Pioneers of Women’s Liberation

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Nancy Holmstrom

Women and Class: Toward a Socialist Feminism
Essays by Hal Draper
Alameda, CA: Center for Socialist History (, 316 pages paperback. Order online from the publisher (discount using the code 7BDEVRPS) or from Amazon.

HAL DRAPER (1914-1990) was both a master polemicist and an erudite scholar of Marxism and of socialist history, often combining these talents in withering critiques of alternative analyses. These qualities are fully manifested in Women and Class: Towards a Socialist Feminism, now released by the Center for Socialist History, a collection of essays some of which were written in connection with his multivolume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (Monthly Review Press).

Also evident throughout the book is Draper’s passionate commitment to socialism-from-below, as opposed to all forms of socialism-from-above, as these concepts were explained in his seminal “The Two Souls of Socialism” which influenced so many of us.

The “theme of this book is the class line that runs through feminism from the start, and in particular the relations between socialist feminism and bourgeois feminism.” (218) Draper skewers liberal and conservative interpretations of feminist history, showing that they are presenting stories of privileged women, not the vast majority of working women.

The best part of the book for me was meeting the many inspiring women (and some men) who have been omitted from most histories, particularly in Part 1, which he describes an “attempt to resurrect” the history of the left wing of the French Revolution.

The first organized feminist movement arose in this context. This should not be surprising, he says, as revolution “suggests to all oppressed people that the power on top can be overthrown…. Feminism — after centuries of existence as an idea, a complaint, a servile grumbling — now takes the stage as a social-political force … at the same time as the masses do….” (12-13)

Etta Palm, a moderate, was the first to organize women politically. But it was in the working-class districts that women’s rights to political participation made the most headway — because here women were already actively involved in struggles and debates about survival. The first all-women’s revolutionary group (Revolutionary Women) was founded by Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon in the milieu to the left of the Jacobins, who were strongly anti-feminist.

Working women played a critical role in key events of the revolution, from storming the Bastille to initiating the march on Versailles to bring the King back to revolutionary Paris. Their centrality and militancy has been ignored by most historians; others who did note it were horrified, including Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft, who championed women’s rights in the abstract.

From Utopians to Socialists

As Draper’s chapter on the Utopians (“Sex and Sects…”) shows, they were a very mixed bag with regard to feminism.

Charles Fourier for example, known for his insight that women’s status is a measure of social progress in general, was remarkably modern in championing sexual freedom for both sexes. However, he said little about socio-political rights and his picture of the utopian community suggests this freedom is that of the Playboy bunny.

Disciples of Robert Owen like William Thompson, Anna Wheeler and James Morrison were admirable. Morrison was a union leader who wrote a weekly column in which he championed the interests and rights of working women and actively encouraged their militant self-organization. (If only all socialists today were as enlightened!)

A true socialist feminist heroine of the 1848 period was Jeanne Deroin, teacher, journalist and tireless organizer (left) — the first woman to run for national electoral office. Like Flora Tristan before her, Deroin proposed a union of workers’ organizations — more than a decade before the founding of the First International Working Men’s Association!

Most shocking was the chapter on Proudhon. Proudhon’s name is associated with the famous statement that “(private) property is theft.” He also opposed state ownership, preferring workers’ associations. Known as the father of anarchism, he seems basically a libertarian kind of socialist, even if his anarchism was mistaken.

But it turns out that Proudhon’s attitude towards the female half of the human race was anything but libertarian. Indeed he was an extreme patriarch in his view of women’s nature and their proper role in the family and society at large.

In his Carnets (Notebooks), unpublished until the 1960s, Proudhon maintained that a woman’s choice was to be “courtesan or housekeeper…” To a woman, a man is “a father, a chief, a master: above all, a master.”

His “justification” for patriarchy is men’s (alleged) greater strength; i.e. might makes right. And he recommended that men use this greater strength to keep women in their place. “A woman does not at all hate being used with violence, indeed even being violated.”

So much for the idea that anarchism means liberty. In fact, Proudhon’s philosophy resembles fascism. Unlike his anti-semitism, his sexism cannot be regarded as marginal to his philosophy and his vision of a good society. Proudhon’s antipathy to women and to sexuality may seem more pathological than political; more disturbing is that this aspect of his philosophy has gotten so little attention — a sad testament to sexism on the Left. (Based on Draper, I plan to edit the Wikipedia article.)

The chapter “The Debate in the Social Democracy” includes wonderful excerpts from the writings of August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Eleanor Marx, showing that the most radical of socialists are also the best feminists.(1)

Their insights include Luxemburg’s argument in 1912 that the foundations for women’s political equality had been laid; so many women were in the work force — hence productive in the strict capitalist sense — that patriarchal conceptions of their proper role had become ridiculous.

Zetkin analyzed how social class affected relations between women and men: in upper class marriages, “two prostitutions count as one virtue.” Among the proletariat, she contended, women do not need to struggle against men of their class for equal access to work as middle class women do.

Eleanor Marx bemoaned the difficulty of organizing women workers, pointing out “(I)n the factory they are proletarians…; but they are also household slaves, unpaid servants of their husbands, fathers and brothers.” Although she criticizes bourgeois feminists, even some well-meaning supporters of women workers, and says “We are not women arrayed in struggle against men but workers who are in struggle against the exploiters,” her reference to working women’s double burden suggests the need for a two-pronged struggle.

As she says elsewhere “Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves.”(2)

Drawing the Lines

A lot happened between the early 1970s when these essays were likely written and Draper’s death in 1990, and after. I think that an introduction by a contemporary socialist feminist would have been very helpful and reduced possible misunderstandings. While the flowering of writings by socialist feminists (in a broad sense) would not invalidate Draper’s theoretical and historical points, it should have made him less scathingly critical of feminist historiography.

It might also have influenced his tone. That he is a man and I am a woman, as well as a Marxist or socialist feminist, undoubtedly makes me more sensitive to his criticisms, just as Black radicals do not appreciate being told by white radicals who are the really radical Blacks and who are not.

The split between Marxist or socialist feminists versus bourgeois or liberal feminists is ever important. I groan anticipating the need to argue against liberal feminists urging support for Hillary Clinton despite her support for welfare “reform,” for war, etc. (On Hillary Clinton’s “corporate feminism” see Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra in ATC 175, — ed.)

Nevertheless, to make this division the theme of the whole book strikes me as somewhat sectarian. Our relationship to liberal feminists depends on the issue and the context. As August Bebel said, “Working class women have more in common with bourgeois women or aristocratic women than do working class men with men of other social classes.”(3)

Moreover, there is not quite as hard and fast a line between “bourgeois feminists” and socialist feminists as there used to be. Before basic democratic rights were won, bourgeois feminists made women’s suffrage the number one goal, also pushing for educational and employment opportunities, which would benefit privileged women.

Many opposed protective legislation for women, like maximum hours, saying this would be against women’s interests and their right to work as much as they needed. On the other side, socialist feminists supported it (and also suffrage, but less on abstract principles than to increase the numbers of working-class voters).

The United States saw similar debates in the 1960s and ‘70s over the Equal Rights Amendment, which socialist feminists and many trade union women opposed because they were afraid it would mean the end of protective legislation. But this was more a tactical question of how best to protect the most vulnerable workers, and most feminists ended up trying to think of how to get protection for all workers. Social welfare feminists, while not Marxists, support many policies important to working-class women, such as decent jobs and universal health care.

The harshness of Draper’s criticisms of liberal feminists like Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft might reflect his opinion regarding the issues they stressed. While I was very disappointed to learn from Draper that neither de Gouges nor Wollstonecraft supported the Revolutionary Women’s march on Versailles, this does not take away from the importance of their work. (Did a whole chapter need to be devoted to “The Myth of Mary Wollstonecraft?”)

They stressed both abstract political rights of equality before the law (Draper notes that Condorcet had preceded them on this) and personal issues like freedom and equality in love and marriage and eliminating the category of illegitimacy.

These “personal” issues are profoundly important to all women, and should not be underestimated, even though they manifest themselves differently for women of different classes.

Socialist feminists stress going beyond choice and opportunity to the economic underpinnings of working-class women’s control of their reproductive lives, e.g. pushing for free abortion on demand and quality childcare, rather than simply the right to abortion.

As for ideas, Draper says that working-class women in motion simply assumed and showed they were equal, without need of abstract argument. Perhaps. Nevertheless, argument for those liberal principles is still crucial.

Wollstonecraft’s philosophical arguments in favor of human equality, which preceded John Stuart Mill’s more famous The Subjection of Women, are still important, sad to say, even in Western developed countries where there are always new variants of the same old “essential differences” position. Working class women, even in motion, are hardly immune to such ideas.

Perhaps Draper would agree with everything I have said, and the emphasis in the book that makes me uncomfortable stems simply from his very understandable desire to set the historical record straight, or “bend the stick.” Inevitably when that is done, the result will seem unbalanced. But set the record straight, and give due credit to our socialist feminist foremothers and fathers — this he certainly did, and it is a most valuable contribution.(4)


  1. This chapter originally appeared in The Socialist Register 1976 under the title “Marxist Women versus Bourgeois Feminism.” co-authored with Anne G. Lipow.
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  2. “The Woman Question 1887,” Holmstrom 2002, The Socialist Feminist Project (Monthly Review Press), 23.
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  3. August Bebel, “Uber die gegenwartige und kunftige Stellung der Frau,” 1878. Quoted in Holmstrom 2002, 8.
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  4. The addition of footnotes would have made it more useful, especially given the obscurity of many of the texts to which he refers. All that is provided is a Note on Sources, which includes a brief bibliography.
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July-August 2015, ATC 177