In nlr 40 some thirteen and a half thousand words, rich in quotation from Marx, Engels and Lenin, from Louis Althusser, Claude LéviStrauss and Talcott Parsons, were used by Juliet Michell to back up her advocacy of four reforms: equal education, free state provision of oral contraception, legalization of homosexuality (strange demand in an article on women, considering that it is only male homosexuality which is illegal in Britain: and why should Cuba be singled out for Juliet Mitchell’s indignation?), and the abolition of illegitimacy (just like in Sweden and Russia!).
These reforms are of course unexceptionable, excellent measures, measures which anybody from the Liberal Party leftwards should support. But however does it come about that after all the work and thought that clearly went into Juliet Mitchell’s article, and despite the correctness of its underlying premise—that is to say, that the whole area she sets out to discuss has been neglected shamefully in socialist thinking—that nonetheless the result is so banal and falls so far short of her intentions. There is clearly nothing wrong with Juliet Mitchell’s intentions. But I think that there is something very wrong indeed with her basic assumptions and her method, and it is that which explains both the anti-climax of her conclusion and many of the inconsistencies in the article as a whole. It is because the subject is one of the utmost importance that it is necessary to analyse carefully where she goes wrong.
In the first part of her article, Juliet Mitchell criticizes the ‘economist approach’ of the classical socialist writings on women—that is, their discussion of them in terms of the family, and of their participation in economic production. She writes: ‘the position of women in the works of Marx and Engels remains dissociated from, or subsidiary to, a discussion of the family, which is in turn subordinated as merely a precondition(!) of private property. Their solution(!) retains this overly economic stress, or enters a realm of dislocated speculation’. This initial rejection structures the whole article.
We are warned that the article will not provide an historical narrative of women’s position. But what, in fact, happens is that she excludes history from her analysis. How can one analyse either the position of women today, or writings on the subject abistorically? It is this which prevents her from realizing that the whole historical development of women has been within the family; that women have worked and lived within its space and time. We may all agree that her place should not be there, but it is. Any discussion of the position of women which does not start from the family as the mode of her relation with society becomes abstract. Furthermore, human history is based on production and relations of production. This is equally true for men and women, and hence the ‘economist:’ approach of Marx and Engels is the basis for a discussion of the position of women. What specifies the position of women in history until the industrial revolution is that her participation in production was mediated through the family.
However, the Marxist tradition can and should be criticized for its failure to understand the specificity of women. Juliet Mitchell’s instinct is correct here, but since, she does not define their specificity in socioeconomic terms she falls into simple empirical description. The Marxist tradition can be criticized in particular for its mistaken identification of the social role of women, in treating them as if they were a class; for workers or peasants are exploited actively, at their place of work, while women’s subordination is a passive one—they are appropriated together with other property. The central weakness of her whole analysis is that she bases it on a historical categories: fundamental, marginal, etc.
Her own article is, in fact, itself an unwitting proof that it is impossible to achieve a global analysis of the position of women outside the premises of classical Marxist discussion. For her discussion too moves from the family (sexuality, socialization, and reproduction) to productive work. Failing to situate women historically in socio-economic terms, her position remains the traditional feminist one, which is in its essence moralistic: the history of women is presented as a sequence of oppression by the male sex.
Because she sees the whole question in terms of men oppressing women, it is not surprising that she does not understand the emphasis that Marx and Engels placed on women’s work in industry (summed up in the excellent passage from Engels which she quotes with disapproval on p. 14–15). Surely the difference between a woman-worker and a woman-peasant is that the work in the first case is dissociated from the family and is socially hers.