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  • L’exploitation domestique by C. Delphy and D. Leonard
  • Angèle Jannot
Delphy C. and Leonard D., 2019, L’exploitation domestique, Paris, Syllepse, 308 pages.

This French translation of Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies, published in 1992, presents a Marxist feminist analysis of the construction of gender inequalities within the family. The authors seek to show that relations of production, consumption, and transmission within the family are hierarchical relations in which women are exploited for the benefit of men.

The book begins with a remarkable synthesis of feminist works from 1850 to 1990 and of changing conceptions of family relations. The authors then present theoretical tools aimed at undermining the naturalization of these relations and the subordination of women’s oppression to that of the proletariat. In their approach, the family is viewed as a socio-economic institution, i.e. a hierarchical system of social relations structured around the production, consumption, and transmission of property, which is distinct from the system that constitutes the market. They thereby show that capitalism and the family are two modes of production based on exploitation, which can be defined as any unequal transaction where what is produced by the work of one person is consumed by another in a highly unbalanced exchange (p. 71). The central concept in their argument is men’s ‘appropriation’ of women’s labour power. This approach, already present in an earlier work by Christine Delphy (L’ennemi principal, 1970(1)), is now widely used in gender studies. This later book, based on a survey carried out in factories in France and England in the 1990s, invites us to revisit the earlier book’s analysis of relations of production, consumption, and transmission, and to consider its contemporary relevance.

It is worth recalling the authors’ definition of unpaid domestic labour, which aims to shed the distinctions in other definitions between production and reproduction or use and exchange. These definitions derive from naturalistic conceptions, neglecting the fact that domestic tasks could be performed on the basis of commercial exchange if they were not performed within and for the family. Rather than relying on an empiricist definition that attempts to list all the tasks performed in the household by their nature, Delphy and Leonard propose to start with the form of relations within which a great variety of tasks are performed (p. 117). Unpaid housework is done for someone else, without being treated as an exchange. Different tasks are associated with different levels of prestige. These depend not on the tasks’ objective importance, but on the authority of the person who performs them. The prestige associated with a task is already a form of compensation in itself. Today, looking at the most recent results of the Emploi du Temps survey, the topicality of the authors’ arguments, which emphasize that unpaid labour is almost exclusively performed by women, must be admitted. In France, in the course of 1 day in 2010, women spent 50% more time than men [End Page 598] on domestic labour (3 hr 52 min vs. 2 hr 24 min, on average), and the tasks men performed tended to be the most prestigious (Bereni et al., 2012).(2) Delphy and Leonard also stress that women are used to spend their spouse’s money, which ties in with recent work such as that of Ana Perrin-Heredia on working-class women (Perrin-Heredia, 2018).(3)

In their analysis of consumption relations, the authors show that the benefits of both the division of labour and of the resulting resource distribution are skewed in men’s favour. And yet, there are still few studies on how goods and services are actually distributed among family members. The authors’ remarks on the Family Budget survey in France, which explores and compares the relative consumption of different households, but not the differences in consumption between individuals, remain relevant. The scales of observation used in these surveys is the household, which assumes an egalitarian pooling of resources and amounts to not considering women’s low wages as a real factor of inequality (Roy, 2006).(4) The authors clearly show that consumption is differentially distributed within households, in both...


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pp. 598-600
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