|What Is Socialist Feminism?
by Barbara Ehrenreich
This article, which first appeared in WIN magazine on June 3, 1976, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission, is a classic of socialist feminist thought. After decades of ongoing debate on these issues its importance is, in our view, undiminished.—Eds.
At some level, perhaps not too well articulated, socialist feminism has been around for a long time. You are a woman in a capitalist society. You get pissed off: about the job, the bills, your husband (or ex), about the kids’ school, the housework, being pretty, not being pretty, being looked at, not being look at (and either way, not listened to), etc. If you think about all these things and how they fit together and what has to be changed, and then you look around for some words to hold all these thoughts together in abbreviated form, you’d almost have to come up with “socialist feminism.”
A lot of us came to socialist feminism in just that kind of way. We were searching for a word/term/phrase which would begin to express all of our concerns, all of our principles, in a way that neither “socialist” nor “feminist” seemed to. I have to admit that most socialist feminists I know are not too happy with the term “socialist feminist” either. On the one hand it is too long (I have no hopes for a hyphenated mass movement); on the other hand it is much too short for what is, after all, really socialist internationalist antiracist, anti-heterosexist feminism.
The trouble with taking a new label of any kind is that it creates an instant aura of sectarianism. “Socialist feminism” becomes a challenge, a mystery, an issue in and of itself. We have speakers, conferences, articles on “socialist feminism”—though we know perfectly well that both “socialism” and “feminism” are too huge and too inclusive to be subjects for any sensible speech, conference, article, etc. People, including avowed socialist feminists, ask themselves anxiously, “What is socialist feminism?” There is a kind of expectation that it is (or is about to be at any moment, maybe in the next speech, conference, or article) a brilliant synthesis of world historical proportions—an evolutionary leap beyond Marx, Freud, and Wollstonecraft. Or that it will turn out to be a nothing, a fad seized on by a few disgruntled feminists and female socialists, a temporary distraction.
I want to try to cut through some of the mystery which has grown up around socialist feminism. A logical way to start is to look at socialism and feminism separately. How does a socialist, more precisely, a Marxist, look at the world? How does a feminist? To begin with, Marxism and feminism have an important thing in common: they are critical ways of looking at the world. Both rip away popular mythology and “common sense” wisdom and force us to look at experience in a new way. Both seek to understand the world—not in terms of static balances, symmetries, etc. (as in conventional social science)—but in terms of antagonisms. They lead to conclusions which are jarring and disturbing at the same time that they are liberating. There is no way to have a Marxist or feminist outlook and remain a spectator. To understand the reality laid bare by these analyses is to move into action to change it.
Marxism addresses itself to the class dynamics of capitalist society. Every social scientist knows that capitalist societies are characterized by more or less severe, systemic inequality. Marxism understands this inequality to arise from processes which are intrinsic to capitalism as an economic system. A minority of people (the capitalist class) own all the factories/energy sources/resources, etc. which everyone else depends on in order to live. The great majority (the working class) must work out of sheer necessity, under conditions set by the capitalists, for the wages the capitalists pay. Since the capitalists make their profits by paying less in wages than the value of what the workers actually produce, the relationship between the two classes is necessarily one of irreconcilable antagonism. The capitalist class owes its very existence to the continued exploitation of the working class. What maintains this system of class rule is, in the last analysis, force. The capitalist class controls (directly or indirectly) the means of organized violence represented by the state—police, jails, etc. Only by waging a revolutionary struggle aimed at the seizure of state power can the working class free itself, and, ultimately, all people.
Feminism addresses itself to another familiar inequality. All human societies are marked by some degree of inequality between the sexes. If we survey human societies at a glance, sweeping through history and across continents, we see that they have commonly been characterized by: the subjugation of women to male authority, both within the family and in the community in general; the objectification of women as a form of property; a sexual division of labor in which women are confined to such activities as child raising, performing personal services for adult males, and specified (usually low prestige) forms of productive labor.
Feminists, struck by the near-universality of these things, have looked for explanations in the biological “givens” which underlie all human social existence. Men are physically stronger than women on the average, especially compared to pregnant women or women who are nursing babies. Furthermore, men have the power to make women pregnant. Thus, the forms that sexual inequality take—however various they may be from culture to culture—rest, in the last analysis, on what is clearly a physical advantage males hold over females. That is to say, they rest ultimately on violence, or the threat of violence.
The ancient, biological root of male supremacy—the fact of male violence—is commonly obscured by the laws and conventions which regulate the relations between the sexes in any particular culture. But it is there, according to a feminist analysis. The possibility of male assault stands as a constant warning to “bad” (rebellious, aggressive) women, and drives “good’’ women into complicity with male supremacy. The reward for being “good’’ (“pretty,” submissive) is protection from random male violence and, in some cases, economic security.
Marxism rips away the myths about “democracy” and its “pluralism” to reveal a system of class rule that rests on forcible exploitation. Feminism cuts through myths about “instinct” and romantic love to expose male rule as a rule of force. Both analyses compel us to look at a fundamental injustice. The choice is to reach for the comfort of the myths or, as Marx put it, to work for a social order that does not require myths to sustain it.
It is possible to add up Marxism and feminism and call the sum “socialist feminism.” In fact, this is probably how most socialist feminists see it most of the time—as a kind of hybrid, pushing our feminism in socialist circles, our socialism in feminist circles. One trouble with leaving things like that, though, is that it keeps people wondering “Well, what is she really?” or demanding of us “What is the principal contradiction.” These kinds of questions, which sound so compelling and authoritative, often stop us in our tracks: “Make a choice!” “Be one or another!” But we know that there is a political consistency to socialist feminism. We are not hybrids or fencesitters.
To get to that political consistency we have to differentiate ourselves, as feminists, from other kinds of feminists, and, as Marxists, from other kinds of Marxists. We have to stake out a (pardon the terminology here) socialist feminist kind of feminism and a socialist feminist kind of socialism. Only then is there a possibility that things will “add up” to something more than an uneasy juxtaposition.
I think that most radical feminists and socialist feminists would agree with my capsule characterization of feminism as far as it goes. The trouble with radical feminism, from a socialist feminist point of view, is that it doesn’t go any farther. It remains transfixed with the universality of male supremacy—things have never really changed; all social systems are patriarchies; imperialism, militarism, and capitalism are all simply expressions of innate male aggressiveness. And so on.
The problem with this, from a socialist feminist point of view, is not only that it leaves out men (and the possibility of reconciliation with them on a truly human and egalitarian basis) but that it leaves out an awful lot about women. For example, to discount a socialist country such as China as a “patriarchy”—as I have heard radical feminists do—is to ignore the real struggles and achievements of millions of women. Socialist feminists, while agreeing that there is something timeless and universal about women’s oppression, have insisted that it takes different forms in different settings and that the differences are of vital importance. There is a difference between a society in which sexism is expressed in the form of female infanticide and a society in which sexism takes the form of unequal representation on the Central Committee. And the difference is worth dying for.
One of the historical variations on the theme of sexism which ought to concern all feminists is the set of changes that came with the transition from an agrarian society to industrial capitalism. This is no academic issue. The social system which industrial capitalism replaced was in fact a patriarchal one, and I am using that term now in its original sense, to mean a system in which production is centered in the household and is presided over by the oldest male. The fact is that industrial capitalism came along and tore the rug out from under patriarchy. Production went into the factories and individuals broke off from the family to become “free” wage earners. To say that capitalism disrupted the patriarchal organization of production and family life is not, of course, to say that capitalism abolished male supremacy! But it is to say that the particular forms of sex oppression we experience today are, to a significant degree, recent developments. A huge historical discontinuity lies between us and true patriarchy. If we are to understand our experience as women today, we must move to a consideration of capitalism as a system.
There are obviously other ways I could have gotten to the same point. I could have simply said that, as feminists, we are most interested in the most oppressed women—poor and working-class women, third world women, etc.—and for that reason we are led to a need to comprehend and confront capitalism. I could have said that we need to address ourselves to the class system simply because women are members of classes. But I am trying to bring out something else about our perspective as feminists: there is no way to understand sexism as it acts on our lives without putting it in the historical context of capitalism.
I think most socialist feminists would also agree with the capsule summary of Marxist theory as far as it goes. And the trouble again is that there are a lot of people (I’ll call them “mechanical Marxists”) who do not go any further. To these people, the only “real’’ and important things that go on in capitalist society are those things that relate to the productive process or the conventional political sphere. From such a point of view, every other part of experience and social existence—things having to do with education, sexuality, recreation, the family, art, music, housework (you name it)—is peripheral to the central dynamics of social change; it is part of the “superstructure” or “culture.”
Socialist feminists are in a very different camp from what I am calling “mechanical Marxists.” We (along with many, many Marxists who are not feminists) see capitalism as a social and cultural totality. We understand that, in its search for markets, capitalism is driven to penetrate every nook and cranny of social existence. Especially in the phase of monopoly capitalism, the realm of consumption is every bit as important, just from an economic point of view, as the realm of production. So we cannot understand class struggle as something confined to issues of wages and hours, or confined only to workplace issues. Class struggle occurs in every arena where the interests of classes conflict, and that includes education, health, art, music, etc. We aim to transform not only the ownership of the means of production, but the totality of social existence.
As Marxists, we come to feminism from a completely different place than the mechanical Marxists. Because we see monopoly capitalism as a political/economic/cultural totality, we have room within our Marxist framework for feminist issues which have nothing ostensibly to do with production or “politics,” issues that have to do with the family, health care, and “private” life.
Furthermore, in our brand of Marxism, there is no “woman question,” because we never compartmentalized women off to the “superstructure” or somewhere else in the first place. Marxists of a mechanical bent continually ponder the issue of the unwaged woman (the housewife): Is she really a member of the working class? That is, does she really produce surplus value? We say, of course housewives are members of the working class—not because we have some elaborate proof that they really do produce surplus value—but because we understand a class as being composed of people, and as having a social existence quite apart from the capitalist-dominated realm of production. When we think of class in this way, then we see that in fact the women who seemed most peripheral, the housewives, are at the very heart of their class—raising children, holding together families, maintaining the cultural and social networks of the community.
We are coming out of a kind of feminism and a kind of Marxism whose interests quite naturally flow together. I think we are in a position now to see why it is that socialist feminism has been so mystified: The idea of socialist feminism is a great mystery or paradox, so long as what you mean by socialism is really what I have called “mechanical Marxism” and what you mean by feminism is an ahistorical kind of radical feminism. These things just don’t add up; they have nothing in common.
But if you put together another kind of socialism and another kind of feminism, as I have tried to define them, you do get some common ground and that is one of the most important things about socialist feminism today. It is a space—free from the constrictions of a truncated kind of feminism and a truncated version of Marxism—in which we can develop the kind of politics that addresses the political/economic/cultural totality of monopoly capitalist society. We could only go so far with the available kinds of feminism, the conventional kind of Marxism, and then we had to break out to something that is not so restrictive and incomplete in its view of the world. We had to take a new name, “socialist feminism,” in order to assert our determination to comprehend the whole of our experience and to forge a politics that reflects the totality of that comprehension.
However, I don’t want to leave socialist feminist theory as a “space” or a common ground. Things are beginning to grow in that “ground.” We are closer to a synthesis in our understanding of sex and class, capitalism and male domination, than we were a few years ago. Here I will indicate only very sketchily one such line of thinking:
The Marxist/feminist understanding that class and sex domination rest ultimately on force is correct, and this remains the most devastating critique of sexist/capitalist society. But there is a lot to that “ultimately.” In a day to day sense, most people acquiesce to sex and class domination without being held in line by the threat of violence, and often without even the threat of material deprivation.
It is very important, then, to figure out what it is, if not the direct application of force, that keeps things going. In the case of class, a great deal has been written already about why the U.S. working class lacks militant class consciousness. Certainly ethnic divisions, especially the black/white division, are a key part of the answer. But I would argue, in addition to being divided, the working class has been socially atomized. Working-class neighborhoods have been destroyed and are allowed to decay; life has become increasingly privatized and inward-looking; skills once possessed by the working class have been expropriated by the capitalist class; and capitalist controlled “mass culture” has edged out almost all indigenous working-class culture and institutions. Instead of collectivity and self-reliance as a class, there is mutual isolation and collective dependency on the capitalist class.
The subjugation of women, in the ways which are characteristic of late capitalist society, has been key to this process of class atomization. To put it another way, the forces which have atomized working-class life and promoted cultural/material dependence on the capitalist class are the same forces which have served to perpetuate the subjugation of women. It is women who are most isolated in what has become an increasingly privatized family existence (even when they work outside the home too). It is, in many key instances, women’s skills (productive skills, healing, midwifery, etc.), which have been discredited or banned to make way for commodities. It is, above all, women who are encouraged to be utterly passive/uncritical/dependent (i.e., “feminine”) in the face of the pervasive capitalist penetration of private life. Historically, late capitalist penetration of working-class life has singled out women as prime targets of pacification/“feminization”—because women are the culture-bearers of their class.
It follows that there is a fundamental interconnection between women’s struggle and what is traditionally conceived as class struggle. Not all women’s struggles have an inherently anticapitalist thrust (particularly not those which seek only to advance the power and wealth of special groups of women), but all those which build collectivity and collective confidence among women are vitally important to the building of class consciousness. Conversely, not all class struggles have an inherently antisexist thrust (especially not those that cling to preindustrial patriarchal values), but all those which seek to build the social and cultural autonomy of the working class are necessarily linked to the struggle for women’s liberation.
This, in very rough outline, is one direction which socialist feminist analysis is taking. No one is expecting a synthesis to emerge which will collapse socialist and feminist struggle into the same thing. The capsule summaries I gave earlier retain their “ultimate” truth: there are crucial aspects of capitalist domination (such as racial oppression) which a purely feminist perspective simply cannot account for or deal with—without bizarre distortions, that is. There are crucial aspects of sex oppression (such as male violence within the family) which socialist thought has little insight into—again, not without a lot of stretching and distortion. Hence the need to continue to be socialists and feminists. But there is enough of a synthesis, both in what we think and what we do for us to begin to have a self-confident identity as socialist feminists.
The Socialist Feminist Project
by Nancy Holmstrom
This essay is adapted from the introduction to The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, edited by Nancy Holmstrom (Monthly Review Press, 2002)
Some would say socialist feminism is an artifact of the 1970s. It flowered with the women’s liberation movement, as a theoretical response to what many in the movement saw as the inadequacies of Marxism, liberalism, and radical feminism, but since then it has been defunct, both theoretically and politically. I think this view is mistaken.
Socialist feminism should be seen as an ongoing project. It is alive and well today and it existed before the women’s liberation movement as well—though both now and then, not necessarily in that name. It has sometimes been called Marxism, sometimes socialist feminism, sometimes womanism, sometimes materialist feminism, or feminist materialism, and sometimes is implicit in work that bears no theoretical labels. Though the term “socialist feminist” can be used more narrowly, as I will explain, I am going to characterize as a socialist feminist anyone trying to understand women’s subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, with the aim of using this analysis to help liberate women. As Barbara Ehrenreich said in 1975 the term socialist feminism “is much too short for what is, after all, really socialist, internationalist, antiracist, antiheterosexist feminism.”
Today the socialist feminist project is more pressing than ever. “[T]he need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe...transforming the world in its own image,” was the Communist Manifesto’s prescient description of what is now referred to as “globalization.” “The Battle of Seattle” against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the demonstrations that have followed in Davos, Quebec City, Genoa, and wherever world economic leaders meet, express peoples’ growing awareness of and protest against capitalism as a global force beyond democratic control. The brutal economic realities of globalization impact everyone across the globe—but women are affected disproportionately. Displaced by rapid economic changes, women bear a greater burden of labor throughout the world as social services have been cut, whether in response to structural adjustment plans in the third world or to so-called welfare reform in the United States. Women have been forced to migrate, are subject to trafficking, and are the proletarians of the newly industrializing countries. On top of all this they continue to be subject to sexual violence and in much of the world are not allowed to control their own processes of reproduction. How should we understand these phenomena and, more importantly, how do we go about changing them? Feminist theory that is lost in theoretical abstractions or that depreciates economic realities will be useless for this purpose. Feminism that speaks of women’s oppression and its injustice but fails to address capitalism will be of little help in ending women’s oppression. Marxism’s analysis of history, of capitalism, and of social change is certainly relevant to understanding these economic changes, but if its categories of analysis are understood in a gender- or race-neutral way it will be unable to do justice to them. Socialist feminism is the approach with the greatest capacity to illuminate the exploitation and oppression of most of the women of the world.
The broad characterization of socialist feminism I am using allows for a range of views regarding the relationship among the many facets of our identities. Some of us would make class fundamental from an explanatory point of view, while others would refuse to give a general primacy to any one factor over others. Despite these differences in our perspectives, in the broad sense of “socialist feminism” that I am using here, all socialist feminists see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. And all of us see these aspects of our lives as inseparably and systematically related; in other words, class is always gendered and raced. We should promote conversation, dialogue, and debate among these different perspectives, but it is important to see that the conversation takes place within a common project that underlies the differences. The project has a long history.
What we now call feminism came to public attention in the eighteenth century, most notably in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), where she argued for equal opportunity for women based on a rational capacity common to both sexes, expressing “the wild wish to see the sex distinction confounded in society.” Her feminist aspirations came together with socialistic aims in the thinking of a number of utopian socialists, whose visions of socialism included not only sexual equality in the family and society at large but the end of the sexual division of labor—Wollstonecraft’s “wild wish” which is radical even today. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared these aspirations and deepened the critique of naturalistic justifications of all social hierarchies. But Marx and Engels were impatient with blueprints for a good society and focused instead on developing a theory of history, society, and social change which would be the basis for the realization of these ideals. It is worth pausing briefly to consider what Marx and Engels said, since Marxism has had a great influence on feminism, whether it has been appropriated, rejected, or transformed.
To summarize many volumes in a paragraph: according to Marxism’s historical materialist approach, history is a succession of modes of production like feudalism and capitalism, each constituted by distinctive relations between the direct producers and the owners of the means of production who live off the labor of the producers. History, says the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, is the history of class struggles...freeman and slave...lord and serf...in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” But, although oppression and exploitation are common to all class societies, the relations between oppressor and oppressed have varied; in other words, exactly how each ruling class manages to live off the labor of the producers differs from one mode of production to another and each must be understood in its own terms.
The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relations of rulers and ruled....It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers...which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it...the corresponding specific form of the state.1
Not only the state, but the family, art, philosophy, and religion—even human nature—all take different forms in different modes of production. Marx goes on to say that what is basically the same economic basis can show “infinite variations and gradations in appearance,” depending on specific historical conditions, which have to be studied in detail. In other words, within capitalism different forms of government and art and family are possible because capitalism is not the only influence. Nevertheless, the relations of production have an explanatory primacy within Marxist theory because they constitute the framework within which other influences occur. And this is because the relations of production provide the “laws of motion” distinctive to each given mode of production. Thus capitalism, the mode of production most studied by Marx, is understood to be a unique historical form aimed at the maximization of profit in a competitive market system. This forces capitalists to strive continually to develop the productivity of labor and technology; for, according to Marx’s theory, profit has its origin in wage labor. Though, unlike in slavery or serfdom, labor is legally free in capitalism, workers in capitalism are also free of any means of subsistence of their own; this forces them to work for capitalists and produce the profit that drives the system. Given these essential characteristics of all capitalist societies, while different and changing forms of government are possible, the constraints of capitalism rule out possibilities such as a true monarchy or a workers’ government. Just what forms of family are possible within capitalism has been a matter of some debate.
Given the concepts’ centrality in their theory, Marx and Engels focused on the oppression and exploitation inherent in the relationship between wage laborers and capitalists. They paid less attention to other forms of labor—for example, the labor of peasants or of women in the family—and to other kinds of oppression simply because they were not as central to their project of understanding capitalism and overturning it. Marx and Engels believed that if they could understand how capitalism worked and help make workers’ conscious of their oppression they could contribute to workers’ self-emancipation. They believed that the self-emancipation of the working class—men and women, of all nations races, and creeds—would be the basis for the end of all other forms of oppression. With the establishment of the first real democracy, the rule of the immense majority—that is, socialism—class oppression and antagonism would be replaced by “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” As to how such a society would be organized, they pointed to the Paris Commune of 1870 as “what a workers’ government would look like,” but otherwise said very little.
Tragically, the first successful socialist revolution took place in Russia—a country that lacked the large working class and the material development that Marx saw as necessary for socialism—and no successful revolutions followed in Western Europe where these necessary conditions did exist. In the early years of the revolution when Alexandra Kollontai was in the government and women were organized independently within the Communist Party, remarkable gains were made for women, from the end of legal restrictions on sexual behavior including homosexuality and abortion, to preventing women’s jobs being given to returning soldiers (they were allocated on the basis of need rather than sex) to the provision of communal restaurants, laundries, and childcare. However most of these gains were eliminated later on and women were certainly not emancipated in the Soviet Union. But this does not show, as many commentators would have it, that “socialism failed women.” Men were not liberated either. This was far from the socialism-from-below that the classical Marxists had envisioned. Whatever the inadequacies of Marxist theories on what they called the “woman question,” there was no opportunity to correct them, for, as Marx had predicted in The German Ideology, without the necessary conditions for socialism, “all the old crap”—exploitation and oppression—would return. And indeed it did, in the form of Stalin’s dictatorship, which expropriated the name of Marxism, established a mode of production Marx had never foreseen and destroyed the vision of socialism for millions of people.
In the mid-1970s many women within the women’s liberation movement found themselves dissatisfied with the prevailing analyses of women’s oppression. Liberalism was not radical enough, and radical feminism ignored economic realities. But Marxism was tainted, as Adrienne Rich describes, “by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.”2 Seeking to combine the best of Marxism and radical feminism, these women developed a theory they called socialist feminism. When socialist feminism is intended in this way—as differentiated from Marxism—”Marxist feminism” is then understood as a perspective which gives primacy to class oppression as opposed to other forms of oppression—or going further, that reduces sex oppression to class oppression. (Radical feminism asserts the reverse relationship.) While the terms “Marxist feminism” and “socialist feminism” can be used in these narrower senses, the distinctions are to some extent verbal. As Rosemarie Tong concedes in Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, not everyone will agree with her classification of feminists into “Marxist” or “socialist.”3 For Tong, “[a]lthough it is possible to distinguish between Marxist and socialist-feminist thought, it is quite difficult to do so.” While there are theoretical differences among socialists and feminists on various issues, which in some contexts are important, the terms “Marxist” or “socialist” or “materialist” do not necessarily denote different perspectives. In Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Alison Jaggar suggests that socialist feminism may be a more consistent Marxism.4 Which term a feminist chooses to describe herself reflects her particular understanding of Marxism and her theoretical and political milieu, and perhaps her personal experience, as much as it does the substance of her position. For example, Margaret Benston’s classic 1969 article “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” is described as a Marxist feminist analysis of household labor because she used Marxist categories and clearly saw herself as writing within a Marxist theoretical framework.5 In fact Benston modified Marxist categories in ways that other feminists would say showed that Marxism was inadequate and needed a distinctive socialist feminist theory.6 Her article stimulated quite a debate regarding how to understand household labor within Marxist/socialist feminist terms—the so-called domestic labor debate.
In the 1990s the term “materialist feminism” gained currency, coined by feminists who wanted to give some grounding in social realities to postmodernist theory. However, materialist feminism is “a rather problematic and elusive concept,” in Martha Gimenez’s apt characterization, in that sometimes it is used more or less as a synonym for “Marxist” or “socialist feminist” combined with discourse analysis (as in the work of Rosemary Hennessy), while it is also used by cultural feminists who want nothing to do with Marxism.7 Yet another term that does not necessarily signal a distinct theoretical perspective regarding the relationship among class, sex, and race is “womanist,” a term preferred by some women of color who feel that “feminist” is too one-dimensional and who want to indicate solidarity with men of color as well as with women. Similarly, those who call themselves “multicultural” or “global” feminists would be socialist feminists in my broad sense. Feminists use a particular term to situate themselves within particular debates.
It is “socialist feminism” in the narrower sense that has declined. Developed by feminists who accepted Marxism’s critique of capitalism but rejected the view that women’s oppression was reducible to class oppression—which is how they understood the Marxist analysis—they argued that women’s position in today’s society was a function of both the economic system (capitalism) and the sex-gender system, which they called patriarchy. Some socialist feminists preferred to speak of one system they called capitalist patriarchy. But whether they preferred one system or two, the key claim was that the mode of production had no greater primacy than sex-gender relations in explaining women’s subordination. Many saw the Marxist emphasis on wage labor rather than on all kinds of labor, especially mothering, and on the relations of production rather than on the relations they called “the relations of reproduction,” (sexuality and parenting), as sexist. Convinced that “the personal is political” they wanted to give theoretical and political attention to issues of sex, sexuality, and relations in the family which some utopian socialists had addressed but which most Marxists ignored.
This distinctively anti-Marxist version of socialist feminism declined I believe, for both internal and external reasons. Socialist feminists of the 1970s had criticized liberal and Marxist writers for using categories that were “gender-blind”: “the individual” in liberalism, “the working class” in Marxism. Such categories ignore sex differences among individuals and workers, feminists argued, and hence neither liberalism nor Marxism could explain women’s oppression. But women of color could and did make the same criticism of feminism, including socialist feminism, for using race-blind categories: “working class women,” or simply “women.” To accommodate race oppression (and heterosexism and other forms of oppression), there seemed to be two choices. If we need to posit “a system of social relations” to explain sexism as they argued, then to explain racism (and other forms of oppression) we would have to posit systems beyond capitalism and patriarchy. This option raised a number of questions including: What exactly constitutes a “system”? How many is enough? How are they related? How does the resulting perspective differ from simple pluralism? The other option was to go back to a theory like Marxism which aims to be all-inclusive. Since socialist feminists had distinguished themselves from Marxists because they were unclear how to integrate different forms of oppression without reducing one to the other, this did not seem an attractive option, but neither did the multiplication of systems. Hence there was and remains a lack of clarity, and disagreement as to exactly how different forms of oppression are related.
Socialist feminism as a theoretical position distinct from Marxism also declined for external reasons, both intellectual and political. On the intellectual front, it would be difficult to overemphasize the influence postmodernism has had in the academic world. Starting from valid critiques of many theories’ overgeneralizations and neglect of historical and political context, postmodernists ended up arguing from very anti-theoretical positions. Their emphasis on the local and particular, their attack on what they call “totalizing narratives” and on the very notion of truth and causality, were deeply discouraging to feminists trying to develop a coherent and systematic theory of women’s oppression. The insight associated with postmodernism (though actually it was not new) that social and political power influence science, led many to scepticism. Also despite the inconsistency, it led many to claim that everything is socially constructed thereby eliminating the distinction between sex and gender that had been so central to feminist critiques of gender relations. But if the body disappears in significations, what is the basis for arguing for reproductive rights? Given that some of postmodernism builds on insights associated with feminism and presents itself as radical, its effect was disorienting to say the least.
Turning to political causes, the decline of women’s liberation and other social movements had a profound impact. The explosion of writing by feminists of all persuasions (indeed the creation of these “persuasions”) was a product of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the fact that a number of very influential articles of this period began as position statements for activist groups (the Redstockings’ Manifesto, the Combahee River Collective’s Statement), or as collective papers (Heidi Hartmann’s and Gayle Rubin’s—two of the most influential of this period). New movements stimulated new theorizing; for example, the gay and lesbian movements gave rise to the academic field Queer Studies. With the move of many activists into social policy and service work for women, into academia, and into families and middle age this essential active stimulation was lost. It is not coincidental that the hottest feminist theorizing of the last decade was of a highly academic sort—postmodernism—while the dominant politics have been the most local and particularistic form of identity politics. Moreover, of course, we have to appreciate the context in which all this has taken place, namely, the general rightward political drift throughout the world during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
My own opinion is that critiques of Marxism as sexist for focusing on relations of production and for ignoring labor in the family are misguided given the primary aim of Marxist theory, as explained above. It was not sexism that led Marx to say that in capitalism women’s household labor was unproductive for he said the same thing about a carpenter working for the government. Although both are obviously productive in a general sense, Marx was seeking to understand what is productive from the point of view of capitalism—that only labor produces surplus value. Moreover, to understand how various aspects of society including different forms of oppression, interrelate—and, more important, how to change them—we need a theory that addresses these questions. That is precisely what historical materialism aims to do both in its sociological aspect and in its account of historical change. Hence it remains vitally important. Though any theory developed over a century ago needs some revision, in my opinion Marxism’s basic theory does not need significant revision in order to take better account of women’s oppression. However, I do believe that the theory needs to be supplemented. Feminists are justified in wanting a social theory that gives a fuller picture of production and reproduction than Marx’s political economic theory does, one that extends questions of democracy not only to the economy but to personal relations. They are also justified in wanting to pay attention to the emotional dimensions of our lives, both to understand how oppression manifests itself in the most intimate aspects of our lives and also, most importantly, to give a more complete vision of human emancipation. The potential is there in Marxism. Marx’s subtle understanding of how economic relations penetrate into our very being make him “a great geographer of the human condition,” in Adrienne Rich’s characterization. But these insights were underdeveloped. Furthermore, Marx’s and Engels’s commitment to a genuinely democratic socialism led them to ignore questions of what socialism would look like, saying they did not want to “write recipe books for the cooks of the future.” But what economic democracy would look like is an extraordinarily complicated question and explorations would have been helpful. Moreover, this omission made it easier to equate socialism with what existed in the Soviet bloc or in the social-welfarist capitalism of Western Europe. Today we need these prefigurative visions of socialism more than ever and feminists have much to contribute to them.
Socialist feminist theorizing (in the broad sense) is flourishing, particularly in empirical work by historians and other social scientists. This work has been influential, showing that feminist theory is still a collective enterprise, as its practitioners always stress. What is now called “intersectionality”—that is, the recognition that a woman’s position is always a function of her class, ethnicity, and so on, as well as her sex—is paid at least lip service by most feminists. Often, however, this recognition is expressed simply as a list of “isms,” of which “classism” is given least attention or else is conflated with racism so that white is invariably coupled with middle class and black with poor. It is only in the work that I am calling socialist feminist in the broad sense that these aspects are integrated coherently and systematically. A socialist feminist perspective also informs what activism there is, including most significantly, labor activism. While this is probably due more to the fact that the workforce of the United States is increasingly female and minority than to the influence of socialist feminist theory, nevertheless it is significant. Even NOW (the National Organization of Women) is considerably more class and race conscious than it was in its early days when it focused on the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and the legalization of abortion while virtually ignoring the Hyde Amendment which denied the use of Medicaid funds for abortion.
I believe the time is right for a positive reappraisal of the socialist feminist perspective. The brutal economic realities of globalization make it impossible to ignore class, and feminists are now asking on a global level the kinds of big questions they asked on a societal level in the 1970s. A number of developments in the United States are also significant in this regard. Most important is the fact that the increasingly female and minority composition of the workforce makes it more apparent that sharp splits between class oppression and sex or race oppression, or between workplace and community issues are untenable practically and theoretically. The commitment of the new leadership of the AFL-CIO to organizing has raised peoples’ interest and their hopes. Students across the country have become active around the issue of sweatshops and have linked up with labor groups around the world. A conference was held at Harvard a few years back on Students and Labor. This was followed by a long and successful Campaign for a Living Wage, at Harvard, in the spring of 2001. Two conferences on Academics and Labor have taken place. The academic focus on cultural issues to the exclusion of politics is beginning to seem one-sided, even self-indulgent, to more and more people. I believe the grip of postmodernism and identity politics is loosening as attacks have increased from all quarters. Even within identity politics there is some indirect attention to class, as for example in “white trash” literature. However, we must not leave these criticisms to the right (and to those on the left such as Todd Gitlin). It is essential to retain the insights of the 1960s. Socialist theory and practice that failed to give serious attention to issues of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality would have little credibility today. And so, in addition to criticism, it is important to offer positive examples of analyses that integrate class with those other aspects of identity. It is also important to pursue theoretical discussion within the broad socialist feminist perspective regarding the relationship between class and other aspects of identity and the meaning of “material” and “economic.” The recent internal critiques of postmodernism by feminists who have tried to take it in a more realist and materialist direction have broadened this discussion. With economic questions once again central to many feminists’ agendas, and with the apparent decline of postmodernism, this is an opportune time to reconsider how Marxism can help us comprehend the global reality of women’s oppression and how Marxism itself needs to be revised or supplemented.
What Happened to the Women’s Movement?
by Barbara Epstein
From the late 1960s into the 1980s there was a vibrant women's movement in the United States. Culturally influential and politically powerful, on its liberal side this movement included national organizations and campaigns for reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and other reforms. On its radical side it included women's liberation and consciousness raising groups, as well as cultural and grassroots projects. The women's movement was also made up of innumerable caucuses and organizing projects in the professions, unions, government bureaucracies, and other institutions. The movement brought about major changes in the lives of many women, and also in everyday life in the United States. It opened to women professions and blue-collar jobs that previously had been reserved for men. It transformed the portrayal of women by the media. It introduced the demand for women's equality into politics, organized religion, sports, and innumerable other arenas and institutions, and as a result the gender balance of participation and leadership began to change. By framing inequality and oppression in family and personal relations as a political question, the women's movement opened up public discussion of issues previously seen as private, and therefore beyond public scrutiny. The women's movement changed the way we talk, and the way we think. As a result, arguably most young women now believe that their options are or at least should be as open as men's.
Despite the dramatic accomplishments of the women's movement, and the acceptance of women's equality as a goal in most sectors of U.S. society, gender equality has not yet been achieved. Many more women work outside the home but most continue to be concentrated in low-paying jobs; women earn, on the average, considerably less than men; women are much more likely than men to be poor. Violence against women is still widespread. Responsibility for childcare remains largely the responsibility of women; despite the fact that most women work outside the home, nowhere is it seen as a societal rather than a familial responsibility. In the 1960s and 1970s feminists protested the imbalance in power between men and women in family and personal relations. But these continue to exist.
Worst of all, there is no longer a mass women's movement. There are many organizations working for women's equality in the public arena and in private institutions; these include specifically women's organizations such as the National Organization for Women, and in environmental, health care, social justice and other areas that address women's issues. But, where there were once women's organizations with large participatory memberships there are now bureaucratic structures run by paid staff. Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women's lives and has become pretentious and tired. This raises two questions. Why is there so little discussion of the near-disappearance of a movement that not so long ago was strong enough to bring about major changes in the social and cultural landscape? What are the causes of the movement's decline?