Breaking the chains

Women’s struggle against capitalism’s hold within family structures

Graphic Myriam Ouazzani

In the Western world, discussions around family abolition often intersect with broader conversations about social justice, feminism, queer and anti-capitalist theory.

Our family dynamics, the roles and relationships between family members, and the factors that influence how they interact have changed over time. This is based on historical and material shifts in social organization of communities.

A perfect illustration of this is how the family structure of serfs during feudal times transformed alongside their social and economic status with the emergence of capitalism. Women have been under the stranglehold of capitalism ever since its emergence. 

With the rise of capitalism came the conventional perspective that the household is a natural reproduction of life and is thus the most essential form of production. Exploiting the working class became the perfect opportunity to create an exploitable labouring population. 

This goes hand in hand with the way the economy was run in the 20th century, when the welfare state reinforced the role of the family as the basic unit for societal reproduction. The nuclear family was obedient and productive, forced to maintain stability and productivity in society. 

This traditional nuclear family structure reinforces heteronormativity: a husband and a wife and their children, playing a crucial role in reinforcing gender norms and inequalities within society. The family was led by the breadwinning father, with the mother raising typically two children who all played subordinate roles of the household patriarch.

The exploitation of women played a central function in the process of capitalist accumulation, as women have been the producers and reproducers of the most essential capitalist commodity: labour-power. 

Labour-power is the ability of workers to do work and create stuff, like goods or services. Think of it as what workers offer to their bosses to get paid. 

It's not about the work they've already done, but their potential to work. It's what makes employers pay you wages because you can work. The value of this ability is tied to what's needed to live a basic life, such as food, clothing and housing.

Through a Marxist feminist lens, the woman in the household and in society is used as a form of unpaid labour, allowing the economy to operate. She reproduces labour power by providing food to male workers as well as providing the next generation of workers from their wombs.

Women’s unpaid labour in the home has been the pillar upon which the exploitation of the waged worker has been built and the secret of its productivity. 

However, family structures are adapting once again under the decay of late-stage capitalism and a slow deviation from patriarchal structures.  

The deconstruction of traditional family models is linked to class liberation.

Under neoliberalism, markets are so heavily de-regulated and nation-states refuse to provide services and regulations to stop socio-economic instability. This makes it difficult for traditional households to survive. Late-stage capitalism is a time of dominance by multinational companies, growth in the global circulation of capital, and an increase in corporate profits and the wealth of the richest members of our class-based society. 

Everything becomes commodified and consumable. There is an emphasis on productivity and economic competitiveness, which can create challenges for individuals balancing work and family responsibilities, including caregiving and parenting by women.

The role of the woman under capitalism today is much more socially complex. While equality among women and men has improved significantly, there are many underlying social limitations that hinder the well-being of the woman as an individual within society. These limitations have a lot to do with the family. 

Black American activist Angela Davis discusses the double burden that women experience. They now have to juggle both career and domestic responsibilities, which creates an exceedingly difficult way to achieve an equitable work-life balance. 

As child-bearers, women are usually the ones who carry the burden of child-care at home during the early stages of a kid’s upbringing. This makes it hard to meet ambitious career goals. 

This unpaid care work is essential for the functioning of society and the economy, but is often undervalued and unrecognized. The unequal distribution of care responsibilities reinforces gender roles and inequalities.

The abolition of traditional family structures goes hand in hand with radical feminism and class liberation. Abolishing the family institution challenges patriarchal power structures, gender roles and social inequalities perpetuated within familial units. 

Feminist family abolitionism can stand against the naturalization of traditional family roles and dismantle harmful norms such as gendered expectations. By continuing to restructure and find innovative ways to challenge the privatization of caregiving responsibilities and promote collective approaches to social reproduction, we can attain the goal of true class liberation. 

The role of women under capitalism has always been of foundational importance in the strength of its system. It started by rooting the women’s place within the nuclear family. Despite the movement of women’s rights, women still have a double burden over their shoulders.

 We must keep pushing for a restructuring of the family dynamic that resonates with a shift from  patriarchy and the economy’s ever increasing severity. 

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 13, published April 2, 2024.