The Feminization of the U.S. Workforce

By Berman, Ruth | Monthly Review, November 1989 | Go to article overview

The Feminization of the U.S. Workforce


Berman, Ruth, Monthly Review


THE FEMINIZATION OF THE U.S. WORKFORCE

The purpose of this talk is to suggest the need for refocussing attention on the new aspects of women's position in society. It is to suggest that the very processes of economic and social development that have made women primarily reactive to the dominant role of the male have now become complicit in placing women's struggle for survival at the center of social change. And it poses the need for a new woman's-role-centered historical materialist analysis of advanced monopoly capitalism's relations of production in the United States today.

The designation "Marxist" has become an increasingly ambiguous one. Marx's life, writings, and revolutionary work took place in the capitalism of nineteenth century Western Europe. This determined and limited the forms and forums in which he could express his theories, and the conditions to which he could apply them. However, his general analysis of the processes of capitalist development, and his predictions of its overall direction, are still remarkably prescient. Global economic and social conditions have changed dramatically since Marx's time, but the principles of capitalist development which he elucidated can be seen even more clearly in its present advanced stage. As Marx foresaw, the continued accumulation and centralization of capital is proceeding at an exponentially increasing rate (in its latest merger and acquisition form) as is the concomitant proletarianization and pauperization of labor. This polarization of wealth is increasingly obvious.

Marx left us a profound general method with which to develop an understanding of the particular processes and contradictions which underlie our present situation. With historical materialism we can analyze the interactions and contradictions within the capitalist class, and the changing nature of its labor force--what it's like today, how it came to be this way, and where, in its struggle with capital, it is likely to go.

The changing position and consciousness of women in the workforce today can best be understood in the context of the nature and the long history of women's subordination. Women's subordinate social position has been a recognized historical fact in most of the world (with perhaps several honorable exceptions) for at least several millenia. But there was a time before it began: it had a social, not biological, origin. The archaeological record finds no evidence for inequality of status in early, neolithic, times, when human beings first began to settle in permanent communities and domesticate plants and animals. Non-differentiated homes and grave remains suggest an egalitarian society, perhaps matrilocal. (1) Woman was recognized for her creativity as a mother and also for the useful work she performed. She apparently introduced horticulture, pottery-making, textiles, and clothing.

The archaeological evidence suggests that society became fundamentally stratified in the Near East (where the transition from paleolithic to neolithic to civilized urban societies can be directly traced) only in the post-neolithic period, around 4000--3500 B.C. With the growth of the larger, more contentious city-state, its kings, administrators and overseers, priests and priestesses, all established themselves in various levels of control over the rest of the community. Wars became frequent and booty was captured. This booty, according to contemporary records and letters, specifically included women from the "enemy" tribe, but not the men, the warriors. These women were put to work in the textile factories which produced goods for trade and as house servants. A number were selected for "sexual labor" in the harems. (2) "Outside" women were thus the first slaves, combining all three aspects of the subordination with which we are still struggling today.

Upper-class women were also subject to their husbands' and fathers' rule. However, they often served as administrators in their own right or as representatives of their husbands. …

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