Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism and the Class Struggle

Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism and the Class Struggle

Article excerpt

A REVIEW OF JANE SLAUGHTER AND ROBERT KERN, EDS., EUROPEAN WOMEN ON THE LEFT: SOCIALISM, FEMINISM AND THE PROBLEMS FACED BY POLITICAL WOMEN, 1880 TO THE PRESENT (GREENWOOD PRESS, 1981); ELIZABETH SARAH, REASSESSMENTS OF `FIRST WAVE' FEMINISM (PERGAMON, 1982); TONY CLIFF, CLASS STRUGGLE AND WOMEN'S LIBERATION: 1640 TO THE PRESENT DAY (BOOKMARKS, 1984)

In the early 1970s at building sites in New South Wales, the men stopped work when employers refused to take on women. At one site, the workers supported a one woman work-in until she got the job. And when women were hired as cleaners on building sites, the men struck until they were paid builders labourers' rates.(1)

Struggles such as these were a direct result of the radical Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s, early 1970s. But today, women who claim to be part of the same movement spray paint graffiti such as "Men -- Recognise Women Power or Die" or "Dead Men Don't Rape Or Bash".

In Russia during the strike waves of 1910 and 1914, and February 1917, women workers were often the first to strike, afterwards gaining the support of the men. The strikes among British dockworkers and gasworkers in the 1890s were sparked off by a strike of women matchworkers at Bryant and May.(2) But towards the late 1910s, early 1920s, women were organising against men's sexual violence. The tactics they employed included the setting up of men's chastity leagues, supporting the victims, campaigns of propaganda to enlighten public opinion, the development of spiritual systems, a concentration on the vote as a cure-all and total withdrawal from sexual relations with men."(3)

The parallels are striking. In both cases, the focus seems to have changed completely from one of fighting together with working class men to fighting against all men. But it seemed that the analysis of women's oppression was still the same; it was only the tactics for fighting oppression that had changed. No wonder some feminists became unsure of their direction. How do you encompass a change of such magnitude and keep the theory intact? How do you explain within the same theory how unity of working class women and men against ruling class women and men is compatible with the unity of all women in opposition to all men?

Effectively, you have three choices: Accept the theory and ignore the limitations as feminists do; try to modify it as socialist feminists do; or not accept it as Marxists do, claiming that Marxism explicitly incorporates an analysis of women's oppression and liberation.

Feminist theory is essentially as follows. Women form a coherent social grouping and, as such, their joint interests transcend class. This analysis places all men in a separate social grouping with their own joint interests, which also transcend class. Thus, women and men come into conflict, with women as the oppressed group, men the oppressors.(4)

For Elizabeth Sarah in Reassessments of First Wave Feminism, "First wave feminism's basic commitment -- as it remains today -- was to expose the system of male power and do something about it."(5) Prior to this, she comments that one of the most important issues in first wave feminism was the intersection between `public' and `private' concerns. "`First wave' feminists were sometimes divided in their work between `suffragism' and `moral campaigning'; between the task of seeking women's equal participation in the administration and work of the world and that of liberating women from sexual slavery on the streets and in the marriage bed, as a fundamental step towards the achievement of equality in all other areas of social, economic and political life."(6) The book thus concentrates on voting reforms, sexuality and motherhood as issues uniting all women, while glossing over any class differences involved. Or as one contributor puts it: "In this approach male domination over women -- patriarchy -- becomes the focus."(7)

Confusion and uncertainty arise when you try to introduce class into the theory, as socialist feminists do. …

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