“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.