November 24, 2012 - M
The impact of Utopian Socialism on First Wave Feminism
Any discussion of the first wave feminist movement is incomplete without reference to the impact of Utopian Socialism on the former. Considering that the feminist movements in general have sprung from the need for “equality” in the interpersonal and social affairs of men and women, it is no surprise that an economic system such as socialism was closely associated with it. After all, socialism espouses economic equality among the individual citizens, to go along with equal political rights, irrespective of gender. Seen in light of this fact, one can clearly understand the philosophical proximity of the two concepts of feminism and socialism (LeGates, 154).
Utopian socialism can be defined as one version of socialism that is based on pragmatic principles as opposed to such abstract ones as equal political rights, which its proponents saw as “selfishly individualist”. The other aspect in which utopian socialists were different was in their perspective on some of the most important intellectual developments of the nineteenth century. For example, the basic tenets of utopian socialism were inconsistent with liberal ideologies. The essential difference between utopian socialism and the prevalent versions of socialism is noted thus by author LeGates,
“that liberalism generated the idea of feminism while the Industrial Revolution, by taking work out of the home and giving middle-class women leisure, created the opportunity to put the idea into action…The liberal emphasis on individualism and equality that justified the American and French Revolutions in the late eighteenth century inspired women to apply the language of ‘the rights of man’ to themselves” (LeGates, p.154).
When Karl Marx produced his historical analyses on political economies, the idea of socialism created excitement among the intellectuals of the day. A small section of them expected too much from the fledgling politico-economic alternative proposed by Marx. Nevertheless, it did have a significant effect on the first wave feminist movement, not least because of the underlying similarities between them. For instance, utopian socialism inspires the oppressed masses to struggle and undergo sacrifices in order to achieve a better standard of living for themselves, which is also adopted into the agenda by first wave feminists. Utopian socialism strives to give a lucid interpretation of socialism and also attempted to demonstrate how socialist principles could be implemented without excluding or exploiting any section of the demography (LeGates, 156). This principle was appealed to the feminists of the day, who endeavored not to antagonize or victimize men in the course of achieving their ends. Hence, this sound ethical basis upon which Utopian Socialism was conceived appealed to the leaders of the first wave feminist movement. And, consequently, some of the precepts of the former were adopted by the latter. Although Utopian socialism never saw practical implementation anywhere, it had a profound effect on the waves of feminist movements over the last two centuries.
Marlene LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, Published by Routledge, 2001, 406 pages