The Woman Question and the Marxist Method: A Marxist Classic

The book Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women by Joseph Hansen, Evelyn Reed, and Mary-Alice Waters is a Marxist classic that explores the connection between big-business marketing of cosmetics and fashions and the oppression of women. Originally a 1954 debate in The Militant, the book is an excerpt from “The Woman Question and the Marxist Method” by Reed, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Reed argues that the class distinctions between women transcend their sex identity as women, and that the woman question cannot be divorced from the class question. Any confusion on this score can only lead to erroneous conclusions and setbacks. It will divert the class struggle into a sex struggle of all women against all men.

Through the feminist movement, a number of important reforms were won for women. But the bourgeois feminist movement has run its course, achieved its limited aims, and the problems of today can only be resolved in the struggle of class against class. The woman question can only be resolved through the lineup of working men and women against the ruling men and women. This means that the interests of the workers as a class are identical; and not the interests of all women as a sex.

Ruling-class women have exactly the same interest in upholding and perpetuating capitalist society as their men have. The bourgeois feminists fought, among other things, for the right of women as well as men to hold property in their own name. They won this right. Today, plutocratic women hold fabulous wealth in their own names. They are completely in alliance with the plutocratic men to perpetuate the capitalist system. They are not in alliance with the working women, whose needs can only be served through the abolition of capitalism. Thus, the emancipation of working women will not be achieved in alliance with women of the enemy class, but just the opposite; in a struggle against them as part and parcel of the whole class struggle.

Reed also explores the history of cosmetics and fashions, arguing that they became the marks of social distinction between the classes as capitalism developed. The fashion world became a capitalist gold mine with virtually unlimited possibilities. All a big businessman had to do was to change the fashions often enough and invent enough new aids to beauty and he could become richer and richer. That is how, under capitalism, the myth arose that beauty is identical with fashion. Beauty has no identity with fashions. But it has an identity with labor. Apart from the realm of nature, all that is beautiful has been produced in labor and by the laborers. Outside the realm of nature, beauty does not exist apart from labor and never will. For the beauty of all the products of labor, and of all the arts produced in and through labor, are incorporated within these products and these arts.

Humanity itself, together with the beauty of humanity, was produced in and through the labor process. As Engels pointed out, when humans produced, they produced themselves as humans. They cast off their apelike appearance and became more and more beautiful. When the capitalist social disfigurement of exploited labor is removed, the true beauty of labor and of the laborers will stand forth in their true dimensions.

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