Marxist Feminism Part IV: Historical, Material Oppression

This article is part of a series. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here.


A significant contributing factor to the current trend of conceptualising ‘gender’ as a standalone form of oppression is a lack of familiarity with its application throughout history as the ideological enforcement of material female oppression. Here, it is useful to explore periods of history where the relationship between sex and gender is particularly evident, and how this relates to the mode of production.

Towards the end of the 18th century, capitalists required a rapidly-expanding working population to meet skyrocketing production demands and so the Industrial Revolution saw a mass reorganising of the peasantry. Industrialisation needed to achieve two things: reorganise where the peasantry lived; and reorganise what the peasantry did. Condensing the population into smaller spaces allowed for wage suppression through competition and made way for the social and biological control of the population. However, despite an increased concentration of male labour in cities, the population was still too low to suit mass exploitation.

The response to this dilema was the conservative movement to compel women to marry and reproduce, thus producing more male offspring to join the workforce and more female offspring to join the domestic workforce. The continuation of reproductive labour was made even more important given that child labour was a valuable commodity and infant mortality was incredibly high. Women’s reproductive labour, therefore, was exploited to maintain the cycle of increased production and wage suppression, concentrating wealth in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat as a large urban workforce was quite literally born out of urbanised women. In summary: the borgeouis Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the domination of women’s reproductive cycles.

However, it is important to note that the campaign to encourage women to take up household life was not due to the limited labour potential of the female worker (technological advances around this time actually made more work accessible to women than ever before). Her subjugation was purely because her reproductive labour is more valuable to the exploiter class than her economic labour. Males, meanwhile, can only contribute to capital accumulation through wage labour. In short, men are a means of production; women are a means of production and a means of reproduction. Women’s productive labour was also valuable to the capitalist in terms of wage suppression. Writing in 1889, Clara Zetkin noted that ‘the capitalists…are not content just to exploit women per se; they use female labor to exploit male labor even more thoroughly’. Female labour was cheap; unlike their male counterparts, women were not expected to support their family financially. Their wages were proportionately lower, thus women’s labour was used to suppress the wages of men through competition. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm echoes this sentiment in The Age of Revolution, asserting that it was ‘more convenient to employ the tractable (and cheaper) women’.

Somewhat predictably, women made up a large proportion of the workforce in industries which can be seen as an extension of domestic labour — the textile industry, for example. Hobsbawm states that ‘out of all workers in the English cotton mills in 1834-47 about one-quarter were adult men, over half women and girls’. So, when proletarian women were not incapacitated by their obligation to reproduce, they were exploited in industries deemed befitting of women. In any case, woman’s exploitation is either directly sex-based (birthing offspring to expand the workforce), or indirectly sex-based (her cheap labour can be used to drive down the wages of men). Sex-based roles of working men and women were enforced by rigid sex-stereotypes and social expectations. This ideological oppression was theorised as the separate spheres of public and domestic life, to which men and women belonged, respectively. So, whilst advances were being made in women’s on-paper legislative rights (suffrage, education etc), these were significantly offset by the immense social pressure upon women to exist within the constrains of the domestic sphere — where marriage, childbirth, childcare and housekeeping were her sole prospects.

These changing social and economic circumstances also gave proletarian men motivation to utilise the reproductive labour of women to survive. Prior to industrialisation, the rural peasantry (whose labour was of a sustainable or low-surplus productive nature) were generally organised into family units. In a small, domestic farming setting, a single person can sustain themselves with their own labour and so, as their family unit grows, the labour required to sustain it grows proportionately. In rural settings, there is little economic necessity to form or grow the family unit other than to form social networks between villages and towns. Where family units did form and grow, each family member (man, woman and child) was required to contribute their labour proportionately. Whilst the labour of the rural peasantry was solely for sustainability, bourgeois industrialisation demanded surplus labour.

The labour demands of men within new industrialised settings were exponentially higher than before but wages were pitiful — unlike in rural settings, the fruits of men’s labour were now barely enough to cover subsistence. Due to this wage suppression, men often used the wages of wives and children to supplement their poor income. Conversely, the fettering of women’s wage-earning potential combined with an economy centred on male production rendered woman’s entire survival dependant on her ability to marry a man. This created an unequal economic relationship — in which women relied almost entirely upon the wages of her husband but where the position of men was merely complemented by his wife’s domestic and waged labour. In this way, the bourgeoisie relied on proletarian men to enforce the subjugation of women within the home. In other words, working class men perpetuated the oppression working class women indirectly on behalf of the bourgeois by making her his domestic servant, taking her wages to supplement his own and treating her as his social inferior.

So, if women are the social category whose reproductive labour has been historically exploited under capitalism, surely it follows that infertile females do not belong to this group and therefore cannot be accurately categorised as women? This assumption is incorrect. All females are expected to have the biological ability to birth children and so their oppression is based on their perceived reproductive potential. We see this principle at work in Marx’s concept of socially necessary labour time. The capitalist calculates the amount of labour time performed by a worker of average skill and productivity, working with tools of the average productive potential, to produce a given commodity. As females are considered to be means of reproduction in capitalist economies, the ‘average skill and productivity’ of a woman can be considered to be the ‘skillof gestating, birthing and breastfeeding offspring, and the ‘tools of average productive potential’ are her fertile, functioning reproductive organs. No human male has the biological ‘tools’ to required give birth (whether they function correctly or not) and so the ‘average skill and productivity’ of males in reproductive birth-giving labour is nil. Therefore, women are a distinct social class who are either exploited for their reproductive labour or else punished for failing to fulfil the reproductive potential of their collective sex. 

Women who were unable to contribute their reproductive labour to emerging industrial economies — either through infertility, menopause, or other rejection of motherhood — were stigmatised, castigated and punished accordingly. Davis and Loughram explain in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History that ‘nineteenth-century psychiatrists believed women to be more vulnerable to insanity due precisely to the instability of their reproductive system and its interference with rational control, and tended to link theories of female insanity to the various biological ‘crises’ of the life-cycle: puberty, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause’.

In the early nineteenth century, the medical term ‘puerperal insanity’ was coined to describe a range of mental illnesses associated with childbirth and was considered an intrinsic female biological weakness. By the middle of the nineteenth century, puerperal insanity accounted for around 10% of female admissions into insane asylums. Hilary Marland theorises that female infertility or lack of maternal desire was so abhored because ‘women suffering from puerpural insanity challenged notions of domesticity and femininity and flouted ideals of maternal conduct and feeling’. Davis and Loughram assert that ‘with motherhood set at the ideological centre of femininity, an inability to adapt to the demands of maternity was an inability to perform a woman’s most important life functions’ (Davis and Loughram). It is apparent then, that women have historically not been defined, not only as the birth-giving sex, but as the sex whose reproductive organs should and must produce children.

Louise Foxcroft in Hot Flushes, Cold Science draws upon the writings of contemporary male physicians to deduce that ‘the ovaries were the seat of feminine essence and that all that was virtuous in Victoria woman sprang from their operation’. Indeed, physician Rudolf Virchow claimed that ‘without these organs, or without their functioning, a woman is no longer a real woman, but neither is she admired for her acquired ‘masculine’ qualities. She is diseased, deranged, or has just disappeared’ (Foxcroft). Virchow’s words are revealing; they demonstrate that an infertile woman does not become a man, but rather a perversion of woman.

Given that industrialisation and urbanisation were huge events in the shaping of modern capitalism, it is absolutely crucial that we recognise the social categories engineered during these economic and political processes i.e. women as a distinct group whose reproductive labour was exploited to meet the demands of industrialisation, whose wage labour was used to suppress the wages of men, whose domestic labour was exploited by her husband, and whose social potential was severely limited by sex stereotypes. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that the ideological sex-division of society that was carved throughout the early stages of capitalism has endured. The conditions present in industrial Britain may have changed dramatically; but the sex stereotypes developed during this time still serve an invaluable purpose to the bourgeoisie — to divide and conquer working class. The perpetuation of early sex stereotypes and linked misogyny prevents the effective organisation and subsequent revolt of the proletariat.


This article is part of a series. Part V coming soon.

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