The thesis is a comparative historical macrosociology which seeks to draw together a range of material - conceptual, theoretical, and empirical - in order to highlight the ways in which women's subordination is socially constructed. Attention is focused, in particular, on the ways in which this form of subordination has been structured, and systematically reinforced, by the social systems of patriarchy and capitalism.
The overall analysis is broadly situated within a (dual systems) framework which posits patriarchy and capitalism as autonomous, but empirically interacting, systems. The nature of each system - and of the distinctive mode of production which lies at its core - is explored, in terms of both its individual dynamics and its use (and abuse) of female labour. It is stressed that both patriarchy (and the patriarchal mode of production) and capitalism (and the capitalist mode of production) are constituted in different ways across time and space and that the nature of the relationship between the two systems can, in consequence, vary quite markedly from one social context to another. An examination of the empirical intertwining of patriarchy and capitalism in Britain and Australia in the period 1850-1939 underscores the importance of these differences. It is found that fundamental differences in the nature of capitalist development in these two countries created important differences in the nature of the articulation between patriarchy and capitalism. This, in turn, forged important differences in the types of work that women undertook on behalf of their households. It is argued that these differences structured important differences in the daily lives of the women in these two countries and, more particularly, in the nature of their subordination. In other words, women's subordination in Britain was textured somewhat differently from that of women in Australia.
In Britain, many women were tragically caught between the competing demands of patriarchy and capitalism and, in consequence, their working lives bequeathed exhaustion, poor health, and, relative to their Australian counterparts, premature death. Yet, despite this, their lives had purpose and meaning, and their importance to the economic survival of their families was readily apparent. Indeed, the women were central figures both within their households and within their wider communities.
In Australia, women had a higher standard of living than did women in Britain: they were better fed and better housed, and lived longer. But, since they were more likely to be full-time housewives, they were also more firmly conscripted to the patriarchal mode of production than were women in Britain. Paradoxically, then, despite their better material conditions, they led more 'caged' lives, and their contributions to the economic survival of their families, while vitally important, became increasingly obscured as the division between home and work became ever more deeply driven, materially as well as ideologically.
It is not possible to say which form of subordination was the more injurious to women. One form was not necessarily worse than the other: in both cases, women's choices were restricted. However, it is important to appreciate that gender relations were embedded in the two systems of subordination in quite different ways. This has important implications for our current campaigns to achieve gender equality, for there are strong indications that women's opportunities for freedom from oppression are more strongly inhibited by the patriarchal mode of production than by the capitalist mode of production. This is not to say that the capitalist system is not a pernicious one (indeed it gives rise to a range of social injustices which need to be vigorously opposed); however, it does suggest that, in the fight for women's liberation, the home is the logical starting point for feminist action.