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New Left Review I/116, July-August 1979

Maxine Molyneux

Beyond the Domestic Labour Debate

It is nearly a decade since the first texts in the recent domestic labour debate appeared, and since then over fifty articles have been published on the subject of housework in the British and American socialist press alone. [1] The first draft of this paper was presented to the Anglo-French SSRC Women’s Group in June 1975. I wish to thank all those who helped in its realisation, in particular Harold Wolpe, Barbara Taylor, and Helen Crowley for their valuable comments. This interest in domestic labour has arisen from a wide range of orientations, both feminist and Marxist, yet despite this variety they all involve a common underlying assumption: namely that investigation of this previously neglected topic can contribute to an understanding of women’s subordination and to the formulation of a politics adequate to its supercession. Two main concerns can be identified in this literature. The first aims to show how the subordination of women, variously described as oppression, subjugation or exploitation, is, although often seen as ‘extra-economic’, in fact founded on a material basis and is linked into the political economy of capitalist society. This approach has attempted to demonstrate housework’s economic contribution to maintaining the capitalist system by providing labour necessary for the reproduction of labour power. It has raised the question of to what extent the development of capitalism has itself created the present domestic system and has, in particular, created ‘housework’. [2] For an account of this ‘history’ see Chris Middleton ‘Sexual Inequality and Stratification Theory’ in The Sociological Analysis of Class Structure (ed) F. Parkin London 1975. This perspective has often involved the attempt to apply to the sphere of housework concepts previously restricted to the analysis of the more general, conventional and public, features of the capitalist economy.

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