Every Socialist recognizes the dependence of the workman on the capitalist, and cannot understand that others, and especially the capitalists themselves, should fail to recognize it also; but the same Socialist often does not recognize the dependence of women on men because the question touches his own dear self more or less nearly. [August Bebel, Woman and Socialism, 1883]
Juliet Mitchell’s thesis is presented in two parts, the first part is a pencil-sketch summary of political context and history at the time of writing, tracking the launch of the 60s women’s liberation movement in England. Like north-america WLM arose from within a context of various leftist political movements, although UK women’s experiences diverged somewhat from US women’s experiences.
While US women were growing Be-yond the anti-Vietnam war and Black civil rights movements, the women of the UK and some western-European countries were rising from bitter internal class-warfare politics in the post-WW2 reconstruction period, the East-West division between communist and capitalist Europe, as well as involvement in ‘third-world’ liberation movements, as colonies in Africa and Asia struggled against the remains of 19th century European imperialism.
The second part of her thesis, is a detailed discussion of the four “Women’s Estates”, or the sectors of “Women’s Work”, or “Women’s Roles” – which she describes as the four basic foundational mechanisms of how systemic women’s oppression operates. Rather than ‘Estates’, I would term these as ‘sectors’ or ‘domains’, which overlap and intersect as base mechanisms of women’s oppression as a class.
Because they are all Colonised spaces, or ‘prisons’, or ‘cages’ or ‘pens’ – I also think of them in a conceptual framework of being similar to ‘Reservations’ where women are herded and collectively kept in.
Sexuality: Well, this one is obvious, No? All that work we’ve done around the Hub here, and related radfem blogs, not to mention the previous decades of theory, writings, analysis and activism around sexual violence, PIV, pornstitution, and highlighting the oppression & erasure of Lesbians under enforced/coerced heterosexuality by propaganda of religion and the State , and the more recent escalation of colonisation by trans* … and genuine feminist critiques of slutwalks and so on – most readers here should be all up to speed. If not, if you really don’t understand PIV politics yet, go away and read the resources page.
Reproduction: Reproductive control is *the* foundation cornerstone to male supremacy. Because those who control reproduction control everything else. Some other animal species do it too. Its not entirely human socialisation. Children are a natural resource, like food and water. Like other natural products, patriarchy needs to ‘own’ it, control it. It doesn’t matter if women “choose” to do it, can do it, or can’t, will, or won’t – it doesn’t negate the fact that only women-as-a-class can do this job for the human species’ continuation, and male supremacy will not allow women-as-a-class to have much say in the matter. Nature doesn’t have much say in how She/It/We are ab/used for the benefit of Man (sic).
The Rape of Nature to re/produce timber, coffee, *whatever*, from food production to steel and concrete and bombs, including offspring of our own species is a simple extension/overlap, of control of Woman as Reproductive Natural Resource. Even the males of non-human species have primitive, but effective, mechanisms for controlling access to females reproductive “natural resources”. It also doesn’t negate the fact, that social and political state controls, including barbaric laws with heavy penalties are applied and enforced globally, on all women-as-a-class, by both secular and/or religious authorities all over the planet. A small percentage of women, in a small percentage of countries, have access to ‘options’ to escape this, but the greater majority of women cannot.
It is the male-supremacist system (their outward faces are many) which makes the decision on who does, or doesn’t. He has the Right to Change His Mind about how he Ab/Uses his Resources. Like the ancient Roman paterfamilias, as it was written in law – He decided if his women/wives/slaves birthed or had an abortion. It works both ways, both in bearing children, but also in not bearing them. Its not personal, its political. “Woman is no parent, of that which She bears”. The mother has no rights.No-Where. No-When.
The legal ramifications are the most mind-boggling on pregnant women, for 9 months they are in legal limbo, ie not human, because there is no male biological counterpart. Courts scratch their heads. She doesn’t “fit”. Especially surrogates, or the womb prostituted. As with ‘relinquishing’ mothers, and those considered “unfit mothers”. Therefore she/it cannot be “defined”, she does not exist, is not human, and hence logically, has no human rights.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, women largely outnumbered men – so many men had died in the warring political upheavals. The new government with its communist ‘equality’ ideals, basically set up abortion factories beside each industrial one – they needed to mobilise their women as labourers, far more than they needed babies.
Production – Women’s Work: “Small Change & Pin-Money”
Women have always worked, outside or inside the “home”. For love or money, but mostly for necessity. We do all the “necessary” jobs. Shitty jobs, but *somebody* has to do them, right? We all need water, food, shelter and clothing. Interesting, women make up almost the entire workforce in agriculture around the world, and textiles….. manufacture of food and clothing. Also interesting in that in so many cultures, women are also *responsible* for preparing the dead. Cleaning up the shit, doing the most mindless but necessary chores, we end up in pink ghettos, working for small change & pin-money if we get paid at all. This sector, is also one of the most class/race-riddled.
Women are also important in the never-ending wars, and the military-industrial structures which support it. Who does ALL the work, while men are absent? Who are the sex-slaves providing PIV R&R for the soldiers? Who are the womb-slaves providing a future? Who is the *real* “enemy” being decimated?
“Caring” Work: (Socialisation of Children: The Family)
Juliet Mitchell titled this section, or ‘Estate’ – ‘Socialisation of Children’, or the Family. Women’s role within the family, particularly of the ‘nuclear’ patriarchal variety, has always been of the taking care of everybody – especially children, but not limited to kids – it also means all the others of the community, the elders, the sick, the injured, the disabled etc. Anybody who needs nursing, teaching, helping or aiding.
Part of the definition of a mammal, is that they bear live, but immature, young, who need a great deal of care for a long time after the birthing is over. Most mammals are not like reptiles, which can just squat, lay a gazillion eggs and then just slither off to get on with their own lives, letting Nature take its course with the sprogs. Mammals have to look after the helpless sprogs who can’t do jack for themselves for a long time, and need to be painstakingly taught most of it.
Shitty job, but *somebody* has to do it. Guess who?
For this reason, nearly all mammals live in groups – herds, pods, packs, prides etc. Safety in numbers. Many hands make light work. The extraordinarily vulnerable mammalian young cannot be cared for, defended and protected, by one adult, or even two. The nuclear family is a very recent introduction in human societies. The natural state is for a female-dominant group to care for young communally. In the natural environment, a nuclear family structure would have been species suicide.
So much for history. But hence the ‘family’ is a basic social structure for humans. What interested me most about Juliet Mitchell’s framework of analysis, was her separation of the family experience, as it affects women. Like most Marxists, she advocated the complete dismantling of the family as being one of the main sources of women’s oppression, though childhood socialisation into the oppressive roles, including that of “carer” – (a few later feminist theorists, Named this “The Work of Loving”) and listing all of the numerous “Women for Peace” organisations that women have often flocked to throughout history. I found this an A-Mazing insight. For no matter how noble, or necessary, or even pleasurable, some aspects of the necessary, human Work-of-Loving are – it is still one of the cornerstones of exploitation of women-as-a-class.
I also figured this is related to the idea, or concept, of women being the physical ’embodiment’ of family or community ‘honour’. One man, a doctor, working in the Congo during one of the mass-raping massacres said in an interview ‘Breaking the women is designed to break our whole culture, for women and children are our culture’.
But the major points which I came away with from Juliet Mitchell’s thesis, was around the overlapping nature of the ‘estates’ or domains-of-exploitation. Women the world over, may be caged for a lifetime in one or two, or all of the domains – or are transferred between them, others are caged in different ones, at different stages of their life-cycle – for example, younger women may be caged in the Sexuality and Reproduction domains – older women, no longer sexually or reproductively “useful”, have to make themselves Ab/Useful” in one of the others. The “wife” is often in all four-at-once — EveryMan’s multi-tasker.
Ultimately – the main points that have stayed with me all these years, was Juliet Mitchell’s analysis which posited that women were sliced-and-diced into separate classes, for each of the ‘Estates’. Patriarchy doesn’t get too upset at a small percentage of women “pushing the boundaries”, because such small numbers are no threat to the patriarchal systems, which are set up to keep sufficient numbers of women herded into each of the four domains at all times.
Juliet Mitchell also argued that the Women’s Liberation Revolution needed to attack all four domains at once, and at the same time – for she argued that, reforms in one ‘estate’ would only ever result in shifting the severity of oppression onto one or more of the others. For example, she forecast that increasing women’s ‘equality’ in the workplace (Production Sector), or in the ‘Family’ (eg improved child custody/divorce laws) would only shift more of the “burden” of oppression onto the sexuality or caring sectors.
A Woman’s Work Is Never Done.