- Women's Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter by Michèle Barrett
The third edition of Michèle Barrett's Women's Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter signals a perspectival shift in theoretical feminist discourse on labor, sex, and gender. Barrett's purpose is threefold; she seeks to outline the liberatory potential of capitalism, to map the particular relationships between economy and ideology in women's oppression, and to show the movement of women in capitalist societies. Though Barrett gives a great deal of attention to the structure of the family and gendered divisions of labor in Chapters 1 and 2, she makes a crucial distinction between a conscious preservation of these systems and their existence as "unintended consequence[s]" of societal practices (36). By pointing to Lacan, Engels, and Marx, Barrett explains that neither socialism nor women's seizure of the means of production is the key to ending women's subjugation.
Barrett states that by 1980, many feminist scholars had commented on the intersections of economy, gender, and ideology, but none had managed to do so with adequate attention to history and materialism. Consequently, [End Page 541] she warns of universalizing ideological discourse in lieu of country-specific praxis. The second chapter titled "Femininity, Masculinity, and Sexual Practice" is unsurprisingly the weakest; Barrett places an emphasis on biological determinants that, in the following decade, are proven by Judith Butler to be flimsy. Barrett does this in the interest of answering "persuasive and popular arguments" in the context of the market and the nuclear family, many of which have since lost their incendiary power.
Barrett devotes Chapter 3 to a discussion of ideology, explaining that it is related to material reality through reciprocal constituency. She gestures to Louis Althusser and analyzes divisions of labor to show how this reciprocity manifests. Barrett spends the latter portion of this section identifying modes of gender production and representation with a focus on literature. She explains how readers must move beyond a text itself to avoid turning "the object of analysis into its own means of explanation [since] by definition this cannot provide an adequate account" (100). Barrett encourages feminist scholars to abandon the notion of "correctly reading" a text in favor of asking what a given text shows readers about class, gender, and industry (101). In Chapter 4, Barrett considers feminist praxis in the context of systems of education. She simultaneously debunks the notion that knowledge can be neutral and calls attention to the historical conflation of masculinity with reason.
In the fifth chapter, Barrett considers how binary gender roles have shaped divisions in labor which lead to inequities in pay, working conditions, and mobility. She highlights the insufficiency of the model of working women as a "reserve army" to be employed in wartime, adding that this model does not negotiate a place for women in a modern capitalist society (158). In fact, the application of this model would weaken the working class by using lower-paid women to undercut jobs in times of national crisis. In regards to the place of domestic labor in capitalism, Barrett observes that feminist debates have revolved around a question of benefits. She conceives of this type of oppression as an issue pertaining to wives and mothers (175). Feminist scholars have since complicated this question and moved beyond heteronormative paradigms.
An interesting historical paradox that Barrett locates can be found in Chapter 6, "Women's Oppression and 'the Family.'" She states that regardless of societal structure, "the family" is posed as the same unit, often across cultures (187). Barrett recounts several arguments wherein biological determinism is the rationale for the family unit, but concludes that the ideology of the family has "succeeded…in presenting historically variable structures and meanings as 'natural' and therefore inevitable" (196-197). Despite the proliferation of the family, Barrett maintains that it is unclear who exactly benefits from this system, since "women clearly do not" (223).
In the remaining sections, Barrett unpacks women's relation to the state and the role of capitalism in women's liberation. She evaluates...