The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
The New Environmentalism and its Critics
The Perils of Consumption and the Gift Economy as the Solution Daniel Miller’s ‘Consumption and Its Consequences’
Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies
Ruling Class Men: Money, Sex, Power
Options for a Sustainable Future - Four Models of Utopia
Exploitation, Surplus and the Community Economy - 2013
What is the Difference between Anarchism and Socialism anyway?
Checkmate: Why Capitalism Cannot Survive Global Warming
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis
Indigenous Sustainability and Collapsing Empires
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 1)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 2)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 3)
Sociological Utopias and Social Transformation: Permaculture and the Gift Economy
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part A)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part B)
Sustainable Agriculture: A Marketing Opportunity or Impossible in the Global Capitalist Economy?
Food, Society and the Environment - 2003
Apocalypse Most Likely: Agency and Environmental Risk in the Hunter Region
Second Wave Feminism - The Opening Debates
Second Wave Feminism - Since the Mid-Seventies
Ecofeminism Part One: Different positions within Ecofeminism
Lecture: Deep Ecology
Second Wave Feminism - The Opening Debates

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It may seem rather odd for a man to be giving lectures on feminism. From one feminist point of view, radical feminism, men's power over women is a result of men serving their own interests at the expense of women. All men benefit from the oppression of women and men as a group exploit women. So having a man lecture on feminism is like inviting a member of the capitalist class, say Sir Arvi Parbo, chairman of BHP, to talk about the development of Marxism; as someone who has interests diametrically opposed to the working class one wouldn't expect a very fair picture of the working class point of view.

Briefly, I think that men can be supporters of feminism. But I also think that it's true that men are advantaged by the current state of affairs in which women have less power than men. And I agree that men have actively created patriarchy or the state of affairs in which women are oppressed. At present I will leave this as something of a puzzle and take it up again in the next lecture on Wednesday.

From one point of view there is nothing puzzling about this at all. Feminism is an important social development and anyone of either sex who wants to understand society must take an interest in it.


Looking back at the suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century we can make a few comments about how it differs from the more recent surge of the feminist movement, the second wave which began in the late 1960's. From this more recent point of view the suffragists could be seen as falling short of what was necessary in three ways.

a. They thought it would be enough for women to get the vote in order to have an equal influence on society. According to more recent feminism this is just one step. Men exercize power not just through the formal political structure but also through their control of economic life and most importantly through the division of labour in the home. As well every situation of daily life is saturated with a micro politics of inequality between the sexes and a latent or open conflict of power between the sexes.

b. The first wave feminist movement tended to accept the basic aspects of the division of labour between the sexes; women were responsible for the home and bringing up children, men were responsible for the public world of paid work. In fact they used this as a basis from which to argue for the vote. Women were the more moral sex and the values of nurture and caring should be given a political expression.

In a recent review of historical analyses of the suffrage movement Carol Bacchi writes:

... what is remarkable is the degree of agreement about the nature of the suffrage movements in the several countries surveyed. A consensus exists that the majority of the suffragists accepted the priority of woman's maternal role, that they had no desire to disrupt the family and only wanted an opportunity to bring family needs to public awareness. (Bacchi 1981, 164)

By contrast the second wave of the feminist movement has called for the breaking down of this division of labour between the sexes and has seen it as part of a structure that oppressses women. They have demanded that women play an equal part in the world of paid work and that men play an equal part in the home.

c. The first wave of the feminist movement was based around altruism. Women's nurturing role means that they are not selfish and this lack of selfishness should find a political expression. Looking at the second and most influential period of the American suffrage movement Bacchi maintains:

... suffragists now justified female enfanchisement on the grounds that woman's particular virtues, her purity, sobriety and maternal instinct, were needed in the world at large. (Bacchi 1981, 158)

By contrast in the second wave of feminism it has been argued that women's altruism is a bit of a con. Women are expected to think of everyone else before themselves and although this may have some good features it also means that they get taken advantage of and that men end up with the power. The second wave of feminism sees women as an oppressed group who need to rise up and throw off this oppression in their own interests.


The second wave of feminism spread from its origin in New York in the late 60's around the western world in a matter of years. For example in Australia it had well and truly arrived by 1970. Its fundamental form of organization was the consciousness raising group which was a fairly small group of women with a feminist perspective who met to discuss their lives and in that sense raise their consciousness. Based on the idea that "the personal is political" members of these groups talked about their personal lives with the aim of getting a better idea of the nature of men's power and with the aim of strengthening resistance through the support of other women. They also organized political campaigns, put out propaganda and theory and acted in liaison with other similar groups.

Out of this second wave the concept of patriarchy was developed. "Patriarchy" as a term in this context refers to men's power over women. It implies that patriarchy is a central structuring principle of society. In that sense it is a concept created in analogy to such terms as "Capitalism" or "Feudalism" when used by marxists. For example "Capitalism" as used by marxists refers to a social structure in which a dominant structuring principle is the exploitation of the working class or proletariat by the capitalist class. Feudalism is the domination of landlords over peasants. And within feminism Patriarchy is men's domination over women. Another implication of the term is that societies that are quite different in a number of ways may all be patriarchal and have this structuring feature in common.

Millett, in one of the first books of second wave feminism sees men's control of the state as a key sign of patriarchy. Just as marxists argue that the state is an organ for enforcing the will of the ruling social class, if necessary by violence, Millett sees men's domination of the state as an indicator of men's control over society.

Our society, like all other historical civilizations, is a patriarchy. The fact is evident at once if one recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, and finance - in short, every avenue of power within the society, including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands. (Millett 1972, 25)


Out of these early consciousness raising groups came a theory which described aspects of male power in society. In radical feminism, which was the dominant way of thinking within the women's liberation movement in this period, all these aspects of male power are seen as interlinked and reinforcing each other. What I want to do in this part of the lecture is talk about some of the early writings of the women's movement as a sort of map of patriarchy and where appropriate I will refer forwards in time to more recent feminist theory that has developed these themes.


This article by Pat Mainardi looks at the battles over housework that raged between herself and her husband over a number of years. It illustrates very well the idea of developing an analysis of the structure of male power from a basis in personal experience.

We both had careers, both had to work a couple of days a week to earn enough to live on, so why shouldn't we share the housework? So I suggested it to my mate and he agreed - most men are too hip to turn you down flat. 'You're right,' he said, 'It's only fair. '

Then an interesting thing happened. I can only explain it by stating that we women have been brainwashed more than even we can imagine. Probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognize the essential fact of housework right from the very beginning. Which is that it stinks. Here's my list of dirty chores: buying groceries, carting them home and putting them away; cooking meals and washing dishes and pots; doing the laundry, digging out the place when things get out of control; washing floors. The list could go on but the sheer necessities are bad enough. All of us have to do these things or get some one else to do them for us. The longer my husband contemplated these chores the more repulsed he became, and so proceeded the change from the normally sweet considerate Dr. Jekyll into the crafty Mr. Hyde who would stop at nothing to avoid the horrors of - housework . (Mainardi 1979, 502-503)

She goes on to talk about the endless rationales her husband used to defend the status quo; that he wasn't trained to do this work, that he would do it but only if she spent ages explaining it to him, that it was too trivial to talk about and so on.

This is a micro-politics of equal work . By doing more she is doing work for him. Also she makes the claim that it is a matter of fact that housework is a deadly job. His leisure time or occasional outdoor work does not compare as drudgery.

Some of the other points that are raised in the article are:

Housework is dull and boring.

Housework has no status.

To demand of a man that he do an equal share is to engage in a political struggle.

What men are losing is leisure.

Men have been able to concentrate on great human achievements while women looked after the necessities of daily life.

She looks at the way her husband himself identifies the issue as a power struggle:

'This problem of housework is not a man-woman problem! In any relationship between two people one is going to have a stronger personality and dominate.'

Meaning: That stronger personality had better be me ". (Mainardi 1970, 505)

She shows how her husband appeals to her left wing altruism by suggesting that she is preventing her husband from getting on with serious political work on behalf of the oppressed:

They will imply that you are holding back the Revolution (their Revolution). But you are advancing it (your Revolution). (Mainardi 1970, 508)

She sees housework in terms of time taken up in minutes of the day and also in terms of the degree of drudgery involved in a particular task. To get equality both these points must be addressed:

Keep checking up. Periodically consider who's actually doing the jobs. These things have a way of backsliding so that a year later once again the woman is doing everything. After a year make a list of jobs the man has rarely if ever done. You will find cleaning pots, toilets, refrigerators, ovens high on the list. Use time sheets if necessary. He will accuse you of being petty. He is above that sort of thing - (housework). Bear in mind what the worst jobs are, namely the ones that have to be done very day or several times a day. Also the ones that are dirty. (Mainardi 1970, 508)

At several times in the article Mainardi compares women to other oppressed classes, such as blacks or peasants. The analysis of where sexual inequality lies is important.

Firstly it is a matter of authority, of power in the sense of who gets their own way, what they want and who has to give in. Consequently women have to battle against men to get a change. This is power in the sense specified in Weber and classic political theory.

Secondly it is a matter of inequality as exploitation. Women do men's work and men have leisure or time for creative or political work. In this aspect the idea of inequality is analogous to Marx's concept of exploitation. In Marx's definition of exploitation the lower class produces wealth and the ruling class appropriates it. Here Mainardi treats women as the lower class who produce the domestic environment which is the basis from which other activities proceed. Men as the ruling class appropriate the labour of this production by living in the household environment that has been worked on by women. Men are like a ruling class in being able to enjoy leisure and creative or political activity because the exploited class is taking care of the production of daily material life.

Thirdly, inequality is seen in terms of a comparison of kinds of work. For instance even if men were doing an equal number of hours of housework one would have to look deeper and look at the kind of work involved. Some sorts of work are seen as intrinsically more boring than others. Housework is repetitive, there is no finished product created and so on. What is implied here is a new way of looking at work. This is especially taken up in Ann Oakley's book "The Sociology of Housework" (1974). In this classic of feminist analysis she treats housework like an industrial sociologist and interviews women to find out what they don't like about it.

Finally Mainardi's article looks at inequality in terms of status or prestige. Society accords a low value to housework in comparison, for example, with fixing a car, or working on an article. According to Weber this is a form of inequality which is more or less significant in different types of social stratification.

What is new about all this is that various quite diverse conceptualizations of inequality that were previously applied to inequality between social classes are joined and applied to power differences between the sexes. There is a quite un self-conscious mixing of theoretical approaches and something new comes out of this.

Recent research in Australia and other countries confirms that in the late eighties this feminist picture of inequality in housework still applies. For example a study of 156 respondents recently carried out in Sydney gives the following breakdown of minutes per day spent in housework and childcare.

Single childless women 90 minutes

Single men 100 minutes

Childless women with partners 148 minutes

Childless men with partners 70 minutes

Married mothers with a child under five 510 minutes

Married fathers with a child under five 200 minutes

Single mothers with a child under five 390 minutes

(Bittman 1989, 4-5)

Research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that non-employed married women on average "spend 48 hours 11 mins per week on unpaid housework whereas men contribute 15 hours and 24 mins". When women get jobs their hours of housework drops to an average of 39 hours per week but men's contribution does not change to make up the difference (Bittman 1989, 3).

These figures are similar to those found in other research around the world.


Another early article of the feminist movement somewhat similar to Mainardi's "The Politics of Housework" is "Why I want a Wife" by Judy Syfers (Syfers 1973). Writing as a woman the article lists her reasons for wanting a wife.

I would like to go back to school [ The American term for University] so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and, if need be, support those dependent on me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children's doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife who will wash the children's clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturant attendant to my children, arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife's income but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working. (Syfers 1973, 60-61)

The article goes on to talk about housework and how she wants a wife to tidy up after her and be a good cook. Later it considers the issue of emotional support. A wife would "take care of me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school" (Syfers 19873, 61).

One of the interesting things the article does is to argue that women's role as housewife is not measurable in terms of minutes of physical household work alone. It is also the work of "management" of the household, of organizing and being responsible for things. Unlike Mainardi's article it foregrounds the work of looking after children as one of the main forms of women's work which is clearly borne out by research carried out since then. It also looks at emotional support as work. This is a new way of looking at work. For example a couple may be sitting down having a cup of tea. Superficially it may seem that both are enjoying leisure. But in fact he is telling her about his hard day at the office and explaining his problems to her. She is working. Her listening and active support are work and part of the housework role.

Throughout the article what is being suggested is that these housework tasks are to be viewed as work done for the husband. This is most clear in the emotional support given to the husband but it is also implicit in housework as a whole institution. She wants a wife to support her so that she can achieve an advance in her career by going to University. What is also created by this analysis is a theory of the link between women's domestic work and their public role. Women cannot carve out a public role equal to men precisely because they are already heavily committed to domestic work and by taking on this domestic work women free men for their public commitments. So even if individuals might perceive the situation as a kind of complementary division of labour between the sexes its very structure implies that domestic work is done for the husband. This is a continuing and central theme of the feminist analysis of women's subordination.

The article implies a radical change in the point of view from which social analysis and political moralising is normally and had in the past been conducted. In most social analysis the point of view is that of a godlike observer off stage looking down on what happens in society and telling the reader what the facts are. Here the author herself is foregrounded. We view things from her perspective and move out from that to look at the wider political implications. There is no pretense at an objective or all knowing viewpoint. "I would like to go back to school" are the first words of the article.

Along with this goes another change. Instead of the author standing back and describing a situation and making a moral judgement about it the article is based on the politics of self interest. In other words, it is in the self interest of women to change a situation in which they are subordinate to men. It is not a political prescription based on altruistic morality but on self interest. From the point of view of the white middle class political groupings from which the feminist movement sprang this was quite a radical break. The central politics of these groups had been an anti-war movement based around support for the Vietnamese people as a population victimized by American imperialism and support for the blacks as an oppressed and underprivileged group. Feminism forced people to come to terms with a completely different approach to political morality.

Finally the construction of the article implies something very important about the causes of sexual inequality. Although an ironic title the theme of the article, that of a woman wanting a wife so she can go on to university and advance her career suggests that men and women are interchangeable as personalities. Men have dominated women for clear and obvious reasons of self interest, the kind of self-interest that any woman might also have. Men have not dominated women because they are by nature nasty or aggresssive or immoral or anything of that kind. No, they have dominated women because it gave them various concrete advantages in life. The women's liberation movement is about evening the score and gaining advantages for women.


Writing from the point of view of radical feminism and in opposition to the viewpoint of liberal feminism Collette Price tackles the question of women's low pay and segregation in the labour market in a way that is very distinctive of second wave feminism's approach to economic issues (Price 1978).

She begins her article by pointing out that despite various equal pay decisions women in the U.S. are still badly paid as full-time workers and still concentrated in various occupations reserved for women:

Since 1955 women's pay as a percentage of men's has been on the decline. In 1955 women made 63.0% of men's salary; in 1972 women made 57.9% of men's salary, a decrease of 6%. (Price 1978, 88).

As well women are segregated in the labour force.

Well over half of all working women in both 1900 and 1969 were employed in jobs in which 70% or more of the workers were female. A study in 1973 showed a similar situation. (Price 1978, 90).

When they do work in the same industries as men they get less money and have less authority. For example in the professional field women are nurses and teachers where men are doctors, lawyers, scientists and draftsmen; in the sevice occupations women are cooks, nurse's aides and waitresses where men are bartenders, life guards, firemen, policemen and detectives (Price 1978, 95). Even in the same occupation men are in higher positions, for example as prinicipals in schools where women are teachers. How can this be explained?

As she sees it the liberal feminist explanation is that women are socialized into a traditional view of what is a proper women's job and consequently the program of liberal feminism is to change women's attitudes:

The liberals do not claim the continuing segregation patterns are due to nature; they say they're due to tradition and education... Women, for example, become nurses, secretaries, teachers, because they learn that is what they're supposed to be. (Price 1978, 97-98)

Price argues that this shifts the burden of the problem on to women themselves. Also she points to various reasons why it doesn't make a great deal of sense as a theory.

Why is it that mysteriously the jobs that women traditionally prefer happen also to be the ones with low pay and low authority? What do these jobs have in common. Actually, not a great deal. The only common factor is that they are women's jobs.

It doesn't seem to make a damn bit of difference where we are in the labour force, what sphere we move in or positon we occupy, compared to men it's a less advantageous one. If we're in an all-female occupation we make less money than a comparable all male occupation; if we're in an all male occupation we make less money than the men in that occupation. If we work in the factories we occupy the bottom rung; if we work in the universities we occupy the bottom rung ... The type of job is the lower type, i.e. beneath men, with less pay than men. (Price 1978, 96)

As well, the explanation in terms of traditional attitudes ignores the fact that when circumstances change a job that was once the province of one sex can almost overnight and with no apparent problems be taken over by the other. Typically this involves women moving into jobs previously held by men. For example at one time typewriting was reserved for men because such complicated machines could not be handled by women. At that time the job was well paid and highly esteemed. Later men's jobs opened up elsewhere and women entered the secretarial field. Soon the pay dropped and the job was taken over by women completely. Similarly teaching was initially reserved for men and women later entered it at low levels. The most dramatic case involves the massive introduction of women into men's blue collar jobs during the second world war and their equally swift removal after the war. In none of these cases was tradition any barrier to a rapid change.

Instead, Price argues that men keep women out of jobs with high pay and authority. It is men's discrimination and men's interest as a class that explains women's low rates of pay. It is men's power, ultimately represented by their political clout that backs up this discrimination. It takes forms which can be overt or subtle. Amongst the former she cites the case of the entry of women into ticket collecting and conducting on trams and trains in the U.S. in1918. After a short time the male conductors, backed by their union, protested the introduction of women. They lost their case before the Depaertment of Labor but this did not stop them from threatening a strike and later carrying out the threat. The railway companies caved in and sacked the women (Price 1978, 103). She gives a number of examples of this kind of overt restriction on entry.

As an example of a more covert discrimination she mentions those situations in which male employers may just be unable to "find" a woman appropriate for the job. The case of Columbia university is an instance. Although 1/4 of the doctorates were given to women students only 2% of women were employed as tenured staff in the university's graduate schools (Price 1978, 106). Other kinds of discrimination are the more or less direct pressures against women who enter male fields of work whether from men at work or by male friends or actual or potential partners. According to Price these are all acts of male power.

From this she concludes that women are not oppressed because they get low wages but they get low wages because they are oppressed.

Women aren't oppressed because they are paid less money for equal work (which is the implication of the 'economic issue' approach), they are paid less money for equal work because they are oppressed. (Price 1978, 94)

Economic inequality should not be treated as the first and central problem for women. Although it is undoubtedly a mechanism of male power it itself depends on male power in general. Moving women into a field of employment does not all alone challenge this power or overturn it. If men as a group decide to exclude women at some later date they have the power to do this. The most obvious example is the period after the second world war. As Price points out women who had held traditionally male jobs during the war were keen to keep them but a combination of Union, Government and Employers' decisions removed them within a few years.

She takes this argument as a reply to those who accused the radical feminists' consciousness raising groups of being diverted to trivial issues and ignoring the central economic inequalities that liberal feminists and socialists concentrated on. As radical feminists argued, it was quite appropriate to see men's power as located in the domestic sphere and quite appropriate to work on developing women's political consciousness and identity first before tackling economic issues:

Radical feminists knew there were other basic and important things to be done to win women's liberation in addition to fighting for socialism and jobs now. The first and immediate need was to raise consciousness, organize a power base and deal with women's oppression within the family (housework, sex, childcare) and the so-called body issues (abortion, false beauty standards and clothing requirements). (Price 1978, 95)

Second wave feminism may be seen as a challenge to the idea that economic inequality is the most important source of inequality in two ways. Firstly, as demonstrated by Price's article, they put forward the view that women's inequality was a result of a system of interlocking inequities and the economic was just one aspect of this.

Secondly, whereas traditional social theory had seen social class (defined by economic inequality) as the main form of inequality the feminist movement denied this. They argued that all women from working class to middle class to (heaven forbid), capitalist class share a common interest as women. They are oppressed within each social class.

More strongly it was argued that although women might have different privileges within each social class these are in a sense lent to women by the men of that class and not held independently. Women do not have the political power to own these privileges in their own right. So a rich or middle class woman might seem well off but her apparent power is only delegated power and can be removed by patriarchy if she stops toeing the line as a woman. Even with working class women their power as independent wage earners is not guaranteed but can be removed if men feel threatened. The changes in women's employment at the end of the second world war is often cited as a prime example of the good sense of this position. Women's entry into male jobs during the war was a result of an emergency and the privileges they gained at that time were easily removed after the war when returning soldiers found women's power in industry a threat to their own privileges as men.

Recent research in Australia shows that inequality in work and remuneration for work still applies in the 80's despite equal pay cases and anti-discrimination legislation.

In 1978, ... the average wages for adult full-time employees in Australia were $239 a week if they were men, $183 if they were women. That is to say, a decade after the Equal Pay Case that established a notional policy of sex equality in pay rates, women got 77 per cent of what men got. By 1985 this had moved up to 82 per cent. (Connell 1987, 6)

But Connell goes on to point out that 36 per cent of employed women are part timers as compared to 6 per cent of men. So taking into account all employed people, women's incomes are 66 per cent of men's (1985 figures). However more women are supported by social security or have no income so that the total average income of all women is 45 per cent of men's (Connell 1987, 6-7).

Segregation of employment is still a reality too.

Women make up 63.7 per cent of the community services industry division, where poorly paid welfare work abounds. Women are also disproportionately represented (57 per cent ) in the industrial category of recreation, personnel and other services', but under-represented in mining (9.6 per cent), electricity, gas and water (11 per cent), construction (13 per cent), transport and storage (17.7 per cent) and manufacturing (26 per cent). They make up 74 per cent of the occupational category of clerks, 64 per cent of salespersons and service workers, and 44 per cent of para-professionals. However they account only for 23 per cent of managers and administrators, 15 per cent of plant and machine operators and drivers, and 10 per cent of tradespersons (mostly as hairdressers) (Australian Bureau of Stastistics, The Labor Force, 1987). (Bittman and Bryson 1989, 48)


In an article that is generally about the problems of political change as envisioned by feminists Rita Mae Brown considers the way women's body language can be affected by conversion to a feminist viewpoint.

Women and men are taught to use space quite differently and we need an in-depth study of this by feminists. Until that study, I offer the following observations. Lowering a shoulder in the presence of a man, pulling the body in (literally, to take up less space so he can have more), turning the head upward or tilting it to the side, often with persistent eyebrow signals, are motions most non-feminists perform automatically. Such gestures elicit favorable male response. (Mae Brown 1976, 185)

When around men, many women cross and uncross their legs incessantly, modify their voices, open their eyes dramatically, signifying animated interest in the male, and play with their hair. As hair is so important to femininity in America I take this to be some sort of request for sexual affirmation. Another basic pose of non-feminism is casting the hip slightly forward in male company. Even while being seductive, the non-feminist is careful never to diminish the male's authority. For example, a woman walking with her arm around a man's shoulder would look ridiculous, his waist yes - but only if they are lovers, around his shoulders never. But a man may put his arm around a woman's shoulders after a brief acquaintance, as he may put his arm around a subordinate male's shoulders ... employee, son, etc. Eye contact is a sure indication of status. Most non-feminists lower the eyes or look to the side, returning the gaze furtively, even more furtively with men. (Mae Brown 1976, 186)

These comments suggest that power relations between the sexes are played out on a constant daily basis through continuing patterns of daily interaction that are so taken for granted that no one thinks anything of them or in any sense sees them as "political". Mae Brown in 1976 is very much writing from the point of view of developing an alternative feminist cultural practice for women. In other words if cultural practices embody sexual inequality and constantly reinforce it they must be overturned by an alternative feminist practice.

At roughly the same time as Mae Brown's article a much more academic paper appeared by Nancy Henley on a similar theme. She points out that power is exercized most effectively when the subordinate group seems to act out of their own volition. This is particularly the case with women - they have the vote, they choose to marry - what are feminists complaining about? Non-verbal communication, she argues serves as a "massive but hidden control" (Henley 1976, 16). She uses research in social psychology to show that women are more sensitive to non-verbal cues than men and suggests that this is because, as wives and secretaries, they have to be in constant interaction with the powerful. Referring to research on non-verbal communication she shows that many signs of power play in interactions are manifest in male female interaction:

In the interactions between women and men, many non-verbal acts may be seen as dominance signals emitted by men and submission signals returned by women. (Henley 1976, 16)

Research from various sources shows that persons of higher status control more space (personal and other), are allowed more freedom in demeanor, and are more likely to touch others, and to exhibit less body tension than persons of lower status (or less dominant persons). And research also shows that these high status behaviours are exhibited by men; women's behavior in this realm takes the form more of submissive or affiliative behavior than of dominant behavior.

Other evidence suggests that persons of greater power may stare at others (without being first to avert the eyes), smile less, show less emotion, and generally withhold personal information; subordinate persons, on the other hand, avert the gaze when stared at, smile frequently, and exhibit much greater emotional variation. We also recognize these latter behaviors as characteristic of women.

Certain human gestures are analogous to the gestures of dominance and submission identified among primates, for example: staring is a gesture of dominance, met with the submissive gesture of averting the gaze (or blinking); touching asserts dominance, cuddling to the touch submits; interrupting is dominant - yielding the floor is submissive; similarly crowding another's space - stepping back; looking sternly - smiling back. Again, the gestures of dominance are likely to be emitted by men, and those of submission, by women.

Another aspect of much nonverbal behavior is that it carries a subtle physical threat; e.g. pointing, staring, and towering over someone else are elements of actual combat; this is probably a residual of the origin of these behaviors in physical confrontation. Because of their training, women may be readily and unconsciously intimidated by such dominance displays, and also fail to utilize them themselves. (Henley 1976, 17)

This analysis is clearly an application of the feminist slogan "the personal; is political". It is a micropolitical analysis of personal inter-relationships between the sexes. It stands in an interesting relationship to two kinds of common anti-feminist positions. In the first, what used to be in Australia a kind of Woman's Weekly anti-feminism it is argued that women want to be wives and mothers and that feminist agitation is beside the point because women can choose to be careerists if they want to. What is stopping them? One kind of feminist response is to say that a lot of women have been brainwashed or socially conditioned into accepting their situation. Early radical feminism tended to avoid this answer and stress the real social forces that guide women into their less powerful social role. Henley's analysis is of this kind (Henley 1976, 18). Body language is not direct and blatant coercion by men but it is unconsciously received as pressure and women are socially trained to respond by giving the appropriate signals of submission. They may do so out of fear of violence - the subtle threat conveyed by body language and backed up on occasions by force - or they may do so for other reasons - such as their economic vulnerability in the situation. But whatever the reasons the reliance on body language rather than specific verbal assertions of male authority masks men's power and women's submission comes to appear natural, unforced, voluntary.

Another kind of anti-feminist position that this analysis of body language relates to is the idea that men control women because it is part of our "biological program". Humans are just an animal species and dominance is built into instinctual behaviour. Henley borrows some of the ideas of this school of thought only to attack their main conclusions. Body language, according to Henley does have a biological basis. Things like staring and averting the gaze are body language items that we share with various other animals. However there is no biological program that endows men in particular with the capacity and inclination to use dominating body language (Henley 1976, 19). Instead this is an aspect of a social situation in which men control women as a matter of social fact. Everything that men do and women do in body language is replicated exactly in other situations of social dominance that people do not regard as biologically ordained; e.g. male boss and male worker. In this case one may analyze body language that implies the authority of the boss without jumping to the conclusion that the boss is biologically ordained to be the boss. If the social role of the sexes changed women would begin to make equal use of dominating body language.

This kind of analysis has been continued on by more recent studies. Henley herself followed the articles with a book (Henley 1977). There is also a study of the display of these body language patterns in advertising by Goffman in which he shows how pictorial advertising reinforces and indicates women's lesser power through the use of pictorial indicators of status in body language and picture composition; for example men are shown standing up in pictures where women are lying down (Goffman 1976). Another book by a German feminist is based on candid camera type pictures of people in public places. It shows how women take up less space than men in the way they sit and hold themselves in public, men sprawl in seats with their elbows resting on the back of the chair and women sit with their legs together and perhaps with a bag placed in their laps and their arms tightly to the side (Wex 1979).

As well this kind of detailed micropolitical analysis has been repeated in other fields. For example studies of conversational interaction show that in conversations between men and women, men interrupt women more than the other way around. One sample showed that 75% of interruptions were by men. Also, after interruption, a small percent of speakers reintroduced their topic. As well, the topic could be reintroduced by the speaker responsible for the interruption in the first place. After interrupting a man, the women reintroduced the topic in 43% of cases whereas after interrupting a woman, the men reintroduced the topic in only 19 per cent of cases. So in the end only 43% of the men's topics got dropped as a result of the interruption whereas 71% of the women's topics did ( Handel 1982, 144).


The "myth of the vaginal orgasm" as Anne Koedt calls it was clearly dealt a death blow by her article and the development of second wave feminism. As a serious respectable theory of sexual response it has not been heard of much since the early seventies. But before then it was certainly dominant. The theory was that there were two kinds of orgasm in women. One was called the "clitoral orgasm" and was achieved as a result of friction on the clitoris. The other was the "vaginal orgasm" and was achieved through the penis thrusting in the vagina. According to the theory or myth the vaginal orgasm was considered to be far superior, more deeply satisfying. As well, it was considered that a woman who could not achieve a vaginal orgasm must have some sort of psychological problems - she was psychologically immature and could not accept her feminine role.

This theoretical position, partly derived from Freud was widely believed in the period before second wave feminism. For example in 1960 Frank S. Caprio in a book entitled "The Sexually Inadequate Female" wrote that if a woman "prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and require psychiatric assistance" (Bell 1974,26). In Shere Hite's 1976 research for "The Hite Report" she found this view reflected in many women's statements about their sexual inadequacies.

I see my failure to have orgasms during intercourse as my failure largely... I guess I have a fear of childbearing, a fear of responsiblity - I don't know.

I am interested in having orgasms duing intercourse because I see it as a normal natural release which I cannot achieve. My obvious underlying mistrust of men and disgust for their sexuality which keeps me from letting go disallows my sexual freedom.

My problem is refusal to lose control with someone else, to let my feelings, physical responses take over for a few seconds of vulnerability. I need to truly love and trust the one I am with. (Hite 1977, 248-251)

Anne Koedt argues that this theory of sexual response is a piece of mythology. What is more, the evidence that it is a myth has been around for ages. Men have known that women often do not have orgasms during intercourse, they have known that women and girls use the clitoris for masturbation, they have known that the clitoris is useful for 'foreplay' which is seen as arousing a woman sufficiently to achieve penetration, and anatomists have known that sensitive nerve endings are concentrated in the clitoris and not in the vagina. So why has this myth been perpetrated?

As a general explanation of the spread of this mythology she proposes that women have been defined sexually "in terms of what pleases men" (Koedt 1973, 201). Penetration is something that men want and which reliably produces orgasms in men. So women have been told that their greatest sexual happiness must come from penetration. Looking at more particular explanations she considers, for example:

a) Sexual penetration is preferred by men as the best form of stimulation.

b) The invisible woman:

One of the elements of male chauvinism is the refusal or inability to see women as total, separate human beings. Rather men have chosen to define women only in terms of how they benefited men's lives. (Koedt 1973, 204)

So men never looked clearly at what women's sexuality was actually like but only at what they could get out of it. Furthermore the myth that the absence of vaginal orgasm indicates a psychological problem is one which condemns a huge section of the female population to regard themselves as inadequate. In Hite's study 95% of respondents said they could orgasm readily through masturbation while only 30% could orgasm regularly through penetration (Hite 1977, 1). Koedt see this as an assault on the self confidence of women. It is undermining:

She is told by her analyst that not even in her one role allowed in a male society - the role of a woman - is she successful. She is put on the defensive, with phony data as evidence that she'd better try to be more feminine, think more feminine, and reject her envy of men. That is, shuffle even harder, baby. (Koedt, 1973, 204)

Koedt is referring here to a theory of Freud's that was widely accepted in the fifties and sixties that the clitoral orgasm represented a kind of penis envy or wanting to be like a man. In other words the myth both undermines women and tells them that the only solution to their problems is to submit themselves more fully to men.

c) The penis as epitome of masculinity. Men must make the most of their differences from women in order to bolster up the socially created differences between the sexes and justify their power. The penis is regarded as the key sign of masculinity. What men fear in the clitoris and women's easy sexual response through that organ is the similarity to the penis, the sense that women's sexuality isn't that different from men's.

d) Men are worried that if it is widely realized that women don't need men for sexual pleasure women may begin to question the institution of heterosexuality. In other words men need women as sexual partners because they get a great variety of benefits from the institution of marriage - sexual servicing, housework, childcare and emotional support. If women were to turn around and say, look we don't really need you, we could just as easily get our sexual and romantic needs served by other women, or we get more sexual pleasure from masturbation, then men's power through the institution of marriage would be at risk.

e) Men are generally wary of women developing their sexuality. If women start to demand sexual pleasure then they might decide to question their involvement in marriages where they are not sexually satisfied. They would cease to be the reliable property of their husbands. As well, demands for sexual satisfaction could spill over into demands for greater power in other areas. So the myth of the vaginal orgasm is just one of a number of ways in which women's sexual desires are played down, ignored or repressed.

Koedt's analysis here discusses the myth of the vaginal orgasm as an ideology ( in the Marxist sense) of male power. Marx and later marxists use the term "ideology" to refer to sets of beliefs which are at least partly false and which are used to back up the power of a ruling class. An ideology typically paints the interests of the ruling class as the true interests of everyone in society. This is precisely what Koedt has to say about the myth of the vaginal orgasm. It paints men's sexual needs as the real interests of women. An ideology typically functions as a way of disorganizing the oppressed class and preventing them from getting a clear picture of their oppression. This is what Koedt says about the myth of the vaginal orgasm. It makes women think there is something wrong with them, it prevents them from seeing their needs clearly. Marx also says that the ruling ideas in any period tend to be the ideas of the ruling class; they have most access to the means of producing ideas. Here again Koedt's analysis is parallel, pointing out that psychological and medical science are dominated by men and present a point of view that benefits men most. Such experts are not neutral, objective and scientific in the sense that they claim to be.

Koedt's article calls into question the whole institution of heterosexuality as a supposedly natural order of life. We are socialized or socially trained to be heterosexual and the resulting institution - marriage and the family - benefits men a whole lot more than women. This is a common theme of feminist theory. For example Firestone (1972) looks at romantic love as an ideology that traps women in marriage. Later lesbian feminist writers took up this theme and in particular Adrienne Rich argued that lesbianism as a form of sexual expression for women has been actively suppressed by patriarchal societies for as long as they have existed ( Rich 1980).

This article is also a guide to the way in which feminists of the second wave theorized sexual inequality or male power. Here we find the view that women's sexual servicing of men is a form of inequality. The sexual act is not to be treated as merely a form of recreation in which both men and women take a complementary part. Instead the fact that women do not achieve orgasms in this act and that men do creates the sexual interaction as a form of work for women. In other words, just as in housework and women's emotional support of men, women are producing what may be called, to use a marxist term, a surplus product for men. Women's work in the sexual act provides men with a benefit. Men appropriate sexual pleasure from women. Moreover this is only one aspect of the inequality of sexual connection dominated by the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Women lose in self esteem and status by coming to regard themselves as deficient through their inability to achieve vaginal orgasm. Men gain in status and self esteem through the sense that the sexual act confirms them as masculine and expresses their power and control over women.

Consequently the understanding of sexuality that Koedt presents has an underlying theoretical structure identical to the analysis of housework given by Mainardi and Syfers. Male power is the appropriation of various real benefits through women's activities. It is also a difference in status. It is also power in the sense of men getting what they want and women not getting what they want.

Her analysis of the myth of the vaginal orgasm is a good example of the way feminist theory has taken apart many common beliefs and scientific theories and considered their roles as ideologies supporting men's power in society. Her analysis of sexual relations is also but one of a great deal of feminist discussion of sexuality; of sexual pleasure, of rape, of media depictions of sexuality.


It is difficult to summarize all of the above articles and to say what they have in common but we can identify some key tendencies within women's liberation writing.

a. It is men as a group who oppress women.

b. Women's oppression is analogous to the social inequalities that we usually refer to as social class or stratification. Like social inequality it can be seen as a system of exploitation in which the fruits of women's work are appropriated by men. Like social inequality it can be viewed as a difference in status whereby men are granted more prestige and men's socially defined role has a higher status. Like social inequality it can be conceived as a difference in power whereby men are more likely to get what they want than women whenever there is a conflict of wills and where men can ultimately back up their authority by force.

c. The inequality between the sexes does not derive fundamentally from economic inequality. It is multifaceted. Inequality in the home and inequality in public life are mutually reinforcing and neither has clear priority. If anything, inequality in the home is more basic.

d. There are a great variety of cultural institutions and widely held beliefs that back up men's power and make it seem natural and inevitable. As with social inequality such cultural systems can be seen as ideologies that support the power of the ruling group and justify its control in society.

e. All women are oppressed in every social group. Women have a common interest as an oppressed group in society, despite differences in social class that separate women.


The articles discussed above all come from a strand of feminist thought that developed in the last years of the sixties and early seventies. It was what came to be known as the "women's liberation movement". As well many writers from this movement distinguished their own position from that of other reponses to feminism that were also current at the time by calling themselves "radical feminists". Briefly we can refer to two other strands that such writers describe; liberal feminism and marxist feminism. None of these terms have an obvious relationship to the words that make them up. For example there are many ways in which marxists and people sympathetic to marxism have responded to feminist concerns and what is here called "marxist feminism" is just one of these.

These different strands can be set out in terms of a grid in which each strand is positioned according to its standpoint on several key issues.

    • What is the key cause of inequality between the sexes?

    • What is the key strategy for resistance to sexual inequality?

    • Is capitalism as an economic system supported or opposed?
    • What is the relationship between feminist political work and socialist

Radical feminists maintained that men as a sex class were responsible for women's oppression. Since sexual inequality was multifaceted a multifaceted attack on it was necessary. The domestic arena was just as important an area of political struggle as the public arena. They opposed capitalism but argued that like other forms of social inequality it had its basis in sexual inequality. Consequently the destruction of sexual inequality was necessary to any attempt to end social inequality and feminism should take priority though not to the exclusion of socialist activities. Feminism and socialism were intimately linked since they both involved an attack on inequality. Women who were struggling against the inequality they experienced as women could not morally endorse other forms of inequality.

Liberal feminists believed that sexual inequality was the result of cultural institutions or discrimination through prejudice. The key strategy was to explain that there was no real reason why women should be restricted to their traditional roles. A secondary strategy was to legally prohibit discrimination against women and allow them to enter occupations on an equal footing with men. Liberal feminists were not opposed to capitalist society as such and saw no essential connection between socialist and feminist goals.

Marxist feminists believed that the key cause of sexual inequality was the interest of the capitalist class. It was capitalists and not men who were responsible for sexual inequality. The key strategy for feminists was therefore to support socialist struggle since without a socialist victory there was no hope for feminism. Feminist political activities were useful in that they were part of an overall strategy of opposition to capitalism.

I have intentionally put these descriptions in the past tense since in many ways these different strands of feminist thought were largely replaced by new varieties of feminism in the late seventies. I will now deal with these strands in somewhat more detail quoting various writers from the period to illustrate the above points and commenting on the positions that were taken up.

Reformist or liberal feminism is basically uncritical of the economic inequalities of social class. Writers like Friedan and Steinem do not propose the overthrow of capitalism and do not see capitalism as responsible for sexual inequality. Instead sexual inequality is seen as a kind of prejudice similar to racial prejudice and the answer is a change in social attitudes.

In liberal feminism generally, women's disadvantages are attributed to stereotyped customary expectation, both held by men and internalized by women. These stereotypes are promoted through families, schools, mass media and other 'agencies of socialization' In principle the inequalities can be eliminmated by breaking down the stereotypes. (Connell 1987, 34).

More militantly liberals worked for reforms that would give women the right and opportunity to take an equal place in the world of employment. Fundamental to this approach is the attempt to end discrimination at work and to get childcare provisions so that women are free to work. It is argued that entry into the workforce will give women the power to be equals at home.

Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" which was first published in 1963, before second wave feminism developed, is widely regarded as a classic of liberal feminism.

The way the book addresses itself to a middle class audience to the extent of being blind to the situation of working class women is well illustrated in the following statements:

Mine was the first college generation to run head-on into the new mystique of feminine fulfilment. Before then, while most women did indeed end up as housewives and mothers, the point of education was to discover the life of the mind. (Friedan 1968, 67)

What is characeteristic of liberal feminism is the way this passage addresses itself totally to a middle class audience. It was only middle class women who had any chance of going to college and Friedan uses the phrase "most women" to refer to most college educated women without any acknowledgement or apparent interest in the vast majority of women who were not part of a "college generation".

It is more than a strange paradox that as all professions are finally open to women in America, 'career woman' has become a dirty word; that as higher education becomes available to any woman with the capacity for it ... (Friedan 1968, 60)

Again this statement ignores the situation of working class women. Higher education is not really open to any working class woman with the capacity for it, and it is a piece of liberal propaganda to act as though it is.

Typically liberals believe that countries like America and Australia are places of individual choice and opportunity. Given hard work and determination to succeed, an unskilled labourer can become a bank manager. Liberal feminism applies this analysis to feminist issues. It pretends that all women in wealthy capitalist countries have the opportunity to become powerful careerists. What prevents them is the state of their consciousness. Friedan writes:

It is more than a strange paradox that as .... so many roles in modern society become theirs for the taking, women so insistently confine themselves to one role. Why, with the removal of all the legal, political, economic, and educational barriers that once kept woman from being man's equal, a person in her own right, an individual free to develop her own potential, should she accept this new image which insists she is not a person but a 'woman', by definition barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny? (Friedan 1968, 60)

Liberal feminism creates the impression that the cultural values that impede women are just floating down from society in general. They do not have any particular source, they are merely what happen to be, for some unexplained reason, traditional.

Radical and marxist feminists are critical of liberal feminism because they believe it ignores the economic disadvantages suffered by working class women and leads to programs designed to help an elite of "femnocrats". It is also associated with token feminism in which equal opportunity programs do not lead to equality in outcomes.

More fundamentally radical feminists are critical of an approach that blames socially produced stereoptypes for women's situation. What this ignores is the power of men as a group and men's interest in maintaining the status quo as it is. It attributes these ideas to society in general rather than seeing them as ideologies that support men's rule. It also ignores the fact that women are kept in their place by real material sanctions and not just by a set of ideas in their heads. For example it is not easy to concentrate on one's career if you are burdened with housework and childcare that your husband refuses to share equally. In such a situation it is not just one's acceptance of traditional values that prevents you from getting ahead. Liberal feminism ends up by putting the onus on women to change their attitudes and get out there and stand up for themselves instead of concentrating on removing some of the real barriers to women's self realization.

Radical feminism as first developed in New York by Redstockings and Shulamith Firestone proposes that men have oppressed women in all societies in history. Men have benefited from women's oppression and caused it to happen to serve men's interests.


Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor. (Redstockings 1970, 598)

We identify the agents of our oppression as men.... Men have controlled all political, economic and cultural institutions and backed up this control with physical force. They have used their power to keep women in an inferior position. All men receive economic, sexual and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women. (Redstockings 1970, 599)

This is the central tenet of radical feminism and what most distinguishes it from liberal feminism. There is a cause of sexual inequality and it is men working as a group to oppress women. There is no mystery as to why men do this; they benefit from it.


A second proposition of this early radical feminism is that men have always oppressed women:

Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination... All power structures throughout history have been male-dominated and male-oriented. (Redstockings 1970,599)

In saying this radical feminists took a bold step in relation to the usual justifications of women's role. Conservative social science had always said that sexual inequality was universal and had gone on to argue that therefore it must be dictated by biology and could not be changed. While liberal feminist tended to dispute this universality saying that every different society had different sex roles, radical feminism accepted the idea that women had always been oppresssed without drawing the same conclusions as conservative anti-feminists.


In much radical feminist analysis, especially Firestone's influential book "The Dialectic of Sex" (1972) this argument is carried a step further:

Nature produced the fundamental inequality - half the human race must bear and rear the children of all of them - which was later consolidated, institutionalized, in the interests of men. Reproduction of the species cost women dearly, not only emotionally, psychologically, culturally, but even in strictly material (physical) terms: before recent methods of contraception, continuous childbirth led to constant 'female trouble', early ageing and death. Women were the slave class that maintained the species in order to free the other half for the business of the world. (Firestone 1972, 192).

A similar point of view is expressed by other radical feminist writers such as Ti-Grace Atkinson:

But, I submit, it was because one half of the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the 'rational animal', had the wit to take advantage of that that the childbearers, or the 'beasts of burden', were corralled into a political class. (Atkinson 1974, 53-54)

This approach differs from the traditional use of biological arguments as justifications for inequality in two ways. Firstly, it does not say that it is women's or men's innate temperamental disposition - women's passivity and nurturance versus male aggression - that causes inequality. It is more fundamental than that. It is the time and effort required by reproduction that disadvantages women. Temperamentally, women would like power just as much as men. Secondly, this theory does not follow traditional biological rationales for sexual inequality which see the roles of men and women as separate and complementary and dictated by biology. Instead it sees men as taking advantage of women's necessary reproductive role. In a sense there is nothing biological about male power at all. Men did not have to take up this option but it was made available to them by biology.

From the point of view of left wing and marxist analysis at the time this use of biology by radical feminism was nothing less than heresy. Marxists had always argued that social inequality had nothing to do with biology; the ruling class was not biologically fitted for rule and human nature was not innately competitive; social inequality was a product of the economic mode of production. For feminists to now come along and try to explain sexual inequality as biologically based was regarded with horror by many radicals at the time.

Actually, from my point of view the radical feminist theory is quite compelling. If one examines any society prior to lower death rates and lower birth rates women must have spent a considerable amount of time and energy in pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and the care of infants. Ernestine Friedl, an anthropologist estimates that in hunting and gathering societies women would have had to be pregnant or nursing throughout their reproductive years to maintain population size. She refers to a study of the Dobe of the Kalahari desert in which births were spaced about four years apart and during the first two years babies were carried all the time. Between two and four years they were carried part of the time. (Friedl 1975, 17) Looking at the early industrial period Hannah Gavron comes to the conclusion that women born between 1841 and 1845 in England were producing average families of 5.71 children and at the beginning of the twentieth century "the average woman could expect to spend one third of her life producing children. Today the figure is nearer to one fifteenth" (Gavron 1968, 27). Another factor relevant to this is that it seems likely that women develop emotional attachment to their children through the processes of pregnancy, birth and wet nursing that have been biologically necessary in all societies. Because of this, women are more likely to put the interests of their children ahead of gains they may make in power struggles - it is easier for men to avoid attachment and concentrate on gaining social power.

Surely it makes sense to argue that the considerable period of time invested by women in tasks associated with reproduction must have allowed men to monopolize political, social, and economic power and manipulate it in their own interests at the expense of women. As well, the radical feminist view that all societies we know about have been patriarchal seems to me to be true. Though there is a great deal of debate about this it seems to me that when any particular society that has been claimed to be sexually egalitarian is examined in detail (and according to the criteria used by feminists in analyzing our society) the claim cannot be sustained. The !Kung, the Ba Mbuti, The Australian Aborigines, the Iroquois are good examples.


One of the main ways in which radical feminists sought to distinguish themselves from the pre-existing liberal feminist movement was in terms of their commitment to socialism. Liberal feminists were quite content to see the capitalist order continue on as always so long as women were integrated in a more equal way. Radical feminism arose out of left wing groups opposed to capitalism and maintained this orientation. For example Redstockings write in their manifesto:

We repudiate all economic, racial, educational or status privileges that divide us from other women. (Restockings 1970, 600)

Their commitment to left wing politics was backed up in actions against Wall Street, The Pentagon, and the U.S. Conscription system.

Interestingly, radical feminists believed their political position was inherently more radical than that of previous left movements since they argued that social class, or social inequality was based on sex class or sexual inequality and that to destroy capitalist society it was necessary to liberate women:

The biological family is an inherently unequal power distribution. The need for power leading to the development of classes arises from the psychosexual formation of each individual according to this basic imbalance ... (Firestone 1972, 17).

In other words it is argued that people learn to fit into heirarchical structures in society because of their experience in a heirarchical family where the father is head of the household. The ruling class and especially its leadership as Prime Minister, Fuehrer, President, Caesar, God-King and the like are seen as father figures and their rule comes to appear natural because children growing up in patriarchal societies learn to respect and obey the adult males in charge of the families.

Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family - the vinculum though which the psychology of power can always be smuggled - the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. (Firestone 1972, 20)


Because radical feminists believed that sexual inequality was a system of interlocking forms of male dominance, in the family, the economy, and the political system they thought that male power could only be fought through a strategy that did not emphasize one sphere of inequality and ignore the rest. Also they believed that the development of women's consciousness and political organization was a central task because women had to develop the political will and organization to challenge men's power at every level.

Since women's enforced tie to reproduction had been central in allowing men to control women, they argued that it was important to free women from unwanted pregnancy. In other words, if women can control pregnancy they have some chance to choose to organize their lives and take power equal to men. They are free to concentrate on their paid work or political life at certain stages of their lives and to avoid having children unless they are satisfied that they will not be disempowered by this decision. It was because of this that the early second wave feminist movement devoted a great deal of energy to legalizing abortion. Ultimately, they began to set up clandestine abortion clinics and were prepared to remove abortion from any effective state control if necessary. These campaigns in the early seventies were incredibly effective and resulted in an international liberalization of the abortion laws.

According to Firestone, test tube babies could be a solution to women's biological disadvantages through reproduction, although clearly this view was not followed up by the feminist movement as a whole. In saying this Firestone does not propose that technology will free women from patriarchy. She makes it very clear that this is a long term goal for the period after the feminist revolution has taken place and consequently after women have gained control of technology. In other words political struggle would gain a victory that the option of artificial reproduction might help to sustain.


In its broad outlines early radical feminism appeals to me as the best explanation and analysis of sexual inequality. However I feel that it has a number of specific problems.

The most dire is probably that radical feminism paints such a grim picture of things. Radical feminism hardly took the suburbs and supermarkets of the Western world by storm and I think one of the reasons is that it doesn't offer much hope. All men without exception are against women. It has been like this since the dawn of history. Men have always ruled everywhere and it was biologically ordained that they did. The best that can be hoped is that a future feminist revolution will bring in the option of test tube babies. Logically, in view of the theory this seems unlikely because women are disadvantaged by their biology now so how could they ever get together the political clout to overthrow men? Childbirth itself is painted by Firestone as an unmitigated horror of pain and bodily deformity. If what the theory says is true it seems that any woman who decides to have children is putting herself at a disadvantage.

Within the theory itself there is one way to answer this by saying that women are much less disadvantaged by childbirth and childcare nowadays when the number of children has dropped. It is no accident that the first suffragette wave of feminism followed close on the heels of a major drop in family size in the middle class. Similarly the second wave followed close on the widespread introduction of the pill in Western societies, which whatever we may think of its medical defects now, certainly acted at the time as a major factor in freeing women from unwanted pregnancy and dependence on men. So the theory could argue that it is contraception and the drop in the birth rate, both partly the result of feminist agitation in the past, that enable a feminist struggle to be successful in the current period.

Another critique of the theory is that it suffers from a "false universalism" as Eisenstein puts it (1984). Radical feminism places men and women in two opposing unyielding blocks and sees this as a picture of all societies. This is an exaggeration in a number of ways. For a start not all men oppose feminism though most do and also, not all men are equally opposed to it. The reverse is also true. The Redstockings Manifesto says " ... we will always take the side of women against their oppressors" ( Restockings 1970, 601) but which women are they talking about? A lot of women oppose feminism, there is no automatic unity of political will in women as a class.

There is also a false universalism in the picture of an unchangeable patriarchy in all ages. Actually I agree with the radical feminist position that women have always been oppressed by men but the depressing conclusion that they are always equally exploited is untrue. There have been societies where women have been dreadfully oppressed and others where their lot is relatively benign. For example in Marjorie Shostak's book Nisa she describes the !Kung from the point of view of a woman in that society, Nisa. !Kung society was undoubtedly patriarchal; men did less work, organised such political life as there was, were occasionally violent to their wives, had a more important part in the spiritual life of the community and so on. Nevertheless it becomes clear that women could divorce their husbands at will, have affairs, took sexual initiatives and enjoyed sex, moved camp to another area if they were being given a hard time by a particular man and also that their work load was light and much time was spent in leisure (Shostak 1983). Variation in sexual inequality between different societies suggests that other social factors must have an impact on sexual power and consequently that a change in sex roles might have a number of sources outside of the factors allowed for in Radical Feminist theory. In particular looking at our own society we might say that there has been a gradual and increasing pressure for political equality that goes beyond the mere tokenism of voting. Men on the left who support this have become very much aware that women will not support these political movements unless feminism is taken seriously.

The theory as Firestone puts it is a bit vague or possibly straightforwardly wrong in explaining why biology is important in sexual inequality. According to Firestone it is because women's biological disadvantages in reproduction made them "dependent on males... for physical survival" (Firestone 1972, 17). I doubt this. It makes sense if we imagine a single woman and her single husband together. But if we imagine a communal tribal situation it looks less convincing. In hunting and gathering societies women as a group actually produce the bulk of the food despite a reproductive role that clearly takes up a lot of time. Women help each other look after infants. The radical feminist theory makes more sense if we say that women's reproductive role puts women as a group at a disadvantage in power struggles with men as a group. This is the way another radical feminist writing at the time, Ti-Grace Atkinson, formulated the radical feminist explanation of patriarchy.

Finally Firestone's picture of childbirth as all bad has been rejected by feminist writers such as Adrienne Rich (Rich 1981). She argues that childbirth is at its worst in the conditions created by patriarchal society. It is of course true that pregnancy is uncomfortable to say the least and childbirth is painful but it can also be viewed as magical and transforming. In general as I will make clear in the next lecture a main criticism of early radical feminism is that it was too quick to see everything about being female as a disadvantage and unable to recognise the aspects of it that have value.

Marxist feminists followed the ideas of Engels. Instead of seeing men as the cause of inequality they argued that ruling classes have created sexual inequality. Rich men wanted to make sure their children were their own to pass wealth on to them. They created the dependence of their wives to ensure monogamy. In capitalism the capitalist class uses sexual inequality to divide the working class. Women provide a cheap pool of labour - a "reserve army" of labour. Men take out their frustrations on their wives and leave their common enemies - the capitalists - untouched. Marxist feminists believed that primitive communal societies were sexually egalitarian and that communism is the basic solution to sexual inequality today.

As a political response to feminism the marxist feminist analysis was most popular within existing marxist political organizations such as Trotskyist parties and Communist parties. In some ways these marxists had always believed that sexual equality was part of their political agenda and the second wave feminist movement challenged this claim arguing that their position was not radical enough. The marxist feminist position involved a re-furbishing of old left wing ideas about feminism and represented a somewhat defensive standpoint in relation to radical feminism's claim to truly represent women's interests.


Before the development of class society, during the historical period that Marxists have traditionally referred to as primitive communism (subsistence societies), social production was organised communally and its product shared equally. There was therefore no exploitation of one group or sex by another. (Pathfinder 1979, 2)

As the exploitation of human beings became profitable for a privileged few, women as a sex became valuable property. Like slaves and cattle, they were a source of wealth. They alone could produce new human beings whose labor power could be exploited. Thus the purchase of women by men, along with all rights to their future offspring, arose as one of the economic and social institutions of the new order based on private property. (Pathfinder 1979, 17)

These statements give an indication of the marxist-feminist view that prior to the development of social class there was no sexual inequality. As social class developed sexual inequality was created by the ruling class to serve their interests. So it is not men who should be blamed for women's inferior position but the ruling classes of every period in history.


To me these arguments suffer from problems of fact and logic. As a matter of fact I do not believe that a period of sexual equality came before the development of class society. In terms of logic if the argument is that women became valuable because they could produce wealth then it would only be logical to assume that men in pre-class societies had noticed this before, it didn't take the development of a ruling class to figure this out. If ruling class men could effectively subordinate women why had men never done this before? In fact of course I think that in hunting and gathering and other kinds of communal society men had realized that women could produce wealth and had appropriated women's power and subordinated women.

Another logical problem is that the argument takes it for granted that we are talking about rich men who want to subordinate their wives in order to gain control over their heirs. In other words the argument assumes what it needs to first explain; why it was that rich men and not rich women were in control in the first class societies.


A second aspect of the marxist feminist position is the idea that in modern societies sexual inequality is created by the capitalist class. It serves their interest by dividing the proletariat into two warring factions, men and women:

Sexism, like racism, divides the exploited so they are less able to fight the oppressor. (Guettel 1974, 55)

For example low wages for women and women as part time non-unionized workers means higher profits for capitalism. As non-unionized labour they can be brought in as scabs and working class men's hostility is deflected on to women.

A third part of the analysis stresses the purely economic benefits that the capitalist class gets from women's subordination. Women are expected to do domestic work and reproduction of the labour force for nothing and yet capitalists ultimately depend on this work. If capitalists had to pay for this they would make less of a profit overall since more of the wealth in society would be going to the working class. The same argument applies to women's low wages as paid workers. If capitalists had to pay them the same rates as men think of the terrible cost of labour. Keating and Hawke would go pale.

Ultimately, these points lead to the conclusion that it is the capitalists and not working class men who benefit from sexual inequality. Surely every working class family would just love to have the wife on the same wages as her husband plus another loading for childcare and domestic work:

It is the capitalist class, not men in general, and certainly not male wage earners, which profits from women's unpaid labour in the household. (Pathfinder 1979, 21)


This all sounds very convincing but doesn't actually stand a lot of close examination.

1. The benefits for capitalism that marxist feminists see in sexual inequality could be achieved without the sexism.

For example marxist feminists argue that women's unpaid labor in the home benefits capitalists because they don't have to pay for this reproduction of the labor force. If the capitalists had to pay for housework their share of profits would fall. But actually this does not follow. If men were paid lower wages and the difference in real income was diverted to women as wages for housework then the profits of the capitalists would remain the same. Or alternatively, women could enter the labor force equally with men and more men could spend longer hours of unpaid labor at home. Again men's real incomes would fall, women's incomes would rise and the capitalist class would be unaffected.

There are other ways of dividing the proletariat other than through sexism, e.g. racism, gradation of the labour market etc. The need to create division does not itself explain why it is that women are oppressed. At best it could be said that it is convenient for capitalism and other ruling classes that this inequality already exists and buttresses their rule as a model of "natural" authority.

2. In one way or another, all of these arguments by marxist feminists presuppose that women are an oppressed group already. They do not explain this situation.

It is argued for example that sexual inequality can be explained by showing that it serves the interests of capitalists in this way. Capitalists create sexual inequality so that men will scapegoat their wives for the resentment really engendered by capitalism. But this argument presupposes rather than explains the oppression of women. Otherwise, we might ask, why don't capitalists elevate women and cast down men for scapegoating? Why do all class societies regardless of period and historical origin, put women in the less privileged role and not men?

3. The marxist feminist claim that working class men do not benefit from sexism seems strange.

Even their own analysis says that capitalists use sexism to divide the working class. This would seem to imply that the working class is divided because men are better off than women. As well it is difficult to argue that as a matter of fact working class men do not benefit from sexism. Feminist analysis of women's lack of power in domestic and work situations applies to working class households as well as middle class ones. Such analysis suggests that men benefit from their power in working class families as well as middle class ones.

4. The idea that sexism is caused by the actions of the capitalist class and that working class men have no hand in it is hard to sustain.

It ignores historical evidence like that cited in Price's article (1978) that shows that working class men's political organisations have put effective pressure on employers to keep women out of highly paid jobs.


The marxist feminist analysis maintains that it is really capitalists and not men who cause women's oppression. Consequently the best strategy for feminists is to support the socialist struggle:

Women can achieve their liberation only through the victory of the world socialist revolution. This goal can be realised only by mobilising masses of women as a powerful component of the class struggle. Therein lies the objective revolutionary dynamic of the struggle for women's liberation. (Pathfinder 1979, 16)

This is of course the sting in the tail of the marxist-feminist position. It ultimately tells feminists to put the socialist struggle first and wait for the revolution for their liberation. This is why writers of the radical feminist persuasion, such as Firestone, scathingly refer to some marxist feminist organisations as the ladies' auxiliaries of the left.


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