The gender agenda

The new issue of the journal is at last published. The ninth in the series, it is the first to focus explicitly on gender, although of course many previous issues have included articles that address it.

Volume 6 no 1 of Work Organisation, Labour and Globaliisation

Gender and the global division of labour

In writing the introduction (which can be downloaded here), I found myself revisiting questions I used to think about – and discuss in women’s groups – forty years ago and this churned up an unexpectedly powerful mix of emotions. I think it is time to re-examine my relationship with socialist feminism.

The wind has certainly changed recently. About three or four years ago it became clear that Marxism is becoming intellectually respectable again (rather in the same way that modernist architecture is back in vogue), and post-modernism has finally become passé. This is surely a cause for rejoicing among those of us who mistrusted its relativism and saw it as an excuse for political fence-sitting among a cowardly generation of academics fearful of losing their jobs – or at least their research funding – under neo-liberalist regimes.

It’s now OK again to use the word ‘capitalism’ and, in some circles, even ‘the labour theory of value’ or ‘class consciousness’. Conferences with names like ‘Historical Materialism’ are full to bursting with competitive young academics. The sea of grey hair at public meetings of the left is now speckled with other colours. Videos of David Harvey lectures go viral on student facebook sites. Capital Reading Groups are being set up. Ten years ago, this would have seemed impossible. For someone of my generation, emerging from three decades of feeling not understood,  jeered at, patronised as quaintly old-fashioned or shunned as dangerous intellectual company to keep, what’s not to like?

Well, to judge by my subjective reactions, quite a lot, actually.

Although i am feeling vindicated in much of the work I have done over the years and getting more recognition for it than would have seemed possible at the turn of the millenium, I have found myself over the last three or four years firing off more angry emails to Marxists than ever in my life before.  Indeed, I suspect I am acquiring a reputation for irrational and paranoid irascibility that goes way beyond the mild tetchiness that is generally tolerated in someone of my age. And these emails overwhelmingly relate to issues of gender. So what is making me so cross?

To be honest, this is something I am exploring as I write, so my reasoning may not be perfectly structured, However I hope it will not just come across as a rant. I would really like to have been able to discuss it first with some of the women with whom I had such intense discussions about these things in the 1970s, but, alas, some are no longer with us, some have moved to other continents, some have changed their lifestyles and politics in such a way as to put them beyond easy reach of such discussions, some are too burdened to spare the time for such things and others I have simply lost touch with. So here come some first observations, in the raw – and in no particular order.

I am sure that many men I know will read this and feel baffled, hurt or misunderstood. I’m sorry about this. I don’t mean to belittle your efforts and am truly grateful for the support and recognition that some of you have given me, and other feminists, over the years. But these things do need to be said.


One very irritating feature of the new Marxism (which was also present, with a bit more excuse, in the older versions) is the conviction among its masculine adherents that they have the theoretical overview. Their particular version of Marxist theory explains the whole universe and its workings and all that remains to be done is to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s and argue about how exactly it should be applied to current circumstances. The ‘woman question’, as it was traditionally known, comes very much into the ‘i’ dotting category and forms a minor sub-branch of the overall theory. The idea that Marx and Engels might have left some questions unanswered, and some contradictions unresolved, seems unthinkable to them (even though it is obvious that Marx himself thought there was a great deal more to be done). Reading Marx through a feminist lens actually makes it quite easy to identify some of these unanswered questions, but addressing them seriously implies a need to to rethink the orthodox ‘overview’. This they cannot imagine. So they are deaf to the argument that perhaps it is feminist political economy that has the overview (looking as it does at both production and reproduction, and both men and women) and that it is the narrow study of male activity that constitutes the sub-specialism.

One of the concepts that becomes problematic viewed in this way is that of ‘necessary labour time’. Concepts such as commodification, and the reserve army of labour also need rethinking. (I have made a small start on some of these questions in my introduction to ‘the reproduction of difference, which can be read online here).

Like other women of my generation, I have found in the past that work that I have done in these areas has either been ignored, or has been appropriated without acknowledgement (sometimes the first guy to ‘get’ my argument will cite my work, then those who come after will cite only his) or has been consigned to the dusty box labelled ‘the woman question’ with its broader implications unattended to.


Another extraordinarily irritating characteristic of many of the new generation of Marxists is their assumption that feminism has already been done.  These guys (some of whom must have been brought up by feminist mothers) believe that they are sensitive to differences of gender, race, sexuality and disability, much more so, indeed, than the general run of men, whom they may take to task for infelicitious use of ‘inappropriate’ language. They usually react with pained incomprehension or denial if accused of insensitivity on any of these fronts. When that doesn’t work, knee-jerk defences tend to kick in: if they think they are accused of sexism they will indignantly refer to the importance of race (and vice versa) in the dominant group’s intuitive instinct for maintaining its power by strategies of divide and rule.  Sometimes they even give the impression that only a white man can really enforce social justice, because he is in the enviable position of being able to exercise impartiality in any cat-fights that may break out between rival ‘minorities’. They point to their equality committees and gender studies departments as evidence that all these concerns are being properly taken care of, in their rightful places. Their conviction that they have nothing new to learn is unshakeable


Whether in academic departments or policy development circles, it is generally assumed that the big new issues can be identified in gender-neutral ways. Whether the topic is colonialism or modernism or epistemology or structural adjustment policies, it is the job of masculine Great Minds to map out the terrain, and the job of feminists to follow behind, writing articles or setting up courses in which the Big Abstract Concept is preceded by the words ‘gender and’ or ‘women and’. Thirty five years ago, there was some logic to the frenetic intellectual activity which subjected all the ‘isms’ to feminist critique. It was done in the hope that this would be a one-off task and that these critiques would be taken on board in what is now known as the ‘mainstream’. It is, however, abundantly clear by now that all this achieved was to create new subsidiary fields of ‘gender studies’ whose existence, whilst it did provide a reasonably protected home for some important women thinkers, let the male scholars off the hook by absolving them even of any need to read this stuff and allowing them to get on with their Boy’s Own theory building. Meanwhile, anyone with an interest in gender had to read twice as much: the original ‘path-breaking’ scholarship of the Great Minds AND the feminist critiques of their work. Some of course found it easier and more satisfying to look inward and operate intellectually entirely within the world of gender studies (rapidly spreading to include its own sub-fields, such as queer studies). But those who still wanted to inhabit the disciplines of economics, philosophy, history, geography, development studies, sociology, politics or whatever had to either forget their feminism altogether or content themselves with the very traditional role of following behind the men, tidying up after them and carrying the heavy loads.


Related to these assumptions that feminism belongs in gender studies departments, and that the only pioneering intellectual work that women are capable of is in this field, is a complementary notion that all women are de facto experts on gender (in this conception, men, of course, don’t really have a gender, any more than white people have a race). This plays out in exchanges like this one:

HIM: ‘We are organising a conference about Important Topical Issue (ITI) and Abstract Noun(AN) and we’d like you to be a keynote speaker’

ME: ‘OK. I’ve written a book/done a research project/taught a course  on ITI and AN. I would be happy to speak about this’.

(It then gets put in my diary, travel arrangements are made, a title is agreed for my presentation etc.)

Six months later

HIM: ‘We are now finalising the programme and we’d like you to speak in a session on ITI and gender.’

ME: ‘Well I was actually not planning to talk about gender, except very incidentally. I was planning to speak quite generally about ITI and AN and present the conclusions from my latest work in this field.’

HIM: ‘We have been lucky enough to persuade Professor Very Famous to speak and he will be giving the overview about ITI and AN. But we really need someone to cover the gender angle. I am sure that you, of all people, must agree that this is very important’

ME: ‘Well actually I haven’t really done any recent work in this field that focuses particularly on gender; my work has addressed other broad questions. If you want someone to speak on gender, could I suggest that you invite Person A, Person B or Person C?’ (Thinks: ‘And furthermore I have been working in this field for much longer than Very Famous who actually plagiarised some of my work several years ago and his work is very shallow. And he never thanked me for the help I gave him with his first project.’)

HIM: ‘I’m afraid it’s too late to invite anyone new and our budget won’t run to it. We are really relying on you for this’.

There are several alternative endings to this scenario. In the first, I meekly comply. In the second, I pull out. In the third, I stand my ground and insist that I make a general keynote speech (as originally proposed) which is not seen as a subsidiary category of Professor Famous’s overview and am treated like a difficult primadonna and removed from the first day’s agenda altogether and put into a ‘closing plenary’ session which is delayed and takes place after most of the conference participants have already left for the airport. I am introduced as a ‘feminist professor’ by a man who handles the word with verbal tongs, makes a sexist joke and mispronounces my name. There are more possibilities, which I won’t bore you with now.


In the present revival of interest in Marxist theory, the work done by Marxist feminists in the 1970s seems to have been completely forgotten. The thought of all those new Capital Reading Groups having to start again from scratch is a deeply depressing one. And of course whenever I raise this point in conversation with someone they say that this work really needs to be done and suggest that I write a book about it.


Is it really the best use of my time to go back and revisit the thinking that we did forty years ago? There are so many important new questions to explore. But it has to be done by someone, I suppose, to avoid a new generation of women having to go through the same struggles all over again. Like the washing up, someone has to do it. Any offers? Now don’t all put your hands up at once, will you, guys.

This entry was posted in Autobiography, commodification of knowledge work, Labour in the 21st century, political reflection, Political theory, Politics, The world, Theoretical musings, theory, Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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