September 2011

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

The Future of Feminism by Sylvia Walby

"Feminism is not dead," Sylvia Walby declares in the beginning of The Future of Feminism, a slim, potent text that seems destined for the type of survey course that drives David Horowitz mad. Walby's book, an even-eyed graph of feminism in its current state along with a few vague equations for its future, is less incendiary than its opening line suggests, but just as clear and concise. If The Future of Feminism is not the most exciting text ever to be assigned, it may be one of the more rewarding ones. 

The book begins with the welcome assertion that not only is feminism not dead, it's alive and kicking. Too often a movement founded on critique can fall victim to its own critical training, picking apart its victories until they feel like defeats or iron-manning its opponents to the point that movement never appears as progress. 

Walby will have none of this. She has the estimable ability to give credit where credit is due while never diminishing any remaining efforts, as her gloss on the equalization of trade unions finely illustrates: "Individual trade unions rarely call themselves feminist," she writes, before noting that "the gender composition of trade unions has gradually changed, so that now women make up, on average, half the membership." The result: "Today trade unions are among the most important mass organizations pursuing the feminist goal of equality in pay and conditions of employment." Walby doesn't let the unions off the hook for the gender disparities in their leadership, nor does she indicate that the fight for equal pay and treatment is close to concluded. But such a straightforward chart of the diversification of unions into a force for women's interests is heartening. Feminism, Walby argues, could benefit from occasionally counting its wins. 

As with the unions, Walby is adept at making organizations and governing bodies transparent long enough to spot feminist influence within them. She is surprisingly optimistic about feminism's potential alongside or within governments, arguing that states have been effective in changing the juridical and international definitions of crime and human rights abuses to include violence against women, making the problem more visible and thereby more sensitive to policy responses. If this evolution was largely the result of women's organizations acting outside of, and often in antagonistic relation to, the state, Walby argues that they have so successfully changed the behavior of governing bodies that they can now cooperate with or even join such polities to continue the charge. While she never endorses governing bodies as inherent agents of change, she continually presses for greater alliance with them, and encourages women to advance their interests through elected and appointed posts, a distinct departure from critical theorists who look askance at any cohabitation with power. 

Walby is a professor of sociology and UNESCO Chair of Gender Research at England's Lancaster University, and her focus is strongly European. She invokes the United States only with heavy reluctance, making no bones about her preference for the "social democratic" structure of the EU over the U.S.'s neo-liberalism, which, she reminds us constantly, ended in the 2008 economic collapse. And while her subject is ostensibly feminism, the more she argues for governmental liaisons the more she focuses on the types of governments that best promote such efforts. By the last two chapters, which finally address the future of feminism as opposed to its present, her argument has become one of social democracy over neoliberalism, of Europe's moderated economies over America's cocky capitalism. 

The details of this sea change are scanty; at her most specific, Walby suggests the world more resemble the EU. Set against the backdrop of the current Euro crisis, which may suggest the limits of such confederations, this oracle deserves more precision than it gets. Loss of focus is understandable when a text moves from the palpable present into the fuzzy future, but Walby's arguments had been so pellucid and strong that this late dissolve feels like a letdown. 

This is a minor quibble, as is the fact that everything in Walby's writing appears to have been sheared for the sake of clarity. The Future of Feminism will not win any prose awards, and it does seem time for a reminder that Virginia Woolf penned analytic and polemic texts that were all the stronger for their style. Nonetheless, Walby avoids the opacity of most academic prose, while retaining the force, if not the risibility, of her first line. After seven chapters of lean, practical sentences, The Future of Feminism's opening salvo reads less a declaration of vivacity and instead like a matter-of-fact statement: "Feminism is not dead." Walby does an admirable job of proving this, and feminism's future can only benefit from her efforts. 

The Future of Feminism by Sylvia Walby
Polity
ISBN: 978-0745647579
224 pages