What is Marxist Feminism?

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In their Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), two German political and revolutionary theorists, argued that capitalism was not only exploitative but that it also oppressed women.

Capitalism, the pair noted, treated women as instruments of production and therefore as second class citizens within both the family and society. According to the manifesto, “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that [under communism] the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to women.” Marxist feminism takes this idea and applies to the goal of achieving women’s emancipation through the dismantling of the capitalist system that both oppresses and subordinates them.

Although Marx’s writings did not give much attention to the topic of male domination, for his work mostly focused on social and economic inequalities between classes, he did, however, turn to the question of female oppression closer towards the end of his life. Engels did too as he not only drew on the information already produced by Marx himself but also by a further progressive scholar, an American social theorist by the name of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881). In his 1884 historical materialist treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels writes that “she is delivered unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.” Engels claimed that the violence and the oppression women faced had its foundations within the family, and that these foundations led the woman to become the slave of her husband as well as an instrument for the production of children.

Classical Marxist theorist contended that women’s emancipation required their inclusion in social production. They stated that women shared the same goals as workers, and that gender inequality would perish with the elimination of private property, since the reason for any exploitation would no longer exist. Marxists feminists believed that within a capitalist society women were essentially “reserve army of labour,” only called upon when they were need, and excluded when those needs disappeared. They further argued that male patriarchy and male domination existed before the emergence of private property and class divisions, and stated that while gender-based division of labour had always existed, the work performed by men and women is yet still equally necessary. As such, Marxist feminists identified both capitalism and patriarchy as systems which underpinned the oppression of women.

A number of socialist theorists were active in the period between the time of Marx’s death (1883) and the beginning of WW1 (1914) of whom elaborated on issues of women’s empowerment and universal suffrage. Several of these women were influential such as Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) and Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) (both from Germany), and Russia’s Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952). These three women were leading minds within the international communist movement, and they all rejected the idea that they did not belong in socialist leadership because of their gender. Their collective goal was to bring the issue of women’s rights to the forefront of attention in their part of the fight for workers’ emancipation.

While the empowerment of women was not the core of her writings, Luxemburg, for example, believed that revolution was key to women’s emancipation and that women also had the right to work outside of the family. She also highlighted the hypocrisy of preaching on gender equality by proponents of Christianity and by scholars from the bourgeois class. Her main contention seemed to be that only a proletarian (working-class) revolution would liberate women from household enslavement for capitalist society lacked any genuine equality for women. Luxemburg was also harshly critical of wives of the wealthy bourgeois class. She described them as “parasites of society,” “beasts of burden for the family,” and of whom enjoyed the “read-made fruits of class domination.” For Luxemburg, it would only be through a class struggle that emancipation could be achieved and that “women [would] become human beings.” The women’s right to vote was also integral to this process. She argued that the basic right for women to vote for was not the merely the goal of women alone but the common goal for all workers. She claimed that suffrage was a necessary step in educating the proletariat and propelling them forward in their struggle against capitalism. Following on from Luxemburg, other women leaders would meet at international congresses to exchange ideas as well as their experiences. Some would go on to establish international women’s organizations, and revolutionary movements within Russia that would assist in the development and progression of Marxist feminism.

One such woman was Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent communist revolutionary, who was active in promoting Marxist ideas, especially among female workers within Russia. Kollontai is remembered for placing female emancipation and gender equality at the center of the international socialist agenda, particularly in her influential paper, New-Woman (1918). In it she argued that women need to be proactive in raising themselves above and beyond the subservient roles imposed on them by patriarchal traditions. She further observed how the structure of family relations resulted in women becoming economically dependent on men and, as a result, they would not directly participate in public and industrial life, and as long as this was the case, women would not be free. Kollontai further urged women to conquer their emotions as well as develop a strong self-discipline, for if they could it would help them not to limit their interests to the home, family, or love. In some of her other work, such as Society and Motherhood (1916), she observed how hard labour within factories turned motherhood into a burden, which led to health and social issues for women and children. Kollontai thus advocated not only for improved working conditions but also for a state recognition of motherhood through the provision of national insurance. She contended that the health of the working women and their children, and the childcare while the mothers were at work, ought to be the responsibility of the state.

The ideas and activities of the Marxist feminists of the early 20th century would prove significant. They not only influenced the state policies of later communist governments around the world but also the thoughts and ideas of other later feminist groups.

References and Recommended Readings

McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 52-55.

Ferguson, A. 2004. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work. Available.

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