There are many different forms of feminism, and it can focus on countless aspects of social relations. Bell hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Hooks’s definition is general and acceptable for starters, but to further understand women’s liberation, we will need to look at social revolutions and feminist movements in history.
Feminists have honed in on this sphere of social life, which is often (but not always) interpersonal, or “micro level” in its analysis; this contrasts to the predominately macro analyses in economic, cultural, and political theories. Delving in and understanding the development of feminist theory will be necessary to understand its social implications.
These conflicts are demonstrated in history through debate and, possibly more importantly, through experimental efforts in revolutionary social movements. Repeatedly, when looking at history, it is undeniable that feminism is important for revolutionaries, and no other theory—anarchism, Marxism, or cultural theories—can resolve all of the social contradictions that exist in the kinship sphere. The ways humans meet needs in the kinship sphere must fundamentally change—a feminist revolution is necessary—to overthrow patriarchy.
Mary Wollstonecraft is often marked as the first feminist in Western intellectual history. Author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft was known for her androgyny by often looking like a “man,” as well as debating men and challenging patriarchal norms of her time (late 18th century). Wollstonecraft certainly brought to light many potentials that had previously been seen as impossible for the female sex to accomplish.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Engels contended that women were actually the first class that ever rose in society. Before agriculture, Engels argued, gender virtually did not exist, and there was merely a loose sexual division of labor. This division of labor resulted in the agriculturally producing group (males) to harness and siphon the surplus they began to produce, once they possessed the agrarian technological capabilities. This surplus, withheld from women, subordinated them and made them economically dependent upon men. It thus follows from Engels’s argument that gender is merely a social construct built upon its economic base.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State actually began in its telling of human history. In The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Shumalith Firestone argued that Engels missed the starting point of history when drawing his conclusions in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and its relation to historical materialism. Firestone pointed out that the pre-agrarian, loose sexual division of labor was based on biological distinctions. Childbearing and breastfeeding prevented some females from performing the labor tasks that produced the agricultural surplus. Thus, the material base for human history lies in the biological distinctions of humanity, which must be overcome in order to eliminate “sex class.” Until humanity meets these its biological needs equally through sexually just functions, sex class reproduces itself.
This is a reversal of the economism found in most forms of orthodox Marxism. Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution became known as a manifesto of radical feminism, and on its own (without consulting Marxism, polyculturalism, or anarchism), it can serve as a feminist reductionism of human history. Throughout The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone examines human history under the lens of a sexually-centric dialectical and historical materialism, concluding the biological kinship structure is the motor force (or otherwise determining factor) of human history.
Oftentimes, other theories try to subsume feminism or subordinate it to a minor component. As a result, these theories have often come to ridiculous conclusions about society.
Lucy Parsons saw monogamy, marriage, and the nuclear family as “natural,” and that any oppression inside of them was due to economic oppression. Goldman saw them as socially imposed with both, the economy and kinship, neither of which necessarily subordinate the other. Carolyn Ashbaugh has detailed their disagreements:
Lucy Parsons’ feminism, which analyzed women’s oppression as a function of capitalism, was founded on working class values.
Emma Goldman’s feminism took on an abstract character of freedom for women in all things, in all times, and in all places; her feminism became separate from its working class origins. Goldman represented the feminism being advocated in the anarchist movement of the 1890s [and after]. The intellectual anarchists questioned Lucy Parsons about her attitudes on the women’s question.
To Parsons, “economics is the first issue to be settled, that it is woman’s economical dependence which makes her enslavement to man possible…How many women do you think would submit to marriage slavery if it were not for wage slavery? …[I]t is for this reason I have never advocated [womanhood] as a distinct question.” To Parsons, women, gender, sexuality, and the family were only issues of struggle because of oppressive economic contradictions.
Goldman and other anarchists’ advocacy of “free love” grew within radical intellectual circles. Parsons became outraged, proclaiming the “purity of my sex” and smearing “varietists” (those, like Goldman, who wanted variety in sexual and love bonds). Before the new anarchists immigrated (“new immigrants” in history began to arrive during and after feminism and nihilism had philosophically developed in European anarchist circles), variety in sexual relations was not widely discussed in anarchist circles in the U.S. Whenever these new anarchists arrived and diffused their theoretical development, Lucy Parsons and other “old school anarchists” became alienated from the newly immigrated anarchists. This divide was most pronounced on the question of sexual liberation.
Even then, the debate appeared as a marginal concern to the Chicago IWPA and Alarm readers, because the varietists were still so small in numbers. Another mention was raised by Juliet H. Severance, making the case for women’s liberation through economic revolution:
In our present economic condition working men are enslaved to the money power and dance attendance on its sweet will, while the wives of these men are the slaves of these slaves, and from this doubly enslaved motherhood…
I believe some of these questions that lie at the very beginning of life have much to do with the great problem of instituting just among the people.
…It is upon this agitation of the questions that educate and develop the individual that I look for an evolution into a higher and more just condition, in which an injury to one will be the concern of all, and the spirit of liberty and fraternity be universally manifested.
Finally, discourse arose and was maintained in The Alarm, but discussion was not consistent in the paper, until “Ego” (a pseudonym) published his “Relation of the Sexes,” series. In this article in the series, Ego argued against monogamy:
Monogamic relations have a most deplorable effect on the mind. They prevent the development of elasticity of thought and judgment, breeding narrow-mindedness, bigotry and intolerance and their resulting manifestations in persecutions and invasions of liberty. Ego condemned the old labor anarchists for their traditional lifestyle. Mary Louise, a New Yorker during the new anarchists’ early formation there, responded to Ego’s condemnation in “The Marriage Question.” In this article, Louise appeared extremely conservative, claiming, “A healthy, cultured and free-minded person will understand love in its loftiest aspirations. The mental capacities shall rule over the material ones. Such a being will be ‘monogamous,’ for the love of a refined soul cannot be divided.” She then went on to condemn nearly any sexual activity or identity that did not reflect the Victorian Judeo-Christian tradition, claiming, “Polygamy and polyandry are appendages of gross and vulgar minds.” One week later, Ego responded, claiming, “The brothel and its horrors will vanish when men concede to women their natural rights,” arguing that he did not endorse polygamy as a crutch to defend misogynist polygyny.
After another week, Ego wrote, “‘Ego’ to ‘Marie Louise,’” in which he revealed his unusually high level of education, with new philosophical concepts of struggle—implying Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner’s nihilism and other non-class struggles. At this time, though, more editorials were dedicated to refuting Ego’s articles, than defended variety in free love. New anarchism was rearing its head, and even though its followers may have outnumbered Lucy Parsons in New York in 1897, old labor anarchists far outnumbered new anarchists in Chicago in 1888. This was probably because New York was an earlier arrival spot for new immigrants, as well as the fresh and very alive tradition of labor anarchism in Chicago, due to the Haymarket Affair in 1886.
Continuing, Ego told Louise, in The Alarm, “Your correspondent, and my critic, I infer, is a ‘sentimentalist’ who brings the principle of love to ‘the attitude of her bright imagination.’ I am inherently, a materialist and sensualist, [so] bring it down to the level of my comprehension.” “I assert that love is not necessarily the physical relations of marriage; that love outside of the ‘marriage question’ is far more beautiful than inside.” On December 22, 1888, Marie Louise wrote, “Monogamy Defended,” claiming,
When men and women have become so conscious of their place in nature that they will govern themselves in accordance with the forces of the universe, then, and not until then, shall they be able to enjoy the most natural state of sexual relation. …Under our disordered system of society, well mated persons often live to see the wrecking of their happiness. All that which is pure has no room in our poisonous atmosphere. But when mankind is freed from ignorance, knowledge, truth and love shall lead them to happiness. It is reductionist, because it suggests that if economic relations between men and women were equalized, educational status would then be equal, thus resolving the premise for sexual oppression (unequal intellect); if only economic contradictions were resolved, humanity would be freed to discover happiness and bliss.
Shortly after the Haymarket Affair, The Alarm began to dwindle in popularity, and a new paper took center stage, The Firebrand (the newspaper of the newly founded anarchist organization, the Free Society). By April 21, 1895 (before Haymarket), The Firebrand was advertising and reviewing books on free love; around this same time, Emma Goldman’s books were being heavily advertised in The Firebrand, stealing the spotlight of the Free Society. During this transitional phase in anarchism (from the IWPA and The Alarm, to the Free Society and The Firebrand; from class liberation, to class and sexual liberation) Goldman stuck to writing about labor issues. Within less than a year, the new wave of immigration led to an explosive diffusion of new anarchist ideology in America, which was demonstrated in numerous articles in The Firebrand and other anarchist papers in support of “sexual liberation”. Soon, The Firebrand had sections of the paper supporting “free love”— “Sex Ethics” (sexological editorials) and an organizational library section that grew exponentially. As the risqué flare of free love (which new anarchists tended to define as a nihilistic anarchist-feminism that rejected monogamy as reactionary) drew more attention, Marxist or labor-centric anarchism became peripheral to the anarchist aperture in America.
Turning to the next big anarchist newspaper, The Firebrand, Lucy Parsons wrote, “Mr. [Oscar] Rotter [a free love advocate] attempts to dig up the hideous ‘Variety’ grub and bind it to the beautiful unfolding blossom of labor’s emancipation from wage-slavery and call them one and the same. Variety in sex relations and economic freedom have nothing in common.” In the same issue of The Firebrand, E. Stienle wrote “Sex Ethics,” in support of what these anarchists understood as free love, and Henry Addis gave a responsive critique to a previous Parsons article.
Parsons’s disagreement with Goldman and the “varietists” climaxed at a September 1897 Firebrand editorial meeting in Chicago, where Parsons and Goldman voiced their distaste for each other. Parsons thought Goldman was leading anarchism down a sectarian path, running too far away from the working masses; Goldman thought Parsons’s desire to preserve the bourgeois nuclear family was reactionary. Goldman recounted her thoughts:
The success of the meeting was unfortunately weakened by Lucy Parsons who, instead of condemning the unjustified [Comstock attacks and arrest of anarchists]…took a stand against the editor of the Firebrand, [Henry] Addis, because he tolerated articles about free love… Apart from the fact that anarchism not only teaches freedom from the economic and political areas, but also in social and sexual life, L. Parsons has the least cause to object to treatises on free love… I spoke after Parsons and had a hard time changing the unpleasant mood that her remarks elicited, and I also succeeded in gaining the sympathy and the material support of the people present… She consistently argued that unprotected sex with a variety of partners would result in the rapid spread of venereal disease, as well as unwanted procreation.
On a more personal level, though, Parsons thought it was very easy for Goldman to live and make sexually “free” and radical demands for women’s liberation and kinship restructuralization, because Goldman did not have to worry about pregnancy; Goldman had an inverted womb. Because contraception was not readily accessible to the American working class at the time, encouraging sexual activity would increase pregnancy rates, driving families even further into poverty. Encouraging women to strike would gain wages and lessen hours, bringing women more economic power than simply encouraging sexual pleasure without having adequate access to contraception. Parsons claimed that class liberation was necessary and would alleviate the conditions that allow sexism to exist.
Strategically, Parsons saw free love as inept, but her opposition to free love and sexual politics also came out of a matter she made principle. Parsons’s responses were consistent with the “anti-personal” politics of her union activity. Later, Parsons wrote, “[I]t [makes] no difference to me what people did in their private lives,” but that it should not be at the forefront of liberatory struggles. This opposition to “personal politics” was consistent with a quote from her days in the IWW, claiming, “The line will be drawn sharply at personalities as we know these enlighten no one and do infinitely more harm than good.” It ranged from the personal and the political, the marital and the “varietal”, and the strategic discussion of working class revolution. Theoretically, Parsons’s anarchism was class-based, and it lent itself to a libertarian brand of Marxism. As a result, her feminist analysis stopped short of economics. Goldman was a bit of a nihilist at times, seeming to always sound more theoretically radical than practically possible. Goldman’s feminism demanded lifestyles from women who lacked the ability to practice them, unless they wanted a lot of babies and diseases. She spoke in a tone that alienated most working class women, and her anarchism eventually got in the way of supporting women’s suffrage.
There are drastic issues that emerge on principled questions—the rejection of marriage—while strategic issues became even larger. Goldman’s strategy became alienated from working women and their primary concerns. The same could be said about the focus of many feminists today in academia, who speak more about changing letters in language for symbolism, having a higher percentage of female CEOs, or offering lengthy neo-Freudian explanations for everything, instead of demanding socialized childcare, socialized contraception and abortion, paid pregnancy and infant-raising leave (for both parents), and making it easier to report domestic violence. Having a solid understanding of kinship dynamics and their theoretical disagreements is essential to understanding kinship principles, strategy, and vision.
Women’s Liberation in Social Movements: The Russian Revolution
In the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks made institutional changes that drastically improved the status of women in Russia.
In 1919, Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) was created by the Soviet Union, with Alexandra Kollontai at its head (1919-1922). Kollontai was often seen as the most risqué of the Marxists on sexual questions, and her historic focus on women’s issues qualified her to hold her position in Zhenotdel. Most of the execution of kinship reforms in the Soviet Union were the result of Kollontai’s involvement in Zhenodtel. Afterward, she was replaced by the conservative Sofia Smidovich.
(Marxism-feminism is a brand of feminism that uses strictly Marxism as its theoretical framework.) As a Marxist, she saw marriage as unnecessary, demanded the socialization of child-rearing and housework, and demanded equal economic opportunity for women in the workforce. Like Engels, she saw autonomous organizing for women’s groups as strategically necessary for women to effectively voice themselves within a larger organization. Unlike most Marxists, Kollontai contended that sexual desire was as natural as thirst—known as the “drop of water theory”.
(Ideally, Kollontai saw sex as the result of an intimate relationship; she referred to this idealized version of sexual love as “sex love.”)
Prostitution and ways of fighting it,” Kollontai consistently insists that prostitutes are the (economic) equivalent of labor deserters, and should be treated thusly—thrown into forced labor camps.
Kollontai’s works completely ignore post-traumatic stress disorder, focuses on health questions (which are today largely moot, with the advent of condoms), focuses on pregnancy (again, moot with modern contraception), assumes all prostitutes will always be only women coerced into solicitation to only men. Her analysis, however, is very typical of reductionist approaches to social theory. Whenever Marxism, feminism, polyculturalism, or anarchism is used on its own to interpret all human totality, they obfuscate the areas of study that are not their respective expertise. Whenever one is left out, holes are left in our worldview. Each theory offers analytical tools, and we can use these tools to deconstruct and reconstruct society. Kollontai’s use of Marxism in the kinship sphere, though, is the equivalent of trying to screw nails into a piece of wood. It doesn’t work.
Prostitutes are the equal of “labor deserters,” thus socially labeled as free riders. They must be forced to work necessary jobs, and if they fail to comply, they will be sent off to work camps. Anyone reading this today knows that this is an absurd punishment for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, who are merely acting in consequence of their previous sexual abuse. However, under a strictly macro-level, Marxist analysis, Kollontai’s execution of kinship policy is spot-on target.
However, she ignored the positive aspects of family relationships (like closeness, intimacy, and trust), presuming they could be anything but patriarchal or nuclear in structure. Kollontai ignores the potential of creating a new kinship structure after getting rid of the family, besides having a large collective unity.
As mentioned, Kollontai was succeeded by Sofia Smidovich, who was much more conservative.