The Gendered Division of Labor, Violence, and the Withering Away of Gender As We Know It

“Emancipated woman — build socialism!”, by Adolf Strakhov (1926)

The question of gender has often been, admittedly, under-investigated by the socialist movement. In many instances, socialists, usually socialist men, underestimate the importance of gender to the mode of production and to class society as a whole. What we shall do here is recognize what gender is, why it has arisen, how it functions, where it is heading toward, and how we socialists must answer the question of gender.

What defines gender? It is not, as some juvenile reactionaries and ideologues may have us believe, genitalia, chromosomes, or percentages of testosterone or estrogen in one’s body. The description of gender along such a strict, biological binary, as hegemonic Western society has done, serves to do nothing but to mystify the true characteristics and purposes of gender. To assign gender at birth according to a newborn’s genitalia serves no purpose but population control, to encourage reproductive sex. There is, in fact, a distinction between gender and sex, but it is a far greater one than many liberals believe. Sex does not exist in such clear-cut categories as “woman” or “man”. Those categories, again, serve only to mystify what gender’s true purposes are. X-chromosomes are not “woman” chromosomes, there are no “masculine”or “feminine” skeletal structures, and sex is not a biological binary. The binary categorization of sex, particularly in reproductive terms, the domination of heteronormativity, and the attachment of gender to sex, however, are not simply arbitrary social divisions. Hegemonic social ideas regarding gender are reflected in these institutions, and those social ideas do not come from the void. The gendered division of labor is the birthplace, in all cultures and contexts where it exists, of gender relations and attitudes regarding gender. Gender as an institution defines itself by this division of labor, and is strongly tied to the dominant mode of production in our historical epoch and those which have preceded it. The gendered division of labor, in short, births a class society distinct from and intersected to other divisions of labor. Under the dominant system of gender, women serve as reproductive laborers: they engage in domestic labor, they are expected to fulfill the needs and demands of the dominant men in their life (whether emotionally, sexually, aesthetically, or otherwise), they are expected to have and use the capacity to birth children, and they are expected to raise said children into productive laborers. Men serve an exploitative role in this division of labor, benefitting from women’s reproductive labor, engaging in more “dominant” professions compared to women’s “docile” professions, and acting as the dominant enforcers of the gender system through their prominence in the economy and the household. Out of this base division of labor is born the superstructural concepts of what is “masculine” or “feminine”, from ideas of women’s inherent “irrationality” justifying their subservient role to men, to ideas of men naturally holding greater athleticism, the latter an especially major talking point today, one which is entirely false. The idea that men are naturally more athletic is a justification for the existing labor division of gender, and actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein women are discouraged from athleticism and relegated to domestic labor classes. But I digress.

An important distinction to make in this investigation of gender as a cleavage of society into classes is how it is experienced. Gender is, first and foremost, subjective throughout different contexts. It has been a failure of past women’s movements to presume a universal women’s experience, as race, class, sexuality, and other identities factor into one’s experience of womanhood. A black proletarian woman does not experience femininity in the same manner as a white bourgeois woman. The definition of womanhood for different people relates to the particular division of labor allocated to them, which is related to their race and class. Women of a colonized group tend to be allocated to domestic labor in service of people of the dominant group and agricultural labor. In colonized countries, these women will often enter the industrial labor force, but in settler-colonial societies, the women of the industrial labor force tend to initially be largely white proletarian women, with colonized women still being relegated to domestic labor and agricultural labor. Further, interpretations of a gendered division of labor in a particular context as being determined by religious practices are especially misleading, as those religious practices regarding gender in fact arise as a superstructure to the base of existing gender relations. Do not be deceived into believing that the colors of a bird’s feathers are the same as the body which those feathers are shaped around.

The gender binary, and the traits many of us associate with “masculinity” or “femininity”, are not necessarily a universal standard, and have a real material base in European global dominance, through which Europeans have been enabled to push at an internationalization of their gender labor division. Europeans forced their system of gender on indigenous people in the form of colonialism, and their world economic prominence enabled them to spread the European gender system far across the world. That gender system was imposed and spread as part of a total reconstruction of indigenous divisions of labor generally to organize them for enslaved, feudal, or capitalist modes of production. While it has not been universalized in absolute, it is still the dominant gendered division of labor, and we will focus on explaining the gendered division of labor within that framework.

The study of human history before the invention of writing is still in development, particularly as researchers finally “realize” that indigenous oral histories are trustworthy sources. What we can identify, however, was an existing gendered division of labor in these societies. It is likely that gender was in fact the first cleavage of society into classes, and that the superstructural ideas of gender created self-fulfilling prophecies about gendered characteristics, but that is beside the point. Gender existed, and its division of labor existed. The rise of private property was the first major upset to the gendered division of labor. Before the ownership of commodities became prevalent within society’s modes of production, agricultural and domestic production, typically assigned to women in these early agrarian societies, were dominant, and gave women the power of self-assertion within gender relations. But as commodity production, and the private property behind it, arose, women lost their prominence, as commodities had been the sphere of men. As commodities came to rise above agricultural and domestic production, the men whose labor was focused in such acquisition of commodities rose to prominence over the women whose labor was focused in the latter. In the words of Friedrich Engels in On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

“With the herds and the other new riches, a revolution came over the family. To procure the necessities of life had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of doing so. The herds were the new means of producing these necessities; the taming of the animals in the first instance and their later tending were the man’s work. To him, therefore, belonged the cattle, and to him the commodities and the slaves received in exchange for cattle. All the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership. The ‘savage’ warrior and hunter had been content to take second place in the house, after the woman; the ‘gentler’ shepherd, in the arrogance of his wealth, pushed himself forward into the first place and the woman down into the second. And she could not complain. The division of labor within the family had regulated the division of property between the man and the woman. That division of labor had remained the same; and yet it now turned the previous domestic relation upside down, simply because the division of labor outside the family had changed. The same cause which had ensured to the woman her previous supremacy in the house — that her activity was confined to domestic labor — this same cause now ensured the man’s supremacy in the house: the domestic labor of the woman no longer counted beside the acquisition of the necessities of life by the man; the latter was everything, the former an unimportant extra. We can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor.”

This first undercutting of women’s power opened the floodgates to centuries of development where, taken as a whole, men’s place as patriarch saw itself become more pronounced. While women still enjoyed a degree of self-determination in peasant societies, since they controlled the then-relatively prominent domestic production, the early writhing of capitalism’s young life and the related commencement of European colonialism in the late 15th century saw this prominence brutally crushed. During this period of human history, the ascendant bourgeoisie began to accumulate property through various violent and tumultuous means. During the Protestant Reformation and its ensuing wars, the young bourgeoisie took advantage of the upside-down world and seized property ranging from church lands, to the land of monarchs, and, often, to the land of peasants. As bullion torn from the Americas and Africa bled into the markets of Europe, lords began to demand money tribute from their peasant subjects in the place of long-held produce tribute. While, in the past, peasants simply owed a cut of their agricultural produce to the lord, as well as a series of duties, peasants now owed money quantities to their lords. This left the poorer peasants, who could not produce enough produce to create an equivalent to the tribute demands, desperate, and forced them to become wage laborers for better-off peasants. Thus, the latter joined the bourgeoisie, and the former the proletariat. The young bourgeoisie further dispossessed, pauperized, and proletarianized the peasantry through outright enclosure, seizing formerly common lands which peasants could rely on if their plots of land did not produce enough, or if they did not themselves own land. Who was hit hardest within the peasantry by this economic warfare? Women. Women, who relied on home production for their livelihood. Women, who found some social prominence through home medicine, herbal, food, and textile production. Women lost their means of self-subsistence, and became absolutely pauperized, dependent upon men (who could become wage laborers who were paid enough to scrape by, unlike women), or both. This dispossession was further inflicted on women in the colonized world, as their relative prominence in agrarian production and indigenous gendered labor divisions were shattered by forced European patriarchal divisions of labor and primitive accumulation. Women became either absolutely destitute, or, as would become the dominant tendency, reproductive laborers for men, slaving away in the home to reproduce labor-power, both in the capacity of the dominant men in their lives and in the expectation that they reproduce and birth more workers. As wage-laborers, they could, and can, almost never find equal pay or respect as men, being seen as holding a “lesser quality” to their labor, an idea born of their subjugated status in gender relations. With the transition to a money economy, women lost almost all power, as their reproductive labor is given no commodity value. Silvia Federici explained this state of affairs thusly in Caliban and the Witch:

“[T]he power-difference between women and men and the concealment of women’s unpaid-labor under the cover of natural inferiority, have enabled capitalism to immensely expand the ‘unpaid part of the working day’, and use the (male) wage to accumulate women’s labor; in many cases, they have also served to deflect class antagonism into an antagonism between men and women. Thus, primitive accumulation has been above all an accumulation of differences, inequalities, hierarchies, divisions, which have alienated workers from each other and even from themselves”

For colonized women in particular, this dispossession was devastating. As they were exploited as slaves and servants by the colonizers and settlers, they would have little choice but to become domestic and agrarian laborers for their white oppressor. Even as so-called “free” wage laborers they were forced into this labor category, and today still are. In America today, most houseworkers are women of color, whether latine or black. These women’s labor categories are related both to their race and to the gendered division of labor.

The gendered division of labor, while it has benefitted the bourgeoisie alongside the dominant classes of history, has also been challenged by capitalism’s development. As Marx and Engels observed, the development of capitalism actually lays the foundations for socialism. Capitalism socializes production, bringing everyone into a mass process of production where one is either a producer or consumer, relying on this social production for their livelihood. Capitalism produces a dispossessed proletariat, one which has no strong material stake, in the form of private property, in the dominant mode of production, and thus holds within itself the potential for a revolutionary overthrow of the mode of production. And in terms of gender, while capitalism pronounces the oppression of women, forces them to work the “double shift” of wage labor and reproductive labor, it also lays the groundwork for the dissolution of the gendered division of labor. As capitalism proletarianizes women, it actually challenges women’s domesticity, as it pushes them into social production. This proletarianization often gives women relative economic liberation from men, as they no longer rely on men’s wages for livelihood, though a lack of availability of certain job categories and lower pay still hold this dependence firm in many cases. What socialists should be advocating for is that more women enter the workforce, and that women of color be freed of waged domestic labor. We must further advocate for women to enter traditionally “male” fields, as women are today relegated to “feminine” fields in wage labor, which tend to be paid worse due to the prominence of women. This tendency in capitalist society challenges the dependency of women upon the male wage, but it does not do enough to challenge women’s place as reproductive laborers, which must also be addressed. We already see developments which aid in this goal of challenging women’s relegation to reproductive function, such as birth control and abortion. However, we must advocate for paid leave for mothers, socialised childcare, and, in a wider goal, for the total socialization of domestic labor. As Angela Davis said of this in Women, Race, and Class:

“What is needed, of course, are new social institutions to assume a good portion of the housewife’s old duties. This is the challenge emanating from the swelling ranks of women in the working class. The demand for universal and subsidized child care is a direct consequence of the rising number of working mothers. And as more women organize around the demand for more jobs — for jobs on the basis of full equality with men — serious questions will increasingly be raised about the viability of women’s housewife duties. It may well be true that ‘slavery to an assembly line’ is not in itself ‘liberation from the kitchen sink’, but the assembly line is doubtlessly the most powerful incentive for women to press for the elimination of their age-old domestic slavery. The abolition of housework as the private responsibility of individual women is clearly a strategic goal of women’s liberation. But the socialization of housework — including meal preparation and child care — presupposes an end to the profit motive’s reign over the economy. The only significant steps toward ending domestic slavery have been in fact taken in the existing socialist countries. Working women, therefore, have a special and vital interest in the struggle for socialism. Moreover, under capitalism, campaigns for jobs on an equal basis with men, combined with movements for institutions such as subsidized public child care, contain an explosive revolutionary potential. This strategy calls into question the validity of monopoly capitalism and must ultimately point in the direction of socialism.”

We see that the challenges to the gendered division of labor that these developments pose are accompanied by turmoils surrounding the ideology of gender. Today, we can especially see this in the form of slowly growing acceptance of non-reproductive sex, particularly in the form of gay relationships. The LGBT movement plays a major part in challenging the gendered division of labor and the use of gender and sexuality in roles of population control, and its movement could not have arisen in such a prominent manner as it has come to in any other historical epoch but ours, ours which has come to challenge the gendered division of labor in such a dramatic fashion. Gender’s definitions and divisions are continuously questioned more and more openly in the countries where capitalism’s development into its final stages has become the most pronounced, and will continue to be so as capitalism becomes more pronounced, production and consumption more socialized, worldwide through the medium of finance capitalism. This affront to the gendered division of labor, however, is not clear-cut and clean, and has seen violent reactions by those who hold a stake in the slowly dying institution.

Masculinity, as something with real ties to divisions of labor, is being challenged. Men, as a class, are the enforcers of the gendered division of labor, and are the exploiters of women’s reproductive labor. They are beginning to lose the real material institution of their domination, and so are grasping at the ideas born of that institution harder and harder. The continuous proletarianization of women challenges men’s domination over women through the male wage, and chips away at the base for the superstructure of “masculinity”, “femininity” and “traditional family values”. Indeed, the economic unit of the family as the basis of society is dead, and the family itself is being challenged. The ideology of gender is losing its material basis, and so the ruling class of the gendered division of labor has come to reactionary, violent acts in anger at the humiliation of the slow loss of its class status. This is analogous and tangential to the development of fascism in capitalist class society, which is born out of class elements threatened by a loss of class status, such as the petite-bourgeoisie, who are threatened by proletarianization at nearly all times, though especially during crises, and the labor aristocracy, whose affluence is bought by the superexploitation of the colonized proletariat, and who meet such challenges to that superexploitation or to other threats to their class status with Reaction. This class humiliation is interwoven with a humiliation of their identities as men, as they lose the status which gave them superiority to the women around them. This is why fascist movements are dominated by men: because the developments of capitalism challenge all of their identities related to class, including their identities as men. This reactionary group of men are not particularly organized, but are spontaneous, desperate, manic. They lash out at everyone who they are sinking toward, or who is ascending from a deep, dark place. They try to defend and restore their precious gendered division of labor, and, disturbingly, they are often joined by women who, in one way or another, have a stake in the existing gendered division of labor, typically white women who resent the ascendance of colonized women. We see this humiliation of male class status, and the gendered division of labor, be expressed in terror attacks by incels and other misogynists. It is well-known that many serial killers are motivated by misogynistic tendencies, and the modern-day parallel group to serial killers, individual spree killers, are as well. The LGBT community continues to be subject to terror and violence for their affront to the gendered division of labor and to men’s class status. Transgender people, who pose an especially strong threat to the gendered division of labor’s hold, are subject to an extremely high rate of violence. Even beyond these sporadic attacks by declassed men, wider patriarchal society, as a system, is gripping as tightly as it can to preserving the gendered division of labor. LGBT people, in particula transgender people, face employment and housing discrimination, and thus are subject to abnormally high rates of poverty. Many of them are forced into such misery by this warring defense of the gendered division of labor that they find more solace in death than life. This coupling of sporadic, spontaneous reactionary violence against those challenging the gendered division of labor and systematic violence makes it clear that we see that institution making its final stand. We must support those who are threatened for their existence, which challenges that institution, against Reaction, and we must push for resources which aid them. For the LGBT community, this means anti-discrimination measures, state-provided LGBT healthcare (including transition procedures for transgender people), well-funded community centers (especially youth centers), specific campaigns for LGBT homeless and poor people in wider campaigns against homelessness and poverty, and state protection of the community. We must advocate for all of this within capitalist society, but we must also pursue an implementation of it within proletarian parties and socialist states, which we can look to modern Cuba to as an example.

Let us recall what we have examined. We have identified gender as a superstructure for the base gendered division of labor, we have examined the history of this in short terms, we have identified a trend toward challenging this institution within capitalism, and we have identified reactionary actions against this tendency. Now, what is to be done? As was said earlier, we must socialize housework and other domestic functions, in particular childcare. We must promote policies which develop and make widely available methods of birth control. We must encourage the entrance of women into the proletariat, especially into “male” industries. We must support all who are threatened by the reaction of the gendered division of labor, and, as socialists, give utter and complete support to the LGBT community. Further, the parties which we organize must be organized in a manner which addresses these issues. Past socialist revolutions, when they have failed to properly address the gendered division of labor, have failed to do so because women did not hold the helm of the organization of the revolution. We must reconcile this, and women, especially women of color and LGBT women, must sit at the helm of our movement if we seek to truly address their concerns and needs and to effectively destroy the gendered division of labor. And, very importantly, our parties must have, as part of wider paramilitary bodies, women’s and LGBT paramilitary units organized for the specific purpose of defending women and the LGBT community against reactionary violence. We must mobilize these units to both defend the communities and to win their support.

What will happen when the gendered division of labor, and its associated superstructures, are snuffed out? Gender as we know it will wither away, with all that defines its distinctions being no longer present. This does not mean that personal identities will not exist. Such identity is very important to transgender people, as well as others. It means that gender as it is, a division of labor, one which is mystified and justified by socialization into gendered characteristics and performances, will no longer exist as an institution. What is today gender identity will be an entirely individualized, non-institutional experience, and will not be tied to any sort of socialization or labor division. It will therefore no longer even be something we can call gender. In this, the cleavage of society into classes will be snuffed out of history. Alongside the destruction of the antagonistic classes of the bourgeoisie and proletariat, so, too, will the classes of men and women be destroyed. This does not mean we intend to literally destroy men, the enforcers of this labor division, as people, but as a class. As a gendered class, as an allocation of labor. With the death of classes, gender will wither away, just as the state, the repressive apparatus of class rule. The two will become ashes, relegated, in Engels’ words, to “where [they] will then belong–into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax,” (On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State).



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Influenced by Marxism-Leninism, the Frankfurt School, Third World Marxism, and social reproduction theory.