Socialist Feminism is Personal and Political

by Lisa Tan

November 14th, 2019

When I first became involved with activism, I was inspired by feminist movements. Feminism presented an opportunity to connect with the historical struggle for social justice and to understand my potential to participate. The intersectionality of those movements created a space for me to bond with others and to oppose sexism and challenge gender constructs with the affirmation that my gender identity made me powerful. It was personal; I saw how evolving media representation, self-care, and healthy relationships could change the patterns of sexism in my own life. And they did, but again and again, those changing patterns folded back on themselves under capitalism, no matter the individual action I took.

When I added class struggle to the equation, something shifted: there were clear opportunities for structural change. Feminism moves us to recognize our shared exploitation, but we need a socialist conception of feminism to build substantial power that cannot be quieted by liberalism. I started looking for ways to connect this argument— that building power against gendered oppression starts with class solidarity— to the initial feminist ideas that shaped my development as an activist. In my search, I found many works, artistic and academic alike, that helped to build that bridge and inspired my understanding of socialist feminism. The two works below are fantastic examples of topics I found relevant to the conversation. 

  1. Roma (2018 film)

Roma is a stunning black and white portrait of ordinary life for an indigenous live-in domestic worker, Cleo, against the backdrop of a wider socio-political crisis. Between 1970 and 1971, the demand for political freedom and democratic control for the working class was growing in Mexico City, and we watch as events lead to the horrific Corpus Christi Day massacre. Meanwhile, Cleo’s storyline is personal and gives us insight into ways that elements of caretaking and solidarity between women continue to exist despite the trauma of isolating sexism. 

Intense class warfare depicted through a passive lens forces the viewer to watch events unfold from the place of compliance and submission where Cleo exists. In ways this seems terribly fatalistic— it removes the viewer’s sense of agency. The spirit of the rebellion was the opposite; it was powerful and defiant, and yet our central character, a member of the working class, is intentionally removed from that. Although Cleo exhibits profound resilience and loyalty, she remains trapped in oppressive conditions. Her character is devoid of the elements of class consciousness surrounding her and she is isolated from the movement by her silence. Roma focuses on a perspective that is uniquely that of women in her situation, and it’s imperative that we recognize both her and her absence from the political struggle.

  1. Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence by Kristen Ghodsee

This book blends deep research with a spirited analysis of some of the freedoms that women experienced under the socialist regimes of the 20th century that could not exist under free market systems. The author acknowledges that state socialism of the 20th century is obviously not our goal, and instead discusses examples and studies that we can learn from and adapt to a better future for women. When we divide the personal from the political, we start to question whether overturning capitalism can achieve more than just power for the working class— we need to ensure that this power is inclusive. Through evidence that economic independence for women under socialism improved their individual lives, the book offers a convincing argument that addressing personal struggles with the political (i.e. socialized reproductive labor) is part of a socialist feminist movement that acknowledges the specific ways that capitalism historically exploits women.

I paired these two works because I think Kristen Ghodsee is extremely effective in depicting how the fight for working class power relates to the quality of our private lives. Roma takes place in the 1970s in Mexico, when an authoritarian state was in power and enforced its legitimacy through violence against the working class. The hardships that Cleo faces are so intimate that the contrast to the rebellion is harsh, yet socialist feminism demonstrates that a political struggle for freedom and economic independence would directly alter how Cleo’s heartbreaking personal story unfolds.

Watch this movie, read this book and share your thoughts with me! You can stream Roma online (Netflix owns the distribution rights) and look for a copy of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism at your local library. If you are a DSA member interested in contributing to the blog, send an email to You can also follow our chapter on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated.