‘New feminism’ in the Age of Trump

Like many people across the U.S., Canada, and around the world, I awoke on November 9, 2016, with a deep sense of sorrow, anger and disbelief.  As a Canadian, Trump was not my President Elect; yet somehow his election hit close to home.  That morning, I struggled to turn my attention to my main task for the day:

to deliver a lunchtime lecture entitled ‘‘Imagining a Global Ethic of Care: Towards a New Humanitarianism’. I had been invited back in September to deliver this lecture at my university’s campus Art Gallery; the idea was that my own research would offer a complement to one of the current exhibitions – one which delivered a powerful critique of contemporary global political and socio-economic logics through striking visual art pieces. I was, of course, prepared for the lecture; I was ready to speak with confidence and conviction about a global ethic of care as an alternative to the dominant liberal-cosmopolitan approaches to humanitarianism and global politics. But on that grey morning, as I looked down at my lecture notes, eyes brimming, I was not sure I could do it.

How could I say even a word against liberal cosmopolitanism on a day when the world was forced to confront a new U.S. president who was so brazenly authoritarian and nationalist, even fascist? How could I espouse the ‘new’ feminism of care ethics, when in one day the U.S. seemed to have regressed so far that the basic rights and dignity of women were now under threat? How could I urge listeners to be ‘modest’ and even ‘uncertain’ in their moral judgement, at a time when what was wrong – if not what was right – seemed to blatantly obvious? Surely what I needed to say was ‘come back liberalism; all is forgiven’.

Now that there has been time for reflection – in the month and a half that has now passed since the election – I realize that the need to listen to the voice of care is even more, rather than less important in the era of Trump. More than ever now, we hear the world described in dichotomous, competitive terms – conservative and liberal; internationalist vs. isolationist; elitist vs. populist; white vs. black; us vs. them. Liberalism is now vigorously defended as the antitidote to a world of Trump and Brexit. Certainly, many of the core values of liberalism – including the powerful idea of human rights – are so important right now; but this cannot erase the fact that the global politics of liberalism, especially since the beginning of modern colonialism, has blood on its hands.

With the dawn of the post-1989 world order, liberal internationalism, hand in hand with neo-liberalism, was celebrated as the ‘New World Order’. What looked like war was now called ‘humanitarian intervention’, and development was now about ‘smart economics’ and, especially, ‘investing’ in women and girls for ‘more effective development outcomes’ (Chant and Sweetman 2012: 518). The lines between ‘security’ and ‘development’ were blurred in a manner that forced us to accept that there was ‘no viable form of emancipatory politics except that which takes place within the basic liberal model (Brown, 1999: 51).

But this kind of liberalism left misery in its wake; international financial institutions relentlessly pursued policies of ‘structural adjustment’, scaling back welfare provisions for health and education in the name of economic growth. While a tiny fraction of the world’s people became obscenely wealthy, while most of humanity was tossed into the ‘perfect storm’ of increased workload, lower wages, reduced work security, few or no options for adequate or affordable childcare, and often non-existent family and medical leave accommodations. ‘Care’ became a dirty word, as it smacked of ‘dependence’ and ‘vulnerability’ – qualities to be derided, hidden, denied, or overcome autonomously.

Liberalism has always had its ‘others’, on both the left and the right. But care ethics is not a dichotomous ‘other’ to liberalism, nor indeed to the bizarre brand of anti-democratic, hate-inducing isolationism that Trump seems to embody. Rather, it tells a different story about what it means to be human, and to live with others. We are all in this story, although we may not recognize ourselves. The ethics of care did not emerge out of the mind of a philosopher; rather, the practices of care were observed when women did what they do every day, and then the voice of care was heard when they talked about it. Of course, this voice and these practices were there all along; but to actually see and hear care, it required a sense of disquiet – a feeling on the part of a handful of women scholars that something was not right, or at least not complete, in our dominant accounts of the nature of morality and moral development.

As first described by the early research and writing of Carol Gilligan and Sara Ruddick (and then developed by many other feminist thinkers), this different ‘voice’ of morality saw people not as ‘standing alone’, but as gaining their selfhood through their relations with others. Self and other are different but connected rather than separate and opposed (Gilligan 1993 : 147). Morality, on this view, was about responding to the needs of others in ways that are characterized by attentive listening, patience, and understanding. Universal moral principles of right – so rational, clean and appealing – give way here to the messy, relentless juggling act of navigating complex moral dilemmas and balancing the competing needs of real, embodied others. This means constant re-evaluation of beliefs and reflexivity regarding our own claims to knowledge.

Today, in the dark winter of 2016, an ethic of care can offer a way to think about our relations with others as well as providing a focus around which to organize our households, communities and wider societies. Contrary to widespread perception, an ethic of care is not a sentimental notion; it is not the ‘love’ that Van Jones suggests will ultimately conquer Trump. But while I am not convinced by Jones’ ‘love army’, I think he is right when he says that ‘it’s at the values level that we need to do a reset’ (Dickinson 2016). To value the activities and practices of care is to resist both Trumpian authoritarianism and neoliberal possessive individualism. Indeed, it is to value ourselves. Giving and receiving care is the most basic, and most important thing we humans do. When we are obstructed from caring – because we lack the time or the resources, or because norms of masculinity tell us that it is not ‘men’s work’ –we lose a bit of our humanity. When we deride the labour of care – by not paying for it, by loading it on women (especially poor women of colour) we lose even more.

In 2011, Carol Gilligan wrote another book. It is called Joining the Resistance (Gilligan 2011). Even five short years ago, she could never have predicted what was to come to pass in the year 2016. But her words seem particularly apt today:

… the capacity for empathy, mind-reading and collaboration distinguishes us not as women and men but as humans. Within ourselves we have the resources we need. However adverse the political climate, however bad the weather, they accumulate inside where nobody can take them away from us. … The time to act is now (Gilligan 2011: 180).

Works Cited

Brown, C. (1999) ‘History Ends, Worlds Collide’, Review of International Studies 25(5): 41-58.

Chant, Sylvia and Caroline Sweetman (2012) ‘Fixing Women or Fixing the World? Smart Economics’, Efficiency Approaches and Gender Equality in Development. Gender and Development 20(3): 517-29.

Dickinson, T (2016) Van Jones: Only a ‘Love Army’ Will Conquer Trump, Rolling Stone, December 6th. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/van-jones-only-a-love-army-will-conquer-trump-w454026

Gilligan, C. (1993) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (2011) Joining the Resistance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

About the author: Fiona Robinson

Fiona Robinson

Fiona Robinson,
Professor, Department of Political Science
Carleton University, Ottawa, CANADA