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New Left Review I/149, January-February 1985

Jane Lewis

The Debate on Sex and Class

The debate amongst marxist feminists and socialist feminists about sex and class—that is, about the relationship between gender ideology and the material basis of women’s oppression and whether patriarchal structures exist independently from those of capitalism—is presently being pursued in two journals, New Left Review and Studies in Political Economy. [1] Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas, ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’, New Left Review, No. 144 (March–April 1984), pp. 37–71 and Michèle Barrett, ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression: A Reply to Brenner and Ramas’, New Left Review, No. 146 (July–August 1984), pp. 123–8. Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, ‘Beyond Sexless Class and Classless Sex: Towards Feminist Marxism’, Studies in Political Economy 10 (Winter 1983), pp. 7–41; Patricia Connelly, ‘On Marxism and Feminism’, Studies in Political Economy 12 (Fall 1983), pp. 153–161; and Pat Armstrong and Hugh Armstrong, ‘More on Marxism and Feminism: A Response to Patricia Connelly’, Studies in Political Economy (forthcoming). All the participants agree that women’s subordination preceded capitalism and none explicitly espouses a dual systems approach, although it is the contention of Brenner and Ramas in New Left Review and of Pat and Hugh Armstrong in Studies in Political Economy that Michèle Barrett has in fact fallen into this trap. The major departure in the work of Brenner and Ramas and the Armstrongs to identify the material basis of women’s oppression lies in their attempts to theorize the biological component of sexual difference. Like Michèle Barrett (in her response to Brenner and Ramas) I am not wholly convinced by the attempt. If, as Barrett says, feminists have been ‘squeamish’ in the face of biology [2] Barrett, ‘A Reply’, p. 123. it is largely because of the difficulty they experience in skirting the mine-field of biological determinism. The arguments of these authors do little to reassure. Both sets of authors use women’s reproductive capacities to explain sexual divisions under capitalism. The Armstrongs argue that capitalism is ‘premised on free wage labour and on the separation of most aspects of workers’ reproduction from the productive process’, [3] Armstrong and Armstrong, ‘Beyond Sexless Class’, p. 39. and Brenner and Ramas that it was ‘likely if not inevitable’ (p. 48) that in the harsh circumstances of the nineteenth century women would take responsibility for children and domestic labour. Biology thus appears less and less the merely limiting factor the Armstrongs would have it be.

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