With the re-emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, Marxists were thought by some to be in a unique position to develop an analysis of women’s oppression. Already the Marxist analysis of capitalist production incorporated the notion of exploitation and inequality at its centre and it was presumed that it could also be extended to analyse the specific, and oppressed, position of women. Marx had explained by his ‘labour theory of value’ that the central oppression under capitalism constitutes the exploitation of the working class for profit, and Marxists set out to study the subordinate position of women by linking it to this apparently central economic oppression. The ‘domestic labour debate’1 was an early outcome of this, and centred on the extent of the contribution by women’s domestic labour to the overall value of (male) labour power in the capitalist sphere (Benston 1969; Seccombe 1974; Coulson et al. 1975; Gardiner 1975; Harrison 1973; Smith 1978). Other approaches, focusing to a slightly greater extent on male-female relations, included the ‘dual labour market thesis’ (Barron and Norris 1976) and ‘women as a reserve army of labour’ (Beechey 1977; Bruegel 1979; Braverman 1974). Both positions argue that women’s subordinate role in the domestic sphere places women in a subordinate position within the capitalist sphere, with less pay and security than men, and that this operates to the advantage of capital. An attempt was also made to overcome the economic reductionism of these approaches by theorising patriarchy at the level of ideology, that is, to see patriarchy as part of the reproduction of ideas separate from the capitalist sphere (Mitchell 1975).
By the late 1970s, however, socialist and Marxist feminist theory appeared increasingly inadequate for dealing with crucial questions