Notes from AWL dayschool on socialist feminism, April 2007
What is socialist-feminism?
The basic and defining arguments of socialist-feminism are:
• Sexual difference, gender roles and the sexism and oppression of women that arises from them are not biological or inevitable, but socially constructed and rooted in the structures of society.
• The oppression experienced by women in our society is particular to and rooted within capitalism. Class and sex oppression are intertwined and interdependent, and therefore the liberation of women and the emancipation of the working class must take place hand in hand.
Feminism and socialism have a long history together, and socialists have, from the beginning been interested in women’s rights.
Feminism and calls for women’s rights formed a central part of the first socialist movements in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, with the Owenites in Britain and the Fourierists and Saint Simonians in France. They argued that woman’s exploitation within marriage, where she was economically dependent on and socially subordinate to her husband, was the result of the interests of private property intruding into personal relationships. Women were married for their wealth (if they were from the upper classes) or for their reproductive and domestic services (if they were from the working classes) they were therefore also treated as a form of private property in that they were subject entirely to the sexual and social control of their husbands. The early socialists argued that the emancipation of women was crucial to the freedom of humanity and that women could never truly be liberated without an end to private property.
Later in the 19th century Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1885) attempted to trace in detail the emergence of women’s oppression. Engels looked to the development of human civilisation from the earliest societies, and argued that women became the subordinate sex with the emergence of private property, inheritance traditions and the division of labour. Although the details of his analysis have been criticised in light of later research, his approach, in which he discussed the position of women in terms of the changing material conditions that determined it, not just in terms of abstract rights and wrongs, was crucial to future socialist-feminist analysis.
These basic socialist-feminist ideas were developed and, more importantly, put into practice in the German Social Democratic women’s movement towards the end of the 19th and early 20th century, and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, whereby women began to organise in the work place to fight for their rights as workers and demand equality under law and state provision from the government. As part of both these movements the position of women and their struggle for emancipation was widely discussed within the labour movement and socialist parties as a whole.
The next point at which socialist feminism re-emerges as a significant force was during Second Wave Feminism:
In the late 1960s and 70s, second wave feminism gave rise to a renewed efforts to build a socialist-feminist movement. Socialist-feminists aimed not to simply superficially incorporate the new mass women’s movement into ‘wider’ working class struggle, but to use their experiences in the women’s liberation movement to transform and improve socialism; to build ‘a new kind of feminism and a new kind of Marxism’.
• Socialist feminists were sharp critics of fellow socialists. They wanted to move away from what they termed ‘mechanical Marxism’, a reductive economic analysis of class oppression, which focused on the male workplace and the conventional political sphere as the only possible and significant sites of struggle. Within such an analysis, every other part of experience and social existence – things having to do with education, sexuality, recreation, the family, art, music, housework etc, was peripheral to the central dynamics of social change.
• In contrast, socialist feminists argued that because capitalism, in its search for markets, penetrated every nook and cranny of social and cultural existence, it affected the housewife, who had never entered a formal workplace, as much as it affected the factory worker. Class struggle was not simply a matter of wages and hours or confined only to workplace issues, but could occur in every arena where the interests of classes conflict. Thus, when women were bombarded with advertisements by the beauty industry, telling them how to look, feel and behave they were also experiencing a form of capitalist oppression.
• It was this belief that sexual identity, self-image and the division of labour within the family were valid issues for political discussion and action that lay behind the socialist feminist definition of the slogan ‘the personal is political’. Socialist feminists argued that the problems faced by women on a daily basis- whether their husband did the washing up, whether they enjoyed having sex, whether they felt themselves to be failures because they didn’t conform to conventional standards of beauty- were not simply personal issues that women either had to overcome individually or put up with. They were political issues, embedded within the capitalist system, and the fight against such ‘personal’ oppression was as crucial an aspect of class struggle as more traditional workplace actions.
• But socialist-feminists also sought to build a distinctive kind of feminism. They criticised the concept of patriarchy, a term used by radical feminists to describe what they believed to be the primary form of oppression; the systematic oppression of women in all societies throughout history. Sheila Rowbotham noted that ‘patriarchy implies a universal and ahistorical form of oppression which returns us to biology…it does not carry any notion of how women may act to transform their situation as a sex.’ Socialist feminists argued that although women had been oppressed in pre-capitalist societies also, their oppression under capitalism was different and needed therefore to be analysed within this context and according to particular historical conditions. Capitalism, as well as oppressing women in new ways, had crucially brought women into the workplace, providing them with economic independence and the opportunity to discuss their position with other women and organise together to change it. It was therefore central to a programme for women’s liberation that it should take into account the conditions capitalism has created and use these to fight against that very system and the sexism embedded within it.
• Socialist feminists argued that sexism not only needed to be analysed in terms of its role within capitalism, but that the fight against it could not separated from the struggle against capitalism. In this sense they critiqued liberal feminism: Campaigns to allow women to become heads of corporations would do nothing to help the majority of working class women struggling to raise a family (without decent childcare provision), and in focusing campaigns for women’s rights around the figure of the ‘have-it-all’ middle-class working mother, socialist-feminists pointed out that this ignored and excluded the working-class women upon whom this mirage of liberation depended- the nanny and the cleaner.
Challenges to socialist feminism:
It seems to me that there are two main challenges to socialist feminism as a way of understanding the world and engaging in meaningful struggle which are worth thinking about.
The first is that put forward by many feminists - of varying radical and left wing stripes - particularly during the 1970s. This was the idea that Marxist theory was unable to incorporate analysis of gender oppression because it was ‘sex-blind’, or rather because it was only concerned with the working-class (which it assumed was male) and struggles in the workplace. Heidi Hartmann’s essay The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism was published in 1981 and is one of the best known critiques of Marxism from a feminist viewpoint. In it she argued that ‘The “marriage” of Marxism and feminism has been like the marriage of husband and wife, depicted in English common law; Marxism and feminism are one, and that one is Marxism. Recent attempts to integrate Marxism and feminism are unsatisfactory to us as feminists because they subsume the feminist struggle into the “larger” struggle against capitalism.’
Hartmann and other socialist feminists such as Michelle Barret argued that Marxist modes of analysis did not leave any room for a consideration of gender oppression (or race come to that), and that to talk about capitalism and class meant focusing struggle on the (white) male. In other words, Marxist theory was not up to understanding the oppressions which the new movements of the 60s and 70s (civil rights and women’s liberation) had shown to be just as vicious as class oppression.
The second main challenge to socialist feminism that I want us all to think about is one that is a lot more common today. It is an argument put forward often in anarchist-influenced circles and is also quite popular among lefty academics. It is also laid out as part of the official policy of United Students Against Sweatshops - a very good workers' rights student organisation in the United States. The idea of a ‘kaleidoscope of oppressions’ or the ‘intersection of oppressions’ argues that race, class and sex are all equal in terms of the oppression they mete out. This goes beyond recognising that class and race and sex are all interlinked. For it explicitly rejects the notion of a hierarchy of oppressions - the idea that racism is worse than sexism or vice versa - and criticises Marxism for privileging class oppression over sexism and racism. To always talk about class and class struggle, it is claimed, is to marginalise the struggles of women and black people.
Questions - statements to discuss
‘Marxist theory reduces everything to economics and therefore only addresses the issues of (white male) class oppression. Theoretically, it is incapable of analysing and addressing women’s oppression.’
‘The oppression of women, black people, queer people and working class people is all interdependent and equal. To talk about class struggle privileges one oppression above another and marginalises struggles against sexism, homophobia and racism.’
‘Sexism is bad but because it emanates from capitalism we need to unite in the struggle against the bosses and wait for socialism to solve the problem of women’s oppression.’
‘Talking about rich women oppressing poor women divides the sisterhood. We need to unite if we are going to win the fight against sexism. Socialist feminists exclude their middle-class sisters from the women’s movement.’
‘It is not in the interests of working-class men to fight sexism - they have it good at the moment! A merging of Marxism and feminism just won’t work.’
‘Sexism, racism and homophobia are bad and should be fought against. But class oppression is more fundamental to capitalist society and therefore struggles against other forms of oppression are only useful if they occur as part of the struggle for socialism.’
‘It is possible for capitalism to exist without sexism, racism or homophobia.’