MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events


Women’s Liberation Movement

The Women’s Liberation Movement is the social struggle which aims to eliminate forms of oppression based on gender and to gain for women equal economic and social status and rights to derermine their own lives as are enjoyed by men.

The Women’s Liberation Movement may be seen as having developed in three stages:

1. Beginning in the Enlightenment, for example in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in England in 1792, women of the educated classes began to promote the rights of women in education, work and so forth. Harriet Taylor was the real author of The Subjection of Women published under the name of her husband John Stuart Mill; similarly, George Eliot (Marian Evans) was the real author of the writings of Herbert Spencer on Women’s Liberation. Notions of women’s emancipation in this period were often associated with emergent Utopian socialist movements.

2. In the Second International and the growing organisation of the working class in Europe and America, a number of women played leading roles, among which Clara Zetkin is one of the most famous (the leader of her union despite being ineligible for union membership as a woman under German law), and the Second International inscribed the equality of women on its banner. This movement which began in the Marxist movement was the precursor of the Second peak of women’s liberation which reached its zenith in the first two decades of the twentieth century. (See the Woman and Socialism by August Bebel)

By the late nineteenth century, a number of women were working in the professions and playing an active role in social life. This was especially true in the colonies, where the gender imbalance in the population gave women greater power to promote their role. As parliamentary democracy emerged as the central institution of political life and the right to vote was extended to all adult males, the Women’s Suffrage Movement emerged. Women’s Suffrage was granted in New Zealand and in the Australian colonies by the end of the nineteenth century, but spectacular demonstrations and confrontations with the police were necessary to win the cause in America and Europe. It was generally only after the First World War that Women’s Suffrage was achieved, with 28 countries granting the vote to women between 1914 and 1939. The most famous advocates of women’s suffrage, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, were Marxists. The Revolution gave women the vote in Russia, but it was not until 1971 that women got the vote in Switzerland.

The Women’s Movement played a major role in the Russian Revolution, the February Revolution being triggered by an International Women’s Day demonstration, and there were a number of women revolutionaries on the Bolshevik Central Committee that made the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution prefigured demands of the Third Wave inasmuch as the Revolution focused on measures which would relieve the burden of domsestic drudgery on women and granted women equality in the workplace and in education. Leaders like Alexandre Kollontai promoted extremely radical visions of the place of women in socialism. However, women were the first to feel the sting of the bureaucratic reaction after the revolution and early gains for women were reversed. While formal equality in the workplace remained, the family law and practice left women carrying the burden of domestic slavery. As a consequence, the women of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe largely missed the Third Wave.

These two movements, the feminism of classical liberalism and the feminism of social democracy, are usually lumped together under the name of “First Wave.”

3. The so-called “Second Wave” of Women’s Liberation, the modern Women’s Liberation movement, had its origins in the entry of women into the industrial labour force during World War Two, the changing requirements for labour power in modern industry creating new jobs for women, the development of manufacturing, service industries and food processing which opened up women’s domestic labour for “socialisation”, making domestic appliances and processing food for sale on the Market, rather than depending on women’s domestic servitude for this work.

The historical first expression of the “third wave” was Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex", in which De Beauvoir explores Marxist, Freudian and Hegelian themes to uncover the sources of the definition of women as the “Other” of Man.

The modern women’s movement had its real beginnings however in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) which examines the dehumanising conditions of middle-class American women isolated and imprisoned in suburbia and excluded from social and productive life.

The National Liberation movements of the post-war period and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. provided a powerful impetus for women to follow the example of black people and take up the fight for their own rights.

Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969), one of the founding documents of Radical Feminism, finds sites for the oppression of women in a variety of social and ideological constructs. Dale Spender’s Man Made Language (1980) makes this point forcefully in respect of the gender bias in language.

Many of the founders of the modern women’s liberation movement came out of the New Left, where they became aware of the second-class role they were being given in supposedly revolutionary movements. In some cases, these women developed analyses of women’s oppression within the scope of a Marxist analysis (for example Evelyn Reed), and in other cases, they abandoned Marxism. Shulamith Firestone shows how concepts having their origin in Marx were adapated to serve the needs of women’s liberation in her Dialectic of Sex. See Teresa Ebert’s (Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism, for recent statement of Marxist feminism.

Feminists of the 1990s and after are conventionally referred to as the “Third Wave.” These are women who recognised the way in which earlier feminism had been blind to the femininity of Blacks, working class and other women, and developed a much more general, reflexive analysis of status subordination. Such writers include Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young and others.

All Communists worthy of the name have supported the struggle for women’s emancipation to the limit of their understanding of the issue, which is something which is historically conditioned. Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) makes an important contribution to the understanding of the source of women’s oppression and how it may be overthrown. The book is limited by the social consciousness and historical knowledge of his times, but Engels’ work points to a study of the development of the labour process to discover the basis for women’s oppression. In this light, it is possible to understand how the age-old struggle of women, began in the 1960s, in the advanced capitalist countries, to gain strength and eventually became unstoppable. The domestic slavery and double-oppression of women was now as outmoded as was the plantation slavery of Blacks in the South of the United States. Nevertheless, no form of oppression ever leaves the historical stage just because it is outmoded. (See CLR James on The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States.) The words of Communist International: “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves”, and the same is true of any oppressed people, including women. It is the duty of Communists to support all those who struggle against oppression.

It is often said that communists regard the emancipation of women as in some way a “secondary question” or believe that this is a problem that can only be solved after the overthrow of capitalism. Whatever may have been the practice of this or that communist, this is not true; it would be more true to say that the overthrow of capitalism is impossible so long as women are subject to special exploitation and social and political repression. At the same time, it needs to be recognised that the emancipation of women, like the abolition of slavery, constitutes a completion of the bourgeois revolution rather than its negation, in reducing all concrete forms of labour (of men or women, professional or manual, black or white) to the same abstract labour, bought and sold as a commodity on the labour market.


The Women and Marxism Section for a range of material on and by women,
The History of the Modern Women’s Liberation Movement, in their own words, and
The Library of Feminist Writers.


World War I

A War primarily limited to Europe and to some extent the Middle East. The main contenders of the war were Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey against France, Great Britain, Russia (and to some extent Italy, the United States, and Japan). It ended with the defeat of the Central Powers.

This was the first war fought by capitalists, all wars thereto were fought by feudal empires, and with the great technological advances created by the new class of working people, this war would be the world’s most deadly. Germany had established itself as the most powerful nation in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War, and was eager to flex its muscles once again and win more territory and thus economic power. An excuse for war was needed, and for this the old fashioned aristocracy retained some usefulness to the capitalists. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, this was reason enough.