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International Socialism, January 1978


Irene Bruegel

Guide to Reading:

Women and the Family


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, p. 15.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A good way to start to understand women’s oppression within the family is to read Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (Penguin); it’s a feminist account of family life which forcefully challenges commonplace assumptions about love, marriage, motherhood etc. and shows vividly just how oppressive and stultifying the family is for women. Ann Oakley in Housewife (Penguin 80p) does something similar without Freidan’s anger. Housewife is useful in showing how women’s role in the family is not a natural biologically determined given. It contains two useful chapters summarizing the anthropological and historical evidence against the ‘common sense’ view. Ann Oakley’s limitation is that she sees the answer to women’s oppression in changing attitudes through individual self-awareness and makes no link between oppression and capitalism or liberation and socialism. On this Sheila Rowbotham’s short book Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Penguin 35p) is a good start; however it does not analyse the family in any great depth. A very good account of how the family socialises girls into accepting their predetermined roles in society is Belotti’s Little Girls (Writers & Readers £1.00) It provides a fascinating insight into how the ideology of femininity is maintained in our society.

Engels’ classic work The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State must be the starting point for any Marxist analysis of the family, despite the problems there are with the book. Engels argues that women’s oppression is rooted in the patriarchal family; the patriarchal family is a particular historical form which arose only with the emergence of private property; women’s liberation is therefore possible and necessarily linked to a socialist transformation of society.

As Zaretsky says in his book Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (Pluto £1.00), ‘The Origins of the Family has often been criticised for its inconsistencies, unilinear historical scheme and inaccuracies. While these criticisms are valid, they do not dispel the power of Engels’ work.’

While Engels relates women’s oppression and the family to private property in general, Zaretsky shows specifically how capitalism structures the oppression of women. In stimulating argument he maintains that the oppression of women in capitalism depends on the artificial division, intrinsic to capitalism, between personal life and work. This division gave women the specific responsibility of maintaining the family as a private refuge from an impersonal society and tied her more firmly to it as a separate realm from public and political life.

Ann Foreman’s recently published book Femininity as Alienation (Pluto £2.40) is a further attempt to provide an adequate theoretical framework for understanding the specific oppression of women in capitalism. It is an impressive book, tying together the threads of many arguments into a coherent Marxist/feminist analysis of the family which stresses the relationship between alienation at work and oppression in the family.

Since much nonsense is bandied about today about the failure of any Marxists and specifically of any Russian Revolutionaries to take up the question of the family and personal relationships, it is instructive to read the works of Kollontai and Trotsky on the family. Their works show clearly that ideas that are now re-emerging were once part of the Marxist tradition. A volume of The Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai has recently been published by Allison and Busby at £2.95.

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Last updated on 23 March 2015