Marxist feminism

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Marxist feminism is a sub-type of feminist theory which focuses on the social institutions of private property and capitalism to explain and criticize gender inequality and oppression. According to Marxist feminists, private property gives rise to economic inequality, dependence, political and domestic struggle between the sexes, and is the root of women's oppression in the current social context.

Basis in Marxist sociology[edit]

The theory and method of historical study developed by Marx, termed historical materialism, puts heavy emphasis on the role of contingent economic and technological states of affairs in determining the base structure of society, which in turn drives social revolutions to bring the cultural, educational, governmental and legal systems, as well as political, religious, and social institutions into line with the demands of the base structure. The Marxist theory is materialist. While it does see that ideas and culture play a role in history, it does not attribute causal primacy to intellectual revolutions and the power of ideas to drive social change. Marx argues that the range of legal and moral states of affairs are most of the time set by the current ruling class of society in accordance with their interests and needs to maintain and increase their power against lower classes. However, economic crises, brought on by the contradictions of the mode of production, will usher onto the stage of history a new ruling class with new ideas. Thus ideas do play an important role. As Lenin argued, the organization of socialist consciousness by a vanguard party is vital to the working class revolutionary process.

In developing theoretical explanations for gender inequality, Engels would work within this framework following Marx, tracing the history of the institution of the family and its substance in law and mores to, first, class conflict, and, 2nd, gender conflict between men and women rooted in their competing economic interests.

Engels and feminism[edit]

Marxist feminism's foundation is laid by Friedrich Engels in his analysis of gender oppression in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). He argues that a woman's subordination is not a result of her biological disposition but of social relations, and that men's efforts to achieve their demands for control of women's labor and sexual faculties have gradually solidified and become institutionalized in the nuclear family. Through a Marxist historical perspective, Engels 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, 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 man and woman in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and bourgeoise.[citation needed] 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 (childrearing, cleaning, etc.). Working class men are encouraged by a sexist capitalist media to exploit the dominant social position afforded to them by existing conditions to reinforce that position and to maintain the conditions underlying it.

Wage labour[edit]

Marxist feminists have extended traditional Marxist analysis by looking at domestic labour as well as wage work. In Engels' analysis, the family is an institutional representation of male demands that women perform domestic labor without pay.


Radical Women, a major Marxist-feminist organization, bases its theory on Marx' and Engels' analysis that the enslavement of women was the first building block of an economic system based on private property. They contend that elimination of the capitalist profit-driven economy will remove the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.[1]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx were against the demonization of men and supported a proletariat revolution that would overcome as many male–female inequalities as possible.[2] As their movement already had the most radical demands in women's equality, most Marxist leaders, including Clara Zetkin[3][4] and Alexandra Kollontai,[5][6] counterposed Marxism against bourgeois feminism, rather than trying to combine them.

Feminist critiques of Marxism[edit]

Gayle Rubin, who has written on a certain 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.

Critiques of Marxist feminism[edit]

Radical feminism, which emerged before the 1970s, also took issue with Marxist feminism.[citation needed] Radical feminist theorists stated that modern society and its constructs (law, religion, politics, art, etc.) are the product of males and therefore have a patriarchal character. According to those who subscribe to this view, the best solution for women's oppression would be to treat patriarchy not as a subset of capitalism but as a problem in its own right (see identity politics). Thus, eliminating women's oppression means eliminating male domination in all its forms.

Some Marxists argue that most Marxist forerunners claimed by feminists or "marxist feminists" including Clara Zetkin[7][8] and Alexandra Kollontai[9][10] were against capitalist forms of feminism. They agreed with the main Marxist movement that feminism was a bourgeois ideology counterposed to Marxism and against the working class. Instead of feminism, the 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. Some Marxists view the later attempt to combine Marxism and feminism as a liberal creation of academics and reformist leftists who want to make alliances with bourgeois feminists.

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. -Alexandra Kollontai, 1909 [9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Radical Women Manifesto: Socialist Feminist Theory, Program and Organizational Structure[1], Red Letter Press, 2001, ISBN 0-932323-11-1, pages 2–26.
  2. ^ Stokes, John (2000). Eleanor Marx (1855–1898): Life, Work, Contacts. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-0113-5. 
  3. ^ Zetkin, Clara, On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition (1895).
  4. ^ Zetkin, Clara, Lenin On the Women's Question.
  5. ^ Kollontai, Alexandra, The Social Basis of the Woman Question (1909).
  6. ^ Kollontai, Alexandra, Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights (1919).
  7. ^ Zetkin, Clara On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition 1895
  8. ^ Zetkin, Clara Lenin on the Women’s Question
  9. ^ a b Kollontai, Alexandra The Social Basis of the Woman Question 1909
  10. ^ Kollontai, Alexandra Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights 1919

External links[edit]