The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics

Nancy Holmstrom (ed.)
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002

Reviewed by Karla Momberger, Esq., Arizona State University

The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics edited by Nancy Holmstrom is just that, a project—something vigorous and alive. The active set of goals and tactics that drive the anthology is what makes it refreshing, timely, and relevant for students, organizers, and scholars alike. It is more than a collection of readings assembled for consideration. It is a project, because the assembly itself is strategic and artful, and because the volume is calculated not to preach to the choir, but to change the song. Certainly it will prove to be a valuable teaching tool and flashpoint for students and budding feminists. It will also, hopefully, serve as a much-needed shot in the arm for feminist activists, professionals and academics who have forgotten how they came to the movement, and why.

The reader’s editor, Nancy Holmstrom, approaches theory as a dynamic, fluid force that shapes practice. She includes an excellent variety of writers, some of whom may identify as socialist feminist, and many of whom probably do not. For her purposes, “socialist feminist” is “anyone trying to understand women’s subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, with the aim of using this analysis to help liberate women”(1). The result of this loose and clever definition is a set of articles that truly do present a wide range of theories and strategies for almost any reader.

This project is incredibly well-timed. In the wake of the sometimes tedious and occasionally exhausting focus in academic circles on postmodernism and apolitical cultural issues — as if politics can be excluded from human culture — and as the tide of global capitalism rises, new approaches are needed by progressive thinkers and activists. The idea that socialist feminism is a relic of the seventies that cannot change to meet the times is one that Holmstrom takes square aim at in this project. The articles in the book use as their weapons emerging issues such as the drive for recognition of economic human rights and protest against the world bank and are therefore mostly able to hit the “seventies relic” idea between the eyes.

A sort of prelude to the rest of the book, the “Foremothers/Foremothers” section is a happy culling of the roots of the socialist feminist movement. It shows the successes and failures of the past and provides a snapshot of the origins of what Holmstrom sees as the current project.

One of the strongest sections, Part One of the project, is titled “Sex, Sexuality, and Reproduction.” The juxtaposition of the raw and poetic class theory of Dorothy Allison and the fascinating, science-oriented study by Emily Martin on PMS should give the reader the sense that the intersection of class, race and gender issues play out in the bodies of women. And Rosalind Petchesky’s argument that economic justice and full enjoyment of reproductive freedom can only be achieved together is a fine example of a piece that uses specific issues that are important to feminists to drive home the materialist analysis in a relevant way.

Part Two, “Family: Love, Labor, and Power,” places a historically ignored focal point underneath the microscope of materialist analysis with excellent results. In “The Family is Dead Long Live the Family,” Judith Stacey calls for the abandonment of “the family”— a concept that she argues “serves as a proxy for the private sphere and as a rationale for abdicating public responsibility for social welfare.”(97). Janice Haaken’s piece focuses similarly on domestic violence, using an economic/materialist framework which allows for responsibility on the part of social institutions as well as individual batterers. And Cherríe Moraga provides the reader with another example of the very political (and gut-wrenching) personal in her description of family dynamics in her childhood home.

“Wage Labor and Struggles” is the title of Part Three of the project and its essays provide practical strategies for the global struggle against inequality. Chandra Talpade Mohanty uses the examples of women lace makers in Narsapur, India and women in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley to illustrate the new face of “women’s work” within global capitalism and argues that the commonality of experience that Third World women share will aid international organizing. In “Making Fantasies Real: Producing Women and Men on the Maquila Shop Floor” Leslie Salzinger describes the ways that gender ideals shift to meet the demands of economic frameworks, with “the painted, permed and pliant” female worker emerging on the floor of the maquiladora, “born not of a Mexican father and mother, but of transnational perspectives.”(203).

Part Four, “Economics, Social Welfare, and Public Policy,” provides excellent critiques of recent changes in U.S. welfare law and U.S. imprisonment of women, by Mimi Abromovitz and Angela Davis, respectively. The intimate connection between these two areas of public policy will become clear to the reader. And Chris Tilly and Randy Albelda call for a multi-faceted approach to changing the tide of public opinion and social policy in the United States; their rallying cry should prove inspirational even to the most jaded feminists among us.

The fifth section of the reader, “Politics and Social Change,” describes various movements for social change, and provides what I think is a balanced history along with reasonable suggestions for changing the movements to better serve progressive interests and the people themselves. Elizabeth Martínez highlights the clashes between white, economically privileged women and women of color in the reproductive rights movement; she acknowledges the various failures and victories of the sometime alliance and in doing so outlines tactics for victory. Cynthia Enloe focuses on the connections between militarization and gender, and instructs women in the U.S. to follow the example of women around the world struggling against unjust military regimes. And Leith Mullings fleshes out the limitations of various social movements for women specifically as well as for the broader success of the movements. Her extremely well-written discussion makes years of history accessible even for beginners, a sign of a rare talent.

The Socialist Feminist Project closes with much-needed attention to ecofeminist and environmental justice movements in “Nature, Society, and Knowledge.” Holmstrom herself addresses the possibility of a gendered human nature using Marx as a tool in “A Marxist Theory of Women’s Nature.” Meera Nanda urges that “[t]he task of feminism and other progressive social movements ought to be to challenge the terms of the debate,” and that, contrary to some ecofeminist positions, modern science has too much to offer subaltern populations to be dismissed, and in fact “can assist in this challenge by enabling the subalterns to see through the mystification of their own inherited ideologies.”(406). And Julie Sze argues for the forging of connections between Asian women’s and environmental justice organizing groups based on similar goals and obstacles; her piece, “Expanding Environmental Justice: Asian-American Feminists’ Contribution,” artfully highlights the many ways that Asian-American women are impacted by environmental justice concerns and is a must-read for anyone interested in environmental justice or organizing.

While some of the pieces are more engaging than others, I believe that this anthology has something to offer for most readers. The articles touch on many areas of the world and take on both traditional feminist topics as well as issues new to the movement. This anthology will make an excellent classroom reading for both undergraduates and experienced students. It will also prove a useful scholarly resource even for readers well-versed in the history and theory of the feminist movement. Finally, the collection has practical potential in the hands of organizers and activists. This is a sign of the reader’s success: it is a versatile and interesting read that will “connect” for a broad audience. I urge you to take it up.

Karla Momberger earned her BA in Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. She completed her MA at the University of Alabama where her research focus was on the specific forms of U.S. racism, based on a shared history of racist fear, towards Haiti and Haitian-Americans as expressed through the AIDS crisis. Karla received her JD from Columbia Law School and is currently a Defender Attorney with the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix. Currently Karla is working towards completing her PhD at Arizona State University and her focus areas include medical anthropology and bioethics. A longtime social activist, Karla remains proud to call herself a feminist.

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