By Lisa Luinenburg
When I became a mother four years ago, I began to feel my oppression as a woman in capitalist society more acutely. All of the endless demands on my time began to add up—the sleepless nights, the feedings, childcare, cooking, housework, errands and laundry around the clock. And then there were the demands at work—no paid maternity leave, the pressure to go back to work as soon as possible after giving birth, pumping in a bathroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids and I love being a mother, but I began to think deeper. Have women always been oppressed? Where does my oppression as a woman stem from? And isn’t there a better way to do things that spreads out all the work that women do more evenly?
The book that has ultimately helped me the most to understand my own oppression as a woman is Marxism and Women’s Oppression by Lise Vogel. Originally written in 1983 and since updated, the book gives a comprehensive overview of the evolution of socialist feminist theory since the time of Marx and Engels. It delves into the debates between radical and socialist feminists in the 1960s and 1970s and ultimately offers a detailed explanation of a socialist feminist way of understanding women’s oppression—social reproduction theory. I would urge anyone who is interested in the subject to give Vogel’s book a close read for a deeper understanding of this important subject.
Before we delve into the origins of women’s oppression, let’s dispel a central myth in our society—that women have ALWAYS been oppressed. This viewpoint claims that women’s subordination is inevitable because it is a function of their biology or psychology. Eleanor Burke Leacock, a feminist anthropologist and Marxist wrote Myths of Male Dominance in 1981 and debunked this myth. Her research showed that male dominance results from the effects of colonization and participation in market relations in societies that were previously egalitarian, from developing inequality in societies where specialization of labor and production for exchange is undercutting the collective economy, and from data as viewed through a Western lens. At the same time, history shows that women have not always been oppressed. While their childbearing function has always remained the same, women’s social status has changed dramatically throughout history. The oppression of women is not rooted in our biology. The origins of women’s oppression are economic and social in character and the development of women’s oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society.
Before the rise of class society, social production was organized communally and products shared equally, and the material basis for the exploitation of one group over another did not exist. The social status of women and men reflected the indispensable roles each played in the subsistence process, and gender and sexuality were often much more fluid categories than they are today. The change in women’s status developed along with the growing productivity of human labor based on agriculture, the domestication of animals, the rise of new divisions of labor, the private appropriation of an increasing social surplus, and the development of the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labor of others.
There are many different theories about the causes of women’s oppression that have been hotly debated by socialist and radical feminists since the 1960s. They have raised many questions which are not easily resolved (read Vogel for a comprehensive overview of these debates). Questions raised include: What is the nature of domestic labor? What is the purpose of the family? What is the meaning of patriarchy? Of reproduction? What is the relationship between imperialism and the family? Between sex and class oppression? Between women’s oppression and other forms of oppression (for example, racial oppression)?
Some theories, called dual systems theories, imply that women’s oppression comes from two distinct and autonomous systems, such as capitalism and patriarchy, the mode of production and the mode of reproduction, or the class system and the gender system. But these theories fail to explain how these systems are related.
On the other hand, socialist feminism starts from the assumption that there is a material root to women’s oppression, and that the family is a major terrain. Marx, Engels and other early socialist thinkers did write about the “woman-question,” but their theories were often inadequate or not fully developed and they were constrained by the social conventions and male-dominated ways of thinking of their time (read Vogel for a more in-depth analysis). At the same time, Engels made an important contribution in “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” as he closely examined the way these three institutions actually co-developed and continue to sustain each other. They are a powerful 3-legged stool on which Capitalism stands.
Social reproduction theory considers two concepts of Marx’s work as a point of departure: labor-power and the reproduction of labor power. Basically, workers sell their labor power on the market as a commodity. Labor power is realized when workers produce something with a use-value, which may or may not be exchanged. But workers also suffer wear and tear and eventually die. They must renew themselves on both a daily (individual) and long-term (societal) basis—this is the reproduction of labor power.
There are three types of processes that make up the reproduction of labor power in class societies: daily activities, the maintenance of non-laborers (for example children, the sick, and the elderly), and biological/generational replacement.
It is also important to note that the reproduction of labor power can take place in many locations, such as labor camps or barracks, and through many different processes, such as replacing laborers through slavery or immigration. However, most capitalist societies primarily reproduce labor power through kin-based family units and through biological procreation. These heterosexual family norms are most often institutionalized in class-based societies. They are constantly reinforced and made to seem like they’ve been around forever, even though (as we have seen) this is not historically the case.
Women’s special role in the biological reproduction of labor rests on a capitalist contradiction—capitalists need women to have babies to reproduce the labor pool, but when women give birth, it temporarily decreases their ability to contribute both as direct producers and in daily maintenance activities. Men also have to spend more time maintaining women during this period of time, which means they are less able to spend time producing commodities. This cuts into the capitalists’ ability to accumulate even more profits.
Although this differential division of labor that surrounds a woman’s ability to bear children need only last for a short period of time surrounding her pregnancy, most societies assign these roles a more permanent status through the family structure. Families then become the site for the performance of the daily and generational replacement routines, and are usually legitimized by male domination and backed up by institutionalized structures of female oppression. This also helps explain why heteronormative forms of the family are institutionalized. Non-normative families, such as LGBTQI families, or people who don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories, such as trans women, are less likely to be directly engaged in the social reproduction of new workers. Thus, it profits the capitalist system to exclude these people from mainstream society.
The family system is the fundamental institution of class society that determines and maintains the specific character of the oppression of women. In the upper classes, women’s oppression stems from their role in passing property along to their heirs. In the lower classes, it stems from women’s role in the reproduction of labor. Thus, women can experience oppression across all classes, although on different levels.
Let’s return to the concept of labor for a moment. There are two types of labor in capitalist society: necessary labor, and surplus labor. Necessary labor is the labor needed to renew a worker so they can continue to work the next day (this can be on an individual or societal scale). For example, cooking food, taking care of children, or preparing for the next day’s work. When workers work for their capitalist bosses, part of their work during the day is necessary work (the work they do to earn wages). Workers need wages in order to buy the products of capitalism for their personal consumption and renew their labor. The other part of their work is surplus labor. This is the extra labor they are essentially doing for free—the labor the capitalists bosses appropriate for their own profit.
Necessary labor has two parts: the social component (the part that earns wages) and the domestic component (unpaid labor in the home). The domestic labor often takes the form of additional labor needed to make commodities purchased by the worker for their consumption at home useable. For example, if you buy food, you have to cook it before you can eat it. It can also include caring for people who are not part of the labor pool, such as childcare or care for the elderly who cannot work.
Because of the contradiction in women’s roles in the reproduction of labor power and the institutionalization of the family structure, men are often primarily responsible for earning the wages, while women become primarily responsible for domestic labor. In capitalist society, the realms of productive and domestic spheres become spacially, temporally, and institutionally isolated from each other.
The capitalist bosses are always looking for ways to decrease necessary labor so they can increase their surplus labor and maximize their profits. They can do this in several ways—through longer working hours, speed ups, or increasing worker productivity. There is also a tendency to decrease domestic labor, for instance by socializing education, or obtaining even more profits through outsourcing tasks such as child care to daycare centers, or laundry to laundromats. This also helps explain the drive to privatize education to gain even more profits for the ruling class.
It is important to note here that women also play an important role in production and have often worked outside of the home (both in the present and historically). But it is through their role in the reproduction of labor that their oppression arises. Family members who are not working and are maintained by the family wage also help make up a reserve army of labor that capitalists can draw on when they need more workers. In fact, it benefits capitalists to have women as a mobile workforce they can exploit on demand, and women entering the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that a family’s circumstances or wages will improve. For example, capitalists can use this as an excuse to pay everyone lower wages if more members of a family are working (and the lower wages have historically gone to women and children). The entry of women in the workforce has also been a controversial topic in socialist feminist debate.
So now that we understand where women’s oppression comes from, what can we do about it? Domestic labor has often been a class battleground and working people strive to win the best conditions for their personal lives and the renewal of their labor. Historically, women have been incorporated into strikes even if they are not in the workforce, for example the women’s auxiliary in the 1934 Teamster’s strike in Minneapolis. Women also played a crucial role in the recent teacher’s strikes that took the nation by storm.
Efforts to organize and expand equality can also reveal the fundamentally exploitative character of capitalism while moving everyone towards a more equal footing. Social struggle, as we all know, is essential and many things we take for granted today, such as the 8-hour day or child labor laws, were won through hard struggle by the working class. Despite the family’s base for the exploitation and oppression of women, families can also have a protective aspect for the working class—they can be centers for organizing against exploitation and provide social ties and supports to working people.
It is important to recognize here that there are democratic demands that we can fight for now that can be achieved under capitalism. Social reproduction theory provides a useful lens for us to examine social struggles that are currently occurring in a context of capitalist crisis. When capitalism is in crisis, there is an extraordinary level of pressure on women to “return” to their “traditional” role in the home. I put “return” and “traditional” in quotes because for working class women and especially women of color, not to mention women who are not heterosexual or cis-gendered, this traditional family role is pure mythology. Being full time in the family home and playing a support role for the nuclear family is not a viable option. But the ideological and physical assaults are real. There are attacks on reproductive freedom. All the services which support women in exercising full autonomy over our own bodies are on the chopping block. Abortion certainly, but also sex education and birth control. Services which help mothers maintain themselves in the workplace, such as paid maternity leave, breastfeeding supports, and low-cost quality childcare are all under attack as part of Capitalism’s offensive against women, as are social support programs targeted towards women and children, such as SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid. Immigrant women, whether undocumented or refugees, are doubly oppressed, as they face super low wages and deportation of the head of the family household, and are barred access to social service programs due to their immigration status.
Sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence are part of the same offensive, a conscious ruling class campaign to “put women in their place.” African American women and women of color have faced especially brutal levels of repression in this area and experience deeper layers of oppression as women because of their race. Socialist Action has always spoken out when women are under attack. We join the chorus welcoming the #MeToo movement and we join the protests against violent misogynists in power—from Trump to Kavanaugh and beyond. But we have a lens that others lack, which helps us explain where this entitlement and violence comes from. It is the violence of the capitalist system in crisis, desperately lashing out against women’s ability and right to function in the public sphere.
Socialist Action recognizes that the oppression of women and the oppression of LGBTQIA people are intertwined and we have always supported LGBTQIA liberation struggles. We have done so because we believe that everyone has the right to be fully who they are. Here too, social reproduction theory gives us additional insight into the nature of the oppression LGBTQIA people face. The normative and central role played by the heterosexual nuclear family unit under capitalism implies additional levels of oppression for those who fail to comply. It is important to affirm everyone’s unconditional right to be who they are, and to be free from discrimination, harassment, and violence because of their sex, sexuality, or gender.
At the same time that we support all of these important social struggles, we must also recognize that a true end to women’s oppression can only be achieved through a socialist society. Socialist society will give us the freedom to re-think and re-distribute labor, which is the only way to eliminate the material root of women’s oppression. The need for domestic labor will never go away, but socialist society will allow us to socialize domestic labor under worker’s control. It is interesting to think here about what will happen to the institution of the family under socialist society. Once the material basis for women’s oppression is gone, the family will also begin to naturally shift and take on new forms and shapes.
I would like to end with a quote from Vogel’s book (page 181-182): “Historical materialism poses the difficult question of simultaneously reducing and redistributing domestic labor in the course of transforming it into an integral component of social production in communist society. Just as in the socialist transition ‘the state is not “abolished”, it withers away’, so too, domestic labor must wither away…In the process the family in its particular historical form as a kin-based social unit for the reproduction of exploitable labour-power in class-society will also wither away—and with it both patriarchal family-relations and the oppression of women.”
This text was presented at the SA Educational Conference (Toronto) on November 16, 2018.