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USA: Feminisms of the Left

Thursday 11 August 2016, by siawi3


International Viewpoint 3 August 2016

by Nancy Holmstrom

I like our panel’s title: "Feminisms of the Left." There is a long and
confusing collection of names for those who are both leftists and
feminists: Marxist feminist, socialist feminist, materialist feminist,
black feminist, feminist socialist, anarcho-feminist, and so on. And
straddling the line between socialist and liberal feminists would be
social-welfare feminists. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the heyday of the
women’s liberation movement, when "feminism" was too tame a word, the
mainstream feminists were social-welfare feminists.

They supported abortion rights of course, and equal pay for equal
work, as do all feminists, but they also supported public child care
and welfare. Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine are examples. But the
movement declined just as so many activists were moving into careers
and families; American politics was moving rightward, into
neoliberalism, and this general trend took mainstream feminism with
it. So instead of collective social provision, we heard about
individual responsibility and self-sufficiency. The Clintons’ welfare
"reform" exemplifies this change­and Gloria Steinem’s support for
Hillary Clinton, despite all that Clinton has done against the
interests of the majority of women in the world, is a sad example of
the rightward evolution of mainstream feminists.

There are still social-welfare feminists, of course, who should be
included on the continuum of "feminists of the left," though they are
less explicitly anti-capitalist than the rest. Personally, though I am
a Marxist, I usually choose the label "socialist feminist" to describe
myself just because it is the most inclusive and is less likely to be
misunderstood. As I define the term, all socialist feminists (whether
they would identify with the label or not) see class as central to
women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race
oppression to economic exploitation. All socialist-feminist politics
have an anti-capitalist edge, not merely anti-neoliberal capitalism.
Parenthetically, as with any continuum, it is not always clear how to
draw the lines. For example, Iris Young, whom I knew for decades, saw
herself as a socialist feminist, as do I, but is included as a liberal
feminist in an encyclopedia entry

Which word we choose to identify ourselves largely depends I think on
the political context we’re in, and the debates in which we’re
involved, as well as how we understand these categories. So the same
label may not mean the same analysis, and different labels may not
mean different analyses. For example, Margaret Benston was one of the
first Marxists to analyze women’s domestic labor, back in 1969. She
considered herself a Marxist, used Marxist categories, wrote in
Monthly Review, and is described as a Marxist feminist, but in fact
her analysis was more like that of feminists who were calling
themselves "socialist feminist" in order to distinguish themselves
from Marxists. Hilary Wainwright calls herself a feminist socialist
rather than a socialist feminist to signal her interest in bringing
insights from feminism into the socialist movement and into visions of
socialism. She’s been arguing this since the 1970s and recently
expressed her frustration that she still has to make the same argument.

Sometimes these different labels do signal different theoretical
analyses of women’s oppression and capitalism­in particular, whether
you believe that capitalism and patriarchy are two distinct, though
intersecting, systems­or three, to accommodate racism as well. Or,
alternatively, if you believe that we live in one system, capitalism,
that has various kinds of oppression, including sexism and racism, as
constituent aspects of that system. But I have found over the years
that these abstract differences don’t necessarily entail political
differences, which are most important for social transformation.

Feminists of the left are involved in all kinds of struggles, not only
those that are explicitly gendered. In some contexts one sort of issue
may predominate, and rightly so, in others a different one. For
example, women involved in Black Lives Matter organized Black Women’s
Lives Matter because women had been left out of the picture. Given the
realities of black women’s lives, black feminist theory is less likely
to omit class issues than white feminist theory.

What defines socialist feminists is both the politics they articulate
and the way they organize themselves and articulate those politics. It
goes without saying that we support all struggles for women’s legal
rights, but that is far from enough. Gender inequalities today are
significantly less than class inequalities, as two recent
sex-discrimination lawsuits reveal. In one, a woman who sold bonds at
Morgan Stanley sued because her salary of over a million dollars a
year was much lower than her male colleagues'; women at Walmart sued
because their annual salary was $1,100 lower than the men’s, but the
average pay for all Walmart employees is only $10 an hour. So the
men’s salaries are pretty damned low too! And non-union Walmart is now
the largest private employer in the United States­versus unionized
General Motors not so long ago. It’s the struggles of working class
women that socialist feminists focus on, whether the struggles are on
the job, in the community, or wherever. Working class women’s
struggles around the world exemplify certain core principles of
socialist feminism, as Johanna Brenner and I discussed in the
Socialist Register of 2012.

A core principle of socialist feminism is self-organization, the idea
that, in Eleanor Marx’s words, women’s emancipation must come from
themselves. But at the same time, they can’t do it alone, but only in
coalition with others, so socialist feminists work to build inclusive
movements, connecting workplace and community, waged and unwaged work,
and caring labor recognized as labor. An excellent model of
labor-community organizing is the Chicago Teachers Union work uniting
the interests of teachers and parents. Public employees combining with
those they serve is a huge step forward, something we’ve never heard
from New York teachers. Similarly, I would like to see the transit
workers unions reaching out to riders about common interests, like
better staffing. Hilary Wainwright has several examples like this in
her book Reclaim the State (Verso, 2003).

The paradigmatic gendered struggle for legal abortion was won in 1973
with Roe v. Wade, but socialist feminists pressed to go beyond an
individual right to choose to include the material and social
conditions necessary for women to have a genuine choice as to whether
or not to have children. The concept of reproductive rights was
developed in the late 1970s by socialist feminists with prodding from
women of color who wanted protection against sterilization abuse along
with the social changes that would support their decision to have
children: child care, maternity leave, welfare, decent medical care,
housing, and education. Reproductive rights pushes toward an
anti-capitalist politics because unlike legal abortion, these
challenge capitalist profits. We never won these in the United States,
and where they were won, neoliberalism has brought continual attacks
on these benefits.

In contrast, environmental struggles do not seem gendered. What could
be more universal than the need for clean air and water? But this does
not mean it is not a women’s issue. Just as women’s rights are human
rights, as feminists have argued, so are human rights women’s rights.
Feminists should not confine themselves to issues uniquely or
primarily affecting women. Moreover, there is often some gender
dimension even if it’s not explicit. The UN Population Fund says that
women in developing countries are particularly impacted by climate
change, directly because of the difficulty of meeting their families’
needs and indirectly by the wars engendered by scarce resources. Women
are often the leaders of grassroots environmental movements, which
socialist feminists strongly support, as they stress that the roots of
the environmental crisis lie in capitalism's inherent drive to expand

Sometimes it’s important to work with others who do not share all our
left feminist values. La Via Campesina­the worldwide peasants
movement­took a strong position opposing violence against women, which
they defined in both interpersonal and structural terms. So that is
very progressive and quite different from the conservative "law and
order" approach of much anti-gender-violence work. But La Via
Campesina at the outset was not comfortable with issues of sexual
freedom, abortion, and LGBT rights. Working together, however, with
the World March of Women, their position has evolved.

The same conflict can arise in the United States when we are involved
in economic struggles with people who are more conservative socially.
In Chicago the movement against school closings brought together a
diverse group, including gay socialist feminists and black community
activists, not all of whom supported gay rights. Rather than tackle
their differences directly, they worked in solidarity, recognizing
that the parents should be in the leadership of the struggle. Over
time, that kind of solidarity is the best way to overcome distrust and
change minds.

Another way one can advance struggles from a feminist point of view is
to pay attention to the structure and process of the groups in which
one works. Differences of power and privilege along sex or gender
lines are particularly intimate and subtle. So transforming this power
requires the transformation of ourselves and our relationships­an
insight associated with the women’s liberation movement. One way to
address this problem is to allow­or better yet, to encourage­women's
caucuses, whether in unions, social movements, or left groups. In
Occupy, despite their focus on horizontal process, the idea of
separate spaces for women and people of color met some resistance,
which is sad. Leftists should note that more than one hundred years
ago, Marx and Luxemburg supported organizing men and women both
together and separately. After the Russian Revolution when Alexandra
Kollontai was in the government and women were organized independently
within the Communist Party, women won all kinds of gains and prevented
women’s jobs from being given automatically to returning soldiers
rather than allocated according to need.

In the United States today, there is a new openness to socialism. From
Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Sanders campaign, to new labor
organizing, we begin to see the possibility of a new radical left. A
key strategic question for that emerging movement is whether the
insights of socialist feminism will be brought into the center of its politics.

[This essay was originally a talk at the conference held at the New
School for Social Research on April 21-22, 2016.