Women and Capitalism

PrintE-mail

The capitalist class have always had the policy of "divide and rule", on grounds of race or sex, in order to more successfully exploit the working class as a whole. Barbara Humphries gives a brief outline of the position of women at work over the past 200 years.

The capitalist class have always had the policy of "divide and rule", on grounds of race or sex, in order to more successfully exploit the working class as a whole.

Industrialisation has brought a hard and fast division of labour between home and work. In the days of the hand-loom spinner or weaver home and work had been one and the same place. This was seen during the years of the industrial revolution in Britain in the 19th century, and has been repeated all over the world. This division between home and work intensified the division of labour between men and women. A man was to be the main breadwinner and a woman's role was to run the home and take care of the children. At the same time however women had to work outside the home to maintain the family income. They were seen by employers as a source of cheap labour and a reserve supply of labour which could be called upon when male labour was scarce or needed elsewhere, such as during war time. Women were encouraged to work during boom times when employers needed them. When the onset of a recession occurred there were demands for women to be returned to the home and for jobs to be given to men. We have seen these familiar patterns in recent years. During the years of Tory government in times of economic downturn their party canvassed the idea of a "family wage" to be paid to male workers who would support their wives. Today, whilst the economy in Britain is still vibrant with falling unemployment the "New Labour" government has been especially keen to encourage women to work, offering beneficial terms for child care and the working families tax credit, whilst cutting benefits to lone parents who are not working.

Historically this division of labour has had several implications for the working class and its organisations. Firstly the loyalty of working class women was at times to be divided between home and the struggle for better wages at work. In pre industrial times class struggle had involved women in direct action against the local landlord, parish or squire to protest about the price of bread, for example. Rioting brought immediate gains such as helping yourself to a loaf of bread, but a strike could mean sacrifice and hardship in the short term. This particularly affected women who had the responsibility for feeding the family. Secondly women who were prepared to work for lower wages than men were seen by some as a threat to their jobs and wages.

Some male workers were to mistakenly see the solution as the "family wage" and the exclusion of women from the workforce rather than taking up the fight for the rate for the job. Integrating women into the trades union movement was a problem where women were actually doing different types of work. The nature of women's work has changed dramatically since the early 19th century - in this country. Then the main source of employment was domestic service or the cotton mills. In Britain today most women work in offices and the service sector. But there are still areas of work which are considered to be mainly women's work, in health, education and social services. Rates of pay are often lower. Worldwide, in Asia and Latin America women are employed in factories in conditions which would compare with conditions in 19th century Europe before the growth of the trades union movement and factory legislation.

Women in the workplace

Women have had a central place in the workplace. When the Tories and other reactionaries talk of the need for women to "return to the home" they retain the illusion that there had ever been a time when women's place was solely in the home. For working class women this time was only in the days of cottage industries when work and home were one and the same place. Historically middle and upper class women did not have to work to support themselves (a situation which has now dramatically changed for so-called middle class women and is part and parcel of the proletarianisation of the middle class!). Working class women have always been drawn through financial necessity into the workforce at regular intervals in their lives. That is why the struggles of working women have always been tied up with the struggles of the working class as a whole. It was amongst middle class women, frustrated at their isolation from society, their dependence upon their husbands, that the ideas of "bourgeois feminism" took root. Some of the women who led the suffragette movement for instance mainly wanted equality with their husbands whose emancipation was complete. Working class women had the task of fighting for the emancipation of their class as well as their own emancipation as women.

Over the past decades patterns of work have changed throughout the world and the workplace has become "feminised", according to current opinion. This should be looked at in historical perspective. Women working is not a new phenomenon. But the changing nature of work has meant that women employees are regarded as just as suitable as men, and in many cases more flexible. Part time employment is profitable for the bosses as it may suit women who have to juggle home and work with inadequate childcare facilities. Due to smaller families women are actually available for employment for most of their lives. Possibly this has meant a change for middle class women for whom work was seen as "not respectable" except as a stop-gap until they got married. It was a sense of pride for middle class men, and indeed some skilled workers that their "wives did not have to work". Now women in professional and white-collar jobs are mainly working out of financial necessity - in spite of their portrayal as career obsessed yuppies, who do not want to take care of their babies. It would be hard to run a household on a teacher's salary these days.

The industrial revolution

Before the advent of the industrial revolution industry was carried out on a craft basis, in the home. A weavers' cottage would be his workplace and his whole family, wife and children would be involved in working long hours. The industrial revolution changed that pattern. Weaving and spinning were taken out of the home and into the factory. The wages of handloom weavers were so depressed that they were "forced" to take work in these new factories where they were subjected to discipline of the harshest kind. Having had some control over their workplace they were now at the beck and call of the capitalist. New towns grew up alongside the factories, where housing conditions were atrocious, overcrowded and without sanitation. Hours of work for all the family destroyed home life for the working class. Such was the hypocrisy of the ruling class in relation to "family values" . We see the same hypocrisy today in relation to long hours and increased pressure to work unsocial hours. In the early days of the industrial revolution women and children were recruited to work in the coal mines.

This again reflected the hypocrisy of the ruling class in relation to the "so-called fair sex". An observer at the Whitehaven mine in Cumbria in 1813 had this to say of the women he saw at work: "they were mostly half-naked, blackened over with dirt and altogether so miserably disfigured and abused that they looked like a race fallen from the common race of man". Women were used initially in the mines for jobs where it was not necessary to employ a man. They carried buckets of coal on their backs. These women suffered deformities to their legs, backs and suffered from stomach and lung complaints. When they fell pregnant they faced dire complications. In 1842 the employment of women in the mines in Britain was finally made illegal. In 1847 the employment of women was limited to 10 hours a day. This was supported by the trades union movement as a step towards the universal 10 hour day for all workers. Needless to say many employers resisted this and got round it by the introduction of shift working.

Second to domestic service the main employer of women in the 19th century was the textile industry. The new textile mills employed mainly women and youth. In the 1830s between one third and one half of the workforce was under 21. Women formed nearly half the workforce in the mills doing the unskilled weaving and spinning jobs. The skilled jobs were reserved for men. This separation of men's and women's work in the mills was to affect the development of trades unions. Craft unions of spinners excluded the mass of unskilled women workers who were seen as a means of depressing wages. It was reported that women workers suffered in the textile mills, 39% of children born to cotton spinners were stillborn and only 50% reached the age of five. Conditions of work produced deformities. Mothers fearful of losing their jobs returned to the mill three weeks after giving birth and in some cases babies were brought in to the mill and had to be fed when the mother could take a break. Some women worked in the mills up to childbirth giving birth in the mills, and older children left at home might be dosed with opium to keep them quiet. Poor ventilation, long hours and constant standing took its tool on these women workers.

However women working in the mills had a new status as breadwinners and gained independence. Worthies of the establishment complained of the "declining morals of factory girls". Women workers became radicalised, and took part in political movements such as Chartism, and the trades unions which were set up by the socialists who supported Robert Owen.

Apart from textiles women worked in a whole variety of trades - lacemaking, metal, jute, book-binding and chainmaking in the 19th century.

Changes in the 20th century

The nature of women's work changed radically in the 20th century. World War 1 saw a massive increase in the employment of women. The capitalist class in all major European countries drew on women workers to replace the men who were at the front. On the eve of World War 1 domestic service employed over one fifth of working women. Now that was set to change with women encouraged to work in the munitions plants, often in the most dangerous of conditions and of course for lower wages than would have been paid to men. For women this represented an advance on the servitude of domestic service, with its restrictions like having to live on the employers' premises. In the munitions plants however speed ups were introduced to increase exploitation. This presented a major challenge to the trades union movement. Faced with the impossibility of excluding these women from the workforce the trades unions had to take up the challenge of "fighting for the rate for the job". Best efforts were made by the rank and file shops stewards movement on Clydeside and Sheffield and other centres of the engineering industry. At the same time the official leadership of the trades union movement, in its patriotic bid to back the government's war effort was busy surrendering all the gains which had been achieved within the trades union movement for the best part of a century.

Similarly during wartime Germany the number of women workers went up by 230%. Soon the metal industry and the machine tool industry were only employing women. In the Krupps plant in Essen, Germany's largest armaments factory there had been no women workers in 1911, by 1914 there were 11,000. Nearly all laws for the protection of women workers, such as the ban on night work were abandoned during the war. Employers made enormous profits out of the labour of women. Women were paid lower wages than men. It was these levels of exploitation which fuelled anti-war demonstrations in Germany in which women took part. Women were being squeezed at work and at home as they tried to feed families on poverty wages. Hunger marches were organised even though they were not supported by the official organisation of the German Social Democratic Party which was uncritically supporting the government's war campaign.

After the war women did not want to go back to the home, or to domestic service. The high levels of unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s had the effect of discouraging women from working and there was a drive by governments to get women out of the workforce again. The "not genuinely seeking work clause" of one of the unemployment acts, like workfare today was used to force women to take jobs in domestic service as it was also used to force men to accept unpopular and low paid jobs. If these jobs were refused you would lose your unemployment benefit.

In Nazi Germany in the 1930s women were being physically displaced from their jobs and replaced by men. Women in Germany and Austria had borne the brunt of mass unemployment caused by the 1929 crisis. Women were under insured so also lost unemployment benefits. Even the traditional organisations of the working class, such as the unions and the social democratic parties failed to protect women and their right to work. The Austrian Communist Party concentrated on releasing women from "their double burden of work and home", glorifying motherhood as in Stalin's Russia of the 1930s. Women employees in government were the first to be asked to vacate their jobs. After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, the exclusion of women from the workforce was used to keep unemployment down. This pattern was repeated after the coup in Austria. Motherhood was the keystone of the Nazi programme for women - the preservation of the so-called master race. Married couples who remained childless after five years of marriage were fined, those with four or more children were rewarded. On the other hand gypsies and other racial minorities were forcibly sterilised. Nazi propaganda tied to this programme of the family welfare can be seen to be directly in the service of German capitalism. Women were forced out of unemployment during the slump of the 1930s. When the economy grew on the basis of armaments, and particularly when war broke out in 1939 even the Nazi regime had to reverse this policy of excluding women from the workforce. After the outbreak of war 38% of women worked. Employment conditions were regulated and they earned less than men, confined to occupations regarded as suitable for women.

In Britain there began to be new jobs available. Textiles like other staple industries declined after 1918 and never again became a major industry in Britain. But jobs became available in light engineering and also in the ever growing service sector, both in government and the private sector. Young women also went into shop work or became clerks and were attracted by the "high status" of the job but they soon became disillusioned with low pay and long hours. In many shops staff still had to "live in" and their apprenticeship was paid for by their parents. These places of work had no trades union traditions and the protection of legislation on hours of work was often ignored.

Trends in employment were away from industry and into the service sector - between 1891-1906 the number of clerks increased by 20%. In 1850 1% of the workforce were office workers, in 1971 this had risen to 40%. Office work was no longer the preserve of the privileged few, offices became like factories. A lot of the new recruits would be women. In the 1930s clerks often worked up to 60 hours a week in ill-ventilated offices which encouraged illnesses like tuberculosis. Figures from the Ministry of Labour in 1963 indicated that of women working - 9.8% were in skilled occupations, 41.8% were unskilled and 25.3% were clerical. In 1965 women made up 34.8% of the workforce. Today (2001) this has risen to over 50%. In 1965 one in three married women worked, in comparison to one in 10 fifty years earlier. These trends have been maintained up to the present day and represent a decisive change in the role of women in society. Up until the 1950s many occupations had a marriage bar, in which women were required to leave their jobs upon marriage. This applied to jobs in teaching, the post office and the civil service. The years of the post war boom - the 1950s and 1960s - saw these bars being removed as women became a permanent part of the labour force. It now seems inconceivable that this situation could be reversed, but in the event of a major recession there would be calls again for women to be removed from the workforce. As Marxists we know that being determines consciousness!

Women and the trades unions

Women organised themselves into the trades union movement. Sometimes they met with resistance from skilled male workers. Because of the sometimes temporary nature of women's employment in the early days the first unions in the mills were short lived and set up on a local basis. Also women tended to be in women only occupations, which meant that women only branches had to be set up. For instance Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union had separate women's lodges. The early days of the labour movement, the days of the revolutionary Chartist movement, saw strikes on the part of women in laundries, lace-makers and book binders. Women were involved in the Chartist general strike of 1842.

During the mid 19th century in Britain trades unionism was dominated by the craft unions, which had the strategy of restricting entry to the trade in order to boost wages. This inevitably excluded women workers. The trades unions were led by respectable trades union leaders such as Applegarth and Broadhurst who were tied politically to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party. They opposed the involvement of women in industry. Broadhurst claimed that "they [the men] had the future of their country and children to consider and it was their duty as men and husbands to use their utmost efforts to bring about a condition of things whereby their wives would remain in their proper sphere at home instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world". This was the viewpoint of the "aristocracy of labour" who could afford for their wives not to work but it also played into the hands of the ruling class. In Germany the same position was taken by Ferdinand Lassalle of the Allgemein Deutschen Abeiterverein (German General Workers' Union). He argued that women working depressed the wages of the whole family. As late as 1869 a resolution was carried at the congress of the German Social Democratic Party opposing the employment of women. However, undoubtedly female labour was now here to stay and the only way that trades unionists could prevent women from being used as cheap labour was to organise them. On the other hand legislation which imposed restrictions on the employment of women could benefit the class as a whole if they were extended to male workers. Middle class feminists often opposed this legislation in "the name of equality". A Bill in 1887 introduced to prohibit girls under 14 from working in the chain and mail industry was vigorously opposed by the Suffragists (middle class women's suffrage campaigners). This obviously and with good reason set the suffragists on a collision course with the trades union movement. It showed how the struggle for women's rights definitely had a class character.

Where male trades unionists failed however, some women reformers carried out a positive role in organising women into the trades union movement. One such woman was Emma Patterson. In 1874 she set uo the Women's Protective and Provident League which organised a strike of women weavers in Dewsbury. The League became the National Union of Women Workers. It held a conference in 1896 and lobbied the Trades Union Congress. It campaigned in industry locally, called for equal pay for equal work, the regulation of wages in low paid trades, for a 48 hour week, abolition of fines at work, more factory inspectors, maternity provision, cooperative homes for working women, and the vote for all women, not just women who were property owners. They encouraged women to be active in the trades union movement. The WTUL organised women where unions like the ASE (Amalgamated Society of Engineers) refused. The ASE even called for a ban on women working! However this epoch in the history of the trades union movement in Britain was due to end with the stormy events of the 1880s, which were to change the face of the labour movement for ever. Friendly Societies were to be overshadowed by militant trades unionism. This also of course had major implications for women workers and trades unionists.

The 1880s and the organisation of the unskilled workers

The late 19th century was a stormy period for British capitalism. No longer the workshop of the world, the benefits which this had meant for a section of the working class, primarily skilled workers were under threat. These years also saw the organisation of unskilled, casual labour like the dockers. This was trade unionism of a different kind. Employers used scabs enforced by the police, army and courts to break strikes and the trades union organisation. Pitched battles took place in many towns between the working population and the forces of law and order. There was also a rebirth of the ideas of socialism, with the growth of organisations like the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party. Socialists like Tom Mann played a large part in the organisation of workers into the dockers union. It was at this time of heightened militancy that layers of women workers were to be recruited to the labour movement. The most famous strike which took place amongst women workers was that of the match girls. These match girls, women working at the Bryant and May factory in the East End laboured under the most appalling conditions. Many, contracted phossy jaw as a result of working with white phosphorous. Their jaws became decomposed and they were unable to eat. Striking against their working conditions they attracted massive support. In 1908 the substance "white phosphorous" was banned due to trades union action.

Women workers were also involved in the Manningham Mills strike in Bradford in the 1890s. The Domestic Servants Union was formed and affiliated to the TUC in 1897. It campaigned for a 70 hour week and for better meal breaks. The union's demands were opposed by middle class women. It is also interesting to note that suffragist Milicent Fawcett was a shareholder in the Bryant and May match company. This illustrated the lack of community of interest between the classes. Trades unions were finally established in the textile mills when the Amalgamated Association of Card and Blowing Room Operatives was set up in 1886. The membership was three quarters female. Other unions involving women workers were the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants. Clerical workers were organised in the Association of Women's Clerks and Secretaries. A typists' charter was launched.

Trades unionism as a whole suffered a setback after the famous victories of the "dockers tanner", when the dockers with international support won an increase in wages in a very bitter dispute. Rising unemployment allowed employers to break the unions and membership between 1882-1913 saw a 30% decrease. However once again the years between 1910-1914 were a time of rising industrial militancy - trades union membership doubled and the Triple Alliance of dockers, miners and railway workers was formed to "take on the government".

The Bermondsey Uprising took place in 1911 - women working in food processing factories around the London docks were paid half as much as men doing the same job and came out on strike.

However women had failed to influence the top of the trades union movement. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress only had two women delegates. In 1926 the year of the General Strike only one sixth of women workers were in TUC affiliated unions. But the increase in involvement of women workers increased steadily and in 1933 the number of women in the trades union movement was higher than in 1914. The years of militancy had brought long term gains.

Women had fought their way into the trades union movement in the face of male opposition, and domestic pressures. The trades union movement emerged stronger overall. Barriers were broken down - even the print unions and engineering unions had to recruit women (even if with different colour membership cards). The Women's Trade Union League finally merged with the Trades Union Congress having played its role in organising women workers. The National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers (the forerunner of the GMB). A TUC Women's General Council was set up. The trend had been towards integration, not separation. Calling for separate organisations would have been a step back.

Women's organisation in the USA followed a similar pattern to that in Britain. The craft conscious Knights of Labor was reluctant to organise women workers, but women in the textile industry - the garment and tailoring trades were organised by the Women's Trades Union League. The revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (a syndicalist union set up in the early 20th century, better known as the "Wobblies") recruited women workers. Strikes organised by the IWW illustrated how prejudices were broken down on the picket lines. Where male workers were on strike in the steel plants, women and children were involved. Women came to the picket line to replace men who had been arrested or deported. The Union provided education for the children of strikers to combat the attacks that these children would face at school. Wives were involved in strike committees to prevent starvation, children were sent away to stay with trades unionists in other cities. At the Standard Steel Car Company strike in 1910 women confronted strike-breakers with brooms, clubs, rolling pins and other utensils in the worst confrontation that took place at the plant. The IWW in its "Call to Women" had this to say:

"To us society moves in grooves of class not sex. Sex distinctions affect us insignificantly. It is to those women who are wage earners or wives of workers that the IWW appeals. We see no basis in fact for feminist mutual interest, ...nor of any possibility or present desirability of solidarity between women alone. The success of our program will benefit workers regardless of sex, and injure all who without effort draw profits for a livelihood. The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of man is a hollow sham to labor. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality looms the sinister outlines of the class war."

In 1917 women workers at the St Petersburg textile mills in Russia took strike action which was to escalate and lead to the downfall of the Czarist regime. After the October Revolution in Russia the newly formed revolutionary government carried out measures within years which women trades unionists had been campaigning for year in year out, and others which were beyond their dreams. Between 1917 and 1926 legislation was passed for equal pay for women, the right to education and paid maternity leave. Nurseries were opened as were communal canteens. The role of women as independent citizens was recognised and child rearing regarded as a social task. This was in a country which had been more backward than most of Europe. Many of these reforms however were not to survive the early years of the civil war and subsequent rise of a bureaucracy in Russia.

The struggle for equal pay

Women's wages in 1906 were still 50% of those of men. In the well-organised textile industry they earned two thirds of men's wages. In 1885 the TUC passed its first resolution in support of equal pay for women. It was in many of the white collar unions that equal pay was first successfully pursued. Equal pay in the 1930s was seen as a form of protection for male workers who might have otherwise been sacked in favour of a cheaper women! In 1935 the TUC passed a resolution moved by the General and Municipal Workers Union, stating that the problems of unemployment could not be solved by transferring available work from one group of workers to another. It opposed any idea that unemployment therefore could be resolved by dismissing women from full time employment.

In 1936 NALGO (now part of UNISON) took up the issue of equal pay. In the same year night work for women was abolished. During the Second World War women again had increased employment opportunities. The government actively encouraged women to work, and advances were made in the provision of state nurseries and even cheap canteens, called "British restaurants". These were to relieve women of the burden of having to prepare meals for their families after a hard day's work. The ideology changed - no one could suggest that women might be better off staying at home with their children - there was a war to win! At the end of the war the protracted boom and demand for labour boosted women's employment opportunities and the TUC again rejected a motion calling on women to vacate their jobs in favour of soldiers returning from the war. The campaign for equal pay however ran aground - the 1945 Labour Government had imposed a wage freeze across the board! In 1956 however equal pay was established in many public services including gas, electricity and the health services where there were predominant numbers of women.

It had become acceptable for women to work for most of their married life and household incomes were based upon this. In 1962 the TUC launched a women's charter which called for equal pay, opportunities, and training facilities for women returning to work after having had a family. The struggle for equal pay again gained impetus in 1968 when the women at Fords, members of the Transport and General Workers Union, went on strike and won equal pay. This led to the Equal Pay Bill introduced by Barbara Castle in 1970. It was due to become law in 1976. This gave many employers the chance to alter the jobs of their women workers so that they could avoid paying the rate for the job. In spite of the law the trades union movement had a lot of work to do to enforce its implementation. Women at the Trico factory in West London took action in 1976 to get equal pay. After a months long strike they finally won with the backing of solidarity action from the rest of the trades union movement. The limitations of the Equal Pay Act, a milestone though it was, is that women are concentrated in women's occupations -in catering, clerical jobs, light manufacturing - and cannot compare their jobs with those of men. In 1975 the Anti Sex Discrimination Act was also passed by the Labour Government and this was another advance for women. Many of the aims of this legislation have not been implemented against a background of cuts in public services. Under the capitalist system even the gains which have been made are vulnerable. Like all gains for the working class they were fought for by the labour movement over the years in the face of opposition from the capitalist class.

In conclusion it may seem that we have moved a long way from the textile mills of the 19th century. But even in Europe at the present time workers are under pressure to work longer hours, more unsocial hours and many have lost all forms of job security. Many workers are on short term contracts and are part time. This includes a large proportion of women workers in employment in catering, call centres and areas which used to boast "jobs for life" such as the academic world. At the present time employers want women workers but are not prepared to pay the cost. The double burden of working whilst running a home and raising children is largely carried by women themselves. From a historical perspective we can see that a woman's right to work is not guaranteed by capitalism. In the event of a recession women would be amongst the first to lose their jobs . Those on short term contracts could be easily dismissed. There would be a backlash against the "double burden" of women as there was in many European countries in the 1930s, and there has been in Eastern Europe in recent years. The effects would be catastrophic for the one in five households in Britain which are headed by a lone female wage earner. In many dual income households this would also mean a substantial cut in standards of living. The labour movement would have to remain united and support the rights of working women.

Barbara Humphries,

May 2001

History & Theory » Topics » Women & Marxism