Theorizing women's oppression - Part 1

Domestic labor and women's oppression

This is part one of a two-part series, “Theorizing women’s oppression,” which includes excerpts from Sharon Smith’s ­forthcoming book, Marxism, Feminism, and Women’s Liberation, to be published later this year by Haymarket Books. The first ­article focuses on the role of women’s domestic labor as ­fundamental to their oppression far beyond family relations ­under capitalism. The second article, “Black feminism and the interlocking oppressions of race, class, and gender,” will ­appear in a future issue of the ISR.

CLASSICAL MARXISM provides a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the root of women’s oppression. But no foundation can or should be viewed as a finished product; it must be built upon to realize its potential. Likewise, theory must be further developed and adjusted as necessary to reflect changes in material circumstances, while also correcting past errors that become clearer with the value of hindsight.

One of the central tenets of historical materialism is that social relations are not static but remain in a process of ongoing negotiation via class and social struggles, as workers and all those oppressed by the system fight for the betterment of their own conditions of life. The needs and wants of the capitalist class have never single-handedly determined the terms of social relations—including those of women. As a living and breathing theory, Marxism can and must continue to develop in relation to a changing world.

More than 150 years have passed since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels penned The Communist Manifesto. And the world has changed significantly since then. Although they were often able to anticipate future sites of struggle, they were also constrained in other respects by the historical limits of the social relations of their time.

Marx’s and Engels’s articulations of women’s oppression often contain contradictory components—in some respects fundamentally challenging the gender status quo while in other respects merely reflecting it. Their most significant limitation was that they believed, along with their contemporaries, both that humans are innately heterosexual1 and that women are biologically suited for their nurturing and childrearing role in the family.2

Indeed, despite the enormous achievements of the 1917 Russian Revolution—including the legalization of abortion and divorce, the rights of women to vote and run for political office, and an end to laws criminalizing both prostitution and gay sexuality—it did not produce a theory that challenged either natural heterosexual norms or the primacy of women’s maternal destinies. As Marxist historian John Riddell described, “Communist women in that period viewed childbearing as a social responsibility and sought to assist ‘poor women who would like to experience motherhood as the highest joy.’”3

Fundamental challenges to these naturalist assumptions did not materialize until the rise of the women’s and gay liberation movements, amid a mass radicalization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The women’s liberation movement propelled the struggle for women’s liberation, stalled since the 1920s, far forward in a short period of time. In so doing, the movement produced new theories and practices that vastly broadened the scope of the fight against women’s oppression. These included the following prerequisites for women’s liberation: (1) women’s right to decide their own reproductive destinies; (2) freedom from sexual objectification, with its dehumanizing and often violent consequences; (3) rejection of rigid gender roles and women’s second-class citizenship in traditional marriage and in society at large; and (4) equal opportunity in higher education and employment and equal pay in the workplace.

The women’s liberation movement, like all movements, contained different political wings, sometimes acting in unison but also theoretically often in sharp disagreement. While not all feminists of this period were free from their own theoretical contradictions, feminists opened the floodgates of debate, exploration, and ultimately, theoretical advancement.

One of the most important theoretical achievements of second wave feminism involved a debate over the role of women’s domestic labor, which resulted for some in what has become known as social reproduction theory—situating women’s domestic labor as a crucial aspect of the social reproduction of the capitalist system as Marx conceived it. The domestic labor debates electrified many socialist- and Marxist-feminists and a small number of organized Marxists during the 1970s, yet their significance receded for the majority of both feminists and Marxists by the 1980s.

Marxist-feminist Lise Vogel, who played a key role in developing social reproduction theory, recalled the marginalization of the domestic labor debates:

Most feminists eventually rejected the domestic labor literature as a misguided effort to apply inappropriate Marxist categories. Most Marxists simply disregarded the debate, neither following nor participating in it. Neither potential audience fully grasped the ways that socialist feminists were suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that Marxist theory had to be revised.4

Marxist theory did need revision, and this article is an attempt to draw attention to the pathbreaking theoretical contributions of some of those socialist- and Marxist-feminists who developed social reproduction theory, which remains as important as ever to the project of women’s liberation. This article incorporates some of these feminists’ critiques of Marx and Engels and a number of their theoretical formulations that have advanced Marxist theory. While most of the contributions cited below were written in the 1970s and early 1980s, their relevance remains and their acknowledgement is long overdue.

In this article, I will assess the key elements of Marx and Engels’s theory, which connects women’s second-class citizenship in society overall with their role inside the nuclear family—while identifying key theoretical questions that need further development or correction. I will also examine some (though not all, due to space considerations) of the theoretical advances of 1970s social reproduction theorists who specifically addressed the role of working-class women’s unpaid domestic labor in the service of capital, and its connection to the oppression that affects women of all classes. Theirs was not an easy task, since Marx implied a theoretical framework for this understanding but did not pursue it himself.

Marx and Engels: the role of the nuclear family in women’s oppression
Marx and Engels were in many respects well in advance of their time in seeking to end women’s oppression, while pursuing its relationship to class society and the role of the family. Even in their early writings, they recognized that women’s oppression is endemic to capitalism, noting the subservient role of women in property-holding families. In The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, they argue that ruling-class men oppress their wives in their own families and that communists intend to free women from this oppression, stating, “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. . . . He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at [by communists] is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”5

In The German Ideology, written in 1846, Marx and Engels describe the nuclear family’s historical origin in the shift from what they call the “communal economy” and communal forms of social organization that dominated in preclass societies to the rise of the “individual economy” and the rise of individual family units accompanying the onset of early agricultural societies, and class inequality.

They wrote, “With the agricultural peoples a communal domestic economy is just as impossible as a communal cultivation of the soil.”6 Settled agricultural communities separated what was formerly communal property into individual plots of land under the private ownership of those with ample wealth to afford it—giving rise to new forms of social organization: individual family units.

They explain, “[T]he separation of society into individual families opposed to one another, is given simultaneously the distribution, and indeed the unequal distribution, both quantitative and qualitative, of labor and its products, hence property: the nucleus, the first form, of which lies in the family, where wife and children are the slaves of the husband.”7 On this basis, Marx and Engels conclude that with the abolition of private property, “the abolition of the family is self-evident.” 8

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written shortly after Marx’s death, Engels explores the historic rise of private property and its social ramifications.9 As the title implies, Engels connects the rise of class society with the rise of individual family units (in the form of the classic “patriarchal” family10) as the means by which propertied classes possess and pass on private wealth, and also with the rise of the state, representing the interests of the ruling class in the day-to-day class struggle. Engels argues that the nuclear family developed first among property-owning families, but eventually, the nuclear family form became an economic unit of society as a whole.

Marx spent the final years of his life on intensive research on non-Western and precapitalist societies, focusing on kinship and gender relations in particular, resulting in an enormous compilation of what has become known as his “ethnological notebooks.”11 Engels used portions of Marx’s ethnological notebooks in writing The Origin—primarily those discussing the anthropological data of nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s 560-page volume Ancient Society, published in 1877.

Morgan’s anthropological research was among the first materialist attempts to understand the evolution of human social organization. While much of Morgan’s data is primitive and has since been discredited by advances in the field, a wealth of more recent anthropology has provided ample evidence to support a basic evolutionary progression of human society.12

Engels ties the rise of the nuclear family directly to the rise of women’s oppression. As he argued, the “modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.” By using the term “domestic slavery,” Engels links women’s subservient status to their unpaid domestic labor as two sides of the same coin.

In addition, Engels makes two insightful observations about the consequences of women’s subservient status being intrinsic to their role in the patriarchal family. There is: (1) a sexual double standard that requires monogamy for women only and (2) the tolerance of domestic violence against women at the hands of their husbands.

Engels argues that the monogamous family ideal is based upon fundamental hypocrisy. From its very beginning, to ensure that the patriarch’s children were his own, the family was stamped “with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only, but not for the man.” In the patriarchal families of Rome or Greece, women were legally restricted to monogamy while men were allowed to practice polygamy.

Even after polygamy was legally abolished in most societies, men continued to enjoy greater sexual freedom. Acts of infidelity on the part of women, which Victorian society condemned in Engels’s time (and for which contemporary capitalist society still holds a sexual double standard), are “considered honorable in a man, or, at the worst, a slight moral blemish which he cheerfully bears.” To this day, prevailing ideology assumes that men are “naturally” inclined to desire multiple sex partners while women’s biology makes them more content with just one.

In addition, Engels observes that due to the ideal of the monogamous family, “adultery became an unavoidable social institution—denounced, severely penalized, but impossible to suppress.”13 Engels argues that the frequency of sex between married men and unmarried women became institutionalized over time. It “flourishes in the most varied forms throughout the whole period of civilization and develops more and more into open prostitution.”14

Thus, side by side with the development of monogamous marriage grew the commodification of sex in the form of prostitution. “With the rise of the inequality of property,” he argues, “wage labor appears . . . and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of the slave.”15 As Engels writes, “monogamy and prostitution are indeed contradictions, but inseparable contradictions, poles of the same state of society.”16

This observation by Engels is especially insightful since he could probably not have imagined, living in nineteenth-century Victorian England, the degree to which the sexual commodification of women would turn into a massive and highly profitable industry in the century that followed, or that sexual objectification would become such a central feature of the oppression of all women in modern capitalism.

Secondly, in The Origin Engels draws attention to the frequency with which women are on the receiving end of domestic violence within the nuclear family—long before the second wave of feminism emerged in the late 1960s and finally made these issues a centerpiece for theory and struggle. Engels describes the drastic decline of women’s status as a consequence of the rise of the classic patriarchal family, and the brutality that accompanied it, arguing that the rise of this new family form brought with it a degradation of women that was unknown in preclass societies.

Describing male supremacy within the patriarchal family as “the world historical defeat of the female sex,” Engels writes,

The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.17

In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.18

While in this passage Engels describes the classic patriarchal family norm, domestic violence is not an archaic product of the Middle Ages, as is all too evident today. On the contrary, the right of husbands to beat their wives was legally established by law in early capitalism and continued far beyond that era. In colonial America, husbands were allowed to beat their wives—but not on Sundays or after 8 p.m., to avoid disturbing the peace. Not until 1911 did all US states (except Mississippi) outlaw wife beating. Until 1973, English law permitted husbands to restrain their wives if they attempted to leave. Fathers still “give away” their daughters to their new husbands in Christian marriage, and in some US states it is still impossible to prosecute husbands for raping their wives. 19

At the same time that Engels offers these valuable insights, the process he describes above is highly unlikely to have taken place as a sudden and single “world historical defeat” of the female sex, resulting from the rise of the patriarchal family. Marx’s ethnological notebooks also make clear that Marx, while sharing much of Engels’s framework, held a more dialectical view of these historical processes than Engels.

While both Marx and Engels describe the patriarchal family as enormously oppressive to women, Marx’s notes also focus on the earlier contradictions that eventually gave way to the rise of class society and a patriarchal family form. Marx describes a much lengthier process that began during the latter stages of primitive communism, establishing some forms of gender inequality well before the existence of large-scale agriculture and the patriarchal family. As Marx observes, “‘Paternal authority . . . began to appear as a feeble influence in the syndyasmian [pairing marriage but without exclusive living arrangements], and [it became] fully established under monogamy while it passed beyond all bounds of reason’ in the patriarchal family of the Roman type.”20

Marx also differs with Engels’s view of the future prospects for the institution of monogamy. Despite Engels’s scathing attack on enforced monogamy within the nuclear family described above, he nevertheless guesses that socialism will bring with it a flowering of monogamy, in the form of “individual sex love”—albeit in conditions of equality, in which men join women in their exclusive commitment to each other.21 Here, Engels seems to accept the Victorian morality of his time.

Indeed, Engels idealizes similar Victorian notions elsewhere in The Origin. As political scientist Heather A. Brown describes, “Engels takes nineteenth century norms about women and applies them to the transition from group-marriage to the pairing family, arguing that women sought the institution of the pairing family to claim the ‘right of chastity.’”22

Marx did not assume that the monogamous family would survive class society as Engels did. On the contrary, he writes in his notes (agreeing with Morgan), “As the monogamanian family has improved greatly since the commencement of capitalism, and very sensibly in modern times, it must be supposable that it is still capable of further improvement until the equality of the sexes is attained. Should the monogamanian family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society, assuming the continuous progress of civilization, it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor.” As Brown, whose own research into Marx’s notebooks is substantial, comments on this passage, “Marx emphasizes, through his use of underlining, the need and possibility for the ‘equality of the sexes [to be] attained.’”23

The integration of some key conclusions found in Marx’s ethnological notebooks has helped to advance our understanding of the historical processes involved in the rise of women’s oppression. And Brown is undoubtedly correct in asserting “Engels remains within a relatively deterministic and unilinear framework, whereas Marx’s formulation allows for greater variety in outcomes and for a much greater degree of human agency, especially for women.” 24

These necessary corrections do not diminish Engels’s profound contribution. And taken together, Marx and Engels provide a broad theoretical framework that locates the source of women’s overall oppression as stemming primarily from their reproductive role within the family and the family’s role as an economic unit in class society.

The limitations of Marx’s Capital on the role of ­domestic labor
It can be assumed, given Marx’s dedication in the last years of his life to the research that produced his ethnological notebooks, that he intended to pursue the issue of women’s oppression and the nuclear family as a future writing project. Nevertheless, Capital is lacking in certain crucial respects on this issue. Capital addresses the issue of women’s oppression only tangentially, while the role of the working-class family—including the specific role of working-class women’s domestic labor—is left largely undeveloped. Moreover, Marx underestimates the role played by capital in legally enforcing rigidly gendered, heterosexual, monogamous marriage for all classes while it bolstered the working-class family, ensuring its survival.

While Marx clearly understood the role of property-holding families in maintaining and reproducing generations of the capitalist class and its wealth, his analysis of the role played by working-class families for the system was contradictory.

On the one hand, he understood at a basic level that the working-class family reproduces labor power for the system across generations—by ensuring the daily exploitation of the current generation of workers and also raising and training the next generation of workers. On the other hand, he mistakenly believed that the working-class family was in the process of disappearing, leaving unanswered the question of how labor power could be reproduced for capital in the absence of the working-class family.

Marx argues somewhat glibly in Capital, Vol. 1, “The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfillment to the laborer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation.”25

This is not the case historically, however. The family of precapitalist class societies did not seamlessly evolve into the family ideal appropriate to capitalism. Industrialization brought with it laws imposed from above that enforced legally sanctioned heterosexual marriage for all classes in society, with vast repercussions for women’s legal and social status. In 1769, for example, the American colonies of the British Empire adopted the principles of English common law, making women legally invisible upon marriage: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.”26

The capitalist class’s historical allegiance to traditional marriage demonstrates the degree to which they have held a stake in its enforcement, contrary to Marx’s assertion. As British Marxist Joan Smith argues, “Because the class of free wage-laborers is the essential pre-condition for capitalism, all capitalists have sought to intervene in the reproduction of this class. . . . From the beginning of Capitalism the organization of reproduction in the privatized Family is massively controlled by the laws, repressive apparatus and ideological structures of the State.”27

As noted above, Marx mistakenly believed that the working-class family was in the process of disappearing. In certain respects this was understandable, undoubtedly due to his awareness of the immediate circumstances that surrounded him: the deterioration of working-class family life and the corresponding changes in gender relations that accompanied it. At that point in British history, the participation of whole families in factory labor made family life impossible, and many working-class children were literally being worked to death before reaching adulthood.28

Yet even in Marx’s time, the capitalist class was in the process of strengthening the British working-class family because the impoverishment of the working class was endangering its ability to reproduce itself, while also posing the possibility of social upheaval. Employers increased male workers’ wages (just) enough to provide for their other family members, in what became known as “the family wage,” allowing more women to remain in the home as family caretakers.

Meanwhile, the British government set and enforced marriage laws to encourage workers to live in nuclear family units, while setting the wheels in motion for the state to assume some of the responsibilities for providing some of the skills and services for the next generation of workers formerly left to the family—including the establishment of free and compulsory public education.

Working-class families have been transformed in many ways since Marx’s time, but they have not disappeared as a social institution by any means. The 1960s women’s liberation movement successfully challenged the notion that marriage and childrearing should be the sum total of all women’s life ambitions, which combined with women’s increasing participation in paid labor has led to dramatic changes in traditional family structures.

Fewer women today take their husband’s last name upon marriage. Likewise, thanks to the LGBT movement, more same-sex couples are raising children, challenging gender stereotypes inside families. The rise in divorce has produced many more single-parent households, typically headed by women and living in poverty. As more women have taken on jobs outside the home, many women are having fewer children and doing so later in life. The responsibilities of domestic labor have tended to decrease compared with decades past. While improved household technology is a contributing factor, less time is spent cooking and cleaning because standards of cleanliness are less rigid and home-cooked meals less frequent as a result of women’s greater participation in paid labor.

Despite all these changes, however, the essential function of the working-class family for capital remains the same: reproducing labor power. The family’s adults shoulder virtually the entire financial responsibility for maintaining its members, whether in a single parent or extended family household, employed or unemployed. The day-to-day responsibilities of family still center around feeding, clothing, cleaning, and otherwise caring for its members, and that responsibility still falls mainly on women. Understanding how and why this is the case will not only theoretically address the source of women’s oppression, but also how it affects all women’s status in society.

Integrating domestic labor into Marx’s concept of consumption
Women’s unpaid domestic labor does not in itself produce surplus value, using Marx’s concepts, yet is vitally necessary to maintaining the capitalist system. Indeed, ruling-class ideology places primacy on women’s reproductive lives, on the basis that women’s nurturing capacity makes them naturally suited to prioritizing husband and children over all other pursuits—defining women as subservient to their own male “breadwinner.” The repercussions of this ideology extend far beyond family life itself and affect women of all classes. Society’s moral code views women’s bodies and reproductive choices as subject to control and judgment by others. Restrictions on access to abortion and contraception are aimed at restricting women’s right to control their reproductive destinies. Medicaid policies that deny abortion funding but pay for sterilization for poor women combine racism and sexism, restricting the right of poor women of color to bear as many children as they want.

The theorists involved in the 1970s domestic labor debate looked to Marxist theory to discover the precise role of women’s unpaid domestic labor for capitalism, which lays the basis for their special oppression. Because Marx did not address this issue adequately, however, those involved in the debate were not merely attempting to clarify Marxist theory but also to develop Marxist concepts in unchartered theoretical territory. At the same time, as Vogel noted, “the rudiments of a usable approach lie buried just below the surface of Marx’s analysis of social reproduction in Capital.”29

One such rudiment exists inside Marx’s concept of “consumption”—which he applied by distinguishing between a laborer’s productive consumption and his or her individual consumption. Both are equally essential for the maintenance of the system of exploitation but occupy distinct theoretical categories. As Marx explained,

The laborer consumes in a two-fold way. While producing he consumes by his labor the means of production, and converts them into products with a higher value than that of the capital advanced. This is his productive consumption. It is at the same time consumption of his labor-power by the capitalist who bought it. On the other hand, the laborer turns the money paid to him for his labor-power, into means of subsistence: this is his individual consumption. The laborer’s productive consumption, and his individual consumption, are therefore totally distinct. In the former, he acts as the motive power of capital, and belongs to the capitalist. In the latter, he belongs to himself, and performs his necessary vital functions outside the process of production. The result of the one is, that the capitalist lives; of the other, that the laborer lives.30

Marx notes that the “means of subsistence” included in the worker’s individual consumption must also include the means of subsistence for his children because all workers are mortal and their labor power must be replaced by that of the next generation of laborers: “Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labor-power must include the means necessary for the laborer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market.”31

Vogel made the following crucial observation about the missing element of domestic labor from Marx’s definition of individual consumption: “[I]ndividual consumption . . . happens when ‘the laborer turns the money paid to him for his labor-power into means of subsistence’. . . . But he said little about the actual work involved in individual consumption. Here was a realm of economic activity essential to capitalist production yet missing from Marx’s exposition.”32

The laborer’s means of subsistence is not a commodity that can simply be purchased with wages but rather requires domestic labor for it to be consumed. Washing clothes and dishes, doing housework, performing the multitude of tasks involved in raising children—all of these require domestic labor. Without this labor, individual consumption could not take place.

While these tasks are performed for the individual consumption of workers, they also play a central role in the reproduction of labor power—both in terms of the daily replenishment of laborers and also in preparing the next generation of workers to enter the workforce. When they are performed societywide, they are part of the process of social reproduction described by Marx—in which the social relations of capitalism are continually reproduced.

Social reproduction and domestic labor
Marx’s concept of social reproduction contains within it a core concept in need of further development: the role of domestic labor in making social reproduction possible. As Marx argued in Capital, volume one, “Capitalist production . . . produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage laborer.”33 He distinguishes between “individual capitals” (individual capitalist enterprises) and “social capital” (the sum total of all the individual capitals).

He used the term “social reproduction” to describe the means by which social capital is continually reproduced. This includes the physical reproduction of the means of production, which includes not only the machinery of production but also “the laborer himself.”34 As Marx explained in the second volume of Capital,

[I]f we study the commodity-product furnished by society during the year, then it must become apparent how the process of reproduction of the social capital takes place, what characteristics distinguish this process of reproduction from the process of reproduction of an individual capital, and what characteristics are common to both. The annual product includes those portions of the social product which replace capital, namely social reproduction, as well as those which go to the consumption-fund, those which are consumed by laborers and capitalists, hence both productive and individual consumption. It comprises also the reproduction (i.e., maintenance) of the capitalist class and the working-class, and thus the reproduction of the capitalist character of the entire process of production. [Emphasis added.]35

As Vogel put it, “Some process that meets the ongoing personal needs of the bearers of labor power is therefore a condition of social reproduction, as is some process that replaces them over time. These processes of daily maintenance and long-run replacement are conflated in the term reproduction of labor power.”36

While women’s domestic labor has continued to perform this vital function in social reproduction, modern capitalism has drawn more and more women into the labor force—which, in turn, requires a reduction in domestic labor. To be sure, paid labor by necessity has been a constant feature of life for many working-class women historically, especially women of color.

But since the 1970s, a growing number of married women—now including the majority of women with small children—hold jobs. Married women with children are more likely to work part-time to accommodate their family obligations, and more likely to move out of the workforce temporarily when they have children. But women are nevertheless today a permanent and large part of the workforce, even if individual women tend to move in and out of paid labor or work fewer hours compared with male workers. Capitalism has come to rely upon women as a permanent, low-wage sector of the labor force, located in overwhelmingly female occupations.

 Over the last century, women’s increasing participation in the workforce has been accompanied by a corresponding reduction in their time spent on domestic labor. As Vogel comments, “By the early 1900s, food preparation was less time-consuming, laundry was in some ways less onerous, and schools had taken over most of the task of teaching skills. More recently, frozen food, microwaves, laundromats, and the increased availability of day care, nursery, kindergarten, and after-school programs have decreased domestic labor even further.”37

There are, however, limits to the reduction of women’s role in reproducing labor power. Capitalism has come to rely on the labor performed inside the family free of charge. No single capitalist society could abandon the role of the working-class family unless all do so because capitals compete with each other. As Smith commented, “The family system could not be abolished in Japan, with the substitution of baby farms and nurseries as profit making enterprises or as part of a state capitalist system, without the reproduction of the Japanese work-force being either more costly or less efficient than its competitors.”38

The fact that the kin-based family is by far the most common means of reproducing labor power under capitalism also indicates its advantages not only for the capitalist class but also for the working class, given the alternatives on offer. While the family has changed in many ways over time, its essential function in social reproduction has not. All working-class families with children, even single-parent households or same-sex parents with children, perform the essential function of reproducing labor power for capital.

Why women? The working-class family at the root of all women’s oppression
Assuming capital’s ongoing reliance on the working-class family in reproducing labor power, there is also a physical limit to reducing women’s role in domestic labor—including those women who are also employed in paid labor—due to pregnancy and childbirth. By exploring this aspect of the reproduction of labor power, Vogel is able to locate the precise reason why women and not men are assigned to the domestic sphere.

Either gender could technically perform domestic labor inside the family. But the process of biological procreation—childbirth—is unique to women. The working-class family bears most of the responsibility for reproducing labor power, and this responsibility includes supporting women during the weeks or months immediately before and after childbirth. This may involve the assistance of an assortment of relatives, but typically in heterosexual nuclear families the biological father assumes the primary responsibility for providing for women during this period when they are physically unable to fully partake in either productive or domestic labor.

As Vogel argues, “Although in principle women’s and men’s differential roles need only last during those childbearing months,” women’s responsibilities tend to be identified with their role in childbearing in a kin-based family—especially since women often bear multiple children over a period of years. Vogel argues, “The arrangements are ordinarily legitimated by male domination backed up by institutionalized structures of female oppression.”39 These institutionalized structures of female oppression include the restriction of women’s legal rights, inscribed in laws regulating marriage, divorce, and reproductive rights described earlier.

The fact that the role of the working-class family endures is evidence that it is the favored means of reproducing labor power by capital in the absence of a fundamental challenge from below. And as argued earlier, the system has managed to incorporate women into the labor force while continuing to maintain their essential role in domestic labor inside the family. Therefore, Vogel argues, “While they may also be workers, it is subordinate-class women’s differential role in the maintenance and replacement of labor power that marks their particular situation.”40

At the same time, it is the enduring role of women’s domestic labor inside the working-class family that explains the oppression of women of all classes. “Lack of equality,” Vogel argues, “represents a specific feature of women’s (and other groups’) oppression in capitalist societies. Only subordinate-class women perform domestic labor, as discussed above, but all women suffer from lack of equality in capitalist societies.”

Thus, the relations between working-class women and men are unequal inside the family, but so are those between all women and all men throughout society. As Vogel described, “On the one hand, subordinate-class women and men are differentially located with respect to important economic aspects of social reproduction. On the other, all women are denied equal rights. In actual societies, the dynamics of women’s subordination respond to this dual positioning, among other factors.41

Sexism affects women in all classes of society—just as racism targets people of color of all classes and homophobia affects LGBT people of all classes. Special oppression is a cross-class phenomenon. This is the only way to explain why the upper echelons of business and government remain overwhelmingly white and male.

At the same time, women are also divided by class, as are all the oppressed. As Marxist-feminist Martha Gimenez comments, while women of all classes share certain experiences of oppression, women of different classes are also simultaneously locked into an antagonistic relationship. Thus, as she notes, crucial class differences between women reflect

important class and socioeconomic status differences in women’s experiences of biological reproduction . . . as well as differences in the organization of social reproduction: the use of paid domestic workers not only by capitalist women but by women affluent enough to afford them highlights how oppression is not something that only men can inflict upon women. The real advances upper-middle-class professional and business women (those earning six-figure salaries) have made in the last 30 years presupposes the existence of a servant stratum, drawn from the less skilled layer of the working class, including a large proportion of women from racial and ethnic minorities, often undocumented immigrants.

While the nature and number of divisions among women varies at the level of social formations, class divisions are common to all capitalist social formations and all social groups (e.g., immigrant populations, races, ethnicities, etc.) are themselves divided by class.42

The revolutionary road to women’s liberation
How do Marxists reconcile this seeming contradiction: women of all classes are oppressed under capitalism, yet class differences also divide women. The answer is surprisingly simple, based on the extension of Marx’s analysis provided by social reproduction theorists.

If the economic function of the working-class family, so crucial in reproducing labor power for the capitalist system—and at the same time forming the social root of all women’s oppression—were to be eliminated, the material basis for women’s liberation could be created. This outcome can only begin to materialize with the elimination of the capitalist system, replaced by a socialist society that socializes the domestic labor formerly assigned to women. While a socialist society does not automatically achieve women’s liberation, it creates the material basis for doing so, with continued struggle.

The socialist- and Marxist-feminist theorists described above did not leave their analysis at the level of theory but also advocated a strategy for women’s liberation that includes struggles for women’s rights alongside a struggle for socialism. They recognized that, despite class differences between women, the key to achieving the material basis for constructing a new social order encompassing women’s liberation lies in the abolition of the economic role of the working-class family, and women’s role within it.

Smith explicitly connects women’s subordinate role in the family to other facets of women’s oppression in society at large: “The oppression of women in class societies quite clearly cannot be reduced to any economic analysis. . . . But the social oppression of women makes no sense without a Marxist analysis of the family.” Echoing Engels, she adds, “It is the family system which creates the virgin, the prostitute, pornography and the oppression of women.”43

Gimenez reaches a similar conclusion:

Under capitalist conditions . . . the relations between men and women . . . find their material basis in the private reproduction of physical and social life and their political, legal, and ideological expression in the concept of the nuclear family as the basic unit of society, and of the State, the marriage contract, inheritance laws, etc. Just as the relations of production imply a difference in power between capitalists and workers, the relations of reproduction imply the power of men and the oppression of women, independent of their actual consciousness about the existence of sexual discrimination and their actual willingness to do away with it. . . .

This means that although some individual men and women may strive to achieve equality in their personal relations, sexual inequality, as a feature of the mode of reproduction which affects all men and women regardless of their private arrangements, remains unchanged as long as capitalism prevails.44

Vogel also argues, “So long as society is dominated by the capitalist mode of production, and opposition between . . . wage labor and domestic labor. . . . Extension of democracy, no matter how wide, can never abolish capitalist exploitation, nor can it liberate women.”45 Vogel envisioned the possibilities for life beyond capitalism and the possibilities for women’s liberation through achieving a socialist society. She compares and contrasts the role of domestic labor between capitalist and socialist societies: In a socialist society, she argues,

[a]s in capitalist society, a tendency exists to reduce the amount of domestic labor carried out in individual households. Rather than embodying the capitalist drive for accumulation, however, it represents the socialist tendency for all labor to become part of social production . . . in a planned and conscious manner, corresponding to the needs of the people as a whole.46

A socialist society, Vogel continues, “undermine[s] the foundation for the oppression of women within the individual household and in society. The extension of democracy, the drawing of women into public production, and the progressive transformation of domestic labor during the socialist transition open up the possibility for what Marx calls ‘a higher form of the family and relations between the sexes.’”47

  1. Any analysis of LGBT oppression is entirely absent from both Marx’s and Engels’s analysis, even though more recent Marxist scholarship has pinpointed the roots of gay oppression, like women’s, in the rise of the nuclear family. See, for example, Sherry Wolf, Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).
  2. Neither did their feminist contemporaries challenge certain Victorian assumptions about women’s roles. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a key figure in the radical suffrage movement, delivered a speech at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1892, listing four points regarding the rights of women. The last point stated, “Fourthly, it is only the incidentals of life, such as mother, wife, sister, daughter, that may involve some ­special duties and training.”
  3.  John Riddell, “The Communist Women’s Movement, 1921–26,” ­International Socialist Review, Issue 87, January–February 2013.
  4. Lise Vogel, “Domestic Labor Revisited,” Science & Society (New York: Guilford Press), Vol. 64, number 2, Summer 2000, 165.
  5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 27.
  6. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Part One (New York: International Publishers, 2004), 49.
  7. Ibid., 52.
  8. Ibid., 50.
  9. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1972).
  10. The classic patriarchal family is a specific family form that existed among ancient Greeks and Romans, of absolute rule by the male head of the household over its male and female dependent members.
  11. Chapter 3 of the 1972 edition of the Ethnographical Notebooks of Karl Marx is available at the Marxist Internet Archive:
  12. As Marxist historian Hal Draper agues in “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation,” in International Socialism 44 (July/August 1970): “There is a myth, widely accepted among the half-informed, that Morgan’s anthropological work is now simply ‘outmoded,’ like Ptolemaic astronomy, and is rejected by ‘modern anthropologists’.... [I]n this respect Darwin and Newton are outmoded as well.” Available at
  13. Engels, Origin, 131
  14. Engels, Origin, 129.
  15. Ibid., 130.
  16. Ibid., 139.
  17. Ibid., 120–1.
  18. Ibid., 122.
  19. “The Power to Make a Difference,” OPDV Bulletin, the biannual newsletter of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Spring 2000.
  20. Quoted in Heather A. Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family ­(Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 157–58.
  21. Engels’s concept of “individual sex love” is discussed at length in Draper, “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation.”
  22. Brown, Marx on Gender, 171.
  23. Ibid., 154.
  24. Ibid., 175.
  25. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1996), 572.
  26. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1862), 455.
  27. Joan Smith, “Women and the Family, part 1,” International Socialism (first series) 100, July 1977,
  28. Marx quotes a report by the Medical Officer for Health in 1875, describing “the average age at death of the Manchester . . . upper middle class was 38 years, while the average age at death of the laboring class was 17; while at Liverpool those figures were represented as 35 against 15. It thus appeared that the well-to-do classes had a lease of life which was more than double the value of that which fell to the lot of the less favored citizens.” Marx references the “Opening address to the Sanitary Conference, Birmingham, January 15th, 1875, by J. Chamberlain, Mayor of the town, now (1883) President of the Board of Trade.” (Quoted in Capital, vol. 1, 636).
  29. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 137.
  30. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 571.
  31. Ibid., 182.
  32. Vogel, “Domestic Labor Revisited,” 161.
  33. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 577.
  34. Ibid., 572.
  35. Marx, Capital, vol. II, part III, chapter 20: “Simple Reproduction,” available at
  36. Vogel, “Domestic Labor Revisited,” 156.
  37. Ibid., 163.
  38. Joan Smith, “Women and the Family, Part 1.”
  39. Vogel, “Domestic Labor Revisited,” 159.
  40. Ibid.          
  41. Ibid.,165.
  42. Martha Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,” Science & Society, Vol. 69, no. 1, January 2005, 28.
  43. Joan Smith, “Women and the Family, Part 2,” International Socialism 104, January 1978, 13.
  44. Martha Gimenez, “Marxism and Feminism,” Frontier: A Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 1, no 1, Fall 1975, available online at
  45. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 172.
  46. Ibid., 173.
  47. Ibid., 174–75.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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