Marxism & the social reproduction of labor: Exploring the roots of women’s oppression

May 2018 Women factoryBy LISA LUINENBURG

When I became a mother three and a half years ago, I began to feel my oppression as a woman in capitalist society more acutely. All of the endless demands on my time began to add up—the sleepless nights, the feedings, child care, cooking, housework, errands and laundry around the clock. And then there were the demands at work—no paid maternity leave, the pressure to go back to work as soon as possible after giving birth, pumping in a bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids and I love being a mother, but I began to think deeper. Have women always been oppressed? Where does my oppression as a woman stem from? And isn’t there a better way to do things that spreads out all the work that women do more evenly?

The book that ultimately helped me the most to understand my own oppression as a woman is “Marxism and Women’s Oppression” by Lise Vogel. Originally written in 1983 and since updated, the book gives a comprehensive overview of the evolution of socialist feminist theory since the time of Marx and Engles. It delves into the debates between radical and socialist feminists in the 1960s and 1970s and ultimately offers a detailed explanation of a socialist feminist way of understanding women’s oppression—social reproduction theory. I would urge anyone who is interested in the subject to give Vogel’s book a close read for a deeper understanding of this important subject.

Before we look into the origins of women’s oppression, let’s dispel a central myth in our society—that women have always been oppressed. This viewpoint claims that women’s subordination is inevitable because it is a function of their biology or psychology. But history shows that women have not always been oppressed.

While their childbearing function has always remained the same, women’s social status has changed dramatically throughout history. Before the rise of class society, social production was organized communally and products shared equally, and the material basis for the exploitation of one group over another did not exist. Thus, the origins of women’s oppression are economic and social in character, and the development of women’s oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society.

Socialist feminism starts from the assumption that there is a material root to women’s oppression, and that the family is a major terrain. Social reproduction theory considers two concepts of Marx’s work as a point of departure—labor-power and the reproduction of labor power. Basically, workers sell their labor power on the market as a commodity. Labor power is realized when workers produce something with a use-value, which may or may not be exchanged. But workers also suffer wear and tear and eventually die. They must renew themselves on both a daily (individual) and long-term (societal) basis—this is the reproduction of labor power.

There are three types of processes that make up the reproduction of labor power in class societies: daily activities, the maintenance of non-laborers (for example children, the sick, and the elderly), and biological/generational replacement.

The reproduction of labor power can take place in many locations, such as labor camps or barracks, and through many different processes, such as replacing laborers through slavery or immigration. However, most capitalist societies primarily reproduce labor power through kin-based family units and through biological procreation. These heterosexual family norms are most often institutionalized in class-based societies and backed up by male domination and structures of female oppression. They are constantly reinforced and made to seem like they’ve been around forever, even though (as we have seen) this is not historically the case.

It is women’s special role in the biological reproduction of labor from which their oppression stems. This role rests on a capitalist contradiction—capitalists need women to have babies to reproduce the labor pool, but when women give birth, it temporarily decreases their ability to contribute both as direct producers and in daily maintenance activities. Men also have to spend more time maintaining women during this period of time, which means they are less able to spend time producing commodities. This cuts into the capitalists’s ability to accumulate even more profits.

Let’s return to the concept of labor for a moment. There are two types of labor in capitalist society: necessary labor, and surplus labor. Necessary labor is the labor needed to renew a worker so they can continue to work the next day (this can be on an individual or societal scale). For example, cooking food, taking care of children, or preparing for the next day’s work. When workers work for their capitalist bosses, part of their work during the day is necessary work (the work they do to earn wages). Workers need wages in order to buy the products of capitalism for their personal consumption and renew their labor.

The other part of their work is surplus labor. This is the extra labor they are essentially doing for free—the labor the capitalists bosses appropriate for their own profit.

Necessary labor has two parts: the social component (the part that earns wages) and the domestic component (unpaid labor in the home). Because of the contradiction in women’s roles in the reproduction of labor power and the institutionalization of the family structure, men are often primarily responsible for earning the wages, while women become primarily responsible for domestic labor. In capitalist society, the realms of productive and domestic spheres become spatially, temporally, and institutionally isolated from each other.

It is important to note here that women also play an important role in production and have often worked outside of the home (both in the present and historically). But it is through their role in the reproduction of labor that their oppression arises. Family members who are not working and are maintained by the family wage also help make up a reserve army of labor that capitalists can draw on when they need more workers.

In fact, it benefits capitalists to have women as a mobile workforce they can exploit on demand, and women entering the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that a family’s circumstances or wages will improve. For example, capitalists can use this as an excuse to pay everyone lower wages if more members of a family are working (and the lower wages historically go to women and children). The entry of women in the workforce has also been a controversial topic in socialist feminist debate.

So now that we understand where women’s oppression comes from, what can we do about it? Domestic labor has often been a class battleground, and working people strive to win the best conditions for their personal lives and the renewal of their labor. Efforts to organize and expand equality can also reveal the fundamentally exploitative character of capitalism while moving everyone towards a more equal footing. Despite the family’s base for the exploitation and oppression of women, families can also have a protective aspect for the working class—they can be centers for organizing against exploitation and provide social ties and supports to working people.

It is important to recognize here that there are democratic demands that we can fight for now that can be achieved under capitalism. For example, we can fight for a breakdown in institutionalized gender norms and a more equal sharing of domestic labor in the family home. We can fight to expand democracy and equal rights for women and all oppressed groups. We can fight for special treatment for women due to their biology—for example, lighter work during pregnancy, paid time off for maternity leave, or the right to express milk during the work day.

But at the same time, we must also recognize that a true end to women’s oppression can only be achieved through a socialist society. Socialist society will give us the freedom to re-think and re-distribute labor, which is the only way to eliminate the material root of women’s oppression. The need for domestic labor will never go away, but socialist society will allow us to socialize domestic labor under worker’s control.

It is interesting to think here about what will happen to the institution of the family under socialist society. Once the material basis for women’s oppression is gone, the family will also begin to naturally shift and take on new forms and shapes.

I would like to end with a quote from Vogel’s book (page 181-182): “Historical materialism poses the difficult question of simultaneously reducing and redistributing domestic labor in the course of transforming it into an integral component of social production in communist society. Just as in the socialist transition ‘the state is not “abolished,” it withers away,’ [a famous quote from Frederick Engels] so too, domestic labor must wither away… In the process the family in its particular historical form as a kin-based social unit for the reproduction of exploitable labour-power in class-society will also wither away—and with it both patriarchal family-relations and the oppression of women.”