Socialism and the Feminist Movement

The following article was originally presented as a reading for the Geelong Feminist Discussion Group. It introduces a basic history of the intersections of various tendencies of socialism and feminism.

Until recent history we do not find much specific writing dealing with the status of women in relation to men. But with the rise of capitalism, inequality between the genders reached new heights. However capitalism also brought with it the beginnings of liberal ideas. Writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill began to address the treatment of women in texts like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and The Subjection of Women (1869) respectively.

But the ideals of liberalism about individual rights and the flourishing of the human spirit did not match capitalist reality. For workers, the poor, women, slaves and the colonised peoples, capitalism and liberalism didn’t live up to the promise of freedom. Instead it usually meant exploitation, starvation and oppression. 

Liberalism failed in challenging the negative effects of capitalism. In response, people developed a new vision of society, socialism. In the early stages of the socialist movement, so called ‘utopian’ socialists came up with schemes for how a new, far more equal society rid of exploitation could be organised. But they did not know how to implement these dreams. Many of their ideas were based on forming idyllic communities or ‘benevolent’ dictatorships

These ideas did not work. Socialism requires a revolution be made by the struggle of the mass of people. It seems obvious today, but social movements also need women’s participation. Early socialist theory did not really address women’s experiences under capitalism or their role in the future socialist society. In fact, some early socialist theorists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had very backwards ideas about the place of women, despite having revolutionary ideas about other parts of society.

However, not all were blind to the emancipation of women. Proudhons sexism, for example, was challenged by Andre Leo, Joseph Dejacque (who coined the word ‘libertarian’) and other socialists at the time. In 1843 the French-Peruvian Socialist-Feminist, Flora Tristan, coined the famous phrase “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.” She tied together women’s emancipation and the liberation of the working class. The phrase quoted above would later become popularly associated with Karl Marx, after it was adopted as a motto of the socialist First International.

The First International was an organisation representing the socialist groups and labour unions as they developed around the world. It lasted from 1864 until 1872. One of the high points of working class history during this period was the Paris Commune, where anarchist-feminist Louise Michel was a leading figure. She was also the first woman known to wear mens pants!

The First International eventually collapsed after disputes between the two major factions – the Marxists and the Anarchists. Although both tendencies are socialist, their differences in strategy created significant divides. While both tendencies in the International paid lip service to the emancipation of women, neither really worked to encourage the mass participation of women. Anarchists wrote more radical demands around the rights of women into their programmes (given the influence of early anarchist-feminists Virgine Barbet and Marie Richard), while Marxists developed more serious critiques of how capitalism created the family and exploitation of women.

After the First International, the two tendencies went their separate ways. Often they would fight alongside each other in the labour movement. Within each tendency there are sometimes ideas that cross over (after all they are both socialist), and collaboration is possible. 

During the late 1800s, many women played important roles in the labour and socialist movements. In America, Lucy Parsons was a pivotal figure. After liberation from slavery, she was married to Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket Martyrs. She was a founding figure in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical trade union with branches as far abroad as Australia and South Africa. Another infamous anarchist-feminist who had a massive impact on the American labour movement was Voltarine de Cleyre

In Germany, a Marxist named August Bebel released a book called Women and Socialism (1879), one of the first texts addressing the role of women in the socialist movement. Not long after, Clara Zetkin began editing Equality, one of the most important socialist journals of the period. One of her best friends, Rosa Luxemburg would become a leading figure in the German socialist movement. Luxemburg wrote prolifically, particularly on economics, where she made one of the first Marxist analyses of Imperialism. Luxemburg also helped found the German Communist Party. During the failed German revolution in 1918, she was murdered alongside Karl Liebnechkt, another leading Communist, by troops from the Social Democratic Party

Meanwhile in China, the anarchist-feminist, He-Yin Zhen developed a unique theory of patriarchy based on the early division of labour. He-Yin argued that the divisions between the genders were socially and historically produced, rather than founded on any biological distinction. This led her, as early as the start of the 1900s, to a position that essentially argued for the abolition of gender. She also founded the journal Natural Justice, which was responsible for introducing anarchist, Marxist and feminist ideas to China.

In 1896, in Argentina, anarchist-communist and feminist women founded the journal “La Voz de la Mujer”. The paper’s radical politics argued that the struggle against patriarchy was one part of a wider struggle against capitalism and domination, summed up best by the slogan “no god, no boss, no husband.”. Its editor Virginia Bolten also edited the first union newspaper in the country (for the infamous Baker’s Union). 

In the United Kingdom, the Suffragette movement made history with its campaign to win women the vote. The movement itself was often split over how far to go with its demands. Rich women usually only made demands centered around voting rights. Whereas working class women had an issue with this lack of vision, and thought the movement should also demand more social reforms to help poor women. No family represented these divisions more than the Pankhursts. Sophia Goulden had helped found the Women’s Franchise Movement. Her three daughters (taking the Pankhurst name), Emmiline, Christabel and Sylvia were all prominent figures. Sylvia was the most radical of all. She helped found a Communist party (there were several founded in Britain at the same time), and ran a popular newspaper “The Workers Dreadnought.” During the peak of her involvement as a Communist she even clashed with the leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin.  Later in life Sylvia became heavily involved in anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. She defended Ethiopian freedom when the country was colonised by fascist Italy and lived there for much of her life.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution began on what we now know as International (Working) Women’s Day. A demonstration by working class women demanding bread is said to have triggered the overthrow of the Czar. In October, when the revolution was won, women activists like Alexandra Kollontai, Insessa Armand and Nadia Krupskaya played important roles in the new Bolshevik government. Kollontai helped set up new forms of collective childcare and women’s unions. All of these made huge improvements for working-class and peasant women in Russia.

Anarchists supported the Russian Revolution and sometimes even the Bolshevik government during the revolutions’ early days. But as the civil war raged on and the Bolshevik government found itself isolated in the world, they stopped tolerating dissidence. The revolution began to degenerate, as many of the ideals fought for fell by the wayside. Anarchists often became the first revolutionaries to die defending the original gains of the revolution. Women like Fanya Baron and Maria Nikoforova were tortured and murdered by the state. 

The international reaction to the revolution saw radical activists around the world deported by their governments (who were scared of Communist revolution) and sent to Russia. “The most dangerous woman in America”, Emma Goldman, was one of those deported from the USA. Goldman was famous for her agitation in the labour movement, her passionate defence of free speech and abortion rights. She was also one of the first public advocates for the rights of same-sex relationships. 

In the 1930s, Goldman became an international spokesperson for the anarchist movement during the Spanish Revolution. Much like in Russia, the revolutionary movement challenged the traditional roles assigned to women and their supposed position in society. Unlike in Russia, the anarchist women’s movement had already built a mass movement of women before the revolution. The organisation “Mujeres Libres” (Free Women) organised women’s education, ran health clinics, brought women into industry, organised apprenticeships, and challenged sexism within the broader anarchist movement. During the revolution, many women fought as equals in the workers’ militias. Unfortunately the revolution collapsed under the weight of the civil war and the political mistakes made by all the revolutionaries, anarchists and Marxist alike.

The 1930s and Spanish Civil War marked the end of the high tide of worker revolutions. During the period of anti-colonial revolutions (post World War II) socialist women played leading roles. Anuradha Ghandy for example, wrote important critiques of the caste system in India. During the Cuban revolution, women like Haydee Santamaria and Celia Sanchez were prominent leaders. In Nicaragua, socailist-feminists fought as part of the Sandinista movement. Leila Kahled was a figurehead of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and women’s issues were a central focus of the socialist movement in Burkina Faso.

There have been so many mass movements and struggles across the world since the 1930’s that it would take volumes to cover them all. What is important is that socialist ideas and organisations continue to play a leading role in the struggle for a better world. Capitalism cannot overcome its contradictions and the problems it creates for the majority of people.

Feminist struggle is still as much a part of the fight for liberation as it was when Flora Tristan first combined socialist and feminist ideas in the 1800s. So it should be no surprise that socialist and anarchist women have been at the forefront of many social struggles. Movements like the “Wages Against Housework” campaign have redefined feminist analysis. Wages Against Housework developed from Italian ‘autonomist’ Marxism. Autonomist theorists and activists like Selma James, Maria Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici contributed to more recent understandings of the way women are exploited by capitalism and patriarchy.

Similarly, the socialist Combahee River Collective developed the theory of ‘intersectionality’ to articulate the multiple oppressions they faced as black working class women. Recently, the ideas of intersectionality have largely been co-opted by liberal capitalism. Both Marxists and anarchists critique the way the concept has been employed to the advantage of governments, corporations and capitalism more generally.

In the most contemporary examples, women have played leading roles in the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico, and in the struggle for Kurdish autonomy in the Middle East. The Kurds have set up a women-only milita, and their mass feminist organisations practice “Jineoloji,” the study of the oppression of women. In parts of South America, a new wave of feminist struggle has emerged in the last few years. Socialist women are often at the forefront of these struggles and tie them to the broader issues of capitalism and imperialism.

Before concluding, its worth looking at socialist-feminist struggle in Australia. Zelda D’Aprano is one of Australia’s most infamous Communists and feminists. She grew up working in factories in Melbourne, later becoming an organiser for the Meat Workers Union. D’Aprano was heavily involved in the legal struggle to win equal pay for women which failed in 1969. In response, she famously chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth building, starting a broader movement which won the legal right to equal pay.

Another notable campaign led by socialists and feminists in Australia was the Jobs For Women campaign at BHP in Wollongong during the 1980s. The film Women of Steel documents the over-a-decade-long struggle of working class and migrant women in Wollongong fighting for equal employment at BHP. 

Feminist activists, including the anarchist Bessie Guthrie played key roles in establishing the first womens shelter in Australia. In 1974 activists took over several empty homes in Glebe, Sydney, and established ‘Elsie.’ By the next year, they had managed to win state support for 11 more shelters to be established around the country. 

These are just a few of the examples of contributions socialist women have made to the struggle for emancipation in Australia.

From the beginning of the socialist movement, feminists have added depth to the analysis of the ways capitalism exploits and oppresses the majority of the world’s population. However there have been big disagreements about tactics and strategies in socialist-feminist theory. The big divides have often revolved around two issues. The first is the matter of social reforms. While the Suffragettes fought for women to gain the vote, some radicals like Emma Goldman dismissed the value of winning it in the first place. She thought it would chain women to the state and capitalism, rather than fighting for socialism, which to her meant real liberation. Others thought that winning reforms were steps along the path to socialist revolution. The other key question is how central patriarchal oppression is to the functioning of capitalism and the strategic consequences that flow from the answer.

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