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Theory: Reproductive labor and the family

Analysis by Serena Sojic-Borne |
December 3, 2022
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Mother Bloor, a Communist revolutionary who fought for women’s suffrage, emphasized that women couldn’t just stop at the right to vote. Working women still had to organize against the capitalist ruling class, which forced them to endure long hours, low wages and suffocating labor conditions. The vote was just another tool in that struggle. The suffrage movement relied on people like Bloor - workers who recognized that women’s liberation depends on the struggle for socialism.

This struggle has always brought out the hardest fighters for women’s liberation, and in recent decades it has empowered the LGBTQ movement as well. This is because Marxist-Leninists hold the monopoly capitalist class responsible for gender-based oppression. Capitalism depends on reproductive labor in the family to guarantee the exploitation of the working class.

What is reproductive labor?

Reproductive labor renews our health and energy outside of the production process. It can include cooking, cleaning, entertaining, childbearing and rearing. One important type of reproductive labor is domestic labor, or housework. As a rule, women and the bulk of LGBTQ people perform this work. The term came out of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, but the international communist movement has spent years theorizing this concept.

Communists know that labor is foundational to society, and there is a gendered division of labor in class society’s production and its reproduction. On the job, workers produce wealth for the capitalist. At home, women overwhelmingly reproduce the workforce by raising the next generation, as well as by maintaining the home so workers can go back on the job the next day. The rich also require reproductive labor in their own homes, to transmit their wealth from one generation to the next. The basic economic unit that carries out this gendered division of labor is the family.

Where does the family come from?

In pre-class societies (i.e. “hunter-gatherer”), family life did not lead to oppression. Reproductive labor was considered just as important as anyone’s productive labor. This was because society was on a survival basis, so production outside the home was meager. Housework was very different from how we understand it today: it was collective and manually intensive, involving home construction as well.

In fact, the gendered division of labor was very flexible. In pre-class societies across the world, more than two genders existed and they often had unique and diverse roles. Those who could bear children tended to do more reproductive work, but there was usually a lot of acceptable variety as to what they could do. Not all of them were considered “women.” Transgender and gender non-conforming people had their own valued labor expectations as well. Families were also looser, with various kinds of same-gender and polygamous relationships. For the sake of biologically tracing lineage, it made more sense to base the family line on the childbearer. Men often predominated in production, but they did not have superior status because of this.

However, as societies began to create surplus wealth and open a rift between rich and poor, the division of labor in the family went from fluid to rigid. Friedrich Engels gave a historical materialist account of this process in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. With new means of production for herding and agriculture, work outside the home became highly lucrative. Men who oversaw production made the early fortunes from this surplus. They had two related problems: how could their sons build on their wealth if family lines were traced through the mother? And, how could they guarantee the replenishment of their workforce? The oppression of women answered both questions by enforcing a strict gendered division of labor. It submitted all childbearing people to a single gender role, with the expectation of maintaining the home. Men had more opportunities to work outside of it, but most of them had to produce in service of a wealthy minority. There was no place for anyone who didn’t conform to this gender binary.

Class society transformed the family from a fluid way of forming equal relationships into a disciplined economic unit that enforced a gendered division of labor. Colonialism accelerated this transformation worldwide.

How did capitalism transform women’s oppression within the family?

Capitalism took production to a new level by industrializing and socializing it. It tore people from their small villages and traditional family lives to bring masses together in factories and warehouses. It then maintained the gendered division of labor by creating a black-and-white separation between home (completely private) and workplace (completely social).

The crude conditions of housework are a clear indicator of how capitalism separates the private household from social production. To save on labor costs, capitalism concentrates and automates every aspect of our jobs that it can. Any work is more efficient when it’s done at a large scale, employing as much technology as possible. Yet, we’re not able to access communal kitchens or affordable cleaning teams. Instead, we do our housework at an individual level, with decades-old technology. Capitalists don’t have to make reproductive labor high-tech or mass-scale because they don’t have to pay for it in the productive process. They can leave it to women to maintain private life for free.

Working women have a responsibility to the household, but they’re also available as a reserve army of cheap labor for the capitalist. Women are ideal for absorbing the booms and busts of the economy, since they can always be pulled from the home or pushed back into it. The world’s emerging industrialists recruited women to mines, textile mills, clerical offices, hotels, restaurants, and manufacturing plants. Since racism and national oppression also cause unemployment and underemployment, oppressed nationality women swell the ranks of the reserve army of labor. These women now form the backbone of the growing service industry, such as in nursing, teaching, public sector, clerical, hospitality, and hired domestic work. Yesterday’s “new markets” give rise to today’s “feminine jobs.”

What does the family under capitalism mean for LGBTQ people?

Capitalism’s strict gender norms, required by the socialization of production, often reached the point of complete gender segregation in workplaces. Institutions like the military played into this as well. But many people still had diverse genders and sexualities, and they now had at their disposal red light districts, mining towns, ghettos, barracks and bars to congregate in greater numbers than ever before. Patriarchal marriage traditions, often only held together by declining religious authorities, could no longer suppress them. As capitalists insisted on a rigid gender division of labor, they created its own challenger: an outlawed LGBTQ community.

To avoid risking a total breakdown in how they organized the exploitation of the working class, capitalists had to pull all the stops to erase nontraditional genders and sexualities. During the industrial age, laws against “transvestism” reached all areas of the continental United States. For women and men to play their parts in the home and the workplace, LGBTQ people became the bad example of “who not to be like.”

Because of the discrimination that came from prejudice, LGBTQ joined women in the underemployed pool of laborers that bosses get to pull from at their convenience.

What’s in store for the family under socialism?

Thanks to the family’s role as an economic unit, the costs and consequences of sustaining labor-power (and transmitting the rich’s inheritance) fall on women and LGBTQ people. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

This is why the U.S. right wing keeps pushing “traditional family values” by attacking abortion and LGBTQ rights, but it refuses to support these so-called values with free childcare, healthcare, public education or paid family leave. The rich see families as a way to get out of paying for the working class’s reproduction.

Ironically, reactionaries have spent over a century attacking socialists for trying to “abolish the family.” But it’s not a socialist takeover that’s causing divorce rates to go through the roof, working mothers to get shut out of the job market, childcare costs to go up, domestic violence to soar, LGBTQ kids to go homeless, schools to lose funding, and children to get sick from lack of health insurance. Capitalism has achieved this all on its own! While it demands that we form intimate relationships, it constantly discards them as costs for the bottom line. This is the contradiction between the family’s emotional and economic value under capitalism.

Over the long run, socialism will abolish the family as an economic unit, but liberate it as a place of emotional intimacy. Even with access to a job, a housewife will remain a housewife if she’s still primarily responsible for the home. Even with a legal right to divorce or child services, a survivor of abuse has nowhere to turn if they can’t get a home or paycheck without their abuser. While we can win some reforms that support women’s and LGBTQ rights within the current system, we have to overthrow it to prevent the ruling class from taking our wins away. By guaranteeing family’s economic welfare and securing protections for women and LGBTQ people, socialism lays the basis for ending gender-based oppression.

Cuba’s latest Families Code is a stellar example of what socialism can do for the family. The law recognizes multiple kinds of families, secures children’s say in how they are raised, acknowledges the right of care for the elderly and disabled, and establishes protections of care work. It also reiterates that partners should participate equally in housework, a requirement that has been in Cuban law since 1975. Under the new code, children should do chores appropriate to their age, but without differentiation by gender.

Cuba’s other achievements—many of which are shared by other socialist countries—include paid family leave, free gender transition healthcare, accessible childcare for all, and abortion on demand. While ending capitalism is not the same thing as ending gender-based oppression, socialism eliminates the strongest pillar of support for patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia.

U.S. monopoly capitalism tries to extend its life, but we won’t let it

While socialism is constantly renewing itself, capitalism is long past its expiration date - it no longer invests in production that increases the wealth of society. It is at the stage of imperialism, and achieves profits by pillaging the world and slashing living standards. The U.S. right wing is rolling back abortion rights and targeting LGBTQ kids with discriminatory legislation as an attempt to extend its life by securing future generations of exploitable labor. The Democratic Party, funded by corporate interests just like Republicans, won’t put up a fight. In many parts of the country, like Louisiana, it cheers the Republicans along.

But women lead the mobilization against abortion bans. The LGBTQ community, even its children, have come out to the streets to defeat the most bigoted legislation. Marxist-Leninists have been on the frontlines of these struggles.

In her 1949 speech, Communist leader Claudia Jones said: “Marxist-Leninists fight to free woman of household drudgery, they fight to win equality for women in all spheres; they recognize that one cannot adequately deal with the woman question or win women for progressive participation unless one takes up the special problems, needs and aspirations of women – as women.” The oppression of women and LGBTQ people cuts across class lines. This is because it’s used to reproduce the whole capitalist system - so building women’s and LGBTQ movements is necessary to take that system down.

But for women and LGBTQ people to end their oppressions, they have to overthrow capitalism. Like Mother Bloor understood a century ago, this means putting the struggles for gender liberation under working class leadership, and uniting them with the labor and oppressed nationality movements. Marxist-Leninists have a duty to build this unity through organization and militant struggle.

Additional readings

  • The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels
  • We Are Many: An Autobiograhy by Ella Reeve Bloor
  • “We Seek Full Equality for Women” essay by Claudia Jones
  • “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” article by Margaret Benston
  • “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective” in Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis
  • “Only in Conjunction with the Proletarian Woman will Revolution be Victorious” by Clara Zetkin
  • “Lavender & Red” article series by Leslie Feinberg
  • On the Emancipation of Women, collected articles by Vladimir Lenin

 

 

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