Contribution to GTI Roundtable Feminism and Revolution

Lourdes Benería

Julie Matthaei has written a very interesting summary of the historical path that the second wave of feminism has followed since the early 1970s, particularly in the US and particularly from a Marxist-feminist perspective. I very much appreciate her comprehensive effort to underline the many changes that have taken place theoretically and their implication for action, political struggle, and institutional change—all the way to the present and to the implications of feminism for building a Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE). I would point out that Marxism has had—and still has—more influence on feminism outside the US than in the US. For example, the “domestic labor debate” of the 1970s originated in Europe, and it was very much an effort to conceptualize women’s domestic work in Marxian terms. One could argue that it was a way to legitimate feminist analysis and feminism in general within the overall Marxian framework and politics. The fact that Marxian analysis in general was less prevalent in the US than in Europe meant that, in the US, this was also reflected among feminist circles.

In fact, and, as Matthaei points out, the second wave feminist movement included perhaps a larger group of socialist-feminists who were critical of Marxism for its lack of understanding of women’s subordination and of the ways in which patriarchy was at the root of women’s oppression—quite independently from capitalism or in conjunction with it. Beyond capitalism, Marx and Marxists had not understood, for example, the ways in which gender relations and gender norms were also at the root of the condition of women in all societies, capitalist or not. To be sure, Marxism had offered some avenues for understanding patriarchy and women’s condition. Engels in particular—in his The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State—emphasized his now famous notion that “according to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance the production and reproduction of immediate life.” But Marxism developed in such a way that it placed its emphasis on production and the market while neglecting “the production of human beings themselves,” that is, neglecting the center of women’s work and women’s lives. Feminism, on the other hand, sees the latter as fundamental for understanding women’s place in society. This was a basic reason why left and socialist feminists did not clearly identify as “Marxist-feminists” even though Marxism might have been relevant to their thinking. Perhaps Matthaei’s essay, while mentioning it, does not make it explicit enough.

Years later, the postmodern critiques of “grand theory” à la 1970s intensified the tendency away from Marxism among feminists. The concepts of deconstruction, identity, and the analysis of—as Michèle Barrett put it—“words” rather than “things” became the norm among many feminists and in gender studies, with many implications for the shift away from material analysis and for feminist politics. Barrett’s 1980 book Women’s Oppression Today, which had become a standard textbook for a Marxian approach to analyzing women’s oppression, was followed by her 1999 Imagination in Theory, which represented a break with Marxism and towards—as the book’s subtitle puts it—“Culture, Writing, Words and Things.” This symbolized a radical change in academic feminism and its move away from leftist influences, with its implications for the wider feminist movement. To be sure, the dual systems theory that Marxist-feminists adopted, as Julie Matthaei explains very eloquently, continued to emphasize the two systems of oppression, capitalism and patriarchy, as the sources of women’s oppression. But the cultural shift was not very helpful to analyze the connections between the two. In this sense, intersectionality analysis kept alive the need to identify the different aspects of women’s oppression regardless of its links to Marxism or not.

Despite the profound conceptual changes generated by postmodernism, the importance of understanding the process of “production and reproduction of immediate life” continued to be a central point for feminist analysis and political action. A new focus developed around the notion of “care” and the “care economy.” The historical evolution of “care” itself became a focal point for many feminists who wanted to understand how the feminization of the labor force globally, the shift of production from the home to the market, and the commodification of domestic production and care affected women’s lives, gender relations, and gender in/equality. Nancy Folbre’s important book Who Pays for the Kids? (1994) reflected these concerns, and it was a turning point for the new emphasis on understanding how the different models of welfare states were dealing with such central issues affecting women. The book in many ways also represented the theoretical shift away from the Marxian emphasis on reproduction and social reproduction even though it was clearly dealing with these issues. In retrospect, we can argue that the emphasis on care and the care economy has been—and still is—a central point in feminist studies and political work even though there are differences in its use, including differences between continents. In Europe and Latin America, the Marxian notion of social reproduction and the maintenance of life—“sostenibilidad de la vida” in Spanish—has kept closer to the Marxist-feminism that Matthaei emphasizes in her essay and politically closer to left feminism. This includes a continuing emphasis on the need to understand the interaction between capitalism and patriarchy, in theory and practice. This probably explains why the work of Silvia Federici and her unorthodox Marxist analysis of capitalist accumulation from a feminist perspective has remained very popular among left feminists in Spanish-speaking countries and elsewhere in the South.

One consequence of the postmodern emphasis on “words” rather than “things” or the shift from the social sciences to cultural studies in feminism was the neglect of “the material” in many feminist circles. The new emphasis on identity led to a practical neglect of economic aspects in feminist theory and gender studies. In Nancy Fraser’s terms, the strong emphasis on issues of “representation” contributed to the neglect of “distribution.” As globalization contributed to an increasingly exploitative and unequal world, feminism was not paying enough attention to the ways in which capitalist accumulation and the distribution of resources were evolving, with implications for gender in/equality. In the US, some left feminists became critical of the ways in which, in the postmodern world of feminism, women had been “seduced” by the gains made during the decades of expanding globalization and neoliberalism. As Hester Eisenstein argued in her book Feminism Seduced (2009), “the captains of capitalism accommodated feminism” and made use of feminist arguments to let some steps towards gender equality advance—as long as it was convenient to the system. Eisenstein’s critique of feminism during that period, particularly of US feminism, is a critique from within, based on a comparison between the more revolutionary feminism of the 1970s and the accommodating currents that followed since the 1980s.

We can say that globalization has generated many jobs for women and contributed to the feminization of the labor force worldwide. At the same time, this has been parallel to a very significant increase in women’s educational levels in many countries and to the empowering of many women in different ways. For these reasons, institutions such as the World Bank have highlighted the positive steps toward gender equality made during the neoliberal era without pointing out that increasing economic and social inequalities worldwide have a clear gender perspective. Women have continued to be at the bottom of labor market hierarchies, and the burden represented by their care work continues to be at the core of gender inequalities and women’s oppression across countries and regions. In many Northern countries, deregulation and deterioration of labor markets, especially since the 2008 crisis, has generated high levels of unemployment, informal working conditions for many, and the formation of the precariat. For the poorest population, we are seeing new forms of poverty and precarious existence, symbolized by the increasing number of homeless in large Northern cities and spectacular new buildings. For many women working at the bottom of the labor market hierarchy, this means, for example, being overworked and underpaid, such as in the case of cleaning women in luxury hotels for international tourism. To be sure, here too, intersectionality analysis helps us to break down the different aspects of these inequalities and oppressions while telling us that patriarchy lives, clearly allied with global capitalism!

At the present, we seem to be entering a new era for feminism, questioning the deepest forms of sexism and of gender inequalities. The strongly renewed anger against violence against women everywhere is pointing more than ever at the roots of patriarchy, and generating unprecedented mobilizations across countries. From where I sit in Barcelona, Spain, this year’s demonstrations for International Women’s Day were incredibly large and vociferous, led by young women who clearly seem to bring further the feminisms they have inherited from previous generations. They also included older women and men of different ages. How wonderful also that Southern feminism, as Arturo Escobar explains, carries a new torch of “depatriarchalization” and post-colonial forms of seeing and doing. I would argue, however, that in the Marxist-feminist tradition of which Julie Matthaei provides an interesting overview, struggles around patriarchy have been linked with those around the material conditions generated by the economic system. In these sense, I agree with her in that solidarity politics and economics is an avenue that “seeks to end all forms of oppression.” This process implies the construction of new institutions such as those associated with the SSE. The current growth of cooperatives in the North and South, the collective efforts around agroecology and sustainable energy projects, and the struggles for survival beyond traditional forms of production and reproduction in the South respond not to the objectives of individualistic “economic man” but to collective forms of organizing life and provisioning for everyone. They require solidarity and a new vision of individual and social objectives. Women are at the forefront in the building and organization of many of these institutions.

At a very different level, we are also seeing how technological change can be an avenue towards new forms of production leading to the collaborative economy that could contribute to the “Great Transition.” The “sharing economy” made possible by the new technologies related to information and communication facilitates the creation of social networks and collective platforms worldwide. It is to be seen the extent to which these new institutions will become part of the new “commons” and of the SSE, but we must view them as a place of struggle in the search for post-capitalist alternatives. Women are not well represented yet in these platforms, but they are likely to play a fundamental role in the search for these alternatives in all sectors, not only because feminism is questioning more intensely gender norms and the deepest forms of sexism; the shift towards more egalitarian and collective forms of production and reproduction can learn much from women’s ways of knowing, doing, relating, and caring. Caring is what we need for all people and for our badly wounded Planet.

Lourdes Benería
Lourdes Benería is Professor Emerita at Cornell University. She is the author of such books as Gender, Development, and Globalization and Changing Employment Patterns and the Informalization of Jobs: General Trends and Gender Dimensions.

Cite as Lourdes Benería, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Feminism and Revolution," Great Transition Initiative (June 2018),

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