From International Socialism, 2:2, Autumn 1978.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Irene Bruegel, in What keeps the family going? (IS 2:1), raises some important questions about the relationship between sexual divisions and social divisions within capitalist social formations. Debates about patriarchy, domestic labour, the relationship of class and sex have been developing within the women’s movement in recent years. The important political issue that is raised by these debates is the role of the women’s movement in the struggle for socialism. How can discrete struggles of sex, race, or whatever, be linked to a revolutionary strategy?
The contribution that Irene Bruegel makes is a welcome one, in that she attempts a marxist analysis that deals with contradictory tendencies in the relationship between the family and capital. However, she fails to point the way forward, in political terms, because she focuses on the problematic concept of ‘femininity’. The following discussion is a critique of her theoretical orientation.
Irene Bruegel is right in locating a shift of the debate, within the women’s movement, away from a crude economic reductionism, which sees women simply as part of an oppressed class.
Irene Bruegel’s own theoretical preference or ‘alternative’, is the elaboration of the ideas of Ann Foreman in Femininity as Alienation. Briefly she argues that the concepts of alienation/reification are key ones in understanding class consciousness, and that these condition all non-alienating experiences for men (including the necessary emotional support for their well-being), into the family. So the perpetuation of the family in modern capitalism is seen to be the last stronghold of human emotional experience and this perpetuation is, moreover, theorised in these terms. So the family performs this emotional function.
Now, since Ann Foreman rejects psychoanalytic theory, the concept of ‘femininity’ is not tied to a Freudian formulation.  In fact, Ann Foreman herself doesn’t actually specify the way in which she uses this term apart from some vague statements about women’s person-centredness. Irene Bruegel’s depiction of femininity is similarly unclear. A ‘femininity ‘which seems, to be defined as ‘female passivity, acceptance and loving helpfulness ’ (p. 9) is a strange category for a Marxist writer to use.
It fails to recognise that women do rebel—in their private lives and elsewhere. But their oppositional tendencies may not be politically directed (neither, for that matter may be men’s) in a conscious way, but may take more subtly subversive forms.
Why is ‘femininity’ singled out as the key to understanding women’s oppression? If it exists (and I would question the use of this personality centred category as it is used) it is part of the effects of the oppression of women. That is not to deny the existence of a female sexual identity, however, that is constituted through social practice. Nor is it to deny that women’s biology and the historically specific structures that it is bound by, do not affect this identity. It is rather to question, firstly the dominant role of this in theorising the position of women, and secondly to question the particular formulation, in Irene Bruegel’s work, of this sexual identity.
How does the concept of ‘femininity’, moreover, relate to her further argument that femininity emotionally cushions men from the worst excesses of alienated social relations? Is it this function that femininity’ is designed to play? And does it then ultimately serve the interests of capitalist social relations?
Women in their capacity as domestic servant, mother, mistress etc., are removed, directly anyway, from the cash nexus. They play these roles, not for money, but for a wide variety of what are regarded as ‘expressive’ reasons, like love, duty and so on. Of course there is a strong element of compulsion to perform these roles since women who don’t are regarded as less than ‘woman’. Also, women, because they are not exploited in the specific marxist sense, are also not alienated in that sense, in their family role. This is not to deny that women feel frustrated, depressed, unfulfilled and that they are oppressed and subordinated but to assert that their labour does not take on the commodity characteristics of productive labour. Similarly, in the family, despite its gross privatisation and individualism, there exists an incipient collectivism—it is a cohesive group against what are perceived, rightly, to be hostile forces outside. Of course, we mustn’t underemphasise the oppression of the family. But in the ways indicated above, the family does pose a threat to capitalist individualist instrumentalist social relations and therefore is itself a potential of revolutionary experience.
Furthermore Irene Bruegel’s case rests on her assumption that alienated productive male workers turn to the family for the emotional support that is denied them at work. This may be true to some extent, substantively, but this does not actually constitute an explanation for the persistence of the nuclear family. It is only tenable if we assume that individual emotional needs are the origins of social structures, which, for any marxist, is unthinkable.
Let us look again at the concept of femininity which is at the core of Irene Bruegel’s argument. This concept, as it is used, is not only incorrect substantively since women are and not passive (as are men), but it also implies an excessively narrow location in which the class struggle can take place.
Since women are excluded from playing an active role in all spheres of production through the structures that delimit their activities, it is important not to predefine the class struggle as taking place only within the realm of production.
The class struggle also takes place within the family and other private institutions. And the problem is not one of ‘passive’ women in the home. In their personal lives women are driven by structural constraints (job, wage level, lack of child-care facilities, etc.) to put up and make the best of the frustrations and oppressions of their everyday lives. Within the confines of their identity as ‘women’ female opposition takes place. Aspects of this opposition have been typified within the popular categories of ‘nagger’, ‘shrew’, ‘bitch; ‘witch’. These, in their own ways, may be forms of resistance that are not immediately political, but serve women’s interests in specific situations. The helpless female syndrome may be instrumental for women. It is interesting to note that the ‘black sambo’ characterisation of blacks by North American plantation owners in the Southern States, was not a ‘false’ characterisation, as such, but indicated what could be regarded as instrumental behaviour by blacks. They conformed to this stereotype because it served their interests. But when the time was ripe, the black domestic slave, who had been stereotyped most absolutely as passive, was among the first to rebel. 
So it is important to be clear about the role of certain gender-based behaviour, like submissiveness and passivity, in women’s oppression. It is neither true as a personality principle, nor is it true as the cause of the persistence of women’s specific oppression. It is an orientation which expresses its resistance in what may be regarded as individualised, non-political ways. Nevertheless the resistance is there: women ‘use their loaf’ and try to get as much out of their situation as it seems to allow. Of course the burning question for socialists is how to marshal this opposition towards political ends. To argue that the fight is in the home, here and now, as Irene Bruegel does, is true, but not enough as a political strategy. It is in the home already, but in non-political forms. What is the correct revolutionary strategy to direct it to political issues—those of sexual politics, of course, being the prime ones? And then to link these to a broader based concern with the building of socialism? These are the questions we should be addressing ourselves to now.
1. S. Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Vol. II. Penguin, Harmondsworth London 1974. (Lecture on femininity) Three Essays on Sexuality, Hogarth, London 1974.
2. For a Marxist critique of the ‘Elkins thesis’ on the ‘Black Sambo’ personality (S. Elkins, Slavery) see Genovese, in Red and Black, Random House, New York 1971.
Last updated on 12.3.2012