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Socialist Feminism

Since the early nineteenth century, feminists have been drawn to various forms of socialism as a mode of analysis and vision of society. In the U.S., a strong utopian and Christian socialist tradition affected many feminist thinkers (including Charlotte Perkins Gilman), while Marxism had a large influence on the feminist intellectuals and activists of the early twentieth century. The idea that the status of women and the mode of production were intertwined, and that sexual oppression was connected to the class structure and sexual division of labor, allowed many feminists to move beyond liberal theory.

Despite a tradition of socialist-feminist thought and activism, recent theory (since the 1960s) developed specifically in the relationship of the women's movement to the New Left. The New Left rejected much of the "Old Left's" Marxism--economic determination, the existing socialist and communist parties, and especially Soviet-style statism. However, their social analysis did rely heavily on Marxism, particularly the early writings of Marx dealing with alienation, culture, and ideology in relation to the development of capital. When women split with new Left men over feminism, many developed their analysis of women's oppression using a Marxist framework, believing that women could not be liberated in a class society. (For an excellent historical study of the origins of 1960s feminism in the New Left, see Sara Evans, Personal Politics.)

Many theoretical works of the 1970s distinguish between Marxist, Marxist-feminist, and socialist-feminist analyses of women's oppression. Beth Heidi Hartmann and Zillah Eisenstein offer good descriptions of these differences. As Hartmann points out, most Marxist discussions of the "woman question" consider the primary issue to be the relationship of women to the economic system, not the relationship of women to men. Marxists hold that the social revolution will liberate women: labor force, destroy the sexual Marx and Engels believed that capitalism would draw all women into the labor force, destroy the sexual division of labor, and women as workers would develop class consciousness and participate in the revolution beside men. Recent Marxist-feminists, recognizing that the sexual division of labor remains alive and well, have sought to expand the categories of Marxist analysis, examining women's unpaid labor in the household as a tool of capitalism, and women's role in production and reproduction.

Socialist-feminists have argued that Marxists and Marxist-feminists offer an inadequate formulation of women's situation, since they do not look specifically at the system of social relations that ensure male domination over women. At the same time, they have also been critical of . the radical feminist analysis of patriarchy, noting its ahistorical, universalistic (bordering on the biological), and idealistic tendencies. Instead, socialist-feminists insist on a materialist analysis of women's oppression; in Engel's often-quoted words, "the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life." In this formulation, capitalism (class domination) and patriarchy (gender-domination) are analytically distinct but interacting systems, historically intertwined. Analysis centers on the relations of production and reproduction at various periods within the family and the larger political economy; patriarchal oppression is tied to the need to control women's fertility, sexuality, and labor.

Socialist-feminists have spent a great deal of energy discussing whether feminism and Marxism are compatible (otherwise known as the "unhappy marriage" debate). In recent years, this particular issue seems to have abated (somewhat), and new work by theorists attempting to integrate the insights of feminism and Marxism has been prevalent in the literature. Several concerns seem to dominate the new literature:

  • the two-way relationship between family systems (or kinship) and class structure.

  • the role of domestic labor and woman's wage labor in capitalist-patriarchy.

  • men's control over the means of production, and the relationship between reproductive control and patriarchal, class and state power.

  • the legitimization of the capitalist state through patriarchal ideologies.

  • patriarchy in socialist societies.

  • historical materialism as a method of analysis.

    Selected Readings:


  • Engels, Frederick. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972).

  • The most thorough Marxist analysis of women, Engels analyzes the exploitation of women in the initial division of labor in the family, which in turn is derived from the larger political economy. See Eleanor Leacock's introduction in this edition.

  • Marx, Karl. "The German Ideology" in Writings of the Young- Marx on Philosophy and Society (Anchor Books, 1967): 408-433.

  • Marx analyzes modes of production, production of consciousness, class, division of labor, and historical materialism in language fairly accessible to students.

  • Marx, Karl. The Woman Question: Selections from the writings of Karl Marx... (New York: International Publishers, 1970).


  • Buhle, Mary Jo. Women and American Socialism, 1820-1920 (University of Illinois Press, 1981)

  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics.

  • Luxembourg, Rosa. Reform or Revolution.

  • Kellantai, Alexandra. Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle: Love and Morality.

  • Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. (New York: Pantheon, 1983)


  • Barrett, Michelle. Women's Opression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (Verso, 1980).

  • Eisentstein, Zillah R. (ed.) Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).

  • A collection of articles which illustrates the breadth of socialist-feminist concerns.

  • James, Selma and Marierosa Dalla Costa. The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Falling Well Press, 1973)

  • Kuhn, Annnete and Ann Marie Wolpe (eds.) Feminism and Materialism (Reutledge and Kegan Paul, 1978)

  • Mitchell, Juliet. Women's Estate (New York: Vintage Books, 1973)

  • Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex," in Rayne R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975): 157-210.

  • Sargent, Lydia (ed.) Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981).

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