Within feminist thought, there are many different factions, akin to denominations within a faith or schools of thought within a political party. While the majority of these types of feminism share a common central goal — to end gendered oppression and ensure equality for all genders — they are separated by the theory behind that goal, the belief about how this oppression came to occur and, accordingly, how to dismantle it. Some movements within feminism focus on the organization of society into patriarchy, pinpointing historical patriarchy as the sole root of the oppression of women. Other forms of feminism focus on capitalism as the catalyst for oppression.
Materialist feminism, also known as material feminism, acknowledges that capitalism has a large influence on the situation of women within society — but that's not all there is to it. The term was coined fairly recently, in the late 1970's, to refer to the idea that gender oppression exists as a result of a combination of material situations, like capitalism and private property in combination with patriarchy.
What is material(ist) feminism?
Materialist feminism is commonly confused with Marxist feminism, from which it is primarily derived. Materialism is a Marxist concept that states that there is a material reality that exists objectively. Some critics claiming materialist feminism is not different enough from Marxist feminism to warrant an entirely separate movement of thought. Notoriously ambiguous and difficult to define, materialist feminism takes into account that patriarchal oppression exists in systems outside the means of production. Whereas feminism that follows Marx's teachings focuses exclusively on capitalism as the cause of gender oppression, materialist feminism counters that patriarchy exists outside of this external system as well, like in the division of labor within the household and in non-industrial areas of society. Materialist feminism argues that the oppression of women is the result of a combination of material conditions that influence patriarchy in addition to capitalism. By focusing too exclusively on capitalism, we may fail to comprehensively understand the circumstances that work together to create and enable a patriarchal society.
Materialist feminism also reconstructs "woman" as an identity that is discursively derived. That is, the discourse around gender is what creates our ideas of gender. In this way, materialist feminism grounds itself, arguably contradictorily, in theory and includes influences from postmodern feminism as well.
The term "materialist feminism" first emerged in the late 1970s and is associated with feminist thinkers Christine Delphy, Rosemary Hennessy and Stevi Jackson, among others. The movement emerged out of a need for British and French thinkers to differentiate the school of thought from that of Marxist feminists, whose movement is grounded in the theory of Karl Marx. The reason the distinction was a priority for British and French feminists was the fact that Marxist feminism did not account for the sexual division of labor in the home and established gender oppression in society to be a consequence of capitalism exclusively. Marxist feminism focuses too deeply on means of production as the sole cause of oppression, ignoring social class standings — a crucial element in gender oppression, according to materialist feminists.
At the time, the definitions of the term "feminism" also presented certain problematic connotations to materialist feminists, which only aided in their need and search for a new term. Rejecting the idealist definitions of "woman" by the then-mainstream feminism movement, modern materialist feminism seeks to redefines the category of woman as something that is constructed by the theory and discourse surrounding it. In Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse, Rosemary Hennessy builds upon the earlier materialist feminist works and reconsiders the relationship between women's experience and society and the feminist theory that surrounds it, arriving at a body of work that includes postmodernist ideas of the continued production of identity through discursively-derived experiences and performances of gender.
Though exactly what materialist feminism is and isn't has been up for debate since the inception of the movement, here are some of the main principles its critics and prominent thinkers seem to agree on.
- Recognizing capitalism as a system that incontrovertibly creates inequality for women and for other marginalized identities. It's not possible to achieve true equality within our current capitalist system.
- Rejecting the idea that gender oppression is a result solely of the patriarchy, nor is it solely a result of capitalist means of productions. There are material systems in place that are affecting the experience of women and, combined, these systems contribute to gendered oppression.
- Analyzing the intricate social patterns that occur in everyday systems and situations and how they all contribute to the sustenance of gender inequality.
- Examining the ways in which systems of power rely on the concepts of gender, race and other constructed categories of difference to exert and maintain power within a few, perpetuating disparities and social inequalities in order to protect the status quo.
- Recognizing that, even in the absence of a capitalist system of labor and private property, women would still face inequality in the home, through the sexual division of labor (child-rearing, house-work, etc.) and in their subordinate place in society outside of the industrial world.
Again, there's a lot of debate around the specific qualifications of materialist feminism and its unique ramifications within the broader landscape of feminist thought. Accordingly, there may be some confusion around what materialist feminism exactly is, what it isn't, and what it stands for. Here are some commonly asked questions that might help you understand just what materialist feminism is all about, and the context with which it exists.
What does Marxist feminism mean?
Marxist feminism is a critical thought framework that aims to explain and understand gendered oppression through a Marxist theory of social organization and capitalism's influence on our society. Marxist feminism acknowledges that capitalism actively creates stratification in social class, and one of the ways it does so is through the oppression of women. In order to achieve women's liberation, then, we must dismantle capitalism and restructure our systems of labor, private property and means of production.
Within Marxist feminism is the acknowledgment that the majority of women's labor goes uncompensated, as it happens in the home. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels used Marx's theories about society and private property to analyze the family as a locus of class oppression, addressing gender inequality and calling the subjugation of women within the home the first act of class oppression. This may sound a lot like materialist feminism, which it is. However, materialist feminism goes further, past an acknowledgment of this fact and to an investigation of the construction of gender identities that allowed women to be discriminated against as a class in the first place. Despite Engels' recognition of the sexual division of labor, he offers no explanation of how the liberation of oppressed classes will lead to gender equality. Materialist feminists do, arguing this oppression would still exist in the absence of an external labor class division.
What does postmodern feminism mean?
Postmodern feminism brings postmodernist themes of deconstruction of ideology and discursive imaginings of identity categories to feminist thought. Postmodern feminism brings up the construction of gender by society — generally a consensus in feminist thought — and takes it further. Under postmodern feminism, championed by thinkers like Judith Butler and famously outlined in her work Gender Trouble, the category of biological sex is also constructed. Contrary to other arguments, the markers of biological basis for a sexual or gendered binary are not concrete but interpreted. The language with which we interpret the world around us then reconstructs gender, sex and sexuality. These categories are not only named and defined by society; without society, the language it uses and the discourse that results, they would not exist.
This isn't to say that gender doesn't exist in practice — it clearly does. We struggle with gender and the biases and restrictions surrounding it all the time. Discrimination based on biological sex happens all the time, with horrible and harmful results. But the categories and theories that enable this oppression do not exist objectively. We constantly uphold them through recreating them over and over based on how we talk about them, and our ideas of what they are — which were, in turn, based on ideas of what they should be. There is no concrete essence from which "woman," "femininity" or "masculinity" are derived. In a way, we create them by naming them and then relying on the words we use as categories that would exist in the absence of our words (which they don't).
Famously heady, theoretical, academic and inaccessible, postmodern feminism is difficult to clearly articulate – which may be part of the point of it, from a language perspective. In order to get an introduction, Gender Trouble (or maybe a more accessible summary of its ideas) is a good place to start.
What are the different types of feminism?
Materialist feminism, Marxist feminism and postmodern feminism are only a few types of feminist thought within the centuries-long feminist movement and development of feminist theory. Some other types of feminism to be aware of, to name a few, include:
• Black feminism.
Black feminist thought takes an intersectional approach, focusing on the experience of black women, notoriously left out of mainstream feminist movements. Black feminism examines how racial and gender oppression work together and the ways in which they are parts of the same system. Approaching patriarchy from a black feminist framework, theorists argue, more thoroughly addresses inequality and oppression. While some women remain oppressed, feminism will fail to succeed.
• Queer feminism.
Queer feminism combines queer theory and feminist theory. On one hand, it addresses sexuality, sexual orientation and the construction of the gender identities that allow heterosexuality and all other categories of sexuality to exist. The two categories of identity exist to uphold each other and aid in the oppression of women and people in the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, queer feminism looks at heteropatriarchy holistically and relies on dismantling the entire system rather than fighting for liberation within it. Without a deconstruction of gender and sexuality together, we will still encounter oppression, queer feminism argues.
Xenofeminism considers the contemporary feminist movement in relation to the digital revolution, rapidly advancing technology and globalization. How does our changing technological landscape affect gender, patriarchy and the possibilities for liberation? In what ways does it impact how we relate to each other — across borders and continents and within political landscapes?
Eco-feminists take an ecological approach to feminism and a feminist approach to ecological activism. They see the perpetuation of ecological problems as a result of a patriarchal society and recognize that the deterioration of the environment will most heavily impact women, particularly women of color, queer women and poor women.
Keep in mind that these sectors of feminism aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. One can be a materialist black feminist or a radical queer eco-feminist. These specific types exist primarily to differentiate focal points of different theories relating to the overall feminist movement. There is an infinite number of ways to interpret them together or separately as they relate to lived experience and theory, and as feminist thought progresses, so too will the factions within it.
In the face of increased rhetoric around capitalism as the root of extreme inequality and oppressive power dynamics in our current political landscape, materialist feminism comes into play in keeping feminist ideas in our discourse around socialism and efforts to combat capitalism and economic inequality. Some may argue that, without a feminist discourse that focuses on society's stratification outside of labor and economic class, socialist movements would continue to leave women — and people of color, in particular women of color — subordinated within a new system of oppression under a different name.