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Sexism, Capitalism and the Family

Sexism, Gapitalism ” the ramil, I~_ __
Bosalind Delmar
(This paper was written for the Womens Liberation
Conference, London, November 1972)
The relation between sexism and capitalism is
often expressed as an opposition: is it a sexist
society or a capitalist society? Are we interested in
feminism-or socialism? We see socialist women
denouncing feminism as ‘bourgeous,’ feminists criticising socialism as ‘male dominated’. In my view the
present society is both capitalist and sexist. I can’t
pretend to be offering here a ‘theory’ of the interrelationship of these two structures, but I hope to
show that one fruitful way of approaching the problem
is to analyse sexism as the structure which dominates
the world of reproduction and capitalism as the structure
which dominates the world of production. Further, that
these two worlds are ‘divided along a sex axis: the
world of production is the world of men, the world of
reproduction the world of women, and that male domination
of the world of production by men is an instrument for
the economic oppression of women. At the centre of the
world of reproduction lies the patriarchal family,
within which male domination and female oppression are
constantly reproduced. This family system, as we know
only too well, is generally thought of as a ‘natural’

human structure. In fact it is by now an extremely
artificial unit, dependent on a high level of economic
development to maintain it.

The objective of Women’s Liberation as a feminist
Woovement should be the abolition of the sexist structure,
and of the patriarchal family. This is not exactly the
same as a struggle to abolish capitalism. The history
of socialist revolutions has shown that socialism can
coexist with the patriarchal family. If the object of
socialism is to make men more equal, women can not be
expected to have a great interest in it.

As a focal point of this account of the relationof the patriarchal family to capitalism, I want to
take the working class family, and try to analyse the
situation of the woman there. For the sake of simplicity
of exposition, I assume a family within which a classic
sexual division of labour exists: the man is the wage
earner (bread-winner), the woman a housewife and mother.


Sexism, Capitalism and the Housewife


The worker’s weekly wages are usually divided into
two parts – one part the man keeps for his own private
use; the rest goes to the woman to provide the means of
maintaining the whole family. She is responsible for
budgeting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, mending and so
on. It is her ‘job’ to ensure that in so far as it
depends on her household management the husband will be
able to continue in work. In repayment she receives
board and lodging: she is in the situation typical of
an economic dependent. The man’s work is important to
her because this supports the whole family. He is a
wage-slave; she resembles much more a real slave. Tied
to her husband economically and legally, bearing his
name, often living in a house which is under his control,
and isolated within the home, looking after their
children; the housewife is tied to her particular man
by much s-ronger ties than a worker to a given factory.

The ideal which this economic reality produces is an
ideal of good service. Hany women have spent their
adult lives trying to achieve this ideal, dedicating
their existence to performing menial tasks for their
husbands and children.

It is against this perspective that we should look
at the demand that women be paid for the housework they
perform. Does this do any more than demand that instead 26
of being an unpaid servant a woman should be a paid

(Family Study Group, London
Women’s liberation Workshop)

servant? What right does it encapsulate other than
the right to have a paid servant? Is the right to a
paid servant the kind of demand that we, as a ,·,romens
liberation movement, should be making? That anyone
who calls themselves a revolutionary should make?

Surely one of our tasks i.s. to work out ways in which
housework, domestic labour in the home, as a task
performed by one person for others, can be abolished.

If the modern household can only survive by reducing
one of its members to being the servant of the others,
then that modern household must be abolished and
replaced by different forms of communal living.

Paying housewives (and that is what the demand concretely means) would serve merely as a new buttress to
the patriarchal family.

Economically, the patriarchal family is of great
assistance to capitalism. First, it is within the
family that labour power is maintained and reproduced,
at a relatively low cost. Secondly, the family has
become a unit of cons4mption for the products of
capitalism. Advanced capitalism has opened up the
working class as a market for consumption – the
“consumer society”. This policy was determined by the
capitalist experience of over-production crises, oJhich
culminated in the Great Depression. ‘Easy payment
schemes’ – which mean that you pay more over a longer
period of time, live your life in semi-permanent debt took care of the worker’s inability to produce lump
sums of money.

The pressures to buy are directly mainly at women,
and are expressed through an ideology whch reinforces
the home and the individual household. What is being
hawked is not so much a product as a whole life-style.

The individual family, with its individual kitchen, its
individual TV, washing machine, is an ideal environment
for capitalist marketing, which aims at getting the
maximum of its products sold. The women who are held
captive within those kitchens hate and resent them.

But that doesn’t prevent them from being held out as
an ideal to which other women can only aspire. In
capitalismJs fantasy of itself as an ‘affluent’ society,
woman remains in her ‘proper’ place – chained between
the kitchen and the bedroom.

It is at this point of consumption that the housewife has her only direct contact with the capitalist
process. During shopping she exchanges wages in the
form of money for wages in the form of commodities. It
is one of the mystificationsof capitalism that somehow
the process of consumption and the process of production
are separate from each other, rather than interconnected aspects of the same process. Politically
this mystification has been expressed as a division
between the worker and the ‘consumer’, whose interests
are supposed to be antagonistic to each other. It is
a similar distinction to the one about workers and ‘the
public’. In the portrayal of the consumer, the housewife is often picked out as the one who ‘suffers’ as a
result of the selfish actions of the workers. What is,
of course, missing from this schema of housewives versus
workers is the intervention of the capitalist system.

The government has already commissioned reports on the
attitudes of housewives to strikes. The implications
of such studies are clear – they assess the potentiality
of the housewife as strike breaker. Capitalist ideology
is always prepared to represent the cause of
capitalist crises as the importunate demands of the
working class. In the present economic crisis the
standard of living of the worker is being forced down,
and is meeting with resistance both at the level of

wages and at the level of prices. The only way in
which the situation can be turned to its own advantage
is if the housewife-as-consumer can be turned against
the husband-as-producer.

It is because, given the present sexual division
of labour, the shopper is almost always a woman that
housewives play such a central part in price campaigns.

Popular agitation against the rising cost of living
has always been an aspect of rebellion against capitalism. But we must treat prices campaigns very carefully,
if only because in the recent past this agitation has
been treated as the limit of women’s political potential.

The last election was partly fought over the issue of
rising prices, with open appeals being made by the conservatives to the housewives. I’m not suggesting for
one moment that because price campaigns are instrumentalised with such hypocrisy by political parties that
this means that women in Womens Liberation should play
no part in them. But we must be quite clear about the
limitations of such campaigns, which are campaigns for
an improvement in the conditions of existence within
capitalism, and do not neces~arily challenge either the
capitalist system or the sexual division of labour.

Price campaigns and rent strikes are to the housewife
what wage demands and labour strikes are to the worker.

Neither are instrinsically revolutionary.

Sexism, Capitalism, and the Mother
Ideologically this society seems to see pregnancy
and maternity as mysterious natural processes which
only women are really capable of understanding and
knowing about, linked as they are to the vagaries of
female psychology. There is nothing intrinsically
mysterious about pregnancy. It is a biological
process which, given the right conditions, most women
can go through. But it is a biological process which
is overburdened by a heavy ideological weight. Female
biology is only ‘mysterious’ to the extent that it is
ignored; the contempt shown by male doctors for
‘women’s illness’ bears witness to the lack of care
and seriousness a male-dominated society has for
women’s bodies. It is worthy of attention only to the
extent that female psychology is: as a deviation from
the male norm. Through an analysis. of maternity we
can see the twin aspects of the present system patriarchy and capitalism.

We must be clear that it is inconceivable that the
capitalist market will transform itself into a rational
distribution system, mass-producing the material
necessities of existence cheaply and at uniform prices,
with the aim, eventually, of providing them free. The
capitalist system is based on competition, not on cooperation; the aim of the capitalist is to make a
profit, not to perform a useful service. Once we start
talking about socialist distribution in an economy
based on co-operation we are involved in a discussion
about the need to destroy the capitalist system and to
create a socialist society in its place. To accomplish
the overthrow of capitalism we need to develop a
revolutionary politics which raises the question of
state power. Capitalist power will be suppressed as
the result of mass political struggle, not as the
result of a withering away of capitalist market

The most striking feature of biological reproduction in the present system is that the woman, whose
part is the longest, most arduous and involves most
responsibility, does not have control over her own
reproductive capacities. Women, socially, do not
control their own reproductive capacities. Instead,
decisions which affect reproduction are made by an
agency of the male-dominated state: the National
Health Service. It is significant that medicine is
a profession which is proud of the exclusion it
exercises against women – only 10% of medical students
are women, because they operate a quota system. The
main function of women in medicine is to service the
doctor and protect him from the patient. These are
the men who make the decisions about whether we’re to
have children, what contraceptive we should use,
whether or not we can have an abortion (answer: only
at a price) and if and when we should be sterilised.

The birth rate has been a state concern in France for
generations. In countries in the grip of neocolonialist exploitation (like India) ‘population
control’ (i.e. the regulation of the breeding capacities of a whole nation) is not merely the problem of
national agencies, but of international agencies. At
the other end are states whose problem is not overpopUlation, but a fall in the rate of reproduction i.e. girl children are not being born at a sufficient
rate to replace the present generation of mothers.

Thus Rumania, faced with this problem, has repealed
the provision of free abortion and contraception on
demand, and introduced ne”, and stringent requirements
to qualify for abortions. The problem of biological
reproduction is very clearly a matter of state policy,
and certainly not a question of the individual woman
and whether or not she herself feels in a position to
bear that particular child. Pregnancy itself is a
traumatic experience for many women. Inadequate antenatal care, births performed in over-crowded and understaffed maternity wards of authoritarian hospitals,
where you are treated like one object producing
another object. No wonder so many people suffer from
post-natal depression. This male medical system has
to be challenged. Hackney Women’s Paper has already
shown us what can be done in the way of exposing local
medical facilities and hospital conditions from the
point of view of women.

I have tried to show why I think that it is
important to mai,ntain our critical analysis of the
division of labour between worker and housewife, and the
refusal of housework which was expressed in the Peckham
paper at the Oxford conference. We must take a hard
look at the conditions which make housework a full-time
job. Bad housing conditions turn the housewife’S day
into a constant battle against dirt and demoralisation.

Price fluctuations as a result of competition make
shopping a time-consuming business when we have to shop
around for the cheapest buy. The long working hours
of the man exhaust him daily. Remember that demands
for a shorter working week are often concealed wage
demands: they are demands for longer overtime. But by
far the most important factor is maternity, and the
mother’s constant care of small children.

After the hospital, the woman returns home with
her chi Id. What is the situation of the mother in the
present patriarchal family? Early capitalist development in England created a vast new army of the propertyless, who were forced to travel to new areas in search
of work. Geographical mobility in search of work has
been joined recently by the search for a house. The
family remains a biological unit. One of the curious
taboos within present society is that against intervening between mother and child unless one is a
biological relation. The mystic biological link which
is supposed to exist between the two is almost
universally respected in,practice. Women are forced
into a close relationship with their children, creating
a pattern of emotional interdependence and jealous
mutual possession within which the struggle for domin-

A further· complication lies in the fact that
historically the only periods in which the capitalist
state has been at all able to intervene to control
prices (and even then not with outstanding success)
have been periods of war and periods of fascism. And
in both situations crippling limitations have been put
on the political and economic freedom of the working
class – strikes are illegal both under war-time regimes
and in fascist regimes. The capitalists are here
prepared to accept some restriction of their own
‘freedom’ to maximise profits, but only in return for
increased repression of the working class. For the
capitalist system only has basically one answer to
rising prices which is to keep wages down. Restricting
the economic activity of the working class is one way
of doing this, and both in the present government and
the Labour Government attempts by the state to introduce
and practice regulation of strikes, wage restraint, and
so on, have met with vigorous opposition from within
the workers’ movement.

ation and submission are carried out. Within the
family the child goes through its first socialisation
into the rules of survival in a patriarchal and
capitalist society. It is within the family, in those
early years, that the child learns about authority,
power, control, competition, and inferior and superior
beings. It is the early experience withip the family
which structures the individual’s emotional development, and the present patriarchal family is a breedingground of neurosis. Some sisters seem to think that
the working class family is somehow different, but this
is not the case. The working class family may not have
very many material goods to be inherited, but in the
present patriarchy individuals are regarded as
property, the marriage and family system is a system
of mutual possession. Neurosis is a mass phenomenon,
and not the problem of a few tortured members of the

There is nothing ‘bioligically inherent’ about doing
the washing up or changing nappies; as for the
‘bio+ogical link’ between mother and child, isn’t the
father a biological partner too? The only appeal that
can be made is to a ‘natural’ division of labour. It
is certainly possible to see some remnant of an
artisan’al division of labour within the family – men
still tend to do occasional repairs of potter around
the garden, if they have one. But here the man’s work
is sporadic, the woman’s constant. And there is
nothing ‘natural’ about this division – it is determinedly social. The very process of ‘humanisation’

which takes place in the patriarchal family trains
women to expect to have to serve men, and trains men to
expect to be waited on by women.

The spectre of the independent ~orking woman who
neglected her household duties and le~t her children
to run wild terrified early capitalism. The advent of
factory production destroyed the domestic economy which
preceded it. In the domestic economy not only were
women legally tied to their husbands, but the husband
also controlled the labour of the family as a productive unit. It was the husband who organised and
supervised the work and who mediated the relationship
between the family and the small capitalist who gave
outwork to them. In industrialised capitalism women
continued to spin, but in a factory, no longer in the
home. Capitalism raised the possibility of mass
female employment for the first time: this was the
advance which it represented over the economic mode
which it replaced. 8f ~ourse, work in a capitalist
economy liberates no one, men or women, but woman’s
economic independence of men is one of the conditions
of her liberation. Factory women were lower paid than
males – there was never any golden age of economic
equality in early capitalism. Or Ure. writing in
1834, celebrated this with all the pompous complacency
of the male chauvinist:

Female neurosis is so widespread that it is taken
for granted. The modern patriarchal family drives
women to the point of madness. Total responsibility
for the child is hers. Not only is she supposed to
ensure that her child is socially integrable, she is
also supposed to teach learning skills in order to
equip the child for school – fashionable educationalists
no longer talk about ‘unsuccessful children’, they
talk about ‘unsuccessful mothers’ instead. The modern
mother lives with an intolerable burden of guilt and
anxiety. Can we really accept that paying her is any
solution to the problem at all?

If the situation of the mother within the family
is bad enough, that of the mother outside the family is
even worse. Locked between the difficulty of finding
a job because she has a child, and the difficulty of
finding adequate care for her child if she finds a
job, often the only alternative is social security
where she receives an ex gratia payment in return for
being spied upon by an inspectorate whose task is to
ensure that she doesn’t co-habit with a man. Moreover,
social security, like all the appurtenances of the
‘welfare state’, which are paid for out of working
class taxation, are represented as the charitable
benevolence of a paternal state, in a final turn of
the hypocritical screw.

Factory females have in general much lower wages
than males, and they have been pitied on that
account with perhaps an injudicious sympathy,
since the low price of their labour makeS household duties their most profitable as’ well as
agreeable occupation, and prevents them from
being tempted by the mill to abandon their offspring at home. Thus Providence effects its
purpose with a wisdom and efficacy which should
repress the short-sighted presumption of human

The capitalist and patriarchal state undeniably
prefers making individual payments like family allowances (which it is at present organising to have paid
to the man with his wages rather than to the woman)
to social provision of adequate creche facilities.

The emphasis is on the individual making ‘private
arrangements’ such as finding a trustworthy private
baby-minder rather than the socialisation of child
care. Our tasks as a women’s liberation movement in
this area seem to me to be two-fold. First we must
continue our work in creating alternatives to the
patriarchal family for women and children to live
within: women’s living collectives and communes are
of inestimable importance. Second, we must continue
our campaign for adequate and freely available creche
facilities. The lived reality of the patriarchal
family points to the need for its abolition as a unit
of social organisation. We must organise and press
for alternatives.

In early capitalism women were in competition with
men for factory employment; their already existing
inferiority was translated into an economic inferiority
– they were seized upon as a source of cheap labour and
used to undercut male wages. The mill girl, with her
immorality and vulgar freeness horrified bourgeois
society. Women, when given the chance to turn the
tables on men, took it, and male reformers shook their
heads over the sad reversal of the natural order.

Engels noted, in his Condition of the Working Class in
England, that ‘very often the fact that a married woman
is working does not lead to the complete disruption of
the home, but to a reversal of the normal division of
labour within the family. The wife is the bread-winner
while her husband stays at home to look after the
children and do the cleaning and cooking … One may
well imagine the righteous indignation of the workers
at being virtually turned into eunuchs’. And later on:

‘We shall have to accept the fact that so complete a
reversal of the role of the two sexes can be due only
to some radical error in the original relationship
between men and women. If the rule of the wife over
her husband – a natural consequence of the factory
system – is unnatural, then the former rule of the
husband over the wife must also have been unnatural.

Today, the wife – as in former times the husband justifies her sway because she is the major or even
the sole bread-winner of the family. In either case
one partner is able to boast that he or she makes the
greatest contribution to the upkeep of the family.’

So far in this analysis of women and the family
have described two ways in which women are in a
situation of economic dependence – within the family
on an individual man, outside the family on the maledominated state. I now want to examine the alternative
which allows women the possibility of some economic
independence – work outside the home.

Sexism, Capitalism and Women Workers
When women work outside the home, this work is in
addition to housework and child care: this is what is
sometimes described as ‘women’s double oppression’.

Once “women do work outside the home for the same hours
as men, it is difficulLto find any semblance of
rational argument to justify her doing the housework
and child care as well. Appeals to biology don’t work.


Factory legislation restricted the work of both

women and children within the new factories, and industrial production became a sector dominated by male labour,
their interests protected by male trades unions, from
which in the nineteenth century women were often
openly excluded. By the end of the nineteenth century
a movement was in train to teach domestic economy to
working class women. The other main alternative to
factory employment – domestic service – conveyed to
the women working there the ‘proper’ management of a
patriarchal family. In this century the teaching of
domestic science has increased rather than diminished,
with women’s magazines and courses in school supplementing the training they are supposed to receive in
the home. The patriarchal family, which constructs
woman as wife and mother through a process which blocks
women’s psychological, intellectual and sexual development, is deeply rooted within the human personality
produced by the sexist system: this family is internalised, we carry it around with us.

Economic necessity still drives women out to work;
in present day Britain most working class women do
some work outside the home, in a situation of economic
inferiority: the average wage of a woman worker is £13,
that of a male worker £26. Working women still sell
their labour power at a cheaper rate than do men. The
so-called equal pay bill will hardly change anything,
since only a m1nority of women workers can be proved
to do the same jobs as men. Even those women affected
will probably not get their increase, since the employers have decided that wage increases for equal pay
should be restricted by a £2 wage restraint.

The exclusion of women from industrial production
effected by early capitalism continues. To find employment women have to go to the servicing sector of the
economy, a sector which is itself dependent on the
point of production. The sexual division of labour
within the economy mirrors with startling clarity the
division within the family. The mass-production of
clothing employs female labour overwhelmingly, simi 1arly food packaging and preparation, canteen work and
cleaning. Nursing is almost wholly women’s work and
teaching is gradually becoming a woman’s profession
(with a consequent diminution in teachers’ salaries)
and the social services which prop up the family are
staffed by women. Both the consumption and service
sector and socialisation are maintained by women.

Their relationship to the situation of women in the
home, which I described earlier, is amazingly c~ear.

Apart from that, women still work in textiles (traditionally a female occupation), in light industry
(usually producing goods for the consumer market) and
as clerical workers servicing the needs of male administrators. Here the patriarchal family and capitalism
mutually reinforce each other. In the home and outside, women’s work bears a heavy ideological weight.

The term iteslf can be used to attribute a kind of
femininity to the work itself as much as to the worker.

work conditions and a low level of unionisation. The
struggle of women for unionisation rights – which mean
the same rights to mutual protection which male workers
have – bring women up against male working class
privilege, just as do demands for equal pay and equal
job opportunity. A generalised struggle means that
our movement should be able to articulate all the
levels at which women are combating male privilege, in
the home, in the state, in the factory.

The possibility of marriage and the family is
constantly held out to women as the only attractive
alternative to full-time employment. And it does have
its attractions: at least you’re involved in relationships with other human beings rather than with machines.

Moreover, through the childhood experience of the
family, women have been conditioned lo regard marriage
and the family as their natural destiny. Represented
as the way of fulfilling and channelling female
creativity, the questions often only begin after women
discover what the real conditions of family life are.

Nineteenth century reformers were quite straightforward about their determination to preserve the
patriarchal family as at least one place in capitalist
society where ‘human values’ could still be expressed.

This had created a deeply-rooted fear that the abolition
of the patriarchal family would mean the destruction
of ‘human values’ themselves. To preserve these
‘human values’ women are coerced into putting the home
and family first, almost to save men the trouble of
having to think about them, and live with the burden
of this imbalance. So great is the power of the ideology of the family that many unmarried women, faced with
bad work conditions, choose marriage rather than
organise against them. The sexual competition, compulsive heterosexuality and repression of female
sexuality which this entails are too large a subject to
go into here. But passive female acceptance of the
roles of wife and mother contribute to the continuation
of women’s oppression just as much as the workers’

acceptance of capitalism as the only economic system
possible contributes to their continued exploitation.

Feminism – the political movement of women to abolish
their oppression – is a precondition, the main
condition, of a woman’s revolution. To construct a
feminist movement means developing a new form of
female creativity, in solidarity and sisterhood with
all women, against their day-to-day oppression and the
structures which determine it.

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– early (1969) but rigorous critique of
ordinary language philosophy in form of
case study of Wollheim on Democracy

It would be a mistake for us to underestimate
either the importance of the economic base or the
importance of the sexual division of labour. We should
insist that women’s ‘right to work’ means not the right
to work inside the home, or the right to work outside
the home at jobs determined by the patriarchal system,
but the right of women and men to perform the same
work, at the same rate of pay, and to control their
conditions of work in a society based on co-operation.

Women’s Liberation must develop a strategy aimed both
at the patriarchal family and at the sexual division
of labour in the economy. Both of these conditions of
the oppression of women are built into the capitalist
system. The situation of women in the Soviet Union
indicates that they can be built into a socialist
system too – patriarchy can survive changes in the mode
of production.

The conditions of employment for women are usually
much worse than for working class men. In ‘normal
times’ female unemployment is much greater than male
unemployment, and is one of the forces which keeps
women in the home. Women usually compete for jobs
with other women in a low-paid sector with appalling

(2) IN DEFENCE OF A QUESTION – as for (1)
but with T. McPherson on Political Obligation as victim.

(3) SCIENCE, IDEOLOGY AND ALTHUSSER “doesn’t really make the kind of contribution to the discussion of Marxist theory
that we are trying to encourage” Theoretical Practice rejection slip
(4) OUTLINE OF A CONCEPTION OF PHILOSOPHY short programmatic statement from the preRadical Philosophy period
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