Life under capitalism is alienating. One of the basic ideas in Marxist thought is that labor makes us human. Under capitalism, someone else pays you slave wages in money (aka paper), so you can barely afford to buy the commodities you need to survive. Then, you are supposed to be grateful to have that opportunity. If you don’t have this exploitative relationship that costs you all your time, love, and life, you will die. Getting down to it, that’s the reality of what people’s economic lives are like under capitalism. But, that’s just where it starts.
The only social identity this picture takes into account is the individual as a worker. There are also identities like race and gender that are just as powerful and influential in people’s everyday experiences. Womyn, however, stare down way more complicated layers of exploitation and oppression. Lived experience is a powerful thing; womyn regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or nationality, experience oppression that is specific and distinct. White, upper-class womyn in the United States who experience race and class privilege still encounter sexist oppression under the capitalist and patriarchal system. Womyn from the “developing” world and womyn of color who are from working or lower classes may have divergent experiences with daily struggle, but nonetheless experience an oppression specific to gender.
But wait. Womyn are a heterogeneous group that experiences gender-specific types of oppression. Does this fact make them a distinct class, or a subclass within the proletariat or bourgeoisie? In order to liberate themselves from the patriarchy that envelopes capitalism, womyn must develop a unique class consciousness.
What are the origins of this type of sister solidarity? Is it capitalism, or is it something bigger? With the onslaught of capitalism came a novel experience for western womyn. A chance arose to escape the tyranny of the private sphere to the public one, and to get a job outside of the home. Even before the bourgeois took over from feudalism, womyn were relegated to the home; the concept of a “woman’s work” is not a novel idea that the capitalists made up. Woman’s work refers to the domestic and nurturing duties undertaken by womyn, including bearing and rearing of children.
Heidi Hartmann in her essay, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union,” unpacks a sexual division of labor (or the “gendered division of labor”). “The sexual division of labor is also the underpinning of sexual subcultures in which men and women experience life differently; it is the material base of male power which is exercised (in our society) not just in doing housework and in securing superior employment, but psychologically as well. The gendered division of labor under capitalism retained the social order that thrived since the origins of the family unit. This is the “first society,” in which the man presided over the family, exiting to the public sphere to earn the “family wage,” one sufficient to raise a family.
Hartmann’s perspective typifies the Second Wave Feminism popular in the 1960s and 70s. It expanded the First Wave Feminist concerns centering on suffrage to debates on sexuality, the workplace, family, and reproductive rights. Second Wave Feminism did a lot to circulate womyn’s liberation into popular culture, but did it achieve womyn’s liberation? As we sit here in 2015, it’s safe to say, “No, it did not.” Womyn are still being paid on average 78 cents to the man’s dollar. There is no mandatory maternity leave or sufficient health care in the United States. On average, one in four womyn will be sexually assaulted. So, no. Womyn’s liberation has not yet been achieved.
Can socialism have an effect on womyn’s liberation? It cannot on its own, because it is rooted primarily in a materialist paradigm. Although it correctly focuses on economic inequalities and the oppression faced by the working class, it needs something more. The materialist perspective can be enhanced by the consideration of aspects of culture, which are drivers of change that accompany or enhance political movements. Art and music often get folks interested and involved, and galvanize political movements, providing a kickass soundtrack to the revolution. Socialism is the opposition to capitalism and its dominant culture; punk rock too provides a critique of the prevailing culture. Capitalism, its governance, militarism, superfluous excess, and failure of the hippie generation (often the parents of the first generation of punk rockers) are targets for punk. Patriarchy, as the omnipresent framework from which capitalism and popular culture spring, ought to be confronted with ferocity through punk.
Punk rock and socialism have something else in common, and it’s not just that Lenin looks great in a studded leather jacket. Both are anti-capitalist movements dominated by men. Punk rock (rock music in general) and socialism are primarily been boys’ clubs due to the persistence of their patriarchy. A pervasive feminist critique of Marxism is that a singular focus on class obstructs other identities, which is problematic. This materialized into a class consciousness of sorts. Feminist punk rock movements have become more intentional about creating safe spaces for womyn to exist, create, and dance. These include the famous “Grrrls to the Front” ideology of Kathleen Hanna, singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Because traditionally, punk scenes have been dominated by guys, womyn have had to create their own space. So too with socialism. The Socialist Party-USA’s Women’s Commission has created a similar space for womyn to organize and intentionally construct a sister solidarity that allows a “grrrls to the front” mentality.
Womyn have always been in punk, since its inception in the 1970s. The Slits and X-Ray Spex were instrumental in the development of the London punk scene made famous by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Poly Styrene, singer of X-Ray Spex, is best remembered for the intro to “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” In it she says through shit-eating brace-face smile, “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think Oh bondage! Up yours!” Because sexism and racism have been pervasive within society, the fact that only one or two bands have been successful, brash and fierce within the male-dominated scene shows that they are the exception, not yet the rule. It is in this way, the rebuttal, “What about Debbie Harry or Poly Styrene?” echoes the “What about Barack Obama and Oprah? See, racism is over,” trap.
Currently, people around the world are celebrating the Riot Grrrl Movement, due to the 20th anniversary of the movement’s famous “Manifesto.” Riot Grrrl of the 1990s was the first of its kind because it called for a “Grrrl Revolution” in a totally female-led movement. The Riot Grrrl zine’s Manifesto warned of a new spectre haunting punk, “an angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the physical and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.” The bands of Riot Grrrl were all or mostly comprised of womyn who sang about stuff in womyn’s lived experience. These include sexual assault, not being taken seriously, the gender division of labor, confronting gender roles, boys, alienation, and break ups. Pushing punk further created a more confrontational and demanding “Third Wave Feminism.” It more strongly challenged patriarchy, making not just the personal, but the punk, political for womyn.
When I was in seventh grade, I went to the very un-punk Virgin Megastore in downtown Denver and bought a record that I’d read about in an issue of now-defunct Punk Planet magazine. It was The Donnas American Teenage Rock n Roll Machine. That shit changed my life. But really, when my mother brought me to see The Donnas play at The Bluebird Theater, that shit really changed my life. My mom let me go into the pit all by myself, and I was so nervous. I was a tiny baby at this venue; with its lights, the stage, the drum kit, the anticipation of my favorite band coming out and all the grown-ups around me. I was trying so hard not to look scared and was not doing such a good job. The woman next to me noticed and told me not to look so nervous. She was a feminist!
I found that out later, because right before the band came out, she handed me a zine that was made from copies on computer paper, folded in half like a book. From it, I learned that pads and tampons were wasteful and subscribed to oppressive gender roles. I discovered that in order to not be wasteful or give money to fucked-up corporations like Tampax, womyn should instead use sea sponges for their periods. I mean … WHAT! My first radical literature, handed to be by a grown-up, at a punk show! That night inextricably changed my life. From there, I discovered bands that still mean the world to me, made friends, learned about feminism, and then found socialism. It was through the class consciousness developed through the community of punk rock that I found socialism.