Foremothers and Fathers

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Nancy Holmstrom

SOCIALIST FEMINISM IS usually said to have begun in the 1960s and ‘70s, but in fact it was a significant radical current 100-150 years ago.

I am not referring to Friedrich Engels and August Bebel but to unknown or lesser known activists and writers like Frances Morrison, William Thompson, Catherine and Goodwyn Barmby, Charles Fourier, Pauline Roland, Jeanne Deroin, Flora Tristan, Eleanor Marx, Alexandra Kollontai, Emma Goldman and Edward Carpenter, whose work is often strikingly contemporary.(1)

Some were Marxists, Goldman was an anarchist, and some were “Utopian Socialists.”(2) All were socialist feminists in the broad sense of trying to make sense of women’s subordination in a way that integrates class and sex as well as other aspects of our identity such as race/ethnicity and sexual orientation.

One of the most distinctive things about second wave feminism is said to be the insight that “the personal is the political,” expressing the tremendously important fact that seemingly personal, individual aspects of women’s and men’s lives, e.g. division of labor within the household or sexual relations, reflect larger political power structures.

Hence there is no sharp divide between the public world of politics and political theory and the purely private personal life. But these writers knew that already.

Flora Tristan, a French “Utopian socialist,” wrote The Workers Union in 1844 decrying the master-slave relationship that existed between husbands and wives — including within the working class — and advocating “a universal union of working men and women.” It is striking that Tristan wrote this twenty years before the founding of The First International Workingmen’s Association.

Eleanor Marx, a gifted organizer of working-class women, extended her father’s vision of emancipation from below beyond the workplace and public life. She too refers to “household slaves” and argues that “Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation must come from themselves.” This understanding is the basis of socialist feminists’ commitment to the self-organization of women, which not all “Marxists” support.

To liberate women in the home, socialists have typically organized to win social supports like childcare from employers and from the state, with socialists-from-below insisting on the democratic control of such programs. But some socialists of the 19th century experimented with communal living in which they tried to create egalitarian ways of raising children and doing other household work.

Although these efforts did not survive for long, socialists should not just dismiss them as utopian, but appreciate them in the same way that we appreciate the Paris Commune, as brave experiments from which we can learn. (Among the “associationists” were former Communards).

Revolutionizing Sexuality

Even more “personal” than the division of labor between women and men in the home is sexual relations. And some of our foremothers and fathers discussed this topic in terms that are radical even by today’s standards. Rejecting the Puritanism that characterizes much of the Left, Emma Goldman “insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun…; if it meant that I did not want it.”

“Woman’s development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself.  First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them…”

Merciless in critiquing the hypocrisy of bourgeous morality. she argued that since women are treated as a sex, it is inevitable that they pay with sex, asserting that “it is merely a matter of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men.” But prostitution is not only due to economic factors, Goldman said, but to sexual repression, a source of great unhappiness. She contrasted marriage, “an insurance policy,” with “love, the strongest and deepest element of life, the strongest and deepest element of all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy.”

At around the same time, in Britain, Edward Carpenter wrote Love’s Coming of Age and was as passionate an advocate of sexual freedom as critical to human happiness as Goldman was.

Contending that “there are different forms and functions of the love-sentiment” and that perhaps only a more advanced society could understand the “wealth of affectional possibilities it has within itself,” neverthess he tried to live according to his own free principles as a gay man.

Carpenter was a true freethinker, exploring intellectual currents from the West and the East, and supported all kinds of alternative lifestyles from vegetarianism to recycling to nude sunbathing. But he was grounded in economic realities. He bemoaned the terrible choice women had to sell their body to one man for life or be condemned to the streets. Freedom for women, he said, requires the end of “economic slavery,” and he worked for practical reforms in the here and now.(3)

The struggle continues…


  1. All quotations are from Nancy Holmstrom, The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics (New York 2002), 13-28.
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  2. I put quotation marks around the term because it is the dismissive term Marx and Engels used to describe them. (They called themselves “associationists.”) The best source is Barbara Taylor Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York 1983).
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  3. See Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (London 2008).
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ATC 139, March-April 2009