By Jacqui Freeman
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One Dimensional Woman

This article is over 12 years, 6 months old
Nina Power, Zero Books, £7.99
Issue 344

One Dimensional Woman offers an interesting contribution to the current debate on work, sex and politics. Consciously drawing upon the critique of consumerist ideology in Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 work One-Dimensional Man, Power argues that when it comes to women’s liberation under capitalism “what looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles”.

Given this, the lack of systematic political thought by many contemporary feminists means that achievement is reduced to “the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man, in that order”. Power is at her sharpest when criticising the perennially upbeat and superficial analysis of these “lipstick feminists” who focus on personal fulfilment rather than collective action.

The book covers an impressive array of subjects. She denounces the rise of “hawkish and mawkish” feminists, who use the rhetoric of women’s rights to justify imperialist intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan while supporting the scapegoating of Muslim women who wear the veil. She illustrates how the growth of flexible work has led to the promotion of an “ideal” worker, who is ever available and doesn’t cause problems for the boss by becoming pregnant or making too many demands. Yet the reality is that women still earn less and are more likely to work part-time to fit in with childcare commitments.

The most interesting section of the book looks at the ahistorical nature of feminist debate on pornography. Power adopts a comparative approach, contrasting the “grinding”, “rubberised” present day $57 million porn industry with the witty, slapstick portrayal of sex in vintage erotic French films. Whether she is romanticising the latter is difficult to know but it supports her view of the need to consider how and why porn has changed over time.

But several of her examples are less valid and fairly unrepresentative. Too much coverage is given to Sarah Palin in the section on pro-war feminists. The false idea that agency workers are “structurally impossible to organise” is promoted and a bizarre example of female students in the US exposing their breasts during spring break becomes evidence that breasts are now autonomous entities within contemporary capitalism! A disappointing conclusion, considering the discussion begins with a quote from Marx explaining how the entry of women into the workforce represented a significant moment of change. Power rightly identifies the role of the nuclear family as being to reproduce and nurture the next generation of workers, yet doesn’t mention this until the last pages of the book.

There are also some important omissions. I felt the discussion on the veil lacked a proper consideration of the part played by racism in shaping the debate. Crucially, perhaps, the role of women within the labour movement at moments of historical change is absent and yet Power is clear that for any meaningful emancipation to take place there must be a complete transformation of society.

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