Marxism and Women’s Oppression

Marxist theories have stood the test of time: human beings create their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing; the history of class societies is shaped by class struggle; and labor creates all wealth. In her preface to Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Haymarket Books, 2014), Lise Vogel acknowledges the value of Marxist theory:

I remain convinced that the revival of Marxist theory, not the construction of some socialist-feminist synthesis, offers the best chance to provide theoretical guidance in the coming battles for the liberation of women. (p.ix)

At the same time, she argues, “…that the socialist tradition is deeply flawed, that it has never adequately addressed the question of women…” (p.2)

These two statements reveal the strength and weakness of Vogel’s book.

The book’s strength lies in its Marxist analysis of the labor necessary to reproduce the working class, the portion of that labor performed by women in the home, and the role of men in the sexual division of labor.

marxandwomynThe book’s weakness lies in its description of how capitalism organizes reproduction as a “system of male domination.” With this description, Vogel seems to retain the core of socialist-feminist theory, that the liberation of women requires a cross-class women’s movement organized separately from men. However, we cannot be sure. Vogel emphasizes that her book is theoretical only, and she leaves the operative conclusions to others.

A sexual division of labor

Ferguson and McNally’s 24-page Introduction also fails to draw practical conclusions. Instead, they repeat Vogel’s theoretical formulations, including her concept of a “male-dominant gender-order.”

It is not biology per se that dictates women’s oppression; but rather, capital’s dependence upon biological processes specific to women – pregnancy, childbirth, lactation – to secure the reproduction of the working class. It is this that induces capital and its state to control and regulate female reproduction and which impels them to reinforce a male-dominant gender-order. And this social fact, connected to biological difference, comprises the foundation upon which women’s oppression is organized in capitalist society. (p. xxix)

Again, it is not clear what this means in practice.

Parts One and Two critique theoretical arguments, not from the perspective of what works in practice, but as a chronology of ideas. This is an academic process that involves demolishing earlier theories in order to promote the author’s ‘new and improved’ ideas. To position herself favorably, Vogel kneels before Marx only to smash Engels, who deserves far more credit than she gives him.

In Part 3, Vogel confuses Marxism as a method for understanding and changing society, with Marxism that is limited to the writings of 19th and early 20th century socialists. She quotes August Bebel, “women should expect as little help from the men as working men do from the capitalist class,” and Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in The Woman Question,

“Women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers.” (p. 108)

While Vogel concedes that the early socialist movement contained both reformist and revolutionary currents, she concludes that “the idea that women’s situation parallels that of workers suggests a strategy of parallel social struggles for freedom.” (p. 108) In essence, this is the book’s message.

Class matters

Vogel describes Clara Zetkin’s class-based approach to women’s liberation: all women are oppressed, but not all women have the same interest in ending capitalism. Women in the capitalist class are denied “free and independent control over their property,” a condition that can be remedied by legal equality under capitalism.

In the middle and professional classes, women strive for equal access to education and employment compared with the men of their class. They call on capitalism to fulfill its pledge to promote free competition in every arena, including between women and men. These women form what is commonly called the ‘bourgeois’ women’s movement because they limit their demands to legal reforms.

Working-class women also seek legal equality with the men of their class, but such equality would mean the right to equal exploitation. The liberation of working-class women requires an end to labor exploitation, and that can be achieved only by uniting with working-class men.

Theoretically and practically, the question of women’s liberation peaks during the Russian Revolution. Vogel describes Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of freeing women from “domestic slavery” so they could participate fully in the revolutionary transformation of Russian society. Achieving this required a two-fold process: socializing domestic labor, and engaging men in housework. The latter required a systematic campaign against male chauvinism. Could such a campaign succeed? 

Vogel observes that the capitalist system pays men more so they can support child-bearing women in individual family units. She concludes that this creates a system of male domination, or patriarchy. She writes,

“a material basis for male supremacy is constituted within the proletarian household… [providing] a continuing foundation for male supremacy in the working-class family.” (p.88)

Vogel neglects to mention that the higher male wage comes with a price. ‘Family obligations’ tie men to jobs they might otherwise leave. Men are legally bound to support women and children, even after they have left their families and formed new ones. And “dead-beat dads” can be imprisoned for not paying child support.

The key question is whether putting men in a financially-dominant position requires them to personally dominate their homes. The one does not automatically follow from the other. A superior financial position does not create male domination in the family, it only creates the opportunity for it.

Individual men can choose what to believe and how to treat others. Some men take advantage of their financial position to dominate women and children. Others do not. Consequently, the sexual division of labor under capitalism does not qualify as a system of male domination over women that can be compared to the system of capitalist domination over workers. The antagonism between women and men can be eliminated by re-organizing society. The antagonism between capital and labor is irreconcilable. As long as capital exists, labor will be exploited.

A system of sexism

Some socialists argue that “the current use of the term patriarchy… merely describes a system of sexism.”1 We certainly do suffer a system of sexism; every woman can testify to that. However, patriarchy implies a system of domination by men, while a system of sexism implies that society is dominated by sexist ideology. The difference is important.

A system of male domination implies that all men benefit from the oppression of women, whether they choose this or not. A system of sexist ideology allows individual men (and individual women) to choose whether to adopt or reject sexist beliefs and behaviors.

The failure to distinguish between individual interests and class interests lies at the heart of the debate over whether men benefit from women’s oppression and what this implies about the need for women to organize separately.

The socialist position that working-class men have an ‘objective class interest’ in the liberation of women means that they cannot benefit from women’s oppression as a class. However, the system of sexist ideas gives individual men the opportunity to do so. Some men embrace this opportunity; other men reject it.

Capitalism pressures all workers to abandon their class interests for the promise of personal gain. White workers can take advantage of Black oppression to advance themselves, or they can choose to fight racism. Individual workers can accept management bribes to get ahead, or they can choose to join a union, and so on.

Male superiority is the booby prize that capitalism offers men to sweeten the bitter taste of class exploitation. As Vogel notes,

“The ruling class, in order to stabilize the reproduction of labor power as well as to keep the amount of necessary labor at acceptable levels, encourages male supremacy within the exploited class.” (p.153)

While capitalism “encourages male supremacy,” many men reject this role because it hurts the women they love, and it blocks them from enjoying egalitarian, cooperative relationships.

The individual man has no choice about whether or not the women in his life are oppressed; capitalism ensures that they are. However, individual men can choose whether they take advantage of women’s oppression, or whether they share the burdens of the home and join the fight to socialize domestic labor.

Put class interests first

The socialist challenge is to convince working-class men to put their class interests first, to convince them that whatever benefits they gain from women’s oppression pale in comparison with the benefits they could have by rejecting sexism and fighting alongside women to end capitalism and all of its oppressions.

By confusing individual and class interests, Vogel, Ferguson and McNally offer a pseudo-marxist justification for a cross-class movement of women organized independently from men.

As Lenin argued with the Jewish Bund, advocating the right of oppressed groups to organize independently is different from promoting independent organization on principle. As a tactic, independent organization can advance the struggle against oppression within the working-class. As a principle, the independent organization of women deepens antagonisms between men and women and undermines working-class unity.

If the goal of this book was “to provide theoretical guidance in the coming battles for the liberation of women,” then it takes us down the wrong road. It is pessimistic and self-defeating to argue that women must organize independently from men. As Vogel documents, both women’s oppression and men’s role in this oppression are rooted in capitalism. Therefore, only a united working-class fight can uproot it. And the working class will never achieve socialism unless most women fight for it. Therefore, socialists must ensure that the liberation of women is championed by the entire working class, and we must also support independent organization as a means to that end.

The value of Vogel’s book lies in her confirmation that the sexual division of labor, male-female relations, and existing family structures are not based on biology but on the particular historical form that capitalism has chosen in order to ensure the reproduction of the working class. While not original, this hopeful message is worth repeating:

No biological barriers prevent women and men from working together to reshape the world to meet their needs. Only capitalism stands in the way.

  1. Sharon Smith, “Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation,” Socialist Worker, January 31, 2013. []

Susan Rosenthal is a socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Power and Powerlessness (2006). She recently launched ReMarx Publishing. She can be reached through her web site or by email: susan@susanrosenthal.com. Read other articles by Susan.