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Sociology 250
October 28, 1999
Feminism and Classical Sociology
A. Introduction
Each of the three classical sociological approaches that we have studied Marx, Weber, and Durkheim
provide analyses and models which capture many elements of the social world. They identify features of
society and methods of study that yield gr eat insight into how people interact with each other and how
society is structured and develops. Their models were developed in nineteenth and early twentieth
century Europe, and were based primarily on their study of European society and European thought .
Their observations provide excellent descriptions of the modern period that developed in Europe and
yield many ideas that can be applied to the contemporary world.
While it is difficult to know whether Marx, Weber, and Durkheim considered their approaches universal
in the sense of developing an understanding and analysis of all societies at all times, there are reasons to
think that they did consider their approa ch universal. They wrote in a Europe that dominated much of the
rest of the world politically and economically, and the authors of European social thought of this period
generally considered their analyses universal. These classical sociologists placed no qualifications or
limits on their analysis, but wrote in general and universal terms, developing concepts and methods that
could be applied in any situation. They studied many topics, societies, and times, with each having a
theory of history and society as a whole. The universal nature of their analysis is also shown by the many
applications of this analysis in different situations, countries, and over time. Certainly the followers of
each of the three classical sociologists consider their analyses to b e useful in analyzing issues and
situations in todays contemporary world. Finally, Durkheim and Weber each define sociology as an
academic discipline and set out the proper scope and limits of sociology, so that they claimed to have
defined the field.
Contemporary sociological approaches have cast doubt on the claims to universality of the classical
sociological approaches. While few would deny that these classical approaches must be studied, and that
their approaches are often useful today, feminis ts, third world or post-colonial analysts, identity
theorists, writers with new approaches to sexuality, and post-modernists argue that the classical
approaches are incomplete, misleading, or inadequate. These latter writers come from many different
tradi tions and approaches, with some rejecting classical writers while others modifying classical
approaches and using new insights to develop hybrid approaches to analysis of the social world. Some of
the latter approaches will be studied in the latter sectio n of the course, since they represent attempts by
contemporary sociologists to update and improve classical sociology.
There are many criticisms of classical sociological approaches. Post-modernists generally argue that
there cannot be a single, universal social theory, but that social thought requires consideration of local
and different situations. Identity theorists and post-colonial writers consider classical sociology to be
Eurocentric and bound by modes of thought and experiences that were characteristic of western
European society in the nineteenth century. Feminists and analysts of sexuality argue that classica l
sociologists were male writers with a male centred and conventional analysis of women, family, and
sexuality.
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This section of the notes will examine some of the feminist criticisms of classical sociological
approaches. There are many such feminist criticisms, from those who reject the classical sociological
approaches in their entirety to those who modify the classical approaches and develop their own hybrid
approaches for example, Marxist or liberal feminism. Some of the general approaches of feminist
writers will be considered first. Following that are comments on each of the three classical approaches.
So me of the following analysis is drawn from Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective
on Sociological Theory by Rosalind Sydie of the University of Alberta. Sydie systematically analyzes the
three classical sociologists and Freud from a fe minist viewpoint. These notes do not attempt to develop a
feminist approach to sociology, they are confined to feminist critiques and comments on classical
sociological approaches. Later in the semester, some of the feminist approaches to sociological ana lysis
will be examined.
B. Overview of Feminist Critique
1. Women Ignored. One general line of criticism of feminists is that women are absent from the social
analyses and social world of classical sociology. The language and analysis of classical sociologists is
that of men, male activities and exper iences, and the parts of society dominated by males. Marx, Weber,
and Durkheim were typical of nineteenth century European writers who assumed that the social world
was primarily that of male activities.
One aspect of the long history of modern, urban, industrial society was the development of a separation
between the public and private spheres. These had not always been separated in traditional societies,
although there was often a sex-based division of labour and male dominance. But there is no doubt that
with the development of capitalism, cities, and industry, a public sphere dominated by men and male
activities developed. Women generally became restricted to the private sphere of household and fam ily,
and had limited involvement in political, economic, or even social public life. While some women were
involved in more public activities, there were movements to restrict the participation of women in public
life for example, factory legislation an d the family wage.
In order to understand some of the difficulties women faced in this era, some of the details of the
situation of women should be considered. First, women in late nineteenth century England were not
recognized as individuals in either the legal or the l iberal theoretical sense. Men still held formal power
over the rest of the family, and women were mostly excluded from the public sphere. Mill and Taylor,
along with some early United States feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a
rgued that the equality of women required full citizenship for women. This would include giving women
enfranchisement. After 1865, when Mill was in the English Parliament, he fought for women's suffrage.
He also fought "to amend the laws that gave husband s control over their wives' money and property." He
also supported the campaign for birth control information to be available, and was active in other
campaigns that were aimed at assisting women and children. (Eisenstein, p. 128).
While there were various feminist movements, formal equality for women did not come until much later.
In Canada, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections until 1918, although the franchise
was extended to women two years earlier in the Prairie provinces. Quebec women did not receive the
vote in provincial elections until 1940. Property ownership also rested with men through most of the
nineteenth century, with changes that allowed property purchasers to become owners, regardless of sex ,
coming between 1872 and 1940. "By 1897 in English Canada and 1931 in Quebec, a wife employed
outside the home was allowed to retain her wages" (Burt, p. 214). Also note that in Canada it was not
until the 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code that sales of contraceptives became legal, or that
abortions became legal.
In Canada, there is now formal equality in most areas of social life, with women and men having the
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same legal rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1982 Constitution Act states that
"every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit
of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or
ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability" (Section 15). S ection 28 states
that "Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed
equally to male and female persons." Many feminists would argue though that this is only formal
equality, not true equality.
2. Definitions of Sociology and the Social World. Each of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim developed a
mode of analysis that defined the social world. For Weber and Durkheim this was an explicit aspect of
their analysis. Marx differed somewhat in that he was primarily concerned with political economy and
political action and did not define sociology as a separate form of analysis. Each of these writers did
develop a definition of the social world, even if only implicitly, and proceeded to analyze it. F or
feminists and contemporary sociologists, a major problem is that the classical definitions of the social
world exclude large parts of human action and interaction. Many of the excluded portions of the social
world are those that were typically occupied by women and children, with classical writers showing little
interest in or analysis of institutions such as the household, family, and community where womens
experiences have often been centred.
The emphasis on labour and the commodity for Marx, and the division of labour for Marx and Durkheim,
provide an example of this. Marxs political economic model begins with the commodity and exchange,
with the value of commodities coming from labour an d surplus value coming from surplus labour. Marx
looks on human labour as creative and as defining humanity. His critique of private property and
capitalism is that this essence and creativity is taken away from labourers through the objectification
proce ss. But Marxs analysis is almost entirely that of the public economy and the creation of products
for purposes of exchange. Commodities have value to the extent that they are exchanged, and it is only
those commodities which are exchanged which are part of capitalism and the Marxian model. Marx
spends little time analyzing use values, taking them for granted. Goods and services produced in the
household and family, or in volunteer or other situations where exchange is not for money, form no part
of Marx s model of capitalism. While Marxian analysis initially appears to consider all human labour, it
quickly becomes clear that only labour exchanged for a wage is relevant to the model. Family,
household, reproduction, the supply of labour, and the survival of labourers outside the formal labour
market are generally taken for granted by Marx. While he devotes some discussion to the value of labour
power, Marx does not have an adequate theory of population or the supply of labour. In Marxs time,
women played little role in the public economy, and Marx develops no theory of how women, family,
and household contribute to the value of labour power as a commodity. In essence, then, Marxs social
world is the commodity, commodity exchange, the labour market, and accumulation.
Durkheim, concentrating on the division of labour, and its implications for social development and social
solidarity, develops a similar approach. That is, it is the division of tasks in the public economy that
characterizes the division of labour. Sin ce women did not generally participate in the labour force in
Durkheims day, this eliminates women from the division of labour. To the extent that the division of
labour forms the basis for morality and organic solidarity in modern society, it is primari ly the activity of
men that create this solidarity. It is difficult to see how womens activities contribute to organic
solidarity. Since the proper study of sociology is social facts, but women are absent from the creation of
social facts, women are not the proper subject of sociology.
Another way that classical sociologists define the social world is through their categories and concepts.
For Marx, class and class struggle, exploitation and surplus labour, and accumulation and crises have
little to do with what women experience or d o. Durkheims social facts could include women, but they
generally do not. Similarly, Webers class, status, and party, domination, authority, bureaucracy, and
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rationality are all part of a public sphere in which women play little part.
In summary, the social world of the classical sociologists generally excluded the actions of women. As a
result, sociology as a discipline did not have much to say about women. While each of Marx, Weber, and
Durkheim did have some comments on women and family, these were generally limited comments and
their sociological models would be little different if women did not exist.
3. Biology. Classical sociologists appear to have thought that there were natural differences between men
and women. This could be biological differences or socially developed differences that were not analyzed
by sociologists. Biological differ ence such as strength or the ability to bear children might have been
assumed. Or they may have assumed that there was an essential difference in human nature between men
and women. While all people may have been regarded as rational human beings, with no difference
between men and women, most of the classical sociologists thought of men and women as being
somewhat different in their natures. Sydie notes that "the female is associated with the world of nature"
while men were associated with culture (p. 3) . Or women were regarded as emotional or passionate,
while men were rational in their thought and activities. For Durkheim this was especially ironic, given
that he regarded human interaction as social, and as a sociologist he considered biological aspect s to
have no direct connection with the social yet women were somehow natural and connected to nature.
4. Inequalities. Classical sociologists generally focussed on differences and inequality. Marx was most
explicit in this, but Durkheim and Weber also developed various ways of examining difference and
inequality. Issues such as the division of l abour, exploitation, and power, domination, and authority
emphasize difference and inequality. Yet male/female inequalities, or racial and ethnic inequalities, form
little part of classical sociology. Feminists have identified patriarchy as a social syste m of inequality, but
classical sociology had only limited analysis of this. Marx and Engels did have a model of male/female
inequality, but it derives from property and economic considerations. Weber analyzed patriarchy, but
male/female inequalities were not his primary concern in such analysis.
C. Durkheim
1. Discussion of Men, Women and Family in Suicide. Sydie discusses Durkheim's claims concerning
male and female suicide rates, and his arguments about the broader issue of the dualism of human nature.
With respect to suicide rates, Durkheim examine d male-female differences in suicide rates, and rates for
married, divorced, widowed, single, etc. In general, he finds that women have lower suicide rates than do
men, although there are different rates associated with different marital statuses and in different
countries. Single males and male divorcees are particularly subject to suicide. Sydie argues that this is
based on Durkheim's view that marriage is better for men than for women. For men, marriage provides
moral calmness and tranquillity, and in order to reduce the suicide rate of men, the institution of marriage
should be strengthened. In contrast, women tend to be negatively affected by marriage. This is because
their sexual needs are more biological and less mental than men's, the mental life of women is less
developed, females are more instinctive, and females do not require the same degree of social regulation
that men do. Stronger marriage institutions would increase the female suicide rate and reduce the male
rate.
2. Domestic Anomie. Suicides of divorced people are greater than those for other parts of the population,
even more than for widows. The cause though is not divorce, but "the family condition predisposing to
suicide" (Suicide, p. 263) is also that which leads to divorce, so that the two are really the result of the
same cause. Durkheim then goes on to examine what family condition creates this. He argues that
"marriage is more favorable to the wife the more widely practiced divorce is." ( Suicide, p. 269). Thus, it
is husbands who contribute to the rise in the suicide rate in societies as divorce becomes more common.
The cause of this is changes in the institution of marriage, and not the family itself. Where divorce is
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common, this weakens matrimonial regulation generally, not just the dissolution of the marriage. This
has a negative effect on men, making them less calm and tranquil, and men become more uneasy.
In contrast, women' sexual needs are less mental because her mental life is less developed. Women are
more instinctive and do not require as much social regulation in the form of marriage as do men. For
women, marriage is less useful and the regulation of marriage does not have advantages for her. As a
result, divorce protects women, and women have frequent recourse to it.
As the divorce rate increases, the increase in suicides of men is not the result of bad husbands, bad wives,
or unhappy households. Rather, this increase results from a change in the moral structure of society -- a
weakening of matrimonial regulation. (See Suicide, Section IV of Anomic Suicide).
3. Division of Labour. Sydie notes that Durkheim does not view men and women as sharing equally in
social life as society and the division of labour develop. Women tend to be in positions where it is their
natural and biological impulses are imp ortant to filling the position, and mental and other characteristics
may be less well developed. That is, women are more suited to domestic and aesthetic occupations and
roles. In contrast, it is men who benefit from social life and moral regulation. Men' s mental capacities
are better developed and they more clearly realize the difference between natural impulses and sensory
perception on the one hand, and moral forces and activities on the other. Sydie argues that Durkheim's
attempt to provide a sociolog ical explanation for the change in sex roles ultimately failed. In her view,
Durkheim fell back on a biological argument, that males and females are inherently and biologically
different -- and that this difference is socially expressed. This represents a failure in the sociological
imagination for Durkheim, who was concerned to always explain the social causes of societal
phenomena.
4. Dualistic View. Sydie argues that there is a more general problem here. Durkheim had a dualistic view
of human nature, looking on the soul as sacred and as regulated by the collectivity. The body is profane
(or secular) and is not regulated b y society. The body is composed of sensations and is egoistic and
personal. This duality is reflected in society, with society representing solidarity, the moral imperative,
and regulation. Within modern society, each person has a double life, with indivi duality and personality,
but with a greater need for collective coordination and constraint. This parallels the division in sex roles.
Men tend to become more aware of the conflict between the two, because men occupy positions within
the division of labou r outside the household. This leads to a greater development of men's mental
capacities, and men become more aware than do women of the nature of this duality. For men roles
become more complex, and the institution of marriage as a means of moral regulati on is necessary. For
women, the dualism is not as severe. Because their roles are more natural, and ones they are more
naturally suited for, and because women have fewer needs, they have less need for regulation.
Sydie notes how this view of women as connected to nature and biology, with men more connected to a
rational, regulated culture, is common to many writers in sociology. Many sociological models are built
on social explanations of society, culture, econ omy, politics, etc. but biological explanations of women's
roles, household, family, socialization, sex, and marriage.
While Sydie is generally critical of Durkheim, there are a few positive points concerning sex roles that
emerge from Durkheim's writings. First, Durkheim looked on early society as having men and women in
relatively equal roles, or at least considerabl y less differentiated that they later became. He states that
women did participate in war and politics, and considered some form of matriarchy to have been one of
the original forms of kinship. Durkheim did not think that patriarchy always existed, or was a
fundamental form. Second, Durkheim looked on the natural or historical development of the division of
labour as affecting sex roles as well. The manner in which the division of labour developed led to greater
specialization on the part of men and women . In that sense, he did not view the sex roles of his time as
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completely natural (or fixed) but they were as a result of specific historical developments. In some ways,
Durkheim seemed to look on these historical developments as natural -- but this is not nature in the
strictly biological sense. Third, he evaluated the forms in which the institution of marriage developed as
generally being of greater benefit to the male than to the female. Fourth, he did envision the possibility of
changes in sex roles, b ut did not view these as likely to occur for a long time. In the society of his time,
Durkheim argued that society required the division of labour between the sexes that had developed.
Durkheim's legacy on these issues are then mixed. In some ways he was an acute observer, but in the end
he failed to develop a sociological explanation for sex roles. Like so many other writers, he fell back on
natural differences between males and fem ales as an explanation for modern sex roles.
5. Conclusion. As with the other major theorists, Durkheim makes little mention of women and their role
in the division of labour. For Durkheim, the division of labour is that within the economy, for people
with occupations in paid jobs or busin esses. There is little mention of what happens outside this division
of labour, how it affects the division of labour and society as a whole, and what changes can result as
more of household activities become part of the economy. Whether Durkheim's analys is can be extended
to include the household and non-economic activities of this type is not clear.
D. Marxism and Feminism
1. Introduction. The Marxian tradition provides an analysis of the family and of sex and gender
inequalities. For Marxists, class inequalities and class struggles are the primary feature of the structure of
any society, and play a key role in the d evelopment of these structures. At the same time, many Marxists
recognize that women and men have not usually been equal in society, with women have a position
inferior to that of men through much of history and in modern society. For some Marxists, this inequality
is not just a byproduct of class inequality, but has its own separate explanation. Marx also argued that for
women and men to be fully equal, private property would have to be abolished, and an egalitarian,
socialist society created (Sydie, p. 89).
Marxists have often considered class struggle, the working class, and a political program to attain
socialism to be the primary goal of a socialist movement. The inequality of men and women may be
considered secondary in importance to class inequality and oppression, and contradictions related to
reproduction and gender relations play a secondary role in explaining social change. Women's struggles
to attain equality with men have often had to take a secondary place to the struggles of the working class
. At the same time, as Tong notes (p. 40), work shapes consciousness, and women's work shapes her
status and self-image. Marxists have sometimes used this negatively, arguing that the responsibility of
women within the family has a conservatizing effect, and may help explain the problem of developing
working class consciousness.
More recently, Marxist feminists have attempted to combine the classical Marxian view that class
inequality is rooted in the control of material forces by a few, with an understanding of the roots of
women's oppression and an examination of feminist so cial protest. Sydie notes that this may be an
"unhappy marriage" of Marxism and feminism (p. 89), but this approach has had an important influence
on recent sociological theorizing.
The Marxist feminist approach has also had an effect on the way women's struggles are viewed. Unlike
the liberal feminist approach, for Marxist feminists inequality on the basis of sex cannot be solved within
the capitalist system, but requires as tran sformation of that system to socialism and communism. Since
sex inequalities and class oppression are intertwined, it is necessary to end capitalism to begin solving
these problems. If this can be done, the promise of Marxism is to
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reconstitute human nature in ways that preclude all the pernicious dichotomies that have
made slaves of some and masters of others. ... there is something very liberating about the
idea of women and men constructing together the social structures and s ocial roles that will
permit both genders to realize their full human potential. (Tong, p. 46).
The promise of equality under socialism and communism is great, and women's struggles for equality
should become part of the struggle for this. In the Marxist feminist view, feminists might best attempt to
work at causes such as unionizing women, attem pting to get equal wages for women, and more generally
integrate the struggles of women with the struggles of men for social change.
A further implication is that liberal feminism is bourgeois feminism. Liberal feminists argue for equal
rights for women, but may concentrate on providing equal access to middle and upper middle class jobs,
higher education, and professional careers. T hese are often areas that are not open to working class men
or women, and providing equal access to upper level jobs for women will not help solve the basic
problems of working class people. Further, welfare liberalism may make things look like they are i
mproving. In fact, attempting to win concessions from the bourgeoisie can divert the attention of the
working class from the fact that the basic position of workers is still opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
2. Origin of the Family. The Marxian argument concerning male and female inequality is that male
dominance began with the development of private property in agricultural societies. As capitalism
developed, these inequalities were taken over and further developed as part of the class oppression that
forms the essential structure of capitalist oppression and exploitation. There is no immediate structural
explanation of sex inequalities today, but these tend to be regarded as a continuation of ineq ualities first
developed in an earlier era.
The most important work, and basic reference point, in Marxist feminism is Friedrich Engels, The Origin
of the Family, Private Property and the State. This was published in 1884 by Engels, a year after Marx
died, but was based on Marx's notes, e specially notes on the work of American anthropologist, Lewis
Henry Morgan (1818-1881), in Ancient Society (1877). Morgan's work was an up to date anthropological
work of that era, but would now appear quite dated and incorrect, with more recent an thropology
yielding different evidence. Partly as a result of this, partly due to the fact that Engels was attempting to
explain the origin of the family in terms of the same material forces as he used for the economic system,
and partly because Marx and Engels generally ignored cultural factors as playing an independent role,
Engels' analysis now appears inadequate. But it was an attempt to explain the roots of the oppression of
women, and the inequalities in the family, on a material basis. Sociologists such as Weber and Durkheim
paid even less attention to these issues than did Marx or Engels. The work of Engels has also been the
reference point for later Marxists and socialists, so it is important to understand some of the main
arguments in this book.
Much of Engels' analysis concerns prehistoric periods, describing Greek, Roman, German and Iroquois
family structures. He begins his analysis by dividing history into three broad stages (i) savagery, (ii)
barbarism (prehistory development of potter y), and (iii) civilization (development of agriculture)
each of which had several sub stages. These were characterized by different ways of organizing
subsistence, producing food and other essential requirements (something like Marx's modes of productio
n). The stages of development of the family parallel these stages of human history.
In the earlier stages, there were many different sorts of kinship, family and sexual relationship. Some of
these were group marriage, polygamy, polyandry or promiscuous intercourse. In terms of family
structures, Engels argues that group marriage was t he earliest form of the family. As societies developed,
there began to be "prohibitions regarding appropriate sexual partners." (Sydie, p. 95). There was
gradually a development toward "the pairing family," a male-female form of relationship where
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one man lives with one women, but the relationship is such that polygamy and occasional
infidelity remain the right of the men, even though for economic reasons polygamy is rare,
while for the woman the strictest fidelity is generally demanded througho ut the time she live
with the man and adultery on her part is cruelly punished. (Sydie, p. 111).
This is not necessarily monogamous marriage as we know it, but a weaker connection, one in which the
male-female tie is easily broken, in which case the children remain with the mother.
For Engels, the history of the family involves the "progressive narrowing of the circle, originally
embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation." (Sydie, p.
113). In the period of barbarism, (a) men lived in th e woman's household and (b) the sexual division of
labour already existed. Women were responsible for subsistence in terms of reproduction and production
and preparation of food and other goods -- in general the household responsibilities. Such societies were
most likely matrilineal and matriarchal. That is, lines of descent passed from mother to children, and
women had more social and political power than did men. "The social order was constructed in terms of
the biological link of mother and child, and this link comprised the family." (Sydie, p. 98). That is
"fatherhood was impossible to determine with any certainty" (Sydie, p. 95), and this may have led to the
supremacy of women.
Two key aspects of this early stage are important for dealing with this argument. First, the sexual division
of labour already existed in savagery and barbarism, and Engels does not explain why it emerged. Sydie
(p. 98) argues that Engels considers thi s biological in origin -- since only women could have children,
this explains the pre-eminence of women. He may also have viewed this as being naturally related to the
responsibility of women for household labour. Sydie (p. 99) notes that Marx and Engels assumed that the
greater strength of males meant that they hunt, fish and fight, whereas the weakness of women,
compounded by their reproductive role, confined them to the home." Second, since production and
human labour is important for how society is or ganized, the role that women had in providing
subsistence in early societies gave them great power. These were not societies that had much surplus yet,
and women's labour was necessary to ensure survival, with the result that this labour was the source of
livelihood and also of power. Engels notes that "Peoples whose women have to work much harder than
we would consider proper often have far more real respect for women than our Europeans have for
theirs." (in Selected Works, 3, p. 227).
Engels notes that "with the patriarchal family, we enter the field of written history." Males gained power
within the family and in society with the development of agriculture. As societies moved from being
hunter-gatherer societies to developing anima l production, the animals (cattle, goats, etc.) became
instruments of labour which the male could control and take with him. The domestication of animals,
along with the development of farming, meant that more surplus products could be produced. Property
soon developed as a result of this. That is, so long as societies were very close to subsistence, survival
depended on cooperation of all. But with a social surplus, it became possible for some to control more of
the products of society than did others. F actors such as the pre-existing division of labour, the mobility
and strength of men, along with their control of tools and animals, may have allowed this. Men became
property owners, and also wished to have a means of passing this property to their child ren. Given these
conditions, the matrilineal form of descent had to end, since men did not have clear heirs. The result of
this was that "the matriarchal law of inheritance was thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent
and the paternal law of inher itance were substituted for them." (Sydie, p. 120).
The result of this was "the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home
also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere
instrument for the production of children. " (Sydie, pp. 120-121). Also "Within the family he is the
bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat." (Sydie, p. 137). The husband, father and patriarch
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became the master with slaves, and with wife-servant(s) and children-servants. There were man y
different forms that this took in different societies, "but in all cases the general relationship is seen to
hold that women are subject to men in and out of marriage." (Sydie, p. 97).
With the development of private property and patrilineage, the monogamous family developed, at least
monogamy for women. This ensured that the mother of child is known, and that the father is sure which
children are his. The sole purpose of compulsory monogamy is thus to "serve as a vehicle for the orderly
transfer of a father's private property to his children." (Tong, p. 49). Engels notes that right up through
the middle ages, marriage was not decided by the two partners on the basis of "individual s ex love"
(Sydie, p. 97), but by parents and kin on economic grounds, paying attention to private property rights
and inheritance. Dependence of marriage on economic considerations became the norm, with property
being key to understanding family and marria ge.
When capitalism emerged, this form of family structure existed, and "this manner of marriage exactly
suited it." (Tong, p. 142). At the same time, the ideals of freedom and especially freedom of contract had
to be met. These rights were formally extend ed to marriage and the family, but in practice marriage
among the propertied class remained dominated by economic considerations. For the bourgeoisie,
considerations of maintaining and extending property dominate over considerations related to freedom
and love. In that sense, the family is a more important structure for the bourgeoisie than for the
proletariat. Inheritance, female chastity, non-employed wives and the reproduction of legitimate heirs, all
became important for the bourgeoisie. (Barrett, p. 48).
For the proletariat, there is no property to pass on, and relationships between husbands and wives could
be more equal. Engels also noted that proletarian women are often employed outside the home, and
proletarian husbands had relatively few legal righ ts. As a result, there was no material basis for husbands
oppressing their wives. (Tong, p. 50). In addition, by moving production outside the home, capitalism
tends to destroy the need for families among ordinary producers. "Capital accumulation 'breaks up the
family'" is a common Marxist view of what happens to families under capitalism. (Humphries, p. 18).
Given that male oppression of females depends on property rights and inheritance, the solution to ending
oppression is to eliminate property rights. This will create the possibility of true monogamy (p. 139),
although the exact form of sexual and famil y relations is uncertain. There will be much greater freedom
in terms of choices that individuals can make (p. 145) and the family might be abolished. Some of the
statements by Engels are:
... the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern
family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them and the way to do it, will
only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally compl ete equality of rights.
Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole
family back into public industry, and that this in turn demands that the characteristic of the
monogamous family as the economic un it of society will be abolished. (pp. 137-8)
With the transfer of all means of ownership into common ownership, the single family
ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social
industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after
all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not. (p. 139).
Since the basis on which the oppression of women rests is private property and rights of inheritance,
abolishing these would lead to ending oppression of women. Engels argues that this may take a
generation or two, but he seems to be optimistic that th is will happen.
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Another implication of Engels' analysis is that women should enter public industry, and that those people
interested in change should concentrate on organizing women in the workplace and dealing with issues in
"the intersection between women's experien ce as workers and their position in the family." (Tong, p.
61). Sydie notes (p. 101) that if women entered into the paid labour force, this would also provide for her
entry into class relationships. Women remain subordinate within the family so long as th ey have no
property and have no basis for relating directly to the material productive forces.
In addition, the socialization of housework and child care are important social programs to help achieve
this, although issues related to women's sexual and reproductive concerns are secondary. Certainly these
efforts should not just be restricted to g etting women into management or powerful political positions, as
liberal feminists might argue, but should concentrate on working to develop the class consciousness and
power of working class women, and the working class as a whole.
3. Critique and Summary of Origin of the Family
a. Production. The emphasis on production would appear to be both the strong and weak point in Engels'
model. By emphasizing human labour and production, Marx and Engels point to a feature that has been
very important in structuring and changing hu man societies. Private ownership of property and private
property in the means of production are important bases for social organization, and also for the
oppression of women. Marjorie Cohen's analysis of farm labour in nineteenth century Ontario shows th e
importance of inheritance and property rights among agricultural families. Early liberal writers argued
for property rights among men, but argued that these rights should not be extended to women.
In terms of these relationships being the root cause of oppression of women though, several questions are
not adequately answered by Engels. First, how did men obtain possession of the instruments of
production that formed the basis for private propert y and inheritance? Second, Engels does not really say
how the matrilineal and matriarchal system changed into a patrilineal and patriarchal one, except to note
that such a change could easily have occurred, given the development of private property and in
heritance. Third, Engels does not attribute any oppression of women to causes other than private property
in the means of production. If there are cultural or other factors that originally played a role in this, or
continue to exist, then removing private ownership may not eliminate women's oppression.
b. Division of Labour. Engels argues that there was a sexual division of labour before systems of
agriculture developed. This sexual division was to make men responsible for obtaining food and doing
"productive work" and women were responsible f or the household. Whether this is correct, or why this
occurs in the manner he describes is not clear. Engels may have viewed this as a natural division of
labour, because he considers the origin of this division to have originated with the different func tions of
male and female in the sex act. Sydie (p. 99) notes that "physical strength has never been a major
determinant of the division of labour."
One problem with the approach of Marx and Engels is that it tends to devalue work and labour that are
not productive economically or socially. In our society, this means all labour that is not performed for a
wage -- household work, volunteer work, car e for the elderly, child care, etc. The Marxian system is
built on the analysis of productive labour, with the assumption that the rest of work or labour that is
performed has little or nothing to do with exploitation or class position. Work and labour be come work
for a wage, being exploited by an employer, with work performed outside the regular economy not
forming part of the analysis. If the division of labour is based on natural differences between men and
women, and since it preceded the development of private property, there must be some other basis than
property for this. Abolishing private property may not end this form of inequality, and there may be not
such straightforward solution to this inequality.
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c. Reproduction. Engels begins the Preface the 1884 edition of Origin of the Family by noting
"According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the
production and reproduction of immedia te life." (Selected Works, 3, p. 191). Here Engels would seem to
be according equality to production and reproduction. By the end of the same paragraph though, Engels
notes that the development of the productivity of labour, exchange and private pr operty lead to "a
society in which the family system is entirely dominate by the property system, and in which the class
antagonisms and class struggles, which make up the content of all hitherto written history, now freely
develop." (p. 192). One major problem with the Marxian analysis of production is that reproduction is
taken for granted, it is not analyzed. The development of the productive forces is certainly important, but
Marx and Engels did not spend much time analyzing reproductive forces . Even Origin of the Family
contains little analysis of this in capitalist society.
This neglect of reproduction creates a number of problems for the Marxian analysis. First, if an argument
is made that women are confined to the domestic sphere and are subordinated because of physiologically
determined sex roles, then this is natural. Socialism and communism would not necessarily change this.
If taken seriously, this could confine women permanently to a secondary role. Second, reproduction takes
place in very different ways in different societies. Other than the biological birth proce ss, all other
aspects surrounding reproduction can be organized very differently than they are -- e.g. family structures,
roles of children, amount and types of household work, care of the elderly, etc. Each of these is an aspect
of the material forces, i nvolving human labour, yet there is little analysis of these forces in Marxian
analysis. This is at the minimum an omission of important material forces, and to the extent that the
relations of reproduction interact with the productive forces analyzed wit hin Marxian analysis, the latter
analysis may be incorrect. Third, the Marxian model of capitalism is built on the distinction between
labour and labour power, and the value of labour power. Yet the theory of how the value of labour power
is determined is either nonexistent or incomplete. The same can be said concerning the theory of
population. Fourth, what are the real roots of the inequality between men and women? Engels seems to
say it is private property. But many feminists argue it is related more t o reproductive than productive
factors. Some of the radical approaches to feminism argue that sexual inequalities are related to male
attempts to control reproduction and women's sexuality, and have little to do with private property and
production.
d. Contributions. In spite of these problems, Marx and Engels certainly recognized oppression of
women and patriarchy as major problems, both historically and in contemporary society. Many other
theorists were unwilling to consider the differenc es a source of inequality and oppression of women.
Marx and Engels continually emphasized the exploitative nature of property relationships, and used this
to show various ways in which these hurt women. While they were overly optimistic about the ability to
end sexual inequalities, their analysis focusses on a major source of social inequality. Followers of the
Marxist approach have often been key in organizing women into trade unions, pushing for equal pay, etc.
E. Weber on Patriarchy
Before examining Weber's analysis of patriarchy, a discussion of the use of the term within the feminist
movement follows.
1. Notes on Patriarchy. Within the feminist movement and feminist writings the term patriarchy has
been and is widely used as a method of describing societies where women do not have equality with men.
Such patriarchal societies may be character ized by women and men living parallel but separate lives
with different experiences (Code, p. 19). Code defines patriarchal societies
as those in which men have more power than women and readier access than women to what
is valued in the society or in any social subgroup. In consequence of this power and privilege
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differential, men in such societies or groups occupy positions that pe rmit them to shape and
control many, if not most, aspects of women's lives. Most known societies are patriarchal to
a greater or lesser degree, although they exhibit specific variations in how power is
distributed and manifested. (pp. 19-20).
In addition to description of male-female inequalities and inequities, patriarchy is used in a sociological
sense as power that
takes the form of male domination over women in all areas of life; sexual domination is so
universal, so ubiquitous and so complete that it appears 'natural' and hence becomes
invisible, so that it is 'perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its
most fundamental concept of power.' ... The patriarchal power of men over women is
therefore basic to the functioning of all societies and it extends far beyond formal institutions
of power. It overrides class and race divisions ... . (B ryson, quoting Kate Millett, p. 185).
Note the terms valued, control, privilege, domination, power, ideology and culture, all terms that are
familiar in sociology, and especially in discussions of Weber's work. If this is such a regular feature of
society, patriarchy becomes a structure wh ich exists and is created and re-created with each generation.
It is learned by males and females through socialization and culture -- boys and men learn to be dominant
and girls and women to be subordinate (and accept this legitimate form of domination). It is continued in
the everyday forms of male-female interaction in society, and also perpetuated in the institutions and
structures of patriarchy.
Some feminists argue that patriarchal structure is a stronger, more pervasive, and more basic structure
than is either class or race. In this view, ending class and race inequalities would not necessarily
eliminate patriarchy. This obviously contrasts with Engels' view that patriarchy emerged with the
development of private property and would end with the abolition of private property. Ritzer notes that in
this approach, patriarchy is not just a byproduct of other inequalities or of social or biologica l factors,
but is "a primary power structure sustained by strong and deliberate intentions." (p. 470, 3rd edition). If
this is the case, then patriarchy deserves as much attention and analysis as class, status, ethnicity or other
structures that are often regarded as worthy of and essential to sociological investigation. Sociologists
must attempt to determine how patriarchy emerged, how it is reproduced, what forms in takes in different
societies, how it interacts with other social structures, and how it changes over time.
One group of feminists who have incorporated ideas of patriarchy with their models are Marxist
feminists. Some argue that patriarchy and private property and class are dual systems of oppression.
Others may argue that class is the primary form of oppre ssion but that patriarchy forms an important part
of this. For Zillah Eisenstein, patriarchy is
a sexual system of power in which the male possesses superior power and economic
privilege. Patriarchy is the male hierarchical ordering of society. Although the legal
institutional base of patriarchy was more explicit in the past, the basic relations of power
remain intact today. The patriarchal system is preserved, via marriage and the family,
through the sexual division of labour and society. Patriarchy is rooted in biology rather than
in economics or history. Manifested through male force and contr ol, the roots of patriarchy
are located in women's reproductive selves. Woman's position in this power hierarchy is
defined not in terms of the economic class structure but in terms of the patriarchal
organization of society. (Eisenstein, Capitalist Pa triarchy and the Case for Socialist
Feminism, p. 17).
Eisenstein considers women as a sexual class because they "constitute the basic and necessary activities
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of society: reproduction, childrearing, nurturing, consuming, domestic labouring, and wage-earning.


Women are a sexual class because what they do as women -- the activities they are responsible for in
society, the labor that they perform -- is essential and necessary to the operation of society as it presently
exists." (Eisenstein, p. 146). This consideration of women as a sexual class is based on a common
position within the mode of production and reproduction, and a common position with respect to another
sexual class, that is, males. This means a different set of interests, and also at least some opposed
interests to those of males. Eisenstein argues that patriarchy is somewhat different than capitalism as a
system, where the bourgeoisie is organized and social change means fighting the bourgeoisie themselves.
For Eisenstein, men are not the enemy, but rather than struggling against men, the struggle of women is
against patriarchy and its expressions. Since the latter may be found in the market, in the state, in the
family, etc. expressions of patriarchy and male-female inequalities in each of these areas must be
changed. For Eisens tein, sexual class consciousness must be formed through social movements like the
suffrage movement or feminist movements.
Patriarchy is a system of oppression and domination of women by men. There are many definitions of
patriarchy, some are very general, arguing that this is any form of male domination over females. For
Weber, patriarchy is formally defined as
a form of domination characteristic of the household group or clan organized on kinship and
economic terms. Patriarchalism means "the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of
the household and sib ... " The "founding father" or some associat ion in the distant past with
a great of even divine connection or event that generates inviolable traditions usually
provided the basis of the claim to power. If the past association is with a divinity, that
divinity may be male or female, but it is the m ale line through which claim to power is
made. R. Sydie, Natural Women, Cultured Men, p. 56.
Tong discusses patriarchy in many different ways, as a "system characterized by power, dominance,
hierarchy and competition." (Tong, p. 2). and one with "legal and political structures" and "social and
cultural institutions." (Tong, p. 3). A more detai led account is when Tong discusses Hartmann's
materialist account of patriarchy as "a set of social relations between men which have a material basis,
and which , though hierarchical, establish or create independence and solidarity among men that enable t
hem to dominate women." The material base comes from "men's control over women's labor power; this
control is constituted by restricting women's access to important economic resources and by disallowing
women any control over female sexuality and especial ly female reproductive capacities." (Tong, p. 180).
For Hartmann, patriarchy is in the material realm, through control of property, through laws and customs
affecting women's sexuality and reproduction, and through daily activities whereby men reinforce t he
inequalities.
system with structures
2. Weber's Analysis of Patriarchy. The many different uses of patriarchy means that more careful
attention should be paid to its analysis within sociology. Many of the ways that patriarchy is described by
feminists are similar to the manner in w hich Weber examined society and social action -- using concepts
such as power, domination, subordination, ideas, inequalities, etc. For Weber, patriarchy is formally
defined as
Patriarchalism is by far the most important type of domination the legitimacy of which rests upon
tradition. Patriarchalism means the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house, the
sib elder over the members of the household and sib ; the rule of the master and patron over
bondsmen, serfs, freed men; of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials' of the
prince over house- and court-officials, nobles of office, clients, vassals; of the patrimonial lord and
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sovereign p rince over the 'subjects.' (Gerth and Mills, p. 296).


This may be in a family, household, or clan or could be in society as a whole. In these forms, the leader
may emerge naturally (on the basis of age), or is selected on the basis of adherence to traditional
principles. As long as this method of selectio n is accepted by others in the grouping, the rule of the
patriarch's authority must be accepted. Sydie notes that "the power of the patriarch is a personal
prerogative. He is able to exercise power without restraint, 'unencumbered by rules,' at least to t he extent
that he is not 'limited by tradition of by competing powers.'" (Sydie, pp. 56-57). This type of authority
may have few limits to the exercise of domination, and to those in modern societies the means by which
people are selected for positions or the practices carried out may appear irrational.
As noted earlier, for Weber, patriarchy is the most common form of traditional authority --domination
legitimated by tradition, "the sanctity of age-old rules and power." Sydie notes that patriarchy is
a form of domination characteristic of the household group or clan organized on kinship and
economic terms. Patriarchalism means "the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of
the household and sib ... " The "founding father" or some associat ion in the distant past with
a great of even divine connection or event that generates inviolable traditions usually
provided the basis of the claim to power. If the past association is with a divinity, that
divinity may be male or female, but it is the m ale line through which claim to power is
made. (Sydie, p. 56).
At first, Weber's view of patriarchy may seem similar to the feminist view. Unlike Engels, Weber argues
that there never was a period of matriarchy, but that men always were able to exercise more power. In
early forms of society, Weber notes that women had considerable power, but this power tended to be
restricted to the sphere of the household -- based on reproduction (mother and child) and economic
factors associated with producing the goods necessary for survival. Weber considered women's power to
b e "secondary to that of the patriarch" who ruled the household. (Sydie, p. 60). Weber looked on early
society as practicing "household communism" a sharing of the goods necessary for survival within the
household -- a form of economic equality. But even w ithin this, Weber does not view women as being
equal with men, because of the "subjection of women to one male, and the regulation of sexual relations
among the members of the household." (Sydie, p. 60). Men enforced monogamy on women and became
patriarch s of the household by laying "claim to exclusive sexual access to a female." So long as this male
could persuade others to submit to this authority, he takes the position of patriarch. (Sydie, pp. 59-60).
Weber made much the same assumptions as did Marx and Engels concerning the early sexual division of
labour. Women were associated with reproductive and household tasks and men tended to be hunters,
gatherers, or warriors, with patriarchal power over th e household, but having to share power with other
males outside the household. Weber notes that there were societies with female chieftains alongside
organizations of men, but these are merely the result of power differences based on the division of labou
r, and are not matriarchal in nature. Further, matrilineal descent also does not mean matriarchy for
Weber. Finally, "there is no female equivalent of the exercise of political power by men as a group over
women as a group." (Sydie , p. 64). These argumen ts would appear to be very similar to some feminist
arguments that even in early forms of society, male domination was the rule, and this was the first form
of inequality and domination.
On closer examination though, Sydie finds that Weber's views are built on certain untenable or
questionable assumptions concerning males and females, and a particular view of society and the basis of
power. With respect to the family and household, Web er argues that the only "natural" relationship is
that of the mother and child "because it is a biologically based household unit that lasts until the child is
able to search for his own means of subsistence." (Sydie, p. 57). Weber associates this relatio nship with
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the mother bearing, feeding, and rearing the child -- reproduction and socialization -- and this forms the
basic "natural" family. In Weber's view, such a relationship is not a social relationship, but is a natural
one. Hence the mother child r elationship is not sociologically significant (Sydie, p. 63) -- recall that
Weber's sociology is only concerned with social action, action that is not natural or reflexive, but
considered actions that have meaning. Weber considers that relationship to be natural and biologically
based.
Weber also notes that "the woman is dependent because of the normal superiority of the physical and
intellectual energies of the male" (Sydie, quoting Weber, p. 59). Again, this is a natural and biologically
based form of dependence, one that does not require sociological analysis. While the mother-child form
is basic and natural, Weber looks on patriarchy as subverting this, so that women and children become
the property of males. It is this natural, biological, physical superiority and practical know ledge and
experience (Sydie, p. 58) of the male that forms the basis for this domination. Once established, this form
of domination is continued through socialization of children. Sydie argues that this means that in the
household "the differentiation amo ng the members is through nature for women and children, but
through nurture or socialization and experience for others." (Sydie, p. 59).
In contrast to these natural relationships in the household between men, women and children,
relationships among males also exist outside the household, with other males. Males may relate to each
other as hunters, warriors, in agriculture, or in kinshi p and neighbourhood groups. While the male
exercises patriarchal power over the household, outside the household there is quite a different form of
relationship among men. Each man cannot exert patriarchal power over others, and some men will be in a
subo rdinate position with respect to other forms of domination. This may be to the group, to a master, a
lord, a king, etc. It is these forms of domination that become legitimized through means such as tradition,
charisma, legal or political rule, the various forms of authority. These latter relationships among men are
what constitute society, social relationships, and social action for Weber. It is these that Weber
investigates and that form the basis for his analysis of power, domination and authority. Each of these
terms would appear to be sex neutral, could be applied to any human relationship, and might be used for
an analysis of the inequalities between men and women. Weber does not do this though, instead
modelling these forms on relationships among me n, and ignoring male-female inequalities and viewing
this type of domination and subordination as natural.
One example of the effect of Weber's analysis is that the natural mother-child relationship is not
sociologically significant, and thus is not worth examining. This means that it is fathers, not mothers,
who civilize or legalize the mother-child relati onship. The natural relationship is not a social one, so that
society does not legitimize this relationship socially. The relationship is legitimized by the father rather
than the mother in the sense that by the father establishing power over the mother a nd child, this
removes the relationship from the natural form and becomes a legitimate form of domination. It is thus
the father who makes the parent-child connection legal.
Further, by considering the mother-child relationship as natural, Weber does not feel that analysis of
socialization is necessary. While women must obviously bear children, there is no natural reason why the
natural mother need nurture and socialize th e child. In many societies these latter tasks are undertaken
by siblings and other relatives. Weber makes the assumption that because women have the biological
responsibility for bearing children, they also have the responsibility for nurturing the child. In doing this,
Weber reduces socialization to a natural feature -- something that Weber warns should not be done in
other areas.
Another problem is that despite all his discussion of patriarchy and power, Weber does not examine the
real source of domination within household. He regards this as natural and has no model of "compliance
or obedience." Weber's model cannot explain di fferences in male/female power or the sexual division of
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labour at different times and places (women sometimes dominate in certain areas of life and can exert
considerable power).
Finally, Weber argued that patrimony and feudalism developed out of the patriarchal household. Weber
extends the ideal-type patriarchal rule of the male in the household to the society at large, explaining
hierarchies, organizations, administration and power. Sydie shows though how patriarchal power is often
modified in these structures and institutions, with women exercising considerable power in certain
circumstances. In order to preserve status or property of a family or group, women may take on res
ponsibilities with considerable power. These important bases of power may have meant that
considerations of sex were less important than preserving property in the family, so that some females
were able to exercise power.
3. Summary. In summary, Weber's model of power and authority are male models. He assumed that the
male-female division of labour was natural, the mother-child relationship was natural, and that most of
the male-female relationships could be expl ained on the basis of biological factors. As such these
relationships were not really worthy of sociological investigation, and Weber has little to say about the
form these were structured or how they changed. As a result, Sydie considers that Weber's mod el of
patriarchy is flawed and not all that useful. There were few societies where patriarchal power of this type
was exercised without modification, and this household based patriarchal power is not really the basis for
explaining larger social structure s. Weber's analysis obscures the nature of power in sex relations and
reinforces the idea that patriarchal forms are natural and historically inevitable and unchangeable (Sydie,
p. 87).
While Sydie does not attempt to find useful elements from Weber, if Weber's writings are looked upon as
a method of analysis, there are many useful concepts for analyzing male-female inequalities. Even
though these concepts may have been derived from a nalysis of male social structures, the ideas of
domination, power, and authority can all be applied to relationships between males and females. Class
situation, status honour, and party would all seem to be useful in examining the situation of women in so
ciety, the relationships between men and women, and changes in all of these over time. Class situation
would have to be expanded to include some non-market situations. Status honour and dishonour could be
used to explain ways in which women form groups to exercise power or exclude males from some
decisions. Sydie quotes Hartmann as saying "Though patriarchy is hierarchical and men of different
classes, races, or ethnic groups have different places in the patriarchy, they are also united in their shared
re lationship of dominance over their women; they are dependent on each other to maintain that
domination." (p. 87) This would seem very akin to Weber's idea of status honour and dishonour among
men. Patriarchy could be considered to be a very powerful statu s structure, and analysis could be
devoted to examining the different ways men maintain power at different times and places, and how
these forms of status honour and dishonour change over time.
References
Bock, Gisela and Susan James, editors, Beyond Equality and Difference: Citizenship, Feminist
Politics and Female Subjectivity, London, Routledge, 1992. HQ 1190 B49.
Burt, S., L. Code and L. Dorney, Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, second edition Toronto,
McClelland and Stewart, 1993. HQ1453 C48 1993
Cohen, Marjorie Griffin, Women's Work, Markets, and Economic Development in Nineteenth
Century Ontario, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988. HD6100 O6 C64 1988
Durkheim, Emile, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, New York, The Free Press, 1951. Referred to in
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notes as Suicide. HV 6545 D812


Eisenstein, Zillah, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, New York, Monthly
Review Press, 1979.
Eisenstein, Zillah, Feminism and Sexual Equality: Crisis in Liberal America, New York, Monthly
Review Press, 1984. HQ1426 E395 1984.
Eisenstein, Zillah, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, Boston, Notheastern University Press,
1986. HQ1154 E44 1986
Sydie, R. A., Natural Women Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory,
Toronto, Methuen, 1987. HM51 S97 1987.
Tong, Rosemarie, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, Boulder, Westview Press,
1989. HQ1206 T65 1989

Last edited on October 28, 1999.


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