Red Feminism in the Age of Neoliberalism – Part 3: Why Feminism Must Be Anti-Capitalist

by Emily Eisner

continued from Part 2: Radical Feminism Over Liberal & Postmodern Feminisms

followed by Part 4: Rejecting Anarchism


Why Feminism Must Be Anti-Capitalist

Why, then, does socialism with its rigorous critique and powerful explanation of the destructive logic and injustices of capitalism seem so irrelevant–particularly for many feminists struggling to deal with the deteriorating global condition of women?

Teresa Ebert, “Towards A Red Feminism” [33]

Without overthrowing the economic system of capitalism, as socialists and communists organize to do, we cannot liberate women and everybody else who is also oppressed.

Nellie Wong, “Socialist Feminism: Our Bridge to Freedom”[34]


To understand why feminism must be anticapitalist, we must first understand what capitalism is. Capitalism is an economic system, or mode of production. All economic systems, in organizing how humans work, make things, distribute goods, and relate to each other, provide the base upon which the rest of society, like culture, politics, family, and media, is structured. Capitalism is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, which means land, factories, housing, and more. It is also characterized by a market economy, and production based on exchange value, not use value. This means that goods are produced based on how much they can be exchanged for, instead of how much utility they have for meeting the needs of human beings. Next, capitalism is characterized by wage labor. Workers are not compensated according to the true value of their labor, but instead according to a minimum standard required for keeping them alive and working.[35] Because the means of production (factory, farm, etc) are owned by an individual or corporation seeking to make a maximum amount of profit in competition with other firms on the market, labor is a cost in the production of a commodity just like the cost of raw materials. Therefore, labor costs must be minimized, driving wages down to the lowest legal and practical standard. [36] This is why chattel slavery, being an institution that enables and legitimizes completely uncompensated human labor, was so widespread and economically significant in the world economy up to its abolition. Unpaid labor is optimal for competitive production for market exchange.

Capitalism, like the slave-owning democracies of ancient times and feudal-monarchic systems of the middle ages, creates a class society in which a very small percentage of the population that owns property obtains massive amounts of wealth through skimming off surplus value (e.g. “profit” in a production equation) from the labor of the masses of people. Capitalism is driven by competition on a market. There is no room for stagnation. If one capitalist is not always driving labor and material costs down to maximize the profit margin, by any means necessary, then some other capitalist in his own business will, and will consequently put the kind one out of business. This is why capitalism is a system demanding infinite growth, which means the ruthless destruction of human and natural resources, and which fundamentally cannot and will not spare any extra money to be nice and ensure it is taking care of the people or environment that it exploits.

Under the class hierarchy necessitated by capitalism, the masses of people (whose labor creates all value and who make the world go round) are made to miserably subsist upon low wages, are subject to chronic unemployment at the whim of the expansion and contraction of global markets, and are denied access to education, healthcare, and work based on their poor material circumstances. Already, in a raceless, sexless world, capitalism is exploitative of the masses of people. In the West, though, capitalism not only has created trans-Atlantic slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the various forms of racism to justify it, but currently feeds upon and supports cultural and structural racism as a way of devaluing non-white labor for its own cheap use. The cultural systems of white supremacy and antiblackness also prevent white workers from uniting with blacks against capitalism, for fear of black labor becoming equally valued and competitive with white labor on the market.

Patriarchy and male supremacy have existed since long before the development of capitalism and industrialization. However, capitalism uses male supremacy for its own benefit. As described above, male supremacy creates gender to sort human beings into a hierarchy of sexes. These hierarchical concepts of gender in turn “naturalize” themselves as being biologically determined and inevitable. Capitalism preys upon these cultural concepts of inferior womanhood to reduce the value of work that women are relegated to doing: “preparing food, healing, making garments, caring for children.” [37] The masculine gender, created to perpetuate male supremacy, naturalizes the idea that male labor involves management, leadership, technological expertise, trained skills, physical strength, and rational organization. This is the sexual division of labor. This is not a value-neutral division. “As far as the proletarian woman is concerned,” wrote Russian revolutionary Clara Zetkin, “it is capitalism’s need to exploit and to search incessantly for a cheap labor force that has created the women’s question.” [38] Patriarchal capitalism devalues “feminine” labor and accentuates the social and financial significance of male labor outside the home, thus isolating women further within it, where their labor is unpaid, unorganized, and boring. It propagandizes a cult of femininity, motherhood, and the lavish home to drive consumption. [39]

On the contrary, masculine labors facilitate the ability to lead, to gain political and social power, to dominate, and to obtain wealth–in short, to be a powerful, intelligent, skilled mind and social being. “In European thought, despite the fact that society was seen to be inhabited by bodies, only women were perceived to be embodied; men had no bodies–they were walking minds.” [40] Of course, with racism and bourgeois elitism added in, the proportion of men seen as intellectuals became more restricted. The development of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries both contributed to and relied upon the existing patriarchal system of gender to construct reliable consumers, devalued female laborers, unpaid support for male laborers, and reproducers of the working class. [41]

Similarly, capitalist production seized upon ethnic differences to justify unequal social divisions of labor. Entire systems of race science sprang up to reverse-engineer justifications for social inequality constructed to meet the needs of capital. Further, capitalism, having developed primarily in Europe, requires expansion into the third-world to access their labor power, natural resources, and increasingly their consumer markets. This is shown through the trans-atlantic slave trade, the colonization of the New World and establishment of a slave plantation economy, the “scramble for Africa” style occupational colonialism in the South and East through the second world war, post-independence IMF-style financial neocolonialism in those same “independent” countries, and various other forms of imperialism. Half of the population of the third world, whose resources, land, and communities are pillaged and destroyed by exploitative industry from the West, are women. As it has done in the West, capitalism preys upon existing patriarchal gender roles in the third world, but also modifies them to meet its needs through European cultural and religious hegemony. The eradication of communal life and privatization of resources–in recent years, in the shadow of debt to European banking institutions–strips indigenous people, especially women, of economic autonomy and drives further urbanization and dependence on capital for subsistence through wage labor. [42]

In addition to destroying indigenous women’s way of life and economic semi-autonomy within their own communities, imperialism requires violence to enact and sustain its economic exploitation. Imperialism uses both wars of conquest and warfare of various intensities against insurgency and nationalist guerrilla movements to sustain itself. Examples of these imperialist wars range from the centuries of European settler expansion through Indian wars in North America, the French in the Algerian War of Independence, various European nations against the numerous independence struggles of African nations, the French and Americans in the Vietnam War, and many more. War requires macho militarism and traditionally male armies. Patriarchal war means rape of the conquested women. War-torn areas are economically destabilized, resulting in women and girls being sexually exploited for money. The only way to end war for resources, cheap labor, and market expansion is global communism and production to meet human needs. The endless pursuit of profit and the resulting destruction of communities around the world comes down especially hard on women.

In the first world and third world, patriarchal capitalism commodifies women’s bodies and sells women and girls through prostitution, pornography, and illegal sex trafficking. It propagandizes consumption of women for profit. It commodifies gender roles, enforces female consumption and physical modification to meet beauty norms in order to sell products. Capitalism means mass culture and private media aiming to maximize consumption, female insecurity, female exploitation, and working-class male misogyny and racism to prevent class unity. In industrializing England in the 18th century, “the main obstacles” to organizing women laborers “were the male unions and social customs. . . Why their response was to exclude women rather than to organize them is explained not by capitalism, but by patriarchal relations between men and women.” [43] Men fought to keep women unorganized so women’s labor would never compete with theirs, instead of supporting women’s unions and uniting as a class against the bourgeoisie. In this way, capitalism uses and perpetuates male chauvinism and male supremacy to exploit the working class.

Working women make up the vast majority of the female population. Bourgeois women (who own the means of production), who are either bourgeois by birth, through the economic union of marriage, or who have been beneficiaries of bourgeois feminist achievements of the past 100 years, are not in a position to fight for the radical reorganization of society towards communism that is necessary to economically and socially liberate all women. Abigail Adams, wife of American founding father John, is a prime example of how bourgeois feminists quickly turn reactionary at questions of economic liberation for the poor. In a letter to John dated March 31, 1776, Adams urges him to include legislation “more generous and favorable” to women than his ancestors, and to

Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar [sic] care and attention is not paid to the Laidies [sic] we are determined to foment a Rebelion [sic], and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. [44]

Her husband responded, mockingly, that men giving up “the Name of Masters” would “compleatly [sic] subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat [sic].” [45] Modern men’s rights’ activists seem to have taken a page directly out of John Adams’ book. However, in 1787, when indebted, imprisoned, and impoverished men and women farmers in western Massachusetts launched Shays’ Rebellion against high taxes and exploitative financial practices, Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that “ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principles, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretense of grievances which have no existence but in their imaginations.” On this exchange, scholar Michael Parenti rightly added, “Talking about the poor men and women who challenge her class interests, she sounds exactly like John Adams talking to her when she argues for women’s rights.” [46] The poor and exploited women of Shays’ rebellion did not count in Adams’ feminism. When not anticapitalist, it is impossible for feminist advocates to be truly fighting for all women.

It is clear by now that that not all feminisms are radical, antiracist, or anticapitalist, despite all three being necessary to liberate the women of the world from exploitation and male supremacy. Be that as it may, it is not immediately clear which type of anticapitalism is best suited for liberating women (and men) workers.


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Footnotes for this section: [33-46]

33.  Ebert, Teresa. “Toward a Red Feminism,” Against the Current, No. 65, November-December 1996. Published on Solidarity. Web.

34.  Wong, Nellie. “Socialist Feminism: Our Bridge to Freedom,” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. ed. Mohanty, Chandra et al. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print. 290.

35.  Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital, trans. Friedrich Engels. (1891) Marxists Internet Archive, 1999.

36. Ibid.

37.  Cockburn, Cynthia. “Technology Production and Power.” Inventing Women: Science, Technology, and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1992. Print. 200.

38.  Zetkin, Clara. “Only in conjunction with the proletarian woman will socialism be victorious,” (1896) Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, ed. by Philip Foner, trans. by Kai Schoenhals, International Publishers, 1984. Transcribed for Marxists Internet Archive in 2002.

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

40.  Oyewumi, Oyeronke, “Visualizing the body: Western theories and African subjects” African Gender Studies. New York: Palgrave, 2005. 7.

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

42.  Federici, Sylvia. “Globalization: The Destruction of the Commons and New Forms of Violence Against Women” Lecture given at the University of Texas at Austin on 24 October 2016.

43.  Hartmann, Heidi. “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979. 222.

44.  Adams, Abigail. “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776 [electronic edition].” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. page 2.

45.  Adams, John. “Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776 [electronic edition].” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. page 4.

46.  Parenti, Michael. “Male terrorism and the political economy of gender oppression,” BabyradfemTV, uploaded to Youtube, 22 Oct 2016. lecture given 1993.