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.

Marxist-feminist approaches that have adopted the concept of patriarchy as an analytical tool have been concerned to incorporate precisely this fact of male power into class analysis. The attraction of this concept is that it recognizes that men have privileges as men and wield power over women, even within the working class. The problem, however, has been to unravel the relationship between class and gender hierarchies. Are we speaking of two systems, one governing ‘production’ and one ‘reproduction’, or of a single system? Barrett points out that attempts to construct a single system tend toward reductionism and functionalism by arguing that patriarchy functions to the benefit of the capitalist class. Dual analyses, on the other hand, have not yet satisfactorily linked the two types of hierarchies. Are they in conflict or mutual accommodation? And, most importantly, what is the process by which this occurs?

For Barrett, the central flaw of dual systems theory is that it unnecessarily limits the scope of Marxist theory by attempting to compensate with the concept of patriarchy for the insufficiency of ‘sex-blind’ Marxist categories. This resolution of the problem, however, is really no resolution, or at least it is not a Marxist-feminist resolution because it leads us away from the crucial insights of the Marxist theoretical framework and places us firmly back on the terrain of empirical sociology. Rather, Barrett sees the Marxist-feminist project as one that will revise and develop Marxist theory so that it can encompass and demystify the relationships between different social structures. By limiting Marxist theory to the realm of capitalist production, dual systems theory prevents us from building on what is absolutely essential to a materialist conception of society—the determinant relationship between different levels of human social organization and experience.

The final major Marxist-feminist approach Barrett assesses focuses on the creation of masculine and feminine subjectivity and the representation of gender difference in cultural production. This approach has been influenced considerably by the shift in Marxism’s theoretical approach to ideology initiated by Althusser. The rejection of economism and the reprioritization of ideology have opened the way for Marxist feminists to place problems of gender relations at the centre of Marxist analysis and to avoid the problems of reductionism and empiricism that plague those approaches utilizing reproduction or patriarchy as central organizing concepts.

Barrett finds two interrelated problems with these approaches. First, drawing heavily upon psychoanalytic thought, they tend to be ahistorical. To date they have failed to present an analysis of gender ideology and subjectivity that demonstrates how these have changed over time or how they relate to specific historical social formations. Second, there is a tendency in these approaches to jettison Althusser’s rather nebulous but necessary affirmation of the primacy of the material ‘in the last instance’ in favour of a conception of ideology as absolutely autonomous. This tendency is best revealed in discourse theory, of which Barrett gives an extended critique. She argues that once ideology is severed from material reality, it no longer has any analytical usefulness, for it becomes impossible to posit a theory of determination—of historical change based on contradiction. These approaches, thus, like dual systems theory, ultimately lead us back to a bourgeois theory of multi-determination by different factors—political, ideological, economic, and so forth.

Having identified the major problems in current theoretical work, Barrett attempts to resolve them in an analysis that recognizes the importance of ideological elements—the construction of gendered subjectivity, its determinations and consequences—without severing ideology from its mooring in material relations. At the same time she proposes to utilize a historical analysis to steer between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of empiricism.

Barrett views the key to women’s oppression as a complex she terms the ‘family-household system’. The complex includes a given social structure—the household—and a given ideology—the family—which, while connected, are not parallel. The household structure is one in which a number of people, usually biologically related, depend on the wages of a few adult members, primarily those of the husband/father, and in which all depend primarily on the unpaid labour of the wife/mother for cleaning, food preparation, child care, and so forth. The ideology of the ‘family’ is one that defines family life as ‘ “naturally” based on close kinship, as properly organized through a male bread-winner with a financially dependent wife and children, and as a haven of privacy beyond the public realm of commerce and industry.’footnote1