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Feminism, Labor, and Social Reproduction

On Susan Ferguson's Women and Work

June 6, 2020

Book Cover: Women and Work by Susan Ferguson
Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction
by Susan Ferguson
Pluto Press

The key premise of Susan Ferguson’s book, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction – a critical and highly accessible reconstruction of debates surrounding women’s work in the Euro-American feminist tradition – is that under capitalism labor has become a central issue for understanding the root causes of women’s oppression. Throughout the book Ferguson adopts a capacious definition of labor inspired by Marx’s early writings: labor as human beings’ “conscious, affective, sense-laden, creative interaction with the world,” as socially organized “practical human activity.”1Sue Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 141. Labor, in this sense, includes all activities through which people “create their entire worlds – not just their labour for lords or capitalists.”2Ferguson, 16. Her key insight, expounded upon in the first chapter, is that capitalism has historically determined a shift in the relation between life and work by subordinating life and the multifarious unwaged activities contributing to its reproduction to waged work employed at the service of capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profits. As Ferguson puts it, while in previous societies people would work to survive, under capitalism they also survive to work, that is, “they survive to become waged labourers.”3Ferguson, 12. Here lies the crux of the matter, for it is women who in large majority perform the waged and unwaged labor necessary to the reproduction of labor power and of human life in general and it is women who have seen their reproductive work being culturally devalued, uncompensated, and made invisible.

Starting from this premise, Ferguson’s book identifies three main approaches to women’s work in Anglo-American and Western European feminist debates. The first approach, which has its roots in the querelle des femmes and found one of its most powerful expressions in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, is addressed by Ferguson in chapter 2 under the label “equality feminism.” This approach articulates a rational humanist critique of the inequality between women and men, focusing on the obstacles put by society in the way of women’s autonomous moral development as human beings, such as their exclusion from education and occupations. This approach did not pay sufficient attention to the work women already do, both as working-class women employed in industry, and as reproductive workers in the household. It tended to naturalize the capitalist division between paid and unpaid work and ended up, for example with Wollstonecraft, seeing in paid work and a decent wage a means toward women’s humanization and emancipation.

The second and third approach, “critical equality feminism” and “social reproduction feminism” both belong to the socialist feminist tradition and emerged in the nineteenth century. Ferguson’s distinction between these two approaches echoes Lise Vogel’s treatment of the dualistic tendencies within the socialist feminist tradition analyzed in Marxism and the Oppression of Women.4Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Toward a Unitary Theory, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014). Critical equality feminism has its roots in early socialist authors such as Flora Tristan as well as in Friedrich Engels’s and August Bebel’s treatment of women’s oppression and the family. Contrary to equality feminism, this approach not only did substantively address women’s reproductive labor, but went so far as to agitate for the socialization of domestic work as a necessary precondition for women’s liberation and gender equality. However, it did not do so on the basis of any sustained theoretical analysis of the role of reproductive work as reproduction of labor power under capitalism and of its connection to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. As a result, and as already noted by Vogel, authors such as Engels and Bebel tended to treat women’s oppression as an add-on to their critique of capitalism and to interpret dualistically women’s struggle as inherently distinct from class struggle.

The lack of a coherent theory concerning the relation between productive and reproductive work under capitalism is what differentiates critical equality from social reproduction feminism. Interestingly, Ferguson situates the origins of the social reproduction approach in the work of two early socialists, Anne Wheeler and William Thompson, who already in 1824 and 1825 argued for the collectivization of domestic work, based on the analysis of the tension between the organization of the system of labor by individual competition and women’s reproductive responsibilities. In doing so, they also highlighted the relation of women’s reproductive work to the capitalist productive sphere and insisted on the reproductive work’s contribution to social wealth.5Ferguson, 46. In Ferguson’s account, social reproduction feminism situates the root causes of gender oppression under capitalism not in the features of unpaid domestic labor, but rather in social reproduction work’s position relative to the creation of capitalist social wealth. As she puts it, “The point is that all processes of social reproduction (not just those in individual households) come up against capital’s hostility to life – if not for greater reason that the vast majority of the resources essential to reproducing life (the means of subsistence) are owned and controlled by capital and the capitalist state. And all the work that goes into producing this and the next generation of workers (inside and outside of patriarchally organized households) is caught up in specific social relations of oppression that are not directly subject to capitalism’s direct control, but are nonetheless caught in the crosshairs of this contradictory dynamic.”6Ferguson, 114.

Besides Wheeler and Thompson, Ferguson identifies another precursor of social reproduction feminism in Mary Inman’s In Woman’s Defense (1940) which, in addition to emphasizing women’s unwaged labor’s contribution to social wealth, conceptualized it as productive work in Marx’s sense, that is, as productive of value. In this sense, Inman’s position anticipates the analyses of domestic labor articulated in the Seventies by feminist authors such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati, Silvia Federici and Selma James. These authors gave birth to what Ferguson labels as the autonomist strand of social reproduction feminism – a label that is generally rejected by the authors in question. This strand is contrasted with what Ferguson calls Marxian social reproduction theory, to which she also belongs together with authors such as Lise Vogel and Tithi Bhattacharya. Following Margaret Benston’s seminal analysis of domestic labor’s relation to capitalist production, Marxian social reproduction feminism does not consider domestic labor as productive of value, but rather as contributing to decreasing the costs of capitalist production by cheapening the reproduction of labor power.7Ferguson, 93.

Ferguson devotes a chapter to early Black feminism, from Sojourner Truth to the writings of members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) such as Louise Thompson Patterson and Claudia Jones. This strand of thought has its own trajectory, which is not easily reducible to the three main approaches identified in the book. For example, while early texts such as Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South (1892) and Gertrude Mossell’s The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894) reproduce some of the themes of liberal equality feminism, they are also distinct from it in that they pay attention to both racism and the degraded conditions of life and work of Black women belonging to the paid labor force, particularly in domestic service.8Ferguson, 76. Moreover, Black women’s involvement in paid work enabled anti-racist feminism to escape some of the pitfalls of early social reproduction feminism, which tended to identify reproductive labor with domestic work and to focus on the conditions of unwaged housewives. Moreover, in consideration of the experience of Black women as waged workers, authors like Claudia Jones did not make the mistake of thinking that entering the formal labor market was the royal road to women’s independence and liberation.9Ferguson, 80.

[It] is women who in the large majority perform the waged and unwaged labor necessary to the reproduction of labor power and of human life in general and it is women who have seen their reproductive work being culturally devalued, uncompensated, and made invisible.

Correcting the pitfalls of the social reproduction feminism of the Seventies with its all too narrow focus on unwaged domestic labor, Ferguson takes great care in clarifying that social reproduction encompasses all reproductive activities, which include paid domestic work and waged social reproductive work in the public sector and in the formal capitalist market. However, among the various forms taken by social reproduction work, the book only mentions but does not offer any substantive discussion of the commodification of reproductive labor in the private for-profit sector. This neglect is problematic not only because of the failure to address a specific feature of neoliberal capitalism – namely its recent tendency towards capitalistically organizing increasingly larger segments of social reproduction – but also because it contributes to some confusion. At times Ferguson uses formulations that seem to insist on the distinction between capitalistically productive labor and social reproductive labor tout court. For example, she writes: “And it is precisely because social reproductive labour is distinct from capitalistically ‘productive’ labour, that it can and does resist the alienating and life-thwarting pressures capital applies.”10Ferguson, 119. See similar formulations on 125 and 127. This is misleading insofar as part of social reproductive labor, the part that is capitalistically organized (hospitals, clinics, and schools for profit, food, hospitality and other reproductive services organized through capitalist companies, etc.), is productive of value and is capitalist production in Marx’s sense, something which Ferguson is perfectly aware as indicated by other brief passages.11See Ferguson, 128 and 165, note 8 and note 15. An articulated treatment of commodified social reproduction work would have helped avoid misunderstandings. It would have also strengthened Ferguson’s critique of autonomist social reproduction feminism.

The last chapter of the book does indeed address the political consequences of the two different approaches in social reproduction feminism to the question of value production. One of Ferguson’s main contentions, which I find rather compelling, is that the notion of a subsumption of all forms of labor under capitalism (Federici), the comparison between the household and the factory (Fortunati), and the blurring of the distinction between life and work (Kathi Weeks) lead to a lack of understanding of the fundamental experiential differences between working under direct capitalist domination, unwaged work, and work in the public sector. Public sector social reproduction workers, for example, generally enjoy a greater autonomy, insofar as the capitalist domination of their jobs tends to be less intense, because it is mediated by other social authorities.12Ferguson, 127. Moreover, they are more subject to pressures from below to privilege life-making over capitalist imperatives:

…while there are certainly pressures from above to speed up and shortchange the process of life-making, public sector social reproduction workers experience pressures from below to do the opposite: they confront and negotiate the needs of the people they are helping to reproduce as part and parcel of their daily work. And in the process, they can establish connections with others that cut against the alienating tendencies of capitalism…13Ferguson, 128-129.

Ferguson’s main point here is not that, in virtue of these features, we should give priority to public sector social reproduction workers over others, nor that these workers necessarily display a greater propensity to struggle. It is, rather, a more general methodological point: class struggle emerges from the context of lived experience and it has a relation to the specific ways people experience their exploitation and oppression. Any class struggle based political project should therefore attend to the specificities of different social locations, the way they are experienced, and the tensions, contradictions, and forms of resistance that arise within them.

What is less convincing is Ferguson’s diagnosis of the political orientations of autonomist Marxist feminists, and of their relation to their understanding of capitalist subsumption. According to Ferguson, from their analysis of capitalism’s total subsumption of labor derives the tendency to “conceptualize the possibilities for resistance as existing beyond or outside capitalist relations, in the creation of alternative spaces to capitalism.” This contrasts with the Marxian approach, which looks “toward struggles to break the system from within.”14Ferguson, 130. In this respect, Ferguson lumps together Weeks’s support for Universal Basic Income15Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work. Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). along the lines of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of cognitive capitalism16Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2001); Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of the Empire, (London: Penguin Books, 2005); Commonwealth,  (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2011). and Federici’s politics of the commons.17Silvia Federici, Re-Enchanting the World. Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, (Oakland: PM Press, 2019). But in fact, Federici and Weeks do not share the same analysis of capitalism at all. In Hardt, Negri and Weeks’s works, the refusal of work and the practice of the commons are made possible by the fact that capitalism has reached the stage of development described by Marx in the “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, a stage in which the real basis of value is not labor-time anymore, but the world-scale social cooperation (including science, technology, and the various forms of knowledges and communication) on which capitalism parasitically feeds.

Federici’s politics of the commons is rather shaped, on the one hand, by Latin American and indigenous feminism and by the experience of struggles against land grabbing in the Global South, and on the other hand by her view of primitive accumulation as a perpetually ongoing process producing new material enclosures. Like in Hardt, Negri, and Weeks, “commoning” is conceptualized as an active resistance to enclosures, but unlike Hardt, Negri, and Weeks, Federici polemically criticizes what she sees as Marx’s positive view of industrialization, his undervaluation of peasantry, and his faith in the possibility of mechanizing necessary labor.18Federici, Re-Enchanting the World, 159-163. In other words, while in the cognitive and affective capitalist framework, capitalism has indeed prepared the ground and the material basis for communism (thanks to workers’ class struggle, understood as the real driving force toward technological and social innovation), Federici is highly polemical toward what she considers as Marx’s stadial view of historical development. This stance is apparent in Caliban and the Witch, where Federici reconceptualizes the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a political reaction against rising agrarian communalism, as well in Federici’s positive re-evaluation of pre-capitalist communal land-tenure.19Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004). Leaving aside whether Federici is straw-manning Marx or not, her notion of the commons is based on theoretical premises that are largely at odds with post-Workerist notions of cognitive or affective capitalism. In political terms, while Federici’s stance at times runs the risk of veering toward nostalgia, it also explains her greater sensitivity to peasants’ and anti-imperialist struggles in post-colonial countries (and the influence her writings have had on Latin American militant feminism, for example) as well as her political polemics against Hardt’s and Negri’s stadial (and Eurocentric) understanding of the hegemony of immaterial labor.

Ferguson’s book is an important contribution to the current renewal of social reproduction feminism, which – in addition to seeing a revival of interest among feminist scholars – has also become a source of inspiration for activists on the ground in the new feminist wave, particularly the feminist strike movements. In contrast to other reconstruction of socialist feminist debates, Ferguson originally situates socialist feminism within the history of feminist theory and debates about women’s work, and not only of the Marxist and socialist tradition. In doing so, she manages to highlight the key difference between social reproduction feminism and equality feminism, and to show that a dualistic understanding of class struggle and women’s struggle is problematically shared in common by (liberal) equality and (socialist) critical equality feminism. Furthermore, contrary to Vogel’s seminal book – which largely ignored issues of race and anti-racist feminism – Ferguson takes both greater care in emphasizing the dynamic relation of gender and racial oppression under capitalism and analyzes the crucial contribution by Black feminism to the theorization of reproductive labor. The book is lucidly and beautifully written and manages to make easily accessible complex debates and ideas to non-specialized readers without for this reason banalizing or over-simplifying concepts: it is both an excellent introduction to North American and Western European socialist feminism and an intelligent theoretical and political discussion of the centrality of the social reproduction lens.

1    Sue Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 141.

2    Ferguson, 16.

3    Ferguson, 12.

4    Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. Toward a Unitary Theory, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

5    Ferguson, 46.

6    Ferguson, 114.

7    Ferguson, 93.

8    Ferguson, 76.

9    Ferguson, 80.

10  Ferguson, 119. See similar formulations on 125 and 127.

11  See Ferguson, 128 and 165, note 8 and note 15.

12  Ferguson, 127.

13  Ferguson, 128-129.

14  Ferguson, 130.

15  Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work. Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

16  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2001); Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of the Empire, (London: Penguin Books, 2005); Commonwealth,  (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2011).

17  Silvia Federici, Re-Enchanting the World. Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, (Oakland: PM Press, 2019).

18  Federici, Re-Enchanting the World, 159-163.

19  Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).


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