ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Debating Marxist-Feminism

Women and the Politics of Class by Johanna Brenner

Debating Marxist-Feminism

Women and the Politics of Class

by Johanna Brenner; Monthly Review Press, 2000, reprinted by Aakar Books, 2006; pp 330, Rs 750.


ohanna Brenner’s book Women and the Politics of Class is a collection of articles published during the 1980s and 1990s in journals like Monthly Review, New Left Review, Socialist Register and others. There is a concluding section which was written in 2000, the year in which the book was published in the US. Each chapter highlights different issues and debates and struggles which gained importance in the American feminist movement in the last quarter of the 20th century. As a political activist and feminist thinker Brenner was actively involved in the feminist movement and its struggles, and her writings reflect that involvement. Writing from a Marxist-feminist per spec tive she assesses the different phases of the feminist movement in the US in terms of her ultimate goal of promoting socialist institutions and values in society. Readers may sympathise or remain unaffected by her political commitments but one cannot but admire the clarity with which she analyses issues and lays out the options available to the feminist movement in America.

It would perhaps be unprofitable to ask to which commitment Brenner gives priority, feminism or Marxism, since she feels both have much to learn from each other. She is critical of the American Marxist movement for marginalising women’s issues and subsuming them under the problems of the working class and trade unions. She feels that not only does feminism need to incorporate a socialist perspective but Marxism also needs to embrace feminist goals. In terms of her methodology, her position is that neither can changes in ideology and demands of the women’s movement be “read off” from developments in the capitalist production system nor can they be discussed without reference to those developments. Women have traditionally been assigned a central responsibility for social reproduction through the family but Brenner argues strongly that economic production and social reproduction are interlinked processes. The women’s movement, she writes, has responded to changes in both spheres as also to the prevailing political environment and any analysis of the history of the movement needs to keep this in mind.

Although the issues and debates discussed in the book pertain specifically to the American feminist movement, the book is likely to find some resonance among Indian readers. For instance, her comments about the early origins of the movement in the voluntary associations and institutions set up by middle class women who did not challenge the gender division of labour but wanted to develop socially legitimate outlets for women to interact, educate themselves, and undertake some charitable work, probably had a parallel in the involvement of middle class women in India in institutions like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and various forms of charitable work in the early decades of the 20th century. Of course, the Indian national movement, especially in its Gandhian phase, played an important role in providing women with liberating opportunities for public work although here too the gender division of work and male dominance were not seriously challenged.

Brenner attributes the evolution of the women‘s movement in the US from its early origins to a more broad-based and inclusive one to changes that took place in capitalism and in the conditions of social reproduction. Expanding work opportunities for women, although often in areas considered appropriate for women such as teaching, or nursing, as well as the production of cheaper labour-saving household devices, encouraged corresponding changes in the demands and strategies of the women’s movement. But she argues that there were limits to these changes. As long as women’s educational status and other constraints limited their access to paid employment, especially to the more highlypaid jobs, and they continued to bear the major responsibility for social reproduction in the household, marriage remained the best career option for women. Therefore the focus in the women’s movement during the period was on women’s sexuality and companionship in marriage.

Economic and Political Weekly September 1, 2007

Feminism’s Second Phase

Brenner discusses the changes which took place in the women’s movement during the 1960s and 1970s, a period which she describes as constituting the second phase of feminism. The increasing presence of women in higher education and the workplace brought a new emphasis on women’s self-expression and opposition to sexism at home and in the workplace. For the first time these issues became political issues, they were even taken up by political parties and trade unions. It was also of course the period when the civil rights movement made maximum gains and the women’s movement also benefited. But there was a slowing down of capitalist growth during the 1970s and 1980s and this was accompanied by the increasing influence of the political right and cor porate power. State welfare measures were eroded even as the state took over much of the agenda of liberal feminism concerning equal rights and non-discrimination. As Brenner wrote in 1993,

The historic victory of first-wave feminism was to make women citizens. The historic victory of the second-wave has been to make women fully free sellers of our own labour-power, by substantially dismantling the legal and normative edifice which had mandated women’s subservience in marriage, denied us rights in our bodies and reproductive capacity, and legitimated our economic marginalisation.

Brenner feels that if the feminist movement is to make further gains it will have to target capitalism and the state which it supports, and seek to reinvent itself as a grassroot movement which is ready to undertake political struggle. The new feminist movement would need to build up coalitions of the deprived and dispossessed to transform society and move towards socialist goals. She also argues strongly that further liberation for women would necessitate organising socialist and communitarian solutions to the problems of social reproduction and care-giving, the burden of which so far has fallen on women.

This is only a very schematic summary of some of the major themes discussed in the book. There are many fascinating discussions regarding the problem of black women, especially poor black women, the disadvantages of relying too heavily on political parties to promote feminist goals, abortion, lesbianism, and the like. Of course, some of Brenner’s views might not find too much support among Indian readers, such as that liberation and dignity and equal opportunities for women would necessitate removing the responsibility for social reproduction out of the family although many might agree that there is an urgent need for developing institutions to support families in performing those functions. Brenner‘s vision of liberation for women is grounded in a society in which the responsibility for social reproduction and care-giving would be shifted to communitarian institutions supported by the state. The primary role of the family would be to provide arenas for privacy, intimacy, sexual pleasure and shared parenting.

But some of the issues she raises with regard to American women are beginning to challenge Indian women in new economy industries such as the software industry which demands long hours of work and mobility from its workers. At present the industry seems ready to make some provisions for small children such as crèches while additional burdens fall on paid domestic labour and grandparents, although this cannot be a long-term solution, nor does it address the issue of the gender division of labour in the family and in society. The result has been a high attrition rate of married women in the industry. But it is not only middle class working women who are faced with double burdens. The problem faces working class women with even greater urgency. Communitarian solutions for poorer women have been tried out in a small way by NGOs and charitable organisations but the state also needs to recognise its responsibilities in the area.

Indian readers might also be intrigued by some absences in Brenner’s discussions. For instance, nowhere in the book is there an acknowledgement that it might be unrealistic to discuss the problems of women in the US in total isolation from women’s struggles in other parts of the world. This is particularly surprising coming from a Marxist since Marxism has always empha sised that capitalism has global structures and strategies so that developments in any one country may not be unrelated to developments in other parts of the world. But overall this book is a stimulating read for those interested in the problems of women.



Economic and Political Weekly September 1, 2007


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