The idea that feminism is simply the ladies' branch of socialism makes me chuckle. (When I hear it, I imagine myself behind the barricades, serving tea and scones to the menfolk as they fight the revolution. I suspect I'd be as shit at armed combat as I am at baking, though, so it's a fantasy that will likely never come true.) People who adhere to this view tend to assume that women's oppression is class-based and that socialism will fix it, meaning feminism is redundant at best, or a form of misguided identity politics at worst.
I've given this stuff a lot of thought. Feminism may indeed be a broad church, but I don't have much problem excluding right wingers from my definition. If your politics ultimately seeks to exclude, oppress or impoverish others, male or female, I'll work with you on specific projects that advance the cause, but you won't make it onto my Christmas card list. This doesn't shed much light on how feminism fits with exclusively class-based politics, though. Here's what I reckon:
1# Women's oppression is in large part a class issue
2# Class analysis doesn't solve all problems anyway
Allow me to rabbit on at length about my opinions on the first point. I'll bore you with the second some other time.
Most of us on the left take some or most key concepts of our class analysis from Marx, but - not to put too fine a point on it - Marx didn't give a rat's arse about women. (Of his three daughters, only one, Eleanor, was allowed to get a job; and that was within the typically female occupation of governess.)
Marx (like most great Western thinkers, to be fair) didn't think of women as individuals as such, but as appendages of men: wives or daughters. The workers Marx theorised about were men. Insofar as Marx worried about women, he assumed they got looked after by wage-earning fathers and husbands. Men had the productive economy to rely on for their subsistence, and women had marriage.
Now, Marx is my homeboy and I don't want to diss him. He produced an extraordinary analysis of capitalism in his day. He's left us with a quandary, though. A woman who stays at home to look after the kids and house doesn't have a relationship to the means of production, and she therefore doesn't have a class. All she has is a marriage to a guy with a wage, who may or may not choose to share that wage equitably with her.
Marx believed that exploitation happens when a capitalist takes the surplus value generated by his worker. The capitalist takes the thing made by the worker, sells it for more than he paid the worker to make it, then keeps the difference. So far, so good. But what this means is that work that is not paid - work done in the home, usually by women - can't be exploited, by definition. Work that isn't paid, and that you don't sell the results of, doesn't create surplus value.
Lefties who don't see the point of feminism tend to assume that the interests of a wage-earning man are the same as those of his at-home wife, and that a man automatically and unfailingly looks after his family. Why assume this? The husband might rise up with his comrades, overthrow capitalism and appropriate the means of production. That's all very nice, but Mrs Working-class has no relationship to the means of production. Her livelihood comes through marriage, and she's just as reliant as before on whatever her husband chooses to share with her. Whether a man gets his income from a capitalist or socialist economy, he might still spend it all at the pub on the way home from work, or withhold it from his wife to control her.
To make Mrs Working-class's plight worse, marriage (her livelihood) gives no guarantee whatsoever that Mr Working-class will help her with the unpaid work needed to run their home (and which may prevent her from going out and making a wage of her own). Many lefties tend to be a lot more interested in democracy and fairness in the important outside world of the economy, but less interested in overthrowing injustice, economic or otherwise, in the home. This has a great deal to do with the fact that women's work isn't paid, and therefore produces no surplus value to be exploited. Women's work isn't paid because it's not important, and it's not important because it isn't paid. Therefore, it doesn't matter that much from a Marxist perspective if a man works eight hours a day outside the home while his wife does 12 hours inside it. Is it just me, or is that a logical gap you can drive a bus through?
All this is why feminists insist that 'the personal is political'. Men of various classes can and do exploit the labour of women. Time use studies show that women, whether they're in paid work or not, tend to do more unpaid work in the home than men, and work longer days (aggregating paid and unpaid work). And unpaid work does have an economic value, by gum. The man who has his tea cooked by his wife doesn't have to buy it. When she darns his socks, he doesn't have to purchase new ones. Her work, including looking after their kids, allows him to go out and earn a wage.
So to recap: being married to someone of a particular class status doesn't automatically give you a class of your own, because it doesn't give you a relationship to the means of production. Marriage doesn't guarantee a woman's material wellbeing, and it doesn't necessarily give a woman the same class interests as her husband. A man of any class can exploit his wife by getting from her free goods and services which he might otherwise have to pay for. Nor does it follow that a change in the sort of economy that man earns his wage from will affect his wife.
Socialism has had a long time to prove that feminism is redundant by addressing these issues. And yet, I've never heard a socialist suggest mounting an overthrow of economic exploitation within the home - only the kind which happens in the economy beyond. This isn't to say that capitalism is a girl's best friend. Rather, I'm saying that socialism - or certain versions of it- hasn't got much of a game plan for solving all the problems on the feminist agenda, and I don't feel quite ready to pack up my feminist tent and go home until it does.
Tune in next time when I rant about all the non-economic forms of oppression that socialism can't fix either.
Part Two now up here! - Julie