ISO: taking the feminism out of women’s liberation

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The International Socialist Organization’s collection of articles by Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism (Haymarket Press, 2005), left me feeling like I’d been suckered by a slick internet dating service — stuck with something far different than the personal ad I answered.

Smith’s book talks up women’s liberation in an attempt to appeal to young people interested in feminism. But this turns out to be merely opportunistic, as Smith and ISO actually reject feminism. Their theory and practice deny the centrality of female exploitation under capitalism and ultimately dismiss women’s oppression as a catalyst for revolutionary change.

Bait and switch. Smith’s essays are confusing until you realize that the ISO thinks feminism — as an autonomous movement for the political, economic and social equality of women — is incompatible with the struggle to end class exploitation. (Feminism is, in a word, bourgeois.)

This tired canard would have horrified Karl Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels, as well as other revolutionaries Smith name-drops while mangling their theoretical contributions to the Woman Question. Feminism doesn’t divide the working class — sexism does, as do racism and homophobia.

Smith also attempts to justify her anti-feminism by conflating the politics of Ms. magazine media stars with the entire women’s movement. In “What Ever Happened to Feminism?” Smith cites Gloria Steinem’s turn to self-help psychology and the pro-business, anti-choice rants of Naomi Wolf as reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

She writes, “Occasional lip service aside, mainstream feminism has never sought to represent any other class of women than the upper-middle class. … That is why socialists have traditionally argued that feminism, as a solution to women’s oppression, offers nothing to working-class women.” With breathtaking arrogance, Smith ignores the class divisions among feminists and dismisses all the working women and men, people of color, riot grrls, lesbians, and radicals in the feminist movement. (And never mind that most women are, in fact, workers!)

Smith never acknowledges the existence of male privilege. She gives the barest nod to racism, ageism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression that afflict women. She spends more time berating liberals for supporting a French ban on Muslim head scarves than discussing the brutal realities of racism and the rise of misogynist theocrats at home and abroad.

In her chapter “Abortion Rights,” Smith recognizes the need for reproductive freedoms that go beyond the crucial need for abortion. But this positive position is contradicted by ISO in practice. In the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights in San Francisco, for example, ISO members recently staged a failed sectarian power grab in which they argued against adopting a broad, multi-issue program and including issues of women of color in coalition literature.

Revolutionary feminism: no contradiction. Contrary to what Smith would have readers believe, not all Marxists see a conflict between feminism and class struggle. The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women are pioneering socialist feminist organizations that see sexism, racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and other divisive “isms” as top priority class issues.

As FSP and RW co-founder Clara Fraser explained in her book, Revolution, She Wrote, “If you’re doubly exploited or triply oppressed, if you’re in quadruple jeopardy … you’ve got that many more reasons to go out and hit the system.” RW and FSP consider feminism a basic issue of democratic rights and a key theoretical question.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels details the fundamental interconnections of class and gender oppression. He documents how women’s second-class citizenship resulted originally from replacement of communal ownership by private property and of female-reckoned descent by patriarchy.

What Engels calls the “world historical defeat of the female sex” was indispensable to the rise of the private property system, and it remains indispensable to capitalism today. Capitalism cannot accommodate women’s liberation and survive, period. This means that the fight for female liberation is inherently revolutionary — and leftists who don’t get this are doomed, in the end, to irrelevancy.

The Radical Women Manifesto lays out the difference between a revolutionary feminist program and the ISO’s slippery and backward position on women: “’Unity’ that does not respect the different experiences and levels of oppression within society is arrogant, false and eventually self-defeating. … The oppression of women is a political, legal and economic question of first priority. Women’s political leadership is decisive to the outcome of all the separate movements, and accordingly, we are destined to play a vanguard part in the general movement for revolutionary social change.”

Order the book or check out more about socialist feminism at — you may just find the match you’ve been looking for.

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