Marxism and the Plight of Women

The philosophies of socialism and feminism have made several collaborative efforts throughout history, to the extent that feminism has become accepted generally as a left-of-centre doctrine, despite being embraced by individuals on all sides of the political spectrum. It seems that the plight of women has consistently rested hand-in-hand with the plight of the working class, as both groups have struggled for equality, economic or otherwise. This is why, to mark International Women’s Day this year (the occasion that sparked Russia’s February Revolution), I thought I’d write about how and where feminism ties into the Marxist movement.

As early as the late 1800s, Friedrich Engels laid down several key arguments as to why the societal oppression of women existed, ultimately arguing that such oppression was rooted not in a woman’s biological disadvantages, but the possessive nature of modern economic systems. The significance of such a proposition was not that it simply drew parallels between the struggle of women and that of workers, but that, in identifying the cause of such oppression to be economic, it unites the feminist and socialist struggle against a common enemy.

When communism was first attempted, in the early twentieth century, this theoretical marriage between the two groups can be exemplified by the incredibly progressive policies and ideas of the Soviet government. In Lenin on the Women’s Question, German Marxist theorist Clara Zetkin recalls ‘Comrade Lenin frequently spoke to me about the women’s question. Social equality for women was, of course, a principle needing no discussion for communists.’ She proceeds to talk about Lenin’s ideas as to how social equality could be achieved, and his intention to ‘build a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis’. From this, we can see that the feminist motives of VI Lenin and the government he represented were not simply leftist ideals, but were rooted in Marxist ideas and doctrine, which is brought to light by his insistence that a theoretical grounding to this proposed international movement is essential.

Over the following years, in a range of different socialist countries, the issues of equality were highlighted and resolved through multiple means. In the early Soviet Union, the crèche system – a dominant feature of War Communism – helped to relieve women of traditional family duties. The same can be said for the principles behind the Soviet Kolkhozes (collective farms), on which, as Alexander Vucinich writes in Soviet Economic Institutions: The Social Structure of Production Units, Issue 1, granted female worker on the farm ‘the full rights as a kolkhoz member’, meaning that ‘The peasant woman, according to the official theory, has ceased to work for her father or mother’, but rather works for a collective benefit.

A Soviet stamp depicting a union between a male and female worker

Of course, the practical reality did not always live up to the hypothetical ideal, but it’s examples like these that demonstrate the eagerness of the communist world to advance gender equality, both at home and abroad. True, attitudes of individual communists did vary from person to person, but the trend is clear; from the theoretical ideas of the original Marxist thinkers to the concrete achievements of the socialist world, we can clearly see that the historic ties between feminism and Marxism are not simply coincidental. Rather, the interests of women and workers worldwide have the same interests, and it is the same oppressive system that is thwarting the goals of both.


6 thoughts on “Marxism and the Plight of Women

  1. Great post and, as ever, it sent me googling off to look stuff up. You wrote ‘In the early Soviet Union, the crèche system – a dominant feature of War Communism – helped to relieve women of traditional family duties’ and so I went off and read all about, amongst other things, the East German state funded creche system… all very impressive, well organised etc and the hours were from 6am until 6pm (whooh .. don’t find hours of childcare like that now v easily) so that the women could put in a proper day’s work… all good stuff BUT that phrase ‘relieved of traditional family duties’. Oooof. So family duties are really a thing to be ‘relieved’ of?.This is dangerous. I want (and we NEED) to have a future where gender equality is NOT defined and its success measured by the workplace. Home and childcare should NOT be seen as just something you need to escape from. Devoting time to raise your family = the next generation = our planet’s future (if you choose to and are economically able to) should NOT be dismissed as inferior. Yes I applaud the ties that unite the Feminism and Marxism movements but wonder as ever where the home/children fit in?


    • I think the key phrase is ‘if you choose to’. Feminism is about women being able to pursue the career or role of their choice and on their own merits, without judgment. I suspect that the motivating factor in Communist Russia was not allowing women to choose – it was about efficiency. If one woman could look after multiple children, this potentially freed up other women to join the workforce and I doubt they got to say ‘no thankyou’! I also don’t remember many women in the Politburo – but I may be wrong; how far did Lenin think equality should go?


  2. Well now. This is a blog dedicated to ‘the themes of Marxism and communism and their significance and their relevance today’ (I’m quoting from AR’s intro).

    The historic association between classical Marxism and Feminism appears to me to be undeniable.

    Inessa Armand was the first leader of the post revolutionary Women’s Department (and the very fact they had such an organisation is telling). At the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in 1917 she stated “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.”

    Alexandra Kollontai was a senior figure in the Bolshevik Party. At the same Congress (in 1917 – where dozens of women were given a platform to speak and vote – can you imagine the same occurring anywhere else at that time?) she said: “The class-conscious worker must understand that the value of male labor is dependent on the value of female labor and that, by threatening to replace male labor with cheaper female workers, the capitalist can put pressure on men’s wages. Only a lack of understanding could lead one to see this question as purely a “woman’s issue.”

    In 1920 VI Lenin wrote to the Austrian Revolutionary Clara Zetkin: “Could there be any more palpable proof [of the continued oppression of women] than the common sight of a man calmly watching a woman wear herself out with trivial, monotonous, strength- and time-consuming work, such as her housework, and watching her spirit shrinking, her mind growing dull, her heartbeat growing faint, and her will growing slack?…Very few husbands, not even the proletarians, think of how much they could lighten the burdens and worries of their wives, or relieve them entirely, if they lent a hand in this “women’s work.” But no, that would go against the “privilege and dignity of the husband.” He demands that he have rest and comfort…”

    In the same year Trotsky wrote “[I]n order to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an…arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics.”

    We are talking here of the very architects of Marxism, and it is clear that they saw women’s rights and equality as lying at the heart of their movement. While we might argue about the precise formulation of their doctrine etc. it is quite unfair to impose a 21st century sophistication upon these noble attempts. And the mere fact that, for example, later Soviet regimes failed to appoint women to the Politburo is simply to observe that those regimes palpably failed to live up to Marxism’s noble ideals (and surely no-one would argue with that).


  3. I am suitably chastened! It did occur to me after I posted my somewhat flippant comment about the Politburo that there were also not many women in the British Government in 1917 – or to be precise none at all! The first female member of the cabinet was Margaret Bondfield in 1929. However there were only four female members of the Politburo in 74 years according to Wikipaedia which does highlight the gap between ideology and practice.


  4. This has been fascinating. I read your post last weekend and recognized I knew nothing of Marxist attitudes to women or feminism. I certainly share the view that there are times when it pays a government of whichever political persuasion to encourage women into the workforce – and this may be done by providing supportive child care arrangements. However, the points raised in this forum suggest a less cynical and more whole-hearted standpoint. Of course the child care must support not only the work force but also the child.


  5. Having studied the women’s experience in Mao’s China quite extensively there is a frustrating gap between what communist ideology (including Maoism) demands in terms of women’s liberation and what it actually takes practical steps to achieve. That said, China (and I imagine the USSR too) did see real progress for women. The problem comes once you consider motivation. As has been discussed above, it is unclear to what extent such policies were motivated by a genuine belief in women’s equality and to what extent they were a pragmatic attempt to increase the workforce.

    Moreover, in China women’s liberation did allow them to enter public life and to work in the fields. However, although an effort was made to collectivise domestic labour, they still ended up disproportionately saddled with domestic chores and tasks along with an expectation of public participation. Thus, women’s ‘liberation’ actually simply imposed more burdens on women. This issue of the ‘double burden’ is not unique to China (or, I suspect, communism). However, it is true that in failing to address this, China at least fell far short of the standard it set itself.

    That said, it’s a problem that is yet to be resolved today and one without an easy solution.

    Liked by 1 person

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