Red Feminism in the Age of Neoliberalism – Part 7: Socialism and Female Liberation: History

by Emily Eisner

continued from Part 6: A Marxism Against Gender

followed by Part 8: Red Feminism in Postmodernity

Socialism and Female Liberation: History

. . . the bourgeois and their supporters hoodwink the people with talk about freedom in general, about equality in general, about democracy in general. . . Ask them: Equality between what sex and what other sex? Between what nation and what other nation? Between what class and what other class?

Vladimir I. Lenin, “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” [144]


Under socialist regimes have the most serious and successful efforts at rapidly bringing equality between men and women been made. Socialist regimes have brought more women into the workforce more quickly than any liberal bourgeois regime in history. The inclusion of women in the workforce was not only a feminist goal, but an economic and productive necessity for socialist regimes struggling to industrialize and modernize underdeveloped countries at breakneck speeds and build economies that could afford to collectivize some domestic chores. China provides a rich example reinforced by the experiences of women in Cuba and the USSR.

Judith Stacey wrote that “one cannot help but feel that the transformation of the status of Chinese women is little short of miraculous.” [145] The lives of women before the socialist revolution in China were violently patriarchal. Social relations and access to material resources were dictated by status within the extended family, which was severely misogynistic to the point of female infanticide, foot binding, childbride sale, and regular wife-beating. Survival depended on women’s compliance to the patriarchal system, the only alternative being suicide. In the 1919 case of Miss Chao Wu-chieh, that meant “female martyrdom . . . by slitting her throat in her bridal chair to escape the intolerable fate of her arranged marriage.” [146] During the Civil War period when male labor power experienced dire shortages, women in the countryside were mobilized to sustain the economy of the country. This time saw the rapid decay of the already dying Confucian extended family structure. Feminist conscious among organized working and peasant women exploded. In 1948, the Communist Party had to issue a new resolution urging women to continue to fight against their patriarchal families, while maintaining that sex struggle remained a contradiction within and among the people, not a bonafide struggle like that of the workers against the landowners. Patriarchy could be resolved culturally, while capitalism required force and violence. In Maoism, sex antagonisms divided the working class. Male supremacy was not defined as exploitation, and women were not revolutionary agents in their sex-based oppression, but only as comrades to men in their class-based oppression. “Revolution differs according as it is true revolution or false revolution. It does not differ according to sex.” [147] In this way, women were required to put aside their own sexual revolutionary interests and align with men along class-lines in order to best achieve socialism, which, according to party doctrine, was in the best interest of women anyway. [148] The revolutionary feminist fervor of peasant women needed to be quelled. Their centuries-long miserable oppression at the hands of men fostered a separatist feminist militancy among peasant women’s groups. From the inception of the communist movement in China, however, the revolutionary vanguard “miserably underrepresented” women. [149] The proclamations and propaganda issued by the party on its lines of acceptable feminism were necessarily permitted if not written by male leadership. “The incestuous father-worship cult of Chairman Mao” reigned supreme, even among the few elite female leaders. [150] Drastic feminist projects were rejected by the male-dominated party.

Through family and marriage reforms, industrialization, economic expansion, and the creation of some social organizations to support material access, the time period from the civil war through the Cultural Revolution saw incredible change for women in China. Women’s labor was needed to build socialism. Young peasant women could now obtain divorces from elderly husbands, secure their livelihoods independently through work, tie themselves to their society through local party and workplace organizations, and relieve some of the burden of domestic labor and child raising through partial collectivisation and family reforms demanding men’s participation. [151] Despite these positive changes, much remained to be pursued and achieved. As well as being the first laid off in times of hardship, women were relegated to feminized, usually lower-wage professions. These womanly professions, in China and in Western countries, usually fall within the bounds of “preparing food, healing, making garments, caring for children.” [152] Unsurprisingly, “village men opposed the plan” to throw themselves equally into household labor and childcare to compensate for the advancement of women into the socially productive workforce. [153] Like in every hitherto existing productive society, [154] skills involving technological knowledge, machine operation, and supervision were reserved for men. [155] The hierarchical sexual division persisted, justified by the “sexual differences . . . accepted as natural and desirable by most Chinese.” [156] Additionally, because ideological change among men was not strongly attempted, many women taking advantage of their new legal and social rights were attacked, murdered, or ostracized by their patriarchal communities. [157]

Male domination of the central party apparatus necessarily results in a weakening of feminist fervor and policy. When faced with women as revolutionary agents, the vast majority of men will react against them. Men have real privileges to lose. “Within the family [the man] is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.” [158] Just as in a socialist revolution, the workers must lead their own liberation. In the early years of the USSR, the Bolshevik government made a series of radical legal changes regarding women. Almost immediately, they legalized divorce and stripped religious institutions of legal marrying power, followed by the legalization of abortion and recognition of unregistered cohabitational unions. After instituting quotas for women in vocational schools to accelerate the introduction of women to the workforce, women made up “one-third of the labor force and 41% of students in higher and technical education” by 1936. [159] In 1922, the Soviet Labor Code instituted protections for working women’s overall and reproductive health, which was “much needed at the time” of “frequent reports of women who had so overstrained themselves physically that they had ruined their health or damaged their uteri.” [160] While some labor laws were based on physical differences, some laws were drafted to protect “motherhood” as “a social function” for society, and therefore had a more conservative effect in the long-term that preserved the sexual division of labor.

Marxist feminist visionary Aleksandra Kollontai’s Zhenotdel women’s division was behind many of the radical changes, but also their consequences. In the USSR as well as China, sometimes the state plowed forward with radical legal change to destroy the old patriarchal order without having the material resources or policy to support women in the new order while male exploitation and predation continued to exist. This lead to many women becoming destitute and overburdened when their husbands could divorce them at any moment and leave them propertyless, with children (and even unemployed, during the Soviet liberal New Economic Policy years). [161] A significant lesson to learn from the Soviet and Chinese endeavor is that “the infrastructure that would give them a new place in society as rapidly as circumstances demanded” is essential during feminist revolution. To merely abolish the old patriarchal system, with its placements and paternalistic protections of complacent women, without securing a place for women in the economy and social structure leaves women to bear the burden of feminist transformation. Ideological change in men is critical to the security of women in tumultuous times. [162] These are mistakes that must never be repeated.

In Cuba, the socialist revolution has brought stunning advances for women’s equality, but similar patterns of setbacks emerge. In the first five years after the revolution in 1959, massive efforts were made to eliminate illiteracy and train the population for useful jobs. The ratio of male to female in public schools was brought into balance. Most women were channeled into traditionally feminine jobs. [163] In 1964, the state began initiatives to bring women into the workforce, with the large harvests of 1970 bringing in the most. By 1974, “seventy percent of Cuban women workers had joined the labor force in the years following the triumph of the revolution.” [164] Some women were celebrated for joining traditionally male jobs such as sugar cane harvesting, but the sexual division of labor was maintained through culture and state propaganda. It was seen as natural, for example, for women to be educators of young children and childcare providers. [165] The regime took women’s equality seriously, even when taking steps to reinforce the sexual division of labor. In 1968, the Ministry of Labor passed resolutions reserving certain job categories exclusively for women, which they argued would protect them. Despite these reactionary aspects, in 1973, Fidel Castro condemned in a speech the “residual male chauvinism and supermanism [sic] and all those things that are still a part of us” that lead to women being discouraged from achieving educational and career success. [166]

The maintenance of a sexual division of labor hurt women workers through the “double shift.” The state never endeavored to get men into the household labor as women were entering the workforce. This double shift means women are overburdened and prevented from flourishing in local political organizations that provide skills and opportunities for leadership advancement. This demonstrates the circularity of male leadership in the communist party. Male self interest assures a lack of effort to alleviate women’s burden. “Men wanted to assure that women would continue to perform the appropriate tasks at home.”[167] Male reaction to radical feminist ideology creates blindness or disregard for the problem of gender. A socialist praxis that assumes that women’s homecare is natural discourages men from participating in domestic labor and childcare. This is not a subjective issue of correct or incorrect revolution, but a fact that inhibits women’s full equality.


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Endnotes for this section: [144-167]

144.  Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. “Soviet Power and the Status of Women.” V.I. Lenin Internet Archive,, 2002 (1919). Web.

145. Stacey, Judith. “When Patriarchy Kowtows,” Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979. 330.

146. Ibid. 317.

147. Stacey, Judith, “When Patriarchy Kowtows,” 317.

148. Ibid. 309.

149. Ibid. 310.

150. Ibid. 320.

151. Ibid. 313-318.

152. Cockburn, Cynthia, “Technology production and power,” Inventing Women: Science, Technology, and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1992. 200.

153.  Stacey, Judith, “When Patriarchy Kowtows,” 327.

154. Cockburn, Cynthia, “Technology production and power.”

155.  Stacey, Judith, “When Patriarchy Kowtows,” 328.

156. Ibid.

157. Jancar-Webster, Barbara. Women under Communism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. Print. 131.

158. Engels, Friedrich. “II. The Family.” Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Chapter 2 (IV). Marxists Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

159. Jancar-Webster, Barbara. Women under Communism. 126.

160. Ibid.

161. Ibid. 123.

162. Ibid. 126.

163. 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. 276.

164. Ibid. 278.

165. Ibid. 279.

166. Ibid. 280.

167. Hartmann, Heidi. “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex.” 218.