Marxism and the fight for women’s liberation

July 15, 2015

More than 40 years after the high points of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s, women not only don't have equal rights, but sexism and oppression has grown worst in a number of respects. What do Marxists say today about their tradition's analysis of women's oppression and about the prospect of future struggles that can turn the tide?

Sharon Smith, a longtime writer for Socialist Worker, leading member of the International Socialist Organization and author of several books, has written a fully revised and updated edition of Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital. Here, we print the preface to the edition outlining the contents of the book.

I WAS a bit too young to participate in the social upheavals of the late 1960s, but old enough to have become radicalized by them. Growing up in a low-income, blue-collar family in Providence, Rhode Island, where Dad missed no opportunity to assert his status as "king of the castle," I supported the goals of the women's liberation movement instinctively. My sister and I refused to do any housework (and urged our mom to do the same) on August 26, 1970--the date of the "Women's Strike for Equality" called by the National Organization for Women (NOW). We had heard about it on the radio that blared every morning in our kitchen.

I considered myself a committed feminist when I entered college in the mid-1970s. That college was Brown University, and I was there on a full scholarship. I had looked forward to attending my first meeting of the campus feminist group but was immediately disappointed. 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. I was keenly aware that their earnings fell far below those of typical college graduates. The fact that my mom was also a woman contradicted the Brown feminists' assumption that all janitors were men. I left the meeting, without voicing my outrage at their ignorance.

Women and Socialism: Race, Class, and Capital | Sharon Smith

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. While I maintained my commitment to the fight for women's equality, I turned instead to local labor organizing--focusing in particular on the costume jewelry industry, Rhode Island's main manufacturing employer at that time.[1] Like the garment industry, jewelry manufacturing has historically relied on a majority-female workforce, low wages, and sweatshop working conditions.

This included a large cottage industry in Rhode Island, in which entire working-class families labored in their homes for subcontractors to large factories. My own family took in jewelry "homework" when I was a child, and my mom worked in numerous sweatshops over the years, never earning more than the minimum wage. She also never earned a single day's paid vacation. I found it personally gratifying to help support union organizing efforts among jewelry workers and efforts to improve their working conditions through the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (RICOSH) while in college.

During that time, I also became a Marxist through my involvement in the movement against South African apartheid on campus. I went on to find a political home among Marxists, joining the International Socialist Organization as a college student. I remain a member to this day, and continue to believe that Marxism provides not only a strong foundation but also, perhaps more importantly, a method for fighting for the liberation of women of all social classes--while placing particular emphasis on the plight of working-class women.

MY POLITICAL training as a socialist involved reading classical Marxist texts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including those of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V. I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. These Marxists, while staunch theorists and fighters for women's liberation, also strongly opposed the feminist movements of their time--composed largely of upper-class women interested primarily in winning rights for the women of their own social class, often at the expense of the working class.

For example, the early-twentieth-century German women's suffrage movement did not challenge the property requirements that denied working-class men the right to vote--knowing that such requirements would also deny voting rights to working-class women. Maintaining such property requirements could only strengthen the political weight of the middle and upper classes, while the working class would remain politically voiceless. Zetkin refused to support this approach, calling instead for universal voting rights for the entire population, male and female, as a socialist demand.

Likewise, in the United States, most white suffragists in the early twentieth century chose to struggle for voting rights for women without also championing those denied to Black people in the Jim Crow South. When women were granted the right to vote in 1920, the racist status quo remained intact--denying suffrage rights to Black women and Black men, thereby strengthening the system of white supremacy.

Hostility to the feminist movements described above was entirely justified. But just as the Marxist movement contains within it many different and often 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.

The self-identified women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was composed not only of liberal, predominantly white feminist organizations but also of socialist feminists and Marxist feminists, as well as Black feminists and other feminists of color. These movements raised demands and won victories that not only improved the lives of women but also raised the expectations of women on a mass scale. All of these movements warrant examination, despite the near-invisibility of anything other than liberal feminism in the political mainstream. I will examine their contributions in the chapters ahead.

THIS BOOK was initially intended to be a simple "update" of Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation for its second edition. But my thinking on feminism has evolved significantly since it was first published in 2004. While I still think much of the book remains useful, its main treatment of "feminism" focused almost exclusively on critiquing its white, middle-class wing. I felt a strong need to correct that error, which would necessarily involve a serious study of the feminist movements described above, so often neglected.

In a stroke of luck, Canadian Marxist David McNally generously shared a copy of the new introduction he and Susan Ferguson had written for the Historical Materialism edition of Lise Vogel's Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory.[2] Their excellent introduction not only inspired me to learn more but also led me to a starting point for my research: social reproduction theory. From that point forward, one area of research led to the next. What had started as a month-long project stretched into two years of reading and writing--and to this completely revamped second edition of Women and Socialism. This revised edition is an effort to examine the fight for women's liberation both theoretically and historically. It relies heavily on the insights of the many theorists and activists, past and present, whose aim has been to help develop a strategy that can best advance the project of ending women's oppression.

While classical Marxism provides a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the root of women's oppression, no foundation can or should be viewed as a finished product; it must be built upon to realize its potential. Theory must be further developed and adjusted as necessary to reflect changes in material circumstances, while also correcting past errors that become clearer with hindsight.

More than 150 years have passed since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848. The world has changed significantly since then. Although they were often able to anticipate future sites of struggle, they were also constrained in other respects by the historical limits of the social relations of their time. Marx and Engels's articulations of women's oppression often contain contradictory components--in some respects fundamentally challenging the gender status quo while in other respects merely reflecting it. Their most significant limitation was that they believed, along with their contemporaries, both that humans are innately heterosexual and heterosexual[3] and that women are biologically suited for a nurturing and childrearing role in the family.[4]

Indeed, despite the enormous achievements of the 1917 Russian Revolution--including the legalization of abortion and divorce, the right of women to vote and run for political office, and an end to laws criminalizing both prostitution and gay sexuality--it did not produce a theory that challenged either heterosexual norms or the primacy of women's maternal destinies. As Marxist historian John Riddell describes, "Communist women in that period viewed childbearing as a social responsibility and sought to assist 'poor women who would like to experience motherhood as the highest joy.'"[5] Yet, recognizing these historical limitations does not diminish the enormous contributions of the early Marxists who helped forge the revolutionary socialist strategy for women's liberation, and their accomplishments will also be examined at length in this volume.

IT IS also important to recognize that the politics of the 1960s women's liberation movement did not arise out of the blue but were the product of twenty years of prior history. The 1940s saw the large-scale entry of women into the manufacturing workforce to fulfill the needs of war production during World War II--only to see those women be forced out of their industrial jobs immediately afterward to make way for returning veterans. The postwar years witnessed an ideological onslaught glorifying marriage and motherhood while women's participation rate in the labor force and higher education plummeted. By the 1960s, however, women began enrolling in higher education and entering the labor force in larger numbers.

But the women's liberation movement that arose in the late 1960s also bears the political imprint of important debates and struggles that took place among organized Marxists during the 1940s and 1950s. During the immediate post-World War II period, women in the Communist and Trotskyist movements initiated debates seeking to further define the role of women's domestic labor in capitalism, while also beginning to address the interlocking oppressions of gender, race, and class. In addition, Black women's struggles against their systematic rape (often at the hands of white supremacists) involving civil rights activists as well as Communists in the 1940s and 1950s, helped to lay the groundwork for approaching the issue of rape in the context not only of gender but also of race and class. Likewise, the Daughters of Bilitis, formed in 1955 as the first national lesbian organization in the United States, began the process that paved the way for the rise of the gay liberation movement.

The 1960s-era struggle for women's liberation contained different political wings, sometimes acting in unison but also often in sharp disagreement. In the process, they opened the floodgates of debate, exploration, and ultimately political advancement. Two political advances stand out in particular: Black feminists' concept of intersectionality and Marxist feminists' social reproduction theory. Below I outline the main contours of each.

Black Feminists' Concept of Intersectionality
Black feminists, Latinas, and other women of color were strongly critical during the 1960s and 1970s of both the predominantly white feminist movement for its racism and of nationalist and other antiracist movements for their sexism. They rightly asserted the racial and class differences among women because white feminists largely ignored these differences, rendering Black women and other women of color invisible in theory and in practice.

Since the time of slavery, Black feminists had been developing a distinct political tradition based upon a systematic analysis of the intertwining oppressions of race, gender, and class. Since the 1970s, Black feminists and other feminists of color in the United States have built upon this analysis and developed an approach that can provide a strategy for combating all forms of oppression within a common struggle--which has since become known as intersectionality.

This approach to fighting oppression does not merely complement but in fact strengthens key elements of Marxist theory and practice--which seeks to unite not only all those who are exploited but also all those who are oppressed by capitalism into a single movement that fights for the liberation of all humanity.

Social Reproduction Theory
One of the most important theoretical achievements of socialist feminists and Marxist feminists in the 1960s and 1970s involved a debate over the role of domestic labor, which resulted for some in what has become known as social reproduction theory--situating women's domestic labor as a crucial aspect of the social reproduction of the capitalist system as Marx conceived it.

Those involved in what became known as the "domestic-labor debates" attempted to locate the economic root of women's oppression in capitalism. Marx had implied a theoretical framework for this understanding but did not pursue it himself. Domestic-labor debates electrified many socialist and Marxist feminists and a small number of organized Marxists during the 1970s, yet their significance receded for the majority of both feminists and Marxists in the 1980s.

Marxist feminist Lise Vogel, who has played a key role in developing social reproduction theory, recalls the marginalization of the domestic-labor debates: "Most feminists eventually rejected the domestic labor literature as a misguided effort to apply inappropriate Marxist categories. Most Marxists simply disregarded the debate, neither following nor participating in it. Neither potential audience fully grasped the ways that socialist feminists were suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that Marxist theory had to be revised."[6]

Marxist theory did need some revision and also further development. For those Marxists who believe that this project represents an "abandonment" of Marxism, I hope to demonstrate in this volume that Marxism remains as important as ever to winning women's liberation. But 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.


1. Jewelry manufacturing has since declined in Rhode Island, making up just 18 percent of the state's manufacturing base in 2013. See Flo Jonic, "Made in Rhode Island: Jewelry Making, an Industry on the Move," Rhode Island Public Radio, August 13, 2013.

2. Susan Ferguson and David McNally, "Capital, Labor Power, and Gender Relations," introduction in Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), xvii–xl.

3. Any analysis of LGBT oppression is entirely absent from both Marx's and Engels's analysis, even though more recent Marxist scholarship has pinpointed the roots of gay oppression, like that of women's oppression, in the rise of the nuclear family. See, for example, Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).

4. Neither did their feminist contemporaries challenge certain Victorian assumptions about women's roles.

5. John Riddell, "The Communist Women's Movement, 1921–26," International Socialist Review 87 (2013): 37.

6. Lise Vogel, "Domestic Labor Revisited," Science & Society 64, no. 2 (2000): 165.

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