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Last updated 26 May 2019
Socialist feminism is further to the left of the political spectrum and was the prevalent approach within the second-wave of the women’s movement.
Theorists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Charles Fourier argue that the root cause of female oppression is the economic system. Capitalism is designed to serve the interests of men whilst exploiting women. In short, both capitalism and patriarchy are linked. Women’s work is underpaid, undervalued and often unpaid. Women are also underrepresented within the most powerful jobs, more likely to be part of the precariat, more likely to be underemployed and more likely to be in part-time work. Capitalism also relegates women to the status of the reserve army of labour with a disproportionately high number of housewives and other females.
Socialist feminists also claim that the nuclear family reflects and reinforces patriarchy.
Firstly, it maintains the dominant position of the bourgeoisie by enabling fathers to pass on their wealth to their sons.
Secondly, the family also provides a safety-valve to relieve some of the pressure the male proletariat may experience within the workplace. In doing so, a form of false consciousness is generated that prevents the proletariat from overthrowing their capitalist oppressors.
Thirdly, the family is a unit of consumption which helps the bourgeoisie maintain a profit. As Karl Marx once said; “the bourgeoisie has torn away from the family in sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”
Finally, mothers are expected to undertake the main responsibility for nurturing children and taking care of male workers. The owners of capital therefore gain a healthy supply of workers without having to pay for costly health-care schemes. As such, the emancipation of women demands nothing less than the abolition of the traditional nuclear family with the male as breadwinner and head of the household.
Perhaps the key distinction between the two main strands of feminist thought is that liberal feminists are individualist whereas socialist feminists are collectivist. Socialist feminists claim that the feminist movement can only progress via solidarity amongst women. A sense of sisterhood is necessary in order that women may liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression. In a society based upon the tenants of socialist feminism, there would be genuine equality between the genders. In doing so, the self-esteem and expectations of females would rise to that of their male counterparts. In contrast, liberal feminism is focused primarily upon personal choice.