Marxism and the Oppression of Women

Lindsey German welcomes a new edition of a classic of Marxist Women’s Liberation theory, which opens up rich debates over the nature and origins of women’s oppression

Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory

Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, with new introduction by Sue Ferguson and David McNally (Haymarket Books 2013), xl, 215pp.

The reissue of this book, first published in 1983, by a feminist with long involvement in the US civil rights and women’s movements, is the sign of renewed interest in ideas of socialism and feminism for a new generation. It is also a sign of the desire for an analysis of feminism which links women’s oppression to its material roots and tries to locate it in wider society. Vogel succeeds in giving us an over view of Marx’s theory in relation to women, and puts forward her analysis of where women’s oppression is located. She has become one of the leading advocates of what is termed ‘social reproduction theory’, which explains that oppression in women’s role in the reproduction of labour power.

The women’s movement came from the left. Its protagonists, like Vogel, were deeply committed to the civil rights, anti-war and student movements of the 1960s, founding the movement as a result of growing unease with the treatment of women in these political movements, an unease which exploded with rage in 1968 as women found their agenda for fighting oppression ignored, dismissed or ridiculed by many men in the movements.

One of the features of the early years of women’s liberation, especially in the US, was an outpouring of writing on the nature of oppression. Because many women came from left backgrounds, their analysis attempted to build on Marxist or socialist thinking to explain oppression, and to do so in relation to class. The book, as its subtitle suggests, is an attempt to find a ‘unitary theory’ of oppression, one which can integrate class and oppression theoretically, without resort to seeing them as two separate areas, and which will in the process allow a reworking of Marxism to take into account feminist theory. In doing so it analyses firstly ‘a decade of debate’ to give an overview of the sometimes fierce arguments on the question which erupted in the early women’s movement. It then turns to the writings of Marx and Engels on the question, and looks at some of the early socialist practice on organising women, before concluding with her own analysis of social reproduction theory.

Vogel’s book is, in the first place, a comprehensive and informed account of Marx and Engels thinking on these questions. She looks at their various writings, including the very early work in which Marx and Engels tend to refer to the question of women and the family in relation to wider theoretical and political questions, for example in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1973), where Engels talks about the need for reserve armies of unemployed and about the dissolution of the working-class family, to The German Ideology (1965) where the two men develop their ideas on the family, talking about the abolition of the proletarian family under the impact of capitalist production and the need for those labour reserves which draw every member of the family who can do so into employment. She then goes on to consider Marx’s work in Capital (1976) and the Grundrisse (1973) on the reproduction of labour power and the creation of reserve armies of labour, and Engels’ writing on the family in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1978).

Vogel is critical of the formulation employed by Engels in his preface to theOrigin where he talks about production and reproduction: ‘According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of material life’, which she sees as taken up by modern feminists in order to justify a form of dualism in analysing oppression, so keeping separate the analysis of class and women’s oppression. She links this to earlier formulations in The German Ideology which refers ‘the production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship’. Her dismissal of this earlier work is problematic, since it could be used to help understand questions affecting oppression, especially the creation of consciousness, and the effect of the revolutionary process on ideas. It seems to me that Engels is using the term to describe the development of society in the most general terms, rather than seeing this statement as describing work and the family in any concrete situation. Vogel misses the fact that Engels refers to his view as being descriptive of early societies, and that such equilibrium between production and reproduction would alter the more that the productive forces grew.

However, the formulation of Engels has been used to suggest a separation between struggles over oppression and those over exploitation; that they constitute two modes of production for example, and to this extent Vogel is correct that the terms do at least need qualification. She may also be right that they influenced the rather odd formulations in Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling’s The Woman Question (1986)where the relationship between men and women is compared with that between capitalist and worker. Refreshingly, given the frequent attribution of blame to socialists over various failings in relation to work around women’s oppression, Vogel stresses that whatever the theoretical weakness of Marx, Engels and their immediate political descendants, Marxist theory on women led to a wide range of political activities around ‘the woman question’, where socialists were well in advance of contemporary social thinking on this issue.

Vogel’s desire to create a unitary theory is rooted in her opposition to many of the theories which developed from 1960s feminism, most particularly dual systems theories, especially that of patriarchy, which she saw as a retreat on the part of socialist feminism: ‘The concept of patriarchy entered socialist-feminist discourse virtually without objection.’ In an attempt to theorise oppression, she turned to the role of women, and women’s labour, in the reproduction of labour power. In this she moved away from but also built upon the longstanding debate on unpaid work in the home.

The relationship between women’s role in social production and privatised reproduction under capitalism was the subject of debate about the relative role of women and men inside the working class, and whether unpaid labour in the household (carried out overwhelmingly by women) could be seen as socially productive, producing value for the capitalist class, or whether it simply produced use values within the home. The debates also considered whether domestic labour carried out in the home could be considered a mode of production that can be viewed as something distinct from the capitalist mode of production. 

The ‘domestic labour debate’ as it came to be known entailed recognition of the important economic work carried out in the home. It was an attempt to locate women’s domestic labour within the capitalist economy. Some placed the location of women’s oppression in the contradiction between their role in social labour and in domestic labour, and the necessity of women having to carry out labour in both spheres of work. Others looked at whether the housewife through her labour created some sort of value for the capitalist class, beyond the use values produced within the home (DallaCosta and James 1975, Seccombe 1974, Benston 1969, Harrison 1974, Coulson, Magas and Wainwright 1975, Smith 1978, Gardiner, Himmelweit and Mackintosh 1976). There was also the argument that workers in the home should be considered as part of the labour force, producing value for capital and therefore entitled to recognition and to wages for housework (DallaCosta and James 1975, Federici 1975).

The strength of the debate was its attempt to use Marxist categories and concepts of class in order to provide a material basis for women’s oppression. However, it was characterised by an analytical separation between the domestic and industrial spheres, and an idealised view of the housewife which corresponded less and less to reality even in the 1970s. In addition, the danger of simply stating that domestic labour was labour which produced only use values, while true, is that it underplayed its highly important role to capital and to the reproduction of labour power, something which the ‘wages for housework’ theorists understood, even if their political conclusions were widely rejected.

If the debate had exhausted itself by the late 1970s, bogged down in what appeared as hair-splitting abstractions about Marxist categories, it had also been superseded by an adoption of dual systems theories, an analytical separation of class and oppression, or capitalism and patriarchy. While this was widely taken up, some saw it as too idealist, lacking an explanation of where oppression came from and too accepting of a more radical and separatist feminism. This led to a number of critiques which tried to assert a materialist feminism.

Most famous was Heidi Hartmann, who described the relationship between Marxism and feminism as an unhappy marriage. But this was also highly contested, especially from the view of the historical evidence, by writers such as Jane Humphries (1977) and Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas (1984). Iris Marion Young rejected dual systems theory and stressed that any theory of oppression had to be based in social relationships, to have a historical view, and to consider the gender division of labour as central (Young 1980). There developed a theory of oppression which is based in material conditions rather than being purely at an ideological level, known as materialist feminism (Hennessy and Ingraham 1997).

Vogel rejected dual systems theory and stressed the centrality of the reproduction of labour power to capital, and the role of this reproduction as central to the oppression of women. Domestic labour for social reproduction is at the heart of the refreshing of labour power which is essential to capitalist production. Vogel argued that women play a key role in social reproduction because of their specific and unique role in childbirth and lactation. It is this, in her view, that is at the root of women’s oppression and she considers that it is the process of social reproduction itself, rather than the family form, which is its most important aspect, and that in this sense women’s role in social reproduction leads to their oppression.

While Vogel makes a clear and compelling case for the centrality of social reproduction in understanding women’s oppression, this takes a somewhat abstract view of how labour power is reproduced. She argues that the process of social reproduction does not need to be based in the privatised nuclear family so prevalent under capitalism. She poses alternatives to the family for example, that a labour force can be replenished through immigration or slavery. However these methods still involve labour power being reproduced in a family, even if that family is located thousands of miles away, and if the costs of reproduction in that family are much lower there than at the point of exploitation. Institutions such as prisons or care homes, which carry out some of the same functions of the family, are not serious rivals to the nuclear family, which is the overwhelming site of reproduction of labour power.

There were lengthy debates in the 1970s and 80s about whether capitalism could abolish the family. While in theory it could, using various institutional forms and sometimes levels of coercion in order to reproduce labour power possibly more efficiently, this would need firstly record levels of investment by the capitalist state in each country, investment which has never been forthcoming (even in times of war when it has come closest). Secondly since each nation state competes with others, any state which did decide on this level of investment would be at an immediate disadvantage to its competitors, regardless of potential long-term gain (which is in any case arguable). Thirdly, it relies heavily on the ideological role of the family in terms of educating, nurturing, socialising the next generation of workers, but also of giving the existing generations a focus for their emotional needs, one which in addition helps to motivate them to work.

The privatised family today is generally the most valued form for performing these tasks by workers and capitalists, despite its obvious drawbacks. Even considering the commodification of some family functions, and women working outside the home over past thirty years, the family has if anything been enhanced as a site for the reproduction of labour power, not diminished. While the number of marriages in Britain is in decline, the focus on weddings, especially among the middle class, as expensive and elaborate celebrations of the family has probably never been more intense. The replacement of many domestic tasks by commodities or private and paid for services in and around the family has freed women (and other family members) to enter the labour market but has increased levels of consumption within the family. It could be argued that capitalism has in some ways strengthened the family by making it more accommodating to diversity, for example with same sex marriage. 

The need to develop analysis when considering domestic labour is crucial if we are to understand the role of women today. While it is possible to agree with many of the earlier domestic labour theorists that housework and childcare do not produce commodities, but use values within the home, this does not adequately locate domestic labour in terms of its importance to capital. It also, while formally correct, failed to recognise the changes in housework and women’s role caused by the drawing of women into the labour market. The amount of necessary labour carried out in the home diminishes the amount of wage labour that can be carried out by members of the family outside the home, so the drive to commodify domestic tasks has been considerable.

Marx foresaw this development: ‘Domestic work, such as sewing and mending, must be replaced by the purchase of ready-made articles. Hence, the diminished expenditure of labour in the house is accompanied by an increased expenditure of money outside’ (Marx, 1976, p.518). Labour once carried out in the home is now often replaced by services bought on the market or commodities which aid or substitute for use values once produced in the home. The emphasis in the family is more on its role as a centre for the reproduction of labour power, especially renewed generations of labour power, an essential need for capital. Vogel points to this contradictory nature of domestic labour within capitalism. At one level it competes with capital: chopping word, making bread, walking to work, cooking meals, all cut into the amount of potential time available for wage labour.

The crucial and major component of domestic labour remains care for human beings, especially children, which is a labour intensive business and extremely costly if paid for on the market. It is, however, essential to the needs of capital. Women’s labour in the home, as well as producing use values, also contributes to the reproduction of labour power, and therefore indirectly contributes to the production of surplus value. If not directly productive of surplus value, it is nonetheless essential to the continued production of that surplus value (for more on this see German, 1981, and 1989). 

Vogel’s book was and remains a valuable contribution to the debate on women’s oppression and class. It is not necessary to agree with all her conclusions to recognise that this is a valuable work which is now available to a new generation. Its major weakness, in my opinion, is that it is written at too great a level of abstraction. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and indeed all theory has to contain a degree of abstraction. But there is little historical evidence here, on a topic which both cries out for a concrete Marxist historical analysis, and which has often been contested in historical terms.

It also seems to bolt together two different sorts of analysis about women’s oppression and its existence across classes. Vogel makes the point that it is working-class women who perform domestic labour and therefore engage in social reproduction. This may be stretching a point (although maybe not given the current expansion of employment of paid domestic labourers and servants) but it is broadly correct. It does however beg the question about the root of oppression for non-working-class women. Her answer to this lies in the lack of bourgeois equality for women of other classes (as well as the within the working class). There have been historically and remain many issues of women’s rights which have often been of more concern to upper and middle class women than to working women. Immediate ones which spring to mind include access to education for girls, property inheritance and a narrow morality about sex and marriage itself shaped by bourgeois family values. ‘The specific character of women’s oppression in capitalist societies is established, in short, by women’s particular dual position with respect to domestic labor and equal rights’.However, women’s role in domestic labour surely plays a more central economic role in maintaining women’s oppression. Here it is counterposed to other theories which locate women’s oppression in their dual role in work and home. Maybe Vogel is correct, but one could equally argue that bourgeois equal rights are easier to achieve under capitalism than is the abolition of the family.

So, while social reproduction theory as outlined by Vogel has the strength of locating women’s oppression in the needs of capital and thus relating it to class theory, it strikes me as more of a contribution to an ongoing and important debate than the ‘answer’. I would recommend anyone interested in these questions to read it: you will certainly find much to agree with, to learn and to think about.


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Brenner, Johanna and Ramas, Maria ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’ New Left Review 144 (London 1984)

Coulson, Margaret, Magas, Branka and Wainwright, Hilary ‘The Housewife and her Labour under Capitalism: a critique’ NewLeft Review 89 (London 1975)

DallaCosta, Mariarosa and James, Selma The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol 1975)

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Engels, Friedrich Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Beijing 1978)

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Humphries, Jane ‘Class struggle and the persistence of the working class family’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 3 (Cambridge 1977)

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Seccombe, Wally ‘The housewife and her labour under capitalism’ New Left Review 83 (London 1974)

Smith, Paul ‘Domestic labour and Marx’s theory of value’ in Kuhn, Annette and Wolpe, Anne Marie (eds) Feminism and Materialism (London 1978)

Young, Iris M ‘Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems theory’ (1980) reprinted in Hennessy and Ingraham (1997)

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’.