Re-envisioning Socialist Feminism for a New Century

If I were to ask you, ‘What were the largest gatherings of U.S. socialists in the last 100 years?’, you might suggest the conferences of the Socialist Party at the beginning of the twentieth century or the 2017 DSA convention. But who would mention the socialist feminist conference held in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1975?

On the July 4 weekend of 1975, about 1,600 women gathered in Yellow Springs to discuss socialist feminism theory and practice. The conference was organized by about ten socialist feminist women’s organizations from around the United States, joined by two chapters of the New American Movement (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations). The principles of unity for the conference were the following:

  • We recognize the need for and support the existence of the autonomous women’s movement throughout the revolutionary process;
  • We agree that all oppression, whether based on race, class, sex or lesbianism, is interrelated and the fights for liberation from oppression must be simultaneous and cooperative; and
  • We agree that socialist feminism is a strategy for revolution.

Socialism (and Marxism) have had a long, entwined, and sometimes combative relationship with feminism. In 1848, the year of the revolutions in Europe, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” That same year, in the United States, at the Seneca Falls Convention, a “Declaration of Sentiments” for women’s rights was passed. That document included support for women’s suffrage, at the time deemed an almost ridiculous position.

In the years following, there was often debate in socialist circles about “the Woman Question.” Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was a pioneering effort to address the role of women in society but was limited in its vision of women’s rights and liberation. Like later nineteenth-century contributions to the Woman Question, however, it assumed both that the standard by which to discuss women was men and that the status of women need only be considered in relationship to the workplace.

In the early twentieth century, one of the advocates for women’s rights and suffrage in Europe was socialist Rosa Luxemburg. In some respects, she might be considered a precursor of mid-twentieth-century socialist feminists. In “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle” Luxemburg closes by saying, “Fighting for women’s suffrage, we will also hasten the coming of the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat.”

Some 50 years after Luxemburg’s assassination, the concept of socialist feminism moved forward. British Marxists Juliet Mitchell and Sheila Rowbotham were among the first to suggest that the relationship between the exploitation of working people in a capitalist society and the oppression of women was more complex than earlier analyses indicated. Their ideas were put into practice in the United States by about a dozen women’s liberation organizations and by the New American Movement, perhaps the only left organization of the period that took socialist feminism seriously.

The 1975 conference referred to above was the culmination of the work of these organizations. And it was also its downfall. In the two years after the conference, almost all of the sponsoring organizations disbanded. This was, in part, due to the changing political climate that resulted in the rise of the Right and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In addition, the attacks on women’s liberation groups by sectarian groups intensified after the conference. These groups were not interested in advancing socialist feminism but rather in siphoning off members from the women’s movement and in suggesting the “correct line” the groups should take. They were extremely divisive within these organizations and undermined the ability of the women’s groups to fight for women’s liberation.

Although these women’s unions disappeared, the debate over socialism and feminism did not. In the 1970s and 1980s, several important works such as Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism and Lydia Sargent’s Women and Revolution: The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism were published.

An important part of the discussion of socialist feminism in this period related to race as well as class and gender. Many of the early founders of socialist feminist organizations had ties to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the most important documents of this period was the Combahee River Collective Statement. The Combahee River Collective was a black feminist lesbian organization started in the mid-1970s. It focused on addressing the issues facing black women and, in particular, black lesbians. Members of the collective coined the term “identity politics.” The collective’s analysis was multidimensional and avoided ranking oppressions based on race, class, and gender.

Almost ten years later, legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw discussed these issues in her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” The article focuses on several court cases that demonstrate how black women are marginalized by the political and legal institutions of our society. Crenshaw describes how black women are not allowed to represent women as a class (while white women can) nor can they represent African Americans as a class (though black men can). This understanding of the intersection of race and gender became a focus of much feminist discussion in the intervening years.

Today, we are again at a turning point in our understanding of socialist feminism; a turning point that must be informed by the lessons of the past. In our work going forward we must ensure that our socialist program is feminist in nature, both in the particulars of the program—recognizing that a socialist healthcare program must acknowledge that women are both the primary users and primary givers of healthcare—and in our further exploration of the ideas of socialist feminism. Capitalism in the United States is built on racism and sexism, and only by understanding that interaction can we build a truly socialist movement.