Marxist Feminism Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Aug 19, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • Marxist feminists see the family as a tool of capitalism and that it is capitalism not men who oppress women.
  • They see the family as oppressing women whilst support capitalism in three ways:
      1. Women reproduce the workforce and socialise them into social hierarchy.
      2. Women absorb the anger of men who are frustrated by their alienation and exploitation (cushioning effect).
      3. Women are a reserve army of cheap labour that can be activated when they are needed and let go when no longer needed.

What Is Marxist Feminism?

Marxist feminism is a branch of feminist theory which argues that the main cause of women’s oppression is capitalism. 

This type of feminism is based on the understandings of Marxism, proposed by Karl Marx and collaborator Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. Marx demonstrated how capitalism was able to grow through the exploitation of labor.

Social classes were described to explain how one class controls the other as a means to produce goods. People who are of a high-class level of economic condition are the bourgeoise, whereas people who are of a low-class level are claimed as the proletariat since they become the labors of the bourgeoise (Marx & Engels, 1848). 

Marxist feminists regard classism, rather than sexism, as the fundamental cause of women’s oppression. They explore how ideas of gender structure production in capitalism and argue that women are exploited by a capitalist society. 

While some Marxist themes may not be as relevant today, Marxist feminists can still be used to explore how the political economy is gendered in late-stage capitalism and how the social reproduction of people and communities renews capitalism (Armstrong, 2020). 

Whilst Marxist feminism can affect all individuals, this article will be focused on cisgender women in typically heterosexual relationships since this is who much of the research and theory centers on.

The Key Issues According to Marxist Feminism

The main view of Marxist feminists is that the traditional nuclear family only came about with capitalism. They believe that the traditional role of the housewife- who does not have paid employment and resides in the home completing domestic tasks- supports capitalism. 

Marxist feminists claim that while the proletariat are oppressed through the capitalist system, women are double oppressed through capitalism as well as through the nuclear family. 

Women’s oppression is thought to support capitalism in multiple ways, which are detailed below:

Women reproduce the labor force

In a capitalist society, women are expected to reproduce children. These children will then grow up to be the next generation of workers and mothers. 

Women are also socializing the next generation of workers and ‘servicing’ the current workers (their husbands) with their unpaid domestic labor. Thus, women are supporting capitalism through their own means of reproduction, according to Marxist feminists. 

Unpaid domestic labor of women

Marxist feminists claim that there is a division of labor between men and women: men are assigned economic production, whereas women have been assigned reproduction of the workforce.  

In a capitalist society, more value is given to the production of material goods by men, than the reproduction of people by women. Domestic work which is usually carried out by women include household chores, house management, and childcare. This labor is not respected in capitalist society since there is no exchange value. It is, therefore, devalued, and unpaid but expected to be done, nonetheless. 

Marxist feminists explain that the unpaid labor of women is a way to exploit them. It is done for free, and it benefits both men and the capitalist system. Capitalism would not exist without this unpaid labor because workers would not be able to work all day if they also had to take care of their children and the house (Cottais, 2020).

Women are a reserve of cheap labor

Since the primary role of women in a capitalist society is in unpaid domestic labor, they were usually restricted from working a paid job. However, women are used as a reserve, to be taken on temporarily when required by the bourgeois. 

This was observable during the World Wars when most men were sent away to fight. When the men were away, many women were enrolled in the work that they would have otherwise not been allowed to do (Grayzel, 2013). However, the women would have been paid less than the men and many would have had to return to their unpaid domestic duties once the men returned from war. 

Women take on emotional labor 

While not directly creating any produce or service, Marxist feminists claim that women must provide emotional labor under a capitalist society. This refers to the labor that is involved in keeping family members emotionally stable, so they can work efficiently. 

The partners of the women may be understandably frustrated by the exploitation they experience by the bourgeois and women are often expected to absorb this frustration which may result in domestic violence. 

How Was Marxist Feminism Developed?

Although Marxist theory was not initially focused on women’s issues, it was realized that under a capitalist system, women were exploited by not being paid for the reproductive and emotional labor they were involved in.

Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, is thought to be one of Marxist feminism’s pioneers in England in the 19th century among others such as Rosa Luxembourg.

During the suffrage movement in the early 20th century, class systems were considered when working-class women forged their own movement for the right to vote alongside white middle-class women.

It was not until the 1960s and 70s when Marxist feminism became particularly popular, resounding the most with women of the time. Marxist feminism is thought to have arisen in reaction to liberal feminism, whose fight failed to go beyond equal rights.

Marxist feminists argue that legal liberation is not enough to free women since it does nothing to abolish the patriarchy in social relations (Cottais, 2020). A few of the key women who contributed to the development of Marxist feminism as a theory are Chizuko Ueno, Anuradha Ghandy, Claudia Jones, and Angela Davis.

What Are The Goals Of Marxist Feminism?

Abolish capitalism

The main goal of Marxist feminists is to abolish capitalism. Through this, they believe that patriarchy itself can be tackled. Overthrowing the existing economic system is thought to liberate women.

Since capitalism is at the root of inequality and patriarchy is a product of capitalism, removing this system should eliminate gender inequalities. 

A classless society

Instead of capitalism, Marxist feminists advocate for a classless, communist society. Through a classless society, both the upper class and working-class people will be treated equally. 

Other solutions can be proposed such as reevaluating the reproductive work through the collectivism of domestic work and childcare. The vision of Marx and Engels was to ensure that there was a collective ownership and the basic dignity of women in society, thus the domestic duties will be shared equally between partners. 

More women in the public sphere

Since women’s exclusion from paid work makes them more oppressed, a way to combat this is to integrate women into paid work and the public sphere. This includes ensuring that women are paid equal wages to men and are offered the same opportunities if they have the necessary qualifications. 

Marxist feminists do not generally seek to exclude men from feminist struggles, in fact, they often want to avoid separation between the sexes for fear of fueling a class division (Cottais, 2020). 

Valuing domestic labor

Marxist feminists do not necessarily disagree that domestic labor should be ignored. Likewise, if a woman chooses to not work and instead take care of the household and children, then they should be free to do so. However, Marxist feminists wish for domestic labor to be as valued as reproductive labor. 

For domestic labor to be fairly valued, Marxist feminists argue that women should be paid for domestic work. Being paid for this work puts an economic value on what is still largely considered women’s work. 

Control over reproductive rights

If women have more reproductive rights and more of a choice as to whether to be a parent, they have more choice as to their role in society. Capitalist societies see women’s main job is to be a mother and nothing else.

So, if women realize they have a choice as to whether to go down this path, they can feel more liberated to do what they want to do. 

Strengths And Criticisms Of Marxist Feminism

Marxist feminism has shone a light on how women are oppressed by a capitalist society. Attention has been drawn to the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy and the importance of taking both class and gender into consideration in feminist demands.

It considers how some previous feminist movements may have been more focused on the rights of middle-class or upper-class women, with working-class women being ignored or forgotten in history.

Marxist feminism can also highlight how working-class women are not only subservient to men, but often to wealthy women. More women and men recognize that there is often an imbalance in the share of household and childcare responsibilities.

This awareness means that couples can discuss and come to agreements as to how to split the duties. Many more men take on an active role in the household which can allow their partners to relax or to work on their career.

Likewise, people in relationships can start to be more aware of whether they are unwillingly doing more of the domestic duties. If someone’s partner is not willing to take on more of the unpaid labor and this is making them unhappy, then they can consider whether this is the person they want to spend their life with.

Ultimately, more people can find a partner who suits their lifestyle and do not have to settle for someone who is not helpful or supportive.

A main criticism of Marxist feminism is that women’s oppression is thought to have been prevalent in the family system before capitalism existed.

Therefore, it is doubtful whether men would suddenly stop exploiting women in a classless society. In fact, sexism and oppression of women can still be found in communist political parties, trade unions, and left-wing militant structures.

As such, viewing Marxism as a condition for women’s liberation ignores sexism as a whole and may only deal with a small percentage of the wider issue. Marxist feminism has focused heavily on the intersection of class and gender but initially did not always incorporate the intersection of race, sexuality, or disability alongside these issues.

A black woman in a mostly white capitalist society, for instance, would be oppressed because of being a woman, but also for being black. Angela Davis discusses the intersection of race on Marxist feminism in her book ‘Women, Race, & Class’ (1981).

Marxist feminism may also be criticized as not being relevant in today’s society. Since more women have the opportunity to work and have the choice as to whether to bear children, they are not necessarily restricted to being a traditional housewife, unless this is what they choose to do. Thus, many aspects of Marxist feminism may now be outdated.

What is the difference between Marxist and socialist feminism?

Marxist and socialist feminism can often be confused and sometimes used interchangeably. While they may be similar, a way to distinguish between them is by their view on women’s oppression. 

Marxist feminism considers capitalism to be the root cause of women’s exploitation, which is analyzed through the construct of social classes. However, socialist feminism takes both class and gender factors into account when it studies how patriarchy-capitalism articulate (Cottais, 2020). 

How does intersectionality relate to Marxist feminism?

Intersectionality acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression based on factors such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and disability, among others.

While intersectionality views all forms of oppression as equally important, Marxists highlight how class is the fundamental dividing line in capitalist society. Marxist feminism is intersectional since it considers how women are double oppressed under capitalism. First by being a woman, and second by their social class. 

Are women in paid work still affected by capitalism according to Marxist feminists?

Many may criticize Marxist feminism by stating that it is not relevant to modern day society since more women are able to work in paid jobs and do not have to be restricted to staying in the household, doing chores, and caring for their children. 

However, for women, there are some barriers which can make it harder for them to have a career and children at the same time. Women who work in paid jobs are often still required to complete their ‘second shift’ when they return home (housework, childcare, and home management), which uses up more of their time and energy (Arruzza, Bhattacharya, & Fraser, 2019). 

While it may not be the case for every household, heterosexual women are still shown to complete more hours of ‘unpaid labor’ compared to their male partners (Seedat & Rondon, 2021).

Likewise, the jobs which are typically undertaken by women (e.g., care work and teaching) are often underpaid meaning that they may not sufficiently cover the costs of raising a child. To make life easier, many women may resort to working part-time or quitting work completely, falling back into the role of a housewife while relying on their husband’s income. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Aug 19). Marxist Feminism Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/marxist-feminism.html

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