MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

On the Super-Exploitation of Women

Feminism and Marxism, Marxist Feminism, all have floundered in one way or another on the shoals of the dual problems of biology and the family. The self-evident truth is that all men and women are brought into this world from the wombs of women in pain and travail. It is equally self-evident that the basis for the oppressive, sexual division of labor and the subjugation of women in the family under capitalism is women’s reproductive function. The subjugation of women flows from dependency throughout pregnancy and while nursing – and that dependency, in turn, is actually the dependency of the human infant (which is the dependency of the human species, of human society upon women). As the anthropologist Leacock points out in her introduction to Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

In some ways it is the ultimate alienation of our society that the ability to give birth has been transformed into a liability. The reason is not simply that, since women bear children, they are more limited in their movements and activities. As the foregoing anthropological evidence indicates, this was not a handicap even under the limited technology of hunting-gathering life; it certainly has no relevance today. Nor did women’s low status simply follow their declining importance in food production when men moved into agriculture.

Feminists have often argued (intentionally or otherwise) that biology – the ability to give birth – is the limiting factor in women’s movements and activities. However, in our technological age, where it takes no more than a tiny pressure of the finger to fire an atomic rocket, program a computer or operate a typewriter, it is obvious that the biological fact of motherhood is not in and of itself the limiting factor. The limiting factors are to be found in the social relations of production and in the social relations of the family under capitalism, as Engels suggested. Engels argued that the subjugation and oppression of women can be traced to those factors which caused the communal kin group to be broken up and individual families separated out as isolated units, economically responsible for the maintenance of their members and for the rearing of new generations. The subjugation of the female sex was based on the transformation of their socially necessary labor into a private service for the husband which occurred through the separation of the family from the clan. It was in this context that women’s domestic work came to be performed under conditions of virtual slavery. When Engels argued that the formation of the isolated patriarchal family as the economic unit of society (rather than the whole community) should be seen as the “world-historical defeat of the female sex,” he in fact was identifying the institution by which the “world-historical defeat of the female sex” was accomplished. Leacock summarizes the process:

The significant characteristic of monogamous marriage was its transformation of the nuclear family into the basic economic unit of society, within which a woman and her children became dependent upon an individual man. Arising in conjunction with exploitative class relations, this transformation resulted in the oppression of women which has persisted to the present day.

We are not equipped with time machines, and cannot verify Engels’ hypotheses concerning the origins of the “world-historical defeat of the female sex.” We can, however, demonstrate that the “subjugation of the female sex was based on the transformation of their socially necessary labor into a private service for the husband” and that under capitalism the institutions of the nuclear family, monogamy (for women), the sexual definition of women’s social roles, and the private appropriation of their labor power and their reproductive power are the basis of their subjugation.

If we look at the European family historically, we see that prior to the rise of industrial and monopoly capitalism, the family, as an extended kin grouping, was the economic unit of society. The family was a production unit as well as a consumer unit. With the complete triumph of commodity production, the family appeared to be reduced from a production unit to a dependent consumption unit, from an extended kin organization to the nuclear family defined by contractual marriage. This transformation of the family accompanied the transformation of labor (in the family production unit) into the commodity labor power (the ability to work sold as a commodity whose price is wages). These shifts in the function and organization of the family also created shifts in the function and role of women. As the family was increasingly isolated from any visible form of commodity production, it became, in appearance, more and more isolated from the central social and economic organization of society as a whole. The reduction of the family from the central unit of social organization to what appeared to be a peripheral “private” adjunct to the “real” social organization (commodity production) resulted in the “marginalization” of women’s work and the devalued (wageless) nature of female domestic labor. It appeared that the family was marginal to capital, marginal to commodity production. Thus it appeared that women’s domestic labor and, by extension, women themselves, dependent upon their husbands’ wages, were of little value.

This apparent dependency justified the perpetuation of male supremacy, of the husband as the autocrat of the family, of the wife as properly dependent and servile, having the status of a bond servant within the marriage contract.

However, the seeming “marginalization” of the family and women’s work in the household mystified the real function of the family under capitalism: the production and reproduction of labor power. Engels wrote in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a two-fold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter, and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. [1]

Marx recognized in Capital that the “determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of immediate life,” and pointed out that it takes the form, under capitalism, of the production and reproduction of labor power. In short, the family is not “marginal” to commodity production; all commodity production is dependent upon the family for the one single commodity on which all of capitalist society is dependent: human labor power itself.

Marx took these factors into account in the labor theory of value. The value of’ the commodity labor power (as distinct from its “price” -wages) is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor time required in the overall production and reproduction of labor power. In short, the labor of the entire family as a unit, including the reproduction of new proletarians as well as the reproduction of the husband’s labor power, what the husband requires to rest, recuperate and strengthen himself for the next day’s labor – all of this “domestic labor” determines the real value of the wage worker’s labor power. The wage, then, is not properly paid for the hours which a worker spends working for the capitalist as an individual. The real value of labor power derives from the labor of the family as a unit, and is paid in compensation for the aggregate socially necessary labor time expended by the entire family in the production and reproduction of the commodity labor power. The wages of the worker, the exchange value of labor power, are paid to the unit which produced the labor power: the family. That is the labor theory of value. It is the invisible substructure of the social relations of the family. Yet, for women, the fact that it is invisible is the pertinent fact!

Institutionalized male supremacy, rooted in the social organization of the nuclear family under late capitalism, serves to mystify the actual nature of wages and the actual determinants of the value of labor power by creating the appearance that a woman’s domestic, socially necessary labor is not the production and reproduction of labor power, but a private service to the husband. This sleight of hand can be accomplished because of the peculiar mystifying nature of commodity production under capitalism in which it appears that 1) only capitalist commodity production produces surplus value, i.e., is productive labor and 2) the laborer freely contracts, as an individual, for the sale of his own, personal labor power. Therefore, since the wife’s labor appears to be a private service to the husband, completely separated from commodity production, it follows that her support, her children and her labor appear to be the sole responsibility of the husband, unrelated to the value of his labor power, and thus to his wages. These two factors mean that a woman’s productive labor, in the production and reproduction of the commodity labor power, is mediated through the family; and her contribution to the surplus value appropriated from the husband’s labor is hidden in the individual wage system of capital. When her commodity – labor power itself – goes to market it appears as the possession of a single individual, rather than as what it really is: the collective product of domestic labor in the family. In this way the market price of labor power can be separated from the real value of labor power. Once this occurs, a woman’s labor appears to be both unwaged and valueless, when, in fact, the value of her labor ought to be included in the man’s wages, that is, the price of his labor power.

As a consequence of the mystification of the family (disguising the family’s true function as the unit of production for labor power itself), the social relations within the family, between husband and wife, may take on the character of the social relations of capitalism. As Engels noted long ago, the wife stands to the husband as the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. This antagonism is a consequence of the mystified nature of domestic labor, and creates the false appearance of a situation typical of other forms of unwaged labor, such as slavery:

On the basis of the wages system even the unpaid labor seems to be paid labor. With the slave, on the contrary, even that part of his labor which is paid appears to be unpaid. Of course, in order to work the slave must live, and one part of his working day goes to replace the value of his own maintenance. But since no bargain is struck between him and his master, and no acts of selling and buying are going on between the two parties, all his labor seems to be given away for nothing. [2]

Because “no acts of selling and buying are going on between the two parties, all his (her) labor seems to be given away for nothing”; that is, the unwaged wife is “dependent” upon the husband for her subsistence; her wageless state in the family reduces her to a “slave” of the husband. In fact, she receives a “share” in the husband’s wage which appears in the mystified family unit not as her rightful share in the collectively produced commodity, labor power, but rather as the replacement of “the value of his (her) own maintenance.” Yet neither husband nor wife is aware of the real (theoretical) determination of the value of labor power, and thus face one another within the marriage contract as “proletariat to bourgeoisie.”

In the relationship within the family of (wife) proletariat to (husband) bourgeoisie the contractual relationship takes on a slave-like character reflective of the societal relations of capitalism:

What the working man sells is not directly his labor, but his laboring power, the temporary disposal of what he makes over to the capitalist.... This is so much the case that I do not know whether by the English laws, but certainly by some continental laws, the maximum time is fixed for which a man is allowed to sell his laboring power. If allowed to do so for any indefinite period whatever, slavery would be immediately restored. Such a sale, if it comprised his lifetime, for example, would make him at once the lifelong slave of his employer. [3]

The hostility generated between husband and wife in the family stems from the mystification which results in making a wife the “lifelong slave of his (her) employer” because there is no fixed, maximum time, but rather an indefinite period, in which the wife is expected to work for the husband. This mystification serves capital well, for it not only ensures cheap labor (since the labor power of women as wives does not have to be compensated at its real value), but it also displaces a woman’s hostility and frustration away from capital and onto her husband. Both husband and wife in the proletariat are thus cheated and tricked by capital for the benefit and the purposes of capital. The system is all the more vicious because it serves to make the husband an unwitting accomplice of capital in the subjugation and exploitation of women.

Let us examine the benefit to capital. Essentially, the system permits the capitalist to undervalue labor power, that is, to purchase the commodity labor power at a price (wages) far below its real value. This is accomplished only through the unrecognized nature of women’s domestic labor. To show the extent of this undervaluation, let us estimate what the same labor power would bring on the open market.

A 1970 Chase Manhattan study shows that a married woman’s average working week is nearly 100 hours.

Food Buyer3.33.5011.55
Maintenance Man1.73.005.10
Practical Nurse0.63.752.25
99.6 $257.53

For working-class women, the time allotments and their “value per week” would have to be even greater. The very unwaged, private and contractual relationship in the family has meant that domestic labor has remained labor intensive. The rationalization and technological development of the means of production in the domestic sphere have remained primitive since neither competition nor wage pressures operate there. Since no wages are paid, the labor time can take on an “indefinite” character. Since no commodities are exchanged between husband and wife, even that part of the wife’s labor which is paid appears unpaid. All of this takes on the mask of “domestic slavery” and the husband appears as a “slave master.”

The real nature of women’s work in the family becomes absolutely clear when we realize that married-female labor properly falls into the service sector. Thus, if a woman works for wages as a housekeeper, waitress, laundress, seamstress, babysitter, cleaning woman, maid, companion, etc., she is counted as a part of the waged proletariat. It is only when a woman is married that such labor is defined as the “production of use values outside of capitalist commodity production.” Therefore, it is not how or what is produced, it is the marriage contract that determines if female labor is waged or unwaged! It is the status wife that reduces women to unwaged and valueless labor. It is the marriage contract that gives the husband the legal right to the direct appropriation of female labor power at subsistence cost and without wages as a private service legally owed to him by his wife.

We may now also understand that much of the service sector, like the housewife, does not simply produce “use values,” but, in fact, aids in the production of the basic commodity labor power insofar as the service sector contributes to the reproduction of labor power. In short, much of the service sector of the economy performs “women’s work,” substituting for a “wife” in the case of unmarried workers.

Women’s unwaged labor in the home is the very bulwark of cheap labor costs. Is it any wonder that vast sums are spent ensuring the education and conditioning of women into acceptance of this arrangement? For the vast sums spent in education and advertising are a pittance compared to what it would cost to meet the real value of female domestic labor power.

For husbands, supporting a wife at subsistence is a very good deal, for his wages alone would not meet expenses (not to mention personalized service) of at least $250.00 per week to pay for the comfort and well-being of himself and his children. That is precisely why so many men, not realizing the mystified nature of both wages and women’s labor, have remained champions of the family and “woman’s place is in the home” -champions for the sake of the real, tangible, material benefits of having at hand, objectively, nothing less than a type of slave labor.

However, the benefits to capital are not yet exhausted. Because of the mystified nature of women’s labor, capital is able to consistently and increasingly undervalue the price of waged labor to the point where, in the modern economy, only privileged strata of the proletariat and the middle classes are able to earn take-home wages sufficient to rear a family and support a wife at an acceptable “above the poverty line” standard of living. Most wages are so undervalued that married women are driven into the workforce in order to maintain the family. This facilitates capital’s utilization of female labor in the industrial reserve army to undercut male wages while still collecting the benefits of women’s unwaged domestic labor. In short, working women are super-exploited when they enter the labor force: first, through the direct appropriation of surplus value in commodity production, and then a second time through the indirect (mediated through the family) appropriation of value from domestic labor.


Therefore, it is fundamentally the institution of the nuclear family as it exists under capitalism and the consequent limitations of a woman’s “proper” function in the production and reproduction of the proletariat (motherhood) that facilitates capital’s super-exploitation of female labor in capitalist commodity production. The labor theory of value holds that wages at real value comprise the costs of the production and reproduction of labor power. Inflation, unemployment and undervalued labor power (depressed wages) exert a constant pressure to force women out of the home and into the labor force. This has always been characteristic of capitalism, as Marx pointed out long ago, but today the employment of women is steadily increasing. Furthermore, working-class women are constantly circulating through the labor force: 1) women work before marriage and during early marriage; 2) women leave the labor force when their children are in infancy and early childhood; and then 3) they return to the labor market when their children reach late childhood or are grown. This rhythm is upset anytime there are contractions and expansions of employment and wage levels. Contraction and expansion of wage levels operate to regulate the utilization of female labor as a part of the industrial reserve army. Women tend to be forced into the labor market: 1) when there is a demand for greater masses of labor power; and/or 2) when demands for cheap labor power can be met by women’s undervalued wages or women’s part-time work. Conversely, women are forced out of the labor market in periods of glut on the market simply because they can be reabsorbed into the nuclear family.

The circulation of women through the waged labor force, women’s principal identification of themselves as wives and mothers and thus only “temporary workers” (which produces negative or very weak class consciousness), and institutionalized discrimination against women all serve to facilitate the super-exploitation of women under capitalism. This super-exploitation is expressed by: 1) the denial by capital of compensation for labor consumed in production and reproduction of labor power; 2) the systematic undervaluation of waged female labor; 3) forcing women disproportionately into the worst and most degrading jobs; and 4) forcing women into part-time or full-time work in addition to full responsibility for domestic labor (thus married working women hold down two full-time jobs, but are paid wages for only one).

Upon investigation, working-class women are clearly the most oppressed, super-exploited sector of the entire proletariat. The greatest burdens are carried by racial and national minority women. The root of women’s subjugation and exploitation is not the human family as such, but the nuclear family as it is organized and exploited under advanced capitalism.

The servant or wife should not only perform certain offices and show a servile disposition, but it is quite as imperative that they should show an acquired facility in the tactics of subservience – a trained conformity to the canons of effectual and conspicuous subservience. Even today it is this aptitude and acquired skill in the formal manifestations of the servile relation that constitutes the chief element of utility in our highly paid servants, as well as one of the chief ornaments of the well-bred housewife .... It is of course sufficiently plain, to anyone who cares to see, that our bearing towards menials and other pecuniarily dependent inferiors is the bearing of the superior member in a relationship. [4]

Nor should Marxists ignore an early American socialist woman:

To have a whole human creature consecrated to his direct personal service, to pleasing and satisfying him in every way possible – this has kept man selfish beyond the degree incidental to our stage of social growth .... Pride, cruelty, and selfishness are the vices of the master; and these have been kept strong in the bosom of the family through the false position of women. [5]

The conflict between men and women, husbands and wives, is not some “petty bourgeois feminist plot” to divide the working class, but a real product of the cruel and exploitative social relations of capitalism. In fact, no sphere of a working-class woman’s life is free from exploitation facilitated by institutionalized male supremacy.


1 . Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1972), pp. 5-6.

2. Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1973), p. 51.

3. Ibid., p. 44.

4. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisured Class (New York, Viking Press, 1964), p. 105.

5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (New York, Harper and Row, 1966), p. 3


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