In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socialist/Marxist Feminism

  • Introduction
  • Early Marxist Feminism
  • 20th-Century Socialist/Marxist Feminist Theory
  • Socialist/Marxist Ecofeminism: Late 20th to Early 21st Centuries
  • Socialist/Marxist Ecofeminism: 21st Century
  • Socialist Feminist Revolution: Seeds in the 20th Century
  • Socialist Feminist Revolution: Fruition in the 21st Century

Literary and Critical Theory Socialist/Marxist Feminism
by
Wendy Lynne Lee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0088

Introduction

The long arc of Marxist scholarship certainly reaches many domains—economics, sociology, political ecology. However, few scholarly projects have likely benefited more, or offered more, to sustaining the relevance of Marx and Marxism than the feminist analysis, interpretation, and application of the Marxist critique of capitalism. From the earliest translations of Marxist thought into revolutionary action, socialist feminists have sought to introduce sex and gender as salient categories of capitalist oppression, arguing that being a woman bound to patriarchal institutions such as marriage is comparable to a working-class laborer bound to the wage. Friedrich Engels also plays a key role in the socialist feminist appropriation of Marxist ideas. By showing the extent to which marriage is about the maintenance and expansion of property, Engels opens the door to a wide range of analysis concerning the material conditions of women’s lives and labors. Marxist ideas become the focus of renewed interest over the course of the American civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s. It is thus unsurprising that a wealth of new feminist and antiracist theories begin to develop during this period, as well as analyses of structural inequality, including oppression with respect to the LGBTQ community. It is perhaps the most recent work among socialist feminists, in league with other activists and theorists, however, that is both truest to Marx’s original intent and that demonstrates the relevance of his ideas to the future fortunes of human societies, namely, the application of Marxist critique to environmental deterioration—especially anthropogenic climate change. Hence, the following is organized historically but also topically. It begins with the work of early socialist feminists, looking to include women within Marxist categories of class analysis but quickly moves to arguments that sex and gender—and then race/ethnicity and sexual identity—constitute their own salient categories of oppression. This explosion of theory and activism deserves to be treated topically so that the variety and breadth of socialist feminist ideas as well as the divisions and debates among its representatives becomes clear. The critique of capitalism has, of course, always been an essentially global enterprise. It is thus not surprising that the extension of socialist feminist analyses to the Global North and Global South would produce a wealth of insight and activism. For many of the same reasons, the same is true of the rise of socialist ecofeminism. The last section comes full circle. Devoted to arguments whose focus is the justification and fomenting of revolution, The Communist Manifesto finds its place next to contemporary socialist ecofeminist calls for workers from all regions of the planet to unite to overthrow once and for all the capitalist economic system responsible for jeopardizing the planet’s capacity to support life.

Early Marxist Feminism

Although not explicitly defined as feminist, among the key early influences on Marxist/socialist feminism is Engels 1972 (originally published in 1884). Engels 1972 argues that as early human communities became more agrarian—as the institution of private property became more and more bound to inheritance—women’s capacity for both domestic and sexual reproductive labor became a crucial commodity. The origin of the institution of marriage is not, argues Engels, love or fidelity but rather the disposition of inheritable wealth through male bloodlines. Hence, private property is intimately bound to the rise of patriarchy and to what later feminist theorists will refer to as the structural inequality of both sexual and (given the economic dependence it generates) gendered forms of class. Engels sets the scope and tenor of early Marxist/socialist feminist work either with respect to developing his insights further, or as critique. Some key works that revolve around the broad scope of these themes beyond Engels 1972 include Montefiore 2017 (originally published in 1905), Kollontai 1977, Weil 1986, Nye 1994, Shulman 1996—a collected set of essays from Marxist/anarchist theorist Emma Goldman—Lee 2001, Weiss and Kensinger 2007, Scott 2008, and Bender 2012.

  • Bender, Frederic. The Communist Manifesto: They Only Call it Class War When We Fight Back. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.

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    This edited volume offers a range of commentary and critique on the famous revolutionary pamphlet, Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Not all are explicitly feminist in orientation, but Wendy Lynne Lee’s radical feminist critique of Marx’s references to “the community of women,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s postmodernist reading, and Lucian Laurat’s sociological interpretation all shed light on important feminist questions concerning the intersection of class, gender, and historical moment.

  • Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

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    Originally published in 1884. Engels makes out a key early argument for Marxist/socialist feminism, namely that the institution of marriage is essentially a socially sanctioned form of prostitution that exists to insure male bloodlines for the purposes of inheritance. Also asserts that women’s capacity for both unpaid domestic labor and the sexual reproduction of labor and progeny is fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

  • Kollontai, Alexandra. Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Writings. Toronto: Alix Holt, 1977.

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    A truly trailblazing early Marxist feminist, Kollantai’s work encompasses commentary on the early-20th-century Russian women’s movement, the rights of workers, sexual morality, and marriage. As an agent of the emergent Soviet state, Kollontai occupied one of the few positions of power for women: minister of social welfare.

  • Lee, Wendy Lynne. On Marx. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

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    This introduction to Marx (intended for undergraduates) includes brief discussion of a number of central Marxist themes, historical materialism, the critique of capitalism, the alienation of workers, and the prospects for a Communist revolution. But it also includes a chapter devoted to the critique of oppression, focused on the oppression of women and a Marxist feminist analysis of Marx’s own complex and conflicted view of women.

  • Montefiore, Dora B. Socialism and Women. Northhampton, MA: The Anarcho-Communist Institute Digital Publication, 2017.

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    Originally published in 1905. Situated in a fundamentally socialist outlook, this wide-ranging set of essays and op-ed offers a rich set of topics that give the reader a clear sense of the conflicts women faced given the essentially patriarchal distribution of access to capital, wages, and opportunity in the early 20th century. Less theory than practical advice, Montefiore is a window into the real-time implications of Engels’s arguments concerning marriage, wealth, and inheritance.

  • Nye, Andrea. Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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    Nye argues that although much of feminist theorizing remains a response to male figures, an appreciation of the thinking and experience of female theorists who share a history and a theoretical orientation can open up new vistas. Such is the case, argues Nye, with Luxemburg, Weil, and Arendt who broadly Marxist orientation to questions of morality and justice offer new insight to the philosophical tradition.

  • Scott, Helen, ed. The Essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2008.

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    Rosa Luxemburg was a critical Marxist thinker in the early 20th century. Her observations about class in Reform or Revolution, and her insight concerning the use of labor strikes as a tool to address the oppression of workers in Mass Strike still resonate with socialist activists, and especially socialist feminists. Both works are collected in Scott’s volume along with an excellent introduction.

  • Shulman, Alix Kates. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. New York: Humanities Books, 1996.

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    This volume includes a wide range of key essays from a central early figure of Marxist/socialist feminism, Emma Goldman. The volume includes selections from Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life (1931), and other sources. A prolific writer and social critic, Goldman develops and critiques Engels’s arguments concerning marriage as prostitution, the institution of private property, and women in the labor force.

  • Weil, Simone. Simone Weil: An Anthology. New York: Penguin, 1986.

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    While we might rightly regard Weil as somewhat on the margins of socialist as well as feminist theory, her work as a moral and political thinker and activist, particularly in the context of social upheaval and Marxist ideas, makes her an important inclusion in this set of early feminist and socialist thinkers. Weil has been especially influential with respect to contemporary feminist work in the critique of war and the masculinist vocabulary of war.

  • Weiss, Penny, and Loretta Kensinger, eds. Feminist Interpretations of Emma Goldman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.

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    In this excellent anthology devoted to Goldman’s work, we see a wide array of contemporary feminist thinkers offer analyses of Goldman’s feminist perspective, her Marxist commitments, and her relevance for contemporary issues confronting women, especially working-class women.

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