Foundations of Marxist Feminism
The parallels between Marxism and feminism are immediately apparent. Where Marxism offers the working-classes or the proletariat, first, the tools for analysis of the causes of and reasons for their oppression, and second, the means whereby they can redress these inequalities and exploitation, feminism offers women a similar agenda: analysis, followed by strategies for empowerment.In its articulation of “historical materialism”, Marxism fosters the development of a “class consciousness” that draws together similarly situated people with the same needs, problems and aspirations, through an arduous process of shared reflection and struggle.
The class consciousness enables workers to recognize that their interests, concerns and problems are shared by all their fellow-workers, and the best interests of all would be served by mutual support and solidarity, rather than by competing against each other. Feminism, too, makes evident that, while patriarchy is not a monolith (its manifestations vary from society to society, from community to community), yet all women experience subjugation and oppression in one form or another, and our best interests will be served by sisterhood and solidarity rather than by rivalry and antagonism inspired and reinforced by patriarchal structures.Though Marxists in general treat women’s oppression as part of and secondary to their primary concern – the oppression of the worker – Engels addressed the problem of why women are oppressed in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). He traces the origins of the family and its subsequent development through complex and highly cohesive clan and joint family systems to the splintered nuclear family of his time (and of the present day). He ascribes the movement from one stage to the next to changes in the mode of production.
From the earliest and most primitive form of subsistence, when the work of each member of the tribe was essential for the survival of all, and gender relations were characterized by what he calls “promiscuous intercourse”, the human race moved to a state of pairing-for-life, or marriage, because of the biological need to exclude the possibility of intercourse with various kinds of blood relatives and the subsequent reduction in the number of women available to each man. In the earlier stages, this pairing-for-life meant that the man would go into the woman’s house and live there with her: societies at this stage, Engels suggests, tend to be matrilineal and even matriarchal in organization, with much economic, social and political power invested in women.
With the domestication of animals and the breeding of herds, the site of production shifted from the household to outside. New wealth was generated, this time controlled by men, and women lost much of the power they once had. As the work of men gained in economic importance and prestige, there was a concomitant decrease in the value and importance ascribed to women’s work. More important, with the generation of an actual surplus controlled by men, they suddenly wanted to ensure that their wealth was transmitted to their children. As Engels put it, “mother-right had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was”.
This move was pivotal and constituted “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”, according to Engels. Man took charge of the household by virtue of his economic power: “he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat”.
Further, since biologically, motherhood is easily proved, while paternity – until the days of DNA testing – remained a belief, it was necessary to curtail and control women’s sexuality, so that men could ensure that only their own children would inherit their wealth. So sprang up an ideological superstructure, with many accretions of mythic prescriptions and scriptural dicta through the centuries: a superstructure that valorized chastity and fidelity, equating these with virtue among women.
As societies move from the pastoral/nomadic to slave societies and thence to the feudal system, as wealth is concentrated more and more in the hands of men, as ideological and institutional superstructures continue to buttress men’s power, women’s inferior position is reinforced, and over the years, internalized and transmitted to future generations by women themselves. However, as Engels points out, while societies remained agrarian, women’s work was still of direct economic value and they retained a degree of importance in the community. It is only with industrialization and capitalism that the devaluation of women is complete. Once workplace and home are separated, once women’s work no longer brings in direct economic advantage to family and community, women are reduced to nonentities.
Interestingly, Engels holds that this devaluation is more acute among bourgeois women than among proletarian women, whose labour is visibly necessary for the survival of the family. In fact, he compares the bourgeois marriage to “the crassest prostitution” in which the wife “sells her body into slavery once and for all”.
Tracing much of the evil of women’s position to the institution of private property and the consequent development of the monogamous marriage, Engels argues that women’s liberation can only take place with the abolition of private property, and with women gaining economic independence from men. He posits the need for, first, the reintroduction of women into public industry and, second, the socialization of housework and child-rearing.
Limitations of Marxist Feminism
Convincing as Engels argument appears, it has been challenged by feminists. As Millett points out:
Engels ignores the fact that woman is viewed, emotionally and psychologically, as chattel property by the poor as well as, and often even more than, the rich. Lacking other claims to status a working class male is still more prone to seek them in sexual rank, often brutally asserted. (Millett, 1990) Simone de Beauvoir, tracing the oppression of women to their position as the Other in her book The Second Sex, insists that the relations between men and women will not automatically change with the change from capitalism to socialism, for women are just as likely to remain the Other in the latter as in the former.
Engels’s assertion that men’s will to power may be traced to the institution of private property is erroneous, she claims: “If the human consciousness had not included …an original aspiration to dominate the Other, the invention of the bronze tool could not have caused the oppression of women.” (de Beauvoir, 1986) Marxist feminists themselves raise objections to Engels’s theory. In an article entitled “Do Feminists Need Marxism?” (Flax, 1981), Jane Flax holds that Engels has stressed the importance of production at the expense of reproduction. She is convinced that the overthrow of mother-right probably reflected a change in the perception of reproduction (“such as men discovering their role in reproduction and/or asserting control over reproduction”) as much as in the method of production.