Liberal Feminism vs. Socialist Feminism
The following is an edited version of a speech given at Socialist Alternative’s National Summer Camp.
Violence against women is at the forefront of the discussion on fighting for women’s rights internationally and the center of growing awareness and outrage in society about sexism. This outrage comes in the midst of this decades-long slew of right-wing attacks on women, which have played a significant role in giving room for the reassertion of sexist ideas in popular culture.
The examples of scandals featured in media seem endless, from high-profile cases of sexual violence in India along with the fight-back in communities, to the Steubenville attacks, to systemic sexual assault within the military.
To successfully fight back, we need a successful strategy. Central to this is understanding the core differences between liberal feminism – the dominant ideology of mainstream women’s organizations – and socialist feminism, which we adopt.
According to Wikipedia, “Liberal Feminism seeks individualistic equality of men and women through political and legal reform, without altering the structure of society.” Essentially, what’s necessary is to change the currently existing laws and attitudes which prevent equality.
What defines socialist feminism is a class analysis of how women’s oppression has emerged historically through the development of class society and how it is still perpetuated by the capitalist system, which we recognize as necessary to overthrow in order to truly achieve equality.
The lack of a class analysis is absolutely fatal for building movements. It reduces liberal feminist movements to fighting for policies that are underwhelming compared to the mood and consciousness driving forward these movements. It boils down to effectively defining attitudes as the problem, individual laws as the problem, or even men as the problem. What follows, then, is the implication that anti-sexist education and rewriting law is the solution. It implies that women simply have to take power back from men.
Fighting for reforms, however, is not what differentiates liberal feminism from socialist feminism. Marxists fight for and support any and all positive reforms that benefit the lives of women and all working-class people. And it’s true that reforms have played an important, sometimes lifesaving, role in women’s lives.
But through fighting only for reforms, liberal feminism does not adequately draw broader conclusions about the system or what’s necessary to truly achieve equality. In a practical sense, it becomes a superficial approach with shallow solutions, primarily surrounding mainstream women’s organizations which represent mostly middle-class white women.
Liberal feminism hinges on examples such as high-power politicians like Hilary Clinton, or the hiring of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, a then-pregnant white woman who was first hailed as a brilliant example of breaking through the glass ceiling. Yet months after taking her new position, Mayer canceled the work-from-home program for all employees, which is particularly crucial for mothers, just before installing a private nursery in her office.
Without a class analysis, and resting on the idea that equality can be achieved within capitalism, liberal feminism reduces down to promoting a few women into a few positions of power and educating men not to be sexist. By extension, it accepts the idea that there are always going to be poor women, or that role models – more CEOs – are all women need to be empowered.
For socialists, it’s a question of changing the balance of power in society – and that’s why mass movements are so crucial. The key value of mass movements is raising the consciousness, confidence, and organization of women and the broader working class.
Violence Against Women and Rape Culture
In recent years, the term “rape culture” has been developed and used to describe the violent sexism that women face in many areas of life. The term itself encapsulates the idea that the problem isn’t just the act of sexual violence itself, but that the constant threat of sexual violence against women permeates throughout our culture to oppress women. Rape isn’t just a crime that happens because a bad man was in the alley; it’s taught, it’s excused, and it must be fought on a wider basis. This analysis represents a step forward in the fight against women’s oppression.
There’s a serious contradiction that exists right now: widespread recognition and outrage that violence against women is a problem, yet no movement to adequately fight back. Just in the last couple of years, there have been a few powerful examples of the limits of movements directed by liberal feminist ideas, but also of the tremendous potential that exists for explosive movements around the historic attacks on women.
The Slutwalk movement was an important attempt to confront and fight violence against women. As a direct response to the Toronto officer’s offensive comment, the Slutwalk rallies captured the widespread anger of women around victim-blaming. Yet its tactic represented a serious shortcoming, as many women rejected the idea of claiming the term “slut” as a positive descriptor for sexuality when it has such deep roots in oppression and violence against women.
By framing the problem as the attitudes of men or a lack of education, the Slutwalks took the logic of liberal feminism to the extreme, exposing its ridiculousness by having demands that didn’t go nearly far enough. Without directly linking victim-blaming to the sea of oppression that women face, the Slutwalks couldn’t maintain momentum or build a serious challenge to sexism or the system which has created it.
Building Movements That Can Adequately Fight for Women
Programmatic failures result in the paralysis of liberal feminism and its inability to really answer the issue of sexual violence. This is an absolute and dire obstacle preventing it connecting with all of the problems facing working-class women, which is necessary to build a real movement for women’s rights.
For movements to build and maintain serious momentum, we must put forward a class appeal to women, to men, and to society at large. Socialist feminism is defined – and strengthened – by its ability to explain how sexism functions as a tool of the ruling elite to maintain the oppression of the vast majority of working people. By identifying sexism as a function of divide-and-rule under capitalism, it points to a way forward to liberation – not only of women, but humanity as a whole – from the oppression of capitalism.