The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 78/No. 11      March 24, 2014

‘Fight to eradicate women’s oppression
is integral part of working-class struggle
for power’
(feature article)

Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women was released in a Spanish translation in February and is now available to be read and used for the first time in that language in the U.S. and elsewhere that Pathfinder Press books are sold.

The book — by Joseph Hansen (1910-1979), Evelyn Reed (1905-1979) and Mary-Alice Waters, three central leaders of the Socialist Workers Party — was published in English in 1986. This new Spanish edition includes a new preface by Waters, who is president of Pathfinder, and a talk by Isbel Moya, a leader of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and director of its publishing house, Editorial de la Mujer. Moya’s presentation was given at a 2011 event in Havana that launched an edition of the book that was published and distributed in Cuba.

The new book has been updated with additional photos and illustrations and a glossary of terms related to the origins of women’s oppression used in the book. Reprinted here is the preface by Waters. Copyright © 2014 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Beauty has no identity with fashion. But it has an identity with labor. Apart from the realm of nature, all that is beautiful has been produced in labor and by laborers.


Half a century ago, a New York-based socialist weekly that proudly proclaims it is “published in the interests of working people” ran a humorous, if at the same time serious, exposé of plans by the cosmetics arm of the “fashion industry” to once again bolster sales and increase profit margins. It was capitalist business as usual, the Militant reported in 1954. The merchants of “beauty” were ramping up another advertising campaign, aimed at convincing working women they simply had to have a new line of products in order to be happy, secure, employable, and sexually desirable to men.

A few readers of the paper responded with angry letters to Militant editor Joseph Hansen, attacking the author of the exposé, Jack Bustelo. They accused Bustelo of ridiculing working-class women and attacking their “right” to strive for “some loveliness and beauty in their lives.” It turned out that “Bustelo,” the brand name of a dark-roast coffee popular in New York City among Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and much liked by the paper’s editor, was the pen name under which Joseph Hansen himself had drafted the article.

The lively polemic that ensued, first in the pages of the Militant and then continued in a discussion bulletin of the Socialist Workers Party, became a textbook in the fundamentals of Marxism. Articles originally published in the bulletin, such as Hansen’s “The Fetish of Cosmetics,” provided a popular introduction to the most comprehensive critique of political economy that exists, Karl Marx’s Capital. It rendered the seeming mystery of “commodity fetishism” understandable.

In clear and pedagogical responses to Bustelo’s critics, Evelyn Reed joined the debate. She explained how norms of beauty and fashion are above all class questions that cannot be separated from the history of the class struggle. She explained how and why ever-changing standards of “beauty” and “fashion” imposed on women — and men — are integral to the perpetuation of women’s oppression. How millennia ago, as private property and class society emerged through bloody struggle, women were reduced to a form of property. They became “the second sex.”

Today the fight to eradicate women’s subordinate status is not reducible to simply a “woman question,” Reed explained. It is an integral part of the working-class struggle for power, the battle for socialism.

The “Bustelo controversy,” as the polemic became known, found fertile ground in the relative prosperity of the post-World War II years in the United States. This was a period of working-class retreat as well as an emboldened offensive by the capitalist rulers to housebreak militant sections of the trade union movement that emerged from the labor battles of the 1930s and mid-1940s.

Within a few short years of the Bustelo affair, however, the political landscape had changed dramatically.

The 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution brought renewed proof of the capacity of ordinary working people to take power and begin transforming the world they inherited. It provided unimpeachable evidence, moreover, of the vulnerability of the U.S. rulers.

In the United States, the broad radicalization of the 1960s — manifested in the mass proletarian fight to bring down the system of Jim Crow racial segregation in the U.S. South, and in demonstrations by millions opposing Washington’s war to prevent the unification of the Vietnamese people and deny them their sovereignty—gave rise to a growing women’s liberation movement as well. It was a movement that took to the streets, fighting to decriminalize abortion and assure its availability as a woman’s right, to expand public child-care facilities, and win greater equality on the job and in employment opportunities.

At the end of the 1960s, with this explosion of the “second wave” of the modern fight by women to cast off the shackles of their second-class status beginning to spread internationally, the “cosmetics debate” became a powerful educational tool, one that was often in demand. Dog-eared copies of the mimeographed bulletin containing the articles and letters published here as Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women passed from hand to hand among hundreds, even thousands, of young women — and men — who were searching for explanations of women’s oppression and how to fight to end it. The uncompromisingly historical approach and working-class perspective they found in these pages helped many to become communists — or better communists. It helped them understand that the fight to end women’s oppression is inseparable from the fight to replace the dictatorship of capital and its consequent universal fetishism of commodities, with the political power of the working class and its transformed property relations.

The “cosmetics debate” entered its third life when it was published as a book in 1986, almost thirty years ago. By then the capitalist expansion born out of the brutal U.S. victory in World War II had slowed, and the relative prosperity of the postwar years was threatened. The roots of the long, grinding crisis that has now exploded internationally had begun to manifest themselves. With profit rates declining, many of the gains for women won by battles in the 1960s and ’70s came under assault by the employers and their government.

Access to medically safe abortion services, and the right of a woman alone to decide whether and/or when to bear a child — the most fundamental precondition of women’s emancipation — was being curtailed county by county, state by state. Affirmative-action programs that reduced divisions within the working class were beginning to be rolled back and transformed into a source of executive, professional, and academic perks that widened class divisions.

An ideological campaign — a “culture war” — was being mounted against working women, who had entered the labor market in historically unprecedented numbers in the previous three decades, especially those who had led the way into occupations previously considered male preserves. The purpose was not to permanently drive them out of the workforce, but to make them more vulnerable, more exploitable, more expendable — to lower the price of their labor power. The mass media that serves the interests of capital was full of articles seeking to convince readers that affirmative action is unfair to men, especially Black men, that job exclusions and wage differentials between men and women are justified and to be expected. After all, biology is woman’s destiny, and her primary social responsibility, and source of “fulfillment,” is hearth and home.

In face of this concerted counteroffensive, the diverse class forces that had comprised the rising women’s liberation movement were fractured and demobilized. It was a rout, one that mirrored what was happening in the organized labor movement.

The introduction to the first edition of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women, which is included here, put these mounting pressures in a broader class and historical framework. Looking back at a similar economic, political, and ideological offensive during the post-World War II years — and the promotion of the “feminine mystique,” as it was called — helped clarify what was bearing down on even the most politically conscious women and men in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Included in these vanguard ranks were many women who had been in the forefront of efforts to break into industrial jobs in the coal mines, steel mills, factories, railroads, and building trades — jobs traditionally closed to women.

Since its first appearance, the book has sold widely in the English-speaking world, with cumulative sales topping ten thousand copies. A Farsi edition published in Tehran in 2002, today in its second printing, has sold more than four thousand. In 2010 a Spanish edition was released in Cuba by Ciencias Sociales. The first Pathfinder edition in Spanish now makes the book available to an even broader audience worldwide. The excellent translation is by Esther Pérez, the editor of Caminos magazine published by the Martin Luther King Center in Havana.

As each day’s news accounts bring home to us ever more sharply, we are today living through the opening years of what will be decades of economic, financial, and social convulsions and class battles worldwide. The qualitative expansion of women’s participation in the workforce virtually around the globe during the last half century points toward working women taking on greater leadership responsibilities than ever before in history in the revolutionary, working-class-based battles to come.

Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women has begun its fourth life — and not a moment too soon.

Two questions asked by thoughtful readers since the initial publication of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women are useful to consider.

First, are questions addressed in a debate over cosmetics and fashions more than fifty years ago still relevant? Aren’t they long bypassed?

Second, isn’t Reed’s article on “Anthropology: Marxist or Bourgeois?” outdated? Hasn’t knowledge of the earliest human societies moved far beyond what was known in the mid-1950s?

The response to the first question is underscored by Hansen’s rhetorical question in “The Fetish of Cosmetics.” In the whole history of capitalism, he asks, “has the bourgeoisie ever gone about cultivating the fetish of commodities more cold-bloodedly than American big business?”

The resources devoted by capitalist enterprises to advertising and the creation of markets, far from being a thing of the past, have expanded astronomically in the last half century as the working class has been pushed into “needing” everything from must-have cell phones, to the latest model automobiles, $500 torn blue jeans, an exploding array of “cosmetic” surgeries, designer handbags, and cosmetics-designed-to-make-you-look-like-you’re-not-using-cosmetics. All these and more are pushed on hapless “consumers” without truce. The pressure to be “fashionable” — that is, to be “employable,” and attractive to a potential spouse — has penetrated even more deeply into the working class. Television and the internet greatly intensify the all-pervasive intrusions.

The manufactured compulsion to “shop,” playing on the emotional insecurities of women and adolescents above all, has only deepened and spread. The “marketing” Hansen pokes such fun at in the 1950s seems amateur by comparison to the sales techniques employed today. “Shop until you drop” has gone from being a humorous exaggeration to a description of an actual social condition pushing increasing numbers of working-class families into more and more debt at usurious rates.

The impact of the twenty-first century capitalist advertising “industry” is, if anything, even more insidious as it spreads into areas of the globe previously buffered to some extent from the imperialist world market. In large areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, marked by imperialist-enforced agricultural and industrial underdevelopment, as well as in countries previously part of the now-defunct economic and trading bloc once dominated by the Soviet Union, the siren song of the commodity fetish is an imperialist weapon like none other.

In the eloquent words of the Communist Manifesto, “the cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which [the bourgeoisie] batters down all Chinese walls…. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

As the not-so-outdated polemic of the 1950s makes clear, in periods of working-class retreat such as we have lived through the last quarter century — a period of retreat far longer and more devastating than the relatively brief post-World War II interlude — the “heavy artillery” of capitalism takes its greatest toll, including among the most politically conscious layers.

The answer to the second question is equally important.

The articles by Evelyn Reed — “The Woman Question and the Marxist Method” and “Anthropology: Marxist or Bourgeois?” — are two of the earliest she wrote on these subjects. They were, in effect, “first drafts” of work that she continued to edit, expand, write about, and lecture on for another quarter century. This Spanish edition of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women, in fact, incorporates Reed’s editing on “The Woman Question and the Marxist Method” when she prepared portions of it in 1969 for inclusion in Problems of Women’s Liberation. That title, along with Sexism and Science, Is Biology Woman’s Destiny? and Reed’s widely acclaimed book Woman’s Evolution have been published in editions around the world in more than a dozen languages.

The focus of the sharp polemic in Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women is what Reed often referred to as the “Hundred-Year War in Anthropology.” Here, as elsewhere, Reed defends the historical materialism of nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis Morgan, whose work Karl Marx and Frederick Engels drew on extensively in their writings on the subject, and Morgan’s twentieth-century continuator Robert Briffault.

As Reed points out, one of the major battle lines in this century-plus war over historical materialism has been the question, does something akin to the modern bourgeois “patriarchal system of marriage and family relations [go] all the way back to the animal kingdom”? Or did what is often referred to as “patriarchy,” and the second-class status of women, arise in relatively recent times as a cornerstone of class-divided societies?

As agriculture and animal husbandry were developed, as the productivity of human labor increased, as a surplus of food beyond that needed for mere survival became possible, didn’t private rather than communal property come to dominate all social relations, including those between men and women? In that complex historical process, repeated many times in different parts of the globe, didn’t a small number of men emerge for the first time as a ruling class, in bloody conflict subjugating other men — and, in the process, women as well?

“Concealed behind the debate,” Reed explains, is “a question of class struggle and class ideology.”

If class society and the accompanying subordinate status of women is only a stage of human history, one that arose at a certain historical juncture for specific reasons, then it can be eliminated at another historical juncture for other specific reasons.

If there has been an evolution of social relations through distinct stages of the prehistory and history of human society, determined by increasing levels of labor productivity and changing property relations — and accompanied by enormous, and extended, conflict and violence — then capitalism is no more permanent than the property and social relations that preceded it.

Those studying and writing today about the development of social labor and the earliest stages of social organization are able to draw on a larger and richer body of research than the earliest anthropologists, or even those of Reed’s generation. Of that there is no doubt. Light will continue to be shed on the complexities and variety of human social evolution. But as Reed points out, recognition of diversity “is no substitute for probing into social history and explaining the evolution of human society as it advanced through the ages.”

To argue that different marriage forms are found in the relics of primitive groups the world over, thus “all you have to do is pay your money and take your choice,” Reed explains, is like saying “that because there are still relics today of feudalistic and even slave class relations, there was no historical sequence of chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism; that all we have is merely a ‘diversity of forms.’”

The hundred-years war in anthropology is far from over. If anything, the dominance today of “politically correct” ideologues, comfortable in their middle-class academic and professional sanctuaries, who dissolve difficult questions of history and the forms of class struggle into the soothing balm of “cultural diversity,” only sharpens the debate.

“The class struggle is a movement of opposition, not adaptation,” Reed underscores. And that “holds true not only for workers in the plants, but for women as well, both working women and housewives.” This new edition of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women is offered as a contribution to that movement and that struggle.

As Reed expressed it in her dedication of Woman’s Evolution, “To women, on the way to liberation.”

December 2013

Related articles:
Is beauty deeper than cosmetics?:
From the pages of ‘Cosmetics, Fashions and the Exploitation of Women’  
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