For male comrades on International Women’s Day

BY:Bennett Shoop| March 8, 2024
For male comrades on International Women’s Day


In the aftermath of the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the GOP’s attempts to define womanhood in increasingly narrow and regressive ways, attempting to push women back into the home and legislate trans women out of existence, we must be more active in the struggle for women’s liberation than ever. With that in mind, it is essential for us, and for male comrades in particular, to assess the history of our struggle against male chauvinism and to reflect on the steps we can take as a Party to reinvigorate this campaign. We must take concrete steps to incorporate the social reproductive sphere into our theory and into our practice, struggle against male chauvinism in our ranks, and undertake a full, rigorous study of Marxist work on women’s liberation.

For the past few months, I have been working on compiling an anthology of Communist women’s writings from the past century of our history, and I will be using their work to highlight areas for self-reflection and growth. As Marxist-Leninists, it is essential that we look honestly and critically at our practice both politically and inter-personally, and most importantly at the way these supposedly separate spheres connect. Thus, the purpose of this article is for those of us who are not women to engage in self-reflection and pinpoint areas in which we can improve our participation in the fight for women’s equality. It draws both from my personal observances, the experience of my sisters in the movement, and from the work of women in our Party over the past century.

On the theoretical study of the ‘Woman Question’

Consistently throughout the history of the Left, the interrogation of half the population’s gendered subjugation has not received the amount of attention it is due. This is far from unique to the Communist Party, rather this has been a general issue on the Left which reflects the inequalities of our male supremacist society. From the gay liberation movement to the student movement to the fight for Black liberation, critiques of these oversights have been widespread. As a Party however, what is unique is the century of our work on this question at our disposal, and over a century of struggle to guide us. The members of our Party have made considerable historical impact to the study of this issue through essential works as Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis, Woman Against Myth by Betty Millard, and “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” by Claudia Jones. But there remains much work to do. These pieces must guide us to further our study on this question.

Clara Colon and Irena Knight noted in 1969 that “The times demand a new ‘Woman and Socialism’ be written in terms of U.S. experience, today’s conditions and a look into the future from where we stand.” The period in which we are currently situated presents us with this challenge again. With the rapidly growing threats to women’s autonomy by the fascist right, it is our role as Communists to show the answer that socialism provides. We must pull from the theoretical traditions of our Party and provide clarity on a path forward. What this requires of us, then, is a serious study of our history and the work of the Party on women’s liberation. We must pull from the experiences of the Congress of American Women, the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, Women for Racial and Economic Equality, the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and the knowledge these movements produced.

Over the past one hundred years, our Party has contributed numerous pieces which point to the special exploitation of working class women. From Louise Thompson Patterson, to Grace Hutchins, to Maude White Katz, to Judy Edelman. All of these women pointed out the ways in which women’s exploitation produced super-profits for the capitalist class, and on top of that, the unique and central exploitation of women of color. While these innovations should be seen as a badge of pride for our Party, less attention has been paid to the other ways in which women are exploited. As comrade Taryn Fivek explains, “The economy can be separated into two main spheres: the productive and social reproductive spheres. In the productive sphere, goods and services are made by waged labor to sell, while in the social reproductive sphere, workers are born, raised, and cared for with unpaid labor.” In responding to the widespread marginalization of working women’s perspectives from much of the women’s movement during the Second Wave, we focused our theoretical attention on the exploitation of women on the job. What often gets lost, though, is reproductive labor, which working women do as well. Working class women’s shifts do not start and end at the workplace, but continue for untold hours in the home. Cooking, cleaning, childcare, emotional support of a partner, spouse, or other family, all of these are tasks which most women, including workers, are expected to perform for free in a capitalist society. Rather than this being an outdated interpersonal inequality, this is a key, structural element of capitalism. Without this unpaid labor, the working class is not generationally reproduced, is not emotionally and physically reconstituted after a day of being exploited, and thus would not return to work ready to produce for the capitalists. Those women who are able to escape this work, often the wealthy, do so through the super-exploitation of predominantly women of color, who for decades and even centuries have been relegated to jobs as domestic workers with low pay, poor conditions, and major obstacles to organizing.

If we want to build a theory that can lead us through this moment of heightened reaction, which very pointedly seeks to push women back into the home and into a fascistic box of gendered expectations, this aspect of the capitalist system must be more integrated into our analysis of women’s oppression and our view of a socialist future. We must understand that women achieving equality in the workplace under socialism does not itself undo the structural roots of women’s oppression. As Lenin said, even after the revolution:

“Take the position of women. In this field, not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic, has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power…Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.”

When we think of a socialist future and the path we must take to get there, we must also envision a restructuring of the social reproductive sphere. Socializing reproductive labor and the work of the home is an essential starting point for beginning to undo the foundations of male supremacy. What domestic labor cannot be socialized or transformed on a communal basis must be split between men and women. Men should take a much more active role in the social reproductive sphere if we are to fight for and build a world in which women achieve full equality, and this struggle for equality should be a key part of our platform on this issue. While the Party’s work has consistently argued it is necessary to overcome the relegation of women to housework if we are to pursue women’s equality, it is this interrogation of the relation of social reproduction to the capitalist economy that is missing from much of our existing work on this question. (However, it should also be clear that women in our Party’s history such as Mary Inman, Betty Martin, Elisabeth Armstrong, and others have made social reproduction a key component of their work.)

Without this element central to our analyses not only of women’s oppression, but also of the critique of capitalism in general, we will be blind to a foundational element of capitalist exploitation and women’s subjugation. This can only hinder us in building a movement which women can make their political home and use as a vehicle for their struggles. If our job as Communists is to provide theoretical clarity, and our task as Marxists is to show the scientific approach to the liberation of our class, it is necessary for us to first have a firm grasp of the problems faced by workers. It is in this spirit that I encourage all of us who have gaps in our Marxist education on women’s liberation to revisit our study of this question. And with Cuba implementing its new revolutionary Families Code, strengthening its commitment to women’s liberation and its democratic structures, we also are fortunate to have tangible examples which we can look to for inspiration.

Male chauvinism and the interpersonal sphere

In the long history of the Left, both within and beyond our Party, many men have overlooked the important connections between the societal oppression of women and the interpersonal manifestations of male chauvinism. Much of the male chauvinism still persistent in the Left today is rooted in this error. Our Party has always had a strong program which demanded women’s equality, but as Clara Colon and Irena Knight explained, “A good ‘line’ on the woman question will never be a substitute for the hard work which is involved in combating male chauvinism within our own ranks.” It is this hard work which we must reemphasize our commitment to. The male chauvinism that worms its way into the Party is a reflection of our male supremacist society. As noted by comrade Dee Miles, “Even though our working-class lives produce styles and ways of life akin to our reality, we are not free of the influence of capitalist culture. Because the capitalist class is the dominant class, male supremacy and misogyny seep into every nook and cranny of this society, and we, as the working class, are not free of its influence.”

The difference between larger society and our Party, however, is that we have no illusions that our Party is free of sexist ideas. As comrade Miles said, our class is influenced by the male supremacy of capitalist society, thus we understand that just as our Party reflects our class, so will these ideologies be reflected to some extent within the organization. Our position as Marxists is not to make excuses or ignore these issues, but to understand these realities and to constantly struggle against them. In the 1940s and 50s, our Party launched a campaign to seriously interrogate the male chauvinism within its ranks. Women and men in the Party published critiques and essays which pointed to the work that remained to be done in fighting internal and societal sexism. It is more essential than ever with fascism on our doorstep that we build a Party in which male chauvinism is given no tolerance. In the spirit of International Women’s Day and in the example of our predecessors, we should re-energize this struggle.

In my observations, and from the experiences of my women comrades, one key area in which male chauvinism continues to rear its ugly head is the unequal distribution of social reproductive labor within organizing spaces. Often throughout my experience on the Left, I have seen women take up the tasks of cleaning and maintaining shared organizational spaces without the assistance of men. It has even been true in Party spaces, particularly amongst younger men, that I have seen a serious neglect of ensuring these tasks are evenly distributed. Women have often been the people doing the dishes, cooking, and doing childcare. I have seen many women reluctantly take up these tasks and other logistical work in the absence of men volunteering to do the ‘unsexy’ parts of organizing. As Communists, we must strive to be better.

A campaign against male chauvinism must be proactive, and must direct its attention to both societal male supremacy and its reflections within the organization. Those of us who are not women should reflect on our activity in the Party and be open to self-criticism. What roles are we taking on in the Party? Do we have gendered expectations about who does what task? Is there a consistent discrepancy between the background work and who gets the microphone? Are we taking on an equal share of the social reproductive work in organizing? Are women doing certain work because they want to or because they feel obligated to? These are questions all of us should ask and areas in which all of us can improve.

This self-reflection must also extend into the homes of Communists, beyond organizational spaces. How are we pursuing equality in the relationships we have with women in our families, who live with us, or who are our friends and partners? Lenin railed against unequal arrangements amongst Communists in their homes:

So few men – even among the proletariat – realize how much effort and trouble they could save women, even quite do away with, if they were to lend a hand in ‘women’s work’. But no, that is contrary to the ‘rights and dignity of a man’. They want their peace and comfort. The home life of the woman is a daily sacrifice to a thousand unimportant trivialities. The old master right of the man still lives in secret.

One of the major critiques of the Party’s campaign against male chauvinism mentioned above pertains to this issue. In 1948, Margaret Cowl of our own Party pointed out how, “when time demands that the democratic forces move quickly, even in the Communist Party the voice of a man is heard demanding that the wife stay at home to administer to his needs. He objects to some of the ‘unpleasant chores’ being shifted to him.” She highlighted quite clearly that “This male superiority, this ‘master right’ idea is an obstacle in releasing women to take their proper place in the progressive movement and in the work of our Party” and that “There can be no separation of the struggle against male superiority from the struggle to free women from the drudgery of housework.”

We have certainly come a long way as an organization since that time, but remnants of these same issues are bound to linger. As long as society’s unequal distribution of labor in the home persists, we must be vigilant in the ways this is reflected within our own lives and in our work. The private sphere is not an impenetrable, apolitical island, but our routines and expectations are influenced by the capitalist system and the ideologies of the ruling class. As Louise Thompson Patterson argued in 1937, decades before “the personal is political” became a rallying cry of the women’s movement, “as Bolsheviks we have to transform our lives in every way…political life and personal life tie up together.” Thus it follows that male chauvinism in the ‘private sphere’ is first and foremost rooted in the machinations of our class society, finding its origin in the super-exploitation of women. We cannot allow the more ‘private’ manifestations of this ideology to go unquestioned. The extension of the ruling class’ need for male supremacy into the working class home is fundamentally just as much a political and economic question as women’s direct exploitation by capitalists outside the home.

All of us have been charged by the ruling class with the task of maintaining the capitalist class’ male supremacy. People of all genders are taught to operate in ways which keep the subjugation of women in place. As Communists we must work against this. A blow to the super-profits and free labor gained from the special exploitation of women is a blow against the capitalist system. Likewise, the fight against the devisive tactics of the monopoly class, which pits men against women, is a fight for unity, and we know we need unity to win.

When male chauvinism emerges within our ranks, we must not only point it out, but also be sure that we are creating clubs and districts that are environments in which these issues are taken seriously and people are comfortable bringing these criticisms forward. This struggle now, as then, is a special responsibility of male Communists. This entails serious and open discussion of male supremacy and well defined approaches to dealing with it. Men in the Party must be active opponents of male chauvinism and should strive to bring women and the work for women’s liberation into the general conversations, activities, and into every level of the Party. If we want to build a movement where women are widely represented in our ranks, this is the work to which male comrades must be willing to commit themselves.

A key obstacle which we must set ourselves to overcoming is the double-burden of women in capitalist society. Women’s double burden has often prevented them from being able to take on the same kind of political work as men. And it is even more likely to prevent their political activity if this double burden is tripled in organizing spaces. As comrade Fivek notes, “Women between the ages of 25 and 34 spend an average 8.5 hours per day on unpaid household labor and care work, almost double the time that men spend on unpaid household labor and care work, 4.5 hours per day,” thus, “women on average have four hours less per day to dedicate to political work as compared to men, who have more opportunities to be involved precisely because women are expected to do more unwaged work in the reproductive sphere than men.” Men must be aware of these inequalities and preemptively work to build a movement which can accommodate the societal pressures faced by women in the social reproductive sphere. This is an essential fight if we want to build a Party that can win.

Without women in our movement, without this attention to organizing half the population, our movement will never grow to the strength we need to fight exploitation here and imperialism abroad. And further, as our late comrade Barbara Jean Hope said, “Women must be included in the forefront of the people’s liberation movements throughout the world or those movements become simply male supremacy on the march.”

Tasks for fighting male chauvinism

In outlining tasks for self-reflection among male comrades, I must also be clear that not being a woman myself, these reflections are self-critical. So while I feel confident in what I have presented here, there are personal experiences from our women comrades to which I cannot speak from experience. With that being said, the following are tasks which our political moment calls upon us to prioritize in the fight against male chauvinism.

Firstly, male comrades should be more engaged in the study of Marxism’s teachings on the oppression and liberation of women. We have over a century of our own Party’s work on this issue, as well as numerous contributions from Marxists in other movements around the world. Speaking from my own experience as an organizer in political education, without fail, events and study group sessions related to women’s liberation are always the least attended. The struggles of half the population are not a peripheral issue. It is not enough for us to read an essay by Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, or Claudia Jones and feel we have a full understanding of the issue. As Marxists we pride ourselves on undertaking the serious, scientific study of society. We must approach women’s liberation in the same way and with the same rigor in our clubs and in our districts. The study of women’s issues must be central in our Marxist education on political economy, the history of struggle, and the building of socialism.

Secondly, we must task ourselves with fuller and equal participation in the social reproductive sphere both in our organizing and in our personal lives. Are we washing the dishes? Are we taking an equal share in childcare? Are we cleaning around the home and Party office? These are questions that shouldalways be in the forefront of our minds. Speaking organizationally, we can also provide more opportunities for women to become more involved in the Party’s work and in leadership. Part of this is making sure that we have childcare available at meetings and at our events and that male comrades are taking the initiative to balance the distribution of social reproductive work within the Party. We must also struggle within our unions and amongst ourselves to make sure we are combating male chauvinism and inequality openly when we see it.

But even further, there is work that we can do as a Party in ensuring our demands for women’s equality are prioritized. We can produce pamphlets and literature to distribute on these struggles, strengthen our involvement in the struggle for reproductive justice, renew the fight for free childcare, continue to fight the attempts of fascists to restrict women’s autonomy and the rights of transgender people, and increase our participation in women’s mass organizations. Additionally, as the ultra-right continues its campaign to erase the history of progressive struggles in the United States, we must preserve and popularize the history of women in our Party. We have a long history, and one we can be proud of. We should devote time to publicizing and studying the lesser known history of our work on this issue, particularly in organizations like Women for Racial and Economic Equality which has tragically been absent from the historical canon of the women’s movement. And speaking organizationally, we should ensure that we are providing spaces for women to address these issues within our districts and clubs so that we can build strategies for combating male chauvinism at the local level.

Lastly, above all we must strive for unity between people of all genders in the struggle for women’s liberation. The work to liberate half the world is not work for women alone. It was this issue that Anna Damon had in mind when she noted that in our past, “In many districts work among women is considered the task of the Women’s Department or the women members of the Party only.” There is a key difference between following women’s leadership on this question and viewing this as ‘women’s work.’ It is in the interests of all working class people, regardless of gender, to fight for the equality of women. Thus, we must all be active participants in this struggle. Those of us who are not women must help to make sure discussions and work around these issues are part of the general activity of the club, district, and Party, and a part of its main educational curriculum as well.

We have made major steps throughout our history in pushing this question, making a profound historical impact on the shape of the struggle for women’s equality. From the work of the Congress of American Women, to the campaign to free Rosa Lee Ingram, to the fight to free Angela Davis, and the struggles of women in the labor movement, we have a strong foundation on which to build. Our shortcomings are room to grow and to strengthen the Party, we have nowhere to go but forward. If women hold up half the sky, the rest of us must ensure we are holding up our half, too. Let us renew the fight against male chauvinism!


    Bennett Shoop is an activist and historian of feminism, the Left, and LGBTQ+ movements from the Washington, D.C. area.

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