When I became a mother three and a half 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, child care, 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 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
Engles. 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 look 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. But 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. 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. Thus, 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
Socialist feminism starts from the
assumption that there is a material root to women’s oppression, and
that the family is a major terrain. 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
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 and backed up by
male domination and structures of female oppression. 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
It is women’s special role in the
biological reproduction of labor from which their oppression stems.
This role 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’s ability to accumulate even more
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). 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 spatially,
temporally, and institutionally isolated from each other.
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
historically go to women and children). The entry of women in the
workforce has also been a controversial topic in socialist feminist
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. Efforts to organize and expand equality can also
reveal the fundamentally exploitative character of capitalism while
moving everyone towards a more equal footing. 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. For example, we can
fight for a breakdown in institutionalized gender norms and a more
equal sharing of domestic labor in the family home. We can fight to
expand democracy and equal rights for women and all oppressed groups.
We can fight for special treatment for women due to their biology—for
example, lighter work during pregnancy, paid time off for maternity
leave, or the right to express milk during the work day.
But at the same time, 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,’ [a famous quote from Frederick Engels] 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.”
>> The article above was written by Lisa Luinenburg of Socialist Action.