Chapter 18: Debates Within Feminism Today

For millions, the question is not so much whether feminism is necessary, but what will it take to win real change that benefits women? Social movements are a battleground for the ideas, program, strategies, and tactics necessary for victory.

Socialist Feminism vs. Liberal Feminism

From Hillary Clinton to NARAL and NOW, the mainstream critique of sexism generally takes the form of liberal feminism. What defines liberal feminism is the outlook that women’s own choices are what determines their standing in society, i.e., that if women are “empowered” they can succeed under capitalism. This outlook is combined with pushing for limited legal reforms and appealing for a change of attitudes. Liberal feminism is also focused on the idea that electing more women to public office will in and of itself lead to major change.

In 2017, the organizers of the women’s marches aimed in a positive way to make it more inclusive to immigrants and women of color and put forward a broadly progressive platform. However, it must be also frankly acknowledged that that the ideas of liberal feminism were still dominant in both the 2017 and 2018 massive mobilizations. Part of the reason for this is that there is not a sufficiently well-organized force to galvanize more radical women, especially young women. The big mobilizations are heavily middle class for now and, while this section of society is certainly being pushed to the left by developments, there is still a wide acceptance among the broader mass of the feminist credentials of liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris. Liberal feminism, though hardly unchallenged, is still winning the battle of ideas for now by default. It is also given an extensive platform in the mainstream liberal media.

One underlying issue that divides feminists is whether all women have common interests. In one sense they do, given that sexism oppresses all women in various ways. Liberal feminists prefer to not go much further. But female executives like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook who famously advocated for women to “lean in” and rich establishment Democratic politicians like Clinton, Pelosi, and Feinstein are part of the capitalist class whose interests are counter to those of the majority of women who are part of the working class. This is why Hillary Clinton did not support a $15 federal minimum wage, why the leadership of the Democratic Party opposed Medicare for All, and why female Democratic politicians voted in Seattle to overturn the “Amazon Tax” – a limited tax on big business fought for by socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the housing justice movement that would have funded affordable housing.

On all these issues – wages, health care, and housing – which are of paramount importance to working-class women, building a movement requires opposing the leadership of the Democratic Party and the form of liberal feminism it is prepared to promote. This form of feminism can include a lot of radical-sounding rhetoric against sexism and even the “patriarchy” but at the end of the day it promises little and delivers less.

A Much Bigger Task

As has been laid out, socialists believe that defeating sexism is a much bigger task and is fundamentally impossible if our sights are limited to what is acceptable to the capitalist class. 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 believe must be overturned in order to truly achieve equality.

A lack of a class analysis is absolutely fatal for building an effective mass women’s movement. It reduces the movement to liberal feminist organizations fighting for policies that are underwhelming compared to the mood and consciousness driving people onto the streets. It boils down to defining “attitudes within society” 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 limited reform to create “a level playing field” is the solution. It implies that women simply have to take power back from men. By extension, it accepts the idea that there are always going to be poor women, or that role models – more female CEOs and politicians – are all that women need to be empowered.

Fighting for reforms, however, is not what differentiates liberal feminism from socialist feminism. Socialists fight for and support any and all positive reforms that benefit the lives of women and all working-class people. Clearly the reforms won by the women’s movement and other mass social movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s played a critical role in improving the lives of women. But all these gains required serious social struggle, which the liberal feminist leadership opposes given that it destabilizes the social system they defend. And, as we can clearly see today under Trump, as long as capitalism exists, all these gains are reversible.

For socialists, it’s a question of changing the balance of power in society – and that’s why mass movements centered on the social power of working people are so crucial. A mass working-class centered women’s movement winning victories will raise the consciousness and confidence of women and the broader working class to fight for fundamental change.

Identity-Based Oppression

While liberal feminism broadly continues to dominate the discussion, there is a raging debate over who exactly feminism fights for. In the past, liberal feminist figures and academics frequently told the story of women’s struggles as a heroic venture of white, middle-class, and upper-class women, casually, but decisively, writing working-class and non-white women out of the history of women’s movements. Some prominent trends of feminism in the quite recent past explicitly rejected the role of trans people within the women’s movements, attempting to deny not only their own identities but their role in struggle.

On the other hand, “third wave” and intersectional feminism highlighted that feminist struggle is held back by racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Despite this positive stand, the third wave had real limitations as it did not orient clearly towards working class women in the fight for liberation. Only such an approach, based on mass struggle and an anti-capitalist program, has the ability to begin breaking down these prejudices in wider society.

Women of color, immigrants, LGBTQ women, and gender non-conforming people have fought for a women’s movement that explicitly combats racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia. For the movement to win real gains and challenge the entire system it must have this character. Despite the political weaknesses of the mainstream feminist movement in the past, building struggles around women’s rights and representing the specific and diverse experiences within the working class are not mutually exclusive.

This can be seen in the approach to reproductive rights, which is a pivotal issue for women here and internationally. Too often, mainstream women’s organizations and the Democratic Party leadership limit their demands to protecting the legal right to abortion when in reality, even legalized abortion remains inaccessible for low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color. On top of that, black women have continuously had to fight for their right to have a family at all. Sections of the population who are not women – whether they are trans, gender nonconforming, intersex, etc – also need accessible reproductive health-care services. Any reproductive rights movement would be stronger if it fights for the right of all people to have safe, accessible birth control and abortion services right alongside the genuine choice to raise and provide for a child.

Today, many activists reject liberal feminism by name and are strongly influenced by radical identity politics. Of course politicians like Hillary Clinton have been perfectly willing to use a version of identity politics which claims to promote women but says nothing about the class divisions among women and in no way challenges the corporate elite who profit from the oppression of working-class women.

Radical identity politics opposes corporate identity politics and has contributed to the politicization of large numbers of young people. But like the theory of intersectionality and privilege theory with which it is frequently connected, radical identity politics is focused on exposing the many ways that certain groups of people are more oppressed than others. As a strategy for change, radical identity politics has frequently focused on separate, identity-based struggles.

We live in a time when racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia are all increasing in intensity even if most people reject these ideas. The majority of working-class people are subject to another form of oppression on top of class-based oppression. In reality, large sections of society endure daily fear, harassment, and abuse based on their identities. For many radicalizing people, joining a struggle that challenges the overlapping oppressions they face is empowering.

Fighting all forms of oppression created by or perpetuated by capitalism is a central part of Marxism; this is not where we disagree with radical identity politics. History has shown that struggles against racial, national, and gender oppression are critical to the overall fight against the social order that oppresses us all. But we disagree with the perspective that oppression can or will be overthrown through separate, identity-based struggles.

In particular, radical identity politics – as used by the leadership of some women’s, LGBTQ, and racial justice groups – can, unfortunately, do real harm to the potential to build a unified struggle that can take on and defeat the threat from the right and win real reforms that increase people’s confidence to fight for more. Rather than fiercely struggling to unite all working people to take on the ruling elite, while placing front and center the specific needs of all oppressed groups, this trend argues that only those who experience a particular oppression have a stake in ending it. Like liberal feminism, this drastically limits what’s possible.

Who Benefits from Oppression?

Radical identity politics emphasizes that oppressed groups can only rely on support from those with common identities. Linked to this is an analysis that the maintenance of oppression comes, first and foremost, from other ordinary people.This represents one of the most defining aspects of radical identity politics that socialists disagree with.

On the day of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Alexis Grenell’s widely debated opinion piece in the New York Times squarely put the blame for Kavanaugh on white women. How is that even possible? The explanation hinged on the widespread idea on the liberal left that the white working class, and white women in particular, are to blame for Trump’s 2016 victory. To explain why white women ushered in both Trump and Kavanaugh, Grenell claimed, “That’s because white women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain.”

This type of argument is linked to the theory of intersectionality which grew out of postmodernism in the late ‘80s. Many of the postmodernists started as leftists in the 1960s but concluded, especially after the collapse of Stalinism after 1989, that Marxists were wrong to believe in the decisive role of the working class in changing society. They were profoundly demoralized by the apparent triumph of Western capitalism in this period.

They were unable to explain how the “socialist,” Stalinist-dominated societies collapsed except by concluding that the entire project had been wrong from the start. They rejected all “grand narratives” that sought to explain the development of society and instead posited that all narratives had equal validity. This is a pessimistic worldview which sees no possibility for a truly egalitarian society, only an endless struggle to redefine narratives within capitalism. In reality it turns the struggle into one between ordinary people, not a united struggle against all oppression.

This theoretical outlook, along with privilege theory, obscures the reality that the capitalist class is the fundamental beneficiary of oppression, and in fact depends for its existence on the maintenance of divisions in society. It posits that virtually every individual is privileged by benefitting from the oppression of anyone more oppressed than themselves. It is important for us to dig into this notion and evaluate who really benefits from oppression: ordinary working class people or the capitalist class.

American-born workers, for example, are told to accept low wages to prevent their jobs being “stolen” by undocumented immigrants or shipped to other countries. There’s no doubt that xenophobia has been weaponized in sections of society, especially under Trump. But the only beneficiary of this “divide and rule” approach is big business. It is true that American-born workers do not endure the same forms of injustice that many immigrants face yet they did not create xenophobia and they do not get a boost in their quality of life because of it. In reality, supporting citizenship rights for immigrant workers and uniting with them in a struggle for higher wages, affordable housing, and Medicare for All is in the self-interest of native-born workers.

A different example is that of white workers in the South under Jim Crow. Obviously life for most white people was significantly better than for black people given the nature of this highly repressive and overtly white supremacist regime. However, it is also the case that the Jim Crow system was designed to keep poor blacks and poor whites divided, and it succeeded to a large degree in keeping unions out. As a result, the wages of white workers in the South were significantly below those of their counterparts in the North. So while one could define “benefits” for white people under Jim Crow, they were certainly not economic.

There is also the question of whether men benefit from sexism. Listing all the obstacles that sexism creates for women and the ways it disfigures their lives could seem to lead to a clear “yes” answer. Capitalism benefits from the vast amount of free labor performed by women, as do many men. It’s common knowledge that men make more money than women for performing the same jobs. Furthermore, much of the abuse and violence suffered by women is at the hands of intimate partners of the same class. At the same time, it is also the case that men’s lives are negatively impacted in various ways by having to conform to existing gender norms. For example, sexism is an integral aspect of the still-prevalent culture of young boys suffering violence and bullying for not behaving “masculine enough.” There is no doubt that men would overwhelmingly benefit as human beings from living in an egalitarian society where sexism ceased to exist as a tool to divide people against one another.

In reality, much of the argument about the degree to which ordinary people benefit from various power relations doesn’t just ignore the role of the ruling class but also assumes material scarcity: there is only so much to go around. So, if one section of the working class is historically better off than another, the only way to achieve justice is to take away some of what the first group has. We, however, firmly believe that modern productive forces can, under a planned socialist economy, guarantee good jobs and benefits like a decent pension – increasingly gone for all sections of the working class – for all. It is not a question of bringing down one section of working people in order to bring others up; it is a question of bringing everyone up which will disproportionately benefit the most oppressed.

It is indisputable that different sections of the working class have very different lived experiences. It is also indisputable that there is a minority of the working class that has embraced aspects of reactionary ideology. Marxists are fully committed to undermining the appeal of the right and we believe it is possible to do so and to isolate the most hardened reactionaries. But the key task is not so much to convince straight, white working-class men that they are “privileged” compared to women, people of color, LGBTQ people, or immigrants when their own experience shows that they and their families’ standard of living has been driven back by decades of neoliberalism.

Rather, it is necessary to convince them that they have common interests with all the oppressed and that it is in their own interests to join forces in a common struggle. The ruling class has historically actively promoted racism, sexism, and nativism to obscure this. To put it another way, the ruling class seeks to convince sections of the population that they are indeed “privileged,” “better,” or “superior” to others in a fundamental way in order to undermine a united struggle against ruling-class domination and tie them to pro-capitalist ideology. While directly and fearlessly confronting all forms of reactionary ideology, we should not play into this false narrative. The Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 pointed to what was possible on the basis of a pro-working-class, anti-corporate program. He beat Hillary Clinton in many states that Trump then won in the general election. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that many working-class whites who voted for Trump would have voted for Bernie if he had been on the ballot in November 2016.

How We Build Solidarity

A key question that faces fighters against injustice is how to change consciousness. We believe that the key means is common struggle. This has been seen throughout history. When divisions among workers are even partially overcome – as the CIO did in building multiracial industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s – we’re in a far stronger position to wage the strongest possible battle and much more likely to win real gains. This is why building fighting working-class organizations based on diverse workplaces is so critical. There is also an instinctive human solidarity that expresses itself in many situations especially when communities face disaster. This can be crucial to making breakthroughs in how people see other groups they have been taught to keep at arm’s length.

Of course this does not mean that broader moral appeals or educational campaigns are unimportant if done well. But moral appeal by itself will never be sufficient to mobilize people for a sustained struggle. That requires a deeper commitment of ordinary people to forms of organization that speak to their social interests. We have seen movements like BLM that had a major impact on consciousness through a moral appeal and a basic demand. But BLM struggled to find a way to turn episodic mobilizations into a sustained movement rooted in the black working class, even if it took steps in this direction. This shows how challenging the approach we are advocating is. We cannot pretend that it is easy or straightforward or even that there is an exact blueprint for how to do this. The traditions of collective struggle of which there is an enormously rich history in the U.S. have to be rediscovered and rebuilt, urgently.