Women worldwide are saying Enough! Audacious Slutwalk marches protest rape and victim-blaming around the globe. Women are a vibrant part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and public employee uprisings. The escalating war on reproductive rights is wakening passion among new generations who refuse to live in a world of back-alley abortions.
As always when the second sex arises, questions follow: Is unity impeded or enabled by recognizing the heavier pressures on women? Are female voices being treated seriously? Is feminism a dead issue, an upper-class distraction, or a revolutionary banner? Answers to these questions can boost or sink movements.
Feminism — love it or loathe it. Simply stated, feminism is the belief that the sexes should have equal rights. It is a rejection of gender-based brutality and bias, stereotyping and double standards, child abuse and constricted futures. Women of all classes (and many men) share these concerns. Working women, lesbians, and women of color go deeper to connect with every aspect of their multiple layers of oppression — all of which fall most harshly on the female sex.
Like every movement, feminism has numerous tendencies reflecting different class orientations.
Mainstream, middle-class feminism concerns itself with legal reforms and overcoming barriers to success within the capitalist system. Groups such as NOW and Fund for the Feminist Majority fall into this camp.
Self-described radical feminists view men, male sexuality, and pornography as ultimate sources of female oppression. Their approach downplays class and race differences among women and rejects alliances with working-class men. They have mixed views on whether or not capitalism is part of the problem.
Socialist feminism, as developed by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW), adheres to a Marxist understanding of the origins of patriarchy and its role under capitalism. Female subjugation was the first form of oppression. It arose as the result of a male-dominated system of private property that came into being in early society. A crucial pillar of capitalism today, it generates billions in profits through women’s unpaid labor at home and underpaid labor in the workforce. Because patriarchy arose with and is sustained by class society, it can only be ended by the overthrow of capitalism. This analysis was brilliantly put forward by Karl Marx’s co-thinker Frederick Engels.
Unfortunately, energized women seeking solutions to the status quo frequently run into a lack of support for feminism among left groups. Most organizations give lip service to women’s rights, but do nothing to develop female leaders or put energy into women’s issues. Others, most notably the International Socialist Organization (ISO), define feminism as intrinsically bourgeois and instead call for “women’s liberation.”
In the ISO’s major book on women, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, author Sharon Smith defines feminism as a movement for upper-class women only and claims that “feminism, as a solution to women’s oppression, offers nothing [!] to working-class women.” This is a gross overstatement. Middle-class feminism cannot end female oppression, but limited reforms within the system have certainly eased working women’s lives through such measures as legalized abortion, affirmative action, and anti-discrimination laws.
Smith declares, “It is not possible for working-class women to simultaneously unite with working-class men in the class struggle and to unite with ruling-class women in the struggle against … the patriarchy.” This denies reality. Working women past and present have maintained their own interests and views while cooperating with female liberals on basic issues like the right to vote and fighting rape and domestic violence.
Smith also believes that “the problem with socialist-feminist theory … is that it is an attempt to combine two vastly different analyses of society into a single theory.” Yet Engels, whom she claims to support, has a “single” theory that links the fight against patriarchy with the emancipation of the working class.
ISO claims that sexism, racism and homophobia confer no material privilege to male, white or straight workers. Instead, Smith explains that “sexism, in all its forms, however brutal — like racism and homophobia — represents aspects of ‘false consciousness’ … [i.e.,] ideas that work against one’s own class interests.” This description of sexism as a “set of ideas,” “bad ideas,” “old ideas,” “backward ideas,” “dominant ideas” is echoed no fewer than 12 times in Elizabeth Schulte’s July 2011 article, “Women’s Liberation and Socialism,” in ISO’s Socialist Worker newspaper.
Schulte concedes that working-class men can adopt a sexist mindset and that “all women may suffer the effects of oppression under capitalism.” But she and other ISO spokespeople deny that misogyny among workers is buttressed by material rewards of higher wages, preferential treatment, and social status. These benefits are what make institutionalized sexism, racism and homophobia so divisive, even though they are against workers’ best interests. Nevertheless, when it comes to a real fight with the bosses, workers often find their strongest position lies in solidarity, rather than in defending short-term privileges.
The leadership question. A hallmark of socialist feminism is its emphasis on the leadership of the most oppressed. Because of the different layers of privilege and oppression that exist within the working class, it is imperative for serious movements to respect the fighting experience, survival talents, and needs of those who are most motivated to challenge the system.
As Leon Trotsky said in the Fourth International’s Transitional Program, “Opportunist organizations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class. … The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class; consequently, among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness and readiness to sacrifice.”
It is notable that neither Smith’s book nor Schulte’s article mention the wisdom and fire that female leaders could add to the movement for socialism. Their road to unity seems all one-way: women must recognize their place in the working class. But what can the working class gain by listening to the women, people of color, queers and immigrants in its ranks?
FSP and RW founder Clara Fraser said it well: “Radicals must recognize clearly that unity can only come about if it is based solidly on the demands of oppressed strata.”
Socialist feminism is essential to finding the stronghearts of resistance. An organization consciously based on the leadership of the most oppressed is in the best position to hold on to its political compass amid the onslaughts of war, downward-spiraling living standards, and redbaiting. The powerful cohesion of feminism and socialism shows the way forward.
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