Cultural Capital 04: Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic In Women’

Who gives this woman away?


(For non-students, this is part of a series for my A Level students looking at important secondary texts which will assist their studies.)

Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women:  Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’ (1975)

An [If] you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee

(Lord Capulet, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, sc v)


I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,

As she is mine, I may dispose of her:

Which shall be either to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law.

(Egeus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, sc I)

Not much fun, being a teenage girl in Shakespeare’s day, was it?  These intelligent, independent and emotional young women must often have felt like second-class citizens …

If you followed up on last month’s article, you may know that Marx suggests that the capitalist will pay the proletarian worker – Marx’s second-class citizens – the bare minimum required to keep him alive, working, and to allow the class as a whole to reproduce, providing a steady flow of workers, or ‘wage-slaves’, to serve in the future.  Depressing thought, isn’t it?

I used ‘him’ deliberately, because Rubin’s essay takes Marx as only a starting point:

‘In Marx’s map of the social world, human beings are workers, peasants, or capitalists; that they are also men and women is not seen as very significant.’

Which sounds ideally gender-blind, we might say?  But she contends that capitalism is:

 ‘a systematic social apparatus which takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated women as products.’

Domesticated women become a kind of robot – cooking; cleaning; looking after the worker when he is not working; crucially, making sure he is fit and happy to work; and of course, reproducing.  Here’s a supporting, and revealing, quotation from a text by Matthew Beaumont [1]:

At nighttime, women of the poorer classes were expected to reproduce labour in a double sense: on a daily basis, to repair its physical strength, by restoring the labourer’s body; and, in the long term, to propagate the next generation of workers. This is what it meant in the Middle Ages to be an obedient proletarian (from the Latin proletarius, which in ancient Rome signified the lowest class of citizens, who served the state not by owning property but by producing offspring).

Think about that for a moment: the idea of serving the state by producing future generations of workers / slaves, so that those who don’t currently do any work – and their children – can continue in that vein.

Whilst the Marxist and Feminist critical viewpoints are close where they relate to inequality, Rubin goes beyond blaming capitalism, pointing out that non-capitalist societies are just as oppressive.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that your Shakespeare/Marlowe texts effectively pre-date capitalism.  This leads Rubin, almost inevitably, to the concept of  kinship, produced by and relying on:

‘an exchange of women between men’.

as a way of creating obligation, trust, and co-operation between groups. Bonds of marriage and – eventually – shared descendants are the hardest to break.  Using anthropological studies and the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss (another Lit Crit demi-god from Uni), Rubin contends that the incest taboo did NOT develop to prevent genetic deformities.  Can you guess what startling conclusion she came to?

Almost inevitably, Rubin deduces that women become a kind of merchandise or currency – sexual objects, in fact – between social groups (or individual men).  One of the consequences of this is that they have no say in where, when, why or to whom they are gifted.  The collective needs of that social group outweigh personal preference; in fact obliterate it.

So, and we see this in almost all of our texts:

‘Women are given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favors[sic], sent as tribute, traded, bought, and sold.’

Yes, even ‘bought and sold’: go and read Thomas Hardy’s  incredible 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge – it made a deep impression on me as a teenager.  And many customs or social quirks, such as a father ‘giving away’ a bride, suddenly take on a different meaning.  It might be helpful to your studies to consider what the woman represents in this system:

‘Kinship systems do not merely exchange women.  They exchange sexual access, genealogical statuses, lineage names and ancestors, rights’

But it is an artificial system, a ‘social imposition’ on biology which Rubin seems to get angry about (yes, even academics get worked up): the deduction that society appears to be founded on kinship does not make the accompanying subordination of women acceptable.

BH gayle rubin
‘Impose on me one more time.  I dare you.  I double dare you.’

Remember, this is not designed to replace you reading – and thinking about – the original article.  Details of where you can find it appear below.

This summary basically gets us about half-way through Rubin’s essay.  Those who choose to go ‘Deeper Into the Labyrinth’ (Rubin’s words), will find some interesting, challenging ideas on the nature of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as social, not biological constructs; the division of labour into ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’; the female ‘Oedipus complex’; and the social pressures encouraging marriage, including potential origins of the taboo against homosexuality – heady stuff!

So how can you apply Rubin’s work to your studies for AO5?

  • Analyse the marriages within the texts.
    • To what extent are they kinship alliances, or are they companionate (for love)?
    • Who benefits from the match?  Or loses?
    • How much power does the woman have?
    • How happy is the relationship?  How does an ‘arranged’ marriage affect the action of the text?
    • To what extent is the woman dehumanised?  Example – think back to your pre-A Level studies: why was it important that we never learned the real name of Curley’s Wife in Of Mice And Men?
  • Interrogate any proposed marriages in your texts.
    • Who is arranging the match?
    • What do they hope to gain?
    • How is the bargain going to benefit both social groups?
    • How much say is the woman getting?
  • Consider any ‘morals’ or messages for the audience.
    • What happens to women who challenge the kinship structure?
    • What happens if men allow the structure to be challenged?
  • Try to draw links to contextual factors, too, for AO3
    • Think about, research, Elizabeth I’s love life – how is this mirrored / challenged in your Elizabethan texts?
    • The same applies, in fact, to Victoria
    • What about the romantic lives of your authors? (students of Tennyson should easily make some comparisons to his personal experiences)

Quote Rubin, or at least reference her, and her essay, to show where your alternative critical viewpoints are coming from!

_ _ _


[1]  Matthew Beamount, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, (London:  Verso Books, 2015)

  • Shakespeare quotations are taken from
  • Rubin’s essay is available online for free in PDF format if you go looking for it.  Alternatively, it – and the essays marked * below – is re-printed in one of my English Literature ‘bibles’ at University:  Rivkin, Julie, and Ryan, Michael, Literary Theory:  An Anthology, (Blackwell Publishing:  Oxford, 2005)
  • Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, (1949)
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
  • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979)*
  • Luce Irigaray, Women on the Market (1985)*

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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