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New Left Review I/83, January-February 1974

Wally Secombe

The Housewife and Her Labour under Capitalism

The re-emergence of a women’s movement in the late sixties brought with it a flood of radical literature on the oppression of women. The bulk of this writing was descriptive in character. While the portrayal of women’s life-circumstances was often vivid and accurate, the analysis was generally very thin. The immediacy of women’s oppression was seldom penetrated so that its structural roots could be grasped. A partial exception must be made for Marxist analysis of the housewife and her labour under capitalism. In this area, Margaret Benston, [1] Margaret Benston, ‘The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation’, Monthly Review, September 1969. Peggy Morton [2] Juliet Mitchell, ‘Women: The Longest Revolution,’ New Left Review 40, November-December 1966. and Juliet Mitchell, [3] Peggy Morton, ‘Women’s Work is Never Done’, Women Unite, Canadian Womens Educational Press, Toronto, 1972. to name only three, made valuable investigative contributions. More recently Selma James and Mariarosa dalla Costa [4] Selma James and Mariarosa dalla Costa, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Bristol, 1973. James and dalla Costa have maintained in this debate that housewives are central to the women’s struggle and that a revolutionary strategy must be built around their location in the household and the labour they perform there. As James puts it: ‘The family under capitalism is a centre essentially of social production. When previously, so-called Marxists said that the capitalist family did not produce for capitalism, was not part of social production, it followed that they repudiated women’s potential social power. Or rather, presuming that women in the home could not have social power, they could not see that women in the home produced. If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.’ op. cit. Serious errors, in my opinion, lie at the core of James and dalla Costa’s work. In footnotes, I will briefly identify some of these where they directly intersect with and contradict this thesis. It must be recognized, however, that this is not a full nor adequate critique of their position. Such a critique would require an entirely different article. have advanced a thesis on the housewife that has provoked a heated debate among radical women. Serious rejoinders have been levelled against their main argument from several quarters of the women’s movement, particularly from its socialist wing. [5] This discussion has taken place in a number of articles, published in magazines (Red Rag, Socialist Woman, Shrew, Radical Philosophy), as pamphlets, and as internal documents of the Women’s Liberation movement. All this has served to raise the level of debate on the entire question and confront the workers’ movement with the fact that housewives remain as a massive labouring population in late capitalism completely outside the organizations and struggles of the proletariat.

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