Who’s the Materialist Here?
by Kathy Scarbrough and Carol Hanisch
Nearly fifty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement exploded in the U.S., much of the male-dominated Left (including female members) is still claiming economic class and capitalism as the primary “enemy” from which all oppression flows.
In article after article, Left publications inveigh against “identity politics”, which we strongly agree needs such critique. At the same time, we strongly object to the sidelining of females and Black people as “identities”. Being female and/or Black is objective reality. While one may be able to remake oneself to “pass” on the outside, one cannot really “identify” away one’s race or sex. There is almost a mass sigh of relief at shoving those pesky women’s liberationists and Black power people into a secondary Left movement status with a blanket accusation of practicing “identity politics.”
To get away with this, they ignore the historical fact that the 1960s WLM at the root of the female upsurge was full of radical feminists who denounced capitalism/imperialism and racism as well as male supremacy and who acknowledged their liberation depended on the abolition all three. In dismissing women’s oppression as “identity politics”, the Left betrays the material basis of women’s oppression: our reproductive capacity and as the unpaid and underpaid laborers of the world. Women are treated like nothing more than commodities when they are bought and sold by human traffickers and pimps and porn kings or when female bodies are used in a titillating way by advertisers to sell products.
Of course the problem isn’t quite that simple or one-sided. We acknowledge that liberal feminists and many women calling themselves radical feminists are oblivious to, or actively hostile to, the fight against capitalism. They even resist fighting male supremacy in its totality, remaining blindly embedded in their own narrow (though admittedly important) issues, mostly of various forms of violence against women, such as woman battering, rape, pornography and prostitution. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, at the other extreme, tried to bait women into voting for her just because she is female.
The Women’s Liberation Movement obviously has its own battles to take on. The male supremacy of the Left just adds to this challenge. If socialists want a universal struggle for political and economic liberation they must become allies to women’s liberation.
Another problem is that much of the Left (as well as much of the feminist movement) go beyond support for basic human rights for transgender people and side with the anti-materialist trans ideology that eliminates the category of “woman” by claiming anyone can “self-identify” as a woman. We have to ask if the Left is cowering before the tantrums of those trans activists or whether obliterating women’s liberation is also the goal of the Left.
A recent example of this is the publication by Jacobin of a fairly ignorant discussion of radical feminism that includes outright anti-feminist arguments and several anti-materialist paragraphs about gender. We sent in a rebuttal, but it was rejected out of hand. MR Online (Monthly Review) reprinted the Jacobin article in its entirety and they too rejected our response, saying that they didn’t want to take sides. However, it’s clear that both publications did indeed take a side by printing the article and then denying our response – and it wasn’t the side of women’s liberation that they took!
Here is our critique of anti-materialism and anti-feminism on the Left sent in response to the Jacobin article:
The Pitfalls of Lacking Radical Feminist History
Socialism is necessary for women’s full liberation but it isn’t sufficient. Erica West (The Pitfalls of Radical Feminism) shouldn’t speak so categorically about a branch of feminism she doesn’t support, and apparently knows little about.
In her article, West does exactly what Kathie Sarachild, one of the founders of the 1960s Women’s Liberation Movement, describes in the Redstockings book, Feminist Revolution:
[E]ven though the actual, living people who began the movement are treated as unascertainable, unidentifiable and irrelevant, history itself is not treated as irrelevant. Instead, a new false “feminist” history is blithely created out of mistaken secondary sources to support political strategies long ago discredited by real history (as traced through the original sources).
Our sector of the movement of the so-called Second Wave (a correction to West: it began in the 1960s, not the 1970s) always intended to be independent of what many then called the “male-dominated Left.” Of course the radical feminism most readers are familiar with today differs in significant ways. Radical feminists, like socialists, do not speak in one voice. We, however, defined radical feminism “to suggest a politics that socialists would embrace” long before the work of Andrea Dworkin and others was used to redirect and narrow our movement in the 1980s to focus almost exclusively on pornography and other forms of violence against women. The breadth of the original radical feminism was described by Carol Hanisch in a paper called “An Experience with Worker Consciousness Raising:”
We called ourselves radicals from the very beginning of the women’s liberation movement because we opposed all forms of oppression and exploitation, economic and political. We called ourselves radical women because we saw the liberation of women as a necessary priority. The goal was to abolish all classes, all oppression, all exploitation through the equal distribution of political, economic and social power. We wanted to build a mass women’s liberation movement because it was clear from history and from our own experiences that only women organized as an independent political force could guarantee that in the society we envisioned the oppression of women would no longer exist. Equally important was to begin immediately to get rid of male supremacy as rapidly and thoroughly as possible, changing general economic conditions in the process.
Has Erica West, ever read the Redstockings Manifesto written in 1969? It clearly echoes the opening of the Communist Manifesto, something that should warm the cockles of many a socialist heart. Although we identified men as beneficiaries of the oppression of women, we never believed men were the ONLY oppressors of women, and we rarely, if ever, used the term “patriarchy.” Many of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement – Black women as well as white – came out of the Civil Rights Movement and they included critiques of race and class in radical feminist work from the start. The correct relationship of sex or race class to economic class is an ongoing area of study and struggle, and we don’t believe any analysis has yet gotten it quite right.
West brings out an argument as old as the struggle between radical feminists and socialists when she says, “Women’s oppression persists not simply because men hate us, but because of the role we’ve played historically in the nuclear family.” But as Communist Party member Mary Inman pointed out in her 1940 book, In Women’s Defense, “roles” don’t cut the mustard as an explanation:
We hear a great deal about how tradition binds woman to inequality. We hear about woman’s “traditional” method of work, and her traditional this and traditional that, until one might conclude that the only pressure on her to conform are past practices of having conformed. The subjugation of women has a long evolutionary background and a great many aspects of the problem are clear only when this background is taken into account. However, her subjugation does not exist because of this background, but because it has a very practical use right now, today.” [Emphasis ours]
Ellen Willis presented a radical feminist argument regarding the nuclear family back in 1969 when she wrote,
The mistake many radicals make is to assume that the family is simply part of the cultural superstructure of capitalism, while actually both capitalism and the family system make up the material substructure of society. …[I]t is important for women to recognize and deal with their exploited position in the family system, for it is primarily in terms of the family system that we are oppressed as women. Of course capitalism also exploits us, but the way in which it exploits us is primarily by taking advantage of, turning to its own purposes, our subordinate position in the family system and our historical domination by man….
The economic determinism exhibited by West and other socialists envisions a post-capitalist world that would certainly ease women’s burden but cannot alone lead to an equal sharing of the burden. Women will never be free if we don’t redefine “women’s work” as work that benefits all of society, and thus must be shared by all, including men – both in the home and outside it. Socialism alone is incapable of winning women’s liberation simply because male supremacy, white supremacy, and the capitalist class, while certainly deeply connected, inflict oppressions having a good deal of independence from one another. The women of color fighting for the $15 minimum wage will get no relief from the racial and sexual harassment they face daily when that economic objective is won. Even Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are often debased sexually in spite of their ruling class status. They have been treated as cunts, just like the rest of us.
This short critique of Erica West’s piece would be left wanting without commenting on the hot issue of our time: West writes, “For many radical feminists, it doesn’t matter what gender someone identifies and presents as – it only matters what gender they were assigned at birth.”
First of all, gender isn’t “assigned” at birth. The male human exhibits easily observed testes, a primary sex organ defining “maleness.” Ovaries are not visible but if one had any doubt, a simple non-invasive sonogram could produce evidence of their presence and therefore the sex of the newborn. Sex is objective reality; the meeting of egg and sperm is necessary for the continuation of the human species. Gender is not much more than adherence to stereotypes that most radical feminists want to destroy. It is puzzling if not shocking that those who claim a Marxist heritage and apply a materialist approach when discussing the working class can be so captured by anti-materialism when it comes to this issue, accepting “feelings” and “identity” rather than science.
West’s mischaracterization of the censored panel at the 2017 Left Forum is truly egregious. That panel was called “Misery for Profit / Who Is Funding the Transgender Movement and the Impact on LGB”. Though we are uncomfortable with some of the wording of the panel description, the title makes clear that it was intended to make an anti-capitalist critique of the immense funding supporting transgenderism coming from Big Pharma. Women are particularly aware of this exploitation given the fight feminists had to make against Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), a major money-maker that was pushed on women despite its dangers to our health. The panel was also going to make an argument that the powers encouraging transitioning are profoundly homophobic. What’s more, one doesn’t have to agree with an analysis to stand up for the right to present it. The Left Forum screwed up.
We are feminists who hold the position that women need to be able to meet separately from men and separately from transwomen. Just as we understand the need for workers to meet out of earshot of the boss and for Blacks to meet in groups that exclude whites, we recognize women must be able to define the boundaries of our political gatherings. Interestingly, trans advocates like West never seem to acknowledge that many transgender people understand and support this position. Although the oppression of women and transwomen arise from the system of male supremacy, the interests of women and transwomen are not exactly the same and the fight is not the same.
We believe that transgender people have the right to live free from violence but what are we to do with the information West reports, that transwomen “suffer from disproportionately high rates of sexual and physical violence (particularly trans women of color)”? Since it has been observed that many transwomen work as prostitutes, can this violence be separated from the heightened risk of violence that all prostitutes experience? Some 1,500 (female) women are killed each year by male intimate partners in the U.S. alone and two million or more are beaten. Are transwomen deaths different or more significant than those of these women? Importantly, who is doing the killing? We can assure you it isn’t radical feminists.
We often appreciate of the work presented in Left publications, including their criticism of the post-modernist theory that is now savaging the entire Left. That this piece by West, so ignorant of radical feminist history and so much in line with post-modernism in its uncritical presentation of transgender ideology, appeared in two major Left publication sites is a real disappointment. Radical feminism is a body of materialist theory and practice and cannot be reduced to a simple anti-sexist identity politic. Indeed, women are an indispensable part of the class struggle and the Left ignores the demand for the liberation of half the human population at all our peril.
Shortly after we submitted the above response to Jacobin and MR Online, CounterPunch, another major Left site, published yet another atrocious article, this time by a male writer. It reads in part:
Earlier progressive movements including the 1890s populists, the 1930s New Dealers and 1960s student activists all developed universalizing anti-system agendas. But after the sixties, the Left fragmented and “de-universalized,” breaking into silos organized into cultural identity movements of race and gender, and separate peace, labor and environmental movements. …
“Mostly white males, especially on college campuses, led universalizing 1960s movements, but they marginalized women, people of color and other oppressed groups, leading them to form their own identity movements. …
“The new identity politics achieved major gains for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and others. But as silo movements, they lost the universalizing spirit and the focus on the capitalist glue linking capitalism with racism, sexism and other social crises.
So women’s liberation and Black liberation are just another “cultural identity movement” formed in response to being marginalized by the “white male, mostly student Left” that was leading a “universalizing movement” in the 1960s! Can’t this writer see the contradiction in claiming that the male-led movement was “universalizing” while at the same time “marginalizing” women and Black people? And surely these Left writers know male supremacy is also a problem that is society-wide and doesn’t just exist in the Left. We’re all for “universalizing” but not within this kind of “marginalizing” framework which “mostly white males” employ to maintain their domination of the Left by dissing two political and economic movements as merely “cultural”.
Similar articles calling radical feminism an “identity” movement have been appearing for sometime, but there seems to be a bombardment of them recently, which are often worded more bluntly and accusingly.
Just today, MR Online showed again which side they are on – and it surely isn’t ours – or Marx’s! In a post that must have Monthly Review’s original editors, Paul Sweezey and Leo Huberman, spinning in their graves, the Online crew published an article by a transwoman, trying to use Marx to explain and approve the development of transgender ideology. The article is obtuse and many times longer than most MR Online posts and we haven’t read every word yet. However, its main thrust seems to be concern with the “social reproduction of trans women” (with no apparent concern for transmen even) using “communism” to resolve any existing contradictions in its favor.
We recommend this recent piece on Medium as an antidote. The Left’s seemingly “solid Red wall” in support of transgender theory against women’s liberation apparently is heating up and developing some cracks. Thank goodness, because radicals need to be able to depend on each other to carry our share of the struggle (sort of like sharing the housework!), which most of the Left (radical Marxist or merely progressive) is not doing when it comes to defending materialism. Failing to take a stand against the post-modernist ideology devastating the movement for women’s liberation (or even aiding it as in such cases as in the Jacobin and MR Online article) enables the spread of the same anti-materialism that has been ruining the entire radical Left. If they can’t recognize that this is their struggle too, how can they expect to take on the real enemy, which is infinitely stronger?
[C]an’t post because I couldn’t find information about how to join. But do want to make a comment: this is the FIRST modern analysis of radical feminism I’ve seen on a major site which doesn’t get it completely wrong! (Sounds like faint praise, but my PhD included hard study of the history of the feminist movement, and spend a lot of time correcting people who come up with the libelous revisionism which started with Alice Walker’s daughter.)
Was particularly interested in finding out that the whole claim to radical feminism was begun by a trans woman who didn’t even manage to allow for trans men; as if a theory which excludes half the phenomenon explains anything. But sooo happy to see that the fact the Second Wave began in the 60s, and many pieces of the rf movement acknowledged the debt to Marxist theory, just because the truth is getting lost and history is important.
Would have liked to see a little more “why” concerning early 2nd wave (well, the left early, not the Friedan piece) by talking about liberation movements in the 60s and how the Women’s Liberation Front grew to full power and as a counter to the at best liberal feminists of NOW. But can’t have everything. I was happy to see that the writer sees the left “heating up” and the transgender essentialists not having it all their own way at last. I started seriously shopping for steel-toed boots after incidents against “TERFS” (campaigning that that word should be dropped from Quora, to which I contribute, as a violation of policy and a slur) in San Francisco and London recently, out of self defense. And I’m 68 years old – love the pity party of the trans extremists about the terrible treatment of trans folk which ended in a commemoration of the 28 trans women murdered last year. Twenty-eight. Do they have any idea how may women are killed by their domestic partners ALONE every year? The misogyny is blinding. Almost every murder of a woman is a hate crime, and the “leaders” of the trans women movement don’t even mention any “other” woman who gets killed, just talk about “cis” privilege the way I suspect they’d talk about “born black” privilege if they embraced transrace… (I put quotation marks around “leaders” because the majority of trans women with whom I interact are lovely, reasonable human beings who are very aware that “womanhood” is a term that’s a site of struggle, and I’m fine with calling them any word they want called, up to and including “sister” if it’s that or “brother,” but give me “comrade” and we can all be on the front lines together.)
At any rate, good work, and if I could find out how to actually join (unless it costs money, because I live on SS and that would be difficult) I would appreciate it.
–Kes Sparhawk Amesley
Thanks for your comment Kes, but I have to admit, I don’t understand everything you say. Do some transwomen claim radical feminism? I am only aware of trans criticism of radical feminism as “transphobic.” And I’m not sure what you mean when you say “you would have liked to see a little more ‘why’ concerning early 2nd wave.” It sounds like you have more opinions on that issue that I’d like to hear. If you are 68 now, you could have caught a little of the upsurge during the late 60s and early 70s, were you in college at the time? What was happening with women’s liberation in your area then, and is there anything happening now?
I re-read my comment and there were parts I can’t explain — the dangers of getting excited and writing late at night. Some transwomen do indeed claim radical feminism (in a positive way, I think, but not one embraced by the trans extremists; I’ll try to find where i bookmarked a couple of blogs) but I THINK I was referring to the one writing in Jacobin and claiming to be radical — I had a struggle following the reasoning, but meant radical with little “r” as opposed to “radical feminist.” Yes, I was in college in Seattle — in 1968, belonged to SDS at a community college, but like so many of the other women got fed up with the sexism; in 1970-77, went to the UW and was very involved in the women’s movement there — radical feminist at the time, though moved into socialist feminism because of my own class background; still emotionally tied to radical feminism, as I found out when I wandered into the trans movement mess about a year ago (I answer questions at Quora and people asked my opinion, so I just researched, researched…). Seattle was an amazingly healthy, vibrant women’s community when I was young, so I was sort of “raised” by it — there were factions, as was traditional in the left, of course, including Radical Women, a Socialist group which fought unceasingly with Socialist Workers Party, though both did some good things; CWL and Women’s Commission, which I was involved in, basically radical feminist. We sued the university for discrimination on a regular basis, worked with sexual assault, aging women, abortion referral (abortion was legal in Washington years before Roe v. Wade, because of local activism) etc. Because of my housemates I also got interested in mediation and process, and followed various co-op struggles, including splits. I don’t know what the activity is like now, because I moved to the midwest in the early 1980s to go to the Writers Workshop and then grad school, but I’m living in the Twin Cities now and that resembles the Seattle I grew up in a lot — including of course internal fights. What I don’t relate to now is the “no-platforming” and enthusiasm for violence inside the movement, which seems raised to a moral vendetta — it of course happened in the 60s/70s, but wasn’t publicly bragged about.
When I was talking about what I would have “liked to see,” it was a longing for some theory beyond my memory of the original clash between feminism and the left. I really wish someone with some local research and perspective could think about how it relates to what we’re going through now with the left — at least, the pro trans extremist left. (I prefer the term trans extremist to activist.) I do remember that the left opposed dealing with gay rights — some stalinist group said it had “no revolutionary potential,” and CWL expelled certain socialist members of our organization because we sent them as reps to a national conference related to control of our own body, and they voted against including lesbian and gay rights as an issue of controlling one’s own body, sticking purely to abortion. The Seattle Conspiracy Trial (2nd after Chicago’s) included a lot of men who were extraordinarily sexist in their comments on women and women’s place in the left, and made gay jokes. The liberals who ran the media made fun of “women’s lib” and invalidated its goals, so we had a lot of small demonstrations, rallies, and protests, and backed the best women reporters and refused to talk to anyone male. The university had to take us seriously because they knew if not, they would be publicly embarrassed by press conferences and (after we got elected to public student office) at Regents’ meetings. The University Y worked on racism and women’s issues, including regional conferences, so I still get pissed reading the “intersectional” feminists saying the 2nd wave didn’t do anything about that. We weren’t perfect, but some of us were fully aware of racism in feminism and struggling for change. That’s sort of a stream of consciousness overview; but if you ask women who were active in Seattle in the 70s I think you’ll get an agreement that it was one of the most activist cities in the country. Eventually, we won, at least for the time: it wasn’t illegal to be involved with someone of the same sex, you could get a cheap, legal abortion, get divorced without hiring a lawyer, go to one of the first, if not the first, rape advocacy group in the country, hear feminist musicians on a regular basis… I think until the Porn Wars of the 80s, everything was very good for radical feminists at least. But the S&M issues pretty much tore the west coast feminists apart… In the 80s, I was in Iowa, and got my first experience of working for and organizing liberal feminists through NOW and the ERA. In the 90s, it was gay rights — there were literally about 5 people in the entire state who were out, except in Iowa City, and Bill Horn (of gay agenda fame) came to town to punish Des Moines, whose school district was considering how to make being gay okay for students in the schools. Because of a strange series of events, my partner and I became the only Out Moms and were adopted by the media for the token “other point of view.” As you probably know, things have improved vastly for Iowa since 95, including it being a requirement of the Constitution that lesbians and gay people legally be allowed to wed. The same Supreme Court which had ruled fewer than 10 years earlier (I think; my memory isn’t quite that precisely, though I was there) that corporations could legally fire workers if they found out they were gay. I like to think we helped with that. Since then, disabled, moved to Twin Cities, and my feminist community is whatever I find on line, at least until medicare finally gives me a wheelchair and I can at least go to demonstrations again. Thanks for asking~ it was hard to be brief. I absolutely guarantee you there are still women (and some men) marching in subzero weather here to protest anti-women actions, murders at gay clubs, and cops shooting legally armed black men for no good reason.
Wow, thank you for sharing my article! This is really an excellent piece, I’m sad I didn’t see it until recently.
I can count all the times I’ve read this article and how happy I always get with it!