The literal definition of patriarchy is “rule of the father” and families in which literal fathers dominate literal mothers and literal children are pointed to as exemplifications of patriarchy, but pedantry is the enemy of politics. The patriarchy as a global system of domination is the rule of the father in the meta sense. It is male domination over the reproductive capacities of females. This is at the core of patriarchy. Females produce units of labour and females are gendered at birth as “girls”, the predecessors of the women that they are to become. This is the critical issue, nothing can be created without labour and labour cannot be created without females. Females must be controlled, and their gendering as women is a very large part of that.
Labour is critical. It is the base of value in a capitalist system. We’ve known this for at least 150 years. The value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour contained in it. People tend to think of commodities as raw materials – like gold or sugar or wheat – things which are traded on the commodies exchange market, but everything which is produced is a commodity – the laptop that I type this on, the cup that I drink from, the sofa I sit on; beyond tangible commodities, there are also intangible commodities – like the software I write this on.
Complex comodities – like a sofa for example – have a huge load of embedded labour, from the felling of the trees to make the struts, to the van driver who brought it to the shop for sale. Contained within that embedded labour is other embedded labour – from the labour invested in the chainsaw which the logger used to the labour of the driving tutor who taught the van driver. There is a long and complex chain of labour in every single tangible and intangible commodity in the world. And females produced every single one of those labouring units. To control female reproductive capacity is to control the supply of labour.
A great deal of Marxist feminism concentrates on the role of women within the economic sphere, exploring pay differentials, barriers to entry into the labour market, the gendered divisions of acceptable work, where women are encouraged to enter caring professions. When it does stray into the private sphere, it primarily looks at labour provided in the domestic household – the unpaid catering, cleaning, childcare, which goes into running a house and family, and which is overwhelmingly done by women. What it misses out is that almost all females are women, and females gestate the labour supply
It is disappointing that Marxism, which at its core has the Labour Related Theory of Value, spends so little time analysising where the labour which produces that value comes from. When Marx himself talks of reproduction, he does so in an wide economic sense, looking at the factors which are required for productive (that is profit generating) economic activity to continue – and although he mentions procreation, it is but in passing, as an afterthought. It is as if the future units of labour, which are the basis of all economic activity simply drop from the sky, a manner of thinking which dominates Marxist thought.
Male hegemonic control over the production of new labour units can be seen in a variety of different ways. The acceptable form of reproduction and child rearing is within a state approved monogamous relationship between a female woman and male man supplimented by the state through the education system. This traditional format provides an individualised form of patriarchal control, where the literal father has authority, legal rights granted through the marriage and social rights granted through the hegemonic status of “fatherhood”, in the meantime, it is the female within the relationship who performs the literal reproductive labour – from carrying the foetus for nine months, birthing, lactating and having the main role in child rearing.
The point of reproductive labour under capitalism – in the economic sense of non-profit making activity – is to create the conditions by which productive labour can be generated. So the domestic labour of the “housewife” in either a full or part-time capacity, enables the greater productivity of the economic actor. The literal reproductive labour, from carrying the foetus for nine months, birthing, lactating and child rearing, is the means by which a new economic actor can emerge to produce future productive labour and labour which some elements by necessity can only be done by females, tends to be overlooked.
The demand for patriarchal control over female reproduction – as seen through the pronouncements of churches condemning abortion and even contraception as a “sin” and the legal restrictions on women controlling their own fertility such as limited access to abortion and contraception, are all patriarchal demands which leave women’s fertility not in their own hands but in the hands of the male dominated clergy and political class which make the rules.
Of course, not all females are desirable reproducers. And so we see eugenics programmes aimed at indigenous and minority populations. The encouragement of female men to be sterilised shores up the situation of women only as the reproducers. Women who reproduce outwith the approved patriarchal context are encouraged to give up their offspring for adoption. Not that long ago, in places very close to home, they were forced to do so, through a combination of social shaming and coercive economics which left them destitute, pushing them into living arrangements such as the Magdalene Laundries, which extracted free labour from them to atone for their sins, while stealing their children. Even now the Daily Heil stereotype of the feckless single female breeder, wantonly consuming resources for their bastard offspring abounds.
Increasingly we are seeing the use of Third World women as surrogate mothers for infertile Western families or richer members of their own society, while Third World orphanages – sometimes taking in children with families too poor to look after them themselves – provide the socially minded with access to adoptive children with little oversight of the conditions of their adoption.
The gendering of females at birth as “girls” which will grow into “women”, sees females being prepared for a life of reproductive labour. Dolls are the most obvious instantiations of this, where young females are encouraged to place themselves psychologically in the place of the mothers that they are destined to become, but the higher reliance that is put on young females as substitute child carers for younger siblings, and the greater encouragement for them to provide emotional labour within the family on the basis of their gendering can also be observed. Gender appropriate toys for future women also include domestic appliances, and domesticated hobbies such as craftwork, in contrast to the robots and technology which are packaged for future men.
Labour is an immense resource, it is the basis of all value, and all provided by females. The gendering of females ensures that they are not only expected to perform literal reproductive labour, but also its wider instanciations – cleaning, cooking and caring for little recompense. It is high time that Marxists properly engaged with the source of that labour, where it comes from and how it is gen(d)erated.