Race, Gender, Class
Vol. 8, № 2 (2001)
Photo: Young Uzbek woman from Tashkent holding up her Komsomol membership card, 1927.
Dr. Martha E. Gimenez is an Argentinian Marxist-feminist theorist and retired Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Studies Program. She studied Law and sociology at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, receiving her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on Marxist Feminist Theory, the political economy of population, U.S. politics of racial/ethnic construction, and problems of democratization in the global economy. Gimenez is the founding editor of PSN — the Progressive Sociologists Network, PPN — the Progressive Population Network, and together with Chrys Ingraham and Rosemary Hennessy, founded MATFEM — Materialist Feminism, and together with Malgosia Askanas and Carrol Cox, moderates M-Fem — Marxist-feminism. In her work, Martha E. Gimenez has sought to use Marx’s methodology and theoretical framework for understanding the oppression of women under the capitalist mode of production. Her work aims to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Marx and Marxist theory for feminist theorizing and feminist politics.
A taken for granted feature of most social science publications today, especially those about inequality, is the ritual critique of Marx and Marxism in the process of introducing theoretical alternatives intended to remedy its alleged “failures.” This practice became popular in early feminist literature: Marx and Marxists were criticized for not developing an in-depth analysis of the oppression of women, their “economism,” “class reductionism,” and “sex blind” categories of analysis. Soon after it became common place to assert that Marxism was also at fault for neglecting race, demography, ethnicity, the environment and practically everything that mattered to the “new social movements” in the West. As the movements died, scholarship informed by those political concerns flourished; the energy that might have been spent in the public arena found expression in academic programs (e.g., women’s studies, racial/ethnic studies) and efforts to increase “diversity” in the curriculum and the population of educational institutions.
Publication of the journal Race, Sex, & Class (changed afterwards to Race, Gender, & Class), in 1993, signaled the convergence of those political and intellectual interests into a new social science perspective that soon acquired enormous visibility, as demonstrated by the proliferation of journal articles and books with race, gender and class in their titles. This perspective, put forth primarily but not exclusively by social scientists of color, emerged as a reaction to feminist theories which neglected racial/ethnic and class differences among women, theories of racial/ethnic inequality which neglected sexism among men of color and, predictably, as a corrective to Marxism’s alleged shortcomings. For example, Jean Belkhir, editor and founder of Race, Sex, & Class, prefaces an article on this topic as follows: “The ‘failure’ of Marxism to develop adequate tools and a comprehensive theory of ethnicity, gender, and class issues is undisputable” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). The list of putative “failures” could be as long as we wanted it to be but what would that prove, beyond the fact that Marx’s and Engels’ political and theoretical priorities differed from those of contemporary social scientists? Less biased, albeit debatable, is the conclusion that Marxism, although offering “crucial and unparalleled insights” into the operation of capitalism, “needs to develop the analytical tools to investigate the study of racism, sexism and classism” (Belkhir, 1994: 79). To refer to class as “classism” is, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, “a deeply misleading formulation” (Eagleton, 1996: 57; see also Kandal, 1995: 143) because class is not simply another ideology legitimating oppression; it denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. Nevertheless, it is the case that neither Marx nor Engels devoted the intensity of effort to the investigation of gender and race (and other issues) that would have satisfied today’s critics. It is (and any literature review would support this point) far easier to emphasize their “sins” of omission and — in light of current political sensibilities — commission, than it is to use their theoretical and methodological contributions to theorize and investigate those aspects of capitalist social formations that today concern us. Notable exceptions are Berberoglu (1994), who has examined the underlying class forces leading to gender and racial divisions in the U.S. working class, linking gender and racial oppression to capital accumulation, and Kandal (1995), who has forcefully argued for the need to avoid the racialization and feminization of social conflicts while minimizing or overlooking the significance of class.
In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.
Race, gender, and class as part of a social science perspective
Long before the popularization of the race, gender, & class (RGC) perspective, I suspect that most Marxist sociologists teaching social stratification were already adept practitioners. For many years, for example, the Section on Marxist sociology of the American Sociological Association included in its annual program a session on Class, Gender, and Race. I certainly called my students’ attention, in twenty nine years of teaching social stratification and other subjects in which inequality matters, to the fact that everybody’s lives are affected by class, gender, and race/ethnic structures (in addition to age and other sources of inequality). We are, in Marx’s terms, “an ensemble of social relations” (Marx, 1994: 100, emphasis added), and we live our lives at the core of the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on hierarchically interrelated structures which, together, define the historical specificity of the capitalist modes of production and reproduction and underlay their observable manifestations. I also routinely called students’ attention to the problems inherent in the widespread practice of assuming the existence of common interests, ideologies, politics, and experiences based on gender, race, and ethnicity because class location, and socioeconomic status differences within classes, divide those population aggregates into classes and strata with contradictory and conflicting interests. In turn, aggregates sharing the same class location, or similar socioeconomic characteristics within a class, are themselves divided by gender, race, and ethnicity so that it is problematic to assume that they might spontaneously coalesce into class or status self-conscious, organized groups. This is why, in the late sixties and early 1970s, I was critical of feminist theories which ignored class, racial and ethnic divisions among women and men, and theories of patriarchy that ignored how most men under capitalism are relatively powerless (Gimenez, 1975). Later on, I published a critical assessment of the “feminization of poverty” thesis because it was not sensitive to the effects of class, socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic divisions among men and women; it neglected the connections between the poverty of women and the poverty of men and overlooked the significance of this thesis as a powerful indicator of the immiseration of the lower strata within the U.S. working class (Gimenez, 1990).
I am aware, however, that most sociologists do not take Marxism seriously and that theorists of gender and racial oppression have been, on the whole, hostile to Marxism’s alleged reductionisms. More importantly, this is a country where class is not part of the common sense understanding of the world and remains conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of politicians and most mass media pundits. Continue reading