What is Socialist Feminism?
Note: This article was first published in WIN Magazine in 1976. It later appeared in Working Papers on Socialism & Feminism published by the New American Movement (NAM) in 1976. NAM was a mixed gender organization heavily influenced by socialist feminism. A number of CWLUers were associated with it.
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, about the bills, about 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 anti-racist, 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 them elves 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 tip 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 with 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 result 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 mostof 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 it 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 real 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, “private” life.
Furthermore, in our brand of Marxism, there is no “woman question” because we never compartmentalized women off to the “superstructure” or somewhere 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:
1. 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.
2. 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 US 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 anti-capitalist 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 anti-sexist thrust (especially not those that cling to pre-industrial 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.
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This article needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(December 2016)
Socialist feminism rose in the 1960s and 1970s as an offshoot of the feminist movement and New Left that focuses upon the interconnectivity of the patriarchy and capitalism. Socialist feminists argue that liberation can only be achieved by working to end both the economic and cultural sources of women's oppression. Socialist feminism is a two-pronged theory that broadens Marxist feminism's argument for the role of capitalism in the oppression of women and radical feminism's theory of the role of gender and the patriarchy. Socialist feminists reject radical feminism's main claim that patriarchy is the only or primary source of oppression of women. Rather, socialist feminists assert that women are unable to be free due to their financial dependence on males. Women are subjects to the male rulers in capitalism due to an uneven balance in wealth. They see economic dependence as the driving force of women's subjugation to men. Further, socialist feminists see women's liberation as a necessary part of larger quest for social, economic and political justice. Socialist feminists attempted to integrate the fight for women's liberation with the struggle against other oppressive systems based on race, class or economic status.
Socialist feminism draws upon many concepts found in Marxism; such as a historical materialist point of view, which means that they relate their ideas to the material and historical conditions of people's lives. Socialist feminists thus consider how the sexism and gendered division of labor of each historical era is determined by the economic system of the time. Those conditions are largely expressed through capitalist and patriarchal relations. Socialist feminists, thus reject the Marxist notion that class and class struggle are the only defining aspects of history and economic development. Marx asserted that when class oppression was overcome, gender oppression would vanish as well. According to socialist feminists, this view of gender oppression as a sub-class of class oppression is naive and much of the work of socialist feminists has gone towards specifying how gender and class work together to create distinct forms of oppression and privilege for women and men of each class. For example, they observe that women's class status is generally derivative of her husband's class or occupational status, e.g., a secretary that marries her boss assumes his class status.
In 1972, "Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement", which is believed to be the first publication to use the term "socialist feminism", was published; it was by the Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (Heather Booth, Day Creamer, Susan Davis, Deb Dobbin, Robin Kaufman, and Tobey Klass).
Other socialist feminists, notably two long-lived American organizations Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, point to the classic Marxist writings of Frederick Engels (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State) and August Bebel (Woman and Socialism) as a powerful explanation of the link between gender oppression and class exploitation.
On the other hand, the Socialist Party USA is an example of a socialist feminist party which is not explicitly Marxist (although some members identify as Marxists). The party's statement of principles says, "Socialist feminism confronts the common root of sexism, racism and classism: the determination of a life of oppression or privilege based on accidents of birth or circumstances. Socialist feminism is an inclusive way of creating social change. We value synthesis and cooperation rather than conflict and competition."
Anarcha-feminism (also called anarchist feminism and anarcho-feminism) combines anarchism with feminism. It generally views patriarchy as a manifestation of involuntary coercive hierarchy that should be replaced by decentralizedfree association. Anarcha-feminists believe that the struggle against patriarchy is an essential part of class struggle, and the anarchist struggle against the state. In essence, the philosophy sees anarchist struggle as a necessary component of feminist struggle and vice versa. L. Susan Brown claims that "as anarchism is a political philosophy that opposes all relationships of power, it is inherently feminist".Bakunin opposed patriarchy and the way the law "subjects [women] to the absolute domination of the man". He argued that "[e]qual rights must belong to men and women" so that women can "become independent and be free to forge their own way of life". Bakunin foresaw the end of "the authoritarianjuridicalfamily" and "the full sexual freedom of women".
Anarcha-feminism began with late 19th and early 20th century authors and theorists such as anarchist feminists Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Lucy Parsons. In the Spanish Civil War, an anarcha-feminist group, Mujeres Libres ("Free Women") linked to the Federación Anarquista Ibérica, organized to defend both anarchist and feminist ideas, while the prominent Spanish anarchist and feminist leader Federica Montseny held that the "emancipation of women would lead to a quicker realization of the social revolution" and that "the revolution against sexism would have to come from intellectual and militant 'future-women.' According to this Nietzschean concept of Federica Montseny's, women could realize through art and literature the need to revise their own roles."
In Argentina Virginia Bolten is responsible for the publication of a newspaper called La Voz de la Mujer (English: The Woman's Voice), which was published nine times in Rosario between 8 January 1896 and 1 January 1897, and was revived, briefly, in 1901. A similar paper with the same name was reportedly published later in Montevideo, which suggests that Bolten may also have founded and edited it after her deportation. "La Voz de la Mujer described itself as "dedicated to the advancement of Communist Anarchism". Its central theme was that of the multiple nature of women's oppression. An editorial asserted, "We believe that in present-day society nothing and nobody has a more wretched situation than unfortunate women." Women, they said, were doubly oppressed—by bourgeois society and by men. Its feminism can be seen from its attack on marriage and upon male power over women. Its contributors, like anarchist feminists elsewhere, developed a concept of oppression that focused on gender oppression. Marriage was a bourgeois institution which restricted women's freedom, including their sexual freedom. Marriages entered into without love, fidelity maintained through fear rather than desire, oppression of women by men they hated—all were seen as symptomatic of the coercion implied by the marriage contract. It was this alienation of the individual's will that the anarchist feminists deplored and sought to remedy, initially through free love and then, and more thoroughly, through social revolution."
Mujeres Libres (English: Free Women) was an anarchist women's organization in Spain that aimed to empower working class women. It was founded in 1936 by Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada and Amparo Poch y Gascón and had approximately 30,000 members. The organization was based on the idea of a "double struggle" for women's liberation and social revolution and argued that the two objectives were equally important and should be pursued in parallel. In order to gain mutual support, they created networks of women anarchists. Flying day-care centres were set up in efforts to involve more women in union activities.Lucía Sánchez Saornil, was a Spanish poet, militant anarchist and feminist. She is best known as one of the founders of Mujeres Libres and served in the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista (SIA). By 1919, she had been published in a variety of journals, including Los Quijotes, Tableros, Plural, Manantial and La Gaceta Literaria. Working under a male pen name, she was able to explore lesbian themes at a time when homosexuality was criminalized and subject to censorship and punishment. Writing in anarchist publications such as Earth and Freedom, the White Magazine and Workers' Solidarity, Lucía outlined her perspective as a feminist.
In the past decades two films have been produced about anarcha-feminism. Libertarias is a historical drama made in 1996 about the Spanish anarcha-feminist organization Mujeres Libres. In 2010 the Argentinian film Ni dios, ni patrón, ni marido was released which is centered on the story of anarcha-feminist Virginia Bolten and her publishing of the newspaper La Voz de la Mujer (English: The Woman's Voice).
Marxist feminism is a sub-type of feminist theory which focuses on the social institutions of private property and capitalism to explain and criticize gender inequality and oppression. According to Marxist feminists, private property gives rise to economic inequality, dependence, political and domestic struggle between the sexes, and is the root of women's oppression in the current social context.
Marxist feminism's foundation is laid by Friedrich Engels in his analysis of gender oppression in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). He argues that a woman's subordination is not a result of her biological disposition but of social relations, and that men's efforts to achieve their demands for control of women's labor and sexual faculties have gradually solidified and become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Through a Marxist historical perspective, Engels analyzes the widespread social phenomena associated with female sexual morality, such as fixation on virginity and sexual purity, incrimination and violent punishment of women who commit adultery, and demands that women be submissive to their husbands. Ultimately, Engels traces these phenomena to the recent development of exclusive control of private property by the patriarchs of the rising slaveowner class in the ancient mode of production, and the attendant desire to ensure that their inheritance is passed only to their own offspring: chastity and fidelity are rewarded, says Engels, because they guarantee exclusive access to the sexual and reproductive faculty of women possessed by men from the property-owning class.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx were against the demonization of men and supported a proletariat revolution that would overcome as many male–female inequalities as possible. As their movement already had the most radical demands in women's equality, most Marxist leaders, including Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, counterposed Marxism against bourgeois feminism, rather than trying to combine them.
Orthodox Marxists argue that most Marxist forerunners claimed by feminists or "Marxist feminists" including Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai were against capitalist forms of feminism. They agreed with the main Marxist movement that feminism was a bourgeois ideology counterposed to Marxism and against the working class. Instead of feminism, the Marxists supported the more radical political program of liberating women through socialist revolution, with a special emphasis on work among women and in materially changing their conditions after the revolution. Orthodox Marxists view the later attempt to combine Marxism and feminism as a liberal creation of academics and reformist leftists who want to make alliances with bourgeois feminists.
For what reason, then, should the woman worker seek a union with the bourgeois feminists? Who, in actual fact, would stand to gain in the event of such an alliance? Certainly not the woman worker. —Alexandra Kollontai, 1909
A pioneering Marxist and feminist, Mary Inman of the Communist Party USA challenged the party's orthodox position by arguing that the home is a center of production and housewives carry out productive labor. Her writings include In Woman's Defense (1940) and Woman-Power (1942). Inman's work was at first warmly received by several top Communist women leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Ella Reeve Bloor, but the CPUSA leadership began an official attack on Inman's work for purported ideological deviation in 1941. A series of articles written against Inman's ideas appeared in the party's literary monthly, The New Masses, and the polemic was extended with the publication of a pamphlet by A. Landy, Marxism and the Woman Question.
Radical Women, a major Marxist-feminist organization, bases its theory on Marx' and Engels' analysis that the enslavement of women was the first building block of an economic system based on private property. They contend that elimination of the capitalist profit-driven economy will remove the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.
Later theoretical works
Zillah R. Eisenstein
Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism was a collection of essays assembled and anthologized by Zillah R. Eisenstein in 1978.
Sociologist and academic Rhonda F. Levine cites Eisenstein's work as a "superb discussion of the socialist-feminist position" in her anthology Enriching the Sociological Imagination: How Radical Sociology Changed the Discipline. Levine goes on to describe the book as "one of the earliest statements of how a Marxistclass analysis can combine with a feminist analysis of patriarchy to produce a theory of how gender and class intersect as systems of inequality".
"Eisenstein defines the term 'capitalist patriarchy' as descriptive of the 'mutually reinforcing dialectical relationship between capitalist class structure and hierarchical sexual structuring."
She believes that "The recognition of women as a sexual class lays the subversive quality of feminism for liberalism because liberalism is premised upon women's exclusion from public life on this very class basis. The demand for real equality of women with men, if taken to its logical conclusion, would dislodge the patriarchal structure necessary to a liberal society."
Donna Haraway and "A Cyborg Manifesto"
In 1985, Donna Haraway published the essay "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" in Socialist Review. Although most of Haraway's earlier work was focused on emphasizing the masculine bias in scientific culture, she has also contributed greatly to feminist narratives of the twentieth century. For Haraway, the Manifesto came at a critical juncture at which feminists, in order to have any real-world significance, had to acknowledge their situatedness within what she terms the "informatics of domination". Feminists must, she proclaims, unite behind "an ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit". Women were no longer on the outside along a hierarchy of privileged binaries but rather deeply imbued, exploited by and complicit within networked hegemony, and had to form their politics as such.
According to Haraway's "Manifesto", "there is nothing about being female that naturally binds women together into a unified category. There is not even such a state as 'being' female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices" (p. 155). A cyborg does not require a stable, essentialist identity, argues Haraway, and feminists should consider creating coalitions based on "affinity" instead of identity. To ground her argument, Haraway analyzes the phrase "women of color", suggesting it as one possible example of affinity politics. Using a term coined by theorist Chela Sandoval, Haraway writes that "oppositional consciousness" is comparable with a cyborg politics, because rather than identity it stresses how affinity comes as a result of "otherness, difference, and specificity" (p. 156).
Leopoldina Fortunati is the author of The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (L'arcano della riproduzione: Casalinghe, prostitute, operai e capitale), a feminist critique of Marx. Fortunati is the author of several books, including The Arcane of Reproduction (Autonomedia, 1995) and I mostri nell'immaginario (Angeli, 1995), and is the editor of Gli Italiani al telefono (Angeli, 1995) and Telecomunicando in Europa (1998), and with J. Katz and R. Riccini Mediating the Human Body. Technology, Communication and Fashion (2003). Her influences include Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Antonio Negri, and Karl Marx.
Silvia Federici is an Italian scholar, teacher, and activist from the radical autonomistfeminist Marxist tradition. Federici's best known work, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, expands on the work of Leopoldina Fortunati. In it, she argues against Karl Marx's claim that primitive accumulation is a necessary precursor for capitalism. Instead, she posits that primitive accumulation is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism itself—that capitalism, in order to perpetuate itself, requires a constant infusion of expropriated capital.
Federici connects this expropriation to women's unpaid labour, both connected to reproduction and otherwise, which she frames as a historical precondition to the rise of a capitalist economy predicated upon wage labor. Related to this, she outlines the historical struggle for the commons and the struggle for communalism. Instead of seeing capitalism as a liberatory defeat of feudalism, Federici interprets the ascent of capitalism as a reactionary move to subvert the rising tide of communalism and to retain the basic social contract.
She situates the institutionalization of rape and prostitution, as well as the heretic and witch-hunt trials, burnings, and torture at the center of a methodical subjugation of women and appropriation of their labor. This is tied into colonial expropriation and provides a framework for understanding the work of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other proxy institutions as engaging in a renewed cycle of primitive accumulation, by which everything held in common—from water, to seeds, to our genetic code—becomes privatized in what amounts to a new round of enclosures.
Material feminism highlights capitalism and patriarchy as central in understanding women's oppression. The theory centers on social change rather than seeking transformation within the capitalist system. Jennifer Wicke, defines Materialist Feminism as "a feminism that insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangements, including those of gender hierarchy, develop... materialist feminism avoids seeing this gender hierarchy as the effect of a singular... patriarchy and instead gauges the web of social and psychic relations that make up a material, historical moment". She states that "...materialist feminism argues that material conditions of all sorts play a vital role in the social production of gender and assays the different ways in which women collaborate and participate in these productions". Material feminism also considers how women and men of various races and ethnicities are kept in their lower economic status due to an imbalance of power that privileges those who already have privilege, thereby protecting the status quo.
The term Material feminism was first used in 1975 by Christine Delphy. The current concept has its roots in socialist and Marxist feminism; Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham, editors of Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives, describe material feminism as the "conjuncture of several discourses—historical materialism, Marxist and radical feminism, as well as postmodernist and psychoanalytic theories of meaning and subjectivity". he term materialist feminism emerged in the late 1970s and is associated with key thinkers, such as Rosemary Hennessy, Stevi Jackson and Christine Delphy. Rosemary Hennessy traces the history of Materialist Feminism in the work of British and French feminists who preferred the term materialist feminism to Marxist feminism. In their view, Marxism had to be altered to be able to explain the sexual division of labor. Marxism was inadequate to the task because of its class bias and focus on production. Feminism was also problematic due to its essentialist and idealist concept of woman. Material Feminism then emerged as a positive substitute to both Marxism and feminism. Material Feminism partly originated from the work of French feminists, particularly Christine Delphy. She argued that materialism is the only theory of history that views oppression as a basic reality of women's lives. Christine Delphy states that this is why women and all oppressed groups need materialism to investigate their situation. For Christine Delphy "to start from oppression defines a materialist approach, oppression is a materialist concept." She states that the domestic mode of production was the site of patriarchal exploitation and the material basis of the oppression of women. Christine Delphy further argued that marriage is a labor contract that gives men the right to exploit women.The Grand Domestic Revolution by Dolores Hayden is a reference. Hayden describes Material feminism at that time as reconceptualizing the relationship between the private household space and public space by presenting collective options to take the "burden" off women in regard to housework, cooking, and other traditional female domestic jobs.
Socialist feminist praxis
Holds the belief that to achieve women's liberation, women's liberation must be sought in conjunction with the social and economic justice of all people. Socialist feminists see the fight to end male supremacy as key to social justice, but not the only issue, rather one of many forms of oppression that are mutually reinforcing.
Chicago Women's Liberation Union
The Chicago Women's Liberation Union, known colloquially as CWLU, was formed in 1969 after a founding conference in Palatine, Illinois. Naomi Weisstein, Vivian Rothstein, Heather Booth, and Ruth Surgal were among the founders of it. The main goal of the organization was to end gender inequality and sexism, which the CWLU defined as "the systematic keeping down of women for the benefit of people in power". The purpose statement of the organization expressed that "Changing women's position in society isn't going to be easy. It's going to require changes in expectations, jobs, child care, and education. It's going to change the distribution of power over the rest of us to all people sharing power and sharing in the decisions that affect our lives." The CWLU spent almost a decade organizing to challenge both sexism and class oppression. The group is best known for the 1972 pamphlet "Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement". Nationally circulated, the publication is believed to be the first to use the term socialist feminism.
The CWLU was organized as an umbrella organization to unite a wide range of work groups and discussion groups. A representative from each work group went to monthly meetings of the Steering Committee to reach consensus on organizational policy and strategy. They addressed a myriad of issues including women's health, reproductive rights, education, economic rights, visual arts and music, sports, lesbian liberation, and much more.
Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell
Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.) was the name of many related but independent feminist groups formed in the United States during 1968 and 1969 and who were important in the development of socialist feminism. The name W.I.T.C.H. was also sometimes expanded as "Women Inspired to Tell their Collective History", "Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays", and many other variations.
There was no centralized organization; each W.I.T.C.H. group was formed independently by women inspired by the ideas and example of previous actions. Their activism mainly took the form of "zaps", a form of guerrilla theater mixing street theatre and protest, where they used attention-catching and humorous public actions to highlight political and economic complaints against companies and government agencies, frequently involving the use of witch costumes and the chanting of hexes. Witches often appeared as stock characters in feminist Left theatre, representing the misogynist crone stereotype.
On Halloween 1968, women from W.I.T.C.H. staged a "hex" of Wall Street at a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank, wearing rags and fright makeup; Robin Morgan stated that the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined sharply the next day. The DJIA did not decline sharply, and experienced a rise over the next several days and weeks. In December 1968 W.I.T.C.H targeted both the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Chicago Eight, saying that they conspired to treat only men as "leaders" of the antiwar movement. In 1969, W.I.T.C.H. held a protest at a "Bridal Fair" at Madison Square Garden. Members wore black veils. They handed out pamphlets titled "Confront the Whoremakers", chanted "Here come the slaves/Off to their graves", and had a mock "unwedding" ceremony. The protests also involved turning loose several white mice at the event, which Fair attendees began scooping up off the ground. The event resulted in negative media coverage for W.I.T.C.H., and some dissention among members over goals and tactics. In February 1970, the Washington coven (W.I.T.C.H. chapters were called "covens") held a protest during a Senate hearing on population control. They interrupted Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough's testimony by chanting and throwing pills at panel members and people in the audience galleries. Spin-off "covens" were founded in Chicago, Illinois and Washington, D.C., and W.I.T.C.H. zaps continued until roughly the beginning of 1970. The "zap" protests used by W.I.T.C.H. may have helped inspire the zap action protest tactics adopted shortly afterwards by LGBT activists, and still in use.
Big Flame was "a revolutionary socialist feminist organisation with a working-class orientation" in the United Kingdom. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly, with branches appearing in some other cities. Its publications emphasised that "a revolutionary party is necessary but Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party". The group was influenced by the Italian Lotta Continua group.
The group published a magazine, Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. and devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as "libertarian Marxist". In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unityelectoral coalition, led by the Trotskyist International Marxist Group. In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time. However, as more members of the group defected to the Labour Party, the journal ceased to appear in 1982, and the group was wound up in about 1984. Ex-members of the group were involved in the launch of the mass-market tabloid newspaper the News on Sunday in 1987, which folded the same year. The name of the group was taken from a television play, The Big Flame (1969), written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach for the BBC's Wednesday Play season. It dealt with a fictional strike and work-in at the Liverpool Docks.
Motherhood and the private sphere
Socialist feminists highlight how motherhood and the gendered division of labor many assert grows "naturally" from women's role as mothers is the source of women's exclusion from the public sphere and creates women's economic dependence on men. They assert that there is nothing natural about the gendered division of labor and show that the expectation that women perform all or most reproductive labor, i.e., labor associated with birthing and raising children but also the cleaning, cooking, and other tasks necessary to support human life, deny women the capacity to participate fully in economic activity outside the home. In order to free themselves from the conditions of work as a mother and housekeeper, socialist feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw the professionalization of housework as key. This would be done by hiring professional nannies and housekeepers to take the load of domestic work away from the woman in the house. Perkins Gilman also recommended the redesign of homes in ways that would maximize their potential for creativity and leisure for women as well as men, i.e., emphasizing the need for rooms like studios and studies and eliminating kitchens and dining rooms. These changes would necessitate the communalization of meal preparation and consumption outside the home and free women from their burden of providing meals on a house-by-house scale.