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Marxism and feminism: can the "unhappy marriage" be saved?

Bryson, Valerie (2004) Marxism and feminism: can the "unhappy marriage" be saved? Journal of Political Ideologies, 9 (1). pp. 13-30. ISSN 1356-9317

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This article examines the relationship between Marxism and feminism from the late nineteenth century to the present day. It draws on the concept of patriarchy to argue that Marxism's claim to provide a comprehensive theory of human history and society is flawed by its marginalization of experiences and aspects of life traditionally associated with women. It introduces the concept of (re)production to argue that domestic, procreative and caring activities and relationships should be seen as part of the material basis of society. It also argues that the complex interconnections between production and (re)production should be an important focus of materialist analysis. It concludes that Marxism and feminism can be complementary aids to the understanding of society, but only if this is a two-way process, and Marxism itself is transformed

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: UoA 39 (Politics and International Studies) © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
Uncontrolled Keywords: marxism feminism marriage
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Schools: School of Human and Health Sciences
Related URLs:

1. H. Hartmann, ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’,
in L. Sargent (Ed.) The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: A Debate on Class and Patriarchy
(London: Pluto Press, 1986), pp. 1–41, p. 2.2. K. Marx, ‘Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1968), p. 30.
3. Versions of this argument are also to be found in the ideas of pre-Marxist ‘utopian socialists’ such as
Robert Owen and William Thompson. See V. Bryson, Feminist Political Theory. An Introduction
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), Chapter 1.
4. M. Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today. The Marxist/Feminist Encounter (London: Verso, 1988), p. xxxiv.
5. See United Nations, The World’s Women 2000: Trends and Statistics (New York: United Nations
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Statistical Division, 2002).
6. See for example S. Ali, K. Coate and W. Goro (Eds), Global feminist politics. Identities in a changing
world (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).
7. I am here using ‘postmodernism’ as a fairly loose umbrella term which includes post-structuralist thought,
rather than as a description of ‘postmodern society’ or ‘the postmodern condition’. For similar usage, see
for example M. Zalewski, Feminism after Postmodernism. Theorising through practice (London and New
York: Routledge, 2000), p. 141.
8. Quoted in D.McClellan, Marx Before Marxism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 143.
9. See for example D. Bell and R. Klein (Eds), Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed (London: Zed
Books, 1996), especially Section 3.
10. J. Squires, Gender in Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 73.
11. D. Coole, Women in Political Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), pp. 222 and 225. For a
similar point, see Zalewski, op. cit., Ref. 7, p. 141.
12. As early as 1970, Kate Millett’s classic exposition of the concept of patriarchy analysed the ways in which
it was upheld in literary texts. K. Millett, Sexual Politics (London: Virago, 1985 edition). See also D.
Spender, Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done to Them) (London: Ark, 1983) and D. Spender, Man
Made Language (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).
13. See in particular P. Collins, Black Feminist Thought (London, Sydney and Wellington: Unwin Hyman,
1990) and H. Mirza (Ed.), Black British Feminism. A Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).
14. bell hooks’ concept of ‘solidarity’ amongst oppressed groups is particularly important here. b. hooks,
Feminist Theory: from margin to center (Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1984).
15. Diana Coole has argued that feminism’s ‘own inner logic already reconstructs it as postmodern’. Coole,
op. cit., Ref. 11, p. 3. See also D. Coole, ‘Threads and plaits or an unfinished project? Feminism(s) through
the twentieth century’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 5(1), pp. 35–54.
16. For an overview of recent discussions on this, see S. Brown ‘Postmodernism’, in G. Blakeley and V.
Bryson (Eds) Contemporary Political Concepts: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2002),
pp. 54–72.
17. Zalewski, op. cit., Ref. 7, p. 141.
18. In P. Foner (Ed.), Clara Zetkin. Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984), p. 93.
19. Engels is today usually taken as the key classic Marxist writer on women. However, Bebel’s slightly
earlier work had more impact at the time and is in many ways a more sophisticated feminist work. F.
Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978)
and A. Bebel, Woman under Socialism, translated by D. de Leon (New York: New York Labour Press,
20. Bebel and Lenin were particularly robust in their condemnation of men who rested while their wives wore
themselves out with endless domestic chores. Bebel, op. cit., Ref. 19, p. 103 and V. Lenin, On the
Emancipation of Women (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), pp. 115 and 111.
21. This is particularly clear in the work and writings of Alexandra Kollontai, who argued that such changes
were needed to overcome selfish individualism. A. Holt (Ed.), Alexandra Kollontai. Selected Writings
(London: Allison and Busby, 1977). Trotsky made a similar point, although he attached less priority to it:
L. Trotsky, Women and the Family (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), pp. 34–35.
22. Although Engels said that the social organization of biological reproduction in the family initially evolved
independently, he argued that this ceased with the introduction of the first private property. From this
stage, it became dependent on conditions of production, narrowly understood.
23. Alexandra Kollontai came the closest of the Marxists of this period to giving an independent role to family
and sexual relationships, arguing that practical changes in these areas were an important precondition for
socialism, not simply its product. Her arguments hinted at a broader understanding of economic activity
and the material basis of society than that usually recognized in Marxist theory. However, her analysis
remained embryonic, and she was unable to conceptualize the possibility that the interests and priorities
of women and men might at times conflict.
24. For the classic exposition of this concept see Kate Millett, op. cit., Ref. 12. For a critical discussion and
overview of radical feminist ideas, see Bryson, op. cit., Ref. 3., Chapters 10–12.
29 25. Zetkin was famously ticked off by Lenin for spending too much time in her educational work with women
in discussing sex and marriage problems. Lenin, op. cit., Ref. 20, pp. 102–103.
26. See A. Pollert, ‘Gender and Class Revisited; or, the poverty of “patriarchy” ’, Sociology, 30 (4), 1996,
pp. 639–659.
27. See for example M. Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today. Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (London:
Verso, 1986), p. 250.
28. M. Mies, Capitalism and Accumulation on a World Scale. Women in the International Division of Labour
(London and New York: Zed Books, 1998), p. 37.
29. J. Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 99.
30. Barrett, op. cit., Ref. 27.
31. For critical discussion, see J. Brenner with M. Ramas, ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’, in J. Brenner,
Women and the Politics of Class, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000) and T. Ebert, Ludic Feminism
and After. Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan
Press, 1996).
32. For recent overviews of the debate, see J. Gardiner, Gender, Care and Economics (Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 1997); D. Bubeck, Care, Gender and Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and Ebert, ibid.
33. See Mies, op. cit., Ref. 28.
34. Bubeck, op. cit., Ref. 32.
35. Hartmann, op. cit., Ref. 1, p. 9.
36. I. Young ‘Beyond the Unhappy Marriage: a Critique of the Dual Systems Theory’, in L. Sargent (Ed.),
op. cit., Ref. 1,pp. 50, 51 and 53.
37. Ebert, op. cit., Ref. 31, p. 73
38. Young, op. cit., Ref. 36, p. 54.
39. Ebert, op. cit., Ref. 31, pp. 86, 91, 93, 20 and 96.
40. See L. Segal, Why Feminism? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999) for a good recent example of a more
inclusive and open-minded approach.
41. For elaboration of this point, see V. Bryson ‘Men and Sex Equality’, Politics, 20 (1), 2000, pp. 3–9.
42. Mies, op. cit., Ref. 28, Chapter 2.
43. J. Humphries, ‘The Origin of the Family: Born Out of Scarcity, not Wealth’, in J. Sayers, M. Evans and
N. Redclift (Eds) Engels Revisited. New Feminist Essays (London and New York: Tavistock, 1987).
44. C. P. Gilman, Human Work (New York: McClare, Phillips, 1904), p. 207.
45. C. P. Gilman, The Man Made World (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1911), pp. 198, 189 and 197.
46. Mies, op. cit., Ref. 28, p. 45.
47. For particularly incisive criticism, see S. Jackson, ‘Marxism and Feminism’, in A. Gamble, D. Marsh and
T. Tant (eds) Marxism and Social Science (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999).
48. Although sick, elderly or disabled people could in theory be abandoned, the socially expected quality of
life in most societies includes the expectation that they are cared for.
49. S. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (London: Women’s Press, 1979), first published in 1970.
50. M. O’Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 22.
51. For an excellent discussion, see J. Morris, Pride Against Prejudice (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991).
52. O’Brien, op. cit., Ref. 50, p. 121.
53. Brenner with Ramas, op. cit., Ref. 31.
54. See S. Childs ‘In Their Own Words: New Labour Women and the substantive representation of women’,
The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 3 (2), 2001, pp. 173–190 and J. Lovenduski
and P. Norris ‘Westminster Women: The Politics of Presence’, Political Studies, 51 (1), 2003, pp. 84–102.
55. See L. Segal, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities and Changing Men (London: Virago, 1990) and R.
Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity, 1995). As Segal points out, however, it should be noted that
the educational under-achievement of boys is heavily concentrated amongst those from low socio-economic
and/or minority ethnic backgrounds.
56. Bubeck, op. cit., Ref. 32.

Depositing User: Sara Taylor
Date Deposited: 14 Sep 2007
Last Modified: 28 Jul 2010 18:21


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