Woman’s Estate by Juliet Mitchell

Here is my second post consisting of extracts from books I have found enlightening or instructive in understanding a particular topic. Woman’s Estate by Juliet Mitchell defines the historical, current and future struggles of the fight for equality between the sexes and the issues that continue to be hostile to equality being achieved, particularly in a capitalist society.

As I suggested last time, only a full reading of the book can do justice to the detail of the arguments and reasoning behind these extracts. I highly recommend committing the time to reading this work.

I have again attempted to ensure that the extracts provide the context within them but have also included my own subheading to provide further clarification. All italics are the author’s.

Woman’s Estate by Juliet Mitchell (Pelican Books, 1971)

(The historical basis of the movement and connection with similar movements)

“The most economically and socially underprivileged woman is bound much tighter to her condition by a consensus which passes it off as ‘natural’. An Appalachian mother of fifteen children experiences her situation as ‘natural’ and hence inescapable: a college-educated girl spending her time studying ‘home economics’ for an academic degree is at least in a position to ask ‘why?’.” (pg 22)

“Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.” (pg24)

“‘Totalism’, then, is the expression of the protest against all oppressed conditions in the form of an assertion of complete liberation involving the overthrow at one blow of the whole  of capitalist society”. (pg24)

“The university has become the training ground for agents of the consumer society. Students are no longer students in the classical sense of the term. University courses cling vainly to an inappropriate tradition against whose conservative content students protest, while courses introduced to fit organically into their future jobs reveal a banality that condemns both themselves and those jobs.” (pg 25)

“women’s oppression manifests itself in economic and cultural deprivation, that oppressed women are found in all exploited minorities, in all social classes, in all radical movements. That on the issue of the position of women, friends are foes.” (pg 39)

“The sexual exploitation of women and their enforced submission within a society committed – when it feels like it – to the ‘naturalness’ of their reproductive role, has caused the movement to develop the notion of the ‘control of one’s body’. This slogan finds its meaning somewhere between ‘having control of one’s own thoughts’ (i.e. freedom of mind) and ‘workers’ control’ (worker-run factories).” (pg 55)

“‘patriarchy’ is all-pervasive: it penetrates class division, different societies, historical epochs. Its chief institution is the family: having the shakiest of biological foundation, ‘patriarchy’ must rely instead on ‘inherited’ culture and the training of the young. It endures as a power system because it is so well entrenched that it hardly needs to be visible, invoking the ‘natural’ it claims to be irrevocable.” (pg 65)

“Her biological status underpins both her weakness as a producer in work relations and her importance as a possession in reproductive relations.” (pg 82)

(On feminist theory)

“Feminism  unites women at the level of their total oppression – it is all-inclusive (cf. Black Power and ‘totalism’). Its politics match this: it is a total attack. The theory backs this: the first division of labour was the first formation of oppressor and oppressed – the first division of labour was between man and woman. The first domination must be given priority – it must be the first to go.” (pg 87).

“Amoeba-like, radical feminism, would ingest Marxism. The historical basis is not the economic determinism of the classes but the natural division of the sexes which precedes this”. (pg 87)

“As the elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the economic ‘underclass’ (the proletariat), so the overthrow of the sexual classes similarly demands the revolt of its underclass (women). In both cases the revolution is not conquer privilege but to eliminate distinction.” (pg 88)

(The position of women)

“Women are exploited at work, and relegated to the home: the two positions compound their oppression. Their subservience in production is obscured by their assumed dominance in their own world – the family. What is the family? And what are the actual functions that a woman fulfils within it? Like woman herself, the family appears as a natural object, but is actually a cultural creation. There is nothing inevitable about the form or role of the family, any more than there is about the character or role of women. It is the function of ideology to present these given social types as aspects of Nature itself.” (pg 100)

“The ideology of ‘woman’ presents her as an undifferentiated whole – ‘a woman’, alike the world over, eternally the same. Likewise the ‘concept’ of the family is of a unit that endures across time and space, there have always been families….Within its supposed permanent structure, eternal woman find her place. So the notion goes….Any analysis of woman, and of the family, must uncoil this ideological concept of their permanence and of their unification into an monolithic whole, mother and child, a woman’s place…her natural destiny. Theoretical analysis and revolutionary action must destructure and destroy the inevitability of this combination.” (pg 100)

(Physical Weakness and Coercion)

“historically it has been woman’s lesser capacity for violence as well as for work, that has determined her subordination. In most societies woman has not only been less able than man to perform arduous kinds of work, she has also been less able to fight. Man not only has the strength to assert himself against nature, but also against his fellows. Social coercion has interplayed with the straightforward division of labour, based on biological capacity, to a much greater extent than is generally admitted. Women have been forced to do ‘women’s work’.” (pg 103)

(The Reproduction of Children)

“Women’s absence from the critical sector of production historically, of course, has been caused not just by their assumed physical weakness in a context of coercion – but also by their role in reproduction. Maternity necessitates withdrawals from work, but this is not a decisive phenomenon.  It is rather women’s role in reproduction which has become, in capitalist society at least, the spiritual ‘complement’ of men’s role in production. Bearing children, bringing them up, and maintaining the home – these form the core of woman’s natural vocation, in this ideology. This belief  has attained great force because of the seeming universality of the family as a human institution.” (pg 106)

“The notion that ‘family’ and ‘society’ are virtually co-extensive or that an advanced society not founded on the nuclear family is now inconceivable, despite revolutionary posturings to the contrary, is still widespread. It can only be seriously discussed by asking just what the family is – or rather what women’s role in the family is. Once this is done, the problems appears in quire a new light. For it is obvious that the woman’s role int he family – primitive, feudal or bourgeois – partakes of three different structures: reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children. These are historically, not intrinsically, related to each other in the present modern family. We can easily see that they needn’t be For instance, biological parentage is not necessarily identical with social parentage (adoption). Thus it is essential to discuss no the family as an unanalysed entity, but the separate structures which today compose it but which tomorrow may be decomposed into a new pattern.” (pg 107)


“Once child bearing becomes totally voluntary (how much so is it in the West, even today?) its significance is fundamentally different. It need no longer be the sole or ultimate vocation of woman; it becomes one option among others.” (pg 108)

(Reproduction and Production)

“Unlike her non-productive status, her capacity for maternity is a definition of woman. But it is only a physiological definition. Yet so long as it is allowed to remain a substitute for action and creativity, and the home an area of relaxation for men, woman will remain confined to the species, to her universal and natural condition”. (pg 109)

“The formal, juridical equality of capitalist society and capitalist rationality now applied as much to the marital as to the labour contract. in both cases, nominal parity masks real exploitation and inequality. But in both cases the formal equality is itself a certain progress, which can help to make possible a further advance.” (pg 113)

(The position of women in the workplace)

“Cultural conservatism by both sexes compounds an economic systems devised to make humanity prey on itself. Men are set against women by their own job insecurity. Only loyalty to traditions of feminine deference saves them. Courtesy unites, by its own hierarchies, what the economy divides.” (pg 127)

“In working-class jobs, women are segregated into ‘women’s work’. In middle-class jobs, women are isolated in ‘a man’s world’. This crucial difference again separates women but this time along class lines. It is difficult for women with such totally different experiences, not just of their class, but of the organization of their jobs, to find common ground either as workers or as women without a Women’s Movement which offers precisely this.” (pg 130)


“Beauty is all, in this epoch of loving and expansive narcissism. He commercial ‘exploitation’ (which comes first?) of this is phenomenal. The ex-Empire (or its remains) has been re-raided to reproduce itself in miniature concentration in Oxford Street: you can eat, dress and adorn – Indian, old Chinese, Arabian, African….And having been offered all possibilities of self-glorification, having produced the sexually radiant you, the commercial dimension of capitalism can re-use you: this time you, yourself, will do to sell the drabber products: cars, washing machines, life insurance. No city in the world boasts such a density of ‘sexual objectification’ on its bill-boards and subway ads, as does London.” (pg 141)

“Illusorily offered the free and glorious expression of ourselves, it turned out to be only for a further alienation: turning ourselves into products which are then confiscated for use in a consumer society.” (pg 142)

“For one of the forces behind the current acceleration of sexual freedom has undoubtedly been the conversion of contemporary capitalism from a production-and-work ethos to a consumption-and-fun ethos.” (pg 147)


“But the family does more than occupy the woman: it produces her. It is in the family that the psychology of men and women is founded. Here is the source of their definition. What is this definition and what is the role of the family in the ideology of it as the basic unit of society today?” (pg 151)

(Ideology of the Family)

“Profits depend more and more on the efficient organization of work and on the ‘self-discipline’ of the workers rather than simply on speed-ups and other direct forms of increasing the exploitation of the workers. The family is therefore important both to shoulder the burden of the cost of higher education, and to carry out the repressive socialization of children. The family must raise children who have internalized hierarchical social relations, who will discipline themselves and work efficiently without constant supervision….Women are responsible for implementing most of this socialization.” (quoted from Peggy Morton: ‘A Woman’s Work Is Never Done’) (pg 152)

“Pre-capitalist society flourishes on individual private property – the peasant has his bit of land, the artisan his tools. Capitalist organization of work deprives the individual of his private property and takes all the separate pieces of private property (land, tools, etc.) pools them, and makes the newly accumulated wealth the private property of a few – the capitalists. The appropriation of individual private property necessitates a form of social organisation of the property (men have to get together to work it) which is simultaneously denied: the mass of men get together to work it, but what they produce and how they produce it is taken by the ‘few’ as their own personal private property. however, the individual private property for the mass of the people does continue side by side with this new process – it continues in the family.” (pg 153)

“”But, of course, the ruling-class interests that pose, in the first place , as universal interests, increasingly decline into ‘mere idealizing phrases, conscious illusions and deliberate deceits….But the more they are condemned as falsehoods, and the less they satisfy the understanding, the more dogmatically they are asserted and the more deceitful, moralizing and spiritual becomes the language of established society.'” (pg 155)

“In any case, the function of the family is not simply one or the other, it is both: it has an economic and ideological role under capitalism. Roughly, the economic role is the provision of a certain type of productive labour-force and of the arena for massive consumption. This is specifically capitalistic.This economic function interacts with the ideology requisite to produce the missing ideals of peasant, feudal society; a place equally and freely to enjoy individual private property. This ideology which looks backwards for its rationale is,nevertheless, crucial for the present: without it people might hanker back to the past as a ‘golden age’; once Utopianism of any sort occurs, after looking backwards, it is liable to look forwards and thus endanger the status quo. The family, thus,, embodies the most conservative concepts available: it rigidifies the past ideals and presents them as the present pleasures. By its very nature, it is there to prevent the future. No wonder revolutionaries come up with the vulgar desperation: abolish the family – it does seem the block to advance, the means of preserving a backwardness that even capitalism makes feel redundant, though, of course, it is essential to it.” (pg 155-156)

“Of course, the ideological concept of the family embodies a paradox which reflects the contradiction between it and the dominant, capitalist method of organizing production. As I have already mentioned, this method of organizing involves social production (a mass or ‘team’ of workers), and the family provides the relief from the confiscation of this social production by apparently offering individual private property. Now the same contradiction is today contained within the family itself. The family is the most fundamental (the earliest and most primitive) form of social organization. When, under capitalism, it was made to embody as an ideal, what had been its economic function under feudalism, a chronic contradiction took place. What had hitherto been a united unit with the overall diversified social structure became, because of changing social conditions, a divided one. The peasant family works together for itself – it is one. The family and production are homogeneous. But the members of a working-class family work separately, for different bosses in different places and through the family interest unites them, the separation of their place and conditions of their work fragments, perforce, that unity….The social nature of work under capitalism fragments the unitary family; thereby it enforces the social nature of the family itself.” (pg 156-157)

“The Women’s Liberation Movement must have a complex reaction to the nuclear family. It must concentrate on separating out the structures – the woman’s roles – which are oppressively fused into it. It must fragment its unity.” (pg 159)

“What does our oppression within the family do to us women? It produces a tendency to small-mindedness, petty jealousy, irrational emotionality and random violence, dependency, competitive selfishness and possessiveness, passivity, a lack of vision and conservatism. These qualities are not the simple produce of male chauvinism, nor are they falsely ascribed to women by a sexist society that uses ‘old woman’ as dirty term. They are the result of the woman’s objective conditions within the family – itself embedded in a sexist society.” (pg 162)


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