The path to women’s liberation

Zoe McKeown, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

Zoe McKeown writes on the importance of Marxist feminism in achieving women’s liberation

A revolutionary Marxist analysis of the roots of oppression is the necessary starting point for those dedicated to the cause of women’s liberation. Although Marx himself did not write specifically about the oppression of women, his work can still be taken as a methodological and theoretical insight into the nature of women’s oppression, and provides the class analysis so lacking from current mainstream feminism; the idea it is the insidiousness of capitalism which acts as an oppressor, not our sex. Furthermore, Marxist feminists have coined the term ‘double burden’ – i.e. the idea women suffer doubly under capitalism, both in the workplace and at home. As Connolly said, “If the worker is the slave of capitalist society, then the female worker is the slave of that slave.” 

What do we mean by this? Capitalism depends on, and is ultimately upheld by unpaid, domestic labour; a task predominantly carried out by women. Domestic labour is unique in that it is non-traditional, and there is no surplus value to be made from it. 

Labour power can be defined as “the capacity to work, which is then commodified and sold on the labour market for a living wage.” To put more simply, take the example of a shop worker. They go to work, sell products, make a profit for the company, yet, they will never see the majority of this profit. The profit the worker creates for the capitalist – through the selling of their labour power – is significantly higher than what the worker receives back in exchange for their labour. The amount of money generated by the worker which the worker does not receive is termed surplus value

In other words, surplus value is the unpaid wages of the working classes, of the people who create the profits for the capitalist classes. This basic economic approach is easy enough to follow when we take a concrete example such as the shop worker, but what about a more abstract approach, such as washing clothes for one’s family? In this situation, there is no capitalist to demand labour power, yet the task is every bit as essential as the shop worker’s role of selling goods. 

This concept of surplus value is of particular relevance of to the working classes, as being excluded from the ownership of the means of production means they are forced to sell their only commodity: labour power. 

Marxist feminists also talk about the double meaning of the theory of reproduction. Reproduction consists of two key, and distinct processes. These will be discussed and analysed in turn:

  • The first being the daily maintenance of the ability to uphold the labour power of the family members who contribute to the labour market. Put simply, this means that the responsibility of making sure the workers (both male and female) are fed, clothed, and rested is incumbent completely on women. Therefore, capitalism is upheld by women, as without the physical and emotional needs of the workers being met, little work would be done, meaning no profits for the capitalists. 
  • The second key process of reproduction involves the very biology of the female class. Women are the ones who physically bring new life, and therefore a new generation of workers, into the world. Reproduction doesn’t simply stop there – it is the additional job of women to socialise their children, to ensure they are the right ‘fit’ for going into the world of work. Think of when a mother takes their young child to a playpark. How often do we hear the scolding of “Don’t hit! Share your toys!” and so on. A good worker is a compliant one, and it is no coincidence that the morals and values instilled in children by their mothers is what every boss would like to see in a potential worker. 

Marxist feminists such as Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya have written texts about the path to women’s liberation, and their works focus on the traditional, or ‘nuclear’, family; specifically, on the abolition of such a concept. Kollontai believed the way forward for women – besides of course, full economic and systemic change to communism – was through the destruction of this traditional family unit. She saw the nuclear family as a further tool of the capitalist classes with which to oppress women. She wrote, “Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of women a crushing burden… it makes her a wage worker without having lessened her duties and cares as a housekeeper and a mother.” 

As discussed above, there is the additional difficulty with the fact that domestic labour is completely essential yet is non-traditional. Because this labour completely maintains and contributes to capitalism, it should absolutely be recognised as ‘real work’ and therefore its workers – predominantly working-class women – should receive a wage in exchange for their labour. Yet the simple fact is, we don’t. we work ten hour shifts in the shops, in the factories, in the bars and clubs and pubs, and we are paid. We can discuss and debate Marx’s theory of surplus value and demand better wages for our work, but that doesn’t change the fact that once we have completed our ten hour ‘paid’ shift, we then come home and are expected to do a four-hour shift at home – all for free.

Because domestic labour lacks the ability to regard itself as ‘traditional labour’, I would contest it lacks the ability to be withdrawn in the same way as a factory worker can go on strike. It is then for this reason that I conclude that capitalism is completely dependent on the oppression of women, and that unpaid domestic labour is therefore the last tool the capitalist classes have to beat and keep the working classes down.

Women are forced into a quandary; the ruling classes know that no working mother will withdraw their domestic labour to the point where it would have any tangible effect: in order to make an impact, drastic action would need to occur, and since we have discussed that one aspect of domestic labour involves the feeding of the workers – and therefore children – we can conclude that no mother would let her children starve in order to make a stand against capitalism.

The ruling classes are acutely aware of this, and use it to their utmost advantage. This, again doubly keeps women oppressed and keeps women silent and complicit – again, further proof that working women are the best tool the ruling classes have at their disposal to keep the proletariat down. 

Furthermore, it must be noted that working women bear the brunt of Tory austerity – from the tampon tax, to overpriced childcare, to the social murder of single mothers suffering under the cruelty of universal credit. 

Communism is the only system which can fully emancipate every member of the working class. Communism offers true emancipation for working women – not bourgeois feminism which threatens to ‘break glass ceilings’, but then sticks the shards straight in the face of low paid and migrant women workers.

We don’t need more female bosses, nor more ‘woke feminism’; we need Marxist feminism which liberates us all. Communism, therefore, is the way forward, and it must be fought for by working women. We need to be at the front of the labour movement, and use our role as educators and caregivers to reform the system before we push for full revolution. 

As Angela Davis wrote, “The only significant steps towards ending domestic slavery have been taken in the existing socialist countries. Working women therefore have a special, vital, and vested interest in the struggle for socialism.” 

Zoe McKeown

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