This article is part of an ongoing series on Marxism and the struggle against oppression:
- Women’s Emancipation: From Marx and Engels to the Russian Revolution 
- The Capitalist Crisis and the Fight Against Oppression 
For many radicalized youth today, feminism simply means supporting equality for everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, the color of their skin, ethnicity, religion, or any other subdivision of humanity. Since Marxists also support equality, does this mean Marxism and feminism are the same thing?
Marxists fight to achieve maximum equality and democratic rights, even within the narrow limits of bourgeois legality and property relations. But we do so, not as an end in itself, but as a means to further the workers’ struggle for socialism. We understand that even in the best of times, equality under capitalism is truncated and enjoyed only by a wealthy minority. To achieve genuine equality—what Lenin called “equality in life”—we must go beyond capitalism and end classes to begin unleashing our individual and collective potential.
The word “feminism” first entered usage in the US in 1910, but its origins can be traced to earlier efforts to fight the oppression of women by achieving equality within a bourgeois legal framework. In fact, feminism emerged as a distinctly and explicitly reformist political ideology in conscious opposition to the revolutionary socialist currents active in the same era.
For example, during the struggle for women’s suffrage there was a socialist and working class wing: the Wage Earners Suffrage League. Many of its members participated in massive strike movements, and its leaders were socialists like Rose Schneiderman—who coined the phrase “bread and roses too!” Other prominent figures included Pauline Newman and Clara Lemlich, who at seventeen played a key role in the “Uprising of the 20,000,” a strike of immigrant women shirtwaist workers in New York’s garment industry in 1909.
At the same time, a powerful working women’s movement fought for legal rights as part of the struggle for workers’ rights generally. The Women’s Trade Union League played a key role in organizing women workers into unions and leading them in huge strikes. The revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World played an important role in the strike movement of the most oppressed sections of American labor, women in particular. From their ranks emerged countless proletarian women agitators, like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—Joe Hill’s “Rebel Girl”—Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, Helen Keller, and many others.
The history of feminism in the US is generally divided into three or four main phases or waves. The first wave is typically said to cover the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and focused primarily on the acquisition of equal contract, legal, and, above all, property rights and women’s suffrage, although some also fought for sexual and reproductive rights. Those at the forefront of this movement were overwhelmingly from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois backgrounds.
The second wave, from the early 1960s to the 1980s, shifted its focus to social issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, divorce and child custody laws, domestic violence, marital rape, workplace inequality, objectification, and harassment. It is worth mentioning that despite the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the late 1970s, legal equality between the sexes has been established through various laws and judicial precedents, although economic and social equality remains far from being realized.Third-wave feminism, beginning roughly in the early 1990s and continuing to the present, includes many varying and often widely divergent schools of thought. Most of its focus has been on issues such as queer theory, the challenges facing non-white and immigrant women, intersectionality, the inclusion of race and class as different forms of oppression suffered by women, gender role stereotypes and expectations, pornography, sex work, and prostitution.
Concurrent with the third wave, a fourth has been proposed by some feminists who believe that the potential of social media and technology for awareness-raising marks a new wave, with a focus on the daily experience of sexism, gender and personal pronouns, combating body-shaming, street harassment, rape culture, and online misogyny, supporting transgender individuals, encouraging male feminism, and a pro-sex stance that rejects the alleged anti-pleasure views of many feminists in earlier waves. In the absence of mass workers’ struggles, the most recent waves are characterized by a retreat towards an individualist, postmodernist, and idealist approach, limited to changing people’s views rather than changing material conditions, and have become quite prevalent in academic circles.
The material basis for the first two waves
Broadly speaking, we can point to the social and economic conditions that gave rise to each of the main feminist waves. The first wave coincided with the rise and decay of the mass social democratic parties, the tumult of World War I, the earthshaking impact of the Russian Revolution, the interwar period of prosperity, followed by economic catastrophe and pre-revolutionary class struggle, a second world war, and the postwar economic upswing.
This period provides an important example of how the ruling class can at times modify its approach to different layers of society depending on its interests at any given time. After World War II, the US had to demobilize the bulk of its 12-million-strong military. The economy needed to absorb these former soldiers, or it would return to the mass unemployment and social unrest of the 1930s. To make room for the returning veterans, the 2.2 million women who had entered wartime industries during the war had to be driven back into the home.
In this context, the emphasis on the stifling “nuclear family,” with its wife/mother and children at home, best reflected the interests of the capitalist class. This was a complete reversal from its earlier use of propaganda such as “Rosie the Riveter,” which encouraged women to work for low wages to support the war effort. However, having won greater economic, personal, and sexual independence, many women were resentful and resistant, and despite the television-idealized norm, things never went back to “how they used to be” before the war.
The US was the world’s most powerful creditor nation and had not been damaged directly by the war. Given the destruction in Europe and Asia, it was in an enviable economic position. The concentration of industry, mobilization of labor, and technologies developed during the war allowed for far greater productivity—and profits. The capitalists could afford to dole out a few more crumbs than usual to the workers, especially in the face of the biggest strike wave in US history, from 1946 to 1947. Due to strong unions and the postwar boom, wages tended to be higher, and a single wage-earner (usually male) was able to support an entire family in many industries.
A significant section of working class women have always been wage earners. However, the number rose dramatically from the 1960s onward, from 23 million (38% of women) in 1960, to 46 million (52%) in 1980. The development of industry in the postwar period created a greater demand for labor, and increasing numbers of women entered the job market. However, they were subject to different conditions than their male counterparts and paid lower wages. By the 1970s and 1980s, what was originally a supplementary income for working class families became indispensable for the household, as real wages began to fall.
This provided an impetus for struggle against discrimination and sexual harassment. On the one hand, it removed women from confinement in the home and brought them into the workplace. On the other, increasing dependence on this income meant that women had no choice but to struggle against both low wages and sexual harassment.
Concurrent with these shifts in the economic infrastructure came changes in social attitudes and norms, including the crisis of the nuclear family and a revival of women’s struggle, which took the form of a second wave of feminism. Women pushed back against the male-dominated family, sexual harassment at the workplace, and the moralistic hypocrisy of organized religion and the capitalists, as well as fighting for gay and abortion rights and access to birth control.
While social conservatives reacted defensively against these changes and used it to turn workers against each other, the capitalist economy as a whole benefited from the influx of women into the labor force. Drawing women out of the home and into broader social and economic life is undoubtedly a historically progressive development. Under socialism, the workweek will be dramatically reduced and everyone will have myriad lifelong opportunities to contribute to society’s collective wealth and well-being. But under capitalism, more workers in the workplace ultimately means more profits for the capitalists.
This is why the vast majority of the capitalist class has long supported the concession of formal equal rights for women—which for them boils down to the right to exploit more workers. As an example, in addition to most of the Democratic Party, President Ford and many other Republicans supported the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s.
Today, it is normal for millions of women to sell their labor power for a wage, yet purchasing power per capita for all workers has decreased steadily since the mid-1970s. And while there are laws against discrimination against women in the workplace, these are more real on paper than in practice. Women are still disproportionately concentrated in low-wage, low-skill, precarious jobs. Women still earn just 80% or less of what their male counterparts earn on average, while the gender gap percentage for black and Latina women is even worse, at 64% and 54% respectively.
Conditions and consciousness
The first two waves of feminism arose during conditions of social tumult and mass movements of the workers, students, and youth. The first wave coincided with a mass upsurge of labor and the second with the anti-Vietnam War, New Left, Black Power, Gay Rights, Native American, Boricua, and other identity-based movements. Although certain gains were made, none of these movements were able to unite the working class as a whole or transcend capitalism with a revolutionary socialist program, and they eventually entered into decline. These ultimately atomized movements emerged due to the passive approach of the reformist leadership of the labor movement, and also, in part, as a reaction to the crude “Marxism” of the Stalinists—which was in reality an anti-Marxist, oppressive, chauvinistic revival of the worst of bourgeois society.
Women made certain limited but concrete gains during the first two waves of mass struggle, including the right to vote and de facto legal equality. But the third and fourth waves of feminism coincided precisely with a low ebb in the class struggle, the collapse of Stalinism, the alleged “end of history,” and the steep decline of organized labor. The 1990s and 2000s saw virtually no mass movements, strikes, or inspiring victories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bulk of the left was disoriented, had no confidence in the working class, and the forces of revolutionary Marxism were yet again cut off from the masses and reduced to a tiny handful.
These defeats led to an unprecedented ideological offensive by the bourgeoisie against socialism and Marxism, and the subsequent degeneration of the “Left.” At the same time, the material conditions for socialism have matured to the point of bursting. The objective potential for the flourishing of the individual is hemmed in by the outmoded limitations of capitalism. The pressure of bourgeois ideas on the movement was expressed in a flood of individualist, postmodernist, poststructuralist, relativist, and other neo-Kantian worldviews. Combined with the mechanical formalism of American pragmatism, this has led to extreme ideological eclecticism, particularly among the intelligentsia.
Although the shock of the economic crisis and the first stirrings of mass movements questioning capitalism’s right to rule have begun to cut across this ideological trend, the feminist theory taught in the universities today springs from and remains imbued with this individualistic and pessimistic outlook. Ideas do not exist independently of the people who think them. Directly and indirectly, they ultimately reflect the interests of different classes, strata and sub-strata in society, and can find different expressions according to changes in the objective situation. They also develop on the basis of the ideas, legislation, experiences, and conditions that preceded them.
When one traces the origins of feminism as a distinct strand of thought, it can be seen that these ideas arose from and primarily reflected the conditions and outlook of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women. This is not to say that countless working class and poor women with sincere aspirations for genuine equality have not participated in these movements. But the leadership, aims, program, and methods have been defined by the interests of a small handful of women, many of whom were happy to reach an accommodation with capitalism as long as they could carve out a niche for themselves. Many have even been willing to turn a blind eye to the system’s exploitation and sexism, as long as they themselves were not affected by it too directly.
When Marxists characterize certain ideas as having “bourgeois” or “petty-bourgeois” roots, it is not intended as an insult, nor is it a substitute for systematically answering any set of ideas. But scientific socialism demands clarity and precision, and the class origin of any ideology is of fundamental importance. Just as we must be clear about concepts such as “self-determination,” “imperialism,” “fascism,” or “state capitalism,” we must be clear on the precise nature of identity politics and the counterproductive role that it plays, irrespective of the good intentions of many of its advocates. We cannot make the slightest principled concession to ideas that reflect alien class interests.
Ideological struggle and class struggle
The fight for equality—not only in theory, but in practice—is an integral part of Marxism. But we understand that achieving it will require serious education, organization, struggle, and sacrifice. As Lenin explained in 1919, railing against the hypocrisy of the liberals, the fight for genuine equality is not at all abstract:
Down with this fraud! Down with the liars who are talking of freedom and equality for all, while there is an oppressed sex, while there are oppressor classes, while there is private ownership of capital, of shares, while there are the well-fed with their surplus of bread who keep the hungry in bondage. Not freedom for all, not equality for all, but a fight against the oppressors and exploiters, the abolition of every possibility of oppression and exploitation—that is our slogan!
The history of Marxism is a history of sharp ideological struggle against the influence of alien class ideas in the workers’ movement: from Proudhon to Bakunin, the Narodniks, Economists, Mensheviks, Stalinists, Maoists, the New Left, libertarianism, and more. If we are to succeed in uniting the working class into a political tool that can end capitalism, we must say what is and what isn’t, separate the essential from the secondary, present our ideas in the language of scientific socialism, and maintain political clarity and class independence at all times.
Only working class unity can defeat the capitalists and lay the basis for ending oppression. Of course, class unity cannot simply be declared, it must be nurtured and forged in the course of common struggle against those who exploit and oppress us all. However, fighting for maximum workers’ unity is the indispensable starting point for any serious effort to transform society. We can make no compromises on this and must ideologically combat all tendencies that ignore or minimize the centrality of class independence and struggle in their analysis and activity. An atomized, divided, and thereby weakened working class only benefits the capitalists.