‘Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis’ by Nancy Fraser – Book Review

Date Posted: Thursday 22nd April 2021

Publisher: Verso Books (2013)

Review by Kath Deakin

“Feminist theory tends to follow the zeitgeist.” (Fraser 2013, page 167)

In her 2013 book Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, Professor Nancy Fraser guides us through the twists and turns of feminist movements specific to the United States since the emergence of second wave feminism. Yet her account of the movement will be so chillingly familiar to those located elsewhere in nations in the ‘grips of neo-liberal crisis’.

The book is a dense collection of over 25 years of Nancy’s work, including co-authored pieces. Nancy documents what she sees as the shift from a radical and broad perspective on gender justice over time, to a narrow and market obsessed feminism that has grown hand in hand with damaging neo-liberalism influences in social policy.

Nancy’s writings are divided into three parts, or ‘a drama in three acts’ as she muses, that follow the highs and lows of feminist redress for gender justice. These dense interrelated sections take us on a historic journey: how ‘Feminist theory tends to follow the zeitgeist’.  

In Act One, Nancy sets the scene of feminist insurgency taking on the fundamentals of ‘capitalism’s deep androcentrism’ hand in hand with other radical undercurrents of the new left. However, this is not a blind lament for better times past. Nancy provides us with a close and insightful deconstruction of what she sees as the strengths and missteps in both theorising and policy from this period.

A scene-change for Act Two, and we are witness to what Nancy refers to as a shift in focus from the ‘politics of equality’ to the ‘politics of identity’. Nancy argues that feminist visions narrowed and honed in on notions of ‘recognising difference’ to target androcentrism in cultural practice. In this period Nancy perceives ‘utopian energies began to decline’ as neo-liberalism rises with vigour undermining emphasis on social redistribution. While social advances were made (for some), Nancy argues that ironically neo-liberal repression of broader social egalitarian goals meant that the goals of ‘recognition’ were favoured, but ‘redistribution’ fell out of favour.  

Moving through Nancy’s writing we are also offered a pragmatic path forward in Act Three of this saga. In part three of the book Nancy argues for the need for a reinvigorated feminist radicalism able to address the global economic crisis. Nancy calls for a resurrection of emancipatory goals of redistribution alongside, not in place of, recognition.

Given the density and detail of her writing in truth I feel I am still digesting the work and will continue to for a long time. In reading this book what stays front of mind for me as an early career researcher are the background scenes she describes in Act One.

In this section of writing Nancy asks foundational philosophical questions about the goals of feminist movements and pragmatically, where should we turn our attention and action?

One of the many aspects she explores is the politics of ‘needs identification.’ This relates to how we identify and thus prioritise needs in the public discourse.

In her discussion of needs identification, Nancy unpacks assumptions about identifying need before we rush into the bureaucracy of ‘needs satisfaction.’ In setting this scene she illustrates how the ‘needs’ of different groups can be artificially categorised as belonging to what she conceptualises as domestic, political or economic spheres of society. When a need is located in the latter spheres, Nancy observes that more attention and priority is given to addressing this need. Yet when a need is located in the domestic sphere, it is not often prioritised. This artificial categorisation she argues, can see issues that are often conceptualised as women specific, classed as domestic issues. Until we contest these manufactured and polarising spheres and ‘re-politicise’ issues impacting women, we have limited success in elevating these needs, argues Nancy.

To illustrate this foundational point, she draws on the history of the feminist movement and violence against women in the United States (which she terms ‘wife battery’). This violence was, until recently in the United States, only considered a domestic sphere issue and with its politicisation has shifted in the social conscience into the sphere of political. Once doing so, the ‘needs’ of women battered by their partners became identifiable and prioritised.

So intimate and self-reflective is Nancy’s understanding and critique of the movement (as well as her contribution) that reading her book felt like an insider’s guide to the who’s who in feminist critical social theory. It is a critical and honest reflection on this specific movement through the eyes of someone who has been present and participating. Yet, as history should be, it is also a source of inspiration for ‘what next for feminism’ and a must read for emerging researchers.

Kath Deakin is a PhD Candidate at Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology researching gender equity in Australian financial services.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.