Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour

by Maria Mies

Zed Books (2014 edition)

Book Review

In this 1986 classic, Mies challenges Marx’s description of the unpaid labor of women (childrearing, care of the sick and elderly, housekeeping and subsistence agriculture, handicrafts and firewood and water collecting in the Third World) as part of their “natural” function. In doing so, she provides the first comprehensive economic analysis of patriarchy.

While Marx and Engels readily acknowledge that capitalism oppresses women, they overlook the fact it also exploits them via the massive amount of free labor it makes them provide. According to Mies, it’s only this unpaid labor, which Mies refers to as super-exploitation, that makes wage labor exploitation possible.

Super-exploitation of Women and Colonies Finances Capitalist Expansion and War

She compares the super-exploitation of women under patriarchy to the super-exploitation that occurs under colonization. Both are intimately associated with violence, and both increase during the periods of rapid capital accumulation, which are necessary to finance capitalist expansion and war.

Violence and the Sexual Division of Labor

Based on modern anthropological research, Miles also offers a much clearer explanation of how the sexual division of labor arose, as well as its intimate link with violence. Citing numerous studies, she shows how women’s childrearing role made them them responsible for most food production in primitive societies (80% in hunter gatherer societies). Women also developed the first tools – namely baskets and pots for storing grain.

Popular culture places much more emphasis on the tools invented by men – weapons – and their use in hunting. Current anthropological evidence suggests they played a much bigger role in raiding other tribes to kidnap and enslave women (over time men were also enslaved), both for procreation and their food producing capacity.

Witchcraft Trials, Colonization, Mass Enslavement and the Rise of Capitalism

With the rise of capitalism, violence against both women and colonies (to compel their free labor) significantly increased. The pervasive witchcraft trials (and land confiscations) that began in the late 15th century, accompanied by the violent enslavement of New World colonies and Africans, would create the massive capitalist accumulation required for full scale industrial development.

Why Violence Against Women is Increasing

Mies also provides an eloquent analysis – linked to the intensification of capital accumulation – for the global increase in violence against women and Third World colonies over the last four decades. The onset of global recession in the 1970s forced capitalists to shift their labor intensive work to the Third World, where harsh US- and European-backed puppets use violence to suppress wages..

In the First World, simultaneous cuts in public services, have significantly increased demands on women for free labor (especially in the area of childcare and care of the sick and elderly). The simultaneous increase in violence against women (and the psychic trauma it induces) make it all the more difficult for women to organize and resist this super-exploitation.


3 thoughts on “Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism

  1. (childrearing, care of the sick and elderly, housekeeping and subsistence agriculture, handicrafts and firewood and water collecting in the Third World)

    Well, I am here to state that this is not only indicative of the Third World because I’ve done all of the above and I live in the U.S. and believe me, I am not bragging, I’m just saying.

    This is partly why I am physically broken down today because as a child, I stacked wood, bent over fields of veggies, hauled coal in and crocheted afghans for older folks whose heat was not all it should be. Once I was married, I worked an 8-4am, AND a 6-10pm and was expected to come home and cook, do laundry and put the kid to sleep and got beaten up if I neglected something.

    I thought I had obtained some sense, but I hadn’t because even though I left the SOB, moved far away, I finally got in touch with family and that’s when it started all over again; the calls to come back to care for the sick and infirm, running errands for everyone but myself and finally falling into bed so exhausted, dawn came all too early.

    It is a sad shame how put upon women are and then we wonder why we are worn out at an early age. I regret allowing myself to be made into a ‘workhorse’, I do indeed. And to this day, anything to do with cooking and cleaning is always aimed at the woman while the man is supposed to get into the car and drive off somewhere. Even though many women work, we are still tied to the kitchen with the kid wrapped around our leg when we come home to work. And they tell me that there was a ‘feminist movement’? Really? When and where? Because to this day, we are most definitely exploited; unpaid laborers and in many instances, it is a thankless job.


  2. The subject of unpaid women’s labor is extremely dear to my heart, Shelby. I truly believe capitalism would collapse without it. It makes me especially angry that the work is invisible. To this day, African Americans and Hispanics enjoy Third World status in the US. In this sense, their communities are a kind of internal colonies that are super-exploited as well as oppressed. The current Prison Industrial Complex is just the latest version of this super-exploitation. Capitalism and it’s continual wars are like an insatiable beast that keeps demanding more and more human victims. That’s why life conditions for everyone but a small minority at the top continue to get worse and worse.


  3. Pingback: Tracing Ancestry Via Mitochondrial DNA: A Patriarchal View | The Most Revolutionary Act

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