We indeed understand better during periods of crises that capitalism is grounded in patriarchy. We face one of the most visible effects of it in the sphere of employment since both during the crisis and in the following reconstruction process the production processes are substantially restructured through women’s labor. The ways in which the crisis affects women’s employment are determined to a large extent by the form the crisis takes.

We all know that crisis hits women more severely than anybody else. It affects women’s employment; women’s workload in the household increases due to both the impoverishment of households and the “measures” taken against the crisis; conservative policies buttressed by the crisis reinforce male domination and make women’s lives even more difficult. In short, both the capital’s crisis response and the survival struggles of households are, to a great extent, shaped by women’s labor.

But why does the crisis affect women the most?

As capitalism can exploit women’s labor and bodies more, the crisis of capitalism affects women the most. Capitalism is not an objective system; it is a gendered system grounded in patriarchy. Since a woman worker is not just a woman worker but a woman worker in capitalism; since women have a critical function in the reproduction of the labor power which is the condition of possibility and the unique value creator of the capital; since women are the sole workers in the production of human beings and, hence, the production of labor power and the reproduction of the society; since women can be held “responsible” for the care of the children, the men, the sick and the elderly, and it is expected from women that they should do all these things gratuitously and naturally, and it is assumed that these are women’s “natural qualities”, the crisis of capital affects women the most.

However, it also opens up new opportunities for women in their struggle against capitalism and patriarchy and in their efforts to carry feminist struggle a step further.

Crises of Capitalism

The crisis is the crisis of capitalism; it is capital accumulation becoming unsustainable. The dynamics which set the stage for the crisis are the internal dynamics and contradictions of the capital itself. These contradictions are creating a potential for crisis at every stage of accumulation. From the first stage when the labor force meets the means of production and raw materials to the process of unmediated production (creation of value), from the unmediated production stage to the process of distribution when the products are being sold (realization of value), every component of the circuit is prone to separation/detachment. Thus, many problems arise from the financial issue to scarcity of foreign currency, from effective lack of demand to export difficulties. In other words, the internal contradictions of accumulation cause specific forms of crisis at specific stages – financial crisis, under-consumption crisis, overproduction crisis, etc.

Throughout the history of capitalism, crises have constituted an inseparable component of the accumulation process – the Great Depression of 1929, the 1970s crisis, the 1997 Asian crisis, the 2001 Turkish crisis or the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Following the crisis, accumulation is carried further to a higher stage through a multilayered legal, institutional and social restructuring. This means that the crisis born out of the internal contradictions of the capital bears a dialectical function which enables the capital to overcome these contradictions. So much so that in order to analyze both the history of capitalism and its stages (the Fordist stage, the neoliberal stage), it is necessary to analyze the crises. Throughout all this history, the restructuring process of the capital has mostly taken place through the mediation of paid and unpaid labor of women – the truth of the matter is that women’s labor is one of the strategies that capital deploys to overcome crisis.

Whatever form it takes, every crisis means unemployment and poverty for the masses, it entails a set-back on the public policies. Crisis for women means that they will become unemployed or enter the labor force under bad and precarious conditions. Women have to struggle even more to continue the reproduction of the household – more time is spent on food production, child, sick and elderly care. Indeed, women’s labor is regarded as the survival strategy of the households during periods of crisis, and as such, the domination of capital and patriarchy over women’s labor and bodies intensifies. However, the conditions of crisis also mean that women have to forget their own problems and “console” their husbands and other household members.[1] Above all this, crisis entails an escalation in male violence.

In short, with crisis the fundamental contradictions of capital become manifest, its system which is based on exploitation becomes visible. Additionally, with crisis, it also becomes clear that patriarchy is one of the fundamental grounds of capitalism. What I am trying to say is that the patriarchal nature of the society, male domination and women’s unpaid labor become more visible with the mediation of the crisis.

Capital’s strategy to overcome crises – women’s paid labor

We indeed understand better during periods of crises that capitalism is grounded in patriarchy. We face one of the most visible effects of this in the sphere of employment since both during the crisis and in the following reconstruction process, the production processes are substantially restructured through women’s labor. The ways in which the crisis affects women’s employment are determined to a large extent by the form the crisis takes.

The internal contradictions of capital take a specific form depending on the stage of capitalism, the level of internationalization of the capital, and the way in which a country is integrated into global capitalism. This form taken by the capital determines not only the sectors affected by the crisis but also the forms that the restructuring of capital and society take following the crisis. All this has specific effects on women’s employment. For instance, the 2001 crisis in Turkey hit the banking sector, leaving first the women unemployed; women’s employment had decreased by 21% in one year. In the aftermath of the crisis, the banking sector was restructured. As a result, women’s employment began to increase, and women’s employment ratio in this sector increased from 41% to 48%. We should mention here that the ratio of women employment in this sector has been over 50% for a long time. Another example pertains to the 1970s crisis which hit the early capitalist countries. This crisis brought about a dramatic decrease in the profit levels, and as a result, the international capital which pursued “profitability” on a global level transferred its productive investments to “underdeveloped” geographies that offer more profitable opportunities in terms of raw materials, market, and especially labor costs. Thus, in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand, massive employment was created, particularly for young women, to work under precarious conditions for very low wages, and women’s employment in textile, clothing and electronic device production fast increased to 70-80%.[2] It seems like women’s “skilled fingers” has indeed guaranteed the profitability of international capital.[3] Yet, with the 1997 Asian crisis, which broke out in Thailand, the majority of these women lost their jobs. In the World Bank’s 1999 Report, it was stated that women were the ones most affected by the crisis, unemployment has tripled in some countries, real wages have decreased by up to 40%, prostitution and domestic violence has increased significantly.[4] What I want to say is that whereas one crisis pulled massive numbers of young Asian women into employment, another one left these women rapidly unemployed.

In some crises, men may be laid off and women may be hired in their place. For instance, the 2008-2009 crisis in Turkey entailed such a result for women’s employment; the crisis fundamentally hit the automotive and white-goods sectors –in which men are employed in large numbers– leaving many men unemployed. Later we saw that the laid off men were replaced with women who work for lower wages.[5] Various studies show that after many crises men who work for higher wages are replaced by women who work for lower wages, and experienced women are replaced by inexperienced women who work for lower wages.

Besides all these, the conditions of crisis may prompt many women who had not hitherto entered employment to look for paid work. These women, who are the only remedy for the household’s survival, may be obligated to work under precarious conditions for long hours and for low wages.

Pulling women to employment in times of crisis has many critical effects. Women’s low paid labor may effect a decrease in the mean price of the labor force, in other words, it may cause a decrease in the average wages. For sure, the reason behind international capital moving its productive investments to Asian countries in the end of 1970s was the women’s cheap labor. According to Diane Elson, whereas in 1991 the hourly wage for stitch sewing in Sweden was 19.5$, it was 17$ in West Germany, 3.6$ in South Korea, 3.1$ in Turkey, 0.9$  in Thailand, and only 0.3$ in China.[6]

These examples, on the one hand, show that women are generally the first in line to be laid off in times of crisis. On the other hand, they also show that women can be pulled to paid employment in times of crisis. Therefore, whatever form the crisis may take, these examples clearly demonstrate that women’s labor is one of the strategies which capital deploys to sustain profitability.

Survival strategies of households during times of crisis – women’s unpaid labor

Crisis affects not only the paid-labor but also the unpaid-labor of women in households. We know that a decrease in absolute/relative income causes an increase in the labor undertaken by women in households. When a member of a household (i.e. the husband) becomes unemployed or experiences a decrease in wage, an absolute decrease in the overall income of the household occurs. However, in cases such as the current hyperinflation, even if the wages of the household members remain the same, household income undergoes a relative decrease. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat), the inflation rate of the last month (March 2019) is 19.7%; nonetheless, we all experience a higher rate of inflation in our everyday lives. When there is an absolute or a relative decrease in household income, the consumption demand of households decreases; for example, the frequency of eating outside decreases, households cut down their expenses on grocery shopping. In such cases, women are obligated to provide some of these commodities through their unpaid labor within households. For instance, research conducted in the aftermath of the 2001 crisis reveals a decrease in the use of baby diapers and a return on the part of the women to traditional methods. Women who participated in the research stated that they use diapers only when they take their babies to physicians or at night. Additionally, a decrease in household income may result in women undertaking through their unpaid labor some of the services which they previously purchased. For example, households who purchased cleaning services, or child, sick and elderly care services from a woman outside the household, under conditions of hardship, may stop purchasing these services. In this case, not only the woman employee who is providing this service would be left unemployed, but also the women in the household (including close relatives) would have to undertake the care work. It is highly likely that none of the men in the household would undertake any of these care works, and in some cases, men might expect their wives to undertake the care of their mothers/fathers if they have any.

The fact that women have to undertake domestic work and care work without getting paid is undoubtedly due to the need to reduce their living expenses. Yet, this also has vital consequences for the capital. For one thing, increasing household labor of women crystalizes the vital role of unpaid labor of women since the reproduction of labor power has been left to the unpaid labor of women all the more. Secondly, for this very reason it blurs the boundaries between paid and unpaid labor. Marx in Capital, refers to the biological limits of –absolute– surplus value creation within the physical limits of the worker’s own labor power (in a day there are 24 hours; besides working the worker has to eat, rest, and sleep).[7] On the other hand, the conditions of crisis renders visible a determining factor other than the “nature” of labor power in the creation of surplus value: unpaid labor of women. Let me clarify this a bit more. As women now provide some of the goods and services (roughly the wage goods) which determine the value of labor power of workers more through their unpaid household labor, the cost of goods and services which determine the value of labor power –in one way the value of labor power– is reduced. Of course, there is a point in keeping a distance from this argument since it is an issue which has been discussed by feminist researchers for many years. Undoubtedly, women do not produce value or surplus value for the household. However, the conditions of crisis transform unpaid labor of women into a factor that plays a role in the determination of wages; and thus, unpaid labor of women can become one the instruments of oppression. In short, crises clearly demonstrate the importance of women’s unpaid labor in households both for families and capital, and thus renders it visible that patriarchy is one the main grounds of capital.

With crisis social policies weaken. For example, the neoliberal transformation in the 1980s is actually the name given to the restructuring of capital on a world scale after the crisis of the 1970s. During periods of crisis, some services provided by the state, especially healthcare services, deteriorate; the speed with which many basic services are pulled into commodity relations increases. Women are expected to fill this gap which is vacated by the state. For example, the reduction in inpatient treatment periods extends the home care period of the patients and places the burden of care on women in the household. Hence, crises increase the time women spend on care work and aggravate their workload.

Besides, during times of crisis, conservative politics gain strength. One of the main functions of conservatism is to strengthen the family, thereby male domination, while having an eye on women’s gains, and in so doing, conservatism puts the burden of all these work on the shoulders of women. It is necessary to evaluate “family friendly policies” which have been recently on the agenda from this perspective. “Family friendly policies” which aim to encompass almost all areas from employment to home care, from the goods and service market to housing policies, aim to strengthen the family, support the extended family life, and thus sacrifice the women to the family.

What about the struggles against crisis?

Consequently, crises are not only processes in which the contradictions of capital become apparent, but also, they render visible the importance of women’s labor for capital which relies on the patriarchal system. Crises also reveal that women are the reproductive power of life and that they are mainly the ones who undertake the workload in the households. Crisis at the same time aggravates this burden of women. Thus, crises are periods where patriarchal inequalities and contradictions also deepen.

This process, for all these reasons, opens up new possibilities for feminists in their struggle against both capitalism and patriarchy. This is because the conditions of crisis, on the one hand, create a basis for women’s class struggle against the crisis and against capitalism as they leave women unemployed, force them to work for low wages in harsh conditions, and make households impoverished. The same conditions of crisis are also open up new possibilities for women’s struggle against capitalism since the unpaid labor burden of women increases in the household, since the women are forced to be confined in the household with conservative politics, that is, since they are forced to bear the burden of the crisis much more than men, and since they have to grapple with exacerbating male violence.

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] For instance, during the 1999 Asian crisis the South Korean government came up with the following motto: “Energize your husbands.” The government was asking women to reduce the hardships of their unemployed husbands went through.

[2] On this topic there are many groundbreaking studies done by feminist researchers such as R. Pearson, M. Mies, S. Seguino, L. Beneria, G. Berik, H. Eisenstein, D. Elson. For an analysis of crisis drawing on these studies, see: Melda Yaman Öztürk, “Kapitalist Gelişme ve Kriz Sürecinde Kadın Emeği: Asya Deneyiminden Çıkarılacak Dersler”, Çalışma ve Toplum, 2010 (1): 105-132., http://calismatoplum.org/sayi24/yaman.pdf.

[3] The Malaysian government in the advertisement brochures which they prepared for the international capital that is planning to invest wrote the following: Malaysian girls have small fingers; their contribution to the efficiency of the production line is the most. See, Juanita Elias, Fashioning Inequality: The Multinational Company and Gendered Employment in Globalizing World, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2004, p.72.

[4] World Bank, Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries, 1998-1999.

[5] See: KEİG, Kriz, Kadınlar ve Kadın Emeği Forumu Raporu, January 2019, http://www.keig.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Kriz-Kadinlar-Kadin-Emegi-Forumu-Raporu.pdf.

[6] Diana Elson, “Uneven Development and the Textiles and Clothing Industry”, L. Sklair (eds.), in Capitalism and Development, London: Routledge, 1994, p.200.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol: 1.


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