Socialist Feminism: The Best of Both Worlds

A couple months ago, I was having a conversation with a LGBTQ Studies professor about the effect economic shifts have on women’s status in society, and she joked, “oh! You’re a socialist feminist!” She’ll swear today that she was just kidding, but I have embraced my new identity.

Socialist feminism doesn’t really exist anymore, and it has an odd reputation. But I have a hunch: I think socialist feminism was a pretty darn good idea. I think that trying to destroy capitalism and patriarchy at the same time is brilliant. I also think that the modern “feminist economist” is an updated version of the socialist feminist, only with more advanced technology, a low-grade (versus high-powered) feminist atmosphere, and a significantly more intersectional outlook. 

In an effort to sort out my research on this subject, I’ll be writing a mini-series on the history of socialist feminism, it’s relationship to modern feminist economics, and attempting to properly use a socialist feminist structure to analyze austerity acts in the EU (you can check out what Simone wrote on austerity here). I have big dreams, guys!

PART ONE: What is a Socialist Feminist?

Socialist feminism arose in the United States around the end of the second wave feminist movement, in the early 1970’s. Women economists and feminists started wondering about the economics of the oppression of women – both as a theory, and as a literal practice. Theorists were wrestling with making socialism and Marxism feminist; analysts wanted to understand the economics of female labor. These were, essentially, the two goals of socialist feminism: to construct a theory that explained the exploitation of female labor and the oppression of the woman as a “class” or subcategory.

Socialist feminists understood women’s labor to be dictated by two economic spheres: the home and the workplace (specifically, an industrial workplace… which makes sense, if we’re working on a Marxist ideology). This is probably a good place to note that socialist feminists were REALLY, REALLY BAD at intersectional feminism – at understanding that the experience of the “woman” differs according to other aspects of that woman’s identity. Socialist feminists mostly dealt with working class – middle class, white women in Britain and the United States (not a particularly diverse demographic). So, the “home and workplace” are pretty specific ideas. 

But, anyway. 

In the home, women produced “domestic” and “reproductive” labor – they filled the home with babies, took care of the babies, and took care of the home, including cooking, cleaning, etc. In the workplace, women earned lower wages, were kept out of unions, and had to finagle with laws that limited the amount of time they could work. 

What ties “home” and “work” labor exploitation was wage differentials. Women don’t earn enough to support a family on work-wages; so they stay home. Low wages increase womens dependence on males; womens dependence on males calls for higher male wages. It’s just a disgusting circle of patriarchy – and capitalism!

Enter: Heidi Hartmann, the big cheese, the big guns, the Number One Socialist Feminist.

Her essay Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sexis one of the primary socialist feminist texts – basically because she actually articulates what socialist feminists are trying to say. She attacked neoclassicistsinsistence that pure capitalism would result in equality for all workers – she, in her terribly socialist way, argued that capitalists segment the labor market (along race, sex and ethnic lines, among others) and playing workers off against each other(Hartmann, 1976). She continued to assert that male workers have played and continue to play a crucial role in maintaining sexual divisions in the labor process(Hartmann, 1976). 

In her essay “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism” Hartmann gives a stellar example of socialist feminist analysis at work. She goes through the history of England’s Industrial Revolution, but she emphasizes men’s dominance in the workplace due to his knowledge of organization, which stems from his place in the family. So, the male proletariat can maneuver in the workplace much better than the female proletariat. At the same time, capital is being concentrated in the hands of the capitalists – and those capitalists are only giving it to male workers. As “work” started to happen outside of the house, men relied less on women, and women became more dependent on men. At the turn of the 20th century, this dichotomy had become a vicious cycle – women and men were inherentlyopposed to each other in the workforce, and the mass entrance of women into the workforce would drive wages for men down. Which would be a such shame, seeing as men were the unquestioned breadwinners. It was financially in a households best interest to keep women out of the workforce – and dependent on male income. Capitalists benefited with well-fed, well-rested, and decidedly self-satisfied workers, at no additional costs. 

So, somewhere in here is the theory. According to most socialist feminists, the theory is that capitalism and patriarchy are individual, yet mutually dependent systems. However, capital is, in fact, a flexible concept, as are gender relations. Hartmann uses the Marxist bourgeoise/ proletariat construct as an analogy first: women are to men as the proletariat is to the bourgeoise. But she also actually uses Marxist theory: the story of the female laborer is still the story of the laborer. A Marxist revolution that inspired socialist – and specifically feminist – principles, would succeed in overthrowing capitalism and patriarchy (essentially speaking; I’ve left out some nuances because this is already a very long post…)

From here, things pretty much went to pieces. Socialist feminism fell apart because second wave feminism fell apart – there was both inter-feminisms fighting and intra-socialist-feminist fighting. Though most socialist feminists used Hartmann as a jumping-off point, she was viciously critiqued by other theorists and economists. 

But what really did them in was that… it didn’t work. Britain’s industrializing didn’t look anything like the industrializing happening in the latter half of the 20th century. More importantly, they neglected the experiences of ethnic and sexual minorities – who were already up in arms against the feminist movement in general for being so overwhelmingly white-straight-middle class. For example, most African American women who were in the workforce in America were in the service industry, and had been traditionally – and they were often employed by white women. How do you reconcile that?

If you’re a 1970’s socialist economist, you don’t reconcile that – your area of the academy just disintegrates before you get the chance to correct yourself. 

But: never fear! This 21st century socialist feminist has every intention of updating this theory – mostly with the help of modern feminist economics, whose economic and social concerns look suspiciously like these old socialists… And this time, it’s going to be hardcore intersectional. Because that is incredibly important.

So, stay tuned for the next installment – “… But What’s a Feminist Economist?”



Categories: Alternative Models, Crisis and Austerity, International Ladies, The Dismal Discipline, These United States

2 replies

  1. Thank you for doing this series! I’ve been thinking so much about (the absence of) this conversation with all of the noise around Piketty 🙂


  1. Does Feminism Have a Narrative Problem? A Critique of the The Nation’s “The Curve” « Lady Economist

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