The capitalist “girlbossification” of feminism has been an issue ever since the start of the movement, but it has been the subject of some discussion lately in light of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty being criticized for using child labor in India to mine the mica used in their products. Fenty beauty has always marketed itself as a feminist company, offering beauty products for a wide variety of skin tones and including all genders in its marketing. However, one cannot help but wonder how feminist Fenty Beauty can truly be if it is exploiting workers in “developing” countries. We can look to the insights of Angela Davis, a prolific Black Marxist feminist, to explore such questions.
Born January 26, 1944, Angela Davis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and she had communist influences around her from a very young age. By the late 1960s, Davis was an affiliate of the Black Panther Party, a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and a well-known feminist activist. Arrested in 1970 for indirect involvement in a courtroom shootout, she served 18 months in prison before being acquitted by an all-white jury in 1972. Her experience in prison informed her passion for revolutionary prison abolitionism. She went on to publish “Are Prisons Obsolete?” in 2003 and has spoken out her entire life against the racist prison-industrial complex. Her analysis of the prison system remains monumental to this day.
According to Davis, “Race has always played a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality. After the abolition of slavery, former slave states passed new legislation revising the Slave Codes in order to regulate the behavior of free Blacks in ways similar to those that had existed during slavery.” Not only does the United States prison industrial complex have many similarities to slavery, stripping prisoners of their rights and forcing them into extremely underpaid or unpaid labor, but there are historical grounds for this comparison. While prison abolition and the slogan “ACAB” have peaked in popularity with the general American public in recent years, Angela Davis has been speaking out against the racism and violence in the criminal justice system for her entire life. The best place to go for these critiques, of course, is straight to her writing itself since a summary simply does not do her arguments justice. Readers are strongly encouraged to seek out material written by Angela Davis, as this article merely serves as an introduction to her work.
Angela Davis is also a staunch intersectional feminist, discussing the ways that capitalism, racism, and misogyny affect women of color. She strongly critiqued the mainstream second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which she believed catered only to the liberation of white women and did not sufficiently address the context for women’s oppression: material conditions and the division of domestic labor under capitalism. In 1981, she wrote the feminist classic “Women, Race and Class” in which she masterfully explained the intersection between the three themes of the title in American politics, and provided a scathing critique of white feminism. She stated that “Feminists that do not also address racism and capitalism will always misinterpret the meaning of gender equality … Racial, economic, and gender justice are inextricably connected; one is not possible without the others.” Her analysis, built on the established Marxist view of gender relations, described originally in Frederich Engels’ “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Unlike Frederich Engels, however, Davis’ lived experience as a Black woman in the 20th century allowed her to fully comprehend the contradictions inherent to patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.
Davis helped to set the groundwork for 20th-century feminist theory through her deep analysis of the structure of patriarchy through an intersectional, Marxist lens. She exposed early suffragettes for their racism and classism. Even renowned suffragette Susan B Anthony “detected no apparent contradiction in the advocacy of woman suffrage by a congressman who was a self-avowed white supremacist.” Often, the only women’s issues that feminist organizations discussed were the issues of upper-class white women. White, bourgeoise feminism is still highly popular and unquestioned, but learning about different perspectives and applying a revolutionary socialist framework to the liberation of women can allow us to combat this.
Davis has also discussed the inherent class contradiction present in the domestic sphere where women often perform unpaid labor. While the delegation of the majority of housework to women was a widely discussed topic in second-wave feminist thought, Angela Davis did not believe that simply equalizing domestic labor would provide an adequate solution. Instead, she claimed that “Neither women nor men should waste precious hours of their lives on work that is neither stimulating, creative nor productive.” She believed in radically changing the way we think about domestic labor. Davis envisioned a socialist future in which housework was industrialized, and meal prep and childcare were socialized. Following Marx and Engels, she saw sexism as a consequence of private property. Before capitalism, “women’s central role in domestic affairs meant that they were accordingly valued and respected as productive members of the community.” However, the exploitation of working-class labor led to women being confined to their role as, essentially, man’s servant.
It is also important to note that, unlike some of her radical feminist peers, Angela Davis is an active ally to the transgender community, and does not believe in the existence of the gender binary beyond its function as an oppressive social construct. In her own words, “certainly gender cannot now be described as a binary structure with male being one pole and female as the other.” Davis recognizes the unique intersections of misogyny and transphobia experienced by trans women, especially Black trans women. In a lecture given in 2013, she pointed out that “Trans women of color end up primarily in male prisons” and “Trans scholar-activists are doing some of the most interesting work on prison abolition.”
Now a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Angela Davis is still fighting for a socialist future, and her work remains relevant to this day. Corporate, liberal feminism is still a threat to the global liberation of gender minorities and the destruction of capitalism. While the complaints against hideous brands such as Fenty Beauty shines the spotlight on the shortcomings of liberal feminism, most of the time, these issues remain undercover. Ultimately, the best way to begin to recognize and successfully criticize bourgeoise feminism is to learn a Marxist analysis of gender-based oppression. The majority of Angela Davis’ works are available online or at the library, and interested readers are encouraged to look deeper into her books and essays.
Recommended reading: Women, Race and Class, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Freedom is a Constant Struggle.