The Extremely Offline
Too often lost in the onslaught of daily news is the perspective that enables us to make sense of political events as they occur. In this section, we connect the enduring ideas of the socialists who preceded us to the pressing topics of today.
The period since our last issue has been alternately enraging and exciting for feminists in the United States. First, October opened with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, after a weeks-long spectacle that re-traumatized many sexual assault survivors. His appointment endangers Roe v. Wade, the case that protects abortion access, and a number of other social rights which provide a floor of racial and gender justice in the US.
Yet we also got to see a flood of women socialists burst onto the political scene to uncompromisingly link redistributive demands to a feminist vision. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Amelia Marquez, Jovanka Beckles, Kara Gloe, and Kristin Seale, more than half of DSA’s candidates this cycle were women. And even where they didn’t win, they collectively mobilized millions of votes for their ambitious program.
In this context, members might be curious about the literature that informs socialists’ views on women’s rights. What is socialist-feminism, exactly? How does it differ from other kinds of feminism? And what does that mean for how we organize today? These aren’t easy questions to answer, because socialist-feminist theory, like the term itself, is very broad. There are many thinkers who write under its umbrella, representing a variety of perspectives and often disagreeing with each other.
But DSA member Barbara Ehrenreich, in her essay “What Is Socialist-Feminism?”, says we shouldn’t be deterred; there are some common principles that most socialist-feminists can share. These principles are found in those elements of a Marxist and feminist worldview which mirror and strengthen one another.
For example, both Marxism and feminism “are critical ways of looking at the world” which seek to understand their conditions “not in terms of static balances […] but in terms of antagonisms [….] There is no way to have a Marxist or feminist outlook and remain a spectator.”
We certainly saw this at play during the Kavanaugh hearings. As liberal commentators called for calm, civility, and leaving senators alone to eat their gourmet dinners — the “static balances” outlook — militant feminists mobilized marches, confronted congressmen in elevators, and occupied their representatives’ offices — thus representing the “antagonisms” outlook. They saw that when it came to women’s rights, as well as LGBTQ rights, union rights, racial justice, and a host of other issues, there was no common ground between their interests and Kavanaugh’s.
Ehrenreich adds that both Marxism and feminism force us to look at the “fundamental injustice” universal to all capitalist and sexist social systems. She further argues that feminism demands a more expansive kind of Marxism. “Socialist feminists […] see capitalism as a social and cultural totality,” she says. “In its search for markets, capitalism is driven to penetrate every nook and cranny of social existence.” In this outlook, the fact of women’s diminished participation in the formal labor market doesn’t place them outside of the working class or its struggles.
Another writer, Johanna Brenner, agrees that to understand women’s oppression, it’s important to look at women’s whole lives. Her ideas are most thoroughly explained in her book Women and the Politics of Class, but the arguments there are too substantial for us to summarize here. Instead, try starting with this 2017 interview, where she introduces many of the ideas in her book.
“A feminist materialist analysis considers not only the compulsion of wage work in capitalism,” Brenner says, “but also the limits placed on our personal lives by structures of social reproduction which in turn are shaped by regimes of capitalist accumulation.” In other words, capitalism doesn’t only affect us at work; it affects us at home, in our neighborhoods, in our relationships with our partners and our children.
But Brenner adds another element to Ehrenreich’s list that she believes distinguishes socialist-feminists from other feminists. According to her, it isn’t sexist ideas that are primarily responsible for the oppression of women, queer, and gender-nonconforming people in society. Instead, ideas about gender difference derive their strength from the fact that they are grounded in the gender division of labor within social reproduction. In turn, the gender division of labor is reproduced within family households in response not only to cultural assumptions and social pressures but also as a response to the privatization of responsibility for the work of social reproduction. The practical impossibility of “socializing” care in capitalist society lends a false legitimacy to discourses of gender difference.
In this view, people aren’t simply tricked into believing and then acting upon sexist ideas. Instead, these ideas flow from the ways capitalism refuses to take responsibility for the costly and unprofitable labor of social reproduction — meaning all the tasks of bearing and raising future workers. Instead of socializing the duties of cleaning, cooking, and caring, capitalism “privatizes” them, making them the individual responsibility of each family unit.
According to Brenner, this creates strong pressures towards women bearing the brunt of social reproduction. Ideas about women’s inferiority and subservience are an effect, not a cause, of this arrangement. In this account, the fight against patriarchy isn’t only a war for people’s hearts and minds, as liberal feminists tend to insist. It’s also about changing the material conditions people of all genders live under.
Many socialist-feminists have found the lens of social reproduction especially useful for highlighting the situation of women of color and women from the Global South. Writers from Premilla Nadasen to Tithi Bhattacharya point out that under capitalism, one of the only ways for women to free themselves from the burdens of reproductive labor is to pay others to do it.
Of course, only wealthier and whiter women can afford this, while it is overwhelmingly black and brown women — many of them immigrants from the Global South — who are the ones exploited by these largely informal and underpaid jobs. This kind of deep exploitation is often maintained by violence, making the intersection of capitalism, racism, and sexism especially brutal for women of color.
This is far from a full account of the wide array of socialist-feminist resources available to us. But they’re chosen to show that a feminist perspective can deeply enrich our socialist one. They keep our feet firmly planted in the real, challenging conditions feminists face today, while training our eyes on the more human and just order we’re organizing towards.