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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Solidarity Economy Roads

Chapter 9 - The Road of Women and the Family

Article type
GEO Original
September 9, 2019
Body paragraph

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12

Translated by Matt Noyes

(Thanks to Emi Do and Leo Sammallahti – MN)

[In this chapter Razeto uses the analysis of solidarity economy developed to this point to make sense of the family as an economic unit and form of collective organization, and understand the roles of women as its main protagonists. The disintegration of the traditional family under industrial capitalism, with the rise of wage labor outside the home, the erosion of domestic and community economic activity, the creation of the nuclear family, and the concomitant changes in gender roles and the division of labor are shown to have aggravated inequality and damaged core relations of human solidarity. Incorporating feminist critiques of the “invisibilization” of domestic work Razeto embraces struggles to recuperate the family in a broad sense and recreate the family economy on the basis of solidarity, equality, and increased productivity, as a path toward solidarity economy. Once again, the primary frame of reference is Latin America; see the translator’s introduction for Razeto’s early experience of family economy. - MN]

Chapter 9

The Road of Women and the Family

Family, Women, and Labor in the Traditional Economy

Ongoing changes in the situation of women, gender relations, and the organization of the family constitute a process of cultural transformation that is among the most important of our epoch. From them emerge a series of new phenomena and tendencies appearing in daily life, in our behaviors and social relations as in our economic and political activity. Why and in what forms do these changes affecting the situation of women and the family open a new road to solidarity economy?

Traditionally, and since long ago, the differentiation between genders has included a distinction in functions and roles played in family life as well as social, economic, and political activity. Obviously, in the succession of distinct historical epochs and across cultures the particular forms of these differences have not always had the same meanings and contents. It is not possible to analyze this diversity here, but we can say that the various forms have nearly always meant for women a special dedication to family and domestic life, to child-rearing and education, to problems of environmental hygiene and health, and to social relations in the surrounding local community.

Now, this preferential attachment to the household and its surroundings, this particular centrality of women in the family and the community, have a very distinct meaning from that associated with the relegation of women to domestic and family life in the context of contemporary urban and industrial society. The traditional meaning, importance, extension and intensity of family and domestic life are very different from those which the same forms have now.

In the past the family was truly the fundamental cell of society. Family signified a large social unit, comprising at least three generations living in the same place, with numerous children and multiple branches. Work and much of the process of reproduction of economic and social life revolved around the family, which, for the immense majority of people was based in the countryside or in highly integrated villages, small towns, or small cities. The predominant unit of economic life was the agricultural holding – small, medium, or large – worked by extended families according to a logic of satisfaction of needs: consumption, reproduction, and improvement of the conditions of life of their members. These economic units found a first strong articulation on the community level, in some form of local community though which they were inserted into a communal or micro-regional structure in accordance with complex economic, social, and cultural relations.

In the family and the local community the functions of production, distribution, consumption and accumulation are fulfilled simultaneously and with notable integration. The family was the foundation of many productive activities and a pole around which the available economic resources as well as the objectives of economic activity were articulated. The extended family – parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, other family members and relatives – was the principal unit of labor and basic subject in economic relations with the surroundings. Members of the family able to perform useful labor took on different tasks and there arose among the components of the family a certain elementary division of labor, based on personal capacities, gender and age, kinship relations, and the decisions made by the heads of the family in order to satisfy the distinct requirements of production. In this way the work of men, women, children and the elderly was differentiated.

The participation of the whole family in production took many different forms: farm labor in all its aspects and seasonal differences; raising and tending to livestock and fowl; preparation and conservation of food and drink; construction, maintenance, repair and improvement of housing and other structures; weaving and other artisanal labor; care for the sick; participation in social and ceremonial activities, and more. The distinction between productive labor and essential useful activities was difficult to draw given the interweaving of the different aspects of subsistence and reproduction of family life. The notion of “employment” is obviously inadequate to describe the labor force in those conditions, as is “unemployment,” as all the available labor force was put to use in the production process, whatever the productivity of the people involved. Not working was understood to represent laziness or vagrancy.

Labor from outside the family group was used on occasion, in certain economic activities and at certain times of year in which the need for labor exceeded that available in the family. Some family members also worked outside the home or for others, when their own resources and means were insufficient to provide that necessary for subsistence, and in seasons when the supply of labor was greater than the need. But the principal economic activities were those performed in the home or its immediate surroundings. The need to do wage work for third parties characterized the extremely poor and those who had not escaped the situation of servitude. For thousands of years, only the poorest of the poor lived on wages: those whose domestic economy was inadequate to sustain themselves and their families. Work in the family economy and autonomous subsistence labor were the principal means of survival; offering one’s labor power to others, entering the heteronomous or external economy of dependent wage labor, was a recourse used only when the former was insufficient.

As to management of economic activity, fundamental decisions were made by the head of the family who took on principal responsibility as much for the family as a social unit as for the material resources that made up the family as an economic unit. It is important to note, nonetheless, that decision-making with respect to the assignment of the family labor force to the various tasks and activities was normally divided among the parents: the man organized production work, deciding who would participate and how they would work, and the woman organized the work that supported production (maintenance of equipment, raising livestock, preparing and conserving foods, etc.), the supply and commercialization of agricultural products in the local community, consumption, and some essential services (health, education, etc.). Coordination and understanding was required, meaning that the leadership of the process was often shared.

In sum, because the economy was fundamentally domestic and familial, the fact that women were predominantly involved in domestic and familial activities did not imply that their participation was emptied of economic and productive content.

The sexist division of labor in industrial society

All of these traditional relations changed substantially with the advent of industrial production. The decisive fact was the concentration of production and economic activity in specialized units, separated from family and community life: factories, companies, institutions, and stores dedicated to the production and commercialization of goods and services differentiated by area and specialty. These enterprises constitute units of invested capital which seeks maximum profitability by organizing productive processes on a grand scale, standardized and structured in conformity with economic and technical rationality. Specialized scientific knowledge is systematically applied and production is directed toward the public in general constituted as a consumer market, through the flows and relations of exchange.

The concentration of production in specialized business units had a profound impact on the structure and contents of family life, affecting the conditions of women in particular. Factory production requires the execution of a great quantity of tasks of low intellectual content and high utilization of physical energy, to which males are principally assigned, constituted as industrial workers. Of course many of these activities can be done as well by women; but for various reasons it was primarily men who initiated the process of leaving the home to work in the world of enterprises and institutions. 1 Men had already been the ones who wandered farther from home and community in the performance of traditional productive and commercial activities; it is not difficult to see how they came to make up the labor force of factories and enterprises, especially in the first phases of industrialization. The requirements of labor continuity in time, be it the maintenance of an elevated number of hours a day or the non-interruption of labor throughout the year, placed women in disadvantageous conditions due to their special responsibility for activities related to the feeding and care of their children and the interruptions of pregnancy and maternity.

In the first stages of industrialization and capitalism a radical fracture took place in the family understood as a unit of labor and management of economic activities. The gender distinction in roles and functions was exacerbated, with the man coming to be the principal provider of income necessary for family consumption, which he obtained through dependent wage labor, and women coming to assume nearly exclusive responsibility for domestic activities.

The concentration of productive activities in enterprises outside of the home substantially reduced the economic content of family life, which lost much of its productive self-sufficiency. The market becomes the place where needs are met through the purchase of indispensable goods and services offered by enterprises at prices set in monetary terms. As a result of the generalization of mercantilism only work that was monetarily rewarded was regarded as true work and only production that generated goods or services for the market was seen to be real production. As work became identified with employment the status of “worker” was recognized only for those people who sold their labor power for a fixed price to enterprises and institutions. However many goods and services they produced to satisfy the needs of family members and the community, domestic labor and community work ceased to be considered real work, acquiring the not always desirable quality of “invisibility.”

The repercussions of these changes on the structure, composition, and life of the family were no less profound. Limited to the so-called nuclear family, considered complete when made up of a pair of adults and an ever-diminishing number of children, the family is based on an individual man (usually a man) providing income that is stretched to sustain a small home. Children do not work until reaching an age when they can be employed outside the home, prolonging the period of education and instruction considered necessary for them to perform activities higher in the hierarchy of the business or institutional economy. When people reach a certain age – which in most cases does not actually correspond to some real inability to work – they cease to be employed, entering a phase of retirement imposed by the laws regulating labor relations and social security. The resulting growth in the total number of inactive dependents does not, however, prevent the increase in under- and unemployed workers.

Low wages, often not enough to cover the needs of the nuclear family, and the economy’s need for an increasing supply of labor power, have led to openings for women in the external economy. Seeking to overcome their “invisibility” and the many restrictions implied by the relegation of women to domestic activities in the framework of a reduced and impoverished family life, women look for employment outside the home. This in turn aggravates the impoverishment of the productive and economic content of family life.

From the economic point of view the family has come to be considered as a unit of consumption and not of production. Although they may recognize individual families as economic subjects and families as a whole as a sector of the economy – the “family” sector – economists see them exclusively as units of spending and consumption, their relevance determined by how much demand for consumer goods and services they represent, which is then counterposed to the “business” sector where economic goods are produced.

The Crisis of the Family

Is it common to speak of a “crisis of the family.” In the past several decades the rate of divorces and separations has risen year by year and in some countries the number of marriages ended has surpassed the number of new marriages. The number of alternative relationships, that is, couples who remain unmarried, is rapidly increasing. Birth control, contraception and abortion have become generally available, and one or two children is considered enough. Children rebel against their parents at an early age and being single is a felt aspiration, a way to become independent from the family and live on one’s own. When it is not devoid of emotional intensity, family life becomes a space of high tension.

In reality, this is not just a crisis of the family but a true disintegration. It is important to identify exactly which family we are talking about. The crisis or disintegration of “the family” is in reality the terminal process of a social entity created in the modern epoch in the heat of industrialism and capitalism, strictly functional for those systems. Theodore Roszak expressed this well:

“The family as we know it is one of the most damaged and pathetic by-products of industrial upheaval. Its heritage is a drab tale of victimization. If we reach back less than two centuries into the social history of the modern world, what do we find? Factory towns and mining camps sweeping dislocated rural masses and immigrant multitudes into their burgeoning job markets like a vast global debris. By all their tradition and experience the laboring folk were tied to a domestic economy of household and locality. Then, suddenly, within a few generations in every Western society, they were rudely dumped into a very different economic order – a world economy whose engines were savage cities that systematically pulverized their human material into the footloose fragments economists euphemistically called a “free and mobile labor force” capable of instantaneous response to the market. Such “free” labor came to the cities as uprooted, propertyless, mainly youthful men and women whose sex lives and love lives now became unprecedentedly promiscuous and unstable (…) The only family these new economic “individuals” could be expected to create was the tiny human cluster we now call “the nuclear family.” But that was all the new economy wanted of them in their domestic life: their status as minimal units of labor power.” (p142)2

In reality, this economy wanted something more – maximum multiplication of consumers – and to that end nothing better than mini-families each made up of independent units of consumption obliged to obtain everything needed to sustain their homes, acting separately, one family from the other.

“Moreover” – continues Roszak – “the industrial household was, by virtue of its isolation and insecurity, a savagely competitive bundle of self-interest (…) All sense of community was quickly wrung from its consciousness. The very architecture of industrial towns expressed the family’s isolation and selfish defensiveness: row upon row of beehive tenements crowded with distressed and anonymous masses, held together as powerless household units at most by desperation and basic erotic need. (…) This is the crippled tradition from which the modern family takes its course: a century and a half of institutional shipwreck, a long, bone-wearying struggle by millions of deracinated men and women to improvise love, loyalty, and the responsibilities of parenthood out of the social ruins left in the wake of industrial disruption. (…) Nothing that has come along in the past century – no major social movement or significant reform – has diminished the dependency and isolation of home life in industrial society. The fragmentation of all natural community continues – in the high-rise ziggurats that fill the central city and the housing tracts of suburbia where each home withdraws from streets and neighbors to become a bastion of selfish consumption. All we have done is to resign ourselves to our domestic isolation and call it ‘privacy.’” (Roszak, p145-146)

Perhaps the reality of the family in our countries is not as pathetic as depicted by Roszak, who refers to North American society. Though various of the traits he describes are also found in our less industrialized societies, in our countries the human, social, and economic content of the family is slightly more consistent. As Roszak observes further on in the text:

“Marriages come apart, homes break up… but the statistics show that most people who divorce remarry. (…) As weak as a reed the family may be, it is all most of us have to hold against the engulfing loneliness. It is also the one little corner of the world where we find the chance to experience responsibility – not much perhaps, minor decisions about household budgeting, where the kids should go to school, what color to paint the kitchen… but as much of a chance as the the big, busy world gives us to feel grown-up and in charge of something more than our private lives.” (Roszak, p150)

Beyond this, the family is the principal space where human solidarity, conviviality, communal spirit, and mutual cooperation are conserved and kept alive.

This is why the possibility of a simultaneous process of recuperation of personality and community arises from the reality of the family in crisis and the position of women; a process that in various ways leads to the perspective of solidarity economy, as we shall see.

Family economy and solidarity economy

The crisis of the family has prompted some people to experiment with other forms of elementary community: open families, collectives, life communities, collective houses, etc. Typically organized by small groups, experiments of this type are many and various and demonstrate a wide range of degrees of success and stability. Most of them, true family substitutes, aim to discover new forms of life and as a result tend to free those who join them from the conditioning of the established economic and macro-social structures. These experiments constitute a possible road to follow but only for very few people; they may offer a path for those who have lived more intensely the vapidity of family life itself.

The family is a natural institution in the sense that it surges spontaneously from life: we are born into it or search for it when we are born; later the vital impulse moves us with tremendous intensity to create a new family in which to realize our selves and project our existence. We, men and women, expect so much from the family: lifelong faithful company and sexual gratification; protection, food and rest; moral support, gentleness and understanding; care when we are sick and consolation in the break-downs and problems of life; satisfaction of our needs for conviviality, entertainment, work, play, and leisure. We associate family as much with our personal development as with our insertion in the community; in families we establish links to our roots, to our blood ancestors, and we project ourselves into the future with our descendants. With them and for them we build our home, the place where the work we do outside comes to have meaning, like the efforts we make to save and prepare, to acquire goods and equity. In the family we search for and give the greater part of our love and in the different ages of life we hope to find there sustenance and satisfaction of our principal needs. All this and much more we hope to find in the family.

Certainly, the family today, diminished and damaged as it is, is in no condition to satisfy all of these needs at the level and quality we desire. But our attachment to the family is so deep that we hold on to the thought that it is possible to recuperate it as the primary space for the self and community realization to which we naturally aspire. Two conditions would need to be met in order for recuperation to be possible.

The first would be the recuperation of the broader meaning of family, beyond the truncated “nuclear family.” To serve as a basic but complete cell for society, capable of providing its members the wealth of lived experiences and conviviality mentioned before, both genders and all ages would need to participate: children, youth, adults, elderly, at least three generations including lateral ramifications. The idea is not that everyone would live in one home but that they should have some degree of integration, enough to provide all of them a sense of belonging and a common identity expressed in shared activities and real commitments of mutual aid and cooperation. To be real, this integration would have to be expressed not only on occasional holidays, but also in members integration through economic links that persist in time, in ongoing relations of sociability, cooperation, and mutual aid, in the possession of shared goods, and in real flows of goods and services enjoyed in common.

The second condition is the recreation of a consistent family economy capable of providing its members, autonomously, satisfaction of their needs and protection of their rights. The family should be constituted as a complete economic unit not limited to consumption and spending; it should recover its status as a unit of production and work, in the heart of which moreover, one can witness processes of economic distribution and accumulation.

If the erosion and crisis of the family is the product of a mode of economic organization, it will be through a different mode of economic organization that the family will realize its true vocation and fullest meaning. We shall see how this can be done and identify the possibilities of transformation in the current situation of the family.

Reality, content, and forms of family economy

While it is not adequately recognized, in reality the family has not completely lost its content as an economic unit that fulfills several functions of production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation, and still constitutes a considerable part of the economy as a whole. We have begun to see tendencies that reverse the process of impoverishment of domestic work as well as others that reinsert and define new possibilities for women’s labor in the global economy. Examining these new situations and processes we can understand in what way and to what extent the road of women and the family opens onto the solidarity economy.

The “invisibility” that has come to characterize domestic and community labor and economy is due to the fact that activities and flows that do not pass through the market don’t have monetary expressions; thence also the difficulty that exists when it comes to appreciating and quantifying their magnitude. The fetishism of money (according to which only that which has a monetary price has value) is associated with the fetishism of quantity (only that which can be expressed and quantified in mathematical formulas exists), creating a special obstacle to identifying the specific economic content of many domestic activities and types of work.

For this reason the movement to recognize domestic work as real work, which is based in a certain feminist demand, is important for the development of the family economy. Likewise the effort made to quantify the domestic economy, to measure the impact of women’s work at home on the global product and compare its productivity to that of other economic sectors, helps reveal the existence and economic value of the family economy, with an accompanying recuperation of its dignity.

Some key dates can be identified. In a 1981 study Annie Fouquet found that in France 48.1 billion hours annually were worked in domestic labor, and just 41.2 billion in wage and salaried labor.3 A 1983 study by Lucía Pardo found that in Chile the work of homemakers, measured by the corresponding market prices for the same goods and services (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, shopping, tending to the ill and elderly, etc.) equaled 15% of the Gross National Product, a figure that would rise to 30% if the domestic work of other family members were included.4 With a similar methodology it has been found that in the US, Canada, and Great Britain the contribution of women’s domestic work amounts to 22% of the GNP. The numbers are truly striking. Recent studies by The International Labor Organization (ILO) and various academic entities demonstrate the enormous relevance of domestic labor in terms of its direct and indirect economic value.

If we pass from the quantitative data to the qualitative aspects of labor and the family economy, we will realize its true importance, understand its highly solidaristic rationality, appreciate the quality of its goods and services which are incomparably superior to the equivalents or substitutes offered by the market. We will definitely be struck by just how significant the family economy is in terms of the quality of life it provides.

The presence of solidarity in the domestic economy scarcely requires explication. Cooperation in work and community in consumption of goods and services are self-evident. The domestic economy is traditionally built on the basis of relations of sociability and conviviality in the highest degree of integration: between family members are formed not just bonds of solidarity but an even more intimate unity born of love and consanguinity. As Hegel observed, “marriage, so far as its essential basis is concerned, is not a contractual relation. On the contrary, though marriage begins in contract, it is precisely a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract, the standpoint from which persons are regarded in their individuality as self-subsistent units.”5 The formation of the family group is founded on a free decision of two autonomous people who consent to unite their individual existences, forming a socially recognized permanent community which with children goes on to grow in a natural manner without the mediation of any contract; other relations of natural or political kinship are usually incorporated as well. Constant flows of donations and reciprocity are seen between the members of the family unit, reinforcing the solidarity character of the economic integration of the family in a broad sense. In the nuclear family, and even beyond, individual property dissolves, constituting a family patrimony the possession and use of which is shared by all the members of the group in function of the needs of each one and the family as such.

One way in which the characteristic relations of the solidarity economy are contradicted by the contemporary configuration of the family is the division of labor between men and women, inasmuch as it is defined not on the basis of technical reasons but on roles assigned for gender reasons. We have already seen how such a division of roles is to a great degree the product of economic transformations of the family evidenced by the spread of wage labor in the industrial economy. As a result of these same transformations we also note in the modern family a reduction of the ambit in which relations of sociability prevail, together with the penetration of relations of exchange to the interior of the domestic economy and an accentuation of the feeling of individual ownership over many goods.

It is interesting to observe that these lacks of solidarity also contradict the nature of the family to some degree, such that for reasons of its own integration and development tendencies appear within the family which aim to reverse them. In this sense various demands made by feminists constitute a reaction against distortions of the family; it is to be hoped that at least in part they can find adequate satisfaction in the framework of solidarity economy and specifically in the broadening of the family and the recuperation of its economic content.

It should be stressed, moreover, that a series of cultural, economic, and social phenomena are currently taking place that have an impact on the widening of spaces of family economy and relations of peaceful coexistence within it. Among such phenomena we can mention the growth of structural unemployment in the heteronomous economy, the reduction of the working day and the lowering of the retirement age which free up labor power that is then displaced toward the domestic economy. This gives rise to the formation of numerous family-based microenterprises, or to the performance of work and services that generate complementary incomes for the family.

Another phenomenon which contributes to the expansion of the family economy is technological development which has brought into the home a set of electrical appliances and electronics that provide efficient services and make it easier to perform domestic work. This has lead to a rise in productivity of family labor, such that it tends to become an alternative form of efficient employment of available labor. Along with this the development of the means of communication, information technology, and personal computing should be mentioned, all of which open new pathways for the solution of problems and new forms of work that can be carried out without the need to leave the house. Out of this, new dimensions completely unfamiliar to the family economy are opening up which deserve to be explored and investigated.

On the other hand, we are witnessing accelerated cultural changes especially in relations between the sexes and between parents and children, which lead to the sharing of domestic tasks and labor, incorporating into the family economy a greater quantity and variety of labor power. There is increasing participation of men in activities that until recently were considered the principle responsibility of women, and more and more domestic performance of some particular types of labor (the well-known “Do-It-Yourself” or bricolage), which produce alternative goods to those on the market.

This combination of phenomena reveals itself in different social sectors with various degrees of intensity. Although it can be found in all social strata, it developed more rapidly in the low income popular sectors, where experiments in solidarity economy have reached a greater level of development and the central role is played by women. We can propose a strictly economic explanation of this fact.

The decision to work for wages (in the heteronomous economy) or autonomously (in the family economy), seems to be made with an eye to the costs and benefits implied by each option. In popular sectors, and particularly among women, the incomes that might be expected from wage labor are generally low, while the costs implied by this option are inflated by costs of transportation and the impossibility of replacing one’s own domestic work with external labor. In order for wage labor to be profitable to the domestic worker it is critical that the revenues obtained exceed the costs of transport, clothing, food bought outside the home, etc., not to mention the costs of replacing the goods and services no longer performed by the household with others bought on the market. To the degree that domestic labor raises its productivity (as we saw above), it tends to become less interesting for women in the popular sector to take on an external wage job, especially when, as often happens, factory or business labor implies a significant increase in the overall effort made, since both jobs tend to be combined in time that is further diminished by minutes or hours lost to commuting between the home and company. For this reason in the popular sectors, and especially among women, participation in family economic forms can be an apt alternative, even more so if it is done in associative economic units established near the home (which provide other extra-economic satisfactions and benefits).

Many are the motives and situations from which flow the roads leading to solidarity economy when one starts with the situation in which women and families find themselves today and their quests for greater collective and self-realization.


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1 It should be noted that in certain industries, such as textiles, young women left their rural families to become factory workers.

2 Roszak, Theodore. 1978. Person/Planet: the Disintegration of Industrial Society. Anchor Press/Doubleday. NY. [MN]

3 Fouquet, Annie and Chadeau, Anne. 1981 “Peut-on mesurer le travail domestique?” Économie et Statistique., #136, p29-42. [MN]

4 Pardo, Lucía. 1983. “La dueña de casa y su aporta al PGB.” Revista de Economía. [MN]



Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019).  Solidarity Economy Roads:  Chapter 9 - The Road of Women and the Family.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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