Women and the Politics of Class

Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000

Johanna Brenner, a well-known socialist feminist writer, presents here a collection of essays previously published elsewhere over the period from 1984 to 2000 (three written in collaboration with others, Nancy Holmstrom, Barbara Laslett, and Maria Ramas). Her focus is “the theoretical and strategic questions at the heart of the socialist-feminist project” (8). What is most admirable about this book — and it has many admirable qualities — is the skillful, intelligent blending of theoretical issues with historical case studies, all in the service of political practice.  Brenner, an academic activist (she is a professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon and coordinator of their Women’s Studies Program) consistently brings her scholarship to bear on specific issues of contemporary strategy and tactics.

Section one, “Toward a Historical Sociology of Gender,” contains essays challenging the ideas of Michèle Barrett on the origins of the family-household system and the sex-segregated labor market at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; on the ebb and flow of women’s “political self-organization “and its impact on state policy from the Progressive Era to the 1960s and 1970s (in dialogue with the views of Heidi Hartmann and Theda Skocpol); and on the role of “gender identity “in labor union organizing in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A second section looks at women and social policy, covering the feminization of poverty, comparable worth, and the politics of welfare reform.  Section 3 tackles rightwing feminist communitarianism (Jean Bethke Elshtain and Betty Friedan), and section 4 discusses feminist strategy and class politics, with a concluding chapter written especially for this volume on using “intersectionality” (the concept introduced by the African-American legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw) to integrate class, gender, and race analysis from a Marxist perspective.

Drawing on the feminist-inspired labor history of the past decades, Brenner uses concrete historical cases to revisit the 1970s Marxist-feminist analysis, which blamed male trade unionists for colluding with bourgeois owners against women in the labor force. Brenner is critical of Barrett and other writers for treating 19th-century gender ideology as separate from the biological and material conditions that governed the decision by most working-class women to escape from the rigors of factory work, a move which, she argues, largely preceded legislative interventions in both the United States and Great Britain. She is sympathetic to, rather than indignant with, the 19th-century craft workers who carved out a family wage through strategies of exclusion, while acknowledging that they produced discriminatory practices.

Without evoking the concept of “essentialism,” Brenner convincingly documents the variability of male gender identity in the face of the powerful forces brought to bear by bosses against workers. For example, drawing on the research of Patricia A. Cooper and Nancy A. Hewitt, Brenner contrasts the sexist exclusion of women by the Cigar Makers’ Industrial Union at the turn of the century with the anarcho-syndicalist, gender-inclusive La Resistencia, organized by male Cuban émigrés in Tampa’s cigar industry, radicalized by the struggle for independence… Attacked as both un-American and unmanly by the CMIU, the male leadership of La Resistencia characterized the CMIU as “a barn of white livered dung hill cocks,” proclaiming themselves “the voice of virile labor” [as cited in Hewitt]. In the context of a politicized community and industry where men and women labored in the same factories and received equal pay for the same work (although men tended to monopolize the most highly paid jobs), strategic choices required working men to redefine the boundaries of gender work and the meaning of masculinity. (93).
The political positions adopted by Brenner are occasionally controversial.  For example, her 1989 essay on welfare reform basically calls on feminists to let go of the principle that poor mothers with children should be allowed to stay at home, the way middle-class women can. Arguably grassroots activists of color like the newly formed Every Mother is a Working Mother Network, who are currently reviving the “wages for housework” claim for welfare mothers, would dispute this position. (See the Black Radical Congress listserve, brc-announce@lists.tao.ca, August 10, 2001, “Count Mothers’ Work in Welfare Reform.”) Instead, Brenner argues for a politics of support to all families, so that they can effectively combine work and family life without economic sacrifice.  As she writes, the entry of women into the labor force and the increasing influence of women trade unionists, the impact of feminism on the perception of women’s family roles, and the increasing organization of professionals and grassroots constituencies around family/work issues, make it possible for the first time since the emergence of industrial capitalism to challenge women’s assignment to unpaid caring work.  We can reasonably argue for households’ universal need for social provisions that will help them carry out their responsibilities for raising children and caring for adults. (143)

In the globalizing economy of the 21st century, with corporations successfully inculcating the workforce with the idea that all work is contingent and temporary, and the social safety net effectively demonized as a drag on productivity, Brenner’s words have an optimistic, not to say hopelessly utopian, ring to them.

Yet Brenner is very clear-eyed as to the obstacles facing activists who seek the creation of a fair and just society. The most substantial essay is “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: U.S. Feminism Today,” which originally appeared in New Left Review in 1993. This chapter sketches out a convincing interpretation of what we might call the political economy of feminism.  Brenner argues that the 1970s restructuring of the U.S. economy drew women in large numbers into service sector jobs, especially in human services.  Meanwhile affirmative action measures opened previously male-dominated jobs to women.  Thus the 1980s saw the establishment of a layer of mostly white, but also some African-American and other “minority,” middle class professional women, who became the backbone of what she terms “social welfare feminism.” 

More radical than liberal feminists, social welfare feminists believed in the power of the state to assist the situation of women as they entered the market economy. The revived women’s movement carried out an unprecedented bourgeois revolution for women, essentially establishing the legal and political basis for equality within the constraints of a capitalist economy. Thus it is the best of times for women who have cracked the male-dominated worlds of professional work and corporate management, while it is the worst of times for the vast majority of women in low-wage, insecure employment or consigned to the virtual slavery of workfare programs. 

Brenner traces the change over three decades from a militant social movement to a simultaneously institutionalized and marginalized feminism, now at an impasse faced with a restructured, aggressive and global capitalist system.  She is unambivalent about the need to mount a “serious and disruptive challenge to state and capital.”
However, this challenge cannot be organized by feminists alone, nor with old forms of feminist organization.  It requires a broad and militant mobilization from below incorporating movements for democratic rights that are far more inclusive, new more social and political forms of trade-union struggle, and national political organization(s) independent of the Democratic Party. We have no choice but to stake our future on this possibility. (269)

Readers used to the complex and occasionally inaccessible prose wielded by some contemporary feminist theorists will find Brenner’s writing refreshingly clear, although occasionally a bit didactic, with an overall tone of tolerance.  Brenner is engaging in serious debate with other scholars and activists. She is a strong advocate of the need for feminists to focus on class, and to continue the tradition of Marxist feminist analysis that was so strong in the 1970s.  But her words are always calm and reasonable and seem to invite dialogue, even when she takes on Richard Rorty and Todd Gitlin on the need to meld class analysis with identity politics (see 95, n. 16). Not many readers will match her enormous erudition.  The footnotes alone constitute an excellent introduction to some of the work done over the past three decades in women’s labor history, Black women’s history, feminist theory, and gender-related social policy, although it would have been good to collect these sources into a comprehensive bibliography. Inevitably a collection of essays spanning nearly two decades will seem uneven and occasionally repetitive.  But this book is well worth the effort of reading and even rereading, as it contains a wealth of information, and much food for political thought.

Review by Hester Eisenstein
Queens College and the Graduate School and University Center
City University of New York

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