Where are the women? Rewriting the history of Marx’s Capital

‘Where are the women in this thesis?’

Picture the scene: late May or early June 2011, in my PhD supervisor’s office, in my mock viva discussing my thesis on the British publication and reception of Karl Marx’s Capital. I’d like to say that it was an obvious question and I easily rattled through an impressive answer. But I didn’t. I confess it was something I don’t think I had really thought about in a conscious way before that moment. I talked about masculinity in the thesis, I knew that, but women? British Marxism was overwhelmingly a male world and most of the working-class autobiographers I had mined for reading experiences were male. I started, falteringly, to offer an answer:

‘Erm, well, well they aren’t really in the sources …’

‘WRONG ANSWER! Start again.’

It was the wrong answer. He was right. And when a similar question inevitably came up in the real viva, I think I offered a better answer (something about women being an important part of the process as translators, editors, booksellers, etc. – the memory is blurry) but I still don’t think I answered it properly. It was of secondary importance to me, as I was more concerned with tracking the ‘real history’ of how the editing process had changed the presentation and understanding of Marxist theory.  It has taken five years since that moment in my supervisor’s office to fully understand and appreciate the question, and I’m ready to answer it now, as I finally write the book manuscript this summer.


Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Marx’s daughters Jenny, Laura and Eleanor

In the 1860s, Jenny Marx copied out the original German manuscript of Das Kapital, deciphering her husband’s handwriting (so awful that he was turned down for a job as a railway clerk) so that the typesetters had a reasonable chance of understanding it. She wrote letters explaining how the ‘fat book’ had taken over the lives of her family and damaged her husband’s health: ‘if only the leviathan were launched!’

In the mid 1880s, Eleanor Marx spent months in the British Museum Reading Room chasing up all of her father’s sources to replace his translations with the original quotations for the first authorised English translation of Capital, for which she did not receive credit on the title page, next to Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore and her common-law husband Edward Aveling. In the British Museum Reading Room, she worked amongst a group of educated women who were jobbing translators and journalists– a sort of literary proletariat – who between them produced the first English translations of Flaubert, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy …

In the late 1920s, Cedar Paul took the bold step, with her husband Eden, of retranslating Capital for publisher George Allen and Unwin when it was realised that they had sold the copyright of the original translation. Communists themselves – although bohemian ones who also flirted with psychoanalysis and translated much of the non-Freudian literature available in the 1920s – they were heavily criticised by orthodox Marxists for daring to revise a translation that had the authority of having been overseen by the great Friedrich Engels himself.

Torr Letters 1942

Dona Torr’s translation of the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, 1942

In the 1930s, Dona Torr, founder member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group and officially my heroine, attempted to repair the damage, liaising between George Allen and Unwin and the Marxist theoreticians in Moscow to edit an edition of the ‘original translation’ that would be acceptable to committed Communists. In adding historical material about the production and reception of the book – as well as a facsimile of the 1887 title page – Torr turned the book into an historical object. Really, she claimed, the book was not only itself a history of England but the various editions of Capital a way in to think about the histories of working class movements in each of the countries in which they were produced. Hence, Torr made my work possible without me even being aware of it.

All of these women, and many more, were in the thesis. I just didn’t know it at the time. Wrong answer, start again:

‘Where are the women in this book?’


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5 Responses to Where are the women? Rewriting the history of Marx’s Capital

  1. mazen labban says:

    Hi, your essay reminds me of Mary Gabriel’s wonderful biography of the Marx family, Love and Capital. According to Gabriel the portrait in your essay is not of Jenny Marx but of Gertruda Kugelmann.

    • cathfeely says:

      Thanks for this. I will investigate – this is the portrait that appears in the Marx and Engels Collected Works, so you can see where I would have got the idea. I haven’t read Gabriel’s book yet – I shall – although Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx remains the gold standard for me. My book is actually a biography of the book (Capital) rather than the Marx family itself but it is important to note the importance of the family to the production of the book in all sorts of ways.

  2. Meenals says:

    Good luck with your project. Thought this might interest you: Invisible Women in History and Global Studies: Reflections from an Archival Research Project’ Globalizations, Vol. 14 (2) (2016) DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2016.1158905

  3. betty cook says:

    I had a similar experience with my diss, sort of an intellectual history of German Naturalism and the birth of Modernism at the intersection of religious and scientific discourses at the end of the 19th century. I had an advisor who thought the obvious direction for the project would be the investigation of the less-discussed contributions made by the thoroughly marginal(ized) women of early German modernism, whose work and lives I found fascinating. I maintained, though, that their work was not technically the ‘thing’ I was writing about. The ‘thing’ I wanted to pursue was to its core pretty masculinist, and there was no way to diversify that by tacking on female artists– it wouldn’t be a feminist act to include tokens, but a patronizing one. I thought the absence of women could be noted or theorized, but they, the missing women, would have to be a project unto themselves. I ended up with a diss that discussed almost exclusively the work of men. I suppose I still don’t know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I believe that to pursue the question formulated, the writings and works I chose to consider makes complete sense. But perhaps it was the wrong question to begin with, or that in insisting on the question I was just re-marginalizing Modernist women. I will probably also never write the book the women deserve now, as I have moved away from the topic entirely. Congrats to you that you found a way to explore Where the Women Are in the book. Good luck with your manuscript!

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