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‘Marxism insists we can have a society without women’s oppression’

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The fight against sexism has reopened important debates about where oppression comes from. Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr spoke about her new book Marxism and Women’s Liberation
Issue 2469
Author and Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr
Author and Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Women at an anti-racist festival

Why should people read another book on fighting for women’s liberation?

It’s very exciting to see the politicisation of a new generation who want to join the fight for women’s liberation.

Women have made great gains, from jobs and education to what’s expected of them in their personal lives and the ability to control their biology. 

These are real material changes that have changed our lives—but some aspects of sexism have got worse recently. 

This has generated a lot of anger and renewed interest in feminism, because it’s really the first port of call if you’re angry about sexism. 

Today you’ve got new debates about privilege theory and intersectionality. Some theorists argue that men, straight or white people benefit from oppression or that we just need to look at how different oppressions interact.

Many activists now use the term “classism”, but only look at class as just another form of oppression. 

They’re all grappling for an understanding of oppression, but ideas around class are getting a bigger hearing. 

That’s partly why I wrote the book, because we have much in common with feminists. But I wanted to look at these feminist ideas and make the case that Marxism can offer an explanation of women’s oppression and a way to fight it. 


You say in the book that Marxism has always been a touchstone for ideas around women’s liberation. Why do you think that is? 

The fact that the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are still being argued about shows their strength.

Marxism has always been a touchstone, even for those who disagree with it, because it offers an all-encompassing view of the world. 

It doesn’t begin with people’s personal experience of oppression, but it can help us understand it.

I think it’s impossible to really understand the burden of oppression and how most women experience it without looking at class.


Karl Marx

Karl Marx

But how can Marxism, with its focus on the working class, explain oppression by itself? Doesn’t Marxism need feminism?

Marxism doesn’t need something attached to it to make it care about women’s oppression.

Marx and Engels weren’t just writing about wages and profits. They were looking at those issues to understand a society that flows from those class divisions. 

Marxism explains how inequality and discrimination distorts personal relationships. Those “common sense” ideas—about how men and women should behave—flow from the material reality of how women are treated.

Marx and Engels argued in the 19th century that the family was crucial to understanding women’s oppression. But the family has changed since then. Is this still valid?

The family clearly looks different to 25 years ago, let alone 100 years ago, but it is still critical and predominantly the “women’s sphere”. 

Its social function still means that ordinary people bear the burden of bringing up the next generation and looking after those who cannot go out and sell their labour power. 

The Tories’ assault on welfare has also laid bare what Marxists have argued about the family in a way that perhaps wasn’t so visible before. 

Benefit cuts for single parents, disabled people and others also mean the burden is pushed onto the family. 

Even if young people are married or have children, many are now forced to live with parents and grandparents. 

The family’s social function means that it’s important in shaping gender and gender expectations.


But things once seen as sexist—such as pole dancing—are now presented as being liberating. Can Marxism explain that? 

The fight for sexual liberation was a key part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and it made real gains. But capitalism, which commodifies every aspect of our lives, remained.

That means you get a situation where our sexual liberation is defined by how much of a commodity it is. When women’s bodies are for sale, such as in pole or lap dancing, it’s sold back to us as us being “in touch with our bodies”. 

But it pushes us into a narrow caricature of what sexual liberation is. It reflects an alienated world where an intrinsic part of our humanity—to be sexual beings—is turned into something to be bought and sold. 

Women’s bodies being commodified has always been an important part of women’s oppression, but we’re seeing it in a much sharper way. What makes this “new sexism” worse is that it’s packaged as “liberating”. 


Frederick Engels

Frederick Engels

You write a lot about the family and ideas about gender. Why do you think having a material analysis is so important?

The dominant ideas about gender are very deterministic—men are “tough” and “don’t cry” while women are “caring”. Modern society also has a very binary view of gender about “men” and “women”. 

These are all socially constructed ideas about gender, which I totally reject. But some people who challenge deterministic views of gender still fall back into the same sort of trap. 

For instance, some argue that if women ran the world there wouldn’t have been a banking crash. But I don’t think anyone in Greece thinks that austerity has been any more “caring” because Christine Lagarde runs the IMF.

There are also some radical feminists who reject transgender women because they aren’t “born as women”.

This flows from the idea that  oppression is rooted in patriarchy, which sees something inherently oppressive in “maleness”.

In the book I argue that it’s possible to have a much more fluid view of gender and relationships than we have under capitalism. 


An endorsement from Hester Eisenstein

Does having such an analysis of gender show that oppression hasn’t always existed? 

What’s impressive about Engels is that his ideas are still being debated, even though some of his theory is based on flawed research.

My book looks at new research that archaeologists and anthropologists have unearthed only recently.

This confirms Engels’ basic assertion—that women’s oppression isn’t an inevitable part of human society. 

Women’s oppression didn’t exist for the majority of human society and only arose with the birth of class society.

This is a revolutionary assertion that opens our eyes to the possibility that we can have a different society without women’s oppression. 


How does the idea that women’s oppression hasn’t always existed shape the fight for liberation? 

Marxism isn’t just about having a theory to understand the burden of oppression—it gives women agency in the fight for our liberation.

Women as a group don’t have a common experience or a common interest in fighting. Every time women have gone into struggle—whether for the vote, against low pay or for abortion rights—they’ve been strongest when fighting alongside working class men. 

For Marxists class isn’t just about how poor you are—if you’re working class you are part of what Marx called the “gravedigger” of capitalism. 

Exploitation is a rotten thing—you’re being ripped off by your boss. But the boss also needs you to make a profit. That puts you in a powerful position and today there are more women workers than ever before. 

No other social force has such an interest in unity as the working class. That’s why I look closely at some of the high points of struggle throughout history, in order to learn where our power lies. 

This doesn’t mean we idealise the working class and believe there are no sexist or other backward ideas. 

They have to be challenged, but working class struggle is part of the process that challenges those ideas. 

So I look at women during revolutions, because it gives a glimpse of what a different society could be like. For instance, sexual harassment was challenged as never before in the occupation of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. 

During mass struggles we see women at their most confident, their most assertive and combative. We glimpsed that during the big public sector strikes and on the mass TUC demonstrations against austerity with their big union contingents. 

That’s the opposite of what oppression does, when it atomises us and makes us feel downtrodden.


Yes, but many of the new generation of feminist activists aren’t looking to the working class to change the world.  

When the working class is openly fighting in a big way there’s something to look to. 

I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1984 during the Miners’ Strike when workers were really challenging a Tory government. It can be harder to win the argument about the working class when there’s less struggle. 

But Occupy and the Arab Revolutions have boosted the idea that we can transform society. 

That means Marxism gets a hearing and this book is about putting forward a Marxist analysis of how to fight for women’s liberation. I want it to stimulate debate and discussion about how to take the struggle forward.


Marxism and Women’s Liberation is published on 14 September by Bookmarks publications, £9.99


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