Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Feminism: just socialism for girls? Part two.

Please note: there was an error in the formatting of this post originally - if you read it on the main page of the blog (thehandmirror.blogspot.com), rather than on the page for this post (i.e. the one with the comments down the bottom) then you missed a few paragraphs! I've fixed it now (7.30pm Thurs 11th Sept) - Julie
In my previous rant, I awarded Marx top marx for his analysis of capitalism, but pointed out its limitations for women who stay at home and care for kids - women who don't have a class status in the Marxist sense because they rely on their husbands, not the economy, for their livelihood. This, I argued, is one reason we need feminism. We can't just assume (as some lefties are wont to do) that socialism will fix women's oppression and that feminism is unnecessary, because socialism is more interested in the paid work which takes place in the formal economy outside the home than the unpaid work that goes on inside.

In short, I argued that women's oppression is partly a class problem, because it may involve men (of various classes) exploiting women's unpaid work. But there are plenty of non-economic issues which feminists are concerned with, and I feel that traditional socialist thinking doesn't deal with these too well. Until it does, I plan to keep my subscription to the women's movement.

There are a bunch of systemic disadvantages affecting women which can't be explained too well with a class analysis: domestic violence, sexual violence, homophobia and lack of control over our reproductive lives are just a few. My guess is that some of these things may be correlated with class - it might be possible to show with stats that domestic violence happens more often amongst poor people, perhaps - but class or poverty don't cause these problems. Probably, we all know women from middle class backgrounds who have experienced sexual violence or been in an abusive relationship. If class isn't the cause, something else must be going on.

Take domestic violence, for example. How should socialists try to understand and respond to it? I'm not for a second suggesting that men on the left don't take domestic violence seriously, or don't want to stop it. But for those who think of economic exploitation as the most important and serious kind of oppression, non-economic oppression is a challenge. Traditional lefties either have to think up feeble arguments to recast women's issues as economic/class ones, bump them down the priority list behind the 'real' issues, or - worse still - dismiss them as identity politics.

I sometimes wonder how socialism came to focus first and foremost on economic oppression, with other kinds becoming secondary. I think this might have to do with the way Marx and most other Western thinkers have viewed women as wives or daughters - appendages of men. As I argued in part one of this lengthy rant, men's economic concerns were thought to be important, and women were assumed to be taken care of by husbands and fathers. So long as men were provided for, women were too - and if you think like that, you're bound to see the big picture stuff outside the home as most important. Private things - reproduction, sexuality and so on - were associated with women and regarded as less important and not political.

One of feminism's most important principles is that the personal is political - what goes on in the home is important. Ponder the long time it's taken for the Police and judiciary to take domestic violence seriously, or the fact that marital rape wasn't illegal in many places until the 1980s. It was feminism, not socialism, which drew attention to these forms of oppression. I suspect that if we'd hung around until blokes prioritised these problems, we would have been waiting for a bloody long time.

No one's suggesting throwing Marx out with the bathwater. (Actually, the idea of giving Marx a bath makes me feel very, very uncomfortable.) I'm arguing that socialist insights should be added to those of feminists, gay rights advocates and anti-racism campaigners - all those people fighting different forms of injustice. Doing this can be scary to those (usually men) who insist that class analysis is the most important thing, and feminism/identity politics aren't needed. It forces us look in the (hand)mirror and wonder if we've done stuff that oppresses other people because of their race, sexuality or gender, even though we've thought of ourselves as being on the side of right.


Hugh said...

I have a lot of questions I want to ask but one of them in particular leaps out - do you think of homophobia as something that mostly affects women?

Anna McM said...

Not at all - but I do think it affects men and women differently. Gay men have reviled and criminalised, and women have often been completely invisible - the idea being that if it doesn't involve a penis, it isn't sex.

Anita said...

If you haven't read any Nancy Fraser she would be worth a read. I wrote an essay this year about Fraser's attempt to build a framework that incorporated struggles for both recognition and redistribution (i.e. identity and class politics).

She didn't succeed, and others like Iris Marion Young and Judith Butler attacked her attempts, but it was a real attempt to try to bring the two together at a time when identity politics and class politics seemed to be tearing each other apart.

Anna McM said...

Thanks Anita - I'll definitely follow up that reference. I've read a bit of Nancy Fraser in my travels, but not stuff along those lines.

Anita said...

I just checked back through the essay and I'd start with From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age (New Left Review 1995), but there's lots of more recent stuff too (although a lot is cast as dialogue). Her 2005 article Reframing justice in a globalizing world is also good.

I have electronic copies and can email them to you if you like.

Hugh said...

I sometimes wonder how socialism came to focus first and foremost on economic oppression, with other kinds becoming secondary.

I'd say the reason Marx came to focus on economic oppression is that at the time he was writing, it was unquestionably better to be a wealthy woman, with economic privilege but no gender privilege, than a poor man, with gender privilege but no economic privilege.

Anna, I feel your essay, while well written, is directed to an audience that doesn't exist. Contemporary left wing politics are dominated by identity politics and environmentalism. Socialism, let alone the ideas of Karl Marx, are extremely marginal. Even among self-proclaimed radical groups class-based analysis is usually absent.

This isn't to disagree with your basic point, that there are problems that socialism can't address, and that an economically ideal world would still contain rape, racism etc. But I actually feel that it's the opposite point that needs to be made more forcefully - that even in a world that was sustainable and free of racism and sexism, poverty and inequality would still exist.

Carol said...

This is a timely and useful post. But it also raises questions for me about the current strands of feminism, especially those labelled as 3rd wave feminism.

I'm an old second waver, or at least a survivor of the 2nd wave, who has moved towards 3rd wave feminism. Anna's explanation above looks to me like the kind of theory I first encountered when I got involved in the women's movement in London in the 1970s. I learned a lot from that kind of theory/analysis, but also never found it totally satisfactory. It raised as many questions as it answered.

Since then Foucault and post-structuralist feminism has helped me move my thinking on. In short, I think Marxism provides a very good framework (or starting point) for a feminist economic analysis, but Foucault helped me to think more about gender issues, culture and the shifting nature of power.

Over the last couple of decades, (cultural)gender formations have been re-configured in a media and communications saturated society. At the same time gender relations and constructions have also been manipulated by the intensification of the power of transnational corporations. So now I would like to find a way to integrate the influences of Marx on feminist economic-based theories with feminist cultural theories.

Anna McM, in my judgement, the feminist explanation you have given doesn't seem to acknowledge the central concerns of third wave feminism. As I understand it, 3rd wave theories focus strongly on intersectionality and inclusiveness. (Particularly trying to incorporate perspectives of non-white, non-western, non-middle-class, non-heterosexual feminists and transgender people). One of the main criticisms directed at 2nd wave socialist feminist theories is that it sets up a rigid social structure that tends to encourage inclusiveness - dividing people into fixed groups that are at war with each other.

So, I guess what I'm asking is, how does the above socialist/feminist analysis related to 3rd wave feminism?

Carol said...

Hugh, I agree with many of your points. Yes the left, or at least feminist left, does seem to have moved away from a strong focus on class. But, while I see all sorts of short-comings in a Marxist feminist analysis, I feel there needs to be a return to a much stronger focus on socio-economic inequalities.... while also incorporating the focus on intersectionality of 3rd wave feminism.

Anna McM said...

Depends what circles you move in I suppose, Hugh. The debate is alive and well amongst left wing academics (although you could say, probably fairly, that they're not too connected with the wo/man on the street).

I think there is a bit of this kind of thought amongst activists too - Trotter calling THM a bunch of faux feminists, for example. This was prompted by a comment from one justin to Julie's post 'Not my sister':

"Oftentimes, feminists do put class before gender, which makes me wonder how compelling feminism is as an independent philosophy. The lack of women in positions of power seems to be an ongoing feminist discourse, but given the (hypothetical) opportunity to change that, you choose not to. It seems to have to be a woman with the “right ideas”: in other words, politics first, gender second. Is feminism merely the ladies branch of socialism?"

I've had this conversation with quite a few men. Is this something to do with being provincial? I'd be interested in your opinion Hugh!

Anna said...

Hey Carol - very interesting points about 3rd wave feminism. I'm going to ponder them and get back to you... :-)

Carol said...

Thanks, Anna. That's fine. As I tried to say at some point, I'm trying to work out for myself how to reconcile, or work thru, some of these theories. So I'll be interested in anything you have to say on it.

Hugh said...

Anna, I don't want to appear anti-intellectual or dismissive, but there are all sorts of reasons that academics are not representative of the general population. In fact I think you would be hard pressed to find a subsection of the community where Marxism is more prominent than among academics.

I don't think Trotter's case is a good example. While Trotter has in the past declared himself a socialist that little debate started with a comment of his that had zero to do with socialism - his attempt to frame it as a conflict between socialism and feminism was pretty asinine, in my point of view. I don't see how defending Winston Peters is socialist, regardless of how charitably you view Winston, or (and more credibly, IMO) how sympathetically you view the frustrations of his supporters, or unsympathetically the goals of his attackers.

My experience has chiefly been with general activist groups where, as I said, economic disparity usually takes a very poor third place to identity politics and the environment.

I didn't realise that your post wasn't intended partly as a rebuttal to Justin's comment. Hopefully Justin will pipe up as I've got to admit I am not sure exactly where he is coming from - specifically whether he thinks the requirement for female leaders to have the right idea is a good thing or not.

Carol said...

Hmmm.... but in my judgement, academics, at least in the disciplines I know, have moved away from Marxism, at least since the 1990s. In my judgement, Marxism is now most strong amongst some left wi

There's various kinds of post-Marxist theories that have arisen since, both inside and outside of feminism: eg Manuel Castells, who was influenced by Marxism, but has moved beyond it in trying to understand the new reality of "the network society", and who sees feminism as one movement that points the way forward for the future.

Carol said...

Sorry, the end of a sentence got deleted by accident. Should be:

In my judgement, Marxism is now most strong amongst some left wing grass roots activists.