French radical materialist feminism
A less strictly economic analysis of the relation between gender and class is evident in French forms of materialist feminism, which were developing alongside — but largely independently from — the Anglo-American versions. Hennessy and Ingraham’s (1997) collection, for example, includes only Delphy’s work. In fact there were five French women who were key figures in this version of materialist feminism. They were Monique Wittig, Christine Delphy, Nicole-Claude Mathieu, Colette Guilliamin and Monique Plaza. These women produced the ground-breaking journal Questionnes Feministes with Simone de Beauvoir in the 1970s. Also closely involved was an Italian feminist called Paola Tabet. These feminists were principally concerned with how gender, sex and sexuality were constructed in relation to each other (Leonard and Adkins, 1996). Christine Delphy’s work has been perhaps most renowned and of most utility to sociologists. Much that is key to her approach is initially outlined in her essay on ‘The Main Enemy’ first published in 1970, but also elaborated in that and other pieces in the collection Close to Home (1984) and in the later work with Diana Leonard (1992) on Familiar Exploitation.
In ‘The Main Enemy’, Delphy argues that an analysis of women’s unpaid housework is central to understanding women’s oppression, as all women are judged and their social positions determined in terms of the housewife role. In this, and other of her work, she looks at how patriarchal ideologies support male domination, so this is not entirely an economistic approach. Critical reflection on the women’s movement is also formative in producing her theoretical framework. This framework is Marxist influenced, but unlike other Marxist feminists she wishes to draw on his methods without trying to bend concepts that were designed to explain capitalist class relations too far. These concepts she thinks are not well suited to the task of exploring women’s oppression. In fact she argues that those terms have worked in ways that hide women’s oppression. So, for example, she thinks many Marxist feminists became stuck because they saw exchange value and use-value as opposites. Delphy, on the other hand strove to see the fact that housework was without market value not as a problem but as key to understanding it. She characterizes her position as having three threads, which I have simplified somewhat:
1 Housework is unpaid because it is excluded from the market – it is not excluded because it is unpaid.
2 This is an exclusion not just of certain types of work but of certain social groups (women within patriarchal social relations).
3 Housework cannot be seen simply as a particular set of tasks – it is part of the domestic mode of production
Delphy’s early work is also critical of ahistorical and universalized conceptions of patriarchy. For her, patriarchy is a system ‘peculiar to contemporary industrial societies’ (1984:17). It is a system that subordinates women primarily through its economic bases in the domestic mode of production.
For Delphy, the domestic mode of production is key to explaining women’s class position. Like other modes of production (forms of social organization through which things are made), she notes that it is also ‘a mode of consumption and circulation’ (Delphy, 1984:18).Those exploited by this mode are maintained and not paid, and this means that their consumption is not self-selected. Within this system women do not really have the freedom to purchase what they want and when they wish. Also circulation occurs via the handing on of male property — usually from father to oldest son, which creates possessors and non-possessors (women and younger sons) within families. However sociologists have tended to ignore these inequalities within families and to focus on how systems of inheritance produce capitalist relations through passing on differences between families. For women these patterns of inheritance, which do not favour them, are not alleviated by recourse to the labour market. Women’s lower wages within that labour market — and remember Delphy is writing initially in the 1970s and 1980s — push most women into marriage as the only real way to ensure their material survival.
Although this work is highly useful in understanding the relationship between class and gender inequalities, Delphy does not claim that it is a total account of women’s subordination. She notes that her model of the domestic mode of production fails to account for all of the ways in which women experience oppression, even within the family. In particular she recognizes that she has not considered violence and sexuality.
However, she argues that in trying to explain everything, feminist theories often lose the ability to locate women’s oppression in relation to other things and other inequalities. She is adamant that any explanations must see women and men as social groups, related to each other via hierarchies that are socially — not naturally — constructed. She argues that gender as a concept should recognize this, but has unfortunately remained tied to biological sex. Gender thus needs to be taken more seriously as a social construction — not just mapped onto, but constituting, sexual division. It is because of some of these problems with the term ‘gender’ that Delphy uses the term ‘class’ to look at the divisions between women and men. The term class keeps the explanation social. It sees women and men as groups that are related via domination. In short: women are a class, exploited as unpaid housewives by men (both individual husbands and male capitalists) through the domestic mode of production. Other aspects of the gender system, she notes, are waiting to be elaborated and in Familiar Exploitation (written with Diana Leonard) Delphy restates, clarifies, and in some cases updates these ideas.
Delphy’s fundamental premise is that ‘[w]ithin the family in our society, women are dominated in order that their work may be exploited and because their work is exploited’ (1992:18). Just because much of the work might be done with/for love does not mean it is not exploited. Love actually disguises that exploitation; an exploitation best understood by analysing women’s relations with the men in their families as being like the relations between employee and employer. It is also noted that the Marxist definition of work must be extended beyond its usual reference to the paid labour of producing things and the paid services associated with that. By 1992 there had been some recognition among Marxists that the non-paid work of physical care must be added. The authors further proposed that emotional, cultural (for display), sexual, and reproductive work must be counted. They were adamant that just because work might be chosen and enjoyed does not mean it is not work. Yet they also clarified that housework should refer to all domestic work, done by any person, though most of it is done by women. From this perspective it is easier to argue that housework is unpaid because it is done within a relation where those doing the work (usually women) do not own the products of their labour. It is not the work itself but doing it within this particular type of relation that means it lacks exchange value. The family is not a unit, but a hierarchy. Within the domestic mode of production constituted by such relations, gender and class inequalities are reproduced because: individuals learn different skills, some own what they produce and some do not, some have restricted access to the labour market — and varying inheritances, education, and training are given to different individuals within and between families. But this does not mean that Delphy regards women as victims. Echoing Marx again, she suggests that women ‘certainly contribute to the making of their own worlds. But they do so not in conditions of their own choosing’ (Delphy and Leonard, 1992: 261). Neither does she regard men as individually horrible, but suggests that as a group they benefit, whether they like it or not, from the way the system operates. This all restates or clarifies Delphy’s earlier position, but there is also some updating in that some of the criticisms made by black feminists are also briefly addressed. Delphy and Leonard acknowledge that black women’s oppression does differ and that racism may weigh heavily for black women, unifying black families to some extent. However they argue that family plays ‘much the same role in black women’s oppression as women as it does in white women’s’ (Delphy and Leonard, 1992:19).This does not deal adequately with the ways in which ‘race’ is intertwined with gender and class, and we turn in the Chapter 8 to black feminists for a fuller analysis. That analysis of‘race’ and gender began to gain attention as the kinds of class analysis usually contained within materialist feminism waned.
Structural, political and intellectual problems emerged by the late 1980s which shifted many feminists away from a preoccupation with class. Hennessy and Ingraham (1997) argue that class analysis declined as feminist intellectuals became disconnected from oppression and absorbed into the professional classes. A move away from class politics can be attributed to structural changes such as a centralization of government and provision of welfare — the type of structural change that makes unions less necessary, undermines class identities, and instead promotes group adherence around cultural values (Hechter, 2004). However, Hennessy and Ingraham assume that one has to suffer oppression to know about or discuss oppression, and they ignore the political problems dogging second-wave discussions of class and other identities. These included fierce debates about whether feminism was a project intrinsically based on understating or even ignoring differences between women — an issue dealt with in Chapter 6. Intellectual problems with materialist efforts to link class and gender were also key in encouraging a turn to culture. The domestic labour debates became very turgid by the close of the 1970s. These debates fizzled out because they became stuck on intricate, and not very interesting, details concerning what exactly ‘value’ meant within Marxism (Delphy and Leonard, 1992: 51—7; Jackson, 1998b: 16). Instead of acknowledging such problems Hennessy and Ingraham (1997) are critical of the transfer of attention to matters of sex or ‘race’, arguing that if considered at all, class simply was added to these other issues as though one of a series of oppressions. They suggest that to see class in such a way was profoundly non-materialist, losing sight of ‘proper’ comprehensions of class based on a structural view of the world. There are difficulties that emerged in moving away from structurally based understandings of inequalities towards more identity based ones, but it is grossly simplistic to imply that all interrogations of gender in relation to race lacked analysis of structure. Chapter 8 will elaborate on how approaches to race attended to structure as well as identity. In relation to class it was not only materialist feminists who debated the connection between capitalism and patriarchy.
Stevi Jackson (1998b) has proposed that rather than seeing Marxist feminism as opposed to radical feminism, with the first interested only in capitalism and the second only in patriarchy, it is more useful to think of these approaches as part of a continuum. The key concepts for all, according to Jackson, were production, reproduction, culture and ideology. Feminists more towards the materialist end of the continuum tend to emphasize production and reproduction, while those towards the radical end might talk more about culture and/or ideology. These are just some of the debates within feminism around how to understand inequalities and there was considerable criticism within and beyond feminism of the continued tendencies to gloss over differences between women. The utility of strictly economic definitions of ‘the material’ in overcoming such problems is doubtful. This may be one reason why what ‘material’ means has changed. Different ways of defining it do not necessarily make its meaning ‘vague’ (Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997: 10), but may allow greater attention to the nature of difference. According to Rahman and Witz (2003), the concept of ‘material’ has wandered within feminist thought from its initial reference to relations of production, to a broader and less economic definition that could be used to understand the construction of gender and sexuality. In particular, it was thought that a notion of the material could help to deal with thinking about the physicality of the body (see Chapter 5). Some feminists have found ‘the material’ in need of problematizing.