Women’s Estates Revisited 40 years on

by HUB Newsfeed

Forty years ago, in 1971 – Juliet Mitchell wrote her thesis ‘Woman’s Estate’, starting with a summary of the history of where the *idea* of women’s liberation came from:

Every Socialist recognizes the dependence of the workman on the capitalist, and cannot understand that others, and especially the capitalists themselves, should fail to recognize it also; but the same Socialist often does not recognize the dependence of women on men because the question touches his own dear self more or less nearly. [August Bebel, Woman and Socialism, 1883]

Juliet Mitchell’s thesis is presented in two parts, the first part is a pencil-sketch summary of political context and history at the time of writing, tracking the launch of the 60s women’s liberation movement in England. Like north-america WLM arose from within a context of various leftist political movements, although UK women’s experiences diverged somewhat from US women’s experiences.

While US women were growing Be-yond the anti-Vietnam war and Black civil rights movements, the women of the UK and some western-European countries were rising from bitter internal class-warfare politics in the post-WW2 reconstruction period, the East-West division between communist and capitalist Europe, as well as involvement in ‘third-world’ liberation movements, as colonies in Africa and Asia struggled against the remains of 19th century European imperialism.

The second part of her thesis, is a detailed discussion of the four “Women’s Estates”, or the sectors of “Women’s Work”, or “Women’s Roles” – which she describes as the four basic foundational mechanisms of how systemic women’s oppression operates. Rather than ‘Estates’, I would term these as ‘sectors’ or ‘domains’, which overlap and intersect as base mechanisms of women’s oppression as a class.

Because they are all Colonised spaces, or ‘prisons’, or ‘cages’ or ‘pens’  –  I also think of them in a conceptual framework of being similar to ‘Reservations’ where women are herded and collectively kept in.

Sexuality: Well, this one is obvious, No? All that work we’ve done around the Hub here, and related radfem blogs, not to mention the previous decades of theory, writings, analysis and activism around sexual violence,  PIV,  pornstitution, and highlighting the oppression & erasure of Lesbians under enforced/coerced heterosexuality by propaganda of religion and the State , and the more recent  escalation of colonisation by trans* … and genuine feminist critiques of slutwalks and so on – most readers here should be all up to speed.  If not, if you really don’t understand PIV politics yet, go away and read the resources page.

Reproduction: Reproductive control is *the* foundation cornerstone to male supremacy. Because those who control reproduction control everything else.  Some other animal species do it too.  Its not entirely human socialisation.   Children are a natural resource, like food and water.  Like other natural products, patriarchy needs to ‘own’ it, control it. It doesn’t matter if women “choose” to do it, can do it, or can’t, will, or won’t – it doesn’t negate the fact that only women-as-a-class can do this job for the human species’ continuation, and male supremacy will not allow women-as-a-class to have much say in the matter.  Nature doesn’t have much say in how She/It/We are ab/used for the benefit of Man (sic).

The Rape of Nature to re/produce timber, coffee, *whatever*, from food production to steel and concrete and bombs, including offspring of our own species is a simple extension/overlap, of control of Woman as Reproductive Natural Resource.  Even the males of non-human species have primitive, but effective, mechanisms for controlling access to females reproductive “natural resources”.  It also doesn’t negate the fact, that social and political state controls, including barbaric laws with heavy penalties are applied and enforced globally, on all women-as-a-class, by both secular and/or religious authorities all over the planet. A small percentage of women, in a small percentage of countries, have access to ‘options’ to escape this, but the greater majority of women cannot.

It is the male-supremacist system (their outward faces are many) which makes the decision on who does, or doesn’t.  He has the Right to Change His Mind about how he Ab/Uses his Resources. Like the ancient Roman paterfamilias, as it was written in law – He decided if his women/wives/slaves birthed or had an abortion.  It works both ways, both in bearing children, but also in not bearing them.  Its not personal, its political.  “Woman is no parent, of that which She bears”.   The mother has no rights.No-Where. No-When.

The legal ramifications are the most mind-boggling on pregnant women, for 9 months they are in legal limbo, ie not human, because there is no male biological counterpart.  Courts scratch their heads. She doesn’t “fit”. Especially surrogates, or the womb prostituted.  As with ‘relinquishing’ mothers, and those considered “unfit mothers”.  Therefore she/it cannot be “defined”, she does not exist, is not human, and hence logically, has no human rights.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution, women largely outnumbered men – so many men had died in the warring political upheavals.  The new government with its communist ‘equality’ ideals, basically set up abortion factories beside each industrial one – they needed to mobilise their women as labourers, far more than they needed babies.

Production – Women’s Work: “Small Change & Pin-Money”
Women have always worked, outside or inside the “home”. For love or money, but mostly for necessity.  We do all the “necessary” jobs.   Shitty jobs, but *somebody* has to do them, right?  We all need water, food, shelter and clothingInteresting, women make up almost the entire workforce in agriculture around the world, and textiles….. manufacture of food and clothing.  Also interesting in that in so many cultures, women are also *responsible* for preparing the dead. Cleaning up the shit, doing the most mindless but necessary chores, we end up in pink ghettos, working for small change & pin-money if we get paid at all.  This sector, is also one of the most class/race-riddled.

Women are also important in the never-ending wars, and the military-industrial structures which support it.  Who does ALL the work, while men are absent? Who are the sex-slaves providing PIV R&R for the soldiers?  Who are the womb-slaves providing a future?  Who is the *real* “enemy” being decimated?

“Caring” Work: (Socialisation of Children: The Family)
Juliet Mitchell titled this section, or ‘Estate’ – ‘Socialisation of Children’, or the Family. Women’s role within the family, particularly of the ‘nuclear’ patriarchal variety, has always been of the taking care of everybody – especially children, but not limited to kids – it also means all the others of the community, the elders, the sick, the injured, the disabled etc.  Anybody who needs nursing, teaching, helping or aiding.

Part of the definition of a mammal, is that they bear live, but immature, young, who need a great deal of care for a long time after the birthing is over.  Most mammals are not like reptiles, which can just squat, lay a gazillion eggs and then just slither off to get on with their own lives, letting Nature take its course with the sprogs.  Mammals have to look after the helpless sprogs who can’t do jack for themselves for a long time, and need to be painstakingly taught most of it.

Shitty job, but *somebody* has to do it. Guess who?

For this reason, nearly all mammals live in groups – herds, pods, packs, prides etc.  Safety in numbers. Many hands make light work. The extraordinarily vulnerable mammalian young cannot be cared for, defended and protected, by one adult, or even two.  The nuclear family is a very recent introduction in human societies.  The natural state is for a female-dominant group to care for young communally.  In the natural environment, a nuclear family structure would have been species suicide.

So much for history. But hence the ‘family’ is a basic social structure for humans. What interested me most about Juliet Mitchell’s framework of analysis, was her separation of the family experience, as it affects women.  Like most Marxists, she advocated the complete dismantling of the family as being one of the main sources of women’s oppression, though childhood socialisation into the oppressive roles, including that of “carer” – (a few later feminist theorists, Named this “The Work of Loving”) and listing all of the numerous “Women for Peace” organisations that women have often flocked to throughout history.   I found this an A-Mazing insight.  For no matter how noble, or necessary, or even pleasurable, some aspects of the necessary, human Work-of-Loving are – it is still one of the cornerstones of exploitation of women-as-a-class.

I also figured this is related to the idea, or concept, of women being the physical ’embodiment’ of family or community ‘honour’.  One man, a doctor, working in the Congo during one of the mass-raping massacres said in an interview ‘Breaking the women is designed to break our whole culture, for women and children are our culture’.

But the major points which I came away with from Juliet Mitchell’s thesis, was around the overlapping nature of the ‘estates’ or domains-of-exploitation.  Women the world over, may be caged for a lifetime in one or two, or all of the domains – or are transferred between them,  others are caged in different ones, at different stages of their life-cycle – for example, younger women may be caged in the Sexuality and Reproduction domains – older women, no longer sexually or reproductively “useful”,  have to make themselves Ab/Useful” in one of the others.    The “wife” is often in all four-at-once — EveryMan’s multi-tasker.

Ultimately – the main points that have stayed with me all these years, was Juliet Mitchell’s analysis which posited that women were sliced-and-diced into separate classes, for each of the ‘Estates’.  Patriarchy doesn’t get too upset at a small percentage of women “pushing the boundaries”, because such small numbers are no threat to the patriarchal systems, which are set up to keep sufficient numbers of women herded into each of the four domains at all times.

Juliet Mitchell also argued that the Women’s Liberation Revolution needed to attack all four domains at once, and at the same time – for she argued that, reforms in one ‘estate’ would only ever result in shifting the severity of oppression onto one or more of the others.  For example, she forecast that increasing women’s ‘equality’ in the workplace (Production Sector), or in the ‘Family’ (eg improved child custody/divorce laws) would only shift more of the “burden” of oppression  onto the sexuality or caring sectors.

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done.

Herstorical Note: This post was originally posted here, at the Radfem HUB, on October 28, 2011, and was authored by HUB author Rainsinger. On May 28, 2012, Rainsinger left the HUB and indicated that she wished to have this post removed from the HUB, and no longer desired to have her name associated with the HUB. Instead of allowing content to be deleted from the HUB which would be deleterious to our herstory, it was proposed by the remaining HUB bloggers, and agreed to by Rainsinger, that, as a compromise, the substance of the post would be left intact and authorship would be changed to the generic HUB user, “HUB Newsfeed”. However, the HUB now regrets making this compromise, and believes that changing the authorship of the post was also deleterious of our herstory. The post should have remained intact, in every respect. We regret this error in judgement, as well as the fact that this change is permanent and cannot be altered. — Eds. 6/15/12

16 Comments to “Women’s Estates Revisited 40 years on”

  1. “Woman is no parent, of that which She bears”. The mother has no rights.No-Where. No-When.”

    Yep, contrary to popular belief, the only parents who have ever had rights over children (in any country in the world) have been fathers.

    IN the UK a father could leave his children to whoever he wanted in his will. That’s right: in a fit of senility or spite, he could decide that they would live with his great Aunt Jess in the HIghlands in which case his widow would be forced to relinquish the children she risked her life to bear. Considering men are nasty bastards, I don’T doubt that many of them used this power they granted themselves.

    Thanks to feminists women are now allowed more say over what happens to their kids upon divorce, but usually the court only ends up giving them to the mother because a) *somebody’s* got to do the shitwork and b) the children (rightly) go to the parent who carried out the majority of the childcare, which most of the time is the mother.
    I really worry for this new generation of women whose spouse became a SAHD (stay at home dad) while they went out to work, because a lot of women are going to lose their kids in the next decade… when the father fights the mother for them on the grounds that he was the one that sayed at home. Well, yeah, but he didn’T get pregnant did he? He didn’T miss out on promotional opportunities due to this pregnancy. He didn’T breastfeed and give birth in pain.
    Then again, I really worry for the women who decided to stay at home themselves, because they’re the ones who end up poverty-stricken in the future.

  2. thanks rain!

    “estates” is such a funny word for what she is describing here, did she have a reason for using it i wonder? and this:

    Juliet Mitchell also argued that the Women’s Liberation Revolution needed to attack all four domains at once, and at the same time – for she argued that, reforms in one ‘estate’ would only ever result in shifting the severity of oppression onto one or more of the others. For example, she forecast that increasing women’s ‘equality’ in the workplace (Production Sector), or in the ‘Family’ (eg improved child custody/divorce laws) would only shift more of the “burden” of oppression onto the sexuality or caring sectors.

    assuming the 4 “estates” are accurate and include all the ways women are oppressed, this would seem to be the case. whether its individual women who now “get” to work outside the home BUT also have to still do all the shit and caring work too; OR women get to work completely outside the home while bringing in *other* women to do the shit work, or women refusing to be mens private slaves anymore so the men have to (CHOOSE TO) hire *other* women to do it, its always women who are doing it, one way or another. it helps to always think of the *other* women and how they are being affected by all this, or how differently we would experience life if we got everything we thought we wanted, but suddenly everything changed (like sudden homelessness or illness for example). equal pay wouldnt be much help there. and PIV-positivism is NEVER helpful obviously. seperatism, political lesbianism same analysis. etc etc. harm reduction versus radical change, in other words.

  3. obviously i am just paraphrasing whats already been said around the blogs about 1000 times. 🙂 and yay! radfem graphics!

  4. “estates” is such a funny word for what she is describing here, did she have a reason for using it i wonder?

    I’m guessing it was the timing in the UK, and the reference has been lost to history. The ‘estates’ are like saying ‘council estates’, what do americans call them? welfare housing projects? It was a way of emphasising women-as-a-class, and a colonised and oppressed class at that. and using estates, is using the analogy of being herded into women’s ghettos, or onto the women’s ‘reservations’ — it was 1970 after all – and she uses “bourgeois” a lot too, which is all rather cute and quaint language now 🙂 Part of the ‘debate’ at the time amongst lefties was whether it was valid to argue women were a political class in their own right. I think its useful to revisit our history from time-to-time.

    Its also helpful methinx, in understanding why male supremacy hates women-only spaces. Nobody bothers the women’s spaces that are firmly within the boundaries of the ghettos – eg Women-for-Peace organisations, there are millions of these women’s anti-war groups – but they are firmly within the ‘Caring’ Sector.

    harm reduction versus radical change, in other words

    well.. I would qualify this as INDIVIDUAL or Personal harm reduction versus Political change, which flows into the whole Individualism/Exceptionalism stuff, and the whole privvie-pushing crap.

    On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with reformism, I’d rather stop-the-bleeding now, (stick on a bandaid, bandage, splint, damage control etc) than stand back and just keep whining about the cause of it! Juliet Mitchell and others of the time, were well aware of the tension between reformism and revolution too – but they also often made the point, that reformism could also be like an education centre, for community-building, for recruiting others, for communal consciousness-raising – from reformists, revolutionaries can be born 🙂

    I really worry for this new generation of women whose spouse became a SAHD (stay at home dad) while they went out to work, because a lot of women are going to lose their kids in the next decade…

    Women have always lost their kids, only men have the Right-to-Choose. Men can choose to keep the kids, or they can choose to get rid of them – either way, the laws always support men’s right of ownership to either keep their property, or dispose of their property.

  5. Good diagrams!

  6. Thanks, Rain, for introducing me to Mitchell, I’m loving it.

    “I really worry for this new generation of women whose spouse became a SAHD (stay at home dad) while they went out to work, because a lot of women are going to lose their kids in the next decade…”

    It’s already happening. As rainsinger says, men have always had the right to choose. Now though, they don’t have to be a SAHD to steal a woman’s children. Even men who have been found by the family court to have perpetrated violence and abuse, are gaining residency of their children. This has been happening in Australia since the mid 90s. Children are resources not humans, as identified in the text above, and men’s right to resources that they are now required by child support laws to support til adulthood, has been amended into family law. Violent men use the court system to extend their reign of terror over women and children trying to escape from them. They are almost never not granted contact. They bring in psych practitioners to construct women as mentally ill and unfit to parent, which often they are from having endured years of violence. But instead of giving women more resources to heal and parent their kids, fathers are taking the kids instead. Usually after a couple of years when he has moved on to another woman and set up another court-approved nuclear family unit. It’s very easy for men to do this when single mothers are struggling with financial hardship, over-work and substance abuse. And they are doing it out of spite now. They are using children to punish their runaway slaves.

  7. I’m confused about reform-ism. Who is doing the reforming and what is being reformed?

  8. heres some background leslene, in the posts as well as the comments. if its not enough, please feel free to look around some more on your own:


  9. “They are using children to punish their runaway slaves.”

    We really need to raise awareness of this so that young women can see what’s in store for them. a) Stay trapped, or b) lose your kids (unless the father can’t be bothered to fight you for them).

  10. I think estate means ‘that which is the domain of womon’ the sultification of which creates untold misery and harm to enormous numbers of womon. Confined to this ‘estate’ is the total site of our oppression and I agree with Mitchel with out all 4 collapsing in unison there is not much real chance of liberation.

    As for fathers, here in UK we have a nasty bunch who call themselves “Fathers for Justice” they have mamanged to convince the powers that be that nasty womon now have too much power in the welfare of their children. This group made up of hateful disgruntled seperated or divorced males go about gaining sympathy and really playing the violin in the corridors of power. Get up to all sorts of pranks (just like the naughty boyz they are) to get attention (what’s new there) to get their sad message across. They want the power to come and go as they please, see their children when it suits them, expect the mother to do their bidding as an when even though they have no attachment anymore. Most have been done for threatening behaviour and violence (due to womons provocation of course) and they get listened to with great sympathy and oodles of air and tv time to put their case. They actually represent 1% of divorced /seperated fmilies, with the other 99% managing to agree terms peacfully. But they shout loud and horrible and they like to be in control……nasty times ahead as more men join in as it is all a laugh….terrorising womon who just won’t do as they are told!!!!!!!

    The womon in these situations act with such dignity and shun these awful so called fathers but the sympathy always lies with the men as they capture the media and hype it all up,,,and you guessed it their biggest weapon is to Blame Feminism for all this womon power stuff!!!!!!!!! Womon pay a high price for rejecting the male species……

  11. Hey forgot to say thank you Rain..brilliant post..always loved Juliet Mitchel one of out home grown…..

  12. Thank you for the references, Rain!

  13. Excellent diagram. Thank you!

    Mitchell hit the nail on the head with that quote about Marxism/socialism failing to take into account women’s subservience to men. But then again, Marx was a man, and so was Engels. I read “The Origins of The Family, Private Property and The State” several years ago, back in my socialist days, and I always felt like it was missing something. Something like feminist analysis.

  14. Ouch! That was hard to read, Rain. Now I need kisses to make my boo-boos feel all better. Seriously tho, altho I had a few a-ha! moments reading the piece, it was a might bit too close for comfort. Pissed me off. Now I want to throw on some combat boots and kick some ass.

  15. “We really need to raise awareness of this so that young women can see what’s in store for them. a) Stay trapped, or b) lose your kids (unless the father can’t be bothered to fight you for them).”

    Men who can be bothered to be domestic abusers, which is most of them, will certainly be bothered to use those children in their misogyny, because it’s not even a fight anymore. Family law has developed in such a way that it facilitates the smooth transference of abuse and violence from the marital home to the post-separation period. Women face years of negotiating the trauma of “supervised contact” for their children, which has huge implications for a child’s wellbeing and development and therefore for their life chances. Family dispute resolution, which is mandatory for women with children leaving their husbands, capitalises on the years of abuse and violence that she has just “escaped” from.

    I agree this should be a point of discussion for raising awareness with young women because they don’t know this shit. The false narrative that runs parallel to this reality is that the family courts always favour the mother and poor men get screwed over all the time. I never encourage women to have children for a whole other bunch of reasons that I know I don’t need to expand on here, but for women who are set on it I would say do it outside of marriage and never let the guy know he is the father.

  16. Rain, I have nothing to add. This is an excellent post, as usual. The Hub definitely needed a post like this so that newbie womyn readers can now become more aware of the 4 sites of female-specific oppression under patriarchy.

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