Patriarchy and capitalism: re-reading the debate

In this guest post Teresa Green revisits the arguments made by socialist and radical feminists about the nature of women’s oppression, and considers their relevance for feminists today. 

Histories of the second wave often distinguish between radical feminist political currents that gave primacy to sex-based oppression, and Marxist or socialist currents that put class antagonism first. However, it wasn’t always as polarized as this implies. Socialist feminists like Zillah Eisenstein argued that the oppressive structures of capitalism and patriarchy should be analysed as mutually reinforcing, with neither taking priority over the other. Capitalism reinforces male supremacy, and male supremacy serves the interests of capitalism (which benefits both directly from the undervaluing of women’s paid labour and indirectly from their unpaid domestic and caring labour).

But as Christine Delphy pointed out, this kind of analysis does not tell us everything about women’s situation as an oppressed class. The male wage labourer and the unwaged housewife are not in the same position. While the working man depends on the market, the housewife is dependent on an individual man. As a wage earner he can increase his earnings by doing more work or a different kind of work. By contrast,

The services which a married woman provides…are not fixed: they depend on the will of the employer, the husband… the support furnished does not depend on the work done by the wife, but on the wealth and good will of her husband.

That a woman doesn’t simply become a member of her husband’s class on marriage is made obvious by looking at what happens after divorce; more often than not, women’s financial position deteriorates sharply, while men’s wealth tends to increase. Roxanne Dunbar made the same point in 1970:

For women who are supported by and gain the status of their husbands, working class status is always a potential threat, if they do not perform their wifely duties properly.

These arguments about women’s position as economically dependent housewives might seem outdated in an era when far more married women work for wages outside the home. But the social theorist Ulrich Beck argues that the traditional gender system has shaped the current form of capitalism. Wage labour presupposes unpaid housework. The standard ‘working day’ presupposes that someone is at home filling the gap between wages and food on the table; it is, roughly, the number of hours that one can work so long as someone else is at home cooking, cleaning, and looking after the kids (for free). And crisis results, according to Beck, when this working standard is extended to women as well as men.

Where men and women have to and want to lead an economically independent existence, this can occur neither in the traditional role assignments of the nuclear family, nor in the institutional structures of professional work, social laws, city planning, schools, and so on, which presuppose precisely the traditional image of the nuclear family with its gender status foundations.

Many countries have tried to mitigate the results of the crisis by offering parents more leave, more nursery school places (at the cost of a chunk of their income) or more ‘part-time’ and ‘flexible’ work (at the cost of a chunk of their income). But these solutions fail to recognise the fundamental point that ‘full time’ work assumes inequality. The structure of capitalism rests on this division, and that structure itself has to be tackled. As Beck says, ‘The equality of men and women cannot be accomplished through the institutional structures that are connected by design to inequality’. The structure of the working day under capitalism needs re-working precisely because it both rests on and reinforces inequality between men and women.

Does this mean socialist feminism is the way forward? Maybe not: according to Catharine MacKinnon:

Most attempts at synthesis [between feminism and Marxism] attempt to integrate or explain the appeal of feminism by incorporating issues feminism identifies as central—the family, housework, sexuality, reproduction, socialization, personal life—within an essentially unchanged Marxian analysis.

Women’s liberation becomes an aspect of the class struggle, and women are reduced to categories like ‘women workers’ or simply ‘the family’.

MacKinnon also notes that sexuality is treated as if there was no difference in its social meaning for men and women. We might be able to analyse women’s sexual objectification, or rape culture, through a socialist feminist lens, arguing that these phenomena reinforce heterosexuality and the nuclear family and so help to reproduce the primary unit for consumption. However, this kind of analysis abstracts away from the fact that the primary beneficiaries are the men who consume women’s bodies.

Women’s oppression is located not just in the structure of institutions, but in their everyday interactions with men. Emphasizing the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy interact risks shifting the focus too much onto institutions, with too little attention to men’s behaviour. So, while socialist feminist critique is necessary in tackling certain areas of women’s oppression, in other areas I think we need to recognise that the problem is primarily misogyny, reinforced by capitalism or otherwise.




Author: debuk

Feminist, linguist, writer