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Book Review: Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution

Book Review_ Abolitionist Socialist Feminism

Book Review: Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution

H. Bradford

6/27/19

An edited version of this post appears in Socialist Action news:

https://socialistaction.org/2019/06/21/books-abolitionist-socialist-feminism/


Zillah Eisenstein, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution” (New York, Monthly Review Press: 2019), pp. 160


An astonishing three to five million people participated in the 2017 Women’s March in the United States and this year, 600,000-700,000 people are believed to have participated.  Yet, the Women’s March and in the feminist movement in general has been critiqued for ignoring racism and how the experiences of women of color differ from those of white women. Although women of color were leaders in organizing the Women’s March, the march has been criticized for failing to address racism in signs, leaders, and demands.  Another critique, such as from Alicia Brown a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, was that those who attended the march had neither spoke against nor shown up to protest the racist nature of mass incarceration, unemployment, police violence, and homelessness. The feminist movement today is often criticized as “white feminism” or a movement which fights for middle or upper class white women, only giving lip service to racial issues when it furthers their own goals or image.  A similar critique is sometimes launched at socialists, who are at times accused of sidelining race and gender issues in the interest of class struggle. The substance and meaning of Bernie Sander’s version of socialism is debatable, but he has been accused of color blindness and avoiding of racial issues. For those who associate Sander’s with socialism, it sends the message that race is not important to socialists. Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution by Zillah Eistenstein seeks to remedy of the problem of “white feminism” and color blind socialism by connecting anti-racism, feminism, and socialism.


One important way that the book addresses racism is by centering itself around the voices of people of color.  Although author Zillah Eisenstein is white, she highlights the insights of a large number of antiracist thinkers and activists such as Kimberly Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Frantz Fanon.  Centering the voices and experiences of people of color is important to anti-racist movement building and Eisenstein models this throughout the text. The book itself ceners upon examining multiple oppressions in ways that are inspired from Kimberly Crenshaw’s intersectionality as well as the Black feminist thinking that preceeding it, such as the work of the Combahee River Collective.  The Combahee River Collective argued that “sexism, racism, heterosexism, and capitalism are interlocking systems of oppression that necessitate revolutionary action (p. 57).”  Thus, as the name suggests, Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution (2019), takes a multifaceted approach to feminism and socialism and is a tool for building a movement which fights against racism, while fighting for workers, women, and other oppressed groups.  The book begins by posing a series of questions meant to provoke deeper thinking about the interconnectedness of racial, class, and gender oppression. These questions are explored throughout the book, though the big idea is that socialism and feminism must be anti-racist, anti-racism needs socialism and feminism, feminism must be socalist, and socialism must be feminist.


While the book offers many insights, there are a few which are particularly important.  Again addressing the issue of white feminism, the book vigorously pursues the important point that white women have been complicit in maintaining white supremacy.  A largely white female jury determined that George Zimmerman was not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. White women historically supported the lynching and castration of Black males.  They also obtained social standing by controlling slaves. Eistenstein also argues that white women helped to get Trump elected, as 53% if white women voted for Trump (with the caveat that half of eligible voters did not vote at all.)  She posits that white women voted for racism and sexism when voting for Trump, who represents misogynoir, a term coined by Paula Moya. Misogynoir is a term to add to the vocabulary of multiple oppressions and is used several times in the book to describe the intersection of sexism and racism.


Another important point made in the book is that the working class is not white and male, nor has the global working class ever been predominantly white and male.  The struggles of workers of color are spotlighted in the book, such as the example of the 2014 fast food strikes, which were led by women of color and the largest to occur in the history of the industry.  Around the world, women engage in paid and unpaid labor and while laboring, have been the victims of rape and murder, such as in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo where women have been killed while gathering wood.  This connection between labor and vulnerability to sexual assault is an important observation, as women are often victim blamed when they are assaulted at work, especially if they are sex workers or work at bars, alone, or on night shifts.  Labor and sexual assault warrants more attention in feminist and socialist circles. While there are many differences in women around the world, labor and experiences of violence is a common experiential thread that binds many of the world’s women.  This leads to another important point, which is that feminism is often predicated upon an imagined “we” of female experience. Eisenstein makes the point that women are both presidents of nations and die in the hundreds of thousands in childbirth. Women are not a heterogeneous group, but do share some similarities, most markedly in their experiences of sexual violence and for many, their expanded role as part of the proletariat.  A third important point is that Black women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. The prison system itself is a continuation of slavery, and the point is made that Sandra Bland had no more rights than she would have had as a slave. Because of the racist nature of the criminal justice system, the answer to crime against women is not punishment but restorative justice.


Despite the many strengths of the book, there are some weaknesses.  For one, the book does not say enough about the solution to prisons.  While it is established that the United States’ criminal justice system violently upholds white supremacy, the question of prisons is not given full attention.  The word “abolition” in the title may suggest prison abolition, though prison abolition, reform, and restorative justice are giving passing attention. Instead, the title of the book refers to the author’s conception of a more revolutionary version of intersectionality.  Abolition as described in the book means “the abolition of white supremacist misogyny and its capitalist nexus alongside the racist misogyny of everyday practices (p. 99)” Abolition is further described as interlocking, revolutionary, radically inclusive, and multilayered.  It challenges white dominance by redistributing white wealth through taxes and reparations, ending white privilege, and calling upon white people to no longer act as deputies of the carceral state. A more revolutionary version of interlocking oppressions is a welcome development, especially when Eisenstein states early on that comrade is a better term than ally or accomplice, which imply distance from a struggle.  However, the book would have been strengthened by offering a bit more on the “what is to be done?” aspect of criminal justice, especially when carceral feminism is the dominant solution to issues of justice for women.


Abolitionism is the theoretical backbone of the text, but the book would be strengthened by expanding the this concept by answering some important questions about the nature of multiple oppressions.  Socialist feminists should have no qualms with the notion that oppressions are interconnected, as Eisenstein posits. She does not believe that these oppressions are bifurcated, or can be examined without examining each.  And, there should be no argument with Eisenstein that these oppressions are a part of capitalism. Yet, the nature of oppression is never quite expanded upon. Yes, it is interconnected, but by what mechanisms, by what origin, and to what end?  Social Reproduction Theory seeks to connect oppression back to the functioning of capitalism and thus would fortify the arguments of the book. A full examination of the topic of social reproduction and intersectionality is beyond the scope of this book review, but a glimpse of what the theory has to offer is made in an article by David McNally and Susan Ferguson (2015) entitled Social Reproduction Beyond Intersectionality.  David McNally and Susan Ferguson argue racism, sexism, homophobia, and other “isms” serve capitalist accumulation and dispossession but not evenly, neatly, or with crude economic determinism.  They state that the ways in which labor power is produced and reproduced exists in a social world that is bound and differentiated by race, nationality, gender, sexuality, age, and so on. These differences serve as determinants for the conditions of production and reproduction.  For instance, McNally and Ferguson use the example of migrants. In the interest of higher profits, labor power is often sourced from outside of wealthier countries such as the United States, where there are higher wages and often better conditions. Some work is less mobile, such as childcare for American families or work within the service industries of the U.S.  Migrants are a cheap labor source to fill this need, but are also vulnerable because they are not afforded the same legal or labor rights. The oppression of migrant workers can be connected to their precarious position within capitalism and the differentiated status that keeps them vulnerable. Thus, the oppression of immigrants intersects race, gender, and class and this oppression can be understood through the mechanism of extracting labor power, their role in social reproduction, and their place in a social world which renders them vulnerable.  Capitalism contains contradictions, unevenness, struggle, and agency, but it fundamentally divides workers from the means of their sustenance (social reproduction) and in doing so, is the totality in which oppressions exist.


A more significant shortcoming is the book’s contradictory message regarding elections.  For example, the book begins with some biographical information about Eisenstein, who has been engaged in anti-racist activism since her childhood in a communist family.  Her family’s principled stance against racism invited hardship in their lives. For instance, she could not buy a prom dress because of a boycott of the segregated department stores in Atlanta and she missed out on visiting a pool because it was unwelcoming to Blacks.  Unfortunately, these immutable principles did not prevent her from voting for Hilary Clinton, which was a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise compelling introductory chapter. Eisenstein correctly describes Hilary Clinton as a neoliberal feminist, beholden to corporate interests, and implicated in her husband’s racist, carceral state.  More could have been said about her role in the State Department. While this critique correctly recognizes Clinton as an accomplice to capitalism and white supremacy, she is still framed as the lesser evil and it is puzzled over why white women voted for Trump over Clinton. The two-party system, like so many things in the lives of women, is a choiceless choice.  Trump is overtly sexist and racist, while Clinton is perhaps less overtly either, but still an agent of U.S. imperialism, which relies on racism and sexism to function. Eisenstein describes how lynching became the electric chair and how the electoral college privileges slave states. She describes how Barack Obama sided with the rule of law in Fergusson after the death of Michael Brown.  She even calls for the formation of a third party and working towards revolution, but, she is unfortunately unable to break from Democrats entirely.


Part of Eistenstein’s unwillingness to break with the Democratic party is perhaps due to Trump exceptionalism.  Trump exceptionalism is the narrative that Donald Trump is uniquely horrible and therefore, voting for the most abhorrent Democrat is preferable to Trump’s unique brand of racist misogyny.   Every Republican is framed as the next worst thing, as it seems like just yesterday when George Bush Jr. was the worst president for being a warmongering, civil liberty defying dolt. Now, he is looked upon favorably by some who critiqued him before.  Understandably, the 2016 election is a central focus on the text. This is an important focus as many of the readers may have been recently radicalized by the election of Trump. The book reasonably tries to make sense of this election. While Trump is no doubt racist and sexist and unique in his crude comments and unabashed narcissism, it seems a bit far to say that Trump is America’s “first white supremacist misogynistic president (p.91).”  It is hard to imagine that Trump’s policies are worse than Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the fact that at least twelve presidents owned slaves. All presidents have been racist to varying degrees, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans to Bill Clinton’s crime bill. While Trump certainly seems exceptional in his sexist language and behaviors, Nixon was accused of domestic violence, Bill Clinton has been accused of multiple sexual assaults,  Grover Clevland sexually assaulted a woman who later had his child and had her committed to an asylum, and Thomas Jefferson had a family with his slave, Sally Hemings. Trump is terrible and must absolutely be challenged for his racist misogyny, but in the long view of American history, Trump fits right in among the slave holders, war makers, overseers of genocide that have been U.S. presidents. To consider him exceptional gives too much credit to the presidents who came before.  All U.S. presidents serve U.S. power and capital. The two party system is a two headed monster. One head is not better than the other, as both are attached to the body of imperialism. Revolution is possible only with the decapitation of both.


The electoral shortcoming aside, the book is powerfully written and a short, accessible, and important text for socialist, feminist, and anti-racist activists.   Eistenstein makes a vibrant and energizing call for building a revolutionary movement that takes on racism, sexism, and capitalism, but also tackles climate change, environmental racism, LGBTQ rights, Islamophobia, and war.  She boldly states that “resistance is not enough. Reform is not enough. Civil rights are not enough. Women’s rights are not enough. In other words: liberalism and liberal feminism do not work for this moment and never did (p. 127).” Despite the mixed messages about Democrats, she even states that voting is not enough.  She calls upon activists to move beyond moderation and employ a variety of tactics such as building connections between movements, workplace actions, internationalizing movements, mass actions, and visible civil disobedience. Building connections between movements or creating a movement of movements is central to her prescription for social change.  One of her more profound connections is towards the end of the book when she quoted Frantz Fanon, who said: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe (p.129).” She connects this to Eric Garner who said “I can’t breathe,” eleven times before he died. The point is well taken. Activists are called upon to fight relentlessly and courageously, with real solidarity, for a world wherein everyone can catch their breath, be it from police violence, polluted air, or the other suffocating miseries of capitalism.


 

Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

Image result for capitalism and racism angela davis

In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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Some Basics of Socialist Feminism

Some Basics of Socialist Feminism

H. Bradford

3/11/17

This week, International Women’s Day was marked by an impressive array of feminist mobilizations around the world.  For the first time in a long time in the U.S., the holiday hearkened back to its radical roots.  Women from Lansing to Chattanooga, along with at least fifty other cities in the United States, participated in demonstrations related to “A Day Without a Woman.” Locally, there were numerous events spread across the week which touched upon a wide range of issues including domestic violence, wage parity, reproductive rights, and U.S. foreign policy.  Considering the connection the holiday has to the labor and socialist movements, it is suiting that this month’s Feminist Frolic would include a labor history hike around Superior.  I wanted to end the hike with an equally relevant topic: socialist feminism.


It is hard to know where to begin when explaining socialist feminism.  It is something I take for granted and something that isn’t easily explained.  There is no “one” socialist feminism, since there are many strains of socialist thought.  As such, this is not a theoretically nuanced piece.  Rather, it seeks to lay out some basic principles of socialist feminism.  To this end, in 1976, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a short, basic piece which sought to explain socialist feminism.  Her beginning point was to break down feminism and socialism.  According to Ehrenreich (1976), both are ways of looking critically at society.  From a socialist, or more specifically, a Marxist perspective, society is unequal because a tiny segment of the population profits from the labor of the majority.  The vast majority of the population are workers, who must work to survive and who do not control their wages, working conditions, or productive outputs.  The tiny minority are capitalists, who profit by underpaying workers.  According to Marxists, these classes are in conflict with one another.  And, it is possible and hopeful, though not inevitable nor easy, that this conflict could lead to the workers emancipating themselves by overthrowing the capitalists and the system that benefits them.  Thus, the main concern of Marxists is class conflict, through, issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the other “isms” are also important antagonisms which serve a purpose in capitalism and which Marxists seek to resolve through mass movements and the overthrow of capitalism.  Inessa Armand summarized the importance of organizing to end these oppressions as part of the struggle against capitalism in her quote, “if the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women.”  Ehrenreich (1976) summed it up by stating that socialist feminism is “socialist, internationalist, antiracist, antiheterosexist feminism.”

Inessa Armand


Feminism, like Marxism, sees inequality as characteristic of capitalist society.  However, the area of special focus of feminists is the oppression of women.  Various kinds of feminists come to different conclusions about how to end oppression.  For instance, liberal feminists often want to elect more women into political office.  They might support businesses owned by women and want to promote women into leadership and business positions.  This position generally wants to work within the framework of capitalism and the confines of our existing political system to enact reforms that benefit women.  To be fair, socialist feminists are not against reforms, but are critical of capitalism and our political system.  From a socialist feminist perspective, capitalist democracies cannot end women’s oppression.  The socialist feminist critique of liberal feminism is that promoting women into power perpetuates the oppression of women by giving them reign over foreign policies, military decisions, and austerity measures that hurt women.  For instance, one of the first events for International Women’s Day was a panel sponsored by Witness for Peace.  The panel focused on Honduras, which experienced U.S. supported coup in 2009.  Berta Caceres, an environmental activist, was killed about a year prior to the panel.  She was a critic of Hillary Clinton and her death resulted the violence and intimidation that has sought to suppress activists since the coup.  From a socialist feminist perspective, it is not a win for women if Hillary Clinton would have been elected as president.  For poor women, working women, and women who suffer from our militarism and violent, business centered foreign policy, this would not have been a gain at all.  Socialist feminist critique liberal feminism because it mainly benefits wealthier or more privileged women.

I want a feminism that stands against U.S. foreign policy.


The critique of liberal feminism is nothing new.  Historically, socialists have not always been perfect on the issue of women’s liberation.  While Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about women’s oppression and socialists organized around issues related to working class women, early socialists were cautious and critical of feminists.  They viewed early feminists as upper to middle class women whose interests were not aligned with those of working women.  These early feminists supported suffrage, but also wanted property rights for women.  These demands seem basic, but to a socialist, who views private property as the basis of patriarchy and who advocates for people who lack property, it is a demand that speaks more to those with means.  Socialists were late to adopt women’s suffrage as a demand for a variety of reasons (e.g. worry about participation in capitalist governments and concern that women could be drafted into imperialist wars) and did so due to the pressure and leadership of women within their own party.  While there is a rich history of socialist women such as Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Alexandra Kollontai, these women are often overshadowed by their male counterparts in history.  Women played an important role in the Russian revolution by leading a strike on International Women’s Day in 1917, but were relegated to less “powerful” or important roles in the government.  The Russian revolution transformed society.  While it is common for people in our society to view Russia as conservative and repressive today, it was actually the first country to legalize abortion and decriminalize homosexuality.  After the revolution, maternity leave, civil marriage, easier access to divorce, free daycares, free health care, communal kitchens, and equal pay for equal work were introduced.  Women’s jobs were even protected from being taken by returning soldiers.  But, these gains were halted and reversed by Stalin.


Stalinism put the brakes on the development of socialist feminist thought in the Soviet Union, but this did not stop socialists elsewhere in the world from developing socialist feminism.  The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, deepened the interest in questioning the nature of oppression and how to resolve it.  Some feminists were dissatisfied with the solutions offered by radical feminism, which did not examine social class, and liberal feminism, which did not challenge the economic foundation of women’s oppression.  These feminists also rejected understandings of Marxism which gave primacy to class over gender.  They saw the two as intertwined.  Thus, this was the birth of modern socialist feminism.  Personally, while socialist feminism and Marxist feminist are supposedly schematically different, I find that I am both.  I come from a Marxist tradition, but I also view class and other oppressions as intertwined.  It is not possible to organize a worker’s revolution without the support and advancement of oppressed groups.  Thus, I don’t use the term socialist feminist to differentiate myself from a Marxist feminist.  Perhaps if I was around a larger variety of socialists and feminists, or wrote for an academic audience, these distinctions would have more meaning.  It is also important to note that my education in socialist feminism does not come from academia, but rather my experiences as an activist.  Because of this, the theoretical grounding and minutiae of socialist feminist debates is not as sophisticated as it could be.  Nevertheless, from my own experiences, here are some of the key components of modern socialist feminism.


1.Patriarchy arose with the advent of private property.  Private property results in the first class societies, but also required methods of passing property from one generation to the next.  This resulted in a system of primogeniture, or passing property on to the oldest son.  However, this also required that women’s sexually had to be controlled to avoid passing property along to an “illegitimate” heir.  Thus, patriarchy predates capitalism by many thousands of years.  Yet, since property is a cornerstone of capitalism, monogamy and marriage continue to be a means by which individuals manage and pass on property.


2.Capitalism is one of many class based societies.  Each had particular shortcomings and class antagonisms.  The main class antagonism in capitalism pits workers against capitalism.  Workers provide capitalists with profits, which is done by lengthening their work day, increasing production, and underpaying them.  At the same time, women play a few unique roles in capitalism.  For one, any oppressed group can serve as a scapegoat for social problems, which distracts workers from their common oppression.  Secondly, women play a role in the social reproduction of labor.  That is, they produce future generations of workers and maintain the current generation of workers through their unpaid labor.  Since women shoulder more unpaid labor than men, they play a bigger role in maintaining the workforce by making meals, cleaning the home, doing laundry, taking children to doctor’s appointments, raising children in general, caring for elderly and retired workers, etc.  In short, women do an astonishing service for capitalism.  Their unpaid labor means that less profits are diverted to social programs and socialized modes of care.


3.Socialist feminism calls for the overthrow of capitalism, because anything less puts social movements in an endless treadmill of fighting for reforms and fighting against the erosion of previous reforms.  For instance, reproductive rights have been eroded over the last forty years.  Activists may be able to fight some of these rollbacks, but unless capitalism is overthrown, there will always be pressures to reverse the rights won by activists.  There will always be another war, another attack on workers, and another cut to social programs.  This is the nature of capitalism and the role that governments take in ensuring that business can happen as usual.


4. Although socialist feminists want to see the end to capitalism, they support a variety of reforms to capitalism in the meantime- as a way to alleviate the suffering wrought by this system.  These demands include safe, legal, free and accessible abortion and reproductive health services.  Free and accessible are important demands that contrast to some liberal feminists, who have argued that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  Abortion should be accessed without coercion and stigma.  It is important to be mindful that minority women, women with disabilities, and women in the third world, have not been given the same autonomy over their reproductive health.  They have been experimented upon and sterilized.  Other demands, which were put forth by the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union in 1969, include pleasant private and collective housing, nutritious and varied food, community control and the disarmament of police, social responsibility for raising children, 24 hour free and client control daycare, free quality, public education for all ages, democratic councils within homes, communities, and workplaces, free competent, prevention focused, quality medical care, social respect for all jobs, an end of housework as private, unpaid labor, etc.  Many of these demands are quite revolutionary and would likely not be accomplished within capitalism, at least not without the pressure of strong and militant feminist and labor movements.  But, they represent the multifaceted nature of socialist feminism.  Social respect for all jobs, including janitors, fast food workers, sex workers, etc. not only benefit those workers, but they benefit women.  Women’s work is not socially respected.  This lack of social respect is used to justify unequal pay.  Respect for all work means rethinking how wages are structured and social inequality is viewed as an outcome of worth or merit.

Work should not be shameful.  It should not be a reflection of a person’s intellect, dreams, talents, personality, potential, or worth.  Even within capitalism, it is the means to survival, yet it is given so much symbolic meaning.


5.Socialist feminism is international.   While liberal feminists may look towards policies that benefit women within their own society, socialist feminists look at feminism globally.  Not everything that seems to benefit U.S. women benefit women elsewhere in the world.  Electing a woman as president means little of this president promotes war, sanctions, and free trade.  The U.S. is not the world’s police.  At the same time, oppressed women in the world will not be liberated by the U.S. or its military.  This is a task they must take up on their own.  For instance, a socialist feminist is against war in Afghanistan, even if some schools for girls are built or other projects that benefit women are supported by this mission.  The cost of war, the violence, the death, environmental destruction, and the usurping of national autonomy is always worse than these gains.


6.Socialist feminism is environmentally minded.  Socialism has not always had the reputation of being focused on the environment, just as it has not always had the reputation of focusing on women.   While I would argue that socialism has always had strong environmental and gender implications, social movements have helped socialists to further develop theory about and emphasize these issues.  It is clear that capitalism is destroying the planet.  Climate change is an outcome of the anarchy of capitalist production.  Capitalism will not transcend a fossil fuel based economy so long as it is profitable.  At the same time, climate change disproportionately impacts women globally because women are more likely to live in poverty.  In the third world, they are also more likely to be involved in farming and food production.  Thus, women are more likely to face food insecurity, disease, loss of livelihood, displacement, and increased impoverishment as the result of climate change.  Economic vulnerability lends itself to other vulnerabilities, such as to trafficking and domestic violence.  Socialists want an economy wherein production is based upon human needs rather than profit.  The productive forces of society should be socially owned, made more efficient, more sustainable, and localized, in the interest of meeting human needs and salvaging the planet.  The fossil fuel economy must be abolished.


7.Socialist feminism is intersectional.  Many feminist activists who use the word intersectional today use it in a very generic way.  That is, intersectionality is commonly understood to simply mean that oppression is complicated and often compounded.  A person may experience many kinds of oppression, including classism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc.  Thus, feminists are called upon to not only look at the oppression of women, but how this oppression interacts with other oppressions.  In this very generic understanding of intersectionality, socialist feminism is extremely intersectional because it is very aware of how the mission of feminism should not be to simply advance women, but to end racism, ableism, environmental destruction, heterosexism, and all of other social ills produced by capitalism.  Of course, socialist feminism does differ from the post-structural understanding of intersectionality.  Class is not one oppression of equals.  Class does have an important place in socialist feminism, because it is not only a type of oppression, it is the heart of the economic system and the engine of liberation.  Class is a node that intersects with many kinds of oppressions.  All of these oppressions play an important role in the functioning of capitalism.  However, because workers, as a class, make up the vast majority of society and because they are the economic power that drives capitalism, they have a special place in the network of oppressions.  Class is more than an identity, it is a social position and economic function.  At the same time, a working class revolution will not succeed unless it is anti-racist, feminist, against heterosexism, against ableism, etc.  These things cannot be divorced or teased out of this struggle.  They are enmeshed so tightly that socialist feminism is intersectional in practice, despite slight theoretical differences with the academic understanding of the word.


Conclusion:

With the resurgence of the feminist movement, it is important to revisit some of the variations of feminism.  Socialist feminism is just one kind of feminism.  Liberal feminism, which is the center of my critique, is another.  But, there are many variations of feminism.  There are variations of socialist feminism.  This piece set out to establish a few of the basics, at least from my own perspective and experiences as an activist.  While socialist feminism may seem old fashioned, I think it remains extremely relevant.  Attacks against collective bargaining, austerity, challenges to reproductive rights, and war have become commonplace.  The planet is dying.  The challenges faced by humanity are as daunting as ever.  Big problems need big solutions.  That is the promise of socialism.  It is a big solution.  Of course, building a socialist movement itself seems like an impossible task.  The question is not, “What is to be done?”  It is, where to begin?  International Women’s Day was a great beginning point to a feminist movement that connects to socialism and the labor movement.  Capitalism atomizes us.  This system breaks the continuity of history so that we feel isolated, lost, and alone.  But, the Day Without a Woman sought to make a connection to the labor and socialist history of the holiday.  It also sought to highlight the economic power of women and the connect the struggle of women in the U.S. to those abroad.  To me, this contains of the seeds of possibility.  On my part, I can continue to have conversations, promote these ideas, and dedicate myself to a variety of causes in the struggle against capitalism.  With hope, others will join in.

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https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/socialist-feminism.htm

http://socialistreview.org.uk/367/women-and-revolution

https://monthlyreview.org/2003/03/01/the-socialist-feminist-project/

http://www.oakton.edu/user/4/ghamill/Socialist_Feminism.pdf

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