Hitting At Home: Capitalism’s Cultural Influence on Women’s Lives in the USA. By: Jymee C.Read Now
There has existed a correlation between the outward political realm and the personal lives of the American public since the very establishment of the United States. The intertwined nature of personal and political matters has culminated in a movement that holds a continuing influence into the modern day, aptly referred to as, “the personal is political,” an ideological result of 1960’s second-wave feminism. As suggested by the name of this ideological development, “the personal is political” essentially translates that that there are established connections between the personal lives of women and the existing political structures surrounding them. This cultural and political hegemony as maintained against women since coincides with the interconnections of race, class, and gender and the effects of the capitalist system on these institutions, thus maintaining both a dialectic and a materialist connection within this sect of feminist and social theory.
Of the many personal issues faced among women, one of the most touching, sensitive, and personal issues women have historically faced that hold political connections is the issue of sexuality and racism. The 1920s was a considerably eventful decade for the African-American population of the US, particularly referring to what is known as “The Great Migration,” wherein a myriad of black people made haste in the chaos of World War One and migrated from the southern US into the northern states in search of economic freedom not well known throughout the south. The experiences of black women in Harlem, NY throughout the so-called “roaring twenties” depict the status quo of race and gender in the Harlem society. It was in particular that this cultural status quo influenced the Harlem criminal justice system of the time.
Mabel Hampton was a young African-American woman living in Harlem during the 1920s, who herself garnered a great deal of experience dealing with Harlem police and their incessant racial bias. As an effect of the racial pseudoscience that was accepted as fact in the early twentieth century, the Harlem Police displayed an inherent racial bias in how they conducted their business. Due to the established double jeopardy of being both a woman and a person of color, the business of the police additionally contained a distortion of sexuality and the image of black women. Through a racially driven construction of sexuality, the “Jezebel” stereotype for black women had become to many a fact of life rather than a socially created falsehood. This pseudoscience acted as a drive for Harlem police to substantially target black women for charges of vagrancy, prostitution, and other racial and sexually related accusations, often without firm reason for suspicion beyond racist ideology. “Racial stereotypes led the police and Bedford administrators to view black women’s ‘sexual delinquency’ as natural, rather than judging the conduct of individuals.” In the case of Mabel Hampton, she had faced unlawful arrest on false accusations of prostitution by Harlem forces.
It is often that racism and classism go hand in hand within the criminal justice system, and so too is the case of Mabel Hampton in the 1920s. Tracing the historical basis of the ideological standpoint of “the personal is political” all the way back to the institutions of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the perpetuation of racial stereotypes regarding black women has often resulted in the complete disregard, trivializing, or outright shifting of blame in cases of rape, violence, and other forms of sexual assault against black women throughout the United States. Through the nature of race, class, and gender in synthesis, racial stereotypes regarding the sexuality and sexual experiences of black women are reinforced through the outlet of dejure racism, which is essentially racism at the level of state and federal action. At one time it was considered a fact when one claimed that black women were “complicit” in being raped. This notion stemmed from the legacy of slavery and the evolution of white supremacy in the late 18th – early 19th centuries, in which the southern US in particular sought to perpetuate the myth of black women being promiscuous and immoral.
Beyond the realm of the police force itself, the court system acts as the highest form in which he personal side of life connects with the political. This dichotomy, in regards to the issues of the domestic variety, culminates often in the confines of the municipal court system. It was in the post-WWII era of the United States that the municipal system witnessed a rise in domestic abuse and other domestic cases being presented by black women. The dialectical relation between race, class, and gender is omnipresent in viewing the functions of the municipal court, coinciding the highly personal issue of domestic life and issues within internal relationships. Similarly to Mabel Hampton, the criminal justice system in terms of domesticity has held great effect on the personal lives of women.
The lens of criminal justice lacked a sort of consciousness in regards to class dynamic and economic material conditions, with one decision or another by the court resulting in an advancement of disenfranchisement and suffering. The double jeopardy of being black and a woman had culminated into a new form, one that may have intended to protect women and ensure at least some sense of security, however those intentions were lost in the actual application of the court methodology. The impotence of the municipal court, essentially, resulted in a myriad of women who went to such institutions were often dragged further into a world of economic hardship and abuse. This dichotomy is represented by he fact that; “Women who were financially dependent on their husbands were more vulnerable to abuse, and abuse could reinforce a woman’s poverty by injuring and isolating them.” This cyclic process of abuse was especially felt on the economic foundation of women and their domestic situation, for instance whenever black women facing abuse were able to look for a settlement within the court, there was a lack of planning to ensure a sturdy foundation of economic assistance. Women in these court proceedings were many a time granted what can be colloquially referred to as a “divorcee’s third,” in essence meaning that in deciding the amount of support a woman should receive, it was more often than not equivalent to a third of her spouse’s income. The income of the men in these court proceedings was usually on the lower side, meaning that the compensation given to these women had hardly put a dent into any of their financial or physical needs. To quote a woman involved in such a case; “When you take a man into court you hardly get enough to pay a babysitter.”
The diaspora of global capitalism directly effects not only women who were born and raised in the United States, it extends into the realm of immigration in synthesis with the link between race, class, and gender, in addition to the notion that “the personal is political.” The plight of Asian women throughout American history had been burdened immensely by the establishing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, otherwise known as the Page Act of 1875. Xenophobic through and through, the issue of a woman’s “morality” had ultimately become a great factor in creating and enforcing the doctrine of the Page Act. Similar to the white perceptions of black women, the orientalist views of white men treated Chinese women with nearly as little respect, a San Francisco politician even claiming; “As a class Chinese are intelligent, among the multitudes of Chinese women in our state there is not a wife or virtuous female in their numbers.” Designed to prevent the trafficking of women, the real world practices of the American consular had quite often been seen as humiliating by Chinese women who faced such interrogation. Due to the fear of lack of morality and the fear of prostitution rings being created, a plethora of Chinese women wishing to immigrate into the US were extended the burden of proving that they were not prostitutes or involved with prostitution.
Korean women who had immigrated to the United States in line with their marriage to an American G.I. additionally faced a dilemma blurring the lines between personal and political. The personal identity of these Korean brides were effectively under attack from the cultural and political standards held within the US. In order to properly “Americanize,” otherwise known as a form of assimilation, it was expected of Korean women entering the US to essentially forget and disown the entirety if not close to the entirety of her cultural and ethnic heritage, all for the sake of the satisfaction of an often controlling or abusive husband. These women who traveled from South Korea to the United States were practically forced to adapt to and eat solely Americanized food, with little to no access to recreating the food that they grew up with, citing Americanized dishes as “heavy, greasy, and bland.”
Korean war bride’s path of assimilation went beyond their diet (which in and of itself was detrimental to their physical health), it was often that the physical appearance of these brides was forced to undergo a change. Encompassing the Cold War hysteria that essentially fueled the Korean War, in addition to the racial pseudo-science that dominated much of 20th century America, a variety of Korean women had acted to alter the very appearance of their eyes to strengthen their ability of “westernization.” “Korean military brides were considered both cultural and racial threats to the U.S., which influenced many Korean women, especially those who wished to marry American soldiers, to alter their eyes in the 1950s.” An effort to “deracialize” themselves, Korean women sought to alter their physical features to appear similar to those of the white “race,” all in order to ease the process of assimilation and neutralize the racial “threat” to the American status quo.
Whereas Chinese women had effectively been barred from entering the United States due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the fear of prostitution rings establishing, when Koreans had immigrated into the US they were met with cultural hostility and the forced erasure of heritage. Had the number of Chinese women been able to freely immigrate or married an American would they too have had to face the crisis of assimilation?
Race, class, and gender have acted in synthesis since the conception of race emerged through European Imperialism, and said synthesis saw a great deal attention during the Civil Rights Era. Women, particularly black women at this time, faced what is known as “double jeopardy,” essentially that they were subject to systematic oppression of being women and being African-American, both considered anywhere from second class citizens to absolute dehumanization. This systemic oppression more often than not affected the day to day life of these women, especially with Jim Crow ideology remaining the status quo of American Capitalism and the political structure itself. The instituting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aided in putting an end to the de jure racism and sexism targeted at black women, specifically Title VII of the Act. Title VII, effectively; “outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race.” It was thanks to the influence of Title VII that a system of affirmative action had been put in place, a system that sought to provide, at least in theory, a stronger sense of equality for African-American women (and men) in the field of employment. Despite the efforts of the mostly Conservative-dominated government in the post-Civil Rights era to undermine these affirmative action programs, such programs were and still are a necessity in the climate of American Capitalism in order to ensure, at least at some level, equal opportunity and economic strength for the African-American population.
On the note of governmental legislation, in the last twenty years there have been numerous incarnations of the Violence Against Women Act, originating in 1994 as a part of Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The effectiveness of this act, however, has come into question on several occasions. In what can effectively be considered a precursor to the infamous Brock Turner incident of 2015-2016, a woman by the name of Christine Brzonkala had been the victim of rape conducted by two football players at VPI, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, within the span of her first semester at this institution. The two men who committed this act had even boasted about their action, perpetuating the phenomenons of toxic masculinity and rape culture under patriarchal Capitalism. Furthermore, the two football players saw little to no repercussion for what they had committed, facing nothing more than a two semester suspension. This suspension, however, meant nothing, seeing as VPI had decided that such was “excessive punishment.”
It took until 2013, over a decade since the Brzonkala controversy, for the VAWA to include those within the LGBTQ+ sphere, and subsequently to include the plight of Native American women facing persisting discrimination. Within the racist institution of reservations, Native American women had finally been granted the ability to fight against sexual assault and similar actions that threaten the bodily autonomy of Native American women. As of 2013, the Violence Against Women Act “permits Native American women who are assaulted on reservations to press charges against non-Indians in tribal courts.” While this is certainly an improvement for the lives of Native women, this legislation had been long overdue considering the vast history of abuses and injustices committed against the Native American population since the first of the European settlers arrived on this soil.
History has not been kind to women, with women who fall under the thumb of white supremacy and patriarchal capitalism facing some of the most headstrong, excessive denial of basic rights and opportunities. “The personal is political” is something that describes the plight of women of color, immigrant women, and other such groups subject to the nature of patriarchal capitalism, in addition to the many injustices that have been perpetuated against other groups of women throughout history. The hegemony of Capitalism expands not only into the development of other nations, it expands into the daily lives of millions upon millions of women living in the United States.
Cheryl D. Hicks, “Mabel Hampton in Harlem: Regulating Black Women’s Sexuality in the 1920s,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 437.
Hicks, “Mabel Hampton in Harlem: Regulating Black Women’s Sexuality in the 1920s,” pp. 438-439.
Lisa Levenstein, “Hard Choices at 1801 Vine: African American Women, Child Support, and Domestic Violence in Postwar Philadelphia,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 650.
Levenstein, “Hard Choices at 1801 Vine: African American Women, Child Support, and Domestic Violence in Postwar Philadelphia,” 651.
“Chinese Exclusion: The Page Act and Its Aftermath,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 412.
Ji-Yeon Yuh, “Korean Military Brides: Cooking American, Eating Korean,” from Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 641.
Claire Lee, “Uncovering History of Double Eyelid Surgery,” from The Korea Herald, Sep. 11, 2015
Civil Rights Act, Title VII, 1964, from Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 745.
Violence Against Women Act, 1994, 2000, 2005, 2013, from Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 8th Edition, Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron DeHart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 757.
Violence Against Women Act, 1994, 2000, 2005, 2013, 758.
Jymee C is an aspiring Marxist historian and teacher with a BA in history from Utica College, hoping to begin working towards his Master's degree in the near future. He's been studying Marxism-Leninism for the past five years and uses his knowledge and understanding of theory to strengthen and expand his historical analyses. His primary interests regarding Marxism-Leninism and history include the Soviet Union, China, the DPRK, and the various struggles throughout US history among other subjects. He is currently conducting research for a book on the Korean War and US-DPRK relations. In addition, he is a 3rd Degree black belt in karate and runs the YouTube channel "Jymee" where he releases videos regarding history, theory, self-defense, and the occasional jump into comedy https://www.youtube.com/c/Jymee
It’s generally assumed today that one can be a capitalist and a feminist simultaneously. In fact, such a strain of thought is not only the default, it’s encouraged. Everywhere, one can see calls for “more female representation”, “diversifying the board room,” and “elect more women ''. The 2016 infamous campaign slogan of Hillary Clinton was “I’m with Her”. Women are encouraged to take up the mantle of the exploiter, the colonizer, and the oppressor in the name of feminism and representation. But one must ask can there be oppressors and feminism at the same time? Is something more feminist if a woman is in charge? The answer to this is a sound no. Feminism is broadly defined as the advocacy of equal rights between the sexes. However, a more inclusive and lucid definition would be that feminism is the “struggle against sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women” which bell hooks argues in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. This particular definition is antithetical to capitalism because it relies on the exploitation of workers and the unpaid and unappreciated labor of women to survive. Even the broader definition of “advocacy of equality between the sexes'' is contradictory to capitalism as well, because capitalism requires inequality and does nothing to stop the perpetuation of inequality between the sexes. It doesn’t matter if a few corporations promote more women to higher positions, or if our liberal democratic system elects more women, capitalism will continue to suppress the rights and freedoms of women, regardless of who’s in charge.
An inconvenient and unglamorous truth that liberal feminists rarely like to bring up is that class and gender are closely tied. Women are more likely to be food insecure than men in every region of the world according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Women also suffer disproportionately when it comes to the affordable housing crisis because of lower wages in comparison to men. As a result, women spend a larger percentage of their income on housing which results in fewer savings and less disposable income. Women of color are also more disproportionately represented in minimum wage jobs. Yet, rarely do liberal feminists talk about these issues, because they pose a threat to the neoliberal capitalist consensus and to their brand of feminism, instead the method of tinkering around the edges of the system and meager reforms seems to be the friend of liberal feminists.
The belief that patriarchy can simply be reformed away with laws and that having more women in charge pervades liberal feminists. Yet even the most liberal of institutions contradicts this liberal feminist axiom, the World Economic Forum found that companies lead by women often reduce the wage gap at top levels and increase it at the bottom of the wage distribution whereas male lead companies do the exact opposite, the report found that there was almost no change in the average wage gap between male and female lead companies. There’s no doubt that representation does matter, but it’s completely irrelevant when the person in power changes but the same oppressive and exploitative system remains. CEOs regardless of gender have the same priority in mind, profit and growth. Profit is the appropriation or perhaps more succinctly theft of the surplus value that a worker creates. CEOs and other members of the capitalist class such as shareholders and landlords rely on this exploitative system to survive; one which includes denial of benefits such as paid leave which are vital to working women, or simply paying women less because they are seen as less productive because the responsibilities of childbearing and rearing are placed on them. It doesn’t matter how feminist or how female the leadership of a company is, even if they have the best intentions and truly want to empower women, they can’t because when profit is the only priority nothing else matters, that includes the empowerment of women.
It’s important to recognize that since the profit motive is engrained in the capitalist system, the result is that woman will continue to be disadvantaged and face continuing inequalities because of their biology and the pervasive belief that women are caretakers. The election of more female and/or feminist politicians won’t change that because they are also bound by the rules of capitalism. Donors won’t even bother approaching them. The media will either ignore or slander them. Even when a progressive politician is elected any policy that they propose or support will be immediately stricken down by both right leaning and moderate branches of their party. And in the fortunate situation if their policy were to pass, it would be susceptible to being rolled back and susceptible to austerity and budget cut measures.
Most importantly a politician being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be good for women’s rights or the broader population, take the examples of Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton. Margaret Thatcher destroyed British industry, deregulated the financial sector, suppressed miner’s strikes with brutal force, and caused massive unemployment to name a few of her disastrous effects. Not to mention that she cozied up to Augusto Pinochet and dismissed the Africa National Congress which fought against apartheid as “terrorists”. She was also no feminist, despite what mainstream and liberal media like to say, she herself sneered at the word feminism. She also froze benefits for childcare and insulted working mothers by creating a “creche generation”, she also did little for women’s representation in politics and only elected one woman into her cabinet, and did little to fix problems such as domestic abuse and rape. While it’s true that Thatcher was the first female prime minister of England that shouldn’t take away from the fact that she was horrible for women’s rights and the feminist movement. The example of Thatcher teaches girls that in order to get ahead they must only care about themselves and that they must stomp on the rights of others to be successful. In essence, to follow and advance the feminist movement one must also suppress it and become anti-feminist.
The same can be said of Hillary Clinton in the states. Hillary Clinton herself while broadly hailed as a feminist icon, by herself and liberal feminists alike, has shown to have a horrible record when it comes to feminism and worker’s rights, but a record that corporate executives love. She has sat on countless corporate boards such as TCBY, LaFarge, and most infamously Walmart. During her tenure at Walmart, she did nothing to help the majority female workforce to unionize, nor to stop Walmart from ruthlessly crushing these very unions. Nor did she do anything to solve the many problems that plague Walmart’s workforce such as discrimination against its low wage female employees involving wages and promotions, wage theft, sweat shops, sexual harassment, horrible working hours and pay with little benefits, and wrongful termination to name a few. Hillary’s political career hasn’t been much better. She encouraged her husband to cut vital social services, which millions of women and children relied on. She also sneered at these very women who rely on welfare to raise their children and survive as “dead beats”. She also played an instrumental role while her husband was governor of Arkansas to slander public school teachers, many of whom were African American women, and shut down their unions as well.
Hillary isn’t only an enemy to American women, but also an enemy to women in the global south. She lobbied against a fair wage for Haitian women toiling in garment factories as Secretary of State. She also played an important role behind the scenes in supporting a coup in Honduras which led to greater social instability, higher crime, and a resurgence in femicide. Not to forget that she has been a proud supporter of Israel and constantly brushes away or ignores the crimes of the IDF to Palestinian women and children. For example, in 2014 when Israel launched a massive assault on Gaza, and even the mainstream media and otherwise politicians who typically supported Israel expressed worry about the disproportionate number of Palestinian women and children being killed, whereas Clinton expressed full support for Israel’s actions. Hillary Clinton’s feminism is the type of feminism that only benefits people like her, rich white women in the imperial core. A feminism that doesn’t apply to all women, or for that matter all people regardless of gender, race, class, etc. isn’t true feminism. Of course, the liberal, resistance, white, imperial, bourgeois “feminists” might say that any critique of Hillary Clinton is misogynistic and that women who criticize her have internalized misogyny or are simply bitter and jealous (though ironically labeling women as bitter has typically been a sexist insult). There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton has faced many struggles and much misogyny herself. However, that doesn’t erase her horrible policy record, nor does it merit her for canonization. Of course, many of these “resistance feminists” who claim to also be for intersectionality should not forget that there are women politicians who have it harder than Hillary, because of their race, class, immigration status, sexual orientation, political platform, etc. Additionally, representation shouldn’t be done for the sake of representation but for the sake of providing valuable role models, a position that Hillary has proven horrible at filling.
Needless to say, though Hillary may be another saint in the resistance canon, and an often-touted example of women in politics, there are nonetheless better examples for representation in politics, who are far better role models, (which isn’t a very high bar), the examples being the Squad, Nina Turner and Cori Bush to name a few in the present. There have also been important roles of women in the past such as Alexandra Kollontai who fought to ensure maternity leave and universal childcare for Soviet women and who occupied important positions in the Soviet government. She was also one of the first female diplomats. Tsola Dragoycheva who was a heroine of the Bulgarian Communist Party in the 1930s for fighting against the country’s monarchist regime. She was also the first Bulgarian woman to serve in a cabinet position. Vida Tomšič from Slovenia was communist partisan who fought against the Italians and served as the minister for social policy after World War II. These are women who actually deserve to be revered as quite literally resistance heroes and who aided their respective countries in getting rid of the very system that oppressed women in their own countries, that of capitalism, fascism, and feudalism.
Representation while a noble goal isn’t enough to liberate women. In order to truly smash the patriarchy, it’s insufficient merely to encourage women to fill the very same roles that oppress and marginalize vast swaths of the population. True liberation comes with the destruction of these oppressive and exploitative positions. Capitalism relies on the patriarchy to survive, and the patriarchy requires capitalism. As long as capitalism exists, single mothers will keep struggling to feed their children on an ever-dwindling social welfare system. Women with master's degrees will continue to sell their bodies to pay the rent. Women in poor circumstances will still marry for money, often to men much older than them, resulting in unhappy and frequently abusive and toxic relationships. It doesn’t matter who’s exploiting the workers by stealing their surplus value, busting the unions, or forcing people into sweatshops, as long as these very conditions exist there is no liberation, there is no feminism.
Elia, Nada. “Hillary Clinton Is No Feminist: Just Look at Her Stance on Palestine.” Middle East Eye Édition Française, 10 Aug. 2016, middleeasteye.net/fr/node/55465.
Featherstone, Liza, et al. False Choices. Verso Books, 2016.
Flabbi, Luca. “How Do Female CEOs Affect Their Company’s Gender Wage Gap?” World Economic Forum, 27 Apr. 2015, weforum.org/agenda/2015/04/how-do-female-ceos-affect-their-companys-gender-wage-gap/.
Ghodsee, Kristen. Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. Random House, 2018.
Hooper, Simon. Many Faces of the Iron Lady. 9 Apr. 2013, aljazeera.com/features/2013/4/9/margaret-thatcher-the-good-bad-and-the-ugly.
Kendall, Mikki. “Feminism Claims to Represent All Women. So Why Does It Ignore So Many of Them?” Time, 24 Feb. 2020, time.com/5789438/feminism-poverty-gun-violence/.
Leonard, Sarah. “Socialism Is the Answer to Corporate ‘Girl Boss’ Feminism.” Teen Vogue, 5 May 2020, teenvogue.com/story/what-is-socialist-feminism.
New FAO Data Highlights Gender Gap in Food Insecurity across Regions | Gender | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 25 Sept. 2017, fao.org/gender/news/detail/en/c/1038453/.
About the Author:
I am N.C. Cai. I am a Chinese American Marxist Feminist. I am interested in socialist feminism, Western imperialism, history, and domestic policy, specifically in regards to drug laws, reproductive justice, and healthcare.