A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives

Materialist Femininism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives

Gidley, Ben

Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (eds.)

Materialist Femininism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives

Routledge, London, 1997, pp.430.

ISBN 0-415-91634-8 (pbk) L16.99

Reviewed by Ben Gidley

This is a book motivated by a timely agenda: combating the hegemony of identity politics, post-modernism and ‘post-Marxism’ within feminism. As the editors write in their excellent introduction:

During the 1990s… many of western feminism’s earlier priorities-commitment to social transformation, attention to the political economy of patriarchy, analysis of the pervasive social structures that link and divide women-have been obscured or actively dismissed… As feminism has been absorbed into the mainstream of advanced capitalist societies and incorporated in the professions, its dominant voices have grown to disparage ways of making sense of women’s lives that connect the oppressive construction of difference and identity to capital’s drive to accumulate (p.2).

The book is organised into three ‘archives’. The first archive documents the development of a materialist standpoint within feminism from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. This archive has three main themes: analysis of woman’s place under capital; more epistemologically oriented work on feminist knowledge and materialist theory; and more practically oriented pieces about ways of doing politics. The second archive presents various applications of materialist feminism to the concrete realities of the 1980s and 1990s. The third presents ‘ongoing work’: an agenda for materialist feminism into the next century.

The first archive, ‘The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation’ by Margaret Benston (1969), gets the book off to a good start. It is a punchy, fastmoving argument for extending classical Marxist analysis to `the woman question’. It attempts to define women structurally in relation to capital (as Marxism does for the proletariat): `We will tentatively define women, then, as that group of people who are responsible for the production of simple use-values in those activities associated with the home and family’ (p.19). It foregrounds exploitation over discrimination (the key theoretical manoeuvre of materialist feminism) and argues that the family is an exploitative pre-capitalist relic harnessed by capital.

The third and fourth pieces, Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s 1972 `Woman and the Subversion of Community’ and Selma James’ introduction to it, are in a different league altogether. They are classic texts, not just of feminism, but of autonomist marxism. At once sophisticated and easyreading, they develop key autonomist ideas like the refusal of work and the social factory. Where Benston describes domestic labour as the production of use-values, Dalla Costa describes it as productive of surplus-value (a theme taken up very interestingly later in the book by Kathryn Russell, on the subject of childbirth).

By the mid-1970s, the days of hope, epitomised by James and Dalla Costa, were coming to an end. On one hand, feminism’s mainstream was becoming increasingly liberal, further marginalising materialist feminism. On the other hand, many marxist feminists were becoming institutionalised in outposts of academia. A by-product of this was dense, jargonistic prose, texts that don’t connect to lives of struggle, writers for whom feminism is a discipline not a social movement. The pieces by Delphy and Gimenez exemplify this trend. A second by-product was the marginalisation of autonomist marxism by the more academically respectable structural marxism.

From this point on in the book, there is a tension between praxis-oriented texts, often produced in collaborative contexts and published in pamphlets, by radical periodicals or by campaigning publishers, and theory-oriented texts, which seem to exist in a sealed academic world of textual analysis and ideology critique. Incidentally, many of these most ideologically pure academic structural marxists of the 1970s would later become the post-modern post-marxists of the 1990s.

A second tension in the anthology is between those writers, like Delphy, Kuhn and Wolpe, who argue that patriarchy (conceived as an eternal ahistorical universal) has relative autonomy vis-a-vis capital (conceived as a narrowly economic matter) and those writers, like Young, Ehrenreich, Carby and German, who call for a thorough integration of marxism and feminism, for a thoroughly materialist feminism and a thoroughly feminist historical materialism. The former say marxism has only half the answers, but don’t confront its inadequacies. In Lindsey German’s words, they `resort to a combination of economic determinism and complete idealism’ (p.152). The latter, in contrast, transform and expand marxism’s explanatory power. Many of these latter writers question the whole concept of patriarchy as a useful analytical tool.

Of the more thoroughly materialist writers, I’d pick out five. Hazel Carby presents a powerful critique of what white feminists mean when they say ‘we’, from a UK black perspective. Swasti Mitter writes on third world struggles, struggles over casualisation of labour, and new ways of organising the labour movement internationally. Maria Mies examines the different ways capital has structured women’s labour and sexuality in the colonies and in the metropoles. Norma Chinchilla explores the convergence of grassroots feminism and `New Marxism’ in Latin America’s labour, peasant, indigenous and civic movements Gwyn Kirk develops a powerful materialist perspective on environmental justice and eco-struggles in the third world.

Unfortunately, not all pieces in the book are so good. A few of them seemed to be included for tokenistic reasons, to represent constituencies. Other pieces, however, are scathing critiques of identity politics, such as Smith, a black lesbian against 1990s queer politics, and Field, on UK gay lifestylism. Field’s article, which starts off well, suffers from an overdose of dour revolutionary purity and the rigid dogmatic politics that you can’t blame gay and feminist activists from running a mile from. Waters (of the American SWP) and German (of the British SWP) also write with these same glib formulas-in contrast to so many of the writers in this volume, for whom political economy is about difficult questions not easy answers.

Among the anthology’s other flaws are very uneven referencing and proofreading. It would also have been useful to have brief contextualising introductions to each chapter, particularly with the older texts-especially given the student type audience the editors seem to be aiming at. There were a few omissions too. The influence of Gayle Rubin’s classic `The Traffic in Women’ (Rubin 1975) is noticeable throughout the book; it would have been good to have at least some excerpts from it. Prostitution, a key problematic for materialist feminism, does not get enough attention either: an article by Tillotson does draw interestingly on economic theories developed by Mauss, Appadurai and others, but is essentially a piece of literary criticism, while Lilian Robinson on Thailand’s sex industry is well-written, but too descriptive. Finally, the neglect of the autonomist tradition of materialist feminism is a great shame.

This anthology could have been put together a lot better, but it remains an excellent introduction to a huge and important field of work.

Reference Rubin, Gayle (1975) `The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’ in Rayna R. Reiter Toward an Anthropology. Monthly Review Press, New York.

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Summer 1999

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