Women, wages and reproduction

Critically engaging with Lise Vogel can be useful if we want to develop our understanding of women’s oppression and how to overcome it, argues Anne McShane

A debate took place within the CPGB in November 2021 on amending the ‘women’ section of immediate demands in the organisation’s Draft programme.

One of the issues raised was the impact of demands to limit women’s participation in work during pregnancy and its immediate aftermath. Sarah Stewart pointed to the obstacles to developing a career because of pregnancy and childcare. These include women being overlooked for promotion and discriminated against when they take maternity leave or time off for childcare. She argued that enforcing demands like a six-hour day for nursing mothers puts them at a disadvantage within the workplace, because they cannot compete with their male colleagues.

Jack Conrad argued that it was wrong to approach the problem from the perspective of seeking the individual right to compete with men in the labour market. Instead we need to promote “the political economy of the working class versus the political economy of the bourgeoisie”.1 “Therefore, we support legal limits on the ability of capitalists to exploit women who are pregnant, have just given birth or who are breastfeeding. We do not stand for mere ‘equal rights’.”

Following this debate, paragraph 26 of the 2022 perspectives document passed at a CPGB members meeting in February states:

We have had programmatic differences over the woman question - specifically the collectivity and political economy of the working class versus the illusory goal of obtaining equal opportunities within bourgeois society. Once again this testifies to a certain political fragility. We shall encourage members, supporters and party organisations to study working class solutions to the woman question in the coming year. We shall also encourage debate in the pages of the Weekly Worker.2

I decided to initiate this debate by presenting a review of the book Marxism and the oppression of women - towards a unitary theory3 at the June 12 Online Communist Forum. Written by Lise Vogel (who describes herself as a “Marxist feminist”) and published in 1983 (revised in 2013), it has been considered by Marxist feminists as a ‘classic’. This is because of her advocacy of a theory of ‘social reproduction’ to explain the material basis for women’s oppression within capitalism, and advance our understanding of the issues to be examined. I made it clear on June 12 that I am not a ‘Marxist feminist’ or a ‘socialist feminist’. I believe that Marxism itself provides a solution to the oppression of women within class society and that adding feminism on makes it a sectional struggle - limiting rather than extending the development of our theory.

Lack of clarity?

However, I do think that Vogel raises at least one valid point, which needs further exploration. This is her claim that there is a lack of clarity within Marxism on the relationship between the role of women in the reproduction and maintenance of labour-power, and the wage paid by capitalism for that labour-power. She acknowledges that Marx had planned to write far more on this question and the role of wage labour within his Capital project, but was unfortunately unable to do so because of illness and death.

In her analysis of the history of consideration of the woman question and the family, Vogel far less convincingly accuses Engels of muddying the waters by separating the processes of social production and private reproduction. She argues that in Origin of the family, private property and the state, he presents a ‘dual-systems’ approach - with a “characterisation of the single family as the ‘economic unit of society’”, separate from social production (p136). She continues: “Also along the same lines, Marx, as well as Engels, spoke several times of the sex-division of labour within the family as a sort of representative miniature of the social division of labour in society”, claiming that it “contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and the state”.

Vogel asserts that such statements have led to a false belief that there are two separate struggles to be fought - one with patriarchy within the home and the other with capitalism in the workplace. She goes on: “While Engels underscores the simultaneous emergence of sex and class conflict, he never achieves a clear picture of their connection” (p137). Of course, she is completely wrong here - Engels actually made that connection abundantly clear and advocated the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare in order to free women from their subservient position not simply within the home, but within capitalist society itself. In fact Vogel is later forced to climb down on this assertion and admit that Engels “does not entirely neglect the social-reproductive perspective”, when he advances the path to emancipation through social and collective solutions. Even so, she maintains that his “contradictory blend of the dual systems and social reproductive perspectives became, in effect, the unstable theoretical foundation for all subsequent socialist investigation of the so-called woman question”.

Vogel also claims that the “dual systems” theory dominated the reformist wing of the Second International and stunted its ability to make progress on the woman question. She argues that in contrast Lenin took socialisation of domestic labour and the link between the family and social production more seriously than his comrades. She also credits him as the originator of the argument to connect democratic rights for women with real substantial equality through revolution. Again she is wrong. Lenin was educated in the necessity for socialisation and for working class democracy within the Second International. He had been schooled in a programme which had self-emancipation through democracy at its core, and which included August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg among its international leaders. This is where his politics came from.

In the discussion at the OCF, Jack Conrad dismissed Vogel’s book as “truly dreadful” - in particular her pronouncements on Engels and the Second International - and argued that she evidenced a profound ignorance of the politics and theory of that movement. However, while Vogel exhibits many problems, her assertion that there has been a lack of systematic theoretical work on the woman question since Engels wrote Origin cannot be denied. Zetkin, Kollontai and Armand made advances, but it was more from the perspective of the struggle to link demands for democracy with work and politics, socialisation of childcare, domestic labour and demands around maternity, childcare and the right to choose. Zetkin and Kollontai reminded their male comrades repeatedly that there could not be socialism without women’s emancipation. But they were not able to make much progress on development of theory without a collective commitment to this project within the Second and Third Internationals.


Now to look at the issue Vogel raises about the interaction between the reproduction and maintenance of labour-power and the payment of wages for that labour-power. My understanding is that under capitalism the worker receives a wage which allows the purchase of commodities necessary to feed, clothe and culturally maintain that person and their dependents, if it is paid at its proper value.

However, in my view - and that of Vogel - what it cannot be said to cover is the full cost of the generational reproduction and maintenance of labour-power. The majority of this is provided free by women during pregnancy, in the performance of domestic labour, provision of childcare and the general care of the worker who sells their labour-power to the capitalist. Capitalism as a system excludes any responsibility for these costs from its budget. As the CPGB Draft programme states,

Women carry the main burden of feeding babies, house management, supermarket buying, family cooking, child ferrying, etc, which is performed gratis. Such work is often frantic, demoralising and allows no kind of rounded, cultural development.

And also: “As a norm therefore women are exploited by capital as cheap wage workers and domestic slaves. Hence they suffer a double burden”.

We can see evidence of this in the failure to pay for adequate maternity leave, childcare costs, time off for nursing mothers, time off to care for sick children, aging parents, and other needy members of the working class. Capitalism needs the working class to reproduce and maintain labour-power, but is in continual struggle with the working class about resources to allow them to do this. Women are disadvantaged from the outset within capitalism, which needs them active in the workforce as well as at home to reproduce and maintain labour-power. This is a contradiction which cannot be resolved by the system.

And it is no wonder that, with such enormous competing pressures, women often choose to restrict the number of children they have. The difficulties of combining childcare with a career, and the financial and personal costs of combining long working days and childcare are well known. Not to mention the prejudice and disadvantages they suffer in the workplace as a mother - mentioned at the outset of this article.

The discussion following my presentation at the OCF was extremely interesting. Comrades raised a range of questions, including the relevance of the decline in the international birth rate, including the US and China. Is the failure of women to reproduce because of the pressures of being a mother under capitalism causing a crisis in the system? Does it signal a pending population emergency?

Another issue raised was whether women’s work in reproducing and maintaining labour-power can be considered as part of social production. Is it really free labour or covered by the wage paid by the capitalist for labour-power? What about a family wage - should we be arguing for a wage sufficient to pay for women’s work in the home?

Another point made was about the importance of the care provided privately by women within the home and the need for the working class to collectively provide this care for the young and vulnerable in our society. This is something which is, of course, implicit within demands for socialisation of childcare and domestic labour. It is why the demands for childcare facilities are extremely important, along with proper paid maternity leave, etc. The logic of the political economy of the working class means collective solutions. Resolving these questions collectively means that women are not penalised because of their position in reproduction.

The Zhenotdel (Women’s Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party) tried to develop socialisation in extremely constrained circumstances in the early years of the Russian Revolution. Its success in developing hundreds of public canteens, childcare facilities, public laundries and other amenities provided many working women with the opportunity to attend political meetings and take part in the discussions and initiatives of the early Soviet republic. It gave them a stake in the success of the project. Of course the civil war, New Economic Policy, the isolation of the revolution and the ultimate rise of Stalin put paid to their project and the small steps forward in obtaining real equality were rapidly reversed. The Zhenotdel was closed down by Stalin in 1930 despite the protests of its members. Its legacy shows the enormous possibilities which exist if we adopt a collective approach.

Finally I hope my talk and this article underlines the fact that women’s emancipation is integral to our collective project and that our theory on the question must be developed further. I am aware that I have raised many more questions than I have answered and invite others to join this debate.

  1. ‘Amending our programme’ Weekly Worker November 25 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1373/amending-our-programme.↩︎

  2. ‘Perspectives 2022’ Weekly Worker February 17 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1383/perspectives-2022.↩︎

  3. L Vogel Marxism and the oppression of women - towards a unitary theory Chicago 2013.↩︎