I spent some time recently in northwest Ohio with family members from across the country — many of whom live in alternative housing: trailers, communal living, rehab centers, etc. I got a wake-up call to just how bougie and unrelatable some of this conversation can get for people who aren’t in the leftist echo chamber. It goes without saying that drawing a line between Socialist Feminism and Liberal Feminism is not something most people are overly concerned with.
So I’m going to try not to get lofty here and to talk about this in terms that make real sense. Which should be easy — because I’m not an expert in Socialism or Feminism. I set out to understand Socialist Feminism better myself — and now I just want to relay that information to you in the most practical terms I can.
To start, let’s define a couple of terms. The first is “intersectional.” Intersectionality is a term coined to describe the overlap and intersection of social identities and related systems of oppression, domination and discrimination. The way I understand this is to recognize how systems of power affect those of all ages, races, genders, classes, and orientations.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page: When I talk about Socialism, I am referring to the ownership of the means and products of our labor, rather than the rental of our labor to the highest capitalist bidder. Feminist movements, of course, seek gender equality. Together, Socialist Feminism refers to the liberation movement at the intersection of class and gender.
“The Socialist who is not a Feminist lacks breadth. The Feminist who is not a Socialist is lacking in strategy.” — Louise Kneeland, 1914
Most of the existing and historical conversation about Socialist Feminism seems to lie in contrasting liberal and radical feminism with intersectional and socialist feminism. So let’s start there.
You may have heard the terms: “white feminism,” “liberal feminism,” “corporate feminism,” “second-wave feminism,” or maybe “Clinton feminism.”
These terms collectively refer to a branch of the women’s liberation movement that, in practice, seeks liberation for predominantly white, middle-and-upper-class women and that — when this branch of feminism fights for intersectional causes, they seem to manifest in middle-class reforms that can wind up hurting working-class women and women of color across the globe far more than they help.
- A shining example of this is work-for-welfare programs — evangelized with rhetoric about uplifting working-class women, but instead resulted in many working mothers receiving employment in feminized, low-paid, “pink-collar” work with basic expenses that outweigh their earnings.
- Another example is the famous reference: “Women earn 72 cents on the dollar to what men earn” — when, in reality, that number accounts exclusively for the comparison of white female earners to white male earners. There is even more disparity between the earning power of men and women of color and white male earners, but the “equal pay for equal work” movement has largely neglected to mention the inequality of race in their quest for equality of gender.
Socialist Feminism is not just about motherhood or working women, but about also about changing the way we value contributions and production from the degrading profit motive to social value. One illustrative example of this clash in our culture today is that child care is commoditized … if someone is caring for another person’s child. Housework is commoditized … if someone is working on another person’s house. It’s another story entirely how domestic work and caregiving are feminized with rigid binary gender roles in Western culture.
But to keep it simple — If a woman wants to pursue a career, she will certainly be paid less for her work than her male counterparts, and will also certainly be paid less if she is a woman of color than her white female counterparts. We’ve all heard the common phrase that some people have to be “twice as good” for the same opportunities as others and it’s important to remember that phrase translates exactly to “accept half as much.”
Now, if a woman wants to stay home and raise children — her societal worth may be great, but the financial worth of that work is only measured in savings. She may not have to pay others for childcare or housework, but she is not paid for her work, so must find other ways to pay for housing, utilities, and other expenses necessary for the job. In that way, Marxists have historically critiqued Capitalism as facilitating the domestic enslavement of women to an income-earning partner.
So why is it important to make a distinction between liberal and socialist feminism today?
In 1976, at the height of second-wave feminism, DSA Honorary Chair Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in WIN Magazine (this is a rough quote) — that the trouble with taking a new label, aside from potentially being seen as sectarian, is that the term is too long for a mass movement and too short to be truly descriptive. Because she said that what we mean by socialist feminism is that it is socialist, internationalist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-capitalist feminism.
It’s not exactly a “hashtaggable” frame for a movement.
Nonetheless, the clarification is really important. It matters historically, as many historical accounts report white women were among the most fervent fighters for abolition until black men received the right to vote before they did. And when the majority of suffragettes took to the streets to fight for their own right to vote, they left behind black women and argued instead that giving white women the right to vote might effectively “cancel out” the [recently won] right to vote for black men.
It also matters practically, as liberal feminist reforms can, as we’ve said, do more harm than good for poor women and women of color. That being said, Socialist Feminists support any reforms that can better the lives of women and recognize that some reforms are life-changing.
Feminist critiques of socialist and Marxist theory in the past have claimed that Marxists focus too heavily on class and ignore gender. While there is evidence of Socialist participation in women’s movements, it’s possible at one time this critique had some merit. It’s certainly something Socialists need to keep in mind — to be intentional about the intersectionality of our movements.
The critical distinction for Socialist Feminists from Liberal Feminists is that Socialist Feminists are anti-Capitalist. And we’re anti-Capitalist as a necessary part of seeking women’s liberation. Capitalism interferes with women’s liberation by commoditizing our contributions to society — and that system of valuation is maintained by force. Capitalism is an inherently unequal system, and we have to ask ourselves — can we achieve true equality within a fundamentally flawed system?
Socialist feminists differ from radical feminists because we don’t believe gender is the sole source of women’s oppression. And as exhibited by the “I’m With Her” campaign — liberal feminism has been officially co-opted into the ruling class’s agenda as part of an ongoing strategy to divide and conquer. Socialist Alternative published this about liberal feminism: “It boils down to effectively defining attitudes as the problem, individual laws as the problem, or even men as the problem. What follows, then, is the implication that anti-sexist education and rewriting law is the solution. It implies that women simply have to take power back from men.”
Where do we go from here?
We empower women to organize and build movements for liberation from oppressive systems. We organize against war, which disproportionately affects the world’s most disenfranchised women and people of color and brings austerity back home to disproportionately affect women in the U.S.
We educate people on the intersectionality of gender, race, class, and orientation — on income inequality, on alternatives to predatory capitalism, on how to change the way we value societal contributions.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates women average almost twice as much time spent on domestic activities in the home than men do. Because of the position women are in to command the production and consumption of the home, women can be at the forefront of reducing personal dependency on Capitalism as well. We can organize with other women to create barter systems of child care, food production like gardening, and reduce consumption to starve capitalist systems. Women drive between 75 and 85 percent of all consumer purchases, we carry a multiplier effect in our communities — influencing purchases in our families, churches, and among our friends — that remarkable buying power can be used against capitalism, to — at very least — shop local — and at very best, become sand in the gears of the markets by withdrawing our financial consent from capitalist systems.
As we organize, Socialist Feminists need to intentionally diversify and ensure differentiation from the pitfalls facing liberal feminism that result when white, middle class women attempt to represent working class women and women of color. And to avoid the potential pitfalls of the class warrior, women need to work alongside men in organizing for socialist reforms — not be stashed in special interest committees or support separatist movements. We also need to focus on the relatability and accessibility of our message to people like my family and maybe yours — how can we communicate these ideas best — and in a way that doesn’t make people feel small and powerless?
The Socialist Feminist movement for women’s liberation must also insist on going beyond access to abortion in defining choice — to reproductive justice — which includes the right to, of course, free and accessible contraception and sex education to prevent pregnancy— but also the right to choose to be a mother and raise children in safe, adequate homes.
“For movements to build and maintain serious momentum, we must put forward a class appeal to women, to men, and to society at large. Socialist feminism is defined — and strengthened — by its ability to explain how sexism functions as a tool of the ruling elite to maintain the oppression of the vast majority of working people. By identifying sexism as a function of divide-and-rule under capitalism, it points to a way forward to liberation — not only of women, but humanity as a whole — from the oppression of capitalism.” — Socialist Alternative
Published with permission from our member, Lizzie Maldonado. Original Story Here