A reponse to Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale’s “What gender does”

Colin Wilson responds to Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neal’s discussion of What gender does in ISJ 139. Nancy and Jonathan’s response to Colin will be published tomorrow.


The oppression of women has become a central political topic worldwide. Part of what revolutionaries have to say about women’s oppression is straightforward – that we oppose all oppression, including that of women, and that we stand with feminists fighting against it, and also with women who have experienced that oppression, including sexual harassment and rape. On this there can be agreement among a wide range of people with progressive views. But other questions are more difficult to answer. How does the struggle for women’s liberation connect to a broader movement for social and economic justice? Why are women oppressed in the first place?

Marxists have sought to address these questions for over 150 years, since Marx and Engels wrote about them in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. The most recent wave of feminist activism has coincided with the revival of social reproduction theory, based in particular on the work of Lise Vogel from the 1980s, which for many people provides answers to at least some of the questions above.

In the summer of 2013, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale put forward a quite different point of view in their article What gender does in ISJ 139. They disagree not just with social reproduction theory, but with most Marxist writing about women. Arguing that “we need to begin again,” they give their own account of the origins and dynamic of women’s oppression. They make three fundamental claims about where previous Marxist writing has gone wrong. First, they see gender as a phenomenon that “works to support class inequality”; second, they claim that “the ruling class deliberately controls and manages gender” to achieve this; and third, they oppose Engels’ claim that the family is the source of women’s oppression. Let’s look at these points in turn.

Nancy and Jonathan begin by pointing out that “social inequality in all class societies is arbitrary” – members of ruling classes are not more capable, intelligent or admirable than the people they rule. The subordinate group will resent this, to some extent, and resist it in ways that vary from open revolt to mild subordination (they “fart silently when the great lord walks by.”) The rulers seek to legitimise and naturalise their class rule, and Nancy and Jonathan argue that gender is an important part of this process. On the one hand, justifications for class rule “always smell fishy”, while gender “goes deep”: “inequalities at work and elsewhere would be far less acceptable if people had the daily experience of equality within intimate sexual and family relationships.”

First, I want to dispute the claim that class differences are always plainly spurious. A medieval peasant will notice that the life of the local lord is very different from his own. He lives in a different kind of house, surrounded by servants and family members; has access to weapons, has been trained in the use of them and has men who will fight alongside him; and if he cannot read himself, has men who can, and through them has access to a world of knowledge and communication from which the peasant is excluded. Finally, his rule is endorsed by God. The peasant is unlikely to think “I’d make a good lord” or “the lord and I are essentially the same.” In fact, the idea that all human beings are the same, formally equal, is specific to capitalism.

Even in our own society, most workers don’t seriously think “I could run the government, and so could the other people at my work.” For that to become possible, they need to be transformed through a revolutionary process. Until then, they resent the ruling class, but accept their rule. So Nancy and Jonathan are wrong to say that class rule is never accepted as natural – in a class society this is the common sense most of the time.

Nancy and Jonathan argue that ideas about gender are accepted as natural to a much greater extent than those about class. In particular, they concentrate on experiences associated with “intimate sexual and family relationships” such as love, parenthood, penetrative sex, birth and breastfeeding. These ideas and practices about gender, which people absorb and reproduce in their own lives without thinking about them, are accepted as natural. The problem for Nancy and Jonathan’s argument is that it relies on separating certain “intimate” and “private” experiences from the more public one of class. But the whole notion of a separate private realm is a central element of the capitalist ideology which they are seeking to explain. In capitalist society, a harsh public world is separated from a private one, which is supposedly more natural and over which workers feel they have more control: as Marx puts it, “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself… man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.”[1]

The separation of public and private did not pre-exist capitalism. In her book Sexuality in Medieval Europe, historian Ruth Mazo Karras explains the difference with our own society:

Many people today would say that what other people do in their own bedrooms is their own business and should not be regulated by the state. It medieval Europe it was not their own business. One’s choice of sex partner affected one’s family and the inheritance of property. One’s choice of sex act affected the social order and therefore was of concern to the entire community. [2]

Peasants felt no reluctance about crouching below open windows to listen to personal conversations, or perching in trees to watch couples commit adultery. Nor did their dwellings provide privacy:

Married couples typically shared a bed. Among peasant families, they might also share that bed with several children. Among the aristocracy, servants or retainers might normally sleep in a lord’s or lady’s bedroom. Among high aristocrats the married couple often had separate bedrooms, so the retainers would be well aware of when the couple shared a bed.[3]

There is here no private world of intimate sexuality to which appeal can be made to buttress the public world of class.

Nancy and Jonathan’s second main claim is that “the ruling class deliberately controls and manages gender to its own advantage.” They argue that “Ruling classes may sometimes also use race, sect and nationality to divide and rule. But always they use gender.” There is no doubt that capitalist ruling classes do use divide and rule, do scapegoat particular groups and so divert opposition from themselves. But how do these ideological developments work?

Ideas about gender emerge from a particular material context – that the ruling class is keen to ensure the reproduction of the labour force. Thus there exists a key difference for the capitalist ruling class between two sorts of human beings – those who can give birth and those who cannot. Since most people who give birth are cisgender women, this means that women are assigned a particular role in the reproduction of the workforce. At the same time as women are systemically disadvantaged in this way, however, capitalism in countries like Britain is linked to notions of formal equality before the law – women have a right to equal pay and so forth – and the benefits system encourages women to work rather than staying at home caring for children. Constant debate takes place about social questions involving women. This provides the context for a series of debates inside the ruling class, ideological constructions drawing on pre-capitalist ideas, conflicts between the ruling class and other social forces and so on. The ideas which end up winning out in these conflicts are ones that are compatible with capitalism, which generates its own “common sense” – and besides, the ruling class controls “opinion makers” such as universities and the press. But this is not to say that the ruling class just make sexism up, as Nancy and Jonathan claim when they say that “gender is a… complex and clever way to divide people.” That would be a conspiracy theory. The ruling class has enormous influence over the process of ideological production, but they are not completely in control of it – or ideas would never change.

Nancy and Jonathan’s third main claim concerns the family. Socialists back to Engels have seen women’s oppression as rooted in the family, and argued that socialism would see the family transformed or abolished for just this reason – a commitment most famously made by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, where they claim that “the bourgeois family will vanish… with the vanishing of capital.”[4]

Nancy and Jonathan begin their response to this, drawing on their own anthropology fieldwork, by pointing out that people in different societies and historical periods have lived in many different ways. They note that in many societies the “work of production” is not specifically assigned to men, or the “work of reproduction” to women, so that “the family” as it exists in contemporary capitalist societies like Britain is unknown for much of history – all of which is entirely true. They then go on to point out that women’s oppression has existed for millennia – but since we’re agreed that the family as we know it is a recent development, they argue, the family cannot be the root of women’s oppression for all that time, so it cannot be the cause of women’s oppression under capitalism.[5]

Nancy and Jonathan’s argument is convincing if we assume that the dynamic of women’s oppression in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies is the same. But in fact it’s different, at least for working class women. In feudal societies, most people’s class position depended on owning property. Lords owned much more property than peasants. But peasants also owned furniture, household goods, agricultural equipment and perhaps some animals: couples could only marry if they had amassed enough of these goods to form a household. So the family always involves questions of property. Among lords marriages were strategic ways of linking lineages, but even among the peasantry, women were expected to provide a dowry at their marriage. It was for reasons to do with property that, among both lords and peasants, women had to be subordinated – a wife not under her husband’s control might commit adultery, foist bastards upon him and so disrupt inheritance. This logic continued to apply to bourgeois women as capitalism developed. In the words of the eighteenth-century author Samuel Johnson:

Consider of what importance to society that chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends. We hang a thief for stealing a sheep, but the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep, and farm, and all from the right owner.[6]

However, the class position of the working class under capitalism does not depend on property ownership, and so the oppression of working-class women is not related to controlling the inheritance of property. Rather, it results from the fact that women have primary responsibility for social reproduction within the privatised family. In both cases, women’s oppression is linked to family structures, but the link works in different ways. So the fact that family structures have changed greatly in history does not stop the family being at the core of women’s oppression under capitalism.

In summary, we have to conclude that Nancy and Jonathan’s ideas do very little to help us understand women’s oppression or how to fight against it. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition which they reject – in particular, social reproduction theory – is more vibrant than it has been for many years. This is a much more useful approach than the one which they suggest.

[1] Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: Estranged Labour

[2] Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto others, p. 22

[3] Karras, Sexuality, p. 81

[4] See Section II: Proletarians and Communists. Marx and Engels advocate “Aufhebung der Familie”: the difficult word “Aufhebung” is derived from Hegel and can refer to both destruction and transformation.

[5] The argument in this form isn’t, I think, included in the ISJ article, but Nancy made it several times at HM like this.

[6] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson: Volume One, Boston, 1832, p. 391

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