By Simone Morgen
Why a Feminist Socialism?
Why, indeed? Isn’t Rosa Luxemburg a socialist icon? Don’t socialism’s core values of equal treatment of all persons, without prejudice or disparate treatment, address feminist concerns?
Formally, yes – but a cursory examination of the ways in which issues are addressed even within socialist circles brings this into question. Even in these more favorable environs, the need for an explicitly feminist view remains. After all, patriarchy as a sex/gender system of organizing society existed long before the capitalist mode of production revolutionized society and colored its directives.
How would feminism change our common vision?
Most obviously, feminist socialism recognizes that work and economics are different for men and women and takes that into account. Too often, socialists overlook the fact that women’s earnings trail men’s for many reasons. These include 1) their greater representation in low-wage jobs; 2) greater numbers in government jobs, which have been getting cut due to the recession and attacks on public sector workers; and 3) lifetime lower earnings, due to a pay differential that has hardly moved in the past 10 years. Outside the formal economy, women also do the vast majority of un-waged work, whether in the home or the informal economy. A feminist socialist vision recognizes the immense unpaid labor that sustains the capitalist economy and the need to address it when developing an alternative, so that the burden of holding up family and community doesn’t fall disproportionately on women yet again.
Why is this critical fact so often overlooked by socialists who lack a feminist analysis?
First, because identifying specific disadvantaged groups based on color, country of origin, ethnicity, etc. involves defining those groupings by their characteristics and often by location and/or proximity. Women, by contrast, are a worldwide group that encompasses any or all characteristics, and are always present – that is, they are visible and not visible. This results from their daily interaction with men as wives, mothers, employees, etc., in both public and private life, rather than as a discrete racial or ethnic group that specific people may not encounter on a regular basis. Women are thus not recognized as a class, either economically or politically.
Second, many socialists think in terms of economics but not culture, whereas feminists understand that in a patriarchal society, assumptions regarding women’s inferiority to men become so deeply embedded that they are an unconscious part of our dominant worldview, introduced in childhood and enforced throughout life. The economic and cultural limitations under which women live their lives are often simply not noticed by men and are frequently policed by both men and women (often subconsciously, sometimes not).
One instance that may illustrate this is the incredibly misogynous jokes directed at Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential election. Racist comments were rightly denounced, but sexist ones didn’t evoke the same reaction. While Clinton and New York mayoral candidate Christine Quinn are neoliberal capitalist women, their treatment demonstrates that women have still not achieved the (admittedly insufficient) first stage of making people uncomfortable with openly misogynous remarks, in the same way that people often make sure to hide or disguise racial prejudice.
What does this mean for the struggle for democratic socialism?
Much as we simply cannot understand class without understanding race, so no understanding is complete without an analysis of how patriarchy intersects with capitalism. Under the continuing brutal economic assaults of exploitative capitalism, many economically disadvantaged men need to have a “lesser” that can enhance their feelings of worth in an economy and society that provides limited pathways for their success. Long-established cultural norms and the needs of the capitalist class combine to reinforce this devalued position and set expectations for woman’s role as helpmate and supporter rather than as an equal economic actor. Socialists undercut our own movement by not speaking to the needs of women, who are, after all, more than half the world.
But an adequate socialist feminist analysis would move beyond simply identifying the varying levels of gender disadvantage to a more rigorous identification of how society is constructed. As feminists, we would pay attention to the underlying and unexamined expectations that shape gender-related questions such as who does caregiving, how we organize family and private life, what kind of work confers respect on the worker, etc. We would subject economic, historical and social patterns to socialist analysis and measure them against socialist ideals. Finally, we would analyze how gender intersects with other categories of identity such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and citizenship.
The struggle to integrate women’s experience thoroughly into socialist theory and practice and to de-emphasize male experience as the paradigm will not be achieved immediately. We cannot erase thousands of years of deeply absorbed assumptions and widely distributed cultural attitudes in a few generations. We have little awareness of how ingrained and unconscious these barriers are except for when that still, small voice occasionally says in a woman’s ear “that’s not fair!” But socialists cannot allow half of the population to be an afterthought. While DSAers discuss reproductive justice in the context of the recent surge in punitive activity, that and other feminist issues tend to trail low wages, immigration, the continuing recession, etc., as a focus of discussion, and the feminist take on each of these issues is not fully explored. This must change.
With our socialist commitment to a more egalitarian distribution of the world’s rewards, we are in a prime position to make this a reality. The way will be long, but as capitalism is built on a foundation of women’s subordination, undermining patriarchy should help us undercut capitalism as well. Pushed by socialist feminist activists, DSA (and the rest of the world) has made progress on the gender front; let’s move forward with purpose and a sense of urgency.
Simone Morgen is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and co-chair of Columbus DSA.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.