A Review of Women and Work by Susan Ferguson
Gender Research Centre, Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, University of Bristol, UK
This article discusses Susan Ferguson’s Women and Work and how it advances contemporary debates about social reproduction within and beyond Marxist feminism. In particular, I emphasise its call for avoiding hierarchising struggles against oppression and those against exploitation, and for centring a dual-terrains approach. The article calls upon social-reproduction scholars to learn from Ferguson’s careful approach to writing the pasts and presents of social reproduction, and also calls for a further widening of the archives from which the political theory of women’s labour struggles is written.
social reproduction – labour – feminism – struggle
Susan Ferguson, (2019) Women and Work: Feminism, Labour and Social Reproduction, London: Pluto Press.
Women and Work: Feminism, Labour and Social Reproduction (Pluto Press, 2019) presents a masterful analysis of three centuries of feminist deliberations on work, carefully tracing how the fault lines of social-reproduction theory emerged. Given the troubling lack of precision in terms of how the concept of social reproduction is deployed in academic debate, inside and beyond orthodox Marxism, Ferguson’s book stands out as offering precisely the analytical rigour needed to take this scholarly resurgence forward. Women and Work shows why an historical and nuanced appreciation of the social-reproduction perspective is crucial to analysing contemporary anti-capitalist feminist struggles. In a time when postwork feminist critiques such as Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work1 and her endorsement of Universal Basic Income have dominated discussion, Ferguson’s account stands out in virtue of its very different critical assessment of socialist-feminist thought and its affirmation of a future where work is resolutely present, and where contemporary struggles theorise the links between exploitation, value and labour. She advocates that social-reproduction struggles foreground productive and ‘non-reproductive’ terrains simultaneously, so that campaigns on the streets, in community centres, crèches and classrooms and other workplaces can be connected together into a mass movement. As a sociologist concerned with why mothers’ organising and childcare workers’ organising continue to be treated as two separate struggles,2 I found Ferguson’s contribution to thinking through how struggles over paid and unpaid labour need to be fully connected very pertinent, especially if the ‘new’ wave of social-reproduction theory is to overcome some of the limitations of its predecessors.
The question of women’s work and its relation to oppression most animated feminist theorising in the 1970s, and this book stands shoulder to shoulder with such Marxist-feminist classics as Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women3 and Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution.4 Moreover, she also joins the contemporary set of authors who have propelled social-reproduction theory back to the forefront of critical theory, including Feminism for the 99%5 and Bhattacharya’s Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentring Oppression.6 The mastery with which Ferguson delves into the complexities of Marxist feminism’s past and present makes Women and Work stand out as highly distinctive, distinguished amongst this resurgence by its scholarly precision. With contemporary feminism demonstrating a renewed commitment to the praxis of refusal, the International Women’s Strike coinciding with International Women’s Day, held in North America and parts of Europe since 2016, being but one example, Ferguson’s book asks contemporary Marxist feminists to heed historical battles and to be thoughtful as to the what, how and where of their modes of struggle and alliance-building.
Divided into two parts, the book analyses the history of feminist thought on labour through three different perspectives: equality feminism, social-reproduction feminism and critical-equality feminism. While equality feminism is associated with the rational-humanist tradition of Wollstonecraft, critical-equality feminism is described as sharing ‘social reproduction’s feminist critique of capitalism’s separation of productive and non-productive work, but […] without elaborating a political-economic analysis of unpaid women’s work’ (p. 4). The limitation of critical-equality feminism, according to Ferguson, lies in its tendency to conceive of patriarchy and capitalism as dual, distinct systems of oppression, and she illustrates the ways in which this has narrowed the scope of analysis for authors as wide ranging as Flora Tristan and Clara Zetkin. Chapter 3 discusses the significance of the less well-known socialist thinkers Anna Wheeler and William Thompson, and identifies their book The Appeal (1825) as a radical departure from contemporary works, they being among the first socialists to analyse unproductive housework as integral to the system of reproductive labour. Ferguson highlights how Wheeler and Thompson (and to some extent Inman’s) theorising of unpaid work was consistently erased from socialist thought and party politics, and how this continues in virtue of the way feminist theory is received via canonised ‘founders’ and simplified categories, hence calling out significant erasures in the telling of socialist-feminist histories.7 One of the high-points of the book is Chapter 5, an archivally enriched re-telling of the wilful neglect of Black feminism by white feminists, including the latter’s inability to take on board the implication that domestic work is not always unpaid and/or experienced as oppressive by Black women. She notes, ‘they did not consider the black feminist critique as reason to rethink the premise of their gender analysis’ (p. 110). This universalising of white Western women’s experiences also resulted in the silencing of Black feminists Claudia Jones’s and Angela Davis’ voices from the Communist Party. In Chapter 4, the shortcomings of Clara Zetkin’s and Alexandra Kollontai’s feminist theory of class solidarity are brought to the fore. Ferguson argues this is because they do not see women’s unpaid work in the home as having an economically significant function, thus they miss ‘the peculiarly capitalist devaluation of domestic labour’. In turn, this leaves the place of the socialisation of housework and childrearing unclear in their framework. The three chapters that form Part 2 address the limitations in how the social-reproduction perspective has theorised labour, by re-engaging in turn with the work of Betty Friedan and the New York Radical Redstockings group (Chapter 6), Angela Davis and the Combahee River Collective (Chapter 7), and, in Chapter 8, the autonomist feminists Kathi Weeks and Silvia Federici. Ferguson’s deft analysis highlights that as soon as authors neglect social-reproduction theory’s crucial insight that women’s oppression lies in the contradictory relationship between paid and unpaid work, they focus instead on unpaid work as the basis of women’s oppression, thereby ‘reinforcing the idea that social reproduction feminism is a white woman’s feminism’ (p. 103). Ferguson’s account highlights how indebted the current resurgence of social-reproduction feminism is to Black feminist thinkers across historical generations, something which is often left out. The foregrounding of multiple axes of oppression is a hallmark of this generation of social-reproduction scholars, yet few do so as convincingly as Ferguson. The book is enriched by discussions of the women’s chartist strikes, the Wages for Housework campaigns and, in the final chapter, the contemporary Women’s Strike, which all illustrate why theoretical clarity matters for building a broad-based and transformative feminism for the 99% today.
The discussion of what constitutes a social-reproductive strike and her engagement with the ideas of Federici and Weeks are some of the most stimulating parts of the book for those interested in contemporary social-reproduction movements. The care with which Ferguson develops her analysis is exemplary: where, in the course of making her argument, she departs from Fortunati and Federici’s autonomist perspective, she stresses points of similarity in their approaches, namely that working within and outside capitalist relations are not mutually exclusive strategies. Ultimately, she argues that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour under capitalism disappears in their analysis of value production. Her claim that Fortunati’s alternative theory of value transfer is imprecise and too randomly based on Marx’s categories (p. 125) might have been even more convincing had it been developed in more detail. For Ferguson, the Marxian school’s perspective is superior because it highlights how capitalist subsumption is not a totalising process, a dimension she claims autonomists underestimate. Hence her argument for the necessity of centring struggles from within capitalist relations, rather than developing alternative value communities outside capital. Her critique of autonomists is rendered incisive by what she identifies as missing from their accounts. She points out that Federici, Weeks and others are silent about the significance of workplace-based struggles, and neglect to discuss how solidarity between the employed and the unemployed could be built, a point also echoed in Pitts and Dinerstein’s most recent book. In turn, this strengthens her argument that the Marxian perspective is the one best able to guide a mass movement that bridges struggles on productive and reproductive terrains. This argument is made more compelling by the examples she chooses, such as Eric Blanc’s study of the 2018 US teachers’ strikes8 and the solidarity-building which brought teachers and parents together across class and racial divides. Ferguson theorises social reproduction at the level of the struggle, and her work is informed by meticulous scholarship of her historical sources, rather than by mere abstraction. The debate about the potential compatibility between intersectionality and social-reproduction theory will continue beyond Ferguson’s text. In contrast to other recent texts such as Martha Giménez’s Marx, Women and Capitalist Social Reproduction,9 which hold onto the necessity of a unitary theory of gender and class, Ferguson’s account is distinguished by the way she powerfully articulates ‘how the devaluing and dehumanizing of life necessary to capital is entangled with racist, heterosexist and settler colonial relations’ (p. 111).
The differentiated analysis of capital as producing unequal and divided workforces broadens the relevance of the book out to those scholars analysing the social organisation of labour. The story of how oppressed groups came to identify capital’s interest in ensuring that marginalised groups of women are paid poverty wages to perform social-reproductive work is surely foundational, yet this insight often remains left out of mainstream intersectional analyses. The book also illustrates the ways in which observing and standing with workers catalysed the insights of the theorists she foregrounds. She writes evocatively about Flora Tristan’s observations on French washer women’s ill-health due to exposure to polluted water and dyes, and the nineteenth-century African American abolitionist feminist Maria Stewart’s speech about domestic labour as servitude: ‘How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?’ (p. 73). She thus brings our attention to the significance of the historical and material conditions of knowledge-production for Marxist theory and shows us that, then as today, the act of seeing workers matters for analysing processes of revolutionary consciousness.
Women and Work has few shortcomings as critical theory, because it is both erudite and sharp. Ferguson’s highlighting of the critical-equality perspective as having an important role in the development of Marxist feminism is an important contribution, because too often the categories of liberal feminism and Marxist feminism are mis-characterised as respectively reformist and revolutionary, descriptions which are ‘too blunt to capture the assumptions shared by both traditions’ (p. 60). Yet, I wanted to know how these categories translate into contemporary feminist and left politics today, and what alliances between critical-equality and social-reproduction feminism she thinks are worth pursuing given the shifting political terrain since 2010. Those are clearly questions for other scholars of social movements to reflect on, but Ferguson’s take on them will have convinced the reader further of why these categories continue to matter. The book brings classic feminist-Marxist texts vividly to life, but left me with many questions about the present: how do the increased contradictions between paid and unpaid social reproduction that characterise many women’s lives today reinvigorate these foundational texts? For example, the financialisation of sectors such as care work and education poses particular questions for theorising women’s labour struggles. Ferguson clearly sees both unions and grassroots groups as having a unique role to play in these struggles, but their historically distinct articulations are not always acknowledged. I was also curious about what her argument means for building alliances that centre the distinctive experiences of migrant and informal workers’ organising, given this stratification plays a significant role in international labour struggles that have massively transformed studies and struggles of women’s labour over the last fifty years. Those are ever more pressing questions for theorising women’s labour in a way that centres global inequalities.
Ferguson characterises the best social-reproduction feminism accounts as being neither purely historical nor purely abstract.10 Yet the specificities of how particular feminised workforces organise in particular ways are necessarily downplayed in her account. For example, the specificities of migrant home-workers’ work are mentioned in the book but never fully centred, including their lack of access to labour rights and unionisation. How we theorise women’s labour needs to be persistently grounded in collective and multiple archives of struggle at different historical moments. The tradition of women’s labour historiography precisely pays attention to how these specificities matter. Eileen Boris’s Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards11 illustrates through its analysis of the fight for ILO global labour standards that it presents both inconsistencies and important gains to be made for women workers. The clarity of Women and Work is partly enabled by its engagement with fewer sources, but the geographical and sectoral specificities of women’s labour-struggles in the present matters for strengthening an inclusive historical-materialist perspective.
The book’s approach to dislodging unpaid housework from the centre of social-reproduction theory and her case for the importance of building bridges with workplace-based struggles mean that this book will remain a landmark of Marxist-feminist thought for years to come. Ferguson develops social-reproduction theory as a multi-faceted critical theory of oppression, and shows the importance of tracing its roots critically and thoroughly. The significance of workplace organising is especially ripe at a time when nursery workers’, fast-food workers’, teachers’ and home-care workers’ unions are seeing a resurgence in their membership’s appetite for strikes. As Ferguson discusses in a recent interview,12 if unions are to be a vibrant part of the anti-capitalist movement they have to not only redouble efforts to organise among the lowest-paid feminised and racialised sectors but also widen their remit from focusing on pay to organising on issues of sexual and racial harassment, healthcare, citizenship rights and childcare, which have traditionally been excluded from unions’ remits. They will need to become – in the words of Dorothy Cobble – more intimate unions.13 Women and Work will matter to both new and established scholars because it shows that historically situating how feminists have understood work’s relation to oppression is a much-needed resource for more-solid conceptualising of the relations between oppression and exploitation. Ferguson’s analysis of how labour and social movements are building solidarities between productive and reproductive struggles in the twenty-first century challenges Weeks’ claim that the left needs to let go of its melancholic attachment to the values of work. The book provides an important conceptual roadmap for the building of solid alliances between feminist, Marxist and anti-racist perspectives, and leaves open the ongoing work of connecting migrant and undocumented workers’ struggles with the theorising of women’s work.
Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser 2019, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, London: Verso.
Bhattacharya, Tithi (ed.) 2017, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, London: Pluto Press.
Blanc, Eric 2019, Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, London: Verso.
Boris, Eileen 2019, Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919–2019, New York: Oxford University Press.
Cobble, Dorothy Sue 2010, ‘More Intimate Unions’, in Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care, edited by Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, pp. 280–95, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Dinerstein, Ana Cecilia and Frederick Harry Pitts 2021, A World Beyond Work?: Labour, Money and the Capitalist State between Crisis and Utopia, Bingley: Emerald Publishing Ltd.
Ferguson, Susan 2016, ‘Social Reproduction: What’s the Big Idea?’, available at: <https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-ferguson/>.
Giménez, Martha E. 2018, Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist-Feminist Essays, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.
Hemmings, Clare 2005, ‘Telling Feminist Stories’, Feminist Theory, 6, 2: 115–39, <doi:10.1177/1464700105053690>.
Perrier, Maud M. (forthcoming), Contemporary Childcare Struggles: Maternal Workers and Social Reproduction, Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Rowbotham, Sheila 2013 , Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World, London: Verso.
Vogel, Lise 2013 , Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, Revised Edition, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.
Weeks, Kathi 2011, Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press.
- 1. Weeks 2011.
- 2. See Perrier forthcoming.
- 3. Vogel 2013.
- 4. Rowbotham 2013.
- 5. Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser 2019.
- 6. Bhattacharya (ed.) 2017.
- 7. See Hemmings 2011.
- 8. Blanc 2019.
- 9. Giménez 2018.
- 10. Ferguson 2016.
- 11. Boris 2019.
- 12. Susan Ferguson discusses her book with Maud Perrier in this podcast interview: <https://futuresofwork.co.uk/2020/06/05/women-and-work/>.
- 13. Cobble 2010.