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.footnote1 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’.footnote2 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.

A second concern is the more directly political one of identifying the actual and potential role of women within socialist struggle. Analysis of this problem was alternated between a pessimistic view and one which is more positive: the former emphasises the allegedly demobilising and conservative role of housewives in relation to political activity; the latter emphasises the political potential of women, whether they be housewives or wage earners.footnote3 On this second, more optimistic, view women are said to share with the proletariat a common exploitation by capital and hence a common objective interest in overthrowing it.

Although these approachs represented an important contribution to the debate on women’s subordination, I shall argue in what follows that the theoretical work so far produced on domestic labour has not adequately addressed the problems which they identified. In particular, the attempt to produce a theory of the political economy of women, the more analytically viable of the two concerns, has been characterised by one or more of the following limitations: first by a tendency to economic reductionism; secondly, by a recourse to functionalist modes of argument in constructing the relationship between capitalism and domestic labour; and thirdly, by a narrow focus on the labour performed in the domestic sphere at the expense of theorising the wider familial/household context. This latter focus has led, among other things, to over-emphasising the importance for the male wage worker of the labour performed by the housewife, and to the virtual neglect of that performed on behalf of the next generation of workers in the work of rearing children. Thus only one aspect of domestic labour, arguably the least important, is given serious consideration in this debate, a deficiency not overcome by the occasional generic references in the literature to the housewife ‘reproducing labour power’.

The following reassessment of the domestic labour debate has two main sections. The first is an evaluation of a specific and challenging contribution to the debate, namely the ‘domestic mode of production’ thesis. In this part, two contrasting theories, one Marxist and the other non-Marxist, are criticised in the light of their use of the concept mode of production.footnote4 Certain misconceptions and assumptions both specific to these theories and, in some cases, common to the debate as a whole are discussed. In particular, the common assumption that domestic labour necessarily lowers the value of labour is questioned; instead, it is argued that the maintenance of the domestic sphere as the main site of biological reproduction under capitalism is economically possible only where the value of labour power is sufficiently high for wages to cover the cost of the family’s reproduction. This then leads on to the second section where the two texts are situated within a general critique of some other assumptions underlying the domestic labour thesis. This latter section concludes with an attempt to conceptualise the relationship between women and the domestic sphere on a broader basis.

In The Main Enemy a pamphlet which was published in Britain in 1976 and which has now gained a considerable following in the British and French women’s movements, Christine Delphy criticises the way in which Marxists have traditionally seen the oppression of women as secondary in importance to the class struggle, the latter ‘defined exclusively as arising from the oppression of the proletariat by capital’. The root of the problem is the Marxist derivation of classes from their place in the production process. This, she argues, takes no account of the ‘specific relations of women to (non-capitalist) production in the home’. According to Delphy, this labour, commonly and erroneously seen as valueless, is not in any intrinsic sense different from the socialised form of domestic labour existing in the commodity sector. The only difference is that the staff of laundrettes, restaurants and nurseries are paid for their labour, whereas the housewife is not. Thus married women, in performing housework for free, are being exploited by the beneficiaries of this situation—their husbands. It is this mode of exploitation, arising on the basis of housework conceived as production that gives rise to Delphy’s conception of an autonomous domestic mode of production.

In justification of this argument she advances a number of theses concerning women’s work. (1) Women’s labour in the family has always made an essential, if unacknowledged, contribution to the economy. Historically women have almost always performed labour in addition to housework without being paid for either. This is especially the case where the family is the unit of production, for example on small farms, in retail businesses and in workshops; even today there are in France over a million women classified as ‘family aides’, i.e. unpaid workers, most of them in the agricultural sector. (2) As a result of industrialisation and the decline of subsistence agriculture, women’s labour could no longer by fully exploited within the family unit; some women were therefore absorbed into wage work, while the rest remained full-time housewives, deprived of their former involvement in production for the market. However, women’s entry into wage work did not, for two reasons, significantly alter their overall position. First, all women, regardless of any extra-domestic work, continued to do domestic labour for free. Secondly, if women entered wage labour their wages were likely to be controlled by their husbands and would most probably be spent on paying for such services (e.g. childcare and laundry) that used to be performed by the women themselves. The only difference, then, is that whereas before taking up wage work women performed their domestic labour in return for subsistence, those performing wage work now do it for nothing because they earn their own subsistence in the wage sector. (3) What sustains this situation is the marriage contract into which most women enter at some point in their lives. This common contractual position is the basis of the common class condition of women. Through marriage women are deprived of the right to ‘control their own labour’, in that they are not free to sell it. And what they do with their labour and its products is subject to the will of their husbands. Men therefore exploit women’s labour and in so doing constitute their class oppressors.

Delphy derives two main theoretical and political conclusions from these theses. First she argues that in contemporary society there are two modes of production: an industrial mode of production defined by capitalist property relations and capitalist exploitation, and a patriarchal mode of production defined by patriarchal/familial relations of production and patriarchal exploitation (i.e. of women by men). These modes are distinct and autonomous, as shown by the fact that the overthrow of capitalist relations does not result in the abolition of women’s oppression. Delphy further argues that in terms of this second, patriarchal mode women constitute a distinct class, united by their common oppression by men, and irrespective of their occupation or their husband’s class position. She concludes that women should mobilise autonomously to overthrow patriarchy and the society in which it is embedded.