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Marxist feminism is feminism focused on investigating and explaining the ways in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property. According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved through a radical restructuring of the current capitalist economy, in which, they contend, much of women's labor is uncompensated.
- 1 Theoretical background in Marxism
- 2 Productive and reproductive labor
- 3 Marxist Feminism and Sex Work
Theoretical background in Marxism
Influential work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848) in The Communist Manifesto and Marx (1859) in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy laid the foundation for some of the early theories of the relationship between capitalism and class exploitation. The theory and method of study developed by Marx (1859), termed historical materialism, recognizes the ways in which economic systems structure society as a whole and influence everyday life and experience. Historical materialism places a heavy emphasis on the role of economic and technological factors in determining the base structure of society. The super-structure prescribes a range of institutions and ideologies aimed to advance the interests of those in power and (under capitalism) the exploitation of the working class. Marx (1859) argues that this institutional and ideological superstructure serves the interests of the ruling class, concealing the exploitation inherent in capitalist social relations in order to remain in power. Key to Marxist theory is the existence of conflict, both between the working class and the capitalist ruling class (owners of production), and also within the capitalist economic system itself. The conflicts within the capitalist economic system leads inevitably to economic crises, while the ability of the working class to recognise its own class interests, and organise to claim state power and the means of production, could lead to the overthrow of the capitalist system itself and the achievement of a socialist system. As Vladimir Lenin (1917) argues in support of this possibility, the organization of socialist consciousness by a vanguard party is vital to the working class revolutionary process.
In 1884, Engels published The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. According to Engels (1884), in early systems of (prehistoric) human organisation the position of men and women was equal, with equal social status attributed to women's domestic roles (associated with their childbearing), and the male role of supporting the tribe (or, as later, the family) in provisioning food and other necessities of life, via hunting, fishing and herding for instance. Sexual relationships within tribes were not monogamous, and lines of inheritance were matrilineal - transfer of property on death passed through the mothers family line. However with the development of more effective methods of producing for human needs, and associated development of excess products beyond immediate consumption requirements, the issue of inheritance of this excess gained new importance - while at the same time increasing the social status of men who were responsible for this production. So arose the impetus for the imposition of patrilineal inheritance, the overthrow of matrilineal inheritance and the necessity of imposing monogamy on women to ensure the male parent was certain only his own offspring would inherit his wealth. "The overthrow of mother- right was the world historical defeat of the female sex". Thus the establishment of private ownership of had a profound effect on the status of women. In a private ownership system, individuals who do not own land or other means of production are in a situation that Engels (1884) compares to enslavement - they must work for the owners of the land in order to be able to live within the system of private ownership.
Engels (1884) argues that a woman's subordination is not a natural result of her biological disposition but of social relations established around the female sex's reproductive capacity. Men's efforts to achieve their demands for control of women's labor and sexual faculties have taken different forms depending on the wider socio-economic system of production, and under modern capitalism has become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Through a Marxist historical perspective, Engels (1884) 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 (1884), because they guarantee exclusive access to the sexual and reproductive faculty of women possessed by men from the property-owning class.
As such, gender oppression is closely related to class oppression and the relationship between men and women in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and bourgeoisie. On this account women's subordination is a function of class oppression, maintained (like racism) because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling class; it divides men against women, privileges working class men relatively within the capitalist system in order to secure their support; and legitimates the capitalist class's refusal to pay for the domestic labor assigned, unpaid, to women.
Productive and reproductive labor
In the capitalist system, two types of labor exist, a division stressed by Marxist feminists like Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton. The first is productive, in which the labor results in goods or services that have monetary value in the capitalist system and are thus compensated by the producers in the form of a paid wage. The second form of labor is reproductive, which is associated with the private sphere and relates to the social production of current and future workers needed for the function of the capitalist system; the domestic needs of current workers, and care for those who can't work (e.g. the sick and elderly). Reproductive labor therefore involves anything that people have to do to maintain their existence outside the domain of wage earning labor (i.e. cleaning, cooking, having children). Due to their physiological attributes of childbearing, women have traditionally been assigned to the domestic sphere where the labor is reproductive and, since this role lost its status with the development of private property, it has since been uncompensated and unrecognized in a capitalist system. It is in the best interest of both public and private institutions to exploit the labor of women as an inexpensive method of supporting a work force. For the producers, this means higher profits. For the nuclear family, the power dynamic dictates that domestic work is exclusively to be completed by women in the household thus liberating the male members from their own necessary reproductive labor. Marxist feminists argue that the exclusion of women from productive labor leads to male control in both private and public domains.
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. Gilman proposed that conditions for women would improve when their work was located, recognized, and valued in the public sphere.
Perhaps the most influential of the efforts 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, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Brigitte Galtier, and Silvia Federici published a range of sources to promote their message in academic and public domains. Despite the efforts beginning with a relatively 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. 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.
Sharing the 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." 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, 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). 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". 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. Federici's suggestions are echoed in a similar interview with Selma James (2012) and these issues have been touched on in recent presidential elections.
Feminist scholars and sociologists such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Arlie Russell Hochschild and Shiloh Whitney discuss a new form of labor that transcends the traditional spheres of labor and which does not create product, or is byproductive. 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." 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) in which she considers the affective labor of the profession as flight attendants smile, exchange pleasantries and banter with customers.
Marxist Feminism and Sex Work
Alan Soble brings forth a challenging perspective on Marxism. Soble discusses in his book Pornography: Marxism, Feminism, and the Future of Sexuality (1986) how pornography operates as sexual oppression in a capitalistic system. Pornography has historically been represented through the male gaze. In current feminism there is a challenge to pornography and reclamation of sexual expression within capitalistic means in the form of sex work. Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor discuss in Sex and Skill: Notes towards a Feminist Economics (1980) how sex work has become a new form of labor a part from 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 socialize sex work within the capitalistic system to provide sex workers with rights, health care, decriminalization, and protection.
Intersectionality and Marxist feminism
With the emergence of intersectionality 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. Intersectionality operates within Marxist feminism as a lens to view the interaction of different aspects of identity as a result of structural and systematic oppression. The organization Radical Women provides a clear example of successful incorporation of the goals of Marxist feminism without overlooking identities that are more susceptible to exploitation. They contend that elimination of the capitalist profit-driven economy will remove the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.
Marxist feminist critiques of other branches of feminism
Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai 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.
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 demands coined as "Utopian Demands" by Maria Mies. 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.
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. 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. 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.
Notable Marxist feminists
- Angela Davis
- Raya Dunayevskaya
- Silvia Federici
- Shulamith Firestone
- Clara Fraser
- Alexandra Kollontai
- Sheila Rowbotham
- Evelyn Reed
- Chizuko Ueno
- Claudia Jones
Marxist Feminist Organizations
- Feminist economics
- Feminist theory
- Material feminism
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State
- Radical feminism
- Socialist feminism
- Lucy R. Lippard
- Abortion under communism
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- Marxist Feminism
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