Michèle Barrett


Born in 1949, Michele Barret is an acclaimed academician and Marxist feminist. In her highly appreciated work titled Women Oppression Today published in 1980, she tries to bridge the gap between Marxist Ideology and its struggle to overthrow exploitive capitalist structure and feminism, with its efforts to overthrow patriarchal institutions.

Various feminists disregard the idea that capitalism not only plays a huge role in unending suppression of the working class but also plays a huge role in creating a system that undermines the worth of women as their “womanly” work is considered of no worth in this capitalist society.

Exploitive Nature of Capitalism

In understanding of Marxist feminism, Engel’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State published in 1884 is the key text that plays a huge role in exposing the exploitive nature of capitalism not just in the terms of class exploitation, but also the gender and sexual exploitation that is embedded in this system and is constantly perpetuated by it.

Equality in Prehistorical Times

In this book, Engles explains that in prehistoric times- before we had a capitalist society or current system of family, nuclear or otherwise- the position of men and women were almost equal.

For instance, in tribal communities, the work between the women and the man was more or less equally divided, in the sense that women’s domestic work and activities, including childbearing and rearing, was given the equal status and importance to that of the work assigned to the male (of hunting and gathering food).

Also, the relationships between men and women weren’t monogamous in nature. Inheritance of the property (whatever it was) goes to the mother’s progeny.

Capitalism and Profit

But with the coming of different modes of production under capitalists’ society, where the production and reproduction of goods were done primarily for the profit purpose rather than to fulfil the basic needs of the human beings, the earlier structure where both men and women were accorded equal status was completely shattered.

As men were responsible for production in this society, the importance shifted his form of work and women’s domesticated activities were no more considered of any real importance, other than the fact of reproduction of labour forces which is needed in the working of this system.

The property is now started to be owned by a man and was later inherited by his progenies, and to keep a distinction, the sexual relationship became monogamous so as to easily know who the real inheritor is.

In this new profit-oriented capitalist society, especially in the newly formed concept nuclear families, the position of women was highly downgraded as compared to the earlier systems.

Women’s work, either their domestic work of rearing and caring of the family or women working as labours, in both the cases they hardly got wages and appreciation for theirs.

This marked the huge defeat of the female sex, with the emergence of capitalist society as they literally owned no power, financial or otherwise.

Patriarchy & Capitalism

Barret in her work explains this very idea of deeply embedded discrimination of women, on which capitalist society and system thrives.

She emphasises the importance of Marxist approach of understanding history, as it can help untangle the less obvious nature of capitalism in its role of oppression of women, as various feminist tried to argue against this and said that connection between patriarchy and capitalism is tangential.

Barret, however, emphases the connection between patriarchy and capitalism and states that the goal of Marxist feminism is to “identify the operation of gender relations” and “explore the relations between the organization of sexuality, domestic production and historical changes in the mode of production and systems of appropriation and exploitation.”

This according to Barret, will help in understanding the “relations between capitalism and the oppression of women.” Barret emphasises the importance of three concepts in the Marxist feminism discourse, which are reproduction, patriarchy and ideology.

How these all play a huge rule in the subordination of women can be understood from above passage of how capitalism snatched the “mother” from her rights and completely transferred the power to the “father figure” resulting in the formation of male hegemony in every field.

No Programmatic Answer

Barrett, in her work, honestly accepts that there is no “programmatic answer” to the question if women’s freedom can be achieved in a capitalist society or not. She, however, points out that the liberation of women under such a system can be achieved only if certain changes are made in it.

First, a re-division of labour among men and women; second the dependence of women on men’s wages in a family should be completely removed; third, the ideological gender difference should be changed.

None of these changes, according to Barret is compatible with the current capitalist system and hence she argued that “the struggle for women’s liberation and the struggle for socialism cannot be disengaged,” as women’s discrimination is deeply entrenched in this capitalist society.