Socialism is a movement to end the exploitation of workers. Feminism is a movement to end the oppression of women. Socialist feminism is a project that seeks to terminate both the exploitation of workers and the oppression of women. The name of the system that exploits workers by expropriating their labor is capitalism. The name of the system that oppresses women by subordinating them to men is patriarchy. Capitalism and patriarchy are certainly related, however, they are not the same. For one thing, patriarchy is much older than capitalism, but patriarchal systems assume quite distinctive forms under the capitalist mode of production.
One might think that the socialist movement and the feminist movement should be natural allies, yet this has not always been the case. Feminists often complain that socialists, especially Marxist socialists, focus on class conflict and neglect or de-emphasize the unique subjugation of women. Socialists criticize feminists, especially bourgeois feminists, for concentrating on the troubles of middle- and upper-class women while disregarding the primary concerns of working-class women. Nevertheless, it is highly doubtful that the exploitation of workers could be abolished without the destruction of patriarchy or that women could be fully emancipated without the elimination of capitalism.
Nancy Holmstrom, a philosophy professor who is the editor of an important book on socialist feminism, proposes a broad definition. She characterizes socialist feminists as “anyone trying to understand women’s subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, with the aim of using this analysis to help liberate women” (“The Socialist Feminist Project,” 2002). Another eminent philosophy professor, Alison Jaggar, suggests that socialist feminism constitutes a more consistent and comprehensive form of Marxism.
The conflict between socialists and feminists often centers on the issue of whether class or gender should be given explanatory primacy. In resolving this tension, it is helpful to distinguish between intensity of oppression on the one hand and dynamics of social change on the other. The domination that women experience from males may typically be more intense and painful than the exploitation workers endure from capitalists. However, the dynamics of social change (what Marx calls “the laws of social motion”) may be better explained by class relations and the antagonisms these relations provoke.
Climate change currently threatens the continuation of human life on planet Earth. The climate change crisis also reveals the deep interconnection between socialism and feminism. All forms of capitalism have been addicted to the pursuit of profit and the willy-nilly environmentally destructive growth this entails. Indeed, human survival over the next few centuries may depend upon the international success of the socialist movement (“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein, 2014). Concurrently, the subordination of women makes them disproportionately vulnerable to the disease and natural disasters caused by climate change. If there is any viable solution to climate change, the demolition of patriarchy must be an essential part of it. The most comprehensive plan to reverse global warming emphasizes the paramount importance of educating women, female control of family planning and gender equality in small-scale agriculture (“Drawdown,” edited by Paul Hawken, 2017). Common decency and elementary logic both suggest that we should all become socialist feminists.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.