Critical dialogue
Sexism and class oppression

by Ira Sohn and Cathy Schwichtenberg

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, p. 71
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

Sexism and class oppression
by Ira Sohn

There is, of course, no reason for point-by-point agreement among the numerous articles that appear in JUMP CUT. While its contributors speak from a progressive standpoint, they at the same time reflect the considerable ideological diversity of the contemporary U.S. left. Nonetheless, the appearance of sharply contradictory views on certain issues merits some recognition, if only for the purpose of opening up debate on important questions.

At the conclusion of her perceptive analysis (JUMP CUT No. 24/25) of the way in which certain television programs manipulate their audience by means of sexist imagery, Cathy Schwichtenberg, using some of the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, writes:

“… the exchange and trade of the female image continues to shuttle women from one patriarchal construct to another, in the name of progress … Until women take up the pen, the camera, and the executive position, such media recirculations will continue as a source of patriarchal profit” (p. 16).

This contention is, however, partly opposed by Carol Slingo's analysis of the film 9 TO 5, which appears in the same issue. Slingo asserts that the oppressiveness of the work situation is not attributable to the fact that the vice president who directly administers the situation is male but to the fact that the socioeconomic system is based on an oppressive division of labor which incorporates sexism but at the same time reaches beyond it. For her, one of the film’s most objectionable and devious aspects is its suggestion that the miseries of the female workers are attributable to the machinations of one "evil” male boss:

"… 9 TO 5 avoids dealing with institutional repression, the nature of power within the corporation … and in society … The answer [to oppressive conditions] is to get rid of that man, paint the walls orange, and be happy” (p. 1).

In the last moments of the film the audience is informed that the vicious vice president has been replaced by Vi, one of the story's three female protagonists, who has been angling for an executive position for years. It is implied that this will produce a much happier state of affairs for the other workers. Slingo takes issue with this, holding both that the very nature of the modern corporation will make it impossible for there to be much humanization of the work situation (not to mention alteration of the wage structure). And the film itself has presented evidence of Vi's determination to dominate the other workers by means of a high position in the company (as indicated by the fantasy sequence in which she and the other two protagonists smile down from the top of a medieval tower on the peasants they have liberated from the corporate dungeon). Slingo is unequivocal here:

"… and while Vi might get stoned with the two women, she would never share her throne with them, nor does she at the end of 9 TO 5."

In other words, Slingo believes that it is the capitalist organization of society which is responsible for oppression and that, while sexist practices enhance the power of capital over labor, it is not sexism that is the heart of the matter. Schwichtenberg, on the other hand, defines patriarchy as the problem and asserts that the solution consists of women’s "taking up the executive position."

This writer agrees with Slingo and believes that oppression, sexual and otherwise, is systemic and operates independently of the individuals who occupy particular positions within the system. If this is correct, then Schwichtenberg is wrong on two counts. First of all, the system will not allow more than a few women to occupy positions of authority — precisely for the purpose of maintaining the sexist structure. And secondly, even if there were more than token representation, the oppression would continue, whether or not the sexual component was still as significant as it now is. Male capitalists, it must be noted in this connection, have never been reluctant to exploit male workers because they were of the same sex nor have Anglo capitalists been deterred from exploiting Anglo workers because there were of the same race.

This analytic difference between Schwichtenberg and Slingo is not a mere theoretical squabble; each approach has clear programmatic consequences. Those who share Schwichtenberg's perspective would have to take the capitalist arrangement of society as a given and fight to improve woman's situation within that arrangement, for instance by supporting the efforts of a few women to attain high-level professional and managerial posts while accepting the existence of a division of labor that keeps the great majority of female — and male — workers doing low-paid, degrading labor under the thumb of the powerful executives, male and female. Those who agree with Slingo would, while combating the many manifestations of sexism, work to abolish the whole social order under the assumption that neither sexism nor any of the myriad other forms of oppression can even be much dented, not to say eliminated, without altogether altering the economic basis of that social order.

Schwichtenberg's own description of the television industry strongly suggests that sexism cannot be reformed away. At great length, she shows how a television program is tailored to the most demeaning sexist specifications by the males who control the industry, that is, the broadcasting, producing, sponsoring, and advertising companies. Given the chauvinist males’ attentiveness to sexist detail, and given their power over the television industry, what chance have militantly feminist women — or even men, for that matter — to make inroads of the sort Schwichtenberg has in mind? One might as well request a shark to part with a few of its teeth. The vigilant male chauvinists who run the television industry (as well as the rest of the society) — and Schwichtenberg is correct in her assessment of their thoroughness — will admit a handful of women into their ranks only after assuring themselves that these women will collaborate with them in perpetuating the present state of affairs. The female quislings, then, will not be eliminating the shark but only joining it, becoming some of its teeth.

[Margaret Thatcher constitutes an excellent example of the species. Another, closer to home, is provided by the chief government officials of the city of San Jose, California. According to the Los Angeles Times (6 July 1981, part I, p. 5), "City workers in San Jose walked off their jobs Sunday in an unprecedented strike over the issue of giving women the same pay as men for comparable work." The government leaders have so far rejected the demand of the union, half of whose members are women, to narrow the considerable wage gap between the sexes. The mayor of the city of San Jose is female, as are the majority of the city council.]

From the standpoint of those being mauled by the beast, it is irrelevant that several of those administering the mauling happen to be female. The object, it would seem, is to get rid of the monster rather than change the gender of some of its components.

Schwichtenberg, it is true, speaks of patriarchal profit, thereby implying that both capitalism and sexism are the culprits, but her practical recommendation is to single the latter out for elimination, thus vitiating the valuable critique she has made of the former. Experience indicates, however, that none of the indignities visited on people by virtue of their sex, race, religion, or nationality will be ended unless the indignity that stems from class is ended also. Fixing on one of the indignities, without seeking the abolition of that which flows from the present distribution of property, inadvertently plays into the hands of those property owners who rule the system and who preserve that rule by acceding to demands that ignore the larger picture for the sake of minute reformist gains. Reforms are to be fought for and, when won, cherished, but they must not be mistaken for comprehensive victory.

Women and power relations
by Cathy Schwichtenberg

Ira Sohn, in his response to my article and Carol Slingo's article (JUMP CUT No. 24/25), raises two issues crucial to socialist feminism. First, he addresses what he sees as a contradiction between the two articles as to the source of oppression (for me, patriarchy; for Carol, the capitalist organization of society), and, second, he outlines the consequences of each position, which carries with it implied strategies.

While I can only answer for myself, I do not see the articles so much in contradiction as complementary — neither one negates the other but rather presents a slightly different emphasis. Ideally, Carol and I benefit from each other's approach. In both articles, we critique a capitalist patriarchal ideology, which is presented in the guise of "progressive" representatives of women. When Carol describes the camera which "assumes Hart's point of view, aiming at Doralee's legs, buttocks, and finally right down her cleavage," she implies the patriarchy which I foreground. When I describe the networks' recirculation of the "Angels" and the power structure implicit in the show, I imply the capitalist social organization Carol foregrounds.

Thus my quibble is not with Carol Slingo but with Mr. Sohn. He concludes that we must choose sides, which implies that patriarchy and capitalism are dichotomous (we never said that). Rather, patriarchy and capitalism are dialectical; they overlap and "feed" one another. Zillah Eisenstein has aptly pointed out that capitalist patriarchy emphasizes the "mutually reinforcing dialectical relationship between capitalist class structure and hierarchical sexual structuring."(1) Capitalism and patriarchy are interdependent even though patriarchy existed in precapitalist societies and operates in postcapitalist societies.

It is no accident that in both 9 TO 5 and CHARLIE'S ANGELS the "progressive bait" used to fool viewers and perpetuate women's oppression is women (cardboard cutouts, icons of women). The "evil boss” (whether Charlie or Hart) is not the source of oppression, but the source can be located in male supremacy, which dialectically informs the capitalist social structure and division of labor. Mr. Sohn's assertion that male capitalists exploit male workers and Anglo capitalists exploit Anglo workers seems to imply a similarity in relation to male capitalists' exploitation of women workers. While the exploitation of women workers is exploitation, nonetheless, it is markedly different in kind, which raises the issue of sex/gender. Again, according to Zillah Eisenstein:

"The bourgeoisie as a class profits from the basic arrangement of women's work, while all individual men benefit in terms of labor done for them in the home. For men, regardless of class, benefit (although differentially) from the system of privileges they acquire within patriarchal society. The system of privileges could not be organized as such if the ideology and structures of male hierarchy were not basic to the society."(2)

Since the power relations between men which subjugate men are markedly different in kind from the power relations between men and women which subjugate women, then the power relations between women would have to be different, too. Although a reactionary film such as 9 TO 5 depicts these power relations as "male-like" (queens to peasants), it purposely avoids the real possibility of women organizing collectively to actively change the capitalist patriarchal system which oppresses them all regardless of position. It is obvious that media representations of women in power positions such as Margaret Thatcher or the female mayor of San Jose would be used to divide women to perpetuate male supremacy.

I have more faith in women than, perhaps, Mr. Sohn does. I do not see the overthrow of capitalism in the near future, nor do I believe that such an overthrow would necessarily transform patriarchal ideology. In the meantime, I'll stick with the women.


1. Zillah R. Eisenstein, "Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism," in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), p. 5.

2. Ibid., p. 31.