Women as Revolutionaries: Gender Dynamics of Social Change

“Women as a sex class, then, do have potential disruptive power in the interconnected systems of capitalist and patriarchal sex/affective production. If women refuse to do their work as presently organized, neither capitalism nor patriarchy could continue to function.” Ann Ferguson, Blood at the Root (1989)


The revolutionary potential of women is missing from the most popular versions of radical politics; both Marxism and Anarchism. Marxism (and Anarcho-Syndicalism) tends to be focused on the class position of industrial workers, which historically have been mostly men. Other Anarchisms tended to focus on a generalized rebellion not specific to economic position or gender relations.

However, if the goal of revolutionary struggle is to overthrow the conditions of society that dominate and oppress humanity what seems more promising than a revolution based on the interests and values of women? Who rules the planet with wealth and power? The ruling class is almost entirely men. If women ruled the world, would things be different? Very likely, yes. Just how different is a complicated question.

One misunderstanding of the claim that the ruling class is a class composed of men is that this assertion lumps all men into the ruling class. However, the vast majority of humanity – both men and women – are oppressed by the ruling class. Most men are the targets of exploitation and domination by the ruling class, yet one important aspect of the social system is that men are nearly always in positions of privilege relative to the women in their lives.

If a family man is a poor farmer, he nevertheless has many privileges that his wife is denied. This relative male privilege is practically universal across history. In fact, one plausible viewpoint locates the origin of most socially oppressive practices in the male exploitation of female parenting.

What is important is the effect of predominantly female care on the later emotional predilections of the child.… for virtually every living person it is a woman — usually the mother –who has provided the main initial contact with humanity and with nature.” (Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur) One might expect that this “imprinting” of an infant upon its mother would mean that it would come to value female presence, interests, and values more than that of its (usually male) father.

However, as is so often the case with human emotions, Dinnerstein argues, a perverse relation with female power is the result of this more extensive mother-infant connection. Since in most cases an infant is fed, cleaned, clothed, touched, and verbally addressed by its mother over many more hours of its short life than a male, as the child begins to develop an awareness of gender and identity, femaleness becomes a subconscious introjection of its own helplessness and vulnerability at the hands of adults.

As a child begins to master its body and achieve the ability to accomplish its intentions, the primary obstacle to the child’s assertions is its mother’s power. Since the entire pre-school period of a conventionally-raised child is largely an interaction with its mother – as its father “works for a living” – the mother is the first power that directly opposes the expanding will of the child. Thus, a deep ambivalence is embedded deep within most children, a love-hate connection to its mother for both her many provisions for the child’s welfare and her many restraints upon its desires.

The father’s role in this pre-oedipal complex becomes an introjection of the fantasized freedoms this parent seems to enjoy. The hours of absence must be hours of pleasure, or so the child believes. The father of fantasy is imagined to do all the things the growing infant would do if only mother didn’t keep preventing them.

So far, each boy or girl develops almost identical interior attitudes towards its parents and their powers and freedoms. However, at the crucial juncture in which the growing child figures out that it, too, is one of these gendered beings, with all the real and imaginary consequences of this fact, each boy or girl then faces the necessity of embracing its gendered destiny.

Girls begin to resign themselves to their non-male mother-centric primary identity and submerge their emerging self-will as they begin to imitate the being with whom they are now genitally connected. Boys push forward into the fantasy of being a boy with a father-destiny beneath which they submerge in denial their deeper layers of love and connection (and hostility) towards their mother. The intensity of gender binary dissociation will vary according to specific family dynamics, but the general principle is that boys elevate their fantasy-laden connection to their father over their primordial connection to their mothers, while girls tend to elevate the primordial connection to their mother over any seemingly male autonomy.

As Dinnerstein concludes, this persistent dynamic in human history has produced a situation in which, “Most men — even most men who believe in principle that this “right” is unfounded — cling hard to their right to rule the world. And most women — including many who are ashamed of the feeling — feel deep down a certain willingness to let them go on ruling it.”

The way out of this psychodynamic cul-de-sac is not to swing towards a radical feminist valorization of motherhood. Motherhood of the conventional type is the very engine of sexist conditioning. The solution is to alter the dynamic of parenting at the earliest possible point, so that an infant is not subjected to a forced choice between its initial parental bond and the potential for independence. If mothering behaviors of feeding, cleaning, touching, and other infantile care are equally administered by both a male and a female parent, the child will resolve its gender identity development with a more balanced outcome.

In what sense is this feminist analysis revolutionary? Revolution is defined as the termination of an institutionalized structure of exploitation and domination and its replacement with one that increases freedom and equality. If the male domination of women is perpetuated across all social sectors by the exploitation of motherhood, then its replacement by gender-equal parenting will simultaneously emancipate women for inclusion in domains classically denied to them, and to mobilize men to embrace their developmentally suppressed capacities for those behaviors classically stereotyped as “female.”

What are the aims of this feminist revolution? Overcoming the gender binary in which “male” values and interests predominate, such as competition, individualism, warfare, and power. These values and interests produce and sustain themselves through their polar opposites – misleadingly defined as “feminine” – such as cooperation, dependence, passivity, and powerlessness.

The possibilities of a gender-equal – indeed transgender – revolution are immense and form an integral part of the integrative future envisioned by the philosophical methodology of social ecology.

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