Marxism, Radical Feminism,
and Sociology

In order to gain a stronger sense of how radical feminist theory would fit in among the explanatory theories commonly accepted by the discipline of sociology, I decided to seek out a normative, highly conventional overview of sociological theories. Along the walls of the office I share with other graduate students in my department are many textbooks for introductory classes in sociology. Large, mainstream publishing companies tend to supply us with free "professional copies" in hopes that we will order them for our undergraduate classes.

An analysis of ten randomly chosen introductory sociology textbooks (Robertson 1987; Johnson 1989; Conklin 1984; Hess, Markson and Stein, 1982; Wallace and Wallace, 1985; Goode 1984; Babbie 1980; Shepard 1984; Stokes 1984; Tichsler, Whitten and Hunter 1986) reveals a widely used categorical system for introducing and describing social theory. Perspectives and their originators are divided up into functionalists (or sometimes structuralist-functionalists, or structuralists), who analyze the whole of status quo society in terms of its analytically distinguishable components and their functions; conflict theorists, who start with the assumption of adversarially poised social factions and an analytically distinguishable power relationship defining them, and then analyze social relationships in terms of their meaning to that power struggle; and interactionist theorists, who examine the processes by which small number of people acting and reacting to one another are able to utilize symbols to communicate, to establish and rely upon patterns which become roles and structures, and so forth.

Historically, radical feminism started with the assumption that the sexes are adversarially poised, that men have power over women, and that society and its various social relationships can be best understood in terms of their relationship to that situation (Eisenstein 1983). Thus, within this framework, radical feminism is a conflict theory.

For the purposes of introducing radical feminists and sociologists to each other's theoretical domain, it seems most important to compare and contrast radical feminism with other forms of conflict theory. The conflict theorists most commonly cited in the textbooks are Karl Marx and Max Weber. Since radical feminist theory was originally inspired by the political theories of Marx, radical feminism shares with Marxism not only the intention of transforming society rather than merely studying it, but also other related concerns, although many of these are resolved differently. Marxism, like radical feminism, starts with a theory of adversarially poised social factions with a fundamental distinguishable power relationship defining them, and then analyzes all of society in terms of that power struggle. Unlike radical feminism, Marxism identifies its formative power relationship in terms of material wealth, most centrally of ownership/control of the means of production of still further material wealth, and describes two adversarially poised classes--the working class and the class of owners of the means of production--as the opponents in the power struggle.

In both cases, although the process of oppression is thought to be accomplished in part by the direct and coercive application of violent force by the oppressor category against insubordinate members of the oppressed category, it is necessarily maintained in part by the internalization by members of the oppressed category of a world-view that tells them that their subordination is natural, that the sociopolitical system in which they find themselves is a good and just one. This internalized world-view, called ideology, serves the function of causing the members of the oppressed category to believe that although their situation as individuals may be different from that of individuals who belong to the other category, there is something intrinsic and natural about the categorical distinction, rather than something socially constructed and perhaps unfairly so.

Both Marxism and radical feminism identify, as the weak point in the systems of oppression that they speak of, the fact that the oppressor's success depends on not having to perpetually resort to violent force at every turn in order to subdue the oppressed (Marx 1844; Hanisch 1970). In the case of the Marxist analysis, the vastly superior numbers of the oppressed alone is thought to make a violent confrontation with virtually universal participation by class-conscious members of society a guaranteed win for the oppressed, and therefore violent revolution by the working class has been directly proposed within the Marxist tradition as an ideal solution to the problem of oppression (e.g., Marx 1872). Other variations on Marxist theory point more to the inability of the system of oppressors and oppressed to continue to function if the oppressors are forced either to accept the need to negotiate for the voluntary cooperation of the formerly oppressed or to resort to time-consuming and energy-consuming violent coercion at every turn (e.g., Marx 1888). Within feminist analyses, the numerical advantage of the oppressed category (women) is slight and does not imply a superiority of physical strength, and a call to arms and violent revolution is not a seriously considered tactic, but again the system of oppressors and oppressed is thought to be unable to survive a successful piercing of ideology and the raising of consciousness on the part of the oppressed so that the individuals in the oppressed category (women) no longer conspire in their own oppression.

Analytically, radical feminism can be distinguished from feminism that is not called "radical" according to the degree to which this particular power struggle and situation--patriarchy, the rule by men, in which women are the oppressed category--is understood to be the root of all further inequalities, oppressions, and injustices. This perspective is widely, but not universally, shared by feminists whether they make fine distinctions between types of feminism or not. The individual woman who perceives that society is unfair to and exploitative of women may not be philosophically inclined to see this social problem as "the root of all further oppression" without necessarily having thought about and rejected it as a theoretical possibility. The term "liberal feminism" is often used to designate feminism that does not concern itself with society and its institutions except in terms of gender parity (Jaggar and Rothenberg 1984). Presumably a liberal feminist could have a critical perspective on matters such as housing for the homeless in New York, child sexual abuse in California, or despotism in China--but if so, they are not likely to be feminist perspectives any more than they are anti-racism perspectives. In the sense of being able to provide an analytical framework through which to view society, liberal feminism is not, therefore, a major social theory. (It is, in fact, an application of an ethical perspective called "liberalism", a product of the enlightenment that opposes automatic social privilege on the basis of caste, status, class, and other categories that should not logically be associated with distinctions in privilege. Some feminists do argue that, when applied to sex / gender, liberalism is a radical tactic, but liberal feminism itself does not include that assertion.)

The other major category of feminist thought from which radical feminism is usefully distinguished is Marxist feminism. This is a trickier distinction, because Marxists have a tendency to abrogate the term "radical" for themselves (Eichler 1980).

Many of the modern American women's liberation movement's early theorists were young women associated with Marx-inspired male-dominated groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, and as they became tired of their feminized, marginal status within these leftist groups, female activists utilized Marxist theory to critique those practices and address women's political situation in capitalist society. Some theorists, irritated and disillusioned with the limitations of Marxism, especially its political practice by the "male left" (Morgan 1978), took the process a step further and began to wonder if sexual inequality could be a more fundamental key to oppression than class and the dialectic of materialism, and thus radical feminism started to emerge. Marxist theory was often used by early radical feminist thinkers of the women's movement as a sort of theoretical template-thus, some early radical feminism such as that of Firestone (1970) tends to have a "cut and paste" feel to it, as if "class" were replaced with "sex", "production" with "reproduction", and so forth in order to see if it would provide the growing movement with its own manifesto. Soon there was a body of papers and books that developed radical feminist theory in directions and forms of its own. Radical feminism, for instance, did not center upon a single and specific theoretical equivalent to material wealth and what it represents in Marxism: the Thing that the opponents are fighting over. Instead, men are more often perceived as oppressing women for ultimately unnecessary reasons (Morgan 1982) or at least pathologically irrational ones (Daly 1978). Similarly, since there is no Thing concerning which radical feminism finds a power struggle to be inevitable, feminist theorists have often regarded the valuing of power over other people as theoretically problematic, whereas Marxism tends more towards an implicit acceptance of this type of power as desirable, explaining oppression in terms of opportunity to oppress. This becomes an important theoretical distinction.

Meanwhile, because determined and committed feminists had at their disposal two conflict theories that attempted to explain how to end women's oppression, they used them both and developed both of them further. The women who continued to work mainly within a Marxist framework to critique the limited Marxist perspectives and oppressive tendencies of the male left developed Marxist feminism, which was a furthering of dialectical materialist conceptualizations of women's oppression (a previously acknowledged but long-neglected topic in Marxist literature-Morgan 1982). Later, as radical feminism deepened and broadened its scope, feminists and theoreticians who appreciated aspects of both perspectives made efforts to unify the two conflict theories in such a way as to provide a better world-view than either theory could provide alone, and this project, along with the resultant hybridized theories, is often called socialist feminism (Jaggar and Rothenberg 1984; Stacey and Thorne 1985).

Both "Marxist feminism" and "socialist feminism" are terms which imply the inclusion of specifically feminist perspectives and theories along with the Marxist perspective, thus giving the impression that these perspectives provide one with as much of a feminist analysis as is likely to be useful in understanding society. But instead what usually happens is that the two theories are reconciled by placing feminist subject matter into a specifically Marxist framework of analysis. Thus, a socialist feminist complains of "Marxist feminism"--

The marriage of marxism and feminism has been like the marriage of husband and wife depicted in English common law: marxism and feminism are one, and that one is marxism.
(Hartman 1981, p. 2)

--but similar complaints have been lodged against "socialist feminism". Radical feminists who are not particularly impressed with Marxism as an equal theoretical partner have had difficulty asserting the distinctive existence of their theory independent from Marxism and its feminism-incorporative stepchildren. Although socialist feminists continually claim that they are trying to unite the theories as equally relevant and important social paradigms, it remains largely true that feminist perspectives are shoved into Marxist frameworks and called socialist feminism, but when the opposite reconciliation is proposed, the results is invariably called radical feminism instead. For instance, the following passage would not be likely to be introduced as socialist feminism:

[An article supporting the socialist feminist project, titled] "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism" attempts to expose the interrelations between patriarchy and capitalism but fails in one important respect. It accepts uncritically, and from the outset, the widely-held belief that patriarchy and capitalism, although interrelated, are conceptually (or ideologically) independentSuch a view of patriarchy and capitalism does not reach the heart of the matter...

Conceptually, capitalism is an advanced stage of patriarchy. Given that framework, the assessment of marxism and its relationship to feminism, patriarchy and capitalism emerges with surprising clarity. Strategically, then, the struggle against capitalism, racism, imperialism and any other product of man's attempt at domination of the Other must be based on an understanding of their basic patriarchal nature, and must be therefore regarded as part and parcel of the feminist struggle.

(Al-Hibri 1981, pp. 166-7, 190)

Stacey and Thorne (1985) charge that feminism becomes "ghettoized" (p. 302) in sociology within presentations of Marxist conflict theory. The perspective of feminists on education, for instance, or the economic system or nationalism, are simply not provided alongside of Marxist perspectives, even if the individual feminists have been called (or call themselves) socialist feminists. Publications, conferences, literature, and courses in the socialist-feminist theoretical format abound, but they are organized, presented, and attended by women almost exclusively; meanwhile, the overall presentation of the conflict perspective on such-and-such an issue-the stuff that the men teach, attend, read, pay attention to, learn about, and make mandatory for incoming students of the field-remains untouched. The underlying assumption is that "feminist theory" means women's stuff, i.e., feminine subject matter, rather than a different major theory of society in general.

Feminists have a tradition of disinterest in divisions and barriers and boundaries if those distinctions serve to separate women from women, and many feminists therefore have come to resent or reject the overuse of these analytical distinctions between types of feminism (Eisenstein 1983). At the same time, there definitely seems to be a specifically feminist conceptual framework, which is not reducible to or easily deduced from Marxism or any other extant theoretical perspective, and which explains the world from a beginning cut of the analytical knife along the gender axis rather than explaining women's oppression or the relationship of the sexes in terms of something else. It is this that I refer to as radical feminism.


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