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International Socialism, Summer 1979


Susan Cahn

Patriarchal ideology and the rise of capitalism

(Summer 1979)


From International Socialism, 2:5, Summer 1979, pp. 89–91.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Joan Smith [1], in her effort to combat Foreman and Bruegel’s “idealism”, neglects to ask some important questions about the origins and maintenance of women’s oppression under capitalism. Advanced capitalism does, as she states, presume a male and female labour force. Yet, early commodity capitalism was faced with such a large labour force relative to the other factors of production that it could afford to forego the services of women as producers. More than that, the numbers of unemployed men were so great in late 16th and early 17th century England as capitalism took root that the ruling classes were compelled to use ideological means to ensure the absence of women from the labour market. The ruling classes, feeling threatened by hordes of landless labourers, faced a public order problem and took refuge in traditional patriarchal ideology which they moulded to serve capitalism. It is the interaction of early capitalism and patriarchal ideology in which the origins of women’s oppression under capitalism must be located.

Smith criticises the notion that women lost status and freedom under capitalism, stating that it is only with the development of capitalist relations of production that the potentialities of women’s liberation exist. Historical necessity is one thing; loss of freedom and status is another. Women in 16th century England were oppressed, as were children and most men. But under capitalism, as large numbers of men made their way out of their oppression through their participation in social production, women were forced out of the productive and into the reproductive system, solely, not returning to the labour force in substantial numbers until the 18th century. Being a visible part of production within a family meant that not only were individual family relations less oppressive of women than Smith indicates (pp. 42, 48) but also that the social structures were less oppressive of women.

The traditional patriarchal ideology held that women were inferior to men and, indeed, subject to all men. But, in a society such as pre-capitalist England, all those who were not heads of household (and there were, though few, female heads of households) were subject to the male head of household. The women’s subjection traditionally did not single out women as being capable of functioning or producing independently of the male. English law went so far as to grant married women single status before the law – this freed the husband from responsibility from the wife’s unsuccessful business ventures, but also recognized women as entities in themselves, that is, not simply as members of a family ‘included’ in the husband. Women were inferior, but so too were most men. [2]

In 16th century England, women contributed to the family economy both monetarily and non-monetarily. Women were organized in guilds of their own or with men. Through these collectivities, they were able to wield political power within society. Those women who made monetary contributions to the family economy were exploited by the ruling classes, but were often freed from the exploitation and oppression of their male head of household, to which, however, male servants (the term included wage labourers, apprentices, and journeymen) were subject. Within agricultural households, women had long held responsibility for the dairy and poultry: what they did not require for the family use was theirs to sell or trade though not, in an emerging capitalist society, to waste. [3] That value which the women produced beyond use value was seen as theirs, although, in practice it was generally only another contribution to the family economy. That value which men other than male heads of independent households produced on top of their contracted wages went to the family.

The non-monetary contributions of the women served to feed and clothe the family. The pre-capitalist patriarchal ideology viewed the woman entirely capable of planning the family economy and running a self-sufficient household. Those women who had not the ability to calculate family necessities for a year in advance were condemned as imprudent, unthrifty, not shrugged off as womanish nor smiled away as feminine. Women’s role was to function rationally as producer and manager within the family: the dominant ideology, therefore, portrayed her as so capable.

With the development of capitalism, things changed. Women’s position both within the family and vis-à-vis society went downhill. Capitalist agricultural production created a vast surplus labour force that the otherwise primitive productive forces could not absorb. At the root of the expulsion of women from the labour market was not femininity or gender traits, but the spectre rising before the nascent bourgeoisie and traditional ruling class of hordes of labourers engaged in struggle for survival. [4] There were not enough jobs for all, so some of the labour force had to be put in reserve. The prevailing patriarchal ideology which espoused the notion that the male would provide the family wage provided a means of pulling the female half of the labour force out of the labour market.

Yet the problem was not so simple. Patriarchal ideology had not hitherto excluded women from production, nor had it limited the role of women within the home to that of mother. The difficulties of merging childrearing (and breastfeeding) with productive status had not prevented 16th century women as it prevented women in the 17th century from entering the marketplace. This was not a result simply of the new organization of labour; it was the result of this interaction of this new organization with a renewed and changed emphasis on the role of mother. Breastfeeding had not hindered women in the 16th century from economic activity because 16th century women of most classes did not do it except as an economic activity. Ruling class women rarely breastfed until the 17th century when the rising bourgeoisie enforced maternal breastfeeding as the social norm, succeeding even, albeit to a lesser extent, in imposing this new cultural norm on the landed aristocracy. Lower classes of women had either breastfed as a job or had quickly weaned their own children. In either case, it was not until the ruling classes needed to assuage the unruly unemployed workers that breastfeeding actually became the hegemonic norm and began to interfere with women’s role as producers.

The political power used to ‘disenfranchise’ women came both from the actual enfranchisement of larger numbers of men and from their early successes in removing women from the marketplace. As guilds and corporations grew in strength, they dictated the expulsion of women from those guilds and the abolition of the women’s own guilds (e.g. silkweavers). [5] They did so on the grounds that men needed work and wages to support families while women workers supported only themselves and used their wages in frivolous ways, as for sumptuous apparel rather than food. [6] These grounds, proclaimed from the pulpit as well as the state commissions which were increasingly filled by men of the rising bourgeoisie, had the effect of curtailing women’s monetary contributions to the family and, also, of degrading women. Those same women who had been hitherto assigned the role of family managers were considered by bourgeois ideology incapable of ensuring their own survival through economic rationality, much less of controlling and contributing significantly to the family economy.

The early relations of capitalist production did indeed deal women a body blow. The gender attributes of femininity cited by Bruegel and Smith were developed in women not simply ‘in order to sustain the male realm of wage labour’ (IS 2:3, p. 40), but also as a means of meeting the new bourgeois patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Women had to develop these attributes in order to sell themselves. Excluded from the wage labour market, women developed new skills, or lack thereof, in order to sell themselves on the marriage mart and thereby gain at least inclusion in their husbands’ wages.

The gender attributes of femininity are, as Smith points out, the ideological manifestation of the material world, not part of the essential structure of women’s oppression. I suggest that an awareness of the ways in which these gender attributes have changed, coupled with an understanding of why they did so under capitalism, may make the argument for a socialist women’s movement more persuasive.


1. Joan Smith, Women’s Oppression and Male Alienation, International Socialism 2:3 (Winter 1978–1979), pp. 39–54.

2. See, for example, the following: C.L. Powell, English Domestic Relations, 1487–1553, New York 1917; Alice Clark, The Life of Working Women in the Seventeenth Century, New York 1920; C.B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Oxford 1962.

3. See, for example, the following: C.L. Powell, op. cit.; Jessie Bedford, Home-Life under the Stuarts, 1603–1649, New York 1903; and Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, London 1631.

4. See the following for support: Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, New York 1972; Conrad Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509–1660, Oxford 1971; and Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, New York 1947.

5. See, for example, Alice Clark, op. cit. and Bertha Putnam, Northampton Wage Assessments of 1560 and 1667, Economic History Review (January 1927), pp. 114–134.

6. See the following: Bertha Putnam, op. cit.; William Gouge, Eight Treatises on Domestical Government, London 1623; and William Perkins, Christian Economy, London 1609.

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