Sociology 319

March 12, 2003


Feminist Social Theory


The readings for this section of the course are chapters 11 and 12 of Turner, “Feminisms of the Second Wave” and “Feminisms Transformed,” both by Terry Lovell.


1. Introduction


a. Overview


Over the last 40 years, feminist analysis has made a major contribution to and has changed social theory, making sociologists aware of issues that were previously ignored.  Feminism is also associated with changes in society – especially in North America and Western Europe, but also in other regions of the world.  Many aspects of what were considered to be “private life,” associated with male/female relations in household, family, and other social relationships have been transformed; many parts of society have experienced changes as a result of increased involvement of women in public life.  Feminists and others argue that there is still a long road ahead before the goal of equality of males and females is achieved, but there can be no doubts that major advances have occurred toward such equality – examples include legislation and employment.


While it has been women and men, through their social actions and interaction that have changed social relationships, feminist writers and theorists have contributed to these social changes and to the development of attitudes and views more supportive of equality.  As a demonstration of how social theory can be socially engaged, feminist theory has often been exemplary and, at least through the 1990s (see Lovell, Ch. 12 for shifts in emphasis), never strayed far from practical social issues faced by women in their involvement in the social world.  The feminist writers of the 1960s were part of feminist groups and political and social agitation.  Currently, many feminist writers are involved in or closely associated with women’s groups or social reform activities.


A section on feminist social theory would probably not have been included in a course in sociological theory a generation ago.  However, feminist social theory has made major contributions not just to feminism but also to social theory in general.  By focussing on the differences between biological and social, on the meaning of the social, on how a person’s experience affects her understanding of the social world, and on how males and females relate to each other, feminist theory has forced sociologists to reexamine and revise their social theories.  Among the issues that have entered into sociological discussion are the sociology of bodies, understandings of power, sexual violence, patriarchy, and sexuality.  Each of these were ignored or were minor sociological issues – now they are often key in discussions of contemporary sociology.  Turner notes that feminists have raised radical questions about “social roles, gender identities and biological sex characteristics” so that sociologists have developed new understandings and analysis of “the relationship between society and culture, public and private, and between society and nature” (Turner, first edition, p. 304). 


b. Chapters 11-12 and topics for this section


Feminisms of the second wave refers to the feminist ideas and movement that emerged in the 1960s and had its greatest initial impact in the 1970s.  The chapter “Feminisms Transformed” refers to the “linguistic turn” in feminism of the 1990s (Lovell, p. 300), and the accompanying divide between academic and grass-roots feminism.  For the most part, we will be concerned with chapter 11 and the themes and controversies that emerged in the second wave of feminism.  The first wave refers to the feminist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the suffragettes, the struggle for the vote and for formal equality in Western Europe and North America. 


Lovell’s discussion examines diverse feminist approaches and contradictions within feminist theory and practice – I will attempt to explain these in conjunction with an examination of feminist approaches.  In particular, we will examine the following feminist perspectives:



Lovell also examines connections of feminist theory to other sociological theory, although she concentrates too much on psychoanalytic, post-structural, and post-modern approaches.  She also examines connections of feminism to the social world, although these connections are not so well explained – for example, there is little on political connections or actual studies of the situation of women.  The example of young women’s investment in body (Lovell, p. 342) is insightful and reminiscent of rational choice theory.  For much of these two chapters, Lovell concentrates on contradictions in and limitations for feminist approaches – in my view, a more straightforward presentation of the details of the specific feminist approaches would have been more useful.  A book that I have found useful is Feminist Political Theory by Valerie Bryson.  While Bryson concentrates on political issues, her discussion of these parallels much of social theory and her discussion of feminist theory is useful for sociologists. 


I found chapter 11 and pp. 333-342 of chapter 12 to be the most useful sections of the two chapters.  In chapter 12, there is too much emphasis on psychoanalytic theory and linguistic perspectives.  These may be important in Europe but have been of less importance in North American feminism.


2. Problems with Earlier Social Theory


The classical social theorists and twentieth century social theorists through the 1970s generally ignored women or had misleading analysis of issues related to women.  A detailed analysis of the approach the classical social theorists took toward women and issues related to male/female relations is contained in Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory by Rosalind Sydie of the University of Alberta.  A short summary of a few of the problem areas in earlier sociological perspectives is presented here.


a. Women Ignored.  One general line of criticism of feminists is that women are absent from the social analyses and social world of sociology.  The language and analysis of classical sociologists is that of men, male activities and experiences, and the parts of society dominated by males.  Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were typical of nineteenth century European writers who assumed that the social world was primarily the public world of male activities – the labour force, city life, and politics.


One aspect of the long history of modern, urban, industrial society was the development of a separation between the public and private spheres.  These had not always been separated in traditional societies, although there was usually a sex-based division of labour, often associated with a patriarchal system of male dominance.  With the development of capitalism, cities, and industry, a public sphere dominated by men and male activities developed and expanded.  Women generally became restricted to the private sphere of household and family, and had limited involvement in political, economic, or even public social life.  While some women were involved in more public activities, in the nineteenth century there were movements to restrict the participation of women in public life – for example, factory legislation and the family wage. 


In order to understand some of the difficulties women faced in this era, some of the details of the situation of women should be considered.  First, women in late nineteenth century England were not recognized as individuals in either the legal or the liberal theoretical sense.  Men still held formal power over the rest of the family, and women were mostly excluded from the public sphere.  Mill and Taylor, along with some early United States feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued that the equality of women required full citizenship for women.  This would include giving women enfranchisement.  After 1865, when Mill was in the English Parliament, he fought for women's suffrage.  He also fought “to amend the laws that gave husbands control over their wives' money and property.”  He also supported the campaign for birth control information to be available, and was active in other campaigns that were aimed at assisting women and children.  (Eisenstein, p. 128). 


While there was feminist agitation in the nineteenth century, formal equality for women did not come until much later.  In Canada, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections until 1918, although the franchise was extended to women two years earlier in the Prairie provinces.  Quebec women did not receive the vote in provincial elections until 1940.  Property ownership also rested with men through most of the nineteenth century, with changes that allowed property purchasers to become owner, regardless of sex, coming between 1872 and 1940.  “By 1897 in English Canada and 1931 in Quebec, a wife employed outside the home was allowed to retain her wages” (Burt, p. 214).  Also note that in Canada it was not until the 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code that sales of contraceptives became legal, or that abortions became legal. 


See “Social justice: no safe harbour” by Margaret Conrad, Globe and Mail, March 10, 2003.


In Canada, there is now formal equality in most areas of social life, with women and men having the same legal rights.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1982 Constitution Act states that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”  (Section 15).   Section 28 states that “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”  Many feminists would argue though that this is only formal equality, not true equality.


In terms of how sociology considered public and private, recall that the classical social theories emerged in Europe as a way of explaining the society that emerged as part of the modern era.  This was primarily the public sphere of social life.  Since sociologists were concerned with explaining its emergence, characteristics, and forms of development, little attention was paid to the private sphere – the sphere more likely to be occupied by women.  As a result, early sociological theory paid little attention to this part of social life.  While the sociological analysis of the classical sociologists can be applied to both women and men, by ignoring a large part of the social world, early sociologists had little or no theory of gender relations, sexuality, or male/female inequalities – essential aspects of contemporary social theory.  In addition, by not analyzing the private part of the social world, early sociology may not have developed an adequate understanding of all parts of the social world. 


b. Definitions of Sociology and the Social World.  Each social theory has a definition of what is social or what is the scope of the social theory.  For Goffman this was the interaction order and for Mead it was the study of the relationship among mind, self, and society.  It was the classical sociologists who first defined the field of sociology.  Each of these writers developed a definition of the social world, even if only implicitly, and proceeded to analyze it.  For feminists and contemporary sociologists, a major problem is that the classical definitions of the social world exclude large parts of human action and interaction.  Many of the excluded portions of the social world are those that were typically occupied by women and children, with classical writers showing little interest in or analysis of institutions such as the household, family, or community where women’s experiences have often been centred. 


The emphasis on labour and the commodity for Marx, and the division of labour for Marx and Durkheim, provide an example of this.  We will examine some of the difficulties associated with Marx’s approach next day – following is a short discussion of Durkheim and the division of labour.


Durkheim, concentrating on the division of labour, and its implications for social development and social solidarity, develops a similar approach.  That is, it is the division of tasks in the public economy that characterizes the division of labour.  Since women did not generally participate in the labour force in Durkheim’s day, this eliminates women from the division of labour.  To the extent that the division of labour forms the basis for morality and organic solidarity in modern society, it is primarily the activity of men that create this solidarity.  It is difficult to see how women’s activities contribute to organic solidarity.  Since the proper study of sociology is social facts, but women are absent from the creation of social facts, women are not the proper subject of sociology.


Another way that classical sociologists define the social world is through their categories and concepts.  For Marx, class and class struggle, exploitation and surplus labour, and accumulation and crises have little to do with what women experience or do, since they refer to activities in the economy and the labour force.  Durkheim’s social facts could include women, but they generally do not.  Similarly, Weber’s class, status, and party, domination, authority, bureaucracy, and rationality are all part of a public sphere in which women play little part.


Classical sociologists recognized patriarchy as a social and political system that involved the exercise of power by males over females, family, children, and household.  But their conception of patriarchy was somewhat different than that of feminist analyses of patriarchy.   Feminists emphasize rule by males over females but include issues such as violence, control of sexuality, and other forms of domination by males and oppression of females.  Classical sociologists, especially Weber, considered it to be a part of political power and traditional authority involving control by a senior male over other males as well as females.  Classical sociologists also appear to have considered it as emerging from natural differences between men and women, whereas feminists consider it more socially constructed. 


In summary, the social world of the classical sociologists generally excluded the actions of women.  As a result, sociology as a discipline did not have much to say about women.  While each of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim did have some comments on women and family, these were generally limited comments and their sociological models would be little different if women did not exist.


3. Feminist Approaches


a. Central Issues and Approaches of Feminist Theory (Lovell, pp. 302-4)


Issues identified by Lovell include women’s experience; equality, inequality, and difference; patriarchy and domination; bodies and biological differences between men and women; sexuality, and violence. 


Feminist theory examines women in the social world and addresses issues of concern to women, focussing on these from the perspective, experiences, and viewpoint of women.  It cuts across conventional academic disciplines (e.g. feminist history, geography, literature, science) and develops ideas and approaches that are useful in a wide variety of these disciplines.  Not only have feminists critiqued conventional methodological approaches, they have developed new methods – placing more emphasis on the experiences of women and new forms of knowledge.  As noted earlier, feminism is closely engaged with the social world – feminist theorists tend to be women who theorize about their own experiences and interaction, it is concerned with the everyday lives and experiences of women and their social interactions, and it is often connected to women’s groups, social reform, and broad social and political movements, organizations, and institutions.  As a method of conducting social analysis, social research, and social theorizing, feminist theoretical perspectives provide worthwhile models and examples for sociology and other academic endeavours. 


b. Difference


In the first pages of chapter 11, Lovell highlights issues of difference and diversity that make it difficult to speak of a common situation and set of experiences for women.  As a result “‘woman’ and ‘women’ … are not unitary categories” (Lovell, p. 302).  While the second wave of feminism often argued that there were common experiences of women and similar social position of women with respect to men in society, Lovell argues that there are a number of differences.  Some of these sexual and gender differences; differences by race, ethnicity, and class; sexuality; and difference as a general concept (Lovell, p. 301).  This makes it difficult to deal with issues of equality in a manner acceptable to all women, feminists may not speak for all women, and generalizations concerning all women may be trivial or false (Lovell, p. 305).  For example, Lovell notes how feminism has sometimes been labeled as bourgeois or middle class and has been attacked as representing privilege of women in these groups (pp. 302-3). 


While these attacks have sometimes been a smokescreen to discredit some feminists, these are difficult issues that feminists must address.  Lovell shows how more recent feminist approaches have emphasized the importance of building alliances across difference, although this requires “genuine dialog and mutual exchange between those who are unlike” (Lovell, p. 304).  Further, some emphasize local and interpersonal issues, rather than focus exclusively on societal level political issues such as equal rights.  In considering these, Lovell argues that gender, class, and race are not :discrete and cumulative forms of oppression” (Lovell, p. 304) but are constructed in relation to each other in particular ways. 


Perhaps the first concern of feminist sociology is to recognize women as full-fledged social actors in the social world.  While women were always part of the social world, theoretical perspectives often did not recognize them as such.  In some cases, earlier theoretical perspectives can be modified or extended so that women are recognized as such, in other cases it may not be possible to do so, thus requiring that these perspectives be rebuilt or that their limitations be recognized.  For example, it would seem possible to introduce feminist theory into symbolic interaction perspectives in a way that would enrich these.  Theories such as Parsons’s model of the family or the instrumental and expressive appear to be much more limited and perhaps incapable of basic revision.  


c. Sex and gender


A second overriding concern of feminist sociology is to recognize the difference between biology and the social – the difference usually associated with sex (as biologically ascribed) and gender (as socially constructed).  Lovell notes that “the distinction between sex and gender initially provided a firm plank for both Marxist and radical feminists … the social construction of femininity” (p. 308).  She also notes how “women’s biological functions have over and over again been used to rationalize and legitimate” (p. 308) the social status of women.  A large part of feminist theory and research has been devoted to explaining how the status, role, and position of women in the social world was socially constructed, and was not natural or unchangeable.  This involved studies of the different experiences of women in different times and places, showing the great variety of ways that societies dealt with male/female relationships, resulting in the view that gender differences were much more variable and malleable than biological differences.  For feminists, biological realities may be relatively unchangeable, but “what is constructed in social relations and in culture is more readily reconstructed” (p. 308). 


Such an approach is consistent with a sociological approach – where social construction is always emphasized over biological explanations.  It is also consistent with liberal or equal rights approaches to feminism.  Those approaches tended to argue that the mind/body split that accorded rationality and mind to males and nature and body to females were incorrect.  That is, feminists argued that both males and females have bodies that differ, but similar minds and capabilities.  They argued that is was a male view that women were more connected to nature and the body, and male domination and power over females meant the relegation of females to the private sphere.  But these were socially constructed views of gender by powerful males who perpetuated such differences through laws, exclusion of females, and domination of personal relationships.  Feminists thus argued that females were as capable and rational as males, and there should be equality between males and females in all aspects of life, both in the public and private spheres.  That is, the social construction of gender was the problem, not some inherent biological difference between men and women. 


But Lovell notes that has not been easy to completely ignore biological realities and radical feminism has reintroduced the body and biological characteristics.  While these are in quite different ways than in nineteenth century writings, it has become clear that the division between sex and gender is not clear-cut, nor so useful for feminist analysis as once thought.  Lovell argues that there are several problems with this distinction.


First, Lovell notes that if feminists found oppression of women to be very widespread across time and place, “biology must have something to do with it” (p. 309).  Anthropological and sociological evidence found great difference of experiences, role, and situation of women in different societies, so this was strong evidence for the difference between sex and gender.  But feminists also made the argument that the situation of women tended to be inferior in most, if not all societies.  But what does this say about social construction of gender?  Does such social construction always lead to male domination and female subordination?   If this is the case, then it is difficult to argue that there is not some biological aspect to this power differential.  Systems of patriarchy may be a means of explaining this, but how do these systems of patriarchy emerge?  (We will examine analyses of patriarchy next week).


Second, while gender may be socially constructed, so are class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, as third world women, minority women, lesbians, and others have made clear.  Differences between sex and gender often did not make this apparent, and did not consider the diverse ways that these may be interconnected.  As a result, a simple sex/gender distinction may not capture the variety of experiences and situations of women.  Lovell notes how this meant that some women were reluctant to become feminists, or were in outright opposition to feminism.  Some of these viewed feminism as an ideology of privileged, middle-class, white females. 


Third, how are feminists to deal with biological realities?  Lovell (pp. 309-310) argues that radical feminists adopted a variety of responses.  Another approach was to argue for freeing women from childbirth through “a revolution in the technology and social relations of reproduction, in which the womb would be by-passed in favor of new technologies” (Lovell, p. 310).  While this may be in the realm of science fiction, it has been argued by feminists such as Shulamith Firestone.  A more conventional approach has been to argue that women should not be bound by biological realities, but participate more fully in all activities.  Where these require accommodations, such as leave for childbirth, laws, policies, and organizations should restructure labour force and other activities so that full participation for women can occur.  While some of this has occurred, the current structure of career and public life will require more change if this is to occur, and it may be difficult to achieve full equality with just this approach.


Fourth, Lovell argues that Marxist analysis provided an explanation of social construction of relations of reproduction, rooted in material reality.  But she also notes that issues of violence against women in their personal and family life was difficult to explain within the Marxian model (p. 310).  While capitalism might well use women in an oppressive manner, why should “the sexual domination of women, and the extent of male violence against them” (p. 310) be so great and so widespread – there appears to be no explanation for this within a strictly Marxian framework of class relationships.


Finally, an argument not mentioned by Lovell is the emphasis by women and some feminists on the superior and positive characteristics of women.  The alleged expressive, caring, maternal, nurturing, and conflict resolving characteristics of females are missing from instrumental, utilitarian, rational, and aggressive males.  But if there is to be equality, and women and men are the same, which of these characteristics is to emerge.  Would the equal female adopt the supposed male characteristics.  Historically, feminists often argued that women could bring their more positive expressive characteristics to public life and social relationship, thus producing a more caring and human society.  But if this is so, which of these characteristics emerges from biological sex differences and which are socially constructed gender differences?


While the distinctions between sex and gender has been extremely useful from a feminist and sociological perspective, the above arguments show that it is not without its own difficulties and contradictions.  The aim of the above arguments is not to abandon this conceptual distinction as to note how it may need to become more carefully used and modified in improving social theory.  In terms of several of these issues, there will be changes in the social construction of gender as women participate more fully in all aspects of life, as men change their forms of participation, and as social relationships change – social theory should attempt to understand and explain these.


4. Feminism and Marxism


Lovell, p. 306 and 335 (French – women as class)


Lovell (p. 306) argues that Marxism emerged as a major sociological paradigm at the same time as feminism emerged.  There were also strong parallels between Marxism and feminism – among these were that both were concerned with inequality, domination, and oppression, both had an emphasis on social change through group organization and political pressure, both had a methodology combining theory and practice, and both had an historical approach.  Further, Marxism seemed receptive to feminism, since some Marxists had been concerned with oppression of women and both were attempting to change society. 


At the same time, there were limits to these parallels and some aspects of feminism were poorly dealt with by Marxists – issues of “human reproduction and sexuality … [were] outside the sphere of the social” (p. 306), Marxists often argued that forms of difference other than economic were secondary, and individually and collectively male Marxists were reluctant to change their personal lives, give up male privilege, or become more equal in personal and work relationships. 


The following notes survey a number of issues connected to Marxism and feminism.  First are some of the reasons why the Marxist model has difficulty with feminist concepts and approaches, and this is followed with a discussion of some attempts to introduce feminist concepts and perspectives into Marxian models. 


a. Origin of the family. 


As part of its analysis, Marxism provides an historical and materialist explanation of the emergence of family, patriarchy, and the situation of women and men.  The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published by Friedrich Engels in 1884, is the classic work dealing with these issues.  Engels argued that the establishment of private property in land, tools, and livestock created the possibility for men to exercise control over the means of production.  In order to ensure legitimacy of heirs and control private property, men established a patrilineal and patriarchal form of society – enforcing compulsory monogamy on women and devaluing their work and value in society.  This development, which occurred in distant history, at the time of the development of agriculture, relegated women to an inferior position in society, dominated by men.  This system of patriarchy maintained itself over the centuries and when capitalism emerged, capitalism found such a system useful for its new form of social organization, characterized by exploitation of workers by employers as the source of capital accumulation. 


The strong point of the Marxist approach is that it provided a material explanation for the emergence and maintenance of a system of patriarchy.  For many Marxists, this has made oppression on the basis of sex derivative from the development of a social surplus and the institution of private property, thus providing an economic explanation for this form of oppression.  Unlike liberal feminist approaches, equality of men and women cannot be achieved within capitalism, it requires the abolition of private property and establishment of a socialist system. 


The weak points of Engels’s argument is that it does not appear to be historically accurate and assumes a natural division of labour between men and women.  It has the implication that the elimination of private property will end patriarchy, and some Marxists use this to argue that struggles by women to achieve equality are secondary to struggles by the working class to change society, and may even divert attention from the primary contradiction between capital and labour.


b.  Marxian economics


Marx looks on human labour as potentially creative and this creative potential distinguishes humans from other animals.  His critique of private property and capitalism is that this essence of humanity and creativity is taken away from labourers in the production process because of the existence of private property and exploitation.  Marx’s political economic model begins with the commodity and exchange, with the value of commodities being in direct proportion to the amount of human labour embodied in producing them.  While commodities exchange at their value, surplus value emerges  from extra or surplus labour, extracted from workers by employers.  This occurs because the commodity labour power (ability or capacity of humans to work) is a unique commodity with the capability of producing more value than the value of labour power itself.  Employers purchase labour power at its value (wage paid to worker), but employ it to produce extra value, beyond that sufficient to pay the wage.  This surplus value extracted from workers is ultimately turned into profits for capitalists and used to accumulate capital.  This expansion of monetary and physical capital also means the extension of the exploitative capital/labour social relationships central to capitalism. 


In this model, exploitation emerges as commodities are produced, and it is those workers who are employed at jobs in the production process who are exploited in that surplus labour is extracted from them.  As a result, labour exercised in society but not directly engaged in production of commodities, and this includes the labour of many women and all household labour, is not exploited.  Only if workers are employed and work at jobs where surplus value is extracted are exploited and become a source of capital accumulation.   Since many women are not directly employed in these situations, women’s labour might not be exploited or alienated in the same way as that of men’s, since their labour is not subject to the forces that occur in the labour force. 


Marx’s analysis of capitalism and the social relationships of capitalism is almost entirely that of the public economy and the creation of products – goods and services – for purposes of exchange.  Commodities have value to the extent that they are exchanged, and it is only those goods and services that are exchanged on the market that form part of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.  From this analysis of the commodity, exploitation, surplus value, and capital accumulation, Marx explains aspects of capitalism such as class structures, cycles of expansion and contraction in the economy, the tendency toward a falling rate of profit, and other contradictions of capitalism.  The central, contradictory  social relationship of capitalism is the capital-labour relationship – it is this which ultimately leads toward the creation of a class-conscious proletariat.  This proletariat eliminates the capitalist class and establishes socialism – common ownership of the means of production.  It is under this system that workers are able to begin realizing their human potential and, according to Engels, the conditions for the creation of equality between males and females.


From a feminist perspective, there are a number of problems with this analysis.  Among these are (i) the emphasis on exchange value, (ii) the claim that all value and surplus value emerge from the process of production, and (iii) the neglect of household, family, and reproduction (Lovell, pp. 306-7).  These three interrelated issues are reviewed here.


(i) Ignores use-value.  Marx spends little time analyzing use values, taking these for granted.  Commodities must have use value in order to have exchange value (price) and be exchanged, otherwise no one would purchase them.  But this does not mean that all use values are exchange values.  Goods and services produced in the household for personal and family use have use value but are not ordinarily exchanged.  In addition, volunteer work or work for organizations that do not sell their goods or services (churches, political parties), has the same characteristic.  Given that these forms of work, and the useful goods and services that result from them do not have exchange value, there is a tendency to undervalue them in society, and this is the case for both Marxian and much conventional economic analysis.  Official statistics of economic production also ignore most of the goods and services not sold on markets.  


Since men tend have tended to produce exchange values and women have tended to produce goods and services with use values only, this means that much of women’s labour is not valued in capitalism or in Marx’s model of capitalism.  For purposes of explaining exploitation, surplus value, the dynamics of capitalism, and social relationships in capitalism, it appears irrelevant.  It leads to the seemingly contradictory view that those whose work is not paid are not exploited, but this is one of the implications of the Marxian model.  While Marxists might consider women oppressed in their relationship with men and in the household, technically speaking they are not exploited and their work has little or nothing to do with production of surplus value.


(ii) Value from production only.  A related issue is that work outside production is not recognized as creating value.  While Marx recognizes human labour as creative and Marxian analysis purports to be an examination of work of humans, it is only an analysis of paid work.  If it is private property and exploitation that distorts human labour, then alienation and exploitation exist only for paid labour.  Most Marxian analyses of work begin with work in general but quickly become analysis of paid work in jobs, where workers are hired to produce commodities for exchange.


One issue of importance for women that emerges from this is unequal pay.  In many jobs, women have been paid less than men for equivalent work.  In the Marxian model, the value of labour power is the cost of production of this capacity to work.  It seems difficult to argue that this cost would differ for male and female labour power.  That is, the cost of producing labour power is the value of the commodities necessary for generational and daily subsistence.  While it might cost a little more to maintain male than female labour, given that men tend to have larger bodies, there cannot be much difference in these costs.  As a result, it is not clear why women should be paid less than men for equivalent work – but this has often been the case and the Marxian model would not appear to have an explanation for this differential.


(iii) Reproductive labour.  Emerging from the last issue is a set of issues concerning the neglect of reproductive labour in the Marxian model.  As noted above, the Marxian analysis initially appears to consider all human labour, but only labour exchanged for a wage is relevant to the model.  Family, household, reproduction, the supply of labour, and the survival of labourers outside the formal labour market are generally taken for granted by Marx.  While he devotes some discussion to the value of labour power, Marx does not have much of a theory of population or of the supply of labour.   In Marx’s time, women played little role in the public economy, and Marx develops no theory of how women, family, and household contribute to the value of labour power as a commodity.  In essence, then, Marx’s social world is the commodity, commodity exchange, the labour market, and accumulation.


Lovell notes that Marx placed “human reproduction and sexuality outside the sphere of the social” (p. 306) and Marx argued that the reproduction of the labour force can left to the “labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation” (quoted in Lovell, p. 306).  While Marxist feminists have developed analysis of the economic aspect of household and family, Lovell notes that the family is where sexual oppression, violence against women, control and regulation of sexuality, and sexual domination are located (p. 307).  Within the Marxian model itself, it is difficult to see how these issues could all be reduced to economic factors, so how can they be addressed.


A related implication is that aspects of the dominant and contradictory social relationship of capital and labour may be inadequately explained.  Family and household activities may affect this relationship in ways that are outside the sphere of production itself.  For example, class consciousness has a group aspect to it.  If the working class involved the families of male workers, that is, women, children, disabled, retired, then the situation of these latter is also relevant to the forms and strength of class consciousness.  This becomes clear in the history of strikes and other forms of class struggle, where having strong support of all is key to the success of workers.


Having noted the above, socialists and Marxists over the last one hundred years incorporated various struggles by women into their political programs.  Trade unionists who were closely connected to socialist political movements often attempted to improve the situation of women workers. 


At the same time, Marxists did not make the struggles of women central to their approach, and feminists often argue that Marxists downgraded the struggles of women, because these struggles are considered a diversion from the more important class struggle.  In any case, Marxists have emphasized economic bases and solutions for women’s oppression.  As a result, they have generally regarded the class struggle as primary, and feminist issues as important primarily in how or whether they contribute to the class struggle.  Some Marxist feminists consider sex and gender inequalities to be secondary in importance to class inequality and oppression, and contradictions related to reproduction and gender relations play a secondary role in explaining social change.  Other Marxist feminists may look on class and gender inequalities as dual systems of oppression, with both being very powerful and independent systems.  Marxist feminists often argue that class and gender inequalities reinforce each other and create groups that are doubly oppressed.  In addition, as Tong notes (p. 40), work shapes consciousness, and women's work shapes her status and self-image.  Woman's position within the family may help explain the problem of developing working class consciousness.  As with exchange relationships in general in capitalism, underlying these seemingly equal exchange relationships are power relationships.  Various relationships, such as those between males and females, relationships in the family, prostitution, surrogate mother hood, etc. may appear to express equality, but because of the underlying unequal power relations conceal great inequalities.


c. Examples of some contemporary Marxist feminist approach


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. 


i. Inequality.   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.  These secondary forms could have an economic basis, where women and other oppressed groups do not have an economic basis for equality.  That is, they may be prevented from owning property and do not have a means of producing a livelihood apart from their husbands or fathers.  But in the economic model of Marx, at least in Capital, it is not clear why women would not have access to property – that is, the explanation of this comes from outside the model of capitalism.


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 they participate in the paid labour force, and then on their economic position within the labour force.  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).


ii. Family wage.  Marxist feminists have attempted to develop explanations for the relatively lower pay of women than men.  (See notes above on the similar costs of the value of male and female labour power).  Throughout much of the twentieth century, the family responsibilities of women and their economic dependency on the earnings of their husband meant that their wages were depressed relative to wages of men.  Many men, trade unions, and even employers argued that the wages for males needed to be living wages or family wages – sufficient to support a family.  That is, the male wages should be sufficient to meet the daily and generational reproductive costs of the family and labour force.  The corollary of this is that women’s wages did not need to be so great, because they were at least partially supported by their husbands.  Single females were expected to work only temporarily, until marriage, so did not need high wages either.  As a result, the dependency of women on men, and the attempt to pursue a high wage strategy for men, may have led to relatively low wages for women.  To some extent, this may have been a byproduct of trade union approaches to male wages.  (See Bryson, pp. 240-41 for a discussion).


iii. Reserve army of labour.   Marx argued that the reserve army of unemployed workers was always replenished by capitalism, thus exercising downward pressure on the wages of workers in the labour force.  It was the maintenance and reconstruction of this reserve army that prevented workers from gaining wages exceeding the value of their labour power.  If workers were able to boost wages during a time of economic expansion, one of the effects of this was to slow capital accumulation, thus causing an economic slowdown, unemployment, and replenishment of the reserve army. 


One part of the reserve army is women – for much of the late nineteenth and early  twentieth centuries, most women were in the home and worked in the labour force only periodically.  Of course, poor women and women from disadvantaged groups had to work in the labour force to provide a minimal level of income for themselves and their families.  In wartime, or in other periods or places of labour shortages, women could be drawn into the labour force as needed.  Since the primary attachment of these women was to the home and family, not paid labour, these women did not need to be paid as much as men.  In addition, having these women available meant that they could be used to prevent male wages from rising too much. 


While the reserve army of labour argument may have explained some of the operations of the labour force through the 1950s, following that women entered the labour force in large numbers and have not left the labour force.  This was one of the great social changes of the latter part of the twentieth century – altering the structure of the labour force, family, home, and male/female relationships.  One part of the reserve army of labour is the latent reserve – people who have not yet been drawn into the paid labour force.  One Marxist argument is that women formed a part of the latent labour reserve, one that could be drawn into the labour force as needed.  This may help explain some of the inequality and lower pay of women in the labour force.


iv. Household and Family.   Some Marxists view the household as an institution that functions to support capitalism – permitting or even encouraging 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 is an institution used by capitalism to assist in the exploitation of labour and  maintenance of stability within a system of class oppression and inequality.  As noted earlier, it can be argued that since women are concerned with maintenance of household and family, they act as a conservative force on the development of working class consciousness.  Some other aspects of this are as follows.


Consumers.  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.


Labour Force.  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.  And this also presents both employers and men with an argument that women should be paid somewhat less, or advance somewhat less quickly in their careers.  The lower status of women within society also allows women to be paid less, since some wages and salaries are structured on status considerations. 


Surplus Value.  Household and family act to create cheap labour that can be used in the expansion of surplus value.   That is, much of the necessary labour required by society to maintain and reproduce the population and labour force is carried out as unpaid labour by women working in the home.  Workers come to the labour force at no cost to employers, and if employers had to pay the full cost of reproducing their work force, wages would be considerably greater than they 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 if employers payed for this, there would be a considerable redistribution of income from males to females.  As a result, there is indirect exploitation of female labour.  The work of women in the household permits the extraction of surplus value and while men are directly exploited, women are exploited in an indirect manner by not being paid for the value of the labour that produces surplus value. 


Unproductive Labour and Exploitation.  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 to argue that women should be paid wages for housework, rather than arguing that male/female inequalities are overcome only through women entering the paid labour force.  


Others have argued that men exploit women in an economic sense, and men extract surplus value from women.  Some Marxists (Tong, pp. 66-69) argue that the family must be abolished and 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.



iv. 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.


This argument was paralled by French materialist feminism (see Lovell, p. 335) on women as class.  Christine Delphy, a French feminist, 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).  Delphy argues that men exploit women’s 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).  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).  It is the gender differentiated system of power that produces this. 


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.


v. Solutions.   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.





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

Burt, S., L. Code and L. Dorney. 1993. Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, second edition.  Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.  HQ1453 C48 1993

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

Folbre, Nancy, Who Pays for the Kids

Ritzer, George. 1992. Sociological Theory, third edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.  HM24 R4938. 

Sydie, Rosalind. 1987. Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory. Toronto: Methuen.

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


Last edited on March 17, 2003


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