Last Updated on June 28, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Marxist Feminists argue that the exploitative relations of capitalism are what causes exploitative patriarchal relations within the family.
Individual men may benefit from the unpaid domestic labour and childcare which mainly women do, but it is the capitalist system within is the main cause of women being in the subordinate housewife and mother roles.
It is ultimately capitalism which needs to be brought down in order for patriarchal relations within the family to cease.
Women’s free domestic labour benefits capitalism
A main focus for marxist feminists in the 1970s was ‘housework’ which was seen as the intersection of class and gender based modes of exploitation.
Housework was not regarded as real work, and thus unpaid, because of the structure of the capitalist system. It was primarily women who did this work for free, never pausing to think that they might even be paid for it. While male breadwinners benefited directly from the free labour of their female partners, the main beneficiary was the capitalist economy: women provided for the domestic needs of men so they could keep serving the needs of the system through doing paid work.
To Quote Margaret Benston:
‘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 the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husband’s needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker 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)
Also, 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 reproduction of labour power
Capitalism also benefits from women being the primary child carers. As with domestic work childcare is done mainly by women for free, and from a marxist-feminist perspective this is women bringing up the next generation of workers for the capitalist system.
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.
Ideologies about domestic work and childcare being naturally women’s work are mainly responsible for keeping this system in place.
Back in the 1970s at least women generally didn’t question their roles as housewives and mothers.
Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family
Marxist-Feminism has too narrow a focus on the role of economics in ‘causing’ patriarchal relations at home. This is a problem when women are in subordinate domestic roles in many pre-capitalist societies, suggesting patriarchy is a more general problem.
Marxist Feminist analysis doesn’t seem to hold up to social changes which have taken place since the 1970s:
- There are many more job opportunities for women in 2023 and no gender pay gap for younger workers, suggesting the end of the breadwinner role for men.
- This gives women a lot more freedom to be the main or equal income earners and the majority of households are now dual-earner households meaning Marxist-feminist analysis no longer applies.
- Many more women today live alone and don’t have children, this analysis doesn’t apply to them.
- social policies such as the shared parental leave act (2015) and more free child care for children as young as nine months (2024) make it easier for mothers to avoid the full-time domestic and housewife role.
The only real support for Marxist feminism today lies in the fact that when women become mothers they are more likely to take time off work than fathers and they do more housework (still today), but most women are in paid work most of their working lives, so even this is pretty weak evidence.
There might still be a case that the lives of working class women and single mothers are relatively worse off because of capitalism: maybe this theory selectively applies to families with lower incomes; maybe single parents (85% of whom are women) have higher poverty rates because capitalism doesn’t value their free childcare sufficiently.
However, you certainly can’t argue that the root cause of women’s exploitation at home is caused by capitalism because capitalism (as neoliberalism) has intensified in Britain since the 1970s but women’s lives in general have improved.
Research supporting Marxist Feminism
Being a father seems to push men into the breadwinner role and women into the caring role.
Becoming a young mother results in more women leaving work, but has the opposite effect on young men.
For 25 to 34 year olds the respective employment rates are:
- 86% for non-fathers compared to 92% for fathers
- 89% for non-mothers to 69% for mothers.
So childless young women are MORE likely to be in employment than childless young men, but this changes drastically when those young women have children. Young women, it seems, are far more likely than men to leave employment and become the primary child carers.
Source: How does motherhood affect paid work?
Women then gradually return to work as children get older…
31% of women with a 1 year old are in employment compared to 49% with an 18 year old. The percentages of men in work with children aged 1 to 18 are level.
This suggests many mothers still want (or have to work) but nonetheless it is still women who take the career-penalties associated with taking time off work to be the primary carers.
A (2019) longitudinal study Employment Pathways and Occupational Change after Childbirth examined the pathways of men and women returning to work and found that of women working full time prior to childbirth only 44% returned to work full time after 3 years.
There was some variation: those with degrees were twice as likely to return to full time work (so 88% after 3 years) and those working for the public sector or large organisations with over 50 workers were also more likely to return to work full time.
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.
Ingles, D (2015) An Invitation to Social Theory