Sociology 319

March 19, 2003


Class and Patriarchy


Given the difficulties of integrating the labour and status of women into a Marxian model, some Marxist feminists have argued that women constitute a class or sexual class.  A related approach is to argue that there are dual systems of exploitation and oppression – class and patriarchy.  The approaches of Eisenstein and Delphy are examples of these and are reviewed here.


1. Eisenstein


Zillah Eisenstein, a professor of Political Science at Ithaca College in the state of New York, has argued that women constitute a sexual class in a system of patriarchy.  While comparable to the central Marxist approach to class as economic class, Eisenstein considers women to be a sexual class.  She does not argue against the Marxian perspective of class, but adds sexual class and patriarchy to social class and capitalism.


In the Marxian approach, a class is defined by its relationship to the means of production – ownership or non-ownership of means of production.  Within this approach, classes are also defined by and in their relationship to another class.  For example, the bourgeoisie is a class in that it exploits another class, the proletariat, and the two have a contradictory social relationship with each other.  Further, Marxian classes have a group aspect to them in that they are not merely the amalgam or collection of the individuals in the class, but the class as a whole has a distinct and actual presence as an actor in society.  Such action is best demonstrated when the class becomes class conscious and is able to act in its own interests – for example, when workers take strike action against an employer or when a political party is able to create legislation or public policy in the interests of a particular class.


For Eisenstein, women are a sexual class because, in the work they do, 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.  They do similar work have similar relationship to the means of reproduction (sex differences) and generally have a similar relationship to the means of production (little or no ownership of these).


Women are also a sexual class that has a common position with respect to another sexual class, males.  The two sexual classes certainly have a social relationship with each other – characterized by partnership and cooperation, but also by division of tasks, sexual relationships, and relationships of domination and oppression.  To some extent these are complementary but at other times these two sexual classes are in opposition to each other.  That is, each class has a different set of interests, and women often have interests opposed to those of males. 


Eisenstein argues that patriarchy is a system, but one that differs from capitalism as a system.  The latter is characterized by class relationships and struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat.  In the case of a patriarchal system, 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 onsciousness emerges from social movements like the suffrage movement or more recent feminist movements.  Over the last forty years, struggles by women to improve their condition have helped to develop this sexual class consciousness.


For Eisenstein, patriarchy is

a sexual system of power in which the male possesses superior power and economic privilege.  Patriarchy is the male hierarchical ordering of society.  Although the legal institutional base of patriarchy was more explicit in the past, the basic relations of power remain intact today.  The patriarchal system is preserved, via marriage and the family, through the sexual division of labour and society.  Patriarchy is rooted in biology rather than in economics or history.  Manifested through male force and control, the roots of patriarchy are located in women's reproductive selves.  Woman's position in this power hierarchy is defined not in terms of the economic class structure but in terms of the patriarchal organization of society.  (Eisenstein, ,  p. 17).

While Eisenstein appears to give patriarchy a biological basis, and does not spell out in great detail how this system is maintained, she views it as a powerful and ongoing system of sexual oppression, one that parallels capitalism as a system of economic domination.


2. Delphy


A similar argument has been developed by Christine Delphy (1941-  ), a French feminist, activist, researcher, and professor at University of Paris X, Nanterre.  Delphy coined the term materialist feminism (Lovell, p. 335) and argues that women are a class relative to the relations of production (and reproduction).  “Because they perform unpaid housework all women share a common economic position” and “as a category of human beings destined by birth to become a member of this class, they constitute a caste” (Bryson, p. 199).  She argues that the radical and Marxist left subordinated women’s issues to the class struggle, and developed her approach in response to this (Oliver, p. 59). 


Since “traditional Marxist analyses could not begin to account for women’s exploitation” (Oliver, p. 60), Delphy developed an argument that there are two class systems – capitalism and patriarchy – independent of each other.    It is the gender differentiated system of power that produces this.  Her approach is to consider “the family unit as an economic system,” or a “domestic mode of production” (Oliver, p. 60).   She argues that men as patriarchs exploit and appropriate women’s reproductive and productive labour through the labour/marriage contract.  This “domestic exploitation takes place outside the capitalist mode of production … this is not simply derived from class struggle and capitalism, but it has an independent material basis in women’s unpaid domestic labour” (Bryson, p. 199).  Delphy notes that the labour of women is “distinctive because it has no direct ‘exchange value’” and is “personalized to the individual family member’s needs” (Oliver, p. 60), but at the same time she considers this to be exploitation – appropriation of women’s labour by males. 


Delphy finds that one of the consequences of domestic labour for women is was associated with less female than male consumption of shared family resources.  She argues that families justified such a result “by an appeal to the type of work performed and to the stereotype that men performed more physically demanding work.”  Further, the consumption level of the wife tended to be tied to “the husband’s standing in society” in spite of the fact that the work done by women was similar across different social classes.  (see Oliver, p. 60). 


Lovell notes how this leads to men exploiting women, not just in economic terms, but “also the sexual and reproductive bodies of women” (p. 335).  For Delphy, women’s and men’s social differences cannot be explained by “natural or essential categories of sex” (Oliver p. 61).  In fact, she argues that even maintaining the sex/gender distinction, and connecting gender differences to sex differences “perpetuates a hierarchical relationship between men and women” (Oliver, p. 62).  She argues that many feminists wish to preserve feminine values, perhaps creating a more equal society by redistributing these values to males, or perhaps retaining them while women become equal (Delphy in Oliver, p. 71).  But Delphy argues that to assume that a more equal society would have the gender characteristics we currently observe, is itself a means that hierarchies are preserved.  She states “we do not know what the values, individual personality traits, and cultures of a non-hierarchical society would be like” (Delphy in Oliver, p. 74).  She urges us to “imagine non-gender” and think of possibilities that do not include hierarchies of values, gender, and sex. 


3. Patriarchy


Feminists may consider patriarchy as a “system characterized by power, dominance, hierarchy and competition.” (Tong, p. 2). and one with “legal and political structures” and “social and cultural institutions” that support this hierarchy (Tong, p. 3). 


Hartmann's materialist account argues patriarchy is “a set of social relations between men which have a material basis, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create independence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women.”  The material base comes from “men's control over women's labor power; this control is constituted by restricting women’s access to important economic resources and by disallowing women any control over female sexuality and especially female reproductive capacities” (Tong, p. 180).  For Hartmann, patriarchy is in the material realm, through control of property, through laws and customs affecting women's sexuality and reproduction, and through daily activities whereby men reinforce the inequalities.

system with structures


From this, some Marxist and other feminists have argued there are dual systems or a capitalist patriarchy.  Modern society is clearly characterized by capitalism as an economic and material force; it is also characterized by patriarchy, a system of domination of women by men.  While some argue that one of these can be reduced to the other, a dual systems approach argues that each of these are “dynamic forces at work in history, which must therefore be understood in terms of both class and gender struggle” (Bryson, p. 243).  Hartmann argues that the two may build on each other but they may be in conflict with each other – for example, the past fifty years where patriarchal privileges for males may have been undercut by the strong growth in demand for women’s work in the paid labour force.  Each of the two systems has a certain autonomy and set of forces and structures that maintain the system. Marx outlined the forces that maintained and expanded capitalism.  Feminists have presented various arguments concerning the causes and forces associated with patriarchy.


Walby characterizes patriarchy as “a system of social structures, and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.”  Six aspects of patriarchy are (see Lovell, p. 311)

Each of these may constitute a separate system or subsystem, so that there is not a single patriarchal structure with a single means of reproduction of domination and exploitation

(Lovell, p. 311).  Lovell comments on some of these in the later parts of chapter 11 and in chapter 12.



Bryson, Valerie.  1992.  Feminist Political Theory.  Macmillan, London.  HQ 1190 B79

Eisenstein, Zillah. 1986. The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism.  Boston: Notheastern University Press.  HQ1154 E44 1986

Eisenstein, Zillah. Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism

Oliver, Kelly, editor. 2000.  French Feminism Reader, Rowman and Littlefield, London

Tong, Rosemarie. 1989. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press.  HQ1206 T65 1989


Last edited on April 4, 2003


Return to Sociology 319