Eli Zaretsky and Socialist Feminism

Eli Zaretsky‘s Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (1976), along with the work of Juliet Mitchell in Woman’s Estate (1974) and the writings of Zillah Eisenstein, is an important text in the socialist-feminist tradition. A brief sketch of the central concerns of Socialist Feminism is in order before we move on to Zaretsky.

Socialist feminism looks at the following areas.

(i) The issue of domestic labour and its role in capitalist economy.The woman’s labour in the house is much more integrated with her life than for the male. Her economic dependency is an important factor, since it deprives her of any political control.

(ii) The relationship women have with the modes of production as wage earners. Here the “double duty” of women becomes clear: as wage earners in the public sphere, but as unpaid labourers in the private/household one.

(iii) The role of the family in ideological socialisation (private and public, the role of the mother, moral values and so on).

(iv) The question of ideology and consciousness.

Zaretsky’s work shows a concern with all the four issues mentioned above.

(1) Zaretsky argues that capitalism produced a massive spilt between the public and private spheres. Material production was split between commodity production in the public/socialised sphere and private labour performed by women at home. As a result “work” and “life” were separated.

(2) The transformation of workers into commodities (what Zaretsky terms “Proletarianisation” split off the external world from the inner world of feeling.

(3) The only sphere of subjective resistance was therefore the home. The family became the “utopian retreat,” away from the industrial set up.

(4) Housewives had the responsibility of maintaining the emotional and psychological realm of personal relations. For the women, within the family, “work” and “life” had collapsed into one an-other. Housewives’ labour remained essentially unalienated, but was given the job of preservation of human values (which was considered impossible in the public sphere).

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