Feminist Next System Literature Review

Lise Vogel

Lise Vogel is a Marxist sociologist (who had an early career in art history), a feminist and civil rights activist and a retired professor of Sociology at Rider University. Vogel's early  (1983) and seminal Marxist-feminist text, Marxism and the Oppression of Women "remains an essential contribution to the development of an integrative theory of gender oppression under capitalism. Vogel revisits classical Marxian texts, tracking analyses of “the woman question” in socialist theory and drawing on central theoretical categories of Marx's Capital to open up an original theorisation of gender and the social production and reproduction of material life." The book was reprinted in 2013 and included a new Introduction by Susan Ferguson and David McNally, which emphasizes the returning interest in materialism.

Intro by Susan Ferguson and David McNally

Unlike most domestic-labor theorists, Vogel doesn’t argue that the sociomaterial basis for women’s oppression can be found in the gender relations within the household. Instead, Vogel’s argument pivots on the social significance of domestic labor for capital - the fact that the production and reproduction of labor-power is an essential condition undergirding the dynamic of the capitalist system, making it possible for capitalism to reproduce itself. While this doesn’t have to take place in households--see, for example, state or private-run orphanages--reproduction of labor-power is overwhelmingly a private, domestic affair that requires female-sexed bodies. (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxv) Women are oppressed in capitalist society not because their labor in home produces value for capital, nor because of a transhistorical impulse patriarchal impulse pitting men against women, but instead because of the structural relationship of the household to the reproduction of capital: capital and the state need to be able to regulate women’s biological capacity to produce the next generation of laborers so that labor-power is available for exploitation (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxv).

The neoliberal offensive was a hostile context for socialist feminist theory and practice. Marxist-inflected concerns with gender oppression was relegated to museums of “modernist” theory and the linguistic turn swept the humanities and social sciences, making its imprint on the Left (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxxiv). Discursively- constructed identities became the overriding focus of political analysis, while preoccupations with labor and embodied human practice were glibly dismissed as quaint if not outright delusional.

However, the early 1990s witnessed a counter-moment against discourse theory’s rarefied abstractionism by theorists committed to materialist modes of critique along with emancipatory politics. Largely initiated under the banners of Black feminism and materialist feminism (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxxv).

Black feminism gave rise to the framework known as “intersectionality,” with roots in the socialist feminist organizations of Black women like the Combahee River Collective formed in Boston in 1974 (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxxv). Patricia Hill Collins developed W.E.B. DuBois’ contention that social hierarchies of race, class, and nation co-determined the political-economic realities of Black people.

Intersectionality has inspired significant empirical work, which has been both its strength as well as weakness (Ferguson and McNally 2013: xxxvi). Johanna Brenner points out, much work in this tradition limits itself to describing and explaining the dynamics of specific social locations, exploring how a particular location shapes experience and identity, while often failing to ask how those locations are produced and sustained in and through a system of social power. The social relations of domination (of a racialized, patriarchal capitalism) tend to be under-theorized.

History of socialist-feminism

Emerged in 1960s beginning in North America, which represents “a unique politics that addresses the interconnection of patriarchy and capitalism, with the goal of dealing with sexism, class conflict, and racism” (Red Apple Collective 1978 cited in Vogel 2013: 1).
Three questions posed by socialist-feminists (Vogel 2013: 7): What is the root of women’s oppression? How can its cross-class and transhistorical character be understood theoretically?

What is the relationship of these sex-divisions of labor to women’s oppression? Given women’s child-bearing capacity, how is it possible for women to be truly equal? Should not the very notion of equality be discarded or transcended in order for women to be liberated? Are sex, race, and class parallel oppressions of an essentially similar kind? Does female oppression have its own theoretically specific character? What is the relationship of the fight against women’s oppression to the struggle for national liberation and for socialism?

Two divergent theoretical positions on women’s oppression (Vogel 2013: 134-5);
Dual systems perspective - women’s oppression derives from their situation within an autonomous system of sex-divisions of labor and mail supremacy (Vogel 2013: 134) Social reproduction perspective - women’s oppression has its roots in women’s differential location within social reproduction as a whole (134).

Vogel - Social reproduction of labor

Reproduction of labor-power itself is not a form of production (144). Some argued that it is a form of production that takes place in family-households. But, labor-power is also generated in other contexts, such as labor camps or dorm facilities, through immigration or enslavement (145). By thinking that the family is the only site of social reproduction fetishizes the family, representing generational replacement as the only source of renewal (147). Labor by an individual (“necessary labor”) goes towards a few things:
The three things that necessary labor goes towards requires a gender division of labor (150). Women of the working class, therefore, have a special role regarding the generational replacement of labor-power. While they may be direct producers (workers), it is their differential role in the reproduction of labor-power that lies at the root of their oppression in class-society (150).
Men, on the other hand, of the working class acquire a special historical role with respect to generational renewal: to ensure that means of subsistence are provided to child- bearing women (152). Capitalism is the first historical mode that separates surplus-labor (work) from the domestic sphere (152). Work and domestic are integrated in feudalism, for example. The ruling class, in order to stabilize the reproduction of labor-power and keep the amount of necessary labor at acceptable levels, encourages male supremacy within the working/exploited class (153). It is the provision by men of the means of subsistence to women during child-bearing period, and not the sexual division of labor itself, that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class-society (153).

Domestic labor - portion of necessary labor that helps the worker consume (cooking, cleaning, etc.) (159) In capitalist societies, the burden of domestic labor rests disproportionately on women, while the provision of commodities is the responsibility of men fulfilled through participation in wage-labor (160). Domestic labor takes workers out of performing surplus labor and wage-work. Therefore, it competes with capital’s drive for accumulation. For example, if one tends one’s own garden, chops firewood, cooks meals, and walks six miles to work, the amount of time and energy available for wage-labor is less than if one buys food in a supermarket, lives in centrally-heated apartment, eats in restaurants, and takes the bus to work (161). A major way to reduce domestic labor is to socialize tasks: i.e. laundromats, stores selling ready-made clothing, fast food chains (162). Domestic labor can also be reduced by employing institutionalized populations (prison or army labor) and by importing migrant labor. Over the long-term, capitalism seeks to stabilize the reproduction of labor-power at a low cost and with a minimum of domestic labor. At the same time, the working class seeks to win the best conditions possible for its own renewal (like raising the minimum wage, so there’s more money for consumption), which may include a particular level and type of domestic labor (163).

The family-wage is the wage paid to a single male worker sufficient to cover the consumption of his entire family also includes a certain quantity and quality of domestic labor (164). The family-wage represents a concession by capital to certain sectors of the working class in return for a political stability based on male supremacy (165). In this view, the family-wage is not a victory but a privelege offered to a subgroup of male workers. Socialists have traditionally endorsed the family-wage as part of a general strategy to defend the working-class family, meaning a heterosexual nuclear unit with a single male wage-earner. However, in doing so, they may end up distorting the legitimate fight for the best conditions possible for the reproduction of the working class as bearers of labor power. Female-headed households end up getting hurt in these demands.

Industrial reserve army

Which groups of women move more actively between the industrial reserve army and wage labor (166)? Which women remain locked in relative surplus population outside of the industrial reserve army and why (167)? This, according to Veronica Beechy, is determined by class struggle and not the logic of capitalism. The general trend in advanced capitalist countries is to equalize the participation rates among different categories of women towards wage-labor.

Questions Addressed Relevant to The Next System Models: 

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