Types of Feminism and Anarchism


The conservative view of women argues that the sexual division of labour is 'natural' and that woman's role as wife, mother and home-maker is biologically given. They believe, to quote Freud, that "Anatomy is destiny". I am going to look at the different traditions of political thought that have developed to critique this vision of women's role in society. There are broadly speaking, four theories; Liberal Feminism, Traditional Marxism, Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism. I am going to present these in the historical order that they developed but all these theories are still evident in politics today.


This tradition came from the liberal philosophy that people should have equal opportunity.

Liberal feminists would argue that we need to change the legislation that prevents women having equal access to education, jobs or parliament. But it is looking to compete within the system and believes that if we remove these outdated laws, women will become equal with men.

The suffragette campaign for the vote is an example of liberal feminism in action. Campaigns today for more women in the Dail, more women judges and more women bosses can be seen in this tradition.


The next theory that provided a critique of the position of women in society was Marxism. This theory criticised the liberals for failing to recognise the economic oppression of women.

It argued that trying to gain equality under a class system was impossible. Marxists argued that women's oppression was a symptom of a more fundamental form of oppression, i.e. the capitalist system of social organisation.

Therefore, liberation for women could only be achieved in a classless society.

Discrimination cannot be entirely eliminated by a capitalist economy, as a pool of unemployed potential workers and also low wages are necessary for high profits.

They argue that women should become part of the working class and work with men to overthrow class domination.

The problem with traditional Marxism was that it did not address women's oppression in the private sphere, for example housework, childrearing and domestic violence.

In countries where Marxist politics were put in practice, such as Russia and Cuba, women's role in the workforce changed but their role within the home did not. This meant that for most women they had the double burden of a job and domestic duties.


Radical feminism, which developed in the late 1960s and early 70s was a reaction to the lack of gender analysis within the Marxist tradition. But it also developed from a realisation that the gains made by liberal feminists in the areas of the law, voting and employment had made little difference to women's oppression.

Radical feminists argue that it is the social institution of gender, not the economic system, which is the source of women's oppression. In other words it is because of patriarchy not capitalism.

They argue that we must look at all social relations defining women's subordinate status, rather than focusing particularly on women as workers. It was the radical feminists who coined the phrase "the personal is political" and were the first to pay particular attention to the oppression that goes on within the home.

They believe that all men participate in and benefit from women's oppression and do not believe this oppression could be removed by the abolition of a class society.

Heterosexuality is seen as culturally constructed and a form of domination necessary to maintain patriarchy. They advocate lesbianism as the only way to fully develop female sexuality without power relations.

Politically, this view leads to a separatist position. That is, women must fight together separate to men and against men to overcome oppression. This philosophy is evident in writers such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon and in campaigns such as Greenham Common.

As you can imagine, this philosophy has provoked very strong reactions from many quarters but I will focus on the problems this theory poses for Anarchists.

Firstly, there is no class analysis. Radical feminists would argue that all women share the same oppression. Although women rulers such as Margaret Thatcher or Benazir Bhutto oppress women, radical feminists argue this is because they have bought into the "male value system" and have forgotten their sisters. They would argue that Margaret Thatcher has more in common with oppressed women than with the male ruling class she just doesn't realise it!

Secondly, there is no dynamic in their philosphy to explain social change. Whereas historical materialism allows socialists to explain social change, radical feminists have no corresponding theory.

Thirdly, the theory ultimately returns us to the conservative notion of biological determinism - that there are inherent differences between the sexes. Men are seen as "naturally" oppressive and women are seen as "naturally" better than men. This does not hold out much hope for the possibility of human development.


Socialist feminism has attempted to deal with these problems by marrying the best parts of radical feminism with a class analysis of women's oppression.

This theory argues that both class society and the institution of gender must be eliminated for women to freely determine the conditions of their own lives.

Oppression results from the interaction of patriarchy with capitalism.

They would reject the dichotomy between the home and the workplace and emphasise the role domestic labour plays in maintaining the exploitation of class society as a whole.

You will find socialist feminists working in trade unions or left wing political parties.
Does this marriage of Marxism and feminism work?

The problem is that capitalism is referring to an economic system and patriarchy is referring to a cultural system. Socialists believe that the cultural system and its manifestations such as sexism and racism stem from the economic system of capitalism. I think it is difficult to argue that capitalism and patriarchy operate side by side.

It is important to understand these theories of feminism for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it helps us to understand the tactics adopted by different groups around women's issues. During the Abortion Referendum, for instance, there were groups from every perspective.

The Repeal the Eighth Amendment Campaign's emphasis on the media and lobbying politicians came from the liberal perspective. Those who worked on passing motions within the trade union movement tended to come from a traditional Marxist perspective. Women's Coalition, who organised separately from men, were from the radical perspective. DAIC was closest to the socialist feminist perspective.

Secondly, understanding these theories helps us to recognise the different arguments raised by feminists. Just as it is necessary to understand the differences within socialism when debating with socialists, knowing the differences within feminism helps us to get down to proper debate and explore the real differences in our politics with them.

Thirdly, understanding feminist theory will help us in the development of our own politics in the area of women's oppression. The radical feminist analysis of women's work within the home has been an important contribution to the whole debate on equality between the sexes. Anarchists' belief in personal freedom allows us to incorporate this neglected area in to our politics. As anarchists, we are against women's oppression in the home, in the workplace and by the State.

Talk given to a WSM meeting in 1993