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What is Socialist Feminism?

Originally Drafted by Ann Arbor DSA, Amended by YDS

What is socialist feminism? More pointedly, does socialist feminism really exist? The second question is not as rude as it sounds. The differences between socialist feminism and radical feminism are small. Like all feminism, socialist feminism is theoretically grounded in an analysis of "patriarchy," the traditional system of ideas and rules which have exalted men and demeaned women. Like radical feminists, but unlike old-fashioned Marxist feminists, socialist feminists recognize that in general, men as individuals have benefited from patriarchy, now and in the past. Like radical feminists, but unlike liberal (or what socialists might call "bourgeois") feminists, socialist feminists do not believe the feminist project can be limited to reforms which help individual women succeed. Radical feminism, like socialist feminism, recognizes capitalism as well as patriarchy as the enemy, racism as well as sexism.

Like the majority of radical feminists, socialist feminists also reject the pretensions of what has lately been called "cultural feminism." As articulated by Andrea Dworkin, this last philosophy sometimes seems to hold that biology really is destiny. At the very least (in Catherine MacKinnon's version) it contends that since patriarchy is the sole source of human evil, no other considerations must be allowed to interfere with the battle against it, whether they be concerns about class, race, or simply basic democratic values. Can we just say, then, that socialist feminism is radical feminism? Not quite. A variety of radical feminism, perhaps . But here as elsewhere, to call oneself a socialist does mean something, is an act with consequences. Socialist feminists are feminists within a particular environment. Most obviously, they are part of the socialist movement itself. This gives them the task of spreading feminist consciousness both within the socialist movement, and where possible, among non-feminist forces on the broader democratic left.

Further, the socialist environment in turn shapes socialist feminists. They are likely to give greater weight to the fight against capitalism than would many radical feminists who avoid the term "socialism". They are likely to be more sympathetic to labor, and more likely to cooperate with culturally conservative but economically radical religious forces. In short, they are inevitably among the more coalition-minded radical feminists. This is not always a comfortable posit ion to take-and this, combined with the boldness of the socialist label itself, means that socialist feminism is not the force it should be. That it is not-well that is a project for us all.

What. then, do socialist feminists want? The agenda is a radical feminist one-but with special stress on several points. Special stress on the needs of poor women, of working women, of women who suffer from the soul-shriveling meanness of a system which not only exalts men over women, but the propertied class over all the rest of us, and especially over the poor. Almost all feminists agree on many issues. They want equal rights for women and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They want the end of all discrimination against women and to eliminate the effects of past discrimination, such as by affirmative action in hiring. And while there are small counter-currents, most demand a woman's complete right to control her own body and sexuality . This not only means the right to choose an abortion, but to be free from sexual harassment, and to choose when, where and how to act, and be seen as, a sexual being. It includes equal rights for lesbians-and, by that token, for gay men too.

What unites all these demands is "freedom," and if by themselves, they do not constitute more than a "liberal feminism," it is no mean thing to be a liberal when liberalism is still a freedom struggle. Yet very few of today's organized feminists do not respond, at least in part, to the further agenda of radical feminism. Radical feminism recognizes patriarchy as a system where men in general benefit at the expense of women in general. Radical feminists cannot settle for a world of atomized women and men free only from the injuries imposed by governments or businesses. Sexism thrives throughout the vast network of social relations, whether they are formally organized or not. A belief is rooted in the minds of most of us, women included: that which is female is less valuable than that which is male.

Further, patriarchy is a system imposed by violence. We have all learned that rape and wife abuse are much more common than we had ever believed. In part, this is because real work is now being done to help the victims-and it is no surprise that the most radical of feminists are often those who have been doing this work. Still more can be done, of course. Yet perhaps more important than physical violence is psychological violence-the violences of word and deed, not illegal, or even that important by themselves: constant belittlement, insults, refusal to take a person seriously. But when repeated over and over for a person's whole life, they have a cumulative impact almost impossible to resist. Physical violence is a crime and public policy can be made to treat it as such. Many cities have adopted laws modeled on the one first put in place in Duluth, which requires police to make arrests in domestic violence cases. We can fund shelters for battered women. We can require policies against sexual harassment and make it easier to sue. We can work against rape, and publicize its violent essence. But psychological violence is a less tractable problem. What can public policy to do to fight it?

One dead-end has been to demand censorship of pornography, in the belief that it is the prime carrier of the virus. Yet Victorian standards in other cultures go with a repression of women that modern Americans find appalling. And no oppressed class really benefits from restrictions on freedom of expression, which can easily be turned against it. A better answer begins by recognizing the location of most psychological violence. It is not the media. It is wherever women live out their lives. To the extent they live these lives at work, public policy has leverage. But the main location is the heterosexual family. The family is not directly accessible to public policy. We cannot pass a law requiring men to share in the housework when women share in employment, any more than we can pass a law requiring men to be polite, or not interrupt .

Yet it is possible to address the greatest imbalance of power within the heterosexual family-the power conferred by greater male income, and the threat that this income can be removed if the man should leave the family, since most women continue to be responsible for the children. Removing this imbalance of power creates a "level playing field." How people live out their lives on such a field cannot be the state's responsibility. But its creation is the strongest measure we could take to establish the equality of women, whether they live in traditional families or struggle to create non-traditional ones.

Radical feminists know these things. Yet it is here that the socialist impulse has something to contribute to radical feminism. Despite the operational pessimism of many socialists, socialism is by nature a theory of optimism. Socialists seriously believe a better society is possible, look towards it, and think about how it can be achieved. With optimism, we can describe the economic measures needed to level the playing field. We can look to the allies we will need to win such reforms-and recognize that if a truly radical family policy is needed, than it makes sense to work with the labor movement, and that there is common ground to be found even with the Catholic Church.

A radical family policy presupposes radical labor measures: affirmative action, to help women better jobs; pay equity, to properly value the jobs women already fill; subsidized day-care; full employment, to ensure there are enough jobs. A radical family policy means equal rights for lesbian families. It means measures to ensure men who leave families do not become richer while the family left behind is thrust into poverty. But it must also involve the expansion of "the social wage." Raising children is one of society's most important tasks and it must be paid. European countries pay an allowance to all who raise children. The allowance is too small, but it is a start. Social Security began small, but grew in size as it grew in popularity. We must have social security for our children one day, and let us be radical enough to point this out now. Arguing for practical solutions such as these has been socialist feminism's small contribution. May it become greater.

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