The Rise and Fall of Plutocrat Feminism

A few elite women may be able to succeed in corporate America, but it’s failing everyone else.

Alessandra Garofalo / Reuters

Cultural critic and Atlantic contributor Christina Hoff Sommers has been finding fault with feminism for years. Now, though, as she reports along with Christine Rosen in Politico, she finds herself impressed with a new feminist icon: Carly Fiorina.

Sommers and Rosen praise the former CEO and current presidential candidate for a variety of feminism that meshes well with capitalism: “Fiorina is not blind to the challenges women still face, but she comes to them with an understanding of the history of women’s progress as a bipartisan movement of expanding opportunity.” Fiorina believes that “the best thing for women is a meritocracy that rewards workers’ performance regardless of sex and doesn’t promote aggressive government intervention.”

In other words, a woman can rise in business as long as she pulls herself up by her straps of her chic but sensible work boots. That is hardly radical. Highly educated and privileged white women have always had more access than others; since they can be relatively self-sufficient, they need—and value—government intervention less.

In this way of thinking, the onus is not on the office and certainly not on the government to make a situation more accommodating. Instead, the responsibility lies with the individual. If women take responsibility for themselves, they can succeed.

Trouble is, studies show that “meritocracy” can backfire: Researchers running three separate tests in white-collar environments found consistent results reflecting that, “when an organization is explicitly presented as meritocratic, individuals in managerial positions favor a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward.” True meritocracy is, in the real world, elusive.

The focus on meritocracy—on leaning in, one person at a time, so as to make it to the narrow space at the top—is an embodiment of what Anne-Marie Slaughter in her new book Unfinished Business calls “plutocrat feminism,” a supposedly democratic movement that in actuality promotes the interests of a privileged few. Fiorina’s recent rise in the public eye notwithstanding, plutocrat feminism is, even now, on its way out, replaced by a movement, often referred to as intersectional feminism, that emphasizes the interactions among race, class, gender, and other phenomena.

Plutocrat feminism focuses on how and whether high-powered female employees can find quality, affordable childcare. Intersectional feminism concerns itself equally with childcare workers themselves. How are they paid? How are they treated? Are they given sick days or paid leave in order to take care of their own families and not merely those of others?

In Unfinished Business, Slaughter pledges her allegiance to this more intersectional future. Forget the current modus operandi of trying to make it possible for a handful of elites to break into “antiquated and broken” corporate hierarchies. Instead, feminists—indeed, everyone who cares about fairness—should “adopt policies and practices that support and advance women at every level of our society.”