frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

Feminism and Marxism: an unhappy marriage?

Pam Currie, national secretary of the SSP, looks at how socialists relate to feminism.

Most, if not all, SSP members would probably be reasonably familiar with the basic tenets of Marxist ideology- the class basis of oppression in society, the nature of the transition from one class based society to the next, and the ultimately desired – and historically necessary – progression to socialism and communism. Feminist ideas – and the term ‘feminist’ itself – have, however, often sat less comfortably within the Left, particularly the Marxist Left. In the predominantly male, working class organisations of the Left in Scotland and Britain, rooted as they are in a dedication to industrial struggle and transformation of the economic ‘base’ of society, the feminist movement has often been viewed with suspicion, and derided as a ‘middle class’ concern, a diversion from the real work in hand. These prejudices, of course, have spread further when it is discovered that men are to be excluded from meetings and events, and when ‘their’ women return to ask awkward questions about domestic labour, childcare, and women’s position in the workplace.

As socialists today, a generation removed from the 1970s peak of the ‘second wave’ of feminism and the women’s liberation movement, and a century on from their foremothers in the ‘first wave’ of suffrage feminism, we might question the relevance of feminist theory to the SSP. Education has not been the SSP’s strong point. There have been welcome developments in ‘radical education’ in recent years, a concept which itself borrows heavily from feminism, but on the whole, feminist theory has been a relatively neglected aspect of education in the Left. We may have read what Engels had to say about the family and private property, but many of us have remained relatively ignorant of feminist writing from the second wave and beyond. This in turn has limited our debates and all too often, has rendered women marginalised and invisible yet again.

Pay Gap

Recent debates within the SSP about the relevance of feminism to socialists, take place against a wider backdrop in which we are being told that feminism is dead, and that it is something which took place in the past, and which is no longer required. We now live in a ‘post-feminist’ age, an age in which women – particularly if they are young, white, well off and deemed to be ‘attractive’ – can do whatever they like. It is an age in which questioning women’s position in society, let along trying to enact change, might mean ‘double standards’ and even discrimination against men! A quick glance out into the real world soon sobers us up, however. Even among women working full time – a group that includes a growing number of graduates, young women who have grown up and gone through the education system being told they can ‘have it all’ – the pay gap in Scotland is still 17%. For part time workers, the average hourly rate is less than two-thirds of that of male full time workers. We might be more likely to work than our mothers’ generation; and many have no choice but to work to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, but childcare and housework remain overwhelmingly women’s responsibilities. Barely a week goes by without a few paragraphs in the paper noting another sexual attack, yet Scotland’s atrocious rape conviction rate at just 3.9% is the worst in Europe. Yet in over 35,000 reported cases of domestic abuse in Scotland in 2001, 91% of victims were female, and 91% of perpetrators male. As Playboy merchandise floods into schools on ‘must have’ pencil cases and t-shirts, and pre-pubescent girls put pole dancing kits on their Christmas lists, its clear feminism is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Many of those socialists and Marxists who shift uncomfortably in their seats when the ‘f-word’ is used would have little disagreement in challenging the problems outlined above. The problem, they would say, is rooted in the capitalist mode of production and the historical period in which we live. We live in a time in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat – the vast majority of the population – own nothing but their labour. With no option but to ‘sell our labour’ and enter into the workforce in order to survive, we receive less than the full value of our labour, the ‘surplus value’ being creamed off by the ruling class as profit.

Women’s Oppression

In Marxist theory, therefore, women are oppressed first and foremost as workers, forced to sell their labour, often for low wages and under exploitative conditions. Evidence of this surrounds us, both in our own society – where women are employed in their tens of thousands in non-union, minimum wage jobs, and internationally, where women are often found at the sharp end of globalised capitalism, toiling to manufacture the cheap commodities for Western consumers. According to Marx, this endless drive for new markets, the endless production of commodities which workers themselves cannot afford to buy and often do not actually need. This results in the cataclysmic situation for capitalism where it cannot sustain its own economic growth, where the inevitable economic – and now environmental – crisis leads capitalism to ‘create its own gravediggers’. Marx viewed the transition from one historical ‘epoch’ to the next as inevitable; class conflict must drive us forward to the next stage, and capitalism’s fundamental flaws must eventually lead to the emergence of a politicised, class conscious proletariat who would lead the progression to a socialist society based on need, not profit.

Marx’s Vision

Marx’s vision of society is resolutely male. Even now, in the 21st century, it is hard to think of the term ‘proletariat’ without it conjuring images of cloth-capped factory workers or miners emerging at the end of their shift. Marx, writing in the 19th century, had little to say about the fate of women, who were excluded from the public life of the proletarian man; denied access to schooling, apprenticeships, and public political forums. While many, as today, worked through economic necessity, it was in the lowest paid, the least skilled, and the least valued jobs. Many of the ‘first wave’ feminists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were trade unionists who fought for women’s right to work as well as their right to education and to the vote, but their efforts were frequently hampered by male trade unionists who saw women workers as a threat to their own position, and sought to defend the ‘family wage’ and exclude women from the workplace, particularly the ‘skilled’ trades.

The Family

Of course, economic oppression is only one aspect of women’s exploitation under capitalism. Marx’s friend and collaborator, Engels, identified that women were also oppressed by what he identified as capitalist family structures. Engels positions the ‘nuclear family’: Mother, Father and Children, as a product of capitalist society, in which families have been ‘privatised’, shifting from a communal, tribal or ‘clan’ society in which domestic labour and caring responsibilities could be shared, to one in which they rest firmly on the shoulders of individual women. These women, in turn, are viewed as the property of one man: an essential tool in determining parentage and thus inheritance. While domestic labour existed in pre-capitalist societies, human children have always been dependent on adult care, at least in the earliest years of life. Capitalism becomes dependent on women’s unpaid labour to reproduce the labour force, to ensure that the proletariat arrive fed and ironed, and that their children survive to replace them in the production line. Women’s unpaid labour cleans homes, bathes children, cooks meals, cares for the elderly, the sick and disabled. A survey by insurers Legal & General in 2004 found that the cost of replacing the ‘services’ provided by a woman with dependent children came in at over £400 a week; on a global scale, capitalism would collapse if women’s unpaid labour was withdrawn.

For Marxists, therefore, women’s oppression is fundamentally rooted in the capitalist mode of production, and the beneficiaries of the current arrangements are the capitalist class, who gain both in profits from women’s paid labour, and in the reproduction of their workforce through women’s unpaid labour. The solution to women’s oppression thus follows smoothly – overthrow capitalism and replace it with an economic system based on the principle of ‘from each according to his (sic) ability, to each according to his needs’. In a socialist society, we are told, reproduction of labour – the cooking, cleaning and childcare that dominate women’s lives – could be socialised and provided collectively in communities. With private property and inheritance removed from the equation, the capitalist family structures would dissolve and women’s oppression would slip into history, as women and men reached their full human potential.

Do Men Benefit?

The fundamental question, however, and the nub of the problem for feminists in this glowing vision of socialist society, is whether men benefit from women’s oppression under capitalism. This statement refers not only to the men who fill 90% or more of the seats in the boardrooms of the top businesses, but to all men, ordinary men – men who are themselves oppressed by capitalism’s demands of waged labour and strict gender roles. For orthodox Marxists, the answer is no: that while men may be complicit with women’s oppression under capitalism they cannot be said to benefit directly.

This question leads to debates within feminism; between ‘socialist feminists’ who generally reject the concept of patriarchy and argue that it is capitalism alone oppresses women and men, and ‘radical’ feminists, who emphasise patriarchy - the systematic power of men over women - as the source of our oppression. In this structure men, no matter how lowly their economic position, are nonetheless able to exert power over women, demonstrated by the superior position of men in almost every society, in their economic, social and cultural status. Biological differences between men and women and the greater demands placed upon women in reproduction and childrearing, men’s greater physical strength and, above all, ability to rape, predate capitalist societies, and, ‘radical’ feminists argue, create a system of unequal power relations, whereby men as a class oppress women as a class.

This is expressed bluntly by Brownmiller in her 1975 book ‘Against our Will’ as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. It is this systematic violence against women that underpins much radical feminist literature and campaigning concerns. Feminists point to the prevalence of domestic abuse across social classes and cultures as further expression of patriarchal power. Rape, and the threat of rape, may be an extreme expression of this power but male advantage is imbued from a young age. Children are exposed to gender socialisation from birth; in the education system, while girls outstrip boys academically, they are quickly channelled into ‘traditional’ subject choices which maintain male advantage in a segregated job market, where jobs in engineering and science are deemed ‘skilled’ and paid accordingly. The three ‘C’s, however, (catering, cleaning and caring) remain overwhelmingly female. It is in the private sphere of the family where patriarchal power is most clearly exposed,: social and economic pressure leads women into marriage, and ‘caring’ is deemed ‘women’s work’, with participation in the workplace or public life of secondary concern. The 1950s model of a submissive housewife, which generated Betty Freidan’s classic feminist text, ‘The Feminine Mystique’, may be long buried, but the overwhelming assumption remains that women will care – not only for children, but for a growing population of frail elderly, and of course, also, for the needs of their male partner.

For ‘radical’ feminists such as Brownmiller, sex inequalities predate capitalism and, while capitalism uses and perpetuates these inequalities, we cannot presume that the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society would sweep away the patriarchal as well as the class structures of society. For radical feminists, therefore, a Marxist analysis is inadequate and cannot explain women’s experiences of violence and oppression at the hands of men. The critique of such theories is summarised by the American writer Robin Morgan (Bell & Klein, 1996) writing that:
“Radical feminists reject a political positing:
(a) That sexism is merely a by-product of capitalism
(b) That patriarchy, like the state, will wither away under communism
(c) That women automatically become free and equal snap! In socialist and communist societies
(d) That boring words ending in ‘-tion’ and ‘-ism’, written by white, heterosexual, middle class, nineteenth-century, European Jewish men (however bright or bearded), could actually constitute feminist theory, or
(e) That imitating Leftist men could possibly be good for women.”

Such views are dismissed by many socialists and Marxists as being counter-productive. In reducing women and men to biological differences, they overlook the fluid, changing structures of a class society. Women’s position in capitalism has shifted according to the needs of the system – witness women’s entry into industry during World War II, with government supported childcare, and the sharp turn back to the ‘family’ in the 1950s, supported by academic ‘evidence’ of the dangers of working mothers. The socialist-feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham in particular argues that while class changes can be changed or abolished biological sex is far more rigid. A revolution can overthrow the bourgeoisie but it cannot abolish men, and as such, she argues, ‘radical’ feminism offers individualistic answers.

This debate appears, then, to reach an impasse. Marxists remain resolutely ‘gender blind’ in their explanations of economic exploitation, and belief that the ‘family’ is a phenomenon dependent on capitalism for its survival. The ‘radical’ feminists meanwhile reject the male-dominated Marxist Left and all that is associated with it, refusing to countenance a theory driven by economics and which, they argue, renders women all but invisible. Where then, does that leave feminist theory and the Left?

Feminism and the Left

While feminist and Marxist may appear to contain irreconcilable differences, theorist Heidi Hartmann, in her 1979 essay on ‘The unhappy marriage’, argued otherwise. Hartmann draws a comparison between Marxist attitudes towards feminism and a traditional legal view of marriage; that when a man and woman are joined in marriage, the women - and her assets - become wholly the property of the man. Hartmann argues that Marxists see their preferred explanation as all-encompassing, explaining all of the problems women face under capitalism, where in fact, both Marxism and feminism have an important contribution to make, and neither is adequate alone. Thus if either is to achieve their aim of transforming society and ending women’s (and men’s) oppression, the unhappy marriage must be saved. There needs to be meaningful dialogue between Marxism and feminism for reconciliation to take place.

Hartmann argues that while Marx made a hugely important contribution in his analysis of the historical development and progression of society (or Western societies at any rate) Marxism’s fundamental weakness is that it is ‘sex-blind’. Marx’s theory of the economic structures of society, the creation of surplus value and the exploitation of the proletariat, creates ‘empty places’. It does not explain who should undertake which tasks, or why, and it is unable to explain why it is always women who must do the double burden of labour, who earn lower wages, and who occupy a second class position in every capitalist society. She is critical, too, of radical feminist theory; arguing that theories of patriarchal power reduce men and women to biological difference; a theory which simply states that men, as a class, oppress women, as a class, is ‘ahistorical’ - it is not rooted in the material conditions of society, and it cannot explain why and how societies change over time.

Rather, Hartmann argues that patriarchy is not simply psychological or biological, but is rooted in the economic and social structures of society. It has a material basis, in that men benefit from women’s oppression as a class and as individuals and that as such men act as a class, supported by institutions such as the state and trade unions. This advantage is further reinforced by the privatised family, in which girls learn their place at a very early age.

Hartmann argues that capitalism and patriarchy co-exist, although they do not always share the same interests. While capitalism benefits from exploiting women’s cheaper labour, at different historical points capitalism has accommodated the interests of patriarchy to discourage women - particularly mothers of dependent children - from working, using the ‘family wage’, continued segregation of the labour market, unequal pay and a limited supply of childcare.

To defeat both capitalism and patriarchy, therefore, the Left needs a more ‘progressive union’ with feminism. Hartmann argues that this is possible, but that barriers are inherent both in Marxist theory and in the dominance of men and organisational culture within left wing organisations, emphasising the need for women’s self-organisation as well as participation in existing groups. A socialist transformation may occur without an understanding and analysis of the oppression of women under patriarchy; while such a revolution would shake the patriarchal structures of society, Hartmann argues, it could not overthrow them. A revolutionary transformation of society must be feminist as well as socialist if it is not to simply perpetuate women’s oppression under a different economic system.


How, then, can we relate this to our more immediate experience of the SSP, and the current debates within the party about how we organise and the type of party that we seek?

In order to understand the events that have taken place in the SSP in the last few years, we have to appreciate what feminists have to say about patriarchy and Marxism, and place feminism and the destruction of patriarchy at the heart of our socialist principles. We cannot fully understand our society and the barriers that we face in transforming it without understanding women’s oppression. We have made welcome moves towards that in recent years; for example, in high-profile debates about around sex work and men’s behaviour in buying women’s bodies. We now have a policy on prostitution – supporting the ‘Swedish model’ – which views prostitution as being violence against women, and emphasises prosecution of men who buy women’s bodies, and who use violence to control and exploit women. An analysis of women’s position in society cannot focus on the actions of any one man, a deviant, a ‘bad apple’ – it has to focus on the relationship between all men and all women, played out to a greater or lesser extent across time and in different cultures. The split in the SSP in the aftermath of Tommy Sheridan’s libel action was about telling the truth and accountability, but it was and is about much more than that. It was as much about men’s behaviour towards women, and about men’s willingness to defend that position of advantage.

For the SSP to move on and rebuild after the painful experiences of the past few years, we need to understand this. In the current debates about the type of party that we want, ideas about participatory education and decision making, increasing women’s participation in the party and moving away from the traditional hierarchical structures of the Left are all to the fore. These are not new debates - the ‘50:50’ Conference debate seems a very long time ago now. In the meantime, we have learned that organisational mechanisms are necessary but inadequate: we need the political understanding to back them up.

Feminism ‘speaks to our condition’ as a party in 2008 - we need to start talking seriously about the ‘f-word’ and how it relates to socialist ideas in the 21st century. We’re not the only ones talking about it: the last year or so has seen a resurgence in feminist activity in Scotland, with feminist networks developing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, marches against violence against women, and pro-choice pickets at Parliament and the Glasgow University Union. What is noticeable and encouraging about this rise in activity is that most are young women; the so-called ‘third wavers’ born during, and often after, the ‘heyday’ of feminism in the 1970s and early 80s, who have grown up in the period when ‘feminism’ was supposed to be dead.

Feminism and Marxism have a lot to say to each other, but to have a meaningful discussion, we need to realise that Marxism may not have all of the answers. We need to recognise sexism, challenge our own behaviour, and accept that the ‘personal is political’. Hartmann’s ‘unhappy marriage’ can and must be mended if we are to change society - and given our recent experiences, the SSP is better placed than most Left parties to understand that.

Further Reading

Hartmann, H. ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism’ in Sargent, L. (1981) Women and Revolution, Monthly Review Press (can be viewed for free on Google books)

Rowbotham, S. ‘The trouble with patriarchy’ in Samuel, R. (1981) People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge & Kegal Paul