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Feminism, Capitalism, and the Family: Reflections on Margaret Benston’s ‘Political Economy’

Margaret Benston’s article “Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” articulates the specific relationship of women to production in capitalism in a compelling way. She outlines the ways in which the nuclear family facilitates and perpetuates capitalism. However, her analysis does not completely unpack the asymmetry between men and women, and the relationship of this to capitalism. In this piece, I tentatively suggest that a return to biology may be necessary to more fully understand women’s oppression in capitalism. That being said, the importance of the frame of capitalism for understanding women’s oppression ultimately remains in place, which highlights the importance of Benston’s contribution to feminist and Marxist literature.

Benston’s analysis of women’s specific relationship to capitalism is an important contribution to understanding both capitalism and women’s oppression. Marx and Engels theorized men’s relationship to capital: proletarian men trade labor for the means of subsistence. Capital uses this labor to produce commodities (which contain use value and exchange value) that are sold for exchange value. Commodities generate surplus value kept by the owners of capital when the costs of production are less than the exchange value of the commodity.

Benston argues that in the home women produce goods and services with use value (including sewing, cooking, and childcare) but no exchange value and therefore no surplus value. Men are “responsible for commodity production” and earning a wage to support the family (Benston, 19). As a result, men are absolved of the family duties that women are tasked with. Meanwhile, women’s efforts in the home allow men to labor, but their labor is considered of no value because it does not generate surplus value and is not paid for directly with a wage. This relationship is specific to capitalism, where worth is determined purely by the ability to produce surplus value. Men and women are defined by their differing relationships to production in capitalism.

Women who work outside of the home for wages remain responsible for domestic chores, as they are not considered “structurally responsible” for earning money to support a family (Benston, 19). Crucially, here, we see that women are a reserve army of labor that capital can draw on when demand for laborpower increases. However, to the interests of capital, women’s work tends to be unstable and unreliable: the last hired and the first fired. This relationship to capital is a key part to understanding how oppression works in capitalism. Access to secure work is the main means of survival for those without any other means — the proletariat. Those who cannot access secure work are the most marginalized in society.

Benston’s second important contribution is her analysis of how the nuclear family maintains capitalism in its standard 1960s form. The relationship between men and women is founded on mutual economic reliance: men earn to provide for their families and women contribute the labor needed to convert wages into the means of survival. Women sustain capitalism by sustaining the laborer (the man) and by producing children; future creators of either surplus value (boys) or simple use value (girls). She argues that women’s care provides for the emotional needs of the worker and children, meaning this does not have to be provided in the formal work place (Benston, 21). Further, the family locks man into his position of worker: if he stops working his family will suffer. One could argue that in this way, man pays for the care provided by woman.

While these arguments are convincing, Benston’s analysis falls short when she tries to argue that as a result of the family’s relationship to capitalism, women’s position will not change. She begins by stating that for women to be liberated they will need equal access to jobs and to have shared responsibility for housework with men. However, to convert women’s work in the home to paid work would mean this work is now done for profit, not directly for human welfare (Benston, 20).

The value of human welfare is not discussed in any detail, but this echoes arguments made by Angela Davis about the home as offering room for self-determination and care (Davis, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” 87). In slavery, every aspect of men’s and women’s lives was determined by the slave owner, except labor done in the home: “the black slave woman… [performed] the only labor of the slave community which could not directly and immediately be claimed by the oppressor” (87). Davis’ argument, though, pertains to the particularity of the slave family home as the only sphere in which some escape from constant supervision is provided. In Benston’s case, the value of providing care for human welfare depends on whether this care is given willingly, or taken from women in return for the means of survival attained through man’s family wage. Benston missed this opportunity to reflect on the brutality of the impact of the asymmetry between men and women: women must provide care in return for access to the means to survive — it is not a choice.

Benston argues that women’s unequal status should eventually be lifted if women have access to jobs and responsibility for housework on par with men. However, Benston believes that the logic of capitalism will prevent this from occurring: a significant number of women will not move into the workforce until there are both jobs available and alternate means of getting housework done. While the growth of the service industry, for Benston, may seem likely to offer a source of employment for women and a way to outsource housework this would entail paying women for labor that was previously undertaken for free. Instead, she thinks the conversion of housework to paid labor is unlikely: why pay for something that is free?

However, the invention of numerous financial tools for altering the ways in which investment and economic growth occur has warped the standard logic of capitalism. Those without the means of capital can borrow and gamble on their ability to make more profit on their borrowed capital than they owe in interest to the owner of their debt. While this is by no means a concept unique to the post-1970s world, options for borrowing and investing have increased dramatically and become far more complex. This has a double effect on women’s relationship to the workforce: families can borrow to pay for the services and goods they need that free up women’s time, allowing women to move into work, and investment in the service industry creates jobs for women to move into.

Families now have debt, in other words, less than nothing. They work not to pay for what they need to survive, they must also pay down or at least try and keep up with the interest in their debt. While women now have formal access to the same jobs as men, women are regularly paid less, are more likely to work part-time, and are overrepresented in the service industry. Some changes to societal attitudes regarding child raising and housework have occurred, but evidence suggests women still often take up the majority of this work both when it is paid work and when it is not.

Women also remain associated with providing care. This association may be the remaining status differential that Benston is concerned with, and I also consider it linked to Engels’ original comment on the residual brutality women experience in proletarian households. Engels argued that women’s oppression is rooted in unequal access to income and property ownership (“The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and State” in the Marx and Engels Reader, 743). The abolition of private property would thus emancipate women along with proletarian men. He argued that in households where women worked, “the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation — except, perhaps, for some of that brutality towards women which became firmly rooted with the establishment of monogamy” (743). This tie is not inherent to monogamy, which Engels later defends a form of, and instead its content and origin are left unexamined (746). This brutality is the expectation that women provide care and do housework, even if they are working — as Benston points out.

Even if women no longer need to trade care for survival, care is considered a primary feminine characteristic and responsibility. This construction is read off sex difference: women can experience pregnancy and as potential mothers are culturally and discursively constructed as “naturally” being good at providing care for others. Women are taught that to become mothers is the “most fulfilling” form of existence, and that being without a partner and children to care for is somehow a failure of womanhood. This care is expected, and sometimes policed violently. Women’s choices for survival are now less dictated by access to work, but they remain strongly influenced by the cultural and social constructions of a good woman as a natural caregiver. These constructions benefit capital as they create expectation that women provide free care, and keep women in the reserve army of labor. The usefulness of Benston’s work is confirmed for the present day, but only through exploring how women’s status is read from biological difference.

Biological difference creates a platform for the cultural constitution of difference on which economic oppression is built. Women experience discrimination in the work force as mothers or potential mothers, due to their perceived prioritizing of the home and family, and they experience discrimination in the home, as they are considered responsible for care. Women’s status in society, as carers and as disposable workers, benefits those who own the means of production. While Benston’s analysis of women’s relationship to capital is compelling and fruitful, we must also consider the ways in which biological difference is understood and coopted to capitalism’s goal of the production of surplus value.

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Alix Jansen

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