[Marxism] Race, Class, and Feminist Theory (Part 2)

usman x sandinista at shaw.ca
Tue Mar 9 00:44:55 MST 2004

From Agnew, Vijay (1996): Resisting Discrimination: Women from Asia, Africa,
and the Caribbean and the Women's Movement in Canada.

Race, Class, and Feminist Theory


In the 1970s feminist theory was criticized for ignoring racism and treating
gender as a universal and ahistorical category that encompassed the
experiences of all women. Feminist slogans of the 1970s that identified all
men as 'the enemy' and all women as suffering 'common oppression' were
initially adopted by women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. But after
the initial enthusiasm for articulating the common experiences of gender,
some feminists began to critically examine these slogans and their
assumption that gender represents the primary source of women's oppression.
This re-examination spawned a vigorous and far-ranging critique of feminist
theories. Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean used historical data to
demonstrate that class and race were as powerful as gender in oppressing and
exploiting women (Rollins 1985, Glenn 1986; Carby 1986; Parmar 1986).

	In the United States the concept of gender as the universal oppressor of
all women was attacked by Angela Davis in Women, Race, and Class (1983).
Through careful documentation of black slavery, she demonstrated that,
contrary to the white feminist view of the family's role in oppressing
women, for the female slave the family was meaningful and emotionally
supportive. Davis questioned the commitment of white women to black
emancipation and portrayed them as racists. The role of the family in
oppressing women was probably the concept first identified by feminists from
Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as one that excluded their experiences.
White feminists had identified the patriarchal family as the locus of
women's subordination and inequality, but women from Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean argued that the family also served as an emotional buffer in a
race-biased society and created solidarity between men and women. This
contradiction was initially ignored by white, middle-class feminists, who
criticized the family on behalf of all women, but eventually white feminists
admitted that they had shown ethnocentric bias in describing the experiences
of their own class and race as the norm while disregarding the experiences
of other women (hooks 1984; Collins 1990; Carby 1986; Barrett and Mclntosh
1985; Kline 1989b; Spelman 1988).

	In Britain racism in feminism was exposed by Jenny Bourne in “Towards an
Anti-racist Feminism”(1984). There were no similar publications in Canada,
but Canadian feminists responded to the critiques published elsewhere. These
works stimulated a much broader discussion of discrimination and bias within
feminist theories and practices. But at the same time they created a crisis
of conscience within the feminist community that threatened to undermine
feminist positions on male bias, the social construction of women, and the
treatment of women as 'objects' in male discourse. Feminists from Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean revealed biases in feminist theories and practices
and attacked the assumption of privilege by white feminists in the community
of women (hooks 1988; Lorde 1984).

	In 1985 Michele Barrett and Mary Mclntosh were among the first few
feminists who identified biases in socialist-feminist analysis, which
supplemented gender theory with class analysis. Their own previous analyses
of forms of household organizations and wage labour, they said, had 'spoken
from an unacknowledged but ethnically specific position; its apparently
universal applicability has been specious' (1985, 25). They further
acknowledged that race and ethnicity had effects on working class women's
wages and their relations within the family that were quite different from
those on white, middle-class women's. Patriarchy, they admitted, could not
explain how white women exercise power, based on race, over black men.

	Barrett and McIntosh tried integrating race, class, and gender within a
Marxist framework, but they could not resolve these problems and concluded
by asking:

"[S]hould we regard race as easier to incorporate into a classic Marxist
analysis than feminism proved to be? Or should we concentrate on the
relations between race end gender and ignore for the moment the consequences
of this for a class analysis? Or should we back down from these academic
debates and adopt a more pragmatic approach by identifying areas of common
and progressive struggle? Can we argue that racism, like women's oppression,
has independent origins but is now irretrievably embedded in capitalist
social relations?" (41)

	Kum Kum Bhavnani, a South Asian feminist, complained that, by turning to
questions of theory, Barrett and McIntosh were avoiding the real issue - the
differences of power relations between white and black women and between
different classes of white women. She argued that the real test for the
authenticity of white women's commitment to antiracism was whether their
analysis generated 'an adequate political practice for women against the
complexities of their oppression' (Bhavnani and Coulson 1986, 85).

	Barrett and Mclntosh's article generated several other responses that
pointed out additional problems - for example, Barrett and McIntosh tended
to diminish the importance of racism by describing their biases as
ethnocentric rather than racist. Caroline Ramazanoglu, a white feminist,
noted: ‘The recognition of ethnocentrism in our work does not in itself
render black women's experiences visible. It is only when we try to take
black women's experiences into account that the extremely problematic
relationship between general ideas of oppression and women's experiences of
oppression becomes [understandable]’ (1986, 84).

	Some feminists have responded to the charge of racism in mainstream
feminism by acknowledging that women are oppressed by race, class, and
gender. Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean experience one kind of
oppression because of their gender (shared with white women), another
because of their race (shared with men from Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean), and a third because of their class (shared with working-class
women and men) (Thornhill 1989, 27). But this formulation may suggest that
race, class, and gender oppressions are experienced in discrete segments and
can be isolated from one another. Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean
experience the three oppressions together (Smith 1989, 47; Romany 1991; Amos
and Parmar 1984). Emily Woo Yamasaki observes: 'I cannot be an Asian
American on Monday, a woman on Tuesday, a lesbian on Wednesday, a worker/
student on Thursday, and a political radical on Friday. I am all these
things everyday. We are discriminated against as workers on the economic
plane, as racial minorities on the economic and social planes, and as women
on all three planes - economic, social, and domestic/ family' (quoted in
Wong 1991, 293).

Black feminists emphasize the interlocking nature of oppression:

"This viewpoint shifts the entire focus of investigation from one aimed at
explicating elements of race or gender or class oppression to one whose goal
is to determine what the links are among these systems. The first approach
typically prioritizes one form of oppression as being primary, then handles
remaining types of oppression as variables within what is seen as the most
important system. For example, the efforts to insert race and gender into
Marxist theory exemplify this effort. In contrast, the more holistic
approach implied in Black feminist thought treats the interactions among
multiple systems as objects of study." (Collins 1991, 41-2)

	Biases emerge in attempts to reformulate Marxist categories to incorporate
the experience of race and gender discrimination. An example of this
approach is Nancy Hartsock's 'The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground
for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.’ Hartsock says that
women's experience of the 'sexual division of labour' constitutes them as a
social group and forms the basis of a feminist standpoint common to all
women. Hartsock proposes that feminists lay aside the differences among
women across race and class boundaries and instead search for 'central
commonalities' (1987, 163-4). She treats gender as a separate category that
can be isolated from the experience of race and class, and she does not
consider the differences of power between women. Hartsock emphasizes the
importance of the individual's material experience; she does not consider
the role of white women in subordinating and exploiting women from different
classes and races. White, middle-class feminists may theoretically recognize
the interconnections of race, class, and gender, but their different
location in society makes them less conscious of the privilege of race and
thus leads them to emphasize gender. In privileging gender as the basis of a
feminist standpoint, Hartsock reproduces familiar biases of the 1970s, which
are encoded in concepts of 'sisterhood' and 'women as victims.'

	Theoretical proposals by a variety of white feminists about the integrated
nature of gender, race, and class analysis have not always displaced the
centrality of gender in feminist analysis. Identifying the different sources
of women's oppression has not dislodged the hierarchy of race within
feminism; it reappears in more subtle and indirect ways. Postmodern literary
interpretations of the significance of experience, the provisional nature of
'identity,’ the subjectivity of all discourses, and the meanings that can be
assigned to the word 'difference' have broadened the categories of
oppression. Deconstruction exposes the biases hidden in many categories and
definitions, and this has had the effect of depoliticizing the issue of race
within feminism (Nicholson 1990; Alcoff 1988; Bulkin, Pratt, and Smith
1985). In addition, these interpretations raise a problem: if discourses
reflect political and social structures of gender, race, and class, and
these enclose women's identities in specific ways, how can women exercise

	Identities can change. Race, class, and gender are not eternal essences or
biological constants; they are socially constructed. The perception of who
one is and of one's location vis-a-vis other social groups can change in
different contexts. Postmodern feminists view the subject as provisional,
located in specific historical situations, and constantly changing.
Differences among women are not fixed. A woman's identity as Chinese is
different in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Canada. In Canada she becomes
Chinese in relation to white, Anglo-Saxon women, that is, on the basis of
difference. Difference then becomes a way of establishing 'otherness' and
does not dislodge the norm (Minh-ha 1989; Barrett 1987; Parmar 1990). A
white woman may experience some race privilege in relation to a Chinese
woman, but she may be disadvantaged in relation to another white woman of a
different class. The fragmented and provisional nature of subjects
highlights the problems of agency, of initiating, mobilizing, and sustaining
political struggles over a period of time.

	The debate initiated by the discussion of racism in feminism has led to a
recognition of different kinds of oppressions: age, sexual orientation,
ethnicity, and culture, among others. But this recognition has begun to
diffuse the issues of race, power and privilege. bell hooks observes that
'the new cool words of feminism are "hegemony" and "pluralism." Race is out'
(1989). Some feminists despair over the fragmentation of the feminist
movement through an overemphasis on 'identity politics.' Many feminists are
now concerned that the personal will take precedence over the political and
undermine the political goals of the movement. Kathryn Harris and Pratibha
Parmar, among others, have noted that a consciousness of identity has the
advantage of revealing the important ways in which women's experiences
differ. But emphasizing the different experiences of women may fragment the
movement (Harris 1989; Parmar 1989).

	Recognition of the gender and racial identities of the individual does not
by itself generate a political consciousness or a common politics among
women. June Jordan says that 'much organizational grief could be avoided if
people understood that partnership in misery does not necessarily provide
for partnership for change: when we get the monsters off our backs all of us
may want to run in very different directions' (quoted in Parmar 1989, 62).
But Chandra Mohanty notes that a common political commitment to oppose
different kinds of domination can generate solidarity among women with
diverse identities (1991, 4). Socialist feminists envisage their struggles
as taking place within the community and around specific issues. This view
enables different groups to come together to oppose and resist domination
but does not tie them together on a broad range of issues. The boundaries of
these groups and communities are fluid and change over a period of time
'since the operation of power is always fluid and changing' (Mohanty 1991,

	A political strategy of coalitions between different feminist organizations
is widely supported among white women and women from Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean (Albrecht and Brewer 1990). The recognition of the diversity of
feminist organizations, their issues, and political strategies generates
support for feminism as a political movement for social change. But it also
raises questions about structures of power and relations of domination and
subordination within feminism.

	The concerns of white feminists continue to dominate feminist theories and
practices. Despite discussions of the influence of class, ethnicity, or
race, feminist theories still emphasize gender - see, for example, Nancy
Chodorow's analysis of motherhood as a common oppressor of all women or
Carol Gilligan's distinction between the moral development experiences of
males and females (Chodorow 1978; Spelman 1988; Gilligan 1982; Hartsock
1987). Barbara Christian, a black feminist, finds that white, middle-class
feminist theorists have made only a halfhearted effort to take into account
the different experience of women of other races and classes: 'Often as a
way of clearing themselves they do acknowledge that women of colour, for
example, do exist, then go on to do what they were going to do anyway, which
is to invent a theory that has little relevance for us' (1987, 59-60).

	Black women in the United States are now engaged in producing a black
feminist theory which attempts to place women's multiple oppressions at the
centre of its inquiry (Smith 1989, Christian 1989). White feminists still
only rarely challenge the central categories of gender analysis of the
unequal power of white women and women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean
(Kline 1989, 121; Rhode 1991; Romany 1991; Childers and hooks 1990; Open
Letters to Catharine MacKinnon 1991; Thornhill 1989; Wong 1991; Russo 1991).
Their discourse embodies, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, the
race and class biases of the larger society.

	In the 1980s a consensus developed that recognized the race and class bias
of white feminist theories and practices. But the process of 'inclusion' has
further exposed schisms between feminists. The differences in power between
women, which are supported and embedded in institutional structures, make it
difficult for feminists to come together in support of common theories or
practices. The feminist concept of experience as a guide to theory has
enabled many groups of women to identify the forms of oppression they
suffer. White feminists and feminists from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean
have taken up the challenge to find some 'unity in diversity' in feminist
theories and practices. Feminist theory supports local struggles which call
upon a network of other feminist organizations for support. But disputes
occur and they reflect the power relations among women in these
organizations. Challenging one oppression makes women conscious of other
oppressions, but the interconnected nature of the oppressions makes them
difficult to remove. In the next chapter I examine the difficulties that
feminist practice has encountered in staking out a common ground for
struggle among women. It shows, within a specific context, how power
relations affect feminist struggles.

"The obstacles are ideological rather than political. It is the expression
of patriarchal thought that permeates everything, that makes for a one-sided
vision of society ... Not only is there tremendous ignorance of a feminist
agenda, but when it is addressed it is addressed paternalistically,
condescendingly, in welfare terms. We are lacking in
profound and serious reflection on the subject." -Sofia Montenegro,

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