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
The impact of these efforts has certainly been dramatic. Whereas a decade ago ‘the family’ was widely regarded as one of the most boring topics on the sociology curriculum, greeted by students and teachers alike with a politely stifled yawn, it is now the subject of intense controversy—a revival which parallels its re-emergence as a major political issue. Yet, in the absence of detailed historical study, much that is doubtful or contentious has been put forward as though it were known fact. In particular, a number of suppositions concerning the position of women in pre-industrial and pre-capitalist western societies seem to have acquired a widespread currency, without ever having been subjected to close, direct and empirical evaluation. It is held that in the pre-capitalist era the basic unit of production was the family; that this was a largely self-sufficient entity, with no institutional separation of production and consumption; that women participated fully in all kinds of productive effort; and that there was no demarcation between domestic functions and the rest of the productive process. Hence, it is inferred, responsibility for the disintegration of family activities, the stripping away of its productive functions (other than domestic labour), the creation of a new, restricted role for women (that of the ‘housewife’), the consequent growth in the dependence of women on men, and the emergence of a new sphere of domesticity and personal life can all be attributed to the rise of capitalism or industrialism. Much of this argument is, in fact, of dubious validity. Furthermore, insufficient attention has been paid to problems of periodization in the pre-industrial era. There has been a tendency on the part of some authors to collapse into a single category (‘pre-industrial’ or ‘pre-capitalist’ society) periods of history which are really quite distinct in time and character.footnote3
The present essay attempts a relatively detailed elaboration of one such
The division of labour is not a simple concept, but may be considered from a number of different standpoints. Of these, three seem to be especially relevant to the division of labour by sex: the division between surplus production and labour on one’s own behalf (necessary labour); occupational specialization; and the distinction between domestic and non-domestic labour (i.e. the allocation of housework and childcare functions). This final element may, of course, be viewed as part of the overall pattern of occupational specialization; but its special features and its pertinence to our present concerns both indicate the need for separate treatment.
The study of women’s participation in surplus labour (defined here in the Marxist sense, as labour appropriated by an exploiting class of landlords) is interesting not least because of the light it may shed on female involvement in communal and class activities. The fact that women are largely ‘hidden from history’ is commonly acknowledged. What may be less clear is whether that invisibility has been due to the blinkered vision of predominantly male historians who have simply failed to notice the feminine contribution to public life, or whether women have been