Arming the fourth wave

The updated and fully revised edition of Women and Socialism hits shelves as the contradictions and challenges of the feminist project show themselves in increasingly dire ways. While feminist theory is a robust field that has made ample contributions to activist and even mainstream ways of thinking and speaking, the struggle for women’s liberation seems almost at a standstill. Activists fight to hold on to the most basic victories of the second wave of feminist activism. As right-wing extremists inflict terror on women’s health clinics, we face the consequences of a decades-long tide of neoliberal policies, draped cynically under the banner of gender advancement, embodied by Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign. It is this context of backlash and the top-down mainstreaming of feminist politics that makes Sharon Smith’s revised edition so important for activists today.

The author’s sharp critiques of bourgeois feminist theory on the one hand and separatist radicalism on the other, as well as her case for the necessity of linking strong class and antiracist politics to the struggle for women’s liberation, remain central to the book. But in this edition she also explores the compatibility of

Marxist approaches to women’s liberation with two particularly important concepts, social reproduction and intersectionality. Throughout, Smith provides analysis of the complex and shifting racial and class dynamics of feminist movements in the United States, with an internationalist’s awareness of the global class struggle that forms the backdrop for any attempt to achieve women’s liberation.

Women and Socialism begins with a preface explaining the author’s own fraught but evolving relationship to feminism. A long-time Marxist, Smith describes her early disillusionment with the feminists she met as a young working-class woman at an Ivy League university. Their elitism put her off the label and the movement for some time, as she looked to labor organizing and Marxism for answers to the problems she and other working-class women faced. While women’s liberation remained a central facet of her politics, the bourgeois feminist movement she saw as a student was incapable of recognizing, let alone defeating, the impacts of capitalism, racism, and other forms of oppression on the majority of women. With this anecdote Smith demonstrates how working-class activists have “done” intersectionality, the idea that multiple forms of oppression are not independent, but co-constitute one another and are experienced simultaneously in lived experience. Later in the book, she traces the origins and formalization of the concept in the late twentieth century. And it is with this politically invested but critical, intersectional approach that Smith guides readers through the most important debates in the history of struggle for women’s liberation in the United States.

As Women and Socialism takes readers from the earliest days of “the woman question” in both the Marxist movement and the women’s movement in the United States through to the current neoliberal moment, Smith explores two major lines of argument. She traces the often forgotten history of the currents of feminist organizing and thought that have, far from replicating the elitism of bourgeois feminism, sought to challenge it along with capitalism itself. She highlights the debates on domestic labor, particularly the theoretical contributions of Marxist-feminists like Lise Vogel and Martha Gimenez. These writers place the unique role women play in the reproduction of labor power under capitalism—in both biological reproduction as well as in the daily reproduction of workers and nonworkers through domestic labor—at the center of their understanding of women’s oppression. Capital’s dependence on this inadequately compensated and supported labor in the home is supported by ideologies and social structures that replicate the notion that women are somehow naturally predisposed to perform it. Centering women’s oppression on their place in social reproduction brings a materiality to the origins and persistence of women’s oppression. As Smith describes, “The system of privatized reproduction cannot be eliminated without abolishing the capitalist system; women’s liberation therefore requires eradicating both.”

Additionally, Smith highlights critical advances in Marxists’ understanding of women’s oppression that have come from outside the tradition, especially from Black feminist thought. As a living theory, she argues, Marxism is strengthened by the insights of contemporary social and intellectual movements, especially those produced in Black feminism and by Black women in the Marxist tradition. From Communist Party member Claudia Jones to the Combahee River Collective, Black women activists have always displayed a firm class consciousness in their analysis of Black women’s unique position in the race-gender-class hierarchies in the United States, and the hyperexploitation of Black women workers who shoulder an enormous burden for social reproduction both in their paid work and in their own families.

In conversation with social reproduction theory, then, Black feminists’ insistence on understanding the cumulative and simultaneous forces that structure Black women’s experiences under capitalism helps to illustrate how working-class white women and working-class women of color, as well as working-class women and working-class men, mutually benefit from fighting gender and racial inequality. One of the examples Smith cites to illustrate this point is the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, in which a multiracial union made up mostly of women workers engaged in social reproductive labor (as educators of the next generation of workers) was able to land one of the US working class’s most important blows to capital since the 2008 financial crisis.

The CTU’s success was made possible through the unity they built with the mostly Black and Latino families that attend the public schools in which they work, fighting the mayor’s school closure plan and demanding school improvements at the same time they fought for better working conditions for themselves. This alliance at a major site of social reproduction put into practice the politics of crossracial, class-based solidarity among women who were both workers and raising families. In recognizing and then responding to the ways in which class, gender, and racial oppression intersect at certain places within capital, activists in the CTU strike showed that uniting across difference strengthens rather than weakens our struggles.

But at a time when postmodern thought and identity politics are the default ways of thinking, not only in the academy but in our movements as well, Smith is clear-eyed about how the concept of intersectionality has been utilized, marginalized, and distorted. She notes that the neoliberal assault on the working class also involves a historic backlash against the gains of the women’s movement. She argues that we contend today not only with neoliberalism, but with the rise of postmodernism, which sees not a 99% which has the potential to unite around its shared interest in defeating the ruling class and the oppression they inflict on us, but endless, fragmented difference. At the same time that the mainstream feminist movement has invested itself wholly in the Democratic Party, postmodernism has largely displaced accounts of the capitalist system as central to understanding social oppression and inequality in much of feminist thought.

Not only have notions of liberal individualism and top-down change become the dominant feminist ideologies of the day, but radical activists often mistakenly counter these modes by replicating postmodernist fragmentation in their own organizing and theorizing, taking intersectionality not as a call for solidarity, but as a sign that the complexity of “difference” makes solidarity an unrealizable goal. In this sense, Women and Socialism itself becomes an important blow to the notion that radical activists can only grapple with and fight oppression that affects them personally, and instead shows how awareness of and engagement in struggle against the widest-reaching and diverse impacts of capitalism and its multiple forms of oppression stands to make activists and their movements stronger.

Smith is not only a careful reader of feminist theory, but also a politically clear one who puts activism and social change foremost as she weighs competing theories of women’s oppression. For instance, when she considers the feminist debates over the term “patriarchy” (which was central to radical feminist conceptions of the world and what was wrong with it) and its relationship to capitalism (particularly among socialist feminists of the dual systems variety), Smith conscientiously explains what various groupings have said, the political contexts in which they made their arguments, and the political implications and evolutions of those arguments as they circulate among activists in the years since.

Smith concludes that the idea put forth by radical and separatist feminists of a system of male patriarchal power over women elides the class and racial differences that actually make most women invest in their political relationships with men, rather than to separate from them. Dual-systems theorists likewise neglect critical insights and potentials of Marxist theory and of the realities of national and racial difference when they theorize two interlocking but independent systems of capitalism and patriarchy. She turns instead to more holistic accountings of the relationships between capitalism, racism, and women’s oppression, such as those offered by social reproduction theorists. Yet Smith’s generosity as a reader of a broad and diverse feminist corpus persists even as she makes these clear and sharp Marxist arguments. This generosity of engagement derives directly from her stated hope of renewing a mass feminist movement and uniting once again the anti­racist, working-class forces that would be necessary to making that possible.

While the bulk of Women and Socialism explores the dynamics of a diverse and mixed feminist legacy in the United States, it is situated within an internationalist perspective. Perhaps most indicative of Smith’s larger project and hopes for the struggle for women’s liberation is the final chapter of the book, which examines the movements for gender and national liberation in Russia in the period of the 1917 revolution and the early years of Soviet power, and their destruction under the weight of Stalinism. Smith argues that these movements, when the workers’ movement was at its height, point us toward the liberatory potential of working-class movements for women’s liberation that await us in the future.

Women and Socialism is a crucial resource for Marxists and feminists today. As Smith’s analysis of the critical questions of women’s liberation demonstrates, the struggle for women’s liberation is and has always been a part of the larger international struggle for human liberation from exploitation and all forms of oppression. Throughout the book, she emphasizes that there is no way to reach that goal outside mass organized struggle from below. Creating this mass organization in the United States, with a more diverse working class than ever before, will require lively political debate as new and different “woman questions” emerge. Smith’s intersectional Marxist point of view throughout Women and Socialism is an invaluable guide as we embark on this struggle for a class-conscious, antiracist, and antisexist politics of solidarity.

Issue #84

June 2012

The struggle against The New Jim Crow

An interview with Michelle Alexander
Issue contents

Top story

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

Upcoming Articles

  • The material roots of the Darfur conflict

    Younes Abouyoub
WeAreMany.org