Nancy Fraser (/ˈfreɪzər/; born May 20, 1947) is an American critical theorist, feminist, and the Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and professor of philosophy at The New School in New York City. Widely known for her critique of identity politics and her philosophical work on the concept of justice, Fraser is also a staunch critic of contemporary liberal feminism and its abandonment of social justice issues. Fraser holds honorary doctoral degrees from four universities in three countries, and won the 2010 Alfred Schutz Prize in Social Philosophy from the American Philosophical Association. She is President of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division.
Fraser earned her bachelor's degree in philosophy at Bryn Mawr in 1969 and received her PhD in philosophy from the CUNY Graduate Center in 1980. She taught in the philosophy department at Northwestern University for many years before moving to the New School, and has been a visiting professor at universities in Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In addition to her many publications and lectures, Fraser is a former co-editor of Constellations, an international journal of critical and democratic theory, where she remains an active member of the Editorial Council. She has been invited to deliver the Tanner Lectures at Stanford University and the Spinoza Lectures at the University of Amsterdam.
Fraser has written on a wide variety of issues, but she is primarily known for her work on the philosophical conceptions of justice and injustice. Fraser argues that justice can be understood in two separate but interrelated ways: distributive justice (in terms of a more equitable distribution of resources), and the justice of recognition (the equal recognition of different identities/groups within a society). There are two corresponding forms of injustice: maldistribution and misrecognition.
Fraser argues that many social justice movements in the 1960s and 1970s argued for recognition on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity, and that the focus on correcting misrecognition eclipsed the importance of challenging the persistent problems of maldistribution. In other words, Fraser asserts that too much of a focus on identity politics diverts attention from the deleterious effects of neoliberal capitalism and the growing wealth inequality that characterizes many societies.
In more recent work, Fraser goes even further in linking the narrow focus of identity politics with the widening gap between the rich and poor, particularly with regard to liberal feminism, which Fraser calls the "handmaiden" of capitalism. Reflecting on Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 book Lean In, Fraser explained:
For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called "productive" labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, "caring" activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women. In my view, this gendered, hierarchical division between "production" and "reproduction" is a defining structure of capitalist society and a deep source of the gender asymmetries hard-wired in it. There can be no "emancipation of women" so long as this structure remains intact.
Fortunes of Feminism
Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis is a collection of essays written from 1985 to 2010 that aims at dissecting the "drama in three acts" that according to the author is the thread of second-wave feminism. Act one represents the moment when the feminist movement joined radical movements to transform society through uncovering gender injustice and capitalism's androcentrism, while act two, Fraser highlights with regret, is a switch from redistribution to recognition and difference and a shift to identity politics that risk to support neoliberalism through efforts to build a free-market society. Foreseeing act three as a revival of the movement, Fraser argues for a reinvigorated feminist radicalism able to address the global economic crisis. Feminism must be a force working in concert with other egalitarian movements in the struggle to bring the economy under democratic control, while building on the visionary potential of the earlier waves of women's liberation.
The work is considered an important contribution as it provides a clear frame to rethink issues related to labor, emancipation, identity, rights claims at the core of political demands of justice in the contemporary context of neoliberalism. Although a necessary incorporation of political economy into contemporary feminist discourse, Fraser's use of theoretical schemas has been criticized as dense and baffling at times—it is unclear, for example, why there are three types of needs discourses, four registers of dependency, or seven principles of gender justice. M. E. Mitchell, writer for Marx & Philosophy, writes "This [complexity] is, perhaps, owing to her propensity to avail herself of whatever terms best encapsulate processes of institutionalized oppression. Thinking thus, from the ground up, gives her work a complexity that at times compromises the systematic quality and coherence of her theoretical categories."
Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory is a collection of essays written between 1980 and 1989. The book examines the theories of power and source in Foucault, the politics of French deconstruction and Richard Rorty, the politics of gender in Habermas, and the politics of need interpretation in two concluding essays which delineate her own position within contemporary socialist-feminist critical theory. Contemporaries such as Douglas Kellner have praised Fraser's writings as "seasoned with social hope" and effectively synthesizing feminist commitment to political agency and social progress with several forms of modern and postmodern social skepticism. However, others have criticized her goal of providing "the sort of big diagnostic picture necessary to orient [the current] political practice" of socialist feminism for being both too ambitious and ultimately too narrow. Patricia S. Mann, for example, summarizes the pitfalls of the text as follows:
I wish Fraser had made more of an effort to call upon the resources of analytic philosophy. It is true that analytic philosophers look all the way back to Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham for their paradigms of analytic philosophy. Unfazed because untouched by these notions of social constitution of individuals, or by the irrationalities of individual thought, philosophy offers an outmoded yet still seaworthy vessel for any seeking to ride out the storms of postmodern disillusionment with notions of agency and process. Had Fraser utilized the works of analytic political thinkers when she finally came to formulate her socialist-feminist theory of the welfare state she could have exploited the admittedly "thin" theories of political agency and political rights within political philosophy today.
Awards and honors
- Doctor Honoris Causa, Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication and Faculty of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2014.
- Doctor Honoris Causa, Universidad Nacional de San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2014.
- International Research Chair in Social Justice, Collège d'études mondiales, Paris, 2011-2016
- Senior Fellow, Center for Advanced Studies "Justitia Amplificata," Frankfurt, 2013.
- Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Fellow, November–December 2012.
- Einstein Visiting Fellow, JFK Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität, Berlin, 2010-2012.
- Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women's Rights, University of Cambridge, UK, March 2011
- Doctor Honoris Causa, Roskilde University, Denmark, 2011.
- Donald Gordon Fellow, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, South Africa, 2011.
- Alfred Schutz Prize in Social Philosophy, American Philosophical Association, 2010.
- Chaire Blaise Pascal, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, 2008-2010
- Awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa, by the National University of Cordoba (Argentina), 2006.