Comparative analysis of Feminism and Marxism
By: Mehdi Hassanian esfahani (GS 22456)
Lecturer: Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani
Literary Theory (BBL 5201)
University Putra Malaysia - October 2008
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Feminist is a social (political) movement, and Marxism an economic and social
system, which are aimed to help for a better social life. One is more concerned about women
and their rights, trying to point out and condemn their suffrage, claims that the whole world,
society and every related issue such as power, business, marriage, and the like, is based upon
patriarchy. It believes that in a patriarchal world, which is designed for men’s pleasure and
benefit, women have no rights. The other one is concerned about economic system of society.
Claiming that upper class has always repressed middle and lower class in order to gain more
benefits and power, it brings historical examples to explain how Imperialism and Capitalism
work. Marxism rejects economical systems, such as Capitalism, and believes that the
majority, which includes workers, will revolt one day to establish a fair classless
socioeconomic system, which is Communism.
And regarding arts and literature, they both have twofold attitude toward literature.
One is to study the influence(s) of works of art on society and people and observe the relation
between the ideology presented in the book, and the ideology Marxism or Feminism offer.
And the other, which is more connected to literary criticism, is to analyze a text to see how it
is affected by a particular theory (such as Marxism or Feminism), and to find out if these
theories work out in the literary text or not, (or to see if these principles are applicable in the
context or not), and also to observe the milieu and the reasons that have caused a literary text
to be written and published.
In this article, first I start with a very short introduction of each theory, and then I will discuss
their detailed principles regarding literary criticism which includes the comparisons and
contrasts of Feminism and Marxism and also some examples. The last part would be the
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A very short introduction to Feminism
In categorizing movements of Feminism, Kassian observes that the first wave goes
back to late 1700s and the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of the Women by Mary
Wollstonecraft. It passed a long way to ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ (1848) by American
women, in which they asked for their natural rights and the change of law, such as the right to
vote or to study in all majors, or work in every field they like, as well as governmental
protection after divorce and the like. It was a primary step for women, to urge government
and society, to consider them human being, and not a part of men’s property. Second wave
was in 1960s, when Feminism was introduced to North Americans by claiming the equality
for women. It was when women “witnessed doors opening to higher education and many
professions” (Kassian, 18). But this promising idea failed in some ways and couldn’t unite all
women. Next generation (movement or wave) tried to see differences, but not reject men or
masculinity. The main wok on feminist criticism happened in 1980s. Gender criticism, as
Padley explains, founded in mid-1980s, developed new areas in literally and cultural studies
related to ‘sexual identity and sexual orientation’ issues. In the next decade, Rebecca Walker
used the word ‘third wave’ to support lesbian, bisexual or black women too. The aim was to
seek equality, unite men and women to make a better life, and spread the ideal image of
feminism universally (Nelson).
There is not a unique list of goals for Feminism. In other words, there are many
feminists who do not agree with each other and there are many controversial topics regarding
Feminism. But, the main goal which is accepted unanimously is the ‘equality’ of men and
women. (Even this motto in broad and controversial.)
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Literature is presentation of men’s ideas and thoughts. It is the result of social and
cultural norms, and it makes social and cultural norms as well. Therefore in Feminism, the
view of literature is twofold. A feminist reading of a text looks upon patriarchal or feminist
issues to see how patriarchal society bounds the characters and the story to act in a particular
patriarchal way. A feminist study of a particular behavior or belief can also analyze literary
texts to find out their influence(s) on the reader.
According to Padley, feminist criticism has helped to improve textual analysis of
literary texts by questioning the canons and re-introducing some of neglected women’s
writings. It also presents a new style (écriture féminine) belonging to women, by claiming
that there should be a different usage of language, as women’s acquisition of language and
their viewpoint of world is different. Furthermore, it revalues women’s experiences and the
narration of their feeling within literary texts. Tyson explains that a feminist critic examines
different aspects of a text, to see if it reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social,
and psychological oppression of women or the related patriarchal ideology. But according to
Fetterley, “feminist criticism is a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world
but to change it by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what
they read” (viii).
A very short introduction to Marxism
The very first thing that Arrowsmith explains about Marxism is that the term refers to
“a hugely diverse set of social, economic, historical, philosophical and cultural theories”. It is
very hard to explain ‘Marxism’ in a paragraph, as it is a philosophy from which many social,
political, economical and critical theories derived. Some describe it as practices done upon
the works of Marx (1818-1883) and Engels. Some still believe that no one has ever
understood what Marx said, and a big change in foundation of our logic is needed to make us
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able of interpreting Marx’ thoughts. But anyway, Marx’s idea was that socioeconomic system
of the time, which was Capitalism, fails to gain the satisfaction of proletariats. Although there
are variation of understanding and misunderstanding of his words, but it is commonly
accepted that he believed in need of Socialism; when workers become aware of their
oppression, and revolt against Capitalism, and ask for Communism as eventually the ideal
system which brings classless society and distributes all the benefits among all the people.
The Principles of Communism was published in 1847 by Marx and Engels, along other works
that spread the notion of Communism.
According to Bressler, Marx was a social critic and philosopher who observed history
and change of power, and stated that society is based on economic relationships, and people
define themselves through social interactions. Process of changing from Feudalism to
Capitalism, resulted in private property and split of society into those who have, and those
who don’t have. This classist society goes to extreme when two classes are completely
divided into proletariats (workers) and bourgeoisie (capitalists). Bourgeoisie, which gains the
power, defines superstructure “including all social and legal institution, all political and
educational systems, all religions and all art” (Bressler, 162), and articulate the ideology (or
set of beliefs) which is based on profits of bourgeoisie. As the ideology is based on
bourgeoisie needs and benefits, it leads to alienation of individuals, especially proletariats,
and brings the clash between these two classes.
Bressler explains that although Marxist criticism is based on what Marx said, but
Marx himself said little about literature. He clarifies that Marxist criticism is a twentieth
century phenomenon, based on the nineteenth century philosophical assumptions of Marx.
Focusing upon “the inequalities of wealth which the capitalist economic system brings”
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Arrowsmith points that Marxist criticism investigates the effects of such a capitalist system
upon the culture and the people. It considers every single work of literature as a “product of a
particular historical moment and social, political, cultural and economic climate” (Padley,
166). A Marxist critic takes account of the formal elements of a text; stylistic characteristics
as well as theme and content to observe the influences that socioeconomic system has upon
the characters and events. It is much involved in struggles of workers and the power (the
structure or system) and mostly believes that there should be a revolution; a rebellion who
fights against Capitalism and seeks economic equality. Briefly, “Marxist approaches to
textual analysis [studies] the relationship between the text and the society that reads it”
(Bressler, 163). One can find similarity between ‘Traditional Historical Approach’ and
Marxist criticism, as both put the text in the historical setting and cultural milieu, but
Marxism emphasizes the role of Capitalist society and its influences on the text.
If Marxism claims that individuals are under the oppression of dominant power
structure, Marxist Feminism which is a branch of Feminism, points out the role of Capitalism
in oppression of women. In this case, issues like private property (discussed in Marxism)
causes dependency (discussed in Feminism), and the way of freedom is defined by struggling
and abolishing the classist structure, which is the Capitalist structure system. According to
Brenner, a tool to reinforce feminist movement is to gain the political and economical power.
She declares that “in the future, progress for women will depend on challenging corporate
capital's political and economic power” (6).
Feminism, Marxism and examples
Comparing Feminism and Marxism, both claims that society is split into the powerful
and the powerless. Although they are two different theories and criticism, founded upon
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different claims and needs, but they have many characteristics in common. One tries to
condemn patriarchy, and care about women, especially those suffered of patriotic
inequalities. The other theory rejects Capitalism. Believing that landlords and bourgeoisie
have oppressed proletariat through the history, Marxism promises economic equality for all,
especially proletariat or middle / lower class. They both fight against the ruling system of the
time, and believe that if people become aware of their situation, it leads to a revolution (or as
some feminists argue, feminists ask for an evolution) and this change in society helps for a
better future. In the following I will introduce and exemplify issues and topic related to each
or both of them.
Marxism divides people, according to Tyson, into groups of bourgeoisie and
proletariat. Bourgeoisie are those who own a natural resource, like farm or have an economic
resource, that brings them power. Proletariats are workers who don’t own any kind of natural
resources. They are the majority of population and work hard, but the benefit goes to
bourgeoisie, and they live in a poor condition. Ryan gives some historical examples of
Middle Ages and capitalist eras and emphasizes that even in Shakespeare’s plays, aristocrats
have leading roles, fight, make stories and win or die nobly. Poor people could only find
some bad sexual puns related to their lives.
In Feminism, it is almost the same, based on Simone De Beauvoir’s well-known
notion of ‘otherness’; the world is based on patriarchal basics, and is ruled by patriarchal
rules in which men are absolute, the subject, and women are considered as objects,
inessential, lack, not important and simply ‘the others’. It is what Julia Kristeva calls the
object / subject relationship; where men are always subject, but women are object (McAfee).
Good example is a novel by Toni Morrison, called Paradise, in which patriarchy is dominant
in the town of Ruby; women are almost nothing; and are considered as objects even within
their families. The town is ruled by men, and they decide for their daughters or wives.
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Women have no right to think, discuss or even say anything; no one has listened to them,
because “they were just women … what they said was easily ignored by good brave men”
To illustrate this state of being secondary, Ryon examples from when peasant had no
right to go to school and learn (as well as many other rights they were prevented from) and
women, even now sometimes cannot follow any profession or study everything that men can
(it may, of course be different in different countries, as feminist movements have not reached
and developed in all parts of the world yet).
Power is an important factor that determines destiny of poor proletariats. One who has
the power builds the superstructure of realities. The eventual goal of Marxism is to gain this
power from bourgeoisie and distribute it between all people (and all proletariats) equally.
Lacking the power, they are always dependant on landlords, or bourgeoisie. But in between,
there is an obstacle in society that prevents unity of proletariats. This is the ideology or belief
system dominated in society, which is based on benefits of bourgeoisie and acts to cheer poor
lower and middle class. ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses’ is a famous quoted statement
by Marx, may be interpreted in this way (as it is a controversial statement as well) that people
rely of their belief, as a painkiller, but rulers define and practice those beliefs in a way that
fulfils their desires. A good example is William Blake’s Chimney Sweepers, in which there is
a false hope in the heart and mind of the poor chimney sweeper that justifies all unfair
troubles. Orwell’s Animal Farm strongly shows the ideology that bourgeoisie announce in
society, and the way workers believe them, and accept to act as passive as the ideology (or
the false consciousness) asks.
In Feminism, again gaining and keeping power is essential. Especially by the ‘second
wave’ of feminism, the aim was to take back this power from men. This has empowered the
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idea of world without men, which was presented in Gilman’s novel, Herland which is about a
feminist utopia, where there is no man (they even reproduce in another way). A more
moderate type of Feminism (the third wave) claims that power should be distributed equally
between men and women in society. Their claim is “less about the gains that could be made
for women and more about the gains that could be made for human beings” (McAfee, 102).
They strongly reject the ideas presented in Victorian literature, and Jane Austin novels (like
Emma) in which women are always home, and are not involved in many parts of society.
Another example is again Paradise in which the main conflict is about feminist women in a
convent, and patriarchal people of Ruby. The whole massacre happened to determine “whose
power is stronger?” (Morrison, 276) But again the same obstacle is within the mind and the
heart of people. This is what De Beauvoir discusses by claiming that the whole society is
patriarchal, the way we think and the way we act are so. Even some women are patriarchal
and empower patriarchal ideology by acting passively and teaching their children how to act
On the way to the ideal world of Marxism, beside awareness, there is a need to kill a
belief within which is ‘false consciousness’. According to Tyson, an ideal image can provide
a view of future and act as motivation. But this mental image may be based on a false basis.
If it is to benefit a group of people (bourgeoisie) and deceive another (proletariats); it is a
false consciousness, which “describes the way in which the the dominant social class shapes
and controls each person’s self-definition and class consciousness” (Bressler, 164). This
image or ideal should be removed from the mind of proletariats, if they want to realize the
ways of their oppression.
Feminism wrestles with a mental opponent, too. ‘Angel in the house’ is an extreme
patriarchy image of a woman, which is internalized by patriarchal society. It claims that
women are either monsters, or angels. To be an angel means to ignore yourself and always
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devote your life for the husband (and children); to be always at their service and to keep the
family together. It is a responsibility. Refusing to be such brings the label ‘monster’, who is
an immoral woman that demolishes a family. In Awakening by Kate Chopin, Madame
Ratignolle is an example of an ‘angel in the house’ who adores her husband and worships her
children. Edna (the heroine) gains her identity only when she breaks with Madame
Question of identity is a crucial issue in both theories. Marxism reports that during the
history, workers came to be divided from bourgeoisie, and the connection between
bourgeoisie and proletariats was broken. This not only resulted in alienation of workers and
their landlords, but also from their job, and its benefits. By suggesting that government
should posses and control the industry, Marxism wants proletariats to work by concerning
their benefits in it. In Feminism there is also an alienation from humanity. Feminists assert
that patriarchy limits a woman to be a good daughter, wife or mother. There is no label such
as a good woman. Awareness of the other roles that women can play, leads to the big change,
or evolution. In this way, Feminism may reject any idea which limits its abilities, and this
includes the patriarchy reading of religion or morality, if it is to repress women. A good
example is the way Ruby men, in Paradise, enforce their ideology, according to Miyamoto,
which is based on their traditional set of beliefs, to suppress women. It is the same to
Marxism, when it tries to reject false ideologies that are based to limit and oppress
proletariats. Marx claims that “society shapes our consciousness” (Bressler, 162) and
Kristeva says that all differences are products of culture or society. She argues that “they do
not exist in a pre-given sense, and they are not producers, but produced” (Hekman, 85). It can
be seen as if they are not real.
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At the first glance, Feminism and Marxism may seem not suitable to be compared, as
they are two different theories by different presuppositions and different aims. Before doing
this comparison, I thought so. But then I found that they have strong common characteristics,
and if they do not oppose each other, they help each other to analyze social issues and bring
about the result, which is an ideal structure system and social interactions.
Feminism and Marxism, in general want to abolish the unfair prejudice they find
within society, and establish a system in which members are equal and have the same rights
and power. According to Bressler, the literary criticism based on these theories undergoes the
same procedure. In Marxist criticism, one observes the text and its elements to find the
structure within the story; pays attention to the theme and plot in order to get the result of
Capitalism in the society presented through the story; and puts the text it the history and
society in which it is produced / and read, to find the factors related to its production. In
Feminism, one also pays attention to the text itself, the plot and the words, language and
style; and also to the society in which the literary work is produced, to find out the effects it
had on the text and the writer.
But there is a different is in priority of issues labeled by importance. Feminism claims
that the only important problem of the world is that it denies the rights belonged to (almost)
half of its population. But Marxism argues that the only question is about the power. All
problems (or the upcoming problem) root from economic inequality.
Referring to collapse of Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the fact that Communist
society never brought about the ideal world or the promised paradise (for workers), many
have criticized Marxism of being unpractical and not basically suited for social systems. But
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there are also devoted advocates who claim that Communism never experienced in a way that
Marx meant it to be, and the true Communism needs a prior condition.
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Brenner, Johanna. Women and the Politics of Class. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
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De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. trans. H M Parshley. New York: Penguin, 1972.
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