Social Reproduction Theory: The Marxist Critique We Need Now

Is “women’s work” real work? Can pregnant women and mothers enjoy full participation in our society? Or is becoming a “girlboss” the only way to gain that access?

Relevant and resonant as these questions are in 2023, half a century ago, a group of feminists debated them all, resulting in an account they dubbed “social reproduction theory.” A new wave of interest in this discussion has rescued social reproduction theory from decades of obscurity, but its lessons risk being ignored. The conclusions that this prior generation of feminists reached about work, motherhood, and pregnancy offer important challenges to today’s feminists and antifeminists alike.

Social reproduction theory began as an attempt to solve a problem: how to resolve a Marxist analysis of capitalism with Second-Wave feminist political commitments. From the outset, the differences between feminists and Marxists seemed insurmountable. The feminist literature and rhetoric of the Baby Boom generation emphasized culture, psychology, and the personal experiences of women, and often accused Marxists—not without reason—of reducing everything to economics. And then there was the fundamental disagreement over priorities. Which was the root problem—sex or class? Was it possible to explain capitalism in terms of patriarchy, or vice versa? Would doing so force either feminists or Marxists to subordinate their work to the others’?

Firestone’s Failed Attempt

Early attempts at uniting Marxism and feminism only revealed how hard the task was. Shulamith Firestone is the most famous example. Her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex purported to reveal the true nature of patriarchy as the root of all class oppression. But despite trying to sound like a Marxist (through such awkward neologisms as “sex class”), Firestone had almost nothing to say about class.

Asserting that Marxism’s problem is that “it did not dig deep enough into the psychosexual roots of class,” Dialectic of Sex posits that men are the original oppressor class, and women the oppressed, as a direct result of a natural division of sexual roles. Because this sexual division of labor, unlike the divisions of labor in economic production, is based on natural differences, Firestone made “the very organization of nature” her target. “The end goal of feminist revolution must be,” she wrote, “not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” “Artificial reproduction” and related technologies were to bring about this revolution. This goal has little bearing on, or even resemblance to, workers’ revolution.

In addition to setting a wildly high bar for feminist politics (one that is notably more dependent on the work of scientists than the political activity of women), it reveals that Firestone simply does not see feminist politics as being connected at all to left-wing class politics. Once The Dialectic of Sex stops talking about economics to explore its supposed “psychosexual substratum,” it never returns. Like many second-wave feminists, Firestone took what Lise Vogel referred to as a “dual-systems” approach, seeing the problems of patriarchy and capitalism as parallel, but separate.

Women, Wages, and Workers: Bridging the Gap

A series of articles published in the late 1960s and early ‘70s began to bridge the gap. The first (Margaret Benston’s 1969 “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation”) asserted that “women’s work”—the kind done in the home, rather than a factory or office—is real work. Housewives don’t just consume all day; they produce a variety of useful things. They cook food, they clean, they educate, they maintain others’ health, and more. This observation on its own brought women’s situation closer to workers’. A second insight, most fully articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in 1972, closed the gap even further. What housewives produce, they argued, is no random assortment of useful things, but the very capacity of other members of their household to do work, whether at home at or at a job (“labor power,” in Marxist parlance). They feed potential workers, they keep them healthy, they bear and raise new ones. To put it bluntly, what working-class housewives produce is the working class itself.

That work goes unrecognized, treated as if it’s extraneous to “real” economic activity. But it’s absolutely necessary for capitalism, or any other productive process, to function. Even the most isolated housewife is not really removed from the “public sphere,” and her exploitation is not separate from broader social struggles. Her work is fully integrated into the process of economic production. The fact that it isn’t recognized as the absolute necessity it is is itself part of the exploitation the ruling class uses to maintain its position. Maintaining a sexist state of affairs, in which women’s contribution goes unrecognized, was a matter of “social reproduction”: that is, of maintaining the social conditions necessary for capitalist exploitation.

This “social reproduction theory” was a powerful account. Without getting lost in psychoanalytical arcana or sexual utopianism, it offered an explanation for the psychological distress of contemporary middle- and lower-class women—the alienation and isolation that Betty Friedan had brought into the open, kicking off feminism’s Second Wave. And it managed to discuss their situation in largely economic terms, without painting the women’s movement as secondary to the struggle of (primarily male) workers.

While most second-wave feminists clamored for entry into the workplace on capitalist terms, campaigned for sexual freedom, and awaited the reproductive technologies Firestone promised would solve political problems, feminists influenced by social reproduction theory demanded social recognition of housework. Italian feminists, including Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, proposed “Wages for Housework” as a core demand for feminist politics. They saw this proposal as radically distinct from American women’s focus on earning their own wages by entering the workforce. “The independence of the wage earner means only being a ‘free individual’ for capital, no less for women than for men,” Dalla Costa warned. “Those who advocate that the liberation of the working-class woman lies in her getting a job outside the home are part of the problem, not the solution.”

By treating housework as unworthy by comparison to the waged labor men did on the market, feminists only reinforced the messages that had enabled their own exploitation. To insist, instead, on the worthiness of the work women were already doing, feminists could build a better foundation to bring freedom from that work. “The wage at least recognizes that you are a worker,” wrote Federici in her pamphlet Wages Against Housework. “To have a wage means to be part of a social contract, and there is no doubt concerning its meaning: you work, not because you like it, or because it comes naturally to you, but because it is the only condition under which you are allowed to live.”

There were still some problems, however. From a Marxist perspective, social reproduction theory risked claiming to explain more than it really could. The reproduction of labor-power can happen in a variety of different of ways: immigrant labor, slave labor, or prison labor may all replenish the social supply of labor power by means other than the direct labor of housewives. The model of the typical working-class housewife was not enough to explain where all of society’s labor comes from.

But, more importantly, that model was also not enough to explain women’s situation. Angela Davis in particular questioned the ability of the housewife model to account for women’s entire experience of subordination, writing in 1981:

That women’s procreative, child-rearing and housekeeping roles make it possible for their family members to work—to exchange their labour-power for wages—can hardly be denied. But does it automatically follow that women in general, regardless of their class and race, can be fundamentally defined by their domestic functions?

Davis objected (rightly) that the “housewife” is a class-, race-, and even historically specific phenomenon, relatively recent even within the history of capitalism. What we think of as the duties of the modern housewife are merely the shell left over after industrialization sucked all the household’s traditional production into the marketplace. Furthermore, upper-class women don’t tend to do housework or have responsibility for replenishing the labor force, and nonwhite women have often been paid “wages for housework” as domestic help.

In short, social reproduction theory was not yet a description of the station of women per se, even if it was descriptive of the role of working-class housewives in an industrial society. It was true that industrial America placed the burden of social reproduction on working-class wives and mothers and constructed cultural, and even scientific, norms that made their labor invisible. But times were already changing; industrial America was rapidly turning into postindustrial America. Centers of production were increasingly moving overseas, and thus no longer relied on American households to replenish their labor force. Yet even if they were no longer required to produce American workers, American women still experienced discrimination. Social reproduction theorists would need a more universal and flexible conception of women’s oppression in various social forms and structures, even within an advanced capitalist society.

The Problem (and Power) of Pregnancy

Seeing these problems, and hoping to address the “dual-systems” thinking still popular among socialist feminists, in 1983 Lise Vogel entered the debate with her book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. After reviewing the debate, Vogel proposed one more dimension to social reproduction theory. She suggested that the origin of women’s second-class status is to be found not in the historically artificial role of the housewife in the industrial-era nuclear household, but in something more universal: women’s capacity for pregnancy. Yet contra Firestone, that biological fact is not inherently oppressive. “The fact that women and men are differentially involved in the reproduction of labour-power during pregnancy and lactation, and often for much longer, does not necessarily constitute a source of oppression,” Vogel notes. “Divisions of labour exist in all societies.” The oppression of women needed one more ingredient: an economic ruling class.

The fact that women are capable of pregnancy poses a problem for any ruling class that prospers off the labor of others. Vogel describes the problem thus:

Child-bearing threatens to diminish the contribution a woman in the subordinate class can make as a direct producer and as a participant in necessary labour. Pregnancy and lactation involve, at the minimum, several months of somewhat reduced capacity to work…. From the ruling class’s short-term point of view, then, childbearing potentially entails a costly decline in the mother’s capacity to work, while at the same time requiring that she be maintained during the period of diminished contribution. In principle, some of the necessary labour that provides for her during that time might otherwise have formed part of the surplus-labour appropriated by the ruling class…. At the same time, child-bearing is of benefit to the ruling class, for it must occur if the labour-force is to be replenished through generational replacement.

In other words, pregnancy, childbearing, and nursing are all indisputably necessary for the long-term survival of any social system. In the short term, however, they diminish a woman’s ability to work and require that additional work be done to support her and any children she bears.

So, is it in the ruling class’s interest to encourage pregnancy or to suppress it? How the ruling class approaches this conundrum has varied across time and place, but the problem is a constant one. In the modern West, Vogel argues, the powers that be addressed the problem by pushing women as a group out of public political and economic life, into an “industrial reserve army”—only to be recruited as workers under special circumstances, or to foster competition and division among workers. One need not to be currently pregnant or even fertile for this to apply; the mere possibility of diminished labor efficiency is enough to motivate the ruling class to push women out of the public square. Pregnancy and childrearing could therefore continue in a “private” sphere, so economic elites could reap the long-term benefits while making it someone else’s problem—namely, working-class men—to provide for expectant mothers.

This position of apparent power for working-class men was a trap, however. By fostering a general culture of sexism, employers could obscure their own reliance on women’s labor, and resist potential responsibility for their care. This culture reframes family ties in terms of exclusive, individual male possession. As Federici put it in Wages Against Housework, capital “has disciplined the male worker also, making his woman dependent on his work and his wage, and trapped him in this discipline by giving him a servant after he himself has done so much serving at the factory or the office.” Childbearing (and the ruling class’s need for it) is only socially acknowledged insofar as men are paid and given a superior cultural position to keep it out of sight and out of mind.

Making Room for Motherhood

Vogel’s addition to social reproduction theory was a capstone on the debate. Because its starting point was biological, not “psychosexual” or economic, it could finally talk about women generally, and not just modern housewives. If sexism were based in psychology (related to subjective self-identification as female) or culture (whatever society takes to be submissive or feminine), it wouldn’t have been possible to account for the near-universality of sexism in the material terms Marxist feminists were looking for. The biological dimension of womanhood is by no means all women are, but it had to be the starting point for the discussion.

One crucial implication of Vogel’s thesis is that pregnancy discrimination is not just a legal hurdle that arises after women have entered the workforce. It is at the very root of all sex discrimination. The ruling class’s distaste for pregnancy, its inability to cope with the social necessity of caring for even temporarily vulnerable individuals, is the reason women were not involved in productive or public life to begin with. Achieving equality for women—not as faceless labor-market participants interchangeable with men, but as women—means making room in public life for motherhood and pregnancy. It means including moms and caretakers in democratic political discussion and civic life, holding bosses’ feet to the fire and not letting them discriminate against pregnant employees, and paying moms—not just dads—family wages. It could also mean some form of “wages for housework,” perhaps in the form of family benefits, child tax credits, or childcare subsidies.

What does not follow from social reproduction theory is mass sterilization, contraception, and abortion on demand. Indeed, these are highly counterproductive. To systematically suppress the possibility of pregnancy is to erase the contradiction facing the ruling class, to its immense short-term benefit—as opposed to taking the side of the oppressed within that contradiction. It would affirm that the only way for women to enter social and economic life is to become as eligible for labor exploitation as men, instead of challenging the structures that pit women against their own bodies for the sake of maximizing the exploitation of their labor.

Starting the Conversation Again

Even with Vogel’s addition, social reproduction theory has its problems. Like much other Marxist theory, it lacks a stable account of human nature, of what remains true about human beings across social contexts. Features of family life that transcend cultural and political differences—care for others regardless of differences of gender or ability; common work, production, and ownership—can offer a model for political life and a basis for broader solidarity. That is, unless we simply write them off as temporary creations of capital or the patriarchy, or act as though they are unworthy of consideration because not every family exhibits them. That is the temptation that today’s would-be social reproduction theorists will have to navigate. To better sort out what’s natural and what’s cultural—and thus to figure out what’s worth saving—they would benefit from dialogue with social conservative perspectives. Likewise, engagement with social reproduction theory can help social conservatives see how certain trends they may be tempted to see as natural are in fact the cultural creations of a divided society.

The conversation about social reproduction theory all but disappeared amid the political realignments of the early 1980s, but it has seen a resurgence over the past decade. A second edition of Vogel’s book, released in 2013, has found a much wider audience than the first did. Nonetheless, the version of social reproduction theory that gets cited these days is not Vogel’s, or even Dalla Costa’s. Discussion of womanhood and its place in society today more closely resembles Firestone, and leftists today tend to cite social reproduction theory in service of defending corporate-friendly liberal abortion policy. Once again, the concept of womanhood is detached from a material (economic or biological) basis, making it hard to talk about problems of patriarchy writ large. Retreading the same ground looking for “psychosexual roots” under the surface of everything, some feminists are re-adopting Firestone’s techno-utopianism, placing their faith in surrogacy and other reproductive technologies that render pregnancy a marketable commodity.

Even so, social reproduction theory is very much worth saving from its self-proclaimed fans. It insists on the social importance of work done caring for others, cautions us against identifying women as a group with contingent cultural stereotypes (whether the girlboss or the tradwife), and asks us to see pregnant women as political agents. All these aspects, and the way they’re situated in a broader picture of our economy, deserve to be remembered today.