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New Left Review I/144, March-April 1984

Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas

Rethinking Women’s Oppression

The past decade has witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Marxist-feminist analysis and debate. Michèle Barrett’s Women’s Oppression Today is an ambitious recent attempt to present and synthesize this literature. Through a dialogue with the most influential currents in socialist-feminist thought Barrett attempts to construct a Marxist analysis of the relationship between women’s oppression and class exploitation in capitalism that is neither reductionist nor idealist. In this concern, Barrett’s project is very much a part not only of Marxist feminism, but of the contemporary re-evaluations of Marxist theory as a whole, especially the renewed emphasis on the importance of ideology, the state and class struggle. Two theoretical issues lie at the heart of the Marxist-feminist debates of the last decade: 1. The degree to which women’s oppression is constructed independently of the general operation of capitalist production. 2. The degree to which the oppression of women is located at the level of ideology. Barrett’s critique identifies the central dilemma her analysis will seek to transcend. Marxist-feminist approaches such as domestic labour theory, she argues, which begin from the premise that women’s oppression is an integral part of capitalism, and not independently determined, tend toward reductionism. It cannot be convincingly shown that privatized reproduction on the basis of domestic labour actually affords capital the cheapest method for reproducing labour power. Moreover, to view this system as an effect or precondition of capitalist class relations, leaves untheorized why it is women who are in the home and fails to take into account male domination of women within the working class. Theories of this kind thus naturally lead to a political strategy which simply collapses the struggle for women’s liberation into the class struggle: women’s social position expresses their exploitation by capital, not a relationship of dependence and powerlessness vis-à-vis their husbands and fathers.

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Johanna Brenner, Maria Ramas, ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’, NLR I/144: £3

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