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Liberating Women from “Political Economy”

Margaret Benston's Marxism and a Social-Reproduction Approach to Gender Oppression

A Woman's Work Is Never Done

"A Woman's Work Is Never Done," 1974. Red Women’s Workshop.

Tithi Bhattacharya is a Marxist feminist author and activist. She is the editor of Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto Press, 2017) and coauthor with Nancy Fraser and Cinzia Arruzza of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso Books, 2019). She is one of the organizers of the International Women’s Strike and a longtime activist for Palestinian liberation.

With the passage of the means of production into common property, the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children become a public matter. Society takes care of all children equally, irrespective of whether they are born in wedlock or not. Thus, the anxiety about the “consequences,” which is today the most important social factor—both moral and economic—that hinders a girl from giving herself freely to the man she loves disappears.

—Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)

…dawn in Bronx Park, New York. There is yet no movement in the near-by apartment houses. From the subway come women, Negro women. They carefully arrange the Daily News or Mirror along the park bench still moist with dew, and sit down. Why do they sit so patiently? It’s cold and damp in the early morning.

Here we are, for sale for the day. Take our labor. Give us what you will. We must feed our children and pay high rent in Harlem. Ten cents, fifteen cents an hour! That won’t feed our families for a day, let alone pay rent. You won’t pay more? Well, guess that’s better than going back to Harlem after spending your last nickel for carfare.

—Louise Thompson Patterson, Toward a Brighter Dawn (1936)

In the traditional genre of South Indian nursery songs, or thalattu pattu, a woman worker encapsulates in music what I contend is the central argument of Margaret Benston’s classic essay, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” (1969). Forced to take her baby to work during harvest time, the woman laments:

While harvesting, if
I strap you to my shoulders
in the noon-day heat
will you not feel faint?
while I work in the fields
and leave you by the side before I leave the fields
will you not begin to cry?
I am a chittal1
The overseer will be enraged
And if the overseer were to scold
Will not my baby feel sad?2

What is the nature of this woman/mother’s work? Does her work consist of harvesting the crops, for which she is paid a low wage? Or is caring for her baby the “real work,” something intrinsic to her being and thus not requiring monetary recompense? Are the two kinds of work externally related through the contingency of her being a woman? Or are they internally related through the systemic organization of all social labor?

Benston’s essay was one of the first comprehensive explorations of these questions, but in ways that both drew on and departed from how Marxists had traditionally dealt with them in the past.

The Dual Explanatory Models at the Heart of Marxist Tradition

There is an unresolved tension at the heart of Marxist explanations for women’s oppression under capitalism. Although there is general agreement that the bourgeois family, as the dominant kinship unit, has something to do with generating and reproducing that oppression, the exact role of the family varies among Marxists.

August Bebel, whose Woman and Socialism (1879) laid the foundation for a discussion of women’s oppression within the left, suggested that the social basis for women’s oppression lay in the “dependence” of women on men within the family. By becoming independent from men, “the woman of future society…[would be] socially and economically independent…no longer subject to even a vestige of domination and exploitation; she…[would be] free, the peer of man, mistress of her lot.”3 Frederick Engels, who might have written The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) to refute some of Bebel’s core arguments, nevertheless reproduced in his classic text a version of what I shall call the dependence through sexual division of labor explanation of women’s oppression. The “individual modern family,” according to Engels, was founded “on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.” The excision of the family from general production made the household lose “its public character,” thereby pushing women “out of participation in social production.” But because modern industrial production fettered to its churning wheels all workers irrespective of gender, it also opened up for working-class women “the avenue to social production; but in such a way that, if she fulfils her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and cannot earn anything; and if she wishes to take part in public industry and earn her living independently, she is not in a position to fulfil her family duties.”4

Engels’s casting of the argument is of course more sophisticated than Bebel’s, for unlike Bebel, he tries to realign the explanatory locus of gender oppression to social production as a whole rather than to explain it simply through mechanics enclosed within the household or through interpersonal dynamics between men and women. The division of labor approach to oppression remains, however, the shadow from under which neither Engels nor Karl Marx fully emerge in their writings on gender. I emphasize this because, as we will see, we can build a much better theoretical architecture for explaining gender oppression from their writings on capitalist production and social relations in general.

What then is the division of labor approach to women’s oppression?

Simply put, the argument goes: At the dawn of human social organization, there only existed a sexual division of labor. But as new institutions, such as the family, arose, that division transposed itself as the “natural” division of labor within the household. The result was twofold: a diminished participation of women in social production and their resulting (economic and emotional) dependence on men.

Susan Ferguson’s recent work documents how the theme of dependence preceded Marx and Engels and can be traced back to the early modern querelle des femmes in Europe.5 To this we can add nineteenth-century writings of anticolonial (proto)feminists of the Global South. Women wrote tracts, poems, science fiction, even manifestos to contest male superiority, the only “reason” given to them as to why they ought to depend on or be subservient to men.

As early as 1600, the Italian poet Lucrezia Marinella forcefully declared women to be not only equal to men but perhaps even superior:

Would to God, that in our times women were allowed the practice of arms and letters [ars et mars]. What marvels would we see.… I wish that these [detractors of women] would make this experiment: that they raise a boy and a girl of the same age, and both of sound mind and body, in letters and in arms. They would see in a short time how the girl would be more perfectly instructed than the boy and would soon surpass him.6

Similarly, the Bengali firebrand Muslim reformer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, rejecting the inferiority of women, went a step further to challenge religious texts that attested inferiority to be the jealous work of male authors:

Had God Himself intended women to be inferior, He would have ordained it so that mothers would have given birth to daughters at the end of the fifth month of pregnancy. The supply of mother’s milk would naturally have been half of that in case of a son. But that is not the case.… Men are using religion as an excuse to dominate us at present.… Therefore we should not submit quietly to such oppression in the name of religion.7

The European socialist tradition, including Marx and Engels, was thus nested in this wider and older discourse of female emancipation, where the focus was on independence of women from men.8 The strategic conclusions that flowed from this framework were either that women should be educated in the same manner as men, that women should secure economic independence in waged work, or both. Liberal reformers usually emphasized the emancipation-through-education route while the socialist stress was on emancipation-through-waged work, albeit with many overlaps between the two paths.

This essentially liberal humanist framing of the so-called woman question can be sensed several times in Marx and Engels’s writings. For instance, in The Origin of the Family, Engels argues that the creation of “real social equality” between women and men could only happen

when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.9

Unsurprisingly, this productivist framing carried over to one of the most creative interpreters of the Marxist tradition—the Bolsheviks. Nadezhda Krupskaya’s first pamphlet, The Woman Worker (1901), was heralded in Marxist circles as a groundbreaking study of women’s oppression. Although an empirical study of the conditions of Russian peasant and working-class women, The Woman Worker tried to provide a theoretical basis for that information. Tenaciously pursuing the dependence model, “women workers,” argued Krupskaya, “suffer not only because they go out to work but also from being women, from being dependent on men.” But how, she asks, “can such a dependent state of women be explained?” Through the sexual division of labor of course. It was because the “man as master gives all the orders about work and the woman is only there to carry them out. The man decides everything: when to start ploughing or sowing, whether to take on such and such work or not… The woman is excluded from all social affairs, [and is] tied to matters of the house and children.” The solution to the “woman question” was equally clear—it was through waged work:

Where a woman, thanks to her playing a part in manufacture, attains independence she can sometimes obtain a parcel of land, thus gaining the right to possess land fully on the same terms as a man. We see that in those branches of industry where women’s labour has become customary the woman working in the factory is paid only a little less than the man and is able to feed herself. The husband ceases to be her “bread winner.”… She works in the factory completely separately and independent of her husband instead of under his command in the way seen in peasant life.… The wife ceases to be the husband’s slave and becomes an equal member of the family. Total dependence on her husband is replaced by equality.10

I am not suggesting that Marx, Engels, or the Bolsheviks believed that woman’s liberation was possible under capitalism. They insisted that the fate of such liberation was inextricably linked to the fate of the working class. But what this dependence through sexual division of labor framing did was set up a relation of externality between the family and social production. Three important drawbacks stand out.

First, it underestimates the role women have always played in social production, thus making the theory more than a little shaky. If women’s participation in social production is the key to emancipation, how come the backbreaking work women have always done in class society failed to liberate them? The elevation of waged work as the path to equality, similarly, fails to explain why or how gender inequalities are consistently and reliably reproduced through the very functioning of that work.

Second, by tying the threads of division of labor, property relations, and women’s oppression in causative ways, it misrecognizes the theoretical status of the family under capitalism, causing Marx and Engels, particularly, to exult in various places over the imminent demise of the working-class family since the class had been made propertyless. Anyone looking around the world today can attest to the grievous prematurity of such hopes.

Finally, and most importantly, the division of labor explanation set up social production as being externally related to the family, as though the family merely bore the effects of social production rather than was a unit that alongside the production of commodities co-constituted those very relations making up the totality of social production under capitalism.

If this was the totality of thinking about gender in the Marxist tradition, then we would be facing a serious problem. Fortunately, the Marxist method remains the key to understanding, and solving, the problem of gender oppression. What is interesting, then, is how (or why), when writing specifically about gender, Marx and Engels fall into the trap of the above inadequate analysis, while their writings on general social production contain the seeds of a far more robust, creative, and historical materialist theory of gender under capitalism. This is the social reproduction approach.

Social Reproduction Approach: Wresting the Economy from Economism

Marx and Engels’s most important insights about the family were (1) that it is rooted in social production; (2) hence its social form is responsive to historical changes in general production, which in turn change due to shifts in the labor process and division of labor; and (3) that it is firmly tied to property relations, its forms and ideologies aligning with changes in property relations.

While the above is standard fare in Marxist circles, there is an important seam of undertheorization here. The family is seen to be responsive, if not separate, from “production”; hence Engels’s repeated comments about two kinds of production:

The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other. The less labour is developed and the more limited the volume of its products and, therefore, the wealth of society, the more predominantly the social order appears to be dominated by ties of kinship. However, within this structure of society based on ties of kinship, the productivity of labour develops more and more; with it, private property and exchange, differences in wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others, and thereby the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which strive in the course of generations to adapt the old structure of society to the new conditions, until, finally, incompatibility of the two leads to a complete transformation. The old society, based on ties of kinship, bursts asunder with the collision of the newly developed social classes; in its place a new society appears, constituted in a state, the lower units of which are no longer groups based on ties of kinship but territorial groups, a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system, and in which the class antagonisms and class struggle, which make up the content of all hitherto written history now freely unfold.11

But what is this mystical “production” from which the family is separate? If we read the passage carefully, then it is clear that the family, far from being a second category of production, actually plays a key role in changing the stage of development of labor, because such changes are immanent, as Engels rightly claims, in the “structure of society based on ties of kinship.” The problem, then, is not the claim that the “production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life…is of a twofold character.… On the one side, the production of the means of existence…on the other side, the production of human beings themselves,” but rather the absence of theorization of the relationship between the two. Social reproduction theory, in its many iterations, whether called so consciously or not, is about that relationship.

Lise Vogel, in her now classic 1983 Marxism and the Oppression of Women, was the first to pick out the key move effected by Benston in establishing this relationship—giving domestic labor, and thereby the family, a theoretical status. Benston’s explanation for women’s oppression, Vogel shows, starts by identifying the source of that oppression as “‘economic’ or ‘material,’ and…located in women’s unpaid domestic labor.”12 Women’s labor in the home—all the cooked meals, laundry, and general care work—ought to be designated as economic activity. With this formulation, in one fell swoop, Benston exploded the division of labor/dependence model and granted Marxist theory two analytical gifts: first, the rescue of the “economy” from economism and the realignment of its definition with the labor theory of value; second, instead of the endless focus on women’s role in the work of reproduction, the exposition of how that work determines women’s “relationship to the means of production, one that is distinct from that of men.” Both of these gifts have had lasting consequences.

In drawing domestic labor within the theoretical framework of generalized economic production, Benston, and the socialist feminists who came after her, hewed much closer to Marx than many celebrated (often male) economists. The feminists restored to “economy” the original Marxist understanding of that concept.

It is useful to begin from the careful choice of the subtitle of Capital by Marx himself—The Critique of Political Economy. While strongly influenced by British political economists, he was scathing about the limitations of that tradition. “Classical political economy,” he wrote derisively, “stumbles approximately on to the true state of affairs, but without consciously formulating it. It is unable to do this as long as it stays within its bourgeois skin.”13

The chief symptom of the political economists’ failure, for Marx, was their misdiagnosis of the nature of capital. They conceptualized capital as a thing that mechanically moved through a bundle of inputs, land, labor, and capital, to produce an output—profit. This mechanistic view of the economy was stripped of both people and the social relations between them. Which means it was a schema devoid of human agency, oppression, and alienation, mistakenly confining the meaning of economy to market phenomena alone. The Marxist approach, in direct contrast, revealed the camera obscura nature of capitalism, where the relationship between people was expressed as a relationship between things, thereby violating even the most rudimentary creative and humane impulses of humanity as a whole.

In Capital, volume 3, Marx put it thus:

Capital, land, labour! However, capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character. Capital is not the sum of the material and produced means of production. Capital is rather the means of production transformed into capital, which in themselves are no more capital than gold or silver in itself is money. It is the means of production monopolised by a certain section of society, confronting living labour-power as products and working conditions rendered independent of this very labour-power, which are personified through this antithesis in capital. It is not merely the products of labourers turned into independent powers, products as rulers and buyers of their producers, but rather also the social forces and the future…form of this labour, which confront the labourers as properties of their products. Here, then, we have a definite and, at first glance, very mystical, social form, of one of the factors in a historically produced social production process.14

The harmony and equilibrium of the Smithian market and its invisible hand vanish and are radically replaced by classes, class exploitation, force, and violence.

Once we introduce the worker and her living labor to the previously dead schema of the economy, a number of animating changes begin. First, the labor theory of value emerges as a narrative about the fate of living labor, the worker and the inhuman process of capitalist work in which the very moment the worker starts work, her labor stops belonging to her. Ruthless competition among many capitals dictates that individual capitalists try to either (1) keep her at work for as long as possible to extract absolute surplus value (the length of the working day), or (2) pursue technological innovations to lower the value of her labor power and extract relative surplus value. We are now into the messy everyday of the worker’s world. We are talking about how long she stays at work, the kinds of food she gets to eat, the housing she can afford—all of which determine the value of her labor power as opposed to the price of her labor. Classical political economy conflated the two while focusing on the latter because it had no conception of the “cost of producing or reproducing the worker [her]self.” As a result, it ended up uncritically accepting “the categories ‘value of labour,’ ‘natural price of labour,’ etc. as the ultimate and adequate expression for the value relation under consideration,” leading it “into inextricable confusions and contradictions” while offering “a secure base of operations to the vulgar economists who in their shallowness make it a principle to worship appearances only.”15

Defining the economy as an aggregate of “things” with their inputs and outputs, then, is the task of “vulgar economists.” The Marxist’s job is to recount the trials and tears of the worker, buffeted in the marketplace by “dull economic compulsion” and restricted even in her nonmarket life by the coercive normativity of the law of value. The labor theory of value is thus only in part about economic life under capitalism. Ultimately, it is about the social relations, the webs of human and institutional interactions within the totality of capitalism, that form both the conditions of possibility for the economic process and are shaped by its outcome. As David Yarrow recently put it, it is a “subjective theory” that “threaten[s] to compromise” theoretical efforts to “contain the economy within the sphere of calculation, scarcity and exchange.”16 This is why, for scholars such as Bertell Ollman, the Marxist theory of alienation is really the beating heart of the labor theory of value.17

In light of the above discussion, we can now see why Benston’s proposal to situate domestic labor within capitalist production was truly pioneering. Rather than record and describe domestic work, Benston theorized this labor and laid the basis for later feminists to apprehend the production of commodities and the reproduction of labor power within a unitary framework.

How Does the Household Produce?

If the household is part of capitalist production, what are its laws of production? Benston’s response spoke to both the product and their condition of production.

Elaborating on her central claim that domestic labor is an economic activity, she argued that the household is a kind of economic unit that produces “simple use values” as opposed to the money economy, which produces commodities with exchange value. Moreover, the household provides the armature for the family, which Benston called a “production unit for housework and child rearing.” The roots of women’s oppression lie in the differential responsibilities foisted on men and women within this particular production unit/circuit:

The material basis for the inferior status of women is to be found in just this definition of women. In a society in which money determines value, women are a group who work outside the money economy. Their work is not worth money, is therefore valueless, is therefore not even real work. And women themselves, who do this valueless work, can hardly be expected to be worth as much as men, who work for money. In structural terms, the closest thing to the condition of women is the condition of others who are or were also outside of commodity production, i.e., serfs and peasants.18

To my knowledge, Benston is the first Marxist to draw attention to the form of production within the household and argue that it is deliberately kept at a preindustrial level.19 Like the rest of her essay, this is simultaneously a materialist argument as well as a challenge to what gets included into the category of the economic. While not many can rival V. I. Lenin’s turn of phrase in nominating housework as “barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and [a] crushing drudgery,” it is Benston who offers an explanation for why it is so.20

Each household, according to Benston, “constitutes an individual production unit, a preindustrial entity, in the same way that peasant farmers or cottage weavers constitute preindustrial production units.”21 Unlike the sphere in which commodities are produced for exchange, “rationalization of production” never takes place within the household. Production of use values within the household is always structurally limited to the level of handicraft production despite several technological innovations that aid the performance of housework. Such gadgets, while making certain functions easier, do not transform the form of household production. Capital strives to maintain this form within and alongside the most advanced forms of commodity production for the market.

Meanwhile, scholars of global nutrition patterns have alerted us to incursions of capital into arenas that were previously not directly affected by accumulation. Since the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s, Carlos Monteiro and his colleagues have detected an “acceleration in food science techniques [that] has enabled invention of a vast range of palatable products made from cheap ingredients and additives.” This is a particularly significant observation for it notes how the form of household production can be kept at its former preindustrial level while some of its constituent products can be commodified for the world market, thereby canalizing market forces into the everyday life of households:

Transnational food and drink manufacturing, distribution, retailing, fast food and allied enterprises whose profits derive from uniformly branded ready-to-consume products, have become colossal global corporations. These shifts have been accompanied by dramatic increases of obesity and related chronic noncommunicable diseases, most notably diabetes, at first in high- and middle-income countries, and now also in lower-income countries. Food supplies are now becoming part of a global food system increasingly dominated by ready-to-consume processed products.22

Benston’s signature contribution, I submit, is to provide an early theorization of the co-constitutive nature of household production (use values) and market production (exchange values). Her argument helps us see why it is particularly pernicious to limit the understanding and definition of the economy to the latter forces alone. As Diane Elson puts it, “the ability of money to mobilise labour power for ‘productive work’ depends on the operation of some nonmonetary set of social relations to mobilize labour power for reproductive work.’’23

What Does the Household Produce?

Elson’s comment brings us to the one product of domestic work that is prominent in its absence in Benston’s essay: labor power. While the essay situates the household within a historical materialist frame, it is remarkably silent on this one item of household production that, for capital at least, justifies its interest in maintaining the (largely) heteronormative family form and keeping it at a preindustrial level.

As early as 1936, Mary Inman, a member of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA), went against the accepted manner of thinking within her organization when she declared that it was an absolutely “erroneous…belief” that the housewife lost her role in the “system of production when the home…ceased to be the place of production it once was.” The household, Inman stated unequivocally, still produced “the most valuable of all commodities…Labor Power.”24 While Inman was severely reprimanded for her heresy and was later pushed out of the organization, her insight survived and made an appearance in many forms in the decades that followed.

Along with other social reproduction feminists, I designate the work of reproduction of labor power as people making. In tandem and in direct contrast with commodity production for the market, human lives under capitalism are both brought into being and shaped within kinship units and community spaces. Such spaces tend to have a certain liminal quality.

On the one hand, they are immune to the law of value—households (as units of production) do not constantly compete with each other on a global scale to produce labor power in the most efficient manner. Being outside capital’s direct control makes them spaces of refuge and relief. Another CPUSA member, Claudia Jones, for instance, showed how processes of capitalist racialization formed yet another causeway between the spheres of household and market production, and how subject formation for both the carer and the cared were its immediate and crucial outcome.

Jones reminded her comrades that historically “the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family.” From slavery times onward, “the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children.” Care work and the reproduction of the family were for Jones, thus, powerfully political and potentially antisystemic. “As mother, as Negro, and as worker,” wrote Jones, “the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence, which destroys the health, morale and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers and children.”25

On the other hand, however, households and families are shaped by market forces and often refract their imperatives. First, as units producing labor power, they are tasked with not just producing people, but workers. This is a significant distinction, as human beings are not naturally endowed with capacities, abilities, and attitudes that make them fit for capitalist production. Homes, schools, and community spaces perform the dual task of making them market ready as well as giving them tools to dispute the market’s regulatory norms. Second, capital actively devalues this work of people making. At a financial level, money for this work comes from a portion of the capitalist profit and thus the effort is to apportion the greater share of it to unwaged labor (still performed mostly by women) and allocate only a minimal amount to institutions (schools, hospitals, public transport) that sustain it. But the devaluation goes deeper and is etched in the very functioning of the law of value. Kevin Floyd’s brilliant work shows how these domestic activities are “‘structurally made non-labour’: in order for labour-power to have a value, the domestic labour that reproduces labour-power has to be dissociated from the circuit of value.”26

Even though Benston’s short essay is silent on labor power and its sites of production, it makes a crucial theoretical move, laying the basis for social reproduction feminism of the future. Far from domestic labor, or the household it contains, being an extraeconomic activity/unit, feminist theorization, pioneered by Benston and others, reveals it to be intensely economic. Capital, it turns out, has a vexed relationship to people making; the chief product of the household, labor power, is what initiates its circuit of value production, but it refuses to allocate too many resources to its making, pushed as it is to enhance profits by the competition between many capitals. So, capital bears a relationship of reluctant reliance with the processes of people making. Its self-perpetuation is dependent on such processes while it intuitively recognizes in this work the immanent resources and imaginaries that will make its destruction possible.

Benston thus builds a careful argument about the household. Disagreeing with Juliet Mitchell’s account of women’s oppression, Benston points out that Mitchell had not considered “that the problem is not simply one of getting women into existing industrial production but the more complex one of converting private production of household work into public production.” This is not a brief for the earlier second-internationalist solution of pulling women into so-called productive work—that is, waged work—as that would leave the domestic unit untouched. Nor is it an argument for the later autonomist solution of wages for housework, which would simply map the logic of the money economy onto the domestic unit. What Benston is urging for us to consider is a complete reorganization of social production as a whole:

To be more specific, this means that child rearing should no longer be the responsibility solely of the parents. Society must begin to take responsibility for children; the economic dependence of women and children on the husband-father must be ended. The other work that goes on in the home must also be changed—communal eating places and laundries for example. When such work is moved into the public sector, then the material basis for discrimination against women will be gone.27

Since capitalism would simply not allow such a move, Benston’s argument leads us inexorably to an anticapitalist solution, not a reform of the system to industrialize or alleviate housework but a revolution. “That such a transition will require a revolution,” goes her concluding line, “I have no doubt; our task is to make sure that revolutionary changes in the society do in fact end women’s oppression.”28

In a world imperiled by capitalism’s accumulation drive, Benston’s conclusion should drive our theory and our movements. We can no longer simply imagine a society where the task of people making is prioritized. Such gray theory must be greened by global struggles—demanding collective access to our means of subsistence, to life making, to life.


  1. A low-paid agricultural worker.
  2. Quoted in Vijaya Ramaswamy, “Women and Farm Work in Tamil Folk Songs,” Social Scientist 21, no. 9/11 (1993): 113–29, at 124
  3. August Bebel, Woman Under Socialism (New York: New York Labor News Company, 1904), 343.
  4. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972), 137.
  5. Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, forthcoming).
  6. Lucrezia Marinella, La Nobiltà et L’Eccellenza delle Donne Co’ Diffetti, e Mancamenti de gli Huomini (Venice: 1600), quoted in Joan Kelly, “Early Feminist Theory and the ‘Querelle des Femmes,’ 1400–1789,” Signs 8, no. 1 (1982): 21.
  7. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones (New York: Feminist Press, 1988), 41–42.
  8. Susan Ferguson has called this equality feminism.
  9. Engels, The Origin of the Family, 137–38.
  10. Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, The Woman Worker (Croydon: Manifesto Press, 2017), 10.
  11. Engels, The Origin of the Family, 71–72.
  12. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 17.
  13. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 682.
  14. David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 530.
  15. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 678, 679.
  16. David Yarrow, “Accounting Against the Economy: The Beyond GDP Agenda and the Limits of the ‘Market Mentality’” (PhD dissertation, University of Warwick, 2018), 121.
  17. See Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
  18. Margaret Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review 21, no. 4 (September 1969): 20, 16.
  19. The inefficiency of household production has been discussed in the literature on domestic labor before Benston. Mary Inman refers to it in her In Woman’s Defense and it was present in the work of certain utopian socialists from an earlier era. But Benston was the first to integrate her explanation into generalized capitalist production. I am grateful to Susan Ferguson for pointing this out.
  20. I. Lenin, “A Great Beginning,” in Collected Works XXIX (1919; repr., London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1965), 429.
  21. Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” 18.
  22. A. Monteiro, J. C. Moubarac, G. Cannon, S. W. Ng, and B. Popkin, “Ultra-Processed Products Are Becoming Dominant in the Global Food System,” Obesity Reviews (2013): 22.
  23. Diane Elson, “Micro, Meso, and Macro: Gender and Economic Analysis in the Context of Policy Reform,” in The Strategic Silences: Gender and Economic Policy, ed. Isabella Bakker (London: Zed, 1994), 40.
  24. Mary Inman, “The Role of the Housewife in Social Production,” Viewpoint (1940; repr., 2015). Inman’s book was first serialized in the West Coast Communist newspaper, People’s Daily World, in 1939.
  25. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: New Press, 1995), 108–9.
  26. Kevin Floyd, “Automatic Subjects: Gendered Labor and Abstract Life,” Historical Materialism 24, no. 2 (2016): 79–80.
  27. Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” 21–22.
  28. Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” 24.
2020, Commentary, Volume 71, Issue 08 (January 2020)
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