Sociology 304

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 sections.

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 collective struggles.

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 (p. 36).

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 and action.

Note: See the notes from March 3 for a discussion of these issues.

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 class.

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 are valued.

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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