“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Marxist and Socialist Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

feminist thought cover

Today’s focus is Marxist and Socialist Feminism. (Last week, I posted about Radical Feminism.)

Marxists say that “what makes us different from other animals is our ability to produce our means of subsistence” (p. 97). This focuses on labor and structure. In order to understand women’s oppression, we must look at women’s work and women’s conceptions of themselves. In capitalism, “Workers are forced to choose between being exploited and having no work at all” (p. 99). Power is at the center of these work relations. Jean Bethke Elshtain complicates this with the idea that “not every woman is a victim and not every man is an exploiter and oppressor” (p. 91). These two attitudes reveal the binary expressed in Marx’s theory of economics. Is all work exploitative?

After reviewing Marxist theories, Tong focused on feminist conceptions and uses of those theories. Generally, Marxist feminists focus on class rather than gender; however, contemporary socialist feminists have worked to “develop a theory powerful enough to explain the complex ways in which capitalism and patriarchy allied to oppress women” (p. 111). There is the two-system explanation and the interactive system explanation. The two-system explanation “of women’s oppression combine[s] a Marxist feminist account of class power with a radical feminist account of sex power” (p. 111). The interactive system explanation presents “capitalism and patriarchy as two equal partners colluding in a variety of ways to oppress women” (p. 115). Both attempt to examine women’s oppression and explain how class and gender work together. “To say gender relations are independent of class relations is to ignore how history works” (p. 117).

Women’s labor issues are central to this type of feminism. Some feminists have  focused their efforts on making housework paid, as the women performing it are supporting the workers needed to make capitalism a reality. These thinkers also critique the gender pay gap and outline the effects of globalization on women’s work. From this chapter, we learn that “workers are alienated from nature because the kind of work they do and the conditions under which they do it make them see nature as an obstacle to their survival” (p. 102). This connects to ecofeminism, which I will explain in the coming weeks.

Critics of Marxist feminism have turned to psychological explanations for oppression. Some claim that “the causes of women’s oppression are ultimately buried deep in the human psyche” (p. 125). Tong concluded the chapter with this: “However exciting it may be for contemporary socialist feminists to probe women’s psyche from time to time, the fundamental goal of these feminists needs to remain constant: to encourage women everywhere to unite in whatever ways they can to oppose structures of oppression, inequality, and injustice” (p. 127).

After learning about this type of feminism, I asked the following question. Can a scholar simply focus on labor and capitalism as a feminist, or should a critique of patriarchy always be part of a Marxist reading as well? I kind of like the idea of melding the two together, as the two-system explanation does. Every time I read Marxist theory, I want to add in a critique of patriarchy as well.

Next week I’ll post about Psychoanalytic Feminism.

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15 thoughts on ““I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Marxist and Socialist Feminism

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  1. Emily, at the heart of pure capitalism is maximizing profit. A key part of this equation is minimize expenses where possible. In the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us” the authors quote a CFO who says if management could get by with no labor they would. This is a key reason management tends to chase cheap labor.

    This affects feminism in the following manner – workers with few choices are exploited as much as possible with suppressed wages. If they do not agree, management will find cheaper labor. Unionization was minimized in the southern US as management threatened to replace white workers who considered unionization with African-Americans. The groups who have tended to be exploited the most in the world are women, darker skinned peoples and places where you have a huge labor pool with fewer protections like China, India, Bangledesh, etc.

    So, I believe any discussion of feminism from an economic perpective has to address how women have been exploited in the labor pool. The Marx point on focusing on class in important, but women have also been exploited even when they were in a higher socio-economic class. As we have discussed before, we need to give women opportunity to flourish as the value add is getting a ROI on all of your human capital in a community or country and just from the males.

    Emily, these have been excellent posts. Thanks for sharing and letting me offer my two cents. BTG

  2. Marx once wrote that under capitalism all that is solid melts into air, and I assume he would not have exempted his own conclusions from that. Trying to fit feminist thinking within the confines of theory that was developed 150 years ago seems unproductive to me. Better to capture Marx’s revolutionary dialectic and apply it to the vastly different conditions of today, where the working class as previously known had ceased to exist (I live in Detroit, and the evidence is all around). The really revolutionary situation today is that for the first time in human history women are in the process of achieving an equal place in all facets of society. This presents an opportunity for profound change and simultaneously great challenges. Were Marx alive today, I’m sure he would be focused on what was new and what was in the process of becoming, rather than trying to patch up the concepts of the past. As he wrote, “At the entrance to science, as at the entrance to hell, the demand must be made: Here must all distrust be left; All cowardice must here be dead.”

    1. You know your Marx! I’m impressed. I’m not sure what he would think today, but you’re right that “becoming” is an important concept for many Marxist theorists, even now. Have you read Deleuze and Guattari? They focus on that and reterritorialization a lot. I think you’d find some great connections to Marx in their work. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I love this series on feminism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women (usually young women) say “I’m not a feminist, but….” and then go on to list all the ways they are in fact feminist. This has long baffled me. I tend to think this disconnect is because of media distortions of what feminists are really about, but I don’t know for sure. For example, I read somewhere that the “bra burning” never actually happened.

  4. I don’t think capitalism and the patriarchy *necessarily* have to go hand-in-hand, but they have historically speaking, much like communism and dictatorships! In a capitalist system where your “buying power” represents your worth and your ability to be heard, women who earn only a fraction of what men do are certainly at a disadvantage. As a girl in one of my college classes succinctly put it, “If you’re a woman, I don’t understand why you’d support capitalism. That system is not MADE for you.” Capitalism could have been more inclusive, based as it is on the tenets of individualism & choice, but it certainly didn’t go down that way…

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