HREQ 1700 Lecture Notes - Lecture 13: Marxist Feminism, Socialist Feminism, Feminist Theory

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Lecture 13: Feminist Theorizing—Marx to Intersectionality
Marxist Feminism and Materialist Feminism
For most of the 1970s and 1980s debates about how social institutions promoted unequal social relations
between men and women was addressed from a materialist standpoint of which there are two feminist versions.
The first uses a Marxist framework for analyzing the structures of social relations. The second, Socialist
Feminism, uses the concept of patriarchy, which, although borrowing much from a Marxist method, does not
necessarily accept the Marxist analysis of prioritizing the economy.
Marxism and Productive Labour
Marxist analysis of capitalism provides an explanation of how the capitalist system operates and offers a theory
of how it can be overcome. In a Marxist analysis, priority is given to the organization of productive work and
the relations of people who engage in the production of capital. Other features of society and social organization
that are exploitive are seen to be secondary to paid labour.
Mode of production=means of production +social relations of production
(See previous class lectures on Karl Marx and the mode of production)
Marxist Feminists: Reproductive Labour
Early Marxist feminists viewed such a secondary notion of gender exploitation to be problematic. The
reproductive labour of women, while unpaid, is seen as a sight of women’s oppression. By showing how
women’s unpaid labour contributes to the reproduction of the labour force for capitalism, feminists were able to
show how capitalism is not gender blind. In short, these early feminists argued that the structures within a
capitalist society assumed a form, which ensured women’s subordination and argued that this resulted in a form
of institutionalized oppression for women. They further argued that their was a distinction between productive
work (paid labour) and work aimed at re-creating the worker (unpaid labour) such as giving birth to children,
raising them and cooking, cleaning, feeding the present work force was considered reproductive labour. This
work also includes the emotional work that managing children and caring for a family involved. However, such
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an understanding of how reproductive labour worked did not apply to all women in all places from all cultures
and ethnicities.
Productive Vs Reproductive Labour
Within feminist theory, considerable debate took place in the 1980s as to whether this reproductive labour
should be considered productive or unproductive in the classic Marxist sense and whether it should be seen to
benefit men or capitalism or indeed both. Despite disagreement as to how precisely to conceptualize such labour
and its significance, it is widely recognized today as providing an important basis for inequality between the
sexes and forming an important hidden subsidy to the economy.
These early feminist theorists found, however that it was less clear how a Marxist analysis could adequately
explain gender divisions that do not have any economic value, such as controlling women’s reproduction,
exploitation of women in marriage, violence against women etc. Also, gender divisions seemed to pre-date
capitalist forms of social organization.
In order to analyze the realm where the exploitive social relations of gender took place outside of paid/unpaid
labour, Marxist and Socialist feminist identified the concept of Patriarchy. Literally, patriarchy means the “rule
of the father” and references systematic male domination in social institutions within society such as schools,
the family, and the work force etc. During the 70s and 80s the concept was used as a tool to explain gender
relations not only in the present day but also historically. Feminists argued that the two structures—patriarchy
and capitalism—worked together to facilitate the reproduction of the workforce and the sexual division of
labour. Patriarchy was used to explain this dual system where structures of capitalism and patriarchy intersected
to ‘fix’ women in subordinate positions. In doing so, a new equation emerges:
(Social relations of production) + (relations of reproduction) +(Patriarchal ideology) = women’s subordination
within a capitalist society.
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Materialist/Socialist feminists
Materialist or socialist feminists use the notion of social relations to examine how gender is socially
constructed. They see gender differences between men and women as rooted in social relations which give rise
to social practices that produce and reproduce gender inequalities. That is, people are made into social men and
women by the particular positions that they are allocated in the social structures. These structures are the
systems of power and control, which give rise to these sets of social relations. Within a patriarchy the social
relations of gender are ones in which women are treated as inferior and subordinate to men and thus gender
divisions are exploitive and oppressive. For example, socialist feminists such as Meg Luxton, Roberta
Hamilton, and Michelle Barrette illustrated how women’s labour force participation had been much less about
individual choice than a matter of institutional and structural shifts in the economy and capital’s need for
women’s labour.
They argue that women have always participated in the paid and unpaid labour force. However, as these
theorists illustrate, women’s participation has been highly dependent on support structures that enable them to
work such as day care and early childhood education programs like junior and senior kindergarten. When the
economy expands and the need for easily trainable workers arises, day care facilities are readily provided
through government initiatives, which in turn allows for a larger portion of the female population to participate
in the labour force.
When economic conditions recede or changes, women have been typically the first to be let go. This was
evident during the First and the Second World War when women took up men’s jobs while they were fighting
abroad. Childcare became a social responsibility rather than an individual one. However, after the war
increasing numbers of women were left unemployed as men took up these work positions once again. From
1944 the number of women gainfully employed doubled in size, increasing from 600,000 to 1,200,000 during
the Second World War. With a large number of men returning after the war, these women had to be moved out
of the labour market.
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