In thinking about what a feminist utopia is, Frigga Haug states “Feminism is far too diverse and utopian thinking far too disputed, to allow for this.” In an essay titled, ‘On the necessity of conceiving the utopian in a feminist fashion’ published in the Socialist Register (2000), Haug argues for a new way to think about utopia all together, one that has elements of the current and the “real” but has a substantially different set of social relations through which people would live and organize themselves.
“the sexes are collective actors that must consensually negotiate a new social contract.”
In her proposed utopia, both genders would agree upon a division of labor in respect to the home, the workplace and the government.This society would also organize itself according to a political ideology that is not capitalism, a system that Haug points out has patriarchal basis. At this point, a large scale rethinking of how societies might organize themselves might begin to sound repetitive. But what is particularly interesting about Haug’s take on utopia is her argument for how capitalism is an untenable system, both as a means of production and trade and as a means of organizing labor division between genders. Her argument suggests that the politics and problems of gender relations aren’t isolated on their own, but have a direct relationship to other social, political and ecological problems brought forth by the system in place. In doing so, Haug argues that the present makes a poor basis for imagining what a feminist utopia might be, for the present is already inevitably entrenched in a patriarchal capitalist system.
“I have tried as a teacher to encourage students to envision their own utopias. The result: the wishes that they expressed went no further than hoping that the most urgent problems of their everyday lives could be solved. Kindergartens, a functioning and inexpensive public transportation system, enough affordable apartments – it is as if, in the absence of social democracy for over a decade, social democratic reforms have taken the place of utopias.”
Gender & the Political
Haug argues that socialism gives us a framework to think about a system of organization and policy that also accounts for social relationships as opposed to capitalist system that is geared towards mechanical efficiency and profits. Although, it would be important to mention that she does differentiate between the ideals of socialism and the socialism that ‘actually existed’.
Although Haug doesn’t surface direct evidence of this, it is no secret that a capitalist system has directly led to a variety of issues concerning the sustainability of life. Of course, this is an oversimplification of things. Since the market seems to be the only instrument that has gained acceptance for regulating global society, capitalism has become the norm. This has come at a cost to the environment and has skewed labor division in society. Haug states, “The dream of a humankind that is loving, that acts in solidarity with one another, and that is creative and sensual, disappears in the effective fulfilment of the necessary.” She argues that the reclamation of this dream cannot be achieved through reproducing these structures.
However, portraying gender inequality purely as a capitalist consequence is not sufficient. Culture and religion have been pervasive forces in determining ’traditional’ roles throughout the world. Growing up in India (admittedly distant since RISD), I have been part of a society where inequality within gender isn’t purely an economic and ideological consequence. It is influenced by fanatic and dogmatic tradition and a deep rejection of western ideas. The recent controversy around the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ is just further evidence of this.
India is slowly and painfully responding to a long history of female oppression but this process, albeit necessary, is very far from the utopia that Haug envisioned.
That being said, I question an overturning of capitalism to be the sole answer towards resolving gender inequality and achieving genuine equality. Haug’s utopia rejects the past and tradition, while true equality can perhaps only be achieved by reconciling the oppression of the past with the desire for a utopian future.
Gender & the Industry
A more direct relationship between capitalist practice and gender inequality can be seen through the industrialization of the home and the portrayal of home-making activities as an activity foreign to the man’s primary activity, which was to think about profit. This explicit classification of labor was evident in the products being sold at the time. Through the vehicle of advertising and product design, it was possible for the capitalist system to enforce roles for gender. The house and the office became segregated spaces where women and men would ‘work’. Since 1995, the status of women and girls has improved, but a deeper look into the data shows…
It would be incorrect to suggest that this has changed today. The highest centers of economic activity in the country still remain very much male dominated. The representation of women in Silicon Valley (the latest gold rush) is a testament to this. While discrimination may have left the confines of the home, it has taken on a new form in the workplace, and is reinforced by a tradition of patriarchal corporate culture. The Ellen Pao trial: What do we mean by discrimination?
What remains to be seen is the influence of a technological platform on gender relations in the workplace. Personally, I think it’s too soon to herald initiatives like Girls Who Code has the harbingers of gender equality to the workplace, but education always seems like its a step in the right direction. There is a lot of potential for technology to serve as the platform for equality. Either as a tool that can be wielded effectively by any gender, or as an apolitical moderator that ensures ‘fairness’ despite differences.
Thoughts on Design
By establishing gender inequality as an economic and political issue, we can think about the role of design within the right scope. Design is one of many actors responsible for creating the condition we have today. Design enforced stereotypical representations of women in culture and commerce. In order to meaningfully affect change in gender inequality, design would have to change the relationship of material objects to the sexes. This task is inherently utopian, as it is grand in its ambition and assumes iteration undertaken by this generation and future generations to come. In a society with non commercial priorities, the client designer relationship would cease to exist as we know it. Maybe design will only exist in an academic context.
I also must acknowledge that I’m not an expert on any of the issues I talked about here. I definitely don’t have the answers. I even worry about my capacity to represent this issue on this blog. Reading this in this context was interesting. In closing, I wanted to quote Frigga Haug, whose claim is undeniable:
“What we now need is another division of power and labour that must negotiate another vision of society, set new priorities and situate the genders in a different way. It seems to me indisputable that men must take part in attaining this different goal. This would be just the beginning of a humane society”