Critical Feminism: Political Movement and Theory

By Sebastian Berchesan


Among most significant theories and movements in contemporary International Relations, Feminism occupies a popular place nowadays, challenging the previous complete absence of women from politics and IR studies. The beginnings of this shift can be traced back one century ago, during a period when some of the biggest social and ideological changes occurred. While the first emancipation movements appeared in liberal democratic political systems, the widespread of equal political rights between men and women took place under the communist doctrine. This represents the starting point of one main branch of Feminist studies nowadays – Critical/ Marxist Feminism. The present article analyses the premises of Critical Feminism both as a political movement and IR theory, overlooking at the main differences between the arguments of Marxist feminists and liberal ones. 


In 1947, Ana Pauker, a Romanian-Jewish communist political activist, became the first woman in the postbellum era to hold the position of Foreign Affairs Minister. The following year, the American Time magazine featured an image of her on its cover with the description “the most powerful woman alive”. In spite of the late 19th and early 20th century emancipation movements in the Western Liberal world arguing for women’s engagement in politics such as the English Suffragettes or Women’s International League of Peace & Freedom, history has proven that the first time females had comparably equal political rights with men was during the establishment of communist regimes throughout Eastern European Countries. In the field of International Relations studies, Marxism constituted the fundamental basis for a particular branch of Feminist theory strongly criticizing the capitalist patriarchal system, called Critical Feminism.

Feminist theory emerged as a result of women’s long absence from traditional IR theories and their marginalization from decision-making processes. One of the most remarkable contributions of feminism in the academic sphere is its deconstruction of gender, seen as both a social construct and a tool of distributing power (Smith, 2018). This implies certain assumptions about masculinity and femininity enforcing commonly accepted views of what both men and women can and should do in their own life as well as in the global political arena. A very suggestive example of these assumptions is the well-known expression of “throwing like a girl” which automatically associates femininity with weakness, inferiority and an undesired position while favoring masculinity as the privileged, superior norm (Kinsella, 2020). This expression is by no chance accidental nor referring to biological differences between sexes, but it represents a judgmental statement establishing a hierarchical social, political and economic order in which femininity becomes the failure of the norm (masculinity). Feminist criticism towards mainstream traditional IR theories focuses on their omission to include both women and gender into their analysis (Smith, 2018) and in challenging their foundational concepts and assumptions feminists aim to rewrite history from a gender perspective.

Although feminists share the same view on the necessity to include women in IR studies and the importance of gender, there are major differences between the multiple streams of feminism in terms of what they identify as the causing problem and what they propose in order to solve it. Critical feminists remark themselves as building on the Marxist foundations by arguing that oppressive power relations derive from social, political and economic structures which would require a fundamental systemic change (Kinsella, 2020). They put emphasis on the role of the economy in particular regarding capitalism as the dominant mechanism of economic oppression. Contrasting the views of liberal feminists resorting to the objectiveness of the capitalist methods when discussing the redistribution of power, critical feminists denounce the unequal spread of capital accumulation as an underlying problem. To illustrate this thesis, Iris Young identifies two types of oppression in the premises of critical feminists: gender oppression as derived from the patriarchal male social and political domination and economic oppression generated by class suppression (Young, 1990). Thus, scholars using Marxist and socialist concepts conclude that gender and class oppressions are entangled and interrelated through a systemic force.

One of the key concerns of critical feminists relates to the “double burden” of productive and reproductive labor. This concept originates in Engels’ writings about the workers in industrial capitalist societies, who without any property rights excepting their own power to work, returned exhausted at home to perform the unpaid reproductive labor in their households (Armstrong, 2020). The distinction between productive and reproductive work resides mainly in whether or not those actions are remunerated. Therefore, uncompensated reproductive labor refers to the actions that people do for themselves without the purpose of receiving a wage such as cooking, cleaning, having children and taking care of them. This is particularly the case of women in patriarchal societies in which reproductive labor was institutionally organized by the church and the state in the forms of marriage and family. Critical feminists conclude that unpaid work inherently exists “buried” in the social relations of capitalism (Kinsella, 2020), making a parallel between the subordinative relations of the capitalist and the worker and the household relations where women are responsible for the reproductive labor under the control of men.

Another aspect that differentiates critical feminism from other types and especially liberal feminism is the concern about gender essentialism, which represents the presumption that women’s essence and experiences are universal simply because of being a female. This imposes a limit of variations and possibilities of change, highlighting “fixed characteristics, given attributes and ahistorical functions that limit the possibilities of change and thus of social reorganization” (Grosz, 1995). Such an approach can be perceived as relating to biological factors as well as psychological characteristics such as non-competitiveness, empathy and support but it can also conduct to the “normalization of white, affluent women’s experiences as universal” (Kinsella, 2020). This view limits the understanding of feminist identity, of which gender and sex are only two elements. As Simone de Beauvoir theorized, gender differences are socially constructed through practices, identities and institutions and as a result, gender becomes the social interpretation of biological differences (de Beauvoir, 2015).

Nevertheless, critical feminism endures some criticism as well. Scholars have been challenging the narrative according to women oppression originated in early industrial capitalist societies by raising the point that patriarchies existed long before capitalism (Smith, 2018). Furthermore, they ask how can gender oppression be explained in contemporary non-capitalistic regimes around the world. Those debates are still not settled and open for more arguments.

To conclude, critical feminists in IR theory build their thesis on the Marxist and socialist foundations with a particular interest in the engagement of women in the global political arena and the importance of gender studies. Capitalism is denounced as a driving force of male domination in social, political and economic life imposing the “double burden” of productive and reproductive labor on women.  They consider that gender oppression is intertwined with class oppression and thus the only way to solve this problem is a systematic change.





Armstrong, E. (2020). Marxist and Socialist Feminism. Study of Women and Gender, pp. 1-4. Smith College, Northampton, MA.

de Beauvoir, S. (2015). The second sex. London: Vintage Classic.

Grosz, E. (1995). Space, time, and perversion: essays on the politics of bodies. New York: Routledge.

Kinsella, H. (2020). Chapter 9. Feminism. In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens (Eds.), The Globalization of World Politics (pp. 146-154). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, S. (2018, January 4). Introducing Feminism in International Relations Theory. E-International Relations.

Young, I. (1990). Five Faces of Oppression. In E. Hackett & S. Haslanger (Eds.), Theorizing Feminisms (pp. 3-16).