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1This French translation of Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies, published in 1992, presents a Marxist feminist analysis of the construction of gender inequalities within the family. The authors seek to show that relations of production, consumption, and transmission within the family are hierarchical relations in which women are exploited for the benefit of men.

2The book begins with a remarkable synthesis of feminist works from 1850 to 1990 and of changing conceptions of family relations. The authors then present theoretical tools aimed at undermining the naturalization of these relations and the subordination of women’s oppression to that of the proletariat. In their approach, the family is viewed as a socio-economic institution, i.e. a hierarchical system of social relations structured around the production, consumption, and transmission of property, which is distinct from the system that constitutes the market. They thereby show that capitalism and the family are two modes of production based on exploitation, which can be defined as any unequal transaction where what is produced by the work of one person is consumed by another in a highly unbalanced exchange (p. 71). The central concept in their argument is men’s ‘appropriation’ of women’s labour power. This approach, already present in an earlier work by Christine Delphy (L’ennemi principal, 1970 [1]), is now widely used in gender studies. This later book, based on a survey carried out in factories in France and England in the 1990s, invites us to revisit the earlier book’s analysis of relations of production, consumption, and transmission, and to consider its contemporary relevance.

3It is worth recalling the authors’ definition of unpaid domestic labour, which aims to shed the distinctions in other definitions between production and reproduction or use and exchange. These definitions derive from naturalistic conceptions, neglecting the fact that domestic tasks could be performed on the basis of commercial exchange if they were not performed within and for the family. Rather than relying on an empiricist definition that attempts to list all the tasks performed in the household by their nature, Delphy and Leonard propose to start with the form of relations within which a great variety of tasks are performed (p. 117). Unpaid housework is done for someone else, without being treated as an exchange. Different tasks are associated with different levels of prestige. These depend not on the tasks’ objective importance, but on the authority of the person who performs them. The prestige associated with a task is already a form of compensation in itself. Today, looking at the most recent results of the Emploi du Temps survey, the topicality of the authors’ arguments, which emphasize that unpaid labour is almost exclusively performed by women, must be admitted. In France, in the course of 1 day in 2010, women spent 50% more time than men on domestic labour (3 hr 52 min vs. 2 hr 24 min, on average), and the tasks men performed tended to be the most prestigious (Bereni et al., 2012). [2] Delphy and Leonard also stress that women are used to spend their spouse’s money, which ties in with recent work such as that of Ana Perrin-Heredia on working-class women (Perrin-Heredia, 2018). [3]

4In their analysis of consumption relations, the authors show that the benefits of both the division of labour and of the resulting resource distribution are skewed in men’s favour. And yet, there are still few studies on how goods and services are actually distributed among family members. The authors’ remarks on the Family Budget survey in France, which explores and compares the relative consumption of different households, but not the differences in consumption between individuals, remain relevant. The scales of observation used in these surveys is the household, which assumes an egalitarian pooling of resources and amounts to not considering women’s low wages as a real factor of inequality (Roy, 2006). [4] The authors clearly show that consumption is differentially distributed within households, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. People consume differently depending on whether they are in a dependent relationship or one where they can consume freely, and on whether they are consuming after performing domestic labour.

5Finally, the authors recall that transmission can be of three types: the transmission of property (inheritance), rank (succession), and membership in a kinship or social group (descent, filiation). All are hierarchical: they depend on the dependents’ status, and the value of the transferred resources differs depending on whether the person is transmitting or receiving. Recent studies on this subject, such as those of Céline Bessière on the inheritance of wineries or Sibylle Gollac on wealth transfers within families, are in line with this idea. They show that transmission is marked by statistically measurable differences in reproductive strategies employed by parents for each child, depending on birth order and gender (Bessière, 2010; [5] Gollac, 2017 [6]). The book also suggests that some people’s descent on the social ladder may be the condition for others’ ascent (p. 223), a hypothesis that has not often been taken up in recent work on social mobility.

6The authors stress the diversity of the domestic labour performed by women as one of its most striking characteristics, criticizing feminist works that place too heavy an emphasis on work ‘for children’ while neglecting work done for other family members. The authors do not disregard other social differences, for although women’s domestic labour is unpaid in any case, its nature nonetheless depends on their spouses’ occupation, income, preferences, and personal interests. Women all help to free up leisure time or paid working time for men by taking on almost all domestic tasks. They provide moral support and direct contributions by performing administrative tasks or hosting guests in order to contribute to their spouse’s activities. This work is always regarded as a form of help that is among their ‘marital duties’, although these peripheral activities are also indispensable. Women, on the other hand, receive little or no such direct contributions because few of them occupy roles or perform the types of activities that directly require the work of a spouse. And they receive little or no moral support for their paid labour, which is seen as a choice. In contrast, husbands structure their spouses’ lives. The man’s social position influences the actual tasks the woman performs, but also her pace, style, and place of life, the arduousness of her work, and her standard of living. The place of residence is directly defined by the man’s social position, and household time is structured around his paid working time. Finally, a wife’s standard of living depends strictly on her husband‘s standard of living and the model of expenditures he chooses and imposes. In comparison, women have little role in structuring the household’s time and space. When they have a job outside the home, they must prove that their husband and children do not suffer from it (p. 260).

7In the conclusion, Delphy and Léonard reaffirm that production relations create the two classes. The family hierarchy produces mechanisms of exploitation, and the nature of the costs and benefits to each party should be determined. There is no exchange, but rather a gendered appropriation of one family member’s labour power by the other. Women are not by nature victims of inherently oppressive men. The social structure confers advantages and disadvantages on the group to which they have not chosen to belong.


  • [1]
    English translation by Diana Leonard published in 2016 under the title Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression (London and New York, Verso).
  • [2]
    Bereni L. et al., 2012, Introduction aux études sur le genre, 2nd ed., Bruxelles, Boeck, p. 173.
  • [3]
    Perrin-Heredia, A. 2018, La gestion du budget: un pouvoir paradoxal pour des femmes de classes populaires, in Lambert A., Dietrich-Ragon P., Bonvalet C. (eds.), Le monde privée des femmes. Genre et habitat dans la société française, Paris, INED.
  • [4]
    Roy D., 2006, L’argent du ‘ménage’, qui paye quoi? Travail, genre et société, 15(1), 101–119.
  • [5]
    Bessière C., 2010, De génération en génération. Arrangements de famille dans les entreprises viticoles de Cognac, Paris, Raisons d’agir.
  • [6]
    Golac S., 2017, Le genre caché de la propriété dans la France contemporaine, Cahiers du genre, 62(1), 43–59.
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