ARTICLE 9 Socialism and Gender Equality: What lessons can be learned?

Liesl Orr works for the National Labour and Economic Development Institute and is a member of the Johannesburg Central Branch of the SACP


"…despite the promise to women held out by virtually all modernising strategies, their actual role has been to stabilise the world; to be the still point around which the axis of the revolution can rotate more freely." (Young, 1989:246)

The opening quote points to a key concern with regard to transformation processes - that inevitably gender relations remain virtually untouched. While there have been major areas of progress in providing women with access to services and support, and involving them in political processes, in socialist countries and in capitalist welfare states, unequal gender power relations have proven very difficult to change.

This raises the fact that there is a need for a specific focus on gender issues in the transformation process, in our theory and in our practice. This specific approach is important because women’s oppression will not automatically be addressed, as history has demonstrated1. There is also a need to develop theoretical and practical approaches to women’s emancipation that are specific to the South African context. We should take as a starting point that a materialist approach is the most useful theoretical approach, however, Marxist writings generally do not theorise gender relations adequately.

Thus, we need to acknowledge that we do not have an adequate theoretical basis within classical Marxist writings, and that there have been distortions of socialist theory in some of the socialist countries, leaving us with a legacy of inconsistent and incoherent approaches to transforming gender relations. This paper reviews these approaches and examines some of these inconsistencies and gaps, with the aim of raising issues for debate that contributes to a review and enrichment of our theoretical perspectives.

A further complicating factor in our attempts to develop a revolutionary theoretical approach to gender struggles is the fact that the people trying to transform gender relations are deeply affected by sexism themselves. Political organisations are male-dominated, most of the "political thinkers" are men, and they need to overcome their personal interest in perpetuating women’s oppression. Furthermore, because men do ‘benefit’ it is often difficult for them to see how their own lives have been distorted and limited by sexism. On the other hand, women are often not wellorganised, because of their gender roles, and in order to become conscious gender activists, they need to overcome the paralysing effects of internalised oppression.

Thus, each activist faces a challenge of promoting and developing a revolutionary theoretical approach, and challenging sexism within the struggle, while simultaneously engaging in a personal struggle to challenge gender power relations in their own lives.

Marxist Theory on Women’s Oppression and Women’s Emancipation

Engels was the first Marxist to make a significant analysis of the oppression of women in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. He examined family structures in different societies in different eras. He traced a historical transition from matriarchal to patriarchal family forms, and identified the monogamous family as intrinsic to capitalism. He showed that the family, monogamy and women’s oppression are not natural, and had nothing to do with evolution, but were specifically intended to control the ownership of private property, through the protection of heirs. He thus saw the family as the institutionalised subjugation of women by men for the purpose of entrenching and perpetuating the capitalist system.

Overthrow of mother right on which earlier societies were based laid the foundations for women’s subjugation, private property, monogamous marriage and patrilineal inheritance: "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male." (Engels, 1972:129)

Engels was damning of the institution of marriage under capitalism, describing it as analogous to prostitution, with the role of the wife differing only in the duration of her services:

"[T]he wife … differs from the ordinary courtesan [prostitute] only in that she does not hire out her body, like a wageworker, on piecework, but sells it into slavery once and for all." (Engels, 1972:79) He envisaged the liberation of women through the overthrow of capitalism.

In his view within a classless society the family would be replaced by non-exploitative freely-chosen sexual unions within which the status of male and female would be equal.

Many Marxists have pointed to conditional links between women’s emancipation and socialism. For example, Lenin argued: "the proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women." At the same time, women’s emancipation would not be achievable without a fundamental transformation of capitalist relations of production.

An important aspect of Engels’ contribution was the emphasis on both production and reproduction within the materialist analysis, with the assertion that both are determining factors in history.

He explains that this refers to "the production of the means of existence, articles of food and clothing, dwellings and of tools necessary for that production" and "the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species." He goes on the argue that:

"The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other." (Engels, preface to The Origin of the Family, 1884)

However, this approach is generally not carried through in Marxist writings, and an exclusive focus on production is more common. For example, the socialist movement later refused to endorse the view expressed by Engels - what disturbed them was the "implication that the family represents an autonomous, if not wholly independent, center of social development." (Vogel, 1983:90-91)

The Marxist analysis was significant in developing foundations for a materialist conception of women’s oppression, breaking with "naturalism" and biological reductionism. Biological reductionism can be found amongst those seeking to justify women’s oppression as natural and stemming from biological differences; as well as amongst some feminists who base their arguments on women’s "inherent" superiority.

Identifying a material and historical basis for women’s oppression is important because it creates the possibility of transformation. Lenin’s contribution went beyond that of earlier writings, because he emphasised women’s material oppression in the household, condemning ‘domestic slavery’ and ‘humiliating subjugation’ in the household. Thus, Lenin emphasised a crucial area that remains a core focus of socialists today - the unpaid labour performed by women to maintain and reproduce the working class: "The female half of the human race is doubly oppressed under capitalism.

The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly - and this is the main thing - they remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid and backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the individual family household." (Lenin, 1966:83-84).

Thus, the importance of the Marxist analysis lies in the fact that it identifies two crucial elements to women’s oppression - their exclusion from production and their ‘domestic slavery’ - leading Marxists to conclude that women’s emancipation requires the elimination of private property, the inclusion of women in social production and the socialisation of reproduction. Alexandra Kollontai argued that the work performed free of charge by the housewife for her family should become part of the responsibility of the community and that the "socialisation" of domestic life was integral to the creation of a communist society. Lenin also emphasised the transformation of ‘petty housekeeping’ into large-scale socialised services.

While it is accepted that these are important conditions for women’s emancipation, it is now widely acknowledged that these alone are not sufficient conditions.

Critiques of Marxist Theoretical Approaches

When critiquing Marxism we need to recognise that there are different strands - the classics, the use of a materialist analysis by Marxist writers, and the interpretation of Marxism in theory and practice by Communist parties and socialist movements. Some writers have argued that Marxist theories on women’s emancipation are sound and that the interpretation and application of these theories by socialist states were a distortion. However, it is more correct to argue that there are fundamental flaws and weaknesses in the original theoretical approach that allowed for such misinterpretation, while it is also true that some communists are completely gender-blind, despite references to these questions in Marxist classics. While Marxists, particularly through Engels and Lenin, paid far more attention to women’s oppression than they are generally given credit for, there are strong critiques of the Marxist analysis. Vogel (1983:127) argues that the early Marxist tradition does not provide adequate theoretical guidance on women’s oppression and women’s liberation, as it has a number of gaps and inconsistencies.

However, the weaknesses in Marxist theory on women’s oppression do not negate the centrality of a materialist analysis to understanding and challenging women’s oppression and gender relations - deepening our analysis has been and remains an important endeavour for revolutionaries.

One of the main criticisms is that it is too idealistic and deterministic, giving the idea that class struggle would automatically solve women’s oppression.

According to Horn (1991b:11) this does not leave room for the organisation of women to struggle against their oppression.

As we will see in accounts of socialist experiments, a core requirement to effectively struggle for women’s emancipation is that women are organised as women and as feminists2. The following extract illustrates the determinism that sees women’s oppression as a simple derivative of class relations: "The supremacy of the man in marriage is the simple consequence of his economic supremacy, and with the abolition of the latter will disappear of itself." (Engels, 1972). This is deterministic because it views reproductive and gender relations as a "simple consequence" of productive and class relations.

Orthodox Marxism did not adequately apply a materialist analysis to patriarchy, gender relations and reproductive relations, nor was the articulation between gender relations and class relations adequately theorised. This is because patriarchy and gender relations were seen as arising from class relations and therefore did not need a separate analysis, because they would fall away with the transformation of economic relations.

According to Landes (1989:26) in her critique of shortcomings in the writings of Marx and Engels: "…. The Woman Question remains subordinate to the fate of the working-class movement, and political, social and gender questions are all too easily dismissed by way of a naturalizing discourse on matters of sexuality and family life.

Following Engels, social democrats and communists have recommended public housekeeping - the socialisation of domestic work - as the solution to women’s domestic oppression. In this prescription, there is no recognition of the need for women and men to wage a conscious struggle to transform interpersonal relations, nor of the political requirements of such a task."

None of the early Marxists posed patriarchy as a political problem or even challenged it. Political relations of power were not analysed, while economic relations were the dominant focus (Horn, 1991b). Thus, the relations of exploitation and domination in the family are not debated or analysed, for most Marxists the concept of exploitation is only applicable in the context of class relations. This leaves a whole area of debate untouched, however this has been explored by Marxist feminists more recently.

Another critique relates to the problem with the assumption that drawing women into production would necessarily create the basis for their liberation. Early Marxists predicted that women would be drawn into industry in large numbers and this would provide the conditions for their liberation from the oppression of the family and their dependent status within it. Their entrance into the public arena would serve to end their oppression and unite them with their working class brothers in the struggle against capitalism. However, in reality women did not enter waged work in large numbers and where they did, they were in a structurally disadvantaged position compared with men.

Marxists have analysed this subsequently in terms of theories of labour market segmentation, showing how capitalism benefits by dividing workers and increasing its control and exploitation of the workforce. However, there has been very little theorising of the occupational segregation and the sexual division of labour under socialism both in relation to the public and private spheres.

A crucial element of the feminist critique of Marxism is of the narrow conception of production, which separates between production of things and of people. Although there are references to labour and production as encompassing all activities necessary for the reproduction of human life, this is not carried through Engels and Marx’s analysis.

Rather, the production of things (which depends on the organisation of labour) is emphasised and the production of people (which depends on the organisation of the family) is often altogether absent. Sometimes even more narrowly, the production of things is confined to the production of things with exchange value only. This means that large areas of human activity are often overlooked in Marxist political economy and the distinctive relationships that women and men have to the spheres of production and reproduction are not analysed (Kabeer, 1994:44).

Flowing from this criticism, feminists have argued that Marxism, although formally applying a materialist analysis, was actually viewing reproduction as part of nature. This critique is based on the way in which Marxism treats the body. The defining feature of the human condition was the use of the body to make use of nature to meet humand needs and wants. But upon careful examination it is revealed that the body that was referred to was the body of the proletarianised worker, the producer of surplus value: "By equating human labour with the production of objects, and more narrowly, of objects with exchange value, women’s bodies and women’s labour in maintaining bodily existence are assigned to nature."

(Kabeer, 1994:46). In other words the use of the human body in reproduction is seen as separate from human labour, thus making women’s reproductive role form part of ‘nature’.

A further criticism is on the focus on the structures of production at the expense of the activism and consciousness of human beings. Accordingly, women’s oppression is reduced to being functional to capital. There is no acknowledgement that men often benefit from women’s oppression and that they play an active role in perpetuating it, both within the home and the capitalist marketplace. Traditional Marxism would also have difficulty in explaining the resistance and antagonisms of women to male domination (as distinct from class domination) except by attributing this to a divide and rule strategy by the capitalist class and as false consciousness or ‘bourgeois feminism’ (Kabeer, 1994:49).

Finally, Marx himself reflected patriarchal practices and attitudes in his personal life, which must have partly accounted for some of the gender-blindness in his writing. According to Thompson (1997:202): "Marx not only neglected, and concealed the existence of his illegitimate child, the son of his maidservant, but presumed to exercise patriarchal interference in his daughter’s private affairs." The interference referred to here is that Marx was opposed to his daughters pursuing careers. Similarly, the words of his wife, Jenny Marx, paint a clear picture of her own disempowerment in the home:

"While the men are invigorated by the fight in the world outside, …we sit at home and darn stockings." (cited in Gardiner, 1997:56). Furthermore, in some of his letters Marx shows an ambivalent approach towards gender issues, with a serious political intervention often undercut by patriarchal humour: "Social progress may be measured by the fair sex (plain ones included)" (Marx, 1868)3.

The difficulties posed by the challenges of transformation are illustrated in the inconsistencies in Marx himself - on the one hand his ideas were way ahead of his times, while on the other hand some people might excuse him for being "a man of his times". This is the case for many communists past and present - they are constantly struggling to give expression to their ideals and to transform our practice, with uneven success.

SACP Perspectives on Women’s Oppression and Emancipation

The South African liberation struggle has concentrated on ‘race’ as a primary factor, and indeed, the experiences of women were often more starkly experienced in colour and class terms, thus obscuring the gender dimension of their oppression: "Women are not organised along sexual lines in South Africa.

Feminism is almost entirely absent from the social fabric, and this is primarily due to the race factor. White women share with white men in the exploitation of blacks. The wages and incomes brought in by their men and the social security provided by the State afford them comfortable to affluent lives.

While sexual discrimination exists, it is offset by the fact that the status of whites is infinitely higher than that of the black men; and this not only invalidates an anti-male movement, but underlines the fact that to preserve their existing privileges white women must close their rank with white men as a class." (Meer, 1985). Thus, the class and racial cleavages have tended to be seen as more dominant. Although there were women’s organisations and activism, this did not necessarily give space to a voice for women independent of the liberation movement.

Furthermore, there was strong pressure from male-dominated leadership against the idea of women organising separately around specific gender issues, as this was seen as ‘divisive’ and ‘bourgeois’ and amounted to ‘hijacking the struggle’.

While there has been significant progress in recent years, communists still face a major challenge in integrating an analysis of patriarchy and gender relations in all Party theory and practice.

Historically, within the liberation movement broadly programmes and documents have been gender-blind.

This section will examine the theoretical approach of the SACP (as the leading socialist formation in the country) on gender issues.

The Party Programme of 1962, The Road to South African Freedom, devotes one paragraph to women, focusing on programmatic proposals: "The Party demands that the state provide special protection for women workers, the removal of all restrictions against married women employees, and the provision of adequate maternity leave before and after birth. The Party will fight for full and equal rights for women in every aspect of state, social and private life. It will work for the elimination of polygamy. It will fight against all vestiges and manifestations of contempt for or unequal treatment of women, or their being regarded as mere cooks, domestic servants, nannies and housekeepers.

It will fight for the admission of women on an equal basis to every sphere of state, industrial, commercial, agricultural, scientific, academic and professional life."

While some of these are important proposals, there are overall weaknesses in what they reflect theoretically - primarily that the struggle is for equal rights with men, and changing the way women are regarded, without fundamentally challenging gender relations.

Furthermore, the fact that there is no theoretical analysis of women’s oppression and of the strategic significance of fighting for their liberation weakens the proposals considerably. The six previous sections of the programme analysing Communism, the African revolution, CST, the forces of change and the National Democratic Revolution, make no mention of women in analysis or as a target for mobilisation. Even the analysis of the African working class makes no mention of women and their specific circumstances, nor does it identify their role in the reproduction of labour power for the mines. Thus, the proposals that come at the end appear as a favour to women without any material basis, rather than a struggle connected to the class struggle, with significance in its own right.

The Path to Power, the Party Programme of 1989, goes further than earlier documents, by including reference to the triple oppression of the majority of South African women.

However, the fight for a united, nonracial, non-sexist democratic South Africa is only mentioned when the document addresses women directly, but when it speaks to workers and youth, for example, the struggle is against capitalist exploitation and national oppression. Furthermore, the entire analysis of CST makes no reference to women, and only refers to triple oppression under the mass democratic movement. This implies that women are, crudely, an ‘interest group’ to be mobilised, as opposed to a perspective that sees them as a fundamental part of the revolution - both because their oppression as women is fundamental to apartheid and capitalism, and because they constitute a strategic force for transformation.

A pamphlet published by the SACP and printed in the African Communist, under the authorship of Dialego, entitled Philosophy and Class Struggle enunciated the basic premises of dialectical and historical materialism, and served as an important political education document. There was no mention of gender relations, nor even of reproduction. The focus was entirely on productive relations with no reference to the production of human beings. It is difficult to account for this complete gender-blindness since Marx’s writings are not entirely genderblind, although somewhat inconsistent. Furthermore, Marx and Engels cannot be blamed for our own limited applications of Marxist tools of analysis.

The Strategic Perspectives adopted at the 9th Congress made some important points, in a section specifically dealing with gender, noting that:

"… patriarchy has to be consciously addressed and dismantled, it will not simply wither away because the economic basis of women’s oppression has been removed." (1995:9). It is argued that there has been a mistaken view by some "Marxists" that see women’s oppression as a "side-effect" of class exploitation, advocating a "pure class struggle" approach with the assumption that this will automatically liberate women. The document concludes that patriarchy, class and national oppression intersect and reinforce each other in various ways, and our approach should be to integrate gender struggles into the immediate tasks of the NDR, while at the same time giving an "independent focus" to the struggle against patriarchy.

The most recent SACP programme, the 10th Congress programme, is very uneven in its analysis of gender relations. The section dealing with the NDR and parts of the section on Our Marxism provide very useful analyses, however, other sections, particularly that on Economic Transformation and the transformation of the State are remarkably gender-blind. This is not because there is a lack of analysis of these issues to draw from.

The NDR chapter contains a section on the gender struggle in the national and class struggle, which articulates the following analysis: "CST and the specific capitalist growth path in our country involved the appropriation of existing patriarchal customs and traditions, and their articulation into the reproductive processes of CST capitalism. In particular, the brunt of the reproduction of a massive army of reserve cheap labour was borne by the unpaid (and hidden) labour and effort of millions of women.

The reproductive functions often carried (at least to some extent) by society at large in other developed economies (by way of pensions, public education, health care and housing, and municipal water and power infrastructure) has been borne at huge personal cost, by millions of black women in our country…" The chapter on Our Marxism critiques "productivism" in our theory - pointing to an over-emphasis on production at the expense of analysing reproductive labour and gender relations.

If a gender analysis were integrated into every sphere of Party activity and analysis things would look very different, and the potential of real and thorough-going transformation would be much greater.

The lack of gender analysis or sense of the gender implications of policy is obvious in government macro-economic policy. Yet, even in their critiques of job losses, privatisation and conservative fiscal policies, the SACP and COSATU are often silent on the effect that this has on women’s unpaid labour and the entrenchment of women’s poverty and vulnerability.

An important theoretical lesson in looking at gender is that we cannot make abstract sweeping formulations without analysing each situation with the tools of dialectical and historical materialism. South African socialists have a major contribution to make in indigenising Marxist theory and further developing our theoretical contributions on the relationship between colour, class and gender. The main challenge facing us theoretically therefore, is the application of a materialist analysis to patriarchal relations. Moreover, the application of these tools of analysis must filter into debates and practice at all levels.

Lessons from experiences of Socialist countries

There are many inconsistencies and contradictions in the policies and practices of socialist states and socialist movements. In some cases there were shifts and fluctuations in policy in a single country or party. As mentioned earlier, this is partly as a result of theoretical weaknesses inherited from Marx and Engels, and also because of problems in interpretation and application - not least because most of the leading revolutionaries were men, and probably had less direct interest in the resolution of the ‘Woman Question’.

This critique is intended to encourage debates on these issues, recognising the real struggles that have taken place.

The evaluation of the approaches of socialist countries to gender issues is not a ‘side-issue’ of relevance only to gender activists: these debates point us to important lessons about Marxist theory and practice. In particular, the historic lessons that are thrown up for us are about the centrality of democratic participation in revolutionary transformation, and the challenge of constantly applying our tools of analysis to each new situation rather than imposing doctrinaire formulations.

According to Horn (1991b:12) the economism and determinism in Engels’ analysis were reproduced, not only in Bolshevik Party policy, but also in Soviet State policy on the position of women. Furthermore, Horn argues that the experiences of the Soviet Union and China, rather than being open to being "critically examined by socialist women’s movements in the rest of the world, to serve as lessons of how to avoid the same mistakes, were immortalised and spread to other parts of Europe through the influence of the Comintern on the Communist Parties of Europe." (1991b:14)

However, these experiences are now available for us to reflect on, and in doing so we should not lump socialist states and movements together as if the range of experiences of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Mozambique and others, are the same.

However, this paper will not review all of these experiences, and therefore this point should be borne in mind.

The Soviet Union began with an enthusiastic and strongly committed approach to women’s liberation. The Bolsheviks introduced equality under the law, free and legal abortion, legalisation of homosexuality and the Family Code of 1918, which made divorce easier and abolished illegitimacy. The purpose of the Code was to begin to shift family functions to the state, this "constituted the most progressive family and gender legislation the world had ever seen" (Goldman, 1989:62). The Code also entitled children to financial support when their parents separated.

When paternity could not be established, the courts often ordered all the possible fathers named by the woman to pay support (Macdonald, 2000:70).

Considerable resources were allocated to establishing public child-care, laundry and kitchen facilities, but the Bolsheviks were conscious that real emancipation would require greater resources and better quality facilities on a much larger scale. While there were weaknesses, there was a recognition, certainly by Lenin and other leaders, of the importance of organising women, and, as the following quote shows, the need to challenge the backwardness of male comrades: "They regard agitation and propaganda among women and the task of rousing and revolutionizing them as of secondary importance, as the job of just the women Communists …

Unfortunately, we may still say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch the Communist and a philistine appears." (Lenin, 1966).

The work of the women’s department of the Communist Party (Zhenotdel) and the Women’s Congress in 1927 showed the potential of active women’s organisation (Goldman, 1989:61). However, this potential was cut short when "Zhenotdel was dismantled in 1929 and policies of family integrity, sexual puritanism and traditional sex roles were reimposed by Stalin." (Coole, 1993:170). There are a range of factors contributing to undermining this revolutionary potential, including the legacy of Russian underdevelopment, the lack of state resources and the peasant economy, society and traditions (Macdonald, 2000:71).

However, the extent of the reversal of the gains under Stalin showed that the dominant factors were political and ideological. In the 1930’s "the Woman Question won the proud status of being ‘solved’ " (Buckley, 1989:254). Women were not supposed to organise as women, and women’s issues were no longer discussed - this would have been seen as "unpatriotic, bordering on treason" (Horn, 1992).

Under Stalin, divorce was made more difficult; abortion and homosexuality were criminalised; and later the category of illegitimacy was reintroduced and paternity suits were banned.

Accompanying this was a propaganda campaign "which appealed to the need for ‘social stability’, emphasised the importance of individual family responsibility and lectured on the joys of motherhood, upward mobility and the happiness of the worker mother" (Macdonald, 2000:76). The main author of the 1918 family code was imprisoned in a mental institution in 1937, while many other advocates of the Bolshevik programme of women’s liberation were murdered or disappeared into labour camps.

Under Kruschev and Brezhnev, the problems and double burdens of women began to be recognised again. However, while there were differences in the position of women in the Soviet Union and Western capitalist states, "patriarchal oppression thrives as freely in both" (Horn, 1991b:12). This is illustrated by the following anecdote - A cosmonaut, seen as the ‘cream’ of Soviet society, was asked about a new space ship and responded as follows:

‘There is a kitchen in Salyut 6, so a woman would feel quite at home’. Then he added ‘… but no woman is at present training.’ (Browning, 1980:6). In recent years, with the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the embrace of capitalism in Russia, women have been hardest hit, with massive unemployment and with loss of the social services and state support they previously enjoyed.

One of the first Acts of the Chinese Communists when they came into power in 1949 was the Marriage Act, making ‘free choice the basic principle of every marriage’. The Chinese Communists faced a traditional patriarchal system that suppressed women, the majority of whom had to abide by the traditional custom of foot-binding (Wilson and Grenier, 1992:72).

Although the basis of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on women was the Marxist proposition that women’s liberation can come only through their participation in socially productive labour, the application of this has been considerably varied (Davin, 1977). In the early 1940’s there was a concerted effort to get women into textile handcraft production, and later there was a campaign to get women to work in the fields coinciding with the departure of men into the army. However, at the same time the Central Committee acknowledged that "productive labour was not in fact the only and ultimate solution to the women problem, that remnants of feudal ideas about women would remain for some time, and that a prolonged period of education would be necessary to overcome them." Even this acknowledgement, however, demonstrates a biased analysis, since it does not take account of the oppressive nature of women’s role in the reproductive sphere within a patriarchal system.

Davin (1977:301) provides the following illuminating account of the contradictions in the Chinese approach: "During the Cultural Revolution involvement in productive work was once more presented as the major goal for women. The People’s Daily editorial for Women’s Day 1973, entitled "Working Women a Great Revolutionary Force’, quoted Lenin on the importance of getting women to take part in socially productive labour, to liberate them from "domestic slavery", to free them from their stupefying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and the nursery’. Lenin’s words contrast strangely with the mood of 1955, when under the slogans ‘Housework is Glorious too’ and ‘Let’s be Pretty’, a positive cult of the housewife was fostered, women were urged to seek fulfilment through raising a socialist family, and the pages of women’s magazines were filled with recipes and dress patterns."

The Chinese explanation of fluctuations of policy towards women is that they reflect the struggle between two ideological lines. However, some analysts have argued that the call for women’s participation in the workforce was, in fact, dictated by economic requirements and the particular demand for labour at a given time.

Chinese Marxists were of the conviction that social change can be the product of changing ‘attitudes’, given their emphasis on human agency. Young (1989:236) shows how the attempt to challenge gender roles from an ideological basis failed to take account of the material reality of women’s oppression, and perpetuated dual (and contradictory) roles for women: "If then the definition of the problem facing women is that they are seen as women, the solution seems fairly evident. At the level of material reality, of course, they will continue to bear and rear children and be responsible for their usual chores. At the ideological level, however, this implicit aspect of their identity can be put aside. In the public realm they are to be seen as men. Standing in the way, however, are ‘feudal attitudes’ that restrict women’s movements and participation in the world of work and politics and ‘bourgeois attitudes’ that lead women selfishly to focus on their own small family responsibilities. With sufficient effort, both attitudes can be overcome and the path cleared for the new woman, a kind of socialist androgyne; for public purposes a man, at home a loving wife and mother; genderless in public, chaste wife and selfless mother in private."

This critique demonstrates the underlying weaknesses of theoretical perspectives on women’s emancipation. A material analysis is applied only to the productive sphere, with the assumption that women’s oppression is based on ideology and culture, without taking account of the need to transform gender relations specifically, and to challenge the material basis of patriarchy. This is a curiously un-Marxist approach, since ideology should have a material basis.

Furthermore, the notion of the archetypal male proletarian was widespread and went unchallenged, rather, women were expected to conform to this stereotype. Thus, Young (1989:236) asserts that: "Many liberals and Marxists reject all notions of biological determinism; both embrace a concept of universal humanity. For both, as well, the universal human is male - a class-conscious revolutionary for the one, an autonomous individual for the other, but in neither case a woman." There was, nevertheless, an acknowledgement of the complexities involved in liberating women. Mao Zedong was quoted as saying: "To liberate women is not to manufacture washing machines." This is rather a profound statement, which seems to mean that genuine liberation is not simply about the development of the forces of production, and also that the production of devices that cut back women’s household labour would not be sufficient (Young, 1989:246).

Delmar (1977:279) in her writing on the Chinese experience, concludes that an important challenge is the treatment of male supremacy "as a contradiction ‘amongst the people’ and hence as an object of ideological struggle. …[T]he most powerful ideological weapon is women’s entry into all diverse forms of social activity." This point echoes the importance of democratic participation, raised earlier, and the need for women themselves to be organised in active struggle against their oppression.

Thus, a major limitation of socialist states was that they saw women’s emancipation as being achieved by women’s participation in the labour force. While it is widely accepted that women’s participation in the labour force is a necessary condition, ‘state socialists’ saw it as the single sufficient condition. This meant a focus on women at work, without looking at what happened in the "private sphere". Nevertheless, many progressive policies and practices were developed, such as education and trainingto counter sexual segregation in the workplace, equality at work, equal pay and social provisions such as childcare to facilitate women’s labour force participation (Einhorn, 1994:74).

However, an extract from East Germany’s revised labour code of 1977 reveals the entrenchment of women’s traditional family role in socialist policy: "Section 3. The socialist state shall ensure that conditions are created everywhere to enable women increasingly to live up to their equal status at work and in vocational education, and to reconcile more successfully their occupational activities and the duties they have to fulfil as mothers within the family." (Einhorn, 1994:74). According to Einhorn this piece of legislation was not unique - in socialist states women were defined as mothers and workers and men were defined solely as workers.

In addition to the double load placed upon women, they were expected to fulfil a third, political and social role. This approach led Thompson (1997:203) to conclude that: "The progressive character of the socialist movement in this [gender] sphere consisted in the main in improving and enhancing facilities for women to perform their traditional gender duties."

The Cuban revolution broke new ground with the introduction of the Family Code in 1975. A distinctive feature of this legislation was that it stipulated that men are required to take responsibility for 50% of the housework and childcare when women work. Of course this is difficult to monitor, and would require that women bring legal action against their husbands. Nevertheless, the importance of this lay in the public sanction of equal responsibilities (Cole, 1986:316). The Cuban Revolution made important gains, particularly if we take account of the conditions of women before the revolution, when many women were unable to find work, while the most common work for women was as domestics, or as prostitutes. The impact of the revolution on women was two-fold - the revolution itself made massive strides in making health, education and social services available, and there were specific laws and programmes to bring women into employment, to socialise domestic labour and to challenge ‘machismo’ - the Latin American version of patriarchal ideology.

Nevertheless, as Castro acknowledged women still do not have absolute equality because of both subjective and objective factors (Murray and Lewis, 1980:11). Arguably the strongest of the objective factors was the economy of Cuba, which remained underdeveloped and unable to effectively socialise domestic labour and provide employment.

The most significant subjective factor was the lack of a grass roots movement of women conscious of their own oppression - while women participated significantly in the revolution and influenced political processes, the impetus for change came mainly from the government.

Another weakness of socialist projects mentioned earlier was the denial of the fact that men benefit from women’s oppression and are directly implicated in their oppression. Thomas Sankara, Marxist revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, made a bold Women’s Day speech on March 8, 1987, which identified this reality: "Comrades, only the revolutionary transformation of our society can create conditions for your liberation. You are dominated by both imperialism and men. In every male languishes the soul of a feudal lord, a male chauvinist, which must be destroyed. This is why you must eagerly embrace the most advanced revolutionary slogans to make your liberation real and advance toward it more rapidly" (1987: 29-30). Sankara highlighted the "specific reality of the woman’s situation", showing the interconnectedness yet distinctiveness of women’s oppression and class: "… in addition to the class exploitation common to both of them, women must confront a particular set of relations that exist between them and men." (1987:9). He also emphasised women’s central role in struggling for their own liberation: "Emancipation, like freedom, is not granted but conquered. It is for women themselves to put forward their demands and mobilize to win them." (1987:36).

Finally, although there are some important exceptions, many Marxists fail to make theory accessible and to use their analysis as a mobilising tool for working class, poor and rural women. The intellectual, arrogant culture of Marxist debates often alienates many of the people that it intends to reach: "Marxism hardened into a narrowly masculine mind-set: political belligerence and intellectual cock-sureness, masking deeper insecurity. The need to be right and to put others in the wrong precipitates destructive infighting and faction-forming, periodic purges and regular accusations of foulplay, along with vicious denunciations of supposed traitors." (Reiss, 1997:122).

Thus, the experiences of socialist countries have provided us with many lessons about the great challenges we face in seriously grappling with the transformation of gender relations.

New Challenges and Alternative Perspectives

The starting point is to acknowledge that Marxist classics are inadequate to guide us theoretically on gender and patriarchal relations. South African socialists, furthermore, need to develop theories that are based in our own experiences. There are a range of issues that require further debate and theorising.

This paper can only point to these areas.

Theorising the material basis of patriarchy

The material and structural basis of patriarchy needs to be analysed and understood in relation to specific historical periods and in its relation to class societies and to specific modes of production. Firstly, it is incorrect to view patriarchy as an ideological phenomenon, based on backward beliefs left over from feudal relations.

Furthermore, the approach that subsumes patriarchal relations under production and class relations has also been critiqued. The fact that patriarchy continued to exist in socialist states is not simply because of problems with those systems, but because it is "relatively autonomous" although interconnected with capitalism.

Marxists have made the mistake of equating materialism with economic/productive relations without analysing the specific material nature of reproductive relations, and at the same time the gendered nature of economic relations. Thus, the dialectical relationship between the economic consequences of patriarchal relations and the impact of capitalism on gender relations need to be explored.

The linkages that have been made between unpaid reproductive labour and capitalist accumulation are extremely important, and need to be further elaborated and applied to the South African situation. However, arguments that view reproductive labour as purely functional to capital are not particularly useful, since there are dynamic and at times unpredictable interactions between patriarchy and capitalism. For example, Hartmann has argued that ‘men and capitalists often have conflicting interests, particularly over the use of women’s labor power … men [seek] to control women’s labor power … for the purpose of serving men in many personal and sexual ways’ (1979: 11, 14).

There have been significant debates amongst Marxist feminists on domestic labour, with explorations of the concept of a domestic mode of production and exploitation in the household.

Space does not allow an examination of these positions, however, while some of these approaches have been critiqued, it is nevertheless critical for socialists to explore these debates in the interest of sharpening theoretical perspectives on the material basis of patriarchy.

A key challenge is to analyse women’s subordination in relation to both production and reproduction and as part of capitalist accumulation. This is to overcome the problems of either seeing women (and reproduction) as outside of the processes of capitalist accumulation, or focusing narrowly on women’s subordination in relation to the economy.

It was the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution that created a spatial demarcation between production (in factories) and reproduction (in the home). Before capitalism production and reproduction took place around or near to the home, which meant that reproductive labour was often integrated with productive labour.

This separation meant that the ruling class faced a contradiction between its immediate need to appropriate surplus labour and its long term requirement for a class to perform it. In other words the ruling class would want to have as many workers as possible available to be exploited , but at the same time the workforce has to reproduced, which requires time and resources.

According to Vogel (1983) a key factor in women’s oppression is the fact that women could not be ‘productive’ during the childbearing period, and therefore required subsistence - this role was granted to men - they were responsible for supporting women during this time, and thus had control of subsistence greater than that needed for their own reproduction. Vogel argues as follows: "It is the provision by men of the means of subsistence to women during the childbearing period, and not the sex division of labour in itself, that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class society." The fact that women and men are differentially involved in the reproduction of labour power in pregnancy and lactation, and often for much longer, does not necessarily constitute a source of oppression." (1983:147) There is a need to debate these issues further, and extend our analysis beyond domestic labour, to seek broader explanations of women’s oppression.

Ultimately, patriarchy must be historically grounded rather than used as a universal explanation of male dominance (for it cannot do the latter without ultimately being descriptive rather than explanatory). As Gardiner neatly captures this point: "It is as unhelpful for feminists to use patriarchy as a universal explanation of gender inequality as it is for men to maintain it as a universal aspiration." (1997:126).

Understanding gender relations

The analysis of gender relations should not be confined to the relation of women to capital. We should broaden our understanding by looking at household relations, the relationship between gender and the state, the relations between women and men, and the differentiation amongst women.

Furthermore, the relationship between women and capital includes an analysis of women’s role as producers, and reproducers. Patriarchy has a material basis in the economy and the household, as well as features that are not strictly economic, such as in sexual relations. Patriarchal practices like footbinding, clitorodectomy, restrictions on the mobility of women, amongst others are not easily explained as functional to capitalism, nor as simple hangovers from the past.

There is also a need to tackle gender relations at the personal level.

Politically, men do have an interest in eliminating sexism because it limits their lives in various ways. Men are denied experiencing their full humanness, and are made to take on oppressor roles with dire consequences if they challenge this. In most instances men defend and uphold patriarchal systems and practices because they are reluctant to give up the privileges it offers them.

Because of the power dynamic between men and women it is important that women take leadership in the struggle to transform unequal gender power relations.

An important contribution that has been made by the women’s movement internationally, is the slogan "the personal is political". This highlighted the importance of the experiential aspect of women’s oppression, the invisibility of women’s experiences and the reality of their lives. It made it impossible to hide behind privatised personal problems.

The challenge posed by ‘sexual politics’ also exposed the power relations in sexual relations and experiences of sexuality. Thus, the slogan "the personal is political" needs to be reclaimed and given meaning in our own context. The SACP/COSATU political education manual highlighted the fact that the elements of sexism in the working class, like violence and abuse directed at women, are a political issue and need to be seen as central challenges that must be overcome for the working class to fulfil its role as the motive force for transformation. The assertion of ‘the personal is political’ is particularly relevant in the light of the fact that many male activists seem to find it particularly difficult to internalise the gender-sensitive rhetoric that they are able to articulate.

Theorising gender equality

We have seen ambiguous and contradictory approaches to gender roles in Marxist theory and practice. On the one hand, the woman’s role as mother is seen as unproblematic and a glorious contribution to socialism, on the other hand there is a gender-blindness that assumes that these different roles do not exist (yet the unspoken assumption is that the typical revolutionary proletarian is male).

As discussed earlier, Marxism simultaneously rejects nature based arguments and promises a materialist analysis, yet confines the woman’s body and the division of labour in sexual reproduction to nature. Thus, Marxist theory does not theorise the body as part of the material and social - it is assumed to be part of nature within a framework that rejects the notion of ‘nature’ (Eisenstein, 1989:335). This creates ambiguity in the theoretical framework when we look closely at gender equality and what this really means. There is a hidden assumption that equality means that women become equal to men and that inequality is based on their difference from men. But, viewing difference as necessarily implying inequality is problematic since women and men are biologically different. The expectation that women should be the same as men is problematic. This thinking is so entrenched, however, that any mention of difference is seen as implying inequality and as entrenching biological determinism. The fundamental point is that difference does not have to mean oppression. As Eisenstein (1989:335) argues: "…equality cannot mean sameness of treatment between men and women because males and females are both similar and particular; they have similar needs and specific needs."

Thus, we need to recognise that we are trying to transform gender roles, recognising that these are social and not natural, and in so doing we will create something new. However, this should not mean that women take on men’s gender roles (in addition to the women’s roles they play in private) under the notion of ‘equality’.

In conclusion, the materialist analysis remains the most relevant and useful tool in understanding women’s oppression and unequal gender relations.

However, there is still much work to be done in developing indigenous South African theories. Furthermore, the development of revolutionary theory does not happen outside of organisations and cannot be separated from people and practice - we need conscious gender activists who devote their energy and thinking to transforming gender relations (from the global economy right down to their personal lives) and developing new, fresh perspectives that are relevant to our context.


Browning, Genia (1980) "The Soviet Union". In Women, Liberation and Socialism. Education Department, Communist Party. Farleigh Press, Watford.
Buckley, Mary (1989) "The ‘Woman Question’ in Contemporary Soviet Union." In Kruks, et al.
Coole, Diana (1993) Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism. 2nd Edition. Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Davin, Delia (1977) "Women in Revolutionary China". In (Eds) Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley The Rights and Wrongs of Women. Penguin Books.
Delmar, Rosalind (1977) "Looking Again at Engels’s ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ ". In (Eds) Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley The Rights and Wrongs of Women. Penguin Books.
Einhorn, Barbara (1994) "Gender and Citizenship in East Central Europe", LINKS Number 2, July to September, 1994.
Eisenstein, Zillah (1989) "Reflections." In Kruks, et al.
Engels, F. (1972) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Lawrence and Wishart. London.
Gardiner, Jean (1997) Gender, Care and Economics. MacMillan Press. London.
Goldman, Wendy Zeva (1989) "Women, the Family, and the New Revolutionary Order in the Soviet Union." In Kruks, et al.
Horn, Pat (1991) "Towards the Emancipation of Women in a Post- Apartheid South Africa." Paper delivered at the Conference on Women and Gender in Southern Africa, Durban, February 1991.
Horn, Pat (1991b) "Marxism and Feminism: Uneasy Bedfellows?" African Communist 3rd Quarter 1991.
Kabeer, Naila (1994) Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. Verso Press. London.
Kollontai, Alexandra (1988) Sexual Relations and Class Struggle. First published in Russian in 1919, reprinted by the Socialist Workers Party in 1988.
Kruks, S., Rapp, R. and Young, M.B. (Eds) (1989) Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. New Feminist Library. Monthly Review Press.
Landes, Joan B (1989) "Marxism and the ‘Woman Question’ ". In Kruks, et al. Lenin, V.I. (1966) The Emancipation of Women. International Publishers.
Macdonald, Lisa (2000) "Women’s liberation and the fight for socialism", LINKS Number 15, May to August, 2000.
Meer, Fatima (1985) "Women in the Apartheid Society.", Maxine (1979) "Beyond the Domestic Labour Debate", New Left Review, No. 116, July-August: 3-27.
Reiss, Edward (1997) Marx: A Clear Guide. Pluto Press. London.
SACP (1962) The Road to South African Freedom: The Programme of the South African Communist Party.
SACP (1989) The Path to Power. Programme of the South African Communist Party.
SACP (1995) SACP Strategic Perspectives.
SACP (1998) Build people’s power - build socialism now! Programme of the South African Communist Party.
Sankara, Thomas (1987) Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle. Pathfinder Press.
Thompson, Willie (1997) The Left in History: Revolution and Reform in Twentieth- Century Politics. Pluto Press. London.
Vogel, Lise (1983) Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory. Pluto Press. London.
Wilson, Dick and Grenier, Matthew (1992) Chinese Communism. Paladin Movements and Ideas Series. HarperCollins Publishers.


1 The term women’s oppression is used because it is women that are oppressed, and often the use of ‘gender oppression’ obscures this. This does not deny that men are deeply affected by sexism and have a responsibility to struggle for its elimination. The concept of gender relations is also used to capture the existence of unequal power relations between women and men.
2 ‘Feminist’ is used here to refer to women that are committed to the transformation of gender relations.
3 For the full text, see Marx to Kugelman, 12/12/68, Collected Works, volume 43, 184-5