Identification with both the political Left and feminism creates a politics of cross-class solidarity.
A socialist feminist perspective advocates for a radically new and non-sexist division of labor that promotes gender equality in the workplace and values non-market labor in the home for men, women and the community.
A socialism that seeks to dismantle capitalism but does not elevate the status of women politically, economically and socially is not a revolution. A women’s rights movement that seeks to confine women’s liberation to climbing the upper echelons of existing power structures without attacking the capitalist and patriarchal base of the society is not a liberation movement. The reorganization of political and personal life for women and men is central to the socialist feminist project that seeks to end capitalist patriarchy.
Identification with both the political Left and feminism creates a politics of cross-class solidarity but it also has the potential to create major tensions among progressives when cross-class sexism and oppression are called out. In an exchange, a male graduate student (and quite a mechanical Marxist) said to me, “Socialist feminism? That is for people like you who want to go hard in feminism and soft for [socialist] revolution.” His assertion could not have been further from the truth.
The position and status of women in the global economy are much more complex than in the past. Widespread economic crises have left women in greater poverty as austerity measures make them more vulnerable to social cuts. The Global North countries continue to absorb women, especially Black and brown, as cheap labor—this strategy is welcomed by governments of developing countries eager to sell off their working class for cheap.
In the Caribbean, women now dominate middle management and university enrollment, yet sexual violence and gender pay gaps persist as their public visibility increases. Even well intentioned activists fall into the trap of adopting the language of international development agencies and see women now as an “untapped resource” a language embedded in neoliberal logic.
These unjust realities are often missed by dispossessed men who plunge into greater economic insecurity and poverty and attack women as the root of their problems instead of capitalist reconfiguration. One cannot underscore the flexibility of capitalism and the gender order where they both have the ability to accommodate new minority sections of oppressed groups while entrenching oppression for the majority. As a consequence, these reconfigurations complicate class antagonisms and even the possibilities for solidarity and liberation.
Socialist feminism that emerged from Latin America and the wider Global South early on found itself at odds with Global North feminists whose analysis of universal sisterhood turned a blind eye to imperial violence and oppression, in addition, liberal notions of feminism ignored the cultural and economic settings of the dependent and underdeveloped economies of Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
Mid-20th century, in Latin America, dictatorships, state repression and machismo were dominant issues for large cross-sections of women. While women were allowed to find a greater voice through revolutions to reimagine womanhood and femininity amidst conservative religious and sexist male attitudes, they soon discovered that they were fighting two fights: one against counterrevolutionaries and the other against male dominance and authoritarianism in their own liberation fronts.
Clearly, women in the revolution and women and the revolution require distinct interrogation. Even though many male revolutionaries sought to create a “new society” and “new man” and later included, a “new woman,” party authoritarianism and male standards of work and the worker marginalized women. Out of this frustration of struggle against their male comrades, they formed either separate groups outside of the party or somewhat autonomous groups within it to introduce women’s issues to the revolutionary platform.
Socialist feminism is found most prominently in countries with strong left-wing political organizing or socialist states. They emerged from the ranks of women’s arms and special committees of political parties and unions. Organizations such as the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women, Flora Tristan movement in Peru and to a lesser extent in Jamaica, the Women’s Auxiliary of the People’s National Party during 1975-1979, were established by prominent socialist women but did not always advocate for a socialist feminist position.
In my reading of Caribbean feminist writing, the linguistic “barrier” and “divide” of the Caribbean has ultimately deprived the English-speaking Caribbean of radical perspectives that were espoused by the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. A strictly Anglophone Caribbean perspective would downplay the scope and significance of the socialist feminist trend in the region.
Sexuality and reproductive rights were always seen as low, and false consciousness, agenda items in comparison to national liberation, during the period of radicalism in the 1970s and 80s. “Feminism” to some revolutionary and progressive groups appeared as an imported ideology from the U.S. and some revolutionary parties and theoreticians wrote it off as an imperialist paradigm.
On the contrary, organizations such as the Socialist Front of Women in Peru, worked to address the poor living conditions of women and men in the barrios and the Women’s Section of the Dominican Center for Educational Studies mobilized the political consciousness of working class women with a strong gender-class analysis.
Socialist feminism recognized the intersecting identities that shape women’s oppression long before “intersectionality” as a concept was introduced into mainstream social sciences. In some textbooks, socialist feminism is thought of as a marriage of Marxism and radical feminism.
In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, the synthesis was less theoretical and more praxis based where radical women brought together analysis and politically pragmatic strategies to understand the context of their time—resisting colonial force, racism, imperial wars and male structures of authority and domination.
Economic stagnation creates the groundwork for worker exploitation; debt weakens the state internally and its bargaining position with international capital; and corruption erodes the social net of society. These forces combined, produce a capitalist structure and setting that requires an analysis that can break the gender order and economic base that oppress women and men. What analysis and language is available to a generation concerned about economic and gender inequality?
Can men be socialist feminist? Yes. Men who self-identify as Left or on the progressive front should draw upon the rich analysis the perspective offers. In November 2015, it was reported that 89 persons from Trinidad and Tobago joined ISIS. What perspective allows for an analysis that fights terrorism and religious fundamentalism while pushing back against Islamophobia? What theory is available to make visible the alienation produced in capitalism while critiquing hegemonic masculine ideals that instantiate greater violence against women and war? Socialist feminism offers the possibility to liberate men from both the crises of capitalism and masculinity that further escalate global militarization and social decay. How long will we have disappearing men under capitalist patriarchy?
Many of our children do not know the names of our founding mothers and women revolutionaries who stand tall in history next to any male hero preserved for posterity in posters, t-shirts, and pamphlets. For every t-shirt of Fidel and Che, print one for Vilma Espin and Celia Sanchez of Cuba; for every tribute in memory of Cheddi, remember Janet Jagan of Guyana; when you think of trans-Atlantic organizing by Padmore, take notice of Claudia Jones of Trinidad and Tobago; and, when C.L.R James is taken beyond a boundary into the future, carry Selma James with you.
A halfway revolution is no revolution at all.