A Moodboard on Feminism and Capitalism

by Shreya Bandlamudi

“…With liberty and justice for all,” is perhaps the most well-memorized line by any individual educated by the U.S education system. The indoctrination of these values, which are supposedly unique to the United States, starts young, but the meaning of those words remains a question we still struggle to answer as we age. A word we think of as synonymous with liberty is freedom. But what is freedom, and is that what was meant when we pledge our allegiance to these United States? In order to understand freedom as a concept within our society,  It’s important to think about context. In this case, the context surrounding values like freedom is the social contract upon which this country was founded centuries ago. But our understanding of this social contract remains incomplete if we do not talk about the sexual contract.

The sexual contract, the inherent subordination of women to men built into the social contract, functions as an obstacle to freedom, which has reverberating effects for the social contract’s current function, especially when we consider the system of capitalism and social reproduction of labor. The implications of the sexual contract buttress the capitalistic society formed under this social contract and further deprive individuals of freedom. We can turn to Carole Pateman’s definition of the sexual contract in The Sexual Contract. She describes the social contract as “sexual as well as social” one, and goes on to detail how it “establishes men’s political right over women” as well as “establishing orderly access by men to women’s bodies” via the institution of marriage. This describes how the sexual contract empowers the cisheteropatriarchy and disenfranchises women to support the foundation of the capitalist society we live in.

Women’s reproductive labor and sexual labor serve as the foundation to society, and this labor goes unacknowledged and uncompensated at every turn when we try to promote the freedom of others. Even in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, as they detail the class struggle between the working class— the proletariat— and the bourgeoisie, they fail to acknowledge the role of women’s unwaged labor in the accumulation of capital by working class men for the bourgeoisie class of men. They allocate social reproduction to the private sphere which, supports the public sphere in every way but excludes the individuals, mostly women, providing this support.

This restriction of women to the private sphere, but dependence upon their labor in the public civil sphere, is the foundation of the sexual contract complementing or undergirding the social contract. Pateman describes the state of limbo women occupy in the social contract as women being “incorporated into a sphere that both is and is not in civil society. The private sphere is a part of civil society, but separated from the ‘civil’ or ‘public’ sphere,” according to Pateman.

In modern society, we can see this as women enter the public sphere as waged laborers without leaving their roles in the private sphere, further compromising their freedom in both public and private realms. Because of the assigned role of women as caregivers, their sexual and reproductive labor was never acknowledged as a form of unwaged labor. In this way as the public and private spheres mesh and the sexual contract is stretched into the public sphere, we run into issues like women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave, and equal pay as a means to achieve the freedom the sexual contract inherently denies. However, the question remains, can we truly achieve freedom without overcoming the systemic barriers of capitalism, the social contract, and the sexual contract? Feminism for the 99% expresses this dilemma as the authors write, “While capital strives systemically to increase profits, working-class people strive, conversely, to lead decent and meaningful lives as social beings. These are fundamentally irreconcilable goals…”. Freedom, when understood in context of the sexual contract, helps us see the obstacles in place for women-identifying individuals. The idea of unencumbered freedom as we declare it in the pledge of allegiance throughout our youth remains elusive, because an approximate half of the population has yet to overcome barriers of capitalism, the social contract, and the implicit sexual contract.

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