Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender shows the importance of Marx’s writing on the issue, while offering some perspectives to be criticised, argues Lindsey German

Heather A Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family: A critical study (Brill 2012), ix, 232pp.

The relationship between class and gender is one of the great issues debated from the early days of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s. To many feminists, Marxism, with its theory of class exploitation as central to an understanding of society, has been found wanting as too ‘reductionist’ and not taking sufficient account of oppression. In the past decade the issue has taken on an even greater relevance, given the increase of women in the paid workforce worldwide as a result of changes in global capitalism. The Economist magazine pointed out a few years ago that women working outside the home had contributed more to world GDP than the rise of the industrial giants China and India, or the development of computer technology.[i] The public involvement of women goes far beyond the workplace, however. On the streets of Cairo, São Paulo and Istanbul, women are a major part of the great street protests which emit cries of rage against governments and corporations worldwide. In these protests women are confronting not just their economic but sexual oppression, sometimes in the most direct and violent ways.

The combination of these different elements confronts socialists with new challenges about theory. This book aims to look at the writings of Karl Marx himself in trying to develop a theory for the twenty-first century.  It argues that Marx has a great deal to offer feminism both in terms of specific approaches to the family and oppression, and in terms of his method of understanding society. Heather Brown does us a service by bringing together different elements of Marx’s writing, from his early work to notes that he made shortly before his death. This involves covering a range of different issues, since Marx tended to address this question as part of other works, rather than as a central topic. Brown goes beyond a textual analysis of his writing and instead argues that we have to use Marx’s wider theory and method, including his historical materialist approach, in order to develop insights into women’s oppression today.

She makes a strong case for the relevance of Marx’s writing to feminist thought today, and tries to explain various issues in which Marx might seem wanting, for example his attitude to nineteenth-century morality as evinced in parts of Capital. However, in doing so she sometimes attributes to Marx rather more consciousness on the question than his writings would suggest. In addition, her whole approach to the relationship between Marx and his closest collaborator and lifelong friend, Friedrich Engels, is Marx good/Engels bad. She repeatedly references Engels’ ‘determinism’ and underplays the economic aspects of Marx’s thought, tending to separate these from his views on the superstructure (including the family). She stresses rightly the subjective action of women in changing their circumstances but sometimes at the expense of also considering the social and economic changes which themselves act on individuals and their subjectivity. She draws heavily on the work of the Marxist humanist writer Raya Dunayevskaya. The focus of the book, on Marx rather than the two, means that she gives little attention to Engels in his own right, and so perhaps has a more one-sided view of his writing than might otherwise be the case.

A wide range is covered: we see Marx’s views on women working in nineteenth-century British industry, his writing on suicide and  women’s oppression, his political interventions, for example during the First International and the Paris Commune, and his attitude to the relationship between social production and the reproduction of the next generation of workers. Perhaps most controversial are Brown’s views on the notes which Marx made on various anthropological works about gender in pre-class societies.

The analysis of Marx’s writings demonstrates a number of features about his attitude to women and gender. The first is that Marx’s socialism, unsurprisingly given its influences by the utopian socialists and Marx’s own enthusiasm for particular causes, is concerned about women’s oppression in a very human way. Brown cites his 1846 article on suicide, where he looks at early nineteenth-century French cases of women suicides and concludes that even members of the bourgeoisie are alienated, and that the bourgeois family is an oppressive and destructive institution. The cases include a woman who kills herself after being humiliated by her family for spending the night at her fiancé’s house; another woman who is held prisoner by her jealous husband and forced to have sex; another who is denied an abortion after becoming pregnant by her aunt’s husband.

In 1858, Marx wrote two articles about the notorious case of Lady Bulwer-Lytton, wife of a Tory MP, who was falsely imprisoned on grounds of insanity by her husband and son. It is clear from both these examples that Marx does not, as often accused, have a class-reductionist view of oppression, implying that economic changes would solve all such problems. Instead he has an understanding that the privatised family is a centre of oppression and that this affects women across classes. The social impact of this is the stifling morality which judges women by their sexual behaviour. More widely, alienation within capitalist society affects everyone, even if as he wrote in The Holy Family, the bourgeois feels more comfortable or satisfied in his or her alienation.[ii]

Marx was an active revolutionary in the German revolution of 1848 and remained deeply committed to the struggle all his life. The opportunities for agitation were limited in the early years of his exile in London and his main task in those years turned to the writing of his great work. Marx’s Capital contains some of his important work concerning women workers. He talks about the impact of machinery on women’s (and children’s) entry into industry, how this brings about cheap labour by spreading the costs of the reproduction of the working-class family across three or four wages rather than one, and how the workers battle to shorten the working day and to improve conditions at work. [iii] These were some of the major working-class battles of the middle part of the nineteenth century in Britain. It is clear from the writings of both Marx and Engels, including the latter’s Condition of the Working Class in England, that they saw women as an important component of the working-class movement.[iv] While they did not directly comment on the process which took place in the mid-nineteenth century of the retreat of women into the home, they will have been all too aware of it and may have had, like some others in the labour movement, an ambivalent attitude to it: on the one hand, reacting with horror to the terrible conditions in which women worked and the pressures they faced from sexual harassment and prostitution; on the other recognising that one solution to some of these problems – a family wage which allowed married women to care for the home – represented a step backwards for women themselves.

Brown deals with a reference Marx makes to the Preston cotton workers’ strike in 1854 which quotes without comment a speech by Mrs Margaret Fletcher calling for a family wage. She argues that this illustrates ‘at best, some ambivalence for married women working in factories and potentially neglecting their children’.[v] It may do, but it might also reflect the demands of the workers themselves which are essentially defensive demands to protect working-class living standards through allowing women and children to be removed from work.

Much of the focus of Brown’s book is on the origin of oppression, and here she deals with the relationship between nature and culture and that between production and reproduction. These were major concerns to Marx who in his early writings talked extensively about the way in which human beings act with nature in order to produce certain sorts of society, and how ideas arise within that society. Perhaps the fundamental reason for women’s oppression within capitalism lies in the contradiction between social production and privatised reproduction. The various debates on domestic labour and its role within capitalism are covered by Brown.

While she brings in some valuable insights, some of her analysis is more problematic however. The first is the repeated way in which she counterposes the views of Marx to Engels. She deals with extracts from both some of their earliest and some of their latest writings, but in my opinion does not make a convincing case. Indeed, she sometimes has to put a rather odd construction on some of Engels’ writing to do so. Engels famously wrote the shorter ‘first draft’ of the Communist Manifesto, called Principles of Communism, where he argues in response to the question on the influence of communism on the family:

‘It will make the relations between the sexes a purely private affair, which concerns only the two persons involved; a relationship which is in no way the concern of society. This attitude is made possible because private property will have been abolished and the children will be educated communally.’[vi]

Brown argues that Engels is saying, ‘it would not be necessary to alter the private life of the family’ because private property has been abolished.[vii] This is one possible construction but more likely, it seems to me, is that when he talks about ‘a purely private affair’ he is not justifying a privatised family but saying that that sexual and personal relations are not the concern of the state or wider society.

This reflects a wider misunderstanding on the subject of whether socialist revolution can overthrow oppression or whether a further revolution is required. This is one of the central arguments between feminists and socialists and is of course central to the whole strategy for women’s liberation. Brown claims that Engels’ formulations say simply that economic changes, abolition of private property, and so on will automatically lead to the end of oppression. Brown argues that ‘patriarchy can exist without private property’ and cites working-class families who have little property, or state-owned societies such as the Soviet Union or China.[viii] Yet these examples do not prove any such thesis: families without personal property exist within a system where private property dominates and so are greatly disadvantaged in such a system; and the states referred to saw property controlled by the state and the widespread existence of the nuclear family. The supposed reductionism of Engels is contrasted to the more sophisticated Marx in the Manifesto (which had both authors’ names on it) and Brown concludes: ‘Thus, more is needed than just to overthrow the capitalist economic system: all elements of society must be changed, including the family’.[ix] True, but are we seriously supposed to think that Engels disagrees with this approach?

The question of socialism and women’s oppression is also central to the debates about early societies, the rise of class society and the family. Towards the end of his life, Marx took a great interest in the new anthropological studies which tried to understand early societies. Since this was some of the last reading that he did before his death in 1883, and since Engels turned some of the same work into his book Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, it is likely that both men found the position of women in society and their specific oppression a political challenge, coming at a time when women’s lives in Britain and elsewhere were beginning to change, and a greater awareness of the ‘woman question’ was occurring, especially with the rebirth of socialism in Britain in the 1880s.

Brown does a very thorough job of analysing Marx’s notebooks which refer to the various anthropological works of Morgan, Maine and Lange, who studied various precapitalist societies. She covers some very interesting aspects of these societies such as fosterage in ancient Irish families and bride-price in India. Her argument is that Marx is much more nuanced over his approach to early societies, and in particular at Engels’ view that agricultural advance, the development of private property and changes from mother-right to father-right within clans led to the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’. Instead Marx saw possibilities of women’s social action in class societies, and he saw elements of oppression in egalitarian societies.

Any textual analysis of different writers, even those as close as Marx and Engels, will find differences of emphasis and analysis. In her rush to separate the two Brown even makes reference to the practices of the Iroquois Indians where both Marx and Engels refer to the man’s right to polygamy and infidelity but not to the woman’s. In Engels’ case he ‘missed an opportunity to criticise the position of women among the Iroquois’. When Marx also refers to this without comment we are reassured that ‘there is no reason why such a critique [of conflict within egalitarian communal structures] would not fit into the general framework of his analysis. For Engels, this would be much more difficult, however.’ [x] There seems to be no clear reason why this should be the case, and here Brown fails to see the wider issues.

What it seems to me Marx and Engels were trying to do was to explain the origins of women’s oppression, to point to societies where this oppression did not at one time exist, and to look towards a future society where again it would be a thing of the past. This is why both were concerned with how monogamy developed, with who controlled the children in any particular society, and with what work became identified with certain positions. It is this general approach which makes Origin of the Family such an important book, whatever its weaknesses, and which allows us to use this general approach to understand strategies for ending women’s oppression today.

To argue that one is reductionist and the other nuanced and dialectical does seem to be carrying a thesis further than the subject matter will stand, given that Engels wrote his book with reference to Marx’s notes and that the daily contact they had when in London would surely have included lengthy discussions on a topic which interested them both.

Brown concludes by arguing that in his articles on suicide and the Bulwer Lytton case, ‘Marx, at least tentatively, began to discuss the interdependent relationship between class and gender without fundamentally privileging either in his analysis.’[xi] Marx certainly showed an interest in these questions (writing on divorce and the family, for example, as early as 1842) but his analysis was clearly based on class, and he saw a range of issues such as gender oppression, the family or religion as specific products of class societies, in our case capitalism. When Brown argues that Marx points to the ways ‘in which economics and the specifically capitalist form of patriarchy interact’,[xii] she is perhaps imputing to him views that he did not hold, given that Marx’s view was that capitalism transformed all previous social relations and created new ones. This included the family and oppression, which exist in a very different form under capitalism from previous class societies.

These are debates which will no doubt continue, given a renewed interest in Marxism and feminism today. If you are interested in them, then read this book but also look at some of the writings of Marx and Engels, and more widely in the Marxist tradition. The first and second waves of feminism helped transform women’s political, legal and economic role within capitalism. The challenge for those of us fighting for women’s liberation today is to overcome the oppressive and exploitative structures which still bar the road to full equality.


[i] ‘The importance of sex’ in The Economist, April 15 2006.

[ii] K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol. 4 (London 1975), p.36.

[iii] K. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London 1974), especially ch.X and ch.XV.

[iv] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Moscow 1973), especially the section on Single Branches of Industry; Factory Hands, pp.172-224.

[v] Brown, p.103.

[vi] Quoted in Brown, p.54.

[vii] Brown, p.54.

[viii] Brown, p.54.

[ix] Brown, p.57.

[x] Brown, p.171.

[xi] Brown, p.220

[xii] Brown, p.220

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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