Marxist-Feminism: How it Arms Us to Struggle Against Women’s Oppression
by Phemelo Motseokae, WASP Womens Caucus
In 2015 statistics revealed that about half of women murdered in South Africa die at the hands of their partners; almost 61% of these deaths take place at the woman’s home. About 150 women report being raped to the police daily. Fewer than 30 of the cases will be prosecuted, and no more than 10 will result in a conviction – this translates into an overall conviction rate of 4%-8% of reported rapes. Over the years young people have increasingly begun to rebel against racism, sexism, GBV, homophobia, discrimination of disabled persons and other forms of oppression, e.g. the #TotalShutdown march that took place on 1 August 2018, the #MeToo movement, women’s protests against Donald Trump in the United States and many more across the world. This growing awareness should be appreciated because it is not only a recognition of oppression but demonstrates a willingness stand up and challenge it.
”The woman free from man, both free from capital”, these are the words of the Italian Communist Camilla Revera. One might say that this statement puts succinctly, brilliantly so, the position of Marxist-Feminists on the women’s question. This is to stay that women cannot, under capitalism, no matter the reforms, be entirely free because it is capital which binds women to men and men to modern day slavery.
Criticisms of this position by some feminists say that if this is the case then there is no point in fighting women’s oppression, we should just struggle for a socialist revolution and then tomorrow the oppression of women will disappear. It is sometimes said that Marxists’ are oblivious to the cultural aspects of women’s oppression. However, the failure of some feminists to understand the role played by capitalism in maintaining women’s oppression means they cannot fully understand patriarchy, how it came about and how it is perpetuated. They cannot account for how the cultural aspects of women’s oppression came about, for them it has been so since “the dawn of time”. Sexism and racism do not come from individual prejudices created in a vacuum but from something far more fundamental: how society is structured, and today, since we live under capitalism, our social relations are structured.
A 2010 study revealed that women who have jobs spend twice as much time as men doing unpaid work at home and looking after others (on average four hours per day). Unemployed women did even more housework compared to unemployed men. When men and women get married, a women’s time spent on housework rises while that of men drops significantly. Not only does this give men more freedom than women but it is also a huge free service provided to the capitalist system. It means that a major part of the work necessary for the running of society – the functioning of workers, the raising of children (to become new workers) etc. – is performed without pay. This work is relegated to women and removed from the responsibility of society as a whole because it is seen as ‘unproductive’ (not producing capital).
What gave society these ideas that women should be man’s servant and obey his law? This has its roots in the rise of a class society. Marxists-Feminists have realised that the oppression of women is so fundamental to capitalism that it is impossible to truly struggle against women’s oppression without also challenging capitalism. Women form a big part of the working class and they will not struggle against their oppression as a class without also struggling against their specific form of oppression. When we cannot trace our oppressions to the origins of class society, a vacuum is left open for reactionary ideas that justify oppression. This is why we have seen a rise in nationalist politics in South Africa and abroad, precisely because the working class does not have a direction in which to channel their energy. For example, we see how the EFF is using race in relation to whites and Indians to try and remain relevant since their target, Jacob Zuma, has been removed from office. This demagoguery would not be useful if the working class was united and knew exactly where to focus – the bosses, capitalism!
Intersectional theory, introduced in the 1980s by Kimberle Crenshaw, argues that different oppressions “intersect”; of course, a black gay woman is oppressed as a woman, as a worker, a black person and as a homosexual. Intersectional feminists have spent a lot of time trying to understand people’s identities and how they intersect, they often refer to race, sex, sexual orientation and class as though they are on one level. But class is what links all oppressions in a capitalist society; the only intersection that can unite the oppressed across all the other “intersections” is their class position. Instead of prescribing that each identity fight their own struggles in isolation, because only they understand its dynamics and specific experiences, we should rather call for unity across all these ‘intersections’.
One other strand of identity politics that came about in the 1960s is ‘’privilege theory’’, which asserts, in Peggy McIntosh’s words, that certain groups have “an invisible package of unearned assets”. Followers of this theory are often found exhorting people to “check your privilege”. As Marxist-Feminists, we acknowledge the existence of “privilege” – even within the working class there is an “extra oppression” amongst certain groups e.g. a gay black female, in addition to sexism, may face racism and homophobia that a straight white female co-worker would not. But class remains the key dividing line in society. A straight white male worker has less power than a gay black woman CEO because of their position in the capitalist economy. The CEO will certainly experience racism but it is her class position that determines how she will experience it. To cast those within the working class with such “privileges” as the enemy and to refuse to unite with them when fighting against exploitation further divides the working class which is oppressed in general.
Nonetheless, understanding the objective roots of this prejudice will not excuse any working class person for giving in to them. Sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia should not go unchallenged; rape, sexual harassment or any other prejudice-driven violence should not go unpunished. As Marxists we would rather take up these points with workers to explain how their prejudices are damaging the unity of the class and therefore their struggle with the bosses.
Liberal feminism, however, believes that women have the ability to free themselves from inequality through their own actions and choices. But this is to strip these “choices” off their social, economic and political context. Liberal feminists believe that equality between men and women can be achieved through legal means and reforms. This type of feminism is often dominant among the middle class and historically mainly white women. We also support each and every possible reform under capitalism e.g. the leading role of the CWI (the revolutionary socialist international that WASP is affiliated to) in the ROSA campaign’s victory in the abortion referendum in Ireland in May 2018.
But for Marxists this is not the end, we warn that this alone will not liberate working class women; society has to be transformed altogether. Working class women are at the mercy of low wages, poor or lack of access to health care etc. Today, racism and sexism are less socially accepted than they were in the past, but despite a change in social attitudes, they still persist. Stats SA reported that in 2017 whites earned five times more than blacks, there are far more men in leadership positions than there are women, a woman may be successful career-wise but is still seen and accepted to be nothing but a child bearer and a good coffee maker.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that having women in power does not necessarily mean there will be better conditions for women. South Africa was among the highest in the world with the number of female representatives in government until Jacob Zuma became president, but that didn’t make much difference for South African women. This shows that having women in positions of power does not automatically translate into gender sensitivity or indeed a conscious approach to eradicating sexism.
Liberal feminists tend to want to applaud and support any woman in power just on the basis that they are female. Like in the US, prominent liberal feminists were encouraging young people to vote for Hilary Clinton despite her support for anti-working class policies and her support for the wall dividing Israelis and Palestinians.
Radical Feminism arose partly because Liberal Feminism wants to “work within the system”. They assert that society is a patriarchy in which men oppress women; they claim that the oppression of women has existed since the inception of humanity. Not only is this view historically incorrect but it is misleading. While some extremists of this ideology have prescribed that we do away with men altogether, they generally prescribe that we do away with patriarchy in order to free women. How to get rid of patriarchy? For them patriarchy is not at all linked with capitalism but is viewed as a system that has been in existence since the beginning of time. The problem is men and the system they have built to oppress women, they do not recognise the class inequalities out of which patriarchy grows.
Where did it all go wrong?
The last two centuries have seen great advances in historical knowledge; it has made known many historical phenomena and cleared many superstitions and old myths. We now know better. Many texts have been written about women’s roles in pre-capitalist societies. Friedrich Engels in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State discusses labour in pre-capitalist societies; he shows us that women’s oppression has not always existed since the “dawn of time” as many of us are made to believe. Men and women existed in equality, women had a high social status and no one gender was oppressing the other.
Some sociologists have argued that the division of labour according to gender existed even before class society emerged and that we can only conclude that this division of labour is ‘natural’ and perhaps genetic. In earlier societies, contrary to popular belief, hunting was not necessarily a “man’s thing”, women were involved in hunting because it required teamwork. The gathering of food was the responsibility of all the members of the tribe regardless of gender; however, to some extent there was a sexual division of labour, the reproductive role of women played a part in the division of labour but this was not on the basis of inequality, power and status which came about later as a result of the emergence of private property. Although men and women shared all tasks women played a predominant role in child bearing, rearing and therefore activities that tended to be focused closer to the settlement like the gathering of wild fruits and nuts, which was the major part of the diet of hunter-gatherer societies and often required women to travel long distances far from the group. This is the reason why the earliest doctors/healers were women. But men also played an important role in taking care of children. Although here we see the presence of some degree of division in gender roles, this did not disadvantage women in any way, the survival of the group was dependent on co-operation and no one’s work was devalued. Both genders played a very crucial economic role equally important to the survival of the community. Women’s roles in domestic affairs was very valued and respected as productive for the functioning of society.
But under capitalism, the bosses own the means of survival (resources and land) and workers have to sell their labour power, very cheaply, in order to survive. Capitalism values certain work and not others.
Engels shows how the birth of private property, led to the fall of what’s referred to as the “mother right’’. Group marriages were the dominant form of the family structure; the lineage was passed down through the mother (the “mother right”). Because of this structure, men rarely knew their children but women always knew theirs.
When domestication of cattle, metalworking, weaving and improvements in agricultural methods (cultivation of land) developed it became possible to produce a surplus, the group no longer had to live from hand to mouth. Gradually certain groups and individuals came to control the surplus. That resulted in the development of private ownership of the means of production. It was from this process that society divided into classes. As wealth began to increase there was a need for someone to inherit their wealth upon death; the mother-right had to be overthrown. A quote from Engels’s Origin of the Family: “A simple decree sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens [a collection of people related by marriage], but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. Tracing descendants through the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descendants and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them.”
However, to still make certain of the paternity of the children, the woman was delivered unconditionally into the hands of the husband, even killing her was considered a right bestowed upon him. Free sexual practice of the woman was prohibited; this is related to why women’s sexual freedom has been controlled through history, from brutal mutilation of female genitalia, to calling women “hoes” or “bitches” and other various acts of oppression today. Monogamy, of course, was for the woman and not for the man. He was able to have other sexual relationships with other women, and the more wealth he accumulated, the more women he would bring into his house. Not only did free sexual practice of the woman begin to be alien but she also came to depend on the man as he owned the resources of survival. The woman was reduced and degraded to servitude, she became a “slave to his lust” and a mere instrument for the production of “his” children.
This economic dependency of the woman on the man meant that she could be controlled and to ensure that she stayed submissive was excluded from education, and anything outside the home that would otherwise give her freedom. Her role was now to do ‘unproductive work’, raise children, do home chores, take care of old people and the sick and of course the husband when he is from work. Women’s oppression has prevailed for many generations and has thus been perceived as natural, with much emphasis from patriarchal religions and the media. This explains why many women have accepted their position as inferior and conformed to these cultural norms. However, these ideas have never gone unchallenged. When women unite to struggle against the oppression brought by these ideas, it translates into powerful movements that shift the consciousness of women (and men) who have accepted inferiority.
The struggle for equality is the struggle to overthrow capitalism
Marxism aims to explain how the structures and ideas of society have their basis in material conditions, that it is the mode of production that directs how society is organised, generally. The fact that people believe a woman’s job is in the house is because for many years she has been in the kitchen, she has not been a leader of anyone, she has been excluded from public life and to a great extent all this still persists in modern day ideas under capitalism. For example female children are denied education in parts of India, Pakistan and others countries. Women’s struggle has played a significant role in changing these attitudes. For example, we see how the suffrage movement has made it socially acceptable for women to vote; how a fight for reproductive rights has granted many women access to birth control pills etc. But some conditions still remain and some of the gains made by the struggle of women have to be defended against constant threats to have them reversed.
In modern capitalist society, women are still expected to take the main responsibility for raising children. This puts them at a big disadvantage, without any help she is economically dependent on the man. Lack of affordable childcare means that working class women are forced to take low-paying jobs, low-status insecure jobs, unable to leave an unhappy relationship and when she does, she faces extreme economic difficulties. Capitalism needs the family as an economic unit to thrive; it still needs women’s unpaid labour in the household and the rearing of new workers (children) to join the workforce which they can get for free by encouraging the idea that it is a woman’s duty. This is why capitalism tries to supress anything that challenges this, like homosexual relationships, transgender people, non-gender conforming people etc.
However the family ‘norm’ of the ruling capitalist class has never been the reality for working class women. Women’s work in both the home and formal economy is devalued under capitalism. This leaves her vulnerable to abuse and bound to the man as she is economically dependent on him. We must fight for domestic work to be included in the formal economy and for women to have their role in society recognised. The burden of household work and upbringing of children has also contributed to women abandoning their careers. We need to socialise household work. In order to do this we will need to nationalise the main levers of the economy and place them in the hands of the working class. We can have universal free health care, 24-hour free child care, reduced working hours and much more. All of this can be achieved if the profit-driven system of capitalism is overthrown.
Capitalism today, with increased profits and monopoly power means that wealth is increasingly in the hands of a few people. Oxfam reports that 82% of the wealth generated worldwide in 2017 went to the richest 1% while the 3,7 billion people who make up the poorest half had no increase in wealth. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. This means that not only is the working class increasing in size, but they are becoming poorer relative to the 1%. This is the reason why the ruling capitalist class is trying hard to divide the working class with all its power in forms of racism, women’s oppression, oppression of LGBTQ+ groups, xenophobia etc.
The working class is potentially the most powerful group in capitalism, not only is it oppressed but it is exploited. The working class is larger than individual groups (LGBTQ+, the disabled, women etc.), in fact it is composed of all these groups but it is their class composition that links all of their oppressions. Marxists believe that only the working class can successfully lead the struggle against capitalism and women’s oppression, not because they are the most oppressed, all oppressions matter, but precisely because of their role in the capitalist production and of its inherent potential to unify the marginalised and bring the economy to a halt.
Women alone as a group do not have that kind of power, the LGBTQ+ groups alone do not have that kind of power, and immigrants alone do not have that kind of power. In case of a general strike for example, it would be difficult for a worker to discriminate against a homosexual when they are involved in the same struggle, a man will be hesitant to beat his wife after she was involved in a militant general strike, how can one discriminate against the same immigrant who was helping them fight for freedom? This would not be an overnight change, it is in the course of struggle that the working class would realise the necessity of unifying everyone to achieve a common goal and the ridiculousness of discriminating against another human being if they experience the same class oppression as you and have joined in the common struggle. The struggle and the revolution is not purely economic; it helps to bring about changes in ideas too.
What needs to be done?
Violently shouting at and insulting men or anyone who does not yet understand the need to struggle against women’s oppression in all its many forms can alienate women and men from feminism and has resulted in a return of reactionary ideas and the rise of movements such Men’s Rights Movement.
Young and working class women as well as working class men will gain an understanding of the necessity to combat women’s oppression in the course of struggle. The struggle against sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression has to be fought by uniting across ‘intersections’ on the basis of class unity.
The decline in trade union’s role on social issues is a major concern and those that stood for equality in the past. It has led to a decreased consciousness within the working class and the reversal of many of the gains of women that were achieved through struggle. Backward traditional views of gender roles are back on the scene and the rights of women are being undermined. What trade unions need to do is to organise workers and collaborate with community organizations to fight sexism, GBV, fight for quality and accessible healthcare for women and against the discrimination of the LGBTQ+ communities. Consciousness raising campaigns should also be introduced and have women as active participants in building new ideas of freedom. Working class women and men should stand together and fight for gender equality; we should fight for the following:
- End outsourcing and labour broking practices, especially in EPWPs where women face the most precarious employment conditions under slave wages. No outsourcing of health professionals in the public sector!
- Permanent jobs, living wages for home-based care workers
- Workers in the informal economy must be able to effectively exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively, as well as for their other fundamental rights at work.
- We condemn JHB CBD municipality from harassing street vendors and “forbidding them to sell anything on the streets” because they want to make the city appear clean. Street vendors must be allowed to make their means of survival in the city
- Democratic workplace committees and trade unions to enforce equal pay for equal work across all races and gender
- Paid education and training leave. Union activities must encourage greater participation of women at the workplace and society. Free child care facilities at union meetings.
- Adequate paid parental leave for all workers (men and women) with option to extend as unpaid leave with job guarantees
- Free women from domestic slavery. Create a network of public laundrettes, communal kitchens and restaurants and high-quality, accessible free childcare in every community – begin to socialise domestic work; for domestic workers to receive priority employment in these facilities with full training on how to run and manage them
- Free quality 24-hour care for children, the old and sick
- Immediately increase the child-care grant to R450 and apply it to all children from birth to 18 years of age. No to means testing. Tax the rich!
- We demand full reproductive rights for women and free and accessible contraceptives for all women.
- Women in need of early termination of pregnancy should be offered assistance immediately, no health worker, private or public, should be allowed to refuse to perform abortions on religious or other grounds
- Decriminalise adult sex work. Support exit programmes involving quality education and job opportunities, support self-organising efforts by sex workers, target trafficking, child prostitution and other profiteering
- Stop suspensions of grants pending investigations. No grant recipient should suffer due to long investigations
- No to the Traditional Courts Bill – fight for equality of men and women before the law and in every other way in the whole of South Africa
On Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Hate Crimes
- Community organisations to campaign for oversight of GBV and hate crimes against LGBTQ+ communities
- Anti-sexist, anti-homophobic training for all and on gender-based violence for all law enforcement and court officers
- Shelters and housing to give everyone the freedom to leave abusive relationships.
- Zero-tolerance against secondary victimisation of victims of rape and other gender-based violence by police and courts – cleanse the SAPS of perpetrators
- Immediate suspension of GBV and sexual harassment perpetrators at the workplace while pending investigation
- Compulsory workplace, school (basic to higher education institutions) and community workshops on sexual harassment
- Free and confidential counselling and support for victims of GBV as part of workplace wellness and in schools
- Anti-sexual harassment policies in the work place, schools and other institutions including stricter sanctions for transgressions
- Courts and police stations must be properly equipped with trained personnel and resources to deal with investigations of GBV, rape, human trafficking and other related crimes.
- Courts should convict appropriate sentences that fit the crime.
- Adequate resources to support agencies that deal with human trafficking that working class women desperate for work easily fall prey to
- Unite communities, workers to fight hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people
- Forge the fighting unity of the working class in a mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers party to reunite the struggles of the workplace, the communities and youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party.
- Nationalise, under democratic control of the working class and community control, the banks, mines and big businesses for a publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists
While we should not undermine the importance of concessions and reforms in relieving the burden on women, for example the struggle for equal pay and others, it is only working class unity and militant struggle that can bring about a socialist society with permanent change. Struggling for socialism is the struggle for a society where class divisions are abolished – the soil in which women’s oppression is rooted. Even when the revolution is won, it does not mean there will be a paradise the day after but the material conditions that inspire the very cultural ideas that influence society will begin to fade and socialist society can decide the direction of their ruling ideas and organise society accordingly. We must begin to be clear, emphatically so, that socialist feminism belongs to the working class as a whole.