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Marxist / Materialist Feminism

Marxist / Materialist Feminism

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Martha E. Gimenez

Rosemary Hennessy

Elizabeth Grosz

Heidi Hartmann

Nancy Hartsock

Mary O'Brien

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      "Marxist Feminism / Materialist Feminism"

      by Martha E. Gimenez

        [Copyright Martha E. Gimenez, 1998]

      It was possible, in the heady days of the Women's Liberation Movement, to identify four main currents within feminist thought; Liberal (concerned with attaining economic and political equality within the context of capitalism); Radical (focused on men and patriarchy as the main causes of the oppression of women); Socialist (critical of capitalism and Marxism, so much so that avoidance of Marxism's alleged reductionisms resulted in dual systems theories postulating various forms of interaction between capitalism and patriarchy); and Marxist Feminism (a theoretical position held by relatively few feminists in the U. S. -- myself included -- which sought to develop the potential of Marxist theory to understand the capitalist sources of the oppression of women).

      These are, of course, oversimplified descriptions of a rich and complex body of literature which, however, reflected important theoretical, political and social cleavages among women that continue to this date. Divisions in feminist thought multiplied as the effects of post-structuralist and post-modern theorizing merged with grass roots challenges to a feminism perceived as the expression of the needs and concerns of middle and upper middle class white, "First World" women. In the process, the subject of feminism became increasingly difficult to define, as the post- modern critique of "woman" as an essentialist category together with critiques grounded in racial, ethnic, sexual preference and national origin differences resulted in a seemingly never ending proliferation of "subject positions," "identities," and "voices." Cultural and identity politics replaced the early focus on capitalism and (among Marxist feminists primarily) class divisions among women; today class has been reduced to another "ism;" i.e., to another form oppression which, together with gender and race integrate a sort of mantra, something that everyone ought to include in theorizing and research though, to my knowledge, theorizing about it remains at the level of metaphors (e.g., interweaving, interaction, interconnection etc.).

      It was, therefore, very interesting to me to read, a few years ago, a call for papers for an edited book on Materialist Feminism. The description of Materialist Feminism put forth by the editors, Chrys Ingraham and Rosemary Hennessy, was to me indistinguishable from Marxist Feminism. This seemed such a promising development in feminist theory that I proceeded to invite the editors to join me in creating an electronic discussion list on Materialist Feminism, MatFem. Initially, I thought that Materialist Feminism was simply another way of referring to Marxist Feminism, but I was mistaken; the two are, to some extent, distinct forms of feminist theorizing. There is, however, such similarities between Materialist and Marxist Feminist thought in some feminists' work that some degree of confusion between the two is to be expected.

      My goal, in this introduction to the page, is to explore the differences and the similarities between these two important currents within feminist theory. This is not an easy task; theorists who self-identify as materialist or as marxist feminists differ in their understanding of what those descriptive labels mean and, consequently, the kind of knowledges they produce. And, depending on their theoretical allegiances and self-understanding within the field, feminists may differ in their classification of other feminists works, so that clear lines of theoretical demarcation between and within these two umbrella terms are somewhat difficult to establish. Take, for example, Lise Vogel's work. I always considered her a Marxist Feminist because, unlike Socialist Feminists (whose avoidance of Marx's alleged reductionisms led them to postulate ahistorical theories of patriarchy), she took Marxism seriously and developed her analysis of reproduction as a basis for the oppression of women firmly within the Marxist tradition. But the subtitle of her recent book (a collection of previously published essays), is "Essays for a Materialist Feminism;" self-identifying as a socialist feminist, she states that socialist feminists "sought to replace the socialist tradition's theorizing about the woman question with a 'materialist' understanding of women's oppression" (Vogel, 1995, p. xi). This is certainly news to me; Socialist Feminism's rejection of Marx's and Marxism's "reductionism" lead to the deliberate effort to ground "patriarchy" outside the mode of production and, consequently and from the standpoint of Marxist theory, outside history. Materialism, Vogel tells us, was used to highlight the key role of production, including domestic production, in understanding the conditions leading to the oppression of women. (But wasn't Engels' analysis materialist? and didn't Marxist Feminists [Margaret Benston and Peggy Morton come to mind) explore the ways production -- public and domestic -- oppressed and exploited women?) Materialism was also used as "a flag," to situate Socialist Feminism within feminist thought and within the left; materialist feminism, consequently cannot be reduced to a trend in cultural studies, as some literary critics would prefer (Vogel, 1995, xii).

      These brief comments about Vogel's understanding of Materialist Feminism highlight some of its problematic aspects as a term intended to identify a specific trend within feminist theory. It can blur, as it does in this instance, the qualitative differences that existed and continue to exist between Socialist Feminism, the dominant strand of feminist thought in the U.S. during the late 1960s and 1970s, and the marginalized Marxist Feminism. I am not imputing such motivations to Lise Vogel; I am pointing out the effects of such an interpretation of U.S. Socialist Feminism which, despite the use of Marxist terms and references to capitalism, developed, theoretically, as a sort of feminist abstract negation of Marxism. Other feminists, for different reasons, would also disagree with Vogel's interpretation; for example, for Toril Moi and Janice Radway, the relationship between Socialist Feminism and Materialist Feminism "is far from clear" (Moi and Radway, 1994: 749). Acknowledging the problematic nature of the term, in a special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly dedicated to this topic they do not offer a theory of Materialist Feminism, nor a clear definition of the term. Presumably, the articles included in this issue will give the reader the elements necessary to define the term for herself because all the authors "share a commitment to concrete historical and cultural analysis, and to feminism understood as an 'emancipatory narrative'"(Moi and Radway, 1994:750). One of these authors, Jennifer Wicke, defines it as follows: "a feminism that insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangements, including those of gender hierarchy, develop... materialist feminism avoids seeing this (gender hierarchy) as the effect of a singular....patriarchy and instead gauges the web of social and psychic relations that make up a material, historical moment" (Wicke, 1994: 751);"...materialist feminism argues that material conditions of all sorts play a vital role in the social production of gender and assays the different ways in which women collaborate and participate in these productions"... "there are areas of material interest in the fact hat women can bear children... Materialist feminism... is less likely than social constructionism to be embarrassed by the occasional material importance of sex differences.."(Wicke, 1994: 758-759).

      Insistence on the importance of material conditions, the material historical moments as a complex of social relations which include and influence gender hierarchy, the materiality of the body and its sexual, reproductive and other biological functions remain, however, abstract pronouncements which unavoidably lead to an empiricist focus on the immediately given. There is no theory of history or of social relations or of the production of gender hierarchies that could give guidance about the meaning of whatever it is observed in a given "material historical moment."

      Landry and MacLean, authors of MATERIALIST FEMINISMS (1993), tell us that theirs is a book "about feminism and Marxism" in which they examine the debates between feminism and Marxism in the U.S. and Britain and explore the implications of those debates for literary and cultural theory. The terrain of those early debates, which were aimed at a possible integration or synthesis between Marxism and feminism, shifted due to the emergence of identity politics, concern with postcolonialism, sexuality, race, nationalism, etc., and the impact of postmodernism and post- structuralism. The new terrain has to do with the "construction of a materialist analysis of culture informed by and responsive to the concerns of women, as well as people of color and other marginalized groups" (Landry and MacLean, 1993: ix-x). For Landry and Maclean, Materialist Feminism is a "critical reading practice...the critical investigation, or reading in the strong sense, of the artifacts of culture and social history, including literary and artistic texts, archival documents, and works of theory... (is) a potential site of political contestation through critique, not through the constant reiteration of home-truths" (ibid, pp. x-xi). Theirs is a "deconstructive materialist feminist perspective" (ibid, p. xiii). But what, precisely, does materialist mean in this context? What theory of history and what politics inform this critique? Although they define materialism in a philosophical and moral sense, and bring up the difference between mechanical or "vulgar"materialism and historical materialism, there is no definition of what materialism means when linked to feminism. Cultural materialism, as developed in Raymond William's work, is presented as a remedy or supplement to Marx's historical materialism. There is, according to Williams, an "indissoluble connection between material production, political and cultural institutions and activity, and consciousness ... Language is practical consciousness, a way of thinking and acting in the world that has material consequences (ibid, p. 5). Williams, they point out, "strives to put human subjects as agents of culture back into materialist debate" (ibid, p. 5).

      The implications of these statements is that "humans as agents of culture" are not present in historical materialism and that Marx's views on the relationship between material conditions, language, and consciousness are insufficient. But anyone familiar with Marx's work knows that this is not the case. In fact, it is Marx who wrote that "language is practical consciousness" and posited language as the matter that burdens "spirit" from the very start, for consciousness is always and from the very first a social product (Marx, [1845-46] 1994, p.117).

      Landry and Maclean present an account of the development of feminist thought from the late 1960s to the present divided in three moments: the encounters and debates between marxism and feminism in Britain and the U.S.; the institutionalization and commodification of feminism; and "deconstructive materialist feminism." These are "three moments of materialist feminism" (ibid, p.15), a very interesting statement that suggest that Materialist Feminism -- a rather problematic and elusive concept which reflects, in my view, postmodern sensibilities about culture and about the subject of feminism -- had always been there, from the very beginning, just waiting to be discovered. Is that really the case? If so, what is this materialism that lurked under the variety of feminist theories produced on both sides of the Atlantic since the late 1960s? Does reference to "material conditions" in general or to "the material conditions of the oppression of women" suffice as a basis for constructing a new theoretical framework, qualitatively different from a Marxist Feminism? If so, how? The authors argue that feminist theories focused exclusively on gender and dual systems theories that bring together gender and class analysis face methodological and political problems that "deconstructive reading practices can help solve;" they propose "the articulation of discontinuous movements, materialism and feminism, an articulation that takes the political claims of deconstruction seriously... deconstruction as tool of political critique (ibid, p. 12-13). But isn't the linking between deconstruction and Marxism what gives it its critical edge? It is in the conclusion that the authors, aiming to demonstrate that materialism is not an alias for Marxism, outline the difference between Marxist Feminism and Materialist Feminism as follows:

      "Marxist feminism holds class contradictions and class analysis central, and has tried various ways of working an analysis of gender oppression around this central contradiction. In addition to class contradictions and contradictions within gender ideology... we are arguing that materialist feminism should recognize as material other contradictions as well. These contradictions also have histories, operate in ideologies, and are grounded in material bases and effects.... they should be granted material weight in social and literary analysis calling itself materialist.... these categories would include...ideologies of race, sexuality, imperialism and colonialism and anthropocentrism, with their accompanying radical critiques" (ibid, p. 229).

      While this is helpful to understand what self-identified materialist feminists mean when they refer to their framework, it does not shed light on the meaning of material base, material effect, material weight. The main concept, materialism, remains undefined and references to ideologies, exploitation, imperialism, oppression, colonialism, etc. confirm precisely that which the authors intended to dispel: materialism would seem to be an alias for Marxism.

      Rosemary Hennessy (1993) traces the origins of Materialist Feminism in the work of British and French feminists who preferred the term materialist feminism to Marxist feminism because, in their view, Marxism had to be transformed to be able to explain the sexual division of labor (Beechey, 1977: 61, cited in Kuhn and Wolpe, 1978: 8). In the 1970s, Hennessy states, Marxism was inadequate to the task because of its class bias and focus on production, while feminism was also problematic due to its essentialist and idealist concept of woman; this is why materialist feminism emerged as a positive alternative both to Marxism and feminism (Hennessy, 1993: xii). The combined effects of the postmodern critique of the empirical self and the criticisms voiced by women who did not see themselves included in the generic woman subject of academic feminist theorizing resulted, in the 1990s, in materialist feminist analyses that "problematize 'woman' as an obvious and homogeneous empirical entity in order to explore how 'woman' as a discursive category is historically constructed and traversed by more than one differential axis" (Hennessy, 1993: xii). Furthermore, Hennessy argues, despite the postmodern rejection of totalities and theoretical analyses of social systems, materialist feminists need to hold on to the critique of the totalities which affect women's lives: patriarchy and capitalism. Women's lives are every where affected by world capitalism and patriarchy and it would be politically self-defeating to replace that critique with localized, fragmented political strategies and a perception of social reality as characterized by a logic of contingency.

      Hennessy's views on the characteristics of Materislist Feminism emerge through her critical engagement with the works of Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault, Kristeva and other theorists of the postmodern. Materialist Feminism is a "way of reading" that rejects the dominant pluralist paradigms and logics of contingency and seeks to establish the connections between the discursively constructed differentiated subjectivities that have replaced the generic "woman" in feminist theorizing, and the hierarchies of inequality that exploit and oppress women. Subjectivities, in other words, cannot be understood in isolation from systemically organized totalities. Materialist Feminism, as a reading practice, is also a way of explaining or re-writing and making sense of the world and, as such, influences reality through the knowledges it produces about the subject and her social context. Discourse and knowledge have materiality in their effects; one of the material effects of discourse is the construction of the subject but this subject is traversed by differences grounded in hierarchies of inequality which are not local or contingent but historical and systemic, such as patriarchy and capitalism. Difference, consequently, is not mere plurality but inequality. The problem of the material relationship between language, discourse, and the social or between the discursive (feminist theory) and the non-discursive (women's lives divided by exploitative and oppressive social relations) can be resolved through the conceptualization of discourse as ideology . A theory of ideology presupposes a theory of the social and this theory, which informs Hennessy's critical reading of postmodern theories of the subject, discourse, positionality, language, etc., is what she calls a "global analytic" which, in light of her references to multinational capitalism, the international division of labor, overdetermined economic, political and cultural practices, etc, is at the very least a kind of postmodern Marxism. But references to historical materialism, and Althusser's theory of ideology and the notion of symptomatic reading are so important in the development of her arguments that one wonders about her hesitation to name Marx and historical materialism as the theory of the social underlying her critique of the postmodern logic of contingency; i.e., the theory of capitalism, the totality she so often mentions together with patriarchy as sources of the exploitation and oppression of women and as the basis for the "axis of differences" that traverse the discursive category "woman." To sum up, Hennessy's version of Materialist Feminism is a blend of post-marxism and postmodern theories of the subject and a source of "readings" and "re- writings" which rescue postmodern categories of analysis (subject, discourse, difference) from the conservative limbo of contingency, localism and pluralism to historicize them or contextualizing them by connecting them to their systemic material basis in capitalism and patriarchy. This is made possible by understanding discourse as ideology and linking ideology to its material base in the "global analytic."

      In Hennessy's analysis, historical materialism seems like an ever present but muted shadow, latent under terms such as totality, systemic, and global analytic. However, in the introduction to MATERIALIST FEMINISM: A Reader in Class, Difference and Women's Lives (1997), written with her co-editor, Chrys Ingraham, there is a clear, unambiguous return to historical materialism, a recognition of its irreplaceable importance for feminist theory and politics. This introduction, entitled "Reclaiming Anticapitalist Feminism," is a critique of the dominant feminist concern with culture, identity and difference considered in isolation from any systemic understanding of the social forces that affect women's lives, and a critique of an academic feminism that has marginalized and disparaged the knowledges produced by the engagement of feminists with Marxism and their contributions to feminist scholarship and to the political mobilization of women. More importantly, this introduction is a celebration of Marxist Feminism whose premises and insights have been consistently "misread, distorted, or buried under the weight of a flourishing postmodern cultural politics" (ibid, p.5). They point out that, whatever the name of the product of feminists efforts to grapple with historical materialism (marxist feminism, socialist feminism or materialist feminism), these are names that signal theoretical differences and emphases but which together indicate the recognition of historical materialism as the source of emancipatory knowledge required for the success of the feminist project. In this introduction, materialist feminism becomes a term used interchangeably with marxist feminism, with the latter being the most prominently displayed. The authors draw a clear line between the cultural materialism that characterizes the work of post-marxist feminists who, having rejected historical materialism, analyze cultural, ideological and political practices in isolation from their material base in capitalism, and materialist feminism (i.e., marxist or socialist feminism) which is firmly grounded in historical materialism and links the success of feminist struggles to the success of anticapitalist struggles; "unlike cultural feminists, materialist, socialist and marxist feminists do not see culture as the whole of social life but rather as only one arena of social production and therefore as only one area of feminist struggle" (ibid, p. 7). The authors differentiate materialist feminism from marxist feminism by indicating that it is the end result of several discourses (historical materialism, marxist and radical feminism, and postmodern and psychoanalytic theories of meaning and subjectivity) among which the postmodern input, in their view, is the source of its defining characteristics. Nevertheless, in the last paragraphs of the introduction there is a return to the discussion of marxist feminism, its critiques of the idealist features of postmodernism and the differences between the postmodern and the historical materialist or marxist analyses of representations of identity. But, they point out, theoretical conflicts do not occur in isolation from class conflicts and the latter affect the divisions among professional feminists and their class allegiances. Feminists are divided in their attitudes towards capitalism and their understanding of the material conditions of oppression; to be a feminist is not necessarily to be anticapitalist and to be a materialist feminist is not equivalent to being socialist or even critical of the status quo. In fact, "work that claims the signature "materialist feminism" shares much in common with cultural feminism, in that it does not set out to explain or change the material realities that link women's oppression to class" (ibid, p.9). Marxist feminism, on the other hand, does make the connection between the oppression of women and capitalism and this is why the purpose of their book, according to the authors, is "to reinsert into materialist feminism -- especially in those overdeveloped sectors where this collection will be most widely read -- those (untimely) marxist feminist knowledges that the drift to cultural politics in postmodern feminism has suppressed. It is our hope that in so doing this project will contribute to the emergence of feminisms' third wave and its revival as a critical force for transformative social change (ibid, p. 9).

      In light of the above, given the inherent ambiguity of the term Materialist Feminism, shouldn't it be more theoretically adequate and politically fruitful to return to Marxist Feminism? Is the effort of struggling to redefine Materialist Feminism by reinserting Marxist Feminist knowledges a worthwhile endeavor? How important is it to broaden the notion of Materialist Feminism to include Marxist Feminist contents? Perhaps the political climate inside and outside the academy is one where Marxism is so discredited that Marxist Feminists are likely to find more acceptance and legitimacy by claiming Materialist Feminism as their theoretical orientation. I do not in anyway impute this motivation to Ingraham and Hennessy whose introduction to their book is openly Marxist. In fact, after I read it and looked over the table of contents I thought a more adequate title for the book would have been Marxist Feminism. And anyone familiar with historical materialism can appreciate the sophisticated Marxist foundation of Hennessy's superbly argued book. In my view, as the ruthlessness of the world market intensifies the exploitation of all working people among which women are the most vulnerable and the most oppressed, the time has come not just to retrieve the Marxist heritage in feminist thought but to expand Marxist Feminist theory in ways that both incorporate and transcend the contributions of postmodern theorizing.

      The justification for using Materialist Feminism rather than Marxist Feminism is the alleged insufficiency of Marxist Theory for adequately explaining the oppression of women. Lurking behind the repeated statements about the the shortcomings of Marxism there is an economistic and undialectical understanding of Marx and Marxist theory. That Marx may not have addressed issues that 20th century feminists consider important is not a sufficient condition to invalidate Marx's methodology as well as the potential of his theory of capitalism to help us understand the conditions that oppress women. But regardless of those pronouncements, it is fascinating, in retrospect, to read the theory produced by self- defined Materialist Feminists and realize that they are actually using and developing Marxist theory in ways that belie statements about its inherent shortcomings. And it is important to know how Kuhn and Wolpe, authors of FEMINISM AND MATERIALISM (1978) define the term materialism; they adopted Engels' definition of the term: "According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species" (Engels, [1883] 1972, p.71)(Kuhn and Wolpe, 1978: 7). Kuhn, Wolpe and the contributors to their book in various ways expanded the scope of historical materialism to produce new knowledges about the oppression of women under capitalism. But materialist feminism, a term which may have been useful in the past might have lost its effectivity today. How useful is it to broaden the meaning of Materialist Feminism today to encompass Marxist Feminism if, at the same time, the term is claimed by cultural materialists whose views are profoundly anti-marxist? How will the new generations learn about the theoretical and political importance of historical materialism for women if historical materialist analysis is subsumed under the Materialist Feminist label? Doesn't this situation contribute to the marginalization of scholars who continue to self-identify as Marxist Feminists? I understand Marxist Feminism as the body of theory produced by feminists who, adopting the logic of analysis of historical materialism, expand the scope of the theory while critically incorporating useful insights and knowledges from non-marxist theorizing, just as Marx grappled with the discoveries of the classical economists and their shortcomings. Why should this theoretical enterprise present itself under a different name, especially one likely to elicit some degree of confusion among the younger generations of feminists? Furthermore, the political cost of doing, essentially, Marxist theorizing under the banner of Materialist Feminism is likely to be exceedingly high. Why? Because, by overstressing the "materialist" aspect in historical materialism it can contribute justify the dominant stereotypes about Marxism: its materialism, meaning its alleged anti-agency, anti-human, deterministic, reductionist limitations.

      The answers to these questions are political and will come from feminists practices and dialogue and from the effects of the intensification of capitalist rule upon both first and third world peoples. In the meantime, it is important to know that Marxist and some works within Materialist Feminism share fundamental theoretical assumptions and political goals.


      Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. 1994.

      Hennessy, Rosemary. Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Difference. 1993.

      Hennessy, Rosemary and Chrys Ingraham, eds. Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives. 1997.

      Kuhn, Annette and AnnMarie Wolpe, eds., FEMINISM AND MATERIALISM. Women and Modes of Production. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

      Landry, Donna and Gerald Maclean, MATERIALIST FEMINISMS. Blackwell, 1993.

      Moi, Toril and Janice Radway, "Editors' Note." The South Atlantic Quarterly (Fall, 1994): 749.

      Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. 1993.

      Vogel, Lise. WOMAN QUESTIONS. Essays for a Materialist Feminism. Routledge, 1995.

      Wicke, Jennifer. "Celebrety Material: Materialist Feminism and the Culture of Celebrety." The South Atlantic Quarterly (Fall, 1994): 751-78.Gimenez, Martha and Jane Collins, ed.Work Without Wages. SUNY Press, 1990.

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