Marxist feminism as a critique of intersectionality

I just finished reading a fascinating critique of intersectionality by Eve Mitchell, which can be found here. I want to first go over her main argument, and then go into her proposed solution (Marxist feminism) and why I think a more Gramscian approach would be more useful.

Mitchell’s main point in the article is that intersectionality relies on identity politics, which is a bourgeois and individualistic approach to struggle that ignores the materiality underpinning gender and gender relations.

In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.

Under capitalism, new gender relations developed, including:

  • The development of the wage (theorized as a tool of coercion);
  • The separation of production and reproduction (reproduction meaning more than having babies – also housework, taking care of family, etc) – reproductive labour was generally “free” while productive labour received a wage. This has been theorized as the ‘patriarchy of the wage’ since women tended to be in the reproductive sector;
  • The contradictory development of the nuclear family – on the one hand, the nuclear family was strengthened through the gendered division of labour, while on the other hand it was weakened by the separation of men from women all day long while they were at work;
  • The development of identity and alienation – “Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.”

Eve Mitchell’s critique thus revolves around this concept of identity and the alienation that accompanies it. Mitchell rightly points out that intersectionality arose in the US as a response to the gendered and racialized division of labour:

To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.

She argues that women organized in order to break free from the alienation of ‘womanhood.’

Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.

This came up against the tendency in second wave feminism (and first wave I would argue) to focus on reforming capitalism as a means of emancipation: ‘equal wages for equal work.’ Both of these approaches used identity politics as a means of challenging oppressive systems. In other words, women organized on the basis of womanhood.

This continued with the theory of intersectionality. It was assumed that shared experiences formed as a bond between different kinds of women – “some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.” Moreover, being oppressed puts you in a privileged position within the struggle – similar to the idea of standpoint theory, which argues that marginalized people have a more ‘authentic’ view on social reality, since they see both the workings of power and the effects of it (on the marginalized). This means that only the marginalized can write about their own experiences.

Mitchell’s main critique is that intersectionality is unable to overcome identity politics, and is in essence a bourgeois ideology. Mitchell agrees that it is essential to identify as a woman, or as black, or as queer – but that is not enough. 

Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.”

Identity politics assumes that the basis for struggle is an equal distribution of individualism. “This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.” In other words, the increased individualism that is a result of the crisis of capitalism manifests itself in identity politics – even by those who claim to be anti-capitalist. Mitchell claims that “ theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context.”

She is not the first person to make this critique of intersectionality. Judith Butler argues that the ‘etc.’ that often follows at the end of lists of social categories signals an “embarrassed admission of exhaustion” as well as an “illimitable process of signification.” Nina Yuval-Davis disagrees with Butler, arguing that such a critique is only valid within discourse of identity politics, whereas within intersectional research it is necessary to separate the “different analytical levels in which social divisions need to be examined…the ways different social divisions are constructed by, and intermeshed in, each other in specific historical conditions.” Yuval-Davis also questions the critique that the process of breaking down is illimitable by arguing that in specific situations, certain social divisions are more important than others. Moreover, relationships between positionings are central and not reducible to the same ontological level. Yuval-Davis’ call for focusing on the historical conditions that construct social divisions is perhaps one way of combining mainstream intersectionality with Mitchell’s call for a more class-based approach. I will come back to this later.

Mitchell’s solution to the problem she outlines is a form of Marxist feminism.

To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity.

In essence, Mitchell is grounding identities within the labour process and material basis of production. Her critique is thus not that intersectionality is wrong, but that it is incomplete. She points out that gender relations are real and concrete – an indirect critique of more constructivist views that have tended to dominate intersectional feminist work, especially of the postmodern and poststructural kind. There is a materiality underpinning gender and gender relations, and this materiality is often ignored by intersectional feminists. 

Moreover, the individualization of the struggle that results from an intersectional approach that relies on identity politics takes away from the universality of the class struggle: “Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.” Reducing the struggle to “equal rights” or “equal representation” reinforces identity as a static category. While this is an important critique, I think the difficulty results from the near impossibility of researching identities in a fluid manner – something intersectional theorists are clearly struggling with, especially within an academy in which positivism still dominates.

I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.

A Gramscian approach would also attempt to understand how hegemony “filters through” societal structures, including the economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. This kind of approach is already intersectional, in the sense that hegemony is an over-arching reality, based on specific material modes of production, that works through different social structures, of which gender is one. In a sense, then, Gramsci already spoke of understanding gender as more than simply womanhood or manhood, but rather as one societal structures among many.

A philosophy of praxis, common among Gramscians, also favours reflection that begins in experience – another similarity with intersectionality. Moreover, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has long influenced feminists working on patriarchy and the ways in which consent (on the part of those marginalized by patriarchy) functions. Many feminists who have used the concept of hegemony do not see it as a form of class rule, however, which takes us back to Mitchell’s critique: the point is to locate feminist struggles within the broader class struggle. The conceptualization of hegemony could also provide a way for feminists to establish a counter-hegemony: “a popular mobilisation capable of highlighting the contradictory and exploitative nature of hegemonic ideas and arrangements, providing an alternative mode of organisation that is ethical and inclusive” (Beth Howieson).

A focus on hegemony would also address the problem of identity politics. Perhaps it was put best by Margaret Ledwith, who pointed out that mini-narratives had displaced meta-narratives, which was in one sense positive, but in another served to ‘individualize’ struggles – precisely the critique Mitchell makes. Gramsci’s view of the state as including civil and political society is also useful for feminists, as he points out that the distinction between civil and political society is artificial. This is mirrored in the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ Finally, a Gramscian approach would also serve as a response to critics of Marxism who claim that Marxists ignore gender and focus excessively on class. Gramsci’s approach tends to be much less economistic than Marx’s, and his focus on both materiality and ideas is a testament to this. Moreover, even when he speaks of ‘production’ it is meant in the broadest way possible: it includes the production and reproduction of knowledge and social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods (as has been expanded on by many neo-Gramscians, including Robert Cox).

Of course, it is important to note that Gramsci himself did not focus on gender, nor do most of the scholars who use this approach. Moreover, the Eurocentrism implicit in much of his work is problematic. Nevertheless, I think a feminist approach that combines Gramscian insights with postcolonial feminist ones could be an extremely useful way forward.

In conclusion, the limits of the identity politics that are present in the intersectionality approach can be addressed by adopting a Gramscian approach to feminism that on the one hand makes materiality and capital central, while on the other hand emphasizing the production of knowledge, social relations and morals and how these intersect with social structures such as gender.


This article was originally posted at Neocolonial Thoughts and was republished with permission from the author.

Sara Salem is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her interests include decolonial theory, third world feminism, critical political economy, and theories of post-development. She tweets at @saramsalem.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

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Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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