National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 6 - Feminism past and present

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

That is, that there is a separate “woman question", equally affecting all women regardless of their class and solvable by all women acting together, regardless of their class. This notion of a separate woman question, separate from the class struggle, is the unifying feature of all brands of feminism.

Marxists, however, believe that the origins, continuation and precise forms of women’s oppression are inseparably linked to class society. Since class society and women’s oppression are mutually dependent there can be no separate woman question, and therefore no distinct sphere of struggle.

The nature of feminism, although riven by splits due to competing theories and practices, is to separate off into a distinct sphere those issues which relate to women. This does not mean that all feminists reject the issues concerning class exploitation and imperialist oppression, but their theories, and most centrally their programme for liberation, do not link the various struggles in a coherent fashion.Feminism is therefore unable to provide a revolutionary challenge to women’s oppression. In attempting to provide a strategy for women’s equality or liberation without a strategy for working class power, feminism remains a utopian ideology.

The bourgeois democratic revolutions raised the expectations of sections of the liberal bourgeoisie and intelligentsia for true equality. This was extended to women’s rights and formed the stimulus for the bourgeois women’s movement.The first impressive examples of this were the women’s rights campaigners under Olympe de Gouges who, at the height of the French Revolution, demanded full juridical and political equality for all women and, as a consequence, were sent to the scaffold by the Jacobin dictatorship.

In the 30s and 40s of the last century this suppressed tradition of a radical-democratic women’s movement allied itself with the developing labour movement as in the case of Flora Tristan with her Saint Simonian comrades.The bourgeois women’s movement achieved mass influence in the 80s and 90s, especially in Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand around women’s suffrage campaigns. Despite the determination and militancy shown by the suffragettes, which brought down on them the most brutal repression from the bourgeois state, and despite the achievement of partial gains and suffrage reforms around the turn of the century, this bourgeois women’s movement refused, because of its own bourgeois democratic limitations to attack the actual social roots of women’s oppression.

Although a historically progressive set of demands, there was a contradiction between the class interests of these women, and their aspirations for sexual equality which could not be fully achieved under capitalism.Simple demands for equal rights-women’s suffrage, access to education and the professions, property and divorce rights-were often militantly fought for, but when led by bourgeois women could never go beyond a reform programme.

Such a programme inevitably stopped well short of tackling the real roots of women’s social oppression, namely capitalist society itself. As such it was in no sense a programme for the emancipation of women.Their avowed aim of improved rights for all women would destabilise the capitalist system from which they gain their class privileges, even though these are less than those of their male counterparts. This contradiction led to the bourgeois women’s movement splitting at key points.

For example at the outbreak of the First World War a few women, such as Sylvia Pankhurst, were won to the side of the working class, whilst others, including Emily and Christabel Pankhurst, demonstrated that their class interests were dominant and leapt to support their “fatherland", dropping their feminist demands for the duration of the imperialist war.They were prepared to sacrifice the rights of the great mass of women to suffrage in return for sops from the capitalists that granted political rights to petit bourgeois and bourgeois women based on property qualifications.

The danger of bourgeois feminism for the working class was its attempt to incorporate all women into its ranks in the struggle for equal rights. In suffrage societies this often meant working class women being used as supporters for the campaigns for suffrage for women with property.The linking of working class women to the bourgeois women’s movement is a form of class collaboration which undermines the independence of working class women struggling for their own rights. Socialist women’s movements have always been in sharp opposition to the attempts of bourgeois women to utilise their proletarian “sisters” for their own aims.

In addition to the dangers of class collaboration the demands of the bourgeois feminists were in some cases used to attack the working class.In particular in the USA the demands for equal white women’s suffrage was argued for by the leading feminists on the basis that black men had no right to a vote that the white daughters of the bourgeoisie did not have. Their racism, and the support many of their leaders had given to the continuation of slavery, made them clear enemies of the working class.

Further, in decisive historical situations the bourgeois women’s movement split or, as in the case of the German’s women’s movement, went over as a whole to defence of the fatherland. Worse still, it was characteristic of the bourgeois women’s movement that it itself formed a feminist form of class collaboration which leading women’s rights campaigners certainly used to demand voting rights-but for women of the ruling class, not a general right for women of all classes.They also counterposed to the paternalism of individual employers a feminist programme of social reform and guardianship for the women of the “poor and uneducated” classes. With the achievement of women’s suffrage and other equal rights for women in the imperialist countries, the bourgeois women’s movement in most cases faded from the political scene, the most right wing elements in Germany going over to National Socialism.

The second major phase of feminism emerged in the late 1960s and formed the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the USA, western Europe which continued into the 1970s. The movements emerged as a result of the dramatic change in the material condition of women which had occurred since the Second World War.The expansion of education and increasing employment opportunities for women in the long post-war boom led to a large number of women in higher education and professional or white collar jobs. Improved contraception methods and better provision of abortion alongside this expansion of opportunities, led to an increasing expectation by many of these women for equal rights.The clear discrimination against women in education and employment, plus the social isolation they found when they left work to look after young families, were a stimulus to fight their oppression.

The militancy of the working class, particularly in May 1968, plus the radicalisation of students and youth through the civil rights and anti-war movements in the USA, the Vietnam solidarity campaigns in the USA and western Europe acted as a spur to the mobilisation of women.Women workers took up their own demands for equal pay and improved conditions, union rights etc, and women in the radical movements and in the organisations of the old and new left rebelled first against the sexism of their male “comrades", and later took up their own demands for equality and liberation.The WLM which grew in this period, unlike the first phase of feminism was, in political terms, petit bourgeois in character. It derived this character from its mass base amongst women of the intelligentsia, the upper white collar sections of the proletariat and students.

The composition of this new women’s movement gave a fragmented reflection of the political traditions and contemporary strengths of the workers’ movements of the different countries and, likewise, the intensity of the class struggles influenced the direction and content of their interventions.In the USA where the WLM grew first, there was a strong bourgeois element around the National Organisation of Women which was similar in composition, aims and methods to the early bourgeois feminists. In those parts of western Europe, where there were stronger organised labour movements, important sections of the WLM identified with the working class movement.

The major influences in the early WLM were the radical feminists of the USA, around groups such as the New York Red Stockings. These groups, in western Europe and the USA, were radical and militant, making a significant impact on the media and labour movement which had for so long ignored the question of women’s oppression.Combined with pressure from organised women workers for equal pay, childcare etc, there is no doubt that the early WLM made an important contribution to raising the question of women’s liberation to the fore. In the face of the dominant sexism in the labour movement the organisation and mobilisation of women certainly represented a limited step forward. But based as they were on a false ideology, feminism, they were unable to achieve fundamental changes in the position of women in society.

Since the ability of the bosses to grant limited reforms to women depended upon the fortunes of the economy, the end of the post-war boom and the onset of recession forced the most progressive parts of the women’s liberation movement to realise that it was fighting, not simply prejudice, but the whole nature of capitalist society.Attempts to develop a theory and programme to deal with such fundamental questions led to major splits and divisions within the movement. The feminism on the 1980s has its origins in these early splits, primarily from radical and socialist feminism, but increasingly a strand of liberal feminism has emerged.

Radical feminism emerged as a coherent and influential force as the WLM itself began to come up against the limits of its own programme and organisation. It is based on attempts to theoretically define women as a distinct oppressed and exploited caste or class who should organise separately in opposition to their class enemy-men.This is a consciously anti-Marxist approach which identifies working class men as enemies and bourgeois women as allies in the struggle for women’s liberation. There are various theoretical strands of radical feminism, but they are united by a concept of patriarchy as the underlying system of oppression, more fundamental than class relations.

Male power is at the root of women’s oppression, and is exercised against women through the state, the family and through individual relations between men and women. The violence of men against women is the method by which men keep women subordinated and is therefore a central issue, leading to these groups concentrating on campaigns against rape and male violence.In the 1980s this has been extended from individual male violence to a concentration on military targets. Nuclear weapons are seen as the most extreme example of male power, and radical feminists have set up peace camps etc. Radical feminism is essentially a petit bourgeois ideology which has profoundly reactionary positions on certain questions.

Firstly it argues that men are the enemy and therefore argues against any working class unity in the face of the bosses. This led to the exclusion of men from any WLM events, and in some groups the exclusion of heterosexual women who were seen as collaborating with the enemy. In some groups it led to the refusal to allow male children into their creches etc.Secondly, their concentration on male power, violence and sexuality has led them to side with right wing pressure groups in campaigns against pornography, sex shops etc. They became part of a repressive lobby which encourages the state to ban films and books and harass people whose sexuality they disagree with. Needless to say lesbian and gay publications proved to be one of the main targets of the anti-pornography legislation in Britain and the USA.

Thirdly, certain radical feminists argue that women should be given wages for housework, since they see the family as the place where men exploit the labour of women. This is a backward slogan which does not lead to the economic independence of women through being drawn into social production, but to the reinforcement of the home as a distinct women’s sphere.

Socialist feminism emerged as a specific current within the western women’s movements during the 1970s, in response to radical feminism. It was a small tendency in the USA reflecting the weakness of the organised labour movement, but more influential in Britain, Italy, Holland and France.Many women in the WLM had been influenced by, and had participated in, the upsurge in working class women’s activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was especially true in Britain. Women from left groups in particular entered the WLM, either as individuals or in organised tendencies.

They found themselves facing radical feminist opposition to any orientation to the “male dominated” labour movement, and were unable to answer the radical feminist charges that Marxism could not explain women’s oppression and that existing left organisations within social democracy, Stalinism and centrism had an appalling record on the woman question.In fact it was not surprising that the left’s record was so bad. The revolutionary communist position on the woman question and work amongst women had been first decisively developed by the Marxist classics and the healthy Comintern up to 1923. However, the rise of Stalinism and the domination of the working class movement by Stalinism and social democracy from the late 1920s onwards ensured that this position was buried.

After the war the groups claiming to be Trotskyist had not succeeded in reproducing the theoretical understanding of, and programme for the woman question, let alone refining and developing them for the post war period.The International Committee tradition, and in Britain the Cliffite tradition, initially had a purely economistic response to the problems posed to revolutionaries by the rise of the WLM. They downplayed the woman question altogether, posing women’s issues in exclusively trade unionist terms.

The WLM, having been characterised as petit bourgeois (a correct class appraisal but hardly the last word on the subject-after all other petit bourgeois movements, especially nationalist ones, were being cheered to the echo by these same groups), were simply dismissed.Socialist feminism emerged in this climate. The result was that certain sections of the centrist left, especially the USFI who sensed yet another new vanguard in the making, began to consciously adapt their politics to the socialist feminist movement.

The socialist feminists have developed a range of theoretical positions which attempt to link a Marxist understanding of history and class with what they see as a feminist understanding of women’s oppression. These theories have failed for a number of reasons.Firstly, they all agree that Marx’s political economy is “sex-blind” and cannot explain the economic relationship of women to production and reproduction. The fact that Marx never explored this relationship explicitly in his writings does not mean that his categories and methods are useless on the issue.Marx’s historical materialism gives us the tools, as it did to Engels, to understand women’s oppression in the context of the struggle of classes, explaining the social relations within which women are oppressed in terms of their relation to the mode of production.

Socialist feminist theories have tried to graft onto Marx other categories dealing with “modes of reproduction", which are relatively autonomous from the mode of production. These theories, varying greatly in their sophistication and understanding of Marx, all lead towards a conclusion whereby there is something separate about the dynamic of women’s oppression, a dynamic which goes beyond the fundamental class antagonisms which Marx outlined.It is this conclusion which is false. It leads socialist feminists to theoretically justify their practice, which separates off a “woman question” into a distinct sphere.

A secondly, and related reason is that most socialist feminists share with radical feminism the notion of patriarchy-structures and ideas, autonomous from the particular class society which reproduce male domination-as something different from the relations of ruling class and its state.Central to this is the idea that the family is the social unit in which women are oppressed directly by fathers, husbands or other male relatives, with the implication that they enjoy a class superiority over women. This is fundamentally wrong.

Like radical feminism it ends up targeting men, regardless of their class, as the enemy. We argue that the family is a social relation necessary for capitalism and it is only the capitalists who really benefit from maintaining the family. It is for this reason that we reject the idea that “patriarchy” exists as a social relation within each individual family and is root cause of women’s oppression.

We do not totally reject the notion of patriarchy, however. The family structure, with male head dominating women and children within it, is patriarchal, and gives men prestige within the family and society. In previous class societies this family structure was based on an actual economic relation whereby male heads of families controlled the product of the labour of women and children.For the mass of serf or peasant labourers this control did not give men any great advantages, since any surplus product was appropriated by the ruling lords and landowners.

But within the family it gave men power to regulate the labour of their wives and children, and with this social domination. Many socialist feminist theories fail to understand the working class family under capitalism because they have not seen the transformation of the role of that family.Their notion of patriarchy within the family is a-historical, because they regard this as a constant structure of oppression alongside the historical development of class society and ignore the changed social function of the family and male dominance in the working class.

Thus socialist feminism does not represent a qualitative break with the errors of radical feminism, and retains utopian, and ultimately reformist, programme. Since socialist feminism shares radical feminism’s notion of a separate dynamic to the question of women’s oppression, the terrain upon which they concentrate their demands and struggles is also shared. They have been most active around questions related to male violence, sexuality and fertility.Within the labour movement they have been raising issues of sexism, action programmes for women in the unions and workplace, and campaigns for men to take more responsibility for housework and childcare.

Whilst all these are which revolutionaries must take up, socialist feminists in fact avoid the fundamental problem facing women: capitalism. They also reject the idea that working class women must be in the vanguard of a struggle for women’s liberation, preferring to retain their alliances with radical feminists and petit bourgeois or bourgeois allies in a cross-class women’s movement.Socialist feminists have argued that male workers are not a natural ally of working class women. Rather they are a group who, whilst oppressing women, are a major part of the only class which has the potential to create the economic prerequisites for women’s liberation, i.e. socialism. They argue, therefore, that male workers are a temporary ally in some struggles but will ultimately become a force women have to organise against.

The United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), at the forefront of the struggle to bring feminism into the socialist movement rather than revolutionary politics into the women’s movement, argued in the 1970s that women were a natural ally of the working class. By this they meant all women.This is an incorrect and misleading notion which deflects from the problem of clear conflicting class interests between bourgeois and proletarian women. It is working class men, not enemy bourgeois “sisters", who are the “natural” allies of working class women in the sense that they share an objective interest and can subjectively recognise this in the course of struggle.

26. Just as the bourgeois revolution and the advent of industrial capitalism propelled women in the western world into campaigning for female emancipation, so the impact of imperialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the growth of nationalist movements in these continents, propelled women in these countries into a battle against reaction, obscurantism and social oppression.

Modernisation-industrialisation and the transformation of infrastructures and of agriculture-became a central plank of the programme of various bourgeois nationalist movements and of many national bourgeoisies in the semi-colonies.The extension of education, bourgeois democratic rights and, as part of that, more rights for women, were a necessary part of the bourgeois nationalist programme for modernisation. If the new ruling classes were to educate their own next generation they needed educated women and families based on western monogamy. It was also the case that religious and cultural traditions could hold back progress in the countryside and prevent the freeing of female labour there which the developing industries needed.

Progressive women’s organisations as far apart as Egypt, Korea and South Africa grew as part of the modern nationalist movements. Some nationalist governments such as Ataturk’s in Turkey and Sun Yat Sen’s in China spearheaded a drive against the particularly vicious subjugation of women that had been a feature of life in the Ottoman Empire.Early feminist movements in the colonies and semi-colonies thus found more support, relatively speaking, from sections of the nationalist bourgeoisie, than their sisters in the west found from the imperialist ruling classes. But this support had definite limits.

First, there have been times and places where nationalism has gone hand in hand with profound reaction on the woman question (Islamic Fundamentalism in Iran and other parts of the Middle East is a recent example, but nationalists in the 1920s were equally capable of turning on women’s rights, as they were every gain made by the masses in the anti-imperialist struggle).

Second, for the new ruling classes of the semi-colonies, limited emancipation and the establishment of western style monogamy were enough for their purposes. A free and independent womanhood would be a threat to the established order which they now presided over and to the institution of the family.In these cases feminist movements either died out after the achievement of independence or maintained a tenuous existence until a new generation of women were able to take up the unsolved questions.

For the most part bourgeois feminism in the colonies and semi-colonies mirrored western feminism in paying little attention to the needs of the great mass of working class, urban poor or peasant women. Where they were paid attention their independent interests would be subsumed within the general bourgeois reforming programme.The Comintern in the early 1920s, made a determined effort, through the establishment of the Communist Women’s International, to bring working class and communist leadership to the progressive women’s organisations of the east and to rouse working class and peasant women independently of the bourgeoisie. With the degeneration of the Comintern from the mid-1920s however, these efforts ceased and many of the gains were lost.

Nevertheless the specific interests of working class and peasant women, and their understanding that imperialist domination was placing ever greater burdens on them, led to the participation of substantial numbers of these women in anti-imperialist movements that developed during and after World War Two, including in the armed struggle, for instance in China, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.At the same time, these women challenged their traditional subordinate roles or sought to preserve and extend their independence as capital uprooted the peasant family and placed ever increasing burdens on their shoulders.The spread of socialist and Marxist ideas within those anti-imperialist movements encouraged the demands for equality and the organisation of women.

But the hegemony of Stalinism and the programme of petit bourgeois nationalism has led to these movements being tied to either the new ruling bureaucracies, or the new bourgeois governments such as in Zimbabwe.Today women’s organisations of a cultural, political or welfare-providing character exist in every country of the globe. Women play a crucial role in the life and leadership of the working class in the barrios, shanty towns and workplaces of the imperialised world. Western feminism is often viewed with suspicion.Its preoccupation with lifestyles seems light years away from the daily struggles for existence confronting the majority of the world’s women. But this does not mean that feminism does not exist or is not influential.

Working class and peasant women are taking up, not only the fight against poverty and exploitation, but also the battles against “machismo", dowry deaths, the seizure of women held land and sexual brutality.Where feminism, with its theory of a separate or parallel struggle against patriarchy and its strategy of a cross class women’s movement, can appear to provide the answer to these problems it will continue to grow until communist leadership provides an alternative to it.

Feminism in the 1980s
Towards the end of the 1970s and right through the 80s feminism moved into increasingly defensive struggles. Following the defeats of the workers’ movement that occurred in western Europe and the USA they turned away from pseudo-revolutionary strategies-whether socialist or radical-towards reformist ones.Amongst the radical feminists anti-pornography campaigns became central and were centred on fighting lengthy and elaborate court battles. Amongst the socialist feminists there was a major turn towards the social democratic parties and even to some extent, in the USA, the openly bourgeois Democratic Party.

Women’s units became part and parcel of the various social democratic local and national government apparatuses. Cadres from the WLM became well known leading activists inside the reformist parties. The radical demands for “liberation” were hushed up as women’s movement activists put their university degrees to work in “women’s studies” departments, government “equality” units or feminist publishing houses.The growth of such political areas showed that the state had been forced to take up the issues of women’s rights in a greater way than ever before. In all the major (and many minor) imperialist countries state agencies, education departments and most of the major bourgeois parties began to openly address the issues of improved opportunities for women.

This development is no doubt in part due to the lobbying of women from the WLM and other organisations such as trade unions, but it would be wrong to assign all the credit to the feminist movement. In fact these developments reflect the actual changing role of women in society, with increasing numbers of women working and better control over fertility allowing women to play a more central role at all levels of society, whilst retaining their family role.he expansion of state provision of health care, welfare etc. both drew women into work and gave them greater opportunities to participate in education, politics and other social activities.

Whilst the WLM undoubtedly influenced the way in which women were drawn into state administration and political life, the tendency occurred even where there was little or no organised feminist movement in the 1970s and 80s. In Sweden there was a tiny WLM, although reformist women’s groups had remained in existence since “first wave” feminism.Yet it is in Sweden where women have had the highest involvement in public life-28% of members of parliament in 1984, compared with 3·5% in Britain, 5·9% in France and 7·9% in Italy (1983), all of which had much larger WLMs.

The expansion of women’s involvement in the state and other arenas has drawn many feminists (particularly from the socialist feminist camp) into mainstream politics, away from their consciousness-raising, alternative lifestyle building of the 1970s.This has included a significant increase in bureaucratic women’s posts in the trade unions which have attracted many socialist feminists. Likewise women have been drawn into local state administration.

In these latter posts the chronic limitations of the feminists and their utopian strategies are most sharply revealed: no end of women’s units, equal opportunities programmes or women’s studies courses have significantly altered the position of working class women.Welfare agencies such as women’s refuges and rape crisis centres have provided temporary respite for some women from the extremes of brutality, but resources pumped into these areas will never solve the underlying problem.

As feminists get drawn into state administration they can at best help patch up the worst examples of women’s oppression, but as capitalisms’ crises intensify even these small gains are threatened.At worst, and most commonly, feminists in government positions become advocates for bourgeois politics, albeit with a “pro-woman” facade. “Feminist” incomes policies (take from the male workers to pay the women better), “men out first” solutions to unemployment-these demonstrate the ultimate problem with all feminism; a programme which, since it fails to address the question of capitalism, fails to put forward a strategy for working class unity in the face of the bosses’ offensive, ends up being a liberal camouflage for bourgeois politics.

The current period of capitalist crises makes the tasks of building a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class, men and women, to power an urgent necessity. Winning women away from the false ideas of feminism is an essential part of the building of that party.