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Women’s Unpaid Labor in Political Economy* Revisited

At a time when women’s crucial and unresolved unpaid labor in the home is largely overshadowed by #MeToo, loss of abortion rights, and an upsurge of violence against women, it is good to be reminded of this core oppression.

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cover of Women's Liberation newspaper
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*Generally, Marxist Political Economy comprises an integrative analysis of the economy, society and politics. These three fields are not considered as isolated but as interdependent structures that evolved historically. The analysis of class struggle, involving the exploitation of labour by capital within the capitalist mode of production, is fundamental to the understanding of dynamics within this analysis.

Exploring Economics

We take it as a positive development that Monthly Review, “An Independent Socialist Magazine”, which has been around since 1949, has dedicated its September issue to women’s liberation. It came as a welcome surprise to see the words “Women’s Liberation” in big type on the cover. The editors explain in their introduction that:

This special issue of Monthly Review honors the fiftieth anniversary this month of Margaret Benston’s landmark “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” reprinted here together with related pieces by Silvia Federici, Martha E. Gimenez, Selma James (interviewed by Ron Augustin), Leith Mullings, Marge Piercy, and Lise Vogel, all of whom have played leading roles since the 1970s in the development of feminist historical materialism.

There are many aspects of women’s liberation that Monthly Review has never addressed (including all those “body issues” that has made the Left cringe since back in the day), but it has at least published several articles of feminist analysis of the relation of the exploitation of “women’s work” in the home to capitalism. At a time when women’s crucial and unresolved unpaid labor in the home is largely overshadowed by #MeToo, loss of abortion rights, and an upsurge of violence against women, it is good to be reminded of this core oppression.

The first article in the issue is a reprint of the 1969 Margaret Benston article. Though Monthly Review claims that article was “the first step in the development of contemporary social reproduction theory”, there were earlier writings on the subject by socialist/communist women, including in the U.S in the 1930s and 1940s (for some examples, see here) as well as actual attempts to organize new ways of structuring “women’s work” in the socialist and communist countries before they were defeated.

Benston begins her article with an explanation of why she wrote it:

The “woman question” is generally ignored in analyses of the class structure of society. This is so because, on the one hand, classes are generally defined by their relation to the means of production and, on the other hand, women are not supposed to have any unique relation to the means of production. The category seems instead to cut across all classes; one speaks of working-class women, middle-class women, etc. The status of women is clearly inferior to that of men, but analysis of this condition usually falls into discussing socialization, psychology, interpersonal relations, or the role of marriage as a social institution.

The article goes on to analyze the economic side of women’s oppression, grounding it in the lack of value of women’s traditional labor consumed in the home and not for sale in the market.

In sheer quantity, household labor, including child care, constitutes a huge amount of socially necessary production. Nevertheless, in a society based on commodity production, it is not usually considered “real work” since it is outside of trade and the market place. … Since men carry no responsibility for such production, the difference between the two groups lies here.

•  •  •

This article is followed by “She Was My Kind of Scientist” by Lise Vogel, which begins as a current evaluation of Benston’s work and its influence on her own, including where she disagrees. For example:

My work challenged then-current socialist-feminist analyses of women’s oppression in capitalist societies on at least two counts. Where socialist feminists commonly located domestic labor outside the processes of capitalist accumulation, I positioned it at its center. And where socialist feminists often assumed female subordination to be rooted solely in women’s relation to the economy, I argued that it is established by their dual situation, differentiated by class, with respect to domestic labor and equal rights. That is, capitalism stamps the subordination of women with a twofold character, political as well as economic.

Commenting on the “intersectionality” of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Vogel contests some currently held feminist history:

I also continued my interest in history, using a Marxist-feminist lens to look at women and social movements, and at the problem later termed intersectionality. I questioned the common belief that the 1960s and ’70s U.S. women’s movement was exclusively white and middle class until the 1980s, when African-American women became involved. Rather than latecomers to feminism, African-American women had been active in women’s movements in recognizably feminist ways as early as the nineteenth century. And, in the mid–1960s, longtime black women activists from the labor, civil rights, and left communities were key to the formation and development of the National Organization for Women (NOW) as an “NAACP for women.” Also in the 1960s, radical black women founded independent black feminist organizations such as Poor Black Women, SNCC’s Black Women’s Liberation Committee, and the Third World Women’s Alliance. Black women on welfare likewise forged a distinctive brand of feminism, and household workers made efforts to organize on their own behalf. These various histories show that in order to “see” race and class, we must, on the one hand, do better history and, on the other, reconceptualize our notions of what feminist activism looks like.

Vogel moves into a biography of Benston that brings up more Women’s Liberation history before ending with what Vogel calls “an inspiring quote from Engels” (Who else?!).

•  •  •

“Women, Class and Identity Politics” by Martha E. Gimenez is problematic for those who do not attribute women’s oppression wholly to economic class, as so much of the Left does. Even while they “theorize” about the economic oppression of women, many consider women to be an “identity”, not victims of material-based female exploitation. Gimenez writes:

Class is one of the enduring structures of the capitalist mode of production whose causal effects are felt in all capitalist social formations, whereas oppressive identities and relations of oppression are more historically variable, ideologically and politically constructed to suit changing economic and political needs. …

Regardless of race, ethnicity, and other differences, capitalist women and women in the upper layers of the social stratification system are not affected by such policies, because they can afford to pay for contraception and abortion if their health insurance does not cover them or if they are banned or unavailable in their place of residence…. [R]eactionary family policies can best be understood as a war on the working class.”

Sex oppression is more “variable”, but it is not absent. Female oppression enforced by the threat of male punishment, including violence, is wielded irrespective of one’s position in the economic system or one’s race. Even a woman who is a capitalist in her own right, not just married to one, can still be beaten, raped and harassed (even by her mate), expected to keep up her appearance, have her ideas and wishes ignored and made fun of, has to deal with men’s reactions to menstruation and the physical female body, and so on.

While few, feminists, especially radical feminists, would deny that wealthy women have much more access to abortion and contraceptives, there are other pressures from husbands/mates which control their reproduction. Women in the owning class are coerced into having children to provide heirs, even if they CAN get an abortion. They are ultimately responsible for overseeing the housework and childcare, even if they do have servants.

One might recall some jerk in an audience yelling out to Hillary Clinton “make me a sandwich” and how much she was chided for not baking cookies. Even powerful women like Clinton are subject to language meant to demean on the basis of sex and be put “in their place.” At the same time, rich and upper middle-class women can and do easily buy the labor of women in the working class to do housework and child care.

Although women may sometimes experience being female somewhat differently at times because of race or class, all females are still a sex class and are treated as such. This idea is not popular in this age when differences are employed at the expense of what we have in common. However, it is recognition of the commonalities that are so crucial to the success of any movement.

•  •  •

In “On Margaret Benston”, Silvia Federici, a leader in the Wages for Housework movement back to the 1970s, focuses more on the impact – and lack of it – of Benston’s socialist-feminist theory:

“The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” addressed the housework question methodologically, but did not solve it politically. …

While academic feminists debated the question of productive versus unproductive labor, a welfare mothers’ movement was struggling in the streets of the United States against a vicious institutional attack portraying mothers, particularly black mothers, who received federal subsidies as social parasites, fraudulently living at the expense of the working class. It is a matter of speculation whether this highly racialized warfare, on a movement that was led by black women, might have been blocked had it been countered by a feminist mobilization supporting the mothers’ claims that raising children is socially necessary work and every mother is a working woman.

We can further wonder if a feminist movement more appreciative of the importance of reproductive work…may have succeeded in combating the neoliberal disinvestment in social reproduction [like the end of “welfare as we know it” under President Clinton–Eds.], the consequences of which have been devastating for our communities.

She writes that Benston has been proven right in claiming that women joining the wage labor force outside the home is not adequate for achieving liberation:

It is to [Benston’s] credit, however, that she did not see the recruitment of women into wage labor as a sufficient condition of women’s supposed emancipation. The developments that have occurred over the last four decades, following the restructuring of the global economy and the global division of reproductive work, have fully supported her view. The massive entrance of women into wage labor has by no means afforded the majority the economic autonomy and social empowerment that feminists expected. Burdened with an irreducible daily quota of housework and employed in labor-intensive, low-paid jobs with no benefits or paid vacations that are mostly extensions of work in the home (such as nursing and teaching kindergarten through twelfth grade), most women today are experiencing a deep life crisis, as are their communities since the work devoted to their reproduction has been significantly curtailed.

•  •  •

Though interesting in its own way, one wonders why “Beyond Boundaries”,  an interview with Selma James was included in this women’s liberation issue. The editors write, “In 1972, the publication of her and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s groundbreaking The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, which discussed how women’s unpaid housework and care work is crucial to the production of the working class and, thus, the economy as a whole, launched the domestic labor debate inside the women’s movement.” The interview, however, does not mention Benston and focuses almost entirely on that of James’ mate for 25 years, C.R.L James and their relationship, with only brief mentions of her own feminist work.

In her brief discussion of housework, James does mentions “A Woman’s Place”, a pamphlet she bravely wrote under a pseudonym in 1952 during the McCarthy Era. In it, she wrote realistically about women’s struggle with both unpaid housework and paid work. She explores the lot of married, single and divorced women, with children and without, in a very pro-woman way. She reveals the working conditions of “women’s work” in the home beyond descriptions of scrubbing floors and washing dishes.

When a woman comes home from work at night, there is quite a difference from when a man comes home from work. As soon as she comes home she starts working all over again. A married woman, especially if she has children, can never have the luxury of sitting down and doing nothing. There is dinner to get on the table, the dishes to be washed, the children to be bathed and gotten to bed. She has two jobs. She is a part-time mother and housewife and a fulltime wage earner. The weekend which a man takes to relax, for her belongs to the house. And all the things that have been left undone during the week have to be done then. It’s a hard grind, working and having a family. No matter how much your husband helps you or how considerate he is, the main burden of the house is still on the woman’s shoulders. Just because a woman goes out to work, it doesn’t mean she stops being a housewife.

She concludes:

“It’s not that women don’t want to be wives and mothers…. But they feel that if they can’t have a human relationship, they will have no relationship at all. Women go from being married to being divorced, from being housewives to working out [of the home], but nowhere do women see the kind of life they want for themselves and their families. Women are finding more and more that there is no way out but a complete change. But one thing is already clear. Things can’t go on the way they are. Every woman knows that.”

•  •  •

In “Mapping Gender in African-American Political Strategies” Leith Mullings discusses how the various struggle strategies put forth for the freedom of Black people generally have affected African-American women’s liberation, contrasting the “inclusionists” (integrationists) and the “nationalists”.

In keeping with the view that African Americans are Americans who happen to be black, the inclusionist strategy seeks for Americans of African descent the rights, obligations, and roles of Euro-American society as they are defined by gender. For many, this is mediated by recognition of the special history of African-American women. Furthermore, as traditional Euro-American gender roles are themselves challenged by the civil rights and women’s movements, there is often a tendency to favor the extension of democratic rights to women, but generally within the parameters of the economic, political, and legal system of capitalism. However, the implicit acceptance of the foundations of capitalism inevitably reproduces patriarchal relationships. …

For African Americans, issues of reproduction have not been relegated to the private sphere, but have often been part of the public arena. Pressures to encourage or limit reproduction have varied with the historical moment: for example, during slavery African-American women were often forcibly encouraged to reproduce the labor force, but in the contemporary period of deindustrialization and rising unemployment their reproductive capacity has become a matter for national attention. For many African Americans, regardless of their political orientation, issues about continuity and genocide have been real concerns.

Reproduction takes place within a complex set of social arrangements, and African Americans of most political persuasions would probably agree that the family has been a buffer from slavery and racism and that the struggle for family is part and parcel of the liberation struggle. But as Rayna Rapp reminds us, people mean different things by family. …

While many inclusionists favor reproductive rights, often attending to the theoretical and tactical relationship between civil rights and women’s rights, this concession does not necessarily extend to rethinking the premises of the patriarchal family. Though recognizing the variety of family forms and the strains on such families, inclusionists have generally supported the patriarchal nuclear family as ideal. They are frequently uncritical of the right-wing call for “family values,” implicit in which is the notion that the decline of the “traditional” nuclear family is at the heart of increasing poverty among African Americans.

Also included is a short poem, “Straggling Onward” by Marge Piercy who’s writing has been calling out male supremacy and other injustices since the 1960s. It is fitting that a radical feminist poet should be included in this women’s liberation edition of Monthly Review.

•  •  •

Critical as these papers, published in the September issue of Monthly Review, are to the understanding of the economic analysis advocated by socialist-feminism, they still do not consider the material asymmetry in female vs. male reproductive labor.

Obviously, it is women’s bodies that provide nine months of incubation and birth, which no man can do, whereas there are no jobs (beyond ejaculation) in society that only men can do. Gestation and childbirth is not only a special form of labor, but often takes a toll on the female body and can even sometimes result in death.

When socialist-feminists maintain, as Vogel states above, that the “kin-based social unit for the reproduction of exploitable labor-power in class society will also wither away – and with it both patriarchal family relations and the oppression of women” – we are left with many questions. For instance, how will women be compensated for reproduction and not discriminated against because of it?

These writings by our socialist-feminist sisters also don’t take into account the fact that not all domestic labor can be socialized. There is some irreducible work in the home that must be shared equally, assuming there are homes with more than one adult in them. You can have community laundries and kitchens but are you really going to go to the community kitchen for a quick breakfast or a snack? If people find there is reason to keep food in their living quarters, who will go out and buy it and who will clean the frig? Furthermore, even if we imagine community house cleaning, shouldn’t every individual household clean their own toilets and divide up the work of the small messes of daily living? Will he pick up his own socks?

Who will keep an eye out for those extra-curricular activities so important for a child’s development and make sure that this one gets to basketball practice and that one gets to where he or she needs to be on time?  There is a tremendous amount of domestic labor expended on planning and scheduling that is rarely noticed or counted as work. These examples, and many other aspects of childcare, need to be shared evenly between men and women.

Just what will wither away and how? Will new economic foundations dissolve interest in genetic ties? Are there positive aspects of the nuclear family worth saving? Will men suddenly begin sharing “women’s work” under socialism that they have not been trained or pushed to do under capitalism? Will socialism end physical and verbal violence against women and bring about full respect?

If one believes that men and women are not biologically wedded to “men’s work” and “women’s work” – that there is no “male brain” or “female brain” – one is free to ask whether the family can become a cooperative and emotionally satisfying institution instead of an oppressive one. 

Questions like those above show some existing differences between radical feminism and socialist feminism but simultaneously indicate how the two tendencies can strengthen one another and sharpen the overall analysis required for real women’s liberation. Whether we see capitalism or male supremacy or both as the root of our oppression, what is clear is that both must go.

This is actually the third time around for MEETING GROUND. It first began in January 1977 with Carol Hanisch as editor and Barbara Leon as consulting editor, and ended in March 1982. We tried again between 1989-1991 with the advent of desktop publishing, but radical feminism and other radical movements became too weak to make keeping on possible. Carol had continued as editor, Kathy Scarbrough was Associate Editor, and Barbara Leon and Lavonne Lela were advisors.

With this on-line revival, the method of communication has changed immensely—no more clumsy typewriter corrections, delivery to the printer, hand addressing and trips to and from the post office. Using the internet is in some ways less labor intensive and certainly faster, though technically more difficult. Also, although we had some international participation throughout its existence, those possibilities, at least among English speakers, are greater than ever.

MEETING GROUND continues to be an all-volunteer, grassroots effort. We are feeling our way in trying to be as broad as possible while maintaining enough control to keep on track and secure.

Reprinted with permission of authors.