From a Marxist perspective, history is dominated by a struggle between social classes that will only end when a truly classless society has been achieved. Given the fact that throughout history women have been collectively denied important rights, it was almost inevitable that a Marxist feminism would emerge that saw women as constituting a seriously underprivileged class. Moreover, many Marxist concepts, especially as these were redefined by Louis Althusser, seemed greatly relevant. In particular Althusser’s definition of ideology and his concept of interpellation, which explains how ideology addresses us in a certain role and draws us into a conspiracy that is ultimately aimed at ourselves, proved useful for feminist literary studies and film studies. For Althusser we only experience ourselves as complete individuals (‘concrete subjects’) through the internalization of ideology. Ideology is inescapable because it is what actually gives us what we experience as our individuality. Althusserian feminism examines how literary texts, films, commercials, and so on ‘hail and interpellate’ their readers or their audience and ‘position’ them with regard to gender. Into what position does a text, a film, a rock video, or a commercial try to manoeuvre us through specific strategies of narration, specific shots, images, and other forms of representation? How do they persuade a female audience to accept a liberal humanist ideology that so clearly disadvantages them? However, Althusserian feminism is by no means the whole story. We also find a British Marxist feminism that, in Ruth Robbins’s words,
is interested in the material conditions of real people’s lives, how conditions such as poverty and undereducation produce different signifying systems than works produced and read in conditions of privilege and educational plenty. This kind of approach is likely to be most interested in the content of a literary text as symptomatic of the conditions of its production. (Robbins 2000: 13)
However, after its heyday in the early 1980s, Marxist feminism, too, was increasingly charged with being insensitive to difference, and came to be seen as the product of a white academic elite (with its standard middle-class background) and as unacceptably neglectful of the specific social problems – and the way these had been given literary expression – of women who did not belong to the white heterosexual middle class. Black Marxist feminists, for instance, were quick to point out that black female writers had to cope not only with biases based on gender, but also with an equally crippling racial bias and that an approach that failed to take race into account would never be able to do justice to the work of black female writers.
Like virtually everything else in literary and cultural studies, feminism and feminist criticism have undergone the impact of difference, of the enormous attention that in the course of the last twenty years has been given to the ways we are different from each other. Paradoxically, this has happened in a world that in the same period has become vastly more homogeneous, especially in the West where the idea of difference has come to play such a prominent role. We have now all been brought within the capitalist orbit, so that politics all over the Western world looks more or less the same – and we have all become part of an international, English-speaking, mass culture. But maybe that is exactly why difference is so appealing.