Nancy Fraser is the Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. She works on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought. Some of her most influential works include Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis and Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. In 2010, she won the Alfred Schutz Prize in Social Philosophy from the American Philosophical Association.
Jo Shaw, Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, recently spent some time with Nancy. Today we feature their discussion of justice, feminism and the concept of the “dangerous woman”.
Jo Shaw (hereafter in bold italics): We’re doing a project for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities in which we’re exploring the question “What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?” What’s your first thought on the expression “dangerous women”? Do you embrace it, or do you perhaps react against it?
Nancy Fraser: Oh, I completely and wholeheartedly embrace it. I think of revolutionary women whom I adore, and I would be thrilled to be called a dangerous woman.
So if you said “I’m a dangerous woman”, what would you be thinking of in terms of your habits, your own approach to life, and the things that you’ve done? What would strike you as being the most obvious things?
I probably wouldn’t call myself a dangerous woman but I would be happy to be thought of by others in that way. And for me it would be for the particular combination of my intellectual work, my philosophical work as a critical theorist, my political commitments, and from time to time my actual engagement in political activism.
Let’s start with your political activism. Perhaps you could unpick what’s been dangerous about it? Is it because it’s disrupted the status quo?
I’d start with a little bit about my history—the classic trajectory of the 1968 generation. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland when it was a Jim Crow racially segregated city. As a teenager, I immediately became involved in the civil rights movement and attended sit-ins aimed at desegregating public accommodations. That disrupted an order that was in place and gave rise to a new order. The new order turned out to be rather imperfect. It didn’t solve every problem. But it certainly represented an advance to get rid of de jure segregation.
Soon after, I followed the path that many people in my generation did and moved onto the anti-Vietnam War movement, to the student movement, to the feminist movement, etc. My whole young adult and adult life has been a passage through this extraordinary widening of understanding of what counts as an injustice, what counts as domination, and therefore what needs to be changed. And for me the idea of a dangerous woman would be the woman, and not just an individual woman, but a social movement of women, and men for that matter, who insist that their fellow citizens face the fact of injustice, not turn away from it. Look it in the eye and do something about it.
So that slides, I think, into your philosophical work—how you’ve worked with the concept of justice. What is particular about your definition of justice?
First of all, I wouldn’t start with the idea of justice, I would start with injustice. I don’t think we know what justice is in the abstract. I think we only learn—over time and through the process of struggle and critical thinking—that conditions we live with are unjust. The sense of injustice comes first, we react and say “that’s not fair” and then we are forced to say “what would it mean to overcome that?” The overcoming is a step towards justice, even if we don’t know fully what justice is. We know what progress towards it is, and that it works by overcoming injustice.
We can look historically at the process by which people have discovered that situations they have lived with, and taken as natural and normal and perhaps unchangeable, in fact are injustices. People then start to fight against those injustices. In that case, I think we’ve really enriched our idea of what equality is and what a human being is, and what justice is.
Here are just a few of the aspects of it:
One axis of injustice would be the economic axis. We discover that, let’s say, we are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into our work, and getting very little in return while the fruits of our labour are being appropriated by others. We discover that there is economic injustice, or as the philosophers would call it, maldistribution. And this gives us the idea of distributive justice, or redistributive justice.
At the same time, we develop the idea that some of us don’t have a voice or a say in the decision making that sets the basic terms.
We’ve tried to make a contribution on this topic in the Dangerous Women Project, such as a post on autism and voice, in which a mother and an autistic daughter collaborate on a meditation on the daughter’s voice through words and pictures.
And that seems to me to be a paradigm example of the type of situation where we suddenly realise that when people have voice…
…there are indeed different voices. They don’t always sound the same as the voices that we’ve been used to, and that’s great. It really opens up things and enriches the conversation.
One way of thinking about that is in terms of the axis of recognition or misrecognition. Are people viewed as full, normal, ideal, typical members of society whose voices are of the sort that require that we listen to them? Or are they viewed as deviant, second-class members, people who can be shunted off to the side, treated as invisible, and in general not listened to? That’s very different from the axis of distributive justice, and so many philosophers have talked about the axis of recognition.
The third axis has to do with voice in the more specific political sense. These are all related under the question “is everyone equally represented in the actual collective decision-making that democratic institutions are supposed to organise for us?” This gives us a political dimension of justice. And I’ve called that one the axis of representation. Is everyone equally represented, or do we have misrepresentation?
So, this is like the three R’s: redistribution; recognition; representation. And for me, these are three dimensions of justice.
My idea is that all three of these are absolutely necessary dimensions for a full understanding of justice. No one of them can tell you the whole story. Philosophers who are focused on one dimension only have given us a very partial picture. Social movements that have focused on one kind of injustice only have also had a very partial view.
The challenge for a dangerous woman, or anyone who wants to overcome injustice, is to be able to think in a three-dimensional way that incorporates all those ideas, and is sensitive to the complicated relations between them. Because sometimes they work together to deny justice. Sometimes they are in tension—you can improve things along one axis and end up making it worse on another. It’s a complicated situation.
To me “dangerousness”, in the good sense of dangerous, is a way of thinking and a form of political practice or social movement activism, that is attentive to all of these at once.
Could we pick up on a couple of things that you’ve been publicly critical of? One of them is Clinton and neo-liberal feminism, and also the idea of “Lean-In.” Maybe you could expand a bit about how those might fit within a frame of dangerous women from your perspective.
I would say that neo-liberal feminism, in the very broad sense, and I would put Hilary Clinton into this category, is a kind of thinking that picks up on the anti-discrimination paradigm. And it also picks up on a rather thin liberal view of equality as the equal opportunity to develop your talents, to realise your talents in the competitive world, to climb the corporate ladder, to break the glass ceiling.
This is a perspective that doesn’t actually challenge the hierarchy, but says “let’s get women up there too on the top of the pile.” That’s the Lean-In story which is a famous book by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. It’s all about how women need to be tough at the negotiating table in the corporate boardroom. But I have said, and others have also agreed, that this is a feminism that can benefit a very thin stratum of already highly educated and privileged women who are in a position to compete for top positions in the hierarchy.
But they can only benefit if they lean in and succeed, and it’s because they’re also leaning on a much larger, poorer, less privileged stratum of people, and especially of women, onto whom they are, let’s say, sloughing off their domestic responsibilities. I would say that a lot of the progress of professional managerial women has come through the widespread employment of often migrant and racialized women who are now doing the domestic care work that the more privileged women did previously.
And so it’s a mixed bag here. You can get a recognition boost by saying “look, we now have some women heading multinational corporations.” But if you look at the distributive picture overall it’s much more complicated. It’s not a clear gain for women, as such.
The other area where we could perhaps pursue the question is in the recognition of, say, lesbian and gay campaigns for so-called equal marriage. I’ve read that you find it hard to embrace that as a really transformatory form of politics.
Well, I’m a complete supporter of marriage equality. I would be the last person who was ever interested in defending hetero-normativity within marriage or anywhere else in society. But I suppose if I had been involved in very strategic thinking about where to put the emphasis it would not have been first and foremost on access to the military, because I’m anti-militaristic. Of course if we have a military, absolutely it should be open. But again if you think about where the levers of change are in society that wouldn’t have been my first choice.
In terms of marriage, I think there’s some interesting questions about whether we want a society in which all sorts of fundamental entitlements and social rights are tied to marital status or not. One reason that marriage is so important is because if you’re not married, if your relationship isn’t given the imprimatur of the state there are all sorts of important rights that you don’t have. And so it matters.
So, one solution is “okay, let’s open up marriage to gays and lesbians, to trans people, to all sorts of people, and give them access to all those social rights.” Another approach might be “why don’t we de-link the social rights from marital status altogether and individualise them?” Because then marriage might become something more symbolic, and some people might want it, other people might prefer to live without marriage, other people might prefer to live in ménage-a-trois, you know, different kinds of households.
Yeah. Communes. I mean, there is something about the focus on marriage. While it’s definitely an advance, it’s still validating marriage in a way that can create problems for unmarried people whose lifestyle falls outside of anything that could be accepted as marriage.
But I think it’s fantastic that marriage equality has been so quickly accepted, both in terms of public opinion and in terms of legal rights and reforms in so many places throughout the world. There’s still a long way to go, but this is something that has proceeded quickly and dramatically.
This would be another case of what we were talking about earlier. I grew up in an era where if anyone had said to me in my teenage years the hetero-normativity of our society is a great entrenched form of structural injustice I would have said “huh? What are you talking about?” This is a case in which we learned, we went through a learning process, and we expanded our idea of what injustice is and what justice requires.
That’s part of this positive spin I would put on the dangerous woman. The dangerous woman is the person who disrupted the received idea of justice and said “you think that’s justice? No, it’s not. Look at this.” And who kept putting it in your face so that you couldn’t turn away and ignore it. That’s my idea of the dangerous woman I would like to know or be or celebrate.
Let’s go to the sphere of reproduction. I remember an American woman politics professor saying to me (before Obergefell v. Hodges) “equal marriage isn’t going to be a battleground for very long in the US. It’s abortion. It’s women’s control. Women’s reproductive autonomy, this is still much more of a battleground.” And you can see that happening, to a certain extent, in a number of parts of Europe where reproductive autonomy is coming under threat, quite apart from issues around equal marriage. I’m thinking in particular of Poland where there have been striking protests with the wonderful strapline of “get your rosaries off our ovaries.” All of this strikes me as the issue of reproductive autonomy still being a key dimension of the patriarchal state.
Yes indeed. We keep coming back to it on many different levels. In some cases, as the Polish example shows, it’s often an overtly religiously undergirded patriarchalism. But we also have it in liberal societies that claim to be democratic and egalitarian. Where even when there is a legal right, we see the unavailability of abortion or of other reproductive services, the fact of them being expensive, the fact of them not being covered in insurance schemes, or even available in large areas where the population is conservative and doesn’t want that right there.
So I agree that it remains a very contested battleground. I think I want also to say something that cuts in the other direction: no feminist chose this situation. But we have been put in a situation, by virtue of the opposition to reproductive autonomy, where the issue of reproductive freedom (and abortion specifically) has sucked up so much of the oxygen in the feminist movement and the feminist battlegrounds that so many other things we should also be talking about are shoved off into the corners. And I sometimes think that, in the United States, abortion plays the same role that something like the headscarf plays in France, or in Turkey, for that matter. Where all of feminism is somehow condensed into this one thing that is highly mediatized and made into some sort of spectacle that stands for all of feminism.
Neither of these issues stand for all of feminism, and this more complicated picture of justice—that I was just talking about in terms of redistribution, recognition, representation—suggests the importance of having a broad agenda. But the way that reproduction has been zeroed in on and inflamed has made it difficult for us to have a broad agenda.
One final question: do you have any advice for the Dangerous Women Project regarding the ideas behind the project as an exploration of “dangerousness”?
Well, I guess there’s some forms of dangerousness that are very obvious and exciting and dramatic like Pussy Riot or whatever, but wouldn’t it be interesting to look for the forms of dangerousness that are less obvious and a little more counterintuitive and hidden? I don’t know where you can find them. I think danger comes in many varieties and it’s not always in the most spectacular mediatized forms.
Here at Dangerous Women Project HQ, we couldn’t agree more about the interesting forms of “dangerousness”. We hope you’ll take a moment to browse through even just a few of over 300 posts from as many voices, which explore the concept via a variety of standpoints and subjects.