Socialist Feminism for the Rest of Us

In 2012, Marissa Mayer became the first woman CEO of the major tech firm Yahoo! In the same year, she also became a new mom. A few months later, as she revoked the right of her employees to work remotely—a right that many depended upon to care for their children—she paid to have a private nursery built in her new office. Gina Haspel, the first woman director of the CIA, built her political career overseeing a secret CIA site where people were tortured. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waved away Black Lives Matter activists during her presidential campaign and, as First Lady, supported her husband’s successful efforts to “end welfare as we know it” and dump single mothers into a shredded safety net.

With all of the progress some women have gained from second-wave feminism—the focus on equal pay, advancement opportunities in their careers, parental leave, equal share of housework, bodily autonomy, and so on—they have yet to diminish the power of the patriarchy. Liberal feminism focuses on inequities in outcome without confronting the structure that upholds the patriarchy—capitalism.

Socialist feminism offers an alternative. Marissa Mayer’s gender didn’t alter the needs of capitalism. Had she wanted to raise every female employee’s pay to match that of men or to offer more flexible work schedules, better health coverage, more paid family leave time, and so on, she might have made her company less competitive or less profitable. Capital requires profit, and having a woman at the helm doesn’t change this fundamental fact.

Liberal feminism offers an incomplete framework, an inability to explain the patriarchy and why it persists. It’s a framework that excludes class struggle, that stresses empowerment over solidarity. Socialist feminism views capitalism—and not just the patriarchy—as a source of gender oppression. One cannot be free from patriarchy without being free from capitalism.

When we look at female-dominated industries such as teaching or nursing, we see that they are undervalued and underpaid, despite the fact that these are central economic activities that the patriarchy (and capitalism) needs. Work that is defined as “valuable” is work from which profit can be extracted. There’s no profit in raising families, hence the labor involved is unpaid. Socialist feminism would point out that the oppression of women is rooted in capitalism’s reliance on our unpaid labor to reproduce the workforce. The wage gap is itself evidence that women are considered less valuable as workers.

Strong unions are central to socialist feminist organizing. They have done the most to equalize wages and power between men and women at work. Although the call for bodily autonomy and universal healthcare are goals that liberal and socialist feminists share, socialist feminists understand that working-class women, women of color, and non-binary people need more than just access. These goals are fundamental rights that should not have barriers such as cost, employment, or geography.

Capitalism is inherently patriarchal. It cannot be sustained without the unpaid and underpaid labor of women. Women may share a common gender identity and oppression, but without an understanding of class, they can never destroy patriarchy. It is capitalism itself that must be broken.