Chapter 3 Dangerous liaisons between gender and class, Chapter 4 A queer union between Marxism and feminism

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Chapter 3

Dangerous liaisons between gender and class

3.1 Once upon a time...

Once upon a time there were women? The answer to this question and the question itself are not at all obvious, particularly if we take on what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, that women are not born but become women. This statement was to have a strong influence on the theory of second wave feminism. De Beauvoir wanted to underline the way womanhood was socially, culturally and historically constructed. In other words the “womanhood” or essence of being a woman is the totality of education, prohibitions, normative prescriptions and conditioning that all those destined to be women receive from birth onwards. The “womanhood” of women is then transformed into a naturalized given by the effects of oppression and the exclusion from power and from participation in the cultural sphere, especially production. Since it is men who have historically written, composed music, painted, preached and governed there is no definition of women and what their essence should be that it is not at the same time a product of this male monopoly and the parallel systematic exclusion of women. Women “are” what men have decided they should be in the fantasy world of contradictory but intimately linked definitions: saint and whore, devoted wife and desirable lover, household angel and unfaithful partner, welcoming mother and nagging harpy... All these various positive and negative characteristics attributed to women, who are always thought of as “the other”, are functional to their exclusion from power. They are the rotten core which both justifies and conceals oppression through a process of naturalization through which women are nailed to their physiology, becoming prisoners of their uteruses.

In The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir merely states that the systematic exclusion and oppression of women and the consequent creation of “womanhood” by men, has always existed. The basis for this point of view can be found in some key 1950s and 1960s anthropological writings that were to have an important influence on Jacques Lacan and through him on what became Lacanian-inspired feminist theory or “French Feminism”. These were works by Claude Lévi-Strauss, particularly Structural Anthropology and Elementary Kinship Structures. Inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist linguistics, he applied it to ethnological studies and developed a theory of the birth of culture based on the invariable and universal structures of exchange. Exchange is in fact the means by which humanity confronts nature and establishes, in opposition to it, culture and thus society. Now according to Lévi-Strauss exchange constructs its basic structure through the exchange of women. In other words, society and culture begin where men start exchanging women among themselves – a man receives a woman from another man. This is the framework for his explanation for the incest taboo, insofar as it is only through forbidding sexual relations between blood relatives that you can introduce exogamous relationships and the subsequent exchange of women between different groups. The sexual division of labour is itself a means for creating a state of reciprocal dependency between the sexes in order to guarantee the incest taboo and the regulation of exchange of women. Moreover the latter represents a very clear sense of a structure (in structuralist terms) insofar as it is a universal phenomenon evident in almost all human societies.

What are the consequences of this theory? The first is that in the opposition between nature and culture and in the establishment of society men play an active role while women are limited to being the passive object of the exchange and negotiations between men. Society is therefore created by men and is essentially male. The second consequence is that the subordination of women and the contradiction between masculinity/activity and femininity/ passivity are as old as society itself. On the one hand this has always existed precisely because the establishment of society is essentially the business of men and on the other hand it represented a transition necessary for the birth of culture in opposition to nature because without the exchange of women this would not have been possible.

Simone de Beauvoir’s affirmation that “this has always been a man’s world” reflects Lévi-Strauss’s thesis according to which the reciprocal ties laid down in matrimony are not between a man and a woman but between men over the allocation of women. Women have always been oppressed, due to their reproductive role, biologically inferior to men because of their continual pregnancies which made them weaker in the face of a hostile natural world and which excluded them from the more creative and prestigious types of work. Lévi-Strauss’s thesis, which was far from validated in ethnographic field studies, was later revised and criticised by Lévi-Strauss himself. In later decades it has been overtaken by new developments in anthropological research. Nevertheless it has continued to exert a formidable influence outside of the anthropological field, above all through the application of structuralist methodology and particularly of the structuralist understanding of the incest taboo in psychoanalysis.

In this framework, the response to the question “Were there once upon a time women?”, or more clearly “Have there always been women?” is certainly yes, once you define the structure as abstracted from social and historical changes and you present it in its universal and unchanging form. Various theories linked to biology or psychology have been put forward to support the idea that women’s oppression has always existed. The reasons examined have been quite diverse – the difference in size and morphology characterising all primates, men’s instinct to take over and control women’s reproductive capacity, the aggression and drive for power that supposedly are essential characteristics of men... These types of explanation have been challenged by some anthropologists and sociologists from a Marxist background who start from another research hypothesis – that women’s oppression has not always existed but emerged as a result of a complex series of social processes.

The attempt to link the development of male domination to the birth of class society and individual private property and to the overcoming of lineage societies was already made a long time ago by Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Lineage-based societies have a fundamental group of kinship relations which bring together all the descendants of a known common ancestor according to a line of descent that can be either patrilineal or matrilineal. In the first case the line of descent is male and the children belong to the father’s clan, while the second is female and the children belong to the mother’s clan. In lineage societies, lineage represents the basic social structure and social relations are articulated around kinship lines and relations. For his analysis of lineage societies and marriage relationships Engels to a large extent drew on the work of two writers: Johann Bachofen and his theory of an original matriarchy that was later supplanted by patriarchy, and Henry Morgan, author of Ancient Society, a work which established evolutionary anthropology. The scarcity of material available to Engels and the pioneering nature of the ethnographic research at the time, explain many of the factual errors in his book. Engels linked the change in the condition of women and their historical “defeat” to two processes: the progression towards individual private property – against the collective property of the tribe – and the shift from group marriages to marriages between couples. The overturning of matriarchy and matrilineal descent is consequently due to men wanting to ensure the inheritance of their own sons, which necessarily involved the control of women’s reproductive capacity and the breaking of the link between women and their kinship group. This reconstruction is based on a myth and on a confused analysis. The myth is that matriarchy existed. In fact it has not been proved and has been directly disputed by the overwhelming majority of modern anthropological researchers. Notwithstanding this, the myth of an original matriarchy has not necessarily played a negative role within the feminist movement, contributing in practice to giving women confidence in themselves and in their own abilities. The confusion arises from not distinguishing between matriarchy and matrilineal descent. The latter does not imply in itself a greater power for women or a more prestigious or important role in society. Despite these errors the method Engels tried to apply to the understanding of the origins and causes of male domination is still useful. In other words it is a question of reformulating this phenomenon within the complex totality of social relations and their evolution, starting from the position that in society before class division matrimonial exchange and kinship relations dominated and structured social relations in general. It is precisely through those relationships that production and distribution relations were articulated and organized within a determined social group. Here the questions raised are still relevant. Were women already living under conditions of subordination in hunter-gatherer societies? What changes in their status took place while the following processes were unfolding: the increase in the production of a surplus; the introduction of horticulture, then agriculture and animal rearing; the emergence of private land ownership and the initial social differentiations within populations?

The anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock has spent years researching in an attempt to show how hunter-gatherer societies were generally characterised by a substantial egalitarianism, not only among the male members of different groups but also between the sexes. Presumably the sexual division of labour was less rigid than has been believed and did not in itself lead to hierarchical relations between the sexes. In her work Leacock shows the determinant role played by the impact of the confrontation with Western colonialists on hunter-gatherer societies. This impact can be measured both on the economic level – destroying the equilibrium that allowed women to control their own labour and production – and the cultural level, introducing a “moral” rigidity in sexual customs and matrimonial relationships that did not exist previously. In the case of the Montagnais-Naskapi people of Labrador, whom Leacock studied in the field, the Jesuit missionaries made a particular effort to introduce previously unknown social values such as the obedience and subordination of the wife to the husband. The collision with colonialism can to a large extent explain why once egalitarian hunting and gathering societies saw the introduction of hierarchy and domination between the sexes. Moreover the influence of a society where the process of social differentiation was more advanced certainly played a role in the spread of male domination in other societies. However the question is still posed: What is the general cause of the establishment of hierarchical relations between the sexes?

Engels’ answer is unsatisfactory, because on the one hand it refers to changes in the social and production relations and on the other hand has recourse to a supposed male instinct to perpetuate his own inheritance and therefore to control women’s reproduction. But what are the foundations of this instinct? Is it due to this innate desire to ensure a descendant and the transmission of inheritance to his own sons that men wanted to control women’s reproduction, or does this intention to control represent the effect of a more complex totality of phenomenon and processes?

Stephanie Coontz, along with other researchers, has tried to provide a different answer, exploring the connections between matrimonial institutions and production. It was not male control over the women’s reproductive capacities but the control of her labour power and of her potential to produce a surplus within a determinate set of production relations and division of labour that explains the transformation of kinship relations and thereby the condition of women. In lineage societies before the birth of class society it is in fact the kinship relations that organise the production and distribution of goods on the basis of group or collective property. We can discover the origin of male domination within the transformations that took place in these types of society before the birth of real classes and the emergence of private property and the state. The hierarchy between the sexes and its application to the sexual division of labour are therefore at the origin of the processes of social differentiation that subsequently led to the emergence of classes. The hierarchical relations between the sexes could be said to represent a prototype for the latter.

Where kinship relations organise production the analysis and study of their transformation are fundamental to understanding both women’s role in production and the changes to her status. From this point of view the central concept is not matrilineal relations but “matrilocation” because the determinant factor is not the rules of descendence but that of residence. In matrilocal societies in fact it is men who have to go and live in their wife’s parental home. This means that the product of women’s labour remains within her kin or lineage, where the woman generally benefits from collaborative rather than subordinate relationships. The transition from matrilocal to patrilocal arrangements allowed men to expropriate the work and surplus produced by women because moving into the husband’s paternal home placed the wife in a context foreign to her where she was deprived of family ties of protection. The product of her labour no longer belonged to her or to her kin but to those of her husband.

The reasons why patrilocality prevailed over matrilocality are varied and the debate remains open. Some researchers support the hypothesis of a conflict with men that women lost. Evidence for this is supposedly seen in the myths existing in different societies that recount a war between men and women or of women reigning over chaos which is overthrown and male order is established. Other writers, such as Stephanie Coontz, support the idea of a complex dynamic process involving different factors from problems over the distribution of the surplus to symbolic and religious roles within the community or to the need to maximise production. Over and beyond these various hypotheses however there is broad agreement about placing the origins of women’s oppression in the transition to patrilocality. Men expropriated work done by women and polygamy contributed to social differentiation between men. Having more wives was in fact equivalent to expropriating a bigger quantity of labour power and subsequently accumulating a bigger surplus. Furthermore, the coincidence between production relations and kinship relations led to coincidence between the expropriation of women’s labour power and privileged access to and control of their reproductive capacities. In this way economic and sexual oppression overlapped and was mutually embedded.

This type of explanation emphasises three elements: 1) the fact that women’s oppression did not always exist, but rather was linked to the processes of social transformation and transition from the egalitarian lineage societies to class society; 2) the fact that the sexual division of labour was originally less rigid than we had thought and was not in itself a basis for a hierarchy between the sexes. From this point of view the origins of women’s oppression should not be sought either in the greater sedentary activity of women compared to men (due to their reproductive role – childbirth, breastfeeding, childcare) or in the lesser importance or prestige of foraging and gathering, food preparation or artisanal production compared to hunting and warfare; and 3) the fact that social and economic factors connected to the production, expropriation and distribution of the surplus and labour power rather than biology are crucial in explaining the origins of women’s oppression. The central factor is the type of work that women mostly carry out in these societies – gathering, horticulture and food preparation that makes men much more economically dependent on women’s labour than women were dependent on men. Taking control of this labour meant not only ensuring the control of production of subsistence goods but also being able to maximise this production and guaranteeing the accumulation of a surplus.


3.2 Class without gender


What are the consequences of a research hypothesis that tries to seek the origins of women’s oppression in a totality of social and economic phenomena, linked to:

• the transition from collectivised or group ownership to private property, • • the production of surplus and its dynamics of appropriation and distribution and • • the transition from matrilocality to patrilocality? • If you think that women’s oppression did not always exist and that its roots are not biological or psychological does it necessarily mean that gender oppression is a secondary oppression, hierarchically subordinated to class exploitation? Does it mean you deny its autonomy and specificity? Further, by focusing on only the economic character of oppression do you deny those aspects of male domination linked to the control of women’s reproductive capacity, the psychological aspects, the specificity of sexual violence, the autonomy and the durability that patriarchal structures such as the family have acquired? Does it mean re-absorbing gender oppression into class exploitation?

From a theoretical point of view there is no reason to come to this sort of conclusion. However the tendency to create artificial and unhelpful hierarchies of oppressions and exploitations rather than understanding the reciprocal interconnections has always been present in the workers’ movement. This tendency thought that the ending of capitalism would lead naturally and automatically to the emancipation of women and also saw the autonomous organization of women as a threat to class unity – a unity that was supposed to magically resolve women’s issues. This ideology contributed in a decisive way to the worker’s movement divorce with feminism. Engels’ optimism over how women’s joining the labour force would be the key to their emancipation has been disproved by reality itself.

This certainly does not mean that Engels was wrong to emphasise the fundamental importance of women’s economic independence, which is one irrefutable condition of their liberation. No one can deny that the increase in female employment in the last hundred years has not changed women’s lives in a substantial way, indeed it has transformed the forms in which gender oppression is articulated. Nevertheless patriarchal structures have proved to be much more resistant and durable than foreseen. Even the obvious, bitter evidence before our eyes of the ongoing oppression of women in post-capitalist societies (from the Soviet Bloc to Cuba...) should teach us something and raise some serious questions. Privatizing the sphere of reproduction – that is all those activities that guarantee the physical, mental and emotional reproduction of labour power (eating, sleeping, dressing, washing, relaxing...) which is encouraged and used by capitalism, has given enormous power to family ties and makes the socialization of these reproductive functions difficult to imagine and even more difficult to get accepted.

One just has to think of the resistance often put up to attempts during revolutionary periods to free women from the caring role by transferring it outside of the family through the setting up of canteens, laundries and communal nurseries. The opposition between public society and the private sphere has developed around the demarcation that separates the family, the private space par excellence, from the state, society and the market. Therefore the family has become the space – often more imaginary than real – where one’s true self is expressed in opposition to the external world of exploitation, alienation, brutalisation, aggression and competition. A place where affection and sentiment, that are impossible in the external world, can blossom. Already in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx had a basic understanding of this particular framing of relationships brought about by capitalism:

“As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

“Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.”

[First Manuscript, sub heading ‘Estranged Labour’ p 30 http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf]

In the context of this shake up of human relations the family structure has ceased to be a unit of production (except for some sectors of production such as family-based agriculture) and has been relegated to a private space rigidly separate from the public sphere. It has lost one function but has acquired another that gives it a particular power. It would be – and already has been – a massive error to underestimate its ideological nature and the scale of the psychological attachment to this structure and to its dynamics, including the role women have within it insofar as they carry out the majority if not the totality of the reproductive functions. To have thought that the class struggle alone could resolve this question, magically dissolving family ties and radically changing its character without an adequate analysis of the problem, without challenging sexual roles and without a specific politicisation of women is in the best of cases to be blinded by optimism, and in the worst of cases to show utter bad faith.

The same point can be made in relation to the underestimation of the effects of gender and its hierarchical relations on the working class and its politicization. Considering the working class only in its masculine form means in the first place to fail to grasp or to grasp only partially the way in which the relations of production and exploitation function and are structured and therefore not to understand or to only partially understand how capitalism works. Secondly it results in failing to understand how gender oppression provides a powerful weapon to divide the working class, to create hierarchies within it and to ideologically control it. It is the same blindness that has led the workers’ movement over the long term to be unable to deal with racist or ethnic repression and to fail to provide a satisfactory analysis or political approach.


3.3 Gender as class


While the perspective of a genderless class was one of the main limits of the bulk of the workers’ movement and of the Marxist tradition, materialist and “wages for housework” feminism have attempted to rethink the relationship between class and gender from a radically different point of view: that of gender as class.

The analyses made in the 1970s by theorists such as Christine Delphy, the founder of materialist feminism, from France, and the Italian thinkers Alisa Del Re and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, who are among the main exponents of “wages for housework” feminism, overlap on some ideas about the nature of female domestic labour inside the family. Both tendencies talk about the exploitation of women’s reproductive work, which is assigned a productive character in Marxist terms. Contrary to orthodox Marxist positions, which are accused of undervaluing the function of reproductive labour and denying its productive role, this interpretation argues domestic labour produces commodities and surplus value. It is a question of productive labour for which women are not paid. Consequently the distinction between oppression (applied to women) and exploitation (applied to classes and class relations) has no sense, to the extent that women are not just oppressed but are exploited, in other words their work produces surplus value which is appropriated by someone else.

In fact for “wages for housework” feminists when Marx in Capital states that the value of the commodities necessary for a worker’s reproduction is contained in labour power value (clothing, food, housing...) he does not take into consideration another value – the work of caring which is necessary for the functionality of labour commodity value. As Christine Delphy writes, if you follow Marx’s analysis here it would mean pork and potatoes with their skins intact would be consumed raw after their production and purchase. Between the production or purchase of the pork and potato commodities and their consumption you have their preparation and cooking which transform these commodities into a usable form. In the same way one presumes that clothes, as well as being bought and worn also have to be periodically washed, ironed and mended. Materialist and “wages for housework” feminism criticise Marxism from not considering this work that takes place within the isolated family home as productive labour. To make their point that we are dealing with productive labour and not just use value, as claimed by orthodox Marxists, both these currents use the examples of how a series of domestic labour services are clearly produced and exchanged as commodities. Indeed a meal can be prepared at home but it can also certainly be consumed ready to eat in a restaurant – in this case the value connected to the preparation is added to the commodity value of the food. The same thing applies to laundry services, cleaning, the care of children carried out in the nursery or by babysitters and also for looking after old or ill people. The fact that all these series of services, when not being carried out inside the family home, can be produced and exchanged as commodities, demonstrates that nothing can justify defining the work that women carry out inside the home as being non-productive labour. The only reason for it to be considered in this way is that it is not paid – the unpaid or apparent “free” aspect of it covers up its real character.

The analogy between “wages for housework” feminism and materialist feminism ends at this point – the conclusions that are drawn from considering domestic labour as productive are diametrically opposed. For the “wages for housework” feminists it is capitalism that has transformed the family’s role and structure, creating the nuclear family in such a way as to deny its role as a productive unit and relegating women to a subordinate position reproducing labour power. Capitalism has tended to exclude women from production apart from inside the family and assigns men a wage sufficient to maintain himself and his wife and family, absolving itself of any responsibility for the economic survival of the whole family and in this way ensuring that the much more costly work of reproducing labour power is done solely by women inside the family home. Completely socializing this work would incur costs and technological investment much higher than those involved in women’s domestic labour. In this way the labour contract between the capitalist and the worker as the “head of the family” in a sense also includes the other members of the family. At one and the same time there is a labour contract and a “sexual contract” which gives men free access to women’s bodies and their children. Through this contract unpaid slaves (housewives and any women who carry out domestic labour) are used to reproduce wage slavery (both male and female workers) and women become an integral part of the working class, even if they are not formally hired as employees. Just like their husbands, sons and fathers they suffer from capitalist exploitation and produce surplus value, producing the commodity of labour power. This is the basis on which “wages for housework” feminists prioritize the demand for wages for housework so that the work of reproducing labour power is fully recognised as productive labour and ceases to be an indirect retribution through the husband’s salary.

Delphy’s conclusions are more or less in direct contradiction to this. Contrary to the “wages for housework” feminists, Christine Delphy argues that it is not capitalism that appropriates domestic labour, even if it certainly benefits from it, but rather men themselves. The direct beneficiary of women’s productive/reproductive work is her male relation (husband, father, brother) or partner. Alongside the capitalist mode of production there is another one, which is generally not recognised as such – the patriarchal mode of production. The latter determines the production relations between men and women and is based on the total appropriation by men of women’s domestic labour. Men and women form two antagonistic classes within production relations that are based on an exploitative relationship where men profit from women’s work. From this point of view, seeing women as belonging to the husband’s social class simply arises from uncritically assuming a patriarchal position, tending to cover up the relations of exploitation and subordination which place men in opposition to women. All women are members of the same class and undergo the same exploitation, as a consequence of domestic labour, which can take on very different forms depending on their father or husband’s class, whether it is Bill Gates or a shop worker. Capitalism certainly contributes to the maintenance of the patriarchal mode of production through its mechanisms excluding women from production and establishing hierarchies of labour. Given that women are discriminated against through inheritance and property laws, and are either excluded from the labour market, constantly threatened with redundancies (for example they are usually the first to lose their jobs at times of crisis) or underpaid, the only solution they are offered is often marriage. However when marrying they enter into a sort of contract of servitude with men because they exchange their own labour for their husband’s control of their maintenance rather than a salary. It is exactly the same way in which slavery operates.

The political consequences of these two approaches to the question of domestic labour and of women’s role in the family are obviously very different. In the first case what is emphasised is the way women undergo the same exploitation as men and therefore share a common enemy with them – capitalism. Working-class housewives are full members of their class because they carry out productive labour that is absolutely central for the social reproduction of capital and contributes to creating commodity value and has a very specific role within the capitalist division of labour. This approach, while correctly pointing out the gaps in Marxist theory with respect to the analyses of the role of labour in reproducing labour power and while correctly emphasising the centrality of this aspect for a full understanding of the mechanisms of capital’s functioning and social reproduction, has pushed its logic too far so that it ends up with a rather ineffective political position. Obviously the labour of reproduction indirectly contributes to the producing commodity value. Male or female workers produce commodities – whether visible or invisible – expending mental, physical and emotional energies that have to be regenerated. If these energies are not regenerated then labour power cannot be sold as a commodity and therefore cannot produce surplus value. From this point of view the fact that chapter 7 of Capital Volume 1 does not directly deal with the question of domestic labour within its analyses of the reproduction of labour power and its value, does leave open a significant problem. Nevertheless to claim that domestic labour produces surplus value means overlooking what must be the essential point for understanding the nature and the way in which capitalism has transformed the family. The fundamental point in fact is that this work of reproduction takes place outside of the capitalist market, in isolation which makes it impossible to talk of average socially necessary labour because this labour is neither formally or informally hired under capitalism. In this sense it is difficult to talk about the production of surplus value precisely because, on the one hand, capitalism has taken the function of a unit of production away from the family and, on the other, has ensured that the work of reproducing labour power takes place mostly inside the family, relegating it to a sort of limbo separated from the process of production and circulation of commodities.

This particular aspect has been largely ignored by Christine Delphy, as if the question is about the nature of the services offered by the work of caring rather than their location within the context of the process of production and circulation of commodities. Clearly cooking or cleaning in themselves are services that can be sold as commodities and that it is nothing to do with their nature which justifies the fact that they are offered freely. Surely the point is that within the family these services are offered freely and are therefore taken out of the sphere of exchange and are not produced or exchanged as commodities. A commodity is a thing but what makes it a commodity is not the physical nature of the thing – whether it is a pear or software is unimportant – but its social form – how is it produced and consumed.

Insisting on the productive character of domestic labour has certainly highlighted its importance against its previous undervaluation and can provide a degree of “effective” explanation. The problem is that in both cases it creates analytical confusion that has political consequences. In the first case the logical conclusion is that this work should be paid and the political demand that flows from it is that of wages for housework. However this demand far from challenging the sexual division of labour actually reinforces it – contributing to keeping women inside the family home and therefore isolating them from production and a broader social life. Furthermore proposing wages for housework was understood as a payment for the production of a commodity (that is, labour power). In reality the housewife’s work remains within the sector of the reproduction of the conditions that allow labour power to be present on the market as a commodity. Therefore rather than talking about wages we should talk about an income or return (equivalent to a return on investment or property). From this point of view we can see some continuity in the “post-worker” theorists who put forward the idea of a citizen’s basic or living income. The same problem arises – proposals for a citizen’s income does not in fact threaten the basic mechanisms of capitalist exploitation and does not challenge production relations.

In the second case the major political consequence arises from the pre-supposition of the existence of production relations different from capitalist ones and based on the sexual division of labour within the family. The logical conclusion of this position is the idea that a defined class, women, exists whether they are wives of industrial magnates or the very poorest and they are in an antagonistic relationship with a male class of exploiters. The political consequences of this approach are outlined by Delphy herself in The Main Enemy (L’ennemi principal). While capitalism contributes in a determinant way to sustaining the “patriarchal mode of production” and therefore most be fought, the “main enemy” of women nevertheless is patriarchy. In this point of view it is necessary:

1) To campaign aggressively on the question of “false consciousness” – that is a class consciousness determined by belonging to a class within the capitalist mode of production which means that women identify with the antagonistic patriarchal class (i.e. their husband’s class) instead of developing a true consciousness of the women’s class determined by the patriarchal mode of production. 2) 3) To demonstrate how this false consciousness is harmful to the struggle against patriarchy and serves the latter’s interests. 4) In other words, in the first instance women must stop identifying with the basic capitalist classes (the working class and the bourgeoisie) in order to become conscious of their class position within patriarchy and therefore their solidarity of interests as women.

Such an approach pre-supposes that the housewife of a petrochemical worker, forced to juggle final demand bills, having rent to pay and lung cancer that is probably destroying the health of her husband, has more material interests in common with the housewife of Bill Gates than with her own husband insofar as she shares the same relations of servitude toward her husband. Obviously it is true that women’s oppression is transversal and involves all social classes. As far as possible therefore it is correct to envisage working for all women organizing around common interests concerning women’s self-determination, their sexuality and their bodies. However there is a real difference between this position and thinking that women’s oppression takes the same form irrespective of one’s class position; that the determination of one’s class by where a woman lives and works (or does not work) or whether she is a captain of industry is simply a question of false consciousness and not the sharing of certain material interests. It does not imply in the end that the strategy needed to respond to her own oppression is always the same for all women. Furthermore, Christine Delphy has often emphasised the fact that it was not her intention to analyse the entire reality of women’s oppression but only its economic aspect. However, once the relations between men and women are defined in terms of “slavery” it is a little difficult to understand how this does not over-determine the other areas of life – what type of affection, sexuality, relationships and alliances is it possible to have between a slave and her master?

Both materialist feminism and the wages for housework version have highlighted some fundamental aspects of domestic labour, but their theoretical approach, taken as a whole, risks being nothing but the reverse reflection of the way in which the role of reproduction and women’s oppression was not considered to be important by a good part of the workers’ movement. Since for the latter the main political focus is the class, then these feminist authors try to transform gender into class. The result is the same, from opposed points of view: gender is reduced to class, in the first case to the working class, in the other to a patriarchal class created ad hoc. In this way the sphere of reproduction is submerged into production, thereby losing its very specificity.

However a doubt remains that another approach could be possible, an approach that does not renounce the categories of the critique of political economy, understanding nevertheless not only that these categories are not sufficient to grasp the reality of gender, but that it is not possible or useful to apply them in a mechanical way.


3.4. Gender without class


“Wages for housework” feminism and materialist feminism have not been the only way of tackling the questions of reproduction and sexuality within the feminist theory of the second wave. On the contrary, within the maelstrom of currents, threads and publications that emerged with the new flowering of feminist thought the questions of reproduction, sex and sexuality have emphatically occupied centre stage - even if the nebulous nature of the movement makes it very difficult to define or reconstruct definitions, labels, genealogies and intellectual affinities. Demanding the politicization of sex and sexuality as opposed to the centrality of production and class relations was a formative element in the feminist split from the mixed social movements in the 1970s. However the ways in which sex, sexuality and then gender had erupted into political discourse took many different paths which were often very diverse. Within this proliferation of theoretical proposals, which had variable links with collective political action (from the absence of any links to attempts at total absorption), psychoanalysis was one of the main players. It was a negative interlocutor for currents and thinkers who had wanted to unmask its fundamental misogyny, questioning the Oedipus complex theory and that of penis envy as explanations for the formation of sexual identities. On the other hand through a process of assimilation, modifications and sometimes real misunderstanding it was a gold mine, particularly in its Lacanian version, for other currents.

In the same way the interpretations of the term “gender”, suggested again by a paper written in 1974 by Gayle S. Rubin, The Exchange of Women. Notes on the political economy of Sex, were very diverse. Rubin’s paper proposed a distinction should be made between the two concepts of “sex” and “gender”. While the former, according to Rubin, indicated biological and anatomical sexual difference between men and women, the latter is the result of a historical, social and cultural construction. The difference related to gender, and not sex, is claimed to be the seedbed of hierarchy and subordination and therefore is the enemy that has to be fought. Over the course of the last thirty years the nature of gender and its significance, its relationship with sex and sexuality, have been the subject of intense debate, which also in this case has led to diverse conclusions.

Radical feminism emerged first in the United States towards the end of the 1960s. What the various theories of this current share, over and beyond any differences, can be understood by the demand encapsulated in its very name. It is a question of directly confronting the “roots” [roots = radix, radic– in Latin, translator’s note] of women’s oppression, of opposing patriarchy head on. Patriarchy is understood as an autonomous system of oppression by men and is defined as the main enemy. In this way radical feminists differentiate themselves from both liberal feminists and socialist feminists. To fight their oppression women must equip themselves with their own interpretation of the world, rejecting any existing ideologies since they are a result of male supremacy and define their own political line that puts women’s interests at the centre in opposition to male interests. Within the patriarchal system all women suffer oppression by all men, all men benefit from the subordination of women and all the other forms of exploitation, hierarchy and supremacy are only the extensions of male supremacy. Patriarchy, therefore, pre-dating capitalism, racism and colonialism represents women’s principal, common enemy. As Kate Millet argues in Sexual Politics (1970) sexual oppression is not only a form of political domination but it is the first form of domination, preceding all others and must therefore be fought before the others.

In The Dialectics of Sex. Theses for a feminist revolution, a work written in the same year, Shulamith Firestone identified the biological difference between men and women as the roots of female subordination. Nature has clearly placed women in a position of weakness compared to men, assigning her a reproductive role that once pregnancy and birth is over means women have to take care of the baby and breastfeed which are physical duties and conditions putting her into a situation of insecurity and difficulty, necessarily requiring male protection. While nature made women into slaves that does not mean that this slavery is her unchanging destiny. On the contrary, the possibility of separating sexuality from procreation, liberation from compulsory heterosexuality, and socialization of childcare made possible by culture, science and technology, represent the key to women’s liberation. By identifying nature, biological and anatomical differences as the roots of women’s oppression, Firestone rejects both the Marxist explanation that relates it to the more general process of social differentiation and to the emergence of private property and also the psychoanalytic thesis.

Criticism of psychoanalysis was one of the battle cries of a substantial number of radical feminists. They had subjected it to a similar critical analysis aimed at unveiling the misogynist or sexist nature of various forms of cultural, artistic, philosophical and literary expression, which are inevitably sexist because men had historically monopolised culture. Psychoanalysis was attacked for having provided a naturalistic and therefore tendentially unchangeable vision of how a hierarchy was formed within the process of the formation of gender identity, through the theory of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and the castration complex. Indeed, according to Freud, in the first years of infancy babies of both sexes share the same object of desire – the love of the mother and the same sexuality, oral then anal and initially also phallic. Both sexes in fact see themselves having a penis given that the baby girl sees her own clitoris as a penis. Through reciprocal exploration the children at a certain point realize their own anatomical differences and the male child sees the absence of a penis on the girl child’s body as the confirmation of his own fear of castration. In this reciprocal recognition the male child carries out a negative evaluation of the imperfect anatomy of the female child, while the latter for her part develops envy for the penis she does not have. From that moment the pathways diverge. The male child is pushed to be freed up from the Oedipus complex – that is the competition with his father for the mother’s love – for fear of implicit castration as a threat if the incest taboo was broken. Law, represented by the social figure of the father, finds a positive structural effect in him, which contributes to the breaking of Oedipal bonds, drawing on the castration threat. The female child on the other hand has quite a different journey. She discovers her anatomical incompleteness and is pushed to abandon her mother as an object of love insofar as the latter does not have a penis and shares with her daughter the same biological privation and consequently has to deflect the father’s desire. She goes into the Oedipal complex at the time she recognises her own anatomical incompleteness and the incest taboo is less effective with her since the threat of castration carries no weight since the female child is already castrated. The Oedipal ties with a paternal father that represents Law at the same time are never completely broken which has a series of consequences for the structure of the women’s personality: dependence on authority, little social interests and the unfulfilled request for privileges to compensate for the lack of a penis...

Now it is rather clear why this interpretation of the formation of sexual identity and its differentiation have been bitterly criticised by many feminists. Firstly, it considers the woman’s body as anatomically lacking something insofar as it does not have a penis. Secondly, it attributes to women a series of natural characteristics that is supposed to explain their specific role within society rather than being seen as the effects of the role women have historically been assigned – getting the causes and effects totally the wrong way around which is typical of ideology. Thirdly, it interprets these characteristics as something invariable, to the extent that they are embedded in the process of structuring of the identity determined by symbolic (and therefore pre-social) figures of the mother and father. Finally the very rigidity and invariability of the symbolic mother and father figures, their identification with social beings (the mother and father in the flesh) and therefore reading the structuring of sexual and gender identity around the male/female dichotomy and heterosexual desire so that both homosexuality and other forms of sexual identity are supposed to represent pathologies.

Alongside these criticisms Anne Koedt adds another in her article published in 1970, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. In this work, Koedt, basing herself on a number of studies that demonstrated that the only sexual female organ able to produce an orgasm is the clitoris, dismantles the Freudian idea of the transition from clitoral orgasms to vaginal ones as being a process of maturing as women as a way of freeing her – but only partially – from penis envy and thereby allowing her to emerge from an adolescent phase.

On the other hand, psychoanalysis has fared quite differently in another current of feminist thought known as the feminism of difference or “French feminism” according to a definition that emerged in reality in the United States (so identifying it in geographical terms makes little sense). The idea of difference is central for radical feminism and in fact is of key importance as a conceptual justification for “splitting” from the social movements through the assertion of women's difference. However this takes on a different significance in “French feminism”, whose main theorists, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, have refused and even criticised the notion of “feminist” and have had very little connection with the feminist movements, particularly in France. Both Irgaray and Kristeva studied with Jacques Lacan and have a close but critical relationship with his ideas. Lacan had introduced an important amendment to Freud's theory of penis envy, preferring to define it as phallic envy where the phallus essentially signifies power. The female baby therefore does not envy the male reproductive organ but the phallus as the signifier of authority, of the access to the symbolic order and faculty of speaking from all of which she is excluded. Recognition that she does not have a phallus is equivalent to internalizing this exclusion from the symbolic order. This castration mechanism, linked to an historicisation of the phallus and its role as a signifier of power, is potentially productive for an understanding of the psychological consequences that oppression has for women and the way in which subordination, with its trappings of insecurity and masochism, is internalized. However, what must be avoided is to enclose the phallus in the symbolic and pre-social realms, thereby making this and the exclusion from it, the cause of women's subordination rather than seeing how the identification between the authority signifier and the penis is the effect of a pre-existing hierarchy between the sexes which has quite different causes.

On the contrary, Irigaray and Kristeva's trajectory is quite different - they essentialize sexual difference. Irigaray takes up and indirectly criticises Lacan’s “mirror” concept developed by the psychoanalyst in his paper Le stade du miroir (The Mirror Stage). For both baby girls and boys seeing themselves reflected in the mirror for the first time is a key experience in the process of construction of their identity insofar as seeing their own image in the mirror initiates the perception of themselves as separate from their mothers. After that we have the imposition of the symbolic order of the Father who lays down the distinction between masculinity and femininity, assigning them particular roles. Irigaray counterposes the speculum to the flat surface of the mirror that reflects external visible images. The speculum is a concave optical instrument used in medicine to look inside human orifices. Women function as mirrors for men because male superiority is reflected in the inferiority of women. Men therefore see women in reference to themselves, as their own opposites, the own inverted images, she is deprived of what he has – the phallus. In this way the woman becomes empty, an absence the male phallus has to fill. Whereas the speculum allows one to look inside and to see that the female genital organs are not simply lacking something, an emptiness to be filled by the phallus, but on the contrary have a much greater sexual richness than the male. This richness becomes unrecognisable in men's phallocentric discourse insofar as they are afraid of sexual difference and need to see their own inverted image in the female and nothing more. The natural consequence of this perspective is the affirmation of the rediscovery of a difference that although already existing has to be rediscovered and re-interrogated after having been for so long suffocated; a difference that has its roots in biology, the difference between male and female reproductive organs.

Julia Kristeva carries out a different type of theoretical operation with Lacan but, all things considered, uses the same method as Irigaray – giving value to what has been historically undervalued, changing a negative sign into a positive one. In this case Kristeva concentrates on the pre-oedipal phase, preceding the imposition of the Father's symbolic order, the origins of language. She defines this period as the “semiotic order” – the order of signs. The semiotic order is that of the mother and represents the period of the exclusive relationship between the baby and its mother before the separation carried out by the father through the threat of castration. Kristeva’s intentions are to highlight the role of this pre-oedipal phase, generally undervalued by psychoanalysts, within the process of the formation of the subject. In this phase communication between mothers and babies takes place essentially through gestures (caresses, bodily contact and general care) rather than words. The coming of the Father’s symbolic order and thereby language strangles the semiotic order that nevertheless never entirely disappears given that what is repressed is never eliminated. The real task is to try and rediscover and speak about everything that male conceptualization and language have suffocated and to talk about the mother’s semiotic order just as artists and poets transgress the symbolic order through rebelling against its laws.

Irigaray and Kristeva became the fundamental reference point for many theorists of “French feminism” such as Luisa Muraro, who developed the idea of sexual difference in an organic vision based on the necessity for women to build a symbolic feminine order in her book L’ordine simbolico della madre [The mother’s symbolic order 1997]. In a similar vein, Adriana Caverero wrote Per una teoria della differenza sessuale (1987) [For a theory of sexual difference] and is a supporter of the possibility of constructing a language that gives a voice to sexual difference – refusing the monolithic imperialism of male language, which tries to absorb and assimilate the Other to himself. The conditions of women’s separation in this way becomes an opportunity to rediscover and research difference and the confiscated Other.

This binary logic of difference was challenged in the 1980s in the theoretical developments of Lesbian feminism. Monique Wittig, for example, who comes from the materialist feminist current, wrote a paper in 1980, One is not Born a Woman where she rejects the definition of lesbians as women. Women and men in fact represent two antagonistic classes and heterosexuality is a norm established to sustain the division into sexual classes, reproducing the conditions for the exploitation of women. Lesbians are not women because they break the heterosexual contract, they are fugitives from the classes to which they have been assigned. They are therefore “non-women” and their conditions open the way to the liberation of all other women. Generally lesbian thinkers have come to challenge the binary concept of “women” and “men”, attempting to put forward a rethinking of sexuality, sexual identity, sex and gender. Queer theory, developed in the 1990s, particularly with Judith Butler’s work, has more than anything else advanced the challenge to gender identity and its connection to sexuality. Perhaps Butler’s greatest contribution has been the introduction of the concept of gender as “performative” – being constructed through the repetition of stylised acts in time that she particularly elaborated in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. She attempts to provide a theoretical alternative both to conceiving difference as an ontological essence and social constructivism. Both positions, according to Butler, endanger the possibility of free subjective action through a determinism which in the first case eliminates it from the inside either through determined sexual or biological identity or through the symbolic process of identity formation or through both together. In the second case the restriction comes from the outside, through the social construction of gender as a given reality to which one submits. Conceptualising gender as a “performance” means not considering it as something static, already set once and for all, but rather as a totality of acts, gestures and behaviours that represent “gender discipline” and which continually create gender identity. According to the classical inversion of cause and effect there is the tendency to understand the actions and behaviours that distinguish one gender from another as being the product of an already defined identity, of a subject that is already “gendered”. But it is precisely the opposite – it is these actions and behaviours that “perform” gender, as regulatory rituals that tend to be continually repeated, that define who is a woman and who is a man and which end up even shaping the body materially. Power relations in fact form the body, disciplining, shaping and sexualizing it to conform with gender. Thus the body is constructed by discourse to the point that some bodies – those of transsexuals for example – do not count and have no right to existence or expression in the discourse. Further radicalizing Foucault, Butler in this way extends the process of dissolution of the subject to the point that the body itself is no longer a core subjective identity but rather the product of extensive power relations.

In order to exist, gender needs to continually repeat those actions that form it – it is nothing without this continual rehearsal which, far from being contingent, is under constant regulation. Continually “making” gender also at the same time “undoes” gender in the sense that, in constantly performing the gender process through acts that fit with codes of behaviour, cracks, contradictions and fissures continually occur. This breakdown in the performance opens up the possibility for the subject to undo gender and thus for its possible subversion.

Radical feminism, theories of difference and queer theory put forward divergent visions of gender, sex and sexuality although they do have some points in common. What they generally do have in common has been a radical shift in attention towards the level of discourse and language as the place for defining gender identity and forming a hierarchy between the sexes. Using deconstruction methods they have either revealed the misogynist character of a large part of cultural products or analysed the linguistic lapses or stammering that point back to the repressed, to the Other who is not allowed to speak. The attention given here to the ideological character of gender oppression and its psychological implications has certainly filled a gap in the study of women’s oppression, but at the cost of often reducing the complexity of reality to the level of language and discourse and making psychoanalysis the key to understanding everything. Both radical feminists and difference theorists (“French feminists”), albeit for different aims and objectives, have contributed to the dehistoricization of the relations of oppression between the sexes.

Seeking the roots of patriarchy in the biological differences between men and women, as for example Firestone does, and to claim therein lie the origins of male supremacy which is then extended to other spheres and creates other equivalent systems of domination and oppression is the exact reversal of the orthodox Marxist method which aims to show that women’s oppression is simply derived from class exploitation. It also means making patriarchy into something static and invariable as if the forms of gender oppression and the role it plays is historically always the same and uniform throughout the world. The separatist choice, which in most cases goes hand in hand with calling for the struggle against patriarchy to be the primary one as opposed to all others and with defining men and women as antagonistic classes, has hardly contributed to building an effective women’s political perspective. In fact it has rather contributed to the feminist movement’s isolation and closure pushing it exclusively towards cultural and ideological critiques, more or less systematically and rapidly steering it away from the question of social alliances. This state of affairs was further aggravated by the extreme fragmentation – including on a theoretical level – of the movement into various components – heterosexual, lesbian, black, black lesbians...

The split from the workers’ and social movements is accompanied by the obliteration of any critique of the relations of production which are replaced by relations of power and domination in the wake of post-modernist tendencies, particularly inspired by Foucault’s ideas. Consequently they tend to concentrate exclusively on the institutions that guarantee and maintain the system of sexual roles – matrimony, the family, prostitution and heteronormativity. The positive understanding that relations of sexual oppression are political relations is not linked to a criticism of class relations with which patriarchal oppression is inevitably articulated, nor of production relations where they are embedded. Inevitably this has political and theoretical consequences. Firstly, the difficulty in understanding how other factors such as class and race have an influence not only on the forms of oppression suffered but also on the processes of women’s identification and subjectivity. Conflicts arose quite quickly as they came up against black women in the liberation movements who refused to put their class or racial identity into the background below their female identity. It led to black feminists splitting away. Often an idealist or purely psychological reading was given of the roots of male domination. For example, the New York Radical Feminist group claimed that men wanted to dominate women not so much for a material benefit but to satisfy their own egos. One thing is not underestimating the psychological dimension of oppression and the relative psychological benefits enjoyed by those who oppress, but it is quite another thing to think the satisfaction of the ego can be the cause of an entire system of domination.

Some tendencies of radical feminism in fact have gone so far in their criticism of men in the sexual area that they have arrived at a position that stands alongside – through a sort of coincidence of the opposites – moralists or even reactionaries. This is the case for example with the group Women against Pornography and of writers and activists like Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who in the 1980s ended up promoting a campaign in favour of a law to ban pornography as a form of sexual discrimination (a law that was later adopted in various states in the USA and Canada). In this way they helped strengthen political and state control over sexuality, giving it a big progressive gloss. So people could now just bring in the struggle against sexual discrimination when raising the question of offending public morality.

By a strange convergence some proposals by the sexual difference theorists also come dangerously close to moralising or conservative positions on sexuality. In the Temps de la Difference [Time of difference], Luce Irigaray is in favour of a law on virginity which gives a special status to girls who decide to keep their virginity as long as they want, without undergoing pressure from men. A virginity law providing a reference point on this question would supposedly in this way help young women have an autonomous, positive identity. An officially recognised virginity status would be a precondition for loving relations with the opposite sex to be really free. It appears to be difficult for Irigaray to consider that young women can develop a positive identity that does not depend on whether their hymen is intact. Once again, women are reduced to their bodies and their sexual organs. It is not an arbitrary proposal, in fact it is the natural consequence – although an extreme one – of the theoretical framework proposed by Irigaray and taken up by a great many of the difference theorists. Where do we seek this difference between men and women in order to analyse and understand it? Either we find it in the last analysis in the basic bodily difference and therefore return to biological determinism – even if it is enriched and dressed up with psychoanalytical considerations on the processes of the formation of sexual identity. Or difference is socially and historically produced and a result of thousands of years of women’s oppression and consequently it is difficult to see it as something to be valued. The risk is that in this infinite research for repressed difference that must be highlighted, we end up idealizing misery. Indeed the female characteristics, which are normally prominently raised by the difference theorists, are dangerously close to the stereotypes created by men and have generally been quite effective in ideologically reinforcing oppression. For example valuing the semiotic order of the mother against the symbolic order of the father, as Kristeva does, leads to conceiving women’s exclusion from the spheres of language and concepts as being some fundamental female essence. Conceptual reasoning, language and discourse are the property of the father and men whereas intuition, extra-rational and a-conceptual understanding are the essence of the mother and women. Women having intuition is an old, rather recognisable stereotype. The other side of this coin is the pre-supposition that women are contradictory and not very good at logical thinking. Along the same lines you have the idea that women possess a concrete intelligence of the particular which contrasts with male abstract reasoning. Within left mixed organizations this line of argument supposedly aiming to give value to female difference has only led to theoretical justifications as to why women are continually attributed organizational, rather than political roles. The same positive estimation of hospitality, helpfulness, the absence of aggression and competitiveness that supposedly is enshrined in womenhood leaves out the fact that the counterpart of the absence of aggression and competiveness towards the outside is the violence that women commit in myriad even bizarre ways against themselves. This is not the result of some vocation for maternal caring inscribed indelibly on the female body but of the simple fact hat women have been historically excluded from the use of violence insofar as they have been kept away from the control of its weapons.

As Lidia Cirillo in her book Lettera alle Romane [Letter to Roman women] states:

“The feminine only exists as a result of an act of power and as an ideology, denying femininity is to refuse to fall into the trap of phallic-logo-centrism, to reject the binary opposition. When a system that denies you is used to affirm you positively then the non-being is turned into its opposite and anti-metaphysical, anti-essentialist and anti-identity intentions are transformed into feminine identity and the metaphysics of sex.”

Furthermore, this binary logic removes the possibility of thinking about gender outside of the women/men dichotomy leaving out the experiences and reflections of all those that cannot and do not want to fit into it – gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals…

On the contrary, it is on the basis of exactly these experiences that queer theory has developed posing the problem not only of the formation of gender but of its relationship with sex and sexuality. Judith Butler’s work probably provides us with the most interesting and intelligent insights on the gender debate in recent years. She has provided us with a number of very interesting and thought-provoking ideas that give her a particular role and position within current feminist debates: the notion of gender performance; the refusal of narrow biological positions or ideas of women’s essence; breaking with the women/male dichotomy; the focus on the material aspects of gender oppression (the institutions that reproduce it, the consequences in terms of redistribution, access to welfare, work...); the way in which gender oppression is closely tied up with culture; criticism of heterosexual norms; the refusal of separatism and the attention given to struggles and their framework.

In an article, “Merely Cultural”, in which she responds to some of the objections to her ideas made by Nancy Fraser, Butler defines in explicit terms the question of the role played by “obligatory” heterosexuality within capitalist society. Heterosexuality, with its misrecognition of homosexuality and other ways of living one’s sexuality, is a valid support for the constitution of the mono-nuclear family which plays a central role in the process of reproduction of the labour force and therefore of the overall process of social reproduction of capital as highlighted by Marxist feminists in the 1970s. Imposing the norm of heterosexuality in this way is not a “merely cultural” factor but operates within the economic structure. This is an extremely interesting point and grasps the way in which the role assumed by the family in capitalism is connected to the imposition of obligatory heterosexuality. As Nancy Fraser notes in her response to this article (“Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A response to Judith Butler”), Butler has a certain tendency to confuse what is “material” with what is “economic”. Obviously gay, lesbian, transsexual and bisexual oppression has a specifically material aspect because it has consequences and uses means that are definitely material and are not confined to the realm of the “discourse”. However another question is whether heterosexism plays a direct role for example in the division of labour and is essential to it, in other words, does it play any role in the structuring of production relations. This theoretical approach, while potentially a very fruitful one, has not yet been taken up by Judith Butler in her writings apart from a few allusions in some articles like “Merely Cultural”. Nevertheless it is necessary to theoretically explain how gender performativity operates within capitalist relations of production for a number of reasons. First, we need to avoid an idealist or culturalist approach to how this performativity functions and to steer clear of any ahistorical perspective. What defines a woman as a woman is not invariable and it takes on extremely different connotations through history and the process is not based on the same mechanisms. While gender is continually performed, what is the nature and basis of the coercion of the norm that guarantees the continued repetition of the acts that produce gender performativity and which allows for only two genders to be legitimized? Judith Butler takes up the question of the material nature of how gender is performed and therefore the totality of the material institutions that underpin it which are not reducible to a “language”. However dealing with the question only from the point of view of power relations risks obscuring the relations of production which offer the framework for these power relations. Seeing power as only something that is diffuse and everywhere runs the risk of not placing it anywhere, thereby either overestimating the possibility of the autonomous invention of gender or of eliminating it insofar as it is crushed by the unfathomable power relations. Intervening through a “reinvention” within the fissures that are produced in the repetition of the acts that generate gender could be a valid position (also if this is often on paper) by a very limited circle of people equipped with adequate means and with a degree of autonomy that is generally broader than that reserved for mere mortals, but it is not a real option for the rest of humanity. In order to de-construct or re-invent genders therefore you cannot avoid posing the question of which collective subject can do it, able to challenge the material bases which back up coercive heterosexual norms and the woman/man dichotomy. To claim that the subject’s gender identity can be constructed through the repetition of performance actions certainly has a grain of truth but risks in time dissipating a subject already suffering from three decades of post-modernism and encourages the idea that it is enough to suspend the repetition in order to escape from a suffocating process of identification. This is certainly not Butler’s position – her theoretical solidity prevents her sliding into such naive solutions; but the problem of how to think through the building of collective subjects and the processes becoming subjects – particularly where the subject has undergone the most powerful deconstructions – remains open. Chapter 4

A queer union between Marxism and feminism?


4.1. One theory for dual systems


In 1979, Heidi Hartmann published an essay titled “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism”. Lydia Sargent’s 1981 anthology, Women and Revolution: a Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, compiled many of the criticisms and debates surrounding Hartmann’s essay, which came from Marxist and radical feminists alike.

In this long article Hartmann develops the so-called dual systems theory, theorizing the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism, starting out from the unsuccessful encounter of Marxism and feminism. Marxism missed the opportunity provided by the new feminist wave to renew itself thoroughly. Instead, it tended to view gender oppression as an oppression of secondary importance and substantially subordinated to class exploitation. The marriage of Marxism and feminism was analogous to marriage of a man and a woman as institutionalized under English common law: like husband and wife, Marxism and feminism were one thing, and that thing was Marxism. Engels’ intuition in The Origin of the Family, that production and reproduction of immediate life, as a determining factor in history, consisted of two aspects – production of the means of existence and production of human beings themselves – has not been examined in greater depth by Engels himself or by subsequent Marxists. This has contributed to Marxist categories remaining “sex-blind”, with consequences not only in terms of underestimating women’s condition of oppression, but also undermining the capacity to understand the complex reality of capitalism. Marxist categories such as “class”, “reserve army”, and “labour force” are “sex-blind” as they are patterned after the “sex-blind” nature of the laws of capitalist development. According to Hartmann, capitalism creates hierarchies within the labour force, but its laws of development cannot determine who will be destined to occupy the different ranks within this hierarchy. From the standpoint of capital’s pure “laws of movement”, whether men or women or white or black workers occupy a subordinate position, capitalism is utterly indifferent. As long as the categories of the critique of political economy reflect the laws of capitalist development, even these cannot explain who will fit into which rank within the various hierarchies. The concept of class alone is not sufficient in this case and must be integrated with the concepts of gender, race, nationality and religion. In other words, the factor allowing capitalism to confine women to the lower steps of the hierarchy of labour force is not the logic of capitalism’s internal functioning itself, but that of another system of oppression. Although this patriarchal system is intertwined with capitalism, it has its own autonomy. Thus the subordination of women created by the patriarchal system, whose origins are pre-capitalist, is used by capitalism for its own purposes.

Hartmann’s definition of patriarchy attempts to avoid the pitfall of imagining a universal and invariable structure, rather taking into account its historicity and thus the transformations it has undergone. From this standpoint it is not possible to speak of pure patriarchy, as its material structures are always rooted within determined relations of production and this inextricable relation modifies their characteristics and nature. Instead, one must speak rather of slaveholding patriarchy, feudal patriarchy, capitalist patriarchy and so on. Insisting on the historical nature of patriarchy and its transformation, Hartmann developed an outlook concerning relations between capitalism and patriarchy different from the one Juliet Mitchell put forth in Psychoanalysis and Feminism. According to Mitchell, patriarchal structures have a universal and ahistorical psychological and ideological nature, which persists from one mode of production to the next. Interaction between these structures and a given mode of production then produces variations in the way these universal structures are articulated and differentiated. Based on these, female oppression takes different forms and expresses itself in different ways, depending on this historical moment, location and class affiliation.

Instead, Hartmann emphasizes the historical transformations that patriarchal structures themselves, and not just their expressions, undergo. Despite this close correlation between mode of production and patriarchal system, each of these operates according to an internal logic and specific laws that can be on the same wavelength but also in conflict. Despite the fact that capitalism has used and continues to use the patriarchy to shore up its own rule and articulate exploitation, in certain circumstances the “sex-blind” laws movement of capital can come into contradiction with those of the patriarchal system. A failure to grasp the laws proper to the two systems prevents us from understanding the nature of these contradictions. Based on these considerations, the happy marriage Hartmann hopes for should give way to a unified theory able to read and interpret the internal operational laws of the dual capitalist and patriarchal systems and the way in which these relate to one another, without seeking to reduce one to the other.

In the first chapter of her book Justice Interruptus, published in 1997, Nancy Fraser developed a theoretical proposal that some critics have also defined as a dual-systems theory. However – as we shall see – Fraser’s approach is a rather particular dual-systems theory, very different from Hartmann’s outlook. Starting out from the observation that demands for recognition have become almost a paradigmatic form of political conflict at the end of the twentieth century and a fulcrum of struggles relating to nationality, gender, race and sexuality, Fraser proposes a conceptual schema making it possible to take into consideration both the specific differences between demands for justice based on “redistribution” and those based on “recognition” as well as the possibility of linking these. This schema is based on a distinction between injustice with economic roots (exploitation, dispossession, economic marginalization) and injustice of a symbolic and cultural nature (cultural domination, non-recognition, contempt). In analytical terms, disregarding the fact that in reality both forms of oppression are almost always closely intertwined, class exploitation represents a case of “pure” economic injustice, while the oppression of gays and lesbians is a case of cultural injustice: the former case of injustice gives rise to demands for “redistribution”; the latter to demands for “recognition”. Asserting that in analytical terms economic and cultural injustice require distinction does not at all equal a failure to recognize their correlation in real life and the circumstance that, for example, the oppression of gays, lesbians, trans and intersexuals exerts leverage on material structures and institutions and has economic consequences and aspects, such as discrimination in the labour market and the healthcare system. But, for example, cultural injustices are not a cornerstone of the relations of production, do not structure the division of labour, and require a symbolic or cultural change to be overcome. Between these two poles, economic injustice and misrecognition, there is a range of injustices that encompass both of these aspects: this is the case of women’s and racial oppression. Both have economic roots and are determinant in the division of labour in different ways. In the case of women, this involves both a division of reproductive and of productive work, assigning the former as an unpaid task for women, and a hierarchy within the labour force, where gender is used to distinguish between predominantly male, better-paid job sectors and lower-paid, predominantly female work sectors. However, this is only one aspect of oppression, as women are also subject to depreciation of a symbolic and cultural nature, which gives rise to many forms of discrimination and violence: domestic and sexual violence, sexual exploitation, commoditification of women’s bodies in communications and information, molestation…

Thus, oppression of women, like racial oppression, calls for both types of response, namely demands for redistributive justice and for recognition. Fraser does emphasize how this bivalent situation produces contradictions. The logic of demands for redistributive justice, in fact, would lead to doing away with gender or racial distinctions. Calling for economic changes that would entail the end of discrimination on a gender or racial basis in the division of labour, for example, puts the accent on surpassing these identities and differentiation on the basis of these identities. On the other hand, the demand for recognition tends to put a premium on difference and identity, demanding that these be valued positively, instead of as sources of discrimination. How can these two different logics be reconciled? Fraser’s response consists in counterposing an “affirmative” approach to a “transformative” one, to the question of redistribution and recognition. Affirmative approaches involve a series of measures in response to economic and social injustices that do not challenge the structure at their roots. This approach would include for example welfare state policies, based on redistributing existing goods to existing groups (for example, social assistance policies in relation to the poor), actually sustaining differentiation between groups. Or multiculturalism, which tends to highlight differences and different identities, demanding respect for these. On the other hand, the transformative approach tends to question the structure generating the injustices, as in the case for socialism in terms of the question of deep transformation of the relations of production and surpassing class divisions, or deconstruction aiming to restructure relations of recognition on a cultural level, playing down or abolishing the differentiations among groups. Queer theory belongs to the latter category. It does not raise the demand for homosexual, trans or intersexual identity as an objective, but rather for the deconstruction of the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy, destabilizing all fixed sexual identities. Queer theory seeks to deconstruct gender, as socialism seeks to deconstruct class: neither aim to maintain or affirm gender and class identity – although in political praxis the problem of identity is raised for both – but rather to finally surpass gender, as with class divisions. Based on this common transformative and deconstructionist nature, it is possible to hypothesize a combination of socialism and deconstructionist feminism, able to launch a common attack on economic and cultural injustice alike, offering responses in terms of redistribution and in terms of recognition. This combination is all the more necessary, as gender and racial oppression cannot be reduced to either of these forms of injustice, but encompasses both.


4.2. One theory for a single system


Iris Young has criticized both Fraser’s theory and Hartman’s, in two articles: “Beyond the Unhappy Marriage: a Critique of the Dual Systems Theory” and “Unruly Categories: a Critique of Nancy Fraser’s Dual System Theory”. According to Young, Hartmann’s attempt does have the merit of providing an alternative to an ahistorical concept of the patriarchy, but raises other problems. Of course, the oppression of women goes back much further than the advent of capitalism, so its cause cannot be found within the capitalist mode of production. However, the same discourse is applicable to class divisions and exploitation: they are not an original invention of capitalism and indeed also constituted the basis of the functioning of the economy within slaveholding and feudal modes of production. We must deduct from this that class division and exploitation represent a freestanding structure changing historically with the succession of modes of production, but nevertheless maintaining autonomy from the mode of production itself. In this sense could class division constitute a system apart form capitalism, but intertwined with it afterwards? Considering the fact that there is no “pure” division into classes, separated from a specific mode of production determining it, generally leads to the idea that class division does not constitute an enduring system in itself, although changing over the course of centuries. Why would the same not apply also to patriarchy? Moreover, the dual systems theory enables traditional Marxism to continue to build its theory of production relations and social changes and analyse capitalism in an unchanged way, applying “sex-blind” categories, and to leave the task of analysing the patriarchal system up to feminism. Against this option, Young proposes instead to integrate Marxism by developing a theory of gender division of labour, referring to all differentiations of labour by gender within society, from reproductive labour within the family to gender hierarchy within the labour force in the productive sphere.

One of the reasons motivating Young’s critique of Hartmann, and that recurs in the case of the critique of Fraser’s dual systems theory, is the refusal to assign only the categories of the criticism of political economy to Marxism, and not those pertaining to cultural criticism. Making Marxism coincide with the economic analysis of capitalism, actually makes it a reductive concept. In the same way, it is an error to counterpose the economic and cultural spheres as if they were two completely autonomous spheres that come to interact in a reciprocal relationship. And yet we must say, contrary to Young’s critique, Fraser’s writing was and remains guided by an diametrically opposite objective, surpassing the separation between the cultural and economic spheres and building a theoretical framework capable of highlighting how they intertwine. From this standpoint, it is difficult to consider her position as a version of the dual systems theory, or if so, it is an utterly specific version. According to Young, when one moves from an abstractly analytical environment to examining how oppressions and exploitation and the dynamics of different struggles function concretely, one can see how a binary opposition between redistribution and recognition does not fully express the complexity of the processes of developing subjectivities that spur on the community or groups to struggle. The logic of demands for recognition does not necessarily contradict the logic of demands for redistribution, to the extent that they both contribute to building identities able to struggle for economic justice and social equality: this is the case with Zapatism and Black Power. As long as cultural oppression of specific groups plays a part in their economic oppression, the two struggles are not in conflict, but rather contiguous. According to Young, politics of affirming identity (of race, gender, ethnic group or religion), comes into contradiction with the struggle for social justice only where instead of contributing to the process of subjectivization, it puts the cultural expression in the forefront as an end in itself, so as to overshadow the role of culture in the production of structural economic oppressions.

The discussion on the dual systems’ credibility or lack thereof is also present to some extent, embedded in another debate that took place in the 1980s among Marxist and socialist feminists in the pages of two journals, New Left Review and Studies in Political Economy. Central to the debate in which authors such as Johanna Brenner, Maria Ramas, Michèle Barrett, and Patricia Connelly have participated, has been whether or not it is possible to combine Marxism and feminism, to develop a Marxist feminist theory, confronting the various problems raised by such an attempt. If all the participants in this debate tended to negate the validity of a dual systems theory, while recognizing that women’s oppression precedes capitalism, they had different ways of seeking to show how and in what sense this oppression links up with capitalism. Many questions were raised: are there patriarchal structures independent of capitalism’s own? What role does ideology play in gender oppression? What relation is there between gender ideology and the material bases of women’s oppression? Does the material and economic oppression of women also produce patriarchal ideology or on the contrary, does the latter also exert an influence on the economic level, for example on sexual division of labour?

In Women’s Oppression Today, Michèle Barrett sought to show the role played by ideology in constructing the economy, emphasizing how many of the categories we refer to as economic have been constructed historically in ideological terms. In the same way, the reasons for which the ideology of the typically bourgeois family has been and continues to be shared, even by the working class, warrant investigation. Barrett’s attempt proceeds from the consideration that it is not possible to oppose women’s economic situation and ideology, since such a distinction not make it possible to grasp how these facets are intertwined. On the contrary, it is necessary to explore the complex dynamics of how gender and class ideology relate to one another. Brenner and Ramas have criticized Michèle Barrett’s essay in an article published in New Left Review, as have Pat and Hugh Armstrong in the pages of Studies in Political Economy. According to her critics, Michèle Barrett had fallen back into the dual systems theory trap, while on the contrary it is necessary to recognize that, despite the fact that the patriarchy did not originate with capitalism, but preceded it, it has become completely integrated by capitalism, to the extent that by now they act together, not constituting two systems, but a same and single system. In support of this position, Brenner and Ramas have insisted on the role biology plays in the sexual division of labour that took place in the course of nineteenth-century capitalist development. Women’s reproductive role, the lack of effective contraception, and lack of alternatives to breastfeeding came into contradiction with full participation in productive factory work. As breastfeeding and childrearing were incompatible with factory work, this combination of a biological factor and a specific type of economic development produced the specific oppression of women under capitalism, based on the family home system. The crux of the matter consisted in how the capitalist class productive system incorporated biological reproductive facts and how biological differences in this specific situation became an obstacle to women’s participation in production. Insisting on the weight of the biological factor viewed in relation to the social factor and the historical modifications of this relation is tantamount to downplaying the role of patriarchal ideology in the determination of the sexual division of labour.

In her response to this criticism (Rethinking Women’s Oppression: A Reply to Brenner and Ramas), Michèle Barrett noted that the responses given to biological limits are always social. Women of the aristocracy and the grand bourgeoisie were quick to resolve the need to feed newborns through the use of wet-nurses. Moreover, in some societies, the problem of breastfeeding is partially socialized so as to relieve the burden falling upon the mother alone. For working-class women in countries undergoing capitalist development, the response has been marginalizing women from productive work. In other terms, the type of response given to a biological limitation (for example the need to breastfeed babies) is a question of social choices and processes. But what do these choices and processes call upon, without taking into account gender ideology and how it influences the division of labour?


4.3. From unhappy marriage to queer union


The various versions of feminist theory have often, if not always, been attempts to provide answers to the major problems facing women on the political level, and in particular those pertaining to constructing a female and/or feminist subjectivity able to struggle for women’s own liberation. Questions such as valuing or deconstructing gender difference, the social or biological origin of the oppression of women, to what extent there is a current patriarchal system autonomous from capitalism, the role of gender ideology with respect to the sexual division of labour, or whether or not sexual classes exist are the reflection of concrete political challenges to which the feminist movement has had to attempt to provide answers. These responses, in turn, have had a decisive influence on the movement’s development, its fragmentation and its articulation.

The brief reconstruction of some of these debates provided in these pages has attempted to follow a logic and classifications not generally used in the feminist debate, seeking instead to attempt to circle round an unresolved political problem that is nevertheless all the more urgent; namely, the historical, political and theoretical relationship between gender and class and the possibility of developing a theory that reconciles Marxism and feminism without forcing them into a marriage of convenience. Addressing this problem has become all the more urgent if we consider the developments in the feminist movement in recent decades and the impact of capitalist globalization on women’s lives.

Faced with the monumental process of feminization of labour underway, produced by capitalist globalization, the substantial divorce between Marxism and feminism has given rise to still more major problems. On the one hand, analysis of the sexual division of labour, of the role of reproduction for capitalism, and the way patriarchal ideology is interwoven with the dynamics of capitalist accumulation continues to not be fully integrated either in Marxist theory or in the actions of organizations of the political left and social movements. This greatly limits both understanding and the capacity to intervene in reality. On the other, the fact that a consistent part of feminist movements and theory disregards class determinations in the name of a universal sisterhood or qualities that are essential female characteristics make it more difficult to build political and social alliances between the feminist movement and the workers’ movement and does not even render a good service to the feminist movement itself and its capacity to transform reality.

As early as the end of the 1980s, the theory of intersectionality (a term coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw) has attempted to put the emphasis on interaction between gender, class and race and on how this complex interaction acted in turn on subjects. This interaction must not be understood as a simple addition or summing up of oppressions.

Due to this very intersection, women cannot be viewed as a homogenous subject experiencing gender oppression as primary and sexism as their main relation to power, given their diversity in racial, class, ethnic and status terms and how this diversification and interaction of elements play a part in forming their subjectivity.

The question of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy must be examined just as thoroughly. Contrary to theories that attempt to conceive of the relationship between men and women in terms of exploitation, as a form of organization of a sector of production patriarchy has long ceased its function: what remained of it has been overtaken by capitalism. The process has been anything but linear. On the one hand, capitalism has broken economic ties based on patriarchy, on the other, however, it has conserved and used patriarchal power relations and ideology in many ways. It has broken up the family as a productive unit, but it has used the latter and transformed it profoundly to ensure the task of reproducing the labour force for it gets done. Here patriarchal power relations have played their part: capitalism needed to offload reproductive tasks onto the family – and subordination of women guaranteed the outcome – aggravating the burden on women and the oppressive relations between men and women.

Recognizing that in this context men, including working-class men, enjoyed and continue to enjoy a relative benefit from gender oppression does not mean viewing men as an exploiter class, but understanding the complexity with which capitalism integrates and employs pre-capitalist power relations to create hierarchies of exploited and oppressed, digging trenches and raising barriers. The same applies to the relationship between women and work, a question that has become central with the continual growth in female employment and which also raises the need for deepening the theory of sexual division of labour that does not concentrate only or above all on reproductive labour. Race and gender have been and continue to be powerful instruments in the division of labour. “Feminization of labour” has a dual meaning at the very least. That women take an ever-greater part in productive labour, is a fact that cannot help but modify their condition and the forms that oppression takes. But also the use of a female labour force plays an essential role from capital’s standpoint as it has done in the past: it is used to deskill productive sectors and lower labour costs, to worsen working conditions and implement casualisation of work. Once again, understanding this dynamic is impossible without reference to the fundamental role of patriarchal ideology and patriarchal power relations. This is a role that not only moves towards an implicit or explicit devaluation of female labour, invariably viewed as secondary, as an adjunct to male labour, but which has effects and creates problems also in terms of class subjectivity, often making it more difficult for women to mobilize and speak out. Underevaluating or not dealing with the interweave of economic conditions and cultural and ideological oppressions entails the risk of losing sight of the complexity the task of building a new workers’ movement of men and women alike will increasingly confront, faced with an ever more female working class.

Feminism has developed tools essential to the understanding of gender reality, how it functions and its mechanisms. In its contradictory relationship with psychoanalysis, nevertheless it has shed light on the psychological component of women’s oppression and on the role of the family and family relations as an essential locus for reproducing sexual division of roles, of the construction of gender and the consolidation and perpetuation of normative heterosexuality. Fully assuming these aspects does not necessarily mean abandoning a materialist approach to go back to the “clouds of idealism”. Rather, it means grasping the way patriarchal power is internalized, even by women themselves, acting on a level that is not economic, and as such this internalization also has decisive effects from a political standpoint. Anyone who has an experience of political activism has seen up close the problems women have speaking out, voicing their initiative, becoming politicized, as they are crushed between interiorized gender oppression and the doubt in one’s abilities this entails and how oppression mechanisms come into play in power relations on the part of male members of their organizations. Disregarding these elements not only does a disservice to women, it also does a disservice to Marxism and to a political project aimed at radical transformation of society.

Developing an outlook that can make sense of intersections and decipher the complex relationship between patriarchal holdovers that drift like homeless ghosts in the globalized capitalist world and patriarchal structures that, on the contrary, have been integrated, used and transformed by capitalism calls for a renewal of Marxism. This renewal is necessary in order to go beyond counterposing cultural and economic, material and ideological categories. A political project aiming to rebuild a new workers’ movement requires serious reflection on how gender and race influence the composition of the labour force as in terms of processes of developing subjectivity. Moreover, it also means an end to the contest over primary oppression. The point is not whether class comes before gender or gender before class, the point is rather how gender and class intertwine in capitalist production and power relations to give rise to a complex reality, and it makes little sense and is not very useful to attempt to reduce these to a simple formula. The point is, therefore how class and gender can be combined together in a political project able to take action avoiding two specular dangers: the temptation of mashing the two realities together, making gender a class or class a gender, and the temptation to pulverize power relations and exploitative relations to see nothing but a series of single oppressions lined up beside each other and reluctant to be included within a comprehensive liberation project.


Bibliography: Some suggestions for further readings


On the historical links between women movement and labour movement I recommend the following:

Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, A Lane, 1973;

Annik Mahaim, Alix Holt, Jacqueline Heinen, Femmes et mouvement ouvrier, La Breche Paris 1979, which deals with three historical experiences: German Social democracy, the Russian revolution and the Spanish civil war;

Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, Bookmarks London 1984.


On the Russian revolution and women: Barbara Evans. Clements, Bolshevik Women, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997.

On the American feminist movement and black power: Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard (eds.), Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, New York University Press New York – London 2009,

and of course: A. Davis, Women, Race, and Class, New York 1981.


On France: Josette Trat, “L’histoire du courant ‘féministe lutte de classe’”, in Femmes, genre, féminisme, Syllepse, Paris 2007;

On Italy: Lidia Cirillo, Lettera alle romane, Il Dito e la Luna, Milan 2001 and the article by Arturo. Peregalli, “PCI 1946-1970. Donna, famiglia, morale sessuale”, Quaderni Pietro Tresso, n. 27, gennaio-febbraio 2001.


Some classical essentials:

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995;

Flora. Tristan, Peregrinations of a Pariah 1833-1834, Beacon 1987

Freidrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Penguin London 2010;

Clara Zetkin’s articles available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/index.htm

Alexandra Kollontai, Selected Writings, W W Norton and company, New York – London 1980.


The book which marks the turning point between first and second wave feminism is Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Everyman's Library 1993.


On the question of the origin of women’s oppression, see

Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson (ed.), Women’s Work, Men’s Property: The Origins of Gender and Class, Verso, London – New York 1986

Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, Haymarket, Chicago 2008. 


Some reference writing for radical feminism:

Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for Feminist Revolution, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York 2003;

Kate Millet, Sexual Politics, Urbana 2000.


Concerning materialist feminism:

Christine Delphy, Close to Home: Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, University of Massachusetts Press 1984,

Concerning lesbian feminism influenced by materialist feminism

Monique Wittig, The straight mind and other essays, Beacon Press 1992.

A feminist workerist text:

Maria Dalla Costa, Selma James, The Power of Women & the Subversion of Community, Wages for Housework Publisher 1975,


On post-workerist feminism:

Alisa del Re, “Produzione/riproduzione”, in Lessico marxiano, Manifestolibri, Rome 2008, pp. 137-153.


On difference theory:

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Ithaca 1985;

For a critique of this theory see Lidia Cirillo, Lettera alle romane 2001.


On queer theory:

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, New York 1990 and Bodies that Matter, Routledge, New York 1993.

On the debate between Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler

Judith Butler, “Merely Cultural”, New Left Review, I/227 (1998) 

Nancy Fraser, “Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler”, New Left Review, I/228 (1998), Judith Butler in Nancy Fraser, Adding Insult to Injury: Nancy Fraser Debates Her Critics Verso, New York and London 2008.


Finally, some good readings on the relationship between class and gender, patriarchy and capitalism, and sexuality and late capitalism:

Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Towards a Unitary Theory, Rutgers University Press 1987; Lydia Sargent (ed.), 

Women and Revolution: a Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, South End Press, Boston 1981;

Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Pantheon, New York 1975;

Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus, Routledge, New York-London 1997;

Iris Young, “Unruly Categories: A critique of Nancy Fraser’s Dual System Theory”, New Left Review, I/227 (1997);

Michele Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis, Verso, London 1980 and “Rethinking Women's Oppression: A Reply to Brenner and Ramas”, New Left Review, I/146 (1984);

Johanna Brenner – Maria Ramas, “Rethinking Women’s Oppression”, New Left Review, I/144 (1984);

Pat and Hugh Armstrong, “Beyond Sexless Class and Classless Sex: Towards Feminist Marxism”, Studies in Political Economy, 53 (1983);

Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure. Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, Routledge, New York and London, 2000;

Kevin Floyd, The Reification of Desire. Toward a Queer Marxism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2009.