Marxism and the Woman Question

“Most marxist analyses of women’s position take as their question the relationship of women to the economic system, rather than that of women to men, apparently assuming the latter will be explained in their discussion of the former. All see women’s oppression in our connection to production. Defining women as part of the working class, these analyses consistently subsume women’s relation to men under workers’ relation to capital. First, early marxists … saw capitalism drawing all women into the wage labor force, and saw this process destroying the sexual division of labor. Second, contemporary marxists have incorporated women into an analysis of everyday life in capitalism. In this view, all aspects of our [womens’] lives are seen to reproduce the capitalist system and we are all workers in the system. And third, marxists feminists have focused on housework and its relation to capital, some arguing that housework produces surplus value and that houseworkers work directly for capitalists. …

Engels, in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, recognized the inferior position of women and attributed it to the institution of private property. In bourgeois families, Engels argued, women have to serve their masters, be monogamous, and produce heirs who would inherit the family’s property and continue to increase it. Among proletarians, Engels argued, women were not oppressed, because there was private property to be passed on. Engels argued further that as …. women and children were incorporated into the wage labor force along with men, the authority of the male head of household was undermined, and patriarchal relations were destroyed.


The political implications of this first marxist approach [Engels’] are clear. Women’s liberation requires first, that women become wage workers like men, and second, that they join with men in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Capital and private property, the early marxists argued, are the cause of women’s particular oppression just as capital is the cause of the exploitation of workers in general.

Though aware of the deplorable situation of women in their time the early marxist failed to focus on the differences between men’s and women’s experiences under capitalism. They did not focus on the feminist questions–how and why women are oppressed as women. They did not, therefore, recognize the vested interest men had in women’s continued subordination. […] [M]en benefited from not having to do housework, from having their wives and daughters serve them, and from having the better places in the labor market. Patriarchal relations far from […] being rapidly outmoded by capitalism, as the early marxists suggested, have survived and thrived alongside it. And since capital and private property do not cause the oppression of women as women their end alone will not result in the end of women’s oppression. …


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Dalla Costa uses the feminist understanding of housework as real work to claim legitimacy for it under capitalism by arguing that it should be waged work. Women [Dalla Costa argues] should demand wages for housework rather than allow themselves to be forced into the traditional labor force, where, doing a “double day,” [doing housework and waged work] women would still provide housework services to capital for free as well as wage labor. Dalla Costa suggests that women who receive wages for housework would be able to organize their housework collectively, providing community child care, meal preparation, and the like. Demanding wages and having wages would raise their consciousness of the importance of their work; they would see its social significance, as well as its private necessity, a necessary first step toward more comprehensive social change.


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Dalla Costa’s contribution to increasing our understanding of the social nature of housework has been an incalculable advance. But like the other marxists approaches reviewed here her approach focuses on capital–not on relations between men and women. The fact that men and women have differences of interest, goals, and strategies is obscured by her analysis of how the capitalist system keeps us all down, and the important and perhaps strategic role of women’s work in this system. The rhetoric of feminism is present in Dalla Costa’s writing (the oppression of women, [class] struggle with men) but the focus of feminism is not. If it were, Dalla Costa might argue for example, that the importance of housework as a social relation lies in its crucial role in perpetuating male supremacy. That women do housework, performing labor for men, is crucial to the maintenance of patriarchy.

Engels … and Dalla Costa … fail to analyze the labor process within the family sufficiently. Who benefits from women’s labor? Surely capitalists, but also surely men, who as husbands and fathers receive personalized services at home. The content and extent of the services may vary by class or ethnic or racial group, but the fact of their receipt does not. Men have a higher standard of living than women in terms of luxury consumption, leisure time, and personalized service. [Author’s reference.] A materialist approach ought not ignore this crucial point.* It follows that men have a material interest in women’s continued oppression. …”

[From Section I, “Marxism and the Woman Question” in Heidi Hartmann‘s “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union” within C. R. McCann’s and S. Kim’s Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Similar versions for free can be found here or here. Note from Hartmann below.]

* The late Stephen Hymer pointed out to us a basic weakness in Engel’s analysis in Origins, a weakness that occurs because Engels fails to analyze the labor process within the family. Engels argues that men enforced monogamy because they wanted to leave their property to their own children. Hymer argued that far from being a “gift,” among the petit bourgeoisie, possible inheritance is used as a club to get children to work for their fathers. One must look at the labor process and who benefits from the labor of which others.

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