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Against Independence Individualism

So far, I hope to have shown that no form of normative individualism is conceptually related to feminism (since feminism is opposition to sexist oppression and oppression is a group-afflicting phenomenon) and that intervention based on independence individualism is neither the path to ending sexist oppression nor even the path to actualizing respect for personhood individualism. The upshot of my argument so far may seem to be that feminists should support individualism in many contexts, particularly Western capitalist ones. In fact, as I suggested in my remarks about the gender division of labor in the West, I think the prospects for independence individualism as a feminist value are even more limited. To see why, we need to foreground a certain view that the role of normative transnational feminisms is a nonideal, or justice-enhancing, project.20 Nonideal, justice-enhancing projects aim not at envisioning a gender-just world but at attempting to reduce or end gender injustice. Thus, as with all nonideal theoretical concepts (see Sen 2009; Anderson 2010; Mills 2005), feminist normative concepts should encourage us to act in ways that reduce injustice. Independence individualism actually gets in the way of struggles to achieve gender justice, in both Western and “other” contexts - or so I want to suggest. The reasons it does so have to do with both care and relationship.

Independence Individualism Worsens Gendered Labor Burdens

One reason independence individualism is likely to produce political strategies that fail to reduce women’s oppression stems from the way it individualizes economic responsibility. Part of the independence individualist ideal is the notion that each person can and should meet their own economic needs. This individualization of responsibility, adopted under the gender-unjust conditions we actually inhabit, is likely to worsen, or do nothing to change, the disadvantageous gendering of labor burdens. As feminists have pointed out for generations, women in most societies are assigned labor that is not only unpaid but also low-status, unseen, or not considered to be labor at all (Davis 1983; Glenn 1992; Waring 1988; Beneria and Sen 1981). The clearest example is the work of caring for dependent people, such as children, the ill, and people with disabilities (Kittay 1999). However, other related tasks, such as cooking - a role that is demanding and cross-culturally intransigent - may also fit the bill (Sen 1990). Some typically gendered but low-status and invisible tasks that may be less known to Northern audiences include the cultivation of food, the collection of fuel (such as firewood and dung) and water, and care of the natural environment (Desai 2002).

The low-status character of this labor, which is mostly associated with women, is a source of women’s oppression across many contexts. To acknowledge this does not require committing to the claim that role differentiations are inherently oppressive or that gender roles are cross- culturally identical. Instead, it seems clear that imperialism and racism spread oppressive gender divisions of labor and that militarism and neoliberalism contemporarily add to feminized labor burdens. Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1992) shows that the notion of the household as a space of nonlabor has been promoted in the West through the shifting of many forms of household labor from white women onto women of color. The idea that African women were harmed by having to work in the fields or by having to engage in trade reduced the power associated with women’s role in many cases (Mikell 1997; Nzegwu 2006). More contemporarily, neoliberal cuts in social spending on items like childcare and healthcare, and environmental degradation brought about by deregulation of corporations, are often compensated by women’s labor (Desai 2002) and attach new burdens to labor that might otherwise not have resulted in oppressive outcomes (see Whyte 2013). As Chandra Mohanty argues, neoliberalism as a transnational economic system continues to produce new forms of gendered and racialized labor (Mohanty 2003).

But the gendering of labor burdens will seem to some like a reason to support independence individualism: is the solution to the devaluation of feminized labor not simply to make women independent from men? Two nonideal theoretical considerations can help us see why independence individualism will not solve the problem of unjust gendered labor burdens. First, normative ideals that are useful under nonideal conditions should be consistent with the limitations of human nature and facts about the world. But the independence individualist ideal assumes something impossible - that it is possible for all of us to meet our own economic needs. As Eva Feder Kittay rightly points out (1999), all human beings require care from others because we are all dependent. A large chunk of the labor with which women are disproportionately charged, and that causes them to have poorer opportunities and welfare outcomes than men, is ineluctable because human dependency is itself ineluctable. In fact, the popularity of the idea that anyone is capable of meeting their own economic needs over a lifetime seems causally related to the social invisibilization of the labor of marginalized, typically feminized, but often also racialized, others. This is often observed about men’s gains from the oppression of women, but the ability of the affluent Northern woman who is able to work a full-time job outside of the home is typically subsidized by people of color and immigrants (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2007; Salazar Parrenas 2000). Though dependency work is particularly ineluctable, other goods, such as environmental protection, produced by feminized labor are also likely to consistently need to be performed and unlikely to get produced through individual economic self-sufficiency.

But an ideal might be unrealistic while still being worth approximating. A second nonideal strike against individualizing economic responsibility is that attempting to adopt the ideal would likely worsen women’s lot. Because neoliberalism is our contemporary global reality, we do not need to look very far to see what the results of attempting universal individual economic independence are. One is increased vulnerability to poverty and rise in the amount of unpaid labor done by women. The assumption that individuals can be economically self-sufficient has meant economic deregulation and cuts to social spending. The services that are cut through such policies end up being compensated by women’s unrecognized work (see Desai 2002). For example, cuts in healthcare expenditures mean women must spend more energy caring for the sick, and environmental degradation means that women have to travel farther to collect water and fuel. Another effect of neoliberalism on women is what Sylvia Chant has called “the feminization of responsibility and obligation” (see Chant 2008), wherein development interventions increase women’s labor burdens by expecting them to do economically recognized labor in addition to feminized labor, without increasing women’s household or social bargaining power. So long as societies embrace independence individualism under background conditions where women are disproportionately tasked with labor that the ideal assumes does not need to be performed, women are likely to continue doing the feminized labor without supports, or to find supports for it removed.

The fact that the independence individualist ideal does not have any views about gender written into it is besides the point. Nonideal theoretical considerations call us to evaluate how moral and political ideals do when adopted in this world, not an imagined one. Given existing gender relations, the fact of human dependency, and the fact that much of the relevant labor is not assigned a market value, we can expect the valorization of individual economic self-sufficiency to result in more devalued work from women and their lower status relative to men. None of this means that women do not benefit from incomes of their own or that feminists must reject markets altogether. But it suggests very strongly that societies that successfully end sexist oppression will be ones that visibilize and support dependency work and other forms of feminized labor, rather than ones that expect each individual to support herself.

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