Feminism and Humanism Revisited through Two Anniversary Books

The thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Rosemary Hennessy’s Materialist Feminism & the Politics of Discourse, and  of Judith Grant’s Fundamental Feminism: Radical Feminist History for the Future, prompts a reexamination of their contributions.

Materialist Feminism emerged in the 1970s in the U.S. in critical engagement with the New Left in Britain and France, in order to account for the role of power, ideology and the sexual division of labor.   It  focused on the relationship between language, subjectivity and the unequal division of resources.

Hennessy is particularly interested in the French philosopher Louis Althusser’s critique of ideology, his concept of overdetermination,  and  “post-Althusserian ideology critique” as a historical and global analytic totality of ideological, economic and political arrangements.  She draws a contrast between this conceptual framework and the Foucauldian power/knowledge notion which replaces ideology with discourse and is ultimately at odds with ending exploitation. (p. 16)   She argues that the latter framework, also articulated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe offers  a limited notion of rights and liberties.  It does not explain violence against women, and the feminization of poverty (p. 20).

Hennessy offers a “post-Althusserian . . . resistance postmodernism.” (p. 35),  advocating the integrality of race, class, gender and sexuality while offering a global reading without the totalizing strategy of a master narrative.

She questions Foucault and Foucauldian thinkers for viewing the concept of Reason as inherently totalitarian.  She does not agree with a rejection of Reason and reflection in the name of the spontaneous, the immediate and the particular. (p. 40)   At the same time, she critiques Foucault and Julia Kristeva for offering an ahistorical theory of the Subject that abstracts the essence of the human individual from the ensemble of social relations. (p. 48).  The Foucauldian theory of the Subject, she argues, leads to an individualistic avant-garde rather than anything that could call itself a revolutionary collectivity. (p. 53).

Hennessy’s Materialist Feminism, instead, offers a historical view of the Subject.  This view is further articulated in Hennessy’s later book, Profit and Pleasure (2000) in which she has attempted to historicize the rise of heteronormativity by situating it in the context of consumer capitalism and capitalism’s reliance on the nuclear family, starting in the late nineteenth century. She has also drawn an association between late twentieth-century globalization and the theorization of a fluid sexual identity known as queerness.

Judith Grant’s Fundamental Feminism, also critically explores the category of woman as Subject.  She argues that both Anglo American Socialist Feminism and Radical Feminism were limited in their analyses of women’s oppression because they drew on an essentialist view of the category, “woman“.   Socialist Feminism as it emerged in the 1960s and beyond, rooted women’s oppression in housework and reproductive labor.  Radical Feminism focused on identifying the source of women’s oppression in the heterosexual marriage and a view of heterosexual sex and men’s biology as inherently violent.

Grant argues that Feminist Standpoint theory as articulated by Nancy Hartsock and others sought to go beyond these limitations by emphasizing the differences in women’s experiences.   However, standpoint theory was also limited by its ahistorical view.

In Grant’s view, Post-Structuralist Feminism’s rejection of categories such as universality and totality, and its focus on particular and local struggles were also problematic and inadequate.

Instead, what Grant offers as an alternative conceptual framework for understanding women’s oppression is a structuralist interpretation of patriarchy.  She advocates “taking Marx’s idea of the human, defined as self-creating and constantly in flux, and combining it with the idea of a universal structure of power . . . sustained by what Althusser calls ‘ideology’ and Levi Strauss calls ‘myth’.” (p. 9)  By adopting such a conceptual framework, she hopes for a way to retain woman as a political Subject.

For Grant, the ideology of patriarchy is women’s internalization of inferiority and the eroticization of domination.  It is this internalized and eroticized sense of inferiority that Simone De Beauvoir articulates in detail in The Second Sex (1949).

Thus, Grant concludes that the abolition of patriarchy demands the abolition of gender so that “our biological sex will simply become one of the many facts about us as people, like our hair or eye color.” (p. 195) The abolition of patriarchy in her view also requires a pragmatic social democracy that promotes self-determination and economic equality.  (p. 201)

Both Hennessy and Grant challenge economic determinism and view the role of ideology as fundamental in promoting gender oppression.  Both return to a structuralist and specifically Althusserian explanation of oppression.

At a time when women are losing many of their hard fought rights, and authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have gained support among millions of women,  the emphasis of these books on the role of ideology, ideological conditioning and how it affects women is pertinent and insightful.

Elsewhere,  I have explored the contradictory global developments in gender relations in the twenty-first century, and the ways in which various tendencies within feminism have sought to respond to them.   I have found socialist feminist theories of alienation to be the most illuminating.   Rooted in Marx’s critique of alienated labor, socialist feminists such as Ann Foreman (1977)  and Raya Dunayevskaya (1973 and 1981)  as well as Judith Grant  (2005) and Marcia Klotz (2006)  have argued that the capitalist mode of production takes the mind-body separation inherent in class societies to the extreme and creates the basis for the separation of consciousness and pleasure.

This understanding of alienation when put in the context of the current unreflectiveness promoted by addiction to social media and the proliferation of disinformation can explain why humans in our time have become so prone to ideological conditioning.

In the face of this reality, it is also not enough to explain the current attraction of millions to authoritarianism and fascism through the lens of Marx’s critique alienation.  Socialist feminists need to articulate a conceptual alternative that shows a pathway to overcoming this alienation and helps give voice to those around the world who are struggling against authoritarianism.

It can be argued that Althusser’s concept of overdetermination did challenge economic determinism by considering an ensemble of social, political, ideological and economic forces as the basis for understanding oppression.  However, Althusser’s deep hostility to humanism and to Marx’s appropriation of the Hegelian humanist concept of dialectical reason does not provide us with an emancipatory conceptual framework to overcome alienation.

At a time, when women around the world are under attack and reaching out for help, it is incumbent upon socialist feminists to offer an emancipatory alternative and real material solidarity.   This is both a theoretical and a practical urgency.   The current situation demands confronting the intersection of class, race and gender oppression and opposing religious fundamentalism, misogyny, racism and authoritarian capitalism in all societies.

It is as part of a needed discussion on redefining feminism that I encourage exploring the works of Hennessy and Grant.

Frieda Afary

December 30, 2023


Afary, Frieda. (2022)  Socialist Feminism:  A New Approach.  Pluto Press.

Althusser, Louis.  (1965)  For Marx.  Verso.

Althusser, Louis.  (1964) “Marxism and Humanism.” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1964/marxism-humanism.htm

Althusser, Louis. (1970)  “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

Dunayevskaya, Raya (1981)  Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

Dunayevskaya, Raya (2003 [1973])  Philosophy and Revolution:  From Hegel to Sartre.  Lexington Books.

Foreman, Ann.  (1977) Femininity as Alienation.  Pluto Press.

Grant, Judith. (2020 [1993]) Fundamental Feminism: Radical Feminist History for the Future.    Routledge.

Grant, Judith. (2005) “Gender and Marx’s Radical Humanism in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, 17(1):59–77.

Hennessy, Rosemary. (1993)  Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse.  Routledge.

Hennessy, Rosemary. (2000)   Profit and Pleasure:  Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism.  Routledge.

Klotz, Marcia. (2006) “Alienation, Labor, and Sexuality in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.” Journal of Economics, Culture, & Society, 18(3):405–13.



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