The Socialist Feminist Project

By Holmstrom, Nancy | Monthly Review, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Socialist Feminist Project


Holmstrom, Nancy, Monthly Review


Some would say socialist feminism is an artifact of the 1970s. It flowered with the women's liberation movement, as a theoretical response to what many in the movement saw as the inadequacies of Marxism, liberalism, and radical feminism, but since then it has been defunct, both theoretically and politically. I think this view is mistaken.

Socialist feminism should be seen as an ongoing project. It is alive and well today and it existed before the women's liberation movement as well--though both now and then, not necessarily in that name. It has sometimes been called Marxism, sometimes socialist feminism, sometimes womanism, sometimes materialist feminism, or feminist materialism, and sometimes is implicit in work that bears no theoretical labels. Though the term "socialist feminist" can be used more narrowly, as I will explain, I am going to characterize as a socialist feminist anyone trying to understand women's subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, with the aim of using this analysis to help liberate women. As Barbara Ebrenreich said in 1975 the term socialist feminism "is much too short for what is, after all, really socialist, internationalist, antiracist, antiheterosexist feminism."

Today the socialist feminist project is more pressing than ever. "[T]he need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe...transforming the world in its own image," was the Communist Manifesto's prescient description of what is now referred to as "globalization." "The Battle of Seattle" against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the demonstrations that have followed in Davos, Quebec City, Genoa, and wherever world economic leaders meet, express peoples' growing awareness of and protest against capitalism as a global force beyond democratic control. The brutal economic realities of globalization impact everyone across the globe--but women are affected disproportionately. Displaced by rapid economic changes, women bear a greater burden of labor throughout the world as social services have been cut, whether in response to structural adjustment plans in the third world or to so-called welfare reform in the United States. Women have been forced t o migrate, are subject to trafficking, and are the proletarians of the newly industrializing countries. On top of all this they continue to be subject to sexual violence and in much of the world are not allowed to control their own processes of reproduction. How should we understand these phenomena and, more importantly, how do we go about changing them? Feminist theory that is lost in theoretical abstractions or that depreciates economic realities will be useless for this purpose. Feminism that speaks of women's oppression and its injustice but fails to address capitalism will be of little help in ending women's oppression. Marxism's analysis of history, of capitalism, and of social change is certainly relevant to understanding these economic changes, but if its categories of analysis are understood in a gender- or race-neutral way it will be unable to do justice to them. Socialist feminism is the approach with the greatest capacity to illuminate the exploitation and oppression of most of the women of the wo rld.

The broad characterization of socialist feminism I am using allows for a range of views regarding the relationship among the many facets of our identities. Some of us would make class fundamental from an explanatory point of view, while others would refuse to give a general primacy to any one factor over others. Despite these differences in our perspectives, in the broad sense of "socialist feminism" that I am using here, all socialist feminists see class as central to women's lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. And all of us see these aspects of our lives as inseparably and systematically related in other words, class is always gendered and raced.

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