20th Century Feminist Frameworks.

(A critique of some of its aspects.

In the 20th century, Feminism became a useful but problematic term with which to label all the various currents and strands of ideas originating from women who stood in opposition to the oppression of their gender.  General opposition to the oppression of women was the principle factor that in practice unified feminism and stood as the practical bedrock upon which its various strands were built.

In turn feminist theory sought to strengthen the practical unity, purpose and direction of broad layers of women in opposition to their allotted position in the bourgeois ‘order of things’. This is why together with its day-to-day organisational forms (consciousness raising groups, conferences, campaigns and other events) it was often described as (and saw itself as) a ‘movement’.

The reaction of a majority of men during this 20th century feminist movement was dismissive and generally ‘reactionary’.  Even much of the left, and this includes the so-called revolutionary left, patronisingly declined to engage with the struggle for women’s liberation. Most of the anti-capitalist left, for example, dogmatically suggested women would only cease to be oppressed – ‘after the revolution’!

This was despite the fact that the male-led  ‘revolutions’ in Russia, China and the Eastern bloc countries – after decades – had not seen the liberation of women. Nor had working class men been liberated from exploitative wage-labour for that matter.  Meanwhile women, from these Leninist, Trotskyist or Stalinist leadership perspectives, were generally advised to assist the men in more important task of overthrowing the capitalist mode of production. Only then would the men be able to become the ‘active’ patrons of efforts to achieving female equality. Patriarchy and left male patrifocality was not seen as any kind of a problem. But more of that later.

After achieving some recognition and gaining some statutory reforms and legal precedents, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 20th century, gradually ebbed away until hardly a trace of the original ‘movement’ can be found in the 21st.  Yet, originating in the USA and spreading elsewhere, it was an important movement while it lasted. For this reason it deserves to be considered in some detail for there is still clearly a need to address the issue of male-female socio-economic status and their personal relationships.

In many ways the situation of the majority of women – working class women in particular – is now worse economically and socially, particularly if we consider the result of the current systemic crisis of capitalism and the pro-capitalist elite’s campaign of enforced austerity. Even more so if we acknowledge the threats which emanate from the rise of patriarchal movements such as religious fundamentalism and if we factor in the position of women outside of the economically ‘advanced’ counties of Europe and the West.

Returning to the subject of the 20th century Womens’ Liberation Movement, however, it is important to recognise the following. The ‘movement’ contained within its overall practical position of oppositon to female oppression, substantial difference of principle, purpose and approach.  Apart from published books and documents, these ideological differences were mostly hinted at but not dealt with in any great detail – at least in front of us men.

In order to understand 20th century feminism it was necessary to look beyond the general derogatory ‘male-stream’ stereotypes of feminists prevalent at the time (as men-hating failures or lesbian lothario’s) and to grasp the nature of these differences. And fortunately, for this task there were at the time many books and pamphlets available during the period of its flourishing. What appears – under the same title – in the pages section above was offered as a contribution to understanding 20th century feminism from my own first-hand observations and studies during that period.

The frameworks.

The differences within 20th century feminism existed at a level of theory (expressed in the form of competing elements of a feminist ideology) as well as existing in the practices of feminists themselves. Indeed, there were attempts to understand the many differences, from within the feminist movement itself. For this reason I shall begin with a summary of feminist ideological positions, or ‘frameworks’ as identified by a number of feminist writers of that particular period.

According to Jagger and Struhl (1978) there then existed four feminist frameworks; Liberal, Radical, Socialist and Marxist. These particular feminist authors treated Lesbian Feminism as a sub-section of the Radical strand.  The authors of ‘Feminism and Philosophy’ (Vetterling et al) however, considered that Lesbian Feminism rated a separate identity and hence delineated five frameworks. I was persuaded by their argument. However, it was also possible to identify a further ideological framework that was neither socialist nor Marxist, but held to a materialist perspective.

To my own understanding at the time I therefore, identified six discernible  ‘strands’ or ideological frameworks to 20th century feminism.  These are briefly described in the following sections. It should be noted, however, that in all such sub-categorisations, there are no absolutely ‘pure’ distillations of each sub-category or framework. Some statements and proposals overlap and contain various threads of other sub-categories within them. Nevertheless, they were more or less ideologically centred around the core ideas expressed in these distinguishing frameworks.

a) Radical Feminism.

“I call myself a Radical Feminist…I believe that sexism is the root oppression, the one which, until and unless we uproot it, will continue to put forth the branches of racism, class hatred, ageism, competition, ecological disaster and economic exploitation. (Morgan [1978] page 9.)  

This quote expresses the essence of the 1970’s Radical Feminist strand in that it considers the oppression of women is the basis of, and sustains, all other forms of oppression. It argues that historically women were the first oppressed group. The proof of this is said to lie in the fact that the oppression of women is universal and appears at all historic stages of human development. Such is the longevity and universality of this ‘original’ oppression, that only ‘radical’ measures will be able to eradicate it.

Shulalamith Firestone, another radical feminist author, stressed the need to radicalise childbirth by advances in reproductive technology such as test tube fertilisation and extra-uterine births. This, it is argued, will free women from their reproductive role –  that, as in most religions – is viewed as being at the root of women’s oppression. In this way a feminist version of Huxley’s ‘A Brave New World’ would be created. Those radical feminists who consider that ‘biological’ differences account for social differences have also tended to reverse the patriarchal biological explanations. Thus when some men (and some women) have argued that menstruation is a curse to be hidden away, some Radical Feminists have turned this around and argued for celebrating menstruation.

In accepting biological explanations Radical Feminist ideology is led to consider men to be biologically unsound; ie ‘they are oppressive – because of their genes’; they are flawed – because they can’t have babies; or evil – their hormones can make them excessively aggressive’.  This is another reversal of the patriarchal platitude that women are ‘naturally’ inferior. This line of reasoning transfers the existence of patriarchy from socio-economic development into a biological one. From this framework it is men who are declared ‘naturally’ inferior. This kind of logic leads to explanations that the ills of the world are all caused by men and to the proposal to exclude men permanently from certain domains and activities of economic and social life. Yet another dualistic reversal of the patriarchal way of thinking!

The Radical Feminist would also correctly point out to the continued existence of sexism, discrimination and oppression for women under Communist Regimes as proof that the ‘Marxist’ thesis of equality after the revolution as invalid. Within much of the Radical Feminist framework there is no clear statement of the possible economic causes of female oppression. However, since this framework largely sees female oppression as rooted in biology the – ‘biology is destiny’ – phraseology often served as a defining rallying call. And continuing this logic one Radical Feminist writer concluded that for men; ‘physiology is their fate’.

Since Radical Feminists viewed gender oppression as primary and economic oppression as secondary, from this quarter, there seemed to be no enthusiastic support for campaigns aimed at reforming the economic circumstances faced by women. The reason being that these could not alter the essential biological ‘female condition’. The same logic applied to arguing for changing the existing capitalist economic system into a post-capitalist one.  [Further examples of this ‘radical’ framework could be found in the writings of Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millet, Cora Kaplan, Gail Chester and Mary Daly, among others.]

b) Liberal Feminism.

“Even a very young woman today must think of herself as a human first, not as a mother with time on her hands, and make a life plan in terms of her own abilities, a commitment of her own to society, with which her commitment as a wife and mother can be integrated. “ (Friedan. 1971 page 344.)

This quote from Betty Friedan’s ‘Feminine Mystique’ articulates a set of sentiments firmly located in the individual and rooted in the Liberal tradition. She appears to be building upon the rationalist bourgeois ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries of writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759-97) ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ and JS Mill’s (1806-1873) ‘The Subjection of Women’.  Liberal Feminism was critical of mainstream (or male-stream) Liberalism since it gives insufficient recognition to the need to improve the position of women in society. Liberal Feminism interpreted ‘equality’ to mean that each individual, regardless of gender, should have equal opportunity to seek whatever social position and remuneration he or she wishes.

It follows from this individualist framework, that if women are to participate in the world outside the home on equal terms with men, then their reproductive capacity should come under their own control. Additionally, if they have children then this responsibility, along with housework ought to be shared equally by men.  Bourgeois liberalism and therefore Liberal Feminism, did not seek to end class distinctions but merely to promote equal opportunity – within the existing class structures. Thus Liberalism and Liberal Feminism did not criticise inequalities of wealth or position as such, just the prevailing gender-based means of distributing wealth within the various classes of bourgeois society.

Since Liberalism espouses the belief that all rational human beings should have equal rights at birth, this framework sought to establish and promote the fact that women, no less than men, are born capable of rational thought. For this reason Liberal Feminism engaged in a critical onslaught against Conservative thinking. Liberal Feminists therefore argued that inequalities and gender differences are learned or are due to a lack of suitable (and positive) social and educational environments. Liberal Feminists, therefore, in the main limited themselves (as did the USA based National Organisation of Women N.O.W.) to supporting ideas and campaigns which supported equal rights – within the existing framework of capitalist society.

Liberal Feminism, as with Liberalism in general only saw inequalities as being due to ‘inconsistencies’ in the existing socio-economic system, that only needed ‘ironing out’ or reforming. The essential hallmarks of this framework were pluralist and political with a commitment to limited reforms. Women’s suffrage and their struggle for the ‘vote’ were early Liberal Feminist concerns. Their counterparts in the 20th century with voting rights were concerned to promote gender equality further via equal pay and child-care provision as correctives to the inconsistencies of the bourgeois mode of production.

As the product of a predominantly middle-class way of thinking, Liberal Feminism focussed mainly on equality among the elite’s to the practical, if not rhetorical, neglect of working class and rural based women. Examples of writers in this tradition are Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily Pankhurst, JS Mill, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and J.Radcliffe-Pritchard.

c) Socialist Feminism.

“The assumption behind most socialist analysis is that the crucial factor starting the whole development of feminine subordination was women’s lesser capacity for demanding physical work. But in fact, this is a major over-simplification. Even in these terms, historically it has been women’s lesser capacity for violence as well as for work that has determined her subjection.” (J. Mitchell. In Jagger and Struhl ‘Feminist Frameworks’ .1978 page 32)

Despite a dubious generalised assumption expressed in the above quotation, Socialist Feminist ideas in general accepted some of the basic classical Marxist perspectives such as an element of historical materialism. However, it recognised that these assumptions needed to be developed to include factors other than those based upon production and the existence of the capitalist mode of production.

The quote above suggests that two of these other factors preventing women form taking an equal part in society, are women’s lesser capacities for demanding physical work and violence.  But of course lesser capacities can be surmounted by tools, machinery and technology, as they are for men. And of course, as they were during the Second World War in particular when women dug the ground and operated huge machines along with many other forms of demanding physical work.

Socialist Feminist ideas accepts some of the ideas of the Radical Feminist strand and the Liberal Feminist strand but insisted that these be understood in the context of class divisions within society. The Socialist Feminist framework also sought to critically address the theory and practice of patriarchy and to integrate such criticism into theories critical of capitalism.

Socialist Feminists did not see all women as equally oppressed. They argued that women who were part of the ruling elite-classes were oppressed in different as well as in similar ways. Given the dependent status of working people with regard to the main means of production this meant that there could not be real equality for working class women.

As Socialist Feminist were concerned to promote equality for women in all classes, they saw the need to simultaneously campaign for changes in the system of capitalism itself as well as challenges and changes to patriarchal ideas. However, in this regard there seemed to be no coherent view on how this was to be pursued, but this cannot be too surprising.

The Socialist Feminist framework in the main shared the values and assumptions of socialist thought in general, which viewed changes to the system as achievable by reformist political means. This meant that the changes and challenges to the class system and to patriarchal values by women was to be channelled via votes, petitions and demonstrations, through the Congressional or Parliamentary systems of capitalist governments.

As with the concept of socialism in general the Socialist Feminist framework contained a wide spectrum of views on what ‘socialism’ stood for.  Socialist Feminists could be therefore found in and around the Labour Party or in and around ‘hard-left’ groups. The logic of such small numbers, widespread distribution and entrenched patrifocal attitudes among left men, meant that this framework had less impact than it perhaps deserved. Examples or writers in this tradition are; S. Rowbotham, L. Wainright, L. Segal, J. Mitchell.

d) Lesbian Feminism.

“Lesbianism is a threat to the ideological, political, personal and economic basis of male supremacy. The Lesbian threatens the ideology of male supremacy by destroying the lie about female inferiority, weakness and passivity and by denying women’s innate need for men. Lesbians literally do not need men (even for procreation if the science of cloning is developed.)” (In Jagger and Stuhl Feminist Frameworks [1978] page 137.)

This framework considered that all heterosexual relationships would inevitably give rise to the oppression of women. Some Lesbian Feminists thought this would always be so, others thought this would change only after other feminist inspired changes had taken place. For Lesbian Feminists at the time, the significant relationship of oppression occurred within the realm of sexual relations.

Thus for Lesbian Feminists at the time the clue to the overcoming of female oppression lay in opposing and/or undermining heterosexual sexual relationships.   It was this heterosexual practice, therefore, which needed altering.  It can be seen by the reference to ‘cloning’ that some Lesbian Feminists shared with the Radical Feminists a hope of liberation through the mediation of advances in bio-technology.

For some feminists, Lesbianism became a conscious choice of sexuality, for others it became a deliberate political choice, meant to challenge and usurp patriarchy. As with some Radical Feminists some Lesbian Feminists included a notion of the ‘essentially’ oppressive nature of men. For this reason a return to some form of Matriarchal society was advocated. Such a return would be an important development leading to a better, more peaceful and less oppressive form of society.  Lesbian Feminists were also often critical of other feminists who continued to have relationships with men – even men sympathetic to and supportive of feminism.

At the time they indicated no interest in campaigns to change the fundamental economic system or mode of production because they did not consider any changes in female oppression would result. In short Lesbian Feminists at the time considered the root of women’s oppression to lie in the nature of the heterosexual relationship itself. They shared the Radical Feminist agnosticism with regard to socio-economic changes considering these to be of little consequence for women.

They saw the changes necessary as lying within the arena of altered sexuality. Some feminists arriving at this theoretical position, made political decisions to become lesbian as part of a deliberate policy of denying men warmth, support and of course sex, bestowing these on women instead. Examples; Charlotte Bunch, Rita May Brown.

e) Materialist Feminism.

“Any adequate theoretical analysis of the position and oppression of women within capitalism cannot therefore be predicated theoretically on the mirror inversion and replacement of class determination with that of sex as Millet attempts to do. Nor is it a question of the addition of a ‘missing ingredient’ to an overall Marxist theory….It seems that the task at hand is twofold: that is, it is necessary to question the nature and premises on which Marxism is itself based whilst at the same time asking feminist questions.” (McDonough & Harrison in Khun and Wolpe (1978 page 14)

As stated in the introduction this feminist framework rested uneasily between those of Socialist Feminism and the following framework of Classical Marxist Feminism. It shares with them a commitment to examining the position of women in relationship to the processes of production and reproduction. Their challenge to Marxists and Socialists was that this had been scarcely or inadequately done – a serious omission.

They drew the conclusion that this was not simply an oversight but an essential flaw within these two alternative frameworks. Unfortunately, as with other ‘left’ feminist frameworks the Materialist Feminist one did not address the vexed question of what constituted an adequate Marxism or Socialism from a feminist standpoint. This is perhaps not surprising since this question divided the left itself into many warring sects during this period of feminist activism.

They sought to ‘challenge the premises upon which Marxism (and other socialisms) are based’. Yet by locating the position of women; ‘in terms of the relations of production and reproduction at various moments of history’, they seemed to find themselves in an impossible contradiction. The basis for a materialist history of female oppression in relationship to production would presumably be – historical-materialism. Which of course was the alleged  premise of the various Marxist strands of thinking.

The real problem for solving this contradiction was to recognise that the various Marxisms at the time had long departed from the revolutionary-humanism of Marx and other such thinkers. Marxism had long been a male orientated fixed dogma that bore little resemblance to the ideas of the person whose name had been appropriated to describe this reactionary trend. What needed to be understood and challenged, was the separation of Marxism from Marx and its subsequent degeneration.

f) Classical or traditional Marxist/Feminism.

“But there still remains considerable misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Marxist positions, which have led some women who consider themselves radicals of socialists to go off course and become theoretically disorientated. Influenced by the myth that women have always been handicapped by their child-bearing functions, they tend to attribute the roots of women’s oppression, at least in part, to biological sexual differences. In actuality its causes are exclusively historical and social in character.” (Reed in Jagger and Struhl page 41.)

It should be recognised from the start that the classical Marxist/Feminist  framework emerged as a response to 20th century feminism from within the ‘Official’ Communist Party’s. The ‘party’s’ understanding of Marxism was one that was uncritical of the Bureaucratic Centralism of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries. Perhaps for this reason, the subordinate position of women in these so-called socialist countries was largely glossed over or represented as being non-existent.

The criticism of official Marxism’s position, hinted at in the above extract, was interpreted as misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Note also that the female role in childbearing is separated from the historical and social aspects of life, when in fact there is an important link between the two – and always will be. Production and reproduction are inseparably linked in the species lives of communities and families no matter what mode of production exists.

Since, the traditional Marxist/Feminism framework considered men are oppressed under the capitalist mode of production, it followed that both genders were enslaved by the system. In addition since the class nature of society was emphasised above all else, the primary struggle was viewed dualistically as being one between the working classes and the capitalist classes – all else would have to wait.

A crude extrapolation from Marx held that women’s oppression began with the introduction of bourgeois private property and classes. Logic according to this view meant that classes and private property would have to be abolished before any other forms of oppression could be tackled. Capitalism would need to be overthrown before all other forms of oppression could be tackled. Clearly the oppression of women (as with children and others) is not directly dependent upon a particular mode of production.

However, given the traditional Marxist/Feminist perspective, activist women in the Marxist Feminist framework were expected to and encouraged to work for the ‘party’ as the main focus of their feminist activism. This inevitably led to a degree of sectarian divisions appearing within the feminist movement, with feminist activists torn between solidarity with other women and solidarity with the ‘party’. This together with adopting a critical attitude to those lacking a class perspective led to a weakening of the feminist project.

3. Some concluding remarks.

With such a rich and diverse spectrum of ideological thought as briefly outlined above, it became difficult for many to identify with or support Feminism in general. This was particularly difficult because much of the language and many of the terms used were common to all frameworks, but on close examination held a different content or different emphasis.

A frequent response when encountering 20th century feminism – particularly, but not exclusively from men – was to reject all feminism because of encountering a particular aspect or framework which was seen as objectionable.  For those who had not recognised the differing strands within the feminist movement it often proved difficult to even support actions with which they sympathised.

This difficulty was exacerbated for men sympathetic to most of the demands raised by feminists, for as the male-chauvinist part of the problem for the liberation of women, many felt it was inappropriate to criticise any aspect of feminism. For example, if they spoke out at all, they might be seen as interfering and if they remained silent they might be presumed to be unsupportive.  Both charges being levelled at one time or other.

Probably the most difficult problem encountered during this period was the frequent use of biological explanations to cover more than just reproductive criteria. Biological determinism, ie using biology to explain social and economic differences and inequality, as the Radical Feminist strand tended to do, was to assert an immediate barrier, to any potential socio-economic remedies aimed at achieving female equality.

It is an unhappy fact that the easier or simpler an analysis or hypothesis is, the more likely it is to be picked up and used. It was also the case that some of these emerged within the Radical Feminist trend, yet it was the case that these ideas could be detected occasionally within a number of the other strands, having been uncritically borrowed as ‘weapons of the moment’ by eager debaters. Yet few would have wished to pursue the logical conclusions of this radical strand.

Afterword. (October 2014)

The above sections have been reproduced from a pamphlet written in the late 1980’s, partly as a means of self-clarification and also to distribute to other male supporters of feminism. A few of us started ‘men’s groups’ to discuss how best to challenge our own male chauvinism (the bourgeois cultural term chosen to describe the ongoing patriarchy) and support women’s liberation. In my experience they were never really successful at doing either and soon fizzled out. In retrospect, it appears to me that part of the problem was – at least among us men – an insufficient understanding of the depth and longevity of our own patrifocality and patriarchy.

Among ‘left’ men there was too much emphasis on the ‘after the revolution’ paraphrase and all that this convenient slogan entailed. From that assumption, all that could be usefully done in the meantime was small-scale supportive efforts to make female oppression a little less arduous. This view persisted (and still persists in some 21st century socialist thought) despite the obvious observation that as noted earlier, in all the cases of so-called ‘socialist’ revolutions, women in these countries were still subservient to men – in every field of human endeavour. It is now clear that much more was (and is) needed to be done.

It is also clear that none of the above feminist frameworks were revolutionary even in a theoretical sense. They were all Reformist in one way or another. In theory and practice, they sought to positively reform society, in pro-feminist ways. As such they were bound to fail the bulk of the female half of humanity. This is despite the fact that a few lucky one’s, were advantaged by the few reforms eventually gained.

However, like the male half of the working population, a large part of the problems for women stem from the alienation of their own productive labour, by a lack of collective ownership and control of the main means of production. Feminism, by itself, can be radical, but it can never be truly revolutionary, for it is a one-sided expression of human alienation. In practice it seeks a one-sided, one-gender dimension and thus unattainable solution.

Equality under an unequal mode of production, can – at best – only become an equality of exploitation for the bulk of female humanity and other oppressed categories. Under the capitalist mode of production, Feminist demands can never amount to more than demands to be equally shackled to the current system of exploitation and oppression. Feminist demands can never achieve more than the status of being equally exploited economically and emotionally rather than unequally exploited.

Similarly, patriarchal forms of anti-capitalism (male hierarchical organisations) can never be truly revolutionary for they too remained trapped in a one-sided frame of reference. This can neither ‘free’ the bulk of women from oppression, nor the bulk of men from their patrifocal assumptions and their own oppression. Indeed such bifurcated ‘socialistic’ and ‘communistic’ forms are at best reformist and at worst reactionary. As long as they remain trapped in patriarchal and patrifocal forms, they cannot achieve a revolutionary transcendence of the present mode of production. They merely achieve a transfer of political power to another set of male elite’s.

Of course, humanity can never be ‘free’ of the need to co-operate to produce and re-produce. We can never be free of a degree of inequality of talent, strength or determination, but that needn’t involve the subjection of some to others more fortunate in that regard. However, humanity can be free of class-based and patriarchal forms of inequality. It was free of this ‘muck of ages’ in the distant past and can be so in the future.

Men can never free themselves from the existing mode of production, without the active participation of women in that struggle. Conversely, women cannot free themselves from the existing mode of production, without the active participation of men. This existential struggle of humanity requires the combined efforts of both genders and for such a revolutionary combination to unfold, a new, fully humanist, basis for this struggle needs to be established.

And what else can be the basis of such fully humanist aspiration, but the self-conscious formation of a revolutionary-humanist movement? This would need to be a movement which recognises previous anti-capitalist distortions and limitations and actively seeks to remove and transcend them. In this regard and in preparation for such a revolutionary movement, men need to actively subvert the patriarchal attitudes and organisational forms they are most familiar and comfortable with.

The elevation of class, as the primary factor under the capitalist mode of production, led to a serious disconnect in some forms of socialist analysis. Class is not counter-posed to patriarchy, (or visa versa) as some on the left have claimed. Class is an economic division that appears within a deep-seated patriarchal religio-social structure. Patriarchy and patrifocality pre-date capitalism and have dominated all previous modes of production apart from the early hunter-gatherer modes with their matrifocal and matrilineal social and economic structures.

This ancient patriarchal domination has continued through the Asiatic, Feudal and Bourgeois modes of production and continues to the present day.   Despite a number of partial attempts to modify the capitalist mode of production, via so-called ‘communism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘fascism’, patrifocal and patriarchal forms of organisation and control continued within each of them.

Since patriarchy is a religious and social structural form and since it has not always been the dominant form within social groups, it is clearly not biology which determines the inferior social position of women.  For this reason it is patriarchy and patrifocality – within all social forms – that needs to be criticised and eroded in practice as part of the revolutionary-humanist, post-capitalist project.

As implied above, it is therefore not a question of disconnecting the two issues of class and gender and focussing on one to the postponement or exclusion of the other. Both need to be addressed and tackled comprehensively. Any revolutionary-humanist movement would need to take a lead in the disestablishment of patriarchal and patrifocal forms within any organisational structures it collectively agreed to create and/or promote.

Roy Ratcliffe.

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