Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 237-239
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Women and the Politics of Class. By Johanna Brenner. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Women and the Politics of Class (2000), by Johanna Brenner, is a collection of eleven essays written over a span of sixteen years, but it has a coherence approaching what one would expect from a monograph. As Brenner states in her introduction, the book rests on the premise that "the movement for women's liberation faces a political impasse" (1). The solution that Brenner advocates is a visionary feminism rooted in the political and economic activity of working-class women: "In the future," she writes, "progress for women will depend on challenging corporate capital's political and economic power" (6). She concludes that "development of an anti-racist working-class feminist politics is the only basis for a renewed feminist movement" (307).
The book's tone is even. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the voice that emerges is caring and reasonable. Brenner's prose inspires confidence in her conclusions, even in a reader (such as this one) who disagrees with some fundamental tenets of Marxist analysis. The book is also informative on a variety of issues from abortion politics and welfare reform to the history of N. O. W.; accessible to readers at all levels including undergraduates; and useful as both historical reference and supplementary classroom text. Earlier essays—those from the 1980s—are filled with information and analyses of theoretical frameworks that provide an extremely useful background to current issues and debates. Later essays—mostly from 2000—tend to be shorter and more strategic, updating Brenner's positions in light of recent social and political developments. Essays are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which was an excellent editorial choice; the arrangement makes each of the book's four parts stand as a significant piece of a coherent argument.
According to Brenner, the work of the second wave of feminism reached its end by finishing the work begun by the first wave, which was "to dismantle the system of legalized, intentional exclusion of women from key institutions in economic and political life" (6). She asserts, "The historic victory of first-wave feminism was to make women citizens. The historic victory of the second wave has been to make women fully free sellers of our own labor-power, by substantially dismantling the legal and normative edifice which had mandated women's subservience in marriage, denied us rights in our bodies and reproductive capacity, and legitimated our economic marginalization" (223). However, many, perhaps most, women are still not liberated. As the U. S. economy slows—in comparison with the 1960s—working-class women often work harder for less reward and have a narrower range of options for determining their futures: "For most working-class women, transcending the constraints [End Page 237] of the gender division of labor and the burdens of the double shift will require more than an end to discrimination. They need living wage jobs, paid family leave, and a broad range of affordable, quality services, especially to help with caring for children, the ill, and the elderly in their homes" (6).
But does women's liberation require an end to capitalism? Brenner does not take an absolutist position on this issue. In a 1984 review of Michele Barrett's Women's Oppression Today (1980), Brenner seems to accept Barrett's claim that "[b]ecause women's oppression is not a prerequisite for capitalism, theoretically it would not be impossible for women to achieve liberation within capitalist society" (2000, 15). Nevertheless, in a 1989 essay, she is skeptical: "while it may be possible for capitalism to absorb gender equality in the long run, significant shifts away from the privatization of social reproduction will have to be forced upon capital, in the same way that universal male suffrage, the recognition of trade unions, or the welfare state were won through struggle" (2000, 214).
Obviously the necessary struggle will be very difficult—hence the current impasse. The way to liberation is obvious, Brenner declares: "only a serious and disruptive challenge to state and...