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Marxist feminism is a philosophical variant of feminism that incorporates and extends Marxist theory. Marxist feminism analyzes the ways in which women are exploited through capitalism and the individual ownership of private property. According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved by dismantling the capitalist systems in which they contend much of women's labor is uncompensated. Marxist feminists extend traditional Marxist analysis by applying it to unpaid domestic labor and sex relations.
Because of its foundation in historical materialism, Marxist feminism is similar to socialist feminism and, to a greater degree, materialist feminism. The latter two place greater emphasis on what they consider the "reductionist limitations" of Marxist theory but, as Martha E. Gimenez notes in her exploration of the differences between Marxist and materialist feminism, "clear lines of theoretical demarcation between and within these two umbrella terms are somewhat difficult to establish."
Theoretical background in Marxism
Marxism follows the development of oppression and class division in the evolution of human society through the development and organization of wealth and production, and concludes the evolution of oppressive societal structure to be relative to the evolution of oppressive family structures, i.e., the normalization of oppressing the female sex marks or coincides to the birth of oppressive society in general.
In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels writes about the earliest origins of the family structure, social hierarchy, and the concept of wealth, drawing from both ancient and contemporary study. He concludes that women originally had a higher social status and equal consideration in labor, and particularly, only women were sure to share a family name. As the earliest men did not even share the family name, Engels says, they did not know for sure who their children were or benefit from inheritance.
When agriculture first became abundant and the abundance was considered male wealth, as it was sourced from the male work environment away from the home, a deeper wish for male lineage and inheritance was founded. To achieve that wish, women were not only granted their long-sought monogamy but forced into it as part of domestic servitude, while males pursued a hushed culture of "hetaerism". Engels describes this situation as coincidental to the beginnings of forced servitude as a dominant feature of society, leading eventually to a European culture of class oppression, where the children of the poor were expected to be servants of the rich.
Engels rewrites a quote in this book, by himself and Marx from 1846, "The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children", to say, "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."
Gender oppression is reproduced culturally and maintained through institutionalized inequality. By privileging men at the expense of women and refusing to acknowledge traditional domestic labor as equally valuable, the working-class man is socialized into an oppressive structure which marginalizes the working-class woman.
Productive, unproductive, and reproductive labor
Marx categorized labor into two categories: productive and unproductive.
- Productive labor is labor that creates surplus value, e.g. production of raw materials and manufacturing products.
- Unproductive labor does not create surplus value and may in fact be subsidized by it. This can include supervisory duties, bookkeeping, marketing, etc.
Marxist feminist authors in the 1970s, such as Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton, relied heavily on analysis of productive and unproductive labor in an attempt to shift the perception of the time that consumption was the purpose of a family, presenting arguments for a state-paid wage to homemakers, and a cultural perception of the family as a productive entity. In capitalism, the work of maintaining a family has little material value, as it produces no marketable products. In Marxism, the maintenance of a family is productive, as it has a service value, and is used in the same sense as a commodity.
Wages for Housework
Focusing on exclusion from productive labor as the most important source of female oppression, some Marxist feminists advocated for the inclusion of domestic work within the waged capitalist economy. The idea of compensating reproductive labor was present in the writing of socialists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898) who argued that women's oppression stemmed from being forced into the private sphere. Gilman argued that conditions for women would improve when their work was located, recognized, and valued in the public sphere.
Perhaps the most influential effort 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 beginning as a 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.
Many Marxist feminist scholars, in the vein of an analyzing modes of oppression at the site of production, note the effect that housework has on women in a capitalist system. In Angela Davis' Women, Race and Class, the concept of housework is to deconstruct the capitalist construct of gendered labor within the home and to show the ways in which women are exploited through "domestic slavery". To address this, Davis concludes that the "socialisation of housework – including meal preparation and child care – presupposes an end to the profit-motive's reign over the economy." In this manner, domestic slavery upholds the structural inequities faced by women in all capitalist economies.
Other Marxist feminist have noted the concept of domestic work for women internationally and the role it plays in buttressing global patriarchy. In Paresh Chattopadhyay's response to Custer's Capital Accumulation and Women's Labor in Asian Economies, Chattopadhyay notes the ways in which Custer analyzes "women's labor in the garments industry in West Bengal and Bangladesh as well as in Bangladesh's agricultural sector, labor management methods of the Japanese industrial bourgeoisie and, finally, the mode of employment of the women laborers in Japanese industry" in demonstrating the ways in which the domestic sphere exhibits similar gender-based exploitation of difference. In both works, the gendered division of labor, specifically within the domestic sphere, is shown to illustrate the methods the capitalist system exploits women globally.
Responsibility of reproductive labor
Another solution proposed by Marxist feminists is to liberate women from their forced connection to reproductive labor. 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 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, 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 as a result of gaining access to productive labor. 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 labor, resulting in a double day. Federici argues that the emancipation of women cannot occur until they are free from the burden of unwaged labor, 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 have even been touched on in recent presidential elections.
Affective and emotional labor
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, particularly the emotional labor that is present and required in pink collar jobs, was introduced by Arlie Russell Hochschild 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.
Intersectionality and Marxist feminism
With the emergence of intersectionality as a widely popular theory of current feminism, Marxist feminists remain critical of its reliance on bourgeois identity politics. Intersectionality operates in Marxist feminism as a lens to view the interaction of different aspects of identity as a result of structured, systematic oppression.
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. As activist, Marxist feminists insist "on developing politics that put women's oppression and liberation, class politics, anti-imperialism, antiracism, and issues of gender identity and sexuality together at the heart of the agenda." Though their 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.
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.
Kollontai avoided associating herself with the term "feminism" as she deemed the term to be too closely related to that of the bourgeois feminism that shut out the capability of other classes to benefit from the term.
Kollontai was a prominent leader in the Bolshevik party in Russia, defending her stance on how capitalism had shaped a rather displeasing and oppressing position for females that are part of its system. She recognized and emphasized the difference between the proletariat and bourgeoise women in society, though it has been expressed by Kollontai's thought that all women under a capitalist economy were those of oppression .One of the reasons Kollontai had a strict opposition of the bourgeois women and proletariat or working-class women to have an alliance is because the bourgeois was still inherently using the women of the working class to their advantage, and therefore prolonging the injustice that women in a capitalist society are treated. She theorized that a well-balanced economic utopia was ingrained in the need for gender equality, but never identified as a feminist, though she greatly impacted the feminist movement within the ideology of feminism within and throughout socialism. Kollontai had a harsh stance on the feminist movement and believed feminists to be naïve in only addressing gender as the reason inequality was happening under a capitalist rule. She believed that the true issue of inequality was that of the division of classes that led to the immediate production of gender struggles, just how men in the structure of the classes shown a harsh divide as well. Kollontai analyzed the theories and historical implications of Marxism as a background for her ideologies, which she addressed the most profound obstacle for society to address be that of the gender inequality, which could never be eradicated under a capitalist society. As capitalism is inherently for private profit, Kollontai's argument toward the eradication of women suffrage within society under a capitalist rule also delved into how women cannot and will not be abolished under a capitalist society because of the ways in which women's "free labor" has been utilized. Kollontai criticized the feminist movement as also neglecting to emphasize how the working class, while trying to care and provide for a family and being paid less than that of men, was still expected to cater to and provide for the bourgeois or upper class women who were still oppressing the working class women by utilizing their stereotypical type of work. Kollontai also faced harsh scrutiny in being a woman leader in a time of a male dominated political stance during the Bolshevik movement. In keeping with her unusual position during her time, she also kept diaries of her plans and ideas on moving towards a more "modern" society where socialism would help uproot that of capitalism and the oppression that different groups of gender and class had been facing. Kollontai was a great example of a woman who was indeed still oppressed by the times and was removed from her own ideologies and progress for the mere fact she was a woman in times where being so in a powerful position was frowned upon and "great women" were only allowed to be placed alongside "great men" in history. Kollontai's most pertinent presence in feminist socialism was her stance on reproductive rights and her view on women being allowed the same luxuries that men have in finding love not only to be stable and supported, and to also be able to make their own money and be secure on their own two feet. She focused her attention on opening up society's allowance of women's liberation from a capitalist and bourgeois control and emphasizing women's suffrage in the working-class.
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 "Utopian Demands", coined 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.
Notable Marxist feminists
- Angela Davis
- Raya Dunayevskaya
- Silvia Federici
- Shulamith Firestone
- Clara Fraser
- Anuradha Ghandy
- Claudia Jones
- Alexandra Kollontai
- Evelyn Reed
- Sheila Rowbotham
- Chizuko Ueno
- Lise Vogel
- Clara Zetkin
- Simone de Beauvoir
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State
- Abortion under communism
- Feminist economics
- Feminist theory
- Lucy R. Lippard
- Material feminism
- Radical feminism
- Socialist feminism
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