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What’s wrong with patriarchy theory?

(October 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 113, October 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“BY THE patriarchy we mean a system in which all women are oppressed, an oppression which is total, affecting all aspects of our lives. Just as class oppression preceded capitalism so does our oppression.” Scarlet Women

Most socialists and feminists believe that women’s oppression is separate from class exploitation. Class, they will argue, can explain certain aspects of the society in which we live – poverty, inequality, the economic system of capitalism.

But it offers no explanation for why half the human race is specifically oppressed and discriminated against as women. This explanation lies in the existence of a system running parallel to various forms of class society, the system of patriarchy.

Class and patriarchy, it is said, are dual systems which have to be fought separately. So feminists argue that the fight against patriarchy cannot be part of the struggle for socialism (against class society). Instead it has to consist of a separate struggle of women against men in order to defeat patriarchy.

What is meant by the term “patriarchy”? Literally it means “rule of the father”. Sometimes it is used to describe certain early forms of family. Karl Marx used it specifically to apply to one sort of family, the domestic household system where the usually male head of the household controlled the whole family and what they produced.

But this is rarely what feminists mean when they use the term. Sometimes they use patriarchy to describe male chauvinist ideas. It is merely the thoughts in men’s heads, or perhaps the social definition of gender – the way boys and girls learn their respective sex roles.

This definition is not based on any material factors, but simply on forms of false consciousness. So in order to overcome patriarchy an ideological struggle is required.

The conclusions of the analysis are familiar – women need more consciousness raising in order to understand their oppression. Men need educating out of their sexism. This, coupled with a fairer distribution of housework and childcare, can help to overcome patriarchy as an ideological system.

If the conclusions are unsatisfactory, it is because they are rooted in an unsatisfactory theory. Women’s oppression is very often expressed and sometimes even perpetrated in terms of ideas. But these ideas are not free floating. They stem from the material conditions in which people live and work. The problem with placing patriarchy simply in the realm of ideas is that it doesn’t explain where the ideas come from.

The limitation of the theory is that it is completely idealist. It divorces material circumstances from the way in which ideas change, and therefore implies that women’s oppression and male domination is unchanging, regardless of what social upheavals take place.

Although this idea is the kernel of the theory, most socialist feminists also try to put patriarchy in a historical context. They understand that women’s oppression in, for example, feudal society takes a different form from that in capitalist society. They therefore attempt a materialist analysis of why women’s oppression endures despite changes from one mode of production to another.

One of their most common explanations is that whereas the transition from feudalism to capitalism involves the destruction of old class relations and the creation of new ones, the family survives this transition more or less intact.

Sheila Rowbotham argues in Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, that labour within the family is in fact a “mode within a mode” of production, and that the wife’s relationship to her husband under capitalism is comparable to that of the bondsman and his master in feudal society.

Sally Alexander locates it in another way, by saying that the pre-capitalist division of labour within the family is transferred onto the capitalist labour market.

And the French separatist feminist Christine Delphy argues that there are two distinct modes of production, industry and the family. Within the family women are completely subordinated to men, who she believes form a distinct class from women.

The practical conclusion is simple: whereas men and women have to organise to fight capitalist exploitation, women have to fight a second separate struggle against male domination.

The problem with this argument is that the family of the working class during and after the industrial revolution is not, in all essentials, the same family which existed before. The domestic household system was one where the family was productive, both of items for the family’s own consumption and of commodities for the market.

The destruction of the English peasantry, much accelerated in the late 18th century, brought with it the destruction of domestic production, which was transferred to the factory and the mill. This brought about a major weakening of patriarchal power within the family as die old domestic relationships were turned upside down.

Male handloom weavers at home were undercut by factory production, which was performed by women and children. Every member of the family was thrown onto the labour market as individual wage labourers.

The family as a unit of domestic production disappeared. Vagrancy increased, especially among women. Enclosures and clearances denied the peasantry any means of livelihood from the land so they were forced into the cities. The establishment of the Poor Law “bastilles”, the workhouses, from the 1830s on, was a further incentive for every member of the family to work and for low wages.

The old family was smashed in a very brutal way. Such was its disintegration that contemporary observers including Marx and Engels in the 1840s believed that it would disappear completely. Infant mortality (as high as one in four) and the lack of any home life were cited as evidence. The growth of a number of peripheral industries round the Lancashire cotton industry to service working women, from child-minding to pudding making, further strengthened the case.

It is inconceivable that such social transformations could take place without there also being fundamental changes in the family itself. Far from the family mode of production remaining feudal, a distinctly capitalist form of family grew. What were, and are, its major features?

Firstly, there is less and less connection with production. Work and home were synonymous in most forms of class society. One of the features of capitalism is their almost total separation.

Secondly, as domestic production decreases and virtually disappears, more and more goods once produced in the home are bought as commodities. This is true of clothes making, baking and brewing, which are now usually only performed in the home as hobbies.

Thirdly, the most important feature of the family today is the reproduction of labour power, ensuring a fit, healthy and socialised working class to be exploited by the capitalist class. Therefore, domestic labour in the home is not performed to service individual men but to contribute indirectly to the production of surplus value for the capitalist.

The family under capitalism is not a distinct mode of production, or a mode of reproduction, but an integral part of the capitalist process itself. But if the family can be explained by the needs of capitalist society, can this also explain the oppression of women? Again most feminists would argue that it cannot.

An increasingly familiar view is that oppression is locked into capitalism through the actions of men themselves. The American feminist Heidi Hartmann says that oppression is rooted in a division of labour which either excludes women from social production altogether or puts them at a disadvantage within it.

This discrimination is brought about by a patriarchal alliance between male workers and capital.

“We define patriarchy as a set of social relations which has a material base and in which there are hierarchical relations between men and solidarity among them which enable them in turn to dominate women. The material base of patriarchy is men’s control over women’s labour power. That control is maintained by excluding women from access to necessary economically productive resources and by restricting women’s sexuality.”

The alliance between capitalists and working class men took the form of only men having access – through their trade unions – to the highest valued skilled work. Men also had protective legislation which excluded women and children from certain sorts of work and secured the granting of a family wage which ensured that the woman would be dependent on the man.

But Hartmann’s argument, although widely accepted, is simply fallacious. Throughout virtually the whole of the nineteenth century most men were not even in trade unions. Only the small minority of skilled workers were. The rest, unskilled, immigrant or female, were excluded.

Although there were examples of crassly male chauvinist attitudes towards women workers it is quite unnecessary to resort to sexist ideas to explain this exclusion. It can be explained by the fact that entry of women into traditional trades was very often accompanied by a worsening of conditions and reduction in wages.

Defence of working conditions is a much more likely explanation than patriarchy. Pay for bookbinders in the mid-nineteenth century for example, was lower in Edinburgh where women had undercut the rates than anywhere else in Britain.

The same is true of protective legislation. Originally introduced to stop the horror of child labour in the mills and factories, it was quickly extended to exclude women from coal mining altogether and from most night work.

Often it did not directly benefit men. Women in coal mines were not in direct competition with men because they did different jobs. Women’s jobs often entailed working longer hours for less money. Men had little to gain by displacing women from these jobs. Again there is evidence that the exclusion was very much a defence mechanism by the working class as a whole to ensure the continuation of the working class family.

As Jane Humphries has put it, legislation was seen as a means of protecting the working class family itself. The reasons for this are entirely understandable. The family had suffered the ravages of industrialisation and was virtually in danger of dying out by the 1840s. Both men and women workers saw its consolidation as a means of preserving their own livelihoods and improving their living standards.

Humphries argues that the working class family persisted because it reflected “a struggle by the working class for popular ways of meeting the needs of non-labouring comrades within a capitalist environment.” In addition the family structure gave the working class some control over the supply of labour power, particularly that of married women.

Even the demand for a family wage was explicable in these terms. A wage to cover the costs of reproduction of the whole family rather than just that of the individual wage earner was regarded as preferable to a situation where all members of the family worked.

The interests of the working class in maintaining the family coincided, for different reasons, with the interests of the capitalist class. They wanted a healthier, better educated and more skilled workforce to meet the changing needs of capitalist production, but they were loathe to take on the fundamental restructuring which any major socialisation of the family would require.

Even so, the reality was that most male workers did not receive the family wage. Other members of the family continued to work. The pattern was often that women continued to work while their children were very young and only stayed in the home once the older children could also earn a wage. The number of married women working increased throughout the nineteenth century.

So the patriarchal plot on which Hartmann bases her theory did not in reality result in benefits for the man. But the defence of the working class family clearly had its limitations, and these limitations acted to the detriment of women. As Jane Humphries puts it:

“The tragedy is that action could not be controlled on a class basis, but had to be regulated systematically on the basis of female labour, and theoretically of married female labour, so reinforcing sex-based relations of dominance and subordination.”

Nonetheless the continuation of the working class family was not about the maintenance of male power at the expense of the female half of the working class. Rather it was about the creation of a defence mechanism for the whole of the working class.

The alleged benefits to men of the sexual division of labour are even less apparent today. Women’s increased participation in the labour market has been one of the major features of the past forty years. Married women have been a growing section of the female labour market. Future surveys predict that far from women’s participation lessening, their jobs – and especially full time jobs – are likely to be the major employment expansion area in the 1990s.

So Heidi Hartmann’s picture looks increasingly outdated when she argues that:

“The family wage is still, we argue, the cornerstone of the present sexual division of labour – in which women are primarily responsible for housework and men primarily for wage work ... The family, supported by the family wage, thus allows the control of women’s labour by men both within and without the family.”

Most families which have to exist on the man’s wages alone are among the poorest. That is, after all, why nine million women in Britain are engaged in some sort of paid work outside the home. Women are wage workers and their work is not under the patriarchal control of their husbands. Like men, they sell their labour power on the market. It is capital which exploits them, not men.

But despite women’s waged work, the oppression of women is still a major feature of our lives. It is structured through the family, which ensures that women work for lower wages, that they are the bulk of part time workers, and that they still have the major responsibility for childcare.

The continued existence of the family rests on two planks. The importance working class men and women themselves place on the family as a relief from the world of work, and on the needs of the capitalist class to reproduce the next generation of workers and maintain the existing one as smoothly as possible. This is the material basis for the family and so for women’s oppression.

Theoretically, the family could be abolished under capitalism and its functions socialised to release more women onto the labour market and so increase the total extraction of surplus value. But, the social, ideological and economic costs of such restructuring would be so immense that any individual capitalist class would be highly unlikely to undertake such a task, especially as it is not really necessary for them.

The family is an oppressive institution and a decidedly imperfect one for both employers and workers. But it is probably better and safer than any alternatives under capitalism.

The oppression of women is therefore connected to capitalism in two crucial ways. The means whereby women are exploited as workers structures their oppression, through the sorts of jobs they do, or the wages they earn. The family also structures their exploitation. Both oppression and exploitation, work and the family, are created not by patriarchy but by the demands of the capitalist system itself.

Patriarchy theory leads either to the idea that individuals can change their sexist or male chauvinist ideas without changing the wider society, or else it leads to separatism from men. Both fit quite neatly with reformist ideas.

People who hold such ideas may be unhappy with the status quo, but provide no recipe for change. If on the other hand we locate women’s oppression in class society and particularly in capitalism, then we can understand that the fight for women’s liberation is part of the fight for socialism.


Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Penguin 1973

Sally Alexander, Women’s Work in Nineteenth Century London, Journeyman 1983

Christine Delphy, Close to Home

Heidi Hartmann, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: towards a more progressive union, reprinted Pluto 1981

Jane Humphries, Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working Class Family, reprinted in Alice Amsden (ed.), The Economics of Women and Work, Penguin 1980

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