by Leio Koga //
Capitalism is defined as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
But do you know what capitalism also is? It is a global system of oppression. It is a system that is amplified by the patriarchy. It is a system that actively works to devalue the contributions of women, especially women of color, and under-represented communities.
Women are especially urged to be dressed up but not glammed up, sexy but not slutty, youthful but not plastic, whereas men are naturally allowed to just be. Social media and the marketing industry inevitably create these unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards but do so in a way that makes us feel inadequate and leads us to vie for the product that will magically change our appearance.
Many companies use our physical appearance as a source of identity, value, and power and market it under the guise of “women’s empowerment,” when in reality the message is focused on reaping profits. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, Kellogg’s “What will you gain when you lose” campaign, Tesco’s razor blades costing twice as much for women as they do for men, Cover Girl’s “your personality needs layers, your face doesn’t” message are just some examples of problematic marketing strategies using “feminist buzz words” as a way to attract more customers. This perpetuates an exploitative cycle, passing down a harmful message to younger generations. Instead of targeting our physical insecurities, companies should be directing their resources to tackle systemic issues such as the gender pay gap, reproductive healthcare rights, access to higher education, workplace discrimination, and human trafficking.
In capitalist marketing, the easiest way to sell a product is to exploit the vulnerable: “This part of you is broken, but don’t worry, our product can fix it!” For example, companies target body hair as something that women should be ashamed of and get rid of immediately. In 1915, there were a burst of advertisements using the tagline, “an assault on the underarm” to spread the message that women with underarm hair were unfeminine and that the area must be shaved to look “as smooth as the face.” Following these, there was another explosion of advertisements claiming that women should shave their legs, calling women with leg hair “disturbing.”
Intersectional feminism strives to always advocate for the well-being of everyone and champions the needs and rights of all: of the poor and working-class women, of racialized and migrant women, of queer, trans, and disabled women, of women encouraged to see themselves as women, of women encouraged to see themselves as middle class even as capital exploits them. But this feminism is not just limited to women’s issues. It also stands up for those who are exploited, dominated, and oppressed around the world. So, can we imagine a world where the liberation of all women exists under a capitalist system?
Patriarchy in the economic form may be summarized as “the collective exploitation of the female sex by the male sex, and the exploitation of the female sex by ruling-class men for the ruling class’s economic and social benefit”. Let’s break down this definition to further understand the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy. Under a capitalist system, women are overexploited in their household and in the workplace. While more women are entering the workforce, bearing fewer children than they were a century ago, and engaged in wage labour, they are still expected to carry out domestic responsibilities. With the increase in women in the workforce, people may think that this is a sign of a decline in patriarchal influence on our economic system. However, taking a closer look at the trends of societal expectation and women’s roles in the economy shows that there is simply a shift from a family-centered exploitation of women to an industrial-centered exploitation of women.
Thanks to feminism, there is a clear separation between household chores and family responsibilities in terms of a social order based on the distributive tasks of men and women, which holds that women are supposed to devote themselves to the domestic sphere of work. This distribution has wrongly established that there is a hierarchy of tasks where “masculine” ones are valued higher than the “feminine” ones. In reality, there has never been a sense of equality because women have almost always performed within the labor force as well as the household.
Another issue is that oppression is a necessary catalyst to the capitalist system. The truth is that capitalism is an inherently exploitative system which means that someone will always be exploited. Capitalism demands an aggressive mode of production that permeates into all aspects of society. It allows for the profiteering of cheap female labor, child labor, migrant labor, and the manipulation of marginalized groups. Since the beginning of capitalism, its quest for the maximization of profits has relied on undermining these marginalized groups.
This is not to say that not a single woman has benefited from capitalism. As established, capitalism works in a way where people benefit at the expense of others. Women who are positioned at the highest levels of the production and supply chain naturally bear greater bargaining power, higher wages, and overall economic freedom. However, the vast majority of women face barriers that relegate them to the bottom levels of the supply chain, where they hold the least power. Capitalism depends on its system of structural oppression —racism, sexism, ableism, casteism— to uphold and normalize unequal power structures.
The 2020 edition of the United Nations report commented on the current state of gender equality around the world: “women are disproportionately being affected by economic oppression through forced labour, meagre wages, triple burden of work, lack of access to resources and opportunities. As feminists, amidst this political turmoil, we cannot be naive to believe that capitalist institutions will reimagine their oppressive structures. Instead, they will only work to strengthen their means”. It has become clear that our economic system permeates into all areas of our life, from day-to-day work up to the national level, where governmental institutions continue to permit flagrant inequities.
Using an intersectionalist feminist lens, one can dissect many of the ways capitalism perpetuates an unequal society. This article is just a brief introduction to the complexities of feminist theory and for those who want to educate themselves more on the topic, there are dozens of scholarly articles published that discuss, in great detail, the intersection between capitalism and feminism. To start, here are some resources.
Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattachartya, and Nancy Fraser
Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate by Ann E. cudd and Nancy Holmstrom
Power and Feminist Agency in Capitalism: Toward a New Theory of the Political Subject by Claudia Leeb
The Liberation of Women: A Study of Patriarchy and Capitalism by Roberta Hamilton
“Colonizing Black Female Bodies Within Patriarchal Capitalism: Feminist and Human Rights Perspectives” by Akeia A. F. Bernard
“Capitalism and Freedom– For Whom Feminist Legal Theory and Progressive Corporate Law” by Kellye Y. Testy
“Capitalism and the (il)Logics of Higher Education’s COVID-19 Response: A Black Feminist Critique” by Terah J. Stewart
“The Sexual Division of Labor, Sexuality, and Lesbian/Gay Liberation: Toward a Marxist-Feminist Analysis of Sexuality in US Capitalism” by Julie Mattaei