"Beyond the Fragments": I’m a socialist feminist. Can I be a radical feminist too?

The authors of the re-launched Beyond the Fragments take a feminist approach to healing a divided left. They put women’s exploitation by capital firmly on the agenda. But where is the challenge to patriarchy?

Cynthia Cockburn
17 May 2013

 Beyond the Fragments, first published in 1979, was an iconic book that took a feminist approach to the problem of how to resolve the tensions fracturing the left, and prod its diverse parties, tendencies, groups and non-joiners towards productive dialogue and greater unity. Now Merlin Press has issued a new edition for new times. The refreshed Beyond the Fragments (BFT) was launched on 3 May at a packed-out gathering where we heard the three justly-respected authors, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, tell us why their feminist formula for bringing together a divided left is still relevant in 2013.

And relevant it certainly is. In the thirty-four years that have passed since the book first appeared, as Margaret Thatcher stepped into Downing Street, neo-liberal free-market capitalism has surged globally and in its recent years of crisis, with imploding banks, austerity policies and soaring unemployment, a coherent socialist alternative has become ever more needed – as it has become ever less thinkable. That’s why the new chapters with which Sheila, Lynne and Hilary introduce the original text are welcome, and why so many came to hear them speak, and buy their signed and discounted copies.

BTF has become paradigmatic of socialist feminism. The subtitle of the new book, as of the old, is Feminism and the Making of Socialism.  Yet, feeling myself to be irreducibly both a socialist feminist and a radical feminist, the project leaves me a little riven and adrift. Its authors embrace a generous multiplicity of socialisms, yet bring into play only an impoverished version of feminism. I fear that in an important attempt to heal the divisions of the left it may marginalize those feminists who feel themselves to be not only anticapitalist but also antipatriarchal.

In both BTF texts, the stress is first and foremost on endowing the left movements with the gift of feminist organizing methods. As the group wrote in BTF-1, the women’s movement had invented consciousness-raising groups, in which women could share, learn from and build a politics upon their own experience. We organized horizontally, in equality and mutual respect, without leadership. There was no dogma, ‘line’ or vanguardism. Ours was a prefigurative struggle, in which the world we want was already visible in the means by which we chose to bring it into being. The authors’ valuable objective, now as then, has been to bring this feminist methodology into the left, and with it ‘make an impact on the left’s ways of organizing, promoting both alliance and autonomy, in forums that could encourage the creativity of all who became involved”.

So far so good. A second aim in BTF, likewise important, has been to lodge women’s issues on the left’s agenda. However, the issues addressed are, almost all, economic issues, framed as exploitations and oppressions arising in the capitalist mode of production: women’s low and unequal pay, their unrewarded domestic labour, their manipulation as consumers, their positioning as clients of state services. Largely absent are issues women have in their lives as mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and domestic and sexual service-providers to men. ‘Violence against women’ appears here and there in the listing of women’s economic problems as though its source, too, were the capitalist relation. That the violence in question is male violence, a significant mechanism in men’s systemic control of women as a sex, is not spelled out. Indeed references to patriarchy, as a major and aeons-old societal structure of domination, are scarce in the book, and were infrequently heard in the discussion at the launch.

In an article in 1988, commenting on the 1979 edition of BTF and other works published in the interval by the three authors, I wrote of the socialist feminism they exemplified that, too often, is ‘a culturally self-policed and edited version of feminism. It is a feminism that concurs in dealing with the left within the left’s own terms of reference – terms which exclude ‘difference’, body politics, sexuality and feelings’. It seemed to me that women were entering the room of socialism self-disarmed, voluntarily dropping the more cogent parts of their feminist critique at the door. The re-launch shows this hasn’t changed.

When BTF-1 was published I was involved, like Sheila, Lynne and Hilary, in feminism, trade unionism and left community struggles. However, I went on to work as a feminist researcher and activist in and with peace movements. Analysing militarism led me, ineluctably, to an ever clearer perception of the way power relations of class and race inseparably intertwine with those of a patriarchal gender power system. I learned from the antimilitarist feminists whom I studied in many different war-zones a holistic feminism. The logic of their situation, facing war, had made them anticapitalist, antinationalist and transnational feminists. But, and this is the point, it had made them radical feminists too, with a take on body politics. For war, though its immediate causes are usually economic and territorial, is nothing if not a bodily experience and a demonstration of masculine violence in a range of forms. Yet BTF-2, as BTF-1, does not address, let alone embrace, these latter aspects of feminist analysis. Indeed ‘radical’ feminism is set at a clear distance (see BTF-2). Yet the feminist demands so labelled can usefully prompt us, as socialist feminists, to remember that women’s lives and chances are deformed by more than one set of fundamental power relations.

Something may be learned by comparing the BTF launch event earlier this month, which attracted many of London’s socialist feminist women and not a few men of the left, with a conference organized not long ago by the Turkish Socialist Feminist Collective. A book of its proceedings, Women Trapped Between Paid and Unpaid Labour, has just been published. Many of the two-hundred-plus women who came had been attracted by the presence of Heidi Hartmann as a keynote speaker. Hartmann is remembered by socialist feminists worldwide for one of the first and most compelling analyses (‘dual systems theory’) of the mutual shaping of the capitalist mode of production and the patriarchal sex-gender order. Interestingly, she expressed regret, in this recent talk, for her lack of attention to male violence in her former analysis.

Many of the thoughts expressed by Turkish socialist feminists in that discussion in Istanbul were in striking contrast to the discussion following the BTF launch, where interventions, frequently by men, tended to be from and about the left rather than feminism. Yasmin Őzgűn for instance remembered how, in the Turkish socialist feminist movement, ‘From the very first day, women’s labour has been on our agenda. But we never separated the issue of women’s labour from the politics of women’s body, always making a point of approaching all feminist issues as parts of a totality’. Recently, she said, they had started a campaign titled ‘We want our due back from men’. Men, she said, ‘have a material interest in women doing the cleaning, the cooking, and taking care of the elderly and most importantly of children’. Ece Kocabiçak, who thinks and writes from a Marxist perspective, nonetheless stressed that ‘the radicalism of feminist politics does not depend on how much anti-capitalist it is, but how anti-patriarchal it is’.

Meriç Eyűboğlu and Gülnur Acar Savran noted a startling increase in murders of women in Turkey (1400% up in nine years). They analysed this explicitly as an effect of both patriarchy and capitalism. Meriç sees economic change as giving more women independent incomes, with the result that they are less prone to obey men. Meanwhile unemployment has cost some men their status in the male hierarchy, and their resentment precipitates violence against women. Gülnur believes Turkish women are experiencing a dual oppression, one ‘both by neoliberal and familialist conservative methods’. Serpil Kemalbay suggests Turkish women are witnessing a ‘collaboration between patriarchy and capitalism [such that] capital has made a leap into a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional exploitation system’.  Thus the surge in misogyny calls for an analysis both of capitalist developments and the societal impact of feminist critiques of male power.

By contrast, notwithstanding the for-sure feminism of its authors, the impression given by BTF discourse is that if women feel oppression beyond the effects of capitalist class relations it is a result of the unfortunate attitudes of individual men, rather than of systemic entrenched power. It makes it seem as though more sensitivity to women’s special needs in an anti-capitalist struggle, and more respectful behaviour by male comrades, could put it all to rights. I want to invoke Serpil, who said in Istanbul, ‘We can see that we are badly battered both by capitalism and by men…We need a holistic perspective against men and against capitalism’. Why is a systematic analysis admissable for the mode of production but not for the sex-gender order?

I would add that we also need rapid and effective self-organization by explicitly anti-patriarchal men ready to endorse feminist demands and address men’s part in what Dorothy Smith usefully terms the ‘relations of ruling’. And that should be a condition of our engagement in mixed organizations of the left.

The BTF vision is of ‘citizens forming horizontal connections across civil society, across politics and economics, to build extra-parliamentary sources of public power for democratic social change…’ (BTF-2). Yes to that!  We need to dream about, and work for, the fragments of the Left - anarchists, communists, Trotskyists, Labour supporters, unions, community activist groups, the World Social Forum movement, Occupy, 'los indignados', and many more - to come together and frame a new ‘common sense’ that can counter and replace the hegemony of the ruling class and ruling sex. But the BTF project, leaving significant feminist fragments out of the net, misses this chance.

Young feminists in the UK today (and the movement is surging) can be in no doubt that their lives and chances are blighted by neoliberal capitalism. Yet rather few call or think of themselves as ‘socialist’. This may be because, as Lynne Segal points out (BTF-2) ’the once widely approved word socialism…has largely fallen into disuse’. What has jolted the new generation into a fresh phase of activism seems to be the sharp pain of growing up confidant and hopeful, only to find yourself subjected to male authority, the male gaze, masculine violence, and commodification by a capitalist mode of production that is nothing if not deeply patriarchal. It is difficult to know how these younger feminists can feel confident that the left will be a viable home for their energies, or respond to their interests, if the words ‘male power’ and ‘patriarchy’ never cross the lips of the comrades they will find there. The movement that converges in a space ‘beyond the fragments’ must surely include a rich diversity of feminisms, concerned in intersectional mode with everything from porn to austerity, from homophobia to migrants’ rights, seeking coherence among each other in a left comprised of both mixed and women-only organizations.

Any woman interested in furthering this aim is invited to a workshop some of us homeless socialist-and-radical feminist women are organizing on the unlikely, but nonetheless welcoming, terrain of the Feminism in London conference on October 26, 2013.




Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData