Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Anti-Sexism Work Group of the Boston Political Collective

Women’s Oppression in Capitalist Society: An Introduction


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 23, July-August 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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At a recent meeting to organize a coalition of women’s organizations in Boston, a debate ensued over whether or not the coalition should be called feminist. One woman stood up and said there were two groups who might be put off by the term feminist. The first; women of color and working class women, and the second; various Marxist-Leninist organizations. We should be concerned with the first group, and change the social understanding of the term feminist to include them, but we should not be concerned about alienating the latter group. The majority of the women at the meeting seemed to agree with this point of view.

Two observations can be drawn from this statement. First, that the problem of building alliances with working class women and women of color, which is as old as the women’s movement itself, is still a major issue (the meeting was almost entirely white) and many feminists are taking it seriously and are still struggling to improve their practice on that score. The second, which comes as no surprise, is that communists have a bad name in the women’s movement.

There are many reasons for the mistrust that the women’s movement has of communists. In recent US history, the self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist “parties” of the New Communist Movement (RCP, CPML, etc.) have practiced ultra-left and dogmatic politics when attempting to work with (or take over) women’s organizations. It is likely that these groups are the ones that the speaker above was referring to.

Another reason is the long history of male chauvinism within the Marxist movement internationally as well as in the US. In Germany, the sexual division of labor within the socialist movement, where few women have been supported for public and party office, is one example. The German Social-Democratic Party, particularly during its most reformist period, transformed the proletarian women’s movement into “a training organization for social angels”[1] with the idea that women were best suited for social work instead of other political activity; an idea that the Nazis also agreed with and used to their own advantage.

In the Soviet Union after the revolution, the Bolsheviks instituted many progressive reforms for women, although their practice was by no means perfect on that score. However, in 1929 the Working and Peasant Women’s Department of the Communist Party, established in 1919 to draw women into political activity, was abolished by the Stalin government with the explanation that an independent women’s movement was no longer necessary.[2]

And in the US an extremely blatant example of sexism could be found in the CPUSA’s newspapers in the 1940s which contained pin-ups and articles about strip-tease and burlesque shows, while at the same time the party was liquidating communist political and ideological practice concerning women’s oppression.[3]

Marxist-Leninist Theory and Women’s Oppression

Another reason, perhaps the main one, why feminists question what communists have to offer, is the underdevelopment of Marxist theory in the area of women’s oppression, as well as the poor quality of much of the work that has been done. The main culprit here has been the dominance of economism within the historical constitution of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice. Economism has held back the development of revolutionary Marxism in all areas of communist theory and practice including the area of women’s oppression, which is an aspect of why we say Marxism is in crisis. In order to get out of that crisis, we must understand what economism is, and develop an alternative theory and political practice.

Economism places the economic level of society, as a mechanistic determining factor in all other aspects of the social formation. Thus, the ideological and political levels are reduced to mere expressions of the economic level. Further, all social struggles are reduced to the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. All manifestations of class struggle on other than the economic level, for example, the struggles that take place on the level of ideology of the State, are seen as direct outgrowths, or reflections, of this basic economic contradiction.[4]

This framework has led to serious errors in analysing women’s oppression. The only “legitimate” analysis within this framework would have to be based on women’s super-exploitation at the workplace, the fact that the capitalists need women as a reserve army of labor, and the role that women play in the reproduction of labor power (which often isn’t included in such analysis). Since the main way in which economists see women as being oppressed is due to the economic needs of the capitalists, they narrow the struggle for women’s liberation to workplace organizing, reduce the scope of women’s oppression to the “pure” class struggle (class reductionism), and thus, downplay the importance of women’s struggles in general.

According to a class reductionist view, women are only oppressed as workers, and should join the (economic) class struggle to fight for the class as a whole. This approach denies the distinct historical, ideological, psychological, and physical features of gender opposition affecting all women.

Class reductionism is linked with economism in that it reduces political subjects produced in the broad, revolutionary process to class subjects produced at the economic level. In other words, it is “only by taking part in production” that women can overcome their backward views and develop revolutionary consciousness. Thus, the potential members of a revolutionary movement to overthrow capitalism are seen strictly as the working class, narrowly defined by relations at the point of production.

Thus, women who are not engaged in production are seen at best, as unreliable allies in the class struggle; and the forms of oppression women suffer that are not strictly located at the point of production are considered minor and secondary concerns. This view enables economists to support child-care demands so that women can go to work outside the home, but not support demands for men to do equal amounts of child-care and house after work hours. This problem can be seen in many socialist counties that are dominated by a revisionist party, since revisionism there is based on an economist theoretical outlook.[5]

Breaking with Class Reductionism

A view that breaks with this economism and class reductionism recognizes the key role that political and ideological (including cultural, historical, psychological) social relations can play in determining forms of oppression within a social formation; and thus recognizes the revolutionary potential of movements attacking those relations. Because the struggle against women’s oppression requires the radical transformation of the dominant political and ideological, as well as economic relations supporting the reproduction of capitalist relations and bourgeois rule, the struggle for women’s liberation forms part of a revolutionary popular democratic struggle against capitalism.

It is not surprising that economism and class reductionism go hand in hand with sexism. While economist Marxists recognize that sexism is a force, it is viewed as nothing more than a tool employed by the capitalists to maintain profits. According to this logic, male workers objectively have no stake in supporting sexism, because it divides the working class. Thus, the claim is that once the male workers realize this, they will be glad to drop the myth of sexism that the capitalists are using against them. The ways in which sexism benefits men, and the necessarily long and difficult struggle to alter the relations of domination/subordination between men and women, are thus dismissed. In fact, those who point to the need to struggle against male chauvinism are often called “bourgeois” by supporters of this economist view because they are afraid that such a struggle will unnecessarily divide the working class further. Many socialist and communist parties have failed or been slow to support women’s demands for suffrage, birth control, and so on, because of this. Thus, we can see how economism and class reductionism both reinforce, and are reinforced by, male chauvinist ideology.

Women’s Struggles: Past and Present

Meredith Tax’s recent book, The Rising of the Women, contains a poem written in 1910 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, referring to the backwardness of the Socialist Party when it came to women’s struggles. Here are the first three verses:

Said the Socialist to the Suffragist:
“My cause is greater than yours!
You only work for a Special Class,
We for the work of the General Mass,
Which every good ensures!”

Said the Suffragist to the Socialist:
“You underrate my Cause!
While women remain a Subject Class,
You can never move the General Mass,
With your Economic Laws!”

Said the Socialist to the Suffragist:
“You misinterpret facts!
There is no room for doubt or schism
In Economic Determinism–
It governs all our acts!”[6]

Unfortunately, the US communist movement has not made a great deal of progress since Gilman wrote that poem. What passes for Marxism in many circles in the US today is still the same dogmatic, economist notions that have consistently been unable to provide a correct theory and strategy to guide communists in the struggle against women’s oppression.

One example of this is the recent attack which the Philadelphia Worker’s Organizing Committee (PWOC) launched against the women’s movement. The charge was that “feminism is inherently racist because it doesn’t make the struggle against racism dominant over the struggle against sexism.”[7] This position flows from the economism described above, because to PWOC: “Racism is the strategy that the capitalists have found most profitable in dollars and cents and the most useful in holding back the development of class consciousness.”[8]

Thus, the summation of PWOC’s strategic conception can be stated as follows: Since sexism and gay and lesbian oppression are secondary “strategies of the capitalist class,” anyone who makes them their primary focus of organizing is racist and anti-working class. One wonders what kind of allies the PWOC is going to attract with these ideas. Instead of offering a Marxist analysis of women’s oppression, they criticize the women’s movement from a class reductionist perspective.[9]

Other errors that the PWOC, and many other Marxist-Leninist groups historically are guilty of, can be seen in their incorrect approaches to working with the women’s movement. One approach is to stay out of the women’s movement completely hoping to unite with it at some future date when the revolution is upon us. A second approach is to work within the women’s movement in an arrogant way, trying to assume control of that movement in a bureaucratic and manipulative fashion.

Both approaches prevent communists and feminists from learning from each other, which is absolutely necessary if the two movements are to really work together. Leadership of the women’s movement can be gained not only through consistent practice and a good theoretical analysis of women’s oppression, but also through a demonstrated respect for the integrity and independent aspects of the movement itself.

Thus, while on the one hand, groups such as the PWOC stand back and criticize the women’s movement in a sectarian way, on the other hand, the alternative they offer is an economist theory and practice that ignores many aspects of women’s oppression. It is in this historical context that we can understand why the woman at the conference mentioned above expressed a lack of concern for the opinions of “Marxist-Leninist.” The responsibility for breaking that pattern lies in the hands of today’s communists.

The Jean Tepperman Article

The following article was written by Jean Tepperman[10] in 1978, when Jean was a member of the Boston Organizing Committee (BOC), a fusionist organization similar to the PWOC, and also a member of the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC). Jean wrote the article in response to one of the points of unity of the OCIC in order to clarify her disagreements with their approach towards women’s oppression. Jean showed the article to one person in leadership in the BOC in charge of theoretical work on women’s oppression. He said the article didn’t seem like a priority to him, but that would be “alright” if she wanted to show it to a few other people on her own. The article was never distributed to the membership for discussion, nor was it responded to by the leadership. Because of numerous political disagreements, Jean is no longer with the BOC.

Jean’s article, “The Material Basis of Women’s Oppression in Capitalist Society,” which has been somewhat abridged and modified for publication here, offers a beginning critique of economism, particularly the “super-exploitation” analysis of the BOC. The “super-exploitation” analysis is basically a class reductionist understanding of women’s oppression, because it sees women’s exploitation at the workplace as the only significant source of our oppression, and thus downplays the other ways in which it is necessary to struggle against sexism. Jean critiques this position both theoretically and politically, drawing out the practical implications of a strategy based on the “super-exploitation” analysis.

Jean agrees with us that one of the weaknesses of the paper is that the critique of economism does not go far enough, and thus an alternative framework is not fully established. Jean argues that the conception of the economic level of capitalist society must be expanded beyond the wage relationship to include unpaid labor in the home, and reproduction and childbearing, which are key areas of women’s economic activity. Jean describes three areas: (1) work for wages, (2) work in the home and (3) reproduction and childbearing, as the three “basic material realities” in capitalist society that shape women’s lives. While Jean is correct in arguing that these three sites of women’s economic activity must be analyzed to understand the complex relationship between women’s oppression and capitalism, the concept of “basic material reality,” if not sufficiently developed, is part of an economist framework which limits the break with economism.

Jean states that “the Marxist method tells us that the basic material reality of what people do to survive ultimately determines the nature of any social structure.” While it is the case that the economy is ultimately determinant, this does not mean that in each and every historical instance economic relations directly determine political, cultural, and ideological relations in society. To reduce women’s “basic material realities” to only structures is economism. This method assumes the economic activity of women to be the main determinant of gender oppression in every instance, when in fact, political and ideological relations play a critical role in determining the nature and form of women’s oppression.

To break with this economism, an historical materialist approach to women’s oppression must expand the concept of the “material basis of women’s oppression” to include political and ideological (including psychological) relations as well as economic relations. Such an analysis would begin by identifying the various social relations structuring women’s subordination to men, and then determine how these relations are distinct from, or connected with the social relations maintaining class relations of dominance and subordination. An analysis of the specific oppression of women within capitalism would explore the relationship between the specific social relations structuring sexuality, reproduction, social definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity,” the gender division of labor within the home and workplace, and historical changes in concrete capitalist social formations, and women’s situation within them.

A key area that we feel would need to be part of such a broader analysis is the process of formation of gender identification and its relationship to the economic, political, and ideological class struggle. The intense emotional and psychological forces in family life have an extremely significant impact on children in the way they internalize gender identities and in structuring our consciousness of gender. These socially imposed divisions play a major role in reinforcing women’s subordination and dependence on men.

As Jean points out in her paper, it is important to recognize that gender divisions preceded the transition to capitalism and that a socialist revolution would not in itself necessarily abolish these divisions. One object of Marxist analysis would be to understand the extent to which such already existing gender divisions have developed within capitalism and become necessary for the reproduction of capitalist social relations at the political, economic, and ideological levels.

Further, an understanding of the relationship between gender and class oppression should reveal the way class location mediates and differentiates the experience of gender oppression. Thus, the different ways in which working class women and bourgeois women experience their oppression under capitalism would be an essential part of this analysis. In addition, we must explain how women’s oppression is related to, and combined with racial and national oppression in order to understand the particular experience of minority women.

The role of the State in reproducing women’s oppression is also an extremely important area of investigation and analysis. The State has come to play an ever-more powerful role in shaping the boundaries of women’s lives, sexual and family relations, reproduction, social benefits, and so on. Thus, the terrain of struggle has likewise shifted to the State, a point that the New Right has clearly grasped. Now that working class and minority women have suffered with the Hyde amendment for a year, the Right is attempting to make abortion illegal through the passage of the Human Life Bill. Their proposed Family Protection Bill would have the state insure that the school system present the traditional male-dominated household as the only model, glorifying women’s role in history and at present solely as that of mother and homemaker.

As the New Right increases its attacks on the rights of the working class, minorities, gays, lesbians, and women in general; and as the Reagan State concretizes those attacks in laws and cutbacks, we must pull together all our resources to defend those rights. At this point, we are like Alice in Wonderland upon the chessboard, having to run as fast as we possibly can to stay in the same place.

Jean’s article, in its initial break with economism, opens up the terrain in which a truly Marxist-Leninist analysis and practice can and must be taken up. Recently published materials in Great Britain and Western Europe show that this process has already begun.[11] Marxist feminists there, like the Theoretical Review here, have recognized the theoretical contributions of Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas and others, and are attempting to use these advances to create a scientific understanding of women’s oppression. We have included a short list of these readings and hope to review them in future issues in this journal.[12]

Any response to this introduction and the following article would be greatly appreciated. As well, we would like to encourage our readers to contribute articles, book reviews, and letters on this subject to the Theoretical Review.


[1] Werner Thonnessen, The Emacipation of Women, Frankfurt: Pluto Press, 1973, p. 9.

[2] Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance, and Revolution, New York: Random House, 1974, p. 159.

[3] Mary Inman, “13 Years of CPUSA Misleadership on the Woman Question,” reprinted in Theoretical Review, No. 19, (Nov.-Dec. 1980), p. 33.

[4] For a more in-depth discussion of economism, see “Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism,” Theoretical Review, No. 15 (March-April, 1980).

[5] For example, in Poland, studies have shown that women are still doing the basic “double shift” of work outside as well as housework and child-care. This is from “The Situation of Women In Poland” by B. Koski, Critique, 8, Glasgow, pp. 69-83.

[6] Meredith Tax, The Rising of the Women, New York: Monthly Review, 1980, pp. 182-83.

[7] Sara Murphy, “Feminism is Inherently Racist,” The Guardian, Oct. 8, 1980, p. 20.

[8] Florence Buckley, “Racism, Feminism, and Rape,” The Organizer, July, 1980, p. 19.

[9] For a deeper critique of the class reductionism of PWOC’s position on feminism, see Neil Eriksen’s article, “Marxist-Leninists and Feminism,” in The Guardian, Nov. 5, 1980, p. 20.

[10] ’Jean Tepperman, author of Not Servants, Not Machines, as well as various pamphlets, has been an activist for many years in Providence and Boston. She is currently living in Dorchester, has two children, and is editor for the Dorchester Community News.

[11] These are the English language materials we are aware of. There may be other advanced work in different languages that we are not familiar with.

[12] (1) Michele Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today, London: Verso, 1980. (2) Annette Kuhn and Ann Marie Wolpe, Feminism and Materialism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978. (3) Ellen Malos, The Politics of Housework, London: Allison and Busby, 1980.