‘Marx on Gender and the Family: a Critical Study’ reviewed by Malise Rosbech

Marx on Gender and the Family: a Critical Study

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2013. 246pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9781608462780

Reviewed by Malise Rosbech

About the reviewer

Malise Rosbech is a post-graduate in Philosophy and Critical Theory. She studied at the CRMEP …


The relation between gender and class was one of the great issues debated in the second wave of feminism in the early 1960s through to the 1980s. Feminists attempted to understand the oppression of women through a Marxist theoretical framework, but generally failed to do so satisfactorily. Although some literature was optimistic about the union, others were sceptical, as Heidi Hartmann clearly demonstrates in ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism’: ‘the marriage of Marxism and feminism has been like that between husband and wife depicted in English common law … either we need a healthier marriage or we need a divorce’ (Sargent 1981). And perhaps, a divorce was imminent. In the later 80s the interest decreased and postmodern feminist theories started to flourish. However, within the last few years of economic crisis and increased gender inequality, there has been a renewed interest in both feminism and Marxism.

Given the earlier popularity of the subject, it is surprising that there has been no thorough book-length study into what Marx himself actually had to say about women and gender. This is why Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study is a welcomed breath of fresh air aiming towards a new beginning of a unitary theory of class and gender. Although Brown is not scared to highlight some of Marx’s failings – such as the lack of a comprehensive theory of gender and his own occasional moral prejudices in relation to women’s oppression – she does argue that his general theory does include gender as a category for understanding society and, moreover, that within it are openings which are amenable to feminist interpretation. Following in the steps of some of the early Marxist feminists such as Margaret Benston, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, Brown illustrates how Marx’s theory can include women’s issues at least involving political economy, but she furthers this by demonstrating that it is possible to integrate the discussion of wages into a more holistic Marxist theory of women and society.

Marx on Gender and the Family is very accessible and enjoyable. The book follows a near chronological progression through Marx’s work from his early writing, such as the 1844 Manuscripts and The Communist Manifesto, to the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Capital and his Ethnological Notebooks. As Marx did not address the question of the oppression of women specifically, Brown covers a range of different topics and issues, and goes beyond mere textual analysis. She argues for the use of Marx’s wider theoretical approach and methodology – historical materialism and dialectics – in order to (re-)develop a Marxist-feminist theory. This book draws heavily on the work of Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya, and claims to further her project of understanding Marx’s work as a totality and the importance that Marx places on factors other than class.

In the first part of the book, Brown discusses Marx’s earlier work which contains some strong and direct criticisms of the family and the (in-)human condition under the capitalist mode of production. Interestingly, Brown also includes an analysis of his 1846 article on suicide demonstrating Marx’s concern with women’s oppression – a concern which, she argues, extended to bourgeois women. The article discusses the case of several women who all committed suicide; one after being humiliated by her family for losing her virginity after spending the night at her fiancé’s; one after becoming pregnant by her aunt’s husband and denied abortion; and one who is held prisoner by her jealous husband and forced to have sex. Later Brown also discusses Marx’s two articles written in 1858 regarding the case of Lady Bulwer-Lytton who was the wife of a Tory MP and falsely accused and imprisoned by her husband and son on the grounds of insanity. Brown demonstrates from these examples that Marx’s view of oppression is not reduced to class and that instead he understands the privatised family as the core of oppression affecting women across all classes.

Brown extends this argument to encompass Marx’s overall theory. According to Brown, Marx does not hold the view that economic changes will solve all problems of oppression, as he is often criticised for doing. In fact, Brown puts forward an understanding of social relations as dynamic, open to change, and contradictory, thereby re-centering the dialectic. In order for society to advance beyond capitalism, new social relations will have to be formed which do not rely solely on the crude capitalist formulation of value. Brown extends this argument in relation to Marx’s understanding of the nature/culture and woman/man binaries. Feminists have repeatedly criticised Marx and Marxism for setting up a hierarchical order between culture and nature, yet Brown successfully demonstrates that this dualism should be understood as in a dialectical relation and one that can be ‘overcome’ (Aufhebung). Drawing on the work of Dunayevskaya, she dismisses the idea of the epistemological break – a dynamic understanding of gender and social relations as social and changeable constructs is carried over as a theoretical principle from the early to the late Marx.

Brown distances herself sharply from the work of Friedrich Engels, especially his work The Origins of the Family. She argues that, in contrast to Engels’s monocausal and nonlinear theoretical model, Marx demonstrates how both class and gender antagonisms began already in communally structured societies before the emergence of private property. Overall, she concludes, there is a significant difference between the two: whereas Marx often takes note of the ways in which social relations are determined not only by economic and technological forces, but also by the contingent nature of other developments and stresses the possibilities for human activity, Engels looks only to economic forces to point out possibilities for change. Engels, for Brown, is an economic determinist, while Marx allows for a more nuanced dialectical approach which in effect allows for a greater degree of human agency. Since much Marxist feminist theory has drawn heavily on The Origins of the Family, it is understandable that Brown would want to comment on the work of Engels. However, it feels as if the critique is rushed and not grounded in a thorough analysis of the work. Although the critique is interesting, it seems superfluous and would probably work better as a separate publication.

Chapter Six deals with Marx’s notes, which were never meant for publication, on Henry Sumner Maine’s Lectures on the Early History of Institutions and Ludwig Lange’s Romische Alterthumer. It is very detailed and includes long quotes from the original notes – unfortunately this means that this part is not as readable as the rest of the book. However, for Brown this is an attempt to provide a context when dealing with Marx’s lesser-known works. Brown analyses Marx’s critique of Maine and his study of the family in Ireland and India. She makes it clear that Marx criticised Maine for understanding the family as a stagnant patriarchal institution, instead of as a historical and culturally specific entity. That is, for Marx, in contrast to Maine, Lange and Engels, there was no ‘world-historic defeat of the female sex’. Because of Marx’s dialectical framework it can be argued that women do have agency and have been at the forefront of resistance struggles. The possibility of change in gender relations is always present in Marx, according to Brown, and it needs to be in order to fully overcome capitalist production.

Marx on Gender and the Family is a good piece of work on what Marx himself wrote about women and gender. It is noted throughout the work that Marx himself did not examine gender as a category in a systematic manner, and the aim of the book is not to try and construct a systematic approach. However, Brown successfully demonstrates that Marx’s conclusions cannot be separated from his method, and that a dialectical approach to his work is necessary for a new feminist approach to a unitary theory of gender and class. It is an enjoyable and comprehensive read and a good stepping-stone for further Marxist feminist analysis. 

24 September 2014


  • Sargent, Lydia 1981 Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (London: Pluto)


  1. When Marx discusses the gens, an egalitarian society that is well pre-capitalist, in his Ethnological Notebooks Marx notes the the development into non-egalitarian societies did not arise as a result of some outside defeat, as in Engelss “world historic defeat,” but within the gens as a division between chiefs and ranks. This is well before any idea of property, yet alone private property.

  2. That’s interesting I’ll have to dig out my ethnological notebooks. Having said that Engels idea of a world historic defeat was not external to society but rather internal to it as the growth of surplus product provided the material foundation for the creation of classes or chiefs and ranks as you put it. I’m still not clear how you can have class oppression without private property given that the definition of class is determined by the social relationship to production, that is the ownership of control, or non ownership and absence of control, of it?

  3. I may hazard a guess: once the distinction – or asymmtery – within primitive social formations arises, the chief may have access to both ‘surplus labour’ of the commoners and the ‘surplus product’ (if the term reserved for feudalism be allowed) in the form of gifts. Socio-logic requires that if the distinction is to be maintained, the chief needs to be endowed with status and power through goods and symbolism.

Leave a Reply to bill jefferies Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.