The Gendering of Work and Family in World Literature: Legacies of Material Feminism

About the project

This project employs social reproduction theory to evaluate the gendering of work and family in world literature across the long twentieth century. It will generate insights into the lived experience of feminized labour within the heteronormative and patriarchal capitalist world-system, from European industrialization to our contemporary moment. The specific focus is an examination of how symbolic violence is evidenced in literary depictions of gendered labour, from factory and farm work to motherhood and marriage including professional white-collar careers and the ‘gig’ economy, indeed this emphasis is what connects a wide variety of literary texts from around the world. Spanning the long twentieth century, such a range of geographical sites is not intended to collapse differences, but instead to draw out connections across culturally disparate contexts in order to develop an understanding of how gendered inequality operates in a capitalist world-system.


Overall, the project’s key research questions are:

  1. What discernible trends regarding the representation of women, work and family can be drawn from world literary fiction?
  2. What role do literary forms have in the articulation and practice of women’s labour (both paid and unpaid)?
  3. How might such portrayals be understood in light of sociological and feminist debates around women, family and work?
  4. How might literary studies, and world literature in particular, benefit from engaging with Social Reproduction Theory?


In sociology, feminism and gender studies have long been concerned with the relationship between economic systems and gendered inequalities. Despite literature’s value as a cultural artefact, however, feminist literary studies took a divergent path, focusing instead on women’s writing (écriture féminine) and psychoanalytic theories of the self. The dominance of psychoanalytical approaches in the field of literary feminist studies has often come at the expense of a sustained engagement with the material realities of women’s labour under capitalism around the globe. Recent social media campaigns, however, such as #MeToo, Time’s Up and #EqualPayDay, have shone a light on women’s experiences of, and marginalization within, the work place, foregrounding questions about structural inequalities in the public consciousness. It is, therefore, timely to bring together again sociological, materialist discourses of feminism with fiction and literary analysis. Considering the political and economic together with literary form and aesthetics leads to an improved understanding of the entrenchment of inequality in a globalized world.  


The project begins with a case study of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perkins Gilman is a key figure because the contemporary critical reception of her work demonstrates the disconnect between literary feminist studies and the economic realities of gender inequality depicted in literary fiction. This project offers a new reading of Perkins Gilman’s infamous story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), constellating it against the wider landscape of her writing on women and work, ultimately contending that scholarship by Mies, Federici and other Social Reproduction Theorists has its antecedents in work by 19th century feminist thinkers (such as the pre-eminent figure of Perkins Gilman) – an important sociological narrative that has been written out of literary studies. The next stage of this project will build on the insights from the Gilman Perkins research and the methodology developed to address the literary depiction of gendered labour in and out of the domestic sphere more broadly. It will include analysis of geographically and formally diverse texts in order to dramatize how ‘work’ forms the backdrop for gendered inequality and violence under a capitalist world-system.


This individual project is part of a larger network project on Legacies of Material Feminism, arising out of the World Literature Network and its research cluster on Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Work which focuses on the importance of Social Reproduction Theory to developing a 21st century literary feminism.

Published Apr. 26, 2019 3:41 PM - Last modified Feb. 21, 2020 1:02 PM