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New Left Review I/113-114, January-April 1979

Christopher Middleton

The Sexual Division of Labour in Feudal England

The creation of a political economy of sexual divisions has undoubtedly been one of the most significant intellectual outcomes of the recent feminist revival. The call in the early seventies for the development of an historical and materialist (though not always Marxist) account of sexual division, oppression and conflict met with an immediate and enthusiastic response, so that the last few years have seen the emergence of a prolific literature exploring the articulation of capitalism with the sexual division of labour and its attendant relations of sexual authority and subordination. Attention has been drawn to the home as a centre of production as well as of consumption, socialization and psychological retreat; and the question of reproduction, in all its senses, is now a central concern of many Marxist studies of the workings of capitalism. Women’s responsibility for childcare and housework no longer passes unnoticed—a natural, unchanging phenomenon unworthy of serious consideration—but has come to be considered in both historical and comparative perspective. As yet, however, most of the work in this vein has been historical in conception rather than in detail. For example, the ‘domestic labour debate’, which has sought to establish the essential relationships between domestic labour, wage labour and surplus production under capitalism, has been conducted at a very high level of theoretical abstraction with little regard for historical variations in the form of capitalism. [1] See, for example, W. Seccombe, ‘The housewife and her labour under capitalism’, nlr 83, January–February 1974, and ‘Domestic labour—a reply’, nlr 94, November–December 1975; M. Coulson, B. Magaš and H. Wainwright, ‘The housewife and her labour under capitalism: a critique’, nlr 89, January–February 1975; J. Gardiner, ‘The role of domestic labour’, nlr 89, January–February 1975, and ‘The political economy of domestic labour in capitalist society’ in D. L. Barker and S. Allen (eds.), Dependence and Exploitation in Work and Marriage, London 1976; C. Middleton, ‘Sexual Inequality and Stratification Theory’ in F. Parkin (ed.), The Social Analysis of Class Structure, London 1974; J. Harrison, ‘The political economy of housework’, Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists, 1974. Elsewhere, studies of the impact of industrialism and capitalism on the position of women may have adopted a more substantive approach, but have nevertheless tended to represent this process in the most broad and general terms. [2] See, for example, E. Zaretsky, Capitalism, The Family, and Personal Life, London 1976; A. Oakley, Housewife, Harmondsworth 1976, chapters 1–3; R. Hamilton, The Liberation of Women, London 1978; S. Rowbotham, Hidden From History, London 1973, especially chapters 1–5. Rowbotham’s book details women’s involvement in political and social movements, but the political-economic context is only sketched in.

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