Susan Newman discusses how the subjugation of women through unpaid labour in the sphere of social reproduction is central to the functioning of capitalism
The UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent social impacts over the past 12 months have brought into sharp relief the multiple dimensions of structural inequalities and oppressions in the social economic system, shown by the disproportionate impacts across communities, class, gender and race. Women have born the burden of unpaid work with the expanded need to care for children and other dependents.
According to a recent report by UN Women, the average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare – a full working day a week more than the average man. The pandemic has also seen a greater burden on women in terms of increased time spent cooking and serving meals, and cleaning, associated with home working.
The pandemic has intensified what was already a highly uneven gendered distribution of unpaid domestic work. A study published in the Journal Work, Employment and Society in 2018 – based on data from more than 8,500 heterosexual couples interviewed between 2010 and 2011 – found that women on average did approximately 16 hours of household chores every week compared with 6 hours by men.
Moreover, for couples where both individuals were in full-time employment, women were found to be 5 times more likely than men to spend at least 20 hours a week on unpaid domestic labour. This phenomenon has been referred to as the double burden of women employed in paid work, and the second shift that begins when a woman returns from a day of paid work.
It is hardly surprising, then, that a study of data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) found that working hours over 49 hours a week was associated with poorer mental health for women, but not men.
The proportion of women of working age (16-64) in the UK who were employed, or seeking employment, in paid work increased from 55.5% in 1972 to 74.2% in 2018. The most dramatic increase in women’s participation in the labour force occurred in the 1960s.
That equal participation in paid work did not equate to women’s liberation or gender equality was immediately recognised within the feminist movements in the 1960s. Women were, and continue to be, subjected to sexism and a range of discriminatory practices in the workplace. The women’s movement succeeded in bringing about legislation against sex-based discrimination.
The women’s liberation movement, from the late 1960s, also focused attention on the disproportionate burden of unpaid work carried out by women and how this limited their freedom. The Domestic Labour debate was the attempt of Marxist feminists to collectively and controversially discuss and come up with a materialist analysis of women’s unpaid labour that continued despite women’s mass entry into the labour force.
They demonstrated how the unpaid domestic work of women contributed to maintaining the capitalist system in the work of ‘social reproduction’ – the biological labour of having babies and the care work to maintain and reproduce the workforce.
The Domestic Labour debate argued that the omission of unpaid domestic work was a major flaw in Marxist analyses of capitalism that focused attention on labour in factories or trade that were understood as ‘productive’ in the Marxist sense that they produced surplus-value through the commodification of labour power. Many Marxist feminists involved in the debate proposed that domestic labour was productive in the Marxist sense since without domestic labour workers cannot preproduce themselves and without workers capital cannot reproduce itself.
Others argued that it contributed indirectly to the production of surplus value – that is, profits – or that it was in other ways essential to the running of a capitalist society and economy. For this reason, women, even those not in paid employment, should play a central role in anti-capitalist organisation.
The activist and scholar, Silvia Federici, who was prominent in the International Wages for Housework Campaign in the 1970s, drew on Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation – the process of privatising the means of production and removing them from communal access, for example, in the Enclosures Acts – to argue that capitalism is reliant upon the expropriation of women’s unpaid work. Systems of women’s subjugation that perpetuated unpaid work in biological and social reproduction were historical preconditions to the rise of a capitalist economy predicated upon wage labour and continue to be critical for an economic system organised for the generation of profit.
From the perspective of capitalist expansion, the unpaid and underpaid labour of women that is essential for the generation of profit, such as in the biological reproduction of a future labour force, appear as ‘free gifts of human nature’. This is reliant upon the continued subjugation of women in society through various social and political institutions including the family. This also explains why, when paid, ‘women’s work’ receives very low rates of remuneration.
In the early months of the pandemic, cleaners, nurses, supermarket workers, were all lauded as essential workers. In a capitalist society, recognition of what is essential to life and well-being does not necessarily attract commensurate monetary value as evident from the insult of a 1% pay-rise for NHS nurses. Care home staff remain amongst the most poorly paid.
It is only by connecting ongoing women’s oppression with the structure and functioning of capitalist societies that we can successfully organise and campaign for women’s liberation. A feminist movement that is not also anti-capitalist will achieve little more than limited and reversible gains. The socialist movement must also place primary importance in the fight for women’s liberation, alongside class struggle and other systemic oppressions.
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