solve” one of its internal tensions in relation to gender.

Jo Littler +

Jo Littler is Professor of Social Analysis and Cultural Politics and co-Director of the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre at City, University of London. Her book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility (Routledge 2018) is now available open access. Other books include The Care Manifesto with the Care Collective (Verso, 2020), Radical Consumption? Shopping For Change in Contemporary Culture (OUP, 2008). She is an editor of the European Journal of Cultural Studies and part of the editorial collective of Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture. She is currently completing a book of interviews with feminist academics.

Catherine Rottenberg

Catherine Rottenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent books include the co-authored The Care Manifesto (2020) and The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (2018). Her recent projects explore the political potential of the term and praxis of feminist solidarity as well as the possibility of moving beyond a discourse of human rights to a politics of care. She sits on the editorial collective of Feminist Theory.