Questions of Marxist-Feminist Theory and Practice

Is the domestic labour system not in the economic interest of capitalism? Can one identify a system of patriarchy distinct from that of capitalism? How did the women’s movement in the USA define its stance towards the ‘welfare reform’ policies adopted by the Clinton Government? What kind of arrangements can we imagine for the care of children in a post-revolutionary society?
These are some of the range of theoretical and practical questions that Brenner’s book addresses thoughtfully and sensitively. Brenner remarks that the articles in the book, authored or co-authored by herself between 1985 and 2002, emerge from her “experience as a political activist, a socialist, and a feminist thinker and teacher” in the USA. For any activist seeking to seek Marxist answers to questions of feminist theory and practice, and wishing to acquaint herself with debates facing contemporary socialist feminists in advanced capitalist countries, this book is bound to be of interest.
The book covers four broad thematic areas. The first is an attempt at constructing what Brenner calls a ‘Historical Sociology of Gender’, in which she looks at US labour history and the contours of the women’s movement in USA from the early twentieth century to the 60s and 70s, in an attempt to account for the gender division of labour in capitalism. She looks at how socialist feminist theory has analysed the relationship between class and gender hierarchies: are they two separate systems, one governing ‘production’ and one ‘reproduction’, or is there a single system that accounts for both? Arguing with the ‘dual system’ theorists, Brenner asserts, “production and reproduction are two domains of an integrated domain of species reproduction”. She discusses the work of Michelle Barrett who has argued that the system of the ‘family household’ in which women are relegated to the tasks of domestic labour in the home, was not in the economic interests of capitalism, which rather needed to draw women into wage labour in the greatest number. Barrett claims that an ideology of gender, precapitalist in origin but also a bourgeois construction, was accepted by the working class in the nineteenth century. As a result, a coalition of male workers and the male bourgeois-controlled state succeeded in keeping the mass of women in the home. As evidence, Barrett cites the fact that trade unions then resisted women’s entry into wage work and demanded protective legislation on women’s working conditions to limit their full participation in wage work, thus laying the basis for a sex-segregated labour market and forcing women into the domestic sphere. This system was, however, in the long-term political interests of the capitalists because it divided and weakened the working class.
Brenner challenges the power Barrett attributes to ‘gender ideology’, that implies that this ideology had no real material basis in capitalism. She studies labour history to offer an alternative explanation. Trade unions, she points out, did not just resist the entry of women into the workforce – they equally resisted the entry of unskilled men as well. Capitalist competition spurred male workers in the organised unions to resist the capitalists’ moves to employ cheaper labour at their cost. The history of labour struggles shows that the earliest and most consistent demand of trade unions was that of a reduction of the working day for all. In the face of adamant opposition to this demand, trade unions evolved the strategy of demanding protective restrictions for women and children, knowing that this would also effectively result in a reduction of the working day for men too. Further, Brenner argues that the assignment of women to reproduction and their marginalisation in wage work was due to capitalism’s unwillingness to accommodate biological reproduction into the demands of production.
Brenner’s analysis of labour history, of the relation between women’s biology and capitalist relations, of women’s relationship to the welfare state, offer a convincing historical materialist explanation for ideological forms, strategies and slogans of the women’s movement and state policy that takes women’s agency into account.
In the second section, Brenner considers questions of how the women’s movement should frame its approach towards social policy. In the process, she critiques the liberal feminist definition of ‘equality’ as ‘equal opportunity in the eyes of the market’; pointing out that unless the state socializes the tasks of reproduction, opportunity can never really be ‘equal’ for the mass of working women who also bear the double burden of the care of children, old and sick people. She also discusses changes in welfare policy in the Clinton regime, introducing more stringent work requirements for single mothers in the name of ‘weaning’ them from ‘dependency’ to ‘independence’ – a discourse that ignores the fact that after all, working men too are ‘dependent’ on women for domestic labour. She covers the debate among feminist advocates of ‘equal treatment’ and ‘differential treatment’, arguing for a more nuanced approach to the question.
The third section on ‘New Politics of the Family’ is of particular interest to us in India since it takes issue with the trend within feminism in the US towards “communitarian conservatism”. Brenner terms this trend “Left conservative-feminism”, which “over and against the social contract ideology of a capitalist society based on possessive individualism, poses the social compact of traditional family and community”. She points out that this kind of conservative-feminism forgets that “with all its defects, bourgeois individualism represents an advance over feudalism”. For us in India, the charge of “bourgeois individualism” is often leveled at the least demands of the women’s movement, and “conservative-feminism” is a fairly accurate way to describe the views of Madhu Kishwar, for instance. Not only that, there are many instances of such conservatism in the Left movement: witness the reluctance of the Left to express more than formal support for the rights of homosexuals; the CPI(M)’s Tamilnadu State Secretary’s statement refusing to support Khushboo’s views opposing the premium on female virginity for marriage; and the widespread discomfort among Left cadres on questions of women’s sexual freedom. Brenner points out that capitalism’s weakest point lies in the anxiety it generates in us about care for children, elderly, the sick. In a situation where state-provided services for such tasks in either non-existent or very poor, the family appears to be the ‘haven from the heartless world’. In India, this explains the nostalgia, often expressed in cinema for the joint family, where the elderly are cared for and in turn care for the young; an idyllic image that effaces the fact that the very same family is also the site of horrific violence, dowry burnings, oppressive surveillance of women and brutal and forceful control of women’s sexual choices in the name of ‘honour’.
She critiques the single-issue approach which defines ‘reproductive rights’ only as the right to abortion, pointing out that reproductive rights should include, in addition to ‘safe, legal and accessible and affordable abortion’, safe and affordable contraception too, universal health care, including preventive health care, care for the children and elderly, good housing, a living wage and so on. In India, we could add the right to bear girl children, as well as the right to provide food and education for children, and the guarantee of employment and a living wage for parents to do away with child labour, to the list of what constitutes ‘reproductive rights’. This links the issue of women’s rights over their own bodies with a broader matrix of democratic rights.
Brenner stresses the need to ‘prefigure’ the post-revolutionary future, to imagine and debate how a society free of capitalist exploitation would organize sexual and emotional relationships, care for children and so on. Here, she offers a caution that the agenda of merely ‘democratising’ families, implying that the family institution can be “stripped of its patriarchal and anti-social elements while preserving it as a place to come home to”, is inadequate and misleading. Until the tasks of caring, cooking, and so on are radically and creatively socialized, democratization of gender relations will not be a real possibility. She also discusses the issue of whether the right to abortion will continue to be a woman’s individual right in a socialist society, suggesting that it would be women’s collective right, but that women as a group would hardly ever be justified in intruding on the individual woman’s reproductive choices. If the material basis of society were not in conflict with reproductive choices, women’s desires would probably tend to be in accordance with social needs, and coercion (the example of the ban on abortion in Soviet Russia during Stalin’s time, and the one-child norm in China come to mind) would be worse than it would be for society to have too many or too few children.
In the final section on Class Politics and Feminist Strategy, Brenner identifies the impasse of feminism in the US today, where feminist demands are mostly articulated by ‘lobbyists’. She notes that legal equality and the widespread entry of women into wage work is an advance towards completion of the democratic revolution in advanced capitalist countries. But even now it is only middle class women who are able to buy their way out of the gender division of labour in the household by shifting the burden onto poorer women. The mass of working class women cannot afford such individual solutions; they need a more radical re-organisation of social reproduction, and this actually poses a serious threat to the interests and demands of capitalism since it lays a claim on surplus wealth. Therefore the way out of the impasse of the women’s movement in those countries is for working class women to enter it and link feminism with the struggle against capitalism. She points out that most working class women and women of colour “hold onto feminist aspirations and, like spectators at a football game, can be roused from time to time to cheer their side. But until they come onto the field and play, victories will be few and far between.”

-- Kavita Krishnan