Understanding Materialist Feminism
By Suzanne MacNevin - 2007.
Materialist Feminism is basically a theoretical framework for studying feminist knowledge (class, divisions of labour, state/government power, economic power, gender identity, racial identity, sexual identity and national identity. The idea is to systematically approach topics on multiple levels.
In other words materialist feminist theory looks at the global oppression of women, people of color, and political minorities in terms of their concrete economic and social conditions. Do they have access to free education? Can they pursue careers? Do they have access or opportunity to become wealthy? If not, what economic or social constraints are preventing those women from doing such things and how can that be changed?
Materialist Feminism views gender as a social construct. Women are historically viewed as mere objects for reproduction of the species and their gender role in society has reflected that role. That role in society, depending on the circumstance, really is that of an economically impoverished slave. That state of bondage is more metaphorical because women are not always bound by shackles but simply by societal restrictions. Women are not REQUIRED to be childbearers and fulfil childbearing duties. Society forces that upon women.
Thus, in a materialist feminist utopia women would be treated socially the same as men and childbearing and its related activities would be more happenstance and less expected as a "womanly duty". This utopian ideal however is dependent upon having an economic and social situation which allows women to pursue careers and activities that are uneffected by their sex.
Historical Materialist Feminism
Historical Materialist Feminism operates on the theory that historical examples of gender, race, and other examples of subordination/oppression "are, in fact, related to each other, at a higher level of generality, as part of a historical and social totality". Gender, sexuality, etc. are constructed within the relations of economic production - separating gender from class, for example, serves only to fragment the social meaning. Thus if you are going to study a topic you need to look at all of its aspects so that you do not narrow it down too much to the point that it skews history. This requires a better understanding of the historical nature of production, labour and all aspects of society that effects a woman's condition.
For historical materialists capitalist power over the economy replaces patriarchy as the source of oppressive power and hierarchal domination. Patriarchy still has historical importance, but the economic situation of women during that time and period is more carefully looked at. It is important to have a thorough knowledge of all the historical, economic and social aspects of a given topic in order to properly examine it (knowing the proper terminology helps).
Thus a materialist feminist would consider the very real economic and social differences that separate women from men, Third World from First World people, and the lower from the middle and upper class, and so on, and would pay due attention to the details they are studying.
Advice for Scholars
Marxist feminist Teresa Ebert argues that scholars should embrace a kind of historical critique that isn't a "trashing" wave of criticism aimed at other feminists. Rather, it is "in fact the most trustable ally of transformative feminism because it produces knowledge of the social totality by examin[ing] existing practices".
Language Vs Ideology
Some materialist feminists are interested in how language effects society (and vice versa) and are obsessed with the idea of trying to make social change by somehow changing the language we use. This in practice does not work. These feminists believe language has the power to shape reality and that if we control the flow of words or change the meaning of words like "bitch" or "feminist" or how we perceive words like "cunt" that women and men will somehow react different and use those words differently. The problem however is that words take a lot of time to change their meaning, and attempts to change the meaning of "girl" to "grrl" (as in grrl power) may have effect small amounts of people (usually those who have a stronger-than-average interest in feminism) the vast majority of society blunders on blindly without even noticing the attempt.
Ie. I used the words above "economically impoverished slave". I could have simply said "poor woman" but that would hardly have conveyed the meaning I was trying to get across. If I said "women are poor" there is a major difference between that and "women are impoverished". Poor implies that women is destined to be poor, always has been poor and always will be poor. Impoverished means that she is forced to be poor due to economic circumstances.
If I said a woman was wealthy it could also mean she married wealth, was born wealthy or became wealthy by some method. But if I say she is "independently wealthy" it automatically is assumed that she gained her wealth through her own brains and brawn, with little or no help.
But there are problems with being so "wordy". People don't always understand when you say something that uses a word they are unfamiliar with.
If I say that "some Thailand women are being exploited sexually" people don't always understand the meaning of "exploited", but if I say "some Thailand women are being forced into sex slavery" the meaning is instantly clear that these women have been reduced in class standing to the point of slavery and sexual subjugation.
So the way we describe things can be important, but we have to be careful not to be too wordy lest people not understand the meaning.
See some of the quotes below and I think you will agree that some feminists have been too wordy and their meaning has been lost.
Materialist Feminist Quotes
"I have written about the problematic of feminists in recent years claiming 'privileged knowledge' of the world on the basis of their oppressed condition. Yet this is both an untenable and an irresponsible position. Untenable because simply [claiming] to be oppressed does not give us a clear vantage point; irresponsible because this positionality is 'unable to be called into account'. Instead, 'we need to learn in our bodies, endowed with primate color and stereoscopic vision, how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not.'"
"There is of course good reason to think that we have a better vision from our basement vantage points, but in reality, I am arguing for 'situated and embodied knowledges and . . . against various forms of unlocatable, and so irresponsible, knowledge claims.' We have to remember that every single position must open itself up to the same critique, the same cross-examination, the same scrutiny as every other 'explanatory theory' out there. If we believe that some positions matter more than others, we lapse into a na´ve and dangerous state of relativism when what we need instead is a locatable, critical knowledge that recognizes its own ideological underpinnings as well as its historical, social, and political constructedness."
"We cannot say that women of color have clearer vision than poor white women, any more than we can say black women more than Chicana women have the power to "name the world." Nor can we grant all visions equal valence. Such relativistic thinking simply mirrors the 'totalizing tendencies of Scientific rationality."
"What I mean is that we need to follow some kind of moral compass, acknowledge that our vision is only partial ? that?s the only way we can attain the "objectivity" of science, the science that has excluded all but "rational" forms of "knowledge" for so long."
"Vision is never a matter of 'innocent' identity politics; and the ontological question --being --is contingent upon our spatial, temporal, and political locations. 'Vision is always a question of the power to see . . . [we must ask ourselves]with whose blood are my eyes crafted?' Yeah, we oughtta gotta acknowledge our privilege. Hey! Where'd you get that Walkman? That lipstick? Those sneakers? God, I love the Third World."
"Questions of conceptualization are questions of power, that is, they are political questions. In this sense, the clarification of conceptual positions is part of the political struggle of feminism." - Maria Mies.