Some Conceptual Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis
It is relatively easy to demonstrate that women are oppressed in Britain, as in other contemporary capitalist societies, but more contentious to speak of a ‘Marxist feminist’ analysis of their oppression. In recent years attempts have been made to develop a theoretical perspective that might confidently be termed ‘Marxist feminist’, yet the work so generated remains fragmentary and contradictory, lacking a conceptual framework adequate to its project. This, perhaps, is only to be expected, given the magnitude of the task and the obstacles that any synthesis must overcome.
The problem faced by any such analysis can be put simply in terms of the different objects of the two perspectives. Marxism, constituted as it is around relations of appropriation and exploitation, is grounded in concepts that do not and could not address directly the gender of the exploiters and those whose labour is appropriated. A Marxist analysis of capitalism is therefore conceived around a primary contradiction between labour and capital and operates with categories that, as has recently been argued, can be termed ‘sex-blind’.1
Feminism, however, points in a different direction, emphasizing precisely the relations of gender — largely speaking, of the oppression of women by men — that Marxism has tended to pass over in silence. Of course, just as
there are many varieties of ‘Marxism’ so there are many ‘feminisms’ and indeed one task of any ‘Marxist feminism’ must be to identify which version of the one is being bracketed with which version of the other. But what is clear is that any feminism must insist on the specific character of gender relations. Some forms of feminism may pose these relations as the primary contradiction of social organization, just as Marxism poses the labour/capital contradiction as primary in the analysis of capitalism, but all must surely pose them as distinct.
What then might be the object of Marxist feminism? In the most general terms it must be to identify the operation of gender relations as and where they may be distinct from, or connected with, the processes of production and reproduction understood by historical materialism. Thus it falls to Marxist feminism to explore the relations between the organization of sexuality, domestic production, the household and so on, and historical changes in the mode of production and systems of appropriation and exploitation. Such questions are now being addressed by Marxist feminists working in anthropology, the sociology of development, and political economy.2
This book, however, deals with the relations of gender and the oppression of women in a contemporary capitalist society. In this context a Marxist feminist approach will involve an emphasis on the relations between capitalism and the oppression of women. It will require an awareness of the specific oppression of women in capitalist relations of production, but this must be seen in the light of gender divisions which preceded the transition to capitalism and which, as far as we can tell, a socialist revolution would not of itself abolish.
It is immediately clear that these questions must be treated historically. Although the chapters that follow could not attempt to provide a systematic historical account of the topics considered, they do point to the need to look at definitions of sexuality, the structure of the household and so
on in concrete historical and empirical terms. Before moving on to more detailed areas we need, however, to discuss the theoretical framework in which the development of a Marxist feminist approach has been located. In order to do this I am going to consider the different uses of three concepts that have proved central to the debate: those of ‘patriarchy’, ‘reproduction’ and ‘ideology’. These three concepts, as they have been developed in Marxist feminism, bear directly on two issues that have recurred consistently in the discussion. ‘Patriarchy’, drawn primarily from radical feminist writings, and ‘reproduction’, drawn from Althusser’s emphasis on reproduction of the relations of production, have both been used to address the question of the independence of women’s oppression from the general operation of the capitalist mode of production. Developments in the concept of ‘ideology’, and its use in specific trends of Marxist feminist thought, lead us straight into the question of whether the oppression of women takes place at the level of ideology, and what such a claim would entail.
The concept of patriarchy is perhaps the crucial one with which to begin. The editors of a recent collection entitled Feminism and Materialism
insist that it ‘be seriously addressed in any theoretical practice which claims to be feminist’3
and indeed the term is used extensively in the women’s liberation movement. To get an idea of its theoretical and political force we need to look at the context in which the concept has been used.
The term ‘patriarchy’ was taken up by the sociologist Max Weber to describe a particular form of household organization in which the father dominated other members of an extended kinship network and controlled the economic production of the household. Its resonance for feminism, however, rests on the theory, put forward by early radical
feminism and in particular by American writers such as Kate Millett, of patriarchy as an over-arching category of male dominance.
Millett locates male domination in the following terms: ‘groups who rule by birthright are fast disappearing, yet there remains one ancient and universal scheme for the domination of one birth group by another — the scheme that prevails in the area of sex’. She argues that the political power which men wield over women amounts to the fundamental political division in society. Our society, like all other civilizations, is a patriarchy in which the rule of women by men is ‘more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, certainly more enduring’. Millett confronts the thesis that in capitalist society the domination of women by men is mediated by class differences between women, and argues that such differences are transitory and illusory, that ‘whatever the class of her birth and education, the female has fewer permanent class associations than does the male. Economic dependency renders her affiliations with any class a tangential, vicarious and temporary matter’. Millett’s position here implies that class divisions are relevant only to men; she denies that significant class differences exist between women. Her project is to establish a fundamental system of domination — patriarchy — that is analytically independent of the capitalist or any other mode of production.4
Millett’s theory of patriarchy resembles that of Shulamith Firestone insofar as it gives not only analytic independence to male domination, but analytic primacy.
Firestone, however, grounds her account more firmly in biological reproduction, her aim being ‘to take the class analysis one step further to its roots in the biological division of the sexes’. Firestone’s theoretical goal is to substitute sex for class as the prime motor in a materialist account of history. She paraphrases Engels as follows: ‘all past history … was the history of class struggle. These warring classes of society are
always the product of the modes of organization of the biological family unit for reproduction of the species, as well as of the strictly economic modes of production and exchange of goods and services. The sexual-reproductive organization of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of economic, juridical and political institutions as well as the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period’.5
Although Firestone emphasizes the need to revolutionize reproductive technology in order to free women from the burden of their biologically determined oppression, her account of this determination itself falls into biologistic assumptions.6
This raises a problem which is often encountered in these early radical feminist uses of the term ‘patriarchy’: not only do they invoke an apparently universal and trans-historical category of male dominance, leaving us with little hope of change; they also frequently ground this dominance in a supposed logic of biological reproduction. This has paved the way, as we shall see later, for a consideration of patriarchy that tends to stress male supremacy as male control over women’s fertility, without a case being made as to why and how men acquired this control. We need to ask whether such an emphasis on the importance of the division of labour between men and women in the reproduction of the species does not amount to a form of biologism, and if so whether ‘feminist’ biologism escapes the arguments that can be put against other forms of biological explanation of social relations.
Biologistic arguments can be challenged on a number of different grounds. In philosophical terms they tend to be reductionist, in that they subsume complex socially and historically constructed phenomena under the simple category of biological difference, and empiricist, in that they assume that differences in social behaviour are caused by the
observed biological differences with which they correlate. The history of social science provides us with examples of various attempts to explain social behaviour with reference to biological determinants — two notorious instances being the alleged connections between criminality and body-type and between intelligence-test scores and racial differences. All such attempts have subsequently been discredited, and psychological findings concerning supposedly innate sex differences have now been subjected to a stringent critique.7
Furthermore, the political and ideological role of such arguments is inevitably reactionary, since if particular social arrangements are held to be ‘naturally’ given, there is little we can do to change them.
Although it is important for feminist analysis to locate the question of biological difference in an account of male-female relations, the slide into biological reductionism is an extremely dangerous one. It is regressive in that one of the early triumphs of feminist cross-cultural work — the establishment of a distinction between sex as a biological category and gender as a social one8
— is itself threatened by an emphasis on the causal role of procreative biology in the construction of male domination. In practice, too, such an analysis may well lead to a feminist glorification of supposedly ‘female’ capacities and principles and a reassertion of ‘separate spheres’ for women and men. These dangers are not exclusive to radical feminist analysts of patriarchy — they have surfaced in feminist politics and culture from other sources too9
— but they are perhaps particularly characteristic of these early radical feminist works.
It has, however, been possible to frame an account of patriarchy from the point of view of social, rather than biological, relations, and a major achievement of the work of
Christine Delphy and others has been the development of a more properly materialist analysis of women’s oppression. Delphy points to the example of the divorced wife of a bourgeois man as illustrating a system of patriarchal exploitation that cuts across class relations: ‘even though marriage with a man from the capitalist class can raise a woman’s standard of living, it does not make her a member of that class. She herself does not own the means of production.… In the vast majority of cases, wives of bourgeois men whose marriage ends must earn their own living as wage or salaried workers. They therefore become concretely (with the additional handicaps of age and/or lack of professional training) the proletarians that they essentially were’.10
Delphy argues that women’s class position should be understood in terms of the institution of marriage, which she conceptualizes as a labour contract in which the husband’s appropriation of unpaid labour from his wife constitutes a domestic mode of production and a patriarchal mode of exploitation. Hence she argues that the material basis of women’s oppression lies not in capitalist but in patriarchal relations of production. The difficulty here, however, is that the category of patriarchy is assigned analytic independence vis-à-vis
the capitalist mode of production, but we are not led to a systematic consideration of the relations between them.11
A general problem with the concept of patriarchy is that not only is it by and large resistant to exploration within a particular mode of production, but it is redolent of a universal and trans-historical oppression. So, to use the concept is frequently to invoke a generality of male domination without being able to specify historical limits, changes or differences. For a Marxist feminist approach, whose analysis must be grounded in historical analysis, its use will therefore present particular problems.
Before we turn to some general attempts to use the concept of patriarchy in a Marxist feminist theoretical framework, it is worth considering certain specific uses to which the term might be put. Gayle Rubin, for instance, makes the fruitful suggestion that the term patriarchy would be a more valuable one if its use were restricted to societies (and here she cites the nomadic tribes of Abraham’s era) where one man wielded absolute power through a socially defined institution of fatherhood.12
Similarly, it would be possible to argue for a use of the term to describe the ideological aspects of relationships that are predicated on the paradigm, for instance, of a father-daughter relationship. Thus Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi’s analysis of female sexuality in the ideology of Italian fascism13
seems to me to describe an ideological construction of women that might be termed ‘patriarchal’. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s account of the pathological attempts of bourgeois fathers to insist on their daughters’ dependence, financial and emotional, on themselves, also represents a legitimate use of the term.14
These examples, however, are relatively rare in recent theoretical work, which abounds with attempts to represent, more generally, contemporary capitalism as ‘patriarchy’. These pose two major problems, as I shall try to illustrate below. First, patriarchy is posed as a system of domination completely independent of the organization of capitalist relations and hence the analyses fall into a universalistic, trans-historical mode which may shade into the biologism discussed earlier. Where attempts are made to constitute patriarchy as a system of male domination in relation to the capitalist mode of production, these frequently founder on the inflexibility and claims to autonomy to which the concept is prone. This problem persists even in the recent, sophisticated formulations of materialist feminism which
attempt to incorporate a psychoanalytic perspective. Second, the concept of patriarchy as presently constituted reveals a fundamental confusion, regrettably plain in discussion of it, between patriarchy as the rule of the father and patriarchy as the domination of women by men. Both of these problems can be seen in recent attempts to use the concept of patriarchy in conjunction with a Marxist analysis.
Zillah Eisenstein’s collectio...