Socialism Feminism Essay Conclusion

1. Historical Context and Developments

Current feminist political philosophy is indebted to the work of earlier generations of feminist scholarship and activism, including the first wave of feminism in the English-speaking world, which took place from the 1840s to the 1920s and focused on improving the political, educational, and economic system primarily for middle-class women. Its greatest achievements were to develop a language of equal rights for women and to garner women the right to vote. It is also indebted to the second wave of feminism, which, beginning in the 1960s, drew on the language of the civil rights movements (e.g., the language of liberation) and on a new feminist consciousness that emerged through women's solidarity movements and new forms of reflection that uncovered sexist attitudes and impediments throughout the whole of society. As the entry on approaches to feminism notes, by 1970 feminism had expanded from activism to scholarship with the publication of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex (Firestone 1971); Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (Millett 1970); and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful (Morgan 1970).

One of the first theoretical advances of second wave feminism was to separate out biological conceptions of women's identity from socially-constructed ones in order to disprove the notion that biology was destiny and hence that women's main role was as mothers and caregivers. Drawing on the social sciences and psychoanalytic theory, anthropologist Gayle Rubin developed an account of a “sex/gender system” (Ruben 1975; Dietz 2003, 401; and the entry on feminist perspectives on sex and gender). The sex/gender distinction pointed to “a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention” (Rubin 1975, 165). While biological sex was fixed, in Rubin's view, gender was a social construction that served to divide the sexes and privilege men. Because gender was mutable, the sex/gender distinction gave feminists a powerful tool to look for ways to address women's oppression.

With this socially-constructed notion of gender, early second-wave theorists sought out an understanding of woman as a universal subject and agent of feminist politics. Just as Marxist theory sought out a universal subject in the person of the worker, feminists theorists sought it out in a shared and common condition that afflicted women across cultures. But this notion of a universal womanhood was interrupted by other thinkers, such as bell hooks, saying that it excluded non-white and non-middle-class women's experience and concerns. Hooks' 1981 book titled Ain't I a Woman? exposed mainstream feminism as a movement of a small group of middle- and upper-class white women whose experience was very particular, hardly universal. The work of hooks and later Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maria Lugones, Elizabeth Spelman, and others foregrounded the need to account for women's multiple and complex identities and experiences. By the 1990s the debates about whether there was a coherent concept of woman that could underlie feminist politics was further challenged by non-Western women challenging the Western women's movement as caught up in Eurocentric ideals that led to the colonization and domination of “Third World” people. So what is now known as postcolonial theory further heightened the debate between feminist who wanted to identify universal feminist subject of woman (e.g. Okin, Nussbaum, and Ackerly) and those who call for recognizing multiplicity, diversity, and intersectionality (e.g., Spivak, Narayan, Mahmood, and Jaggar).

The effects of this diversity movement would be felt more in the 1990s and beyond. In the meantime, in the 1970s and 1980s feminist theory began to develop in the various areas of the social sciences and humanities, and in philosophy it began to arise in what were already the different traditions and areas of research. As a branch of political philosophy, feminist political philosophy has often mirrored the various divisions at work in political philosophy more broadly. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, political philosophy was usually divided into categories such as liberal, conservative, socialist, and Marxist. Except for conservatism, for each category there were often feminists working and critiquing alongside it. Hence, as Alison Jaggar's classic text, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, spelled out, each ideological approach drew feminist scholars who would both take their cue from and borrow the language of a particular ideology (Jaggar 1983). Jaggar's text grouped feminist political philosophy into four camps: liberal feminism, socialist feminism, Marxist feminism, and radical feminism. The first three groups followed the lines of Cold War global political divisions: American liberalism, European socialism, and a revolutionary communism (though few in the west would embrace Soviet-style communism). Radical feminism was the most indigenous of the feminist philosophies, developing its own political vocabulary with its roots in the deep criticisms of patriarchy that feminist consciousness had produced in its first and second waves. Otherwise, feminist political philosophy largely followed the lines of traditional political philosophy. But this has never been an uncritical following. As a field bent on changing the world, even liberal feminist theorists tended to criticize liberalism as much or more than they embraced it, and to embrace socialism and other more radical points of view more than to reject them. Still, on the whole, these theorists generally operated within the language and framework of their chosen approach to political philosophy.

Political philosophy began to change enormously in the late 1980s, just before the end of the Cold War, with a new invocation of an old Hegelian category: civil society, an arena of political life intermediate between the state and the household. This was the arena of associations, churches, labor unions, book clubs, choral societies and manifold other nongovernmental yet still public organizations. In the 1980s political theorists began to turn their focus from the state to this intermediate realm, which suddenly took center stage in Eastern Europe in organizations that challenged the power of the state and ultimately led to the downfall of communist regimes.

After the end of the Cold War, political philosophy along with political life radically realigned. New attention focused on civil society and the public sphere, especially with the timely translation of Jürgen Habermas's early work, the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989). Volumes soon appeared on civil society and the public sphere, focusing on the ways in which people organized themselves and developed public power rather than on the ways that the state garnered and exerted its power. In fact, there arose a sense that the public sphere ultimately might exert more power than the state, at least in the fundamental way in which public will is formed and serves to legitimate—or not—state power. In the latter respect, John Rawls's work was influential by developing a theory of justice that tied the legitimacy of institutions to the normative judgments that a reflective and deliberative people might make (Rawls 1971). By the early 1990s, Marxists seemed to have disappeared or at least become very circumspect (though the downfall of communist regimes needn't have had any effect on Marxist analysis proper, which never subscribed to Leninist or Maoist thought). Socialists also retreated or transformed themselves into “radical democrats” (Mouffe 1992, 1993, 2000).

Now the old schema of liberal, radical, socialist, and Marxist feminisms were much less relevant. There were fewer debates about what kind of state organization and economic structure would be better for women and more debates about the value of the private sphere of the household and the nongovernmental space of associations. Along with political philosophy more broadly, more feminist political philosophers began to turn to the meaning and interpretation of civil society, the public sphere, and democracy itself.

2. Contemporary Approaches and Debates

Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, feminist theorists are doing an extraordinary variety of work on matters political and democratic, including global ethics, human rights, disabilities studies, bioethics, climate change, and international development. (See the entry on topics in feminism.) Some of the tensions that came to the fore in previous decades are played out in any of these areas.

For example, in global ethics there is a debate over whether there are universal values of justice and freedom that should be intentionally cultivated for women in the developing world or whether cultural diversity should be prized. Feminist theorists have sought to answer this question in a number of different and compelling ways. (For some examples see Ackerly 2000, Ackerly & Okin 1999, Benhabib 2002 and 2008, Butler 2000, Gould 2004, and Zerilli 2009.)

Likewise new philosophical work on disabilities, as the entry on feminist perspectives on disability explains, is informed by a great deal of feminist theory, from standpoint philosophy to feminist phenomenology, as well as political philosophical questions of identity, difference, and diversity. (See also Carlson & Kittay, 2010.)

Ultimately, the number of approaches that can be taken on any of these issues is as high as the number of philosophers there are working on them. Nonetheless there are some general family resemblances to be found in certain groupings, not altogether unlike Jaggar's 1983 classification. The remainder of this entry will identify how the previous schema has changed and what new constellations have emerged.

2.1 Liberal Feminism

Of Jaggar's categories, liberal feminism remains a strong current in feminist political thought. Its primary concern is to protect and enhance women's personal and political autonomy, the first being the freedom to live one's life as one wants and the second being the freedom to help decide the direction of the political community. This approach was invigorated with the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) and subsequently his Political Liberalism (Rawls 1993). Susan Moller Okin (Okin 1989, 1979; Okin et al. 1999) and Eva Kittay (Kittay 1999) have used Rawls's work productively to extend his theory to attend to women's concerns. From a more critical perspective, several feminist theorists have argued that some of the central categories of liberalism occlude women's lived concerns; for example, the central liberal private/public distinction sequesters the private sphere, and any harm that may occur there to women, away from political scrutiny (Pateman 1983). Perhaps more than any other approach, liberal feminist theory parallels developments in liberal feminist activism. While feminist activists have waged legal and political battles to criminalize, as just one example, violence against women (which previously, in marital relations, hadn't been considered a crime), feminist political philosophers who have engaged the liberal lexicon have shown how the distinction between private and public realms has served to uphold male domination of women by rendering power relations within the household as “natural” and immune from political regulation. Such political philosophy uncovers how seemingly innocuous and “commonsensical” categories have covert power agendas. For example, old conceptions of the sanctity of the private space of the household and the role of women primarily as child-bearers and caregivers served to protect male domination of women in the household from public scrutiny. Feminist critiques of the public/private split supported legal advances that finally led in the 1980s to the criminalization in the United States of spousal rape (Hagan and Sussman 1988).

While liberal feminism continues to flourish, it is not without its critics, especially given that it continues to treat unproblematically many of the concepts that theorists in the 1990s and since have problematized, such as “woman” as a stable and identifiable category and the unity of the self underlying self-rule or autonomy. Critics (such as Zerilli 2009) have argued that the universal values that liberals such as Okin invoked were really expanded particulars, with liberal theorists mistaking their ethnocentrically derived values as universal ones. At the same time, however, some feminist critics are showing how many of the values of liberalism could be performatively reconstituted. (See section 2.5)

Nonetheless there is very important work going on in this field. For example, Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have been working within the liberal tradition to show the limits and faults of social contract theory for women and blacks. Their jointly authored book, Contract & Domination, levels a devastating critique against systems of sexual and racial domination. This work engages and critiques some of the most dominant strains of political philosophy.

2.2 Radical, Socialist, and Marxist Feminisms

While feminist liberalism continues to flourish, the historical developments and emerging debates described in the previous sections have eclipsed or deeply transformed Jaggar's other three categories of radical, Marxist, and socialist feminism (Jaggar 1983). Also, the “grand narratives” that underlay these views, especially the latter two, have fallen out of favor (Snyder 2008). This subsection briefly covers these approach's concerns and transformations.

Those who continue to work in radical feminism remain committed to getting at the root of male domination by understanding the source of power differentials, which some radical feminists, including Catharine MacKinnon, trace back to male sexuality and the notion that heterosexual intercourse enacts male domination over women. “Women and men are divided by gender, made into the sexes as we know them, by the requirements of its dominant form, heterosexuality, which institutionalizes male sexual dominance and female sexual submission. If this is true, sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality” (MacKinnon 1989,113). Radical feminists of the 1980s tended to see power as running one-way, from those with power over those who are being oppressed. As Amy Allen puts it, “Unlike liberal feminists, who view power as a positive social resource that ought to be fairly distributed, and feminist phenomenologists, who understand domination in terms of a tension between transcendence and immanence, radical feminists tend to understand power in terms of dyadic relations of dominance/subordination, often understood on analogy with the relationship between master and slave.” (See the section on radical feminist approaches in the entry on feminist perspectives on power.) Unlike the more reformist politics of liberal feminism, radical feminists of the 1980s largely sought to reject the prevailing order altogether, sometimes advocating separatism (Daly 1985, 1990). But a new generation of radical feminist theorists shares some of the commitments of the postmodern feminists discussed below, e.g., skepticism about any fixed gender identity or gender binaries and a more fluid and performative approach to sexuality and politics (Snyder 2008).

Through much of the twentieth century, many political theorists in Europe, the United States, and Latin America drew on socialist and Marxist texts to develop theories of social change attentive to issues of class relations and exploitation in modern capitalist economies. After learning of the horrors of Stalinism, most Western Marxists and socialists were extremely critical of the communist systems in the Soviet Union and later in China. Western, mostly anti-communist, Marxist thought flourished in Italy (with Antonio Gramsci's work), England (with Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams' work), France (with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group), and the United States (but less so there after McCarthyism yet renewed somewhat in the 1960s with the New Left). Jaggar's 1983 book summed up well the way feminists were using socialist and Marxist ideas to understand the way women were exploited and their laboring and reproductive work devalued and unpaid though necessary for capitalism to function. In the entry on feminist perspectives on class and work, the authors point to much of the work that was going on in this field up through the mid-1990s.

But since then, the authors note, various postmodern, postcolonial, poststructuralist, and deconstructive theories have criticized the bases for socialist and Marxist thought, including the “grand narrative” of economic determinism and the reduction of everything to economic and material relations. At the same time, Marxist analyses are important parts of other contemporary feminist philosophers' work. (See Dean 2009, Fraser 2009, Spivak 1988.) So while the categories of socialist and Marxist feminisms are less relevant today, many feminist philosophers still take seriously the need to attend to the material conditions of life and engage in the hermeneutics of suspicion that Marxist analysis calls for.

2.3 Difference Feminisms

A major set of fault lines in feminist thought since the 1990s is over the questions of the subject of “woman.” According to Mary Dietz's 2003 article laying out the field, there are two large groups here. One champions the category of woman (in the singular and universal), arguing that the specificity of women's identity, their sexual difference from men, should be appreciated and revalued. (The other is discussed in the next subsection.) This “difference feminism” includes two distinct groups: (i) those who look at how gendered sexual difference is socially constituted and (ii) those who look at how sexual difference is constructed symbolically and psychoanalytically. The first, social difference feminism, includes theories that revalue mothering and caring and has been developed largely in the Anglo-American context. (See for example Tronto 1993 and Held 1995.) The second, symbolic difference feminism, is that of what are often referred to as the French Feminists, including Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva. They belong in this group to the extent that they value and distinguish women's specific sexual difference from men's. Irigaray's focus on sexual difference is emblematic of this. Social-difference and symbolic-difference feminisms have very little to do with each other but, Dietz argues, they share the notion that a feminist politics requires a category woman that has a determinate meaning (Dietz 2003, 403; Nicholson 1994, 100).

Social Difference Feministm: The new generation of radical feminists briefly described above could be considered a part of social difference feminism, at least to the extent that these theorists take seriously the category of woman and want to develop an ethics and politics upon it. Another good example of social-difference feminism is care ethics, which was originally developed as an alternative to mainstream ethical theory, has been harnessed to counter liberal political theory (Gilligan 1982; Held 1995). (See the discussion in the entry on feminist ethics.) Drawing on feminist research in moral psychology (Gilligan 1982; Held 1995), this field explores the ways in which the virtues that society and mothering cultivate in women can provide an alternative to the traditional emphases in moral and political philosophy on universality, reason, and justice. Some care ethicists have sought to take the virtues that had long been relegated to the private realm, such as paying particular attention to those who are vulnerable or taking into consideration circumstances and not just abstract principles, and use them as well in the public realm. This approach has led to intense debates between liberals who advocated universal ideals of justice and care ethicists who advocated attention to the particular, to relationships, to care. By the 1990s, though, many care ethicists had revised their views. Rather than seeing care and justice as mutually exclusive alternatives, they began to recognize that attention to care should be accompanied by attention to fairness (justice) in order to attend to the plight of those with whom we have no immediate relation (Koggel 1998).

The care ethics approach raises the question of whether and, if so, how women-as-care-givers have distinct virtues. Feminists as a whole have long distanced themselves from ideas that women have any particular essence, choosing instead to see femininity and its accompanying virtues as social constructs, dispositions that result from culture and conditioning, certainly not biological givens. So for care ethicists to champion the virtues that have inculcated femininity seems also to champion a patriarchal system that relegates one gender to the role of caretaker. The care ethicists' answer to this problem has largely been to flip the hierarchy, to claim that the work of the household is more meaningful and sustaining than the work of the polis. But critics, such as Drucilla Cornell, Mary Dietz, and Chantal Mouffe, argue that such a revaluation keeps intact the dichotomy between the private and the public and the old association of women's work with childcare. (Butler and Scott 1992; Phillips and NetLibrary Inc 1998, pp. 386-389)

Symbolic Difference Feminism: Notable among the French Feminists for having a political philosophy is Luce Irigaray, who has written several books on the new rights that should be afforded to girls and women. Irigaray's early work (1985a and 1985b) made the case that in the history of philosophy women have been denied their own essence or identity. Rather they have been positioned as men's mirror negation. So that to be a man is to not be a woman, and hence that woman equals only not-man. Her strategy in response to this is to speak back from the margins to which women have been relegated and to claim some kind of “essence” for women, and along with that a set of rights that are specifically for girls and women (Irigaray 1994 and 1996). Criticisms of her views have been heated, including among feminists themselves, especially those who are wary of any kind of essentialist and biological conflation of women's identity. To the extent that Irigaray is an essentialist, her view would indeed be relegated to the approach outlined here as symbolic difference feminism, as Dietz 2003 does. But there are compelling arguments that Irigaray is wielding essentialism strategically or metaphorically, that she isn't claiming that women really do have some kind of irreducible essence that the history of metaphysics has denied them (Fuss 1989). This other reading would put Irigaray more in the performative group described below. The same kind of argument could be made for the work of Julia Kristeva, that her metaphors of the female chora, for example, are describing the western imaginary, not any kind of womanly reality. So whether French feminist thought should be grouped as difference feminism or performative feminism is still very much open to debate.

To the extent that the above two types of feminist theory are pinpointing some kind of specific difference between the sexes, difference feminisms have raised concerns about essentialism or identifying distinct values that women have as women. Such concerns are part of a larger set of criticisms that have run through feminist theorizing since the 1970s, with non-white, non-middle-class, and non-western women questioning the very category of “woman” and the notion that this title could be a boundary-spanning category that could unite women of various walks of life. (See the entries on identity politics and feminist perspectives on sex and gender.) Criticisms of a unitary identity of “woman” have been motivated by worries that much feminist theory has originated from the standpoint of a particular class of women who mistake their own particular standpoint for a universal one. In her 1981 book, Ain't I a Woman?: Black women and feminism, bell hooks notes that the feminist movement pretends to speak for all women but was made up of primarily white, middle class women who, because of their narrow perspective, did not represent the needs of poor women and women of color and ended up reinforcing class stereotypes (hooks 1981). What is so damning about this kind of critique is that it mirrors the one that feminists have leveled against mainstream political theorists who have taken the particular category of men to be a universal category of mankind, a schema that does not in fact include women under the category of mankind but marks them as other (Lloyd 1993).

2.4 Diversity Feminisms

Hence, one of the most vexing issues facing feminist theory in general and feminist political philosophy in particular is the matter of identity (see the entry on identity politics). Identity politics in general is a political practice of mobilizing for change on the basis of a political identity (women, black, chicana, etc.). The philosophical debate is whether such identities are based on some real difference or history of oppression, and also whether people should embrace identities that have historically been used to oppress them. Identity politics in feminist practice is fraught along at least two axes: whether there is any real essence or identity of woman in general and even if so whether the category of woman could be used to represent all women. People at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities (e.g, black women) have raised questions about which identity is foremost or whether either identity is apt. Such questions play out with the question of political representation—what aspects of identity are politically salient and truly representative, whether race, class, or gender (Phillips 1995; Young 1997, 2000). The ontological question of women's identity gets played out on the political stage when it comes to matters of political representation, group rights, and affirmative action. The 2008 U.S. Democratic Party primary battle between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton turned this philosophical question into a very real and heated one from black women throughout the United States. Was a black woman who supported Clinton a traitor to her race, or a black woman who supported Obama a traitor to her sex? Or did it make any sense to talk about identity in a way that would lead to charges of treason? Of the approaches discussed above, radical and maternal feminism seem particularly wedded to feminist identity politics.

The other large group of contemporary feminist philosophers that Dietz (2003) describes disagrees entirely with the idea that there is or needs to be a single and universal category of “woman.” Dietz refers to this group as diversity feminism, which began with what I described earlier: women of color and others pointing out that the presuppositions of mainstream feminism were based on their very particular race and class. In the 1980s and 1990s philosophy along with the rest of Western culture started grappling with demands for multicultural perspectives. Shortly thereafter postcolonial theory raised the need to become aware of multiple global perspectives. As Sharon Krause describes it, “this development involved the ‘world diversification’ of feminism to a more global, comparative, and differentiated body of work” (Krause 2011, 106). This diversification, Krause notes, is also due to new literature on intersectionality, that is, the ways in which the intersections of our multiple identities (race, gender, orientation, ethnicity, etc.) all need to be attended to in talking about political change (Krause 2011, 107). Intersectionality also links up with discussions of “hybridity” in postcolonial literature, of religion and globalization, and of the experiences of LGBTQ people. “The result is an explosion of knowledge about the lived experience of differently placed and multiply-positioned women” (Krause 2011, 107).

2.5 Performative Feminisms

If the diversity feminists, from multiculuturalists to postcolonial and intersectional thinkers, are right, then there is no reliable category of woman on which to base feminist politics. By the end of the 1990s some saw this as a radical danger of relativism, and the field seemed to be at an impasse. But then another approach began to emerge. As Mary Dietz writes in her 2003 essay on current controversies in feminist theory,

In recent years, political theorists have been engaged in debates about what it might mean to conceptualize a feminist political praxis that is aligned with democracy but does not begin from the binary of gender. Along these lines, Mouffe (1992, pp. 376, 378; 1993), for example, proposes a feminist conception of democratic citizenship that would render sexual difference “effectively nonpertinent.” Perhaps the salient feature of such conceptions is the turn toward plurality, which posits democratic society as a field of interaction where multiple axes of difference, identity, and subordination politicize and intersect (e.g., Phelan 1994, Young 1990, 1997b, 2000; Benhabib 1992; Honig 1992; Ferguson 1993; Phillips 1993, 1995; Mouffe 1993; Yeatman 1994, 1998; Bickford 1996; Dean 1996; Fraser 1997; Nash 1998; Heyes 2000; McAfee 2000). (Dietz 2003, 419)

Following up on what has happened in feminist political theory since Dietz's article, Sharon Krause writes that this work is “contesting the old assumption that agency equals autonomy” and makes room “within agency for forms of subjectivity and action that are nonsovereign but nevertheless potent” (Krause 2011, citing Allen 2007, Beltrán 2010, Butler 2004, Hirschman 2002, and Zerilli 2005.) “For some theorists,” Krause writes, “this shift involves thinking of agency and freedom in more collective ways, which emphasize solidarity, relationality, and constitutive intersubjectivity” (Krause 2011, 108, citing Butler 2004, Cornell 2007, Mohanty 2003, and Nedelsky 2005).

This constellation of thinkers could be working in what we could call performative political philosophy, performative in several senses: in theorizing how agency is constituted, how political judgments can be made in the absence of known rules (Honig 2009, 309), how new universals can be created and new communities constituted. Performative feminist politics doesn't worry about whether it is possible to come up with a single definition of “woman” or any other political identity; it sees identity as something that is performatively created. “How we assume these identitites,” Drucilla Cornell writes, “is never something ‘out there’ that effectively determines who we can be as men and women—gay, lesbian, straight, queer, transsexual, transgender, or otherwise” (Cornell 2003, 144). It is something that is shaped as we live and externalize identities. From a performative feminist perspective, feminism is a project of anticipating and creating better political futures in the absence of foundations. As Linda Zerilli writes, “politics is about making claims and judgments—and having the courage to do so—in the absence of the objective criteria or rules that could provide certain knowledge and the guarantee that speaking in women's name will be accepted or taken up by others” (Zerilli 2005, 179). Drawing largely on Arendt and Butler, Zerilli calls for a “freedom-centered feminism” that “would strive to bring about transformation in normative conceptions of gender without returning to the classical notion of freedom as sovereignty” that feminists have long criticized but found difficult to resist (ibid.).

In its feminist incarnations, this view also takes its cue from Judith Butler's performative account of gender as well as Hannah Arendt's observation that human rights are created politically, as well as other thinkers' ideas, to describe an anticipatory ideal of politics. Linda Zerilli describes this kind of feminist politics as “the contingently based public practice of soliciting the agreement of others to what each of us claims to be universal” (Zerilli 2005, p. 173). From a performatve perspective, normative political claims appeal to other people, not to supposed truths or foundations.

This view recuperates many of the ideals of the Enlightenment—such as freedom, autonomy, and justice—but in a way that drops the Enlightenment's metaphysical assumptions about reason, progress, and human nature. Instead of seeing these ideals as grounded in some metaphysical facts, this new view sees them as ideals that people hold and try to instantiate through practice and imagination. Where many ancient and modern ideals of politics were based on suppositions about the nature of reality or of human beings, contemporary political philosophies generally operate without supposing that there are any universal or eternal truths. Some might see this situation as ripe for nihilism, arbitrariness, or the exercise of brute power. The performative alternative is to imagine and try to create a better world by anticipating, claiming, and appealing to others that it should be so. Even if there is no metaphysical truth that human beings have dignity and infinite worth, people can act as if it were true in order to create a world in which it is seen to be so.

Peformative feminist political philosophy shares liberal feminism's appreciation for Enlightenment ideals but in a way that is skeptical about foundations. Just as Zerilli performatively reconstitutes the concept of freedom, Drucilla Cornell recuperates ideas of autonomy, dignity, and personhood, in a new performative capacity, as ideals that people aspire to rather than as moral facts waiting to be discovered, applied, or realized.

Despite the shared post-foundational theorizing among performative feminists, when it comes to thinking about democratic politics, there are sharp divergences, namely on the question of “what it means to actualize public spaces and enact democratic politics” (Dietz 2003, 419). On this questions, theorists tend to diverge into two groups: associational and agonistic. Associational theorists (e.g., Benhabib 1992, 1996; Benhabib and Cornell 1987; Fraser 1989; Young 1990, 1997, 2000) gravitate more toward deliberative democratic theory, while agonistic theorists (e.g., Mouffe 1992, 1993, 1999, 2000; Honig 1995; Ziarek 2001) worry that democratic theories that focus on consensus can silence debate and thus they focus more on plurality, dissensus, and the ceaseless contestation within politics.

The differences spring from, or perhaps lead to, different readings of the philosopher who has most inspired performative political theory: Hannah Arendt, namely Arendt's ideas of speech and action in the public sphere, of the meaning of plurality, of the ways in which human beings can distinguish themselves. As Bonnie Honig, a champion of the agonistic model writes,

Political theorists and feminists, in particular, have long criticized Arendt for the agonistic dimensions of her politics, charging that agonism is a masculinist, heroic, violent, competitive, (merely) aesthetic, or necessarily individualistic practice. For these theorists, the notion of an agonistic feminism would be, at best, a contradiction in terms and, at worst, a muddled and, perhaps, dangerous idea. Their perspective is effectively endorsed by Seyla Benhabib who, in a recent series of powerful essays, tries to rescue Arendt for feminism by excising agonism from her thought. (Honig 1995, 156)

Associational theorists tends to look for ways, amidst all the differences and questions about the lack of foundations, it is possible to come to agreement on matters of common concern. This is seen in feminist democratic theory, perhaps best known through the works of Seyla Benhabib (Benhabib 1992, 1996), greatly inspired by her non-agonistic reading of Arendt and of the work of the German critical theorist, Jürgen Habermas. Benhabib's work engages democratic theorists quite broadly, not just feminist theorists. This passage of hers helps to clarify what she takes to be the best aim of a political philosophy: a state of affairs to which all affected would assent. As she writes,

Only those norms (i.e., general rules of action and institutional arrangements) can be said to be valid (i.e., morally binding), which would be agreed to by all those affected by their consequences, if such agreement were reached as a consequence of a process of deliberation that had the following features: 1) participation in such deliberation is governed by norms of equality and symmetry; all have the same chances to initiate speech acts, to question, to interrogate, and to open debate; 2) all have the right to question the assigned topics of conversation; and 3) all have the right to initiate reflexive arguments about the very rules of the discourse procedure and the way in which they are applied or carried out. (Benhabib 1996, 70)

Following Habermas, Benhabib contends that certain conditions need to be in place in order for members of a political community to arrive at democratic outcomes, namely the proceedings need to be deliberative. Some take deliberation to be a matter of reasoned argumentation; others see it as less about reason or argumentation but more about an open process of working through choices. (McAfee 2004.)

Not all theorists who tend toward the associational model embrace deliberative theory so readily. Iris Young's pioneering book, Justice and the Politics of Difference and several of her subsequent works have been very influential and have led to a good deal of hesitance in feminist theoretical communities about the claims of deliberative theory. Where Benhabib is confident that conditions can be such that all who are affected can have a voice in deliberations, Young points out that those who have been historically silenced have a difficult time having their views heard or heeded. Young is skeptical of the claims of mainstream democratic theory that democratic deliberative processes could lead to outcomes that would be acceptable to all (Young 1990, 1997). Young, along with Nancy Fraser (Fraser 1989) and others, worried that in the process of trying to reach consensus, the untrained voices of women and others who have been marginalized would be left out of the final tally. Young's criticisms were very persuasive, leading a generation of feminist political philosophers to be wary of deliberative democratic theory. Instead of deliberative democracy, in the mid 1990s Young proposed a theory of communicative democracy, hoping to make way for a deliberative conception that was open to means of expression beyond the rational expression of mainstream deliberative democratic theory. Young worried that deliberation as defined by Habermas is too reason-based and leaves out forms of communication that women and people of color tend to use, such as greeting, rhetoric, and storytelling. Young argued that these alternative modes of communication, modes that women and people of color and other marginalized people tended to use, could provide the basis of a more democratic, communicative theory. In her last major book, Inclusion and Democracy (Young 2000), Young had clearly moved to embrace deliberative theory itself, seeing the ways in which it could be constructed to give voice to those who had been otherwise marginalized. More recent feminist democratic theory has engaged deliberative theory more positively. (See McAfee and Snyder 2007.)

Where liberal feminists inspired by John Rawls and democratic feminists inspired by Jürgen Habermas and/or John Dewey hold out the hope that democratic deliberations might lead to democratic agreements, agonistic feminists are wary of consensus as inherently undemocratic. Agonistic feminist political philosophy comes out of poststructural continental feminist and philosophical traditions. It takes from Marxism the hope for a more radically egalitarian society. It takes from contemporary continental philosophy notions of subjectivity and solidarity as malleable and constructed. Along with postmodern thought, it repudiates any notion of pre-existing moral or political truths or foundations (Ziarek 2001). Its central claim is that feminist struggle, like other struggles for social justice, is engaged in politics as ceaseless contestation. Agonistic views see the nature of politics as inherently conflictual, with battles over power and hegemony being the central tasks of democratic struggle. Advocates of agonistic politics worry that the kind of consensus sought by democratic theorists (discussed above) will lead to some kind of oppression or injustice by silencing new struggles. As Chantal Mouffe puts it, “We have to accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power, and that it always entails some form of exclusion” (Mouffe 2000, 104).

Where associational theorists seek out ways that people can overcome systematically distorted communication and deliberation, Dietz notes that agonists eschew this project because they understand politics as “essentially a practice of creation, reproduction, transformation and articulation.... Simply put, associational feminists scrutinize the conditions of exclusion in order to theorize the emancipation of the subject in the public sphere of communicative interaction; agonistic feminists deconstruct emancipatory procedures to disclose how the subject is both produced through political exclusions and positioned against them” (Dietz 2003, 422).

New work in democratic theory and new readings of Arendt's philosophy offer hope of moving beyond the associational/agonistic divide in performative feminist politics (Barker et al. 2012). Benhabib's proceduralism is being surpassed with more affect-laden accounts of deliberation (Krause 2008). Instead of the rational back-and-forth of reasoned argumentation, theorists are beginning to see deliberative talk as forms of constituting the subject, judging without pre-conceived truths, and performatively creating new political projects.

In sum, feminist political philosophy is a still evolving field of thought that has much to offer mainstream political philosophy. In the past two decades it has come to exert a stronger influence over mainstream political theorizing, raising objections that mainstream philosophers have had to address, though not always very convincingly. And in its newest developments it promises to go even further.


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For their helpful advice for this entry, I wish to thank Mary G. Dietz, Ann Garry, Bonnie Honig, Eva Kittay, Carole Pateman, R. Claire Snyder-Hall, Shay Welch, and Ewa Ziarek.

1. Marxism, Work, and Human Nature

Marxism as a philosophy of human nature stresses the centrality of work in the creation of human nature itself and human self-understanding (see the entry on Marxism). Both the changing historical relations between human work and nature, and the relations of humans to each other in the production and distribution of goods to meet material needs construct human nature differently in different historical periods: nomadic humans are different than agrarian or industrial humans. Marxism as a philosophy of history and social change highlights the social relations of work in different economic modes of production in its analysis of social inequalities and exploitation, including relations of domination such as racism and sexism. (Marx 1844, 1950, 1906–9; Marx and Engels 1848, 1850; Engels 1942). Within capitalism, the system they most analyzed, the logic of profit drives the bourgeois class into developing the productive forces of land, labor and capital by expanding markets, turning land into a commodity and forcing the working classes from feudal and independent agrarian production into wage labor. Marx and Engels argue that turning all labor into a commodity to be bought and sold not only alienates workers by taking the power of production away from them, it also collectivizes workers into factories and mass assembly lines. This provides the opportunity for workers to unite against the capitalists and to demand the collectivization of property, i.e., socialism, or communism.

According to Engels’s famous analysis of women’s situation in the history of different economic modes production in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1942), women are originally equal to, if not more powerful than, men in communal forms of production with matrilineal family organizations. Women lose power when private property comes into existence as a mode of production. Men’s control of private property, and the ability thereby to generate a surplus, changes the family form to a patriarchal one where women, and often slaves, [1] become the property of the father and husband.

The rise of capitalism, in separating the family household from commodity production, further solidifies this control of men over women in the family when the latter become economic dependents of the former in the male breadwinner-female housewife nuclear family form. Importantly, capitalism also creates the possibility of women’s liberation from family-based patriarchy by creating possibilities for women to work in wage labor and become economically independent of husbands and fathers. Engels stresses, however, that because of the problem of unpaid housework, a private task allocated to women in the sexual division of labor of capitalism, full women’s liberation can only be achieved with the development of socialism and the socialization of housework and childrearing in social services provided by the state. For this reason, most contemporary Marxists have argued that women’s liberation requires feminists to join the working class struggle against capitalism (Cliff 1984).

2. Marxist-Feminist Analyses

Many Marxist-feminists thinkers, prominent among them sociologists and anthropologists, have done cross-cultural and historical studies of earlier forms of kinship and economy and the role of the sexual or gender division of labor in supporting or undermining women’s social power (cf. Reed 1973, Leacock 1972, Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974). They have also attempted to assess the world economic development of capitalism as a contradictory force for the liberation of women (Federici 2004; Mies 1986; Saffioti 1978) and to argue that universal women’s liberation requires attention to the worse off: poor women workers in poor post-colonial countries (Sen & Grown 1987). Other feminist anthropologists have argued that other variables in addition to women’s role in production are key to understanding women’s social status and power (Sanday 1981; Leghorn and Parker 1981). Yet other feminist economic historians have done historical studies of the ways that race, class and ethnicity have situated women differently in relation to production, for example in the history of the United States (Davis 1983; Amott and Matthaei 1991). Finally some Marxist-feminists have argued that women’s work in biological and social reproduction is a necessary element of all modes of production and one often ignored by Marxist economists (Benston 1969; Hennessy 2003; Vogel 1995).

3. First Wave Feminist Analyses of Women and Work

Those feminist analyses which have highlighted the role of women’s work in the social construction of gender and the perpetuation of male dominance have been termed liberal, radical, Marxist, and socialist feminism by such influential categorizers as Jaggar and Rothenberg [Struhl] (1978), Tong (2000), Barrett (1980), Jaggar (1983) and Walby (1990)[2]. However, the pigeonhole categories of liberal, radical, Marxist, or socialist categories apply poorly to both to first wave women’s movement feminist predecessors and contemporary deconstructionist, post-structuralist and post-colonialist perspectives.

A number of first wave feminists write about work and class as key issues for women’s liberation, such as socialist-feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, heavily influenced by Darwinism and 19th century utopian modernism (Gilman 1898, 1910, 1979), anarchist Emma Goldman (1969), and existentialist, radical feminist and Marxist of sorts Simone de Beauvoir (1952). This is because the debates that arose around the place of the women’s movement in class politics were different in the early and mid-twentieth century than they were in the 1960s when many feminist theorists were trying to define themselves independently of the left anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements of the time.

The debate about the economic and social function of housework and its relation to women’s oppression is an old one that has been a feature of both the first and second wave women’s movements in the US, Britain and Europe. In both eras, the underlying issue is how to handle the public/private split of capitalist societies in which women’s reproductive functions have either limited their work to the home or created a “second shift” problem of unpaid housework and childcare as well as waged work. In the first wave, located as it was in the Victorian period where the dominant ideology for middle and upper class women was purity, piety and domesticity (also called the “cult of true womanhood”), the debate centered on whether to keep housework in the private sphere yet make it more scientific and efficient (Beecher 1841; Richards 1915 ), or whether to “socialize” it by bringing it into the public sphere, as socialist Charlotte Perkins Gilman advocated (1898).

In the US, the “public housekeeping” aspect of the Progressive movement of the 1890s through early 1900s advocated that women bring the positive values associated with motherhood into the public sphere — by obtaining the vote, cleaning out corruption in politics, creating settlement houses to educate and support immigrants, and forming the women’s peace movement, etc. (cf. Jane Addams 1914). Disagreements about whether to downplay or valorize the distinctive function and skills in motherhood as work for which women are naturally superior, or to see motherhood as restricting women’s chances for economic independence and equality with men in the public sphere, were also evident in debates between Ellen Keys (1909, 1914) and Gilman. Keys represented the difference side, that women are superior humans because of mothering; while Gilman and Goldman took the equality side of the debate, that is, that, women are restricted, and made socially unequal to men, by unpaid housework and mothering[3].

4. Second Wave Feminist Analyses of Housework

In the second wave movement, theorists can be grouped by their theory of how housework oppresses women. Typically, liberal feminists critique housework because it is unpaid. This makes women dependent on men and devalued, since their work is outside the meaningful sphere of public economic production (Friedan 1963). Marxist feminist theorists see this as part of the problem, but some go further to maintain that housework is part of a household feudal mode of production of goods for use that persists under capitalism and gives men feudal powers over women’s work (Benston 1969, Fox 1980). Other Marxist feminists argue that women’s housework is part of the social reproduction of capitalism (Federici 1975, 2004; Malos 1975; Vogel 1995). That the necessary work of reproducing the working class is unpaid allows more profits to capitalists. It is the sexual division of labor in productive and reproductive work that makes woman unequal to men and allows capitalists to exploit women’s unpaid labor. Some even make this analysis the basis for a demand for wages for housework (Dalla Costa 1974; Federici 1975). More recently, Federici has done an analysis of the transition to capitalism in Europe. She argues that it was the emerging capitalist class need to control working class reproduction, to eliminate working class women’s control over biological reproduction, and to assure their unpaid reproductive work in the home by restricting abortions, that fueled the campaign against witches during this period (Federici 2004).

One of the philosophical problems raised by the housework debate is how to draw the line between work and play or leisure activity when the activity is not paid: is a mother playing with her baby working or engaged in play? If the former, then her hours in such activity may be compared with those of her husband or partner to see if there is an exploitation relation present, for example, if his total hours of productive and reproductive work for the family are less than hers (cf. Delphy 1984). But to the extent that childrearing counts as leisure activity, as play, as activity held to be intrinsically valuable (Ferguson 2004), no exploitation is involved. Perhaps childrearing and other caring activity is both work and play, but only that portion which is necessary for the psychological growth of the child and the worker(s) counts as work. If so, who determines when that line is crossed? Since non-market activity does not have a clear criterion to distinguish work from non-work, nor necessary from non-necessary social labor, an arbitrary element seems to creep in that makes standards of fairness difficult to apply to gendered household bargains between men and women dividing up waged and non-waged work. (Barrett 1980).

One solution to this problem is simply to take all household activity that could also be done by waged labor (nannies, domestic servants, gardeners, chauffeurs, etc.) as work and to figure its comparable worth by the waged labor necessary to replace it (Folbre 1982, 1983). Another is to reject altogether the attempts to base women’s oppression on social relations of work, on the grounds that such theories are overly generalizing and ignore the discrete meanings that kinship activities have for women in different contexts (Nicholson 1991; Fraser and Nicholson 1991; Marchand 1995). Or, one can argue that although the line between work and leisure changes historically, those doing the activity should have the decisive say as to whether their activity counts as work, i.e., labor necessary to promote human welfare. The existence of second wave women’s movements critiques of the “second shift” of unpaid household activity indicates that a growing number of women see most of it as work, not play (cf. Hochchild 1989). Finally, one can argue that since the human care involved in taking care of children and elders creates a public good, it should clearly be characterized as work, and those who are caretakers, primarily women, should be fairly compensated for it by society or the state (Ferguson and Folbre 2000: Folbre 2000, Ferguson 2004).

5. The Public/Private Split and Its Implications

Liberal, Marxist and radical feminists have all characterized women as doubly alienated in capitalism because of the public/private split that relegates their work as mothers and houseworkers to the home, and psychologically denies them full personhood, citizenship and human rights (Foreman 1974, Okin 1989, Pateman 1988, Goldman 1969). Noting that women workers on average only have about 70% of the average salary of men in the contemporary U.S., feminists have claimed this is because women’s work, tied stereotypically to housework and hence thought unskilled is undervalued, whether it is cleaning or rote service work, or nurturing work thought to be connected to natural maternal motivations and aptitudes. Hence some feminists have organized in campaigns for “comparable worth” to raise women’s wages to the same as men’s wages involving comparable skills (Brenner 2000; cf. also articles in Hansen and Philipson eds. 1990).

Many radical feminists maintain that women’s work is part of a separate patriarchal mode of reproduction that underlies all economic systems of production and in which men exploit women’s reproductive labor (Delphy 1984; O’Brien 1981; Leghorn and Parker 1981; Rich 1980; Mies 1986). Smith (1974), O’Brien (1981), Hartsock (1983 a,b), Haraway (1985) and Harding (1986) pioneered in combining this radical feminist assumption with a perspectival Marxist theory of knowledge to argue that one’s relation to the work of production and reproduction gave each gender and each social class a different way of knowing the social totality. Women’s work, they argued, ties them to nature and human needs in a different way than men’s work does, which creates the possibility of a less alienated and more comprehensive understanding of the workings of the social totality. Patricia Hill Collins argues further that the racial division of labor, institutional racism and different family structures put African American women in yet a different epistemic relation to society than white and other women (1990, 2000). Writing in a post-modernist re-articulation of this feminist standpoint theory, Donna Haraway argues that the breakdown of the nature/culture distinction because of scientific technology and its alteration of the human body makes us into “cyborgs”. Hence our perspectives are so intersectional that they cannot be unified simply by a common relation to work. What is required for a feminist politics is not a situated identity politics, whether of gender and/or race and/or class, but an affinity politics based on alliances and coalitions that combine epistemic perspectives (Haraway 1985).

Like these radical feminists, some socialist-feminists have tried to develop a “dual systems” theory (cf. Young 1981). This involves theorizing a separate system of work relations that organizes and directs human sexuality, nurturance, affection and biological reproduction. Rather than seeing this as an unchanging universal base for patriarchy, however, they have argued that this system, thought of as the “sex/gender system” (Rubin 1975; Hartmann 1978, 1981a,b), or as “sex/affective production” (Ferguson 1989, 1991; Ferguson and Folbre 1981) has different historical modes, just as Marx argued that economies do. Rubin argues that sex/gender systems have been based in different kinship arrangements, most of which have supported the exchange of women by men in marriage, and hence have supported male domination and compulsory heterosexuality. She is hopeful that since capitalism shifted the organization of the economy from kinship to commodity production, the power of fathers and husbands over daughters and wives, and the ability to enforce heterosexuality, will continue to decline, and women’s increasing ability to be economically independent will lead to women’s liberation and equality with men.

With a different historical twist, Hartmann argues that a historical bargain was cemented between capitalist and working class male patriarchs to shore up patriarchal privileges that were being weakened by the entrance of women into wage labor in the 19th century by the creation of the “family wage” to allow men sufficient wages to support a non-wage-earning wife and children at home (1981a). While Ferguson and Folbre (1981) agree that there is no inevitable fit between capitalism and patriarchy, they argue that there are conflicts, and that the family wage bargain has broken down at present. Indeed, both Ferguson and Smart (1984) argue that welfare state capitalism and the persistent sexual division of wage labor in which work coded as women’s is paid less than men’s with less job security are ways that a “public patriarchy” has replaced different systems of family patriarchy that were operating in early and pre-capitalist societies. Walby (1990) has a similar analysis, but to her the connection between forms of capitalism and forms of patriarchy is more functional and less accidental than it appears to Ferguson and Smart.

Walby argues that there are two different basic forms of patriarchy which emerge in response to the tensions between capitalist economies and patriarchal household economies: private and public patriarchy. Private patriarchy as a form is marked by excluding women from economic and political power while public patriarchy works by segregating women. There is a semi-automatic re-adjustment of the dual systems when the older private father patriarchy based on the patriarchal family is broken down due to the pressures of early industrial capitalism. The family wage and women’s second class citizenship that marked that initial re-adjustment are then functionally replaced by a public form of patriarchy, the patriarchal welfare state, where women enter the wage labor force permanently but in segregated less well paid jobs. But Ferguson (1989,1991), Smart (1984) and Folbre (1994) suggest that although the patriarchal control of fathers and husbands over wife and children as economic assets has been diminished in advanced capitalism, there is always a dialectical and contradictory tension between patriarchy and capitalism in which both advances and retreats for women’s equality as citizens and in work relations are constantly occurring in the new form of public patriarchy. Thus, the new “marriage” of patriarchal capitalism operates to relegate women to unpaid or lesser paid caring labor, whether in the household or in wage labor, thus keeping women by and large unequal to men. This is especially notable in the rise of poor single-mother-headed families. However, as it forces more and more women into wage labor, women are given opportunities for some independence from men and the possibility to challenge male dominance and sex segregation in all spheres of social life. Examples are the rise of the first and second wave women’s movements and consequent gains in civil rights for women.

The work of feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith (1989) has been a notable intervention into the public-private split by bringing into view the institutions and power regimes that regulate the everyday world, their gender subtext, and basis in a gendered division of labor. Legal feminist critics expand on the biopolitics of the patriarchal welfare state, which psychiatrizes as it threatens mothers with the loss of child custody. This represents a new eugenics twist on the enduring mistrust of working-class mothers and casting those who are imprisoned as undeserving parent (Guggenheim 2007; Law 2012). African American mothers bear the brunt of punitive and racist family and criminal law (Thompson 2010; Solinger et al. 2010).

6. Psychological Theories of Women and Work

The socialist-feminist idea that there are two interlocking systems that structure gender and the economy, and thus are jointly responsible for male domination, has been developed in a psychological direction by the psychoanalytic school of feminist theorists. Particularly relevant to the question of women and work are the theories of Mitchell (1972, 1974), Kuhn and Wolpe (1978), Chodorow (1978, 1979, 1982) and Ruddick (1989). Mothering, or, taking care of babies and small children, as a type of work done overwhelmingly by women, socializes women and men to have different identities, personalities and skills. In her first work (1972), Mitchell argues that women’s different relations to productive work, reproduction, socialization of children and sexuality in patriarchy give her lesser economic and psychological power in relation to men. In a Freudian vein, Mitchell later argues (1974) that women learn that they are not full symbolic subjects because compulsory heterosexuality and the incest taboo bar them from meeting either the desire of their mother or any other woman. Chodorow, also reading Freud from a feminist perspective, suggests that women’s predominance in mothering work is the basis for the learned gender distinction between women and men. The sexual division of infant care gives boys, who must learn their masculine identity by separating from their mother and the feminine, a motive for deprecating, as well as dominating, women. Ruddick from a more Aristotelian perspective suggests that it is the skills and virtues required in the practice of mothering work which not only socially construct feminine gender differently from men’s, but could ground an alternative vision for peace and resolving human conflicts, if a peace movement were led by women.

Ferguson argues that the “sex/affective” work of mothering and wifely nurturing is exploitative of women: women give more nurturance and satisfaction (including sexual satisfaction) to men and children than they receive, and do much more of the work of providing these important human goods (cf. also Bartky 1990). The gendered division of labor has both economic and psychological consequences, since women’s caring labor creates women less capable of or motivated to separate from others, and hence less likely to protest such gender exploitation (Ferguson 1989, 1991). Folbre argues by contrast that it is only because women’s bargaining power is less than men’s because of the power relations involved in the gender division of labor and property that women acquiesce to such inequalities (Folbre 1982). Ferguson argues that gendered exploitation in a system of meeting human needs suggests that women can be seen as a “sex class” (or gender class) which cuts across economic class lines (1979, 1989, 1991). This line of thought is also developed by Christine Delphy (1984), Monique Wittig (1980) and Luce Irigaray (1975).

On the other side of the debate, Brenner (2000) argues that women are not uniformly exploited by men across economic class lines: indeed, for working class women their unpaid work as housewives serves the working class as a whole, because the whole class benefits when its daily and future reproduction needs are met by women’s nurturing and childcare work. They argue further that middle and upper class women’s economic privileges will inevitably lead them to betray working class women in any cross-class alliance that is not explicitly anti-capitalist. Hochschild (2000) and hooks (2000) point out that career women tend to pay working class women to do the second shift work in the home so they can avoid that extra work, and they have an interest in keeping such wages, e.g., for house cleaning and nannies, as low as possible to keep the surplus for themselves. Kollias (1981) argues further that working class women are in a stronger political position to work effectively for women’s liberation than middle class women, while McKenny (1981) argues that professional women have to overcome myths of professionalism that keep them feeling superior to working class women and hence unable to learn from or work with them for social change.

7. Ethical Theories of Women’s Caring Work

Several authors have explored the ethical implications of the sexual division of labor in which it is primarily women who do caring labor. Nancy Fraser (1997) and Susan Moller Okin (1989) formulate ethical arguments to maintain that a just model of society would have to re-structure work relations so that the unpaid and underpaid caring labor now done primarily by women would be given a status equivalent to (other) wage labor by various means. In her council socialist vision, Ferguson (1989, 1991) argues that an ideal society would require both women and men to do the hitherto private unpaid work of caring or “sex/affective labor.” For example, such work would be shared by men, either in the family and/or provided by the state where appropriate (as for elders and children’s childcare), and compensated fairly by family allowances (for those, women or men, doing the major share of housework), and by higher pay for caring wage work (such as daycare workers, nurses, and teachers).

Carol Gilligan (1982) claims that women and girls tend to use a different form of ethical reasoning — she terms this the “ethics of care” — than men and boys who use an ethics of justice. Some have argued that this different ethical approach is due to women’s caring sensibilities that have been developed by the sexual division of labor (Ruddick 1989). Interestingly, the debate between feminist theorists of justice, e.g., Fraser and Okin, and ethics of care feminists such as Gilligan and Ruddick, is less about substance than a meta-ethical disbute as to whether ethics should concern principles or judgments in particular cases. All of these theorists seem to have ideal visions of society which dovetail: all would support the elimination of the sexual division of labor so that both men and women could become equally sensitized to particular others through caring work.

8. Modernist vs. Postmodernist Feminist Theory

Useful anthologies of the first stage of second wave socialist feminist writings which include discussions of women, class and work from psychological as well as sociological and economic perspectives are Eisenstein (1979), Hansen and Philipson (1990), Hennessy and Ingraham (1997), and Holmstrom (2002). Jaggar (1983) wrote perhaps the first philosophy text explaining the categories of liberal, radical, Marxist and socialist-feminist thought and defending a socialist-feminist theory of male domination based on the notion of women’s alienated labor. Others such as Jaggar and Rothenberg (1978), Tuana and Tong (1995) and Herrmann and Stewart (1993) include classic socialist feminist analyses in their collections, inviting comparisons of the authors to others grouped under the categories of liberal, radical, psychoanalytic, Marxist, postmodern, postcolonial and multicultural feminisms.

Various post-modern critiques of these earlier feminist schools of thought such as post-colonialism as well as deconstruction and post-structuralism challenge the over-generalizations and economic reductionism of many of those constructing feminist theories that fall under the early categories of liberal, radical, Marxist or socialist feminism (cf. Grewal and Kaplan 1992; Kaplan et al. 1999; Nicholson 1991; Fraser and Nicholson 1991; hooks 1984, 2000; Anzaldúa and Moraga 1981; Sandoval 2000). Others argue that part of the problem is the master narratives of liberalism or Marxism, the first of which sees all domination relations due to traditional hierarchies and undermined by capitalism, thus ignoring the independent effectivity of racism (Josephs 1981); and the second of which ties all domination relations to the structure of contemporary capitalism and ignores the non-capitalist economics contexts in which many women work, even within so-called capitalist economies, such as housework and voluntary community work (Gibson-Graham 1996).

In spite of the “pomo” critiques, there are some powerful thinkers within this tendency who have not completely rejected a more general starting point of analysis based on women, class and work. For example, Spivak (1988), Mohanty (1997), Carby (1997), and Hennessy (1993, 2000) are creating and re-articulating forms of Marxist and socialist-feminism less susceptible to charges of over-generalization and reductionism, and more compatible with close contextual analysis of the power relations of gender and class as they relate to work. They can be grouped loosely with a tendency called materialist feminism that incorporates some of the methods of deconstruction and post-structuralism (Hennessy 1993; Landry and MacLean 1993).

9. Race, Class, and Intersectional Feminist Analyses

Many in the contemporary feminist theory debate are interested in developing concrete “intersectional” or “integrative feminist” analyses of particular issues which try to give equal weight to gender, race, class and sexuality in a global context without defining themselves by the categories, such as liberal, radical or materialist, of the earlier feminist debate categories (cf. work by Davis 1983; Brewer 1995; Crenshaw 1997; Stanlie and James 1997; Anzaldúa 1999; hooks 1984, 2000). Nonetheless strong emphasis on issues of race and ethnicity can be found in their work on women, class and work. For example, Brewer shows that white and African-American working class women are divided by race in the workforce, and that even changes in the occupational structure historically tend to maintain this racial division of labor. Hooks argues that women of color and some radical feminists were more sensitive to class and race issues than those, primarily white, feminists whom she labels “reformist feminists” (hooks 2000).

Presupposed in the general theoretical debates concerning the relations between gender, social and economic class, and work are usually definitions of each of these categories that some thinkers would argue are problematic. For example, Tokarczyk and Fay have an excellent anthology on working class women in the academy (1993) in which various contributors discuss the ambiguous positions in which they find themselves by coming from poor family backgrounds and becoming academics. One problem is whether they are still members of the working class in so doing, and if not, whether they are betraying their families of origin by a rise to middle class status. Another is, whether they have the same status in the academy, as workers, thinkers and women, as those men or women whose families of origin were middle class or above. Rita Mae Brown wrote an early article on this, arguing that education and academic status did not automatically change a working class woman’s identity, which is based not just on one’s relation to production, but one’s behavior, basic assumptions about life, and experiences in childhood (Brown 1974). Joanna Kadi (1999) describes herself as cultural worker who tackles elitism in the white academy, including in women’s studies courses. Tokarczyk and Fay acknowledge that the definition of “class” is vague in the U.S. Rather than provide a standard philosophical definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the working class, they provide a cluster of characteristics and examples of jobs, such as physically demanding, repetitive and dangerous jobs, jobs that lack autonomy and are generally paid badly. Examples of working class jobs they give are cleaning women, waitresses, lumberjacks, janitors and police officers. They then define their term “working class women academics” to include women whose parents had jobs such as these and are in the first generation in their family to attend college (Tokarczyk and Fay, 5). They challenge those that would argue that family origin can be overcome by the present position one has in the social division of labor: simply performing a professional job and earning a salary does not eradicate the class identity formed in one’s “family class” (cf. Ferguson 1979).

More recent work in socio-legal studies also has begun to question the limits of intersectional analysis (Grabham et al. 2009). It acknowledges the importance of intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to shed light on epistemic injustice done to Black women in anti-discrimination law. Yet, despite its merit for overcoming the dual system’s theoretical impasse, Joanna Conaghan also critiques the essentializing tendencies of intersectional analysis which succeeds mainly dealing with race and gender oppression at an individual level, but it has little to offer to remedy structural injustice. Furthermore, because such method is identity-focused it will not get at the dimension of class which has been traditionally thought in relational not locational terms (2008, 29–30).

To theorize the problematic relation of women to social class, Ferguson (1979, 1989, 1991) argues that there are at least three different variables — an individual’s work, family of origin, and present household economic unit — which relate an individual to a specific socio-economic class. For example, a woman may work on two levels: as a day care worker (working class), but also as a member of a household where she does the housework and mothering/child care, while her husband is a wealthy contractor (petit bourgeois, small capitalist class). If in addition her family of origin is professional middle class (because, say, her parents were college educated academics), the woman may be seen and see herself as either working class or middle class, depending on whether she and others emphasize her present relations of wage work (her individual economic class, which in this case is working class), her household income (middle class) or her family of origin (middle class).

Sylvia Walby deals with this ambiguity of economic class as applying to women as unpaid houseworkers by claiming against Delphy (1984) that the relevant economic sex classes are those who are housewives vs. those who are husbands benefiting from such work, not those of all women and men, whether or not they do or receive housework services (Walby 1990). Ferguson, however, sides with Delphy in putting all women into “sex class”, since all women, since trained into the gender roles of patriarchal wife and motherhood, are potentially those whose unpaid housework can be so exploited. But seeing herself as a member of a fourth class category, “sex class,” and hence, in a patriarchal capitalist system, seeing herself exploited as a woman worker in her wage work and unpaid second shift housework, [4] is thus not a given but an achieved social identity. Such an identity is usually formed through political organizing and coalitions with other women at her place of employment, in her home and her community. In this sense the concept of sex class is exactly analogous to the concept of a feminist epistemological standpoint: not a given identity or perspective, but one that is achievable under the right conditions.

Realizing the importance of this disjuncture between economic class and sex class for women, Maxine Molyneux (1984) argues in a often cited article that there are no “women’s interests” in the abstract that can unify women in political struggle. Instead, she theorizes that women have both “practical gender interests” and “strategic gender interests.” Practical gender interests are those that women develop because of the sexual division of labor, which makes them responsible for the nurturant work of sustaining the physical and psychological well-being of children, partners and relatives through caring labor. Such practical gender interests, because they tie a woman’s conception of her own interests as a woman to those of her family, support women’s popular movements for food, water, child and health care, even defense against state violence, which ally them with the economic class interests of their family. Strategic gender interests, on the contrary, may ally women across otherwise divided economic class interests, since they are those, like rights against physical male violence and reproductive rights, which women have as a sex class to eliminate male domination.

Molyneux used her distinctions between practical and strategic gender interests to distinguish between the popular women’s movement in Nicaragua based on demands for economic justice for workers and farmers against the owning classes, demands such as education, health and maternity care, clean water, food and housing, and the feminist movement which emphasized the fight for legal abortion, fathers’ obligation to pay child support to single mothers, and rights against rape and domestic violence. She and others have used this distinction between practical and strategic gender interests to characterize the tension between popular women’s movements and feminist movements in Latin America (Molyneux 2001; Alvarez 1998; Foweraker 1998).

A similar distinction between different types of women’s interests was developed further as a critique of interest group paradigms of politics by Anna Jónasdóttir (1988, 1994). Jónasdóttir argues that women have a common formal interest in votes for women, women’s political caucuses, gender parity demands, and other mechanisms which allow women a way to develop a collective political voice, even though their content interests, that is, their specific needs and priorities, may vary by race and economic class, among others. Her distinctions, and those of Molyneux, have been changed slightly — practical vs. strategic gender needs, rather than interests — to compare and contrast different paradigms of economic development by World Bank feminist theorist Carolyn Moser (1993). Most recently the Jónasdóttir distinctions have been used by Mohanty (1997) to defend and maintain, in spite of postmodernists’ emphasis on intersectional differences, that commonalities in women’s gendered work can create a cross-class base for demanding a collective political voice for women: a transnational feminism which creates a demand for women’s political representation, developing the platform of women’s human rights as women and as workers. Nonetheless, the tension between women’s economic class-based interests or needs and their visionary/strategic gender interests or needs is still always present, and must therefore always be negotiated concretely by popular movements for social justice involving women’s issues.

Another approach to the problematic nature of socio-economic class as it relates to women are empirical studies which show how class distinctions are still important for women in their daily lives as a way to compare and contrast themselves with other women and men, even if they do not use the concepts of “working class,” “professional class” or “capitalist class”. Many have pointed out that the concept of class itself is mystified in the U.S. context, but that nonetheless class distinctions still operate because of different structural economic constraints, which act on some differently from others. The Ehrenreichs (1979), in a classic article, argue that this mystification is due to the emergence of a professional-managerial class that has some interests in common with the capitalist class and some with the working class. Whatever its causes, there are empirical studies which show that class distinctions still operate between women, albeit in an indirect way. Barbara Ehrenreich (2001), by adopting the material life conditions of a poor woman, did an empirical study of the lives of women working for minimum wages and found their issues to be quite different from and ignored by middle and upper-class women. Diane Reay (2004) does an empirical study of women from manual labor family backgrounds and their relation to the schooling of their children, and discovers that they use a discourse that acknowledges class differences of educational access and career possibilities, even though it does not specifically define these by class per se. Similarly, Julie Bettie (2000) does an impressive discourse analysis of the way that Latina high school students create their own class distinctions through concepts such as “chicas,” “cholas” and “trash” to refer to themselves and their peers. These categories pick out girls as having middle class, working class or poor aspirations by performance indicators such as dress, speech, territorial hang-outs and school achievement, while never mentioning “class” by name. Women’s experiences of growing up working class are presented in the anthology edited by Tea (2003).

10. Anarchist Perspectives on Work and its Other

So far, it has been assumed that work is an intrinsic good.

What if waged or unwaged work itself were to be considered problematic or oppressive? Autonomous Marxists contest that liberal or socialist feminist perspectives have unnecessarily mystified work and have operated with a moralism. Autonomists are associated with the Operaismo, post-Operaismo and Autonomia movements, the Midnight Notes Collective, Zerowork, Lotta Feminista, and the Wages for Housework movement (Weeks 2011, 241). Whether one ought to be paid for housework or reproductive labor or seek equal employment opportunities, feminists have not sufficiently opposed the sanctification of work. Championing the refusal of work means to abandon a narrow focus on the critique of the extraction of surplus value or of the process of deskilling. Furthermore, it is imperative to interrogate how work dominates our lives (Weeks 2011, 13). Kathi Weeks charges that a productivist bias is common to feminist and Marxist analysis. The credo of autonomists then is liberation from work, in contradistinction to Marxist humanists such as Erich Fromm’s advocacy for liberation of work.

The Wages for Housework campaign demanded purposefully the impossible. These feminists did not only ask for compensation for unpaid domestic labor, but also postulated the end of such work (Federici 1995). Post-work also means post-domestic care, something that gets lost in some of the ethic of care analysis, which inadvertently fosters a romantic attachment to endowing meaning to such work. Furthermore, post-work also appeals to carving out space for “queer time” and queer resistant agency (Halberstam 2005, Lehr 1999), an appeal to unscripted life. A wholesale critique of housework is not easily understood; even Arlie Hochschild’s (1997) own analysis of her ethnographic studies of diverse family practices comes to the conclusion that authentic housework should be sanctified and set apart from mere alienating factory production (Weeks 2011, 157–59).

A post-work ethic entails a playful commitment to leisure and unstructured activities such as day-dreaming. Joseph Trullinger (2016) extends Kathi Weeks’ analysis by drawing on Marcuse’s concept of great refusal and playful labor defying commodity fetishism and productivism. By ignoring the liberatory power of play, Weeks insufficiently engages the meaning of work and the asceticism of the work ethic (Trullinger 2016, 469). Still, the danger of play morphing into (unpaid) labor is real, as evinced by social media corporate giant FaceBook exploiting play-labor for capitalist gains (Fuchs 2016) and a veritable corporate feminism may ask us to “lean in” (Sandberg 2013) rather than “lean out”.

11. Punitive Perspectives on Work and Non-Work

While it is reasonable to champion daydreams and play as intrinsic goods, idle time itself is often not felt as a good or luxury, but instead a psychic imposition. This is why one speaks of “doing time,” when one is sentenced to a prison term or worse, to death row (Moses 2007). Imprisonment is anathema to indigenous, socio-centric peoples in the Global South, and imprisonment is closely connected to the disciplinary apparatus of western colonization of the Americas and Africa (Nagel 2007). The birth of the western modern prison focused on self-discipline, known as the “separate system” of Philadelphia, PA, leading to enforced isolation and separate celling. Day-dreaming in a solitary cell becomes positively dangerous and suicides and mental illness increase exponentially (Casella et al. 2016). Idle time is thus countered by another prison regime, the Auburn, NY, factory system, also known as the “silent system,” where prisoners worked in a factory, but they were forbidden to talk with each other. Under the notorious Southern US convict lease system, representing the shift “from the prison of slavery to the slavery of prisons” (Davis 1998), Black female and male prisoners are toiling in chain gangs, a visceral reminder of the trauma of chattel slavery.

Another haunting reminder of chattel slavery is the neoliberal welfare state’s intrusion in the family, charging parents with poor work ethic and neglect of their children. In the US, poor children of color, especially Black, Latino, and American Indians living on reservations, are at higher risk of being taken away from their kin and carers and turned over to the foster care system (Goldberg 2015). The world over, parents who are socially displaced such as Romanian immigrants in Norway, are under greater scrutiny by state actors, e.g., child protective services. In the US, social workers’ own white middle class (protestant) work ideology is enforced paradoxically on grieving mothers: these stigmatized women are summoned to complete parenting skills courses, cooking courses, etc., and are thus effectively forced out of a paid job, made dependent on the good will of the social worker and family court judge, who may grant access to child-supervised visits. Thus, parents charged with child abuse and/or neglect are thus unable to pursue education or a job, often creating an intergenerational cycle of the violence of poverty. In ideological terms, this is coded as welfare dependency and racialized as a controlling image, thus stereotyping young Black mothers (Fraser and Gordon 1994; Hill Collins 1990, 2000). In response, the National Welfare Rights Organization was created to destigmatize welfare by postulating it as a human right (Toney 2000) and by also demanding a basic income, as alternative to punitive welfare (Weeks 2011, 138). The proposal for basic income has gained traction in recent years, cumulating in a Swiss referendum, even though it was defeated in 2016. Migrant workers, worker-mothers who serve as domestic workers are also at risk (of deportation and/or imprisonment) for facing frivolous neglect charges or simply for lacking proper visa status. Gendered moral economies operate across national, racial and geographic borders in enforcing a domestic and domesticating patriarchal ideology and determining who is a good victim and deserves to be rescued (Keogh 2015; Nagel 2011; Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2010; Grewal and Kaplan 1992; Kaplanet al. 1999).

Stigmatized work such as erotic labor or sex work has divided feminists into two camps: those who support sex workers’ rights to organize and seek labor law protection and those who call themselves abolitionists but actually advocate a prohibitionist approach of “trafficking in women” that serves to rescue girls and women from such degrading, dangerous punishment (Nagel 2015). Some sex worker rights approaches focus on eschewing the moralizing rallying cry of choice versus coercion and seek to destigmatize such labor and offer a postcolonial critique of prohibitionist ideology (Kempadoo and Doezema 1995). Others also focus on the lived experiences and agencies of such workers and contextualize their lives within structural constraints of the feminization of poverty (Dewey 2010; Zheng 2009). Paradoxically, by focusing narrowly on income-generating activities, Dewey (2010) contents that such advocates actually reinscribe stigmatization. And some sex workers’ rights organizations such as COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) also inadvertently endorse a traditional work-ethic ideology by appealing to a moralizing discourse of respectability (Weeks 2011, pp. 67–68).

12. Concluding Remarks

Theoretical and empirical debates about the relation of women to class and work, and the implications of these relations for theories of male domination and women’s oppression as well as for other systems of social domination, continue to be important sources of theories and investigations of gender identities, roles and powers in the field of women and gender studies, as well as in history, sociology, anthropology and economics. They also have important implications for epistemology, metaphysics and political theory in the discipline of philosophy, and consequently other disciplines in humanities and the social sciences.


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Other Internet Resources

  • Ferguson, Ann, 2004, Can Development Create Empowerment and Women’s Liberation, presented at Another World is Possible: Workshop on AlterGlobalizations, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, August 5–12, 2004.
  • Basic Income Earth network (BIEN).
  • Center for Women and Work
  • Coalition of Labor Union Women.
  • Combahee River Collective, The Combahee River Collective Statement.
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
  • Federici, Sylvia, 2008, Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint, lecture, October 28th 2006, at Bluestockings Radical Bookstore, New York City.
  • Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
  • Sex Worker Rights Organizations and Projects around the World.

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