Socialist Feminism vs. Other Types of Feminism

How Is Socialist Feminism Different?

Feminist Reunion of the Socialist League
Feminist Reunion of the Socialist League. Getty Images / Fototeca Storica Nazionale

with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

Socialist feminism, which connected the oppression of women to other oppressions in society, became increasingly important in the feminist theory that crystallized into academic feminist thought during the 1970s. How was socialist feminism different from other kinds of feminism?

Socialist Feminism vs. Cultural Feminism

Socialist feminism was often contrasted with cultural feminism, which focused on the unique nature of women and highlighted the need for woman-affirming culture.

Cultural feminism was seen as essentialist: it recognized an essential nature of women that was unique to the female sex. Cultural feminists were sometimes criticized for being separatist if they tried to keep women's music, women's art and women's studies apart from mainstream culture.

The theory of socialist feminism, on the other hand, sought to avoid separating feminism from the rest of society. Socialist feminists in the 1970s preferred to integrate their struggle against women's oppression with the struggle against other injustice based on race, class or economic status. Socialist feminists wanted to work with men to correct the inequities between men and women.

Socialist Feminism vs. Liberal Feminism

However, socialist feminism was also distinct from liberal feminism, such as that of the National Organization for Women (NOW). The perception of the term "liberal" has changed over the years, but the liberal feminism of the women's liberation movement sought equality for women in all institutions of society, including government, law and education.

Socialist feminists critiqued the idea that true equality was possible in a society built on inequality whose structure was fundamentally flawed. This criticism was similar to the feminist theory of radical feminists.

Socialist Feminism vs. Radical Feminism

However, socialist feminism was also distinct from radical feminism because socialist feminists rejected the radical feminist notion that the sex discrimination women faced was the source of all of their oppression.

Radical feminists, by definition, sought to get at the root of oppression in society in order to drastically change things. In a male-dominated patriarchal society, they saw that root as oppression of women. Socialist feminists were more likely to describe oppression based on gender as one piece of the struggle.

Socialist Feminism vs. Socialism or Marxism

The critique of Marxism and conventional socialism by socialist feminists is that Marxism and socialism largely reduce women's inequality to something incidental and created by economic inequality or the class system.  Because the oppression of women predates the development of capitalism, socialist feminists argue that women's oppression cannot be created by class division.  Socialist feminists also argue that without dismantling women's oppression, the capitalist hierarchical system cannot be dismantled.  Socialism and Marxism are primarily about liberation in the public realm, especially the economic realm of life, and socialist feminism acknowledges a psychological and personal dimension to liberation that is not always present in Marxism and socialism. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, had argued that women's liberation would come primarily through economic equality.

Further Analysis

Of course, this is just a basic overview of how socialist feminism differed from other kinds of feminism. Feminist writers and theorists have provided in-depth analysis of the underlying beliefs of feminist theory. In her book Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End (compare prices), Sara M. Evans explains how socialist feminism and other branches of feminism developed as part of the women's liberation movement.

Here are a few more reading suggestions that provide information about socialist feminism:

  • Socialist Feminism, The First Decade, 1966-1976 by Gloria Martin 
  • Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism edited by Zillah Eisenstein 
  • The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics edited by Nancy Holmstrom