The Socialist Feminist Project

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.

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. We should promote conversation, dialogue, and debate among these different perspectives, but it is important to see that the conversation takes place within a common project that underlies the differences. The project has a long history.

What we now call feminism came to public attention in the eighteenth century, most notably in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), where she argued for equal opportunity for women based on a rational capacity common to both sexes, expressing “the wild wish to see the sex distinction confounded in society.” Her feminist aspirations came together with socialistic aims in the thinking of a number of utopian socialists, whose visions of socialism included not only sexual equality in the family and society at large but the end of the sexual division of labor—Wollstonecraft’s “wild wish” which is radical even today. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared these aspirations and deepened the critique of naturalistic justifications of all social hierarchies. But Marx and Engels were impatient with blueprints for a good society and focused instead on developing a theory of history, society, and social change which would be the basis for the realization of these ideals. It is worth pausing briefly to consider what Marx and Engels said, since Marxism has had a great influence on feminism, whether it has been appropriated, rejected, or transformed.

In the mid-1970s many women within the women’s liberation movement found themselves dissatisfied with the prevailing analyses of women’s oppression. Liberalism was not radical enough, and radical feminism ignored economic realities. But Marxism was tainted, as Adrienne Rich describes, “by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.”2 Seeking to combine the best of Marxism and radical feminism, these women developed a theory they called socialist feminism. When socialist feminism is intended in this way—as differentiated from Marxism—”Marxist feminism” is then understood as a perspective which gives primacy to class oppression as opposed to other forms of oppression—or going further, that reduces sex oppression to class oppression. (Radical feminism asserts the reverse relationship.)

In the 1990s the term “materialist feminism” gained currency, coined by feminists who wanted to give some grounding in social realities to postmodernist theory. However, materialist feminism is “a rather problematic and elusive concept,” in Martha Gimenez’s apt characterization, in that sometimes it is used more or less as a synonym for “Marxist” or “socialist feminist” combined with discourse analysis (as in the work of Rosemary Hennessy), while it is also used by cultural feminists who want nothing to do with Marxism. Yet another term that does not necessarily signal a distinct theoretical perspective regarding the relationship among class, sex, and race is “womanist,” a term preferred by some women of color who feel that “feminist” is too one-dimensional and who want to indicate solidarity with men of color as well as with women. Similarly, those who call themselves “multicultural” or “global” feminists would be socialist feminists in my broad sense. Feminists use a particular term to situate themselves within particular debates.

It is “socialist feminism” in the narrower sense that has declined. Developed by feminists who accepted Marxism’s critique of capitalism but rejected the view that women’s oppression was reducible to class oppression—which is how they understood the Marxist analysis—they argued that women’s position in today’s society was a function of both the economic system (capitalism) and the sex-gender system, which they called patriarchy. Some socialist feminists preferred to speak of one system they called capitalist patriarchy. But whether they preferred one system or two, the key claim was that the mode of production had no greater primacy than sex-gender relations in explaining women’s subordination. Many saw the Marxist emphasis on wage labor rather than on all kinds of labor, especially mothering, and on the relations of production rather than on the relations they called “the relations of reproduction,” (sexuality and parenting), as sexist. Convinced that “the personal is political” they wanted to give theoretical and political attention to issues of sex, sexuality, and relations in the family which some utopian socialists had addressed but which most Marxists ignored.

This distinctively anti-Marxist version of socialist feminism declined I believe, for both internal and external reasons. Socialist feminists of the 1970s had criticized liberal and Marxist writers for using categories that were “gender-blind”: “the individual” in liberalism, “the working class” in Marxism. Such categories ignore sex differences among individuals and workers, feminists argued, and hence neither liberalism nor Marxism could explain women’s oppression. But women of color could and did make the same criticism of feminism, including socialist feminism, for using race-blind categories: “working class women,” or simply “women.” To accommodate race oppression (and heterosexism and other forms of oppression), there seemed to be two choices. If we need to posit “a system of social relations” to explain sexism as they argued, then to explain racism (and other forms of oppression) we would have to posit systems beyond capitalism and patriarchy. This option raised a number of questions including: What exactly constitutes a “system”? How many is enough? How are they related? How does the resulting perspective differ from simple pluralism? The other option was to go back to a theory like Marxism which aims to be all-inclusive. Since socialist feminists had distinguished themselves from Marxists because they were unclear how to integrate different forms of oppression without reducing one to the other, this did not seem an attractive option, but neither did the multiplication of systems. Hence there was and remains a lack of clarity, and disagreement as to exactly how different forms of oppression are related.

Turning to political causes, the decline of women’s liberation and other social movements had a profound impact. The explosion of writing by feminists of all persuasions (indeed the creation of these “persuasions”) was a product of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the fact that a number of very influential articles of this period began as position statements for activist groups (the Redstockings’ Manifesto, the Combahee River Collective’s Statement), or as collective papers (Heidi Hartmann’s and Gayle Rubin’s—two of the most influential of this period). New movements stimulated new theorizing; for example, the gay and lesbian movements gave rise to the academic field Queer Studies. With the move of many activists into social policy and service work for women, into academia, and into families and middle age this essential active stimulation was lost. It is not coincidental that the hottest feminist theorizing of the last decade was of a highly academic sort—postmodernism—while the dominant politics have been the most local and particularistic form of identity politics. Moreover, of course, we have to appreciate the context in which all this has taken place, namely, the general rightward political drift throughout the world during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

Extracts from an essay adapted from the introduction to The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, edited by Nancy Holmstrom (Monthly Review Press, 2002). You can read the full essay at

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