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Materialist feminism, as a discipline, studies patriarchy in terms of material sexual and economic benefits afforded to men at the expense of women through the mechanism and construction of gender. As a movement, materalist feminism is a part of radical feminism, thus founded for the abolition of patriarchy, mainly in France and Italy.

Materialist feminism understands gender as a social construct that is produced through the reproductive exploitation and sexual subordination of women. Its body of literature includes an analysis of women's work within marriage and in the formal economy, criticism of other streams of feminism, deconstruction of sexuality and advocacy for an autonomous women's movement.

Jennifer Wicke defines materialist feminism as "a feminism that insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangements, including those of gender hierarchy, develop... materialist feminism avoids seeing this gender hierarchy as the effect of a singular... patriarchy and instead gauges the web of social and psychic relations that make up a material, historical moment".[1] She states that "...materialist feminism argues that material conditions of all sorts play a vital role in the social production of gender and assays the different ways in which women collaborate and participate in these productions".[1]


The term materialist feminism emerged in the late 1970s and is associated with key thinkers, such as Rosemary Hennessy, Stevi Jackson and Christine Delphy.[2]

Rosemary Hennessy traces the history of materialist feminism in the work of British and French feminists who preferred the term materialist feminism to Marxist feminism.[3] In their view, Marxism had to be altered to be able to explain the sexual division of labor. Marxism was inadequate to the task because of its class bias and focus on production. Feminism was also problematic due to its essentialist and idealist concept of woman. Material feminism then emerged as a positive substitute to both Marxism and feminism and pointed out the unequal distribution of social resources.[3]

Material feminism partly originated from the work of French feminists, particularly Christine Delphy. At the time of the coining of the term, Delphy was actually criticized by other feminists. Since Materialist feminism was so close to Marxism, but did not actually submit to Marxist text; many other's saw this branch as unnecessary due to not being Marxist enough[citation needed]. However, after the 1980s, most modern feminism began to branch away from focusing on physical oppression and instead started to focus more on the language of oppression.[4] Delphy believed that there were two modes of production in our society: industrial and domestic. The first mode allows for capitalist exploitation while the second allows for familial and patriarchal exploitation.[5] She argued that materialism is the only theory of history that views oppression as a basic reality of women's lives. Delphy states that this is why women and all oppressed groups need materialism to investigate their situation. For Delphy, "to start from oppression defines a materialist approach, oppression is a materialist concept".[6] She states that the domestic mode of production was the site of patriarchal exploitation and the material basis of the oppression of women. Delphy further argued that marriage is a labor contract that gives men the right to exploit women.[6]

The Grand Domestic Revolution by Dolores Hayden is a reference. Hayden describes material feminism at that time as reconceptualizing the relationship between the private household space and public space by presenting collective options to take the "burden" off women in regard to housework, cooking, and other traditional female domestic jobs.[7]

Relationship to Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is focused on investigating and explaining the ways in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property. As stated previously, materialist feminism was developed as an improvement upon Marxism, as it was felt that Marxist feminism failed to address division of labor, especially in the household. The current concept has its roots in socialist and Marxist feminism; Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham, who are editors of Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives, describe material feminism as the "conjuncture of several discourses—historical materialism, Marxist and radical feminism, as well as postmodernist and psychoanalytic theories of meaning and subjectivity".[8]

Intersectional approaches

Materialist feminism has been criticized for assuming universal oppression of women. By focusing on capitalist relations combined with patriarchy, materialist feminism fails to include women of different classes, sexualities, and ethnicities.[2] Hazel Carby challenged the materialist feminist analyses of the family as universally oppressive to all women. She instead noted the ways that values of the family are different for black women and men, just as the division of labor is also racialized.[9]

In recent years, materialist feminist thoughts have attempted to focus on transnational issues. Scholars consider a global economic change in relation to the feminization of poverty. Feminist scholars are also working to create a transnational feminist agenda. For example, Rosemary Hennessy analyzes grassroots organizations in four maquiladora communities along Mexico's northern border. The research claims that the global nature of patriarchy and capitalism sustains a "political economy of sex".[10]


The relationship between materialism and feminism has been described as "problematic" and regarded as an "unhappy couple".[11] There has also been a concern for the general ambiguity of materialist feminism. It has been called to question whether the differentiation between materialist feminism and Marxist feminism is great enough to be a worthwhile contribution to feminist theory.[12] However, the main criticism for materialist feminism involves the lack of intersectionality within the theory. While Material Feminism has always focused on the idea that gender is a social construction, Rosemary Hennessy comments on how there has recently been pressure to recognize the differences within the definition of "woman" and how this intersects with not only class, but race, sexualities, and genders.[13]

Christine Delphy's contributions to materialist feminism have also been the subject of criticism, for example by Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh. They suggest that the definition of materialism feminism has a very loose interpretation of patriarchy and that Delphy's article "Towards a Materialist Feminism" has a focus limited to the oppression of wives and fails to connect this to the global oppression of women in general.[5]

Stevi Jackson also calls concern towards the recent resurgence of materialist interest, stating that many of the new ideas were reducing the material to capitalist ideas, and that "this might bring us full circle back to the least productive forms of 1970s Marxism".[2]

Relation to modern feminism

There was a cultural turn during the 1990s that moved to push the boundaries of what the category of "woman" was. As feminism became post-feminism, the notion of femininity was "problematized, rather than taken as a given"[14] as told by Stevi Jackson. As feminists stopped seeing women as a social hierarchy and instead a sexual division, the concept of materialist feminism began to fade further and further away.[citation needed] Similarly, as discourse turned to the specifics of what defined a woman, the roles and physical oppressions they faced became of less importance.[citation needed] This was partly due to the notion that feminism had achieved what it set out to do. That women got the equality, and now it was time to focus on intersectionality.

See also


  1. ^ a b Ferguson, Margaret (1994). Feminism and Postmodernism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822314882.
  2. ^ a b c Jackson, Stevi (May–August 2001). "Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary". Women's Studies International Forum. 24 (3–4): 283–293. doi:10.1016/S0277-5395(01)00187-X.
  3. ^ a b Hennessy, Rosemary (1993). Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415904803.
  4. ^ Jackson, Stevi (2001). "Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary". Women's Studies International Forum. 24 (3–4): 283–293. doi:10.1016/s0277-5395(01)00187-x. ISSN 0277-5395.
  5. ^ a b Barrett, Michèle; McIntosh, Mary (1979). "Christine Delphy: Towards a Materialist Feminism?". Feminist Review (1): 95–106. doi:10.2307/1394753. JSTOR 1394753.
  6. ^ a b Delphy, Christine; Leonard, Diana (March 1980). "A Materialist feminism is possible". Feminist Review. 4 (1): 79–105. doi:10.1057/fr.1980.8. S2CID 55598087.
  7. ^ Kramarae, Cheris; Spender, Dale (2000). Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues and Knowledge. New York: Routledge. p. 766. ISBN 9780415920902.
  8. ^ Hennessy, Rosemary (1997). Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415916349.
  9. ^ Carby, Hazel (1982), "White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood", in Gilroy, Paul (ed.), The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, London New York: Routledge in association with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, pp. 211–234, ISBN 9780415079099
  10. ^ Hennessy, Rosemary (December 2009). "Open secrets: The affective cultures of organizing on Mexico's northern border". Feminist Theory. 10 (3): 309–322. doi:10.1177/1464700109343254. S2CID 143895580.
  11. ^ Rooney, Ellen (1996). "What Can the Matter Be?". American Literary History. 8 (4): 745–758. doi:10.1093/alh/8.4.745. JSTOR 490122.
  12. ^ Martha E. Gimenez (2000). "What's material about materialist feminism?". Radical Philosophy. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  13. ^ Hennessy, Rosemary; Mohan, Rajeswari (1989-12-01). "The construction of woman in three popular texts of empire: Towards a critique of materialist feminism". Textual Practice. 3 (3): 323–359. doi:10.1080/09502368908582066. ISSN 0950-236X.
  14. ^ Jackson, Stevi (2001). "Why a materialist feminism is (Still) Possible—and necessary". Women's Studies International Forum. 24 (3–4): 283–293. doi:10.1016/s0277-5395(01)00187-x. ISSN 0277-5395.