February 5, 2003
Marxian analysis of family and gender (Adams and Sydie, pp. 136-139)
1. Marxism and feminism
Some writers in the Marxian tradition analyzed the family and sex and gender relations and inequalities. For Marxists, class inequalities and class struggles are the primary feature of the structure of any society, and play a key role in the development of these structures. At the same time, many Marxists recognize that women and men have not usually been equal in society, with women have a position inferior to that of men through much of history and in modern society. For some Marxists, this inequality is not just a byproduct of class inequality, but has its own separate explanation. Marx also argued that for women and men to be fully equal, private property would have to be abolished, and an egalitarian, socialist society created (Sydie, p. 89).
Marxists have often considered class struggle, the working class, and a political program to attain socialism to be the primary goal of a socialist movement. The inequality of men and women may be considered secondary in importance to class inequality and oppression, and contradictions related to reproduction and gender relations play a secondary role in explaining social change. Women's struggles to attain equality with men have often had to take a secondary place to the struggles of the working class. At the same time, work shapes consciousness, and women's work shapes her status and self-image (Tong, p. 40).
Over the last thirty years, Marxist feminists have attempted to combine the classical Marxian view that class inequality is rooted in the control of material forces by a few, with an understanding of the roots of women's oppression and an examination of feminist social protest. Sydie notes that this may be an “unhappy marriage” of Marxism and feminism (p. 89), but this approach has had an important influence on recent sociological theorizing.
The Marxist feminist approach has also had an effect on the way women’s struggles are viewed. Unlike a liberal feminist approach, Marxist feminists argue that inequality on the basis of sex cannot be solved within the capitalist system, but requires transformation to socialism and communism. Since sex inequalities and class oppression are intertwined, it is necessary to end capitalism to begin solving these problems. If this can be done, the promise of Marxism is to
reconstitute human nature in ways that preclude all the pernicious dichotomies that have made slaves of some and masters of others. ... there is something very liberating about the idea of women and men constructing together the social structures and social roles that will permit both genders to realize their full human potential. (Tong, p. 46).
In the Marxist feminist view, the promise of equality under socialism and communism is great, and women's struggles for equality should become part of the struggle for this. They argue that feminists might best attempt to work at causes such as unionizing women, attempting to get equal wages for women, and more generally integrate the struggles of women with the struggles of men for social change.
A further implication is that liberal feminism is bourgeois feminism. Liberal feminists argue for equal rights for women, but may concentrate on providing equal access to middle and upper middle class jobs, higher education, and professional careers. These are often areas that are not open to working class men or women, and providing equal access to upper level jobs for women will not help solve the basic problems of working class people. Further, welfare liberalism may make things look like they are improving. In fact, attempting to win concessions from the bourgeoisie can divert the attention of the working class from the fact that the basic position of workers is still opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
2. Engels on the Family
a. Origin of the Family
The Marxian argument concerning male and female inequality is that male dominance began with the development of private property in agricultural societies. As capitalism developed, these inequalities were taken over and further developed as part of the class oppression that emerges from private property and the structure and development of capitalist oppression and exploitation.
The most important work, and basic reference point, in Marxist feminism is Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This was published in 1884 by Engels, a year after Marx died, but was based on Marx’s notes, especially notes on the work of American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), in Ancient Society (1877). Morgan’s work was an up to date anthropological work of that era, but would now appear quite dated and incorrect, with more recent anthropology yielding different evidence. Partly as a result of this, partly due to the fact that Engels was attempting to explain the origin of the family in terms of the same material forces as he used for the economic system, and partly because Marx and Engels generally ignored cultural factors as playing an independent role, Engels’s analysis appears inadequate today. But it was an attempt to explain the roots of the oppression of women, and the inequalities in the family, on a material basis. Adams and Sydie note that “Marx and Engels saw relations between men and women as located primarily in the family” and Engels “tried to provide a materialist explanation of gender relations” (Adams and Sydie, p. 137) Sociologists such as Weber and Durkheim paid less attention to these issues than did Marx or Engels. This work of Engels has been the reference point for later Marxists and socialists, so it is important to understand some of the main arguments in this book.
Much of Engels' analysis concerns prehistoric periods, describing Greek, Roman, German and Iroquois family structures. He begins his analysis by dividing history into three broad stages – (i) savagery, (ii) barbarism (prehistory – development of pottery), and (iii) civilization (development of agriculture and art, along with early forms of industry) – each of which had several sub stages. These were characterized by different ways of organizing subsistence, producing food and other essential requirements (something like Marx's modes of production). The stages of development of the family parallel these stages of human history.
In the earlier stages, there were many different sorts of kinship, family and sexual relationship. Some of these were group marriage, polygamy, polyandry or promiscuous intercourse. In terms of family structures, Engels argues that group marriage was the earliest form of the family. As societies developed, there began to be “prohibitions regarding appropriate sexual partners.” (Sydie, p. 95). There was gradually a development toward “the pairing family,” a male-female form of relationship where
one man lives with one women, but the relationship is such that polygamy and occasional infidelity remain the right of the men, even though for economic reasons polygamy is rare, while for the woman the strictest fidelity is generally demanded throughout the time she live with the man and adultery on her part is cruelly punished. (Engels, p. 111).
This is not necessarily monogamous marriage as we know it, but a weaker connection, one in which the male-female tie is easily broken, in which case the children remain with the mother.
For Engels, the history of the family involves the “progressive narrowing of the circle, originally embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation.” (Engels, p. 112). In the period of barbarism, (a) men lived in the woman's household and (b) the sexual division of labour already existed. Women were responsible for subsistence in terms of reproduction and production and preparation of food and other goods – in general the household responsibilities. Such societies were most likely matrilineal and matriarchal, with “female rule” (Adams and Sydie, p. 137). That is, lines of descent passed from mother to children, and women had more social and political power than did men. “The social order was constructed in terms of the biological link of mother and child, and this link comprised the family.” (Sydie, p. 98). That is “fatherhood was impossible to determine with any certainty” (Sydie, p. 95), and this may have led to the supremacy of women.
Two key aspects of this early stage are important for dealing with this argument. First, the sexual division of labour already existed in savagery and barbarism, and Engels does not explain why it emerged (see Engels, p. 119). Sydie (p. 98) argues that Engels considers this biological in origin – since only women could have children, this explains the pre-eminence of women. He may also have viewed this as being naturally related to the responsibility of women for household labour. Sydie (p. 99) notes that Marx and Engels assumed that the greater strength of males meant that they hunt, fish and fight, whereas the weakness of women, compounded by their reproductive role, confined them to the home. Second, since production and human labour is important for how society is organized, the role that women had in providing subsistence in early societies gave them great power. These were not societies that had much surplus yet, and women's labour was necessary to ensure survival, with the result that this labour was the source of livelihood and also of power. Engels notes that “Peoples whose women have to work much harder than we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for theirs.” (in Selected Works, 3, p. 227).
Engels notes that “with the patriarchal family, we enter the field of written history” (Engels, p. 122). Males gained power within the family and in society with the development of agriculture. As societies moved from being hunter-gatherer societies to developing animal production, the animals (cattle, goats, etc.) became instruments of labour which the male could control and take with him. The domestication of animals, along with the development of farming, meant that more surplus products could be produced. Property soon developed as a result of this. That is, so long as societies were very close to subsistence, survival depended on cooperation of all. But with a social surplus, it became possible for some to control more of the products of society than did others. Factors such as the pre-existing division of labour, the mobility and strength of men, along with their control of tools and animals, may have allowed this. Men became property owners, and also wished to have a means of passing this property to their children. Given these conditions, the matrilineal form of descent had to end, since men did not have clear heirs. The result of this was that “the matriarchal law of inheritance was thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them.” (Engels, p. 120).
For Engels, the result was “the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” (Engels, pp. 120-121). Engels notes that “within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.” (Engels, p. 137). The husband, father and patriarch became the master with slaves, and with wife-servant(s) and children-servants. There were many different forms that this took in different societies, “but in all cases the general relationship is seen to hold that women are subject to men in and out of marriage.” (Sydie, p. 97).
With the development of private property and patrilineage, the monogamous family developed, at least monogamy for women. This ensured that the mother of child is known, and that the father is sure which children are his. The sole purpose of compulsory monogamy is thus to “serve as a vehicle for the orderly transfer of a father's private property to his children.” (Tong, p. 49). Engels notes that right up through the middle ages, marriage was not decided by the two partners on the basis of “individual sex love” (Sydie, p. 97), but by parents and kin on economic grounds, paying attention to private property rights and inheritance. Dependence of marriage on economic considerations became the norm, with property being key to understanding family and marriage.
When capitalism emerged, this form of family structure existed, and “this manner of marriage exactly suited it.” (Tong, p. 142). At the same time, the ideals of freedom and especially freedom of contract had to be met. These rights were formally extended to marriage and the family, but in practice marriage among the propertied class remained dominated by economic considerations. For the bourgeoisie, considerations of maintaining and extending property dominate over considerations related to freedom and love. In that sense, the family is a more important structure for the bourgeoisie than for the proletariat. Inheritance, female chastity, non-employed wives and the reproduction of legitimate heirs, all became important for the bourgeoisie. (Barrett, p. 48).
For the proletariat, there is no property to pass on, and relationships between husbands and wives could be more equal. Engels also noted that proletarian women are often employed outside the home, and proletarian husbands had relatively few legal rights. As a result, there was no material basis for husbands oppressing their wives. (Tong, p. 50). In addition, by moving production outside the home, capitalism tends to destroy the need for families among ordinary producers. “Capital accumulation ‘breaks up the family’” is a common Marxist view of what happens to families under capitalism. (Humphries, p. 18).
Given that male oppression of females depends on property rights and inheritance, the solution to ending oppression is to eliminate property rights. This will create the possibility of true monogamy (Engels, p. 139), although the exact form of sexual and family relations is uncertain. There will be much greater freedom in terms of choices that individuals can make (Engels, p. 145) and the family might be abolished. Some of the statements by Engels are:
... the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole family back into public industry, and that this in turn demands that the characteristic of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society will be abolished. (Engels, pp. 137-8)
With the transfer of all means of ownership into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not. (Engels, p. 139).
Since the basis on which the oppression of women rests is private property and rights of inheritance, abolishing these would lead to ending oppression of women. Engels argues that this may take a generation or two, but he seems to be optimistic that this will happen.
Another implication of Engels' analysis is that women should enter public industry, and that those people interested in change should concentrate on organizing women in the workplace and dealing with issues in “the intersection between women's experience as workers and their position in the family.” (Tong, p. 61). Sydie notes (p. 101) that if women entered into the paid labour force, this would also provide for her entry into class relationships. Women remain subordinate within the family so long as they have no property and have no basis for relating directly to the material productive forces.
In addition, the socialization of housework and child care are important social programs to help achieve this, although issues related to women's sexual and reproductive concerns are secondary. Certainly these efforts should not just be restricted to getting women into management or powerful political positions, as liberal feminists might argue, but should concentrate on working to develop the class consciousness and power of working class women, and the working class as a whole.
b. Critique and Summary of Origin of the Family
i. Production. The emphasis on production would appear to be both the strong and weak point of Engels’s analysis. By emphasizing human labour and production, Marx and Engels point to a feature that has been very important in structuring and changing human societies. Private ownership of property and private property in the means of production are important bases for social organization, and also for the oppression of women. Marjorie Cohen's analysis of farm labour in nineteenth century Ontario shows the importance of inheritance and property rights among agricultural families. Early liberal writers argued for property rights among men, but argued that these rights should not be extended to women.
In terms of these relationships being the root cause of oppression of women though, several questions are not adequately answered by Engels. First, how did men obtain possession of the instruments of production that formed the basis for private property and inheritance? Second, Engels does not show how matrilineal and matriarchal systems changed into patrilineal and patriarchal ones, except to note that such a change could easily have occurred, given the development of private property and inheritance. Third, Engels all oppression of women is a result of private property in the means of production, and no other factors are considered. If there are cultural or other factors that originally played a role in this, or continue to exist, then removing private ownership may not eliminate women's oppression.
ii. Division of Labour. Engels argues that there was a sexual division of labour before systems of agriculture developed. This sexual division was to make men responsible for obtaining food and doing “productive work” and women were responsible for the household. Whether this is correct, or why this developed is not clear. Engels may have viewed this as a natural division of labour, because he considers the origin of this division to have originated with the different functions of male and female in the sex act. Sydie (p. 99) notes that “physical strength has never been a major determinant of the division of labour” but nineteenth century writers may have considered this to be an important factor.
One problem with the approach of Marx and Engels is that it tends to devalue work and labour that are not productive economically or socially. In our society, this means all labour that is not performed for a wage – household work, volunteer work, care for the elderly, child care, etc. The Marxian system is built on the analysis of productive labour, with the assumption that the rest of work or labour that is performed has little or nothing to do with exploitation or class structure. In this approach, work and labour become work for a wage, being exploited by an employer, with work performed outside the regular economy not forming part of the analysis.
Further, if the division of labour by sex preceded the development of private property, this division must proceed from something other than property. If that is the case, the abolition of private property may not end this form of inequality, and there may be not such a straightforward solution to this inequality.
iii. Reproduction. Engels begins the Preface the 1884 edition of Origin of the Family by noting “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life.” (Selected Works, 3, p. 191). Here Engels would seem to be according equality to production and reproduction. By the end of the same paragraph though, Engels notes that the development of the productivity of labour, exchange and private property lead to “a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggles, which make up the content of all hitherto written history, now freely develop.” (p. 192). One major problem with the Marxian analysis of production is that reproduction is taken for granted, it is not analyzed. The development of the productive forces is certainly important, but Marx and Engels did not spend much time analyzing reproductive forces. Even Origin of the Family contains little analysis of this in capitalist society.
This neglect of reproduction creates a number of problems for the Marxian analysis. First, if an argument is made that women are confined to the domestic sphere and are subordinated because of physiologically determined sex roles, then this is natural. Socialism and communism would not necessarily change this and women would consigned permanently to a secondary role. Second, reproduction takes place in very different ways in different societies. Other than the biological birth process, all other aspects surrounding reproduction can be organized very differently than they are – e.g. family structures, roles of children, amount and types of household work, care of the elderly, etc. Each of these is an aspect of the material forces, involving human labour, yet there is little analysis of these forces in Marxian analysis. This is at the minimum an omission of important material forces, and to the extent that the relations of reproduction interact with the productive forces analyzed within Marxian analysis, the latter analysis may be incorrect. Third, creation of surplus value in the Marxian model of capitalism emerges from a distinction between labour and labour power, and the value of labour power. Yet the theory of how the value of labour power is determined is either nonexistent or incomplete. The same can be said concerning the theory of population. Fourth, what are the real roots of the inequality between men and women? Engels seems to say it is private property. But many feminists argue it is related more to reproductive than productive factors. Some of the radical approaches to feminism argue that sexual inequalities are related to male attempts to control reproduction and women's sexuality, and have little to do with private property and production.
iv. Contributions. In spite of these problems, Marx and Engels certainly recognized oppression of women and patriarchy as major problems, both historically and in contemporary society. Many other theorists were unwilling to consider the differences a source of inequality and oppression of women. Marx and Engels continually emphasized the exploitative nature of property relationships, and used this to show various ways in which these hurt women. While they were overly optimistic about the ability to end sexual inequalities, their analysis focusses on a major source of social inequality. Followers of the Marxist approach have often been key in organizing women into trade unions, pushing for equal pay, etc.
Both liberalism and Marxism claim to be theoretical approaches with universal application, aiming to change society for the benefit of all. Both are concerned with universal human emancipation and the improvement of conditions of everyone, and these approaches do not emphasize sectional interests. It might be noted that the approach of Engels was almost exactly opposite to the liberal view that private property rights should be extended to all. Instead of extending them, it argues that they should be abolished and that property should become common property – belonging to all. The working class was the key to this, the class that would be able to overcome “particular differences and realize a common identity: the human being as maker, realizing his ‘species being’ in the course of transforming nature.” (Gitlin, p. 19).
3. Contemporary Marxist Feminism
Out of the Marxian and the feminist tradition, there are a number of approaches to the analysis of women and of sex and gender inequalities. These are represented by various social and political movements, organizations, and theorists.
Class structures are primary in determining the main social classes, the main forms of struggle within societies, and the life experiences of people in these classes. But secondary forms of inequality and oppression occur within each class, and these may take the form of racial and ethnic inequalities, or gender inequalities. Marxist feminists argue that “within any class, women are less advantaged than men in their access to material goods, power, status, and possibilities for self-actualization. The causes of this inequality lie in the organization of capitalism itself.” (Ritzer, pp. 468-9) Bourgeois women may be wealthy, but usually are secondary to their husbands in terms of power. These women “provide emotional, social, and sexual services for the men in their class. They are well rewarded for this, often are not able to develop an independent source of livelihood or power. Middle class women may be well off, but often lack property or labour force experience, and if divorced, could find themselves in poverty.
The position of working class women is likely to be mixed, depending on whether or not she participates in the labour force, and depending on her wage. If the latter is adequate to support her and her children, she may be able to have some independence. More likely though, the working class woman has little income, responsibility for household tasks, and is inferior socially and in terms of power and independence to her husband. This may allow a male wage earner to exercise "personal power, compensation for his actual powerlessness in society. She is in other words, 'the slave of a slave.’” (Ritzer, p. 469).
For women within the labour force, this work is often as alienating as that of men, or perhaps more alienating. Women are often paid less, and tend to be in subordinate positions. There are relatively few cases where women within the work force are managers or are in dominant positions within a hierarchy. For women who are not in the work force, alienation occurs in a different form, that of powerlessness, with women being required to serve others. (Based on Code, p. 39).
b. Household and Family
Some Marxists view the household as an institution that functions to support capitalism and it permits or even encourages exploitation. That is, by creating and recreating sexual inequalities, and keeping women in the home with responsibility for family subsistence, emotional support and reproduction, the family helps capitalism continue to exploit labour and helps maintains stability within a system of class oppression and inequality. There are various ways in which the family and sex roles do this.
i. First are the strictly economic features. So long as women have primary responsibility for reproduction (physical and socialization) and household and family maintenance, women constitute a cheap form of labour, a reserve army of labour. They have been a latent reserve over the last forty years, some are a short term reserve over the economic cycle, and women are a labour reserve in a generational sense. That is, the expectation that women will not be as committed to many jobs as men, with time taken off for childbearing, child care, care of elderly parents, etc., allows employers to pay women less than men. The lower status of women within society also allows women to be paid less, since some wages and salaries are structured on status considerations.
ii. A second feature is that these household and family responsibilities of women allow the extraction of surplus value, although in an indirect form. That is, much of the necessary labour of maintaining and reproducing workers is carried out as unpaid labour by women. Workers come to the labour force at no cost to employers, and if employers had to pay for reproducing workers, the cost would be considerably greater than what wages currently are. Where wages are family wages, so that the male wage is large enough to support the whole family, there is still much unpaid work in the home, and paying for this would result in a considerable redistribution of income from males to females.
iii. Third, households and families are good consuming units within modern capitalism. Each household is a separate consuming units, with separate needs. While these consuming units need not be organized on a family basis, or with sexual inequalities, in order to perform this role in society, in fact they are very well adapted to maintaining and expanding purchases.
In social and political terms, this role can also play a conservatizing force with respect to class struggles. Women's lower wages and the difficulty of supporting a family, can be used by employers as a means of undermining trade union struggles. Since the responsibility of women is to maintain the household, this can have a conservatizing effect. Where there is a need for change, women are often isolated by separation into private households, and organizing to create change can be difficult.
iv. Fourth, the unpaid labour performed by women for men can really be regarded as unpaid labour performed for capitalists. In the classical Marxian framework, such labour is unproductive. Marxist feminists argue that reproductive and household labour is productive of surplus value, and should be compensated in some manner. This has led some Marxists to argue that women should be paid wages for housework.
Others have argued that men exploit women in an economic sense, and men extract surplus value from women. Marxists like Zaretsky (Tong, pp. 66-69) argue that the family must be abolished, that paying wages for housework will just preserve the traditional inequalities. What is necessary is more socialization of household work, with women being fully able to participate in the public sphere. Potentially, under communism, the division between public and private would disappear, and this could form the basis for sex and gender equalities.
c. Women as Class
Another line of argument that some feminists have adopted is that women are a class, or a sexual class as opposed to the common Marxist view of a social or economic class. Eisenstein considers women as a sexual class because they "constitute the basic and necessary activities of society: reproduction, child rearing, nurturing, consuming, domestic labouring, and wage-earning. Women are a sexual class because what they do as women -- the activities they are responsible for in society, the labor that they perform -- is essential and necessary to the operation of society as it presently exists." (Eisenstein, p. 146). This consideration of women as a sexual class is based on a common position within the mode of production and reproduction, and a common position with respect to another sexual class, that is, males. This means a different set of interests, and also at least some opposed interests to those of males. Eisenstein argues that patriarchy is somewhat different than capitalism as a system, where the bourgeoisie is organized and must be opposed. Rather than struggling against men, the struggle of women is against patriarchy, and its expressions. The latter may be found in the market, in the state, in the family, etc. For Eisenstein, sexual class consciousness must be formed through social movements like the suffrage movement or feminist movements. The manner in which feminist struggles over the last thirty years have proceeded has develop this sexual class consciousness.
Marxist and socialist feminist solutions embody a wide range of changes. Some would argue that the end of capitalism is sufficient, but the record of the socialist countries was not encouraging in this respect. More likely this approach would argue for an end of the nuclear family, at least as it is currently structured. But really ending patriarchy and inequality may require changes at all levels, in the economy, in attitudes, in institutions, etc.
C. Conclusions Concerning Marx
1. Predictions. Marx's predictions have often not come true. At the same time, the predictions concerning concentration and centralization, periodic crises, etc. all were accurate forecasts.
2. Concepts. Alienation, value and surplus value, exploitation (as rooted in economics, production and the labour process), labour power, class consciousness, etc. are all useful concepts, many of which have been incorporated into mainstream sociology.
3. Analysis of Capitalism. Marx's analysis of capitalism, and his basic critique of it remain as one of his great contributions. While missing some aspects of the system, the forces noted by Marx have continued to be important. Just as many of the forces noted by Smith and Ricardo still operate, so do the forces noted by Marx.
4. Methodology. Marx's method sets an example of how to do social research. Empirical work within an historical setting, whereby a philosophic approach is taken to construct a sound theoretical system. This system has wide scope and raises many hypotheses.
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Last edited February 7, 2003
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