With the advent of the Trump administration and a conservative Congress, women and their allies marched in Washington and in hundreds of other cities on Jan. 21. The fact that the Washington march blossomed from a little seed into a huge national undertaking almost overnight is a sign that millions of people are ready to fight for the defense of women’s rights and the advancement of the women’s movement.
long-term strategy needs to start with a clear view of the root
causes and fundamental bases of sexism and gender discrimination.
of the most pressing questions facing our movement has to do with the
relationship of women’s oppression to the capitalist economic
system as a whole. Is it possible to complete the project of women’s
liberation within our current social and economic system? How one
responds to this question will determine, to a great degree, the kind
of movement we set off to build. It will determine our effectiveness
and ultimate success.
liberation groups have discussed strategy based on this question in
every stage of the struggle over decades. Looking at the
anthropological, historical, and theoretical elements that
undergirded those previous debates is a prerequisite for our own
deliberations. Together, these elements can give us a fundamental
understanding of the inner workings of a gendered class society and
how class and gender reinforce each other.
in indigenous society
subordination did not always exist. In fact, they played a role of
leadership in early societies, before the development of distinct
social position, far from being biologically determined, is specific
to the ways in which different class societies are organized
economically. Women’s status has not gradually improved as society
“evolved” from “primitive” to “civilized” but, on the
contrary, has shifted, often negatively, with the development of new
property relations and the kinds of social organization that
accompany these relations.
such as Eleanor Leacock and Silvia Federici have established a
significant body of research documenting pre-capitalist gender
relations. Federici shows in her writings that indigenous society in
the Americas was far more egalitarian for women than in Europe after
the transition to capitalism. Many indigenous societies were based
mainly on consensus, lacking most of the formal authority we find in
later civilization, and women often controlled economic life.
to Leacock in her book, “Myths of Male Dominance” (1981),
pre-Columbian Iroquois women had a great deal of control over
society, including the “the de facto power to veto declarations of
war and to intervene to bring about peace.” These native women
managed “the household,” but that had little in common with
“household management” in patriarchal society.
Iroquois society preceding the colonizers, management of the
household meant control of all food stocks, treasury, and fur. This
was everything they needed to survive and to trade amongst
neighboring tribes. Women could exercise control over society because
they were at the center of the public economic life of their society.
The arrangement of production for sustenance and development did not
itself lead to patriarchy. It was only the colonial introduction of
new property relations into band society that began to tie production
to patriarchal norms.
fact, the European interlopers were often shocked at the kinds
of gender equality they found in indigenous tribes in the Americas.
Leacock described one account from a Jesuit priest regarding
relationships of 17th-century Montagnais-Naskapi life: “Noting that
women had ‘great power,’ he expressed his disapproval of the fact
that men had no apparent inclination to make their wives ‘obey’
them or enjoin sexual fidelity upon them. He lectured the Indians of
this failing, reporting in one instance, ‘I told him then that he
was the master and that in France women do no rule their husbands.’”
Jesuits who first encountered the Montagnais-Naskapi in the
17th century in Canada had attitudes that themselves were
products of a dramatic transformation of property relations and the
status of women in Europe. Silvia Federici, author of “Caliban and
the Witch,” describes the way that the enclosures of communal land
and the devaluation of peasant women’s “home work” were
accompanied by a devastating reduction in women’s rights. From the
15th to the 17th century, Federici claims, women were
stripped of their right to perform abortions, as well as their right
to professions such as midwives and medical practitioners, and rape
stopped being a punishable crime.
the end of this social transformation, women had lost significant
social power. The transition from feudalism to capitalism sharpened,
rather than decreased, the use of patriarchal principles to organize
is a system that runs on profit making and the continuous production
of commodities. If the system stopped facilitating the production of
all of the commodities we consume, the economy would collapse. In
addition to boosting the production of commodities, the capitalist
system must reproduce the class conditions that make profit possible.
In part, this means the reproduction of a class of workers who must
labor for wages because we do not own any means to produce
keep the working class producing, workers must replace themselves
with children, and these children must be raised, educated into the
workforce, and maintained as part of the workforce. Each worker has
to find or create social mechanisms to help deal with occupational
illnesses, the stress and physical wear and tear of work, and to tend
to them when they are old or disabled.
Cinzia Arruzza, in her paper, “Functionalist,
Determinist, Reductionist: Social Reproduction Feminism and its
Critics,” described some of the conditions of work under
capitalism. One of the main features of wage labor, she states, is to
keep the worker in a condition of “dispossession.” This is done
through paying the worker less than the amount they produce in sales
for the boss, but also by appropriating their skills into machinery.
Thus, the worker is “not just reproducing herself as a generic
human being with needs and desires; she is also reproducing herself …
as a member of a specific class characterized by dispossession and
capitalists would always keep workers working, while providing meager
wages to cover costs of living. However, we need some amount of time
to rest, eat, and take care of ourselves and our families. We can
call the labor used in maintaining living conditions, necessary
labor. In capitalism, the bulk of necessary labor is done by women,
but can also be done by men, children, or even service workers.
want to continue to increase profitability, and thus there is an
incentive to reduce necessary labor by employing those doing domestic
labor. Yet, it must allow for necessary labor; otherwise, the labor
supply would ultimately be reduced, or even decimated. This is a
contradiction. Necessary labor should be reduced to increase
profitability, but it should also be increased to increase labor
supply and create the condition of dispossession for the worker.
During World War II when women were critical to production in the
United States, the elites rushed to set up child-care centers, but
after the war used all the means at their disposal to push women out
of full-time work.
World War II experience shows that social reproduction can be
arranged in many ways. Within the last 100 years, domestic life for
working people has generally been the result of women’s unpaid
labor, but occasionally, portions have been taken up by the state,
and most recently, relatively privatized. These variations are not
unusual, and change has been a permanent feature of the capitalist
mode of production. Education, for example, was the private
responsibility of families. Once, cooking and cleaning were assigned
to children. But whatever the setup, under capitalism, women have
shift of some necessary labor from inside the home to outside has not
produced women’s liberation. Rather than women performing all the
necessary labor at home, working women pay a substantial amount of
their wages to privatized firms. In these firms, because of their
seemingly “natural” place in the home, women can be paid
deliberately meager wages. Because the economy is set up so that all
family members need to work, women are forced to become part of a
low-wage workforce that the employers can use to drive down the wages
capitalism cannot allow for women to be completely liberated from the
necessary labor of social reproduction, they continue to maintain a
discriminatory wage system. Overall, women function as
what socialists call a “reserve army of labor,” buffeted to and
fro as the capitalists negotiate competition and the swings of the
long as society is organized to maximize the production of profit
rather than to fulfill human needs, full women’s liberation and an
end to gender discrimination are impossible. To end this kind of
oppression once and for all, we must base the organization of human
society on the needs of the majority and make all the elements of
social reproduction—nurturing, education, health, child care, elder
care, and all that is needed for a satisfying life—the
responsibility of society as a whole. This kind of system is called
do we get there?
capitalism and replacing it with a socialist system that puts human
needs before profits is a gigantic task that can only be accomplished
when the majority of the working people in the country are convinced
of its necessity. That majority will have tremendous power
at its disposal, and if unified and politically engaged, can use its
position in production, transportation, and communications to put
themselves at the head of a government capable of reorganizing
(i.e., the 1917 Russian Revolution) tells us that this kind of
reorganization can provide the material basis for a radical
transformation of the status of women. Once they have freed
themselves of the burden of filling the coffers of Wall Street,
Exxon, and the Pentagon, working people could immediately use the
surplus from production to provide each other 24-7 child care and
elder care, universal health care, full reproductive justice,
enriching public education, food sovereignty, mitigation of
environmental threats, and housing and mass transportation for all.
new women’s movement, visible through massive marches like the one
on Jan. 21, independent of the corporate parties, and committed to
strengthening and interacting with the movements of labor, immigrant
rights, and for Black Lives, must shape the agenda of that majority
so that the material potential will become social reality. The most
direct way to become part of the process is to join a socialist
group. Socialist Action welcomes your participation.
The article above was written by Christine Marie and David Kiely of
Socialist Action newspaper.