HAVANA — Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women “is an extraordinarily interesting and unusual book,” said Isabel Monal at the launching of the new Spanish-language edition of this book by Pathfinder Press at the Havana International Book Fair. Monal, a well-known writer and editor of the magazine Marx Ahora (Marx now), began her long history of revolutionary activity as part of the underground struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s.
“The connection between Marxism and cosmetics might be considered something unusual,” said Monal, “and I think that as the book gets around, some people are going to ask, ‘What does all this have to do with today?’” But it has everything to do with today, she said.
The panel of speakers, which also included Martín Koppel, speaking on behalf of Pathfinder Press, discussed the book’s explanation of how the owners of the cosmetics industry in the capitalist world exploit the economic and sexual insecurities of women to sell their products and boost their profits.
The presentation of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women was held Feb. 15 at an open-air patio of the Cuba Pavilion, a popular cultural center in the heart of Havana. The pavilion was bustling with families buying books and cotton candy for their children. Fairgoers flocked to attend poetry readings, photo exhibits and plays.
The book launch was chaired by Isabel Moya, director of Editorial de la Mujer, the publishing house of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Moya had spoken here three years earlier at the presentation of the first Spanish-language translation of the book, released by the Cuban publishing house Ciencias Sociales. The new Pathfinder edition includes Moya’s remarks at the 2011 presentation.
Among the dozens in the audience were members of the Federation of Cuban Women and others who had come for the event. Many others who had been passing through the pavilion or were waiting for another program to start, sat down to listen.
Moya introduced the two panelists and Mary-Alice Waters, one of the book’s authors, its editor, and president of Pathfinder Press as well as a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party.
Monal said it was a pleasure to present a book by Pathfinder, “which has a long history of struggle.” Those who produce and distribute Pathfinder books, she said, “have never lowered their banners.”
As a young supporter of the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro, Monal was arrested and jailed, first in Cuba and later briefly in the United States while transporting guns to the revolutionary forces in Cuba — just as the Batista dictatorship was overthrown on Jan. 1, 1959.
Over the years she has been one of the staunchest defenders of Marxism in Cuba, teaching philosophy at the University of Havana and working as chair of Marxist Studies at the Philosophy Institute.
Monal is well known for insisting on studying Marx and Engels themselves, as opposed to the falsifications of Marx and Engels found in textbooks that came from the former Soviet Union.
A popular introduction to Marxism
“The publication of this book could not be more timely,” said Koppel. He pointed to the waves of strikes and demonstrations in Cambodia and Bangladesh in recent months by hundreds of thousands of mostly women garment workers fighting for an increase in the minimum wage and against brutal job conditions, as well as protests in India by thousands of women against gang rapes.
“Millions of workers who are women are joining class battles, gaining consciousness and confidence to fight, including against their second-class status,” he said.
Koppel noted that Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women is, among other things, a popular introduction to Karl Marx’s Capital, “one of the best books we can read to help us understand women’s oppression and the fight to end it.”
The book was born in 1954, when Militant editor Joseph Hansen, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a humorous article deriding an advertising campaign by the U.S. capitalist “merchants of beauty” who were seeking to revive sagging profits at a time of economic recession, when women were spending less on cosmetics. The owners of the cosmetics companies were trying to convince women “that they simply had to have some new product in order to be happy and compete successfully with other women for a job and for a man,” Koppel said.
Hansen’s piece sparked a debate among Militant readers, including some who accused the author of ridiculing working-class women and of criticizing their “right” to use cosmetics and to seek “some loveliness and beauty in their lives.”
In several articles reprinted in the book, Hansen and Evelyn Reed respond to these critics. They explain how in our class-divided society the capitalist ruling class imposes on working people the standards of what is deemed beautiful and moral.
In the new edition, Moya notes how the capitalist rulers “get the exploited classes to internalize views about female beauty that the ruling powers themselves developed, and how, at the same time, obeying this cultural dictate is required for [women] entering the labor market.”
Capitalist production transforms commodities into objects endowed with remarkable powers, Monal explained — what Marx called commodity fetishism. “Things that man himself created come to dominate us,” she said, including cosmetics and fashions.
“It’s normal for cosmetics to exist — they’ve been around for millennia,” she noted. But under capitalism, “they have become a means of influencing our thinking, a means of domination” by the owners of capital.
The pressures derived from the norms of beauty dictated by the ruling class “weigh heaviest on women,” said Monal. The capitalists manipulate “the normal fact of sexual desire among human beings” to reinforce women’s subordinate status, trying to convince them that they will not succeed without buying this or that product.
Quoting the preface by Waters, Koppel added that on an international scale, “the siren song of commodity fetishism is an imperialist weapon like none other” against the peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Among the targets of this offensive is Cuba, which is “incessantly bombarded by the cynical promotion of ‘demand’ for must-have brand name products of capitalist industry.”
A class question
Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women explains that these questions can only be understood as class questions. The subordinate status of women began only with the rise of class-divided society. “Understanding that women were not always an oppressed sex helps us understand that they will not always remain so,” Koppel said.
Eliminating women’s second-class status, however, will only become possible through “a revolutionary struggle by workers and farmers to take state power and overturn capitalist rule.”
Koppel pointed to the example of Cuba’s socialist revolution and the political clarity of its leadership, Fidel Castro above all. By breaking the domination of capitalist commodity production and massively drawing women into political activity and into productive labor outside the home, the revolution has opened the door to get rid of the economic foundations of women’s oppression, he said.
Following the presentation, participants bought close to 100 Pathfinder books on revolutionary politics, including some 40 copies of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women.