Locating the source of oppression

February 7, 2013

I APPRECIATED Steve Leigh's letter ("Strategies to end oppression") as a follow-up to Sharon Smith's recent article ("Marxism, feminism and women's oppression").

Steve is making an important and much needed contribution to a conversation about women's oppression that can only be enriched by such interventions. I also appreciate the leading role SocialistWorker.org has been playing in providing a democratic forum for such comradely discussion to take place. It is in the sprit of such a discussion that I would like to disagree with Steve's letter in two important ways:

First, Steve proposes that Sharon's piece is revisiting the thorny question of whether men benefit from women's oppression. "But as Sharon explains," writes Steve, "men do get certain immediate gains from their position in a sexist society. It is a benefit to men if their female partner does all the housework and/or child care while they enjoy the benefits of that work."

Sharon, in her article, does not argue that men benefit from women's oppression. In fact, she is pointing us towards a more interesting formulation: that (a) we can agree on how much more stultifying women's lives are as compared to men's; and at the same time (b) admit to the analytical sterility of the "men benefit" framework.

Second, Sharon merely hints at why this is so (I suspect it is further developed in her forthcoming book). She is locating women's oppression, I would say rightly and needfully, not in the sexual division of labor, but where those in the political tradition of social reproduction theory have.

The "men benefit" argument takes us tautologically to the debate over the division of labor and domestic labor debate. It presupposes certain naturalistic assumptions about women's labor and fails to explain, for instance, why certain forms of labor when performed by men remain respectable, but become historically devalued when performed by women.

Teaching is an important example. Scholars have shown how prestigious it was to be a teacher in the early 20th century and how, gradually, when women began to enter the profession, the goalposts were changed to feminize and hence devalue the profession.

The programmatic implications of the "men benefit" argument are also fairly narrow. These are: either that men need to help out more in the private sphere, or that wages are needed for housework. The problems with both those approaches have been fruitfully argued and conclusively rejected by Marxist feminists, such as Johanna Brenner and Lise Vogel.

At another level, such a theory that locates women's oppression in the sexual division of labor fails to explain why, then, women's oppression/sexism exists, and is often distressingly reproduced, in same-sex-headed families or single-parent families.

Another approach of looking at capitalism as a relationship rather than a thing situates women's oppression in the social reproduction of labor. Some excellent materialist feminist writing exists in this tradition. Social reproduction theory situates the origins of women's oppression in the historically determined kin-based unit called the family. These scholars point to the historic role played by the modern family in reproducing the worker generationally, psychically and on an everyday basis, free of cost for capital, as forming the roots of women's oppression.

The scholarship also shows how the family is the only location within the capitalist system where a commodity--labor power--is produced non-capitalistically. In recent times, Susan Ferguson and David McNally have been powerful and creative proponents of this argument. I see Sharon's recent piece as an effort to draw our attention to that tradition and engage with it.

This approach, if I may pun, provides more "benefits" to us as revolutionaries--to be able to fight not just women's oppression but also the system that continues to produce it.
Tithi Bhattacharya, Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind.

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