Women, Work and the Struggle for Socialism

Women now form over 50% of the workforce in this country. One in five households are headed by a female breadwinner and the majority of women can expect to take up paid employment at some stage in their life. Employment is also widespread amongst women with young children. These are world-wide phenomena. In the United States 99% of women will at some stage form part of the workforce. The same trend is occurring in the developing world. The two income household is now firmly established.

This does not mean that equality has arrived. Women are concentrated in low pay ghettos - cleaning and caring, clerical jobs, etc. Women on average earn 20-30% less than men. Even in the professions there are low paid ghettos where women are concentrated - teaching, social work, librarianship and nursing. These jobs are low paid relative to the qualifications and experience required. Only a minority of women get to be top executives. 40% of women who work are part time, suffering worse pay, benefits and pensions. Often women cover unsocial hours (the flexible shifts) where employers want unsocial hours covered but do not want to pay overtime rates. Women often have to take these jobs as they fit in with their domestic responsibilities - they can work whilst their partner looks after the children.

This trend for women to take part in the workforce represents a social revolution from the years of the post-war boom, only 30 years ago. After 1945 reconstruction of the economy was based on male employment. It was possible to run a household with one income. Local authority housing made rents affordable. At school young women expected that their main role in life would be to get married and raise a family. They were completely dependent upon their husbands. If they worked - they would claim that this was for pin-money! In reality this often meant paying for clothes for the children. But it allowed employers to pay women less for doing the same job as a man. Even though equal pay for women had been TUC policy since the 19th century it did not become law until the 1970s. Strikes by women at Fords had helped to get this on the agenda of the Labour Government, 1964-70. In order to get equal pay implemented there were further strikes such as at Tricos in Brentford in 1976.

The years of the post-war boom were not typical for capitalism. Those who blame all the evils of society on working mothers forget that women have been regularly pulled into the labour market, noticeably during the last two world wars, where the government actively campaigned to get women to work, even providing state nurseries and canteens. But capitalism, as Karl Marx predicted in the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, has always had the aim of pulling all sections of society into the workforce, including women and young children. No-one was safe from the drive for exploitation and increased surplus value.


Women and children were considered desirable employees by capitalism because they would be more flexible and work for lower wages. Employment of female labour has often gone hand in hand with deskilling, for example in the textile industry in 19th century Britain, male craftsmen were replaced by unskilled female labour. During World War 1 dilution in the engineering industry meant the employment of lower paid, mainly women workers, to replace skilled engineers.

Pulling women into the workforce without protection or regulation had dire consequences for family life and the health of women, who also retained responsibility for bearing children and the performance of the majority of domestic tasks within the home. This is what has become known in the late 20th century as 'the second shift.' The intervention of the labour movement ended the employment of women in the mines in 19th century Britain, but women continued to work in factories without regard to safety conditions. In one of the worst publicised cases women working in the match industry in the East End of London contracted a deformity from the phosphorous, which eroded their palates and they ended up being unable to eat or drink as a result of this condition! Conditions are comparable today in the toy factories in South East Asia and China where workers have been burnt to death as a result of working in factories where the fire-doors have been kept locked.

Marriage and childbirth usually ended employment for women in the 19th century due to their high birth rate (childbirth itself being considered up to the 1920s as dangerous as working in a mine!). Life was also then very short! In the 20th century developments in industry such as light engineering, the growth of public services and clerical work meant that more jobs were available and suitable for women. Smaller families also means that women are available for employment for the majority of their lives. At the same time households are now increasingly dependent upon two incomes for paying mortgages, bills and so on.

A recent feature in the Economist magazine wholeheartedly and without reservation welcomes the employment of women. Women want to work, employers want them. What is the problem? This is the pragmatic approach of capitalism. Employers do not mind whom they employ as long as they can make a profit out of them. This is the deregulation, laissez-faire approach. Let the market decide!

But what about the 'second shift'? What happens to the tasks of childcare and the organisation of the home when women work? The Economist feature concedes that women are working very long hours world-wide, often putting in another four hours at home after a day in the office. Many only see their children for a couple of hours a day. Childcare for many is precarious - unregistered nannies, childminders or members of the family. These tasks which have traditionally been done in the home - childcare, cooking, cleaning, etc. are socially necessary but have never been recognised as such. Capitalist society sees women's primary role as providers (unpaid) in the home of these services.


This is the role of the family in capitalist society. If the family as an institution falls apart who will care for children, the sick, the elderly? Politicians, the Church and other pillars of the establishment bemoan the decline of family values, the divorce rate and abandoned children, primarily because they feel that this will put more demands on the state. Single mothers claim benefit. Elderly people are cared for in residential homes and day centres. All this at a time when the perspective of capitalism on a world scale since the 1980s has been to 'roll back the frontiers of the welfare state.' Working women on the other hand need the support of the state more - they need state nurseries for instance.

Ironically the pressures of the market have broken up family life for working people as Marx predicted in the 19th century. The stable families and communities looked to with nostalgia from the 1950s were supported by jobs for life in the area where you were born and the rest of your extended family lived. Now the destruction of industries and working class communities has meant that it is impossible for skilled men to get jobs in their area which can support a family. On the other hand it is possible for women to get jobs. An ex-miner will be out of work but his wife may get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket. This has undermined the economic basis of the nuclear family. It lies behind the divorce rate and the growth of single parenthood. Those politicians who bemoan the dependence of single mothers on the state overlook the fact that even if they were married, their husbands would often be unable to support them without state benefits! The present crisis has produced the dual income household where both partners work all the hours to pay a mortgage, bills and all the other expenses of raising a family; and the no-income household where there is no possibility of either partner earning a decent wage. This is increasingly the pattern of life as we end the 20th century. As one commentator has put it - the problem for women is not 'is there life after death, but is there life before death!’

The family is a cornerstone of capitalist society. As an institution it is supported by the state. The Tories ran their infamous 'back to basics' campaign. New Labour also endorses the nuclear family as 'the best way to bring up children.' This ignores reality for millions of people and has created an intolerable situation. The Labour government has had to make concessions in the last budget in terms of making money available for childcare for women who want to work. However this was after last year's cut in benefit to single mothers. This policy of getting women off welfare and into work is also critically dependent upon women obtaining both a job and satisfactory childcare arrangements.

The origins of the family and the oppression of women go back beyond capitalism to the institution of private property. Women's second class status is not a natural condition, but rather has arisen as a result of ‘civilisation.’ There was no inequality between the sexes in the early form of primitive communism. Engels in his book 'The origin of the family, the state and private property' analyses how private property went hand in hand with monogamy as it could only be preserved by men knowing who their offspring were. Property in the form of cattle was concentrated in the hands of men. As owners of wealth they subjugated women. This was the origin of women's oppression. The family has evolved throughout class society as an economic unit. Amongst the ruling class even to this day marriages are made for property purposes. ‘Love' exists independently of marriage. As an institution it is for the preservation of landed interests, and property deals.


For working people also the family has an economic function. Before the advent of the welfare state it was very evident that children were to support you in your old age. If you worked on the land, marriage was a duty not a pleasure - arranged marriages took place to ensure that your partner was fit, economically viable, capable of producing off-spring and so on. That concept still exists throughout the world today. The birth of girls is undesirable because they have not traditionally been bread-winners, except in the homes of their in-laws. They are therefore considered a burden to their own family. That is why the dowry existed - because the girl's parents were paying the groom's parents to take their burden away. In parts of the Indian sub-continent wives are still expected to jump on to their husband's funeral pyre so that the family will not have to keep them. The working class family is seen by capitalism as a mechanism for the maintenance and reproduction of wage slaves who will produce profit for the system.

In the light of this the employment and economic independence of women is a step forward, a progressive step which socialists would welcome. Even in an urban industrialised society however the bourgeois concept of free love has not been liberated from economic constraints. Capitalist society supports and enforces the family as an economic unit. Digressions from this have been punished and life is difficult for those not conforming to the so-called norms of the nuclear family. At one time single young women producing babies were put into lunatic asylums. But increasingly today people are not living the majority of their lives in a nuclear family. Socially other support networks, such as friends, even neighbours, are more important.

Socialists have consistently fought for equal rights for women, the right to vote, to work, equal pay and opportunities, but also for recognition of the social character of the domestic tasks performed in the home, i.e. for state run nurseries, restaurants and launderettes. They have also fought for rights to divorce, abortion and birth control - all very hard struggles in their time! It is interesting that the newly formed Soviet state in Russia in 1917 was well ahead of its bourgeois rivals in this respect, although Russia was a relatively backward country compared to the rest of Europe at that time. Illegitimacy of children as a concept was abolished. Demands such as parental leave and a shorter working week would also make life more tolerable for working parents. The provision of housing should allow for flexibility and accommodate all life styles not just the traditional nuclear family.


Women have been attracted to the labour movement particularly when the movement has been going forward. Women workers organised themselves in the upsurge of trade union membership in the 1880s. More recently the 1970s saw an enormous increase in trade union membership amongst women in the public services. Today 78% of the membership of UNISON are women. These women have transformed the face of the trade union movement and today the TUC has acknowledged this by the recruitment of women officers to recruit the growing casual workforce. This is the way forward for working women. The ‘women's liberation’ movement of the 1970s has largely been eclipsed by the drawing of women into the workforce. As a pale shadow of the suffragette movement which fought successfully for the right of women to vote this movement was based on middle class women, housewives who were seeking a role for themselves. Issues such as the right to vote, equal pay and opportunities have not carried any weight unless they have had support from the labour movement.

In the early 1980s the labour movement was swamped by demands by women for separate sections, quotas and positive discrimination. This was to be implemented in areas of employment such as local authorities and within the labour movement itself. This helped the careers of a few women but did not change the fact that women activists were a minority in the labour movement in the first place. Positive discrimination in fact, masked the domination of Labour politics on economic issues by the right wing and has been used against left-wing candidates. Witness the attempts by the Labour Party head office to use the device of 'women only shortlists' to attempt to block the selection of left-wing parliamentary candidates, such as John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington. This was in fact opposed by the women's section in that constituency!

Marxists do not call for the establishment of women only sections within the Labour Party or the trade unions. Women's issues are issues for the working class as whole. For instance the minimum wage and a shorter working week are measures of concern for all sections of the working class. Historically the Labour Party women's sections played a role as they involved women who did not work during the day. That situation however does not arise today.

Socialists welcome the employment of women as a progressive factor. Women are no longer slaves of slaves without status or economic independence. However the pressure on women and the destruction of family life poses the danger that the clock could be put back. Witness what has happened in Eastern Europe. In many countries in Eastern Europe, notably East Germany women worked and had good nurseries and parental leave. The unification of Germany and the wholesale slaughter of jobs associated with capitalism has meant that women have borne the brunt of unemployment in the former East German state. The advent of a recession could, as in the 1930s, provoke calls for women to be removed from the workforce. Marxists would resist any attempt to drive women 'back to the home' and would oppose any attempts by reactionaries to reverse equal opportunities policies in the workplace. Today this would spell poverty for millions of people, men as well as women. This is why it is critical that socialists campaign for rights for women workers, as an integral part of a socialist programme for the labour movement.

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