Michelle barrett, “Capitalism and Women’s Liberation”

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Capitalism and Women’s Liberation”

This selection is the concluding chapter of a book. In this chapter, Barrett asks the question, “To what extent are we justified in regarding the oppression of women as an ideological process?” From the way Barrett poses the question, we see that she is implicitly asking “to what degree is Marxist or materialist analysis of social change adequate, in itself, to explain the oppression of women? Is it enough to understand the “material base” of oppression, or must we separately address ideology as a source of oppression?” Can we, explain women’s oppression, and devise strategies to change it, simply by examining women’s domestic work and their job segregation (and low wages) in the labor market? Or do we also need to examine such factors as women’s psychological tendencies and their beliefs about family. To ask these questions amounts to asking: how useful is the concept of patriarchy for understanding women’s oppression? And how closely tied to capitalism is women’s oppression?

Barrett first considers whether women’s oppression is INEVITABLE under capitalism. She concludes that it is not—that there is nothing “in the LOGIC of capitalism” that makes women’s oppression inevitable. However, once that is said, she goes on to note that in fact, given the course history has taken, women’s oppression has become so interwoven with capitalism that it is highly UNLIKELY that women’s liberation could be achieved under capitalism. In other words, historically, women’s oppression “has acquired a material base” in the way capitalism structures production and reproduction. However, changing this material base, e.g., by destroying capitalism and/or instituting socialism, would not, in and of itself, liberate women. Changing women’s responsibility for domestic work and undoing job segregation by gender and the wage differential all would be to the good—but they would not necessarily be accompanied by changes in women’s psychological tendencies or their beliefs, e.g., about family. Material change is not automatically be accompanied by ideological change. Hence Marxist, materialist analyses of social change, while useful, are not fully adequate to explain women's oppression.

Well then, shall we explain women’s oppression as a product of “patriarchy?” This strategy too Barrett finds inadequate. She notes that feminists who employ the concept of patriarchy often argue that biological difference is the origin of patriarchy and male domination. Barrett, however, rejects the appeal to biology as origin of oppression. She does not reject the concept of patriarchy altogether, but wants to reserve it for that specific form of male domination in which fathers have power over women and younger men.

Attempts to explain women’s oppression either in terms of capitalism or in terms of patriarchy both pay insufficient attention, Barrett thinks, to the role of “ideology” in shaping social relations. “Ideology” means the way people think and feel and believe—their subjectivity, their identity, their personality structure, their belief structure. Women’s oppression is NOT SOLELY a function of ideology, Barrett argues; but neither can the ideological dimension neglected or thought of as merely a shadow of material conditions.

In fact, Barrett argues that--however useful Marx’s distinction of a society’s “material base” from its “ideological superstructure” may have been for analyzing and attacking the oppression of the working class--feminists today need to reexamine it. Given the way things have developed historically, i.e. given where we are today, she says, the distinction between economic categories and ideological categories is by no means sharp. Cf. p.126: “we can recognize the difficulty of posing economic and ideological categories as exclusive and distinct.” Notice how this statement parallels her earlier claim that, while capitalism isn’t NECESSARILY oppressive to women, given the historical facts of how interwoven capitalism and women’s oppression have become, it is UNLIKELY that capitalism will abandon women’s oppression and permit their liberation. Capitalism as an economic system is NOT IDENTICAL with the ideological belief that males are rightfully dominant; yet these two categories—capitalism and male domination—are not “exclusive and distinct” either.

On a purely theoretical level, then, there can be no answer to the question, “can women’s liberation be achieved within capitalism?” What is needed is an examination of where history has actually brought us, and what, at this point, is needed for women’s liberation. To that question, Barrett gives three answers: (1) change the current division of labor and of childcare responsibilities, (2) do away with women’s economic dependence on males, (3) transform gender ideology, including our beliefs about femininity, masculinity, and family.

Given where we are, historically, Barrett sees much truth in the slogan “No women’s liberation without socialism; no socialism without women’s liberation.” That is not to say there can be no positive movement under capitalism, or that reform is impossible. Nor is it correct to say that any reform under capitalism can only benefit middle class women. Feminist reform has benefited working class women too, at a time when gender divided the working class. We do, therefore, need an autonomous women’s movement, an autonomous feminism (“autonomous” meaning not subsumable under the socialist movement, or the left political movement).

Barrett calls for an “alliance” between feminism and the political left. Feminist should retain its autonomy as a movement (socialism won’t automatically liberate women), but feminists should not become separatists; rather they should ally themselves, around specific issues, with men on the left. And, aside from alliance around specific issues, feminists need to stay engaged with the political left in general because to liberate women is to change relations among women and men.

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