Clara Fraser 1978

Socialist Feminism: Where the Battle of the Sexes Resolves Itself

Written: Co-authored with Susan Williams, M.D. and first published as an International Discussion Bulletin for the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party.
First Published: 1978
Source: Fraser, C. (1998). "Socialist Feminism: Where the Battle of the Sexes Resolves Itself." In Revolution, She Wrote (pp 86-96). Seattle, WA: Red Letter Press.
Transcription/Markup: Philip Davis and Glenn Kirkindall
Copyleft: Internet Archive ( 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

How many radical scholars recall that Marx ends The Poverty of Philosophy with these ringing words: "...the last word of social science will always be: 'Combat or death: bloody struggle or extinction. It is thus that the question is inexorably put.'" And the author is? Madame George Sand, no less, feminist extraordinaire.

Feminism, the struggle for women's equal rights, is always a powder keg of the class struggle.

As both an ideology and a living mass movement, feminism has always arisen from and flourished in concert with the general movement for radical social change. And the social philosophy of feminism was first formulated by radicals.

The first ardent spokeswomen for their sex in the Western world, geniuses like Mary Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony, were political revolutionaries who probed deeply into the close theoretical and practical ties between sex oppression and the exploitation of labor. All the great, early, feminist theorists and practitioners were eloquent tribunes or staunch supporters of the working class, and courageous fighters for socialism.

From its inception, feminism was a passionate cry for total, fundamental, revolutionary social change, and a demand for justice for all the underprivileged.

Woman and socialism

Socialists inherit a long and proud tradition as exponents of the emancipation of women.

The greatest revolutionaries and advanced thinkers have always been acutely sensitive to wrongs inflicted on the most oppressed sectors of society, and the great Marxists of the 19th century helped to pioneer in dangerous territory when they took up the cudgel for the liberation of the second sex.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the anarchists boasted scores of brilliant women leaders - speakers, writers, organizers and labor activists (including Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rose Pesotta, and many more). Thousands of women flocked to the Communist Party, and no account of the social history of the 1920s and 1930s is complete without the documentation of their enormous contribution to labor, socialism, and the radical-cultural scene of literature, theatre, and art.

Throughout the late 1940s and the '50s, when women were herded back to kinder, kirche and küche, the woman question was kept alive by a handful of Trotskyist women in the SWP, many of whom are today in the leadership of the radical pole of the women's movement (and obviously out of the SWP!). These are the women who coined the term "socialist feminism" to distinguish their advanced politics from single-issue, civil rights feminism, and from the anticommunist sector of the "radical feminists." And these are the women who sparked not only revolutionary feminism but contemporary revolutionary socialism as well.

Revolutionary feminism

We proudly call ourselves feminists because we recognize that this accepted word for the struggle for women's equality lies at the heart of the class struggle in the western world today - and at the same time reaches out to women of all classes and races, beckoning them to the banner of workingclass revolution.

Real, consistent feminism is intrinsically related to basic economic change and to revolutionary politics. And vice versa.

Socialist feminists sharply differentiate themselves from the political opportunism and delusions of the reformist sector of the movement, and are recognized exponents of the radical alternative. Socialist feminism is the philosophy of an extremely broad sector of women, and a growing number of men, who arrived at this position from opposite but complementary poles.

Some Old Left socialist women either initiated contemporary feminism (as in Seattle, where the nucleus of Radical Women pre-dates NOW), or joined up with it. Young women radicals from the New Left exploded into feminism in a sudden reflex after years of pent-up fury against male chauvinism and the easy machismo of the charismatic, antiwar superstars. (New Left women merged with Old Left women, for instance, to form Radical Women in 1967-68).

"Non-political" feminists moved swiftly to generalized radical politics, impelled by the inexorable logic of their own transitional demands for nothing less than a total upheaval and transformation of family, economic, cultural and political relations. Affected by and acutely concerned about Vietnam, the Black rebellion, and academic freedom, feminism was the bridge that carried them to socialism.

Thousands of women found it intellectually and ethically impossible to embrace feminism unless it were overtly linked to socialism, and an even larger complement of women rejected the male-dominated Left unless and until it embraced feminism and female leadership in life.

Dual nature of sexism

Hence, the woman question has historically been indissolubly linked to the class struggle. But at the same time, the founders of the feminist movement always highlighted the dual nature of women's oppression.

All women, regardless of class, are subjected to political, legal, cultural and economic discrimination, and this subjugation as an entire sex confers an independent character to women's struggle.

The patriarchal capitalist class relies on women for the extraction of unpaid domestic labor, and simultaneously exploits women in still another way-as a vast pool of cheap labor. The bosses reap their super-profits from the hides of females. That is why the bourgeoisie can no more eradicate sexism than it can eliminate racism, which provides similar economic super-benefits to capital: all wage exploitation would have to go in the bargain.

The terrible survival problems of women, therefore, can be solved only by fundamental change, and feminist demands lead logically and irresistibly toward the clear necessity for socialist revolution.

The great socialist thinkers and organizers, utopian and scientific, vigorously championed women's liberation. They brilliantly illuminated the double-edged — sex and class — character of women's oppression, that propels women to rebellion.

As August Bebel says in Woman Under Socialism:

All women, without difference of social standing, have an interest - as the sex that in the course of social development has been oppressed, and ruled, and defiled by man - in removing such a state of things, and must exert themselves to change it, in so far as it can be changed by changes in the laws and institutions within the framework of the present social order. But the enormous majority of women is furthermore interested in the most lively manner in that the existing State and social order be radically transformed, to the end that both wage-slavery, under which the working-women deeply pine, and sex slavery, which is intimately connected with our property and industrial systems, be wiped out.

Feminism, like the struggle against racism, is at once independent of and dialectically interwoven with the class struggle.

The colossal role of revolutionary women

Lenin recognized that the dynamism of women's struggle lay in its twofold nature, conferring upon woman the tremendous potential for unifying all the allies of the working class.

In his conversations with Clara Zetkin, Lenin insists that the woman question be examined "as part of the social, working-class question," and be firmly bound with proletarian class struggle and revolution:

The communist women's movement itself must be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movements; and not only of the proletarians, but of all the exploited and oppressed, of all victims of capitalism or of the dominant class. Therein, too, lies the significance of the women's movement for the class struggle of the proletariat and its historic mission, the creation of a communist society.

Woman in modern capitalist society occupies a unique place. She is oppressed in the home and super-exploited at the workplace. The woman of color is triply subjugated, on account of sex, class, and her race. Since the bourgeoisie uses both race and sex antagonisms to divide and weaken the entire working class, women, especially minority women, become the focal point around which all workers and all the oppressed can coalesce and act in solidarity.

Women, in Daniel DeLeon's words, the "heaviest sufferers under capitalism," represent, symbolize, and express all the victims of the dominant class, because half of all the afflicted are female. Women are accordingly central to the creation and the culture of communism.

Leon Trotsky's appreciation of the explosive, "colossal" force of women and his call to all revolutionists to value and respect it, hardly derived from an anti-materialistic "mystique" about women - or from a desperate search for a new messiah. His conclusion was based on a keen analytic dissection of the contradictory currents and strata within the working class, and the analysis revealed which elements of the class were politically decisive. Revolutionary leadership, he knew, stems from precisely those social strata that are historically, economically and politically conditioned for it and prepared to accept it.

Turn to the woman worker

Almost 40 years ago, Trotsky foresaw that woman's unique economic and social position would sharpen in intensity as capitalism accelerated its dizzy downhill slide.

He exhorted the Fourth International - the world organizing force of revolutionary socialists - to work among the most exploited layers of the proletariat - to "turn to the woman worker" who suffers the most brutal blows of capitalism and thus is destined to provide "inexhaustible stores" of revolutionary commitment.

His prediction has been amply confirmed by current history. In the U.S., where the contradictions of decaying capital are most sharply posed, the doubly exploited working woman is a consistently fierce fighter within the labor movement, more often than not putting male militants in the shade.

The Socialist Workers Party, once the prime Trotskyist party in this country, rejects this contention, but they are hardly close students of the contemporary labor scene. Women workers are shaking up widespread sectors of the union movement and spearheading the organization of the unorganized and the creation of independent unions. Women are organizing thousands of previously non-unionized workers, particularly office, bank and public service employees. And women entering the non-traditional, skilled trades are proving to be a terror to the stodgy bureaucrats.

To anyone with open eyes and open mind, the picture is clear: female workers are already assuming leadership roles in the house of labor.

Turn to the woman worker! In women of all ethnic/national/racial groupings lies a vast capacity for revolutionary leadership - at a time in history when their strength and skills and energy are desperately needed.

Triple jeopardy

Minority working women, representing the three great strands of oppression in this racist and sexist class society, are situated directly in the vortex of the revolutionary tornado destined to sweep away capitalism.

Women of color are in the forefront of all the civil rights struggles; the men usually make the speeches, but the women do the major organizing that sustains the minority freedom movements.

Because their situation urgently demands radical change, the mass of minority women are repelled by the pettybourgeois, moderate pole of the feminist movement and propelled toward revolutionary feminism and socialism. Chicanas, Black, Puerto Rican, Asian and Native American women daily demonstrate their inexhaustible and incorruptible militance on the job, and if unionized, within the labor movement.

The minority woman worker, fighting daily on every front for her full democratic rights, represents the radical pole of every movement for social change.

She further represents the political synthesis of race, class, and sex struggles that takes form in the revolutionary movement, the political arm of the working class and its allies.

According to the Freedom Socialist newspaper, Summer 1978:

When the working class speaks with the voice of minority women, its power is impressive. Hospital strikes, the Farah boycott, and the 15-year struggle with the J.P. Stevens company are prime examples of the linkage of issues accomplished by minority women unionists. Their struggles have become labor rights and civil rights battles of national significance - precursors of the coming radical change in the race/sex ratios among the labor leadership.

Going-too-far department

Socialist feminism should be a marriage of equals working in an equal partnership, a happy coupling of two titanic forces made for each other and caring for each other in sickness and in health 'til the transition from capitalism is concluded. So to speak. But if sickness rather than health predominates in the uneasy, suspicious and acrimonious political battle-of-thesexes today, that is the historical and ideological and characterological fault of the men.

What?! You're not to blame, poor dears, 'cause you're conditioned? Acculturated? Socialized? Channelized? Blah, blah, blah?

There is a point where sociology turns into psychobabble, and too many leftists indulge in it, take eager refuge in it, and nourish, flourish and luxuriate in it.

Can one imagine Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky excusing male supremacy on the grounds of its deeply entrenched nature? No, because they didn't. They were historical materialists, and dialecticians, and proponents of correct revolutionary expediency - and they excoriated male chauvinists, particularly communist chauvinists. Their hardest blows fell on their closest comrades, as well they might, because what mattered terribly to them was the consciousness and behavior of the vanguard, the party, the political leadership.

How can the teachers teach, and the role-models model, and the heroes be heroic unless they are advanced, unless they are self-liberated from all the old crap, unless they bravely wrench the last vestiges of penis-privilege from their behavior?!

And please spare us the admonition that civil rights is one thing but women's leadership another; that equality is ducky but autonomous women's groups are the work of the devil; that of course sexism exists, but to accuse any radical of it is to viciously malign and emasculate him.

This is vintage conservatism, what Lenin called philistinism and "platonic lip service" in regard to women, reminiscent of the pontificating of worried souls who tell us equal pay for equal work is only fair but bra-burning is appalling.

There will be no legal equality for women unless women lead the fight for it. They have to; men won't. To lead such a fight, they must organize - independently, or they'll be subsumed. And it is the Bolshevik, bounden duty of any revolutionary to note and define sexism (and racism and homophobia and all elitism) wherever and whenever they are excreted - and that is frequently. To call the beast by name is not terrorism; it is education, it is basic political expediency, it is the only avenue of self-defense for the oppressed.

And what's wrong with burning bras, anyway?

The unity question

The hard-core sectarians of the Left who deplore the battle of the sexes as "divisive" to the battle of the classes will promote neither battle. Only those Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyists who respect and understand the social sex conflict, and incorporate it directly into the program, strategy, tactics and culture of the labor movement, are capable of meeting the job description qualifications for the noble work of American Revolutionist.

All communists, male as well as female, must take seriously the tasks of organizing the most exploited sectors of the class, and forging unity, in both the revolutionary and the mass movements, among working people, women, racial minorities, gays, and all the oppressed.

Radicals must recognize clearly that unity can only come about if it is based solidly on the demands of oppressed strata. Never, never, never must male or female radicals counsel feminists to subordinate or table their demands in the interests of an abstract, isolationist "class" unity. We do not concede one iota to the chauvinisms and bigotries of backward workers; our job is to enlighten and liberate labor from its own hang-ups, not rationalize, entrench and enshrine them.

Women have had quite enough of self-sacrifice, turning the other cheek and exuding nobility from the pedestal. It's chilly up there, and lonely, and the wages are terrible. In this era of women's liberation, unity means a deal, a quid pro quo, an agreement, a bond of mutual respect and endorsement. It does not mean capitulation of the women in return for nothing but "honor"; women today will take the cash and let the credit go. Women don't sell themselves cheaply anymore; as a matter of fact, they don't sell themselves at all. Unity is a two-way street - or a dead end.

The century of the communist woman

Comrades should heed Lenin's admonition that "developing and leading a mass movement [of working women under communist leadership] is an important part of all Party activity, as much as half of all the Party work." Or more! But who's counting. This work takes time! And thought. And study. And respect. And allocation of resources. By both sexes.

Communist women must continue to work with care and tact in socialist and potentially socialist women's organizations, always strengthening their ties to revolutionary politics.

And communist men must learn what feminism is all about — read the literature, attend the meetings and demonstrations, practice equality in political life, relish the leadership of women, and appreciate the criticism they will receive. They should demand comment and criticism on their bad habits, and nourish their historic new opportunity for male liberation from the crippling bonds of the masculine mystique.

For the old decrepit highways of radical politics are obsolete. Socialist feminism is the swift-moving freeway to world revolution, and the road ahead promises new and higher relations between the sexes based on the triumph of human intelligence, generosity, and comradeship.