marxism and women's liberation

Judy Cox welcomes Marxism and Women’s Liberation as a timely and valuable discussion of the causes and consequences of women’s oppression


Katherine Connelly, Elaine Graham-Leigh, Feyzi Ismail, Lindsey German, Marxism and Women’s Liberation (Counterfire 2016), 55pp.

Millions of women around the world are on the march – against the misogynistic Donald Trump, against sexual violence, in defence of abortion rights, in defence of public services, and more. This year’s International Women’s Day was notable for the marketization of women’s aspirations; among the political rallies and cultural events, IWD was used to promote a bizarre range of products. At the same time, women are bearing the brunt of Tory austerity. Feminism has never been so mainstream but women have to fight constantly to defend what we have won.

This book is a timely and valuable contribution to the discussion about the causes and consequences of women’s oppression. The collection of four essays is very accessible and also very sophisticated. The authors provide a clear and coherent Marxist analysis of women’s oppression. By doing so, they explain why we are where we are and what we can do about it.

It’s not all in the mind

Sexism is rooted in the way our society is organised. For many centuries those who defend the oppression of women have developed a range of pseudo-scientific theories regarding the size of women’s brains or the role of the reproductive system in determining women’s social status. Modern variants of these theories include the Women are from Venus, Men are from Marsidea that our brains have developed differently from men’s. These arguments depend on deeply flawed scientific approaches which presuppose rather than discover patterns that support the dominant ideological framework. Elaine Graham-Leigh exposes the flaws in the ideas behind ‘brain sex’. After reading her chapter, I’m definitely going to buy a copy of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which looks like a fascinating debunking of these influential but fanciful theories.

Elaine goes on to scrutinise the depressing idea that women’s oppression is rooted in our pre-history and in a division of labour which meant that women’s size and/or their role in bearing children meant that they were excluded from power and status. She finds that the evidence does not support theories that locate women’s inferior status in our biology. In fact, she puts forward a compelling argument that some pre-historic societies were far more egalitarian than our own. It was with the rise of class society that women became oppressed, a process rooted in social relations not biology. This gives all of us who want to see women’s liberation cause for optimism. If oppression is rooted in society, rather than biology, we can conceive of eradicating it entirely.

The case for system change

Women’s oppression is rooted in class society and specifically in capitalist society. Women experience oppression because of the existence of the privatised family structure and this shapes all women’s lives. By analysing women’s oppression historically, we can see how it has changed as the needs of class society have developed. For example, patterns of women’s work have changed as industrial production and the system’s requirements for a changing workforce have developed. Women have entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and now bear a double burden of exploitation and oppression.

Capitalism depends on its ability to divide and rule, and oppression, like racism, contributes to maintaining a system based on the exploitation of labour. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s grew up alongside a widespread upsurge in radicalism generated by the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the US, and strikes for equal pay in Britain. Attitudes to gender and race were transformed and real reforms were won.

When these radical and militant movements began to retreat the women’s movement responded by focusing increasingly on single issues and identity politics. If you can’t change the world, at least you can change yourself. This second wave feminism had been accused of focusing too heavily on winning political equality for women and neglecting the economic poverty that affects black, Latino and many white working-class women. These divisions were intensified as the radical movements declined.

Feyzi Ismail takes a sympathetic but critical look at how movements against sexism and racism have developed. Intersectionality theory developed to describe the multiple categories of oppression which shapes people’s lives. Ideas around intersectionality place identity at the heart of experience and have tended to point backwards towards a concept of feminism and anti-racism as separate and even competing struggles. Feyzi explains how women fought most successfully when they were fighting for ‘system change’, not ‘legitimising identities’.

The relationship between Marxism and feminism has been described as an ‘unhappy marriage’, writes Lindsey German. She argues against this approach and outlines a strategy for reuniting Marxism and feminism. This strategy depends on understanding the limitations of feminism. Women’s oppression affects all women and some campaigns have sought to unite all women to challenge their second-class status. However, the experiences of the past suggest that elevating a minority of women to compete more equally with their male counterparts does not win change for the vast majority of women – or men. The great Suffragette movement collapsed when faced with the test of the First World War. Most leading campaigners for votes for women fell into jingoism and nationalism and supported the war effort. A minority of socialist suffragettes such as Sylvia Pankhurst drew different conclusions and linked the women’s campaign to working-class agitation and the Irish struggle against British colonialism.

Second wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s achieved real gains for women. However, these very successes revealed the limitations of what could be achieved within capitalism. Greater access to jobs meant greater levels of exploitation, greater sexual freedom meant greater commodification. To win real liberation, we have to go beyond capitalist society. This means that socialists must defend all the gains that women have won, such as the right to legal, safe abortions. We must challenge all aspects of oppression, from victim blaming to campaigning for equal representation. We are critical of perspectives that focus on individual empowerment. We advance strategies based on linking the fight against women’s oppression to challenging racism, poverty and inequality in all its forms.

Fighting sexism is not just about challenging attitudes – although that can be important. It depends on challenging the system that breeds sexist ideas and behaviour. This has implications for how we can most effectively challenge all manifestations of that oppression. Movements that challenge the system root and branch provided a context for women to rise up against oppression. Kate Connelly demonstrates how women have fought for their liberation as part of wider movements which challenged society, rather than in isolation from them. During the great revolutionary upsurges of the past, women rose up and fought against their oppression. When men and women build the most militant struggles against the system as a whole, women rise against oppression with more creativity and determination than at any other time. There is nothing inevitable about oppression – it is a product of how our society is organised and if we are united we have the power to overturn it.

Judy Cox

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.