A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Socialist Feminism

Posted by: Joan Braderman

This post was taken from the Heresies Vol. 3, No. 1, Issue 9, 1980

Written by Barbara Ehrenreich

We sometimes forget, as the “second wave” of feminism enters what is really its second generation, that our movement is rooted in a broad stream of radical upsurge-New Left, socialist and anti-racist. Feminism inherits many of its insights, concerns and even personnel from the left, just as any revived American left will have to acknowledge the impact of feminism as a radical force in our society.

Yet, at the level of theory-the attempt to come to a common understanding of the world and how to change it-the dialogue between feminism and the left has not been a resounding success. You are probably familiar with some of the cruder forms the exchange has taken: on the part of theleft, the question of which is really the “primary contradiction”- class, race or sex- and the related question of which came first-class society or male supremacy, property or rape? The verdict, popular in certain left circles in the mid-seventies, was that class and race were so far ahead in terms of primacy that feminism could only be understood as a distraction invented by the petty bourgeoisie.

Then, of course, on the other side, some feminists have denounced the entire left as a “male movement” and socialism as the most advanced form of patriarchy. In the seventies, the interface between feminism and the left became charged with rigid moral superiority, terror and, above all, guilt.

Not exactly a promising atmosphere for the creative development of theory and strategy. In fact, a funny thing happened to socialist feminist theory under these conditions (and I’m not talking about “high theory” -existentialist, Freudian, Lacanian or whatever-but about the ways in which we rank-and-file feminists were thinking): “theory” became a method of evading any contradictions or tensions. I think because they were just too scary.

To caricature the situation, the basic line went like this: “There is sexism, racism, class oppression, homophobia, imperialism, and all these things reinforce each other and prop each other up to make one big evil glop which will inevitably be defeated by the appropriate mix of feminism, anti-racism, class struggle and gay rights marches.” In other words, what we called “theory” was little more than a list.

In some ways, the socialist feminist “list” was a real advance. It’s better to have several items, rather than just one-like class, or testosterone-to explain everything. And it’s important to acknowledge the connections between theitems. But what this approach could not acknowledge is that there are some real contradictions between the items on the “list.” Feminism, class consciousness and racial or national identity do not neatly dovetail in some revolutionary schemeof things. They also contradict and subvert each other.

Let me put it very concretely. We are all pulled in at least two directions. On the one hand, as feminists, we are drawn to the community of women and to its political idealization as a sisterhood of free women. It is this sisterhood, this collectivity of women, that we believe to be the agent of revolutionary change.

On the other hand, we are pulled by what Jessica Benjamin has called “fleshly, familial ties” to a community of women and men – fathers, lovers, brother J9 sons, neighbors, co-workers. And we know, for all our criticisms of the patriarchal family, that this community of women and men is not just a swamp of immanence and degradation for women. The love and dependencies which tie us (not only heterosexual women) to this community are not just an expression of false consciousness. In fact, such communities, based on kinship and thousands of shared experiences and expectations, are the ground out of which comes our sense of class solidarity.

When I think of myself as a member of a class, I mentally throw in my lot with my brother, my son, other men who share more or less common life chances and expectations. When I think of myself as a member of a sisterhood of women, I mentally abstract myself from immediate family or community ties, and focus on what I have in common with women who may, in some cases, live in vastly different circumstances from my own.

The point is that both ways of imaginatively situating ourselves are true to our experience. We exist in two kinds of “community” -as women in a class of women and men, and as women in the sisterhood of women. Both are real. But we do not have a feminist politics that expresses the totality of our experience as women-“the both and the and” that Camille Bristow and Bonnie Johnson have spoken about. We have “partial feminisms,” and I am afraid that these partial feminisms only end up doing violence to some part of ourselves.

Radical feminism is one of these “partial feminisms” – a feminist politics that recognizes (not without some qualifications)only our allegiance to other women. But, paradoxically, the more it insists on an allegiance to women and women only, the more it turns against those women (the great majority of us) who are tied in to ‘the community of women and men. In the most J acobin, separatist versions of radical feminism, “sisterhood” comes to embrace only a tiny minority of wholly “woman-identified women.” All others are complicit with the enemy-and suspect.

In feminist theory, it is the mother who symbolizes this complicity, for no one else is so thoroughly caught up in or, from one point of view, compromised by the “fleshly, familial ties” which bind us to men as well as to other women. Feminist theory, again and again, points to the mother, either metaphorically or in person, as the source of our problems. She (at best, unwittingly) manufactured our gender while we were still infants, repressed our sexuality, bound our feet, curled our hair or straightened it, and in general demanded that we too be dutiful daughters – future mothers.

The critique of the mother runs through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and on into this conference. To give just two examples: Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster state flatly that “the mother was our original victimizer.” Reflecting on the radical feminist experience, Jessica Benjamin asks whether our freedom as women “must be bought by the betrayal and denial of our mothers.” The simplest and ostensibly most militant answer is “yes”: insofar as she has consorted with the enemy or, worse, conspired to reproduce gender, the mother is guilty, and we must denounce her.

This particular thrust of feminist politics is also visible from outside the movement. The anti-feminist charge that we are against motherhood and the family is not entirely a distortion, and the anti-feminist movement is not entirely a result of right-wing manipulation, If some women-women who by all rights should be on our side-can say they feel “attacked” by feminism, it may be because they have sensed the undercurrent of anti-woman anger in what is still a “partial feminism.”

The other kind of “partial feminism” is something we commonly find on the left. Ii is a politics which readily recognizes the “rights of women,” but, as Linda Gordon has pointed out, is hostile to any collectivity of women that abstracts us from the collectivities of class or nation. Contemporary Marxist-Leninism offers “women’s liberation” but fears sisterhood (and is usually terrified of lesbianism). Our liberation is supposed to come about through the struggles of a class (women enmeshed in the lives of men) and not through our collective efforts as independent women; our feminist utopian visions, our glimpses of a women’s culture, will have to be abandoned.

At the extreme, the leftist feminine ideal becomes the woman who is most securely enmeshed in the ties of family, community and class – the long-suffering mother. Stalin’s heroic mothers. Or, from the iconography of the more recent left, the woman liberation fighter with a baby on her back and a rifle in her arms. The mother-as-ideal comes out too in the politics of reproductive freedom: if radical feminism has at times veered dangerously toward anti-natal ism, the left and leftist feminists sometimes go too far the other way seeing all birth control programs for the poor and people of the Third World as “genocidal,” or seeming to reject sterilization for women under any circumstances .

If I could label the two “partial feminisms” I have talked about in a somewhat metaphorical way, I would say we have had a choice between, on the one hand, the politics of the daughters; on the other, the politics of the mothers. And as Elizabeth Janeway said in the opening panel at this conference (though she meant it in a somewhat more literalway), it may be time for a reconciliation. We need a feminist politics that recognizes both the mother and the daughter in us, both our collective identity as women and our ties to-a class of men and women, and we need to develop this politics in such a way that we do not-out of fear or guilt-evade the contradictions or flatten them out.

Let me end with some questions which might point us toward that next step-toward a feminist politics that is both revolutionary and true to the totality of our experience as women. Can we build a political community of women, or is sisterhood just a sentiment? There are many sub-questions here, but what concerns me most right now is the narrowness and exclusivity that so often characterizes feminist projects and communities. Linda Gordon describes feminist communities today as “often small, self-conscious, tense, ridden with moralism and right-lineism.” I think she’s right, and we have to ask how much of our anger has been directed toward other women, particularly those who show any sign of “complicity.” We talk about universal sisterhood, but, too often in practice we are horrified by a woman who wears spike heelsor black eye-liner or (god forbid) calls her women friends “girls.” There is a class bias in this, but also fear. Do we havethe strength now for a more generous and open form of sisterhood – one that can meet other women where they are?

I think we need less “theory,” and more analysis. We have roughly 329 theoretical syntheses of Marxism and feminism on the books and in the journals, but only the sketchiest understanding of the real situation of women’s lives today and how they are changing. We are vaguest of all when it comes to Third World women – the enormous female peasantry or the growing female proletariat being created by multinational corporations. If we are serious about the collectivity of women as a revolutionary force, then where is our analysis of the objective factors drawing us together, or separating us? Is the objective basis for sisterhood declining, as compared to the 19th century, or is it expanding as women leave their homes and enter a sharply sex-segregated labor force?

Linda Gordon has challenged us to develop our feminist utopian vision. In some ways, we have been longer on visions than we have been on analysis, but too often our “visions” have been exotic, spiritualist, impossible to connect with ordinary women’s needs and fantasies. I think we need a vision of human community which grows out of the contradictions we live, one which addresses both the “mother” and the “daughter” in each of us – both our needs for collectivity and for independence, both our capacity for nurturance andfor self-reliance, both our ongoing ties to men and our emerging strength as a sisterhood of women.

  • This talk was first given as a commentary on the papers for a panel on “The Personal and the Political” at “The Second Sex- Thirty Years Later,” a conference on feminist theory commemorating the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s major work, held at New York University, Sept. 27-29, 1979. The papers discussedinclude Jessica Benjamin’s “Starting from the Left and GoingBeyond,” Camille Bristow and Bonnie Johnson’s “Both and And,”Linda Gordon’s “Individual and Community in the History of Feminism,” as well as Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster’s “Femininity: The Sickness unto Death” (which was given at another panel, on “Heterosexuality and Power”)

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