Sociology 319

February 15, 2000

Feminist Social Theory

1. Introduction

Over the last 40 years, the feminist movement and feminist analysis has contributed greatly to society and social theory. Many aspects of private life associated with male/female social relations have been transformed and many parts of society have experienced major changes as a result of the increased involvement of women in public life. Feminists and others argue that there is still a long road ahead before equality of males and females is achieved, but there can be no doubts that major advances have occurred toward such equality.

While it has been women and men, through their social actions and interaction that have changed social relationships, feminist writers and theorists have made a major contribution to the changes in society and the changes in attitudes and views. As an demonstration of how social theory can be socially engaged, feminist theory has often been exemplary, and has 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 of the 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 to social theory in general. By focussing 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. 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" (p. 304).

This section of the course will examine some of the issues raised by feminists, some examples of their method of analysis, and some of the broader implications for social theory. Chapter 11 begins with a discussion of criticisms of feminist theory by black and third world women who argue that much feminist theory has been white and middle class, ignoring the diversity of women’s experiences. This section might better go later in the chapter, because it assumes a considerably knowledge of feminist theory. The next section is on Marxist approaches, again an example of a specific approach to feminist social theory. The sections on sex and gender, patriarchy, and compulsory heterosexuality (pp. 312-320) might be the best to read first, because they raise several of the common themes in feminist theory. The last half of the chapter (pp. 320-337) as well as the first section (pp. 307-310) deal in greater detail with current debates and approaches to feminist social theory.


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.

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. Marx’s political economic model begins with the commodity and exchange, with the value of commodities coming from labour and surplus value coming from surplus labour. Marx looks on human labour as creative and as defining humanity. His critique of private property and capitalism is that this essence and creativity is taken away from labourers through the objectification process. Exploitation emerges in production of commodities, so in the Marxian analysis, women are not exploited unless they work as paid labourers in the labour force. Similarly, women’s labour might not be alienated in the same way as that of men’s, since this labour is not subject to the same forces as occur in the labour force.

Marx’s analysis is almost entirely that of the public economy and the creation of products for purposes of exchange. Commodities have value to the extent that they are exchanged, and it is only those commodities which are exchanged which are part of capitalism and the Marxian model. Marx spends little time analyzing use values, taking them for granted. Goods and services produced in the household and family, or in volunteer or other situations where exchange is not for money, form no part of Marx’s model of capitalism. Lovell notes that Marx placed "human reproduction and sexuality outside the sphere of the social" (p. 312) and he noted that the reproduction of the labour force can left to the "labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation" (p. 312).

While Marxian analysis initially appears to consider all human labour, it quickly becomes clear that 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 an adequate theory of population or 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.

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.

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.

c. Biology. Classical sociologists appear to have thought that there were natural differences between men and women. These were considered to be biological differences or socially developed differences that were not analyzed by sociologists. Biological difference such as strength or the ability to bear children might have been assumed. Or they may have assumed that there was an essential difference in human nature between men and women. While some nineteenth century writers regarded all people as rational human beings, with no difference between men and women, most of the classical sociologists thought of men and women as being somewhat different in their natures. Sydie notes that "the female is associated with the world of nature" while men were associated with culture (p. 3). Or women were regarded as emotional or passionate, while men were rational in their thought and activities. For Durkheim this was especially ironic, given that he regarded human interaction as social, and as a sociologist he considered biological aspects to have no direct connection with the social – yet women were somehow natural and connected to nature.

d. Inequalities. Classical sociologists generally focussed on differences and inequality. Marx was most explicit in this, but Durkheim and Weber also developed various ways of examining difference and inequality. Issues such as the division of labour, exploitation, and power, domination, and authority emphasize difference and inequality. Yet male/female inequalities, or racial and ethnic inequalities, form little part of classical sociology. Feminists have identified patriarchy as a social system of inequality, but classical sociology had only limited analysis and different understanding of patriarchy. Marx and Engels did have a model of male/female inequality, but it derives from economic considerations, notably the development of private property. Weber analyzed patriarchy, but male/female inequalities were not his primary concern in such analysis.

3. Feminist Approaches

a. Central Issues and Approaches of Feminist Theory. 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.

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.

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. 312). She also notes how "women’s biological functions have over and over again been used to rationalize and legitimate" (p. 313) 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. For feminists, biological realities may be relatively unchangeable, but "what is constructed in social relations and in culture is more readily reconstructed" (p. 313). However, it was not been easy to completely ignore biological realities – radical feminism reintroduces the body, although in quite different ways than in the nineteenth century. In addition, 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. 314).

A third major concern is male/female inequality, the oppression and domination of women, and how to overcome this. Feminism has often argued that this inequality is systematic and well routed in social behaviour and social structures. Many feminists have called this patriarchy – some systematic form of male dominance. At the same time, there have been many arguments over its origin, development, and meaning, and Lovell notes that the term has become so widespread and universal in feminist thought that "important historical and cultural differences in the social construction of gender are lost from sight" (p. 315). In terms of overcoming patriarchy or producing male/female equality, feminists had several different approaches. These are outline in the following section.

b. Liberal, Socialist, Radical. Feminism is often classified into liberal, socialist or Marxist, and radical – partly because of the connection of the particular feminist theory to other social theories, and partly because of the strategies proposed for pursuing equality. While this division is oversimplified and there are many other perspectives (psychoanalytic, postmodern, third world) this is still a useful description for at least the feminism of the 1960s through the 1980s. More recently, feminist theory has often focussed on sexuality, desire, and gender as performance (pp. 317-335), and these perspectives could be considered to be radical feminist.

Liberal Feminism. Early liberal writers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau argued for individual freedom, liberty, and improvements in society based on rationality and human reason. The emphasis on human nature "that locates our uniqueness as human persons in our capacity for rationality" and the importance of human reason is one of the main features of classical liberalism (Tong, p. 11). Various contradictions emerged in liberal thought, with the defense of private property and the argument for restrictions on the freedom of women being primary. For feminists, one of the major contradictions of liberal ideology was that it argued that all individuals should be considered equal, but the definition of who was an individual was very restrictive. Originally, individuals were only those males who owned property, although this was later extended to include all males. But women, children, and sometimes members of minority groups were excluded.

Among the liberal writers, women were often considered to occupy a different status or role than that of men, and for the early liberal theorists, arguments for equality and freedom usually did not extend to women. For the most part, women were viewed as occupying positions within the family, with males ultimately having power over women and the family. Equality within the family was not an integral part of the liberal model. In fact, some of the theoretical approaches could be considered to have the approach that women as being subject to their husbands and being confined to the family is what allowed men to be free. That is, liberalism declared a new category of free man, but this liberal individualism and personal freedom being applied only to men in the market and in public life (Eisenstein, pp. 47-9). Liberal writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor, and John Stuart Mill used the language and approaches of liberalism to argue for the equality of both women with men.

Even though there is now formal equality of women with men, many feminists argue that there are a number of reasons why there is inequality in practice. The main reasons according to the liberal feminist view would appear to be (a) attitudes, (b) discrimination (and misapplication of laws, or refusal to implement laws) and (c) institutions. In general, liberal feminists argue that biological differences between men and women are not important, at least in the public sphere. That is, there are no innate differences between men and women in abilities or reasoning power, so that sex should be irrelevant to activity in the public sphere. Where there are differences in socialization and training, these can be changed, and where there are biological differences such as childbearing, there are institutional changes that can deal with these.

Most of the ideals of equality and freedom were well stated and outlined by Taylor, Mill, and Wollstonecraft, and modern approaches have tended to restate these. But it has taken a very long time for many of the changes advocated by these earlier writers to begin to take place. In spite of this increase in legal and formal equality, women have not been able to participate fully in all aspects of public life. Some of the problems that remain are (a) the segregation of women into a relatively limited number of occupations, often occupations with lower wages than men with equivalent training and responsibilities; (b) the predominance of men in the public sphere, especially in the more powerful economic and political positions; (c) isolation of women in the private sphere, or the separation of the public and private spheres with women being primarily responsible for the private sphere; (d) limited representation of women in higher education, and especially within certain educational programs such as medicine, engineering, law and computer science.

Liberal feminism could be viewed as concerned with each of the issues of attitudes, discrimination and institutions. First, with respect to attitudes, women themselves have often been too accepting of the traditional expectations and roles of women. Socialization recreates the expressive characteristics in each generation of women, and often marriage has been viewed as the goal and solution for young women. Attitudes of boys and men perpetuate this as well, reinforcing feminine stereotypes at an early age, and maintaining them at older ages.

Second, sexism is viewed by liberal feminists as a major problem across a wide variety of individuals, organizations, institutions and structures of society. This may be outright discrimination, but is more likely expressed through the attitudes and behaviour of peers and superiors concerning proper roles. These may not be explicitly stated attitudes, but may be institutional discrimination, that is, procedures and actions of individuals and structures in institutions and organizations that make it difficult for women to achieve equality. The "glass ceiling" within management and the discouragement of women in technical fields such as engineering or computer science, are examples of this.

Third, institutional changes have to be made if women are to have equality, and liberal feminists have made many arguments in this direction. Among the institutional changes are building a day care system, making contraception and abortion easily available, providing support mechanisms for women who are victims of violence, and providing pensions and other forms of family support for women who have inadequate incomes. In the economy, equal pay legislation, changing systems of parental leave to allows workers to take time off during the time children are born, equal access to jobs for women and affirmative action programs can all act to increase the equality of women. In the legal structure, human rights codes, making laws equal for men and women, and becoming more sensitive to issues that concern women are all important aspects.

In connection with the latter, note that these proposals move beyond classical liberalism, in that the state may become more heavily involved. Tong refers to the classical liberals as arguing for the state to protect civil liberties such as voting rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and property rights. In the twentieth century, liberalism has also come to be associated with the development of economic and social justice. This can take various forms, but usually involved the state making some modifications to the economic system through laws, regulations, programs and policies. Attempting to create a greater degree of equality of opportunity means special programs for the disadvantaged - special educational programs, health care, labour market regulation, family allowances, pension plans, etc. All of these have become associated with what we call the welfare state and Tong notes that liberals who support these could be called welfare liberals (Tong, p. 12).

In general, the liberal feminist model can be summarized as being concerned with equality for men and women, especially in the public sphere. No major challenges to the prevailing social and economic system are envisioned. Rather, there need to be changes in attitudes, behaviour, laws and institutions so that this participation can be a full one. But the basic economic, political and legal structures are not directly challenged in this approach.

While there are many logical criticisms to liberal feminism, the liberal approach is the social, economic and political system in which we live. These critiques have been useful, and have helped create great progress for women, obtaining the vote, improving education and labour force participation, and expanding the political role for women. It is hard to deny the implications of the liberal feminist approach that there should be more equality, and liberal feminists have helped achieve this. While there are serious shortcomings in the solutions, in that inequality still exists in many forms, some of the worst aspects have been overcome.

4. Marxist Feminist Perspectives

a. Background. As part of its model of society, the Marxian tradition provides an analysis of the family, private property, and of the oppression of women (p. 311). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published by Friedrich Engels in 1884, is the classic work dealing with these issues. In this work, 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. 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.

Marxism, with its emphasis on inequalities, did pay greater attention to the family and the inferior position occupied by women than did some of the other classical sociological perspectives. Marx and Engels called for the abolition of the family in The Communist Manifesto, at least partly on the grounds that they viewed it as an instrument of capitalist domination. 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 might argue that Marxists often downgraded the struggles of women, because they may have constituted a diversion from the important class struggles. 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.

Along with Engels, some Marxist feminists argue that sexual inequality first developed through private property rights in agricultural societies. Others argue that these inequalities were developed at an earlier stage. For both though, as capitalism developed, these inequalities were taken over and further developed as part of the class oppression that forms the essential structure of capitalist oppression and exploitation.

b. Contemporary Marxist Feminism

Out of the Marxian and the feminist tradition, there are a number of approaches to the analysis of women and of sex and gender inequalities. These are represented by various social and political movements, organizations, and theorists.

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. 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).

Marxists have attempted to develop explanations for the relatively lower pay of women than men. 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 needed to be sufficient to ensure at least part of the 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. (see Bryson, p. 240).

Another argument used by Marxists is that of women as forming an important part of the 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. One part of the reserve army was women – who through much of the early part of the twentieth century 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 did not leave. 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. A Marxist could argue that women were a latent form of labour reserve, one that could be drawn into the labour force as needed. This may help explain some of the changes, but the argument that women form a reserve army of labour no longer makes a great deal of sense.

ii. 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 institutions that is used by capitalism to assist in the exploitation of labour and maintenance of stability within a system of class oppression and inequality. There are various ways in which the family and sex roles might do this.

Labour Force. First are the features associated with the 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. A second feature women’s household and family responsibilities is that this expands surplus value and permits the extraction of surplus value, although in an indirect form. 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.

Consumers. Third, households and families are good consuming units within modern capitalism. Each household is a separate consuming units, with separate needs. While these consuming units need not be organized on a family basis, or with sexual inequalities, in order to perform this role in society, in fact they are very well adapted to maintaining and expanding purchases.

In social and political terms, this role can also play a conservatizing force with respect to class struggles. Women's lower wages and the difficulty of supporting a family, can be used by employers as a means of undermining trade union struggles. Since the responsibility of women is to maintain the household, this can have a conservatizing effect. Where there is a need for change, women are often isolated by separation into private households, and organizing to create change can be difficult.

Unproductive Labour and Exploitation. Fourth, the unpaid labour performed by women for men can really be regarded as unpaid labour performed for capitalists. In the classical Marxian framework, such labour is unproductive. Marxist feminists argue that reproductive and household labour is productive of surplus value, and should be compensated in some manner. This has led some Marxists to argue that women should be paid wages for housework.

Others have argued that men exploit women in an economic sense, and men extract surplus value from women. Marxists like Zaretsky (Tong, pp. 66-69) argue that the family must be abolished, that paying wages for housework will just preserve the traditional inequalities. What is necessary is more socialization of household work, with women being fully able to participate in the public sphere. Potentially, under communism, the division between public and private would disappear, and this could form the basis for sex and gender equalities.

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.

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.




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

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 February 18, 2000.

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