Sex and society (3): Capitalism & women’s oppression

by · June 1, 2015

Poverty has a woman's face

How are capitalism and women’s oppression connected?

In my last blog post we discussed the rise of the nuclear family and the connection between the class system and the shift in roles between men and women. This week we’re going to explore how modern capitalism has perpetuated the oppression of women.


Let’s start a little differently however. I think it’s time to bring up the opposition to Engels’ theory of the oppression of women. There has been significant anthropological and scientific debate around the standard narrative of human sexuality, but for the purpose of this blog post I want to focus on the feminist arguments against Engels (a quick thanks to Jasmina Brankovich, who has been debating these issues with me in my first post).

This feminist charge against Engels was led by Simone De Beauvoir, who in her groundbreaking book The Second Sex stated that Engels’s theory is “disappointing” with “the most important problems (are) slurred over”. De Beauvoir’s arguments are complex (check this link to see them in depth), but they boil down to what I call a “naturalist” approach to gendered oppression. De Beauvoir acknowledges that economics has played a role in women’s oppression, but argues this only occurred because men used their superior physical strength to take advantage of shifts in economic circumstances. She contends:

Without adequate tools, he did not sense at first any power over the world, he felt lost in nature and in the group, passive, threatened, the plaything of obscure forces; he dared to think of himself only as identified with the clan: the totem, mana, the earth were group realities. The discovery of bronze enabled man, in the experience of hard and productive labour, to discover himself as creator; dominating nature, he was no longer afraid of it, and in the face of obstacles overcome he found courage to see himself as an autonomous active force, to achieve self-fulfillment as an individual.

In other words the development of tools and agriculture gave men the opportunity they had always been looking for to oppress women — primarily through the domination of nature. As leading feminists such as Sherry Ortner (who builds on De Beauvoir’s work) argue, women — primarily through their capacity to have children — are seen as more connected to nature than men. Hence men expressed their domination not only over nature, but over women as well.

These theories form part of an account of “the patriarchy”. There are lots of different definitions of the patriarchy, but the theory is largely based on the contention that men have oppressed women for all eternity, with this oppression operating rather autonomously from economic circumstances. Different feminists give different reasons for this (i.e. the female connection to nature), but what is key is that the oppression of women operates across historical periods, with men using economic circumstances to work together to continue this oppression. Economic circumstances are therefore not the cause, but a tool used to oppress women.

I will leave these theories to one side for the moment.


If we want to explore the connection between capitalism and women’s oppression we cannot go beyond the current mainstream form of familial expression — marriage. Marriage today is largely seen through the lens of “love”. Yet, this has not always been the way.

Let’s go back to the standard narrative of human sexuality. This narrative is based on what Helen Fisher calls “The Sex Contract”; the idea, based in Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, that women require men to be able to provide for them and their offspring, while men will not provide those resources unless women ensure fidelity. Men and women engage in a contract — resources for fidelity. This is the ‘nuclear family’ I started to describe in my last blog post.

As I argued last time, the biological determinism of this narrative is incorrect. Yet the economic foundations of modern marriage are surprisingly sound. The question is though, how did this structure maintain itself with the rise of industrialised capitalism?

One of the unique things about industrialised capitalism is that it had the potential to radically change gendered relations within society. With the growth of the factory people flooded to cities, in turn losing much of their small amounts of private property. Industrialised capitalism became an equaliser of sorts — everyone, men and women, were now workers. Women were entering the workforce, with their oppression now occurring through capitalist exploitation. This is why Engels predicted that capitalism would see the end of the proletarian family.

So how is it that even when capitalists were desperately looking for workers to fill their factories women ended up back in the home? Many argue male workers banded together to keep women out. Heidi Hartmann for example argues that male-dominated unions organised to keep women higher paying jobs for men, primarily through excluding women from the workplace. Yet many others disagree with this. In their essay “Rethinking Women’s Oppression”, Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas argue unions were both too weak to win fights against the inclusion of women, and in many cases they actually worked heavily to benefit women’s economic rights. So what is their answer? Brenner and Ramas look back at biological arguments, arguing that whilst a biological deterministic approach (that dominates the standard narrative) is false, the:

Biological facts of reproduction — pregnancy, childbirth, lactation — are not readily compatible with capitalist production, and to make them so would require capital outlays on maternity leave, nursing facilities, childcare, and so on. Capitalists are not willing to make such expenditures, as they increase the costs of variable capital without comparable increases in labour productivity and thus cut into rates of profit. In the absence of such expenditures, however, the reproduction of labour power becomes problematic for the working class as a whole and for women in particular.

Girl working in Manchester cotton mill

Girl working in Manchester cotton mill

Here was the problem. In the early stages of industrialised capitalism men, women, and children all ended up in the factory. However, as people moved to the cities, the infant mortality rate shot through the roof. In Manchester, for example, there were a recorded 26,125 deaths per 100,000 thousand children under the age of one. This was three times the rate of mortality rater of non-industrial areas.

With the rise of industrialised capitalism workers were robbed of control of production process, and in turn robbed of their capacity to incorporate reproduction into the needs of production. In simpler terms, being forced to work long hours in unsanitary factories made it much more difficult for workers to properly look after their children. And, as Tad Tietze argues, “this created severe problems for the system’s ability to ensure the reproduction of the working class.” Capitalists were watching as their next swathe of workers died in front of their eyes.

Brenner and Ramas argue the creation of the “family-household system emerged as the resolution to this crisis.” The idea of the “family-household system” was introduced by Michèle Barrett in her book Women’s Oppression Today, described as a structure

in which a number of people, usually biologically related, depend on the wages of a few adult members, primarily those of the husband/father, and in which all depend primarily on the unpaid labour of the wife/ mother for cleaning, food preparation, child care, and so forth. The ideology of the “family” is one that defines family life as “ ‘naturally’ based on close kinship, as properly organized through a male bread- winner with a financially dependent wife and children, and as a haven of privacy beyond the public realm of commerce and industry.”

As capitalists were not willing, nor able, to provide services for parents to nurture their children (paid maternity leave, childcare centres, etc.) and with household services (maids, cleaning services, etc.) being too expensive for the working class, women were forced back into the home to look after children and complete domestic duties. As Tietze argues: “The capitalist family thus had to be consciously constructed, with all the coercive and consensual elements of that process — a process involving significant state and extra state mobilisation in terms of ideologies, laws, policies, regulations, work reorganisation, and industrial relations strategies, including settlements around the family wage, etc.” The family-household structure had to be developed in order to ensure the survival of the capitalist system.

That doesn’t mean women stopped working, but when they did they faced particular disadvantages. Brenner and Ramas argue there were particular classes of women who were working at this time; those with children, who were widows and those married to men with unstable incomes. “These women constituted a particularly defenceless and desperate labour pool,” they write. With domestic responsibilities making it difficult to organise in unions and a lack of mobility making it difficult to find better jobs, women were stuck in lowing paying, often part-time work. Hence we see the development of the gender wage-gap — a gap that continues until this day.

Herein lies the roots of female oppression under capitalism — roots we still see today. While some women have broken through the “glass ceiling” the majority still suffer both because of a historical disadvantage they have faced in the labour market, but also due to a capitalist class that is unwilling to provide the resources required to nurture children (which is still largely seen as a woman’s job). Paid maternity leave has been a huge fight, while services such as childcare are expensive and hard to come by. This leaves women still at a disadvantage.

While these roots are economic, however, that cannot explain sexism in its whole. These economic roots have also created cultural realities. There are a number of examples of this, but let’s just look at one: the perception of female sexuality. The repression of sexuality (through ideas that women have low libidos to the medicalisation of female sexuality through the “illness” nymphomania) is perhaps the greatest form of the ideological oppression of women. We (men in particular) are all taught early on in our lives that female sexuality is erratic and therefore the right of men to control. This has been ingrained culturally, and is probably most graphically expressed through continued high levels of sexual and physical violence targeted at women. Yet, if we think about it, this has a material foundation. When women are required to be monogamous the collective oppression of their sexuality is “logical” (although not moral). This is just another way to ensure women complete their economic roles.

Herein sits sexism and misogyny in our society — a system with material roots that expresses itself culturally and economically. Any attempt to defeat women’s oppression therefore requires tackling both sexist culture, and its economic base. We cannot do one without the other.

In my next post I am going to explore the connection between queer oppression and capitalism. I look forward to it!

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Jasmina Brankovich says:

    Hi Simon,

    thanks for the third entry 🙂 Due to life etc. I am only now catching up with this writing, and am yet to read part two. Had to skip to part 3 for a particular reason (I am glad you engaged with Hartmann, although I do not think sufficiently enough), because I am in the midst of writing an article on affective labour, Silvia Federici’s (and others’) campaign of Wages Against Housework, and the gaps in Marx’s and Engels’ theories when it comes to the concept of affective labour.

    Heidi Hartmann makes the important point that it’s not enough to think about how women’s reproductive labour benefits the capitalist class – we must also think about how it benefits men and maintains a patriarchal social structure. As she notes, it’s not just a coincidence that the gendered division of reproductive labour ‘places men in a superior, and women in a subordinate, position’. The fact that many men receive a wage for their work, while many women do not, creates an inequality in economic power which can facilitate men’s control over women’s labour and lives more generally. Men experience limited advantages due to not being obliged to take on as much housework, child care, or care of family members. Ultimately, the gendered division of labour props up a patriarchal, white supremacist capitalist system that we would all be better off without. But the limited benefits that accrue to men can obscure this reality.

    So, I am wondering, how would your engagement with the concept of affective labour (as described above), influence your view of patriarchy?

    More substantially, how would that engagement engender a theory of a revolution that, as you correctly identify, defeat both misogyny (I prefer this term to ‘sexism’ because sexism is barely a symptom of the mysogynistic gender order) and the economic base which supports it?

    Much love

    • Simon Copland says:

      Heya Jasmina,

      Sorry for the delayed response (again!). Have been dealing with life myself and have fallen behind with these pieces.

      So, when you say “Ultimately, the gendered division of labour props up a patriarchal, white supremacist capitalist system that we would all be better off without.” I totally agree with you. But maybe the area we would disagree is in who it is that reinforces this gendered division of labour, and therefore who benefits from it the most.

      I disagree with Hartmann in her analysis of the role of individual men, or individual workers, in propping up the gendered division of labour. Whilst of course there are individual sexist men who want to keep women out of the workforce I don’t think these men are the right focus of our ire.

      This is for two reasons. First, while there are examples of individual men, and male-dominated unions in particular, excluding women, there are also examples of the opposite. There were clearly many unions in the early stages of industrialisation involved in fighting to get women into higher paying jobs, just as there are many unions working on the issue of the wage gap today. I’m just not sure the evidence backs up Hartmann’s arguments.

      But secondly, and probably more importantly, for me it is clear it is the capitalist class who benefits far more from the gendered division of labour than working class men. You said in your comment for example, “men experience limited advantages due to not being obliged to take on as much housework, child care, or care of family members.” This is true to an extent, yet at the same time, in the early stages of industrialisation men faced other major negatives — primarily that of working in unhealthy and dangerous factories. There are actually genuine questions of what we mean by benefits, and to whom. While there were clearly some benefits to men there were also plenty of negatives.

      That is not to deny the existence of a patriarchal order, nor of male economic dominance, but rather to argue that in a capitalist system all suffer in different ways. And while some men certainly work to keep women subservient, I think the focus of our ire is better directed at a capitalist class who is determined to keep us all subservient. Maybe this is an argument about where our energies should be focused — and in that way I think men and women are better working together to overthrow a capitalist class.

      Does that mean there aren’t cultural problems we have to overcome in the meantime? Of course not. Sexism is a very real and live thing amongst all the classes and an issue we have to fight to overcome. But I struggle with a method that blames “all men” (without becoming one of those people who say “not all men”). I think this almost ends up being an impossible battle (maybe this is just my maleness talking) and think our energies are better at targeting the structures of sexism, which I believe lie in the capitalist class.