A Feminist Reader for Today

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

Angela E. Hubler

The Socialist Feminist Project:
A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics
edited by Nancy Holmstrom
(NY: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 426 pages, $26 paperback.

EACH TIME I teach History of Feminist Thought at my university, in order to highlight the limitations of a gender-only feminism and to exemplify the strengths of socialist feminism, I show my students “Salt of the Earth” (1954), a deeply moving and inspiring film based on a successful “predominantly Mexican-American” miners’ strike in which the miners’ picketing was blocked by the Taft-Hartley injunction.(1)

The miners’ wives took over the picket line, challenging their husbands’ male supremacy with a growing politicization and sense of empowerment, even while they challenged their race and class position vis–vis the company.

In a crucial scene, Ramon, the main male character, angered by the absences of his wife Esperanza, necessitated by her strike work, lifts his hand to strike her. She tells him, “No, Ramon, that is the old way.”(2)

The characters in the film come to understand the need to confront racial, class and sexual oppression simultaneously, an insight that fifty years later, feminism is still struggling to achieve. (Indeed, one former faculty member at my university objected to the inclusion of this film in Women’s Studies classes, arguing that it was not feminist because it just showed women supporting men.)

Yet, as Adrienne Rich notes in her discussion of the shortcomings of gender-only feminism, “the expansion of capitalism’s force field, the impoverishment of women within it, and the steep concentration of wealth” have been “brutally accelerating.”(3)

Perhaps Rich’s comments themselves indicate a shift away from what she calls a parochial feminism. While the radical feminism that she helped to define “echo[ed] the standard anti-Marxism of the postwar American cultural and political mainstream,” Rich came to find her fears that “a focus on class (read Marxism) might blot out a focus on gender and race” were mistaken.(4)

In fact, it is this attention to intersecting oppressions that Nancy Holmstrom sees as de<->finitive of socialist feminism, and which is so crucially important to the continuing progress of the women’s movement. In the introduction to her rich new edited collection, The Socialist Feminist Project, Holmstrom offers a very useful overview of socialist feminism (and its variants as Marxist and materialist feminism).

Holmstrom says that she “characterize[s] as a socialist feminist anyone trying to understand women’s subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, with the aim of using this analysis to liberate women.”

Holmstrom follows her introduction with short selections from the historical originators of socialist feminism on an astonishing variety of topics, from utopian socialist followers of Robert Owen on equal pay, Marx and Engels on private and public prostitution, to Emma Goldman on the sexual double standard.

While these and a handful of other early thinkers are briefly represented, Holmstrom’s selections skip over the “best known” representatives of socialist feminist thought from the 1960s and `70s (readily available in the recent Materialist Feminism) to focus on material published primarily over the past ten years.

Materialism and Sexuality

In the first section of the book, “Sex, Sexuality, and Reproduction,” Dorothy Allison traces the relationships between class and sexual orientation, while Micaela di Leonardo and Roger Lancaster outline an “evolving left scholarship and politics on sexuality.”

This outline focuses on “the development of essentializing identity politics strands in feminist and gay theory,” but also confronts post-structuralism’s extremist application of the “intelligent insight that gender and sexuality are socially constructed” to the biological category of sex itself.

Nancy Holmstrom’s own essay, “A Marxist Theory of Women’s Nature,” offers a practical contribution to this theoretical debate, as she notes that post-structuralism “goes wrong in its assumption as to what constitutes a biological or `natural’ distinction as opposed to one that is social or historical in origin.”

She says, “given that the sex difference is what allows for physical reproduction of most kinds of things, and that the distinction between things that reproduce sexually and those that reproduce by some other means is a very important one in biology, the division into two sexes has great importance for biological theory.”

This position reflects the materialism of socialist feminism in contrast to a “rudderless idealism that denies our human embodiment” characterizing the poststructuralist feminism of those like Judith Butler.

Some sections of the book represent historic emphases in socialist feminist thought, for example, the section titled “Family, Love, Labor, and Power,” which includes Stephanie Coontz’s useful critical analysis of Marx and Engels on the family, Cherrie Moraga’s autobiographical account of gender hierarchies within her Mexican-American family, Ann Ferguson’s “On Conceiving Motherhood and Sexuality: A Feminist Materialist Approach,” Deniz Kandiyoti’s “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” and Purvi Shah’s “Redefining the Home.”

Globalization and “The Family”

In “The Disappearing Fathers Under Global Capitalism,” Temma Kaplan argues that “around the globe for centuries,” in poor families, fathers have disappeared, leaving poor women to raise children with or without the help of family and friends.

She notes that in Victorian England, fears about maintaining the labor supply led to concerns for child welfare and protective legislation. However, the recent globalization of labor has led to a “declining concern with reproducing the labor force.”

Kaplan’s article pairs well with Judith Stacey’s “The Family is Dead, Long Live Our Families” which shows that despite “lip service to the family” the United States has failed to offset the “destructive impact that marital fragility too often inflicts on children and the unequal burden in places on children.”

Stacey offers the counter-example of Scandinavian countries that offer “parents of either gender . . . a full year’s leave with 90 percent pay to take care of a newborn . . . paid leave to care for sick children and relatives . . . universal family allowances, health care, including sex education, contraception, and abortion services, and subsidized high-quality daycare.”

Politics of Caregiving

These social programs are crucial, because, as Johanna Brenner argues in her theoretically groundbreaking “Intersections, Locations, and Capitalist Class Relations: Intersectionality from a Marxist Perspective,” despite the opening of “higher paid professions” to women, “male dominance continues, because feminism has been unable to win significant changes in the organization of social reproduction. Caregiving remains the privatized responsibility of family\households.”

Mimi Abramovitz discusses some of the reasons for this in her very informative historical overview of welfare and welfare reform, “Still Under Attack: Women and Welfare Reform.” Abramovitz links recent attacks on welfare to a broad assault on “big government,” including Medicaid funding for abortion, social security and Medicare.

Abramovitz’s article, which suggests connections between attacks on women and those on labor, highlights a theme in this anthology and in socialist feminism more broadly: the connections between different social movements and a theoretically sound explanation of the social basis for necessary political coalitions.

Brenner’s article does this as well, insisting that both the women’s and civil rights movements are at an impasse, and must work together to address issues of class to move forward. Brenner persuasively shows this to be the case by contextualizing the achievements and frustrations of these social movements within recent “periods of capitalist economic transformation.”

The need for coalitions, and the tensions they generate, are examined in a number of essays in the collection. Leith Mullings analyzes the construction of gender in three African-American political paradigms, called “autonomist,” “inclusionist” and “trasformational.”

She concludes that in the autonomist and inclusionist perspectives, “the model of gender roles” is a patriarchal one “in which masculinity is defined by the dependence of women.” This model was demonstrated in the Million Man March’s “patriarchal vision — a collective statement of manhood and self-assertion on the part of African-American men, with women deliberately relegated to arenas outside political and social confrontation.”

Like Clarence Thomas’ controversial nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the MMM was supported by a wide variety of civil rights organizations. However, proponents of a transformational perspective, which “aims to dismantle all forms of inequality . . . have generally advocated dismantling relations of patriarchy . . . [and] challenged the [Thomas] nomination.”

Mullings argues that neither the strategies of the inclusionist or autonomous paradigms are likely to succeed, and that “the struggle against class exploitation, racial discrimination, and gender subordination must be integrated in theory and practice in order for any one element to be realized.”

Capitalism and Inequality

Calls for race- and class-based social movements to attend to issues of gender — and vice versa — are strengthened by Ellen Meiksins Wood’s invaluable consideration of a central topic in socialist feminism, the relationship between capitalism and the oppression of women, in “Capitalism and Human Emancipation: Race, Gender, and Democracy.”

On the one hand, Wood argues that racial and sexual equality could, theoretically, be achieved within capitalism. At the same time, racial and sexual oppression are functional for capitalism in a variety of ways. These inequalities are especially beneficial to capitalism as they mask its structural realities, substituting categories of racial and sexual identity in pop<->ular consciousness for the economic exploitation that they misrepresent.

Thus, Maxine Molyneux’s distinction between “strategic” versus “practical” women’s interests is critical in determining the degree to which a state advances women’s interests. She defines “strategic interests” as those that would overcome women’s subordination — those typically seen as feminist — while “practical interests . . . arise from the concrete conditions of women’s positioning by virtue of their gender within the division of labor.”

The latter “are usually a response to an immediate perceived need and they do not generally entail a strategic goal such as women’s emancipation or gender equality.”

As a case in point, Molyneux examines Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and concludes that strategic gender interests were advanced, though with limitations which, she argues, have significance not just for Nicaragua but also for the relationship between socialism and feminism in general.

Feminism and Labor

The attention that socialist feminists give to labor and economic issues is represented in two sections of the book, on wage labor and struggles; and economics, social welfare and social policy.

Nancy MacLean’s “The Hidden History of Affirmative Action: Working Women’s Struggles in the 1970s and the Gender of Class” provides a useful overview of the effect of affirmative action on “gender, and with it class, permanently destabilizing the once-hegemonic distinction between `women’s work’ and men’s work.”

Maclean notes that “the index of occupational segregation by sex declined more in the decade from 1970 to 1980, the peak years of affirmative action enforcement, than in any other comparable period in American history.” Despite this progress, for equal gender
representation to be achieved in all occupations today, “53 out of every 100 workers would have to change jobs.”

Leslie Salzinger, Elizabeth Oglesby, and Chandra Mohanty each focus on immigrant and third-world women, analyzing the ideological construction of gender, race, and class that defines “how these jobs are defined and who is sought after for the jobs.”

Kemala Kempadoo also analyzes the significance of race in defining work, in “Globalizing Sex Workers’ Rights,” while Jo Bindman argues that defining prostitution as sex work is necessary to eliminate the isolation of prostitution from other kinds of work and to extend to sex workers the protections designed to end slavery in other occupations.

Surprising Insights

As Holmstrom notes in the introduction, “all socialist feminists see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation.” Investigating this centrality of class — in areas in which it hasn’t typically been seen as significant — leads to some fascinating insights.

For example, Emily Martin’s “Premenstrual Syndrome, Work, Discipline, and Anger” understands the irritability associated with PMS as expressing “intolerance of the kind of work discipline required by late capitalist societies.” Yet because “the dominant model for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is the physiological/medical model,” “women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones out of balance rather than the organization of society and work perceived as in need of a transformation to demand less constant discipline and productivity.”

Women’s anger at their exploitation outside as well as inside the home is seen as irrational. Martin says, “to feel that their rage is legitimate, it may be necessary for women to understand their structural position in society and this in turn may entail consciousness of themselves as members of a group that is denied full membership
in society simply because of their sex.”

Equally critical insights are achieved in Janice Haaken’s similar broadening of the dominant theoretical approach to domestic violence in “Stories of Survival: Class, Race, and Domestic Violence.”

Haaken offers a useful characterization of “socialist feminists” as “emphasiz[ing] the cross cultural variability in women’s oppression and the historically shifting nature of gender equality,” while radical feminists “tend to stress universals,” an emphasis that has produced the dominant model of domestic violence, the “power and control model of battering.”

Haaken argues that “what is problematic about this model is that power and control motives take on the character of a prime mover, represented as a deeply ingrained male trait that operates independently of contexts or contingencies such as unemployment, poverty, addiction and other material conditions.”

Angela Davis, in “Public Imprisonment and Private Violence: Reflections on the Hidden Punishment of Women,” also broadens the “anti-violence movement” by exploring “connections between domestic violence and imprisonment as two modes of gendered violence.”

Wide Range of Issues

This review fails to do justice to the articles merely listed above, and because of the limitations of space, even authors and titles of some articles — on environmental issues, democratization, women’s history, the militarization of women’s lives, Chicana reproductive rights activism, and more — haven’t been mentioned here.

These wide-ranging contributions not only provide helpful overviews, making them suitable for introductory readers, but also will be provocative and practical for those who already consider themselves socialist feminists — but whose reading has not been as broad and systematic as is this anthology.

For example, Nancy Hartsock’s “The Feminist Standpoint Revisited” argues for the continuing need for standpoint epistemologies and responds to critics of her important and controversial article “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.”

“Salt of the Earth,” with which I began this reflection, pairs well with Hartsock’s original article as the film exemplifies her characterization of the feminist standpoint: “Like the lives of the proletariat . . . women’s lives make available a particular and privileged vantage point on male supremacy, a vantage point which can ground a powerful critique of the phallocratic institutions and ideology which constitute the capitalist form of patriarchy.”4

The writers in this outstanding collection powerfully articulate a feminist standpoint that both exposes the inhumanity and exploitation of our male-dominated capitalist system and provides a framework by which it may be transformed.


  1. Paul Jarrico and Herbert J. Biberman, “Breaking Ground: The Making of ‘Salt of the Earth,'” Celluloid Power: Social Film Criticism from “The Birth of a Nation” to Judgment at Nuremberg” (Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press), 1992, 478.
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  2. For anyone who hasn’t seen this film, I highly recommend it. It is widely available on both video and DVD.
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  3. Adrienne Rich, “Credo of a Passionate Skeptic,” Monthly Review 53.2 (June 2001) 28.
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  4. Nancy Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge), 1997, 217.
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ATC 109, March-April 2004