Terry Conway explains how the ideas of American socialist Sharon Smith have developed in relation to feminism.
Sharon Smith’s article “Domestic Labour and Women’s oppression” in International Socialist Review 88 is a breath of fresh air, particularly when compared with Sheila McGregor’s article “Marxism and women’s oppression today” in International Socialism 130.
The most significant difference, evident in the opening lines of both articles, is one of approach, of method. While McGregor starts her piece by bringing together a rather well-rehearsed of facts about the reality of working class women’s lives in Britain today, Smith tries to situate her piece in relation to others’ theories of domestic labour.
Smith seems unafraid in her forthright delineation of the contradictions of Marx and Engels approach to the ‘women’s question’ while situating herself clearly within a Marxist approach. Her summing up of those contradictions is worthy of the way she herself describes what historical materialism offers: “As a living and breathing theory, Marxism can and must continue to develop in relation to a changing world”.
Smith goes on to talk about the way that the rise of second wave of feminism from the 1960s onwards challenged a whole raft of ways in which the ‘founding fathers’ of the communist movement failed to . The Women’s Liberation movement not only developed new practice but wove new theoretical insights.
I found Smith’s discussion of the differences between Marx and Engels on a number of questions particularly interesting. Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State is a book I have read time and time again over the years of my activity as a Marxist feminist – and each time it sticks in my craw the way his vision of relationships under socialism is confined to ‘individual sex-love’ between men and women – idealising monogamy and ignoring the possibility of non-heterosexual relationships and just as problematically implying that monogamy is a protection for women – presumably because we are ‘naturally’ less sexual than men!
It’s always been to Alexandra Kollontai that I have looked for more inspiration on the question of personal relationships not Engels. But now Sharon Smith has suggested that I should also explore the writings of Marx, who unlike his colleague does not assume that the monogamous family is the pinnacle to which human relationships can aspire or that it will inevitably survive a transition to socialism.
Much of the rest of what Smith has to say here is fairly familiar territory to one like myself who read and discussed much of the ‘social reproduction’ writings of socialist feminists in the 1970s and 1980s – well summarised and explained – but not particularly groundbreaking.
Why are her views important?
So why write about this? Haven’t there always been critical Marxist feminists saying these sort of things? It’s certainly true, and Smith herself acknowledges that much of what she argues in this piece is part of a line of argument developed since the 1960s by many different socialist feminists. What makes her contribution particularly worthy of note is not its content – though I think that is insightful and well formulated – but who she is and the context in which she is arguing.
Sharon Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), a revolutionary organisation in the United States which until 2001 was a member of the International Socialist Tendency – the international current with the British Socialist Worker’s Party at its centre. In 2001 they were expelled from that current – supposedly for not being enthusiastic enough about the antiglobalisation movement in the run up to Seattle – but in fact, I would argue for being a little too interested in thinking about and acting to transform the concrete political reality in which they found themselves. In another article, Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation (published at the end of January 2013 but based on a talk given in 2012.) Smith is direct and explicit about where she now disagrees with some important arguments on the women’s question put by her previous co-thinkers.
As in the previous piece I have discussed Smith pays tribute to the gains of the women’s liberation movement – but also here to the Black Power and Gay Liberation movement. She makes a sustained explanation of why all women, regardless of class (or race) suffer as a result of sexism, although obviously working class women are at the bottom of the pile.
She is fiercely critical of some arguments put forward by some feminists – and I think it’s unfortunate that she conflates a polemic against bourgeois feminism – which I would describe as the idea that women’s liberation can be achieved under capitalism – with the term middle-class feminism. I don’t have the scope in this piece to explore the question of what mean by middle class in depth – but in the context where millions of women sell their labour power in insecure and badly paid jobs in sectors such as teaching, health and social care which were certainly considered middle class when I was growing up I’m not sure this is helpful. It’s not that I would give any more credence to the arguments of women like Naomi Wolf than Smith does – just that I don’t think that is a helpful characterisation.
There are other things in Smith’s arguments I don’t completely buy into – I think for example she dismisses the arguments of ‘dual systems’ feminists too quickly in a way that undermines what she has previously argued about feminism being a movement not based on class but nevertheless with a huge amount to contribute – and I would argue to teach the left as a whole.
She does go on to talk about the way that socialist/Marxist feminism has been sidelined and ignored both by those hostile to the left within the women’s liberation movement and those hostile to feminism within the left. She pays a welcome tribute to some of those whose work has impacted on her – notably Lise Vogel and Martha Giminez – both of whom should be on any recommended reading list of socialist feminism
The most important part of this article comes when she sets out what she has now re-examined about her former co-thinkers:
“Unfortunately, not all Marxists have, at all times, understood the need to defend feminism, and to appreciate the enormous accomplishments of the women’s movement, even after the 1960s era gave way to the backlash. This includes some in our own tradition, the International Socialist tradition, who, I would argue, fell into a reductionist approach to women’s liberation a few decades ago.”
“What is reductionism? In its purest form, reductionism is the notion that the class struggle will resolve the problem of sexism on its own, by revealing true class interests, as opposed to false consciousness. So this approach “reduces” issues of oppression to an issue of class. It’s also usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interests of men in doing away with women’s oppression–without taking on the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class?”
This description of reductionism I think well sums up an approach common in many writings from the Socialist Worker’s Party which are partly responsible for a situation where some people in that organisation were prepared to see the description ‘creeping feminist’ as an insult!