“Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex.”- Marx
This will probably not be news to many, but feminism is not a monolith. There is liberal, radical, and libertarian feminism to postmodern, postcolonial, post-structural feminism to Marxist, anarchist, ecofeminism and transnational feminism just to name a few. Each had a different lens through which it viewed the reasons for oppression and a varying emphasis. But despite being home to a range of ideologies and movements all the different types of feminism sought to achieve equality of the sexes in all spheres of life.
With a 38% wage gap in the private sector and 12% in the public sector and the unabashed sexism that countless women have had to face in their experience in swanky boardrooms on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, this writer was interested in discovering the role that our prevalent economic system-capitalism had to play in perpetuating these differences.
Marxist, socialist and transnational feminism were just some of the strands of feminism that attacked capitalism for playing a role in this inequality. It is interesting to note here that the term feminism was coined by French utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier. And whilst this writer disagrees with much of Thomas More’s philosophy and the apparently obvious idealistic utopia that utopian socialism has to offer it is still pertinent to note that these notions were first introduced by thinkers who sought a more egalitarian society with communal ownership of the means of production.
Fourier remarks in his piece “On the Condition of Women” that, “the extension of privileges to women is the general principle of all social progress” One would assume that the tension between capitalism and feminism is painfully apparent since the former is based on exploitation through division and the latter strives for a more egalitarian society. But woefully, such is not the case.
It is relevant here, to examine the origins of the different waves of feminism and ascertain whether feminism and capitalism are, the title suggests, adversaries or bedfellows. The main theoretical contradiction in the first wave of the women’s movement was between the socialists and the bourgeois feminists.
Thus it can be said that the first wave of feminism which was largely associated with getting women the right to vote was born as a result of the efforts of the ruling class. Au contraire there were those socialist, communist etc. women who were working for women’s emancipation whilst subscribing to a different narrative. This includes the mother of German communism Clara Zetkin. Another notable figure in this movement Rosa Luxemburg once said that “Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against “male prerogatives” would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.”
Thus, feminism at that point in time was seen as an elitist philosophy, whereas socialist women-led activism sought to inculcate women within the class struggle and awaken a class consciousness amongst the downtrodden.
German communist philosopher Friedrich Engels in his 1884 book “The Origin of Family, Private Property and State” lucidly outlines how the creation of private property is deeply tied to the birth of the patriarchal system. He contends that after the agricultural revolution there was the birth of the surplus product.
The concept of private property was thus born for individuals to lay claim to this surplus product and this product, land and animals were bequeathed to sons which gave rise to the patriarchy. Prior to this, he argues, in tribal communist societies ancestry was traced through mothers and in some societies women even enjoyed a higher status than men by virtue of them being birth givers.
This overthrow of the “mother right” has been described by Engels in this same book as the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” since it started the concept of patrilineal descent. Patrilineal inheritance reinforced the subjugation of women. Thus, it can be fairly said that the patriarchy has its basis in private property and Engels argued that its destruction can only come with the destruction of economic systems that are based on private property.
German social democrat August Bebel also echoed these sentiments in his 1879 book “Women and Socialism” in which he contended that without the involvement of women, who were denied their share of the inheritance at the time, a socialist revolution would never come to fruition. Capitalism, as we are aware, is based on class society, just like patriarchy.
Both rely on the oppression of certain groups such as women, the working class etc. to yield profit and privilege. The role that the classical nuclear family plays in all this is also worth examining. Capitalism in some senses reinforces the maternal role in families whereas men are seen as the sole breadwinners. Whilst this is changing, what is needed is a radical upheaval of such models of society.
Notions of “leaning in”; becoming part of the toxic corporate culture that privileges men cannot be the solution. It is important to remember the high level of equality that the world has in countries with progressive social democratic governments where concepts such as paid maternity leave are commonplace.
Capitalism by its definition aims to keep certain groups underprivileged and any so called “radical” notions of gender equality cannot go hand in hand with such a system. The very philosophical edifice of capitalism is that no one is equal. Capitalism, due to its dependence on divisions will also not allow intersectional feminism to flourish and the dominant class i.e. white women will always stand to benefit more from such a movement. Any type of feminism that reinforces class status must be shunned.
The problem lies perhaps with the prevailing neoliberal order. One runs the risk of sounding too radical but feminism today needs to rise above the neoliberal individualist lens and expand its purview to examine the systemic problems at hand.