Marxism, Communism, and Women

A concise review of the role that feminism and women activists played in the development of Marxist institutions; the pattern of treatment of women that can be observed in existing communisms.

Author: Daniel Little

Professor of philosophy

University of Michigan-Dearborn


Marx’s writings are most closely associated with the economic and social domination associated with class, with little attention to the inequalities associated with gender. Marx had little to say directly about the system of gender domination prevalent in his own time, and he was not publicly associated with the contemporary movement for the emancipation of women—contrast his silence with the writings of John Stuart Mill, for example (Mill 1970 [1869]) .  Nonetheless, the foundations of Marx’s critique of bourgeois society provide a foundation for a socialist feminism, and these themes had great influence on communist political programmes and societies in the twentieth century.


Marx and Engels offered scathing polemical criticisms of the bourgeois family and the exploitation of women in the Communist Manifesto: “[The bourgeois] has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production” ( (Marx and Engels 1998 [1848]) : sect. 1).  However, the critique displays little insight into the ways that gender relations and the social institutions of the family affect the life situations of women, and it fails to identify the structural ways in which women were denied access to political positions, economic opportunity, or basic components of health assurance. Frederick Engels devoted more extensive attention to issues surrounding sex, gender, and the family in his anthropological book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (Engels 1977 [1884]) .  Based largely on the work of the early ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan (Morgan 2000 [1877]) , Engels argues that there is great historical variety in the sexual and reproductive practices of primates and human groups.  And he offers a historical hypothesis for the emergence of the paired-couple family: the emergence of private property and slavery.  Neither Marx nor Engels offered a coherent statement of socialist feminism, and neither offered specific commentary or criticism of the political, social, and economic disadvantages experienced by women in nineteenth-century Europe. 


However, the fundamental themes of social criticism that Marx puts forward—alienation, domination, inequality, and exploitation, and a critique of the social relations that give rise to these conditions—have clear implications for a theory of gender equality and emancipation.  First, Marx’s theory of alienation is premised on assumptions about the nature of the human being, involving the ideas of freedom, self-expression, creativity, and sociality (Marx 1964 [1844]) .  The situations of everyday life in which patriarchy and sexism obtain—the situations in which existing social relations of power, authority, and dominance are assigned on the basis of gender and sex, including marriage, the family, and the workplace—create a situation of alienation and domination for women.  Second, Marx’s theory of exploitation (expressed primarily in Capital (Marx 1977 [1867]) ) extends very naturally to the social relations of patriarchy.  Patriarchy and the bourgeois family system embody exploitation of women, within the household and within the workplace. Finally, Marx’s strong moral commitment to the overriding importance of social equality is directly relevant to a socialist feminist critique of contemporary society. The unequal status and treatment of women is an affront to the value of human equality.  Thus Marx’s principles lay the ground for a formulation of a socialist feminism.


Socialist and communist theorists of the decades between the death of Marx and the First World War gave specific prominence to issues of women’s equality.  Lenin gave attention to the problem of sexual inequality in bourgeois society in his journalism and in a widely read interview with the German feminist Clara Zetkin (Zetkin 1920) .  Other leading communist thinkers of the decades between 1880 and 1920 also placed issues of female emancipation and women’s equality at the center of the socialist agenda (for example, Rosa Luxembourg, Nikolai Bukharin, Clara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky, and Alexandra Kollentai).  These developments had important consequences for the policy priorities of communist governments once they seized power in Russia, China, and Cuba.


The communisms of the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba placed sexual equality at the top of the agenda for social transformation.  Bolshevik political rhetoric emphasized the equality of women as a central communist goal before and during the revolution.  In the 1920s the government of the USSR undertook to establish a legal framework guaranteeing legal equality for women, including full citizenship, equal pay, and the right of divorce. A particularly important figure in Soviet efforts to create sexual equality in the new communist society was Alexandra Kollentai, author of The Social Bases of the Woman Question (1908).  A crucial legal document with the goal of establishing gender equality was the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship (1918). The USSR demonstrated a higher level of equality in employment and education opportunities for women than most European countries during the period (Jancar-Webster 1978) . 


The Chinese Communist Party likewise placed the emancipation of women as one of its leading revolutionary goals, and CCP commanders made specific efforts to mobilize women in the base areas in the 1930s and 1940s (Chen 1986) .  Pro-feminist themes found resonance among Chinese women because there was a tradition of feminist thought in Chinese politics extending back to the May Fourth Movement. A central target of Chinese efforts for establishing women’s equality was the traditional family and marriage system.  Arranged marriage, domination by the mother-in-law, and subordination of the wife to the authority of the husband were long-established features of Chinese society, and Chinese communists were determined to end these practices ( (Hinton 1966) : 157-160, 396-98).  After the seizure of power in 1949 the Communist state undertook a series of fundamental legal reforms to establish the equality of women, including the areas of family and marriage (Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China; 1950), literacy and female education, electoral rights (Electoral Law of the PRC; 1952), equality of treatment during the period of land reform, and guarantee of the right to labor outside the household. There was also a specific and long-term effort within the CCP to develop and advance women into positions of leadership within the party, both before and after the revolution.  It is generally agreed that the status of women in China has improved markedly since 1949, in terms of education, political participation, marital freedom, and economic independence (Tao, Zheng, and Mow 2004) .


The Cuban revolution likewise brought systemic change for the situation of Cuban women, and Cuba became a model for the developing world in its success in ending the oppression of women.  More fully even than the USSR or the PRC, Cuba succeeded both in incorporating legal equality for women into its constitution and fundamental legal system, and in changing the actual outcomes for the broad population of Cuban women in virtually all segments of society.  The percentages of female legislators, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and managers are among the highest in any country.  Women represent a majority of Cubans in higher education—often in a large majority.  Female health indicators likewise show an internationally distinctive high level of attainment, with high female life expectancy and low infant mortality. Nicola Murray provides a detailed accounting of the role and status of women in post-revolution Cuba (Murray 1979a, 1979b) .


Socialist and communist ideas thus had a large effect on progress towards greater gender equality in the twentieth century.  For a mix of reasons, both ideological and political, women leaders and the issue of the equal treatment of women have had substantial influence on policies and outcomes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba.  This progress has occurred in multiple spheres: in the area of legal and constitutional declarations of equality of treatment; in the transformation of some of the basic institutions governing family, marriage, and childrearing; and in the successful provisioning of basic social goods (education, healthcare, access to economic opportunities) in a way that comes closer to establishing equality of outcomes for men and women.


See also: socialist feminism


Chen, Yung-fa. 1986. Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engels, Friedrich. 1977 [1884]. The origin of the family, private property and the state : in the light of the researches of Lewis H. Morgan. Edited by E. B. Leacock. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Hinton, William. 1966. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Vintage Books.

Jancar-Webster, Barbara. 1978. Women under communism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1964 [1844]. Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Edited by D. J. Struik. New York: International Publishers.

———. 1977 [1867]. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1998 [1848]. The Communist manifesto : a modern edition. Edited by E. J. Hobsbawm. London ; New York: Verso.

Mill, John Stuart. 1970 [1869]. The subjection of women. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 2000 [1877]. Ancient society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Murray, Nicola. 1979a. Socialism and Feminism: Women and the Cuban Revolution, Part One Feminist Review 2:57-73.

———. 1979b. Socialism and Feminism: Women and the Cuban Revolution, Part Two Feminist Review 3:99-108.

Tao, Jie, Bijun Zheng, and Shirley L. Mow, eds. 2004. Holding up half the sky : Chinese women past, present, and future. 1st Feminist Press ed. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Zetkin, Clara. 1920. Interview with Lenin on "The Women's Question". In The Lenin Anthology, edited by R. C. Tucker. New York: Norton. 685-699.




Interested in social justice in the global world? Visit UnderstandingSociety and ChangingSociety -- two blogs on social justice and the foundations of the social sciences in a changing global world.

This article is part of the UnderstandingSociety gateway. Please feel free to visit for more useful articles on the philosophy of social science, globalization, and global justice.

See also --

Marxism and Method