The impact of women's changing role in the workplace

by Diane Fieldes • Published 12 July 2013

Women are today a permanent part of the waged workforce and the union movement. But women’s work remains generally low paid and undervalued. Sexist attitudes and practices are rampant in and out of the workplace, and the majority of domestic labour, especially childcare, is still done by working class women. Nonetheless the shift away from stereotypes of the past is clear enough that even a notorious social conservative like Tony Abbott can notice it. Speaking to federal Liberal Party MPs about paid parental leave, he said, “There are very few women not in some form of paid employment. The vast majority of modern women are going to be in the workforce for most of their lives, including their child-bearing years.”[1] It was already the case 20 years ago that a majority of women with children were in the paid workforce. Today that figure is over 60 percent. Even what appear to be incentives for mothers to stay at home full-time, such as the various baby bonuses offered by Australian governments since 2002, are ideological rather than economic in their purpose these days. No-one on a half-decent wage is going to suddenly give it up and run home for the temptations of $40 a week.[2] While some of the rights that women have won have come under pressure, things are not going back to where they were. The fact that even Tony Abbott no longer thinks a woman’s place is in the home indicates that Australian capitalism’s needs are not going to be served by a return to the 1950s. Despite considerable changes, two things remain constant. One is the role of the family in raising the next generation of workers and maintaining the ability to work of the existing generation, of both sexes, at little cost to employers. The other constant is the employers’ need for women’s labour as a source of profit. It is this which means that childcare is not going to totally disappear; nor do we face the prospect that abortion will again be confined to the back streets. The current economic crisis does mean, however, that state cuts to social spending will put more pressure on working class families, and that this will be borne disproportionately by women.

Arguments about family and work

The starting point for this article is Marx’s argument that the ideas and practices which shape every area of life are rooted in social production. With the rise of the women’s liberation movement feminist analyses which contested this statement, at least in relation to the family and women’s oppression, became influential. Partly this was a response to the mistaken idea that Marxism was “economist”, i.e. only concerned with the world of production. This misconception was reinforced by the wrong but widespread idea that capitalism had been abolished in a range of countries such as the USSR, China and so on which claimed to be Marxist states. Given that women’s oppression continued unabated in these countries, many of those looking for an explanation of women’s oppression looked elsewhere than Marxism for answers. In particular, the clear failure of these states to liberate women gave strength to the idea that capitalism and women’s oppression must be two separate phenomena, if the supposed abolition of one had no effect on the other.[3] A series of debates on the nature of the sexual division of labour under capitalism and women’s role in the family took place in the 1970s. Juliet Mitchell’s 1975 book, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, contained one form of the argument: “we are dealing with two autonomous areas, the economic mode of capitalism and the ideological mode of patriarchy”.[4] Others like US feminist Heidi Hartmann and the French feminist Christine Delphy later framed the argument in material terms as two modes of production. Hartmann, whose analysis was influential in Australian feminist circles, argued that while capitalists exploited the labour of workers at work, men’s control over women’s labour in the family was the material basis of patriarchy.[5]

Common to the various strands of these attempts to understand domestic labour was an assumption that it could be understood separately from capitalist production. Hartmann argued explicitly that the problem with some other feminists engaged in analysis of housework was that they had “an argument about the relation of housework to capital and the place of housework in capitalist society and not about the relations of men and women as exemplified in housework”.[6] While Hartmann raised the question of two modes of production (capitalism in the world of work, patriarchy in the family), her emphasis was on women’s labour in the home rather than at work as the key to understanding women’s oppression. In particular, she argued that the key was men “who as husbands and fathers received personalised services at home”, and that this meant that “men have a higher standard of living than women in terms of luxury consumption, leisure time and personalised services”.[7]

It is undoubtedly true that full-time housework, with its years of isolated child-rearing with limited social contacts and the pressures of being responsible for their children’s development did lead to the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy so tellingly outlined in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. But the world of full-time homemaking that gave rise to Friedan’s compelling question, “Is this all?”, was already on the wane when Friedan wrote her book.[8] An important consequence of their focus on housework and the relations between men and women in the home was that many feminist theorists were slow to acknowledge that women were no longer simply housewives but played a key role in the workforce. For working class women, it had rarely been the case that their families could afford them to be out of paid work for long periods, so most of them had engaged in wage labour, or if care of small children precluded going out to work, they took in washing or became outworkers for the clothing and footwear trades.[9] By the time Friedan was writing her book, more and more women of both the working and the middle classes were being drawn into paid employment, including during their child-bearing years. Without acknowledging the importance of this, you can only have a partial understanding of the reality of women’s oppression under capitalism.

This is one of two arguments about women’s role that were commonplace in the 1970s that have been decisively settled by subsequent developments in work and family life. Clearly, women’s full-time domestic labour within the family is not essential to capitalist production. As the needs of production have changed, women’s unpaid labour in the home has diminished. Capitalism has been able to adapt both ideologically and materially to the decline in the number of full-time housewives because the system as a whole has benefited from it.

The other argument from that period (and related to the argument that domestic labour is the key to women’s oppression) was to see women as a disposable reserve army of labour, to be pulled into work during war or when times are booming but then the first to be laid off in peacetime or in times of economic recession, when they are returned to domestic duties.[10] A range of feminist writers, notably Ruth Milkman in the US and Ann Curthoys and Margaret Powers in Australia, challenged this idea during the 1970s. They showed that the idea of women as a reserve army of labour obscures the fact that over the twentieth century women fairly steadily entered the workforce. In periods of economic crisis, in particular the Great Depression, the historical facts show that while many women lost their jobs, men experienced mass unemployment, sometimes worse than women. The theory patently could not explain why women were not being forced back into the home during the recession of the mid-1970s.[11] Since then, women have remained a permanent part of the workforce.

There were some Marxist writers who put forward alternatives to these arguments, both at the time and subsequently, in an attempt to provide a materialist analysis of the sexual division of labour, the family and women’s oppression.[12] Despite differences between them, they argued that Marxism could explain women’s oppression and that domestic labour did not explain the totality of women’s oppression. It could only be understood in the context of capitalist exploitation.

In volume one of Capital Marx outlines the critical importance of the reproduction of labour power to the capitalist class:

The capital given in return for labour power is converted into means of subsistence which have to be consumed to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence… It is the production and reproduction of the capitalist’s most indispensable means of production: the worker. The individual consumption of the worker, whether it occurs inside or outside the labour process, remains an aspect of the production and the reproduction of capital, just as the cleaning of machinery does, whether it is done during the labour process, or when intervals in the process permit.[13]

From this understanding, domestic labour takes the form it does precisely because of its connection with capitalist production. The reproduction of labour power takes place within the privatised family. We can agree with feminists such as Hartmann that the family is the source of women’s oppression today. The sexist stereotypes that blight women’s lives are rooted in the family. But far from the purpose of the family being for women to serve men, it is the place where the next generation of workers is cared for, socialised, nursed, fed and clothed in the home at little cost to the capitalist class. The existing generation of workers of both sexes are refreshed, their needs both material and emotional replenished, so that they are fit to continue to work. In Marxist terms, domestic labour produces use values but not exchange values, but the labours that take place in the home are not unproductive. These use values play a crucial role in the creation of the most important commodity in the capitalist system, i.e. labour power. Without a ready supply of labour power, exploitation cannot take place. The work done in the family can therefore be said to be indirectly productive of surplus value through directly producing labour power which can then be bought and sold on the labour market and so lead to the production of surplus value. Family life contains an invisible world of hard work for the benefit of the nation’s capitalists. Employers want a free ride on the backs of the working class (though women bear the greater load), whether within their own nation, or to benefit from the childrearing of women elsewhere through migration and indenture schemes.

The reproduction of labour power is essential for the accumulation of capital. Keeping the cost to a minimum is vital; the bigger the burden the capitalists can force onto the family in the form of unpaid labour, the smaller the drain on what they have to contribute from profits. So capitalists have a direct interest in this supposedly “private” sphere of workers’ lives. However, the form the family takes is not predetermined as long as children are fed, clothed and socialised ready for exploitation. Capitalism has proven again and again that it is quite happy to take men out of their families, whether sending men to fight wars, by migrant labour or guest-worker arrangements, or the more episodic fly in, fly out arrangements currently damaging the lives of many Australian miners and their families. Historically, Australian workers’ families were broken up during the Great Depression, with many fathers forced to go “on the wallaby”, leaving their families and trekking across the countryside in search of employment. In apartheid South Africa, to increase profit rates capitalism destroyed the families of African mine workers, herding them into men-only barracks at mines far from home. This hardly supports the argument that women’s domestic labour is to serve men.

Without necessarily going to these extremes, capitalism continually changes its demands on the working class family, to the benefit of the system. By drawing more women into the paid workforce, the capitalist class has increased the production of surplus value from the working class as a whole. Workers of both sexes are expected to (in fact, have no choice but to) expend substantial amounts of their efforts and their earnings on goods and services that mean the family can function even if both parents work. In other words, a major contradiction regarding the family under capitalism is that production is social while reproduction is privatised. In theory capitalism could do without the family, but concretely it would cause such an upheaval to do so that it is hard to imagine it ever happening. Not only would the level of investment be enormous (with the subsequent competitive disadvantage for any state that introduced it) but immense ideological turmoil would result. In the context of the present global economic crisis, capitalism’s dynamic is in the opposite direction. Far from socialising or replacing the tasks carried out in the family, the system increasingly places further burdens upon it. The family – which increasingly includes single parents and same sex couples – remains the key institution for the reproduction of labour power as a range of social benefits are withdrawn.[14]

The changes in women’s position have not all been entirely to the capitalists’ liking or plan. In particular, Marx and Engels’ famous aphorism in The Communist Manifesto – that by creating the working class capitalism creates its own gravediggers – applies just as much to the potential collective power available to women workers as to men. Entry into paid work has partially transformed workers’ lives in other ways, with important gains for both women’s economic independence and a greater degree of sexual freedom, however constrained and distorted. Homophobia continues, but same sex relationships have a degree of acceptance reflected in majority support for marriage equality. But marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships and single parenthood do not change the fact that couples or single women, and sometimes men, bear the burden of reproduction.

So while it cannot be said that a particular form of domestic labour is essential to capitalism, this does not negate the fact that the family is still a crucial prop for the system, both materially and ideologically. It sustains the stereotypes of women’s true roles being that of wife and mother which justify low wages for millions of women the world over, creates sexist divisions amongst workers, and undermines women’s confidence in a thousand ways. This hampers working class unity and organisation, while providing the ideological justification for family responsibility for elderly or disabled relatives as healthcare funding and other social welfare benefits are cut. As we will see below, it impacts the way women participate in the paid workforce.[15]

Women at work

The world of work, of production for profit, determines overall what happens to the family. As Marxist feminist Martha Gimenez puts it:

The notion that under capitalism, the mode of production determines the mode of reproduction and, consequently, observable unequal relations between men and women is not a form of “economism” or “class reductionism”, but the recognition of the complex network of macro-level effects, upon male-female relationships, of a mode of production driven by capital accumulation rather than by the goal of satisfying people’s needs.[16]

Given the central role of women in this unpaid labour in the home, women’s involvement in the labour force means being both oppressed and exploited, with their working lives shaped by their oppression as women and the nature of that oppression being shaped by their exploitation. There is a dialectical relationship between family and paid work in which the world of production is more fundamental. The labour market exerts considerable influence on the supposedly “private” internal workings of families including important decisions over fertility, or who should forgo all or part of their income to do unpaid housework and caring when children are born. The idea that these are outcomes of unconstrained choice is an illusion. New parents frequently refer to their calculation of relative wage rates in making the decision that women rather than men will quit work. Whether or not workers have access to the necessary conditions for reproduction (a job with a wage sufficient to support parents and children) shapes the world of the family, and narrows the choices open to working class women and men.[17]

In order to back up these arguments, I will examine what has actually happened to women’s working lives and family life in Australia over the past four or five decades. It is worth remembering that working class women have always engaged in wage labour, to sustain themselves or to contribute to the family income. From the industrial revolution onwards, women’s oppression has been shaped by the needs of capitalism. Most commonly, the needs of capitalism have meant high levels of involvement in paid labour. For example, Engels gives figures for the 1840s. Of 419,560 factory operatives in the British Empire, 242,296 were female, of whom almost half were under eighteen. Women made up 56.25 percent of workers in the cotton factories, 69.5 percent in the woollen mills, 70.5 percent in flax-spinning mills.[18] In fact, across all OECD countries, a sharp divide between breadwinners and homemakers was widespread only between about 1890 and 1940.[19] Sociologists Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley argue that in countries like Australia “for 50 years, the care of children became more private than in any culture at any other time in history” (emphasis added).[20] The fact that in 1901, 31 percent of all women in Australia were employed, is little known because of the deeply embedded stereotype derived from an unusually low point of female workforce participation.[21]

Changes since World War II did shift the balance between women’s role in the family and their exploitation as part of the paid workforce. The long economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s saw women’s participation in paid work rise as employers were keen to draw increasing numbers of women into the workplace to meet their increased labour needs. Despite such boom times being a thing of the distant past for Australian capitalism, employer demand for women’s paid labour continues. Between 1992 and 2006 the proportion of women who were employed increased from 48 to 55 percent.[22] Women’s participation in the labour force today is 59.1 percent (compared to 72.2 percent for men).[23] This is the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ recent summary of the differences this has produced:

Fifty years ago, the majority of Australians who worked were men working full-time. Most full-time male workers worked well into their 60s, sometimes beyond, and if they were not working most were out looking for work until that age. The picture now is very different. Far more people work part-time, or in temporary or casual jobs. Retirement ages vary much more, with a greater proportion of men not participating in the labour force once they are older than 55. Fifty years ago, only 30 percent of Australian workers were women.[24]

The proportion has been going up ever since. By 1978 women made up 36 percent of the total paid workforce, now they are approximately 46 percent.[25] Factors outside the workplace (but not unaffected by it) have an impact on the structure of the paid workforce. There is a constant interaction between work and family. Women have fewer children, more control over their fertility, and less physically demanding housework than previous generations. The key demand on women’s time in the household remains their role as mothers. This does not preclude women’s participation in paid work but does have a major effect in shaping women’s working lives. Over the past thirty years there has been a considerable growth in the number of mothers in the paid workforce. Single parents (the vast majority of whom are women) have particular difficulties in juggling paid work and childcare. Nonetheless, their numbers in paid employment are also rising. In 1991, 57 percent of couple mothers and 44 percent of single mothers were employed. By 2011, these figures had risen to 68 percent and 57 percent respectively.[26] While part-time work has increased as a proportion of the work force overall, it is one of the key features of the employment of women with children. In 2011 36 percent of mothers were in part-time work, with 25 percent in full-time work.[27] Recent research reveals 70 percent of mothers working part-time compared to 6 percent of fathers. The effects of parental responsibilities in shaping working life become even clearer when the number of part-time hours are considered. While 22 percent of mothers worked 15 or fewer hours, only 1.3 percent of fathers did. Conversely while about one-third of fathers worked 50 hours or more per week, only 3.7 percent of mothers did.[28] Full-time work for mothers became more common as children grew older.[29]

Women’s oppression affects their occupations and pay as well as their hours of work. Women are still unevenly distributed across industries. For example, while in mining 85.3 percent of the hours worked are undertaken by men, among community and personal-service workers, women accounted for 68 percent of hours worked.[30] But this should not lead us to think women only work alongside other women, isolated from male workers. Marxist writer Janey Stone, in a detailed analysis of work statistics in 1996, concluded:

Although there is a tendency for women to work in occupations and industries in which they predominate, we should not turn a tendency into an absolute. Although some women work mainly with other women, many others work in the same jobs as men.[31]

Despite a widespread misconception that women’s occupations are in some sense derivative of housework or ideas of women’s nurturing role, this is not the case. Just as there was nothing “feminine” about women’s work in the factories and mines of the early years of capitalism, neither is there in the two areas of work that have accounted for the majority of Australian women’s paid employment since the middle of the twentieth century – clerical and retail. Where women are clustered, regardless of the nature of the work, employers know they can get away with paying less. This affects all workers, not just women, as a major study undertaken in 1999 indicated:

Between 58 and 81 per cent of the pay difference between female and male workers is related to feminised work, when gender segregation by occupation, industry, workplace and job classification within the workplace is taken into account. Women who work in industries where close to 100 percent of the workforce is female earn, on average, 32 percent less than women with otherwise identical characteristics in industries where the workforce is almost 100 percent male. Men in such “feminine” industries earn 37 percent less than otherwise identical men in “masculine” industries.[32]

Low wages, due to the fact that sections of the workforce are largely female and that women’s work is undervalued, are one contributor to the gender wage gap.[33] It is a global phenomenon that this gap is not closing. This has also been true in Australia. Deterioration since May 2008, with the gap widening to 17.4 percent in November 2011, means it is now the worst in nearly two decades. This is based on ordinary-time full-time earnings, and therefore ignores the 46 percent of women workers employed part-time. When they are included, the gap widens to 35.3 percent.[34] In addition, women’s part-time status and the likelihood of broken employment histories due to childcare means less likelihood of promotion, pushing them further behind the wage rates of their male counterparts. A reminder that it is capitalists as a class who benefit from women workers’ low wages is given by Gimenez, who points out the very negative effects of the closing of the gender wage gap in the US in the 1990s as men’s real wages were driven down.[35] Todd and Preston also caution that an improvement in the gender wage ratio may be driven by a deterioration in men’s wages, rather than an improvement in women’s wages – something that is not to the benefit of workers of either sex.[36]

Despite all these detriments, involvement in paid work opens up possibilities of collective struggle to women workers. Being part of the paid workforce also makes possible the breaking down some of the divisions within the working class. As early as 1844, Engels described his own observations of the impact of industrialisation on men and women and what we would today call gender roles, in The Condition of the Working Class in England. He drew attention to the way in which women broke out of their roles as wives and daughters, going to the pub after work, leaving the parental home and defying the authority of their husbands and fathers. Interestingly, working women were also notoriously hopeless at housework and at childcare, according to outraged Factory Commissioners.[37]

At work Australian women have increasingly become involved in the unions. Mass recruitment saw women’s proportion of union membership grow from one-quarter in 1970 to more than one-third twenty years later.[38] Women are now almost half of all trade union members.[39] This means the union movement involves around 900,000 women – by far the biggest women’s movement in Australia today. While levels of industrial action remain at historically low levels, it is not the case that what militancy there is resides entirely with stereotypically “male” unions. Coal mining and construction often account for the highest rate of strikes per worker, but it is now frequently the case that the total strike days of the two industries, “education and training”, and “healthcare and social assistance”, account for the majority of industrial action in any quarter, reflecting large strikes by groups like teachers and nurses.[40]

Some of the feminist writers in the 1970s downplayed the effect that involvement in paid work could have on family life. Bettina Cass went so far as to suggest that “the wife’s inclination towards deference [to her husband] may not be affected by her work experience, particularly if she is involved in a relationship of authority and deference in the workplace”.[41] This is a one-sided view of working life, particularly coming from the 1970s, a period of high levels of strike activity in which many women workers were actively involved, and when women’s membership of unions grew rapidly. Between 1970 and 1975 female union membership grew by 50 percent (male membership rose by only 12 percent).[42] Industrial action can change not only the perceptions of women workers about themselves, but challenge one of the most pervasive sexist stereotypes, that of female passivity and obedience.[43]

From the earliest demands for equal pay, campaigns by unions have always been necessary to get any recognition let alone redress for the undervaluing of women’s work by employers. The recent campaign by Australian Services Union members in the female-dominated social and community work sector forced Fair Work Australia to recognise that at least part of their appallingly low wages was due to gender.[44] No other force in Australian society has the inclination or the power to do this. Legislative amendments such as the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Act 2012, and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency that it created, are euphemistically described, even by the Agency’s Director, as “light touch” regulators, merely requiring companies to report on their activities and with no penalties of any consequence for non-compliance.[45] Certainly the capitalists want all the profits they can get from women’s labour. They benefit from women’s oppression and so have every interest in ensuring it continues. Citing management sources, in 2012 Todd and Preston could write that “public and private sector corporations are keen to increase women’s participation in the labour force… Yet most are unwilling to change their employment practices and organisational culture.”[46]

Despite these limitations and difficulties thrown up by their employers, women’s status as workers continues to underpin changes in experience and attitudes. This bears out Marx’s prediction about the undermining of the traditional family and a tendency towards the equalising of relationships: “However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large-scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes.”[47] Changes in Australian social attitudes bear this out. In 1971, 78 percent of married women agreed with the statement that motherhood was their most important role in life; by 1991 only 31 percent agreed.[48] Recent research confirms that Australian society has continued to become more egalitarian in its views towards women’s employment outside the home. For example, in 1984 62 percent of Australians supported the statement: “I approve of a married woman earning money in business and industry, even if she has a husband capable of supporting her”. By 2001 support had risen to 82 percent.[49]

Although the majority of women are part of the paid labour force, and despite considerable changes in attitudes, the family ideal and the assumption that women are better suited to domestic responsibilities including childcare live on. So the reactionary “a woman’s place is in the home” has not gone the way of the dodo, even though Tony Abbott can say paid parental leave is necessary for women who “should be able not just to have kids but to have careers”.[50] The common thread in these apparently contradictory views is that problems of childcare, work and family life are ultimately seen as the responsibility of individual women (or, at best, their families).

How those individual women experience this is determined by their class position. Despite the protestations of International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde that even ruling class women like herself “can’t have it all”, [51] it has been the case over the last few decades that for a minority of wealthy women things have changed dramatically. At the top of the class structure it is still the case that women are not equally represented with the men of their class. In Australia women hold about 9 percent of board seats and executive officer positions, and there are only 12 female CEOs of companies in the ASX 500.[52] But the burdens of work and childcare do not weigh on them as they do on working class women. While wealthy women are not the only audience for books like Google senior executive Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, they are the only women for whom its message of power feminism, that “a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be”, is true.[53] Naomi Wolf, in her 1994 book Fire With Fire, coined the term “power feminism” as an alternative to what she called the victim feminism of the revolutionary left of the 1960s. While she admits that capitalism does oppress the many, for the few, “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex oppression”.[54] And Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor argues that a new female elite now enjoys a high degree of equality with the wealthiest men while having nothing in common with the vast majority of women. She points out that “the increased income inequality of recent decades, though it has hit non-elite men particularly hard, is not just a male phenomenon. Income inequality among women has also risen. Since the mid-1960s, the percentage of total female earnings going to women in the top earnings groups has doubled.” 15-20 percent of women have become “a class apart”.[55]

In other words, class continues to divide women. The women of the ruling class, like Lagarde, Sandberg or Gina Rinehart and the growing number of female billionaires, have a clear interest in anti-working class policies of austerity or anti-unionism. Middle class women in management roles play their part in enforcing the interests of capital against the interests of the workers whose labour they control. The emphasis of many supporters of women’s rights on small numbers of women breaking through the glass ceiling, and promotion opportunities for those towards the top of the scale, has little to offer most women workers. In addition, wealthy women may themselves be direct employers of individual women as nannies, live-in housekeepers, etc. Their class interest, whether as direct employers or as managers, is in keeping wages and working conditions down, in direct opposition to the interests of working class women.

The modern family

Capitalism’s drive to accumulate – and in particular, its demand for more women to enter into paid work – has transformed the position of working class women and therefore the nature of the working class family. The family as a form of reproduction is not static but moulded by the needs of capitalism. This is not a one-way process, but a reciprocal one of constant interaction. Decreasing family size due in part to improved contraception has helped make it possible for women workers to enter paid work at the behest of employers. The experience of work and the increasing need for the second wage to keep the family afloat then affect the family in other ways.

The rise in married women’s employment has, by definition, undermined the financially dependent homemaker conception of women’s role in the family. As already outlined, this “private” family, in the sense of women remaining in the home, is historically atypical. The combination of increased amounts of paid work with an increasing load of unpaid caring and other activities in the home is not the only change in the family over the past fifty years. Women’s growing economic independence and concomitant changes in social attitudes have seen a decline in marriage, an increase in single parent households (mostly headed by women) from 19 percent of families in 1991 to 26 percent of families in 2011,[56] an increase in divorce and a decline in the birth rate, with women now becoming mothers much later than was the case for women in previous generations. In fact, marriage rates are now lower than at any time in the twentieth century.[57]

Unpaid labour in the home is excluded from most official measures of economic activity, but it has been estimated that if it had to be paid for, it would amount to the value of up to half of Gross Domestic Product.[58] Despite this clear benefit to capital, the tendency is to see the shifting balance of work and family as an individual choice. In reality, workers’ preferences play very little role. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recognises this to a certain degree: “The extent to which the traditional division of labour between men and women persists in the future will likely be influenced by a range of factors, including institutional arrangements, economic conditions, social expectations and ultimately by the decisions individuals and families make based on their own circumstances and preferences.”[59] Yet those circumstances are not under the control of the families, and their preferences are therefore not the outcome of individual choice.

In the absence of easily accessible workplace provisions for family responsibilities, many working parents have to rely on adjusting their working arrangements to address their caring responsibilities.[60] Nor is use of childcare itself just a matter of individual choice. Questions of accessibility are paramount. Yet according to Boyd, “The care available is often unaffordable, at unsuitable hours, and in a location that is unsustainable”.[61] In June 2012, the childcare workers’ union United Voice analysed government figures for childcare costs. Over 2011-2012 childcare fees increased by 11 percent, to more than $70 a day. In 2012 782,000 families received the government’s 50 percent childcare rebate for working parents, but as it is capped at $7,500 a year it only addresses costs for those whose wages are high and/or whose childcare needs are limited.[62] Other official data shows the price paid for childcare has increased at three times the general rate of inflation since 2009.[63] So for many workers, “informal childcare” (generally the extended family) fills the gaps between the childcare that’s needed and what they can access on the market. One clear indicator of the dominance of the world of work over family considerations is the question of the quality of childcare. Wendy Boyd’s research with first-time mothers who wanted to return to paid work showed that while the quality of care mattered to these women, by six months after the birth the concern for quality care was downplayed by mothers as a result of the need to get back to work.[64] Who determines what flexibility workers have in exercising their preferences? It is not the male workers. According to the Work + Family Policy Roundtable:

Existing research suggests that first line supervision and organisational norms and practices shape access to key supports like flexibility and leave… Many workers who are not content with their current work arrangements do not make use of their right to request flexibility at work because their jobs are insecure, they believe their supervisors will view such requests negatively, or there is no history of flexible work in their workplace…[or there is] sexual harassment and discrimination against pregnant workers, working carers, older employees, and those affected by domestic violence.[65]

No matter what the individual attitudes of women and men are, it is virtually impossible for them to change their gender roles in most families. Men are far more likely to work longer hours than women for two reasons – availability of overtime and higher pay on average. Faced with these facts, few families can afford to lose the man’s income or risk his job while he takes time off to care for children. But even when they try, employers remain an obstacle. Social scientists Baird and Whitehouse suggest that “workplace culture is a major inhibitor of men taking leave…and until this changes men’s use of parental leave will remain relatively low compared to women’s”.[66] Social expectations about gendered roles are the reason why men are less likely than women to make a request for flexible working arrangements, and more likely to be refused by their employers.[67] There is another vicious circle. One of the reasons fathers take less leave at the time of a birth than do mothers is not just social expectations, or that their wage is likely to be higher, but also that much less parental leave of any kind is available to them than to mothers.[68]

Capitalists want working class families to participate in paid work, but they also want to minimise their own costs as much as possible. Despite the introduction of 18 weeks of parental leave paid by the state (not employers) at the minimum wage in 2011, there is still little in the way of workplace provisions for family responsibilities or childcare, and while the cost of raising children has increased by more than 50 percent since 2007, wages to support them have not. Interestingly, the figures include costs for “children” up to the age of 24.[69] This indicates another important change in family life. A long-term decline in both apprenticeships and teenage employment, plus increasing years of post-school education, mean that many “children” remain financially dependent on parents well into adulthood. In 1996, in order to “encourage” parental support of unemployed teenagers the Howard government restricted or abolished allowances for teenagers aged between 16 and 20, and for a period raised the age at which students were considered “independent” of their families for the purposes of receiving government living allowances to 25 years.[70] More recently the Gillard government removed single parents whose children had reached the age of eight years from the single parent benefit onto the considerably lower Newstart benefit. Only a decade earlier, the better benefit had extended until the youngest child reached 16 years of age.[71] The capitalist class want caring, whether for 20-something dependent adults, children or the elderly, to be rearranged at as little cost to them as possible. Governments have been happy to oblige. The beneficiary is Australian capitalism, the employers and their system, euphemistically referred to by the Work + Family Policy Roundtable as “our society and economy”:

Provision of unpaid care is essential to the well-being of our society and economy. Children, the frail aged, disabled and the sick, all require care. In 2009, 12% of the population (2.6 million people) had caring responsibilities for people other than children, such as a family member or friend with a disability or illness, or suffering frailty due to old age… The provision of unpaid care has a significant impact on workforce participation, especially for women who are much more likely than men to be primary carers throughout their life course… A range of recent disability and healthcare reforms are built around an increased reliance on unpaid carers. (Emphasis added)[72]

The continued decline of the single breadwinner stereotype of the family does not mean that families are disappearing, just changing. Today a minority of families are made up of a breadwinner father with dependent wife and children, whereas in 1983 couple families with one full-time job clearly predominated, representing almost half of all families.[73] Over the period 1991-2011, while there was no increase in the percentage of families with two full-time working parents (about one-fifth), there was a significant increase in families with one parent employed full-time and one part-time (in most cases, the mother).[74] Indicating the effect of childcare on working life, families were more likely to have both parents working full-time as the age of the youngest child increased.[75] Undermining the stereotype of women as full-time homemakers doesn’t mean that women don’t still do most of the housework and especially the childcare. But the reason for this is not that working class men won’t do it, but because of how capitalist society is structured. There is increased pressure on the family. Unpaid household work such as cooking, cleaning, shopping and caring for children takes up a substantial proportion of workers’ lives.[76] Nor are working class men enjoying themselves at the pub while women take up the slack. In 2006 women did around two-thirds of household work, while men did around two-thirds of paid work. In terms of total work, in 2006 both men and women spent an average of 50 hours and 10 minutes a week in a combination of paid work and household work. This represents an increase since 1992 of around two hours a week.[77] Since 2006, the total work done by working families has increased still more.

Women’s structural oppression, not the individual wishes of the men they live with, is the key determinant of the allocation of the paid and unpaid aspects of this work. The category of domestic labour obscures the key role of childcare within it. When children are under five, mothers do a total of 88 hours of work each week, made up of housework, paid work, childcare and voluntary work, compared to fathers who do a total of 79 hours. However, once children are aged between five and 14, total hours of work equalise between women and men, with both mothers and fathers contributing 75 hours. The difference is in the makeup of those hours, with 46 hours of paid work/commuting for men and 35 hours for women.[78] The long work hours (often including unpaid overtime) worked by fathers are “accommodated” within households with young children by mothers working short part-time hours, often in jobs without access to family-friendly arrangements.[79] For both women and men, childcare is a major addition to their hours of unpaid work. Mothers spend many more hours on household work than other women.[80] In 2006, fathers differed from men without children in spending an extra nine hours a week on childcare activities.[81]

As capitalists require more of working class women’s time to be spent in producing profits, the nature of work in the family has also changed. This 1978 description of women’s work, “converting raw materials into meals; soap-powder and hot water into cleansing agents; fabrics into curtains; flour, icing-sugar, and paper streamers into children’s birthday parties”, doesn’t fit most working class families today.[82] From the need for car ownership if childcare and work are to be combined, through household appliances from washing machines to slow cookers, to takeaway food, cleaning services and childcare itself, a range of expenditures are now necessary parts of family life, transforming them into units of consumption as well as production.


In 2005 Martha Gimenez proclaimed “the theoretical significance of the overwhelming evidence documenting the capitalist subordination of reproduction to production”.[83] In this article I have sought to add to the evidence supporting this claim. Capitalism keeps on restructuring women’s oppression and the family. The key factor in this is the impact of women’s changing role in the workplace. Women are now a permanent and significant part of the workforce. The mass employment of women over the past half century has affected the relations between men and women and undermined the stereotypical model of the working class family. However, economic crisis places increasing burdens upon actual families so domestic labour (and the fact that women do most of it) remains a crucial aspect of contemporary capitalism.

We have come a long way from the arguments by some feminists in the 1970s that unpaid domestic labour in the family can be understood separately from capitalist production. The argument that under capitalism, the mode of production determines the organisation of reproduction and, consequently, unequal relations between men and women, has been borne out. Far from being a form of “economism” or “class reductionism”, it is the only way to make sense of actual developments in working class women’s lives over the past 50 years. The need for privatised reproduction of that most vital of commodities, labour power, impacts the structure of the paid workforce. There is a constant reciprocal interaction between work and family, but ultimately the needs of production are more fundamental.

Revolutionary Marxists are not interested in theory for its own sake, or mere sociological examination of changes in women’s lives. For us, any examination of the realities of women’s oppression is directed to helping answer the question: how can women be liberated? If women’s oppression is rooted in the family, and the family’s key function is the reproduction of labour power for capital, then there can be no women’s liberation under capitalism. If capitalism is not the fundamental reason for women’s oppression, if it can be explained by their role in the family separate from exploitation, then the answer would be different, the implication being that women can win our liberation under capitalism.

The struggles of the 1960s and 1970s did win women a series of important rights, but without confronting the exploitative system of capitalism itself. As those rights come under pressure, and the burden on the working class family increases, to settle for this is to accept that progress is only available to a minority of wealthy women. For working class women there are no individual solutions. During the debates of the 1970s, Gimenez argued that “although some individual men and women may strive to achieve equality in their personal relations, sexual inequality, as a feature of the mode of reproduction which affects all men and women regardless of their private arrangements, remains unchanged as long as capitalism prevails”.[84] Nothing in the subsequent 40 years has disproved this.

What has changed, however, is the role of working class women in the place where they have collective power. Marx’s gravediggers of capitalism are not, and never were, only men. Women today are more likely than ever to be involved in paid work, for greater periods of their lives, and more likely to be unionised. This changed role opens up the possibility of liberation because women can more effectively fight, like all of their class, to overthrow capitalism, the fundamental source of oppression.

[1] Phillip Coorey, “Abbott says paid parental leave plan set in stone”, Australian Financial Review, 29 May 2013.

[2] The baby bonus of $2,000 currently on offer by the federal government would yield this amount per week over a year of unpaid leave from the workforce.

[3] See for example, Christine Delphy, “The main enemy”, Feminist Issues, Summer 1980, p.24 on “the oppression of women in countries where capitalism as such has been destroyed”.

[4] Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1975, p.412.

[5] Heidi Hartmann, “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union” in Lydia Sargent (ed), Women and Revolution, South End Press, Cambridge MA, 1981, pp.1-42; Christine Delphy, Close to Home. A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, Hutchinson, London, 1984, pp.69, 71.

[6] Hartmann, “The unhappy marriage”, p.7.

[7] Hartmann, “The unhappy marriage”, p.9.

[8] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Dell, New York, 1963, p.15.

[9] Bettina Cass, “Women’s place in the class structure” in E.L. Wheelwright and Ken Buckley (eds) Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, 3, Australia and New Zealand Book Company, Sydney, 1978, p.17.

[10] Cass, “Women’s place”, p.25.

[11] Ann Curthoys, For and Against Feminism, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1988 [1977], pp.48-53.

[12] For example, Martha Gimenez, “Marxism and feminism”, Frontier: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 1 (1), 1975 at marx.html; Martha Gimenez, “Capitalism and the oppression of women: Marx revisited”, Science & Society, 69 (1), January 2005, pp.11-32; Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks, London, 1998, pp.70-73; Sandra Bloodworth, “The poverty of patriarchy theory”, Socialist Review, 2, Melbourne, 1990, pp.5-33 at;view=item&id=3921:the-poverty-of-patriarchy-theory&Itemid=580.

[13] Karl Marx, Capital, 1, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, pp.717-718.

[14] Sandra Bloodworth has pointed out that when, in the 1980s, it looked as if the traditional family was being undermined, sociologists and commentators played a role in convincing policy makers of the benefit of accepting different forms such as single parents and same sex couples in order to keep alive the essential ideas associated with the private reproduction of the workforce: Sandra Bloodworth, “Women, class and oppression” in Rick Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson, Sydney, 2005, available at csaseminars.htm.

[15] Bloodworth, “Women, class and oppression”, p.115.

[16] Martha Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women”, p.20.

[17] Gimenez, “Marx revisited”, p.21; Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley, The Double Life of the Family. Myth, Hope and Experience, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1997, p.175, p.xiii.

[18] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1950, p.142.

[19] Bittman and Pixley, Double Life, p.224.

[20] Bittman and Pixley, Double Life, p.222.

[21] Bittman and Pixley, Double Life, pp.223-224.

[22] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian Social Trends, cat. no. 4102.0, 2009, p.19.

[23] Patricia Todd and Alison Preston, “Gender pay equity in Australia: Where are we now and where are we heading?”, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 38 (3), 2012, p.259; ABS, Labour Force Australia, cat. no. 6202.0, 2012.

[24] ABS, Labour Force, Australia, cat. no. 6291.0.55.003, February 2013.

[25] “Women in the Australian workforce: A 2013 update”, FlagPost: Information and research from Australia’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, 8 March 2013,

[26] Jennifer Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2013, pp.2-3.

[27] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.3.

[28] Sara Charlesworth, Lyndall Strazdins, Lean O’Brien and Sharryn Sims, “Parents’ jobs in Australia: Work hours polarisation and the consequences for job quality and gender equality”, Australian Journal of Labour Economics, 14, 2011, pp.35-57.

[29] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.3.

[30] Todd and Preston, “Gender pay equity”, p.254.

[31] Janey Stone, “A different voice? Women and work in Australia”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996, p.79.

[32] Barbara Pocock and Michael Alexander, “The price of feminised jobs: new evidence on the gender pay gap in Australia”, Labour and Industry, 10 (2), December 1999, cited in Bloodworth, 2005, p.112.

[33] Todd and Preston, “Gender pay equity”, p.262.

[34] Todd and Preston, “Gender pay equity”, pp.251-252.

[35] Gimenez, “Marx revisited”.

[36] Todd and Preston, 2012, pp.253-254.

[37] Engels, Condition of the Working Class, p.147.

[38] Martha Nightingale, Facing the challenge: Women in Victorian unions, Victorian Trades Hall Council, Melbourne, 1991, pp.10-11.

[39] ACTU, Women in Australian Unions 2011, Dynamic/attachments/7347/Women_in_Australian_Unions_2011_%20update_May_2012.pdf.

[40] ABS, Industrial Disputes, Australia, 2009-2012, cat. no. 6321.0.55.001. For example, in the June quarter 2009, the education and training and healthcare and social assistance industries accounted for 67 percent of the total number of strike days, for 49 percent in the September quarter 2011, 67 percent in the June quarter 2012, and 55 percent in the December quarter 2012.

[41] Cass, “Women’s place”, p.30.

[42] Stone, “A different voice?”, p.89.

[43] For a contemporary example of both the continued existence of this stereotype, and the way in which it can be broken down, see Kath Larkin, “Interview: Taking on sexism in a Melbourne workplace”, Red Flag, 1, 12 June 2013,

[44] Adam Bottomley and Cecilia Judge, “Still fighting for equal pay”, Marxist Left Review, 4, Winter 2012, pp.177-188.

[45] Todd and Preston, “Gender pay equity”, p.262.

[46] Todd and Preston, “Gender pay equity”, p.263.

[47] Marx, Capital, pp.620-621.

[48] Ilene Wolcott and Helen Glezer, Work and family life: achieving integration, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1995, pp. 6-7; ABS, Australian social trends 2004, cat. no. 4102.0, p. 102, cited in Bloodworth, “Women, class and oppression”, pp.108-109.

[49] Marcel Van Egmond, Janeen Baxter, Sandra Buchler and Mark Western, “A stalled revolution? Gender role attitudes in Australia 1986-2005”, Journal of Population Research, 27 (3), 2010, p.149.

[50] “Tony Abbott in line of fire on ‘women of calibre’ comment when talking about paid parental leave scheme”, Herald Sun, 8 May 2013.

[51] “Christine Lagarde: ‘Women can’t have it all’”, Business Insider Australia, 26 September 2012,

[52] Clementine Bastow, “Gloves off”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 2013.

[53] Chelsea Welch, “My take on Sheryl Sandberg: a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be”, The Guardian, 6 April 2013, commentisfree/2013/apr/06/sheryl-sandberg-lean-in-young-women-advice-motherhood-career/.

[54] Cited in Sharon Smith, “Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation”, Socialist Worker, 31 January 2013.

[55] Alison Wolf, “The rise of the new female elite”, Australian Financial Review, 8 June 2013 at female_elite_muNWFZKWbBBMmwIkhTMhDL.

[56] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.6. Recent changes to reduce single parent benefit to the much lower Newstart unemployment benefit when the youngest child turns eight have already had notable effects. 84,000 single parents with children older than seven were forced onto Newstart in January 2013. The Salvation Army’s survey of 2,705 people who used their emergency relief services in March 2013 found a 12 percent increase in people on Newstart seeking help from the organisation. Of these, more than 40 percent were parents with children older than seven. Seven percent of single parents in the survey were homeless. Shane Green, “Deprivation worsening among single parents, report reveals”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2013.

[57] Alan Hayes, Lixia Qu, Ruth Weston and Jennifer Baxter, Families in Australia 2011. Sticking together in good and tough times, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2011.

[58] ABS, Unpaid work and the Australian economy, cat. no. 5240.0, 1997.

[59] ABS, Australian social trends, cat. no. 4102.0, 2009, p.24.

[60] ABS, Childhood Education and Care Survey, 2011, cat. no. 4402.0, June 2011.

[61] Wendy Boyd, “Maternal employment and childcare in Australia: Achievements and barriers to satisfying employment”, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 38 (3), 2012, p.200.

[62] “Parents fork out 11 per cent more for childcare”, The Courier-Mail, 3 June 2012,

[63] Work + Family Policy Roundtable (WFPR), Election Benchmarks 2013, p.6.

[64] Boyd, “Maternal employment”, p.209.

[65] WFPR, Election Benchmarks 2013, p.14.

[66] Marian Baird and Gillian Whitehouse, “Paid parental leave: First birthday policy review”, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 38 (3), 2012, p.189.

[67] WFPR, Election Benchmarks 2013, p.9.

[68] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.5.

[70] Bittman and Pixley, Double Life, p.257.

[71] Shane Green and Rachel Browne, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2013. The number of single-parent families doubled in the 20 years after the introduction of “no fault” divorce in 1975. Concern about single-parent households, while fomenting anxiety about the moral disintegration of contemporary society, was centrally concerned with the rising cost of government benefits paid to this group. The Child Support Scheme, begun in 1988, used the tax system to enforce payment by “non-custodial” parents for their offspring, reducing the eligibility of single mothers for state support to those who could prove their inability to extract money from their former partners. Bittman and Pixley, Double Life, p.251.

[72] WFPR, Election Benchmarks 2013, p.8.

[73] Hayes et al, Families in Australia 2011, p.4.

[74] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.4.

[75] Baxter, Parents Working Out Work, p.5.

[76] Boyd, “Maternal employment”, p.199.

[77] ABS, Australian social trends 2009, p.19.

[78] Jennifer Baxter, Families working together. Getting the balance right, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2013, p.3.

[79] WFPR submission to the Post Implementation Review of the Fair Work Act, 2012. p.5.

[80] ABS, Australian social trends 2009, p.21.

[81] ABS, Australian social trends 2009, p.22.

[82] Cass, “Women’s place”, p.19.

[83] Gimenez, “Capitalism and the oppression of women”, p.20.

[84] Gimenez, “Marxism and feminism”, p.28.

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