Women and Childcare in Capitalism - Part 2: Women in Capitalism
by Andrea Marie on September 18, 2017

This is Part Two of a four-part examination of the care of children under capitalism, which draws extensively on Lise Vogel’s (2013) Marxism and the Oppression of Women in order to theorise exactly how childcare functions in the UK today1 and to suggest alternatives.

Part One examined how the establishment of childcare outside the home in capitalist society is vulnerable to co-option by capitalist purposes for both production and reproduction, and I summarised Vogel’s central thesis in order to explain how.

This is Part Two, which explores how this co-option functions in the current situation, and the exact ways childcare is used to facilitate women’s work and stabilise the rearing of children both through childcare inside and outside the home.

Part Three looks at how childcare can be deployed in other ways to those dictated by the purposes of capitalism, drawing on Nancy Fraser’s understanding of how the sites of class struggle can be widened beyond the productive realm in order to redraw the boundaries between production and reproduction. To inquire how childcare can be reclaimed for our own purposes rather than ceding them to capitalism, I use both William Morris and Alexandra Kollontai to explore how the sites and nature of both work and care can be transformed.

Finally, Part Four discusses how this transformation can be initiated today, understanding reformism as a potential part of a revolutionary strategy, and suggesting sites of struggle that working class women can take up to influence Labour Party politics.

2. Women’s Current Situation in Respect of Childcare Inside and Outside the Home

According to Vogel, the actual way the contradictions at the heart of women’s lives are resolved - that is, resolved not into a permanent solution, but, rather, organised in a way that permits them to co-exist, or, as Marx explains in Capital, a “form within which [opposing terms] have room to move” (p. 198), must be explored in specific class societies. For, “depending on the historical situation, either the role of the family as the site of generational reproduction, or the importance of women’s participation in surplus-labor, or both, might be emphasised”1. Consequently, the exact ways and degrees in which women are oppressed in capitalist society, by control of their reproductive capacities through male disciplining in households, and exploitation of their labour in market production, are questions for historical investigation, necessitating the empirical examination of (and political intervention in) women’s lives in contemporary capitalist society in the UK2.

Vogel gives examples of situations where either women’s reproductive role or role as direct producers are prioritised. In the latter case, when “the ruling class’s need to maximise surplus-labour overwhelms long-range considerations, all individuals in the exploited class might be mobilised into surplus-production, causing severe dislocation in its institutions of family-life and male dominance.” Vogel gives the example of the industrialisation of England in the nineteenth century3. However, when there is a need to replenish the population, for example, after the Second World War, there was a move to reinstate traditional family hierarchies emphasising women’s domestic role (even if not completely succeeding in confining women to the domestic sphere).

Vogel also suggests that the reversal in the post-war period of women’s crucial role in (war) production was critical to “the force and the character of the feminist upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s” due to the “significantly altered tasks, expectations, and contradictions” that women faced in the 1950s4. In fact, the contradictory pressures on women as mothers and workers, and, especially at times during shifts in emphasis in these roles, produce particular resistance, which, accordingly, is a vital factor in how they are lived. As Vogel explains, “the oppression of women in the exploited class develops in the process of the class struggle over the resolution of these contradictions”5. In fact, Federici argues that second wave feminism was a major factor which strongly influenced women’s more central role in production, with “the dramatic increase of the female labor force in the 1970s reflect[ing] women’s refusal to function as unwaged workers in the home”6. Although women’s struggles are important to how this contradiction is resolved, with the lack of an organised women’s movement today, particularly one that organises around the material conditions of our lives, it is not surprising that many women currently see no choice in what their role is.

The Equalisation of Labour-Power: From the Perspective of Production

In the absence of any strong organisation of working class women to influence their conditions one way or another, the ground on which the contradictions of women’s dual importance to capital, as direct producers and child-bearers, plays out is being ceded to the general tendency of capitalism to make ever more sections of the working class ‘freely’ available for labour. Vogel argues that “the general trend in the advanced capitalist countries is toward equalisation of participation rates among different categories of women, in the direction of increased commitment of all women to wage-labour…[including] more mothers of very young children” and that this is a result of the “equalisation of female labour-force participation [which] is a particular manifestation of the structural tendency in capitalist society toward free availability of all labour-power”7.

Women’s participation in the labour force means they become part of the capitalist tendency to equalise all human labour as the basis for the formation of value in capitalism: “The equalization of the most different kinds of labor can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour-power or human labour in the abstract”8. This is the basis of the wage contract, where “to buy the worker’s labour-power, the capitalist must offer a wage that is equivalent to its value”9, as well as establishing the conditions for the equality of persons in bourgeois society. This is because, in order to be contractors of their labour power, people must have individual freedom. However, because “in the sphere of production, the rules of exploitation and economic power, rather than political equality, govern relations between capitalists and workers”10, the worker in fact discovers “that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which his is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose his hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited”” (Marx, Capital, p. 195). Marx shows the disciplining process by which, “not merely by the force of economic relations, but by the help of the State”, the bargain is engendered: for “it takes centuries ere the “free” labourer, thanks to the development of capitalistic production, agrees, i.e., is compelled by social conditions, to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to work, for the price of the necessaries of life” (Marx, Capital, p. 181). This means the worker must be ‘free’ in the double sense that Marx described, both without restriction (and, although Marx primarily meant not subject to slavery or feudal forms of bondage, for women, this meaning also encapsulates not being personally dependent on men), and, secondly, without other sources of subsistence or means of survival from their labour.

Despite the capitalist tendency towards equalisation of labour, Vogel notes that equality, even in the sphere of circulation, is imperfectly realised in most societies, for, “in reality, these tendencies meet a variety of obstacles, and history shows that capitalism is, in fact, compatible with a stratified labour-market as well as with highly undemocratic political arrangements”11 when they work in capital’s favour. For example, the economic advantage derived from segregated workforces and labour market discrimination against people of colour and women, which then engendered resistance and struggle. As Vogel comments, “much of the history of the last century reflects struggles to achieve the basic freedom to dispose of one’s person and property denied to these groups”12.

However, as “the phenomenon of individual freedom is…bound to class-exploitation by the very logic of capitalist reproduction”13, women’s struggles for equality are liable to reach a limit. Whether they can go beyond this limit or not depends mostly on the current strength of the working class movement to determine whether struggles are able to unite the whole class behind the realisation that formal equality does not complete the process of ending real social inequality. As Vogel remarks, “far from a useless exercise in bourgeois reformism, the battle for democratic rights can point beyond capitalism”14. However, where weak, they can descend into sectionalist economism and engender division between different sections of the class fighting over the best possible settlement for them within the current system. If this is the case, far from confronting capitalist exploitation, sectional demands for equality risk running alongside capitalism’s own tendencies towards “the perfection of the conditions for the free sale of labour-power”15. Women’s struggles also pose this risk, for, in Federici’s words, “though the “utopian” moment was never completely lost, increasingly, feminism has operated in a framework in which the system – its goals, its priorities, its productivity deals – is not questioned and sexual discrimination can appear as the malfunctioning of otherwise perfectible institutions”16.

In this way, capitalism, unable to generate purposes outside itself, has taken advantage of historic women’s struggles for equal access to labour markets (freedom in the first sense of not being dependent on men) to endow the process of making women ‘free’ in the latter sense - of being without other means of subsistence, with a deeper moral significance. This is especially pertinent when the profitability crisis of the 70s led to a restructuring of capitalist production defined, at least in part, by women’s increased participation in the labour force, under the guise of whose increased ‘freedom’, the family wage and other social financial supports and services have been withdrawn. Fraser develops this point further in her essay ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’, where she argues that what was initially threatening to capitalism in the feminist critique of the androcentrism of state managed capitalism acquires a new meaning in the era of neoloiberalism. This means that struggles against traditional authority and personal dependence on men inherent in the ideal of the family wage were resignified to help legitimate women’s more central role in production when the political and ideological benefits of patriarchal social stability as a way to discipline women and control reproductive labour were outweighed by the economic needs of an expanded and restructured labour-force. It is in this way that Federici’s and Fraser’s analyses of women’s situation in the 1970s dovetail.

As such, women have poured into labour markets around the globe; the effect has been to undercut once and for all state-organized capitalism’s ideal of the family wage. In ‘disorganized’ neoliberal capitalism, that ideal has been replaced by the norm of the two-earner family. Never mind that the reality which underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift—now often a triple or quadruple shift—and a rise in female-headed households. Disorganized capitalism turns a sow’s ear into a silk purse by elaborating a new romance of female advancement and gender justice.

The Office of National Statistics (2013) own analysis of the increase in the employment rate for women is revealing in this sense by outlining a number of legislative acts that move from enabling women to work to obliging them to; in the 1970s, as a result of women’s struggles, there were the Equal Pay Act (1970), the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Employment Protection Act (1975), making it illegal to sack a woman due to pregnancy and introducing statutory maternity provision. Whereas, in 2008, came the lone parent income support changes – conditions of eligibility for which, based on the age of the youngest child, decreased from 16 to 12, and then were incrementally lowered until it became 5 in 2011.Finally, in 2010, the State Pension Age for women began its incremental increase from 60 to 65, and soon to be 68.

We can also add to this a series of reforms to the benefit system that have particularly affected women and households with young children17 and the increasingly harsh disciplinary regimes through which benefits are claimed. House of Commons research shows that, “of the £82 billion in cumulative tax changes and cuts in social security spending announced since 2010 that will be implemented by 2020, 81 per cent will come from women” (p. 6). Projections by Landman Economics and the Women’s Budget Group show that, of cuts to tax and social security measures “households with children are most affected. Female lone parents (92 per cent of lone parents) are most affected overall, with an estimated £4,000 annual average loss by 2020 – a huge 17 per cent cut as a proportion of their disposable income” (p. 7), which increases to 21% once public spending cuts to services are factored in (p. 9). Withdrawal of support, while framed as enabling women’s independence, in fact ensures women cannot abstain from the labour market18.

Both women and men are finding it impossible to live unless they sell their labour power, and this includes mothers, who are now just as likely to work as women without dependent children (ONS, 2015). It is partly the increasing participation of mothers, with a large increase in the employment rate of single mothers, that has been responsible for the rise in the number of women in paid work (ONS, 2013). With 70% of the female population in the UK in employment, making up 49% of employees, the number of women in paid work is at the highest level it has been since comparable records began in 1971 (when it was 53%), with the trend towards narrowing the gap with the decreasing amount of men - now 79.3% - in employment (Powell and Mor, 2017).

The 15 million women who are in paid work compares to an ever decreasing proportion who are described by the government as ‘inactive’ because they were ‘looking after family or home’, which was 1.96 million in the last quarter of 2016 (Powell and Mor, 2017), or about 8% of all women in the UK, and of course, this does not necessarily represent women who have left the labour market permanently. For example, the participation rate for women with young dependent children, aged between 0 and 4, has been much lower than women with older children, with 65% participating in 2014. The trend for this group, however, has been increasing steadily (ONS, 2015). Describing situations where the impetus to maximise profit reigns over reproductive considerations, Vogel argues, “such was the case in industrialising England during the nineteenth century, and, such, it can be argued, is again the case in the advanced capitalist countries today”19.

Reducing and Socialising Domestic Labour: From the Perspective of Reproduction

This general tendency towards greater female labour-force participation hides a more complex picture. Although being full-time carers is becoming less and less of a viable option for most mothers, there is often no other satisfactory alternative for looking after children.

Marx describes how absolute and relative surplus value can be achieved by extending the hours worked and intensifying labour through technological improvements or lowering the cost of living in order to lower wages. In the same way, Vogel describes how absolute and relative surplus value is created through reducing domestic labour because “domestic labour potentially takes away from the commitment workers can make to performing surplus-labour through participation in wage-work” so that, “to the extent that domestic labour of a capitalist society takes place within private households, the pressure of capitalist accumulation results in a tendency to decrease the amount performed in each household”20.

Reducing domestic labour can increase the hours worked by individuals, as “if one tends one’s own garden plot, chops one’s own wood, cooks one’s own meals, and walks six miles to work, the amount of time and energy available for wage-labour is less than if one buys food in a supermarket, lives in a centrally-heated apartment-building, eats in restaurants, and takes public transport to work”21. Although it may seem that the limits to the extension of the working day have been reached through the transition to modern life, the cultural acceptance of overtime in some sectors sees companies supplying meals and free taxis for late night working (with the same expectations in lower paid sector without the ‘perks’), which is reminiscent of Marx’s observation of how capital

Haggles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery” (Marx, Capital, p. 179).

Some employers recent forays into supplying on-site housing for workers also can be seen as an attempt to increase their availability for labour, as housing migrant workers in barracks does. The total amount of labour per household is also increased, by releasing other members for wage-work, as well as reducing the cost of the means of subsistence, for

If one supports another person, for example a wife, in order that she take care of domestic labour, that person is less available to participate in wage-labour, while at the same time, one’s own wage must cover the costs of her means of consumption22.

These developments can be seen in the move from the family wage model to the norm of the dual earner household.

Reducing domestic labour in households can be achieved through its socialisation. Vogel explains the increased significance of the role of the state in socialising domestic labour at times of high female employment:

To the extent, however, that women enter wage-labour, they become less able to take care of members of the household not presently in the work force. In a particular situation, the advantages to capital of increased female labour-force participation may outweigh the inroads into women’s capacity to perform domestic-labour. State interventions of various kinds may then become more important”23.

Socialisation not only makes individual women available for labour, but also reduces society’s total domestic labour through its more efficient organisation as, “public education and health-care make aspects of domestic labour the responsibility of the state”, reducing the ratios of adults to children in the case of schools compared with the household, while “at the same time distributing the costs of the reproduction of labour-power more widely through contributions and taxes”24.

Public provision of childcare is another way to socialise domestic labour. Currently in the UK, before compulsory public education from age 5, some free childcare/early years education is offered to parents through a direct, supply-side provider subsidy. Currently, in England, three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare outside the home, rising to 30 hours from September 2017 for children of parents who work more than 16 hours. Forty per cent of two year olds, qualifying by being from the most ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’, are also currently entitled to 15 hours. Any childcare beyond this is partially subsidised for working parents through the tax and benefits system; by the childcare element of Universal Credit, which enables qualifying parents to claim up to 85% of the costs of additional childcare, or through the Tax-Free Childcare Scheme, which covers 20% of costs for parents earning up to £150,000 each, up to a maximum of £2,000 per child.

This type of universal entitlement was introduced in England in 1998 (although childcare outside the home has been funded by local government in some areas before this), and has been incrementally extending for some children ever since, mirroring, although hugely lagging behind, the uptake in paid employment by mothers. There is still a gap between state subsidised provision and the average hours worked for a full-time job (37.5 hours in January-March 2017), with current subsidised provision also slightly below those of a part-time job (16.3 hours in January-March 2017), especially when transport time is factored in, and with most children below three receiving no entitlement. There is also evidence that two-thirds of British parents paying for formal childcare beyond the free early education hours receive no help with its costs (Butler et al., 2014), which, at an average of a third of a couple’s net income, are the highest of the OECD nations (OECD, 2016), resulting in an unsustainably high shortfall between state subsidy and childcare costs for poorer parents. Moreover, due to the low cost at which the state subsidises providers, many children cannot take up their free entitlement in practice, with just 43% of councils in England fulfilling their legal obligation to provide childcare for working parents. Furthermore, evidence suggests this problem will be exacerbated by increasing the free entitlement from 15 to 30 hours, with an evaluation of the government’s early implementation of the scheme finding that over half of free entitlement places involved payment for additional charges as “some providers had told parents that the funding for the extended hours was insufficient to cover costs and that they needed to recoup these costs in some other way” (DfE, 2017, p. 19).

Although the direction of public policy is moving more and more towards increasing the hours and ages of children who are entitled to free provision of childcare, the gaps arising in provision can be seen to be a result of the tension between making mothers available for labour by socialising childcare and doing so at low cost. The undervaluing of care and free-riding on women’s unpaid care work within the household is a barrier to its socialisation, as the state internalises a cost it perceives that it did not previously have. Federici explains that “capital has been very successful in hiding our work”, as by “transforming it into an act of love…it has gotten a hell of a lot of work almost for free”25. While the reproduction of labour-power is, of course, in the long term interests of capital, in the short-term, it is difficult to find an economic model that provides immediate returns – there are no productivity increases to be made through technological innovation for example, and, on the contrary, requires a lot of investment. Vogel explains that domestic labour, including childcare, “cannot be completely socialised in capitalist society. The main barrier is economic, for the costs are extremely high in such areas as child-rearing…Profitable chains of day-care centres have yet to be developed”26.

Recent government policies have tried to remove this economic barrier to the provision of childcare outside the home. In her evaluation of the Coalition Government’s Early Years policies from 2010-2015, Lloyd argues that this was achieved by weakening the educative element from the provision of early childhood education and care; an approach continued by the current Conservative Government. As early education increasingly becomes childcare, the policy rationale becomes more obviously maternal employment. This has lead to a shift away from the universal provision of early years education to childcare for children of working parents only, at the same time transferring provision to the private sector, side lining more expensive state maintained settings. This can be seen in changes to the funding framework - reformulating state funding to end the more generous subsidy for maintained settings (Stewart and Obolenskaya, 2015, p. 17). As a result, a third of Local Authority-run Children’s Centres have been lost since 2010 and 79% of childcare places are provided by private providers. Less than 15% of providers involved in early implementation of the 30 hours offer for working parents were state maintained (including a tiny proportion - less than 1% - of Children’s Centres) compared to private providers, which made up 57% of trial participants (DfE, 2017, p. 14). Perhaps most revealingly, the trial aimed to “test different approaches that drive market innovation and efficiency, trialling different ways of supporting providers to achieve economies of scale and reduce costs” (DfE, 2017, p. 12).

Vogel explains that there is a tendency to “remove domestic labour tasks to the profit-making sector, where they also provide new opportunities for capitalist entrepreneurs”27. However, the challenges to making childcare outside the home profitable means that the government has still had to incentivise private providers through a series of deregulatory reforms weakening quality standards. There has also been a relaxation of space requirements including access to an outdoor space, removing the Local Authority role in supporting quality improvements, and ‘slimming down’ the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. Although proposals to reduce the ratios of staff to two year old children from 4:1 to 6:1 were dropped, there is continued deprofessionalisation of the childcare workforce - with the government having rejected most of the proposals in the Nutbrown Review for improving staff qualifications. The childcare workforce is one of the most badly paid in the UK, leading to endemic staff recruitment and retention problems. While this essentially allows companies to resort to a Taylorist model of exploitation and deskilling, the sector is also subject to monopoly pressure, because the inability to innovate leads to a concentration of capital, with companies able to save costs by repeating and combining organisational features. This has lead to the childcare market being increasingly dominated by larger chains of for-profit companies, some of which are listed on the stock market (Lloyd, 2015, pp. 2-3).

Despite this downward pressure on costs through decreasing the quality of provision, private companies still rely on state subsidy to make a profit. Forty-three per cent of the early implementers of 30 hours, for example, reported that they joined the scheme because “they saw it as a good business opportunity” (DfE, 2017, p. 14). Where state subsidies become the main way for private companies to make a profit – the model of heavily state-subsidised industries such as power and railways, and also comparable to housing benefit which goes straight to landlords - means it is only incidental that the service they provide has a use value and needs counterpressure by government to maintain standards. By incentivising the involvement of private companies in caring for children, the government is opening up another area of our social lives to commercial exploitation. Fraser explains how, by “commodifying other aspects of social reproduction for the first time” capitalism is “remapping the institutional boundaries that previously separated commodity production from social reproduction”.

Stabilisation of Work and Care: From the Perspective of Production and Reproduction

However, by going some way to remove the economic limit to childcare provision through allowing the market mechanism to initiate a race to the bottom, there is another limit; at the level of total social reproduction - that is that the labour force, and capitalist society in general, must be reproduced in a way that meets the needs of the current and future composition of the economy.

Capitalist reproduction demands that labour-power be available as a commodity for purchase in adequate quantity and quality and at an appropriate price. However imperfectly, these needs shape the processes that maintain the existing bearers of labour-power, while at the same time, the labour-force as a whole is continually reconstituted to accord with future needs28.

Childcare, whether inside or outside the home, has to fulfill the function of ensuring that at least some time spent bringing up children is conducive to the transmission of capacities and values that promote a degree of compliance to work discipline and future good citizenship in a capitalist society. Fraser describes this process, which is

Variously called ‘care’, ‘affective labour’ or ‘subjectivation’, such activity forms capitalism’s human subjects, sustaining them as embodied natural beings, while also constituting them as social beings, forming their habitus and the cultural ethos in which they move. The work of birthing and socializing the young is central to this process.

Vogel explains that, as the performance of domestic labour limits the availability of labour-power, yet is vital to provide a stable and disciplined work-force, in general, capital attempts an equilibrium in the most cost effective terms: “over the long term, the capitalist class seeks to stabilise the reproduction of labour-power at a low cost and with a minimum of domestic labour”29. While current childcare outside the home, delivered at low cost by private companies increasingly replicating the hours of the working day, may go some way to adequately prepare children for the needs of the future economy, as the UK workforce is recomposed to suit the requirements of the growth in low skilled sectors like the service sector; in this form it does not and probably cannot, by itself, stabilise reproductive labour. Stabilisation, within the UK context of increased female labour-force participation since the 70s and a general move to reduce childcare in households through its greater socialisation, albeit in increasingly low cost private settings, since the late 90s, is achieved through women’s ‘double shift’ and its enforcement through male disciplining.

Women’s Double Shift

The contradiction of making women available for work while stabilising reproductive labour is absorbed by the domestic sphere, with mothers required to reconcile the two sides through their ‘double shift’. This ensures women participate in the labour force as much as possible, while consolidating their place stabilising reproduction, with the subsequent benefit of economising on care outside the home, given the high cost of providing good quality care. This means that, alongside participation in paid labour, women remain responsible, if not for the full-time physical care, for the full ideological role of what Fraser refers to as subjectivation – that is the majority of the affective labour that forms capitalism’s human subjects and hence stabilising reproductive labour.

The expectation that women retain responsibility for care has structured women’s work in capitalism and often given them a ‘special status’ in the labour force, which runs counter to the tendency for equalisation discussed above. This status, in the last instance, is a consequence of women’s “specific responsibilities and subordination in the tasks of necessary labour” in the household carrying “consequences for the work they do in the area of surplus-production”30. As Federici explains of women’s domestic role, “getting a second job does not change that role, as years and years of female work outside the home have demonstrated. The second job not only increases our exploitation, but simply reproduces our role in different forms”31.

In this way, the porosity between women’s role in the domestic sphere and their productive role has also been to the advantage of capitalism and its need to compose a flexible, low status, low paid workforce; especially as more and more reproductive tasks become commodified, as Fraser noted above. Vogel explains how,

Over time, most capitalist societies in fact experience a reduction of women’s isolation as well as an increase in female participation in wage-labour. To the extent that the special status of women continues, it permits discrimination against them that may work in capital’s favour. For example, wages for ‘women’s’ jobs remain notoriously low32.

The justification for maintaining pay discrimination against women in the workplace, in the face of the tendency for increasing equalisation and political equality, goes hand in hand with this tendency to classify women’s work as a distinct type of labour. For while the trend for female employment is increasing, the percentage of women doing a part-time role has been stable over the past 30 years, fluctuating between 42-45%. It currently stands at 42% of all women workers (Powell and Mor, 2017), but this rises to 56.4% of women with dependent children. Despite the tendency for more than half of mothers of young children to work part-time (and women are three times more likely to do part-time work than men), it is worth noting that they are still subject to the pressure to participate to an ever greater extent in paid employment. In the UK, part-time work is self-defined, although it can be anything under 35 hours (so, at the upper limit, it is comparable to full-time employment) and the tendency is for the average amount of part-time hours worked to be increasing.

In Capital, Marx discusses the practice of characterising workers by the number of hours they worked, noting “the designation of the workers who work full time as “full-timers,” and the children under 13 who are only allowed to work 6 hours as “half-timers.” The worker here is nothing more than personified labour-time. All individual distinctions are merged in those of “full-timers” and “half-timers.”” (p. 168). Despite women and children often being preferred to men because of their cheaper labour, once protectionist legislation was enacted, Marx notes the preference for adult men, who could be worked without limit. Only at this point of in capitalism’s development did the introduction of the factory acts “curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working day by state regulations”. Marx explains that this was due to concerns of work undermining social reproduction:

The limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil, had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation (p. 166).

This represents a crucial case of the need to grasp the dialectical law (Hegel, Marx and, above all, Engels) of the transformation of quantity into quality (and its reversal). The difference in quantity (of hours), disguises the fact that the difference also represents workers with different characteristics, here women, and in Marx’s example, children. Today, women’s lower pay is attributed entirely to quantitative differences- women with responsibilities for caring for children work fewer hours and this has consequences for career progression. This difference and women’s weakness in the labour market is held to be compatible with an egalitarian (at least in terms of equality of opportunity) society because it is not grounded in any difference of quality. However, what this misses is precisely the qualitative dimension, on the level of the social totality, as Federici argues, it stems from how this work is largely done by women and that, “that we are used to work for nothing”33. Dialectical argument, therefore, allows a grasping of and a making apparent of the slippages between quantity and quality and attention to the constitutive points where capital’s fantasy of an egalitarian economy of pure quantity breaks down.

The narrative that is ideological cover for this alchemy is commonplace - that ‘part-time workers miss out on the daily organisational workings of a company’ or that ‘jobs with higher levels of responsibility require greater dedication’, preventing promotion. It matters not that this justification does not even apply to all of the sectors where part-time work is common, and where career progression is almost non-existent, such as paid care, cleaning or secretarial work - two of the largest occupational categories of women’s work, for example, making up a third of all female employment, are ‘caring, leisure and other services’ and ‘admin and secretarial’, where part-time work is common. As low wages and ‘part-time’ work are inextricably linked, it is only when women’s part-time work is considered that the ‘gender pay gap’ doubles, from 9.4% to 18.1% (Powell and Mor, 2017). It is also revealing that despite this disparity, women’s part-time wages on average are higher than men’s, perhaps showing that women are paying a penalty for working part-time across a greater range of occupations than men, whose very uncommon part-time working (14% of employed men in the last quarter of 2016) can be seen as a symptom of holding a very specialised place in the labour market as well. It is also notable that the number of women who are self-employed has been increasing - by 50% (or 529,000) from March-May 2008 to October-December 2016 (Powell and Mor, 2017). Although triggered by the recession, it can also be seen as an attempt by women to settle for precarious work to fit around caring for children, as well as being part of the wider recomposition of a labour-force without formal workplace rights and, in some cases, working below the minimum wage.

It is in this light that gestures to ease this compromise between productive and reproductive labour, and create a ‘work-life balance’, such as the 2014 legislation guaranteeing the right of all employees to request flexible working, seem more like ideological cover. According to a research study, mothers are more likely to request flexible working, with the quarter of all employees who have requested more flexible hours since the new legislation came into force including 36% of female employees with dependent children under the age of six (ippr, 2014, p. 8). However, this statistic comes with the usual hand-wringing about how reduced hours and flexible working come with a ‘penalty’ in terms of career progression and salary (ippr, 2014, p. 12). Is it at least plausible that this type of flexibility would not be on offer unless, at the very least, it also suited the employer. It seems, then, that the composing of the female work-force as flexible is not primarily to enable a reconciliation of work and care on terms that suit mothers. Capitalism has taken up the demands of women for work that is compatible with caring responsibilities in a way that suits its needs, and the ‘flexibility’ of women’s part-time work is, more often than not, characterised by irregular shift patterns, unsociable hours, zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment; in short, flexibility defined by the employer to meet the demands of the current and future capitalist economy as a whole.

The role of mothers to reconcile these contradictions mean that they are also blamed when the overburden of these requirements becomes too much. As Federici argues,

Women today work harder than in the past. This is particularly true for women heads of families and women with low wages, who are often forced to moonlight to make ends meet. The burden women are still carrying is well reflected in their medical history34.

Diane Elson has also discussed the social disintegration that is the result of under-resourcing the domestic sphere. She criticises the ‘early intervention’ policies targeting poor women as pathological interventions that see problems emanating from the family itself, and mothers in particular, rather than the structural under-resourcing that reduces the capacities of families under capitalism. When maternal care is considered as inadequate, or harmful, to children’s development, stabilisation is seen as best achieved by the state, as the policy to give the 40% ‘most disadvantaged’ two year olds 15 hours free care a week and subsidies for poorer parents attests. As noted above, this goes hand in hand with coercing poor women into low paid unpleasant jobs, rather than caring for their children.

Contemporary Male Disciplining

In light of the tendency towards crisis that the ‘double shift’ engenders, there is another lever of stabilisation at capitalism’s command – male functional disciplining in households.

In 1975, Federici writes about how the patriarchy of the wage disciplined both women and men into submission within the household and the workplace respectively, ensuring they each fulfilled their responsibilities for the domestic and the social component of necessary labour:

The family is essentially the institutionalization of our unwaged labor, of our wageless dependence on men and, consequently, the institutionalization of an unequal division of power that has disciplined us as well as men. For our wagelessness and our dependence have kept men tied to their jobs, by ensuring that whenever they wanted to refuse their work they would be faced with the wife and children who depended on their wage35.

Even though mothers - more than half of whom work part-time - are likely to still depend on the male wage in the manner Federici suggests because it “is crucial for the survival of the family, even when the wife brings in a second wage”36; having moved to the norm of the two-earner household, the structure of male disciplining has changed.

Participation in wage labour has of course affected women’s position in the home, undermining men’s traditional authority as encapsulated in the ideal of the family wage and initiating some intra-family reorganisation of care. Federici acknowledges in 1980, when discussing domestic labour more generally, that, “undoubtedly, men are more likely to do some housework, particularly among couples where both partners have a job”37. More recent research in the UK also illustrates this trend: “Time use and employment activity data does show an increase in British fathers’ care time and a reduction in paid work time over the decade”.

However, while it is clear that there has been some intra-family reorganisation of domestic labour, this is not necessarily incompatible with the continuation of non-egalitarian relations in the household, especially when there are children, as Federici goes on to say:

Yet despite a trend towards desexualization of housework, as a recent survey indicates, most of the work done in the home is still done by women, even when they have a second job. Even couples that establish more egalitarian relations face a true turn of the tables when a child is born. The reason for this change is the wage benefits that a man forfeits when he takes time off from work to take care of his children. This suggests that even such innovations as flextime are not sufficient to guarantee that housework will be equally shared, given the decline in the standard of living that the absence of the men from waged work involves. It also suggests that women’s attempt to redistribute housework in the family is more likely to be frustrated by the low wages they command in the labor market than by entrenched male attitudes towards this work38.

Again, this is supported by more recent research from the UK, with the report above continuing that, “however, British fathers, continue to have one of the longest working weeks and highest level of work–family conflict amongst European fathers. In the absence of stronger work–family reconciliation measures, underlying maternalist and modified breadwinner cultures remain resilient.”

While, as both this report and Federici argue, the structure of production - the “low wages” women command and dependence on the male wage - is significant in organising women’s greater responsibility for care in the household, it is important to remember that this, in the last instance, is conditioned by capitalist social reproduction. Involvement in productive work, and struggles for equal pay and equal opportunity within that sphere have, of course, had positive consequences for women’s position in the household; but advances in the realm of production cannot ultimately overcome the material foundation of women’s subordination in the domestic sphere, and this, in turn, conditions discrimination in the work place. Even when women’s struggles for political equality threaten to expose the limitations of formal equality, for example, “in the area of paid work, [when] women push the issue of equality beyond demands for equal pay and equal opportunity, by calling as well for equal compensation for work of comparable worth”39, they still run up against a limit. For,

While it is conceivable that the tendency and struggle for equal rights might reduce sex-differences in the performance of the domestic component of necessary labour to a minimum, that minimum would still assign disproportionate responsibility to women in their capacity as child-bearers, and potentially provide the material foundation for a system of male supremacy40.

It is important to remember that it is not because women are child-bearers per se that this is the case, but because of the importance for capitalism in the fact that they are, that is, for capitalism’s own social reproduction, and with it the creation of surplus value, which depends on controlling the labour-power of the working class, and hence the women who reproduce it.

This, then, is the “material foundation for a system of male supremacy” that underlies both the patriarchy of the wage and male disciplining in contemporary families. However, while women’s direct dependence on men through the patriarchy of the wage was characterised by paternalistic authority and supported by an unambiguously sexist state, as well as an androcentric institutional and cultural system; in contemporary families, the complex mediation of male functional disciplining and the role of the state, both the lieutenants of capital, has changed.

A detailed exploration of the exact ways in which male disciplining functions both within and also outside contemporary families including in households with lesbian mothers and single mothers (i.e. in families where there is no “man of the house” to operate as capital’s lieutenant) is beyond the scope of this essay, however, it is clear, as discussed above, women’s participation in labour and advances in political equality struggles have seen a change in the way the state functions. The achievement of formal rights and cultural changes have initiated some transference of care from women to men, so that both take responsibility for tasks from the social and domestic components of necessary labour. Redistributing care within families can benefit capitalism (as does dual earner families in the productive sphere) by increasing the amount of absolute ‘free’ care available while also providing some relief to women from the overwhelming burden of performing increasing amounts of work in both paid and unpaid roles ensuring that, ultimately, they can continue to do so. Because of the specific position of women in capitalist society conditioning their greater responsibility for care, male disciplining may play a part as ‘enabling’ women’s ‘double shift’ by simultaneously taking on some tasks while quietly refusing others in an iniquitous way. Rather than demanding women assume a domestic role (as the family wage model implies), a male ‘investment strike’ (in other words, a strike in terms of withdrawal in response to the increased power of a still but less subordinate group) in care duties acts simultaneously to support women in their role, while consolidating their responsibility for maintaining the organisational and ideological unity of care across different sites.

State interventions can be seen in the same light; for example, rather than providing comprehensive universal free childcare, state support is piecemeal; on the one hand, providing a patchwork of financial support and services that are just enough to enable women not to refuse to work, while on the other, falling short of providing a service that does not make additional demands on them. The gaps in care are then usually assumed under, and knitted together by, the general responsibility and organisational capacity of women. The partial ‘support’ from men and the state (often in the name of women’s ‘independence’ as opposed to full financial dependency of the male wage), still make it materially difficult for women to leave relationships and act to maintain the integrity of the family, even if just in a position of structural precarity.

It is in this way that conflicts between men and women over the performance of care and domestic labour are, although not unimportant, ultimately individualised struggles that often do not initiate change. As Federici argues, again discussing domestic labour as a whole, ““sharing the housework” which has long been supported by many feminists as the ideal solution to the housework problem”41 simply reduces the struggle for the best possible conditions for the reproduction of labour within society to “the privatized kitchen-bedroom quarrel that all society agrees to ridicule”42. Of course, domestic labour should be shared equally between men and women, however, private individualised struggles have not as yet delivered emancipation from the conditions of domestic isolation or drudgery.

This is because fairer redistribution of domestic labour between men and women within (heterosexual) households does not alter the fact of - and, in the last instance, is prevented by - the spatial separation between the domestic sphere as a whole and the sphere of production. This is because, as Vogel argues, capitalism is unique in forcing “a severe spatial, temporal, and institutional separation between domestic labour and the capitalist production-process”43. While this is the case, and struggles do not address this boundary, the contradictory pressures on women will remain, creating the “the double shift - now often a triple or quadruple shift”.

This essay continues in Part Three.

  1. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, Chicago, Haymarket, 2013, p. 155. 

  2. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 155. 

  3. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, pp. 155-6. 

  4. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 2. 

  5. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 153. 

  6. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 41. 

  7. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 167. 

  8. Marx, 1971a, pp. 76-8, cited in Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 169. 

  9. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 170. 

  10. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. 

  11. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. 

  12. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. 

  13. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 171. 

  14. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 172. 

  15. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 174. 

  16. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, PM Press, 2012, p. 56.  

  17. Stewart and Obolenskaya, 2015, outline the scale of the cuts: “A series of reforms to the benefit system have affected households with young children, including cuts to both universal and means-tested family benefits (for further detail see Agostini et al, 2014 and Hills, 2015). The main relevant policies include: – The abolition of the ‘Baby Tax Credit’ which doubled the family element of Child Tax Credit in a child’s first year (worth £545 a year when abolished in April 2011); – The abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant (essentially Child Benefit paid during the last trimester of pregnancy); – The restriction of the Sure Start Maternity Grant (£500 at birth paid to low income families to help with the costs of a pushchair, cot etc) to the first child in the family; – For Working Tax Credit eligibility, an increase in the working hours requirements for couples with children from 16 to 24; 21 WP12 The Coalition’s Record on the Under Fives: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015 – An increase in the withdrawal rate for tax credits from 39% to 41%, and a lowering of the threshold for receiving some tax credits. Families had previously received the full family element (£545) up to an income of £50,000; by 2014-15 the threshold for receiving any tax credit had fallen to £26,000 for families with one child, rising to £45,400 for families with four; – A freeze on Child Benefit and on the flat-rate family element in Child Tax Credit; – The abolition of the Child Trust Fund (£250 or £500 which had been paid into a savings account for all new babies, with later top-ups for low-income families); – The introduction of “affluence-testing” for Child Benefit, with a taper setting in when one parent earns £50,000 a year and complete withdrawal at £60,000. This last cut is estimated to have affected 1.2 million families at the top end of the income distribution, with 70% of those losing their full allowance of £1,750 a year for a family with two children or £2,450 for three (HMRC, 2012). The change, along with the much greater targeting of Child Tax Credit, represented another nail in the coffin of progressive univeralism, and was especially interesting in light of continued protection of universal benefits for older people, such as free bus passes and the Winter Fuel Allowance. In addition, wider reforms to social security benefits have affected families with children alongside other groups (and often more than other groups), especially: – A range of reforms to Local Housing Allowance, including caps on the total rent that can be covered, and the removal of the ‘spare room subsidy’ (or ‘bedroom tax’); – The passing of responsibility for Council Tax Benefit to local authorities, alongside a reduction in resources for council tax support, which has meant cuts in support for working-age people; – The introduction of a ‘welfare cap’, limiting total benefit receipts to £26,000; this particularly affects large families and those in high housing cost areas; – From April 2013, 1% uprating in existing tax credits and benefits, below the inflation rate; this includes maternity and paternity benefits; – The switch to uprating benefits using the CPI rather than the RPI, which is expected to have significant effects on the real value of benefits in the longer run (Agostini et al, 2014).” 

  18. When Labour won office in 1997, they enacted the previous Conservative government’s plans to cut income support. Supporting the cuts to lone parent premium which she had previously opposed, Harriet Harman called the impoverishment of single mothers, “a pioneering programme which marks a radical new approach to welfare, bringing work, skills, opportunities and ambition”

  19. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 156. 

  20. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 161. 

  21. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 161. 

  22. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 161. 

  23. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 168. 

  24. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 162. 

  25. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 17. 

  26. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 162. 

  27. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 162. 

  28. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 158. 

  29. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 163. 

  30. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 155. 

  31. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 20. 

  32. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 175. 

  33. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 34. 

  34. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 50. 

  35. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 33. 

  36. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 33. 

  37. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 48. 

  38. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, pp. 48-9. 

  39. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 174. 

  40. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 177. 

  41. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 48. 

  42. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 16. 

  43. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 159. 


Andrea Marie

As of 2018, Andrea is no longer involved with New Socialist in any capacity.


Sheila Rowbotham on 'Motherhood': The Mother Function

This is an extract from Sheila Rowbotham, (2010) Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century, London, Verso, pp. 115-124.

Mothers Feeding Babies - Part 1

I was determined to breastfeed my baby. The message from public health campaigns was clear – breastfeeding is very beneficial.

Sheila Rowbotham on 'Motherhood': The Mother Function

This is an extract from Sheila Rowbotham, (2010) Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century, London, Verso, pp. 115-124.

Mothers Feeding Babies - Part 1

I was determined to breastfeed my baby. The message from public health campaigns was clear – breastfeeding is very beneficial.