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.

 

The Refusal of Global Economists to Recognize Women’s Unpaid Labor

marilyn waring_working_class_hero

Whose Counting?

Directed by Terre Nash (1995)

Film Review

 

Whose Counting is a 1995 Canadian documentary about the early life of New Zealand feminist Marilyn Waring. With her 1988 book If Women Counted, Waring was the first to challenge whether GDP (gross domestic product) is an effective way to measure the performance of a national economy.

New Zealand’s Antinuclear Ban

The film begins with Waring’s election to the New Zealand parliament in 1977. The youngest member of Parliament (at 23), she was elected to a safe National (conservative) seat in rural Waikato. After serving three 3-year terms, she brought the government down by “crossing the floor” (ie signaling her intention to vote with the Labour opposition on the anti-nuclear issue).

Then prime minister Robert Muldoon called a snap election. He was voted out of office, with 72% of New Zealanders supporting Labour’s platform of permanently outlawing nuclear weapons and nuclear power in New Zealand.

Because the US government refuses to disclose whether their ships are nuclear powered or carry nuclear weapons, as of 1984 all US naval vessels are banned from New Zealand sovereign waters.

Negating Half the Planet

During her term in Parliament, Waring served on the Public Expenditure Committee and was troubled by was she learned was the UN System of National Accounts. As a condition of belonging to the UN, IMF and World Bank, all countries must use this system, developed by economists Maynard Keynes and Nicholas Stern after World War II.

Because this accounting system only attributes value to cash generating activities, it negates the productive activity of over half the planet – and of the planet itself.*

The film has a really humorous scene in rural Africa where women grow and cook all the food, collect all the firewood and water, and do all the housework and child and elder care – while the men lie around all day “supervising” them.

However it stresses that women also work far harder than men in the developed world. Two-thirds of all primary health care is delivered by women in the home. Yet because they receive no cash payments, all this work is virtually invisible.

Counting Environmental Damage as Growth

Waring is also extremely critical of a global accounting system that counts the immense environmental damage caused by the Exxon Valdez spill as positive GDP Growth. Given that the five permanent UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia and China) are also the world’s biggest arms exporters, she finds it no surprise that the carnage of war counts as GDP growth.


*Waring was also an early promoter of the concept of “ecosystem services,” essential services provided by nature in purifying water and air, sequestering carbon, stabilizing climate, providing for food crop pollination, etc.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reasons. However it can be viewed free at https://www.nfb.ca/film/whos_counting

 

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

BBC (1986)

Film Review

A dramatization of Fay Weldon’s 1983 classic, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is a satire about the sexist and exploitive nature of romantic love.

The heroine is a very ugly woman named Ruth who ingeniously manipulates her husband’s innate sexism to wreak vengeance on him and his beautiful rich mistress Mary Fisher.

Both the book and the dramatization focus on society’s use of romantic love to glamorize the vast amount of unpaid labor women perform for men and society in general.

As Weldon puts it (in the words of a Catholic priest Fisher “seduces”), “love robs women of their identity and creative selves.”

The video below comprises all four episodes in the 1986 series.