Beyond `feminine’ and `masculine’

By Anna Ochkina, translated by Renfrey Clarke for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

[ published this reply by Anna Ochkina to a polemical article, “Masculine and Feminine”, by Dmitry Zhvaniya. Anna Ochkina is deputy director of Institute for Globalisation Studies and Social Movements (IGSO) and deputy editor of Levaya politika (Left Politics) journal. She is a sociologist based in Penza, where she teaches at the university. Dmitry Zhvaniya is a journalist, based in St. Petersburg and a founding member of Dvizheniye soprotivleniya imeni Petra Alekseyeva (the Piotr Alekseyev Resistance Movement). Zhvaniya's article "Muzhskoe i zhenskoe" ("Masculine and Feminine") is available (in Russian) at]

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I live in a world constructed by men. I realise I have to put up with this, though sometimes it’s difficult and even painful. Yes, the struggle with gender, or against gender, is pointless and stupid. Yes, I like being a woman, and I can’t imagine a life for myself without men. But the things that many people, including me, find irritating in feminism arose not out of hysteria, but as a reaction (not always an appropriate one) to the harshness of the rules in our world, which is not ours. Often this is a cry of despair, and it deserves understanding, not irony, ridicule, contempt or aggression. This is why attacks on feminism irritate me so much.

Actually, I agree with a great deal of what Dmitry Zhvaniya writes. It’s true that when women come to power, this power doesn’t automatically become humane and effective. There are no special qualities of kindness and gentleness belonging to all women without exception, and the concepts of “women in general” and “men in general” are simply impossible to analyse. I have personally mocked such attempts, which are made constantly by the authors of fashionable textbooks on feminology, gender politics and so forth. I share Dmitry’s dislike for dogmatism and for the unscientific approach that many feminists adopt. Nevertheless, I have three objections.

In the first place, he speaks of feminism in general, while criticising only particular forms, trends and positions within it. That is, he rejects feminism in principle, and even ridicules it. Meanwhile, feminism has acted as an ideology of women’s emancipation and as a sociological theory allowing a fuller study of various aspects of social behaviour, including gender in the analysis as an organic characteristic of the individual.

Second, Dmitry reduces sexual discrimination to the status of an economic phenomenon, and it seems, considers it no longer worthy of mention. This is simply not the case. The simple truth is that sexual discrimination is now more diverse, subtle and profound than before formal equality of the sexes was achieved.

Third, Dmitry, to judge from everything, maintains that the distortions and exaggerations of feminist theory and rhetoric are linked – solely – to the personal characteristics of the author of one or another discourse. But the distortions and exaggerations and radical outbursts are also results of the pressures which are very clearly felt by women, but which at times are so difficult to prove. These exaggerations can be mocked, and perhaps angrily rejected, but they also play a positive role, drawing the attention of society to acute problems, radicalising public opinion for a time and, as a result, overturning one or another stereotype. The pressure is thus lessened. This is the vein in which I write when I address the question of what feminism means for me personally.

Even if men cannot agree among themselves about property and status, and if they oppress or kill each other, there is a great deal in our lives that is subject to regular streams of testosterone. Laws are changed and the frameworks within which women can decide their fates are shifted; many conquests have already been made, and a great deal has been achieved. Sometimes it seems that there is no longer anything left to fight for. The cries of women for the “right to orgasm”, about “enslavement by child bearing” or of “refusal to sleep with the enemy”, the comical struggle against sexual harassment at work or male chauvinism seem amusing even to most women.

Suddenly, however, you’ll be told, “But you’re a woman”, and some door will be closed in front of you, while some other, of which you’ve no need whatever, is obligingly opened. People let your ideas and thoughts, which you’re convinced (or more precisely, used to be convinced) are important and interesting, pass by their ears; then they unexpectedly ask you, very politely, to go and make some coffee. You’re left as the “eternal deputy”, because “you’re a woman after all, you don’t need a career as much, you’ll be busy with your family”. Your boss remains someone who needs a career, and who isn’t preoccupied with his family. Additional work gets placed on you because your boss isn’t capable of performing it, despite being of the “appropriate” sex. People “fail to notice” your professional observations and suggestions, swiftly claiming them as their own, and in the meantime paying you compliments such as “Ah, what eyes you have!”

Three Ks

The person closest to you, irritated by the fact that you’re constantly so busy and at the way you’re distracted by “side issues”, will suddenly deny you the right to search for yourself (“you’ve a family”). On the whole, this person will be right; the children don’t see enough of you, the home’s a mess, you don’t pay enough attention to your husband, and somehow the two of you haven’t managed to agree on equality in everyday life and life in general. And what is there to agree about? The family, the home – that’s your “natural destiny”, since you’re a woman after all. There can’t be any talk of your inalienable right to go on your own creative quest, or of the fact that he doesn’t subject his own life so rigidly to the rhythm of family life. He’s a man!

Of course, it’s possible to break through all this; formal equality really can be achieved. It’s possible to break through and to prove that your ideas are interesting, that you have the right to pursue your quest, and that it isn’t your preordained fate to be the deputy. So I’m not saying it can’t be done. I don’t even argue that all this is easy for men. I’m simply saying that along with the dictates of society and circumstances, women are subject to the dictate of gender. And any movement in the direction of career matters, toward freedom, toward yourself, is more difficult for women than it is for men in similar circumstances. Women might swim in the same water, in the same style and for the same distance. But they always swim with a weight around their feet.

Nevertheless, it is your gender that always claims the right to decide your fate. The three Ks [in German, Kinder, Kirche, Küche – children, church and kitchen], supposedly outmoded for today’s women, lie in wait for them, entice them, tempt them with the “eternal” and “traditional”.

Let’s suppose that women don’t want to lead. Fine – this speaks well of them. But what interests me is how voluntary this “don’t want to” really is. Then, let’s note that in order to make a professional career for yourself, you don’t have to become a leader. But for your professional growth, the three Ks are no help either. Clever, progressive males, in witty and picturesque terms, mock the absurdity of women’s struggle for independence. “What are they fighting for? They’re hysterical! Bourgeois provocateurs!” Or: “A woman is born to be a mother and wife. Her place, and her natural environment, is in the home. Only degenerates protest against this.” And sometimes, as with Dmitry Zhvaniya, these positions are curiously combined in a single vessel, sorry, text.

While talking of the socially determined, even artificial character of gender conflict, Dmitry at the end of his article suddenly declares, “The patriarchal traditions of society according to which women are taught that their normal environment is the home, and that they should feel an attachment to domestic tasks, are a vestige of women’s ‘ancestral history’”, and later: “The antagonism between men and women is rooted in their physiology, in their sexual nature, and in the social history of the sexes. Even if a unified race were to emerge in the future, as Lenin dreamed, a unified sex would not appear. When vulgar prejudices concerning the role of men and the role of women are destroyed in revolutionary fashion, the genuine meaning of the sexes and the purpose of the division into masculine and feminine will be revealed once again.”


Here, I simply do not understand: is there, after all, an antagonism? Not the division of labour, roles and functions, and the differences associated with this, but a real antagonism, that is, an irreconcilable contradiction?

In my view, the purpose of the division into masculine and feminine is understandable even now, before a revolution occurs. There is no natural, biological antagonism between them; they are complementary. “That’s what nature intended…” Where such contradictions and ruptures exist is in the social forms through which these biological differences are perceived.

The supposedly natural character of domestic and maternal affairs for women is a marvellous piece of ideology. While men are perhaps still capable of understanding a dislike for housework, they fail to comprehend, and do not want to comprehend, the stresses of motherhood. This is natural, instinctive – and so, the question is off the agenda. But the “instinctive”, biological character of maternal feelings is greatly exaggerated. Yulian Semenov in his saga about Stirlitz has the radio operator Kate remark, “You have to learn everything… even how to cook an omelette… but you don’t have to learn motherhood.” This myth is widely propagated, and disputing it is almost impossible. All the same, it’s a myth.

People have to learn everything, especially how to bear and raise a human being. These are social processes, tied up in large measure with conscious decisions. Getting these matters right is difficult; it requires knowledge and ability, social experience and emotional maturity. It doesn’t happen without mistakes, despair or feelings of helplessness. Women are not spared this, any more than men. And on the whole, individual differences are no less important here than those of gender.

My sister, a biologist by profession, left me quite shocked by relating that in laboratory rats the maternal instinct is not uniformly developed; they behave differently during pregnancy, and look after their pups in different fashions. The entire litters of some rat mothers can die from poor care, while in the case of others even weak pups survive. Even rats are individual in this most ancient and powerful instinct, that of reproduction. So are women really sentenced by nature to the familiar Kinder, Kirche, Küche?

Sure, there is some hypothetical, statistically average woman who is used to looking after her family and home, but there is nothing “innate” or “natural” about this. The way women are shut up in the framework of housework and private life is a social and historical phenomenon, which dissipates very quickly when a woman gets the chance to study, to realise herself professionally, and to create. No, I assure you, there has never been anything instinctive or innate to attract women to the kitchen, to force them to cook, wash dishes, clean stoves and toilet bowls, buy groceries on a daily or weekly basis, and perform innumerable unnoticed but essential domestic tasks. There is nothing natural, and hence immutable, that would allow a woman whose life revolves around housework and caring for a family to receive more pleasure from this than would a man with a comparable level of education and of intellectual and emotional development.

It was not with the sexual revolution or some unseemly emancipation, with radical fashion (as Dmitry writes), that the emergence of the second wave of feminism in the West was bound up. Rather, it was with the fact that the “curse of the three Ks”, which effectively kept women within the bounds of housework and “women’s destiny”, had survived even though discriminatory rules had formally been abolished.

Women do not have any innate attachment to the home, just as men are not destined by nature to chase after profits. Nor are women doomed by nature to a restricted existence within an eternal round of everyday chores, just as men are not in every case drawn by their abilities and biology toward creative endeavour. Nor is there any innate conflict of the sexes, since there are no mechanisms of exploitation or acquisitiveness in human nature.

I risk arousing the indignation of male readers, but in the US, for instance, the propaganda of even the most absurd feminist slogans has played a positive role. It has enabled the rise of a model of partnership in the behaviour of couples within the family, with the career, friends and extrafamilial cares and concerns of the man no longer having automatic priority. So far, at least this much has been achieved. A university professor might arrive at an evening get-together with colleagues bringing his three-month-old son in a basket, because his wife has urgent work – and everyone accepts this as normal. A sociologist from Nebraska flies off to a conference in San Francisco with his virtually newborn daughter, since his wife is preparing to go to work, needs to replace her work uniform, and cannot stay alone with the child. His colleague from New York has flown in with his four sons, since his wife has traditionally devoted these days to catching up with university friends. He has brought the two children they have in common, and her son from her first marriage, while his ex-wife has entrusted his son from his first marriage to him, since these are his “fatherhood days”. I’ve chatted with these men myself, and have found them astonished at my surprise. “But you’ve also left children behind!” they say. Yes, but my mother is with them.

I know a great many women who have foregone many things in their professions, careers and simply in life “in the name of” their husbands and children, who have become lost in the three Ks. Very often they have acted in the way they were programmed to act, and have realised it too late. Feminism, especially in its reasoned, considered forms, also faces this task, of breaking with the programs. Are men really afraid of this very thing? It cannot be!

Women’s oppression ` extends far beyond the bounds of the working class’

I would like to make clear what is concealed beneath the concepts of the oppression of women and of discrimination against them, just how keenly women from the educated, financially secure strata of society feel their inequality. Within the framework of Marxist analysis, from the positions of left ideology, it is considered right to feel sympathy for women workers, for their burdensome work and lower pay compared to men. But inequality between women and men extends far beyond the bounds of the working class.

Certainly, women from the nobility and the educated strata did not die of hunger or overwork, and did not fall into complete destitution. But women as a whole were deprived of the main thing – the possibility of ordering their lives in accordance with the needs of their individual personalities. From women’s very birth, moreover, these requirements took a tightly restricted form. In essence, they were reduced to one thing: to get married, if possible advantageously. Just that: not to meet your man and fall in love with him, not to bear and raise happy children, not to make a life for yourself according to the principles of love and partnership, but to make a match. Otherwise, there was the miserable and humiliating existence of the governess, the lady’s companion, the hanger-on, “kept woman”, and so forth. Here too, of course, money had a corrective function.

A wealthy and distinguished woman had opportunities to shift the bounds of her existence, though this did not mean that these bounds ceased to exist. If, for example, you were used as a voiceless pawn in a dynastic power play, given in marriage to a man whom you not only did not love, but had never set eyes on, this was unfortunate. I do not, however, propose to grieve for wealthy noblewomen. Let us consider what happened to women somewhat lower on the social scale, somewhere between the “daughters of Germinal” and Maria Stuart.

If you did not inherit great wealth and were not interesting from a dynastic point of view, you were forced to wait until someone turned their attention to you. With the comic readiness of a Tolstoyan heroine (of his beloved Natasha or attractive Kitty Shcherbatskaya, for example), you had to fall in love with anyone, or almost anyone, who formed “serious intentions” in relation to you. You had to joyfully accept the proposal of a man of any qualities, and reconcile yourself to anything he might do with you, your life, your body and your money. Or almost anything.

If you were so bold as to fall in love, to trust the man and to enter into a relationship with him without the obligatory ties of wedlock, and then to give birth to a child as well, you fell irretrievably in the eyes of society. Your seducer, lover, partner – call him what you will – was accepted as before in the salons, could make any match, and could live as before. You became a pariah forever. Recall the way the cat Begemot answers Margarita: “What’s the boss got to do with it? Is he supposed to have strangled children in the forest?”

Of course, a woman could write a novel, or become an actress, a revolutionary or great courtesan, breaking free not only from the restrictions of gender, but from all other limits as well. She could go off proudly and work in a factory, disdaining her own class. After all, things are not overly comfortable for men either in the world they have created, and they face many, often painful choices. I am simply trying to show that the exclusion of women from normal social life gave rise to a particular type of discrimination which was superimposed on all other types, making the pressure exerted on women by society, by the social system and by circumstances relatively stronger. Often, several times over.

Less extreme methods of achieving independence were unavailable. A woman could not acquire a professional education, or work in a multitude of fields.

Lev Tolstoy was a great supporter of the traditional relationship of the sexes. Yet he depicted, better than any campaigner for women’s rights, the tragedy of two gifted and educated women doomed to a woman’s fate that is not of their choosing. Two women, because Dolly Oblonskaya, already ageing at thirty-three, bound by duty and social convention to an empty-headed, spendthrift husband, is too clever not to notice the horror of her situation. She is just as much the victim of “eternal destiny”, of duty and propriety, as Anna Karenina. Dolly remains alive and faithful to her stupid, philandering husband, because she feels her responsibility more strongly, because her upbringing and religion have taught her “better” that this is how things must be, and because she has not met her Vronsky. Nevertheless, Tolstoy constantly depicts the spiritual pain suffered by this quiet, not very noticeable heroine.

Dolly is oppressed by the injustice of the situation in which she is powerless to solve the most important problems of her family, at the same time as she bears all the responsibility for finding solutions. Repeated pregnancies and childbirth wear her out and prevent her children from being born healthy, and she feels this. She also understands dimly the injustice of the social conventions that bind her to this enforced motherhood, at the same time as no one shares her solitary grief by the little coffin of her son.

Meanwhile, she can no longer accept this with the quiet fatalism of the peasant woman who talks to her about her dead daughter: “I used to have a daughter, but the Lord took her, she was buried this last Lent.” Dolly now understands and feels more deeply; she starts analysing her situation, and begins to suffer. It is also clear to her that the society that makes such demands of women’s “honour” and that is so cruel to “fallen” women, is exceedingly lenient to her dissolute husband. She understands, though not with her mind but with her agitated feelings. She does not dare to judge, and resigns herself, but she cannot stop thinking. Anna Karenina rises in revolt (though from passion rather than from a love of freedom), and perishes, while Dolly remains true to her class, her sex and her station. But her story is no less tragic for that.

No one would dispute that poor women suffered far more than daughters of the gentry such as Dolly. But while women of different social strata were banished from social life in different fashion, they were always banished.

Feminism and class society

As I recall, feminism began above all as a sociological paradigm, arguing for the inclusion in sociological theory of the concept of individuals as men or women. This approach arose as a reaction to the ignoring, in social theories, of gender as a human characteristic. Meanwhile, the clear or implicit implication was that the “individual in general” was a man.

If a great deal in social reality was to be explained, however, a fuller understanding of the diverse and specific nature of individuals was indispensable, in particular, an understanding of the social essence of their membership in different sexes. The inclusion of gender among the reasons for individual social experience and status provides the key to a more detailed and profound understanding of social processes, of social behaviour and of the social structure of society. Biological gender is a basic, inalienable characteristic of the individual. This approach is especially productive when we come to study social behaviour in particular spheres. For example, the labour movement and electoral politics, the areas of reproduction and consumer affairs, changes to demographic, employment, political and related cultures – these researches in sociology are now impossible without one or another gender paradigm, developed out of this or that trend in feminist theory.

On this level, however, feminism no longer acts merely as a theoretical principle, but as a so-called middle-level sociological theory, on the basis of which gender studies proper have developed. Concentrating mainly on the inequality of the sexes, numerous feminist concepts explain these differences in varied fashion, constructing models of social relations and of the distribution of power and influence. Liberal, Marxist and radical feminism, the theory of dual systems and others analyse the content and causes of women’s oppression in society from various points of view. Various interpretations are also offered of the role of men in the system of discrimination against women and of women’s oppression.

As Dmitry Zhvaniya justly notes, however, attempts to defend “women in general” often lead to eccentric positions and even to discrediting the very ideas involved. Such is the fate of attempts to solve the problem statistically, for example, through measures to reserve a certain number of positions for women in government and legislative organs. Women in government and in parliaments will not automatically start setting in place “feminine” policies (that is, policies that are more just, even if only in relation to women). Women oligarchs, whose numbers the Russian establishment feminist Maria Arbatova dreams of augmenting, will not refrain from exploiting their property, power and exclusive position, and it is hard to believe they will do this in a more “refined” and “delicate” manner. Women old and young, beautiful and hideous, “butch” and “femme”, frigid and passionate, with many children or none at all, are capable of employing their property, money and power (when they acquire all this) in just the same way as men, according to the same rules.

And of course, about male rules – which I describe in this way mainly for reasons of style. Rules became predominantly male not for biological or physiological reasons, but for social and economic ones. More precisely, they became male in the process of the formation and development of private property-based society. Gradually, as they became set in place, these rules took on a cultural form, the players acquired social and psychological traits, a powerful ideology of the ideal Masculine and eternal Feminine arose, and so forth. For thousands of years the social and economic order has been determined not by the laws of our psyches or of our hormonal backgrounds, but by the laws of private property. These laws assume the division of society and the conflict of interests according to the principle not of gender but of class.

Historically, feminism has acted not only as a social theory, but also as an ideology of the emancipation of women, and as a real movement for this emancipation. Initially this struggle was aimed at winning legislative recognition of equality in the economic, political, social and professional spheres. Feminist theory and ideology, however, are not limited to the demand for legislative solutions to the problems of emancipation; they seek to define the causes of social restrictions linked to gender, and to find ways of ending them. The greatest problem facing both feminism and its critics is the fact that the discussion concerns “women in general” and “men in general”. This presumes that the common gender identity of members of a particular sex automatically determines every other identity, from the psychological to the political. Even empirically, however, it is obvious that this is far from true. Do women have interests in common? If so, what does this unity of interests consist in, and what is its basis?

Women as a class?

The basis for people’s membership in a social community or group is their place in the social division of labour, which determines the place they hold in the process of social production, and the form and degree in which they receive their share of social wealth. This comes directly from Lenin, whose definition of classes in the “Great Initiative” has become classic. On this basis an objective commonality of social interests takes shape. In recognition of these interests and in their consistent defence, a social grouping or class may act as a political force, influencing authority or winning it.

Is this what happens with women? Is there a place in social production occupied exclusively by women? When I posed this question rhetorically in a lecture on the sociology of gender, one zealous woman student immediately suggested: “kindergartens”. If this is serious, women have an exclusive role in the process of reproduction, since women produce human beings physically, and in this lies their particular role in the social division of labour. In human society, I repeat, this is not a question of biology but of the social system and of social relations; that is, it is a social question. Women’s “natural destiny” is an almost unquestioned tenet of ideology, beneath which numerous forms of discrimination lie concealed.

In speaking of human reproduction as an area of social production, I have in mind the fact that in human society this process has a social character, and the biological process is simply the mode of its implementation. The fact that women are locked into the framework of housework and personal life, and their resultant alienation from social and political life, has also brought about discrimination. Prior to the revolutionary changes of the twentieth century this took the form of direct legal prohibition. Later, “trace” remnants of past discrimination remained in the form of social stereotypes; of the greater emotional stress for women than for men of having to choose between family and professional or creative activity; of the demands which society placed on women to be sexually restrained and good mothers, and so forth.

On an individual level, the secluded nature of women’s lives and the limitations on their destinies could often be overcome, and by no means all women were involved in the process of reproduction. The essential thing is that this was the sole, unique instance in human history when a natural, inalienable human characteristic served as the basis for social differentiation, defining people’s place in the social division of labour. In some variants, the regime of exclusion associated with this place in the division of labour was extended to all women, irrespective of whether they fulfilled their “natural destiny” or not.

It is, of course, possible to pursue an analogy with racial and ethnic discrimination, as representatives of “black” feminism have done. Racial discrimination, however, is more readily overcome -- or at least, it is easier to expose and prove it, and hence to end it, even if this comes at the cost of a fierce struggle. Neither racial nor ethnic antagonism gives rise to self-discrimination, to a painful rift between one’s nature and one’s identity; it does not present people with the problem of having to make a choice here. Sexual discrimination, meanwhile, compels just such a choice: to be a woman, wife and mother, or to be a professionally capable, creative and free individual, which often means simply to be yourself. The dictates of “eternal destiny”, coming not only from the direction of society but also from one’s nearest and dearest, result in the alienation of one’s personality. To overcome this is possible, but difficult. Moreover, one needs support, and not just from society in general, but also from a particular male. And he might turn out to be hostile to feminism.

With the achieving of formal rights, gender discrimination and gender contradictions have not come to an end entirely, and understanding their social and class essence has become much more difficult. It is precisely since the winning of formal equality of the sexes that notions of a conflict between men and women have begun to dominate within feminism, that the influence of radical feminism has been strengthened, and that the ideas of women’s sexuality and the right of women to sexual realisation, and so forth, have come to be actively discussed.

The sexual and contraceptive revolution has allowed women to make a decisive advance toward overcoming their “biological destiny”, but a new system of contradictions has arisen. These include the contradictions between women’s productive and family roles; between their professional career ambitions and their still-dependent position on the marriage market and in the intimate sphere; between monogamy and free sexuality, and so on.

Now, the concept of reproductive labour has appeared, that is, of the labour involved in producing human beings and looking after them. To some degree, this labour has gradually become an area of social production. Looking after the sick and elderly, child care, and providing everyday services have become varieties of paid work. This does not mean, however, that gender discrimination is being fully overcome, or that it is disappearing. While vitally important to society, reproductive labour is uninteresting and unproductive from the point of view of the market economy, and as a rule is badly paid. The people employed in these sectors (health care, social security and education) are mainly women. The discrimination against these sectors and discrimination against women are linked.

In addition, there is still the localisation of housework, also mainly performed by women. Domestic servitude is becoming less arduous, but as in the past presents an obstacle to the full realisation by women of their creative human potential. There is even a sort of dual discrimination appearing: while engaged in professional activity in the fields of health care, education and social work, activity which demands relatively high qualifications and full emotional commitment, women cannot justify in material terms the fact that they are burdened and preoccupied with work, since they receive relatively low pay. Women bear the weight of the “double shift”, in production and in housework, as well as often suffering from the burden, as women, of feeling themselves unrealised.

Hence, a woman may be deprived of many civil and political rights, in order for her to perform the sole function of producing new citizens and subjects, while ensuring that housework is performed and order maintained in the succession of property. Or, she may be allowed entry to the field of social production, and forced to bear a dual burden of domestic toil and paid work. But one way or another the discriminatory nature of the productive role in which women are placed by society, and of the social and economic conditions associated with this role, create grounds for women to have common social interests.

In my view, the particular role of women in the reproductive process, and their leading role in reproductive labour, make it possible to speak of them as a social group with shared social and political interests. I am opposed to efforts to reduce the question of gender discrimination and the rights of women to considerations of “the defence of motherhood and the child”. The issue thus becomes: social conditions must be changed so that the reproductive function of women is not, de jure or de facto, an obstacle to their professional, social and personal realisation.

The drawing of women into social production must be accompanied by social policy measures which create adequate conditions for an optimal combination of labour and parenting obligations. This, in my view, is the essence of the common interests of women as a social group, and the main purpose of defending their rights. And here, there are no fundamental, insuperable contradictions with men. There are, however, a number of subtleties and complexities. Modern feminism for the most part struggles with these psychological subtleties and nuances, turning away from the class nature of discrimination and increasingly shifting the accent to the sphere of psychology, transforming the struggle for social justice and equality into a war of the sexes or a war against sex. Meanwhile, the opponents of feminism also speak increasingly of the unchanging essence of Male and Female, of predestination and innate tendencies, while ignoring the social and historical essence of both the tendencies and the predestination.

War of the sexes?

There is, however, a sociological fact that is hard to deny and which would seem to refute all arguments concerning the social nature of the relations and contradictions of the sexes. This fact makes it impossible to ignore individual and gender conflicts, while concentrating solely on social and class contradictions. In reality, feminist practice and emancipated behaviour by women often encounter resistance from men precisely as members of a biological sex, not of a particular class. We should not, however, be in a hurry to draw conclusions.

Socioeconomic relations, processes and contradictions do not exist outside the activity of particular people, outside of their individual decisions and actions. Individual people, meanwhile, are always members of a particular sex. The biological characteristics of human beings, including their sexual needs, were acquired socially in the process of historical development, but this does not mean that they have disappeared from human motivations. Indeed, it is just as well that they have not. The biological sense of sex can never disappear from the structure of human motivation, but it always takes a particular social and historical form, with definite historical boundaries. In individual and social consciousness, the conditions and restrictions within which the relations of the sexes develop take the form of relatively durable concepts, stereotypes and illusions.

Modern historical boundaries are such that the exploitation of one human being by another remains, as do the dictates of profit as the goal of social production. Under these historical conditions the idea of limiting the social opportunities open to women, and of exploiting women (including sexually) is advantageous for large numbers of men of all classes. Nor is this solely the case with biological requirements. It is also advantageous in socioeconomic terms, since it confers an advantage in competition for jobs and in the struggle for power, ensures that services are provided and lowers the cost of satisfying sexual needs. The socio-psychological advantages are also apparent; the sense that at least the structure of your reproductive system gives you the right to assert superiority over another being whose genitals are structured differently, consoles the egoism and self-love even of “losers”. 

All this gives rise to a multitude of individual conflicts, shifting a social contradiction onto the plane of personal drama, and sometimes of tragedy. So, however appalling feminist slogans might seem, they did not appear out of a vacuum. They are the individualisation of gender discrimination, when this takes the form of the enslavement and oppression of women by men. This must not be denied or ridiculed, and neither should sad examples be cited of wives beating their husbands. Behind the individual one should try to see the social, to understand what represents a private matter and a personal choice, and what is the object of social changes.

Feminism and freedom

I share the displeasure of Dmitry Zhvaniya at the high-sounding nonsense uttered by prominent feminists. But let us regard this as tactless expression, incompetence on the part of the speakers, and not as proof that the theory itself is absurd. We should not categorise everyone under the same heading, or only confusion will result. Dmitry relies on the argument that Marxism and Marxists have not accepted feminism. It would be better to say that they have not accepted its bourgeois-liberal forms. Meanwhile, it is true that the classics of Marxism responded sharply to feminist attacks, especially on the topic of sexual freedom.

These attacks, often shocking or even preposterous, did not emerge out of women’s caprice, and were not the result of typically female hysteria. They were a reaction to completely objective socioeconomic and sociocultural circumstances. Women for a long time were deprived not only of control over their material assets, and not only of the right to plan their destinies, but also of ownership of their own bodies. This drove them to revolt, and revolt is often irrational. Here, Dmitry speaks with respect of the anarchist contempt for life and love for death… But it is precisely when feminism is at fault that men, even progressive and democratic men, do not forgive it such distortions, exaggerations, poses and absurd statements. Meanwhile, women have gone to the scaffold for feminism just as men have gone there for revolutionary ideas. These too were the ideas of freedom! The Jacobins even guillotined a number of feminists.

So far, feminism has annoyed men, and in vain, since in essence, feminism in its most rational form is not merely a sociological theory, and not just an ideology for the overcoming of discrimination on the basis of sex. Feminism also provides women with the training that is indispensable if they are to develop the habit of freedom. Of a real freedom, for which you need to understand yourself and others, to answer for yourself and for your actions, in which you no longer make haste to hide behind a “stone wall”, and do not take cover behind some “eternal destiny” or the whining excuse that “I’m only a woman.” This kind of training can turn a woman not only into a lover and wife, but also into a friend, comrade and partner. And is that such a bad thing?