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Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Systematic Oppression of Women

By Ananya Bhargava


The oppression of women is ancient and it predates any other form of oppression. Women of the world have since time immemorial borne the brunt of patriarchy which, due to its dynamism, has gradually and incrementally overlapped with newer and more universal forms of oppression i.e capitalism. Patriarchy and capitalism have together sustained and perpetuated a male-dominated society in the 21st century and have resisted any transformation of its core assertion of male supremacy.

Definition of Patriarchy and Capitalism

Patriarchy is a form of social organisation where men have a monopoly on power and the social institutions and culture support the domination of women by men. Patriarchy creates a hierarchical and economically stratified society, where men control the resources and opportunities. Capitalism on the other hand is an economic and political system in which the means of production are controlled by few private individuals or enterprises.  At first instance, the two forms of oppression may seem to be disconnected and even contrasting to an extent but as we delve deeper into their various manifestations in the private and public spheres, we realise how deeply intertwined the two forms of oppression are, and how they work in tandem to sustain a hierarchical social and economic order.

Patriarchy and Capitalism as an interdependent system of oppression

Patriarchy and capitalism are both social institutions dependent on the accumulation of power and the resultant oppression of the less powerful. They are both systems of structural oppression and they feed on the domination of one group (people who do not identify as men) by the other (men). Patriarchy, with the advent of capitalism, has transformed into a more oppressive and powerful institution where although the control over women is maintained in the family by a man, it is sustained by systematic and structured institutions like the state and the economy.In order to further understand this link, it is necessary to understand the concept of division of labour on the basis of sex.

Sex-based division of labour and its role in the subjugation of women

The roots of women’s present social status lie in the sex-ordered division of labour.  But, the division of labour on the basis of sex goes way back, it existed before the advent of capitalism. As the societies transformed from primitive to civilised and became more complex with the establishment of settled agriculture, private property and colonisation, public and private life were separated, men started to dominate the public sphere and women were confined to domestic work and raising children. This resulted in a “sexual stratification of the society”. This stratification was hierarchical in nature where men’s labour was considered superior. Thus, we can say that before the advent of capitalism in the 18th century, a patriarchal social apparatus was already established where men held power and controlled women. Capitalism, as a system of oppression, just accentuated this historical marginalisation and relied on this already existing unequal power dynamic in the pre-industrial society and transformed it into an unequal distribution of power and wealth in the post-industrial society and economy.

The interaction of patriarchy and capitalism sustained the pre-existing gender discrimination. Since men already controlled power in pre-capitalist society, it was easier for them to accumulate wealth in capitalist society through the perpetual domination and control of women’s labour.  For example, the sex-ordered division of labour in pre-capitalist societies was perpetuated by job segregation on the basis of sex in capitalist society. Job segregation on the basis of sex labelled women’s work as unimportant and inferior to that of men and as a result enforced lower wages for them in the labour market. This stripped the women of their financial autonomy and further weakened their position in society. Therefore, we can say that the creation of wage-labour forces and the increase in the scale of production that occurred with the emergence of capitalism exacerbated the condition of women and strengthened patriarchy. To understand this, we need to look at the emergence of capitalism and the transition of our pre-industrial society.

 The emergence of Capitalism and the stratification of gender roles

Before industrialization, men worked in fields and women tended the household plots and engaged in cattle farming. The women also spun and wove. Therefore, women earned a considerable amount to sustain themselves independently. Around the 18th and 19th century, the farms were enclosed and small farmers were displaced by large farmers and industrialists. Textile mills were also set up. As a result, women lost their jobs as well as their household plots. Men, on the other hand, continued to work in the fields of large farmers. Women, forced into unemployment by industrialization and the capitalization of agriculture were confined to household chores and raising children and were labelled as “homemakers” while men, on the other hand, laboured in fields and earned money and were labelled as “breadwinners”. This was the time when the historical division of labour on the basis of sex was transformed into a more oppressive system of job segregation on the basis of sex.  Thus, patriarchy shapes the form modern capitalism takes and capitalism transforms and updates outdated patriarchal institutions to fit into modern society. Both institutions depend on each other for sustainability and create a vicious cycle of oppression.

 Women as “unpaid” labourers or rather slaves

In a capitalist society, financial autonomy, although not sufficient, is a necessary condition for independence, respect and social status. Women, due to lack of this autonomy end up being confined to the shackles of patriarchy. It is important to note here that financial autonomy is not based on the amount of work one does, thus it will be fallacious to assume that men work more than women just because they earn a “livelihood”.  According to the International labour Organization, all around the world, women spend time in unpaid work – ranging from a maximum of 345 minutes per day in Iraq to 168 minutes per day in Taiwan.  While the monetary value of household work is not constant, UNDP in its 1995 report evaluated it at an estimated 11000 billion dollars. This figure must be seen in relation to that of world productivity, estimated at the time to be around 23,000 billion dollars, in order to get an idea of how much women contribute to humanity as a whole. 

But this work is not recognized as “work” in capitalist society as it does not contribute anything to the “GDP”. Rather, this work is considered natural to women and is unapologetically imposed on them with the assumption that women are predisposed to carry out household chores due to biological factors. According to The Time Use Survey, 2019 (NSO), More than 90% of Indian women participated in unpaid domestic work at home in 2019 compared to 27% of men. On the other hand, only 22% of women participated in employment and related activities compared to 71% of men.  

Thus, work done by a majority of women goes unnoticed and is unpaid, and capitalism systematically devalues women’s work and their contribution to the economy, for example: Until recently, while filling the occupation of their mother in admission forms, children in schools were suggested to keep the area blank if their mother is engaged in unpaid work or she is a housewife. As the example suggests, a woman’s work in her household which sustains all the male members or the “breadwinners” of the family is given no importance in a capitalist society. They earn nothing for the endless amount of work they do and are trapped in an endless cycle of slavery and oppression by their own families.

 Physical violence against women

Many women around the world do not earn a livelihood, they lack financial autonomy and are dependent on the male members of the family for subsistence, this dependency creates a sense of superiority among the male members which perpetuates the exploitation of women and encourages physical violence in the form of rape, harassment, wife beating, assault etc.  Due to the lack of paid work, women remain dependent on the men of their life. This is also the reason why many women choose to live in an abusive marriage because the marriage is the source of her livelihood, she cannot go back to her natal home due to archaic religious inhibitions and therefore has to tolerate anything her husband does to her. Therefore, by stripping women of their right to earn from the work they do, capitalism and patriarchy together create a system of control. Thus, we can say that capitalism and patriarchy are therefore today simply inseparable: the former establish social relations that facilitate the exploitation of women, and the latter provides the justifications for it.

The gender gap in education and job opportunities and the resultant exploitation of women

Another extremely discriminatory practice of a patriarchal and capitalist society is gender disparity in education. For example,. in Indian villages, poor households invest in the education of their boy child rather than their girl child with the belief that the boy will grow up to be a skilled labourer and earn a livelihood and become the “breadwinner” of the household. The girl child is seen as a liability in most rural families and is therefore not given much attention. Women are assumed to be homemakers so education is not considered important. This is not an isolated incident credited to a single country, rather it is a systematic practice which is not exclusive in nature. This practice exists due to the historical division of labour between males and females explained in the preceding paragraphs. Apart from this division of labour, religious, social and cultural factors also play an important role here. According to UNICEF, almost one-third of countries have not reached gender parity in terms of education. Currently, there are 5.5 million more out-of-school girls than boys. Lack of access to education creates a domino effect which results in a lack of opportunities in the employment sector which further results in a lack of paid jobs which in turn results in a lack of financial autonomy which finally results in the exploitation and domination of women. This explains how patriarchy along with capitalism creates a vicious cycle of oppression and subjugation of women.

 Life of an employed woman: Juggling between workplace and domestic household

In the above paragraphs, I have primarily confined my focus to women engaged in unpaid labour or women who lack opportunities to engage in organized labour. Now, I would like to focus on women who are employed in skilled jobs and play an important role in the furtherance of capitalist society. It is assumed that these women are not impacted by patriarchy and capitalism in any sense. This assumption is not based on facts and therefore is fictitious. Most of the women employed in the capitalist workforce are treated unequally. For starters, these women, apart from being employed in paid work, are solely responsible for the household chores and providing care at home. Thus, their work is doubled. The resultant overburdening of work on women employed in the organised sector results in inefficiency and exhaustion. In comparison to this, the men involved in the workforce hardly participate in domestic chores and employ all their time and effort in building a lucrative career.

Women are forced to juggle between housework and office work which results in relatively poor and underwhelming performance.  As a consequence, women are not promoted to managerial and leadership positions or important executive posts. According to the Global Gender Pay report, women represent only 27% of all managerial positions. In an inherently patriarchal and capitalist system, men have favourable conditions to grow in their professional and personal life whereas women are stripped of their potential to build a career.

Gender pay gap and exploitation of women in the informal sector

Apart from the intrusion of housework, there are other manifestations of workplace discrimination. The most salient among those is the wage gap on the basis of gender. According to Global Gender Pay Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, it will take almost 136 years for the world to close the gender pay gap in our society. Additionally, the report also enunciated that it will take around 268 years for men and women to get the same salary for similar work.  It is clear from the report that there exists an extremely exploitative system which engages in systematic appropriation, oppression, denigration and subjugation of women and their work. It is appalling to know that even if men and women are engaged in the same kind of work, men are paid more than women.  The exploitation of women workers is clearly evident in the garment-making industries as well as the domestic labour market where they are employed in informal and irregular contractual labour with no job or social security.  In addition to this, when capitalism is in crisis, austerity measures are introduced whereby women are the first to be excluded from social benefits such as unemployment benefits, for example, where they exist. Elsewhere, they are pushed into very poorly-paid jobs such as work in the free zones. 

The capitalists justify their actions of paying women less than men by relying on the age-old patriarchal argument that “women are less productive than men.” The capitalists over-exploit and underpay women by ostensibly giving false and sexist rationales like the inefficiency of women’s work during menstruation, pregnancy, hormonal changes etc. This allows the capitalists to accumulate a cheaper labour pool consisting of women which further results in maximum profit generation. Therefore, capitalists continue this process of over-exploitation. Capitalists over-exploit women by relying on patriarchy, they believe women to be the inherently weaker sex, and thus they are not afraid to abrogate their fundamental rights. This is one of the few sinister forms the intersectional systems of discrimination can take in order to subjugate the already oppressed community.

There is no denying that there have been considerable achievements in terms of women’s rights and empowerment, but there is still a long way to go. We cannot satisfy ourselves with isolated incidents of empowerment, rather we have to break the deeply ingrained and structured system of discrimination. In conclusion, it is necessary to view patriarchy through the lens of capitalism since it will be impossible to break patriarchy without annihilating the economic and social notions on which it is founded. 

About the Author

Ananya Bhargava (she/her) is a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School.

Image Source: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India 

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