Gender, Class, and Race (was Re: Re: contradiction (was: facts in , the minds...)

sherrynstan at sherrynstan at
Thu Dec 20 21:24:23 MST 2001


<snip>I'll skip your opening remarks because I think we're talking at cross purposes. You seem to think I was accusing you of something; and it wasn't intended that way at all.<snip>

The debility of email.  We can't add expressions and gestures and all that body language to show how we feel.  I didn't feel accused, just misunderstood.  Sounds like an Eric Burdon song.  I'm gong to paste in some of the things I spent a long time writing in an earlier one-on-one conversation with Charles, and we can continue from there.

Charles was under the impression I was advocating abandoning materialism.  I would in no way abandon materialism.  This is our foundation.  But materialism does not equate to biology, it roots itself in practice.  This is an important distinction, I think.  I don't want to overthrow marxist categories, but to seek new categories in addition to the ones we have.  Marx, et al, developed their epistemology based on the information and practice that were the referents of their day.  While I will acknowledge that ALL practice is ultimately biological, since non-sentient beings do not practice anything, this is hairsplitting.  It requires us to seek some non-documented biological activity in the distant past to both explain and justify action in the here and now.  As for Marxism, I am a Marxist--just speaking for me--not because of some moral categorical imperative, but because of my experience (including what I study AND what I do) and my perception of interests.

In response to the business of bourgeois feminism, which I think is a dismissive and imprecise generalization, many feminists are neither bourgeois nor marxist.  I am a marxist because of my critical method and the side I consciously take in the class struggle, not because I am a religious true believer.  I simply don't assume that Marx or any marxists have had the last word on what are useful categories for interpretation, be it analysis or synthesis.

Charles stated that he explicity disagrees with post-modernists, and I admit I should have been more exact, and refered to social constructionists who were influenced by some specific ideas from Foucault.

Some of the issues:  How do you respond to this?

"Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one's own, yet most taken away... feminism fundamentally identifies sexuality as the primary social sphere of male power."

Feminists can plausibly argue, I think, that sexuality as constructed NOW is sexuality constructed, that is, defined, by men, forced on women, and therefore constitutive of the very meaning of gender.  In a sense, then, if we accept this (and I provisionally do), there is no such thing as genuine consent on the part of women, in much the same way there is no way to legitimize a construct of "black racism" against whites.  It's simply impossible to extricate this, as liberals do, from the society-wide power gradients.  This is the radical feminist thesis, as I understand it, at least part of it, and it strikes me as very compelling.  Not comforting, but compelling.  As DIALECTICAL and not mechanical materialists, we have to acknowledge that the power to "explain" is a form of acting on the world, and a form of material power.  Social constructionists begin their inquiry into sexuality by asking how many different definitions are there for "normal."  Subjective, statistical, ide!
alistic, cultural, clinical??? Which is it?  My own experience with my kids tells me how powerful the notion of "normalcy" is.  They may not be able to define it, but as mixed race kids, who are already over-scrutinized, they crave acceptance and even an element of anonymity in their social lives, and "normalcy" is something they gravitate to, "a script" as the SC/PM's would say.  Masculinity/femininity... are nothing if not sexual scripts, and we adopt them not just for biological reasons.  I myself have played out the masculine sexual script for affirmation and acceptance, for affection, for physical and psychological protection... so the reduction (and perhaps this is a better and more accurate workd than determinism) of sexuality to biology just doesn't ring true.  The penis was there when I popped out (and I guess this is technically biological), but ever since, the whole business has been instructed, rehearsed, and played out by social constructions of sexuality, constru!
ctions of a male supremacist society. In many ways, I have sensed a real reluctance on the part of many marxists to deal with sex in any but a superficial and economistic way.  It was one of the key issues, aside from its stubborn revisionism, that caused me to leave the Communist Party USA.

So male and female are biological categories, but the issue, I think, is one of sexuality.  Reproduction is a phenomenon.  But sexuality, while some of the specific equipment certainly evolved to propogate a species, has little to do with this biological occurrance (a possible birth later on), and involves FAR more than these specific anatomical differences.

Charles doesn't think sexuality "is entirely free of biology."  But neither do I.  We are, after all, living beings, so biology, in a sense, is inescapable.  But, the folks I am reading are not claiming there is no biology.  They are saying, as I did, that YES the structure of the ear has something to do with the human appreciation for music, but to reduce it to this biology is to ignore its true creative character... and sexuality is characterized by a similar creativity.  The biology of it misses the point.  They are saying that biology has been privileged in the study of sexuality, and this is a mistake.  I agree.

As to whether sex is a "natural" activity, I asserted that it is NOT precisely because "natural" is such a loaded term and the source of Marx and Engels biggest errors on gender--not ommissions, errors.  They moved within an exclusively male world view, so this is understandable.  And it's not a dismissal of Marx and Engels, but a critique.  They begin by attempting to define women's status exclusively in class terms, and therefore ignore how women are defined through relations with men.  And most marxists have consistently over the years defined struggling against sexual oppression as a separate or subsidiary effort, the "woman question."

Marx and Engels were merciless in their critique of the categories "value" and "class" as "natural."  But even Lenin talks of value being derived from earth the mother and labor the father, the actor and the acted-upon.  This is not an insignificant metaphor.  From Capital: "The distribution of work within the family, and the regulation of the labor-time of the several members, depend as well upon differences of age and sex as upon NATURAL conditions... Within a family..there springs up NATURALLY a division of labor, caused by differences of sex and age, a division that is consequently BASED ON A PURELY PHYSICAL FOUNDATION."   Think of the implications, that nature changes naturally, or it changes not at all... unlike "social" labor which is subject to human intervention.  This is not a statement of incompletion by Marx, but an explicit statement about gender, that contradicts his own principles as an historical materialist.  "The production of life, both of one's own labor an!
d of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship; on the one hand as a NATURAL, and on the other as a SOCIAL relationship."  When he talks of capitalism's disruption of the family, he says the working MAN, in addition to selling his own labor, now "sells HIS wife and child."  You see where I'm going here?  In talking about child mortality, he says "[A]part from local causes, principally... to the employment of the mothers away from their homes... there arises an UNNATURAL estragnement between mother and child... the mothers become to a grievous extent DENATURALIZED toward their offspring." Engels at least acknowledged the social etiology of women's oppression in FPPS, but... his analysis is hopelessly positivist.  He concentrates, as some marxists still do, on an (inaccurate it turns out) historical account, obviously designed to wholly subsume the evolution of gender oppression into a predetermined class teleology, and leaves the question of what gender op!
pression looks like NOW unanswered.  Moreover, he describes class as a relation to the means of production, but reverts to sex as the sole etiology of gender oppression.  In his final conclusion, he decides, almost as if by destiny, that monogamous pair marriage is the socialist way.  He continually describes women as reluctant sexual partners, controlling (in a Victorian way) the Lusty men.  He actually claims that women "long for chastity."  Anyway...

Charles says "that biological aspects short of actual conception and reproduction are at play. Reproduction is so critical from a survival of species standpoint, that enormous "excess" of biological operations ( truly simple processes, the original simple pleasures) than needed for actual , rare reproductive coitus enters or operates even when no baby is sought. Basically, sex has to be an instinct as strong as any, so we have a lot of excess instinct.  That's my estimate. I have studied it some, but it's an ongoing research. But the basic logic of evolution and biology makes it a presumption that I think those arguing the other way have the burden to overcome."

BUT... my music metaphor still stands.  As does my point about using sex for acceptance, affection, validation, protection, etc, etc.

<snip>I don't see that the pre-class gender based divisions of labour were always and necessarily oppressive to women. Discriminatory and unfair - sometimes a bit nasty - but certainly not institutionalized oppression.<snip>

We don't even know what those divisions were.  If there was oppression, it was likely not institutionalized, because there were no institutions.  But I still wonder why we seem to seek the source of gender oppression, or oppression based on sexuality, today, based on unconfimable hypotheses of the distant past.  We hypothesize about the beginnings of class, but we see commodity production, then machinofacture, then imperialism, as stages that are identifiable, and that constitute qualitative shifts.  And we study these things in their specificity, now.  But when it comes to feminism, there seems to be a defensiveness coming from marxists, and as a marxist, I have to question that.

<snip>Gender only became a source of institutionalized oppression when the need for class reproduction sanctified the family unit as the prime social institution.<snip>

Can you provide evidence of that?  Because Engels' attempt to show this was based on a lot of bad information, as it turned out.
But again, when we begin to study the question of homophobia, a huge issue I have with my dear comrades in Haiti, how do we get at the relations between homophobia and sexism.  We are forced to look again at sexuality, NOT male and female.  And reproduction alone is totally inadequate to the task.

<snip>No. It's an antagonism between the public sphere and the private sphere. Ironically, the private sphere got its start in the Men's Houses of pre-class society, where men first began learning the art of psychological preparedness for war. Today, the private is guarded by the Pillar of the Hearth. It is precisely because the family is seen as an alternative to social safety nets that the religious right is so heavily invested in the cult of family values.<snip>

This strikes me as valid, but incomplete.  The question of war is intriguing, as an historical material foundation for masculinity.  I am very interested in the thinking of Nancy C. M. Hartsock on the Homeric warrior ideal.  But what constitutes the gender antagonism of today?  NOT antagonism between male and female--that would be absurd.  When we talk of class, as marxists, we are laudably restless about identifying where the concrete battle lines are being drawn.  When we talk about gender, we want to grub around in the anthropological archives about mating habits.

95% of all domestic violence victims in the US are women.  There's an average of 9 seconds between women being battered in the US.  Around 4,000,000 women in the US will be battered this year.  In my state, NC, there will be around 114,000 in 2002, unless unemployment rises further, in which case battering will too.  An average of 4 women a day are killed by batterers in the US.  That's a WTC/Pentagon attack every two years.  67% of women who kill mates are doing so to protect themselves or their children from a batterer, yet the ratio of prison time served for male killing female mate to f/m is 1-2.  93% of women killed by mates were battered by them prior to the time they were killed.  Battery of wives is involved in 25% of reported US crime.  It's the number one cause of emergency room visits by women.  37% percent of US women have experienced battering at some time in their lives.  There are reported to be 1,155,600 US women who have been forcibly raped by a spouse.  Half !
the women who are homeless are escaping a violent domestic situation.  And the US spends three times as much to shelter animals as it does to shelter domestic abuse victims.  This only scratches the surface.  We haven't talked about brutality and discrimination toward gays and lesbians, about economic dependency, about the psychological tolls...

Feminists ask me where are the marxists on this?  Why are our voices not heard like they are when a man is killed on the job?  I have taken that critique to heart.

<snip>The "masculine class" and the "feminine class" are not, as your
terminology suggests, heterogenous and monolithic wholes. Quite the

I don't claim to have the category I'm seeking yet.  Masculine and feminine are just first runs.  But there is systemic oppression, across class lines, based on gender and-or gender identity, and I am not going to be satisfied with continually dusting off "The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State" to figure out what is its character.  It's just too convenient.

<snip> Gender roles differ quite markedly from class to class, from
social layer to social layer, and from historical period to historical

So do classes change?  This still evades the question.

<snip>For the vast majority of women, located amongst the toiling masses, Harriet Tubman's "Ain't I a Woman" speach is a more accurate description of their lot in life.<snip>

But not a whole description.  Working class men brutalize working class women, and working class homophobes brutalize working class gays, all the time.  Gender oppression can not just be subsumed within a class analysis.  We are being defensive when we do that, and we are circumscribing ourselves, just as Mark has often pointed out marxists have done with regard to questions of energetics and the biosphere.  We are not abandoning the class struggle when we acknowledge that the neo-malthusians have something to teach us, and we are not abandoning the class struggle when we admit the feminists do, too.

<snip>Here, you're touching on the interrelationships between power, violence, and sexuality. Feminists are correct in characterizing rape as an act of power;<snip>

And they are wrong when they say (not all of them) that rape is not an act of sex.  It is the ultimate expression of "masculine" sexuality, as you point out, combining sexuality with power and violence.

<snip>The legendary fear of black male sexuality is, in part, a fear of the raw power of toilers which is characteristically felt by men of leisure.<snip>

I disagree again, respectfully.  Working class Southern white boys are the very worst about this.  We can't be glib and superimpose class on this.  What Southern white men fear, IMHO, at a deep psychological level, is not the power of the black toiler, but the power of the woman's sexuality.  This is the real threat.  And the idea that this black male, who in so many ways they attempt to "feminize" for subordination, might conspire with the white woman (through sexual relations), who shares with the black male a white male dominator, to set her sexuality free. Once her bonds are broken, she might laugh at him, they might laugh at him, and he will be reduced in the sight of every other white male.  I've lived around Southern white boys all my life, and I assure you I'm not concocting this.  There is nothing rational about it.  The right understand the power of this irrational sentiment, and they deploy it whenever necessary. Many "progressives" still believe they can persuade p!
oor terrified Billy Bob (who's a very dangerous man when he feels this threatened) of the superiority of their anti-racist positions by reasoning with him.  They can not.  They have not addressed the real issue, because none of us have a good handle on it yet.  It's sexuality.

Anyhow, enough for tonight.

Thanks, Joan, for the response.  I look forward to your next.


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