LettersSex & Gender

Identity Politics on Steroids or What do Women Want?

Last week Johanna Oksala asked is capitalism good for women? And if it is not, are there reforms that can make capitalism good for women? Rather than rehearse her complex and fascinating answers to these questions, let me rather interrogate the assumptions that underlie them. One, of course, is that we know what capitalism is, but I won’t go into that just yet. Another is that we can consider women as a social and historical totality — a “gender” — that is oppressed as a whole, and that can seek remediation as a whole. Of course, there are differences among women — rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old and so forth. Nonetheless, women as a whole are oppressed and can seek remedies that apply to all women.

Now this way of thinking about women — oppressed as a group, seeking justice as a group — is undoubtedly correct, and in Johanna’s presentation it shared much with traditional socialist concerns regarding economic equality. Still, in this brief note I want to suggest that what I would call the classic feminist approach to women’s equality is a partial truth that obscures as well as reveals, just as the idea that we live in a market-based society is both indisputable and yet also hides a great deal, notably the importance of class division, rooted in the sphere of production. Let me then suggest a different — perhaps complementary — way of thinking about the oppression of women, one that does not begin with the idea that men oppress women, but rather seeks to explain how that oppression arose, and how it may be ended.

My starting point would be the institutions of family and kinship since, until recently, these institutions have largely determined women’s “place.” To relate these institutions to capitalism, I would look not only at the monetized economy but more broadly at what Marx called the “economic structure” of society,” which he defined as “the total ensemble of social relations entered into in the social production of existence.” This ensemble necessarily includes family and kinship. When we consider what has happened historically to this ensemble, especially after the rise of capitalism, we get two sorts of insights into the sources of women’s oppression.

The first set of insights, which has been very influential historically, revolves around the idea that, put very broadly, human history has moved from forms of social production organized around family and kinship to capitalism, which is organized around wage labor. This idea lies behind what Engels calls the historic exclusion of women from social production, and terms the “world-historic defeat” of the female sex. In response, socialist movements advocated for women’s entry into the proletariat. The CIO, the American industrial union movement, advocated for equal pay for equal work — naturally, the reality was more complex. The basic point, though, was that women’s liberation would occur through women’s entry into social production. This line of thought generated a great tradition of so-called socialist-feminism: Crystal Eastman, Charlotte Gilman, Alexandra Kollontai, Emma Goldman, among others. I would put Johanna in this tradition.

Closely related to this line of thought was the recognition that women’s labor within the home was integral to “the social production of existence.” This meant mothering, housework, kin and neighborly networks — social reproduction. This insight largely lay behind the welfare states produced between the late nineteenth century and the neo-liberal era. Even the family wage — a single (male) wage sufficient to supply a family — which many feminist theorists describe as something men imposed on women was part of a strategy by which working men and women survived industrial capitalism through complementary forms of labor. Like the entry into production, the recognition that women’s labor produces use value is also complementary to the approach that Johanna took last week.

However, there is a second way of thinking about the relation of the family to the “social production of existence” that Johanna did not take up. The family, historically, is not only the locus of women’s labor; it is also the locus of personal identity. Especially as industry and bureaucratized services developed, the family became the only institution in which one expected to be valued for oneself. the famous “haven in a heartless world,” which came under attack in the 1960s. In this way of looking at the relation of the family and the economy, it is the separation of the family from the economy that is most important. The family becomes a locus of meaning precisely because it is not part of the capitalist economy; it transcends the merely economic.

This change in the nature of the family — the rise of personal life — can be situated more deeply in the nature of capitalism itself. Before capitalism social production was “natural,” in the sense that it was largely regulated by the organic rhythms and parameters of the “natural-organic” world. This is why we speak of “hunting-gathering” societies, or village agriculture, so deeply shaped by weather and calendar, water, wind and earth. Capitalism lifts human labor out of that organic realm, that necessity — that is what is meant by abstract labor. Freedom from family life, the emergence of a sense of personal identity that is not given by one’s place in the family, is a later and specific expression of this general tendency toward abstraction that characterizes the capitalist way of life.

There is much to be said about this second way of understanding the relations of the family and capitalism that is relevant to understanding feminism. For one thing, it is the separation of the family from production that gave rise to a “separate” women’s movement. Historically the connections between family and economy motivated socialism as a great anti-capitalist movement, one that would restore the organic character of society. Meanwhile, the separation of individuals from their families since the nineteen sixties, manifest in such movements as feminism and gay liberation, made the older socialist project obsolescent, though without putting a new response to capitalism in its place. Understanding both how capitalism shaped the character and insights of feminism, and how changes in capitalism gave rise to today’s “post-socialist” both can take us back to help nuance Johanna’s original assumption, that women are oppressed as a totality.

When large numbers of women began to ask the question Johanna asked last week — is capitalism good for women? — they needed a concept to explain what existed before capitalism and came up with the concept “patriarchy.” For example, Gerda Lerner, the famous women’s historian, wrote that feminists had to explain thirty-five hundred years of “women’s historical ‘complicity’ in upholding the patriarchal system that subordinated them and . . . in transmitting that system, generation after generation, to their children of both sexes.” But if we look more thoughtfully at the gender order that preceded capitalism, we can see that “patriarchy” or male supremacy was only one strand in that order. The very necessity of co-producing — the social production of existence — meant that men and women had to cooperate, even if they did not cooperate as equals, and even if they lacked the very concept of equality, which is so core to modern existence. The most important areas of that cooperation have been sexuality and reproduction. In particular, the recognition of paternity, which ties men to children and to their mothers, which is by its nature extra-biological or cultural, and which in evolutionary terms created the sexual division of labor, thereby enabling prolonged infancy (neoteny) — the growth of the brain — cannot be understood simply in terms of patriarchy or the power differential between men and women. That is why, I think, the view that women are oppressed by men, while true, can also be misleading.

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Eli Zaretsky

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