The trouble with social reproduction theory

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale look at the shortcomings of Social Reproduction Theory and ask if there is an alternative that doesn’t rely so much on the biological differences between the sexes.

Last year we produced a long article on class and gender. Part of it was published in International Socialism journal, and all of it has been published on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century site. (See Lindisfarne and Neale, Class, Gender and Neoliberalism here.)

In that article we disagreed fundamentally with “social reproduction” theory, a style of analysis that had been developed in the International Socialist tradition by Lindsay German, Chris Harman, Sharon Smith and others. (They were building on what feminists had said in “the domestic labour debate” in the 1970s.)

No one from the IS tradition has replied to our critique. This may be because they have not read it, or perhaps because we had not explained our differences clearly or succinctly enough. This short note attempts to do just that.

Here we focus on the main reasons why social reproduction theory is not useful. For a more detailed argument, we refer you to the longer article.

Social reproduction theory is an attempt to explain a problem. The problem is this: why is inequality between men and women a marked feature of all class societies?

Social reproduction theory explains this in terms of men and women workers in urban areas in developed capitalism. The idea is that most of the burden of reproducing children and taking care of men falls on women in the home, and most productive work is done by men outside the home. Women do most of the work of home and child care because they are biologically different from men – they get pregnant, give birth, and breast feed. This division of labour saves capitalists as a class an enormous amount of money, and so they do all they can to keep that division of labour in place.

The difficulty with this theory is that capitalism is only one of many forms of class societies, and capitalism is very recent. An explanation of gender inequality or sexism in terms of capitalism is no explanation at all. The problem requires an explanation which applies to all class societies over the last several thousand years.

In most of those class societies, the assumptions of social reproduction theory simply do not apply. Men and women both work in the home, and both work in the fields. The breast feeding of small children is done by women, but they do it as they work in the fields. Once children are a year or so old, they are usually cared for during most of the day by other small children – siblings or cousins. Children are cared for by other children precisely because the labour of adult women is needed in the fields for production. All adults like children, so fathers spend a lot of time with their children. Where adults do stay home to look after children, they are usually grandparents, or other old men and women who are not as useful in the fields.

There is also much less work rearing children, because from the age of four or five children sometimes work alongside adults and sometimes play with each other. This is possible because there are no cars, and all adults of the village keep an eye on all children.

In these class societies, sometimes a few people work for wages outside the home, and sometimes no one does. There are landlords, but there are no capitalists and often there are no employers. Where there are employers in villages, as in India, they employ women agricultural workers as often as men.

Think of the film 12 Years a Slave. Were there women slaves working in the fields? Think of the classic European paintings of peasants and rural life. Do you see any women in the fields? For those of our readers who have lived in rural Asia or Africa, did you see any women in the fields?

This pattern of children caring for children and women working in the fields was found in many class societies before capitalism. It was also the most common form of child rearing in rural areas of capitalist society in the twentieth century.

Social reproduction theory simply does not apply to the kind of household farming exploited by land owners that characterised most of class society for most of human history.

It might be possible to explain the history gendered relations of most class society in terms of a revised and more sophisticated social reproduction theory. But it would have to be done without using the words “in the home”, “capitalism”, “employer”, “working outside the home”, “employment”, “worker”, “working class”, or “wages”. These are words that apply only to capitalist societies.

There were of course some people who worked for wages outside the home in many class societies that were not capitalist – seventeenth century Bengal, Ancient Rome, and many more. But they were always a small minority, and no explanation of the reasons for sexism in such societies can rely on those minorities.

There were also some trades, particularly in urban areas, where the work happened at home but there was a marked gendered division of labour – smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, and others. There were other kinds of household production where women and men shared the work, or where women did most of it. But again, these households pursuing skilled trades were a minority of the society. In all class societies until recently, most surplus value was generated in farming, and there men and women worked together.

It is certainly possible to do a sophisticated analysis of the way changes in the division of labour inside and outside the home change both gendered relations and the whole society. Indeed, in our long article we looked at the complex ways neoliberalism in the US led to changes in the ways that Americans lived and understood gender.

However, the fundamental problem remains. Social reproduction theory cannot answer the big question: In non class societies, men and women are mostly equal. Once class society arose, or a class society conquered others, men and women became unequal. Why?

In Gender, Class and Neoliberalism we have proposed a theory that answers this question. There we argue that ruling classes want to make inequality seem a given part of the natural world. Gendered inequality does this very well. Gendered inequality and difference are socially constructed. But we learn about that socially constructed inequality before we can talk, and we experience that inequality as part of our loving selves, our sexual selves, and our intimate selves. We experience as part of how we move and live in our bodies. Inequality comes to seem part of nature and biology.

The ruling class love this. So day by day the rulers and their supporters and agents promote and police gendered inequality. This is why all societies with ruling classes also have gender inequality. And when the form of productive relations change, ruling classes change gender ideologies to fit the new economic reality.

Our theory makes class central, and class relations the motor for social change. It explains how changes in class relations change gendered relations. We also argue that struggles over gender are not less important than the class struggle. Rather, struggles over gender are key class struggles. Indeed we explain why struggles over gender, and over sexual violence, so rapidly become struggles against managers, the rulling class, and the state. In doing so, we explain why struggles over sexual violence are key moments in the class struggle.

Our theory argues that biological differences between women and men are real, but unimportant. This too is a major break with social reproduction theory. At the heart of social reproduction theory is the idea that there are separate spheres because men and women are biologically different. This always leaves the door open to the argument that men and women are essentially, and physically, different. This biological argument  creates many further problems, especially for people whose reproduction or sexuality is not hetero-normal.

There is another political problem. You cannot make sense of an ideology by relying on the central ideas of that ideology for your own analysis. You just get lost. But this is exactly what the social reproduction theorists do.

Two concepts are central to social reproduction theory. One is that biological differences between men and women are important. The other is that there are two separate spheres, a male sphere of waged work and a female sphere of home and family. However, these are also the two central concepts of right wing capitalist ideology about gender. Yet social reproduction theorists attempt to explain capitalist relations of gender by using the key ideas of capitalist ideology. This is circular, a tautology. It doesn’t work.

Our theory may be wrong, but social reproduction theory is certainly wrong.


  1. This makes some good points about the limits of trying to answer the question “why is inequality between men and women a marked feature of all class societies?” by using social reproduction theory (SRT). That’s not a question SRT is able to answer. What SRT writers like Lise Vogel do demonstrate well is that capital relies on the production of labour power in households. This makes capital dependent on, to quote Sue Ferguson and David McNally, socio-historically located “biological processes specific to women – pregnancy, childbirth, lactation.” This “induces capital and its state to control and regulate female reproduction and … to reinforce a male-dominant gender order.” I think this is important because it helps us understand how gender oppression is reproduced in capitalist societies (thought there’s more to it than what capital and state power do — we also have to analyze what men of different classes do). But it doesn’t tell us anything about the origins of gender oppression or the forms it takes in pre-capitalist societies.
    As for the question Nancy and Jonathan ask, I’m not sure it can be answered directly. How gender oppression came to exist is a different question than how it’s changed but persisted across different modes of production.
    Also, there’s more to SRT than Marxist-feminist writers like Vogel and the IS tradition people referred to by the authors. Some feminist academics today use SRT in useful ways.

  2. I agree with what the above poster has said, but has said far far too politely by my estimations. This is shape-shifting-lizard-people-pseudo-science-bat-shit-fantasy, according to your conspiracy theory (because that is what you have excreted): the ruling class planned the production of sexism by naturalising gender differences and producing sex and gender, then they rub their hands with glee. It is so blissfully simple, so smoothly teleological that I do not know how I didn’t see it. But there it is. Sex and Gender are the Tonkin incident of Class oppression.

    In fact, previous poster bends backwards over himself to be polite, when he really shouldn’t. Let’s call it like it is here. This article is mystical gibberish and should not have been published under any circumstances, ever. These are important questions and you debase the tools of analysis in making sloppy attempts like this.

  3. Thanks Nancy and Jonathan, this is interesting. The one suggestion I’d like to add is an observation on how ideology seems to me to work. You write “The ruling class love this. So day by day the rulers and their supporters and agents promote and police gendered inequality.”
    It’s certainly true that the ruling class directly and indirectly police gendered inequality, although so do many working class people. But my concern is with the phrase ‘the ruling class love this’. This can be read in slightly different ways. It could mean that the ruling class consciously see gendered inequality as a tool for furthering their own power and reinforce it for that reason. To me this makes a Marxist analysis seem like a conspiracy theory.
    Instead I think we need to start from the simple observation that people of all kinds have a remarkable facility for believing ideas that are in their interests. And that once an opinion takes hold, people tend to notice evidence that backs up their opinions and discard evidence that doesn’t. It is not to take a relativist approach to the realities of class society to say that people often form opinions more on the basis of values and emotions than facts.
    So it would be possible to understand the phrase ‘the ruling class love this’ in these terms – that taking the ruling class as a class, gendered inequality is truly useful, and that as individuals, members of the ruling class are very likely to believe in gendered inequality, and have far more power to promote their ideas than everyone else. But for most people, I don’t think this is the most obvious reading.
    So I guess all I’m saying is that if it’s the case that gendered inequality isn’t based on an important biological difference which is then emphasised, but instead exists soley because of it’s utility to whatever ruling class is around at the time, then elaborating on how that ideology is formed and passed on becomes even more important. I’m sure there’s lots of people who have thought about this – indeed, Marxist observations about how people’s ideas change when their class position changes seem to suggest a similar idea. But I think it is unconvincing to say only that “ruling classes want to make inequality seem a given part of the natural world”, even if it is a kind of shorthand for saying something more nuanced. I’d say that ruling classes, as a result of their class position, believe inequality to be a given part of the natural world, and so tend to be the foremost developers and promoters of gendered inequality. Or something like that anyway.
    But I would be interested to hear what you have to say on this. Of course all theories are to some extent simplifications of complex realities, but I’m particularly concerned that socialist arguments on gender inequality are convincing enough to convince people even when the argument doesn’t just fit neatly into their existing understanding of the world, and they aren’t completely predisposed to agreeing!


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