How will women win their liberation?

September 29, 2015

Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital captures the spirit of resistance to all oppression, writes Jen Roesch in her review of the new edition.

THE U.S. is heading into a presidential election in which the most likely outcome, thus far, is President Hillary Clinton--thus offering the prospect of the country's first woman president. At the same time, the current frontrunner for the Republican Party is a virulent misogynist.

More frightening and significant than Donald Trump's filth, however, is the ongoing threat to women's rights and the degradation and worsening of conditions for the majority of women in any number of ways.

In late September, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Just a week later, the Planned Parenthood offices for Greater Washington and Northern Idaho were firebombed. Also in September, a large-scale study of college campuses across the country found that one in four women had been the victim of some form of sexual assault.

These threats to women's control of their own bodies exist alongside worsening economic conditions for the vast majority of working-class women.

Demonstrating to show Black Lives Matter in Oakland, California
Demonstrating to show Black Lives Matter in Oakland, California

How is it possible that we live in a society permeated with sickening levels of sexism at the same time as there are more women in positions of economic and political power than ever? This is the contradiction that Sharon Smith addresses in her revised and updated edition of Women and Socialism. As Smith convincingly demonstrates, women's oppression persists because capitalism relies on it to function.

IN THIS new edition, Smith takes on two critical projects simultaneously. She makes a case for Marxism as the only convincing explanation of the origins and persistence of women's oppression--and for the struggle for socialism as the only strategy for the full liberation of all women. At the same time, she revisits debates within Marxism and offers a richer and more complex history of the relationship between Marxism and various strands of feminism.

In a preface, Smith explains why she revisited the previous edition of Women and Socialism--and how what was supposed to be a month of minor revising turned into a two-year project.

Here, she describes the frequent hostility not only of the socialist movement, but also of many working-class women and women of color, toward mainstream, liberal, middle-class and predominantly white feminist movements. She explains how this hostility developed and why it was entirely justified, pointing to--to cite just one example--the history of white suffragettes who fought for voting rights for women while refusing to take up the same fight for Blacks in the South.

Smith offers her own experience as a full scholarship student at Brown University. Excited about attending her first meeting of the campus feminist group, she quickly was turned off:

They were snobs, it turned out. Shortly into the meeting, some began complaining bitterly that college-educated women earned less than "some stupid janitor." At that time, both my parents' jobs involved cleaning toilets at a private school...After this experience (and others like it), I found myself alienated by the feminist movement, at least in the way it was expressed in its upper-middle-class form at an upper-middle-class university.

After this experience, Smith turned first to labor organizing as a way of fighting around working-class women's issues and then to Marxism as the best method of fighting for the liberation of all women.

But for this new edition of Women and Socialism, while steadfastly maintaining that commitment to Marxism, she has re-examined her understanding of feminism, explaining that:

just as the Marxist movement contains within it many different and opposing political strands, so too does feminism. Because of my personal experience with the Ivy League feminist club, I accepted the all-too-common blanket rejection of all feminists as liberal, white, and middle-class--still customary in some (so-called) Marxist circles. It proved to be an enormous mistake, as I have since learned.

If we ignore the history and theoretical work of other strands of the feminist movement we miss an opportunity to incorporate their insights and to deepen and extend Marxism. Smith points to two political advances, in particular, that emerged from strands of the feminist movement: social reproduction theory and Black feminists' concept of intersectionality.

Displaying her dynamic approach to the relationship between Marxism as a living, evolving theory and the real struggles that must inform its development, Smith argues that "Marxist theory can only benefit by incorporating the numerous aspects of feminism that strengthen our common project. Increasing our understanding of oppression does not detract from the revolutionary agency of the working class, but should only enhance it."

But if Marxism must be deepened and expanded, it is just as urgent to revive a socialist argument for women's liberation today. That Women and Socialism is able to accomplish both these tasks in a way that is lively and accessible is one of its great strengths.

Today we can see the stirrings of a potential new women's movement ready to be born. A new generation of young women, with no connection to the last major wave of struggle, is coming of age at a time when the impact of 30 years of backlash politics has taken its toll, both materially and culturally.

Most are unlikely to be inspired by Hillary Clinton's neoliberal, imperialist brand of power feminism or Sheryl Sandberg's exhortations to just "lean in." If there is to be a renewed struggle today, it must be animated by a revival of socialist politics and organization.

SMITH'S OPENING chapters establish that women's oppression was a central concern theoretically and practically for the classical Marxist tradition.

She describes how Marx and Engels first developed a historical materialist explanation for the origins of women's oppression. Against assumptions that male dominance is something natural or inevitable, they make the radical claim that women's oppression as we know it did not always exist and emerged historically with the rise of the first class societies.

While reviewing some of the criticisms and limitations of their theories from within the Marxist tradition, Smith argues that the framework established by Marx and Engels offers a necessary starting point Marxists today. They locate the rise of women's oppression with the rise of the nuclear family and privatized reproduction--a process that developed in close connection with the rise of the first class societies.

It is this that gave the sexual division of labor--a feature predating class society--its oppressive character. As Smith explains, "[W]ith the rise of class society, when production for exchange began to dominate, the sexual division of labor helped to erode equality between the sexes. Production and trade increasingly occurred away from the household, so that the household became primarily a sphere for reproduction."

The role of the nuclear family has changed enormously since Marx and Engels' day. Women today are a central part of the working class and have public lives separate from the household, but Smith notes that "this alone hasn't translated into greater equality with men."

She revisits this question in her chapter on the domestic labor debate, but argues that Marx and Engels' key insight about the role of privatized reproduction established the central starting point for any Marxist analysis. Most importantly, she argues that their analysis shows what it will take to win full women's liberation:

Engels makes clear that women's liberation requires supplanting privatized reproduction with the socialization of domestic labor--which in turn requires a socialist transformation of society. Only then can the material conditions be created, with far-reaching social ramifications that will make it possible for women to win genuine equality.

But Smith makes clear that while winning socialism is a pre-condition for women's liberation, a struggle will have to continue after the revolution to challenge lingering sexist attitudes and transform social relationships. Moreover, the fight for socialism must involve a fight against all forms of oppression and against all backward ideas inside the working class itself.

For this reason, the socialist movement has always made a determined fight against women's oppression. In periods in which women were largely excluded from public life, the socialists produced many exceptional women leaders. Smith's review of the contribution of many is inspiring and helps to illuminate a largely unknown history.

Particularly important is Smith's discussion of the contributions of socialist women in the U.S. in the early and middle part of the 20th century. The work of Claudia Jones and other Black women in the Communist Party provided an analytical starting point for the Black feminists' concept of intersectionality. Selma James, who had been active in the Trotskyist movement, first began her investigations into the role of women's domestic labor in the 1950s.

Smith argues that these women:

did not merely keep the struggle for women's liberation alive during the decades preceding the rise of the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s. They began to advance this struggle in both theoretical and practical ways, thereby providing a continuum for those who embraced this struggle, and further advanced it, in the following generation.

THE CHAPTERS charting the various strands of the modern women's movement are sensitive and complex. Smith does an impressive job of unraveling its often contentious debates and conflicts. She argues that the centrality of racism in the U.S. has "effectively prevented the development of a unified women's movement and that race and class must be central to the project of women's liberation if it is to be meaningful to those who are most oppressed by the system."

It is an important advance that this point is largely shared by many young feminists today. However, too often, the challenges to developing a unified movement are seen as unbridgeable divides. Smith takes a different approach, arguing that prioritizing the oppression of working-class women and women of color can lay the basis for a more unified movement. And while she is highly critical of the mainstream feminist movement, she also acknowledges its contributions. As she argues:

The history presented here recognizes the consequences of the race and class divides....without disparaging the importance of the struggles for women's liberation that have benefited all women and influenced mass consciousness in lasting and fundamental ways.

Despite the flaws of the mainstream feminist movement, its impact on mass consciousness reached beyond its largely white and middle-class leadership.

In its early days, it arguably resonated more deeply with working-class women and women of color. Smith cites a 1972 Harris opinion poll that found significantly more Black women (62 percent) than white women (45 percent) supporting "efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society."

Given this potential to build a broad-based, radical movement, it is tragic that mainstream feminists and their organizations rapidly shifted focus toward politicians and gaining roles in the establishment. Smith's account of the rightward shift and resulting decline of the mainstream women's movement makes for essential reading for anyone trying to understand how things moved backward so quickly.

BUT WOMEN and Socialism argues that the experience and insights of other strands of the movement can help us to build a stronger struggle today--for example, the Black feminists' concept of intersectionality and the Marxist feminist theory of social reproduction.

Intersectionality is used by many radicals today, but it means different things to different people. Smith explains this by pointing out that "intersectionality is a concept describing the experience of oppression, not a theory explaining its cause(s). It can therefore be applied to a variety of theories--from those informed by Marxism to those influenced by postmodernism."

Smith is concerned to revive the Black feminists' earlier concept of intersectionality--and show how it can enrich a Marxist approach to women's liberation.

While the term intersectionality is new, the concept is not, she explains: "Since the times of slavery, Black women have articulately described the multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender--referring to this concept as 'interlocking oppressions, 'simultaneous oppressions', 'double jeopardy', triple jeopardy' or any number of similar descriptive terms."

The Black feminists had to contend with a mainstream feminist movement that tended to ignore issues of racism, as well as a Black nationalist movement that often sidelined issues of gender oppression. In doing so, they developed an approach that recognized how the interlocking nature of different oppressions in turn transformed their particular character.

This was not about ranking various forms of oppression, but more dynamically understanding the ways in which they shape the nature and experience of oppression. Smith sees this as offering a unifying potential:

The concept of intersectionality leads the way toward a much higher level of understanding of how multiple oppressions are experienced than that developed by classical Marxists, enabling the further development of ways in which solidarity can be built.

WOMEN AND Socialism also returns to the work done by socialist and Marxist feminists during the same time period. Much of this existed on the margins of the movement, while radical feminists gravitated toward theories of patriarchy that were often formulated as an explicit rejection of Marxism.

Unfortunately, for many of the women of this era, their views of Marxism were shaped by their experience in the New Left. As Smith notes, "It is an unfortunate but significant fact that many men from the New Left reacted with hostility or indifference to attempts by women to call attention to and raise demands around their oppression."

Many of the activists within the New Left considered themselves Marxists, but their distorted version of Marxism, influenced by Maoism and Stalinism, had little to do with the authentic Marxist tradition described by Smith. Thus, as Martha Gimenez observes, "second-wave feminist thought developed largely in a dialog with Marx; not with the real Marx, however, but with a 'straw Marx.'"

Smith takes care to distinguish between the common sense usage of the term patriarchy, widely used today, and the theories of patriarchy that emerged in this period, arguing that:

there is a difference between the popular use of the term patriarchy as a description of sexism and radical feminists' theory of patriarchy in the 1970s, which described a distinct social system through which all men oppress all women. While this might seem like hairsplitting, a system of sexism and a system of patriarchy are theoretically worlds apart.

The work of socialist and Marxist feminists investigated the economic roots of women's oppression in capitalism as an alternative to biological or cultural explanations. Marx and Engels had focused on the ruling class family as an institution for ensuring the passing down of private poverty. However, the key feature of women's oppression in developed capitalism is the double burden working-class women endure in the workforce and at home.

The domestic-labor debate of the 1970s returned to Marxist economic categories to attempt to explain this dynamic. Smith does a remarkable job of providing a road map of these often-confusing debates and their contributions and limitations. She argues that whatever the confusions, they helped to lay the basis for the unitary theory of "social reproduction" later developed by Lise Vogel. This theory focuses on the role of women's domestic labor within the working-class family in reproducing the labor power that makes capitalism possible.

Smith argues that locating "the root of women's oppression in the social reproduction of capital...[has] implications for pursuing a strategy for women's liberation: The system of privatized reproduction cannot be eliminated without abolishing the capitalist system; women's liberation therefore requires eradicating both."

WHEN I first became political, I was deeply motivated by anger at sexism. At the time, the assault on abortion rights was picking up steam, and my first demonstration was an abortion rights rally in 1989 (described by Smith in her book, in fact).

When I first met the International Socialist Organization, the publisher of this website, I was immersed in reading feminist literature about rape and sexual violence. I wasn't only interested in sexism; I was also angry about poverty, the recent war against Iraq, racism and the death penalty. But I didn't understand how they were connected or how to effectively organize against all of these injustices.

When I finally started reading about Marxism, it was one of those light-bulb moments where it all came together, and I could see how the struggle for my own liberation could unite me with all those fighting exploitation, injustice and oppression. The sense of possibility and excitement such a realization produces can be exhilarating--even when conditions can seem bleak.

Reading Smith's book, I was reminded of that feeling and firmly believe it can provide that same experience for a new generation of radicals, and especially women struggling to make sense of their own oppression. At the same time, Women and Socialism opens up a vast continent of ideas, history and literature to be further pursued.

Nearly 40 years of a neoliberal assault on the working class and the backlash politics that accompanied it have taken a toll on our side. Together, they have gone a long way toward burying the liberatory politics and potential of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s--especially the most radical and Marxist elements of that period.

But as Smith argues, "the current economic and political climate is ripe for reclaiming the genuine Marxist tradition, with the theoretical advances contributed by generations of feminists since the time of classical Marxism." Her book is an enormous contribution to that project and deserves to be read and discussed by anyone looking for an alternative to the sickening sexism and inequality of our system.

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