Recently I decided to revisit some of the readings in Socialist-Feminism that I did in the late eighties. Especially pertinent was the “dual-systems theory” discussions of the late seventies and early eighties. For this post I will refer to Iris Marion Young’s 1980 Socialist Review article “Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory.”
According to Young, DST argued that “women’s oppression arises from two distinct and relatively autonomous systems. The system of male domination, most often called “patriarchy,” produces the specific gender oppression of women; the system of the mode of production and class relations produces the class oppression and work alienation of most women.” Young states that DST seems inadequate and spells out the questions arising for her.
She writes, “socialist feminists agreed with the radical feminist claim that traditional Marxian theory cannot articulate the origins and structure of sex oppression in a way that accounts for the presence of this oppression as a pervasive and fundamental element of most societies. But they did not thereby wish to reject entirely the Marxist theory of history or critique of capitalism.”
Young quotes Linda Phelps’s 1975 essay “Patriarchy and Capitalism” as an early formulation of DST: “If sexism is a social relationship in which males have authority over females, patriarchy is a term which describes the whole system of interaction which arises from this basic relationship, just as capitalism is a system built on the relationship between capitalist and worker. Patriarchal and capitalist social relations are two markedly different ways that human beings have interacted with each other and built social, political, and economic institutions.”
Young enthusiastically affirms, “Development of the dual systems approach has fostered major theoretical, analytical, and practical advances over traditional Marxist treatments of “the women question” and has contributed to a revitalization of Marxist method.”
However, “Our nascent historical research coupled with our feminist intuition tells us that the labor of women occupies a central place in any system of production, that gender division is a basic axis of social structuration in all hitherto existing social formations, and the gender hierarchy serves as a pivotal element in most systems of domination. If traditional Marxism has no theoretical place for such hypotheses, it is not merely an inadequate theory of women’s oppression, but also an inadequate theory of social relations, relations of production, and domination. We need not merely a synthesis of feminism with traditional Marxism, but also a thoroughly feminist historical materialism, which regards the social relations of a particular historical formation as one system in which gender differentiation is a core atribtute.”
Young focuses her proposal with her own duality, “all socialist political work should be feminist in its thrust and … socialists should recognize feminist concerns as internal to their own. Likewise socialist-feminists take as a basic principle that feminist work should be anticapitalist in its thrust and should link women’s situation with the phenomena of racism and imperialism. Once again, this poltiical principle would best be served by a social theory that regards these phenomena as aspects of a single system of social relations.”
One key conclusion in this paper, in my view, is the following:
“a feminist historical materialism must explore the hypothesis that class domination arises from and/or is intimately tied to patriarchal domination. We cannot simply assume that sex domination causes class society, as most radical feminists have done. But we must take seriously the question of whether there is a causal relation here, to what extent there is, and precisely how the causal relations operate if and when they exist.”
This essay was written in 1980 and in the three decades since, the struggle against sexism and capitalism continue to be ambiguously disconnected in the thought and practice of most feminists and socialists. Even when a feminist is anticapitalist, it is still rare for such feminists to integrate feminism into their critique of political economy. Capitalism has in fact absorbed more and more of the “separate sphere” of “women’s” domestic labor, leading to a new process of gendered proletarianization.
Childcare, housekeeping, and other productive activities are still largely done by women, but now they are often done for a wage. More women work outside the home than ever before, but a great deal of classic “women’s work” is now done as wage labor, still done by women. Most of this new market of domestic labor is un-unionized, in keeping with the ongoing regression of labor organization in contemporary capitalism.
Also critical for a socialist-feminist struggle are the challenges it raises as to the character of the revolutionary constituency and organization. Socialist politics from Marx to Lenin to Castro are all embedded within a paradigm of male domination. Once feminism appeared on the scene in the 60s, this situation should have ended, yet it persists. Most socialist organizations to this day are still male preserves, with a few exceptions. Feminist organizations are still middle-class, with few exceptions. It also has to be noted that most socialist organizations are also fundamentally NOT working-class.
The dual impotence of feminism and socialism is possibly the most fundamental problem of the left today. Marxists and feminists are nearly always drawn from college students from middle-class backgrounds. There is no dialogue between socialism and feminism to carry on the “advances” that Young admires and critiques.
And yet, the marriage of socialism and feminism has so much promise. If one has a class awareness, it is absolutely true that most women are in fact working-class. The dead hand of male domination assures this.
Women accordingly have a distinct psycho-cultural experience that fosters a challenge to classical political organization. This isn’t some “essential womanness” but arises from the pervasive relations and institutions of male domination that indelibly mark women’s political consciousness. Organizations that have tried to build on women’s leadership tend to take markedly different trajectories than classical male-dominant left organizations.
Whereas the classical era of socialist politics looked to the masses of working men as their natural constituency, today’s socialist aspirations have to be built from a more inclusive framework. Women’s work can no longer be ignored or marginalized, nor can their rightful roles as leaders of the class struggle. Women’s struggles are pivotal for a renewed socialist politics.