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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 18, July 26, 1976.


page 14


Anthony Ward here concludes the two articles on ideas tossed around at the first Australian Political Economy Conference, with articles on women's roles, education and the Sydney Political Economy movement.

Women's Position in Society

There were four well attended seminar sessions on the political economy of women at the Conference. A sure sign of the growing awareness of the oppression of women and the virulence of sexism.

There is considerable tension in the women's movement (more marked in Australia than New Zealand) between those who see sexism as the primary oppression in society, and those who see sexism as subordinate to the general capitalist system, stressing the role of class oppression. Those at the Conference emphasised the latter interpretation, but the conflict was clearly present.

Looking at the left, a cynic might suggest the capitalist system does nothing so well as splitting its critics. Sectarianism and ideological niceties have their place, to be sure, but nowhere near the importance some writers seem to put on them. With the much vaunted "revolution" not near, such attitudes are of little help. After all, beyond the ideological debates, most left wingers support the same things.

So what follows is an attempt to synthesise the theories put forward for women's oppression. The classic "Marxist" argument, giving little importance to sexism beyond its place in the economic struggle is, in my opinion, too mechanistic. The alternative is myopic and seems hard put to explain other forms of discrimination in society.

Starting with Production

Starting, as with all good theories, at production. Women's role in production is three fold:
1.as a coequal worker with males
2.as a member of the reserve army of the proletariat
3.as involved in the reproduction of labour power

The first category is the smallest, and gives little basis for the study of discrimination against women. In the second, women (along with ethnic minorities and migrants) play a role in reducing workers' wages.

Marx's theory of the reserve army notes that when there are few unemployed, workers are more secure in their jobs and consequently can be more successful in wage and conditions negotiations. However, if there is a pool of unemployed, employers can pass over recalcitrant workers and hire members of the unemployed.

In both New Zealand and Australia since 1945, with high (male) employment rates, married women form part of this reserve army. They are peculiarly suited to it in the capitalists eyes - they are there when the economy booms, and when it slumps they can be sent back to the kitchen without the dole.

Women's third role is in the home, reproducing labour power. By this term we mean reequipping workers for the following day's work, i.e. providing food, accomodation etc. And also "bringing up" the next generation of workers.

From these three roles in production, one can see the class position of women and some of the causes of discrimination. The women Mucky' enough to be in the first category are predominately middle class, because of the type of jobs that are open to both sexes. In the second, the working class predominates. In the third, women's class position is given by her husband's.

Discrimination can be seen as stemming from the different roles in production and reproduction of labour, and the antagonism of the reserve army situation.

Other Sources of Oppression

Yet as the economic level does not determine the other levels, sexism does not stem entirely from the capitalist production network. Oppression of women has a long and disgusting history, from the shutting out of women in ancient Greece to the immense numbers of women persecuted for heresy by the Church (the major "crime" being miscarriage).

This sexism had been institutionalised in the politico-juridicial and ideological levels long before the capitalist mode of production became dominant. However, with this development the pressures increased. As we noted in the discussion of the state, one of the needs of capitalist, society is the atomisation of potential opponents.

Sexism, and racism, do this very well. This does not suggest a conspiracy theory. It argues that the structure is such as to reinforce 'useful' divisions. Where exploitation is not in direct contradiction to capitalist exploitation, it becomes an alternative force of social manipulation and control.


There is also a mystificatory function, in presenting secondary contradictions as the primary ones in a social system. Thus the differences between feminists seeing sexual oppression as primary and Marxists arguing economic oppression.

This does not in any way deny the reality of the specific oppression of women, nor the relative autonomy of that oppression. One cannot collapse all aspects of sexism into capitalist exploitation. But the analysis of the economic and structural reinforcing factors of sexism suggests the emphasis of the struggle.

Investigating the Movement

It is also interesting to analyse the class positions of the different parts of the women's movement. Working class women in advanced capitalist countries, as well as women in the third world see economic exploitation as the number one question. Those taking a radical feminist line are most often from the middle class of the former countries.

The class distinction does not mean that the problems analysed by either side are not valid. It does mean that to advance successfully to a coherent analysis of women's oppression the distinction must be investigated. As is growing more clear in some of the Literature, and was stressed at the Conference, such an investigation is but starting.

It is surely vital for understanding and proper action on the question of the oppression of women. Significantly, the strongest arguments to link theory to action (and criticism of abstractness) came from the political economy of women's sessions.


Juliet Mitchell: Women's Estate (Penguin)