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Gender, Capitalism and Class

Tutor: Liz Egan

The first explicitly feminist histories of the 1970s were often written by people who came out of a movement for ‘history from below’ which in turn was strongly influenced by Marxism and dominated by labour history and histories of the working class. Pioneering feminist historians began to wonder why the working class was written about as if it was exclusively male, and why Marxist analyses of capitalism tended to ignore the oppression of women. As well as turning their attention to the history of women workers, feminist historians have re-theorised capitalist exploitation. In particular, they have highlighted how the industrial revolution generated a separation between the public and private spheres. This division was highly gendered: the public sphere, the world of work and politics, was coded male while women were relegated to the private sphere of the home defined as a refuge from the world of labour. At the same time, capitalism was wholly dependent upon the ‘reproductive labour’ of the home, the cooking, cleaning and caring which enabled the 'reproduction' of a healthy and efficient workforce. Weeks’ book gives an account of how ‘productive’ work came to be defined as male, of feminist theories of reproductive labour, and why this continues to be important for feminist and anti-capitalist politics today. The further reading offers examples of how historians have taken up these theories, not just to offer new ways of understanding the development of capitalism and definitions of the working class but also to critique the public private divide within history writing itself.

Seminar Questions:

What kind of ‘gendered division of labour’ did industrial capitalism generate?

What is ‘reproductive labour’? Why has it been defined as ‘non-work’?

Why and how have women been excluded from definitions/histories of the working class?

Discuss the various feminist responses to the above issues – both in terms of feminist activists over the last few hundred years and feminist historians/scholars.

Core reading:

Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Work Politics and Post Work Imaginaries (2011), Introduction and Chapter 1

Sonya O. Rose, 'Gender and Labour History: The Nineteenth Century Legacy', International Review of Social History 38:1 (1993), 145-162

Catherine Hall, ‘Gendering Property, Racing Capital’, History Workshop Journal, 78.1 (2014), pp. 22–38, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbu024

Further reading:

Catherine Hall & Leonore Davidoff, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (first published 1987)

Laura Schwartz, Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class and Domestic Labour in the Women’s Suffrage Movement (2019)

Laura Schwartz, ‘Servants’ in B. Skeggs, A. Toscano, S. Farris & Svenja Bromberg (eds.) Handbook of Marxism vol.I (2022)

Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India (1999)

Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum, Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (2009)

Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women who Built a Movement (2015)

Dirk Hoerder, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk and Silke Neunsinger (editors), Towards a Global History of Domestic in Caregiving Workers (2015)

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (1981)

Barbara Kingsolver, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1996)

Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: the Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987)

Catherine Hall, ‘Racial Capitalism: What’s in a Name?’, History Workshop Journal, 94 (2022), pp. 5–21, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbac022

Diana Paton, ‘The Driveress and the Nurse: Childcare, Working Children and Other Work Under Caribbean Slavery*’, Past & Present, 246.Supplement_15 (2020), pp. 27–53, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtaa033.