Why Marxist Feminism ?

Before any defence of Marxist Feminist analysis can be made, one must outline in fairly succinct terms what differentiates Marxist Feminism within the women’s liberation movement. It was possible to identify four main currents Liberal, Radical, Marxist and Socialist feminism.

Radical feminist theory posits that society is a patriarchy, where all men benefit from the subjugation of all women. Men benefit from the systematic oppression of women in all areas of life, both within the public and personal sphere. Some claim that patriarchy theory has been able to cut across the independent categories and boundaries of other forms of oppression such as race, but as is well documented this is contested.

Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory, which focuses on women’s ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. Because as we all know the liberal state is one that seeks to uphold the “natural law” or equality between citizens, whilst the market mediates between competitive individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest.

Marxist feminists believe that class accounts for the role, position and oppression of women under capital. Marxist feminism doesn’t claim that the oppression of women is due to the intentional actions of individuals, but results from political, social and economic structures associated with capitalism. But as with any other Marxist tendency it should be noted that although Marxist feminism seeks to explain oppression under capital, it does so also within the framework of historical materialism and takes account of oppression under previous modes of production where private property and class have structured society.

Socialist feminists sought to develop a dual system analysis whereby both gender and class accounted for the oppression of women. Socialist feminists were critical of Marxism due to what they perceived as reductionism, or economism.

These simple definitions hide a complex and rich body of thought, where differences in theory and approach continue to both enrich and undermine feminist theory. It’s no accident that the women’s movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s was a product of and instrumental in the “revolution” and the subsequent turn in academia towards post-structuralism and post-modernist thought. But as Martha Gimenez points out in What is Material about Materialist Feminism, A Marxist Feminist Critique

Divisions in feminist thought multiplied as the effects of post-structuralist and post-modern theorizing merged with grass roots challenges to a feminism perceived as the expression of the needs and concerns of middle and upper middle class white, “First World” women. In the process, the subject of feminism became increasingly difficult to define, as the post- modern critique of “woman” as an essentialist category together with critiques grounded in racial, ethnic, sexual preference and national origin differences resulted in a seemingly never ending proliferation of “subject positions,” “identities,” and “voices.” Cultural and identity politics replaced the early focus on capitalism and (among Marxist feminists primarily) class divisions among women; today class has been reduced to another “ism;” i.e., to another form oppression which, together with gender and race integrate a sort of mantra, something that everyone ought to include in theorizing and research though, to my knowledge, theorizing about it remains at the level of metaphors (e.g., interweaving, interaction, interconnection etc.).

Feminism has become a dirty word. No amount of clear definitions clarify what it is, when a hostile culture seeks constantly to redefine and demonise it as a movement of “male baby killers” and “man hating lesbians.” Many explanations for this discourse can be suggested, from the reactionary male rights activists, to the mistaken belief that feminism has won all its battles, right through to conspiracy theories. It is, I would suggest in major part down the emergence of post-modernist identity politics, the birth of “isms”, the inclusion and the complex relationship of feminism to this, and both the successes and failures of Liberal and radical feminist theory.

Liberal feminists argue that false conceptions of women’s abilities tends to hold women back. Our subordination is fixed in a set of beliefs, customs and discriminatory laws that can be challenged through legal and political reforms. When set out in this way, it is very easy to see the flaw in this argument. If the liberal state was born of “Enlightenment thinking” of the French and American revolutions and is said to have created the conditions of emancipation and equality between citizens through the laws and institution of the liberal state, women wouldn’t now be arguing that liberalism is the mechanism through which their equality should be won. Instead as Marxist feminists would point out, the emergence of the liberal state coincides with the emergence of capitalism. Liberal feminism as an individualistic and competitive doctrine is one of equality of opportunity and legal rights between individuals. She can have equality of opportunity mediated through market mechanisms, opportunities which are allotted through social power and social hierarchies that correspond to social class. But it is this state sanctioned, and ideologically hygienic form of feminism that is given political and ideological space. It fills the pages of magazines and informs public opinion, debate, and political and legal change. The family courts and divorce laws have gradually changed in favour of equality, whilst this equality is perceived by many to be something more of a privileging of women’s rights over those of men’s. It is also the feminism of free choice. Prostitution, pornography, inequalities of income, and opportunity, and the commoditisation of female bodies is not only impossible to analyse within this framework, but liberalism promotes these things as choice.

Radical feminism with its emphasis on patriarchy and its discourse on male supremacy has spawned hate filled blogs and a backlash likely to set back women’s equality rather than further it. Radical as a term has been misleadingly redefined through public discourse, and as a very strong current within feminist activism and the grassroots, it focuses on personal lived experience and giving voice to this, often in ways that are angry and antagonistic. It is the feminism most blogged, most tweeted, most quoted as being man hating. To the average person, it would seem that a theory of oppression rooted in the conscious and intentional actions of men is also a force that demands the killing of male babies and the neutering of male adults. Indeed if patriarchy is trans-historical and as yet there is no root out of this biologically determined oppression, then only the forceful neutering of men and the revolutionary overthrow of their rule could result in the end of female oppression. According to radical theory, women were historically the first oppressed class, the oppression of women is the most widespread existing in almost every known society, it is the deepest and most intractable forms of oppression, and radical theory provides a framework from which to understand all other forms of oppression. Only one of these claims is correct, and it is only partially correct. Patriarchal relations rooted in the structure of the family, reinforced through laws and customs have existed in almost every know society. But it should be put into context, these patriarchal relations have their root in class societies, this determines the structure of the family, the economy of the family, and where there is a division between the public and private sphere. Whilst their rallying call is “The personal is the political” the emphasis on sex based oppression rooted in biology, which is legitimised through laws and customs, they seem to have overlooked the fact that the division of the public and private sphere is as a result of the politics and ideologies of class societies. The protection of private property rights through the legal separation of the family from the public sphere. The family is recognised in law as an economic unit in the earliest states.

Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism

For Marxists the cause of all forms of oppression are rooted in the division of society into classes. Post-modernism has given rise to the politics of “isms” obscuring the very relations upon which all forms of exploitation and oppression are rooted. Post-structuralist thinking posits that many theories are valid, whilst meta-theories are invalid and fail to take account of how various subjectivities are formed. Marxist feminism has been criticised for not fully being able to explain how, or why, if at all, women constitute a class. It is no accidental coincidence that Post-modernist thinking emerges at the very time in which capital was restructuring after the crisis of falling profits around the 1960s. This restructuring process took the form of subsuming counter-cultural currents within the capitalist logic, creating new identities. These new identities are beneficial to capital in the Post-fordist global factory, segmented labour opens the way for new wage repression and exploitation of different identities geographically but also at home. New segmented markets based upon the notion of extended choice are based around the creation of new consumer ideals specific to these new identities. Marxist feminists especially in the Italian Autonomist tradition were quick to point out how capital exploits women both as waged workers, non-waged workers and as consumers. More of which I shall write in another piece on Feminism and Autonomist Marxism. The women’s liberation movement and the move away from a socialist perspective to a radical critique coincides with the birth of post-modernist thinking. Whilst liberal feminism existed and can be explained by the birth of liberal political philosophy, radical feminism has its roots in Post-modernism despite its structuralist meta-theory of patriarchy.

Post-modernism, biological determinism, Idealism, essentialism and radical theory.

Post-modernism could be said to be the idealised consciousness or ideology of capitalism. As previously stated this thinking takes root at a time when capitalism is forced to restructure. Is at times crisis that capital is able to evolve and extend its logic in new ways, geographically in pursuit of greater labour exploitation, culturally in terms of creating new commodities and markets and ideologically in terms of creating new identities and subjectivities that support these changes.

Drawing upon Foucault’s notion of the event, of discourses and his theory of how subjectivity and ideas are formed, I would suggest, that although Foucault is one academic voice that ushers in post-modernism, he also gives us insight and tools to critique the emergence of post-modernism and post-structuralism. In The Archaeology of Knowledge he sets out to show that systems of thought and knowledge “epistemes” or “discursive formations” are governed by rules beyond those of grammar and logic which operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought and language use in a given domain and period. Continuous narratives and the notion of immutability are naive.

Foucault, despite his claim of being a materialist, and using a materialist method to historicise transition, he places the history of ideas as central, or rather consciousness for him appears to determine the way in which we shape the world. But Idealism could be said to be closely linked to bourgeois thinking. The link between idealist conception of history, the legitimation of certain conditions and historical events (as with Hegel) and the concept that Ideas shape our world, leads to the notion that Capital as a system is both natural, evolved through the evolution of ideas, and the most advanced and perfect of systems conceived in human thinking and practice. This also means for the experience of women that if biology may in the first and last resort be the cause of her oppression, she need only “think herself free.” Indeed discourses may shape the subjectivity of individuals with their identity constituted at an idealist level, nothing about the objective condition of women’s lives change simply as a result of positive thinking. No amount of ethics of the self inoculate women against the material conditions of their lives. The relationship of discourse to materiality is the same as consciousness to reality. If one merely substitutes ideology for discourse one has only explain why discourse or ideology constitutes subjectivity. By substituting ideology for discourse we actually obscure the role of ideas in perpetuating the material conditions of lived experience, by positing that subjectivity is wholly constituting by ideas, and that objective relations and material life are secondary only to this, this simply suggests we should give up on any emancipatory politics. Instead we should stay home and thank our lucky starts for our good fortune.

The role of Post-modernist thinking, the substitution of idealism over materialism, the creation of “isms”, local struggles, identity politics and the substitution of discourse theory over that of ideology, coincides with the restructuring of capital. At a time when capital moves beyond the factory system to the production of the global and total factory of society and the complete subsumation of culture to the laws of capitalist logic, we see a shift in the oppression of not just women, but many newly constituted identities. This is not to say that discourse does not play a role in this process, it clearly does. However the impetus for changes in conception and thinking do not arise simply out of thin air, but are instead rooted in the conscious life activity of people. Ideas and subjectivity simply become tautologies, whereby we are what we think we are, imposing ideas as material truths upon life.

The move from the materialist methodology and line of analysis to the purely idealised, from Marxist feminism to the Radical theory of patriarchy, follows this same course. Radical feminist theory posits the description of relations and the cause of relations as the same thing. To root women’s oppression in their biology is a reflection of the chauvinism that is said to have created it. The assumption that women are lesser creatures due to biology is what characterises the ideology of gender bases oppression but within the idealist framework gives also the explanation for their inferiority. So, biological determinism where nature sets the ground upon which oppression is legitimised under capital (Read Dawkins et al) may claim to be empirical, impartial, unbiased and material, but is only too happy to lean upon Idealist philosophy to make ideological claims. History has proven that women’s oppression is not trans-historical, nor due to biology. Both those who benefit from oppression in general and those who want to understand and struggle against it are using the same idealist philosophies to uphold it locked in the circular argument from which there is no escape. Because there is no escape from biology, Patriarchy as a meta-theory finds itself in the position of having recourse to insert another theoretical proposition into it. Gender theory, and this is the point at which theory really starts to unravel. If a meta-theory requires the inclusion of a second substantial theory that seeks to explain the same thing, and when that theory then contradicts and throws up completely different explanations, it is clear that the meta-theory is incomplete. It is a partial explanation in much the same way as the theory it subsumed under. Both patriarchy and gender theory are partial explanations, and in no way do they constitute a complete or meta-theory. The inclusion of gender theory which is a theory of how men and women are conditioned or their subjectivities produced through ideology or discourse into its oppostite, a biologically deterministic theory has led to a huge problem of analysis in Radical feminism. Not to mention a level of confusion. The whole concept “woman” is under threat in gender theory, but Radical feminism despite basing its premises on biological sex, seek to protect this identity. In the last resort trying to claim that the concept women, is not socially constructed wholly but also and in the last resort determined by biological sex.

Biological determinism and bourgeois idealism do not lead from analysis to overcoming oppression. A description cannot be an explanation. A partial explanation or description is not a theory, although it may describe certain conditions at an empirical level, it does not explain how this fits within the greater totality of society.

Sexist historiography of Women’s Oppression

This is a brilliant extract from Sharon Smith’s Engels and the Origins of Women’s Oppression.

The specific explanations for women’s oppression range far and wide–some are downright preposterous and most are based far more on mere speculation than on any concrete evidence. The most common theories have been based on the assumption that men’s greater physical strength leads them to be more aggressive (the logic being, presumably, that men dominate women simply because they can). The familiar childhood image of furry Neanderthals dragging their women by the hair from cave to cave certainly seems to be based on this false biological assumption.

Much of the debate about The Origin of women’s oppression has taken place within the field of anthropology, the study of human societies. Far from an objective science, anthropological study carries with it all of the subjective baggage of its researchers’ own cultural prejudices. The most obvious is the male chauvinism that dominated the field until a few decades ago, which led most anthropologists to assume that all of the important functions in any given society were performed by men. Eleanor Burke Leacock cited one clear-cut example in her book, Myths of Male Dominance, from a passage by the anthropologist Robin Fox that was written as if it was only for a male audience:

For in behavior as in anatomy, the strength of our lineage lay in a relatively generalized structure. It was precisely because we did not specialize like our baboon cousins that we had to contrive solutions involving the control and exchange of females.7

Until the women’s movement of the late 1960s began to challenge male chauvinism, sexist assumptions provided the basis for broad generalizations. Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading anthropologist within the structuralist school, goes so far as to argue that “human society…is primarily a masculine society.” He argues that the “exchange of women” is a “practically universal” feature of human society, in which men obtain women from other men–from fathers, brothers and other male relatives. Moreover, he asserts that “the deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient.” Therefore, “the most desirable women must form a minority.” Because of this, “the demand for women is an actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state of disequilibrium and tension.”8 According to Levi-Strauss, then, women have been the passive victims of men’s sexual aggression since the beginning of human society.

Likewise, Western observers have frequently brought along their own cultural biases (including, often, cultural chauvinism) when they study hunter-gatherer or horticultural societies. Customs are measured using a Western yardstick, rather than trying to understand the unique value system of a particular culture. For example, the common practice among Eskimo women of sleeping with male visitors is often interpreted as an example of Eskimo women’s low status–of women offered up as gifts or property. Yet, this might or might not be true. As Leacock points out, this is an “ethnocentric reading which presumes that a woman does not (since she should not) enjoy sex play with any but her ‘real’ husband and which refuses to recognize that variety in sexual relations is entertaining to women (where not circumscribed by all manner of taboos) as well as to men.”9 In and of itself, this sexual custom tells little about women’s status in Eskimo society today, when it is fairly integrated into the capitalist system–much less, what women’s status has been historically.

As Sharon Smith makes clear theories of biological determinism and the naturalness of women’s subordination lifted from bourgeois ideology have biased the study of anthropology.

And in another brilliant analysis of “Feminist Stick Bending” she sets out how feminist theorists have also been guilty of shaping evidence to fir with their theory. How biological essentialism and the radical theory of women’s oppression as being rooted in that biology leads to biasing evidence, in support of arguments about the aggression of men and the nature of women.

Many feminist writers have been equally guilty of shaping the evidence to fit the theory. For example, Sherry Ortner argues in “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” that, historically, women’s capacity to give birth brought them closer to “nature,” while men’s capacity for warfare allowed them to dominate in the realm of “culture.” On this basis, she makes the sweeping generalization that “everywhere, in every known culture, women are considered in some degree inferior to men.” But she is short on evidence–and that which she offers is far from definitive. For example, she cites a 1930s’ study of a matrilineal American Indian society, the Crow. Although Ortner admits that in most respects Crow women hold positions of relatively high authority, she cites the Crow’s taboo toward women during menstruation as evidence that they are nevertheless regarded as inferiors. Among other things, menstruating women are not allowed to touch either a wounded man or a man starting on a war party.11

This fairly commonplace practice of isolating menstruating women in primitive societies is often touted by feminists as evidence that women’s reproductive powers are a source of fear and contempt universally. But they are not. For one thing, some hunter-gatherer societies have no menstrual taboos at all. In others, men try to imitate women’s reproductive powers. And, as Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson have pointed out, this interpretation of menstrual taboos leaves “the impression that women are [viewed as] unclean or evil instead of recognizing that certain substances, such as blood, are considered dangerous, whether shed by women or men” in many societies.12

To be sure, some feminist anthropologists–particularly socialist-feminists, like Coontz and Henderson quoted above–have contributed to our understanding of women’s oppression historically, and in some cases have helped to further develop Engels’ theory.13 And some feminist anthropologists have contributed extensive data helping to substantiate Engels’ claim of the existence of pre-class egalitarian societies, such as Patricia Draper’s study of !Kung society in Southern Africa and Judith Brown’s research on the Iroquois.

But, in its purest form, much of feminist theory rests upon no more than supposition–the range of which is limited only by the imaginations of its authors. Depending upon who is doing the writing, men dominate women because they hold women in contempt for their ability to bear children–or because they are jealous of women’s ability to bear children. Men oppress women because long ago women formed a powerful matriarchy which was overthrown–or because men have always been a tyrannical patriarchy.

Gerda Lerner argues in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, “Feminists, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir… [have explained women’s oppression] as caused by either male biology or male psychology.” She goes on to describe a sampling of feminist theories, all of which border on the outlandish:

Thus, Susan Brownmiller sees man’s ability to rape women leading to their propensity to rape women and shows how this has led to male dominance over women and to male supremacy. Elizabeth Fisher ingeniously argued that the domestication of animals…led men to the idea of raping women. She claimed that the brutalization and violence connected with animal domestication led to men’s sexual dominance and institutionalized aggression. More recently, Mary O’Brien built an elaborate explanation of The Origin of male dominance on men’s psychological need to compensate for their inability to bear children through the construction of institutions of dominance and, like Fisher, dated this “discovery” in the period of the discovery of animal domestication.14

As Smith sets out, feminist theory has thrown up some weird and wonderful explanations! I would suggest that it will continue to do so all the time we fail to recognise that our oppression is not grounded in “IDEAS” Ideas are the mode through which we apprehend the material world, they are not in any sense a substitute for that material reality.

The Marxist Method

Human Nature

Maybe the best place to start is with the Marxist concept of human nature. Liberals posit that human nature is fixed, competitive and based upon unique characteristics which separate us from nature such as rationality and language. The Marxist conception of human nature rejects the idea that we have fixed characteristics, instead what makes us human is that we are both a part of nature and we separate ourselves from nature through activity. Consciousness arises out of activity, and through the act of labour we shape nature and our relation to it, but most significantly also our own nature. Unlike other animals who act through instinct alone, through a complex and long evolutionary process humans have come to act consciously and intentionally upon nature. Men and women through labour create a society that acts upon them shaping their consciousness. Production and the reproduction of the relations of production condition the political and social, philosophical, legal and religious institutions that correspond to that mode of production. Marx stated “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence , but their real social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) Marxist feminists also believe that social existence determines consciousness. Marxist feminists believe that women’s subordination to men is not trans-histocal and hasn’t always existed.


The theory of women’s historic overthrow is based upon the work of Morgan, a C19th anthropologist, and the publication of his paper called the Ancient society. This was the first materialist account of the evolution of human society. Having studied first hand the Iroquois Indians he concluded that the modern nuclear family, was not a universal or trans-historical fact. He set out to research other societies finding that similar kinship bonds existed, but that kinship and family structure corresponded and evolved through stages based upon the “successive arts of subsistence.” Engels built upon Morgan’s theory in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It should also be noted that Engels drew upon the work of Darwin who had published the Origin of the Species in 1859.

In The Origin Engels set out to historicise family structure and the form in which society is organised, developing a theory of how the rise of class society through changes to agriculture and production provide the impetus for the first division of labour, how this creates a class society that requires the State to act in the interests of the ruling class. This corresponds to the “Epic overthrow of women” as the State, through its laws and its culture seek to protect the property rights of the ruling class. Whilst Gerda Lerner and other feminist scholars have tried to trace the origins of patriarchy concluding that culture and religion played a part in the subjugation of women, citing evidence of female gods being replaced with the omnipotent male god, it should be understood within the Marxist framework, of the base and superstructure. The religion, ideas and consciousness of a people arise from the conditions in which they labour, from their social existence. Ideologies are formed that perpetuate and legitimise the material conditions of production, and serve the purpose of extending and protecting the property rights of those who control the means of production and the social wealth within the society. Women’s reproductive function becomes of increasing interest to the Likes of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers who put forward the idea that the division of the public and private sphere, of production and reproduction is founded upon women’s reproductive function. These “ideas” only reflect and perpetuate an ideology and culture whose mode of production and wealth creation rests upon the exploitation of one class by a ruling class. This is evidenced by the move from matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance.

The subordination of women has occurred in most known societies. Kate Millet who was the first Radical feminist to locate this within the family stated that “patriarchy is the rule of the fathers.” However this family structure and the “power” of the patriarch is supported by his economic privilege within the family. In ancient Greece the patriarch of the family had full political equality. The division of private and public life emerges, with men having both a private life in which no other man could interfere and a public life in which he had full equality with other citizens. Women had no public life, no political equality and were relegated to the private sphere of the family.

Before the formation of the archaic states, and before the emergence of class society,

Marxist theory approaches the question of women’s oppression using an entirely materialist method. It isn’t based upon ideas and supposition but upon careful examination of history and the evolution of societies. In a number of primitive societies women were equal to men, and in some which were matriarchal men and women lived separately and the modern family structure we see under capital did not exist. In the materialist conception which places the production and reproduction of life central to the life of human beings, we see on the one hand the production of subsistence and reproduction of the species.

The Marxist methodology is both materialist and dialectical. We are products of the natural world, and we are also productive. As Marx makes clear in the Philosophical manuscripts and as Engels also outlines in Ape to Man, we are distinguished from other animals by our conscious activity. Animals are part of a predatory economy, as theorised by Darwin, and animals act on instinct. The human economy is pre-meditated, because we act with a certain amount of free will, have the ability to act consciously, to plan, and to reflect upon our actions. We constitute our nature and our relation to nature through labour. We only have “ideas” and self-reflection because we are self constituting. In this sense we are what Marx referred to as Zoon Politikan and a labouring animal. Our nature is best described as “essentially” flexible and mutable. In Ape to man Engels set out how labour constitutes both man’s evolutionary consciousness and the development of speech and makes the hypothesis that man’s physical evolution was conditioned upon his labour. So whilst we evolve to undertake more complex tasks, the complexity of those tasks and the need to solve issues pertaining to the production and reproduction of life guides evolution so that we are eventually able to completely transform our relation to the natural world. Of course this process is still ongoing and can be evidenced through science and also through the ways in which capital is shaping new subjectivities, the development of immaterial labour, the general intellect and how science is again removing natural barriers to our production and reproduction of life.

Primitive Communism     

Before class society the idea of strictly monogamous pairing of male and female as the nuclear family was unknown. Inequality was also unknown. This understanding is important in Marxist feminist theory because it makes clear the linkages between the formation of private property and the family, the family and the oppression of women. The structure of the family, the emergence of patriarchal relations can be historicised, to show that patriarchy is not the overarching logic of human history, but it is the site at which women’s oppression starts. Patriarchal relations and patriarchy as a meta-theory are two very different things. The oppression is not rooted in male or female biology, and men have neither intentionally nor through natural instinct sought to oppress women.

Class Society, division of labour and the oppression of women

Evolution has taken place over 2 million years, the formation of ancient tribal societies into class societies developed over many thousands of years. Marxists believe that changes within agriculture lead for the first tie to the conditions in which people settle the land, appropriate land and create surplus. This surplus is the first point at which humans can develop a surplus of wealth. Engels wrote that it is only once we see the division of labour, between producers and non producers that we also see the division between public and private life. Public life devoted to production and the appropriation of wealth, and private life devoted to the reproduction of life. Engels and Morgan has evidenced a prior sexual division of labour, but this division didn’t preclude women from production. Indeed even as late as the cottage industry and the Feudal system women provided productive labour, at least as much as men.

Here the impact of private property on the condition of women’s lives is summarised here by Sacks in The Woman Gatherer.

Private property transformed the relations between men and women within the household only because it also radically changed the political and economic relations in the larger society. For Engels the new wealth in domesticated animals meant that there was a surplus of goods available for exchange between productive units. With time, production by men specifically for exchange purposes developed, expanded, and came to overshadow the household’s production for use… As production of exchange eclipsed production for use, it changed the nature of the household, the significance of women’s work within it, and consequently women’s position in society.

The overthrow of mother right, or matrilineal forms of organisation correspond to the advent of private property. The feminist notion that men are jealous or suspicious of women’s “closer relation to nature through reproduction” doesn’t explain this transition. In fact it only explains the ideas that sprang forth from the society that sought to rationalise the overthrown of mother right. Women and children come to be seen as exchangeable, as property and women as the mere instrument of reproduction.

Engels and Marxists after him have all made the claim that marriage and monogamy are not based upon moral claims. Moral claims made through religion, later through idealist philosophy and later still through bourgeois ethics and science are simply the ideologically constructed. From the beginning the family is premised upon a hypocrisy, women stamped with the character “monogamy” because we are told it is part of our nature, and men with the character “philanderer” because it is stamped upon his basic biology to procreate with as many women as possible.

The Family under Capital

At the time in which Marx and Engels were writing the “ideal” family was the bourgeois family. The ideology of this was still reflected in religion, and may in part by one of the reasons that enlightenment thought was completely unable to expunge religion from society. The remnants of established culture can only ever combine with the emerging new culture, in doing so both are changed. By the time that Engels is writing about the family, Scientists and other anthropologists are giving moral impetus to the findings of science. Marriage protects against the evils of prostitution, poverty and disease. However it is clear that prostitution and marriage are different sides of the same coin.

Under advanced capitalism changes have occurred to family structure, both through the struggle of women against oppression but also through the revolution in the means of production, the various stages in which capital has co-opted women into the labour force and the way in which the manufacture of subjectivities and the reproduction of the relations of capital have come to create a greater deal of individuation. Family breakdown, is both a consequence of greater female liberty and beneficial to the renewal of capital, and the placing of women as head of household hasn’t had the effect of equalling men and women’s wages, but of creating new markets. New markets of childcare, microwave meals, new service sectors devoted to short cutting domestic labour, new policies designed to protect one’s ability to provide for oneself, a boom in house building and household commodities, booming beauty industry, and investment into self has become a big area of capitalist accumulation. But the idealist notion of weddings and the need to spend many thousands on wedding services and frivolous commodities sits alongside the mantra of individual responsibility and investment into self.

Maria Della Costa and other Italian women on the left, were quick to theorise the ways in which capital exploited women at the time in which they were writing n the 60, 70s and 80s. The post war boom of the fordist era, along with the political configuration that corresponded to it of democratic socialism came to an end by the mid 1960s. The falling rates of profit driving down capitalist expansion and investment, along with the rising rates of wages and the workers demands from even higher wages combined to create a situation where women are having to rethink their relationship to capital and to the family. In the post war boom of higher wages and rising productivity. Limited labour markets and before the rapid global expansion East, women were limited in labour opportunities. Men were able to earn a “family wage.” The unions were active in keeping women out of the labour market and governments were peddling the ideology of motherhood.

It was Della and Costa, James and others like them within the Marxist tradition that started to theorise about the way in which women’s unpaid labour directly benefited both capitalist profit, the creation of surplus value and the recreation of the conditions of capitalist exploitation, through the ideological apparatus of the family. Women not only provided “use value” in sustaining the male workers, but they were consumers and perhaps the greatest ideologues of capitalism. They were engaged in raising children who would take on the characteristics of docility and propensity to hard work that was demanded by employers. But women were also alienated from society, from the company of other women, worked long hours without wages, were isolated and had few protections under the law. The ideology of motherhood and the virtue accorded to marriage as a social status along with women’s dependence upon men for economic survival made women subject to the whims of their male counterparts. Culture are portrayed and reflected the nature of women as nurturing, smiling, attractive, and supplicant to the will of the husband. In commercials women wore beautiful impractical clothing, heels and red lipstick and a beautiful grin whilst she served supper. Men were portrayed as hard working silent types that required down time to rest before returning to the factory. The patriarch would return and sit waiting to have his needs met by his smiling docile wife. Of course, whilst culture reflected this, and perpetuated this idea, it also did so because it stoked consumerism. The advent of the television required that at least one household member in every home would need to have time to watch it. But TV had an ideological function and as the stations proliferated under private ownership the ideology of the free markets and virtue of consumer choice and freedom further bolsters demand for consumption.

The wages for housework campaign was perhaps a little naive. The idea that capital compensate women for their labour. It was proposed that wages should be paid by the State. However this overlooked the fact that because the State serves the interests of capital accumulation, the cost of these wages would fall upon the very working class families that should benefit. It would be an empty gesture to rob the husbands pay check to give this money to his wife.

Other Marxist feminist at this time theorised that only the socialisation of women’s labour could bring about equality. However the “ideology of the family” and the fact that even if socialised this labour would still be perceived as women’s work, meant that this work would still be conceived as of low value. Only women returning to work and campaigning for equal wages would address the issue of women’s oppression under capital.

I would like to suggest that none of these tendencies do more than offer an analysis of the problem. The major theoretical breakthrough in this work though is the way in which they show how capitalist accumulation benefits from unpaid labour.

Della Costa tells us that

“We concentrate here on the position of the working-class woman, but this is not to imply that only working-class women are exploited. Rather it is to confirm that the role of the working-class housewife, which we believe has been indispensable to capitalist production is the determinant for the position of all other women. Every analysis of women as a caste, then, must proceed from the analysis of the position of working-class housewives”

Whilst the analysis must start out from the position of the super-exploitation of working class women and their position in the class hierarchies of capitalism, non-working middle class women are also oppressed, through their relation as consumers and their dependence upon male workers.

“While we are speaking of the Western world and Italy in particular, we wish to make clear that to the extent that the capitalist mode of production also brings the Third World under its command, the same process of destruction must be and is taking place there. Nor should we take for granted that the family as we know it today in the most technically advanced Western countries is the final form the family can assume under capitalism. But the analysis of new tendencies can only be the product of an analysis of how capitalism created this family and what woman’s role is today, each as a moment in a process.”

Here she makes clear that the then present structure of the family is dictated by capitalist ideology and in practice through dependence of women upon the family economic unit.

“The day-to-day struggles that women have developed since the Second World War run directly against the organization of the factory and of the home. The “unreliability” of women in the home and out of it has grown rapidly since then, and runs directly against the factory as regimentation organized in time and space, and against the social factory as organization of the reproduction of labor power. This trend to more absenteeism, to less respect for timetables, to higher job mobility, is shared by young men and women workers. But where the man for crucial periods of his youth will be the sole support of a new family, women who on the whole are not restrained in this way and who must always consider the job at home, are bound to be even more disengaged from work discipline, forcing disruption of the productive flow and therefore higher costs to capital. (This is one excuse for the discriminatory wages which many times over make up for capital’s loss.) It is this same trend of disengagement that groups of housewives express when they leave their children with their husbands at work.* This trend is and will increasingly be one of the decisive forms of the crisis in the systems of the factory and of the social factory.”

Women are no longer able to maintain the ideal of either docile productive worker or of the ideal of housewife. Instead she works a double shift. Her subjectivity is not one of emancipation either from factory work or from the dull tedium of unpaid work at home. The extension of the concept of the factory to the social factory coincides with the move towards Post-fordist production. Although Della Costa and other Marxist feminists had already posed that society had become the “social factory” because the space outside the factory produced and reproduced not just the human beings that populate the workforce within the factory but also the subjectivities necessary for the perpetual renewal of the workforce. This process of production within the social factory not only produces labour but creates the determination to labour, it is the site of the exchange of commodities.

She is also points to the way that capital justifies the lower female wage, as due to lower productivity. This underscores Marx’s Labour theory of value, If female receive more in sickness and maternity benefits which basically form part of their wage, they undermine the way in which surplus value is extracted from surplus labour;  they receive compensation at the rate of subsistence that corresponds to necessary labour whilst producing less surplus value, because they work fewer hours overall. This means that wages must be adjusted to take account of this, otherwise the employment of women becomes unprofitable. However the move towards service sector jobs in western countries and the outsourcing of commodity production, creates extended production with what could be called the “global factory.” She touches upon this when she says “capitalist mode of production also brings the Third World under its command, the same process of destruction must be and is taking place there.” Empirically it is true that women make up 2/3rds of the worlds workforce whilst also making up 2/3rds of the worlds poorest.

“With the advent of capitalism the socialization of production was organized with the factory as its centre. Those who worked in the new productive centre, the factory, received a wage. Those who were excluded did not. Women, children and the aged lost the relative power that derived from the family’s dependence on their labour, which was seen to be social and necessary. Capital, destroying the family and the community and production as one whole, on the one hand has concentrated basic social production in the factory and the office, and on the other has in essence detached the man from the family and turned him into a wage labourer. It has put on the man’s shoulders the burden of financial responsibility for women, children, the old and the ill, in a word, all those who do not receive wages. From that moment began the expulsion from the home of all those who did not procreate and service those who worked for wages.”

Where previously women had participated in production and were able to maintain some power within the family because their labour was valued, the unwaged labour of reproduction within the private sphere comes to represent the devaluation of women and their labour in general. She takes on the responsibility of social and caring work, for free. Thus women’s work in all its forms has no social value,  value is mediated through exchange and the realisation of value under capital is only the realisation of socially determined value through exchange. Where commodity production is presupposed by exchange, and value is only realised through exchange, is a social phenomena where commodities come to represent the relations between people, women’s unpaid labour is socially determined to have no value.

“We must stress that this separation of children from adults is essential to an understanding of the full significance of the separation of women from men, to grasp fully how the organization of the struggle on the part of the women’s movement, even when it takes the form of a violent rejection of any possibility of relations with men, can only aim to overcome the separation which is based on the “freedom” of wage labour.”

The factories acts that put an end to the exploitation of child labour wasn’t an act of altruism, as some would suggest. However the antagonistic relation of inequality between men and women founded on the social consequences of women’s role as child care, the inability to compete with men within the workforce due to caring responsibilities falsely pits men and women against each other. Supposing that the cause of the antagonism is men subjugating women, rather than the structural oppression of capital and its exploitation of women’s free labour. This arguments runs completely contrary to Liberal feminism that espouses that cultural practices and the idea that women lack the skills necessary or the opportunities, or will to work, and that legislation can overcome the problem of wage inequality. And that these cultural practices that disadvantage women benefit men, and that men uphold their right to higher wages simply by virtue of some belief in superiority.

This also touches upon the idea that freedom to sell ones labour is something to be lauded. Liberal conception of freedom posit that men freely enter into exchange relations, one as the purchaser of labour power, the other as owner and seller of labour power. This ignores the fact that workers no longer own the means of production and have a choice of working or starving. The more women enter the workforce in the belief they are creating equality between men and women, the more women will be doubly exploited, as unwaged and also as waged labour.

“In elementary school children, in those who are the sons and daughters of workers, there is always an awareness that school is in some way setting them against their parents and their peers, and consequently there is an instinctive resistance to studying and to being “educated”. This is the resistance for which Black children are confined to educationally subnormal schools in Britain. The European working‑class child, like the Black working‑class child, sees in the teacher somebody who is teaching him or her something against her mother and father, not as a defense of the child but as an attack on the (working) class. Capitalism is the first productive system where the children of the exploited are disciplined and educated in institutions organized and controlled by the ruling class.”

The school is in a sense part of an extended production process, where the subject is moulded into labour power. If this is the case, it can further be proven theoretically that the home and domestic sphere of the “social factory” is likewise the site of extended production. The theoretical importance of this is huge because it means that as with other areas of extended production, it creates surplus value for the accumulation of capital. Not only is the school the site of ideology but the site of production…production of the commodity labour power. Labour power as we know has an exchange value, that of the wage, this means that wages, all wages are determined by the need for extended sites of production within the general process of production. This also means that prices and wages are determined by the cost of extended production. This throws up another observation, the State is not only a collector of taxes, an employer of labour but part of the general capitalist mode of production. It not only functions in its role as the management of the interest of capital, but is itself the producer of exchange values.

Della Costa and other Marxist feminists despite their focus on production and reproduction, to the exclusion of other areas often taken up by feminism, do not advocate that women give up caring for  children. Do not advocate test tube babies or a move towards some sort of utopia where sex and procreation is dispensed with. Shulamith Firestone may have advocated growing babies in artificial wombs, but as Della Costa makes clear, the means of production are not controlled socially. Science is used to further the ideas and whims of a ruling class, capital uses advances in technology to its own ends and to expand. To consider the further step that reproduction is made socialised but under the control of capitalism is not an option that should be considered.

“We are not at all ignoring the attempts at this moment to make test-tube babies. But today such mechanisms belong completely to capitalist science and control. The use would be completely against us and against the class. It is not in our interest to abdicate procreation, to consign it to the hands of the enemy. It is in our interest to conquer the freedom to procreate for which we will pay neither the price of the wage nor the price of social exclusion.”

Women’s emancipation from reproduction cannot be made under the existing mode of production. Escaping biology is not the answer.

Wages for social reproduction further entrenches the divide between men and women, and further highlights the low economic value of women’s work. Socialisation of the labour process entails for many women the complete dismantling of the family, but further to that a wage that would be based on the low value of such work. Revolutionising reproduction isn’t beneficial under capitalism even if it were to free women up to compete equally with men, so what is the root to emancipation for women?

Reasons we needs the revolutionary emancipation of women

Liberal feminists insist that convincing men to take up more housework will liberate women, but this doesn’t free women from unpaid exploitation, even if it did we free her so she can only be an equally exploited waged worker. Whilst this may in principle create equality between the sexes, it creates a false sort of equality. It produces an “idealist” and liberal equality of opportunity. But we should note that under the doctrine of freedom mediated through the market, some people have far more choices and opportunities than others. Every woman may have the right to work, but as we already know, some women are actually coerced into waged work because of their class, and others still are coerced into the very worst sort of work, the sex industry. Middle class women will be equally free to work but they are not equally coerced into any form of work either paid or unpaid. “The wife work” can by contracted out, whether that is cooking and childcare or even sex services provided to the husband by working class women.

Liberal feminists campaign for legal reforms, again these reforms are and always will be of limited effect. The inequality between men and women is not founded on legal rights.

The ideas and culture that capitalist society produces persuade men and women of the inferiority of women, it’s hard to see how legislation has made any real difference at all. The proliferation of beauty practices benefit from the idea that women age and become valueless, sex and attractiveness is linked to age and beauty, creating a situation where a women’s primary value is still in her ability to procreate, despite the fact women work and have fewer children. This ideology of beauty is not in anyway natural, but wholly beneficial to the market in beauty products. The super exploitation of women on lower wages hinges on their reproductive capacity, without it there would be no need for the ideology of youth, beauty and motherhood. The contradiction to all this is that women are conditioned to value themselves as commodities, to invest in themselves and to market and sell themselves as commodities, but also as the commodity labour power. The total subsumation of culture, and all systems of value creation into the system of commodity exchange means that we now recreate the commodity labour power individually. Women not only reproduce the labour power of the male worker and the next generation, but she must also consume and invest into the extended production of herself, she creates her own exchange value as the commodity labour.

Capitalism is a system of exploitation, a system that requires false consciousness and ideology to perpetuate its laws and logic. Vast inequalities of wealth are created, new technologies in medicine, new ways of changing nature and shaping human nature are being developed. Capitalism is tremendously creative and hugely destructive. Revolutionary practice shapes new subjectivities and new relations, in going through this process society changes both individuals and their relation to each other.

If you can still bare to think in terms of idealism !! I shall give you a bit of idealist logical truth….it is absolutely clear, no woman will have equality with all men, until all men are equal to each other, and no woman will have equality with her male counterpart until all women have equality with each other. This of course can only happen with the transition to communism.


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