Marxist feminism

   From the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels onwards, the Marxist tradition has engaged with the issue of women’s oppression and with feminist ideas. Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism (1878), and the work and ideas of Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollantai were all significant contributions by early Marxists to the development of a Marxist feminism. Heidi Hartmann, Lise Vogel, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Juliet Mitchell and Michelle Barrett represent a more recent wave of Marxist feminists who have extended and developed Marxism in a more radical way to address the issue of women’s oppression.
   The orthodox Marxist view of women’s oppression stemming from Engels’ writing accredits biology as a factor, but one without any significance in itself, only becoming important with the advent of class society. The key to women’s emancipation lies in their participation in the labor force and the subsequent overthrow of capitalism. This orthodox view in effect accords women’s oppression a secondary status with class conflict having primary status. Hartmann represents an approach that seeks to “marry” Marxism and feminism, each complementing the other and each focusing on a different structure of oppression. According to this viewpoint, where Marxism focuses on the economic laws of development, feminism examines relations between men and women; Marxism analyses and explains capital, and feminism does the same for patriarchy. For Hartmann and others adopting this approach, women’s oppression cannot be reduced to a by-product of class oppression.
   Vogel and Dalla Costa are examples of a Marxist feminism that endeavors to apply Marxist analytical tools and concepts to areas relating to women that have previously been ignored. For example, the role of domestic labor, largely performed by women, in the process of the production of surplus value is highlighted by this strand of Marxist feminism along with the way in which the family is functional for capitalism with women serving to reproduce labor by meeting the needs of their husbands and producing and rearing children. Mitchell and Barrett represent revisionists who look to modify Marxism where it fails to provide an adequate account of women’s oppression. For example, Mitchell draws on developments in Freudian psychoanalysis, and both Mitchell and Barrett pinpoint the realm of ideology as a key sphere in which women’s oppression is constructed and reproduced. From this viewpoint the focus of attention is turned away from relations of economic appropriation and exploitation and more toward the previously neglected area of ideology, although the basic historical and materialist approach of Marxism is retained.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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