Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas, in their extensive engagement with Women’s Oppression Today footnote1, have provided an opportunity for a reassessment of the arguments made there. In this reply I want to comment on what I now consider to be the weaknesses of the book as well as responding to the criticisms and alternative arguments that Brenner and Ramas have put forward.

I will deal first with what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of their piece, and this is the question of biology and the determination of the sexual division of labour by the consequences of childbirth and lactation. Brenner and Ramas (to recapitulate) argue that attempts to understand the reasons for the development in the nineteenth century of the pattern of male wage-labourer and female domestic-labourer have underplayed or ignored the extent to which this pattern is the logical outcome of reproductive biology. Women had children, partly through inadequate methods of contraception, and were obliged to breast-feed them if they were to survive in an era which had no satisfactory alternative method of feeding. Given the incompatibility between childcare and participation in capitalist production, there was a material determination of the family-household based on the division of responsibilities between men and women. Thus we have no need for arguments which rest principally on economic requirements at the level of a mode of production, nor for those resting on the supposed ideological foundations of these social divisions—the explanation lies nearer to home in the necessary consequences of biology in that particular historical moment.

Whilst in general I think it is true that feminists have been unduly squeamish in the face of biological arguments, I am not convinced that this one is as cogent as Brenner and Ramas claim. Feminists have tended to point to the social and cultural variation in the consequences of biology for the good reason that this variation itself demonstrates that the degree of determination of the social by the biological is a social or—more precisely—a political choice. Timpanaro’s work, cited approvingly here in the context of considering the relation between the social and the biological, is in fact of little use on such matters as these, for it is posed at too general a level and offers no conclusions. We cannot deduce from Timpanaro’s general insistence on the need to reconsider biological determination whether reproductive biology acts as a determinant in this particular case.footnote2

In my view it would be more appropriate to speak not of biological determination but of a situation in which social and political choices were made concerning the effects of reproductive biology. This can be illustrated by taking the question of lactation, to which Brenner and Ramas attach considerable weight. Naturally anyone will agree that a woman attempting to combine working a long day in a factory or mill with breast-feeding a child will find this difficult if not impossible, and we are all familiar with the sufferings recorded from this situation. But the aristocracy have usually managed to avoid these problems through the institution of wet-nursing and, as Brenner and Ramas themselves acknowledge in passing, the adequacy or otherwise of this solution is determined by social class. The fact is that wet-nursing was dangerous when combined with disease and malnutrition and much less so when these evils were absent. It is also true that many societies which in general depend upon human lactation for survival have collectivized the procedure in order to mitigate the individual mother-child bond through a more co-operative approach. So we can see that even such a ‘biological’ matter as lactation is a social phenomenon for the purposes of analysis.

Similarly it seems to me to be unconvincing to argue that the sexual division of labour in the home and workplace was the logical consequence of the fact that women spent much of their married life bearing and rearing children, since this merely pushes back one step the explanation we need. Why did they? Other societies discovered that the age of marriage could be raised, that contraception could be practised even before the pill had been invented, that a surplus of women could be housed and fed. If demographic history can be said to teach us anything it is surely that the causes of family and population ‘decisions’ at the social level are notoriously difficult to ascertain.footnote3 So if it is true that the majority of working-class women in the nineteenth century spent their lives in this way (and of course we should remember that those who did not still had the social consequences of the ‘family wage’ imposed upon them), we should regard this as a matter to be explained rather than an explanation of something else. In short, to be at the mercy of reproductive biology is, at the social rather than the individual level, a political decision rather than a biological determination. To say this is not sheer feminist voluntarism, it is to emphasize the level of fatalism that creeps into discussion of this and no other issue where biology has an important role. Brenner and Ramas themselves point out that American women halved their birthrate during the nineteenth century, and it is undoubtedly true that from time immemorial women have had more control over their fertility than a fatalistic reading of demography indicates. My point is that although biological reproduction is, transparently, a ‘biological’ matter, it does not further our analysis much to consign all these questions to the reassuringly scientific category of biology. Most of us would agree that starvation and obesity are physiological phenomena, but most socialists tend to take the analysis one stage further back and consider how inequalities in world food distribution are the ‘real’ causes of them. This point is put very clearly by Kate Soper when she writes: ‘The human race is biologically determined in the sense that it has the kind of lungs which will be destroyed by over-exposure to a certain form of asbestos; and it is naturally determined in that asbestos has the physical and chemical properties that it does; but the incidence of asbestosis is a socially determined fact that it is within human capacities to alter. These determinations should be kept distinct.’footnote4 If it is accepted that social class transforms the consequences of childbirth, as is accepted in relation to infant mortality and in relation to the effects of childbirth on the mother, then it must follow that the determinations most relevant to our analysis are the social rather than the biological ones involved. To regard these as biological questions would be reasonable if we regarded the global questions of food distribution as biological, since famine and obesity also spring from consequences of human biology.

Perhaps the most telling point against accepting the argument from biology is that it ignores the consequences of social class. For bourgeois women in the nineteenth century were also human and subjected to the dictates of reproductive biology, but it is not biology that is held to account for the similarities there undoubtedly were in respect of familial obligations and (as was to be revealed later in the century) exclusion and disadvantage at work, and they rest mainly on women’s economic dependence on men. Of course it is possible to explain this in biological terms, but the ascription of hunting to men and home-making to women has now been definitively challenged and this type of biologistic reading of gender discredited. In comparison, it is clear that the type of argument floated by Brenner and Ramas is one that has its real explanation in the category of the economic. Following some aspects of the position argued by Jane Humphries,footnote5 they stress the economic logic of the woman’s exclusion from wage labour to the proletarian household. Yet this argument is difficult to maintain when the comparison is made between proletarian and bourgeois women and the economic factors held to apply to the former cannot be seen in the case of the bourgeois family. The more convincing explanation of the congruence between proletarian and bourgeois family ideology and division of labour must surely lie at the level of ideology and in the legacy of history, and it is to this that I now want to turn.

The central thrust of the argument put forward by Brenner and Ramas against that of Women’s Oppression Today concerns the nature of a materialist understanding of gender division. They see my analysis as one that courts idealism in the weight it attaches to ideology, which at times threatens to displace the economic from its canonized role as in the last instance determinant. So although they agree that dualistic analyses, such as the ‘capitalist patriarchy’ approach of Hartmannfootnote6, remain a problem for materialism, they make the point that ideology can be hypostatized as an explanation in its own right in a similarly dualistic fashion. It is in the context of this critique of my use of the concept of ideology that their insertion of biology, and their restatement of certain economic arguments, must be seen. The explanation they seek, in order to qualify as materialist, must be couched in terms that identify a material basis for women’s oppression in capitalism.