A Marxist theory
 of women’s oppression

In the new introduction to Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, Susan Ferguson and David McNally comment on the book’s “curious life-history.” They describe it, quite correctly, as a book that has lived largely in obscurity in spite of its innovative approach to the question of Marxism and women’s liberation and its enormous, though largely neglected, contribution to this important topic.

Timing was not on Vogel’s side. Originally published in 1983, this innovative work was buried in the right-wing political atmosphere, and the thriving women’s rights movements that emerged in the 1960s were no longer a force. 

The overriding theme of Vogel’s book is that Marxism offers a unified theoretical framework that can best explain women’s oppression by situating it in the capitalist mode of production. She contends that past socialist movements, in spite of significant advances and contributions, did not fulfill the promise of a synthesis between feminism and Marxism, largely because of theoretical weaknesses and misunderstandings regarding the roots of women’s oppression, as well as a certain economistic framework.

Vogel begins with an assessment of the women’s movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She examines socialist feminists such as Peggy Morton and Margaret Benson, who attempted to use Marxist categories and economics to develop a political economy of domestic labor, including the role it plays in reproducing the working class. While Vogel critiques some elements of their work (for example, that women’s work inside the home has a “precapitalist” character), she credits them with establishing “the material character of women’s unpaid labor in the family household. . . . They rooted the problem of women’s oppression in the theoretical terrain of materialism.”

From here, Vogel explores what became known as the Wages for Housework movement. In a now famous article, “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Mariarosa Dalla Costa explores the role of unpaid domestic labor performed by women in the household and deploys Marxist economics to describe that work and the role it plays in the economy. Using the Marxist theory of value, Dalla Costa attempts to prove that women’s unpaid labor in the home actually creates value in the form of labor, and that the dynamic within the household mirrors that of workers in a factory. In proposing a political economy of housework and what Marx calls the reproduction of labor power, Dalla Costa ascribes to housework the ability to create surplus value. Vogel disagrees but acknowledges that the debates and theoretical terrain that Dalla Costa and others occupied pushed the debate forward.

The domestic labor debate was left largely unresolved as the feminist movement developed in the 1970s and 1980s and began focusing on different questions. Consequently, radical feminism, rooted in patriarchy theory grew, and confidence in a unification of feminism and Marxism waned. 

Leaving these more contemporary questions, Vogel looks to the nineteenth century to assess the works of Marx and Engels and their impact historically and theoretically. She ultimately delinks this famous pair from each other, arguing that Marx’s framework in Capital is a superior, though less often cited, framework than that laid out in Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State for understanding the political economy of women’s oppression.

Having made this distinction, Vogel argues that, unfortunately, the socialist movement that came after Marx, namely the Second International, tended to look more to Engels’s method than that of Marx. Vogel focuses on August Bebel and his book Women and Socialism as emblematic of this period of socialist thought, as well as exploring the role that both Clara Zetkin and Lenin played in the socialist movements of their times. Vogel acknowledges the contributions made by these socialist movements and writers, but tends to home in on their theoretical limitations. Bebel’s book is described as inspirational, but undermined by its author’s utopianism and theoretical sloppiness. Vogel also acknowledges Zetkin’s political contributions but argues that she also succumbed to utopianism in her theory, as well as conflating simple description with analysis. She critiques Zetkin for making a mistake that Marx and Engels also made, which was to assume that a certain amount of liberation and equality followed from working-class women’s entry into the industrial workforce:

In the first place, along with virtually all her contemporaries, not to mention Marx and Engels, Zetkin glosses over the issue of domestic labor in the household. In this way, she loses an important opportunity to strengthen her argument for the existence of specific forms of the women question according to class. Empirically, the ruling class wife’s mediated relationship to housework bears little resemblance to the working class woman’s never ending domestic drudgery. At the theoretical level, the distinction stands out even more sharply, for only the unpaid domestic labor in the working class household contributes to the reproduction of the labor power required for capitalist production.

Whether or not Vogel is fully justified in drawing such sharp distinctions between Marx and Engels is up for debate, while her critique of Zetkin perhaps implies that the German revolutionary was pursuing a theoretical dead end, rather than contributing to an ongoing analysis of the relationship between women’s oppression and capitalism. She contrasts this with Lenin’s approach, to which she is far more sympathetic:

Lenin argues that the special oppression of women in capitalist society has a double root. In the first place, like national minorities, women suffer as a group from political inequality. And in the second, women are imprisoned in what Lenin terms domestic slavery—that is, they perform, under oppressive conditions, the unpaid labor in the household required to maintain and renew the producing classes.

Here she credits Lenin’s intense focus on the question of fighting for the greatest possible extension of democratic rights in all spheres (most famously in terms of fighting against national oppression), with an insistence on the importance of fighting to liberate women. At the same time, Vogel sees Lenin’s view that the “domestic slavery” foundation of women’s oppression is “the main thing,” both a return to Marx’s insights in Capital and a nod in the direction of her own work. Having settled accounts with both contemporary socialist-feminist writers and their German and Russian forerunners, Vogel next turns to her most innovative and original contribution.

Chapters 10 and 11, in just over forty pages, comprise the heart of Vogel’s book; here, she achieves nothing less than creating a framework to deliver on the promise of the book’s subtitle, Toward a Unitary Theory. She does so by drawing out the implications of a set of only partially developed insights elaborated by Marx in Capital; her great contribution is not to overturn Marx’s work in this field, but to complete it.

Vogel takes as her starting point Marx’s discovery that profits (the oil that greases the system’s wheels) arise from “surplus value” created in the process of production, the surplus to which Marx refers being the amount of value (eventually converted into money) that exceeds the total invested in materials, machines, and wages by the capitalist. The only part of this formula (materials + machines + wages) that can give more than it gets is what Marx calls labor power, that is, a human being’s ability to work. Marx’s underlying insight is that the value needed to create a given quantity of labor power is less than the new value that this labor power can create. This is the source of surplus value. Capitalists attempt to extract as much surplus value as they can by bullying or enticing their employees to work for more or less pay, at a faster or slower pace, for a longer or shorter part of the day. Of course, this confrontation plays out on a radically unequal playing field that the capitalist class controls with the help of the armed and legal powers of the state, while workers are always afraid of starving if they hold out too long.

While Marx’s genius in Capital is to lay bare all the tricks of the trade that go into maximizing the last drop of surplus that can be squeezed out of the worker (how labor-power can be made to give more than it gets) during the process of production itself (what happens at work), Vogel seizes upon an underdeveloped theme in Marx’s work to explore how labor power is available to the capitalist in the first place through the labor that happens at home. Marx writes,

A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume. When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and as flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production, is at the same time, a process of reproduction. [emphasis added]

In Vogel’s hands, this insight simultaneously puts to rest Della Costa’s assertion that domestic labor produces surplus value and demonstrates that, far from discounting (in either an economic, political, or moral sense) the central role domestic labor performed in a nuclear family unit plays in making capitalism possible; capital depends as much on reproduction as it does on production. As Vogel puts it,

Despite the linguistic similarity of the terms production and reproduction, the processes that make up the reproduction of labor-power are not comparable from a theoretical point of view. Reproduction of labor-power is a condition of production, for it reposits or replaces the labor-power necessary for production. Reproduction of labor-power is not, however, a form of production.

Having thus clearly defined both the distinction and the relationship between these mutually entangled spheres, Vogel then notes that there have been, and are, various real-world ways in which capitalism can quench its insatiable thirst for labor power. For instance, employees can be worked to death and then replaced by a new group captured one way or the other, either through enslavement in war or via various forms of immigration. Capitalism is replete with such examples; however, it turns out that there is a cheaper, more stable, and seemingly more humane way to produce workers: procreation. In other words, workers not only bear the seemingly mystical ability to create profits for the bosses out of their own sweat and toil, they can also literally give birth to a whole new generation of wage slaves, and the capitalist must only wait until they are, so to speak, ripe for the picking in order to harvest and consume them; this process of maturation may be as little as five or six years or as many as fifteen or sixteen, depending on the particular circumstances.

What does this have to do with the oppression of women? Vogel’s answer holds the key: “If generational replacement is to happen, biological reproduction must intervene. And here, it must be admitted, human beings do not reproduce themselves by parthenogenesis. Women and men are different.”

The conditions under which women give birth and raise children change historically and are greatly impacted by a particular woman’s class, racial, or immigration status, among other things. Further, “if biological differences constitute the material precondition for the social construction of gender-differences,” as Vogel notes, then “sex-differences cannot be considered apart from their existence within a definite social system.”

And under the “definite social system” of capitalism, the nuclear family (modified more or less) has become the dominant institution in which labor power, in the person of generations of workers, is reproduced. This arrangement is tremendously beneficial for the capitalists because they are guaranteed a fresh supply of workers who are privately birthed, raised, educated, and prepared for a life of work in tens of millions of family units scattered around the country and the world. That is, neither General Motors nor Apple nor McDonald’s need guarantee how they will contribute to the appearance of a new generation of workers fifteen or twenty years from now.

Wages (the price of labor power) are the result of a bargain based on splitting up the working day into two parts. First, the bosses must pay the worker for the “necessary labor” they perform in order to reproduce themselves (food, clothing, housing, transportation, for example). If they didn’t pay for this, their workers would starve and be unavailable for work on an ongoing basis. But because the bosses are bargaining from a position of strength, they force the worker to work a second part of the day, performing what Marx calls “surplus labor,” which creates the surplus value that capitalists turn into profits. How is this “necessary labor” defined? In a society where reproduction is the primary responsibility of isolated working-class families, “a portion of the direct producer’s labor,” writes Vogel, and thus subsequently what the capitalist must pay them, “may also be devoted to securing the reproduction of other members of the exploited class,” the so-called family wage.

This family wage merely pays for the purchase of the basic commodities (food, fuel, housing, etc.) necessary for a family to live. But in order to consume those commodities and actually live, “a certain amount of supplementary labor must be performed in order the necessaries can be consumed”—food must be cooked, clothes washed, etc. Moreover, non-producing family members (the elderly or sick, unemployed members of the household, infants) must be provided for and, crucially, the next generation of workers must be raised. These three aspects of privatized reproduction, maintenance of “direct producers” (that is, currently employed workers), nonlaboring household members, and generational replacement of workers, must be included in the sum total of wages that currently employed workers bring home to the privatized household.

But what is the link between this multigendered family structure and women’s oppression, and why has it become generalized and sustained under capitalism? Vogel explains,

If children are to be born, it is women who will carry and deliver them. Women belonging to the subordinate class have, therefore, a special role with respect to the generational replacement of labor-power. While they may also be direct producers [currently employed workers], it is their differential role in the reproduction of labor-power that lies at the root of their oppression in class-society.”

So, “from the ruling class’s short-term point of view,” writes Vogel, “child-bearing potentially entails a costly decline in the mother’s capacity to work,” even if only because of months of pregnancy and lactation. Does this mean that biology is destiny? No.

First, the specifics of how capitalism, like any social system, functions, is affected by both class and political struggles and by technological change. Powerful unions can increase the price of labor power, thus diminishing the amount of surplus labor performed for the capitalists. Civil rights and women’s rights movements can, and have, forced private employers to pay more taxes to the state so that aspects of privatized reproduction (education, transportation, food, etc.) are transferred into the realm of public schools and state subsidies. And the social movement demands and technological developments of birth control and abortion in many countries have given women more control over reproduction. Movements for equal marriage, LGBTQ equality, and transgender rights challenge the automatic equation of biology and gender roles. “Given the contradictory character of equality in capitalist society, struggles for democratic rights have serious revolutionary import,” explains Vogel.

Yet capitalism must continue to rely on the privatized reproduction of hundreds of millions of workers on a global scale, and this will set strict limits. Political reforms are possible with respect to exactly how this reproduction is carried out (same-sex couples forming families, a certain percentage of people deciding not to raise children, a certain level of public education and public family assistance, etc.). But, “the domestic component of necessary labor cannot be completely socialized in capitalist society. The main barrier,” argues Vogel, “is economic, for the costs are extremely high in such areas as child-rearing and household-maintenance.” The costs are currently only partially covered by the family wage, the other part being made up by the unpaid cost of domestic labor.

Ultimately, only a socialist transformation of society can effectively dismantle women’s oppression, because only production for human need in place of profit can “undermine the foundation for the oppression of women within the individual household.” Yet, if abolishing capitalism is a precondition for women’s equality, Vogel envisages a long and complex process for its complete achievement, as there will remain for a long time “an obstacle in the real differences between [men and women], particularly in the area of child-bearing.” Liberation cannot be decreed and it cannot be imagined as a simple political equality, rather,

Social equality for women will actually require unequal treatment at certain times: maternity-leaves, lighter work during later months of pregnancy, rest periods when necessary for menstruating women, and so on. In this way, the material conditions for women’s full participation in all areas of social life—production, politics, culture, personal relations, and so forth—can be developed.

Vogel’s emphasis on material conditions and the biological differences between men and women, even projected into a socialist future, may strike some readers as overly rigid. In the past decades, many movements have challenged facile gender binaries and, certainly since her book’s appearance in 1983, LGBTQI and transgender movements have won a well-deserved recognition that gender and even biological sex are more fluid than past generations believed. In that sense, Vogel’s book is a product of its time.

Having said that, Vogel’s work not only makes great strides toward a unified theory capable of bringing economic exploitation and women’s oppression into a common framework. Her insistence on the material roots of both and the concomitant need for a united working-class force that can challenge both simultaneously is a huge contribution to the building of a feminist movement rooted in Marxism. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory deserves to be recognized as a classic, indispensable companion to be read alongside Capital.

Issue #105

Summer 2017

Reproductive rights in the age of Trump

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