March 10, 1998
Feminist Critique of the Marxian Approach
C. Marxist Model and the Analysis of Women and the Family
The approach of Marx with respect to women and the family was
little different than that of conventional economics. In the Marxian
model, women were part of the household, responsible for bearing
and raising children and for maintaining the household. While
there may have been a recognition that this was necessary work,
it was not work that was valued through exchange and did not form
part of the model of capitalist production.
Friedrich Engels did pay more attention to this issue in
his writings and a year after Marx died, in 1884, Engels published
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Until the 1970s, when Marxist feminist approaches began to be
developed, this provided the main outlines of the Marxian approach
to the oppression of women and the inequalities within the family
and household. For Engels, the patriarchal family emerged
with the development of agriculture, where males began
to develop private property in animals, tools, and land,
and attempted to control more of the surplus. In order to "ensure
the legitimacy of their heirs" (p. 31) and perhaps
to control women's sexuality, men established dominance
within the household and society, and established patrilineal
lines of inheritance. This resulted in the "world historical
defeat of the female sex" and women were reduced to servitude
and an instrument for the production of children. With the development
of capitalism, this system continued and became especially important
for property owners - the bourgeoisie. Since the working class
has no property, such control was not necessary, and Engels implies
that male/female inequalities within the working class are minimal.
Since patriarchy began with the development of private property,
when private property is abolished the material basis for
the oppression of women will be removed. While Engels felt that
it might take a generation or two for male/female equality to
emerge, he was relatively optimistic that such equality
would emerge once socialism was established.
Unlike many other approaches, the Marxian analysis did recognize
the problem of patriarchy and female oppression and did have a
theoretical model which explained it. Recent feminist analysis
and the feminist movement has cast doubt on this approach.
D. Feminist Critique of Marxian Approach
1. Separation of Production and Reproduction. The division
between public and private that emerged with industrialization,
urbanization, and capitalism has been carried over into much conventional
social science analysis (economics, political science, history).
In this, the Marxism of Mr. Prol is no different than conventional
social science. Marxism offers an excellent model and analysis
of some forms of exploitation within capitalism and of some of
the dynamics of capitalism. But all this is based on a strict
division between public and private, with the public being worthy
of extensive analysis and the private often not considered worthy
of such analysis.
In particular, the Marxian Mr. Prol model does not recognize work
in the home, much reproductive work, and much of the work females
have been largely responsible for as economic activity. Rather,
Marx begins with an examination of the commodity - a good
or service produced for sale and purchase on markets - and builds
his analysis of exploitation and capitalism from the analysis
of the commodity. In this sense, the Marxian model is a model
of capitalist production, with other aspects of capitalist society
not inherently part of the model. Other forms of oppression such
as racism or patriarchy can be added to the model, but these are
really not part of the Mr. Prol model, nor do they alter the basic
workings of the model of commodities and exploitation.
In the Marxian model, work may be first introduced as work
in general (both in production and reproduction), but the
model of commodities and exploitation is restricted to labour
which is exchanged for a wage. Value, surplus value, and
exploitation thus occur only in the capital/labour relationship,
not outside it. While Marx may recognize that other inequities
occur, these are not part of the formal model and play little
part in the description and analysis of the structures, institutions,
and dynamics of capitalism. That is, inequities within the household
or discrimination that leads to lower wages for some racial or
ethnic groups do not form a central part of the model. For example,
in the Mr. Prol model the struggles of the white, male working
class may be treated as a progressive cause, likely to lead toward
socialism. But improvement in these male wages may occur at the
expense of certain racial and ethnic groups, or by excluding females
from the labour force.
While all forms of work (reproductive and productive) might be
added to the Mr. Prol model, doing so might destroy the workings
of the model. Take the family wage - the male worker's
subsistence wage, which must also be sufficient to support a household
if the male worker is the only one in the household that has a
job. What makes this possible? The family wage may be associated
with less than subsistence wages for single female workers and
workers of a different ethnicity, and may also be associated with
inequalities within the household and family. If so, then the
value of labour power, which depends on reproductive labour, becomes
problematic in the Marxian theoretical model
For Marx, the distinctive aspect of being human is human labour,
the human ability to be creative in work, and have that work produce
a social surplus. The Neo-prol approach notes that many
types of resources have an ability to produce a surplus and the
uniqueness of labour (p. 33) may not be in its ability to produce
a surplus but in its ability to contest terms of exchange. If
so, this is presumably true of all forms of work, both paid labour
in commodity production and unpaid labour in reproductive work,
so that both should be included in the model.
2. Analysis of Reproduction. This is nonexistent or inadequate
in the Marxian Mr. Prol model. The lack of such an analysis creates
problems for developing a model of population, family, household
in this model, and for creating a model of the supply of labour.
The Neo-prol model recognizes this problem and contemporary Marxists
introduce an analysis of household, family, and female labour.
Folbre deals with this later, on pages 104 - 111 and in the historical
Marx noted that each mode of production has its own law of population
and implicitly assumed that there would be no shortage of population
growth to supply labour. The main Marxian population model is
that of the industrial reserve army. This is useful in
showing how surplus labour is created in capitalism and how unemployment
expands and contracts over the business cycle. But as an explanation
for population size and changes in demographic variables, such
as fertility decline and changes in the value of labour
power, the Marxian model is limited.
In terms of analyzing the decline in fertility, Folbre notes that
improvements in the status of women are an important feature
(p. 108). Women traditionally were responsible for the bulk of
work associated with bearing and raising children, but once women
were able to exercise greater control over this work, the fertility
rate declined. A conventional economic analysis of the costs
and benefits of children is a large part of the explanation
for fertility decline. Children were once an economic benefit
(as labourers in agriculture and family businesses, as support
in old age, and as heirs to pass land on to - p. 109) but these
benefits have mostly disappeared and with urbanization and industrialization,
the cost of children has increased dramatically. Folbre
notes that "fertility decline ... is not simply the result
of changing relative prices. It is also the product of a complex
cultural and political renegotiation of the meaning of family
life" (p. 107).
3. Patriarchy. According to Engels, and much subsequent Marxian writing, patriarchy as a system of "rule of the fathers" or "rule of the men" (p. 59) emerged with the development of private property. But is this the real source of patriarchy? There are a number of problems here, and pages 74-78 of Who Pays for the Kids? contain a discussion of the origins of patriarchy. Folbre's use of patriarchy differs somewhat from the traditional Marxian concept. She notes the following.
a. First, the meaning of patriarchy is not clear and covers many different possible forms of social organization. What may be meant by patriarchy is "combinations of structures of constraint based on gender, age, and sexual preference" (p. 59).
b. Second, the summary on p. 78 is more specific and indicates that patriarchy may be three things:
These emerge from interplay of biology, group competition, and
Further, the political message of Engels's argument is sometimes
taken to mean that the elimination of patriarchy requires a political
program of elimination of private property. In this approach,
private property created patriarchy, so patriarchy will not end
without the abolition of private property. In contrast, feminists
generally argue that male privilege and female subordination must
be fought at all levels. For feminists, this struggle is on a
par, or perhaps more important than class struggle. Folbre outlines
one of these approaches, the Neo-Prol, or socialist feminist,
dual systems view (pp. 37-38) where "patriarchy and
capitalism are ... 'dual systems' of production" (p. 38).
Folbre notes though that while this would seem to be an improvement
over Engels, this relegates other inequities and difference to
"a lower level of theoretical importance" (p. 38). Folbre
argues for an even broader interpretation of the bases of collective
action in the forms of cooperation and conflict.
4. Economic Factors and Class Structure. The Marxian model
is materialist, with a strong emphasis on production within the
economic sphere. The commodity forms the basis for Marx's analysis,
exploitation occurs in the productive process, and class structures
emerge from the workings of the productive process. These class
structures are the primary social structure within capitalism,
and capitalism can be replaced by socialism only through the development
of the working class. Economic factors and social class are primary
in the Mr. Prol and Neo-prol Marxian models.
a. Dominance of the economic. The whole structure of exploitation
and class comes from an analysis of commodity exchange in capitalism.
Other forms of inequity and oppression may be recognized, but
the truly important feature of the Mr. Prol model is that of exploitation
of workers within the production process organized and controlled
by capitalists. Folbre notes (p. 36) how the basic vocabulary
of Marxian theory (commodities, mode of production, capitalism,
commodity, exploitation) emphasises economic factors. The Mr.
Prol model tends to ignore factors such as race, gender, sexual
preference, age, or nation as sources of inequality, so that these
latter factors have no systematic status within the Marxian model.
Where there are wage differences between the sexes or among workers
of different ethnicity or race, the Mr. Prol model may recognize
these but there is no systematic explanation of these differences
The Neo-prol model does emphasize a range of possible assets and
positions that workers may have. For example, the Marxian model
can incorporate differences in skills as a results of education
or on-the-job training. Further, the preferential position of
professional and highly skilled workers, and those who work in
large, successful firms can be accommodated in these models. However,
while the Neo-prol model tends to widen the scope of the economic,
by recognizing a wide range of possible assets that workers may
have, it does not move much beyond the economic arena. Folbre
asks us to consider factors such as gender, race, or nationality
as being of similar importance to the economic, with different
factors being dominant in different situations.
b. Class structures (pp. 31-2). In Marxian models, class
structures and class struggles are the primary social structures
in capitalism. The structure that is most constraining on individuals
is that of social class and these classes become the main form
of collective agency. The neo-prol model may alter this somewhat,
in that the classes may be more numerous and a little different.
For example, Erik Olin Wright discusses class locations such as
expert managers, semi credentialled supervisors, and small employers,
in addition to bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, and proletariat
(Wright, p. 88). But even in the Neo-prol models, these are generally
rooted in production and the economy, so that class and class
consciousness are most important in terms of defining the constraints
and opportunities faced by people.
Within Marxian models, people have little choice in determining
their social class so that the structural constraints on people
are severe. While other structures, such as race, ethnicity, age,
sex may be considered important, in that they allow capitalist
employers "to divide and conquer, to pit each group against
each other, to segment the working class" (p. 31) they are
definitely secondary forms of constraint at the level of the society
as a whole and even for the individual. The solution to the problems
created by capitalism is to replace capitalism with socialism;
this is expected to deal not only with problems related to inequitable
class structures but also with other forms of inequality.
The Mr. Prol model gives little attention to non-class forms of
exploitation and inequality - sex, race, ethnicity, or nation
(p. 31). The establishment of socialism is viewed as solution
to these forms of inequality, and without socialism these latter
inequities cannot be solved. The Neo-prol model modifies this
somewhat by defining other groups based on assets. Folbre notes
that these are "class-like groups" - e.g. professionals
with assets of human capital, athletes with special abilities,
or the underclass with negative assets in most everything - in
that the possession of assets creates a market advantage (or disadvantage
where the asset is lacking) for the group. But even the neo-prol
model does not explain divisions based on sex, race, nation very
well (pp. 35-36).
c. Interests or identities. The Marxian model is very good
in explaining the origin and nature of groups based on common
economic interests, but is much weaker in explaining how groups
form on the based of common identity occur (p. 36), especially
where that identity may initially be non-economic in nature. In
recent years, identity politics has become an important
basis for social and political action. Groups based on culture,
nationality, region, religion, sexual preference, environment
- single issue social movements that are not directly based on
class (although they may have a class component to them) - have
become common, if not the dominant form of social movements. Marxism
has little to say about the origin or power of these groups. Some
of these are single issue movements but Folbre notes that the
individual may identify with and act on the basis of more than
one group (p. 38). In fact, it is probably most common to have
multiple identities, and the single identity may be an
aberration. Folbre notes the need for social scientists to examine
a wide variety of interest groups and non-class categories. In
the first part of this course we have seen how some of the cultural
factors associated with ethnicity, race, history, and religion
lead to strong group identity.
d. Class consciousness and false consciousness do not provide
an adequate basis for analyzing issues related to collective identity
Note: See the
notes from March 3 for a discussion of these
5. Work and Labour.
a. Value of labour power and exploitation. The rate of
exploitation depends on the value of labour power, along with
the division of the working day into necessary and surplus labour.
The value of labour power equals the value of the commodities
necessary for its production - the costs of social reproduction
on a daily and generational basis. But these are not clearly spelled
out in the Marxian model, and they are not subject to exchange
and the market. Much reproductive labour is carried out by unpaid
labour in the household, where it is not subject to exchange,
and hence does not have a value.
Included in the determination of the value of labour power by Marx is a moral and historical element. This is presumably subject to bargaining between employers and employees (through trade unions) and also bargaining within households and families. Long run developments such as changes in fertility rates and female labour force participation will also have an effect on this moral and historical element in the value of labour power.
Folbre asks why wages for females and minority groups are
less than that for males if the value of labour power depends
on the value of commodities necessary for its production. The
bundle of goods and services necessary for the reproduction of
female or minority group labour is presumably little different
that that for white males (top of p. 31). While the claim that
employers attempt to divide and conquer is undoubtedly correct,
this does not become part of the model dealing with the value
of labour power. Bargaining, coercion, discrimination, and economic
power all play a role here, and in the model there are no clear
guidelines concerning what the outcome of these will be.
b. Value of non-market labour. Labour which is not sold
to an employer is not exchanged for a wage and has no value in
the Marxian sense. But clearly this labour is necessary for and
assists in creating value. Also, the labour of workers who work
at non-market work potentially has a value if these workers do
enter the market.
Who Pays for the Kids? contains an interesting discussion of how the housewife came to be considered unproductive; this was not something which was natural or has always existed (p. 95). This development began with the political division into public and private, and the accompanying economic division of work and occupations into productive and unproductive. In the nineteenth century, this development began to be reflected in the censuses in Western Europe and North America. By the early part of this century, household work was omitted from measurement in the census, and this was later replicated in statistics of economic production such as gross national product (GNP). Why? Folbre speculates that two groups pushed in this direction.
Folbre notes how some women writers and womens' organizations
fought the view that housewives were unproductive. There have
been recent developments in this area, with some attempt by the
census and surveys to provide a measure of women's unpaid labour.
Some women have also argued for wages for housework and for other
economic benefits for women in the home.
c. Exploitation. The models of exploitation originally
developed by Marx have been modified somewhat by recent developments
in Marxian theory. Two examples follow.
i. In production. The surplus labour provided by workers
and taken by capitalists in the process of production is the source
of exploitation. This model is well developed by Marx. In Neo-prol
models, other forms of exploitation may be based on differences
in assets (p. 32 and 33-34). For example, some groups of workers
with special skills or forms of human capital may be able to gain
some part of the surplus (e.g. athletes). Other workers may be
able to use their special technical knowledge (computer programmers)
or special place within the productive process (top managers)
to gain economic advantages which could be considered to be part
of exploitation. This can considerably confuse the class structure,
because these individuals may be considered workers at one level,
but are so highly paid, that they appear to be part of the exploiting
ii. In the household (p. 37). Folbre notes that production
for use can be as exploitative as production for exchange. Exploitation
of this form can occur as an unequal distribution of human labour
or inequities in the redistribution of market income among household
members. For example, the family wage provides the possibility
that the male worker will share his income with all family members
in an equitable manner. But there is nothing that obliges him
to do so, and a male with considerable income may deprive his
wife and family of an adequate or reasonable level of living.
Note that there is redistribution but no explicit exchange within
the household, so that the models of exploitation and extraction
of surplus value really do not apply here. That is, within the
household the mechanisms of exploitation are not systematic, but
depend on coercion, bargaining, norms concerning proper and acceptable
male/female interaction and behaviour, etc.
d. Redefine work. In the Neo-prol models, there is sometimes
a redefinition of work and output to include emotional
and caring work (p. 37). Who Pays for the Kids? also contains
a discussion of the importance of family labour (pp. 96-98). The
Marxian model often begins by analyzing the nature of work in
general, but then immediately jumps to the analysis of labour
exchanged for a wage. The latter tends to be treated as the dominant
form of work within capitalism, and labour that is not exchanged
for a wage is forgotten in further analysis. Folbre urges us to
consider all human labour, examine how it is exercised, how much
is carried out, who does it, who benefits from it, and what are
the social interactions and social relationships surrounding this.
6. Individual Choice. In the Marxian analysis, agents are always collective, and these are often groups such as working class or petty bourgeoisie that are imposed on the individual. This has two aspects to it - social interaction and types of collective agency and behaviour.
F. Toward a Feminist Synthesis
Folbre notes that there are a number of problems created by the
conventional neoclassical and Marxist views.
1. Models of the economy and society are incomplete
and inadequate. The conventional economic approach examines
only production in the economy, devaluing the contribution of
any necessary labour in the household. Measures of production
such as gross national product (GNP) are misleading measures of
economic activity because only certain forms of economic activity
2. Models of economic development are inadequate, because
they consider only production, not reproduction and the social
arrangements surrounding these. These issues are especially important
for the poorer countries today. The manner in which women, family
and households are affected by economic changes, and the constraints
and opportunities faced by them will have a lot to do with whether
and how economic development occurs in these countries.
3. Analysis of political debates and conflicts over social
welfare programs may be misleading. Among the questions that
need to be asked are how were these programs initially achieved,
and in whose interests were they implemented? For example, excluding
women from factory work during the nineteenth century is often
treated as a great gain for the working class and for society.
But this may have had serious long run negative effects for women.
Today, when social welfare programs are under attack, who will
be hurt by the decline of these? How can coalitions be developed
to maintain and restore these programs?
4. In the Marxian approach, the lack of attention to unpaid household
labour has led to an inadequate theory of population and
labour force. There is little in the Marxist model that deals
with the reasons for fertility decline, and neoclassical explanations
(costs and benefits) are probably superior in that regard. As
well, why women have entered the labour force in such large numbers,
and why the feminist movement emerged are not adequately explained
in the Marxian model.
Wright, Erik Olin, Classes, London, Verso, 1985.
Notes for March 10, 1998 class. Last edited on March 10, 1998.
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