Materialist-Feminism: A comparative primer

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By Linda

In order to understand MatFem’s difference from other feminisms, I will lay out the other main trends of feminism which hold sway today—Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism and Marxist Feminism —touching broadly on their theoretical frameworks, assumptions, and related goals. I will then explain the framework and goals Materialist-Feminism holds in contrast to these main trends of feminism. 

My outlines of these feminisms will be blunt and my position as someone dedicated to studying and developing Materialist-Feminism should be clear. Materialist-Feminism is not a dogmatic set of principles but rather, a theory constantly in development and resultant of the application of dialectical materialism to analyzing patriarchy and women’s oppression. 

The name “Materialist-Feminism” matters far less to me than whether or not it holds a truly scientific analysis of patriarchy.

Additionally, it is important to understand that within all theories lay mistakes and within those mistakes, the seeds for a more scientific, materialist, developed theory. The development of theory—how we interpret, understand, engage with history and our present; conceptualize our future actions and goals; what drives our praxis—is a dialectical process; one in constant movement and change. Just as scientific socialism could not have been developed without the utopian socialisms which came before it (despite their many flaws and problems), Materialist-Feminism could not have been developed without the lessons learned (whether from the theory itself or from their mistakes) of the many feminisms which have preceded it. 

The constant within the development of all revolutionary theories must be the thorough and ruthless application of dialectical-materialism to understanding our past, present, and future. Thus, Materialist-Feminism could very well become a trend which is furthered—or contrarily, a trend which holds in it seeds for the development of a more scientific feminism. My hope is that I am able to contribute to such development.

I write this post with the aim of clarifying what differentiates MatFem from other feminisms, and explaining why I believe it marks significant development towards a truly scientific analysis of patriarchy.

For the sake of brevity, I will not go over the historical development of these other feminisms, as the main question at hand is how MatFem differs in content and quality from these other feminisms.

***Unless otherwise noted, “reproductive labor” as referenced in this article denotes any form of labor which facilitates the continued survival and reproduction of the workforce—including but not limited to cleaning, cooking, nurturing, pleasuring, birthing, etc. “Productive labor” denotes any form of labor which results in goods or services which have exchange value in the economic market and result in wage compensation for the producers.

Liberal Feminism, otherwise known as bourgeois feminism, works upon the the capitalistic assumption that every person is an individual defined by their relations to the free market—women included. 

Liberal feminism asserts that women’s oppression is rooted in this society holding the “false belief” that women are naturally less intellectually and physically capable than men. Thus, society tends to “discriminate” against women in the academy, the “forum” and the “marketplace”.

Due to the individualistic, idealist nature of liberal feminism, there is no clearly defined set of philosophies to liberal feminism—it is a trend that values individualistic approaches to justice and societal structures instead of “blaming” inequalities on other individuals. Liberal feminism valorizes “individual empowerment”—that is, wealthy, white women being able to externalize reproductive, domestic labor onto poor subaltern women—as central to achieving “equality with men”. Liberal feminism takes for granted the patriarchal framework which centers men as the standard to aspire to, and actively seeks to attain equal power to exploit and oppress (through participation in inherently exploitative, genocidal institutions) as men. Liberal feminism holds much in common with white feminism—it is not a theory of liberation, but rather a theory to naturalize the opportunistic power-grabbing by those upset that they do not have the same ability to exploit and oppress as men. Liberal feminism naturalizes and actively glorifies patriarchy through its individualistic narrative of “empowerment”.

Liberal feminism is not unique—it is simply an example of bourgeois theory which seeks to naturalize oppression. Liberal theories regarding race, disability, economic class use generally the same framework of “inclusion” to justify the inherently opportunistic nature of liberalism.

The goal arising from this framework is women’s increased and/or full participation in the public sphere, and the equality of “rights” between women and men. Liberal feminism does not seek the abolition of class society or patriarchy, but rather works to further integrate women into these axes of oppression.

Radical Feminism is a feminism which sprouted from the second wave of feminism in Global North countries. 

It works upon the assumption that the categories of sex—“female” “male”—are not only innate, but determinant of motivation and labor. Radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson wrote in her 1969 piece, “Radical Feminism”: 

“The first dichotomous division of this mass [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female … it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the ‘beasts of burden,’ were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal.” (1)

While radical feminism is not a homogenous trend, this excerpt demonstrates clearly the framework upon which Radical Feminism rests—that of bioessentialism, in which the so called “sexual binary” is not only naturalized, but valorized. Radical feminists believe that those assigned “male” at birth are innately driven for power and dominance. 

Additionally, Radical feminism proposes the ahistorical notion that patriarchy has existed since the inception of humankind—a claim that (besides its obvious inaccuracy) transhistoricizes women’s oppression and takes for granted the existence of the gender binary.

Central to radical feminism—especially trans exclusionary radical feminism—is the sex-class theory. The sex-class theory proposes that there are two classes within patriarchy: those assigned “male” at birth, and those assigned “female” at birth. The obvious transphobia and bioessentialism of this theory is not to be underestimated—it is this very theory which lies at the heart of TERFism; which would paint trans women as “fake women” “invaders of women’s spaces” “opportunists” and trans men as “victims of trans ideology” “confused women”. This theory at its core valorizes; fetishizes genitalia and locates the origins of women’s oppression within supposedly immutable, transhistorical “biological traits”.  This framework of radical feminism is the same framework which is central to patriarchy: enforcing cisgenderism and the gender binary. According to this theory, those assigned “male” at birth dominate those assigned “female” at birth by virtue of natural biology—thus, gender oppression arises due to the physical, social, psychological disadvantages of those assigned “female” at birth due to pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing. 

In short, the sex-class theory locates women’s oppression as natural and rooted in genitalia, takes the categories of sex and the gender binary for granted, treats patriarchy as an ahistorical and altogether “natural” phenomenon, locates the ability of cis women to be baby incubators as the true definers of “women”, erases trans women and the violent transmisogyny they face, and marginalizes cis women who are unable to give birth. (2)

The goal arising from this framework is that those assigned “female” at birth must take control of the “means of reproduction”—defined by radical feminists literally and exclusively as the birthing of children—in order to abolish the “sex-class system”. Firestone, one of the founders of radical feminism, argues that modern society would not achieve true “gender equality” until women’s “biological traits” were separated from their gender identity. (3)

Marxist Feminism focuses on the ways in which women are oppressed through capitalism and private property. 

It rests on the theoretical framework that gender and sex are innate and/or transhistorical phenomena, and that it is capitalism and the division between reproductive and productive labor which enables and perpetuates women’s oppression. 

Engels’ work, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State denotes the shift from feudalism to private ownership of land as a watershed moment in the status of women (defined by Engels as those considered “female”), explaining that the transition from common ownership of land to private ownership of land as enabling the division between so called “public” and “private” spheres—resulting in waged labor being “disproportionately” assigned to men. (4)

Marxist Feminists note that women are assigned to the “domestic sphere”—in which they perform unpaid, invisibilized reproductive labor—due to its high profitability for public and private institutions under capitalism, as it is a highly inexpensive method for supporting the workforce. According to Marxist Feminists, this oppressive dynamic is liberatory for working men, who are freed from performing their own necessary reproductive labor.

Marxist Feminists focus on exclusion from productive labor as the most important—to many Marxist Feminists, primary—source of women’s oppression. This theory argues that the exclusion of women from productive labor leads to men’s control of both the private and public domains.

The goal arising from this theoretical framework is not only the end of women’s exclusion from productive labor and the valuation and recognition of women’s labor in the public sphere, but the overthrow of capitalism and the implementation of a socialist society. Marxist Feminists contend that the elimination of capitalism will end the “motivation” for misogyny, racism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression. Through this framework, Marxist-Feminism subsumes women’s oppression under capitalism and identifies capitalism as the primary source of women’s oppression—necessarily prioritizing proletarian unity before confronting working men’s complicity and active participation in the perpetuation of working women’s oppression; taking for granted the existence of the categories “women” “men”.

How does Materialist-Feminism differ, then?

Materialist-Feminism draws from the mistakes, developments, progressions of its forebears, and relies upon a framework which counters bioessentialist, transhistorical understandings of gender and “sex”—asserting that these are material constructs of patriarchy and in no way rooted in nature, biology, or innate structuring.

Materialist-Feminism goes further than its forebears through its understanding of the constructed gender binary and categories of sex themselves as central to patriarchy—in fact, MatFem argues that outside of the material conditions created by patriarchy, “women” “men” “female” “male” do not exist. These categories only have meaning, material basis, under patriarchy—wherein the category “women” exists for the sole purpose of domination by “men”. 

Further, MatFem understands the categories of “women” “men” as antagonistic classes, rooted in their specific relations to the means of production—the class “men” historically created based on their relation to the means of production (those who own the means of production dominate those who don’t); the class “women” historically created based on the intentional and systematic exclusion of them from the means of production, defined by their sexual ties to men as well as men’s appropriation and commodification of women’s reproductive labor. (5) 

Part in parcel with the creation of the classes of women and men is the material construction of cisgenderism and heterosexuality—assigned gender/“sex” based on genitalia; roles and norms developed based on “reproductive function”; the marriage contract; women bought and sold to men as reproductive laborers; “motherhood” forced upon the newly created class of women as their most important career in life. Understood through a Materialist-Feminist framework, cisgenderism and heterosexuality are mutually reinforcing and serve the purposes of: cementing the classes of “women” and “men” as “complementary” “natural” categories which are “innate” to all societies; erasing all those who deviate from this gender binary. 

Since the development of patriarchy (and with it, the gender/“sex” binary) precedes the development of capitalism by centuries and patriarchy was historically foundational to not only the development of private property but class society itself, MatFem rejects both MarxFem’s subsumption of women’s oppression under capitalism and RadFem’s naturalization of the gender/sex binary.

MatFem, unlike previous feminisms, names heterosexuality as not “personal identification” or relegated to the private sphere, but as an organ of patriarchal domination which women are conditioned and coerced into via force, fear, threat of poverty, abuse, rape, threat of murder. Following its thorough rejection of all the bioessentialism and transhistoricism which pervades other feminisms, MatFem understands sexuality as socially constructed; of lesbianism, heterosexuality, etc. as categories which are rooted in material reality and vehicles of patriarchal marginalization and domination, respectively. Understood through this framework, lesbianism, heterosexuality, etc. necessarily lose any coherent meaning outside patriarchy. 

MatFem understands that there is no such thing as “heterosexuality” in a society where women are not oppressed; where the classes of “women” and “men” do not exist at all. Additionally, MatFem locates heterosexuality as a major site of women’s oppression, where reproductive labor is extracted from women by men; wholesale naturalized as a “necessary role” of women.

The goals which arise from this framework necessitate the end of the devaluation of women’s work, the abolition of the constructed divide between reproductive and productive labor (given that reproductive labor and productive labor are inherently intertwined), overthrow of capitalism, and the abolition of the material conditions which create and reinforce the classes “women” “men” to begin with. MatFem proposes that this must happen in socialist society under the leadership and dictatorship of proletarian women committed to the abolition of patriarchy. 

Since the category “women” necessarily exists for the sake of domination by “men”, MatFem recognizes the necessity of abolishing all the material institutions, practices, industries, systems which dehumanize, commodify, exploit, abuse, and reinforce the class “women”—including but not limited to sex work, pornography, marriage, assigned “sex”, heterosexuality, sexual/physical abuse, the false divide between reproductive and productive labor.

Understanding the historical development of private property and class society as founded upon patriarchy and the construction of the gender binary, MatFem understands patriarchy as the historic foundation of class societies and consequently, an axes of oppression which cannot be ahistorically subsumed under capitalism. 

Thus, MatFem is revolutionary both in scope and direction. It ruthlessly criticizes the construction of “sex” “gender” itself, thoroughly and completely rejecting all forms of bioessentialism, transhistoricism, transmisogyny, biodeterminism. It interrogates the historical development of patriarchy, locating it as foundational to the development of capitalism. It simultaneously recognizes the necessity of overthrowing capitalism, and of actively working under socialist society to abolish the classes of “women” “men”, in order to abolish patriarchy. It understands that classless society will never be achieved without the complete abolition of patriarchy. It militantly fights for the most marginalized women—centering, theorizing, following the lead of the women most exploited and oppressed under capitalist white supremacy and patriarchy: poor lesbians, trans women, Black women, Indigenous women, women of color.  

Given its scope, direction, and rupture from previous feminisms, I believe that Materialist-Feminism marks a significant development towards a truly scientific analysis of patriarchy. Its differences and improvements upon previous feminisms is clear. Its truly-ruthless criticism of all that exists—our very notions of gender and sex—sets it apart from all its predecessors. All of this is what differentiates Materialist-Feminism from other feminisms.

Footnotes:

(1) Atkinson 2000, p. 85

(2) It has been alleged that the Materialist-Feminist conception of women as a class is the same as the Radical Feminist “sex-class theory”. When investigated, this claim proves obviously erroneous and willingly misleading.

(3) Firestone (1970), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

(4) Engels (1884), The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.

(5) Lerner (1986), The Creation of Patriarchy.

 

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