Social reproduction: from theory to practice

Sara Bennett discusses the relevance today of Lise Vogel’s understanding of women’s oppression and the dynamics of capitalism


Lise Vogel’s 1983 book Marxism and the Oppression of Women is an attempt to bring women’s oppression into the realm of Marxist political economy. She theorises the role of women in the reproduction of labour power, and identifies this as the root cause of working class women’s oppression under capitalism. While there are difficulties with some of her arguments, most notably the fact that she believed the former USSR to be socialist, she does provide a serious, thought-provoking framework that has potential for further development in this area today.

Vogel has been criticised for the abstract nature of her theory. However theories are by their nature abstract and the fact they are of a general and broad application is what makes them of use. For example, Vogel doesn’t start her theoretical account with the family – she starts with the three core aspects of social reproduction: care of workers, care of other members of the working class not currently involved in production (the young, the infirm, retired workers, etc) and actual replacement of workers themselves.

So, she states, reproductive labour doesn’t necessarily have to be carried out in family units. For example today, there are workers in China’s new economic zones who live in massive dormitories linked to their work, far away from their children, who send back remittances to cover the cost of care for their families. The direct care of children is often carried out by other relatives left behind, such as grandparents.

As Vogel’s theory makes plain, generational replacement of the working class doesn’t necessarily have to be done by women having babies.

However, theory is one thing, analysis of concrete situations is another. So while there are different ways in which social reproduction can be performed, as she states, most class societies have used “a system of heterosexual family-forms”. She goes on to state: “That such arrangements are empirically so common probably reflects their advantages… over the alternatives’, (pg 189).

Material roots

Vogel therefore locates the material roots of working class women’s oppression in this aspect of social reproduction – that is, the generational replacement of the exploited class. As this is most likely to take place within the kin-based family (which, as Vogel points out, is not a static formation and is subject to change), the family itself takes on an important social role that goes above and beyond this simply biological function.

However, biological differences between the sexes must be taken into account. Obviously, at least in today’s Western capitalist societies, we can say that women are fertile for a minority of their lives, and some are infertile. But it is still the fact that it is almost always women, and not men, who bear children and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

This general biological truth is what not only shapes women’s experience in both social production and social reproduction in purely economic terms, but also operates at an ideological level: women’s physical “attractiveness”, their ability to manage work and home, etc. Looking at how biological differences between males and females feeds into oppression may also be useful for examining areas such as trans oppression.

Oppression under capitalism

In her later chapters, Vogel outlines how the employer is always trying to reduce the time for social reproduction and necessary labour in order to increase availability to produce surplus value. She thus recognises that “the circumstances under which reproduction of labour-power takes place … are always an outcome of class struggle”, (pg 158). Community struggles over health and education, for example, are about matters central to capitalist profitability as much as those in the workplace.

She then goes on to argue that the causes of women’s oppression is a combination of women’s role in social reproduction and their lack of equality. Vogel believes the women’s movement in the US of the 1960s and 1970s was overly dismissive of middle-class women’s involvement, stating in her book Woman Questions that ‘We did not fully appreciate the importance of liberal feminism in establishing a framework within which our radicalism became thinkable and possible.’

Vogel believes that questions of social reproduction are only really pertinent to working class women. So she believes that issues around social reproduction are insufficient to build a more general movement against women’s oppression, and therefore advocates the fight for formal equality as a demand that all women could support. This is not entirely convincing, as one could argue that the ideological framework which develops around control over women’s reproductive power is one that impacts on women of all classes, if in different ways.

However, perhaps some have been overly critical of Vogel’s position. Vogel is not simply advocating fighting for formal equality in order to fulfil middle-class women’s own ambitions. Her interest in equality is rooted in Marx’s analysis of capitalist societies which have a “tendency towards equality” which itself  ‘has a basis in the articulation of production and circulation’, (pg 194). It is the fact, she argues, that  ‘Equality in the market goes hand in hand with exploitation in production’ that gives rise to not only women’s, but other forms of oppression under capitalism.

Demands for formal equality are not, according to Vogel “exercises in fruitless reformism or supposedly divisive identity politics” but can “contribute to building strategic alliances and even point beyond capitalism.” When looking at today’s world, where most large scale women’s protests and movements have centred around a rejection of sexual violence, one could argue that Vogel has a point. These are movements that have attracted women from a range of backgrounds, but are of particular importance to more vulnerable women, who tend to be poorer, of colour and overwhelmingly working class.

Her argument is fundamentally to try to build a broad-based women’s movement in which revolutionary demands can be made. In the 21st century, with capitalism again in crisis, the re-emergence of mass anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, revolutionary moments and a renewed interest in Marx, perhaps now is a time to reconsider her position.


This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine 


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