Do women constitute a class? This question has been undertheorised in recent decades, partly because it has been severed from the Marxian accounts of class and class formation which lend its theoretical backbone, but also because of an underlying antagonism between radical feminists (the earliest proponents of a sex-class system) and the Left. The departure from Marxian language was, at least initially, purposive and productive, separating the study of social stratification from potentially untenable commitments and yielding a theory of caste which recognized the intransigence of sexual distinctions. However, in recent decades the term hasn’t been adequately theorised and its paternity has remained largely unacknowledged. Similarly, the antagonism between radical feminists and the male-dominated left arose primarily in the context of the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, but has shifted its terrain in recent years to the academy, which, with the advent of the so-called ‘discursive turn’, has increasingly distanced itself from developing a robust theory of patriarchy.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to provide an exhaustive history of the terms ‘sex-class’ and ‘sex caste’ and their critics, however, drawing on the work of a variety of feminist thinkers, I aim to both provide an aetiology of its relative decline, reinvigorate old debates, and flesh out the ‘thin’ definition of sexual stratification which surfaces in much of what passes for radical feminism. I use the term ‘sexual stratification’ to encompass both theories of sex class and sex caste, since these terms are either used interchangeably (for example in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics) or aren’t adequately differentiated (as in Evelyn Reed’s ‘Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex’). While there are important distinctions between the use of class and caste (some of which I will explore here in closer detail), both constitute positions in a broader, encompassing debate about the nature of sex, gender and social stratification.
While some feminists situate resistance to the notion of sex stratification in the inherent chauvinism and antagonistic political interests of male-dominated groups and organisations , others suggest the problem stems from (nominally) feminist epistemic positions or issues with ‘woman’ as a universal category . It is my intuition, however, that these are intertwined—that the taking up of certain position by the male-dominated Left has lead to an impasse in feminist theory and a disintegration of the term ‘patriarchy’.
Underpinning the decline of the this debate, I will argue, is the poststructuralist hegemony in feminist theory and its anti-ontological stance with respect to sex, that is, the idea that there is no reality independent of our concepts of it, and that these concepts are fragile and tenuous. For these feminists, the concept of sex classes, for instance, is untenable because ‘women’ is a mere sociological convenience, an abstract collection of individuals who fit under some arbitrary criteria. ‘Women’, they claim, fail to constitute a class because they do not share a common historical background, culture, values or interests—in other words, they do not have a collective self-consciousness of themselves as a group. Moreover, they argue, to think of the sexes as natural kinds undermines the heterogeneity of the individuals which comprise the category ‘woman’ and conceals how this category is mobilized politically to the detriment of some members and the benefit of others (cf. caste).
While poststructuralism seems best equipped to accommodate the awareness that women, per differences of class, race, sexuality and ability, are differently positioned in the social matrix, questions of intersectionality have a long history within radical, socialist and materialist feminist thought and continue to inform the sex stratification debate in productive ways. In this post and those that follow, surveying a variety of these contributions, I will argue, not only that a feminism which is philosophically realist and materialist in orientation can provide the foundation for a robust theory of something like sex class, but that poststructuralism actively undermines the formation of a collective self-consciousness among women.