Red Feminism in the Age of Neoliberalism – Part 2: Radical Feminism Over Liberal & Postmodern Feminisms

by Emily Eisner

continued from Introduction

followed by Part 3: Why Feminism Must Be Anti-Capitalist


Radical Feminism Over Liberal & Postmodern Feminisms

That is what theory about male supremacy means. It means you can rape. It means you can hit. It means you can hurt. It means you can buy and sell women. It means that there is a class of people there to provide you with what you need. You stay richer than they are, so that they have to sell you sex.

Andrea Dworkin, “I Want a 24-Hour Truce During Which There is No Rape” [4]

Radical feminism is most associated with the “second-wave” or women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite this, radical ideas about actualizing women’s liberation, (or at least bringing about full equality to men) through socio-economic revolution have existed in theory and practice since the dawn of Marxism in 1848 and especially Leninism in the early 1900s. This is not to say that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other male communists were the first or only radically feminist actors. Louise Michel, Alexandra Kollontai, and Clara Zetkin are examples of revolutionary feminist contemporaries of the men whose names carry greater historical legacy. Since the onset of third-wave ideology that coincided with the neoliberal economic and social programs in the West, radical feminism has declined in mainstream the consciousness. However, it offers the deepest, broadest base for today’s revolutionary feminism. To best understand what radical feminism entails, we must first make visible and critique the most popular non-radical feminisms of today–what I refer to as liberal and postmodern queer feminisms. I will begin with the older of the two, liberal feminism.



Flaws of Liberal Feminism

The feminists seek equality in the framework of the existing class society, in no way do they attack the basis of this society. They fight for prerogatives for themselves, without challenging the existing prerogatives and privileges. We do not accuse the representatives of the bourgeois women’s movement of failure to understand the matter; their view of things flows inevitably from their class position.

Alexandra Kollontai, “The Social Basis of the Woman Question”[5]

The core of liberal ideology conceives of the state, or society, as a collection of individuals that must improve the lives of the individual citizens living under it without impinging too much on individual liberty. It presupposes a natural equality among all people that is thwarted by the concepts of racism, sexism, etc which must be combatted through ideological campaign and equal rights-giving. The law must treat everybody equally, and at most assist in helping victims of prejudice and discrimination attain equal footing in the existing political, social, and economic order. Liberal feminism values the individual’s freedom and choice within their lives and is loathe to consider the social construction of the individual or to connect individual experience to group or class status.[6]

Liberalism does not condemn the sex/gender system as such, that being:

. . .a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention. . . Gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes. It is a product of the social relations of sexuality. Men and women are of course, different. But they are not as day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang, life and death. In fact, from the standpoint of nature, men and women are closer to each other than either is to anything else.[7]

Gender is the mythology that structures patriarchy. It is a mythology of which traits, behaviors, and abilities belong with which biological sex, and how the sexes should interact. But it does not merely separate into two equal categories. “It’s become popular in some activist circles to embrace notions from postmodernism, and that includes the idea that gender is somehow a binary. Gender is not a binary. It is a hierarchy.” [8] Femininity encompasses passivity, sexual objectification, beauty rituals, self effication, and domesticity. Masculinity encourages domination, technological expertise, aggression, violence, and social organization outside the home. The male supremacy we are living under “takes that eroticized domination and subordination, and institutionalizes that into masculinity and femininity. So, it naturalizes, it eroticizes, and it institutionalizes.”[9]  Although masculinity necessitates the suppression of the caring and emotional self to create violent patriarchs, rapists, and soldiers, etc, the greater damage is done to the subordinate class of feminized women.

Naturalism is another tenet of liberal feminism. Conditions and traits forced upon women and men via gender socialization are supposed as pre-social and used to justify further sexual division. An example of this gender naturalism, or gender essentialism, would be the belief that women are naturally nonviolent, familial, and nurturing, and therefore are more suited than men to such labor and tasks as child rearing, domestic labor, cooking, cleaning, sewing, shopping, etc. [10][11] Liberal feminism holds that whatever “natural” differences there are between men and women, they should still be treated equally in the existing social system, hence the prevalence of the term “gender equality.”

Liberal feminism believes that this “gender equality” requires women to be legally, economically, and socially equal to men. It does not fundamentally challenge how we conceive of femininity and masculinity, motherhood, domestic labor, the sexual division of labor, heterosexuality, capitalism, class exploitation, and the hierarchy of domination and submission intrinsic to all of these. [12][13] Nor does it see how merely being treated equally with men leaves untouched the other hierarchies in our society that emanate from social divisions of labor and capitalist exploitation.


Flaws of Postmodern Feminism

Queer Theory has become a principal ideological arm of late capitalism. . .

Donald Morton, “Queerity and Ludic Sado-Masochism”[14]

The politics of such a ludic theory is that it blurs the lines between the powerful and the powerless, oppressor and oppressed. . . exploiter and exploited become shifting positions in the (Lacanian) Symbolic, open to resignification.

Teresa Ebert, “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism”[15]

Since the publication of Judith Butler’s seminal “Gender Trouble” in 1990, the veritable postmodern third-wave “queer” feminism has taken firm hold of the progressive (read: formally educated) Western consciousness. [16] Briefly, what is postmodern queer feminism? While some describe this branch of feminism as “postmodern,” the mainstream movement calls itself “queer” and thus I will use either label to describe it. Firstly, queer feminism redefines the radical feminist definition of gender to mean a personal identity, or a self-constructing performance, that fits somewhere along a gender spectrum of masculinity and femininity, instead of the conservative “gender” which is firmly and comfortably situated at either extreme. Second, it seeks to problematize, or perhaps just mystify, the traditional ways of conceiving hierarchy–specifically sexual hierarchy–as well as identify new ones. Queer feminism takes Butler’s postulate that gender is a performance to create a new dichotomy: “cisgender” and “transgender.” “Cis” people feel comfortable with the gender roles and norms that patriarchal culture assigns them according to their sex at birth. They are constantly becoming or performing the gender that patriarchy enforces upon their sex. Trans people do not, and seek to subvert the gender roles and stereotypes expected of them and instead perform a gender from across the spectrum, or somewhere in the middle. Masculinity and femininity are taken as value-neutral cultural facts, that combine and vary infinitely among individuals and that have no materialist basis or intrinsic hierarchy. Queer feminists assert that biological sex is a gendered construct of patriarchy, and thus has using it as a basis for defining any oppressed group is essentialist. The cis/trans dichotomy within queer feminism asserts that some cross-sexual segment of the population is comfortable with their gender roles and norms, otherwise known as “cisgender,” and lumps both male and female “cisgender” people together in the same category as oppressors of “trans” or otherwise non-cis or “non-binary” individuals. [17] Queer feminists are not the first by far to claim to move behind binaries. Those who reject binaries rooted in material history, Vladimir Lenin wrote, give in reality “no more than an ideological alibi because in their actual practices, they ‘are continually sliding into idealism and are conducting a steady and incessant struggle against materialism.’” [18] In this way, postmodern “queer” feminism and liberal feminism do more than form a sort of pact in the contemporary Western scene, but, from the Marxist historical materialist perspective (which I will establish as necessary for women’s liberation throughout this piece), postmodern feminism is quite liberal itself. The liberal voluntarism of queer theory is evident through its heavy emphasis on self-selected gender identification as a basis of social position, for example.

On the website, one finds a manifesto that declares, among anti-racism and anti-imperialism (but notably not anti-capitalism) an opposition to “strict rules about gender and sexuality that hurt everyone whether male, female, both, or neither,” and the “blaming and shaming of trans people, queer people, prudes, sluts, and anyone who does not fit a narrow and arbitrary body standard.” [19] Feminists not imbued with queer feminist rhetoric would find it shocking that a supposedly feminist website used a misogynistic slur to describe women, immediately after using a homophobic slur to describe anybody who is not straight and compliant with gender norms.

As South African feminist Desiree Lewis wrote:

Consequently, where it used to be legitimate to argue that the voices and interests of women were paramount in identifying how patriarchal domination marginalised a group on the basis of gender, the current ascendancy of ‘gender’ neutralises power relations and almost implies that the social categorisation and identity of women as women and of men as men is not of key importance. Revealing too is the way that ‘gender activism’ has successively displaced the term ‘feminism’. It as though the radicalism signalled by the latter term was being anaestheticised and patriarchal anxieties about change were being appeased.[20]

In this quote, Lewis calls into question postmodern feminism’s obfuscation of structural analysis of oppression. She also hints at the connection between the ascendence of this “post-al” feminism and the 1970s threat of a radical movement for women.

Queer feminism’s popularity amongst the young and middle class–in other words, those educated in Gender Studies departments since the 1990s–has created a hegemony of postmodern queer feminism over the public and legal domain and eliminated tools for females to fight against their oppression as females. In this way, queer feminism is a kind of backlash against the politicized feminism of the 60s and 70s rooted in abolishing male supremacy. When men can legitimately claim status as oppressed women within your movement due to their individual gender identities, destroying male supremacy cannot exist as a political objective. In addition to being ecologically incoherent in its assumption of a natural cause of feminine and masculine personalities, “exclusive gender identity is the oppression of natural similarities. It requires repression. . . The division of the sexes has the effect of repressing some of the personality characteristics of virtually everyone, men and women.” [21] The resurgence of support for masculinity and femininity as naturalized concepts, although now detached from any sort of predicative biological origin apart from the mythical brain sex, is a step back for women’s liberation.

Additionally, queer feminism, in claiming gender-non-conformity for itself, falsely accuses radical feminism of supporting and reinforcing gender roles by, for example, asserting that women is synonymous with adult human female. To reinforce its validity as the only feminism against gender roles, queer feminism leads many of its activists to seek external validation for their postmodern theories, mainly from indigenous or non-Western expressions of gender under patriarchy. This ideology, which is rooted in white Western academia of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, identifies gender roles that differ from modern Western gender roles and claims them as queer / trans. It takes gender practices from people around the world, absorbs them under the banner of “trans,” and uses it to further the Western political ideology of postmodern feminism. The colonizing tendency of third-wave queer feminist academic discourse renders it not only a Western problem. It leads to Western queer feminist analysis and rhetoric’s enforcement throughout Western countries and non-Western countries through supranational “development” organizations. Writing about the formation of a “gender industry” amongst neo-colonialist, neoliberal development in many countries in Africa, Desiree Lewis wrote: “The neoliberal cooption of feminist demands is not, of course, unique to Third World contexts. It is an overwhelming feature of contemporary ostensibly ‘post-feminist’ liberal-democratic societies. The hegemony of global imperialism is increasingly eroding feminism and radical cultural expression and discourses in civil society at an international level.” [22] Her observation of the connection between “post-feminist” discourse and global imperialist capitalism is corroborated by other Marxist feminists, whom I will discuss at length later.

Importantly, postmodern feminism connects to broader postmodern philosophies emergent in the late 20th century that are currently debilitating radical anticapitalist resistance. Mas’ud Zavarzadeh elaborates on this connection, writing that “by announcing the arrival of a new society which is post-production, post-labor, post-ideology, post-white and post-capitalist,” these “post-al” ideologies of the postmodern era “obscure the production practices of capitalism–which is based on the extraction of surplus labor (the source of accumulation of capital).” [23] This is the philosophical and ideological process behind David Harvey’s assertion that neoliberal global capitalism “creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself.” [24] Global neoliberal capitalism has therefore also created a feminism in a mirror image to itself. This process is critical to allow contemporary feminists to understand the economic reason behind the omnipresence of postmodern philosophy in “the institutionalized ‘left’” in this age of neoliberalism. [25] It is also critical for combating it in order to establish a truly threatening, revolutionary alternative to global neoliberal capitalism. In the following chapter, I will further elaborate the connection between feminism and anticapitalist struggle, which will in turn illuminate postmodernism’s negative impact on both.

Postmodern feminism is just one branch of an ideological inundation, coinciding with the implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the 70s and 80s, referred to by some contemporary Marxist philosophers as “post-ality.” “Post-ality, in other words, is a regime of class struggle against the workers” that seeks to question “totalizing” theories based on group or class analysis and definite projects of revolution, in favor of a play-, language-, and body-based philosophy that centers itself on accommodating “difference” between individuals. [26] In “foregrounding the agency of the subject,” postmodern feminism “is in actuality an alibi to divert the subject away from ‘making’ and taking control of the means of making,” otherwise known as production, and towards “the ultimate form of post-al resistance, ‘making do’: working within the system and with what the system provides rather than attempting to transform it.” [27] This is why postmodern feminism, post-al anticapitalism, post-al antiracism, etc are not revolutionary theories and in fact hinder revolutionary development. These ideologies often masquerade as the most radical in their rejection of the “totalization” of Marxism, but in doing so, retain many of the hallmarks of liberal theory. [28] The rebuttal of neoliberal post-al philosophies will continue throughout this piece.

Moving forward, radical feminism sees that all hitherto existing societies have been patriarchal and male supremacist, to varying degrees. It seeks to abolish the categorization of male and female humans into two (or more) genders based on a hierarchical ordering of traits coded as masculine and feminine. A true radical feminism does not seek women’s full integration into every level of the capitalist structure, and does not think that equality before the law will address women’s subordination to men in any society. It questions the context and conditions that women’s choices are made in, and criticizes how the glorification of choice, self-objectification, self-commodification, self-empowerment, and consent conceal the greater coercive forces that influence them. Additionally, radical feminism critiques trans and queer feminism’s embrace of gender and the individual choice to perform whichever gender one desires.

The system of male supremacy comes down hard on non-conforming men and women, as movingly described online by members of the trans community. While switching gender identity may alleviate some problems on an individual level, it is not a political solution. . . it undermines a solution for all, even for the transitioning person, by embracing and reinforcing the cultural, economic and political tracking of “gender” rather than challenging it.[29]

Importantly, radical feminism differs strongly from the conservative right in their critique of transgenderism. Right-wing criticisms of transgenderism originate from a reverence for the male supremacist structure of masculine man who dominates the feminine woman, and the violent need to enforce those behaviors. Importantly, the political Right seeks to “build an alliance between the ruling class and the petit bourgeoisie by suturing their conflicting economic interests through stabilizing cultural values,” which includes patriarchal values. [30] Radical feminists, on the other hand, “look forward to freedom from gender. The ‘freedom for gender’ movement, whatever the intentions of its supporters, is reinforcing the culture and institutions of gender that are oppressing women.” [31] It is not merely criticism of postmodern feminisms reification of gender that differentiates radical feminism from other strains.

Many radical feminists, in attacking gender as the socially constructed differences enacted between males and females, also take issue with the sexual division of labor. Some radical feminists also oppose class as a hierarchy among women. However, radical feminists do not always make the leap towards Marxism as a revolutionary theory.

As important as radical feminism is for developing histories of women, and for making brilliant connections between such issues as militarism, ecocide, prostitution, male sexual violence, female reproductive autonomy, and motherhood, it lacks a definitive praxis for achieving a feminist world. Many radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, have attempted to provide a plan for achieving sexual equality and female liberation. These attempts, while having moved radical feminism forward a great deal, are often critiqued and rejected by other feminists for various implausibilities or oversights. [32] A revolutionary anti-capitalist theory–one that understands how and why these social differences have come to be so severe and that posits how to build a political movement that can seize power and begin restructuring society–is necessary. Briefly, I will give an overview of why feminism must be anti-capitalist. After this, I will examine the popular anticapitalist current of anarchism or “libertarian socialism” and begin to lay the foundation for the alternative of Marxism-Leninism, and specifically Marxist-Leninist feminism.


Endnotes for this section [4-32]

4. Dworkin, Andrea. “I Want a 24-Hour Truce During Which There is No Rape,” Letters from a War Zone: Writings, 1976-1989. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989.

5.  Kollontai, Alexandra. “The Social Basis of the Woman Question,” (1909) from Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Marxists Internet Archive, 2006.

6.  MacKinnon, Catharine A. “A Feminist Critique of Marx and Engels, A Marxist Critique of Feminism.” Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. 13-60. Print.

7.  Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic of Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women, Monthly Review Press, 1975. 165.

8.  Keith, Lierre. “Patriarchy vs Planet Earth – Radfem Reboot in Portland, Oregon Part 1” Deep Green Resistance, Youtube, 2012. 24:00.

9. Ibid.

10.  Bengelsdorf, Carollee and Alice Hageman, “Emerging from Underdevelopment: Women and Work in Cuba,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979.

11.  Ryan, Mary P, “Patriarchy and Capitalism in Antebellum America,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979.

12.  Bengelsdorf, Carollee and Alice Hageman, “Emerging from Underdevelopment: Women and Work in Cuba,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979

13.  MacKinnon, Catharine A. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print

14.  Morton, Donald. “Queerity and Ludic Sado-Masochism,” Post-ality: Postmodernism and Marxism. 1995. 192.

15.  Ebert, Teresa. “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism,” Post-ality: Marxism and Postmodernism. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve, 1995. 140.

16.  Due to the historical usage of the word “queer” as a homophobic slur, I will not use it–in this paper or in the rest of my life–to describe anybody who does not first use it to describe themselves and their brand of feminism.

17.  Cox, Susan. “Coming out as “non-binary” throws other women under the bus,” Feminist Current, 10 August 2016. Web.

18. Ebert, Teresa. “(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism,” Post-ality: Marxism and Postmodernism. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve, 1995. Print.

19.  Queerfeminism. “Mission Statement: What is queer feminism?,” Queer Feminism: Radical Opposition to Patriarchy, WordPress. Web.

20.  Lewis, Desiree. “Discursive Challenges for African Feminists,” African Feminist Politics of Knowledge, Nordiska Afrikainstituitet, 2009. 216.

21.  Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic of Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women, Monthly Review Press, 1975. 180.

22.  Lewis, Desiree. “Discursive Challenges for African Feminists,” African Feminist Politics of Knowledge, Nordiska Afrikainstituitet, 2009. 211.

23.  Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. “Post-ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cybercapitalism” Post-ality: Postmodernism and Marxism. 1995. 1.

24. Harvey, David. “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project.” Jacobin, 23 July 2016. Web. “And to some degree the mirror image confirms that which it’s trying to destroy.”

25. Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. “Post-ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cybercapitalism,” 3.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid. 21.

28. Ibid. 3.

29.  Hanisch, Carol et al. “Forbidden Discourse: The silencing of feminist criticism of gender,” FeministUK, WordPress.12 August 2013.

30.  Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. “Post-ality: The (Dis)simulations of Cybercapitalism” Post-ality: Postmodernism and Marxism. 1995. 4.

31. Hanisch, Carol et al. “Forbidden Discourse,” FeministUK, 2013.

32.  Eisenstein, Zillah. “Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979. 18-25.