Materialist feminism: Marxist feminism
Marxist feminists were among the first to try systematically to determine the nature of women’s class position (see for example, Benston, 1969). The way in which women combined Marxism and feminism varied. Apart from Marxist feminism, sometimes it was called socialist feminism or materialist feminism. Although these were largely different labels for the same kind of approach, there were slight distinctions. Materialist feminism can operate as an umbrella term for these types of feminism, however it signalled the adaptation of Marx’s methods rather than simple adoption of Marx’s ideas as in Marxist feminism (Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997). Socialist feminism was perhaps also an adaptation, but especially described the more politically active aspects of materialist feminism rather than the theoretical approach (Beasley, 1999; Jackson, 1998b).
All the types of materialist feminism emerged out of engagement with Marx’s historical materialism, but of particular importance to feminists was his claim that the point was not only to understand the world but to change it (Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997: 4). Historical materialism looks at how people produce what they need to survive; how they meet their material needs. It is particularly interested in how systems of production change, so for example Marx was looking at how a feudal system of production was being replaced by a capitalist one by the nineteenth century. Capitalism, according to historical materialism, is an economic system governed by those who control or own the means of production (the machinery, premises and so on used in making things). Different groups of people participate in making what we need, but the profits are not shared equally. Workers do not get their full share of the wealth that comes from selling what they have worked to produce. The argument is that without the labour of workers nothing could be made, no services provided, but the owners/employers (capitalists) accumulate fortunes for themselves by keeping most of the profit. Marx argues that profit is made from exploiting (mainly underpaying) the labour power of workers. The capitalists have achieved their wealth only because of that exploitation. This argument goes against some of the dominant ideas still heard — stories about business tycoons who have succeeded through their own hard work. Historical materialism suggests that such arguments are part of the dominant ideologies (justifying sets of ideas) that legitimate capitalism. Materialist feminists sought to adopt or adapt these ideas about historical materialism to explain and overcome ‘women’s oppression’.
Noting the gender-blindness of Marxist concepts, feminists also drew on postmodernism and psychoanalysis — especially the visions of meaning and subjectivity these knowledges offered (Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997: 7) — in order to forge new approaches to class. Although a little simplistic, it might help to categorize three different ways in which materialist feminists saw the intersection between capitalism and patriarchy:
1 Women’s oppression is a side-effect of capitalism and would disappear in a socialist revolution.
2 Capitalism and patriarchy are dual-systems that reinforce one another.
3 The inequalities to which women are subject are best understood as the effects of capitalist patriarchy as one unified system. (Adapted from Hennessey and Ingraham, 1997.)
From this emerged what are known sometimes as the domestic labour debates (for an excellent account see Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard 1992: 51—7), which became increasingly difficult arguments disputing whether women’s unpaid labour benefited capitalism or patriarchy.