Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge that women are exploited in marriage and family life, but they emphasise the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the family’s effects on women. Marxist feminists use Marxist concepts, but they see the exploitation of women as they key feature of family life.
The reproduction of labour power
‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the Capitalist class, because they only have to pay one person in the family– the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husbands needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free, and women also do most of the child care for free, thus reproducing the next generation of workers for free.
A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:
‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’
(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)
Finally, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.
‘As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.
Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family
David Morgan argues that the traditional nuclear family is becoming less common and so this theory is less applicable today
They also ignore the fact that women have made progress in family life – life is better within families today for women, as Liberal and Difference Feminists point out.
Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)
The material above is adapted from Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives.