Marxism and Feminism

Marxism is a theory of economic system while feminism is exclusively connected with relationship between men and women so how do these two could possibly unite. An interesting question- the answer to which lies in understanding the basic structure of Marxism on which feminism is loosely based. Alternatively, we can first understand what feminism is all about and see how it gets its inspiration from Marxism. Feminism is the result of women liberation movement, which began somewhere in the 18th century and gained momentum in late 19th century. During this time women realized that they were not being treated the same way as men and everything was viewed through masculine binoculars. In other worlds, it was found that males were completely dominating every area including ‘thinking’ and this resulted in women liberation movement, which ultimately led to feminism. Feminism today exists in various forms and is characterized by an intense desire of female population of the world to be considered equal to men and thus be given same rights as men in every field. Over the years however, feminism has developed various branches and while some forms of feminism are acute or intense, essentially the underlying principles are the same. In every branch, one thing is certainly common i.e. struggle for equal rights and pride in one’s gender. Feminism is thus all about understanding and challenging the existing social structures where men dominate in almost all field and women are treated as mere objects.

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Marxism understood this problem a long time back when in Communist Manifesto, Engels and Marx asserted that psychological enslavement of women is closely connected with capitalism which endorses patriarchic social structures and strengthens them. Marxism is different from capitalism not only in its approach to economics but in general social issues as well. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the two greatest names in theoretic communism, maintained that women are meted out unfair treatment simply because they are not accorded the same respect that males are. Marxism was thus sympathetic to feminist viewpoint believing that capitalism leads to a system where women are treated as means of production and nothing else. What Marx was propagating for a more socially equal and respectful environment for women where they could work out of their own free will and did not have to resort to prostitution and other evils to support themselves.

With these inherent similarities, the two were meant to merge eventually and this led to the development of the term socialist feminism. Both are essentially connected with liberation and Marxism contains within it seeds of change for women as well which is what attracted feminists towards it during latter half of the 20th century. The merger is no longer as strong as it once used to be, but the structural similarities of the two theories are such that they will not allow feminism to completely severe ties with Marxism. Some of the key similarities can be summarized as follows where both are seen as:

are theories of emancipation/liberation appeal explicitly to theory to inform and guide practice invoke a linkage between intellectuals and ‘ordinary’ people employ extra-parliamentary tactics are founded on a view of a group/class that can act in a world-historical way if properly ‘conscious’ (or ‘consciousness-raised’)

have a historical sensibility that tends toward the universal and the universalizing generate intellectual problems and trends (particularly philosophical and historical ones) independent of political projects (and perhaps at the expense of them)

appeal to worldwide majorities have problems with imperialism/colonialism in terms of leadership/identity (but not ‘race’) as a constitutive concept create a canon of major writers, authoritative documents and heroes cause major revisions to history as it is written and understood as an activity

tend to validate a ‘method’ or search for same support mass revolution, and a new understanding of same (Taken verbatim from Terrell Carver, April 2004)

The most important reason why feminism saw support and inspiration in Marxism is because in many of his essays on the subject of communism, Marxism called for liberation of women for he argued that mass revolution was impossible without female emancipation. Though it is clear that Marx never touched upon the precise relationship of men and women, feminism took refuge in his staunch support for women and thus a deep connection developed. Marx’s essays on gender issues sparked feminist interest in his works. For example in 1850s, Marx wrote some important articles in support of women workers who were made to endure inhumane conditions and extremely long working hours.

During 1850s, there was a strike by women workers in Preston, England, where more than 15,000 participants collectively complained against deplorable working conditions. Marx supported this strike since it was against capitalism and thus indirectly got involved in women issues. Similarly he also wrote an article in support of Lady Bulwer-Lytton who was thrown into asylum for insane because her political views were in stark contrast with that of her husband’s. Marx attacked sexism and was seen as a supporter of women rights which ultimately led to a close association between his theories and feminism. The other very important contribution is this regard came in the form of Engels’ masterpiece The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1942). In this book, he argued that women were as powerful as men prior to ownership system of private property. He explained that when men began dominating private properties, women lost their place and power and became financially dependent on men. This gave birth to an altered social system where men became a domineering force and women were seen as nothing but factors of production.

Communism also complained against the nuclear family system where females are seen as homemakers while men are projected as breadwinners. Engels argued that capitalism was responsible for creating divisions in the status of men and women by separating family households from economic system. He further stressed the need for turning unpaid labor into a specialized form of acknowledged work in order for women to get their due share for their role in nuclear families. He felt that it was only with the help of socialist ideals and theories that housework and childrearing could become forms of acknowledged labor. It was for this reason that women like Angela Davis and Ann Ferguson incorporated Marxist ideals into feminism and felt that liberation could best be achieved if women saw their household responsibilities in the context of working class struggle against capitalism. (Cliff 1984). Davis has mainly focused on race, class and gender issues and examined the history of these problems to conclude that,” … feminism in its many versions acknowledges the social impact of gender and involved opposition to misogyny. In my opinion, the most effective versions of feminism acknowledge the various ways gender, class, race, and sexual orientation inform each other.”

But this union of Marxism and Feminism is no longer as strong today as it was back in 1980s. This is primarily due to criticism that was leveled against Marxism when it appeared that while communism maintained that liberation for women could only be achieved if class system was dismantled, private property system was destroyed and socialist ideals were incorporated, there was still some kind of female liberation revolution taking place within the so-called patriarchic capitalist system. Once this realization was made, some women historian and critics began viewing Marxism with restrained skepticism. Some even went on to question the Marxism claim that it was a system of liberation. It was argued that if women could achieve liberation to some extent within the capitalist system, where does it put Marxism and its numerous claims of liberation. It was also opined that Marxism had supported women issues mainly to win support from a large but underprivileged group without any real regard for gender problems. The one important piece of writing in this connection is Heidi Hartmann’s article “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism” where she wrote the famous lines that marked the beginning of the end of this union: “The marriage of marxism and feminism has been like the marriage of husband and wife depicted in English common law: marxism and feminism are one, and that one is marxism.” (Hartman 1981, p. 2). Slowly and gradually, feminism turned away from Marxism to find a niche within capitalist society and this resulted in the development of new concepts in feminism. As Raya Dunayevskaya (1996) asserted:

‘We can and will witness the development of women themselves not only as force but as reason. We can and will be a catalyst not only for our development as all-round human beings, but also for that of men” (p. 28).

Feminism may no longer need the support of Marxism to grow and prosper since it has found a place for itself within capitalist system, still it must acknowledge the role played by men like Marx and Engels in raising women issues.


1. Cliff, Tony 1984. Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation. London: Blackwell.

2. Dunayevskaya, R. Women’s liberation and the dialectics of revolution: Reaching for the future. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1996

3. Hartmann, Heidi. 1981. “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Toward a More Progressive Union.” In Lydia Sargent, ed. op. cit., 1981:1-42.

4. Terrell Carver, Department of Politics, University of Bristol, Marxism and Feminism: Living with your ‘Ex’, PSA Annual Conference 6-8 April 2004