Some Basics of Socialist Feminism
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.”
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.
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.