READING GUIDE TO: Women's Studies Group  (1978)  Women Take Issue..., London: Hutchinson 

Chapter one. The dilemmas faced by radical women include working with academic content in academic institutions: they need to fight for recognition, but avoid academic respectability, viability and fashionability, which will  'incorporate and politically neuter  [them]' (page 9). The context for women's studies lies in consciousness raising activities -- this helps them construct new objects, offer critique, develop new tools and explore new articulations of gender. 

In  terms of the CCCS, where this Group was based, the dilemma was whether to conquer the whole of cultural studies and only then to make a feminist critique of it, or whether to focus on the  'woman question' from the beginning. The Group also felt it wanted to do concrete work rather than engaging theoretical wrangles.There were still problems in getting established, though  (page 11), and the Group existed as a support group for its members too. 

They began work on images of women in the media, and then turned to the issue of domestic labour (partly because of the lack of theory in the work on images). They pursued the issues of marxist feminism, and the articulation of gender with class. This as a way of reconciling their lived experience. Some problems arose because theoretical wrangles looked like female disunity, and some female militants wanted to break with CCCS practice and to form women-only forums. This raised the whole issue of common ground with other CCCS approaches. Finally, the Group agreed to focus on economic issues also as a way to connect to the CCCS as a whole, and they then received permission to do this book [sic!] There still are disagreements  [about the book], about the emphasis on the theoretical and the political, the male/female divide, and the role of the audience: attempts to address these matters in editorial work was seen as  'politicising'. 

Chapter two  (Brunsdon C). The Women's Liberation Movement correctly stresses the role of the personal, opposes oppressive views of female nature, and makes ideology and consciousness more important than economic factors. Important work was done on encountering views of women as closer to nature, or on families as natural. This led the Movement towards wanting to control  'nature' and so-called  'natural' characteristics: instead, it was argued that men had constructed notions such as the natural family. This led to a realisation that the personal is the political, that new definitions of politics were needed, which were not male politics. There was also a movement to separate women from their domestic roles, and a more general sexual division of labour, that made women as the ones who do emotional caring and so on. This showed up links between work and family life. The personal became the only continuity for women: these early insights led to the personal tone of much of Women's Liberation, and to the early exclusion of men. There then followed a gradual development arguments about isolation and repression specific to women, and how these were rooted in a masculine hegemony, operating at the level of the hidden and personal. There was thus a gradual connection to marxism, after these issues were made visible. Women became aware that they must begin to make this connection in order to link sexism to more general forms of oppression: such connections will also show the social construction or reproduction of individual positions, although, of course, there will be no easy fit between the social and the individual. 

Chapter three (Bland et al on women and the relations of production). The classic way into this problem is through the work of Engels, who argued that women related to capital as the reproducers of labour and as wage labourers themselves. Their oppression was heightened in families, where housework was seen as the reproduction of labour. This is impeccably marxist, but there are dangers of reductionism and the loss of specificity, especially the specificity of current social relations. These relations might have been class specific originally  (page 39), but they take on additional determinants, especially as they appear as biological or natural. Marxist theory clarifies the issues of value and surplus value, but we need new concepts to describe the  'private production of use values under non-wage relations within a capitalist mode production' (page 43). 

These non-wage relations include the  'particular construction of romantic love' and a learned sense of inferiority. We cannot deduce these from the logic of capital, since there is no necessity for private work to be done by women. This has long been implied, as in the customer of seeing male wages as family wages  (page 46). 

There are clearly determinations of this  'necessity'  at the political and ideological levels as well as at the economic one. Examining the political level means examining the role of the State and matters like the welfare support for families as constructed by patriarchy or as demanded by the male working-class. This actually predates capitalism  (page 48). It becomes possible to reconsider matters like the Factory Acts as ways to disqualify female labour, as well as ways to modernise the extraction of surplus value. We can start to see other social welfare measures as aiming to sanitise or discipline the family, and make women dependants  (which led to some later contradictions, for example with the rise of female paid work, the partial management of which only increased female militancy). 

Even the functions of work should not be seen as simply economic ones -- the political functions are also clear, and have been spelled out in terms of the reserve army of the unemployed. The functions of work are also predicated on the family, and on the female consumer of commodities too. This can be found in Marx's own analysis of the extraction of relative surplus value, which leads to a greater need for commodities and a greater dependence on them: Marx did not specifically talk about the enmeshing of females in this process, however. These days, increased  'needs' lead to a need for female paid labour to pay for them: similarly, the State provides for our needs and employs females to do this. 

Thus Marx should be credited for showing the interconnection between reserve armies, family wages, and the relations between men and women  (page 60). But we need to pursue some specifics -- for example, the location of so many women in the reserve army arises from the sexual division of labour. This was simply taken for granted in Marx, but it needs to be disentangled and seen as the result of many determinations. Marx describes the separation of labour from labour power and of production from consumption to some, but does not explain why this is also sexed. Specifically female dependence arises from the family structure, and it is typical to emerge from families into the reserve army, and to be partially dependent only on a separate wage. 

Beechey's work shows other subdivisions in the reserve army also reflect gendered categories  [such as single women, married women, married women with children and so on]. Women at work soon encounter the contradictions between their sexual identities and their roles as labour, while men have connections confirmed. In families, female work is in a hierarchy already, concentrating on unskilled labour. There is also differential respect -- female sexuality is on sale, even in  'advanced' capitalist societies, as secretaries, for example, soon realise. Equal pay legislation will only lead to new contradictions in this complex. 

[NB This group of writers also produced one of the classics of marxist-feminist analysis of women's work -- Kuhn A and Wolpe A-M (eds) (1978) Feminism and Materialism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul]

Chapter six (McRobbie). McRobbie describes a sample of women studied at the youth club, and how their  'lived experience' links with their  'material position'. She finds that the female position in society is seen [by the women ] as natural, because it is biological. Women find compensation for this view in their friends and in an ideology of romance, which is also structured by age and class -- hence the official ideology of youth in teenage magazines like  Jackie [ the subject of a separate analysis -- see McRobbie A (1991) Feminism and Youth Culture: from Jackie to Just Seventeen, London: Macmillan]

Women also experience contradictions: they can, for example, earn spending money in the family home, where they experience a patriarchal culture; they experience contradictions and overlaps at school too  (page 102). Even middle-class girls respond by developing an extra-sexual [excessively girly?] female anti-school culture. [As with Willis, however, on the the lads and their fate -- see file] McRobbie thinks that girls eventually meekly enter into conventional female identities after all: the  'really useful knowledge' learned in families, is irresistible, and although girls can be critical of marriage and families, they still see them as inevitable. Even their friendships with other girls are partly tactical, and can be linked to the search for boys  (page 106), although the difficulties of sexual relations and fears of exploitation can renew tight defensive friendships. 

Chapter six (Burniston et al on psychoanalysis). There are ambivalences in the work of Freud: despite his background interest in ideology, he is in danger of missing the specifics of gender as a structuring factor. Radical women took an early interest in Freud as offering the only exploration of sexuality, and the methodology of critical, symptomatic reading  (page 110f). It was necessary to break with Freud's biologism, as Althusser and Lacan did, leading to a conflict between biologistic and linguistic explanations. 

Lacan, argued for a founding role of the Law of Desire and its control. This Law was neutral, entry into a concrete culture was predicated on existing power and its connection with anatomical differences between the sexes  (page 117). Must patriarchy be the only way to control desire though? We need a materialist critique to see how this has happened. 

The work of Mitchell follows Althusserian notions of relative autonomy and Lacanian interpretations of Freud, but this over emphasises the autonomy of kinship  (following Levi-Strauss in seeing kinship as the basis of society), and sees kinship as the site of a separate patriarchy. Instead, the model of economic, political and ideological levels is required. There is, for example, an economic function of the family, but it would be wrong to see it in this the origins of family life. 

Kristeva emphasise the role of sign production in subjectivity, but what links this to other kinds of production? In artistic texts, semiotic determinations are more pronounced, and this can have an effect in undermining narrow views of subjectivity, especially when combined with a Lacanian reading, as in many feminist pieces in Screen [ a rival school to the gramscianism of the CCCS -- see file]. Kristeva's model is one that sees drives or 'pulsions' added to significations as the origin of the symbolic order [not the 'eternal' mechanisms of the Oedipus complex], and advocates  semiotic rather than logic as the basis of resistance to it  (the sexed subject comes from the symbolic). 

These approaches offer more critical ways to explore sexuality as constructed rather than standard sociological approaches. Althusser might be some sort of bridge to orthodox marxism through his concept of  'ideology in general' [ see file], but we still lack the detail of how women enter into a social position, and how we move from general to specific politics. When Freud's theory approaches the concrete, it is into categories like individuals, rather than suitable ones to explore the social and economic. 

Overall, there is a material location for psychoanalytic structures, and Althusser begins to explore it. But his work need to focus in material practices, such as those in the media, education, work and family, especially the family which articulates the economic functions and the unconscious acquisition of sexual identity. We still need to explore how sexual identities articulate with production, and how this connection was established historically. 

Chapter 7 (Winship on the ideology of femininity). This chapter examines the use of photographs in a well-known British woman's magazine -- Woman. Winship wants to encourage subversive readings and the active subordination of these images, pursuing Althusserian analysis  [with some hints of early Mulvey]. Women are seen as an  'absence', for example, when compared to men, and thus need to find themselves first in a constructed womanhood. Complications arise from the ideological contradictions of capitalism and patriarchy, however. There are also levels of relatively autonomous production of meaning in the pages of Woman, including the values of entertainment. There is a selective ideological discourse about motherhood too  (page 139f ). Such a discourse is popular because women recognise this subordination, they are aware of clashes between fantasy and reality, and of the contradictions they encounter. 

The letters page is also analysed, and familiar ideological themes are pursued -- phoney individuality in the concept of  'beauty'; the family as central; an element of staged resistance; a discussion of the hidden dimensions of work; the offer of a qualified independence; flirting with sexy men, only to return to the family. These fantasies appear in stories almost as dreams of, and Freud's work is used here to identify elements of condensation, displacement, representability, and secondary revision. In this way, the stories offer empty symbols. [This last sentence seems to anticipate Fiske's work -- Fiske J (1987) Television Culture, London: Routledge --  on popular television as deliberately vague and empty, so that a wide range of people can insert their own meanings and become involved. Winship sees such emptiness as a demonstration of 'interpellation', however]. 

Chapter 8 (Bland, Harrison and others on anthropology). It is necessary to turn to anthropology to correct Marx's emphasis on social relations as economic, and on interpretations of institutions that exchange women as 'natural'. It also helps to understand patriarchy in pre-capitalist societies. 

This chapter begins with a criticism of the famous work of Hindess and Hirst  (Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production). Hindess and Hirst are right to focus on social relations rather than technical forces, but they do not discuss divisions based on sex. There are ambiguities about the emergence of kinship in their account -- kinship is seen as a mere mechanism to distribute surpluses rather than as a mechanism to subordinate women (page 158f). Critical anthropology is badly-needed here: Hindess and Hirst seemed to be denying the existence of a political level in gender relations in pre-capitalism. A proper marxist feminist anthropology would show sex and age factors as relevant in determining access to the means of production and distribution of the surplus. Subordination in these terms must be regulated -- there can be no autonomy of the sex-gender system in these matters. Similarly, Levi-Strauss's work on the exchange of women shows real subordination rather than just symbolic subordination. 

[Turning back to marxism] the concept of  'reproduction' is too general and functionalist and needs to be specified: there are both specific biological factors in reproduction and specific forms of it. Such reproduction links to the economy via the production not just of labour but of sexed subjects. Women need to be controlled specifically either through the economy or through the family, but also at the political and ideological levels too. We need to focus both on the specificity of ideologies of sexuality and on the economic and ideological effectivity of families. We still need comparative and concrete studies of the links between them. [It is worth noting that the authors claim that their perception of these connections arose from their own personal/political experiences -- page 173]. 

Chapter nine (Harrison R on Shirley ( a Bronte novel)). This is an analysis of the ideology of romance. The chapter features some marvellous material on the social relations after production of novels as women's work of, and on the subordination of female consumers and workers in the publishing industry. Shirley demonstrates the condition of the English novel within which two love stories take place. The tensions arise from certain  'incorrect' placings the females in the mode of production. There is also a theme that romance civilises men. The resolution of the novel arises after correcting these incorrect placings. This enables Harrison to explain how female productive capacity is appropriated to different classes in different conjunctures  (page 188), and how the ideology of love and marriage reproduced the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. Such an ideology also became a source of profit as the genre of romantic love novels developed. 

The details and effects of romantic love are now widespread, Harrison argues -- femininity, domesticity and motherhood are all legitimated. Harrison argues that this ideology is expressed best in novels, and that Bronte felt this problem especially.