The present paper deals with the issue of feminism, or to be more specific, the fragmentations in feminism due to racial and class differences. The question of whether black slave women benefited by not being assigned the ideologically determined role of female—as they were considered to be nothing more than gender-less commodities by their white slave masters.
To provide a meaningful answers to this questions, I explored the validity of the assumption that black slave women indeed became emancipated after black slavery was abolished, and whether this emancipation rendered them free of the sort of discrimination embedded in patriarchal values. In one sense, the question tackles how different and how related are the types of discrimination experienced by black slave women, who supposedly became free after slavery was abolished; and white women, whose obedience is dictated by patriarchal values more deeply embedded in people’s minds.
Using the concept of the study of real economic and social life of man and of the influence of man’s way of life on his thinking and feeling, Marx believes human beings are able to shape the outside world. To use the words of Erich Fromm, “History is the history of man’s self-realization; it is nothing but the self-creation of man through the process of his work and his production” (26).
As creative human beings who are aware of their potentialities, they also possess the power to liberate themselves from alienation caused by capitalistic oppression, through class struggle (climaxing in revolution). In Marx’s view, class refers basically to the economic group as defined by its position in the process of production: slave or master, serf or feudal lord, worker or capitalist. All types of slavery find root in—and are only consequences of—the relation of worker to production.
Before I discuss the issue of feminism, it is important to explain the concept of alienation in more detail, as many feminists base their arguments on this theory. There are four interrelated aspects of alienation, two of which I will explain briefly: (1) the alienation of worker from the process of labor: workers feel miserable instead of happy at work because they work not to satisfy themselves but others; and (2) the alienation of self from other human beings, including other workers and the owner of his product.
The latter aspect demonstrates how, because of the competitive nature of modern industrial society, the worker is confronted with the problem of competition for jobs, promotion, salary increase, which then leads to confrontation among workers, and ultimately to estrangement of man from other men. To be fully free from this alienation not only involves a salary raise or improvement of working conditions, but by a fundamental social change through replacement of the old state, the socialization of the basic instruments of production, and the emergence of a classless society (Hook 1955: 32-33).
As Marx states, “A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself” (Fromm 37). The oppression of black slave women at the time of black slavery was not based on gender but mainly on color. In contrast, the discrimination of white women in society is determined by patriarchal values, where powerful institutions like family, schools, and mass media socialized women to adopt gender roles that were implicitly inferior, less rewarding and less powerful than those accorded to men.
Since these values are more lasting and more embedded in society, some assume that the oppression of white women is more difficult to overcome, compared to discrimination against black slave women that presumably disappeared after slavery was abolished. Evidence indicates, however, that discrimination against black women continued long after slavery was considered a thing of the past, and that such discrimination based on color has even gained the added weight of discrimination against women in general.
Hence, the discrimination became double edged. Though white feminists deny any interest in exercising any power over any group, it is difficult for them to disentangle themselves from embedded power structures of race and class. Indeed some white feminists themselves perpetuate a similar kind of oppression they ostensibly claim to attempt to overcome, only this time the discrimination is leveled against black women and working class women.
This bias in the feminist movement—as demonstrated with the way feminist discourse generally addresses the concerns of white, middle class women—reflects differences in power and privilege among women which serve as significant obstacles to their common goal of social transformation. Although we may be a long way to completely removing the shackles of oppression that make victims out of women—black or white, rich or poor—thankfully, there are many people who remain vigilant about these issues.
To be sure, there are conscious attempts to improve women’s inferior status in society—movements that try to work across racial and class borders. The whole theory of alienation has brought about a critically increasing awareness of the dehumanizing and destructive consequences of oppression, and has given impetus to activists to carve out new paths for overcoming alienation and man’s inhumanity to man.