Towards a Theory of Gender Relations

My purpose here is to present a critique of the political economy of gender. I am trying to develop a theory of gender relations. I first consider the necessary elements of such a theory, showing how it is grounded in Marx and Engels. I then re-read their works in a symptomatic way (Althusser’s method), showing where a theoretical inclusion of gender relations is absent. I further show how Gramsci included such a theory in his notes on Fordism, and finally I take a brief look at current developments in gender relations and how they are perceived in the context of neoliberal globalization.

Requirements of a Concept of Gender Relations

The concept of gender relations must allow us to study critically how the sexes serve to reproduce the ensemble of social relations. Thus, it must in some sense presuppose what is a result of social relations, namely, the existence of gender in the sense of historically recognizable men and women. On the basis of a complementarity in procreation (a natural basis), what is assumed to be natural is also formed historically. Hence, the sexes enter into the social process as non-equals, and their non-equality becomes the foundation or basis of further formations. In this way, gender relations become fundamental regulating relations in all social formations that we know of. They are absolutely central for questions of the division of labor, domination, exploitation, ideology, politics, law, religion, morals, sexuality, bodies and senses, and language. At the same time, they transcend each of them. In short, no area can be studied in a meaningful way without researching how gender relations both shape it and are shaped by it. 

Gender relations can only be ignored if it is assumed as is done in the tradition of bourgeois science that there is just one sex, the male sex, in which case all relations have to be depicted as male. Opposing this, and starting to rewrite the history of social theory adding the forgotten women, has been the accomplishment of feminism over the last three decades. Very often, though, this insight is obscured because of the phenomenology of men and women who exist in a specific relationship in society, in a constellation which is an effect of gender relations but which, taken by itself, focuses the analysis on relations between particular individuals. Starting from there makes it difficult to subvert an assumed fixedness of the sexes. Instead, concepts have to be shaped in such a way as to recognize that their subject is in motion and subject to change. A concept should also allow discussion of itself. The concept of gender relations should, like that of relations of production, reflect the multiplicity of practical relations and thereby account for both the formation of the actors and the reproduction of the social whole. Thus it is not based on notions of a fixed relation or of fixed natural actors.

Marx and Engels

In his earliest economic text, Marx speaks of „the sexes in their social relations“ (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, MEW 40, 479), a formulation which can be used for gender relations. Engels speaks of the relations between the sexes, but he misses the opportunity to analyze gender relations along with the relations of production as aspects of social praxis. Nonetheless, the problematic emerges repeatedly in their writing, insofar as they view the relationship between the sexes as integral to their project of liberation. They quote Fourier: “The change of a historic epoch can be read by the progress in the relationship of women to freedom, because here, in the relation of women to men, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of female emancipation is the natural measure of general emancipation” (cited in The Holy Family, MEW 2, 208). In The German Ideology, they develop an outline of their future research which puts this problematic at the center. Among the moments “which have existed from the beginning of history and the first humans” is the one in which “human individuals, who daily produce their material life, start to produce other humans, procreate which is the relation between women and men, parents and children, the family. This family, which in the beginning is the only social relation, later becomes subordinated when the increased needs create new social relations and the increased number of individuals creates new needs” (The German Ideology, MEW 3, 29f). And from the beginning they state: “The production of life, both of one’s own in work and of others in procreation, already appears as a double relationship on the one hand a natural one, on the other hand a social one it is social in the sense that we can understand it as a cooperation of several individuals. From this we conclude that a certain mode of production or industrial stage is always connected with a certain mode of cooperation.… Therefore the history of humankind has always to be written and elaborated in interrelation with the history of industry and exchange” (ibid.). Here we can add that the history of industry and exchange also has to be studied in interrelation with the history of the natural-social relationship, the organization of procreation. The remark that this organization called the family becomes a subordinated relationship should induce us to study this process of subordination, which signals a shift in social meaning.

In The German Ideology, we find a series of hints as to how development in this area proceeds. The “unequal, quantitative and qualitative distribution of labor and its products … property, which has its first form in the family, where women and children are the slaves of men,” becomes fundamental. “This latent slavery in the family, though still very crude, is the first property, but even at this early stage it corresponds perfectly to the definition of modern economists who call it the power of disposing of the labor-power of others” (MEW 3, 32). The divison of labor is possible on the basis of surplus products, and produces them in turn. Similarly, the production of the means of life is a result of an increase of the population and promotes it in turn (MEW 3, 21). The division of labor is the possibility for “pleasure and work, production and consumption to belong to different individuals” (31). As such, it is the contradictory precondition of both domination and development. Thus two overlapping modes of domination, which overdetermine each other, determine the process of history: control over labor-power in the production of the means of life, and men’s control over women’s labor-power, their reproductive capacity, and their sexual bodies. As a result of this interdependence, the development of community goes hand in hand with the destruction of its foundations both processes being supported and carried forward by gender relations.

After these sketchy observations, Marx and Engels leave the area of gender relations in their critique of political economy and turn to capital relations, labor in industry, and exchange.

Symptomatic Reading

In his book Reading Capital, Louis Althusser focuses on the way Marx elaborated on the concept of value in his critique of Adam Smith, even though value itself was absent from the text. Althusser’s idea is that as we develop questions borne from a problematic, we can discover something like a fleeting presence of an aspect of the invisible. “The invisible shows itself in its quality as a theoretical error, as absence, lack or symptom” (Althusser 1972, 31ff). To make the invisible visible, we need something like a knowing glance from a different viewpoint, which is developed from the text in question and transcends it at the same time. In the following, I will re-read Marx and Engels in this symptomatic way, keeping in mind the question of gender relations, which runs through their texts like a disturbance or disorder.

1. Gender relations can be found as roadblocks in relation to the capitalist mode of production. In Capital I, Marx notes: “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave this to the workers’ drives for self-preservation and propagation” (MEW 23, 718). Thus the basis for an increasing population of workers, necessary for capitalist reproduction, is removed from attention and from consciousness as something private, which appears instead as a mere gift of nature. The order of domination, the control over women by men in the family, renders the organization of gender relations scarcely visible. One effect is that women’s labor is worth less than men’s, a condition which makes women especially prone to capitalist exploitation: the labor of women and children is cheaper.

2. Both Marx and Engels carefully note the gender composition of the new factory workforce. Marx gives the exact figures for each county (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, MEW 40, 479); Engels evaluates numerous statistics which show that in British industry at least two thirds of the workers were female (1839), concluding that this proves “the displacement of the male worker.” He considers this to be “the reversal of the social order,” which leads to dissolution of the family. At this stage he does not reflect on the gendered division of labor which made him view the working class as exclusively male (Condition of the Working Class in England, MEW 2, 367f, 465). Then he discovers not only that the division of social and domestic labor is historically specific, but also that the one who performs domestic labor is always dominated by the one whose role is outside the home, and that therefore the division between waged labor and domestic labor promotes a pattern of dominance in gender relations. Engels describes the terrible consequences of female factory labor for children, but does so in moral categories, thus obscuring the fact that these consequences are an effect of gender relations under capitalism. Marx adopts these observations in Capital I. He too conceptualizes the workers spontaneously as men who sell their labor power in order to reproduce themselves and their families. “But the value of labor power includes the value of the commodities necessary for the production of the worker or the propagation of the working class” (MEW 23, 377). Engels makes the same point in Anti-Dühring (MEW 20, 189). At the same time, both are confronted with the contradiction that the male workers are replaced by women and children. Given the existing gender relations, this causes the destruction of the natural foundations of the working class, its “exhaustion and death” (MEW 23, 376). Since the assumption of the masculinity of the proletariat is mixed into the text more or less unreflectively, Marx and Engels do not explain that the form of waged labor presumes the male wage laborer, or a system of gender relations in which the production of the means of life insofar as it is commodified is socialized, whereas the reproduction of the workers and their “replacements” (275) is the private responsibility of individual families, and thus seems not to be a social affair. The interlocking of capitalist exploitation and a specific division of labor in historic gender relations shows that among other types of oppression capitalist production is based on the oppression of women. Marx comes close to this in passing, like a flash of recognition, in Capital II: “That the workers have to be replaced makes their reproduction necessary and therefore the capitalist mode of production is conditioned by other modes of production exterior to its developmental stage” (MEW 24, 114). This is later taken up by Rosa Luxemburg.

3. Again and again, Marx notes “the peculiar composition of the working group, consisting as it does of individuals of both sexes” (MEW 23, 549) and finally “the assignment of an important part in socially organized processes of production outside the sphere of the domestic economy to women” as a “new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes” (620f). It is quite obvious that this statement refers to the relationship between the sexes—a relation impacted in every sphere by labor, however—and not to the complex social whole and its regulation. Marx describes the working together of the sexes (in production) as a “pestiferous source of corruption and slavery” (621) and claims that only “under appropriate conditions, when the working process exists for the worker, will it turn into a source of human development.” This hope is the basis for the perspective of including women into the labor process. Since the total whole of labor necessary for the reproduction of society, as well as the gendered distribution of this labor (paid and unpaid) and the support for the whole arrangement in law, morals, politics, and ideology, does not enter into the analysis, this hope for liberating women by just drawing them into the labor process misses the pervasiveness and trickiness of gender relations.

4. This narrow-mindedness has led the workers’ movement to the idea that there is a sequence of struggles for liberation workers first, then women a belief which ignores the fact that the relations of production are in fact always gender relations, and also ignores the strength of gender relations in determining the specific form of social relations as a whole.

Postscript to Engels

In his enthusiastic reception of the writings of Bachofen and Morgan, Engels assimilated the language within which women’s oppression was to be understood, thereby confirming a reading that located gender relations as something additional and exterior to the relations of production—an idea that has remained enormously influential up to the present day. In his famous paragraph on monogamy (in The Origin of the Family…), he practically reduces gender relations to a personal relationship of domination, which he calls a class relation, thereby bringing it back into the purview of social relations: “The first class antagonism in history coincides with the development of the antagonism of man and woman in monogamy, and the first class oppression with that of the female gender by the male. Monogamy was a great historical accomplishment, but at the same time it opens the epoch still obtaining … in which the well-being and the development of the one group prevail through the misery and repression of the other. It is the cell form of civilized society where we can already study the nature of the oppositions and contradictions which fully develop therein” (Origin, 35f; MEW 21, 68). The catchy rhetoric hides the fact that these formulations fail to look at labor relations within the framework of monogamy. Concepts such as antagonism, well-being, and misery allow us to think of gender relations as mere relations of subjugation and victory after a war, not as a mode of production by both sexes.

Engels does not study the how relations of production correlate with gender relations. On the contrary, he notes a drifting apart of the spheres of the production of life and the production of the means of life, which is adequate for capitalism but prevents him from seeing that this separation is in itself part of the relations of production. In his preface to the first edition of The Origin of the Family…, Engels sketches what he considers to be the “production and reproduction of immediate life”: “On the one hand, the production of the means of existence, food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other hand the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.“ In using “production” in both cases, Engels provides a starting point for a theory of women’s oppression, the elaboration of which he blocked, however, by formulating the two forms of production as “on the one hand … labor, on the other … the family.” Separating the labor of producing food, clothing, shelter, and so on, from the family makes the latter, for Engels and thus for any theory of women’s oppression he might have developed, exclusively a matter of biological processes and their legalization; he takes no account of family labor. Consequently, he examines the organization of procreation, but not the way the work performed within the family relates to the totality of labor and to the reproduction of society.

To this extent, we can read his work as a contribution to the history of gender relations on the level of sexuality and morals—although with puritanical motives—but at the same time as a failure to write this history as part of the relations of production. Instead, he gathers a lot of material to prove the humiliation of women. He does not see the extent to which gender relations pervade the whole mode of production. Women seem to be mere victims: “The overthrow of matriarchy was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized control also in the home, the woman was dishonored, enslaved, slave of his lust and a mere tool for procreation” (MEW 21, 60f). Elsewhere he mentions work in the family, but only as a starting point for his observation that it is production beyond the level of subsistence that allows for production of the means of production. As a consequence of this focus, he again omits the relations of gender in this development (Anti-Dühring, MEW 20, 180). For him, family is fixed at a stage of non-development, whereas social progress results from the surplus of the labor product over the cost of maintaining labor as the basis “of all social, political and intellectual progress” (ibid). This separation also makes it impossible to think of gender relations as relations of production and thereby to recognize the employment of gender relations on the level of the social whole as a foundation of capitalist accumulation.

Engels’ perspective for liberated gender relations is the inclusion of women in industry, a movement which he already discovers in capitalist-organized production, where one then need only prevent the damaging consequences. “The same cause that had secured the domination of women in the domestic sphere: her reduction to domestic labor, this very cause secures the domination of men in the house … The liberation of woman only becomes possible when she can participate in production on a large social scale and domestic labor is reduced to an insignificant residue. And this has only become possible by modern big industry, which not only allows female labor on a large scale, but in fact demands it, and which will dissolve private domestic labor into a public industry” (Origin, MEW 21, 157f).

The historical error of this perspective, which also determined the state socialist project, is based on the reduction of gender relations to a relationship between men and women, instead of reading them as relations of production pervading all spheres of life and society.

Engels then develops the idea that it is private property which is the basis of men’s domination over women (Conditions of the Working Class in England, MEW 2, 371), that private property destroys the true relationship between men and women a thought which led to the assumption that the proletarian family, in their lack of property, would be free of domination. “In relation to women, love will become a rule but this can only be among the oppressed classes, … because here is no property for the conservation and heredity of which monogamy and male domination have been created” (MEW 21, 73). This was not only descriptively false, but also fails to understand the function of the division of labor between home and industry and, with it, the role of gender relations for the reproduction of capitalist society. But Engels is in fact mainly interested in the personal relationship between men and women, a relation which he visualizes as totally private in a communist social order (Principles of Communism, MEW 4, 377).

Critical Reflections

The critical re-reading of Marx and Engels results in the following thesis: gender relations are relations of production. This negates the tendency to think of them purely as relations between men and women. Instead, the different modes of production in history should always be studied as shaped by gender relations, that is, in terms of how the production of life is regulated in the totality of the relations of production, and how its relation to the production of the means of life is organized. This includes the construction of gender itself, of femininity and masculinity, as well as questions regarding the division of labor and of domination their ideological legitimation and the politics of sexuality as well as the naturalization of the market. In this light, I also criticize the concept of relations of production as it is normally used in Marxism.

To think of gender relations as relations of production may sound presumptuous since we are used to thinking of the latter as the organization of the production of the means of life. Thus, we understand capitalist relations of production as the organization of profitable production for the market. Central concepts for the analysis of these relations, such as the dual character of labor, alienated or wage labor, and productive forces, all come from economics and politics. This approach implies that all these determinations are gender-neutral and therefore that all practices that are gender-specific are unconnected to the relations of production, and are at most affected by them peripherally.

Within Marxism there is a certain mode of thinking in topographic terms, such as base and superstructure, which allow us to think that we can derive one sphere from the other, and to ask in our case: are there any effects of the relations of production on gender relations? To this we would immediately answer yes: there is the male breadwinner and the figure of the housewife who cares for the wage laborer, and finally there is the woman as consumer who buys the commodities produced in certain relations of production. This correlation should immediately make us suspicious of the notion of gender relations as being of minor importance to the relations of production; but my claim that gender relations are relations of production goes beyond that. I contend that all practices in society are determined by gender relations, have a gender subtext, are hence coded by domination, and that therefore we have to include them in any analysis and understanding of society.

This is grounded in the fact that social production is twofold, in that it produces life and the means of life. We already know that the production of life refers to one’s own life as well as to other life in procreation; we call these two productions reproduction, although this is a misconception since the production of the means of life also has to be reproduced, in the form of capital, raw materials, labor-power, etc. Therefore the difference is not between production and reproduction but between life and means of life, and I would prefer to speak not of reproduction but of life-sustaining and life-developing activities.

How are these two spheres of the means of life and of life itself arranged? What role does gender have? And how does domination occur? We can readily assume that the development of the productive forces, progress, and accumulation of wealth relate to the sphere of the production of the means of life, which therefore seems to have priority, and has subordinated the sphere of life as a presupposition and a result. 

We have currently reached a point at which the development of the productive forces has intruded into the production of life itself. The development of gene technology in connection with human reproduction is having such a decisive effect on gender relations that they need to be fundamentally rethought. Until now we could assume that, despite the tendency of capital to constantly incorporate new means of production, the reproduction and raising of children were not included, since these activities are not organized and oriented toward profit. Although the protection and repression of women already appeared as a two-pronged aspect of production relations, the woman’s body did not, until now, itself constitute raw material for production. With the advent of the reproduction of life as a form of commodity, we have entered a new era, despite the fact that the raising of children as individuals in human society has not thereby been solved. The difficulty of thinking through this new situation is aggravated by the fact that most efforts limit themselves to the moral sphere, instead of concentrating on the relations of production in their capitalist, profit-oriented mode.

Applying the Insights of Gramsci, Althusser, and Poulantzas

Thanks to Gramsci, Althusser, and Poulantzas, we can leave behind us the stage of viewing society in mere economistic terms from above to below, with domination appearing as a one-sided act from above, and being dominated as mere passivity.

Gramsci even developed, in his notes on Fordism, an exemplary analysis of gender relations as relations of production. His point of departure was the change in the mode of production (mass production and assembly line) and the creation of a new type of man for the new work and the regulation of this process. Gramsci does not think of the economy as a base and of the state as a superstructure, which is a mechanistic way of thinking that misses decisive forces, among them gender relations. Gramsci unfolds the superstructure into a set of competing superstructures with a common effect; in this way one can understand strategies and tactics. In addition, he proposes two levels: civil society and political society. This is a methodological difference; in “the concrete historical life, political and civil society are the same” (Gef 3, H 4, # 38, 498f). This allows him to differentiate between coercion and consent, authority and hegemony, violence and culture (7, H 13, # 14, 1553f).

The aim is to elaborate upon the way the social formations, discourses, and media relevant for hegemony operate at the level of civil society where people participate, i.e., how consent is organized. An additional useful concept is that of the historical bloc, which is the bringing together of the forces in power in this case, the interaction of the mass-production mode and of state campaigns on morals (e.g., puritanism) to create the new type of man. In this context, gender relations show up as the special subjection of men under wage labor on the assembly line through the use of mechanical power and higher wages, which allows more consumption, maintaining a family, and leisure time, that become necessary for the maintenance of the male labor subject. His exploitation requires special morals and a certain lifestyle: monogamy instead of vagabonding sex (which is time-consuming), less alcohol consumption, and the housewife who watches over discipline, lifestyle, health, and feeding the family. You see the engagement of the sexes, their construction, their subjective actions, the regulation by moral campaigns and public-health policies.

It is obvious that this gender arrangement has to be altered as soon as the mode of production changes. Thus for instance a society where the productive forces are high-tech, where the relation of intellectual and physical labor has been turned upside down, where the workers needed are fewer and of a different kind, and which therefore has to be maintained in a hegemonically different way, needs different kinds of intervention on the part of the state and produces different effects at the level of civil society. A study of the new subjects of labor has to include the new determination of gender relations because life, life forms, and maintenance and development of life are always at stake. We confront in effect the paradox that gender relations are a form of social relations.

A fruitful response to this challenge is suggested by Louis Althusser’s proposals. Following Marx, Althusser examines the structure of society on different levels and differentiates within the superstructure between the political-juridical (state and law) and the ideological (with morals and religion). This allows him to consider the relative efficiency and relative autonomy of each, taking into account dominances and shifts. His viewpoint is the reproduction of society as a whole. In this approach to the history of modes of production, he proposes concepts like non-simultaneity, unequal development, backwardness, and obsoleteness. For the analysis of the relations of production, we have to study the actual configuration with over-determinations, dependencies, and relations of articulation.

Following both Gramsci and Althusser in our study of gender relations as relations of production, we can discover breaks and phenomena of non-simultaneity in gender relations within the specific neoliberal configuration of the era since the 1970s. We see the Fordist type of man at the same time as the “new entrepreneur,” hegemonic discourses on individual responsibility, and a historical bloc of social democrats and neoliberal global economy, displayed for instance in the media, which propagate a new life-form of fitness, youth, health, and sexual politics for the one, while supporting conservative morals for the other. They are kept coherent by the discourse of individual responsibility. With regard to the new entrepreneur, we experience an intensified individualization which can partly dispense with hierarchical gender relations—the subjection of women and even with the norm of heterosexuality in the new way of life. Thus the old relations of domination can continue to exist as a certain backwardness within the new relations.

Finally, Nikos Poulantzas helps us to avoid a certain mechanistic approach which still prevails in the idea of the dependence of the political sphere upon the mode of production. He proposes viewing the political as a contested terrain with contradictions, which we can see in the confrontation between, on the one hand, the official discourse of individual responsibility and, on the other, the unsimultaneities experienced by those of both sexes who are attempting to manage their lives individually while at the same time remaining embedded in the old ideals of care from Fordist gender relations (which are carried by the hegemonic bloc of churches, parties, the state, and the corresponding population). In this setting, we as leftists have to be utterly flexible in the political. We cannot use arguments religiously like confessions, but must form them, as Brecht says, like snowballs hard and striking, but capable of being melted and formed anew in changing configurations. 

In summarizing, I propose to liberate the concept of relations of production from its reduction to the production of the means of life, or better, to think of the latter as embedded in politics and ideology, juridically constituted, morally formed, and on all levels configured in gender relations. Thus we can speak of gender relations as relations of production in a threefold way:

**as a level where the subjects are specifically historically positioned in organizing and producing their lives;

**as a decisive moment in the production of the means of life and its relation to the production and maintenance of life itself; and

**as a field with contradictions within and between modes of production.

To think of gender relations as relations of production means criticizing the traditional idea of relations of production as insufficient.


(MEW=Marx-Engels Werke)

Althusser, Louis: Positions (1964-1975), Paris 1976

—-Das Kapital lesen [Reading Capital], Vol. I. Hamburg 1972

Becker-Schmidt, Regina, and Axeli Knapp: Feministische Theorien zur Einführung [Introduction to Feminist Theory]. Hamburg 2000

Engels, Friedrich: Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England [Condition of the Working Class in England], MEW 2

—-Anti Dühring, MEW 20

—-The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Harmondsworth, 1986

Gramsci, Antonio: Gefängnishefte. Kritische Gesamtausgabe [Prison Notebooks. Critical Edition] (eds. Klaus Bochmann and Wolfgang Fritz Haug), Hamburg 1991-2000

Luxemburg, Rosa: Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Berlin/DDR 1975

Marx, Karl: Das Kapital, Vol. I, MEW 23; Vol. II, MEW 24

—-Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte. MEW 40

Marx, Karl und Friedrich Engels: Die Heilige Familie, MEW 2

—-Die deutsche Ideologie, MEW 3

Poulantzas, N.: Politische Macht und gesellschaftliche Klassen [Political Power and Social Classes]. Frankfurt/M, 1974

*My study on gender relations is forthcoming as a book (2002).

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