Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is a philosophical variant of feminism. Marxist feminism is focused on the ways in which women could be oppressed through systems of capitalism and the individual ownership of private property.[1] According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved through a radical restructuring of capitalist economies, in which, they contend, much of women's labor is uncompensated.[2]

Theoretical background in Marxism

Marxism follows the development of oppression and class division in the evolution of human society, revolving around the evolution and organisation of wealth and production, and concludes the evolution of oppressive societal structure to be relative to the evolution of oppressive family structures, i.e., the normalisation of oppressing the female sex marks or coincides to the birth of oppressive society in general.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, published in 1884, inspired by and based on notes by Karl Marx to Lewis H. Morgan's 1877 book Ancient Society,[3] Friedrich Engels writes about the earliest origin of the family structure, social hierarchy, and the concept of male wealth, drawing from both ancient and contemporary study. He concludes that women originally had a higher social status, equal consideration in labor, and particularly, only females were sure to share a family name. A woman pursuing monogamy, or even paired marriage, however, was socially unacceptable, so monogamy and paired marriage were a cultural desire of women. As the earliest males did not even share the family name, Engels says, they did not know for sure who their children were or benefit from inheritance.[4]

When agriculture first became abundant and the abundance was considered male wealth, as it was sourced from the male work environment away from the home, a deeper wish for male lineage and inheritance was founded. To achieve that wish, women were not only granted their long sought monogamy, but forced into it as part of domestic servitude, while males pursued a hushed culture of "hetaerism". Engels describes this situation as coincidental to the beginnings of forced servitude as a dominant feature of society, leading eventually to a European culture of class oppression, where the children of the poor were expected to be servants of the rich.[4]

Engels rewrites a quote in this book, by himself and Marx from 1846, "The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children", to say, "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."[4]

Gender oppression is reproduced culturally and maintained through institutionalised inequality. Portraying men as privileged at the expense of women, by refusing to acknowledge traditional domestic labor as equally valuable, the working class male is cultured into an oppressive structure which marginalises the female.[2]

Productive and unproductive labor

Marx categorised the value of employment in two ways, productive, and nonproductive.

Loosely defined,

  • Productive labor: Production of materials, crafting of materials into products, roles which support production.
  • Unproductive labor: Circulation of commodities, financial exchange, marketing, etc.

Marxist feminist authors popular in 1970s USA, such as Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton, relied heavily on analysis of productive and unproductive labour to attempt to shift a perception of the time, that consumption was the purpose of a family, presenting arguments for a state paid wage to homemakers, and a cultural perception of the family as a productive entity. In capitalism, the work of maintaining a family has little material value, as it produces no marketable products. In Marxism, the maintenance of a family is productive, as it has a service value, and is used in the same sense as a commodity.[5]

Wages for housework

Focusing on exclusion from productive labor as the most important source of female oppression, some Marxist feminists devoted their activism to fighting for the inclusion of domestic work within the waged capitalist economy. The idea of creating compensated reproductive labor was present in the writings of socialists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898) who argued that women's oppression stemmed from being forced into the private sphere.[6] Gilman proposed that conditions for women would improve when their work was located, recognized, and valued in the public sphere.[2]

Perhaps the most influential of effort to compensate reproductive labor was the International Wages for Housework Campaign, an organization launched in Italy in 1972 by members of the International Feminist Collective. Many of these women, including Selma James,[7] Mariarosa Dalla Costa,[8]Brigitte Galtier, and Silvia Federici[9] published a range of sources to promote their message in academic and public domains. Despite beginning as a small group of women in Italy, The Wages for Housework Campaign was successful in mobilizing on an international level. A Wages for Housework group was founded in Brooklyn, New York with the help of Federici.[9] As Heidi Hartmann acknowledges (1981), the efforts of these movements, though ultimately unsuccessful, generated important discourse regarding the value of housework and its relation to the economy.[10]

Responsibility of reproductive labour

Another solution proposed by Marxist feminists is to liberate women from their forced connection to reproductive labour. In her critique of traditional Marxist feminist movements such as the Wages for Housework Campaign, Heidi Hartmann (1981) argues that these efforts "take as their question the relationship of women to the economic system, rather than that of women to men, apparently assuming the latter will be explained in their discussion of the former."[10] Hartmann (1981) believes that traditional discourse has ignored the importance of women's oppression as women, and instead focused on women's oppression as members of the capitalist system. Similarly, Gayle Rubin, who has written on a range of subjects including sadomasochism, prostitution, pornography, and lesbian literature as well as anthropological studies and histories of sexual subcultures, first rose to prominence through her 1975 essay The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex,[11] in which she coins the phrase "sex/gender system" and criticizes Marxism for what she claims is its incomplete analysis of sexism under capitalism, without dismissing or dismantling Marxist fundamentals in the process.

More recently, many Marxist feminists have shifted their focus to the ways in which women are now potentially in worse conditions after gaining access to productive labour. Nancy Folbre proposes that feminist movements begin to focus on women's subordinate status to men both in the reproductive (private) sphere, as well as in the workplace (public sphere).[12] In an interview in 2013, Silvia Federici urges feminist movements to consider the fact that many women are now forced into productive and reproductive labour, resulting in a "double day".[13] Federici argues that the emancipation of women still cannot occur until they are free from their burdens of unwaged labour, which she proposes will involve institutional changes such as closing the wage gap and implementing child care programs in the workplace.[13] Federici's suggestions are echoed in a similar interview with Selma James (2012) and these issues have been touched on in recent presidential elections.[7]

Affective labor

Feminist scholars and sociologists such as Michael Hardt,[14] Antonio Negri,[14] Arlie Russell Hochschild[15] and Shiloh Whitney[16] discuss a new form of labor that transcends the traditional spheres of labor and which does not create product, or is byproductive.[16] Affective labor focuses on the blurred lines between personal life and economic life. Whitney states "The daily struggle of unemployed persons and the domestic toil of housewives no less than the waged worker are thus part of the production and reproduction of social life, and of the biopolitical growth of capital that valorizes information and subjectivities."[16] The concept of emotional labor is a focus of affective labor, particularly the emotional labor that is present and required in traditionally pink collared jobs (jobs traditionally occupied by women). Arlie Russell Hochschild discusses the emotional labor of flight attendants in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983)[15] in which she considers the affective labor of the profession as flight attendants smile, exchange pleasantries and banter with customers.

Sex work

Alan Soble[17] brings forth a challenging perspective on Marxism. Soble discusses in his book Pornography: Marxism, Feminism, and the Future of Sexuality (1986)[17] how pornography operates as sexual oppression in a capitalistic system.

Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor discuss in Sex and Skill: Notes towards a Feminist Economics (1980)[18] how sex work has become a new form of labor separate to reproductive and productive labor. Sex work is heavily criminalized and sex worker's are not socially recognized as a part of the labor force. There are multiple organizations including the Sex Worker's Outreach Project working to normalise sex work within the capitalistic system and provide sex workers with rights, health care, decriminalization, and protection.

Intersectionality and Marxist feminism

With the emergence of intersectionality[19] as a widely popular theory of current feminism, Marxist feminists include an analysis of other sources of oppression beyond class that increase exploitation in a capitalist system. However, they also remain critical of intersectionality theory for relying on bourgeois identity politics.[20] Intersectionality operates within Marxist feminism as a lens to view the interaction of different aspects of identity as a result of structured, systematic oppression. The organization Radical Women provides an example of successfully incorporating Marxist feminist goals without overlooking those susceptible to exploitation. They contend the elimination of capitalist profit-driven economy will remove the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.[21]

Accomplishments and activism

The nature of Marxist feminists and their ability to mobilize to promote social change has enabled them to engage in important activism.[22] Though their controversial advocacy often receives criticism, Marxist feminists challenge capitalism in ways that facilitate new discourse and shed light on the status of women.[10] These women throughout history have used a range of approaches in fighting hegemonic capitalism, which reflect their different views on the optimal method of achieving liberation for women.[2][23]

Marxist feminist critiques of other branches of feminism

Clara Zetkin[24][25] and Alexandra Kollontai[26][27] were opposed to forms of feminism that reinforce class status. They did not see a true possibility to unite across economic inequality because they argue that it would be extremely difficult for an upper class woman to truly understand the struggles of the working class. For instance, Kollontai wrote in 1909:

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.[26]

Critics like Kollontai believed liberal feminism would undermine the efforts of Marxism to improve conditions for the working class. 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. Additional liberation methods supported by Marxist feminists include radical "Utopian Demands", coined by Maria Mies.[28] This indication of the scope of revolution required to promote change states that demanding anything less than complete reform will produce inadequate solutions to long-term issues.

Notable Marxist feminists

Marxist feminist organizations

See also


  1. Desai, Murli (2014), "Feminism and policy approaches for gender aware development", in Desai, Murli, ed. (2014). The paradigm of international social development: ideologies, development systems and policy approaches. New York: Routledge. p. 119. ISBN 9781135010256.
    • Poonacha, Veena (1995). Gender within the human rights discourse. RCWS Gender Series. Bombay: Research Centre for Women's Studies. S.N.D.T. Women's University. OCLC 474755917.
  2. Ferguson, Ann; Hennessy, Rosemary (2010), "Feminist perspectives on class and work", in Stanford Uni (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. Engels, Frederick (1902) [1884]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co. OCLC 213734607. View online.
  4. Engels. "The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State" (PDF).
  5. Vogel, Lise (2013), "A decade of debate", in Vogel, Lise, ed. (2013-06-07). Marxism and the oppression of women: toward a unitary theory. Leiden, Holland: Brill. p. 17. ISBN 9789004248953.
  6. Gilman, C. P. (1898). Women and economics: a study of the economic relation between men and women as a factor in social evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co. OCLC 26987247.
  7. Gardiner, Becky (8 June 2012). "A life in writing: Selma James". The Guardian.
  8. Dalla Costa, Mariarosa; James, Selma (1972). The power of women and the subversion of the community. Bristol, England: Falling Water Press. OCLC 67881986.
  9. Cox, Nicole; Federici, Silvia (1976). Counter-planning from the kitchen: wages for housework: a perspective on capital and the left (PDF) (2nd ed.). New York: New York Wages for Housework. OCLC 478375855.
  10. Hartmann, Heidi (1981), "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union", in Sargent, Lydia (ed.), Women and revolution: a discussion of the unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism, South End Press Political Controversies Series, Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press, pp. 1–42, ISBN 9780896080621.
    • Reproduced as: Hartmann, Heidi (2013), "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union", in McCann, Carole; Kim, Seung-kyung (eds.), Feminist theory reader: local and global perspectives, New York: Routledge, pp. 187–199, ISBN 9780415521024
  11. Rubin, Gayle (1975), "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex", in Reiter, Rayna, ed. (1975). Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press. ISBN 9780853453727.
    Reprinted in: Nicholson, Linda (1997). The second wave: a reader in feminist theory. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415917612.
  12. Folbre, Nancy (1994). Who pays for the kids?: gender and the structures of constraint. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415075657.
    See also: Baker, Patricia (Autumn 1996). "Reviewed work Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint by Nancy Folbre". Canadian Journal of Sociology. 21 (4): 567–571. doi:10.2307/3341533. JSTOR 3341533.
  13. Vishmidt, Marina (7 March 2013). "Permanent reproductive crisis: an interview with Silvia Federici". Mute.
  14. Michael., Hardt (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674251212. OCLC 1051694685.
  15. Brown, J. V. (1985-09-01). "The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. By Arlie Russell Hochschild. University of California Press, 1983. 307 pp. $14.95". Social Forces. 64 (1): 223–224. doi:10.1093/sf/64.1.223. ISSN 0037-7732.
  16. Whitney, Shiloh (2017-12-14). "Byproductive labor". Philosophy & Social Criticism. 44 (6): 637–660. doi:10.1177/0191453717741934. ISSN 0191-4537.
  17. Soble, Alan. (1986). Pornography : Marxism, feminism, and the future of sexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300035241. OCLC 12552231.
  18. Phillips, Anne; Taylor, Barbara (1980). "Sex and Skill: Notes towards a Feminist Economics". Feminist Review (6): 79–88. doi:10.2307/1394973. JSTOR 1394973.
  19. Crenshaw, Kimberle (July 1991). "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color". Stanford Law Review. 43 (6): 1241–1299. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/1229039. ISSN 0038-9765. JSTOR 1229039.
  20. Mitchell, Eve (2013). I am a woman and a human: a Marxist feminist critique of intersectionality (pamphlet). Houston, NYC, and Atlanta: Unity and Struggle. Archived from the original on 2017-05-29.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link) Pdf of pamphlet.
  21. Cornish, Megan (2001), "Introduction", in Radical Women, Radical Women, ed. (2001). The Radical Women manifesto: socialist feminist theory, program and organizational structure. Seattle, Washington: Red Letter Press. pp. 5–16. ISBN 9780932323118.
  22. Britain, Marxist Student Federation-. "Marxism and Feminism in the student movement". In Defence of Marxism. Retrieved 2019-09-19.
  23. Eisenstein, Hester (2017-04-01). "Hegemonic feminism, neoliberalism and womenomics: 'empowerment' instead of liberation?". New Formations. 91 (91): 35–49. doi:10.3898/NEWF:91.02.2017. ISSN 0950-2378.
  24. Zetkin, Clara (1895). On a bourgeois feminist petition.
    Cited in: Draper, Hal; Lipow, Anne G. (1976). "Marxist women versus bourgeois feminism". The Socialist Register. Merlin Press Ltd. 13: 179–226. Pdf.
  25. Zetkin, Clara (1966) [1920]. Lenin on the women's question. New York, N.Y.: International Publishers. OCLC 943938450.
  26. Kollontai, Alexandra (1977) [1909]. The social basis of the woman question. Allison & Busby. OCLC 642100577.
  27. Kollontai, Alexandra (1976) [1919]. Women workers struggle for their rights. London: Falling Wall Press. OCLC 258289277.
  28. Mies, Maria (1981), "Utopian socialism and women's emancipation", in Mies, Maria; Jayawardena, Kumari (eds.), Feminism in Europe: liberal and socialist strategies 1789-1919, History of the Women's Movement, The Hague: Institute of Social Studies, pp. 33–80, OCLC 906505149

Further reading

Cited in:
Louis, Prakash (2005), "Hindutva and weaker sections: conflict between dominance and resistance", in Puniyani, Ram, ed. (2005-07-21). Religion, power & violence: expression of politics in contemporary times. New Delhi Thousand Oaks: Sage. p. 171. ISBN 9780761933380.
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