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Not business as usual: a feminist map for the post-Covid future

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In the brief time that the world has been living under lockdown, there have been many voices offering a feminist perspective on the pandemic. They have pointed to the disproportionate hardships falling upon women: their lack of access to healthcare in many countries, the concentration of their work in informal sectors, and the grave risks of domestic violence they face under conditions of lock down. We offer, in contrast, a feminist analysis that stresses a more positive story. We look to innovative models of business that have been incubated within the women’s movement and which illustrate the limitations and destructiveness of the neoliberal capitalism which went before. These give us hope for new forms of ‘better business’ within the very different world that might emerge from the global economic pause.

As the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded, the free market capitalism promoted by the New Right revolution since the late 1970s has been framed in the past tense. Has the paradigm changed? In financial sectors, comparisons with the 2008 crisis are made in order to measure the extent of current economic challenges. Back then, some predicted that neo-liberal, financialised capitalism might collapse. It didn’t.

Despite talk of 'better capitlsim' at forums such as Davos and the Business Roundtable in 2020, no one forecast that the end of business as usual would come quite so abruptly. But the cupboard is not bare when it comes to ideas for how things could be done differently. The women's movement has strived for alternative economies for many decades, drawing from and contributing in turn to other rethinkers of capitalism such as the black civil rights, cooperative and green movements.

The women’s movement has inspired feminist bookshops, magazines, publishers, graphic design studios, gardeners, hotels, tour companies, museums, domestic cleaners, law firms, car mechanics, advertisers, health advisors, translators, craft workshops and many more enterprises. These organisations have created contexts to practice and explore forms of leadership that centre on the development of worker skills and communities. Feminist book traders showed how new literary products and events such as the International Feminist Bookfair reconnected and revalued lost heritages, whether the Modern Classics of Virago Press, Honno’s Welsh-language publications, Kali’s children’s books or Pandora’s feminist education. What has made these companies feminist has been their commitment to overcoming gender injustices in all aspects of their operations. Feminist approaches to profit, value and labour can help us rethink the purpose of productive activity, and to reflect on what ‘productivity’ means.

For the magazine Spare Rib, a public face of the British women’s movement from 1972 to 1993, feminist business meant rethinking the advertising revenue model typical to mainstream magazine publishing. Spare Rib refused to run lucrative adverts depicting women as sex objects. Instead, they worked with advertisers willing to tailor their copy to address women respectfully, even convincing a sex toy manufacturer to explain in its advert that a penis-shaped vibrator had many uses besides vaginal penetration.

Political commitment did not always prove costly; it could also generate profitable innovations. In France, the feminist publisher L’Éditions des Femmes was committed to producing materials that women could access despite the heavy pressures of domestic labour and paid employment. They launched a series of audiobooks on cassette in 1980 designed to allow women to access literature even while washing up or cooking. These went on to become their most successful product, cross subsidising more esoteric offerings of feminist literature.

In Kenya’s women-only Umojo village, established in 1990, a jewellery and tourist market emerged to enable economic survival without dependence on violent men. Like many other women-worker led initiatives in developing economies, it also offers paid employment compatible with the requirements of domestic labour and the pleasures of family life.

In New Mexico, the Women Working carpentry, plastering and roofing business established in 1972 ditched traditional structures of bosses and workers. They disliked the cooperative model, finding it cumbersome, and opted instead for a ‘rotating boss’ structure that allowed power and skill to be shared while maintaining accountability and dynamism.

Throughout the 1980s, the black feminist international newspaper Outwrite drew their readers actively into business planning, creating a loyal following who helped distribute and promote the publication transnationally. Value centred on the creation of a spaces for discussion and encounter – a radical, dialogical public sphere – rather than profits. The editorial collective were proud to combine political goals with commercial success. But they did not understand commerce as radically separate from the state.

Both Spare Rib and Outwrite benefitted from state funding, sources of revenue that evaporated toward the end of 80s as the Thatcherite logic that ‘the market will take care of itself’ forced many organisations to re-structure as self-sustaining, financial operations. The outcome was that important community-focused services, that generate value for society in ways that far exceed financial metrics, perished. At a time when state-intervention in the economy has become reality again, we need to remember why funding organisations, free from the burdens of debt repayments and high interest rates, is important: it supports economic diversity and varied business practices that add different kinds of value to society, culture and the environment. Such value does not show up immediately in the bank balance, but it supports us all to grow.

From product development to equitable supply chains, business can be a site of proactive change-making. Trading supports women economically. It presents positive images of their empowerment and develops business models that respect care responsibilities, at best even encouraging redistribution of those responsibilities across genders. Ideas of profiting from feminism were always controversial within the movement, and many feminist businesses were shortlived. However, feminist economic empowerment and innovation remains a powerful example of how enterprise could be transformed.

Sceptics may argue that these were mostly small businesses that have little to offer in the world of global corporations. But the Covid-19 situation has reminded us of how important small businesses are, in terms of numbers employed and health of the economy. Micro-businesses of 0-9 workers employed a third of all UK workers in 2019, and 80% of Indian workers. Big business seems dominant, yet small traders remain important to a diverse and resilient economy, particularly when it comes to innovative, socially-inclusive approaches. Many exist under the umbrella of large platforms such as Amazon and Etsy, providing employment and generating value. Unlike the tech giants however – who are currently doing very well under the lockdown – the sector also feeds the community of the high street and the local market, whose survival will be critical to reviving a more inclusive, value-based economic life post Covid-19.

The huge problems we faced before the virus hit remain. Environmental sustainability and a recalibrated work-life balance clearly needs to be at the heart of future economic planning and implemented at scale. Covid-19 has interrupted the system. This is the time to put different policies in place that will shape how the wider economy and businesses are run for the long term. Such policy making could be guided primarily by questions of what feminists have long valued, and have become clearer during this crisis: the symbiotic and mutual relationship between economic, physical health and environmental health, and the need for a progressive approach to the private as well as public sector.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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