Socialist Feminism Essay

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Socialist feminism, which draws on aspects of both Marxist feminism and radical feminism, emerged in the 1970s as a possible solution to the limitations of existing feminist theory. Marxist feminism, drawing on the work of Marx and Engels, cites capitalism as the cause of women’s oppression. The oppression of women is a byproduct of the economically determined oppression experienced by the working class. The liberation of women is dependent upon the abolition of capitalism and the liberation of the working classes. In contrast, radical feminism argues that women are oppressed through a system of patriarchy in which men systematically oppress women. Gender oppression precedes all other forms of oppression, for example class and economic oppression. Marxist feminism has been criticized for its inability to explain women’s oppression outside of the logic of capitalism, and radical feminism for producing a universalistic, biologically based account of women’s oppression, which pays insufficient attention to patterned differences between women. Socialist feminism attempts to overcome these problems through the production of historically situated accounts of women’s oppression that focus on both capitalism and patriarchy. Attending to both the public and private areas of women’s lives, Socialist Feminism makes links between the personal and the structural. There are different strands of Socialist Feminist thought.

In Mitchell’s (1975) psychoanalytic model, capitalism – the economic system – is allocated to the material level; patriarchy – the rule of law – is allocated to the ideological level and assumed to operate at an unconscious level. While Eisenstein (1984) retains Mitchell’s conceptualization of capitalism, she reassigns patriarchy to the conscious cultural level and dismisses any distinction between the two, leading to the term capitalist patriarchy.” In contrast, Hartmann (1979) produces a materialist understanding of patriarchy and capitalism as two distinct but interactive systems, which center on men’s exploitation of women’s labor. Challenging Eisenstein’s single-system theory, Hartmann states that patriarchy predates capitalism and exists beyond its boundaries; thus, it is inappropriate to regard them in terms of a single system.

The allocation of patriarchy to either the material, cultural, or ideological level does not permit an analysis of the pervasive nature of patriarchal structures across all three levels. Simultaneously, it assumes that all social structures can be reduced to the workings of either capitalism or patriarchy, whilst assuming there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. A focus on paid work dismisses radical feminist concerns with sexuality and violence.

Walby’s (1990) dual-systems approach attempts to overcome these problems through a historically and socially defined understanding of patriarchy as a system of six interrelated structures, which in contemporary society are in articulation with capitalism and racism. The six interrelated structures are paid work, household production, culture, sexuality, violence and the state. This model enables Walby to chart the dynamic nature of patriarchy over the last 150 years, including the move from a private to a public form of patriarchy.


  1. Eisenstein, H. (1984) Contemporary Feminist Thought. Allen & Unwin, London.
  2. Hartmann, H. I. (1979) Capitalism, patriarchy, and job segregation by sex. In: Eisenstein, Z. R. (ed.), Capitalist Patriarchy. Monthly Review Press, New York.
  3. Mitchell, J. (1975) Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  4. Walby, S. (1990) TheorizingPatriarchy. Blackwell, Oxford.

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