Feminism is a social ideology that centers around the liberation of women and the equality of the sexes. Feminism has been around for centuries. Over the years, the ideology itself has been through many changes, lots of progress, and plenty of updates.
During the mid-20th century, the ideology became divided by academic and cultural differences in thought. This division led to the development of several different types of feminism. The 3 most significant strands of feminism are Marxist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism. More recently, intersectional feminism has also risen massively in popularity.
Let’s have a look at Marxist feminism…
What Is Marxist Feminism?
Marxist feminism is an overlapping ideology that involves thoughts and theories from both Marxism and feminism. Marxist feminists believe that the main cause of women’s oppression is capitalism. They believe that gender inequality is not the most significant division and that class inequality is the root of the issue.
Marxist feminists (most popularly, Engels and Zaretsky) tend to emphasize the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the relationship between the family and women. Friedrich Engels describes how social issues develop when a dominant group exploits a subordinate group. So from a Marxist feminist perspective, women’s position in society is a consequence of the emergence of private property.
Engels, the author of ‘The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State’ (read more), claims that the labour of women (sexual reproductive labour and domestic labour) became a vital commodity when early human societies became more agrarian (when private property was increasingly bound to inheritance). The set of structures and institutions that promote the exploitation of labour creates capitalism.
Rosemarie Tong, the author of ‘Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction’ (read more), describes how work shapes consciousness. The work women do shapes their status and self-image. Marxist feminists are primarily concerned with the division of labour that segregates the sexes. This segregation of roles forces women to be domesticated and puts men in the workplace. Within this structure, the proletariat male is allowed more (though still restricted) freedom than his female counterpart. Women are confined to their homes.
Medicine and the pharmaceutical industry also play a key role. Marxist feminists see medicine as functioning to legitimize the domestic role of women. The role of women in the health and social care industry is remarkably large. Women are primarily responsible for children and the elderly.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a socially legitimate explanation of women’s stress and anxiety. However, for women, it is increasingly difficult to transform social experience into a biological explanation. Women are almost absolutely powerless against male medical practitioners and would simply end up labeled ‘diseased’.
Family and Households
Marxist feminists argue that the traditional nuclear family only came about with capitalism. The role of the ‘housewife’ supports capitalism in a number of ways. For women, the ‘housewife’ role only results in double the oppression – by capitalism and the family. The oppression of women supports capitalism by:
- Reproducing the labour force
- Offering a reserve of cheap labour
- Absorbing the frustrations of the proletariat
As Fran Ansley describes it: “When wives play their traditional role as takers of sh*t, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression”. Ansley describes women’s role as an ‘emotional safety valve’ for capitalism. The concept is similar to Parson’s ‘Warm bath theory’. When the working man gets home from a stressful day, his wife is there to help relieve him of that stress and play her role as a housewife under capitalism.
“When wives play their traditional role as takers of sh*t, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.”Fran Ansley
This explains how women’s domestic role as ‘sh*t taker’ hinders the development of class consciousness. An important step in developing class consciousness is this feeling of anger and discomfort.
Another key feature is placing blame. The proletariat should feel disenfranchised politically and economically. The bourgeoisie owns the means of production, the media, and control the political autonomy of the classes. They are to blame for the issues working-class people face. This then leads to class consciousness and this is where an ‘uprising’ of some sort would develop.
However, with capitalism’s emotional safety valve, the proletariat points his anger and frustrations elsewhere and relieves his tension without ever blaming the system. In these scenarios, the wife of the proletariat suffers, potentially from emotional or physical abuse. Women, the housewives, absorb and manage the frustrations that capitalism causes in the working class.
Margaret Benston’s 1972 study ‘The political economy of women’s liberation’ (read here) presents the value of women’s unpaid labour within the family. Even though women’s labour functions strongly to uphold power for the owners of the means of production, it costs absolutely nothing. Benston states ‘at present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour-power of two people’.
“At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labor-power of two people.”Margaret Benston
The breadwinner’s salary supports an entire household while the entire household, the woman especially, is working tirelessly under the instruction of capitalism to uphold the structure of her own oppression. The responsibility of a man to remain the breadwinner and support a family of people limits his ability to withdraw his labour-power and his support for capitalism.
In all exchange relationships in capitalism – any relationship that involves some sense of ‘give and take’ – there will be an underlying power relationship. With males and females, no matter how consensual or pleasurable an encounter may be, the male holds social dominance. Similarly, for prostitution and surrogate mothers it may appear that there is an equal exchange of an asset or service but, as a result of the underlying inequality in power, they are unequal. In the household, women assume the role of the proletariat and the husband is the bourgeoisie.
Within the family, there are similar authoritarian powers that dominate the family unit. These powers are the husbands and adults. According to Diane Feely, the family teaches children passivity and not rebellion. The family socialises children to submit to parental authority and the authority of any adult. This conditions children and young people to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and authority in capitalism.
Engels argues that the monogamous family emerged with capitalism. He believed that traditional tribal societies were entirely classless and practised what he described as ‘primitive communism’.
In this social system, there was no private property. They collectively owned all property and there was actually no such thing as a ‘family’. These communities had no restrictions on sexual relationships and alternatively had agreements of ‘promiscuous horde’.
From Engels’ perspective, the monogamous Nuclear family comes from the bourgeoisie who needed a structure that allowed them to pass their wealth to the next generation of their family.
Marxist Feminist Solutions
Marxist feminists propose several ideas to solving the issue of class (and gender) inequality. All of their solutions are primarily economic – with the main solution being to abolish capitalism. Since Marxist feminists believe that patriarchy is rooted in capitalism, abolishing capitalism is the only way to achieve gender equality.
The goal to reaching a stable and highly functional society is then to employ communism. They maintain that communism will allow and uphold ultimate equality within society, across all institutions.
Socially, Marx feminists advocate paying women for childcare and housework. Given the value of women’s domestic work, it’s important to provide financial stability or some form of compensation. This would provide a much more equal economic stance between men and women, given that women’s contributions to society would gain economic recognition – as men’s already do.
However, this could be considered a fairly liberal concept, given that women would still be operating under the same capitalist system. The only difference is they’d have a better economic status.
Criticisms of Marxist Feminism
One of the main criticisms of Marxist feminism, specifically of Engels’s contributions, is the fact that women’s oppression within the family existed before capitalism. Gender inequality clearly precedes capitalism in Africa and Asia. Within these regions, there are multiple, well-known patriarchal tribes and women are barred from political power or leadership positions as well as owning private property.
Much like in modern society, the women in these cultures are also making structural contributions by doing most of the childcare and physical labour. Wealthy capitalist economies (such as the UK, USA, and Australia) have seen the most rapid and drastic progress with gender equality in the past century. This shows that there is some correlation between increasing wealth and progress towards gender equality.
Marxist feminism also ignores the benefits of nuclear families by focusing exclusively on their impact in upholding the patriarchy. Both parents are present to support the child, financially and emotionally, which presents a fairly stable image that can greatly benefit a child.
Another important factor is the increasing family diversity in capitalist societies. The majority of women are now working full-time, including mothers. Additionally, the increased scrutiny on the gender pay gap, employment inequality, and discrimination in the workplace is vastly encouraging more and more women to enter the workforce.
Other types of feminism also argue that Marxist feminism is highly negligent by exclusively focusing on economics and capitalism as the sole problem. Marxist feminism ignores the many other inequalities that source oppression towards females.
Some do criticise Marxist feminism for being insensitive to difference. It assumes that all women have the same experience, living the same life and it certainly doesn’t account for the race-based issues that women of colour face or the issues that queer women face. It also doesn’t address or include families with queer parents (male-male, female-female, etc).