MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Women’s Studies

“Women’s Studies is not simply the study of women,” the Hunter College Women’s Studies Collective explained, “it is the study of women which places women’s own experiences in the center of the process. It examines the world and the human beings who inhabit it with questions, analyses, and theories built directly on women’s experiences.” As an academic field, women’s studies developed alongside not only the women’s liberation movement but the civil rights, antiwar, and student movements of the late 1960s. The emerging interdisciplinary field therefore gathered young faculty and graduate students who viewed scholarly work as incontestably political and antiestablishment. Although the field soon widened to encompass many perspectives, its pioneering scholars represented the radical sector of the academy.

By 1970 women’s studies courses, mainly in the liberal arts, were taught on college campuses, and within a few years the numbers grew at such a rate that the first undergraduate majors were established. By the decade’s end, programs in women’s studies totaled approximately 350. Specialized journals appeared, such as Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Signs, Frontiers, and the Women’s Studies Newsletter. The National Women’s Studies Association formed in 1977, and by the early 1980s its annual meetings drew between 1,000 and 2,000 participants. The major professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, Modern Languages Association, and American Historical Association, housed feminist or women’s caucuses by the mid-1980s.

Although feminist scholars began in the late 1960s by criticizing the male bias of contemporary disciplinary literature, a sizable sector turned to study the origins and nature of women’s oppression and asked questions concerning women’s historical agency. Drawing on older works, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Mary Ritter Beard’s Woman as Force in History (1946), or Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), they came upon an earlier scholarly tradition influenced by historical materialism. Feminist anthropologists, sociologists, and historians in particular centered their initial analyses on the sexual division of labor in its specific cultural and historic forms as a guide to understanding the status of women and the relations between the sexes.

A groundbreaking contribution was Margaret Benston’s essay “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” which appeared in Monthly Review in 1969. Employing Marxist terminology, Benston analyzed women’s oppression as a function of their particular place in capitalist production, namely their assignment to the production of use-value in the home. Because the value of domestic work remains unrecognized in a capitalist economy, she argued, women carry the stigma of their distance from commodity production. Although Benston’s specific analysis suffered a series of criticisms, her demonstration of the connections between women, the family, and the larger society inspired other scholars to make the study of political economy an important facet of their work.

This framework stood out in the early scholarship in the field of anthropology and especially so in the work of Michelle Rosaldo. Although Rosaldo discarded Engels’s dictum that women’s subordination occurred only with the institution of private property in favor of a theory of universal female subordination, she nevertheless took a materialist approach. Rosaldo studied social and cultural organization as a function of the sexual division of labor and reasoned that women’s reproductive function and responsibility led to a “differentiation of domestic and public spheres of activity.” Women’s oppression and agency depended, in Rosaldo’s analysis, on the degree of “sexual asymmetry.”

The concept of distinct “spheres,” structural divisions by private and public, showed itself prominently in early feminist scholarship in the field of history. In the influential essay “The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methodological implications of Women’s History,” published in 1976, Joan Kelly (1928-82) speculated that when the differentiation between family and society was minimal, women’s status more nearly approximated that of men; when there was a sharp break between the private and public spheres, sexual inequality increased. The historical scholarship of the early 1970s incorporated this line of argument, which generated in turn a major subfield, women’s labor history. Shop-floor studies in trades with high rates of female participation, analyses of women’s role in specific strikes and unions, and new perspective on the significance of women’s domestic labor, all highlighted a challenge made by women scholars to traditional as well as Left labor historiography.

Feminist scholars, Rosaldo and Kelly among the most articulate, did not, however, simply transpose the materially determinist frameworks of earlier generations onto their own work. They insisted that sex, class, and race were co-equally integral and interactive concepts.

Outside the social sciences, the influence of the Left has been more circuitous. Feminist literary criticism began in the late 1960s by criticizing the canon for its virtual exclusion of women writers and exposing the misogynist handling of female characters by male authors. Scholars proceeded to uncover a lost tradition of women writers, the Feminist Press under Florence Howe’s leadership in the 1970s playing the leading role in reprinting primary sources.

By the mid-1980s an entirely different approach had taken over the field. In a loose combination of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction, many scholars proposed new lines of interpretation. The historical materialist approach yielded to theories of representation that highlighted the ambiguity of the text in light of the triumph and subsequent fragmentation of Western thought.

Mari Jo Buhle

Woman Question

Since its inception, the American Left has defined itself principally in relation to the working class, the designated agent of revolutionary change. The role of women within the movement has been, consequently, problematical. Women historically have worked for wages in fewer numbers than men, and their jobs, mainly in low-paying manufacturing and service sectors, have not matched the image of proletarian work as established by the male leadership. Only in 1920 did women gain the right to vote, and therefore women had no direct role in electoral campaigns until relatively recently in the history of the Left. The reality of women’s oppression or subordination has nevertheless repeatedly challenged Left theorists and strategists to wrestle with matters defined by gender as well as class. This discussion has been known as the “woman question.”

Although this discussion generally dates to abolitionists’ confrontation with women’s controversial role in the antislavery movement, the Left became intimately involved during the decades after the Civil War. At this time an independent and mass woman’s movement took shape and presented socialist and reformist organizations alike with a demand for recognition. German-American socialists responded most forcefully to Die Frauenfrage and experimented with the first organizations designed to address women’s special concerns. The most important theoretical work on the woman question appeared in Germany in 1879, August Bebel’s Die Frau und der Sozialismus. Translated by Daniel DeLeon as Woman Under Socialism and published in the United States in 1904, Bebel’s text supplied the American Left with its standard “answer” through the 1930s.

Bebel opened his text by acknowledging that “woman and workingmen have, since [days of] old, had this in common-oppression.” He then constructed a grand historical framework to trace women’s distinct role in social production from ancient times to the consolidation of capitalism in the nineteenth century and to relate each historical stage to the intensification of their oppression. While he regretted the pull of women into the waged labor force under modern industry for its impact on family life, he nevertheless looked optimistically upon this development. The trend in social life, Bebel wrote, “is not to banish woman back to the house and hearth as our ‘domestic life’ fanatics prescribe ... but is to lead woman out of the narrow sphere of strictly domestic life to a full participation in the public life of the people.” As the material conditions of industrial capitalism forced women into wage labor, they, like male workers, could ready themselves for class war and the socialist reconstruction of society. Bebel not only juxtaposed the sufferings of the working class and women across history but explained how women would attain freedom only insofar as they struggled to overthrow capitalism.

Bebel’s parallel construction of the oppression of women and workers did not settle the matter. Because women bear a special relation to what Marx and Engels had termed the “reproduction of labor power,” that is, the bearing and raising of children as well as the maintenance of the household, their roles as wage-earners never correspond to those of men. When women work for wages they earn less than men, and as an expanding sector of the labor market, women concentrate into a small number of low-paying occupations. Equally important, waged work does not significantly alter women’s responsibilities for the family and household. For these reasons, the persistent Left emphasis on social production as the site of revolutionary consciousness and proletarian agency displaces women and their concerns and ensures their questionable status within the movement and its theoretical formulations. See also: Socialist Feminism

Mari Jo Buhle

Working Class

See Proletariat.


Working Day

“The Working Day”, or “the working week”, is the time the average wage worker must work in order to earn a living. The struggle over the length of the working week – the 8-hour-day, the 40-hour week, and so on – has been raging for centuries.

From the ealy days of capitalism, when the working week was typically 16 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, the Ten Hours Bill brought it down to 60 (in the countryside where the Sabbath was enforced) or 70 hours (in the cities) in England, and by the early twentieth century the workers in many industrialised countries had got it down to 40 hours-a-week; during the 1960s and 1970s even shorter working weeks were achieved, but nowadays the average working week is much longer than 40 hours in many “advanced” capitalist countries.

“The Working Day” was the title of Chapter 10 of Marx’s Capital. Marx showed that the struggle over the working day is the essence of the struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie.

Prior to the introduction of wage labour, there was no division between work and leisure, in the way we know it today. Conversely, the abolition of wage slavery is not brought about by the reduction of the working day to its minimum, but rather by the abolition of the distinction between work and leisure, between working for the boss and working for your self, between production and consumption. The very meaning of alienation, in fact, is that people’s work is not an expression of their life, but solely in order to earn a living. Nevertheless, so long as people have to sell their labour-power to someone else in order to live, they will try to get what they need to live in the shortest possible time; conversely, having paid the worker enough to live, the employer is bound to want to keep their employees working for as long as possible to earn it.

“... apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.” [Capital, Chapter 10]

The bourgeoisie were not the first class to extract surplus labour from the producing class, only the first to disguise its exploitation in one or another form of wage labour, and consequently, it was the bourgeoisie who initiated the struggle over the length of the working day. In Slave Society, the slave’s entire day belonged to the slave-owner, who looked after the slave in exactly the same way a modern factory-owner cares for his machines. The feudal serf was no slave; he worked entirely on his own account on his own land for most of the time, but for certain well-defined times he had to perform duties defined by feudal right.

“Capital has not invented surplus-labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production, ...” [Capital, Chapter 10]

Thus, whatever the social conditions, the labourer must work for as long as necessary to produce what they need in order to live, or its equivalent; this Marx calls the necessary labour-time. The capitalist buys off the worker their capacity to work for a full day, and uses it to his best advantage, getting as much value by using the worker’s labour power as they can, consuming it in the labour process. The wages are set so that the worker gets enough to live (that is, the value of the labour power is equal to the necessary labour time), and gives a full working day, that is, the necessary labour time plus surplus labour time, making up the full working day. So the capitalist wants to keep the worker at the job for as long as he possibly can, limited only by the very elastic physical limits of the human body.

Not only is the absolute quantity of surplus value extracted from the worker determined by the length of the working day, the capitalist must pay for much of their “fixed costs” – their land, machinery, buildings and so on – even when they are lying idle. Three times as much surplus value can be extracted by keeping the same machinery working for 24 hours (for example) rather than eight on the same investment in fixed costs, thus improving the rate of profit.

The hunger of capitalist for this profit and their willingness to extend the working day to the point of working their employees to death in order to gain and retain the competitive advantage over their rivals led to such extremes of destruction of human beings in early nineteenth century England, that the bourgeoisie itself had to introduce legal regulation of the working day.

The famous Ten Hours Bill came into force on May 1st 1848 to limit the working day to a maximum of 10 hours – i.e., a 70 hour week for the urban workers as the Sabbath was respected in the countryside but ignored in the factories. It was by no means the end of the battle. The earlier 1833 Factory Act and later provisions had attempted to limit the exploitation of child labour and all manner of abuses, but the Factory Inspectors had little powers and there was general abuse of the regulations. The 1847 Act was much stronger and came about through an alliance of the Chartists, representing the workers’ movement, and threatening social revolution on one side, and on the other side, the Tories, representing the rural bourgeois and landed aristocracy against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, who in 1846 had succeeded in passing the Repeal of the Corn Laws.

The Repeal of the Corn Laws was a significant issue in the struggle of the working day, too: previously the high tariffs on the importation of basic foodstuffs protected the interests of the landed aristocracy but led to high food prices and consequently a high cost of living for the workers, and therefore higher wage costs and a low rate of profit for the industrial capitalists. The victory of the Free Traders was a decisive moment in the struggle for supremacy of the industrial sector of the bourgeoisie over the rural bourgeoisie and landed aristocracy. Capital, Chapter 10 describes this whole struggle over the length of the working day and the exploitation of child labour and so on in graphic terms.

One of the major conundrums of recent developments in capitalism has been the combination of the reversal of the tendency of the length of the average working day to decline, with the growing prevalence of part-time jobs and casualisation.

The average working week in developed industrialised countries is now increasing and in some countries approaching 50 hours for those workers in full-time employment. At the same time, the number of full-time jobs is declining.

This is a conundrum because the capitalist must pay the worker enough to live, and if they ask them to work only part-time, they give up the chance of extracting the maximum of surplus labour time. What is the explanation for this? The key lies in the need for the bourgeoisie to introduce insecurity of employment to tip the balance of power in their own favour, and in releasing themselves from the obligation to provide a living wage. Thus, workers have to put together a living by multiple incomes in the same household and multiple jobs throughout the week, working nights and shifts and being on-call to meet peak periods of demand and so on.

The widespread provision of unemployment and welfare benefits rules out the possibility of the black-and-white “work for me at the wage I offer or starve”. Instead, capital has large numbers of the workers in the position of facing a “sliding scale of living standards”, despite the fact that wages are reasonable and unemployment benefits above the level of absolute misery.

It is this combination of uncertainty about tomorrow with a high level of dependency of living standards upon the hours worked, that has created the situation where employers can keep their plant in use all the hours of day and night with workers who are barely able to live.

Offering full-time jobs to people, gives them the power to bargain with you; better to keep people “on the edge”. Despite this, working hours are getting longer, and this fact is a measure of the advantage the bourgeoisie has gained from the adoption of Toyotist methods of industrial management.