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Marxist feminists dismiss the liberal feminist view that women's subordination is merely the product of
stereotyping or outdated attitudes. They also reject the radical feminist view that it is the result of patriarchal
oppression by men. Instead, as Marxists , they see women's subordination as rooted in capitalism. Although
individual men may benefit from women's subordination, the main beneficiary is capitalism.
For Marxist feminists, women's subordination in capitalist society results from their primary role as unpaid
homemaker, which places them in a dependent economic position in the family. Their subordination performs
a number of important functions for capitalism;
Women are a source of cheap, exploitable labour for employers. They can be paid less because it is
assumed they will be partially dependent on their husbands' earnings.
Women are a reserve army of labour that can be moved into labour force during the economic booms and
out again at times of recession. They can be treated as marginal workers in this way because it is assumed
their primary role is in the home.
Women reproduce the labour force through their unpaid domestic labour, both by nurturing and socialising
children to become the next generation of workers and by maintaining and servicing the current generation of
workers their husbands. They do this at no cost to capitalism
Women absorb anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Fran Ansley (1972) describes wives as
`takers of shit' who soak up the frustration their husbands feel because of the alienation and exploitation they
suffer at work. For Marxist feminists, this explains male domestic violence against women.
Because of these links between women's subordination and capitalism, Marxist feminists argue that women's
interests lie in the overthrow of capitalism.
Barrett: the ideology of feminism
All Marxist feminists agree that women's subordination within the family performs important economic
functions for capitalism. However, some argue that noneconomic factors must be taken into account if we are
to understand and change women's position. For example, Michele Barrett (1980) argues that we must give
one more emphasis to women's consciousness and motivations, and to the role of ideology in maintaining
For example, why do women marry and live in the conventional nuclear family when this is precisely what
oppresses them? According to Barrett, the answer lies in the ideology of `familism'. This ideology presents the
nuclear family and its sexual division of labour as natural and normal. The family is portrayed as the only place
where women can attain fulfilment, through motherhood, intimacy and sexual satisfaction. This ideology helps
to keep women subordinated.
Therefore while Barrett believes that the overthrow of capitalism is necessary to secure women's liberation,
she argues that it is not sufficient. We must also overthrow the ideology of familism that underpins the
conventional family and its unequal division of labour. This would free the sexes from restrictive stereotypes
and ensure domestic labour was shared equally.
Some feminists take the analysis of ideology further to explain why women seem to freely accept oppressive
family and marital relationships. These writers often draw on nonMarxist and even nonsociological ideas. For
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Juliet Mitchell (1975) uses Freud's psychoanalytic theory to argue ideas about femininity are so
deeply implanted in women's unconscious minds that they are very difficult to dislodge. The implication is that
even after the overthrow of capitalism, it would still be had to overcome patriarchal ideology because it is so
Evaluation of Marxist Feminism
Given the importance of economic production to most other areas of social life, Marxist feminists are correct to
give weight to the relationship between capitalism and women's subordination.…read more
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Walby's approach is useful because it shows how the two systems interact and structure one another, without
assuming that their interests always coincide. However, Anna Pollert (1996) argues that patriarchy is not
actually a system in the same sense as capitalism, which is driven by its own internal dynamic profit making.
By contrast, `patriarchy' is merely a descriptive term for a range of practices such as male violence and control
of women's labour.…read more