The re-emergence of a women’s movement in the late sixties brought with it a flood of radical literature on the oppression of women. The bulk of this writing was descriptive in character. While the portrayal of women’s life-circumstances was often vivid and accurate, the analysis was generally very thin. The immediacy of women’s oppression was seldom penetrated so that its structural roots could be grasped. A partial exception must be made for Marxist analysis of the housewife and her labour under capitalism. In this area, Margaret Benston, footnote1 Peggy Morton footnote2 and Juliet Mitchell, footnote3 to name only three, made valuable investigative contributions. More recently Selma James and Mariarosa dalla Costa footnote4 have advanced a thesis on the housewife that has provoked a heated debate among radical women. Serious rejoinders have been levelled against their main argument from several quarters of the women’s movement, particularly from its socialist wing. footnote5 All this has served to raise the level of debate on the entire question and confront the workers’ movement with the fact that housewives remain as a massive labouring population in late capitalism completely outside the organizations and struggles of the proletariat.

Of course, bourgeois economists have always ignored the housewife as a labourer. For those held spellbound by the fetishism of price theory, any operation not tagged with a price is a priori not economic. Since this is the status of the domestic labourer, she stands beyond their field of inquiry—no part of the official economy. Adding, of course, that the housewife has tremendous ‘purchasing power’ and that her ‘changing tastes’ affect the market place dramatically, they portray housewives as superficial social parasites, consuming but never producing.

It is particularly painful to note that Marxists have rarely attacked this reactionary perspective and demolished its underlying assumptions. Granted that Marx did not explicitly elaborate an analysis of domestic labour, there is nothing in his work, so far as I am aware, that prevents one from doing so. Indeed, in Capital, as I shall show, Marx laid out a framework within which domestic labour clearly fits. He always treated the consumption of the means of subsistence and the reproduction of labour power as two aspects of the same process. Furthermore, it is the wage form that obscures domestic labour’s relation to capital and Marx clearly exposed ‘this phenomenal form, which makes the actual relations invisible and indeed shows the very opposite of that relation.’ footnote6

The denial of domestic labour’s economic function (the reproduction of labour power) has had detrimental repercussions on other elements of a Marxist analysis. For instance, the nuclear family unit has never been adequately situated by Marxists within the capitalist social formation and it has often been assessed, quite inadequately, as an entirely superstructural phenomenon. Huge lacunae in analysis make for underdeveloped practice. Little wonder that left organizations have historically developed few strategic perspectives that frontally address the social relations of the bourgeois family.

In order to situate domestic labour within production it is necessary first to describe the family’s relations to the mode of production. footnote7 For the totality of social relations that comprise a society are founded upon one central cluster of relations that substructure the rest, and are causally basic. These are the relations of production. The family is ultimately dependent upon the dominant mode of production for its existence and form.

In feudal societies, the family was co-terminous with the basic unit of production, and as such, domestic labour was embedded within the labour of general production. Capitalism entailed fundamental alteration in the mode of production and these structural changes have altered the position of the domestic labourer within production. They are briefly listed here, so as to provide an initial overview for our investigation before proceeding to a full analysis of their implications for the development of the economy as a whole and for the consciousness of the housewife in particular.

The following general features of the capitalist mode of production pertain to domestic labour’s position and function.