Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism
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Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism

Zillah R. Eisenstein

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Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism

Zillah R. Eisenstein

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Fourteen provocative papers on the oppression of women in capitalist countries, along with three articles on the subordinate position of women in two communist countries, Cuba and China. These important, often path-breaking articles are arranged in five basic sections, the titles of which indicate the broad range of issues being considered: Introduction; motherhood, reproduction, and male supremacy; socialist feminist historical analysis; patriarchy in revolutionary society; socialist feminism in the United States. The underlying thrust of the book is toward integrating the central ideas of radical feminist thought with those pivotal for Marxist or socialist class analysis.

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Instead of narrowly defining female work as work located only in the labor force, which is true of both liberal and Marxist definitions, socialist feminists, as we have seen, also recognize women’s domestic labor as work essential for society. Socialist feminism thus recognizes that female work encompasses the activities of production, reproduction, and consumption. Women who work within the wage-labor force (production) also work within the home (nonwage production, reproduction, consumption); women who are not part of the wage-labor force still work in the home. Understanding that much of women’s activity is work enables us to see how and why it is integrated into society. In a society organized around work, we need to view women’s activities as they relate to this reality.
In this section we examine female work as activity which is necessary to the smooth operation of the economy and society. First, reproduction of children is demanded by the need of any society to reproduce itself, and capitalist patriarchal societies need new workers. Second, production is necessary to produce material goods. In capitalist patriarchal societies commodity production is the source of both profit and wages. Third, consumption is necessary in a commodity system because that is the way one obtains the goods one needs. Hence, female work encompasses the relations of woman’s activity in these three spheres for socialist feminists.
Discussions of female work in capitalist patriarchy have often reduced it to the question of whether or not domestic labor is directly exploited labor creating surplus value. If so, then women can be considered the proletariat and hence potentially revolutionary because of their direct relation to capital. However, it is my position that the question of whether women are oppressed as proletarians does not hinge on whether domestic labor can be squeezed into the preexisting categories of wage labor, surplus value, and “productive” work. Rather, woman’s revolutionary potential emanates from the very nature and organization of the work as domestic work—both in its patriarchal and in its capitalist elements. To the degree domestic labor is a sexual organization of economic existence it is a cross-class reality that affects all women. This is the feminist, political concern which is left out of much of the discussion of domestic labor when the preexisting analytical categories of class take priority.
Whether we consider domestic labor the production of use values (as Margaret Benston does) or the maintenance and reproduction of labor power (Peggy Morton) or the product of surplus value (Mariarosa dalla Costa) or as nonproductive labor (Ira Gerstein) or as privatized work (Karl Marx), it is unpaid work that is sexually assigned. Domestic labor—the work necessary to the maintenance of the home—involves production, consumption, reproduction, and maintenance of labor power. It is the work of bringing children into the world and trying to raise them within the home (i.e., cooking, cleaning, laundering, loving, mothering). Domestic labor is indispensable to the operation of capitalist patriarchal society as it now exists. It is socially necessary labor. It may be “indirectly” productive in that it maintains the laborer. It may well be, as Lise Vogel has said, the indispensable complement of wage labor. Wally Seccombe has pointed out that one cannot understand the truly deceptive nature of wages in capitalist society unless one realizes that they are payment both for work done by the individual in the labor force and by his domestic counterpart. Women’s work is the other side of men’s work. One then only sees half of reality if one examines workers outside the home, as wage slaves. The other half is the domestic slave. And this analysis applies to married men and to women who work both in the paid labor force and in the home.
I have listed below the many articles that have formed the debate over the nature of domestic labor. Of the many possibilities, I have chosen to reprint Jean Gardiner’s article because it raises some of the most probing questions for the domestic labor issue. She wrote this as a criticism of Wally Seccombe’s “The Housewife and Her Labour Under Capitalism.” She criticizes his distortion of the “unique” qualities of female work. This article, however, does not deal explicitly with the patriarchal base of domestic labor, and with the fact that as domestic laborers women are partially mothers. As such, motherhood is not discussed as integral to the formulation and practice of domestic labor.
Heidi Hartmann, in “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex,” and Margery Davies, in “Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter,” talk in more detail about the other side of the double day in their discussion of women in the labor force. They show how the sexual division of labor is not limited to the realm of the household but is definitive in the wage-labor sphere as well. Women carry the household with them into the marketplace. Amy Bridges and Batya Weinbaum, in “The Other Side of the Paycheck,” complete the construction of the female worker with their discussion of women as consumers. They argue that the category “consumer” is misleading in that it mystifies the work involved in the very process of shopping, buying, preparing, mending, etc. Most consumer goods require and involve work before they can be used. The consumer is also a worker because she maintains the needed relationship between production and consumption; as such she is necessary to capitalist patriarchal society. Again, the authors do not explicitly develop the patriarchal prerequisites to the need of capital, but they do explore the specific reality of capitalist priorities in female work and activity as it is presently practiced.
Related Reading
Benston, Margaret. “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review (September 1969), reprinted in Voices from Women’s Liberation, ed. L. B. Tanner (New York: New American Library, 1971).
Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
Capitalism and the Family, a Socialist Revolution pamphlet (San Francisco: Agenda Publishing, 1976).
Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, 1972).
Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deidre English, “The Manufacture of Housework,” Socialist Revolution 5, no. 26 (October–December 1975).
Gerstein, Ira, “Domestic Work and Capitalism,” Radical America 7, nos. 4 and 5 (July–October 1973). The entire volume is devoted to women’s labor.
Houseworker’s Handbook, c/o Leghorn & Warrior, Women’s Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.
Howe, Louise Kapp, Pink Collar Workers (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).
James, Selma, A Woman’s Place (Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press).
Magas, B., H. Wainwright, Margaret Coulson, “ ‘The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism’—A Critique,” New Left Review 89 (January–February 1975): 59–71.
Morton, Peggy, “Women’s Work Is Never Done,” Women Unite (Toronto: Canadian Women’s Educational Press, 1972).
Seccombe, Wally, “The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism,” New Left Review 83 (January–February 1973).
Stover, Ed, “Inflation and the Female Labor Force,” Monthly Review 26, no. 8 (January 1975).
Tepperman, Jean, “Organizing Office Workers,” Radical America 10, no. 1 (January–February 1976): 3–23. See also her book, Not Servants, Not Machines (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).
The Women’s Work Project, Women in Today’s Economic Crisis (Union for Radical Political Economics pamphlet).
Vogel, Lise, “The Earthly Family,” Radical America 7, nos. 4 and 5 (July–October 1973).
Zaretsky, Eli, “Socialist Politics and the Family,” Socialist Revolution 19 (January–March 1974): 83–99.
———, “Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life,” Socialist Revolution 1–2, 3, nos. 13–14, 15 (1973).
Jean Gardiner
This contribution to current debates about the political economy of housework has two specific objectives.1 First, it presents a critique of Wally Seccombe’s article “The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism” in New Left Review in 1973.2 Second, it looks at two questions currently under discussion among Marxist feminists concerning women’s domestic labor. Why have housework and child care, in modern industrial capitalist societies such as Britain, continued to such a great extent to be the responsibility of women and organized on a private family basis? What are the pressures working for or against fundamental change in the economic role of women within the family in the current phase of British capitalism? Since Seccombe does not himself attempt to answer these questions, it may not be immediately obvious why they should be linked to a critique of his article. However, it is his failure to relate the theory of women’s domestic labor to questions such as these, which are of key political importance to socialists in the women’s movement, that forms the basis of this critique—rather than the existence of internal inconsistencies or obscurity in his arguments themselves. I shall begin by summarizing and criticizing the core of Seccombe’s article, which concerns the role of women’s domestic labor in value creation. There will then follow a more general examination of Seccombe’s political and theoretical framework, which is counterposed to the approach of socialist feminists. This will lead into discussion of why women’s domestic labor has retained such importance in the reproduction and maintenance of the labor force. In conclusion, I shall look at the possible pressures currently working for or against change in the role of domestic labor.
Domestic Labor and Value Creation
One aspect of Seccombe’s article that is to be welcomed is that it reflects a growing recognition by Marxists outside the women’s liberation movement of the need to consider the productive aspect of women’s role in the family, and the economic and not just ideological function of the proletarian family in capitalist society. From this recognition Seccombe goes on to ask what role domestic labor plays in the creation of value and to see how this is linked to the general mystification of the wage system.
First, in discussing how the wage form obscures domestic labor’s relation to capital, Seccombe concentrates on showing how this is one aspect, not previously discussed by Marxists, of the more general way elucidated by Marx, in which the wage form obscures the relation of labor to capital. For Marx argued that while the wage appeared to pay for the labor actually performed by the worker, in fact it paid only for the labor going to the reproduction and maintenance of the laborer, i.e., for labor power and not for labor. This left the laborer performing part of his labor unpaid, which was the source of surplus value. Seccombe goes on from this to argue that a part of the wage specifically reflects the value created by the housewife’s domestic labor in reproducing and maintaining the worker (and his “substitutes” in the next generation). This is the part of the wage that goes to maintaining and reproducing the housewife (and her “substitutes”).
This approach is based on what Seccombe refers to as “a consistent application of the labour theory of value to the reproduction of labour power itself—namely, that all labour produces value when it produces any part of a commodity that achieves equivalence in the market place with other commodities.” The argument runs through a number of stages. First, because commodities bought with the male worker’s wages are not in a finally consumable form and housework is neccessary to convert the commodities into regenerated labor power, this labor performed by the housewife is one part of the total labor embodied in the worker, the other part being the labor embodied in commodities bought with the wage. This point is straightforward and uncontroversial, once one accepts that domestic labor is a neccessary component of the labor required to maintain and reproduce labor power. The problem arises when we go on from here to ask what the connection is between domestic labor performed and the value of labor power; and whether and how it is possible to measure the contribution of domestic labor in value terms.
Seccombe’s opinion is that the neccessary labor of the housewife is realized, when labor power is sold, as a part of its value. In doing this he draws an analogy between petty commodity production and domestic labor. Petty commodity production is the form of production where individuals work separately and independently in a self-employed capacity to produce different goods and services for exchange through the market. He gives the example of a shoemaker and a tailor. This form of production has in common with domestic labor that it is individual and privatized.
Marx, in expounding the labor theory of value in the first volume of Capital, first applied it in fact to precapitalist petty commodity production. He argued that under this form of production, although it is not socialized, the terms on which commodities are exchanged will be determined by the different amounts of labor embodied in them. I do not wish here to enter into the question of to what extent the labor theory of value does operate under petty commodity production, but first to note that the assumption on which its operation is based is that labor is mobile between different occupations. For the argument goes as follows. If the shoemaker were not rewarded equally for his labor as the tailor, he would pack up his business and go into tailoring, or at least persuade his sons to do that.
It seems misleading to apply this same analysis to housework where women do not, in any straightforward sense, have the option of moving to another occupation. Women are tied through marriage to housework and housework is therefore not comparable to other occupations. Therefore, there appears to be no mechanism for the terms of the sale of labor power to be determined by the domestic labor performed in its maintenance and reproduction.
Seccombe then goes on to argue that although the labor theory of value can be applied to domestic labor, the law of value does not operate upon it. By this he means that only labor working directly for capital, i.e., wage labor but not ...

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Citation styles for Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism
APA 6 Citation
Eisenstein, Z. (2019). Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism ([edition unavailable]). Monthly Review Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Eisenstein, Zillah. (2019) 2019. Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism. [Edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press.
Harvard Citation
Eisenstein, Z. (2019) Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Eisenstein, Zillah. Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.