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International Socialism, June 1996


Gill Hubbard

Why has feminism failed women?


From International Socialism 2:71, June 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


M. Schneir (ed.)
The Vintage Book of Feminism
London 1994

Forecasters have recently predicted that women will take nine out of ten new jobs by the year 2000. [1] Yet the picture for women at the close of this century looks very bleak indeed. As employees, women make up 74 percent of the 3.1 million people earning less than the National Insurance threshold, which means they have no right to state pension or unemployment benefit. A Fawcett Society survey found that British women have the second lowest wages in Europe. [2] The idea of ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ remains, with women still predominantly working in hotels and catering, cleaning, care services and textiles. [3] The Equal Opportunities Commission found last year that semi-skilled women tend to earn 30 percent less if most of their colleagues are women rather than men. [4]

Women still suffer sexual harassment at work: for example the findings by Sheffield University’s Institute for the study of the legal profession show that three out of four young women barristers see sexual harassment as a problem, and 40 percent of them have experienced it personally. [5] Women still account for only 9 percent of MPs, 6 percent of peers, 7 percent of the senior judiciary, 3 percent of ambassadors, 9 percent of senior civil servants, 3 percent of company directors, 5 percent of professors and 0 percent of chief constables. [6]

The percentage of people living in poverty has trebled since 1979 according to the Child Poverty Action Group, and many of these are single mothers. [7] The recent survey showing malnutrition in Britain reveals that many mothers go without food so that their children can eat. [8] The Tory government’s threat to put teenage single mothers in ‘homes’ and the repeal of homelessness legislation will, according to Shelter, lead to an increase in the number of homeless women. [9]

However, womens lives have changed dramatically. The British Family Formation survey reveals that more women are deciding to postpone becoming mothers and some choose not to have children at all. Only 20 percent of women born in 1947 were childless at 30; about 33 percent of women born in 1967 will still be childless when they reach that age and 20 percent of women now under 30 will remain childless. [10] According to the 1989 General Household Survey the rate of employment for mothers with dependent children has risen: 52 percent of women with dependent children went out to work in 1979 compared to 59 percent in 1989. The rate of employment for mothers with children under five has also seen an increase, rising from 24 percent in 1983 to 41 percent in 1989. [11] Compared to their parents’ generation, men play a greater role in looking after the children and do share more of the housework. Yet still childcare remains the single biggest obstacle to equality. A 1989 survey by the Kids Club Network discovered that after-school and holiday schemes covered only 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of five to nine year olds respectively! [12] According to research carried out by Demos, an independent think tank, the majority of women in their survey want to see solutions to the problems of combining family and work. [13]

The question is: what type of movement is necessary to end the oppression of women? Anyone wanting to read about the rise and fall of the women’s liberation movement and in particular the American women’s movement will find The Vintage Book of Feminism useful.

The ‘problem which has no name’

The book begins with the state of women’s oppression in the 1950s. Women’s lives had changed as a result of the Second World War, when they had achieved a level of independence by working in the factories and offices which provided them with their own source of income. With the end of the war many were expected to give it all up and return to the home to look after the kids.

Some women, particularly those of the professional and middle classes felt unease and dissatisfaction because of their subordinate position in society. American middle class women were entering higher education but, by the mid-1950s, 60 percent had dropped out of college to marry. When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, she was the voice for a generation of middle class, bored housewives who wanted something more than their husband, their children and their home. [14] She spoke of the ‘problem which has no name’,

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’ [15]

The founding of the American women’s movement

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s was radical and revolutionary because it was bound up with the spirit of the time. The civil rights movement brought forth two of the best black leaders the 20th century has witnessed – Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement all pointed to one thing – that American capitalism was rotten to the core. Lindsey German has written:

The American women’s movement was therefore not born in a vacuum. Its politics and its practice was a very definite product of the American left. The movement was founded as a left-wing, radical movement, by women who had learned many of their ideas in the student politics in which they were active. [16]

The biggest and most influential New Left organisation in the mid-1960s was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After much derision and ridicule by men in the SDS, a statement on the ‘woman question’ was adopted at their 1967 convention. The demands included, for example:

1. The creation of communal child care centres which would be staffed by men and women and controlled by the staff and children involved in each centre. 2. In order to help women in their struggle for independence we call for the right of women to choose when they will have children. This means (a) the dissemination of birth control information and devices to all women regardless of age and marital status, and (b) the availability of a competent medical abortion for all women who so desire.

The statement also declared:

As we analyse the position of women in capitalist society and especially in the United States we find that women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognise ourselves as part of the Third World ... Women, because of their colonial relationship to men, have to fight for their own independence. [17]

To compare the nature of women’s oppression to that of colonialism is an extremely confused formulation but it does at least show that they were attempting to establish a political position on the question of women’s oppression.

To understand why their ideas remained confused it is necessary to know a bit about the politics of the New Left at the time. Firstly, the liberation movements had no real connection with the working class or with working class organisation. Secondly, Stalinism had done a devastating amount of damage to socialist ideas, and, thirdly, Maoist slogans, ‘Let the people decide’ and ‘Serve the people’, appealed to many on the left at the time. Sharon Smith sums up New Left politics:

The role of US imperialism in Vietnam, the low level of class struggle, and the predominantly middle class composition of the student movement all helped shape the political consciousness of the New Left which grew up in the 1960s. Most student radicals did not regard the working class, which many thought to be ‘bought off’ as even a potential ally. Instead they looked for alternatives to class struggle for social change – indeed, many looked away from the US altogether, placing their hopes for change in anti-imperialism movements. [18]

During 1967 and 1968 New Left women in several American cities joined together to discuss sexism. Miriam Schneir describes how the hopes of a united women’s movement were soon dashed as radical women split into two camps: ‘radical feminists’ and ‘politicos’. [19]

Separatist feminism

Some women by the late 1960s drew the conclusion that men could not be part of the solution to women’s oppression. These separatist feminists, also known as radical feminists, demanded a separate movement dedicated to women’s liberation. Some of their actions have achieved lasting notoriety. For example, in 1968 some 200 demonstrators protested at the annual Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City. One hallmark of their politics, that ‘the personal is political’, was clearly evident during the beauty pageant protest where they set up a ‘freedom trash can’ into which women were invited to toss ‘objects of female torture’ such as hair curlers, girdles, bras and high heels. Women’s libbers were soon labelled as ‘bra-burners’.

The Redstockings Manifesto, usefully reproduced in this book, encapsulates the main tenets of radical feminist thought. It reads:

We identify the agents of our oppression as men. Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination. All other forms of exploitation and oppression (racism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are extensions of male supremacy; men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest. All power structures throughout history have been male-dominated and male-oriented. Men have controlled all political, economic, and cultural institutions and have backed up this control with physical force. They have used their power to keep women in an inferior position. All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women. [20]

Their anti-intellectual approach, raising individual feelings to the level of theory, and their solution to women’s liberation, namely ‘consciousness raising’, was strongly formulated:

We regard our personal experience, and our feelings about that experience, as the basis for an analysis of our common situation ... Our chief task at present is to develop female class consciousness through sharing experience ... Consciousness-raising is … the only method by which we can ensure that our program for liberation is based on the concrete realities of our lives. [21]

There were fundamental problems with these ideas: consciousness raising, which was said to last an average of nine months, led women away from political activity and sent the women’s groups into a spiral of inward-looking personalism. The slogan, ‘The personal is political’, carried to its logical conclusion led women to changing their lifestyle and not the world, and the theory that all men are to blame for women’s oppression left women isolated from men who did want to fight for genuine liberation.

The politics of separatism led inevitably to splits within radical feminist organisations. It eventually led black women to charge white women as their oppressors and lesbian women to charge straight women with sleeping with the ‘enemy’. The biggest rift took place between lesbians and straight women. Some lesbians took the ‘personal is political’ slogan and the theory that all men oppress all women, as a political justification for a lesbian lifestyle. In 1972 the group Radicalesbian wrote the paper, The Woman-Identified Woman, where they stated:

This consciousness is the revolutionary force from which all else will follow, for ours is an organic revolution... It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other which is at the heart of women’s liberation. [22]

The notion that to be a lesbian is a revolutionary political act is extremely exclusive. A complete divorce from men is an impossibility for all those women who like men or indeed have male children. Some women may choose to adopt alternative lifestyles completely separate from men but for the majority of women this is a deeply pessimistic and reactionary attitude and one that alienated many women from the women’s movement.

The mid-1970s and 1980s – sexual politics and socialist feminism

By the mid-1970s the feminists who dominated the women’s movement were those who became obsessed with sexual politics in its narrowest sense. This was a consequence of three things: firstly, the collapse into personal politics and consciousness raising emphasised the personal sphere above the need to change society; secondly, the general decline of all the fighting movements of the 1960s which had inspired many women to seek to change the world by revolutionary means; and thirdly, the establishment of the theory of patriarchy which saw all men as the problem. If all men were to blame then a theory was needed which could explain how they managed to maintain this power over all women. According to Susan Brownmiller violence, pornography and rape were the means by which all men exercised power over all women. In her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape she states that rapists ‘have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the largest sustained battle the world has ever seen’ and concludes that rape ‘is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. [23]

Lynne Segal, a British feminist, despaired at this theory and in one sentence proved how flawed it was: ‘Are there not sturdier weapons than the penis?’ [24] The reactionary nature of Brownmiller’s theory was revealed when Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, who accepted it, co-operated with the right wing to censor pornography. [25] Socialists are against pornography but censorship is the wrong strategy to get rid of it since it plays right into the hands of the bigots who wish to see any material on sex, particularly feminist, lesbian and gay material, banished. [26]

The second main strand of the women’s movement by the beginning of the 1970s was socialist feminism. Here it was argued that there were two struggles: one was the economic struggle to get rid of capitalism and the other was the ideological struggle to get rid of sexist ideas.

Kathy McAfee and Myrna Wood writing Bread and Roses in 1969 recognised the shortcomings of personal liberation through consciousness raising and they correctly accused the radical separatists of representing a form of biological determinism by reinforcing the notion that men and women were intellectually and emotionally different. They wanted a movement which would simultaneously fight against economic oppression, ‘bread’, and the psychological effects of sexism, ‘roses’. They provide some valuable descriptions, reproduced here, of the way the oppression of women functions in a capitalist society, for example:

The role of the man in the family reinforces aggressive individualism, authoritarianism, and a hierarchical view of social relations – values which are fundamental to the perpetuation of capitalism. In this system we are taught to relieve our fears and frustrations by brutalising those weaker than we are: a man in uniform turns into a pig; the foreman intimidates the man on the line; the husband beats his wife, child, dog. [27]

Socialist feminism, perhaps not surprisingly, found greater resonance in Britain. From the very beginning the British women’s liberation movement had strong links with working class struggle. From the late 1960s Britain witnessed a high level of class struggle, which involved women – machinists at Fords in 1968, the Leeds clothing workers in 1970, etc. Women could see for themselves that working class struggle could be a vehicle for liberation. The four demands of the women’s movement reflected the outward looking working class orientation, these were: free abortion and contraception on demand, equal educational and job opportunities, free 24 hour nurseries, and equal pay. [28]

This book offers a good example of socialist feminism. Juliet Mitchell expounded socialist feminist thought in the British journal New Left Review. She argued against the Marxist idea that women’s oppression could be explained by starting with economy and society. Instead she stated that women’s oppression was a specific structure which must be examined separately from the economic means and relations of production: ‘We are dealing with two autonomous areas, the economic mode of capitalism and the ideological mode of patriarchy’. [29] Patriarchy was the theory used to explain how women have been oppressed by men throughout history, and Marxism was used to explain class exploitation. There were, according to socialist feminists, two fights: the first, by the women’s movement, to end women’s oppression by focusing on changing ideas; the second, by the working class movement, to end the class system by focusing on changing the economy.

To separate the struggle to change ideas from the struggle to change the economy fails to recognise that as working class men and women fight alongside each other they start to question their old attitudes and ways of behaviour – they start to throw off the old ideas. In such struggles men can be won to supporting women’s rights. One of the biggest demonstrations against attacks on abortion rights was called by the TUC against the 1979 Corrie Bill and, to mention only the most recent dispute of its kind, a few years ago, in the Oxford Sorting Office, postal workers walked out in defence of an Asian woman cleaner who was being sexually harassed by one of the managers.

Another reason why it is impossible to separate the two struggles is because it is essential to take control of the wealth in society if ideas are to be put into practice. It is not enough to simply educate men and women to demand free childcare if there is none available. A complete transformation of society allowing its vast wealth to be put to good use is required. The Russian Revolution of 1917, many years before the birth of modern feminism, did exactly that – the workers’ state introduced free creches, abortion and divorce on demand, communal laundries and eating places.

The theory of patriarchy meant the rejection of the socialist explanation of women’s oppression, which was that the source of women’s oppression lies in class society. Frederick Engels in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, explained how women’s oppression arose hand in hand with the family, alongside the development of class society. The modern working class family has developed to provide a cheap way to raise the future generation of workers and to provide for the daily needs of the present workforce. Capitalists rely on this ‘privatised reproduction’, as Marx called it, and it is extremely unlikely that they would be prepared to socialise its costs, except in extreme emergencies such as during the Second World War, when a tiny number of munitions factories had creches which were only available to a small number of women and were quickly withdrawn as soon as the war was over.

In order to prop up the family the ruling class perpetuate a set of ideas. Ruling class ideology insists that women regard their main role in society as being mothers and men as being breadwinners. Single parenting, adulterous relationships and homosexuality all fall foul of bourgeois family ideology. There is a direct relationship between the family’s role in privatised reproduction and the ideology which exists to maintain it. By separating the two spheres, as Juliet Mitchell does, into economics and ideology, she also separates the struggle against women’s oppression from other fights against the system. Socialists believe that the fight for women’s liberation is inseparable from the fight to get rid of class society which has perpetuated the oppression of women.

A middle class agenda in the 1990s

Miriam Schneir’s belief that there exists a ‘world-wide family of women’ does not bear witness to reality. Whilst middle class women may be improving their position in society, working class women are still fighting for adequate child care, safe abortions, food for their children and economic independence for themselves.

Class differences have always meant that a united women’s movement is an impossibility. For example, the first women’s conference organised by the United Nations in 1975 highlighted the massive class differences between the women attending it. Third world women, such as Domitila Chungara, the wife of a Bolivian tin miner, stunningly revealed the class differences existing between the conference participants:

Every morning you show up in a different outfit and on the other hand, I don’t. Every day you show up all made up and combed like someone who has time to spend in an elegant beauty parlour and can spend money on that, and yet I don’t. I see that each afternoon you have a chauffeur in a car waiting at the door of this place to take you home, and yet I don’t ... Now, señora, tell me: is your situation at all similar to mine? Is my situation at all similar to yours? So what equality are we going to speak of between the two of us? If you and I aren’t alike, if you and I are so different? We can’t, at this moment, be equal, even as women, don’t you think? [30]

In America today Chicana/Mexican-American women are employed by white middle class women as their domestic employees. In Britain, Princess Diana spends on one outfit what a single mother on benefit gets to live on for a year.

Since its inception the women’s movement has possessed a middle class wing. In America this was represented by the National Organisation for Women (NOW). Business and professional women joined NOW. It focused on equality in employment, law, education and mainstream politics. These women were able to work with the more far-sighted sections of the ruling class who recognised that women played a vital role in the economy. Sections of the ruling class were quite content to see working class women suffer a ‘double burden’. Women could keep their jobs at work and look after the children. [31] State legislation such as the Civil Rights Act 1964, which made equal employment opportunities for women national policy (not until 1972 was it empowered to enforce its decisions), were important landmarks for women’s liberation, but they did not end poverty wages or sex discrimination. In Britain, in spite of 20 years of equal pay legislation, women’s full time weekly earnings are still only 72.2 percent of men’s; as part time workers they earn on average just 59 percent of the hourly pay of male full time workers. Three out of four people affected by the Tory government’s abolition of the wages councils were women.

What dominates the women’s movement in America today is an explicitly middle class agenda focusing on getting positions in the Supreme Court and Congress. The battles for women’s liberation centre on legislative lobbying and entering mainstream political structures of society. President Bill Clinton declared that the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993 ‘is to the women’s movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African Americans’. [32]

The middle class agenda in Britain is represented, for instance, by Clare Short MP’s focus on creating a women’s voice in the ministries and more women MPs. But working class women would find far greater benefit in a £4.15 national minimum wage and free childcare facilities, neither of which the Labour Party is promising. Clare Short has turned her back on these kinds of campaigns, ‘In the past, the women’s agenda has been a moaning agenda’. [33] She is not the only feminist to abandon the aspirations set by women in the 1960s. Anna Coote today embraces the family when she says:

Women must have the opportunity to be dependable, to be strong and self-reliant, able to care and provide, and to hold things together when the going gets tough ... But children need their father too – as much for emotional sustenance as for paying the bills ... If families are to be strengthened, we need to redefine the roles and responsibilities of men and women.

And she concludes that what is required is ‘the kind of pro-family agenda that could provide a government … with a strong moral leadership’. [34]

Other feminists have forsaken demanding and fighting for political change and instead have become academics who fail to connect with the gross inequalities which working class women suffer. Diana Coole reviewing ten contemporary books by feminist writers found that they were either ‘social constructionist, essentialist, deconstructive, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic (Lacanian or object relations) and so on’. [35] It seems pretty obvious that demands for more childcare, better pay, better jobs for women, etc will not be met by these feminists.

The Women’s Liberation Movement began in the late 1960s with a revolutionary fighting programme but has ended up in a sorry state. Miriam Schneir’s book can help those who wish to trace the rise and fall of the Women’s Liberation Movement but it offers no alternative to achieving women’s liberation. Those seeking an end to women’s oppression will need to look to socialist organisations if genuine liberation is to be gained.


1. The Guardian, 23 March 1995.

2. The Guardian, 24 April 1995.

3. The Guardian, 20 June 1995.

4. Ibid.

5. The Guardian, 10 April 1995.

6. The Guardian, 15 February 1995.

7. The Guardian, 24 April 1995.

8. The Observer, 21 January 1995.

9. The Guardian, 24 April 1995.

10. The Guardian, 12 April 1995.

11. The Guardian, 31 October 1990.

12. Quoted in J. Lavenduski and V. Randall, Contemporary Feminist Politics. Women and Power in Britain (Oxford 1993).

13. The Guardian, 6 March 1995.

14. B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, in M. Schneir (ed.), The Vintage Book of Feminism (London 1994), p. 53.

15. Quoted ibid, p50.

16. L. German, The Rise and Fall of the Women’s Movement, International Socialism 37 (1988).

17. An SDS Statement on the Liberation of Women, in M Schneir, op. cit., ppp. 105–106.

18. S. Smith, Mistaken Identity – or Can Identity Politics Liberate the Oppressed?, International Socialism 62 (1994).

19. Toward a Female Liberation Movement, M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 109.

20. Redstockings Manifesto, in M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 127.

21. Ibid., p128.

22. Radicalesbians, The Woman-Identified Woman, in M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 165.

23. S. Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, in M. Schneir, op. cit., pp. 252 and 272.

24. L. Segal, Is the Future Female? (London 1987), p. 101.

25. A. Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, in M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 421.

26. For a socialist response to pornography and rape, see S. McGregor, Rape, Pornography and Capitalism, International Socialism 45 (1989).

27. K. McAttee and M. Wood, Bread and Roses, in M. Schneir, op. cit., pp. 134–135.

28. For details of the rise and fall of the British women’s movements see L German, op. cit.

29. J. Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (London 1975).

30. D. Barrios de Chungala with M. Viezzer, Let Me Speak, Monthly Review Press (New York & London 1978).

31. The Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, in M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 40.

32. R.B. Ginsburg, On Being Nominated to the Supreme Court, in M. Schneir, op. cit., p. 481.

33. The Guardian, 24 April 1995.

34. Quoted in L. German, No Place Like Home?, Socialist Review, December 1995.

35. D. Coole, Whither Feminisms?, Political Studies, XLII (1994), pp. 128–134.

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