Women’s class struggle

by Jagoda Marinic

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


Women protesting against sexual violence and abuse of power in November 2019 in Santiago de Chile. Photographer: Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images

It is a year in which it it safe to say: If you don't read books on feminism, you're not in your right mind. Since #MeToo at the latest, it is clear: The feminism of the 21st century is resurgent worldwide. This is because the old patriarchy everywhere: With Trump a sexist took the helm in the USA, while Brazil elected Bolsonaro, a leader who does not see minority struggles as part of democracy. In Germany, too, it is far from certain what will happen in the post-Merkel era. The men Merkel left behind are already vying for the highest office in the country. Germany is - above all in the economic sector - a country in which feminists are gearing up to defend themselves.

Two important new books have just been published, providing ample material for understanding the situation of women around the world. The first is the manifesto "Feminism for the 99%" by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser. Secondly, Kristen R. Ghodsee wrote the the almost history-book like tome "Why women have better sex under socialism". Although the titles suggest otherwise, the manifesto of the trio of authors is the more provocative work, and the more strident. 

"Feminism for the 99%" begins with the "Waterloo of feminism", which the authors pinpoint as 2016: Hillary Clinton could have been the first president of the United States, but women denied her enough votes. The reason is simple: women living a precarious existence are beginning to understand that the occupation of high offices by women from the elite, as the book describes it, would not necessarily improve the lot of the vast majority. It's preferable to go on strike than to be the boss amid the prevalent predatory capitalism of the one percent.

For the authors, liberal feminism, which seeks quotas and a share of the power, is only gender justice for the one percent of the super-rich

It is the end of the so-called lean-in feminism proclaimed by Sheryl Sandberg, the managing director of Facebook, when she called on women to take more responsibility and to reconcile career and family. "Feminism for the 99%" is rather a radical attack on this very liberal feminism, whereby feminism means making even more female labour available in the context of a distorted labour market. For the authors, liberal feminism, which seeks quotas and a share of the power, is only gender justice for the one percent of the super-rich. They want to end poverty in times of global prosperity. Arruzzas, Bhattacharyas and Fraser's manifesto focuses on feminist strike movements, which in October 2016 brought hundreds of thousands of women onto the streets from Poland to Argentina, in what amount to traditional class struggles, augmented by identity politics. Naturally, March 8 plays a major role for these women. They see themselves as pioneers of a "women's strike", a new, unprecedented phase of class struggle: feminist, internationalist and anti-racist.

The manifesto is at its strongest when it deals with the question of how to deal with reproduction within the capitalist system. This is where women’s vulnerability is acute. And paradoxically, it is often women themselves who, by living liberal feminism, (have to) achieve their successes via poorer, often migrant women, who provide the care. In this sense the authors believe that liberal feminism is a colossal failure: Because women exploit other women to be part of the elite, liberal feminism has a bad reputation among the broad female population. This kind of feminism would not spell an end to patriarchy. On the contrary.

The manifesto's analyses are radical and easy to read, engaging the reader with their sheer determination. But many questions remain unanswered. For example, how would it be possible to upend the current social order? Or, would it really helps if women avoid trying to become part of the elite that develops the social and political framework we live in? The authors do not seem to see any benefit of women assuming key positions in society. They do not believe that rejigging the gender balance of key institutions would spark different attitudes within the system, thus changing it from within. Capitalism in its present form, is too corrupt, too insatiable and too powerful. For the three authors, capitalism is the root cause of the crisis in society as a whole, which continues beyond the exploitation of women into all areas of life: a crisis of ecology, politics and care.

Hillary Clinton failed not only because women refused to vote for her, but also because of the numerous women who supported Trump

Right-wing movements know how to exploit these unresolved crises for their own benefit. They offer people simple, national, exclusive solutions, while the global approach of feminists is international, complex thinking and involves networking. "Feminism of the 99%" rejects siding with right-wing reactionary forces, or neoliberal forces, which, for the authors, includes liberal feminism. Despite this radicalism, it is unclear whether the book reaches the 99 percent of all women for whom the writer trio aims to speak. The authors are not disconcerted by the fact that Hillary Clinton failed not only because women refused to vote for her, but also because of the numerous women who supported Trump. Do they really speak for these women, who are often underprivileged?

The book’s authors demand that we step on the emergency brake, which ultimately puts them in the same category as the youth climate movement Fridays for Future. The approaches put forward in this manifesto are radically young, because they do not believe in the power of democratic compromise. They are close to Fridays for Future and to the scientists who have joined forces to call for a climate emergency. This slim book contains enough material to support its thesis that we lack the time for yesterday's debates. The predator is hungry, capitalism does not stop for people, especially not the poor, and certainly not for nature. The manifesto demands a "real solution", nothing less than a completely new social order. Since we can take for granted the overriding inertia of the world and the persistence of prevailing conditions, the manifesto fuels hope that there are still those who believe that social movements are still possible. These three strong voices outline the thought processes which will precede such movements.

How can we rescue successful policies from the eras of totalitarian regimes?

Kristen R. Ghodsee, on the other hand, is far less controversial in her book "Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism", but perhaps no less radical, particularly if we note that her book was first published in the United States, where "socialism" is one of the most vehement political insults. Whoever demands a state-subsidised safety net betrays the American dream. Her book recalls a historical reference book: it bundles knowledge about an era and a geographical region about which many people have asked few questions. For Ghodsee, the end of the Cold War is the moment that led to our current predicament. Where there is no opponent, there is no battle of ideas. She describes the triumph of predatory capitalism, but she does not call for a radical u-turn like the authors of "Feminism for the 99%". Instead, she wants to talk about measures to integrate women and mothers into the labour market. Her attempt is controversial and theoretically well-founded: how can we rescue successful policies from the eras of totalitarian regimes? She defends herself against the accusation that one should not promote a "differentiated view of totalitarianism": That would mean that successful women's policies would not be up for debate because it not possible to refer to the eras when they were "best practice". Ghodsee relies on evaluating studies, but dots her analysis with intriguing questions and ironic comments.

With this book Ghodsee contributes a slice of women's history on the era before the fall of the Berlin wall. She includes pictures of women on the world stage who are mostly unknown, because the East’s success stories remained untold for too long (to avoid any signs of leniency towards the long-gone unjust regimes). She tells how the Cold War arms race permeated all areas of society, how in 1961 John F. Kennedy laid the legal foundations for the "First Commission on the Status of Women", which later helped spark the U.S. women’s movement with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt. Part of the reason the USA bid farewell to the ideal of the woman at the stove as the "American Way of Life" was the Russian woman Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space to orbit the earth 48 times. According to the book, it was feared that socialist states had an advantage in the development of new technologies because they had twice as many bright minds - in Russia women were better educated and the brightest were recruited to work in science.

Elena Lagadinova, a young protester against the Bulgarian monarchy, is seen alongside the legendary U.S. feminist Angela Davis

The first image in the book shows how quickly women overcame the competitive approach of their governments: Elena Lagadinova, a young protester against the Bulgarian monarchy, is seen alongside the legendary U.S. feminist Angela Davis, both smiling as if united by a confidential thought. The photo has a dedication: "To Elena. Much love and solidarity. Angela". That was in 1972: female solidarity in the midst of the Cold War. Ghodsee gives Cold War women a worthy place in the women's movement. She writes with enough humour to reveal how little she can really say about sex lives in the socialist era, but her approach of addressing our current failures by looking at historical alternatives, is both brave and creative - and it brings East and West into dialogue.

Fortunately, as readers, we don’t have to chose between the two books, quite the contrary. Together they show how broad feminist literature has to be to have real impact. You could argue that they represent different stages of the argument: Ghodsee discusses aspects of a social market economy which enable women to work better and thus live - and love - more freely. But "Feminism for the 99%" no longer wants to talk about such measures of tinkering with the system. From the authors' point of view these are simply small aspects of a defective social order in which a minority abuses the majority for capitalist profit. Feminist literature today operates in this area of conflict. The unwillingness to reach a consensus in the search for a fairer world could be the secret of success of today’s multiple women's movements.

Feminism for the 99%. A Manifesto. By Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser. Verso, 2019.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism And Other Arguments For Economic Independence. By Kristen R. Ghodsee. Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2019.

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