Martha Stewart: The Global Capitalist Behind the Domestic Label  

Jennifer Cotter


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Martha Stewart has come to be represented in the corporate press as a "true" feminist. While feminism at one time stood for a collective project concerned with the general emancipation of all women from conditions of economic inequality and social injustice, today it is being redefined by the imperatives of transnational capitalism as an aggressive individualism and "getting ahead" of all the rest. According to these imperatives, Martha Stewart is regarded as a "true feminist", as Madonna once was, because (so the story goes) she is a woman in charge of her own destiny. She is widely heralded as a "courageous" pioneer who has taken the domestic activities and "female values" that contemporary women are ashamed to admit that they have and has made them honorable again by building a multi-million dollar industry with them.

As the case of Martha Stewart demonstrates, transnational business has found a most effective ally in feminism redefined corporate style. Through the image of the domestic "do-it-yourself" doyenne, the corporate press has rewritten the rise of a transnational capitalist, who has amassed wealth from the labor of thousands of international workers, as a success story for feminism—a tale of a "self-made woman" who rose from humble, working class beginnings, survived a bitter divorce and ridicule from others, especially women, and turned the tables on patriarchy by building an empire out of a "woman's place" in the home.

Even now that Stewart and her Merrill Lynch stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, are the subjects of a federal investigation for possible insider trading of 4,000 shares of ImClone stock (by selling them one day before the FDA announced that it would not review ImClone's cancer drug), at most, the corporate media focuses on (and relishes in) her "individual behavioral failings"—that even "Ms. Perfect" is not so perfect after all. Just as often, her critics are chastised for demonizing a self-made woman more than they would a man. According to one website,, the criticism of Martha Stewart for "insider trading" is part of a broad scale attack in the media on successful women executives in corporate America—an attack that, her supporters say, is an attack on all women. In both cases "insider trading" and the systemic, exploitative practices of transnational capitalism get normalized as just a matter of individual "human behavior" that anyone would do. Martha Stewart, for better or worse, is "just like everyone else" according to the corporate media and, for some, is only the subject of criticism because she is a woman who has taken control over her own life.

That is exactly what Martha Stewart's "domestic", "feminine" image and corporate feminism have helped transnational business to do: focus attention on the personal, the local, and "individual lifestyle choices" in order to naturalize global conditions of inequality in capitalism and their effect on women. As a model corporate feminist, Stewart uses the "domestic" and "feminine" as a way to normalize the sale of her lines of commodities, the profit she amasses as a transnational capitalist, and the larger global inequalities in capitalism on which her business depends. But not only has Stewart's "do-it-yourself", domestic label been profitable for her "personally" as a capitalist, it has also been especially helpful to big business in schooling women in the imperatives of global capitalism. It is far more useful for global capitalism to have women focused on reforming their lifestyles and the interiors of their closets (and spending lots of money to do so) than focused on changing the social and economic conditions of inequality that confront them in the international division of labor.

The Martha Stewart brand of feminism puts forward the understanding that women can "do- it-themselves"—that is, control their own destiny through micro-managing their personal lives and acceding to the status of an "upper class" lifestyle. By marketing "upscale" style and domestic items at "affordable" prices through her Martha Stewart Everyday line at Kmart, Stewart is able to put forward the impression that "high class" is accessible to all and a matter of "personal choice" and individual "taste". Stewart's rules of domesticity, entertaining, and consumption thus appear to be the essential ingredient for "empowering women" and dramatically changing our material conditions of life.

Thus, in "Martha's world", the concerns of women are not whether the majority of women in the world have enough to eat, but learning how to correctly prepare and serve luxury food for the entertainment of others. These concerns are not rising homelessness and impoverishment of women but learning how to easily fold a fitted sheet so that one's linen closet is pleasing to the eye. Nor are issues of "insider trading" and corporate criminality important in this brand of "feminism", but focusing on the preparation of salad, as Stewart awkwardly made clear on the CBS Early Show when asked questions about the allegations against her for insider trading (after which she promptly cancelled future spots on the show).

It is this ideology that has led many of Stewart's customers to claim that questions of "insider trading" and Stewart's practices as a capitalist are "irrelevant" to women. What matters, as one customer in Japan has put it, is Stewart's unquestionable style, taste, and sensibilities. Women, we are told by the corporate press, are "tired" of being told by feminists and other social critics that they must be concerned with world-historical and "abstract" problems in politics and our financial markets. What contemporary women want, according to some corporate ideologues, is to be liberated to focus on our homes and personal lifestyle choices (e.g., Kay S. Hymowitz, "The End of Herstory", City Journal, Summer 2000).

What corporate feminism actually offers working class women, through Stewart's example, is "empowerment" based on the exploitation of others in the international division of labor. Behind the high style, "do-it-yourself", domestic label, Martha Stewart is like any other transnational capitalist who depends on the labor of thousands of others to make a multi-million dollar profit. With transnational business deals with Seiyu of Japan, Sears of Canada, Sherwin Williams, Shaw Industries, Bernhardt Furniture . . . as well as a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, Stewart is hardly a "self-made" woman who has relied solely on her own labor. She is part of the transnational ruling class that, in the name of "entrepreneurship" and "free enterprise", privately appropriates the labor of the majority for profit, while the majority become increasingly impoverished. The dire economic reality for women who work for global capitalists such as Stewart shows that this mode of empowerment is "a good thing" only for a minority of very privileged women.

The deepening crisis in transnational capitalism, the most recent evidence of which is the discovery of widespread fraud and corruption among American capitalists, is devastating to the conditions of women's lives and has everything to do with women's social well being and equality. According to a Washington Post report the wage gap between men and women in the U.S. has been steadily increasing as women's wages have been falling since 1995—a trend that started even before the onset of deepening recession in 2000 (Washington Post, January 24, 2002). Moreover, while American capitalists have been able to cash in millions of dollars through insider trading and fraudulent accounting practices in order to stave off a fall in their rates of profit, the retirement plans of workers have shriveled. For the post-WWII generation, which is rapidly approaching retirement, much of these are irrecoverable losses. This means a rise in the number of impoverished senior citizens who, without retirement money, adequate health care, prescription drug coverage, and for whom social security has been eroded, must now turn further to their families who must privately shoulder the responsibility for their survival. Much of the labor of caring for senior citizens will fall, as it has historically fallen, to women who are now being told by the Martha Stewarts of the world that liberation is to be found in how well one runs the home "on their own", without support from society.

The promotion of Martha Stewart as an icon of empowerment for women is not an isolated event. It is part of a much more massive assault by transnational capitalism on the economic and social conditions and welfare of the majority of women's lives so that they are less resistant to the profit imperatives of transnational capitalists. This widespread attack on women's collective resistance against exploitation, (which directs women's attention away from fighting to change their global economic and social conditions toward micro-management of their local circumstances, specifically, their interpersonal relations and running the home) is also found in what is regarded as advanced feminist research. In high philosophical registers many academic "feminist" critics are repeating the imperatives of corporate feminism by suggesting, as Elspeth Probyn does in her book Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities (Routledge, 2000), that the "concrete" conditions of women's lives are their local experiences, senses, and pleasures (which leads Probyn and others to consider the tastes and textures of food and its sensual impact on women as more important than "global" problems like the production of food for profit not basic health needs and its effects on the rising levels of malnutrition, starvation and disease in women).

By instilling in women that they are in charge of their own destiny and that the key to change is individual lifestyle choice, not social conditions and whether or not society is organized so that all people's basic needs are met, corporate feminism helps to naturalize the way in which transnational capitalists appropriate the products of the majority's labor (including the majority of women) for private gain, while the majority are robbed of social resources and left to fend for themselves. Corporate feminism, therefore, is also an aggressive attack on the development of a transformative feminism concerned not simply with the personal privilege and profit of some women but with transforming the global conditions of inequality for all women in capitalism.

Women are being instructed not simply in the "rules" of entertaining, but the rules of transnational capitalism: focusing on local circumstances and lifestyle as the only space of change and not on the larger global conditions of inequality upon which one's "lifestyle" depends. "Female"-ness and the art of "entertaining" and being a great hostess become useful class tools. For women of the ruling class they are used as a way to conceal over corporate networking and insider information by representing them as casual cocktail party gossip, friendly advice, or merely as a feminine perfectionist's personal attention to details. In such a schema it is above question that a friend of Martha Stewart's, Republican Representative Billy Tauzin (Louisiana), who has appeared on her CBS show to demonstrate a gumbo recipe and promote his cookbook, is now the head of the federal probe investigating her for insider trading!

But for the majority of women of the world, whose labor is privately appropriated by Martha Stewart and other capitalists, the use of "female"-ness and the domestic help to maintain the global division of labor in which workers produce the resources for the benefit of the few and, at the same time, their social and economic welfare is a private responsibility—they must "do it themselves"—and the quality of one's life is, therefore, determined by the size of her purse.

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