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Lindsey German argues for the development of a theory that can respond to changes in work organisation and the feminisation of the workforce

The mobilisation of female reserves of labour has been one of the key features of globalisation. It is a feature which is notable both in the older industrialised countries of the developed world and in the developing countries. The increase in the female workforce has been substantial in countries such as the U.S. and UK. Alongside it has gone two features which have marked the increase in female employment: one has been the decline of manufacturing industry and the growth of services; the other has been the decline in male wages, and a depressing generally of the level of wages. The change from the male breadwinner family (never a reality for considerable numbers of working class families) to a family form demanding two or more wages to cover its costs of reproduction has had a major impact on the relationship between paid and unpaid labour within the family. In particular, it has led to less unpaid labour in the home being carried out overall. Households which two or three generations ago would have allocated whole days every week of (usually) female labour to baking, washing and cleaning, now buy or hire many services once carried out by a full time housewife. The money received from two or more wages helps to cover the costs of these services – food prepared outside rather than cooked at home, convenience and ready-made foods, childcare, cleaning services and the like. Many other tasks previously performed by hand, including washing, dishwashing and cleaning are carried out by machinery paid for at considerable cost by the household.

There is a major difference between working class families and those of the middle class. All the above services come at very different levels of costs, quality and standards. A relatively small number can afford to purchase the best quality services to substitute for labour being carried out unpaid in the home. They can also afford to employ personal services in the form of cleaners, nannies and childminders. Working class families have much less ability to do so, and rely much more heavily on other family members and informal arrangements for childcare and other forms of support. Working class women especially are also employed in occupations where often they carry out these sorts of caring duties for middle and upper class women. It is therefore accurate to say that the bulk of domestic labour, both paid and unpaid, is carried out by working class women. The development of neoliberal capitalism has led to a differentiation of female labour, with a large number of low paid women workers in routine occupations, among them the lowest paid such as childcare workers, cleaners, catering and retail workers. The increasing class distinctions between different women – reflected in status, salary, education levels – has a particular pertinence with regard to unpaid domestic labour, which has effectively been minimised in most areas – with the important exception of childcare. Even here, much childcare is carried out by those other than the parents for payment.

In the developing world too there has been a major increase in the mobilisation of female labour reserves. Industrialisation of more traditional, agricultural economies has led to a growth of manufacturing industry employing workforces composed of young workers, many of them female. The conditions of employment tend to be poor, relying on low wage work in sometimes dangerous conditions, attractive to MNCs because of the low overheads. Women do not always find or choose employment locally and often have to migrate, sometimes within their own country or region, sometimes travelling across the world in order to work – often in providing services and care for those in the developed countries.

Record levels of inequality have been the outcome of these patterns of work and this has accompanied the feminisation of the labour force. Indeed, there has been a polarisation not just in terms of income but also in terms of the status of work. Feminisation has led to a lowering of status and reward in occupations such as banking, printing and sections of retail work. At the same time the decline of skilled manufacturing jobs has led to changed attitudes to work, and particularly to the low status throughout society connected with anything to do with physical work. It is impossible to understand the raised levels of exploitation which have taken place over the past two decades without seeing that it is inconceivable without the introduction of female labour. The creation of a major reserve of labour as a result of neoliberal policies has allowed the worsening of conditions for those already in work and for those entering the workforce to do so on a much more unfavourable basis. It is this situation, going alongside the weakening of trade union rights and organisation, which has led to the vast disparities of wealth and inequalities which characterise our era.

Feminism in its modern form which arose from the Second Wave in the 1960s aimed to achieve legal, social and financial independence for women, and has achieved many of its goals. However, it was a movement always mediated by class and this was reflected by divisions within the movement itself. It has for this reason always been much less successful at challenging economic inequalities and is why despite the very widespread acceptance of some levels of egalitarian and even feminist rhetoric throughout society, the position of women remains stubbornly disadvantaged vis a vis men. This is particularly evidenced through the persistence of the gender pay gap despite commitments to full equality, and the connection between this pay gap and women’s role as mothers and primary child carers. The inability to achieve full equality despite the promises of neoliberal ideology has led to a bifurcation of feminism on class lines. While all feminism shares a common ideology of female equality, the definition of such equality can be quite distinct. In particular to achieve a full understanding of the situation of the majority of women today, it requires an understanding of economic reality, inequalities and class. The increasing divisions between different approaches to feminism, over issues such as war, Muslim identity and the nature of work have been particularly sharpened by events in the past two decades, in particular the financial crisis and banking crash of 2008 and the ongoing imperialist wars since 2001.

The divisions within feminism have become sharpened by these events but also represent the two sides of neoliberalism’s impact on women’s lives. One the one hand for a minority of women, they have been able to enter professions once barred to them, the higher echelons of industry, have become university vice chancellors, television presenters, prime ministers. Accompanying this has been a particular form of feminism which talks of glass ceilings and breakthroughs into male dominated spheres, and whose feminism demands equal rights within the existing structures of work. Hillary Clinton’s planned victory party after the presidential elections was in a venue with a glass ceiling to make exactly this point. Rather than challenging the nature of male domination in these spheres, such feminists tend to take Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to ‘lean in’. On the other hand, the experience of the majority of women under neoliberalism is much more negative. The reality of their lives is increased exploitation, pressures at work and at home, the necessity for many of migration, often away from their own families. The concerns of such women, especially younger women, are much more to do with insecurity and inequality.

The feminisation of the workforce has led to major changes in women’s own conceptions of themselves and their role, both socially and within the household. It has led to new approaches to politics: women are now as likely as men – if not more so – to join trade unions. They are also more likely to take militant action including strikes. Recent waves of strikes have included teachers, nurses and doctors, cleaners, retail and warehouse workers, catering workers, airline crew. There have also been a range of campaigns, especially involving workers and users in the public sector, which have involved large numbers of women reflecting their role in social reproduction – campaigns over education, closure of facilities such as libraries, housing and ‘regeneration’ projects, health care, and so on. The squeezing of the public sector which is such a central feature of neoliberalism, and the importance of this sector to the whole role of social reproduction, leads to very high levels of discontent and protest, often involving both paid employees and local communities. Women’s resistance has been central to this, as it has been to grassroots organisations concerned with austerity, housing, questions of racism and migration, and issues directly concerning women’s reproductive and other rights such as maternity leave and pay. This has also been a feature of protests against employers such as McDonalds, British Airways and Sports Direct. This radical organising of resistance to neoliberalism takes on different forms, but in most of them we see the importance of women’s roles. It is perhaps in the tradition of the miners’ women’s support groups during the strike of 1984-5, or of the women workers and families of sacked print workers in Wapping in 1986-7, or the women of the waterfront in Liverpool in the 1990s. Yet these new protests and action take on a new series of features, often involving women themselves in the workforce, and very much informed by a background of precarity and insecurity which marks work under neoliberalism. The often diverse and international nature of some of these disputes reflects the increasingly feminised and multicultural nature of the workforce. 

It is necessary to develop a theory of work which recognises the central role of women in production. Women are central to the workforce and have increasingly equipped themselves with skills in order to maintain themselves in the labour market throughout their lifetimes. This is an expectation shared by neoliberal capital, which is demanding ever longer periods at work, as can be seen by pressure to raise retirement ages and by pressure to return to work rapidly after childbirth. While women’s involvement in paid work takes place at every level, there has been both an increase of women in highly paid managerial and professional jobs while at the same time a downward pressure on the majority of women workers in terms of pay, conditions and intensification of work. The wages of teachers, lecturers and nurses have declined in real terms while for many in routine private sector work the minimum wage has become the norm rather than the exception.  The increased feminisation of the working class has accompanied its path towards greater insecurity and a heightened level of exploitation. The increased polarisation and inequalities in society in some ways make it easier to identify class differences, but only if we define class in the most inclusive way. To do so, we need to be able to develop a theory which can integrate new forms of work organisation, a feminisation of the workforce, a degree of insecurity in paid labour, and the political and organisational forms by insisting on the centrality of the relationship of exploitation which is at the heart of capitalism. This means also integrating a theory of oppression within Marxist class theory. It is essential within this to understand the role of social reproduction and especially the privatised family in structuring and shaping women’s oppression.

Class should be seen as a relationship not as a static and fixed identity. Nor should its existence depend necessarily on consciousness. It should include all those who have to sell their labour power to subsist, which includes the vast majority. This requires developing a universal and emancipatory definition of class, which includes within it those facing oppression under capitalism through race, gender or nationality. While class is central to an understanding of work, it also enables us to see the dynamics of society as a whole and can inform movements of those campaigning over a wide range of issues in 21st century capitalist society. These include the specific movements against sexual and racial oppression, which have their roots in the great movements of the 1960s. Movements in defence of housing, opposition to environmental degradation, in support of public services such as libraries and parks, can all be better understood as integral to the class analysis which places the relationship of exploitation and the drive for profit at the heart of the capitalist system.

Movements of women, as well as those involving large numbers of women, will increasingly be features of resistance to neoliberalism. The extent to which they succeed will be the extent to which they are able to challenge the class basis of neoliberalism, and its consequences. 



Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.