Feminism and Marxism

Feminism and Marxism

By Mahek Jhaveri; Image by literariness.com

Marxism and mainstream feminism are both leftist ideologies about power whose subscribers occasionally overlap. Indeed, there is a whole strand of feminist theory known as Marxist feminism which links female oppression to the capitalist system, with an emphasis on unpaid “reproductive labor” (Griffin). Sexuality and work can both be seen as “that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away” (McKinnon 515). As capitalism expropriates the work of some for the benefit of others, men exploit the sexuality of women. 

However, despite the connections between inequality in both realms, many Marxists subsume feminism in a dismissive manner. According to Catharine MacKinnon, Marxists argue that feminist demands can be fulfilled under capitalism and their efforts therefore undermine or ignore the importance of economical change. Feminists believe sexuality is what divides society into two genders and impacts all social relations. Sexuality is defined as “that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men” (McKinnon 516). Because of this focus, the women’s movement is seen as individualistic and ignorant of class divisions between women, and their focus on emotion as a vital component of social reality is deemed idealist by Marxists (MacKinnon 517). 

This attitude is because Marxist philosophy is based on materialism, which emphasizes real-world conditions. The materialist premise is that the material world is the foundation of thought; all knowledge is derived from practical interaction. Ideas are shaped by the real world, not the other way around— thoughts are reflections of matter. Feminists replace this Marxist philosophy with the method of consciousness-raising. 

Broadly defined, consciousness-raising is attempting to educate or focus the attention of some group on some condition or problem. For feminists, it is confronting the female reality “by examining their experience and by taking this analysis as the starting point for individual and social change” (McKinnon 515). When women are isolated from one another, many of their problems are seen as individual or personal, when they are really systematic forms of oppression. By allowing women to share their experiences without the interference of men, they can become aware of the oppression they face as women. Rather than seeing an issue such as rape as a personal problem or experience, it is recognized as a public, political condition. “Consciousness-raising has revealed gender relations to be a collective fact, no more simply personal than class relations” (McKinnon 543). 

A major Marxist critique of this feminist method is that it focuses on “attitudes and feelings”, which comes in conflict with Marxist materialism. Marxists are content to ignore the role that emotions play in material change. Additionally, Marxists “tend to conceive of powerlessness, first and last, as concrete and externally imposed” (McKinnon 520). Yet using the method of consciousness-raising, feminists were able to realize the duality of female powerlessness as both internalized and externally imposed. “Consciousness-raising not only comes to know different things as politics; it necessarily comes to know them in a different way. Women’s experience of politics, of life as a sex object, gives rise to its own method of appropriating that reality: feminist method” (McKinnon 535). Materialists would disregard this. Marxist materialism cannot be effectively applied to feminism because the material world it emphasizes is one seen in the world view and interest of men: “Representation of the world…like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view” (McKinnon 537).

The greatest contradiction that Marxist materialism fails to recognize is that of male power. Materialism claims that thoughts, such as societal norms, are a reflection of material conditions, but this seems to support the misogynist belief that it is a woman’s biology that makes her unequal in society. In reality, it is the belief in male superiority that causes female oppression in the material world. Male power and superiority are not real in the sense that it is a baseless belief— there is no valid reason to treat the sexes unequally. But male power “makes itself true” by creating societal conditions that oppress women. 

Materialism reinforces the male view of the world— one not by the making or in the image of women— by disregarding the thoughts and social realities that impact women, which makes it an unsuitable method for feminists. “To the extent that materialism is scientific it posits and refers to a reality outside thought which it considers to have an objective— that is, truly nonsocially perspectival—content. Consciousness-raising, by contrast, inquires into an intrinsically social situation, into that mixture of thought and materiality which is women’s sexuality in the most generic sense” (McKinnon 543). Feminists must replace the materialist dialectic with consciousness-raising to reconstitute the meaning of the female social experience. 

Despite Marxist critiques, MacKinnon argues that feminists should continue to focus on sexuality because it is the basic inequality of the sexes, the “primary social sphere of male power” (McKinnon 529). The great inequalities that feminists hope to remedy— rape, incest, sexual harassment, pornography, prostitution— are abuses of sex more than anything else. Sexuality is therefore a form of power and the “linchpin of gender inequality”. Women are those “whose sexuality exists for someone else, who is socially male” (McKinnon 533). Sexuality determines gender and femininity, so feminists should be especially concerned with it. 

This argument is undoubtedly persuasive, as most women are able to see their sexualization in daily life. It is in their concerns of how to dress, how to speak, and how to act. It is in the beliefs pushed upon them by society: “that women desire and provoke rape, that girls’ experiences of incest are fantasies, that career women plot and advance by sexual parlays, that prostitutes are lustful, that wife-beating expresses the intensity of love” (McKinnon 529). Sexuality outweighs all else not because it is more important than any other perceived issue, including capitalism, but because it is the foundation of oppression of women. Violence, authority, and economics are all important feminist concerns, but they most often go hand-in-hand with matters of sexuality. 

The division of power between gender can be best recognized by consciousness-raising that sheds light on female powerlessness and how a woman’s sexuality is used to oppress her. This feminist method sees that “Objectification makes sexuality a material reality of women’s lives, not just a psychological, attitudinal, or ideological one” (McKinnon 539) in a way that Marxist materialism does not. Women’s feelings are not something to be overlooked but examined in order to discover gender inequality. Women can only grasp the reality of their condition from within their own perspective, not by looking at the material world built by men. This key disparity between Marxist and feminist thought makes them irreconcilable to some, explaining why Marxist feminism quickly fell out of favor (Griffin).


Griffin, Gabriele. “Marxist feminism.” A Dictionary of Gender Studies, Oxford University Press, 2017. Oxford Reference

https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191834837.001.0001/acref-97 80191834837-e-246. 

MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory.” Signs, vol. 7, no. 3, 1982, pp. 515–44. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173853.

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