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Marx the Feminist?

Leontina M. Hormel is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho.
Heather A. Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 323 pages, $28.00, paperback.
Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 189 pages, $15.95, paperback.

In the face of global economic crisis and the dismantling of social programs under austerity policies, many feminists are re-engaging Marx’s critique of capitalism. This return to Marx is necessary if we are effectively to overcome gender oppression, especially since the latest trends in feminism—or at least those “fit to print” and discussed in the popular press—place the onus of equal treatment squarely on women’s shoulders. Newfound feminists like Sheryl Sandberg advise women to “lean in” and adjust their behavior to suit the aggressively entrepreneurial norms rewarded in the real world that men lead. As Nancy Fraser aptly puts it, these tendencies within feminism serve as “capitalism’s handmaiden”: such identity-centered, cultural critiques have helped obscure capital’s dependency on gendered oppressions.1

This did not have to happen. 1970s and ’80s feminists such as Silvia Federici were actively debating how feminism could integrate Marx’s critique of capitalism. Yet over two decades later, Joan Acker noted that feminism still had much work ahead, since “exactly how class matters for white women and people of other racial groups is still an issue.”2 Fortunately, recent scholarship by Heather Brown as well as Federici herself provides useful insights for feminists on how to reconsider Marxist theory.

Brown’s Marx on Gender and the Family directly addresses feminists’ repeated criticisms of Marx and Engels’s supposed economic determinism, gender-blind categories, and focus on production at the expense of reproduction. Through extensive analysis of his books, political articles, and unpublished notes, Brown suggests that Marx made far more room for gender in his work than such critics have tended to credit him. She concedes that few areas in Marx’s analysis provide extensive discussions of gendered experiences, and that at times Marx seems to slip into Victorian sensibilities. But Brown argues that these shortcomings should not distract us from the elements in Marx’s analysis that prepare the ground and offer powerful tools for integrating gender and reproductive relations within a systematic critique of capitalism.

To illustrate the evolution of Marx’s thought on gender and capitalist relations, Brown carefully analyzes his and Engels’s writings, revisiting well-known works such as the 1844 Manuscripts, the Communist Manifesto, Capital, and The Origin of the Family. She also examines a selection of Marx’s journalism, lectures, and unpublished notebooks, and in doing so, disentangles Marx’s dialectics from the economic determinism that she and others, such as Raya Dunayevskaya, associate with Engels. Dunayevskaya argued that Engels often slips away from dialectical reasoning, especially “when it gets fixed on the family,” while Marx persistently conceives relations like those between men and women as processes transformed by changing social conditions, rather than as static, transhistorical, or “natural” categories.3 By reminding readers that Marx’s analysis is dialectical, Brown allows us to see more possibilities in his work for understanding women’s experiences, reproduction, and the family.

One such opening arises from the question of value. In his writings, Marx spent considerable time showing how social relations look from the perspective of capital. This important detail is often lost on many readers who are tempted to take his critique literally, as though Marx’s views and those of the bourgeoisie were the same. His work instead strives to view relations through capital’s lens in order to expose the exploitation on which capitalism depends. From the perspective of capital, commodity (labor) value is linked to the surplus value that can be funneled to the bourgeoisie. Human relations in this mode of production exist in an alienated (including alienated-gender) form, where value is only seen in what an individual (assumed masculine) provides to another (assumed feminine), creating the illusion that labor is only productive in its capacity to create surplus value.

Marx, of course, advanced a different conception of social relations, centered on use values, that sees worth in humans in their own right, in terms of their own powers and needs, and not as the basis for skimming surplus value out of the working day. Here Brown reminds us that in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx argued that a society’s level of development could be measured by women’s position in it. Brown contends that Marx’s case for socially useful values means that women, devalued in capitalist relations and most societies, would be recognized as equal contributors to social production and reproduction, since all labor, both productive and reproductive, would be made visible.

In treating social relations as dialectical, Brown continues, Marx understands gender as a dynamic category that is neither static nor natural. Brown shows clearly in her discussions of the 1844 Manuscripts and the German Ideology that because nature and society condition and transform one another, gender relations should not be seen as biologically determined. How these realms interact with one another is contingent on specific historical conditions. For instance, the gender division of labor within the family has always been malleable, altered by shifts in society and technology. This is a multi-directional process that is not exclusively determined by economics or technologies or vice versa. Similarly, families can be sites of oppression not just among the working class, but also in bourgeois households. Gender and class relations operate together to shape forms of oppression—something Acker has illustrated well in her work. Even in working-class families of Marx’s time, domestic gender relations were in flux, as the patriarchal power men derived through the transfer of private property to their sons began to wane as wages supplanted property ownership. With great insight, Marx emphasized how such contradictions have characterized all forms of family across different classes and eras.

It is interesting to consider Brown’s work alongside that of Federici, who has criticized Marx for falling short in theorizing gender relations under capitalism. Federici has been a passionate feminist writer and activist for more than forty years, co-founding the International Feminist Collective in 1972 and writing prolifically on issues of gender oppression and reproductive labor. Revolution at Point Zero is a compilation of selected lectures and articles from throughout her career, sorted into three themes: “Theorizing and Politicizing Housework,” “Globalization and Social Reproduction,” and “Reproducing Commons.”

Though Federici has faulted Marx for his inattention to women’s lives and labor, her writing and activism engage key concepts from his work, expanding them to be understood as both gendered and classed processes. She shows convincingly that capital’s success is measured not just by its ability to exploit productive labor, but also by its ability to outsource labor’s reproduction to women in the home. “Nothing, in fact, has been so powerful in institutionalizing [women’s] work, the family, and our dependence on men,” she writes in an early essay, “as the fact that not a wage but ‘love’ has always paid for this work” (37).

From this dialectical understanding of class and gender relations, we learn that capitalism has disciplined us and fooled us into valuing the alienating forces of work over the socially useful experiences of family, love, and non-alienated intimate relations. In a 1975 essay, “Why Sexuality Is Work,” Federici forcefully describes how alienation degrades sexuality:

Sexuality is the release we are given from the discipline of the work process…. It is the license to “go natural,” to “let go,” so that we can return more refreshed on Monday to our job…. This being the promise, what we actually get is far from our expectations. As we cannot go back to nature by simply taking off our clothes, so we cannot become “ourselves” simply because it is time to make love. Little spontaneity is possible when the timing, conditions, and the amount of energy available for love, are out of our control. (23)

A system that dehumanizes workers does the same to even the most intimate of connections. Feminist scholarship of the kind that Federici has been producing for decades clarifies for us the benefits that capital reaps through this dehumanization of reproductive workers.

Her writings in the section on “Globalization and Social Reproduction” illustrate how capital’s expansion has shaped the international division of labor to create further divisions between peripheral and metropolitan areas, as women from the margins serve these centers by reproducing workers for local and international labor markets. Federici sees these divisions in the exploitation of women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, working in sites tied to what she and others call the New International Division of Labor. These violent processes form “a world proletariat without any means of reproduction, forced to depend on monetary relations for its survival, but with no access to a monetary income” (28). Over the course of her early writings, Federici finds connections between subsistence, human relations, and the environment, as she broadens her discussion of housework and domestic labor.

Federici’s latest work on primitive accumulation and the “reproductive commons” potently analyzes how capitalism incorporates the reproductive work of subsistence. She calls for the “commoning” of the material means of reproduction—housing, cooking, childcare—in order to fundamentally reconnect us to one another and thus counteract the tendency toward alienation under capitalism. This alienation is visible in capital’s efforts to delink the productive sphere from the reproductive sphere: contemporary families are functioning in isolation from one another, increasingly bearing the burdens of child and elder care alone, as social services are continually cut. Likewise, the expanded privatization of land further corrodes people’s abilities to live autonomously, to produce outside of markets, and to share intimate relations not disciplined by capital.

Both Federici’s and Brown’s books help illustrate how the social and natural are integral to one another. This is a vital issue for feminists as we re-center how capitalism divides us along the lines of niched identities and cultures that cultivate the attributes—like aggression, egotism, and excess rationality—most beneficial in maintaining the current economic system. The self-help approach of “lean-in” feminism can only continue the process of separating producers from the means of both production and reproduction. Brown and Federici offer timely works that illuminate how gendering the Marxist critique of political economy is both possible and necessary if we are to resist the further absorption of social reproduction into capitalism.

Grassroots movements are the very expressions of everyday people resisting the process of primitive accumulation, and central to these struggles is resistance to forced separation from the reproductive commons. For instance, in northern Idaho, state leaders have discovered a money-making opportunity in the enabling of megaload transport of Alberta Tar Sands equipment through Nez Perce tribal treaty lands and the Clearwater Watershed, which is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee took a historic stand against this expansion of the corridor for “high-and-wide” commercial transportation, leading to the arrest of six of the Committee members on August 5, 2013, for organizing a blockade on Highway 12 in the Clearwater Watershed. This story becomes even more remarkable in light of the fact that the majority of Nez Perce members arrested on the following night of ongoing protests were women. One reason these women gave for their willingness to face arrest was the disproportionate violence suffered by indigenous women as their families and communities are asked to give up more of their rights and way of life by governments and corporations seeking to profit from nature. The Nez Perce revolt vividly illustrates the interrelationships between processes of reproduction and production that both Brown and Federici have so valuably documented.


  1. Nancy Fraser, “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden—And How to Reclaim It,” Guardian, October 14, 2013,
  2. Joan Acker, Class Questions: Feminist Answers (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), 1.
  3. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1992), 106.
2016, Volume 67, Issue 08 (January)
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