Feminism as Part of Socialism

When properly understood, feminism is a natural part of socialism. As feminism is the movement to secure economic, political, and social equality for women, and socialism is the only movement that can deliver such equality to all people, we find socialist insights throughout feminism.

The most obvious example of this is the crucial socialist understanding that people must own and regulate their means of production; when applied to women, this gives us the concept of reproductive rights. For a woman, the means of production must include her own reproductive organs, as she cannot control the value and conditions of her labor without, in addition to controlling her workplace, controlling the number of children who depend upon that labor – in other words, control of the means of reproduction. Many socialist activists have been reproductive rights activists in service of this truth. For example, as far back as the 1800s we see that a group of utopian socialists were some of the first activists in the United States to publically challenge the forbidding of birth control.1 Margaret Sanger, best known for her birth control activism in the early 1900s, was a socialist during this time, and many lesser-known socialist activists of the time worked their entire lives for greater access to birth control, with many of them focusing their activism on working-class women in the knowledge that women could never rise from poverty without control of their fertility.2 Socialist feminism of the 1970s went still further, advocating not only for birth control but for abortion rights and unforced sterilization. The groundbreaking piece “Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement” (1972), which is believed to be the first publication to use the term “socialist feminism”, noted that part of the “things we envision in the new order, part of everyday life for all people” must include “peoples’ control over their own bodies–i.e., access to safe, free birth control, abortion, sterilization, free from coercion or social stigma.”3 The piece added that “encouraging talented women to enter the labor force [as contraception and abortion availability does] helps employers and strengthens capitalism but at the same time gives women an opportunity to come together physically and unionize as a collective force for change. Other women, seeing this, will raise their expectations and demands on the system for a larger share than it can offer all.”3

Another socialist insight found throughout feminism is the realization that only the working class can, through revolution, create equality for all, as such equality cannot effectively be imposed from the top down, however well-meaning some of those at the top may be. When applied to women, this shows us the falsity of benevolent sexism, which is the belief that women need to be controlled by men for their own good. A socialist worldview rightly rejects the notion that any group can be liberated by those in charge of them remaining in charge and simply attempting to rule with a benevolent hand. This worldview is reflected in the many socialist suffragists who rejected both the rule of capitalists over workers and the rule of men over women – Annie Besant, Margaret Cole, Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska, Jeanne Deroin, and Crystal Eastman are but a few of many. It is also shown in socialist support for reproductive rights, which as previously mentioned above both increases female freedom from male domination and worker freedom from capitalism.3

Similarly, the strong focus of socialism upon the working class and economic oppression, while still acknowledging other forms of oppression, shows us that different movements are necessary to fight different forms of oppression. We can use this socialist understanding to fight the sexist idea that a movement solely focused upon fighting sexism (that is, feminism) is wrong because it does not address other forms of oppression. Socialism shows us that all forms of oppression require their own movements, led by those oppressed (in the case of economic oppression this is the working class, and in the case of sexism this is women.)

Lastly, socialism brings us the knowledge that while different groups within the working class (for example, Black and queer people) have their unique oppressions and struggles they must separately fight, they can and must unite in fighting for socialism. Similarly, while different groups of women have their own oppressions and struggles that must be fought in separate movements (for example, queer women fighting in the queer liberation movement) women can and must unite in fighting for feminism. The unity of different groups fighting a form of exploitation that affects them all is shown in individual events such as queer pride parades (attended by queer people representing many groups, including socialist groups) and women’s marches (again, attended by women from many groups, including socialist groups). It is also shown in long-running campaigns such as the campaign to advance socialism itself, which involves people of all genders, races, sexual orientations, etc., and is led by the working class although open to people of all classes.4

So we can see clearly that socialism and feminism depend upon each other; it is impossible to be a true feminist without being a socialist, and impossible to be a true socialist without being a feminist.

References:

  1. Takeuchi-Demirci, Aiko. Contraceptive Diplomacy: Reproductive Politics and Imperial Ambitions in the United States and Japan. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018.
  2. Smith, Sharon. Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.
  3. Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement”, by the Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Heather Booth, Day Creamer, Susan Davis, Deb Dobbin, Robin Kaufman, and Tobey Klass, 1972.
  4. Socialism As Radical Democracy, Statement of Principles of the Socialist Party USA,” Socialist Party USA, 2018.

*For more women’s voices, be on the look out for The International Women’s Day edition of ‘The Socialist,’ which will be published March 8*

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Lisa Petriello

is a feminist democratic socialist writer and activist from the East Coast.

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