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The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism

  • Nancy C. M. Hartsock
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 161)

Abstract

The power of the Marxian critique of class domination stands as an implicit suggestion that feminists should consider the advantages of adopting a historical materialist approach to understanding phallocratic domination. A specifically feminist historical materialism might enable us to lay bare the laws of tendency which constitute the structure of patriarchy over time and to follow its development in and through the Western class societies on which Marx’s interest centered. A feminist materialism might in addition enable us to expand the Marxian account to include all human activity rather than focussing on activity more characteristic of males in capitalism. The development of such a historical and materialist account is a very large task, one which requires the political and theoretical contributions of many feminists. Here I will address only the question of the epistemological underpinnings such a materialism would require. Most specifically, I will attempt to develop, on the methodological base provided by Marxian theory, an important epistemological tool for understanding and opposing all forms of domination — a feminist standpoint.

Keywords

Female Experience Marxian Theory Sexual Division Commodity Exchange Class Society 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    See my ‘Feminist Theory and the Development of Revolutionary Strategy,’ in Zillah Eisenstein, ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review, 1978).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The recent literature on mothering is perhaps the most detailed on this point. See Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Iris Young, ‘Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory,’ in Socialist Review 10,2/3 (March-June, 1980), p. 180.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Eighth Thesis on Feuerbach, in Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ in The German Ideology, C. J. Arthur, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1970), p. 121.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid. Conscious human practice, then, is at once both an epistemological category and the basis for Marx’s conception of the nature of humanity itself. To put the case even more strongly, Marx argues that human activity has both an ontological and epistemological status, that human feelings are not “merely anthropological phenomena,” but are “truly ontological affirmations of being.” See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Dirk Struik, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1964), pp. 113,165, 188.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Marx, 1844, p. 112. Nature itself, for Marx, appears as a form of human work, since he argues that humans duplicate themselves actively and come to contemplate themselves in a world of their own making. (Ibid., p. 114). On the more general issue of the relation of natural to human worlds see the very interesting account by Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx, tr. Ben Foukes (London: New Left Books, 1971).Google Scholar
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    Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, pp. 42.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology (London: MacMillan, 1978). I should note that my analysis both depends on and is in tension with Sohn-Rethel’s. Sohn-Rethel argues that commodity exchange is a characteristic of all class societies — one which comes to a head in capitalism or takes its most advanced form in capitalism. His project, which is not mine, is to argue that (a) commodity exchange, a characteristic of all class societies, is an original source of abstraction, (b) that this abstraction contains the formal element essential for the cognitive faculty of conceptual thinking and (c) that the abstraction operating in exchange, an abstraction in practice, is the source of the ideal abstraction basic to Greek philosophy and to modern science. (See Ibid., p. 28).In addition to a different purpose, I should indicate several major differences with Sohn-Rethel. First, he treats the productive forces as separate from the productive relations of society and ascribes far too much autonomy to them. (See, for example, his discussions on pp. 84-86, 95.) I take the position that the distinction between the two is simply a device used for purposes of analysis rather than a feature of the real world. Second, Sohn-Rethel characterizes the period preceding generalized commodity production as primitive communism. (See p. 98.) This is however an inadequate characterization of tribal societies.Google Scholar
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    Karl Marx, Capital, I (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 176.Google Scholar
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    I have done this elsewhere in a systematic way. For the analysis, see my discussion of the exchange abstraction in Money, Sex, and Power: An Essay on Domination and Community (New York: Longman, Inc., 1983).Google Scholar
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    This is Iris Young’s point. I am indebted to her persuasive arguments for taking what she terms the “gender differentiation of labor” as a central category of analysis (Young, ‘Dual Systems Theory,’ p. 185). My use of this category, however, differs to some extent from hers. Young’s analysis of women in capitalism does not seem to include marriage as a part of the division of labor. She is more concerned with the division of labor in the productive sector.Google Scholar
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    See Sara Ruddick, ‘Maternal Thinking,’ Feminist Studies 6,2 (Summer, 1980), p. 364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, for discussions of this danger, Adrienne Rich, ‘Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia,’ in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), pp. 275–310; Elly Bulkin, ‘Racism and Writing: Some Implications for White Lesbian Critics,’ in Sinister Wisdom, No. 6 (Spring, 1980).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Some cross-cultural evidence indicates that the status of women varies with the work they do. To the extent that women and men contribute equally to subsistence, women’s status is higher than it would be if their subsistence-work differed profoundly from that of men; that is, if they do none or almost all of the work of subsistence, their status remains low. See Peggy Sanday, ‘Female Status in the Public Domain,’ in Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), p. 199. See also Iris Young’s account of the sexual division of labor in capitalism, mentioned above.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    It is irrelevant to my argument here that women’s wage labor takes place under different circumstances than men’s — that is, their lower wages, their confinement to only a few occupational categories, etc. I am concentrating instead on the formal, structural features of women’s work. There has been much effort to argue that women’s domestic labor is a source of surplus value, that is, to inclue it within the scope of Marx’s value theory as productive labor, or to argue that since it does not produce surplus value it belongs to an entirely different mode of production, variously characterized as domestic or patriarchal. My strategy here is quite different from this. See, for the British debate, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Falling Wall Press, Bristol, 1975); Wally Secombe, ‘The Housewife and Her Labor Under Capitalism,’ New Left Review 83 (January-February, 1974); Jean Gardiner, ‘Women’s Domestic Labour,’ New Left Review 89 (March, 1975); and Paul Smith, ‘Domestic Labour and Marx’s Theory of Value,’ in Annette Kuhn and Ann Marie Wolpe, eds., Feminism and Materialism (Boston: Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1978). A portion of the American debate can be found in Ira Gerstein, ‘Domestic Work and Capitalism,’ and Lisa Vogel, ‘The Earthly Family,’ Radical America 7, 4/5 (July-October, 1973); Ann Ferguson, ‘Women as a New Revolutionary Class,’ in Pat Walker, ed., Between Labor and Capital (Boston: South End Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1942); Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 671. Marx and Engels have also described the sexual division of labor as natural or spontaneous. See Mary O’Brien, ‘Reproducing Marxist Man,’ in Lorenne Clark and Lynda Lange, eds., The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    For a discussion of women’s work, see Elise Boulding, ‘Familial Constraints on Women’s Work Roles,’ in Martha Blaxall and B. Reagan, eds., Women and the Workplace (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976), esp. the charts on pp. 111, 113. An interesting historical note is provided by the fact that even Nausicaa, the daughter of a Homeric king, did the household laundry. (See M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1979), p. 73.) While aristocratic women were less involved in actual labor, the difference was one of degree. And as Aristotle remarked in The Politics, supervising slaves is not a particularly uplifting activity. The life of leisure and philosophy, so much the goal for aristocratic Athenian men, ten, was almost unthinkable for any woman.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Simone de Beauvoir holds that repetition has a deeper significance and that women’s biological destiny itself is repetition. (See The Second Sex, tr. H. M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 59.) But see also her discussion of housework in Ibid., pp. 434ff. There her treatment of housework is strikingly negative. For de Beauvoir, transcendence is provided in the hstorical struggle of self with other and with the natural world. The oppositions she sees are not really stasis vs. change, but rather transcendence, escape from the muddy concreteness of daily life, from the static, biological, concrete repetition of “placid femininity.”Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Marilyn French, The Women’s Room (New York: Jove, 1978), p. 214.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Sara Ruddick, ‘Maternal Thinking,’ presents an interesting discussion of these and other aspects of the thought which emerges from the activity of mothering. Although I find it difficult to speak the language of interests and demands she uses, she brings out several valuable points. Her distinction between maternal and scientific thought is very intriguing and potentially useful (see esp. pp. 350-353).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    O’Brien, ‘Reproducing Marxist Man,’ p. 115, n. 11.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    It should be understood that I am concentrating here on the experience of women in Western culture. There are a number of cross-cultural differences which can be expected to have some effect. See, for example, the differences which emerge from a comparison of childrearing in ancient Greek society with that of the contemporary Mbuti in central Africa. See Phillip Slater, The Glory of Hera (Boston: Beacon, 1968) and Colin Turn-bull, The Politics of Non-Aggression,’ in Ashley Montagu, ed., Learning Non-Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Nancy Chodorow, ‘Family Structure and Feminine Personality,’ in Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Woman, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), p. 59.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Of Woman Born (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 63.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, and Flax, ‘The Conflict Between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relations and in Feminism,’ Feminist Studies 4,2 (June, 1978). I rely on the analyses of Dinnerstein and Chodorow but there are difficulties in that they are attempting to explain why humans, both male and female, fear and hate the female. My purpose here is to invert their arguments and to attempt to put forward a positive account of the epistemological consequences of this situation. What follows is a summary of Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering. Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Chodorow, Reproduction, pp. 105-109.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    This is Jane Flax’s point.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Chodorow, Reproduction, pp. 127-131, 163.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ibid., p. 166.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Ibid., pp. 174-178. Chodorow suggest a correlation between father absence and fear of women (p. 213), and one should, treating this as an empirical hypotheses, expect a series of cultural differences based on the degree of father absence. Here the ancient Greeks and the Mbuti provide a fascinating contrast. (See above, note 22.)Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ibid., p. 198. The flexible and diffuse female ego boundaries can of course result in the pathology of loss of self in responsibility for and dependence on others. (The obverse of the male pathology of experiencing the self as walled city.)Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1961), pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), trans. A. V. Miller, p. 114. See also Jessica Benjamin’s very interesting use of this discussion in The Bonds of Love: Rational Violence and Erotic Domination,’ Feminist Studies 6, 1 (June, 1980).Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Alvin Gouldner has made a similar argument in his contention that the Platonic stress on hierarchy and order resulted from a similarly learned opposition to daily life which was rooted in the young aristocrat’s experience of being taught proper behavior by slaves who could not themselves engage in this behavior. See Enter Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 351–355.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    One can argue, as Chodorow’s analysis suggests, that their extreme form in his philosophy represents an extreme father-absent (father-deprived?) situation. A more general critique of phallocentric dualism occurs in Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    More recently, of course, the opposition to the natural world has taken the form of destructive technology. See Evelyn Fox Keller, ‘Gender and Science,’ Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1,3 (1978), reprinted in this volume.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    See Elizabeth Spelmanetaphysics and Misogyny: The Soul and Body in Plato’s Dialogues,’ mimeo. One analyst has argued that its basis lies in the fact that “the early mother, monolithic representative of nature, is a source, like nature, of ultimate distress as well as ultimate joy. Like nature, she is both nourishing and disappointing, both alluring and threatening ... The infant loves her... and it hates her because, like nature, she does not perfectly protect and provide for it ... The mother, then — like nature, which sends blizzards and locusts as well as sunshine and strawberries — is perceived as capricious, sometimes actively malevolent.” Dinnerstein, p. 95.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    See Benjamin, p. 152. The rest of her analysis goes in a different direction than mine, though her account of The Story of O can be read as making clear the problems for any social synthesis based on the Hegelian model.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Of Woman Born, p. 64, p. 167. For a similar descriptive account, but a dissimilar analysis, see David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence (Boston: Beacon, 1966).Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    My arguments are supported with remarkable force by both the theory and practice of the contemporary women’s movement. In theory, this appears in different forms in the work of Dorothy Riddle, ‘New Visions of Spiritual Power,’ Quest: a Feminist Quarterly 1,3 (Spring, 1975); Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature, esp. Book IV: ‘The Separate Rejoined’; Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, esp. pp. 62-68; Linda Thurston, ‘On Male and Female Principle,’ The Second Wave 1, 2 (Summer, 1971). In feminist political organizing, this vision has been expressed as an opposition of leadership and hierarchy, as an effort to prevent the development of organizations divided into leaders and followers. It has also taken the form of an insistence on the unity of the personal and the political, a stress on the concrete rather than on abstract principles (an opposition to theory), and a stress on the politics of everyday life. For a fascinating and early example, see Pat Mainardi, The Politics of Housework,’ in Leslie Tanner, ed., Voices of Women’s Liberation (New York: New American Library, 1970).Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    George Bataille, Death and Sensuality (New York: Arno Press, 1977), p. 90.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Women Against Violence Against Women Newsletter, June, 1976, p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Aegis: A Magazine on Ending Violence Against Women, November/December, 1978, p. 3.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Robert Stoller, Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred (New York: Pantheon, 1975), p. 88.Google Scholar
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    Bataille, p. 91. See pp. 91ff for a more complete account of the commonalities of sexual activity and ritual sacrifice.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Death and Sensuality, p. 12 (italics mine). See also de Beauvoir’s discussion in The Second Sex, pp. 135, 151.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Bataille, p. 14.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Ibid., p. 42. While Adrienne Rich acknowledges the violent feelings between mothers and children, she quite clearly does not put these at the heart of the relation (Of Woman Born). Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Bataille, pp. 95-96.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    The Second Sex, p. 58. It should be noted that killing and risking life are ways of indicating one’s contempt for one’s body, and as such are of a piece with the Platonic search for disembodiment.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Consider, for example, Rich’s discussion of pregnancy and childbirth, Ch. VI and VII, Of Woman Born. And see also Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s discussion of domestic labor in The Home (Urbana, Ill.: The University of Illinois Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  52. 53.
    Capital, Vol. I, p. 60.Google Scholar
  53. 54.
    The phrase is O’Brien’s, p. 113.Google Scholar
  54. 55.
    See Marx, 1844, p. 117.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nancy C. M. Hartsock
    • 1
  1. 1.The Johns Hopkins UniversityUSA

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