Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives

Rosemary Hennessy

Chrys Ingraham

These days it seems hard to find an unabashed use of the word "feminism" in communications and cultural studies. More often than not feminist studies seems to have been replaced by gender studies, a descriptive rather than overtly political and historical term. While gender studies is considered to be more inclusive--examining issues of masculinity as well as femininity, sexuality and sexual orientation, and the ways in which both institutions and everyday life practices are gendered--the very switch in language speaks to a tip-toeing around the question of politics and praxis in academic work on women. To be sure, many in gender studies would argue that their work is most definitely political and, certainly, much of it is. Yet, there is a growing shift to examining only the micro-politics of representation or of identity. Large epistemological questions about how knowledge is organized in such ways as to define women out of the loci of power and authority in society hardly make their appearance anymore. It was with some excitement and anticipation therefore that I waited for the release of Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives. I hoped that such a book could help to accomplish two things: reignite feminist cultural and communications theory, and encourage a turn (back?) to a sense of politics which would extend beyond the individual subject. While the book certainly advocates the latter, it is unfortunate that it leaves the former on the sidelines.

Materialist feminism derives from socialist feminist work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While it holds a strong link to Marxian theories of history, agency, and ideology, what distinguishes materialist feminism is its incorporation of language and culture. In other words, it approaches discourse as largely a question of social analytics and social relations which are grounded in the material conditions of any given society. These material conditions are examined not only in terms of gender but also in relation to the actual lives of women. One of the most important ways that materialist feminists have sought to uncover these relations is through historical materialism which, from a feminist perspective, claims that social conditions of gender are historically situated and are subject to intervention and change. This argument for the importance of history in materialist feminism also points to the notion of the active subject. By arguing that a marginalized position in society can be an empowering position from which social change can be effected implies a knowing subject who can act autonomously and with authority. Such a presumption is crucial to any feminist praxis. Materialist feminism attempts to focus specifically on social arrangements that emphasize the role of women--most notably the family, domesticity, and motherhood--but bring to its analysis an attention to the gendering discourses which promote women's marginalization. Thus one of the most crucial aspects of materialist feminism is its concern with questions of ideology and how they relate to history and agency.

At times it can seem that in terms of materialist feminism the only issue at stake is ideology. In her earlier book, Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (1993), Rosemary Hennessy argues that not only is discourse the equivalent to ideology but so too is theory, the social, alterity, and history. The problem with such an all-consuming definition of ideology makes difficult--if not outright impossible--the notion of an active subject since an Althusserian ideology argues for an overdetermined subject who has no role in deciding her place in society. That his theory of ideology is also ahistorical is a further cause for concern. Thus, there has been in recent years a turn from ideology to discourse in materialist feminism. Discourse, argues Michèle Barrett in The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault (1991), improves upon the theory of ideology because it suggests its own history as "systems of dispersion." The move from Althusser to Foucault by some materialist feminists has been suggested as one way to maintain a sense of structuralism with agency in order to properly theorize the double-subject of women and their historically marginal role in successive societies. However, it ignores the fact that not only did Foucault not emphasize the importance of the subject but also of the determining social structures of class and the state. It is this stalemate position that Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives seeks to unlock by returning to the Marxist roots of the theory.

As the subtitle suggests, Materialist Feminism is largely concerned with linking women's identities, bodies, desires, and needs to a theory of class because it is class which ultimately both binds and separates women. The editors state in the opening sentence: "We see this reader as a timely contribution to feminist struggle for transformative social change, a struggle which is fundamentally a class war over resources, knowledge and power" (p. 1). By creating a dialectic between gender-as-culture and gender-as-class, the editors link feminist praxis with the undermining and eventual elimination of capitalism. In the introduction, the editors seek to establish boundaries between their feminism and other forms of feminist theory that have tried to claim the title materialist. They do so through a critique of what they call cultural materialism, a derivative of materialist feminism which does not reject capitalism wholesale. The problem with this work, as Hennessy & Ingraham see it, is that it focuses too narrowly on ideology and the active subject without a necessary historical inflection and has, therefore, succeeded in reducing the vast network of relations that goes into social life to a mere question of representation. While the argument that that is all these women scholars accomplish could be easily contested, such a criticism is interesting in the ways that it reveals the elements that the editors wish to privilege. By highlighting gender issues as class issues and making the destruction of capitalism a priority, it is clear that the materialist feminism being argued for in this book is one which focuses on questions of production and labour before any questions of the circulation of capital and consumption.

The book is divided into three sections, or "archives" which chronicle the debates within materialist feminism from 1969 until 1996. Archive I, "Women Under Capitalism: Theorizing Patriarchy, Labor, Meaning," is a selection of book excerpts and previously published articles. In many ways this is the most interesting archive of the three because it provides a useful historical overview of the development of the field (the most recent article is from 1989). A precursory glance at the titles in this archive reveal the themes and topics that are most often associated with materialist feminism: political economy, race and sexual orientation, ideology and cultural production, and the family. In the first article, "The Political Economy of Women's Liberation" (first published in 1969), Margaret Benston argues that the roots of women's secondary status in society are economic, grounded in the valuing of women's labour outside the capitalist system, and the personal/psychological can only follow from there. She argues for an industrialization of housework as a vital first step in undermining the service economy and private production systems which underpin capitalism. The arguments here became central to materialist feminism so it is fitting that the book should open with this article. The brief excerpt from Barrett's Women's Oppression Today entitled "Ideology and the Cultural Production of Gender" (first published in 1980) furthers this argument against the relations of capitalist production but from a different vantage point. Drawing on post-Althusserian theories of ideology and its role in production, Barrett rejects any argument that suggests ideology is itself material. She instead argues, like Benston, that it is a product of the material relations of a society. Taking a step away from Benston, Barrett suggests that once produced ideology becomes necessary to maintain the economic conditions which produced them in the first place. Her article is an important evolutionary point in the development of the field since it emphasizes ideology more than economic conditions in the reproduction of unequal gender relations. Hazel V. Carby's "White Woman Listen!: Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood" (originally published in 1982) takes to task the foundations of materialist feminism as laid out by Benston, Barrett, and others, namely the family, patriarchy, and reproduction. It is a valuable essay in that it turns the tables on other materialist feminism scholars, challenging some of the more common conceptions of the field on the its own grounds of history, agency, and ideology. It is work such as Carby's which has most challenged materialist feminism and caused the field to expand beyond gender in order to embrace--however tentatively--the related standpoints of race and sexual orientation.

Archive II, "Thinking Difference Globally: Race, Class Sexuality," reflects the new directions of materialist feminism in a post-praxis era. All the articles are from the 1980s and early 1990s, an era identified by Hennessy & Ingraham in the introduction as the beginning of the drift away from theorizing women's oppression based on questions of capitalism to questions of culture, consciousness, and ideology. What is most apparent, however, is that with the exception of one article on nineteenth century popular novels none of the articles directly addresses cultural production or popular culture. Instead they continue a focus on women's labour and activism initiated in Archive I. In "The Construction of Woman in Three Popular Texts of Empire" by Hennessy & Rajeswari Mohan (originally published in 1989), a post-Althusserian conception of popular culture as a site of ideological work is offered up in order to use the example of the popular novel to intervene in historical debates about modern industrialization and gender. It is an illuminating article because it demonstrates how materialist feminism can be used in cultural and communications theory in order to reveal not only the intentionalities of texts but also the vast network of social relations which circumscribe any form of cultural production. Cultural politics is again taken up by Nicola Field in her article "Identity and the Lifestyle Market" (originally published in 1995). In a resounding critique of identity politics in the gay and lesbian community, Field examines the ways in which corporate sponsorship has infiltrated civic gay pride organizations and turned political events into social events. It is a crucial article to the political project of the book because it very effectively undermines its object of criticism and speaks to the need now more than ever for a politically grounded feminism.

The final Archive, entitled simply "Ongoing Work," is an attempt to demonstrate the continued viability of this field of feminist theory which has, it is acknowledged, slipped to the sidelines in academia. It is, interestingly, by far the shortest section of the book and the only one with original articles, excepting those by Kathryn Russell and Chrys Ingraham. Ingraham's 1994 article, "The Heterosexual Imaginary: Feminist Sociology and Theories of Gender," is an attempt to renew debate on the ways in which gender is defined as an organizing social concept by critically analyzing the history of feminist sociology from a materialist feminist perspective. In so doing she not only reveals the historical biases of heterosexuality in gender studies but also challenges sociology to reclaim the political in theory by its necessary attention to social relations of power. The last article, Carol A. Stabile's "Feminism and the Ends of Postmodernism," seeks to trace the convergences between postmodernism and feminism in a larger political context. Her concern with postmodernism at this late date seems quaint yet it goes a long way toward revealing perhaps why materialist feminism seems to have been left behind; especially when coupled with her use of the infamous 1992 speech by Dan Quayle on Murphy Brown and family values. It is unfortunate that an article which breaks no new ground and focuses on past debates that were thoroughly investigated almost a decade ago (most notably Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Nancy Fraser & Linda J. Nicholson) rather than ongoing is selected to close this otherwise useful reader.

The question still remains though, useful to whom? It is definitely a shame that in trying to reform feminism from the liberalizing theories of identity politics and representation Materialist Feminism has gone so far in rejecting cultural politics as non-materialist. As Hennessy herself proves in her article, there are ways to bring materialist analysis to cultural texts without losing sight of the larger picture of social relations. However, by insisting upon a fundamental rejection of capitalism this book could have possibly set too high a standard for feminist praxis. An anti-capitalist stance gives theoretical primacy to women's labour over women's leisure; in other words, women's productive capacities over their consumption activities. This is reflected in the dearth of articles on women in the media or on women and their relationship to popular culture. While this could be explained (but not justified) within the limited parameters set out by the editors in the introduction, interestingly what is also missing are any articles on women's labour and new technology. Such an oversight is inexplicable given the body of work in this area which more than meets the criteria of materialist feminism. With gaps such as these in the book, the important work of feminist communications and cultural studies is implicitly ignored when it should be seen as one of the more fruitful avenues for materialist feminism in the university. Materialist Feminism is certainly a welcome return to politically reflective feminist theory but its efforts to curtail what counts as materialist or as political and its inability to grasp the changes going on in the academic terrain of gender studies today may serve to limit the ongoing purposefulness of the field.


Barrett, Michèle. (1991). The politics of truth: From Marx to Foucault. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Barrett, Michèle. (1980). Women's oppression today. London: Verso Editions.

Fraser, Nancy, & Nicholson, Linda J. (Eds.). (1989). Feminism/postmodernism. New York: Routledge.

Hennessy, Rosemary. (1993). Materialist feminism and the politics of discourse. New York: Routledge.

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