A crash course in class and gender

Dangerous Liaisons:

The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism

Neoliberal globalization has expelled women from central roles in agricultural subsistence communities throughout the Global South, driving millions into urban sweatshop labor or a worldwide market of low-waged domestic work. Similar forces of capitalist competition have cut wages and safety nets in developed countries, consigning low-waged and unemployed women to bear the brunt of austerity. This global feminization of poverty poses stark questions about the relationship between gender, class, and the potential for united resistance. 

In Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism, Cinzia Arruzza compiles an impressively concise survey of the history of Western struggles and ideas concerning women’s liberation. Arruzza, who was a leading member of Italy’s Sinistra Critica and is now assistant professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, acknowledges that the relationship between gender and class is “still [an] open question” for Marxist theory, especially as global capitalism continues to restructure relations of family, sexuality, and production. She also calls this theoretical work indispensable for a successful strategy for ending both capitalist exploitation and gender-based oppression. 

Two chapters comprising the first half of the book sketch out historical links and tears between women’s movements and workers’ movements. The chapter “Marriages” traces the Left’s developing approach to women’s liberation, from women’s prominence on the front lines of battle during the 1871 Paris Commune to Clara Zetkin’s theoretical trailblazing in German social democracy and the world-historic victories in gender equality won by the 1917 Russian Revolution. Arruzza’s sweeping scope should encourage readers to dig more deeply into each piece of this history.

Arruzza commends the well-known accomplishments of Bolsheviks led by Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, and others that advanced women’s liberation in economic, social, and political life. In its first years, the Soviet Union granted unprecedented rights to suffrage, abortion, and divorce. It also freed working-class women from domestic labor through implementation of communal kitchens, nurseries, and laundries. Revolutionary women leaders also established Zhenotdel, a special women’s department of the party’s Central Committee, to ensure the forward march toward women’s full emancipation. 

Yet, Arruzza notes the necessary limits of entrenched backwardness in rural life and economic collapse due to the immediate onset of civil war that constrained Russian women’s practical progress. Norms of sexuality may have undergone transformation among active revolutionaries, but official legislation never fully addressed monogamy or same-sex relationships.

And she points to Soviet bureaucratization under Stalin as the “first real and complete divorce between the workers’ movement and women’s specific interests and needs.” In 1929, Zhenotdel was disbanded on the basis that women no longer had any special interests in need of such organization. Retrograde policy began to redefine the role of women and families, and soon recriminalized homosexuality and abortion.

Stalinism betrayed working women because it represented a “divorce” between the interests and self-activity of workers of all genders from the class of bureaucrats who consolidated capitalist development through the state, in part through a renewed cult of the family. Communist parties worldwide adopted brusque, reductionist stances toward women’s liberation. By the mid-1930s, Communists in Spain dissolved the militias through which women courageously fought fascism in favor of an all-male army, and Communists in France began supporting bans on abortion. In the 1940s, Italy’s Communists went so far as to oppose the legalization of divorce. 

Arruzza then skips ahead in history to the various rebellions of the 1960s that aided the rise of a new wave of women’s struggles. She celebrates the insights of Black, Chicana, and working-class feminists who synthesized intersectional politics out of student, civil rights, national liberation, and workers’ movements. Participation in multiple movements provided a context for feminists like Frances Beal, who in her pamphlet, “Double Jeopardy,” shows how Black women’s lives were shaped not only by gender, but also by race and class. 

Beal and others rejected conceptions of liberation that sought a hierarchy of oppressions or dismissed any form of oppression as secondary. Yet, interactions with these movements and their prejudices and reductionist versions of Marxism led to divisive conclusions. In the United States, women turned from the sexist hostility they’d encountered to denounce Marxist politics and initiate separate feminist theory and organization. Similarly, political rejection by dominant French and Italian left groups drove some European feminists away from Marxism and into psychoanalytical theory to search for explanations of their experiences of interpersonal subjugation. 

In the second half of the book, Arruzza reviews a number of debates and theories arising from the presumed conflict between gender and class analyses. Friedrich Engels and later Marxist anthropologists like Eleanor Burke Leacock used anthropological research to establish that women’s oppression has not always existed. They investigated connections between matrimonial forms and the production of means of subsistence and surplus, recognizing that sex divisions of labor have not always consigned women to secondary status. Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State describes a transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherer subsistence to the ability to produce a surplus, laying the basis over hundreds of years for the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” by men who sought to enforce monogamy on women in order to pass wealth down to verifiable kin. 

Feminists critiqued Marxism’s understanding of the origins of women’s oppression springing up along with class society, which some accused of treating women’s oppression as a mere accident of class stratification. Arruzza points out that Engels’s narrative does not explain how men’s “instinct to perpetuate his own inheritance and therefore to control women’s reproduction” arose out of the existence of surplus goods. 

However, she adds that Stephanie Coontz offers a possible alternative explanation. She theorizes that the practice of patrilocality, which makes the married couple live near the husband’s parents, may have constituted a critical turning point in men’s material interest in dominating women. Removed from her known family ties to reside with her husband, a woman could be controlled for her labor power, providing the original template for hierarchical relations that eventually developed into classes. In other words, in Coontz’s view women’s defeat was initiated to control their productive, not their reproductive, lives. 

In either case, Arruzza explains how viewing a common origin of gender and class stratification does not necessarily imply that gender relations are secondary to class relations. These analyses share a common view that “social and economic factors connected to the production, expropriation, and distribution of the surplus and of labor power rather than biology are crucial in explaining the origins of women’s oppression.” This basis allows for women’s oppression to be studied and understood as an integral aspect of the development of human societies, not accepted as a given, and therefore theorists and activists may chart out the material conditions necessary for it to be overcome. 

Too often self-described Marxists have invoked Engels’s framework to reduce gender to class relations. Arruzza's summary claims that “the ending of capitalism would lead naturally and automatically to the emancipation of women” and that therefore, “autonomous organization of women [is] a threat to class unity—a unity that was supposed to magically resolve women’s issues.” But these claims have been disproved by history. Contrary to Engels’s expectation, the employment of women did not dissolve the family nor did it bring about equality between the sexes. Instead, capitalism has developed powerful interests in maintaining the family and oppressing women in new and sundry ways. Arruzza therefore dismisses any attempt to reduce the struggle for women’s emancipation to class struggle. 

Arruzza accuses some schools of feminist thought of a parallel reductionism that minimizes the role of class relations in women’s oppression. She points out that the materialist feminist Christine Delphy claimed in her book The Main Enemy that women’s unpaid labor within their homes rendered them slaves, and their husbands or fathers represent women’s masters, the primary beneficiaries of their subjugation, regardless of class. Obviously this theory also ignores the class position of women, who in the case of ruling-class women do little household work, often exploiting female domestic laborers. 

Arruzza also criticizes proponents of “wages for housework” who focus on women’s reproductive labor at home. According to Arruzza, these feminists go too far in asserting the productive value of this labor, which they contend produces the very ability of current and future generations of workers to provide labor power that is the source of all profit. In the demand for a wage, some proponents such as Silvia Federici sought to expose the reliance of capital on women’s work and unite women into a common struggle to abolish capitalism and its need for waged and unwaged work. However, Arruzza contends their demand for compensation for domestic labor reaffirms women’s role in private, reproductive labor. 

Arruzza acknowledges the work of postmodern thinkers in examining gender separately from class. For example, Judith Butler contends that gender is “performative”—it is socially constructed by acts made by individuals within a network of extensive power relations. Butler’s framework provides for fluidity in gender identity, people’s agency to create and undo gender, and offers an alternative theory to either conceiving gender as ontologically defined by biology or entirely socially constructed. However, Arruzza criticizes Butler and other postmodernist feminists and queer theorists for disconnecting the so-called “discursive production of sexuality and gender” from the capitalist system, its relations of exploitation, and other oppressions like race. 

The final chapter assesses more recent efforts to enact a “Queer Union Between Marxism and Feminism,” beginning with Heidi Hartmann and Nancy Fraser and their different strains of “dual systems” theory. Each seeks to use the analytical tools of Marxism and feminism side by side to understand separate but overlapping structures of capitalism and patriarchy. Hartmann’s 1979 essay “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism” contends that a dual system of explanation—a feminist one of a transhistorical patriarchy and a Marxist one of capitalism—is needed to explain women’s oppression today. Marxism’s supposedly gender-blind economic categories are inadequate on their own.

Fraser’s 1997 book Justice Interruptus distinguishes between oppressed groups’ struggle for “recognition” and exploited classes attempt to win “redistribution” of the economic surplus. She acknowledges that these can be intertwined but also contends that under capitalism they can often appear to be at odds. For instance, ending the gender wage gap implies decreasing recognition of gender, which appears opposed to the affirmation of gender identity as a supportive response to sexism. 

Fraser therefore makes a second distinction between “affirmative” responses to injustices that respond to inequality without addressing the structural roots, and “transformative” solutions that seek to overcome race, class, gender, and other forms of difference by deconstructing them. She likens the socialist goal of overcoming class to the goal of queer theory to deconstruct gender and sexuality. Arruzza criticizes both Hartmann and Fraser for utilizing Marxism merely to understand economic relations, which in fact restricts it to the role of a reductive framework. 

Finally, she turns to efforts to unite Marxist and feminist analysis into a single theory. She summarizes questions examined through debates in the 1980s by Johanna Brenner, Maria Ramas, Michèle Barrett, and Patricia Connolly, which remain among the most pressing: “are there patriarchal structures independent of capitalism’s own? What role does ideology play in gender oppression? What relation is there between gender ideology and the material bases of women’s oppression? Does the material and economic oppression of women also produce patriarchal ideology or, on the contrary, does the latter also exert an influence on the economic level, for instance, of the sexual division of labor?” 

Ultimately, Arruzza points to intersectional analysis as the framework in which to understand the dynamic connection of gender, race, and class in modes of production. Such thinking rejects reductionism in its various forms—reducing gender to class or vice versa. It instead shows how the various structures of exploitation and oppression interact with one another within the capitalist system. A renewal of Marxism flowing from an integrated, intersectional exploration of historic developments should shed light on the profit-driven and ideologically sexist dynamics at play in, for example, global capitalism’s use of female labor to deskill production and lower labor costs. 

Unfortunately, Arruzza spares the fewest words in discussing intersectional analysis developed by or since Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term, and she does not discuss Lise Vogel’s theory of social reproduction developed in Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. Sharon Smith, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Sue Ferguson, among others, are currently working to build upon Vogel’s pathbreaking work. Despite this blind spot, Dangerous Liaisons offers a useful introduction to anyone interested in carrying forward this renewal of Marxism’s explanation of women’s oppression.

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

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