Lindsey German wrote this review for Historical Materialism over a decade ago but it wasn't published. We are posting it now as part of a series of contributions to the debate on women's oppression
Here are some little remembered facts: International women’s day was established by socialist women, meeting in conference in Copenhagen in 1910. They chose the date to commemorate the strikes of young female and often immigrant textile workers in New York’s lower east side. Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, served on the executive of the Gasworkers’ union from 1890 to 1895 in recognition of her organising the unskilled, the Irish immigrants and the women in the New Unions in Britain. Two of the best known theoretical works on women’s oppression remain Friedrich Engels Origin of the family, private property and the state, and August Bebel’s Women and socialism. The women’s movement which gathered pace in Britain from 1969 onwards was accompanied by a series of strikes supported enthusiastically by those campaigning for women’s liberation. Rose Boland, a sewing machinist from Ford’s car factory in Dagenham, who was campaigning for equal pay, and May Hobbs, an office cleaner by night who led a major strike of the night cleaners, became vibrant symbols of the movement.
Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class, (Monthly Review Press, 2000), 320pp.
Anne Lopes and Gary Roth, Men’s Feminism, (Humanity Books, 2000), 261pp.
That these facts are largely unknown today shows how the connection between women’s liberation and socialism has been all but lost over the past two decades. Those of us who adhered to such ideas have found our voices drowned by hymns of praise to the Third Way or post feminism. Only now, against a background of growing movements against fascism, war and capital itself, are ideas of women’s liberation also beginning to connect with ideas about class and about the creation of a genuinely equal society. This has long been the case: the fate of women’s emancipation and freedom has always been connected with wider social progress and change. If we look back at history we can see that there are cycles of growing confidence and militancy which lead to the adoption of all sorts of radical ideas. When these movements fail to break through they lead to general periods of demoralisation and retreat.
In every upswing in the movement, ideas of women’s emancipation and liberation have come on the political agenda; every downturn has produced reaction over women, where conservative and pro family ideas have come to the fore. So the 1830s and 40s produced the utopian socialists, the Chartists and the scientific socialists around Karl Marx. Socialism was very much connected with ideas of new and changed human relationships between men and women freed from the tyranny of capital. Following the defeats of 1848, the 1850s onwards saw the strengthening of the family as an institution of capitalist society, and an ideology of gender which stressed homecentredness and femininity. This only began to be challenged in the 1880s with the revival of socialism in Britain and internationally ( the Second International was formed in 1889) when the notion of free and independent women emerged, epitomised in the pages of radical literature such as the plays and novels of George Bernard Shaw, the Ibsen plays or the writings of Olive Shreiner.
Again, in the 20th century, the stultifying, dull and conventional 1950s exploded into the movements of the 1960s, when the children of the post-war generation rejected the dominant social values which still tolerated gender and racial oppression and which were endangering future generations through war. The various defeats of the movements against oppression, coupled with the defeat of the workers’ movement internationally, made its mark from the late 1970s onwards. Again, reactionary and conservative ideas came to the fore, fuelled by a series of moral panics over issues such as Aids or single parents. Even those who still adhered to ideas of equality accepted a very limited vision of what that equality meant. Liberation became rights or even identity and those who had a wider vision of the future were accused of utopianism or lack of realism.
As we move into a new period of revival of socialist and emancipatory ideas, an assessment of the past is vital to an understanding of the present and to success in the future. These two books, both published at the dawn of the new century, help us in that assessment. Johanna Brenner is a lifelong socialist feminist based in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Her book, a collection of her writings over the past two decades, charts the path of socialist feminist thinking and activity in the US. The writings cover a range of topics around women and the family. They deal with the rise of the ‘radical right’ in the US, and the transformation of welfare policies which stigmatise especially single parents and which ensure that millions of women and their children stay poor. Brenner writes with a concern for women, especially working class women, which marks her writings out from much academic study. At the same time, she makes a significant contribution to a number of debates. Two in particular are represented by perhaps the two best known essays in this collection. The first of these debates centres on the nature of the sexual division of labour under capitalism, women’s role in the family and working class men’s role in shaping it. The second debate examines the two aspects of the women’s movement at the end of the 20th century.
Production and reproduction
The major contradiction around the family under capitalism remains that production is social while reproduction is privatised. Working class women, who in the past half century have entered paid work in unprecedented numbers, still carry the burden of housework and childcare in the family. Even though the big increase in the number of women working has come disproportionately from working mothers who are married or cohabiting, the division of labour within the household has not altered fundamentally. Nor has work had the liberating effect on women that some might have expected 30 or 40 years ago. Women’s work remains for the most part (we will return to the very important exceptions to this below) segregated, low paid and having a low value in capitalist society. The increased number of working mothers has led to increased pressure on the family structure, as more and more women and men find that ‘work-life balance’ is something they only read about in magazines. Do we explain all this by reference to class, to patriarchy or to both? Johanna Brenner’s essay ‘Rethinking Women’s Oppression’, written with Maria Ramas, the opening essay in this collection, 1attempts to put forward a materialist analysis of the sexual division of labour, the family and women’s oppression which can lay the basis not just of an understanding but of a strategy for change. She does so through a critique of Michele Barrett’s Women’s Oppression Today, itself an examination of various theories of women’s oppression written a decade after the rise of the women’s movement. 2
While much of feminist theory tries to locate women’s oppression in the existence of the sexual division of labour, the role of the family and the separation of home and work, it has too often failed to deal with the concrete reality of women’s lives. The model put forward by many feminists is of woman at the hearth, men in the factory, with little connection between the two. Yet this picture has failed to make much sense for the past half century in countries such as Britain and the US. The wrong model has led to the wrong theories. The ‘domestic labour debate’ of the early 1970s attempted to place women’s domestic role in the overall context of capitalist society. This was a very important development, carried out by Marxists who were trying to locate women’s oppression within their role in the home. They pointed out that domestic labour was hidden labour, in that it was carried out privately, and had very little status because it was not waged, but it had a central economic role to the continuation of capitalist society. Some theorists argued that it produced surplus value, through the production of labour power; others that it only produced use values. The conclusion of one was that women could be organised as a separate class, of the other that women were simply the servants of their husbands and children. Both assumed that domestic labour was totally separate from capitalist production, as did those who believed that housework formed a separate mode of production from capitalist social production.
However, domestic labour takes the form that it does precisely because of its connection with capitalist production, in that the reproduction of labour power takes place within the privatised family. The next generation of workers is cared for, socialised, nursed, fed and clothed in the home at very little outlay for the capitalist class. The existing generation of workers find the replenishment of many of their needs, both material and emotional, inside the family. Domestic labour can therefore be said to be indirectly productive of surplus value through directly producing labour power which can then be sold on the labour market and so lead to the production of surplus value. 3
Over the past few decades the balance of women’s lives between the reproduction of labour power and their participation as paid workers themselves has changed radically. The capitalist class has managed to draw far more women into the workforce, thus increasing their production of surplus value and so contributing to the profits of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the reproduction of labour power continues to be carried out at very little cost to the capitalist class which no longer needs to rely on an army of full time housewives to provide its next generation of workers. Instead substantial parts of the wages earned by women and men in the labour market now contribute towards paying for commodities which substitute for the role of a full time wife and mother. These include the huge market for ‘white goods’ – washers, dryers, fridges, cookers, microwaves, freezers and dishwashers – as well as convenience foods, restaurant meals, private childcare, laundry and cleaning services. Cars are a near necessity for most families with two adults working since they facilitate childcare and working shifts. Video machines play a role in childminding for many parents. Most of these goods are not luxuries as sometimes claimed but play a major part in ensuring the family functions while both parents work.
The expansion of these commodities in and around the home has also had an important role in itself, in that it has increased the role of the family as a unit of consumption. The family might not be able to play together or eat together because of the pressures of life and work, but it is able to spend together, or at least to define itself by its consumption.
However the change in women’s role in the family has challenged the traditional view of the work/family male/female division. Two arguments which were commonplace until the 1980s have also been weakened. It can no longer be claimed that full time domestic labour within the family is essential to the continuing existence of capitalist production itself; capitalism has easily been able to adapt both ideologically and materially and has in general seen this as beneficial to its system as a whole. In addition, women can no longer be seen as a disposable reserve army of labour to be pulled into work when times are booming but then to be sent back to the home in times of economic recession. Women are now a permanent part of the workforce.
Brenner deals, in my view decisively, with a strand of feminist theory which places women’s continued domestic role under capitalism within a sexual division of labour rigged to ensure that women were denied access to the more skilled jobs and to the higher wages which accompanied them. Pushed out of work when married, women became totally dependent on their husband’s ‘family wage’.
The sexual division of labour
In much of feminist theory and history, it has become almost commonplace to assert that this sexual division of labour arose because men consciously acted to exclude women from certain forms of work which would have given them a level of status and security and a higher wage. Male workers, it is argued, colluded with the bourgeoisie to ensure this exclusion through support for certain forms of protective legislation which prevented women from working in certain industries – most notably coal mining – and from working nights or long hours. Men therefore gained the lion’s share of well paid jobs, with all the advantages that gave them. In addition, the employers side of the bargain was kept by paying these men a ‘family wage’, or a wage which enabled them and their families to live without the woman going out to work. Increasingly the male sphere became the world of work, the female sphere that of the family and domesticity. This marked a real defeat for women, dependent on the man for an income inside the home and thrust to the margins of the labour market when, as single women or later as widows, they did have to work. 4
This general theory arose at least in part as an attempt to bridge questions of class and patriarchy. In part it was an implicit criticism of the ‘domestic labour debate’. But perhaps more importantly it marked a turn away from seeing the rule of capital as the main barrier to women’s liberation. The argument hinged around the relationship between work in the home and the production of surplus value for the capitalist. ‘Women in labour keep capital in power’ as an early slogan from the women’s movement in Britain put it. The idea was that capital benefited from such female labour and that therefore the fight of male (and female) workers was not fundamentally different from that of housewives who wanted to end their oppression – for both the enemy was capital.
This idea came under criticism, sometimes from those hostile to Marxism, on the grounds that it was reductionist or economistic. These critics argued, rightly, that it could not be said categorically that domestic labour was essential to capitalism – in theory at least there were other ways of organising the reproduction of labour power. It could not even be proved that the family was the cheapest way for capital to reproduce its next generation of workers. But this critique of reductionism and economic determinism led away from any class analysis of oppression. There was an increasing insistence instead that women’s oppression lay in the sphere of patriarchy, not class, and that therefore working class men’s and women’s interests did not coincide. These theories were idealist in that they failed to make any connection between ideology and material conditions and thus saw oppression as ahistorical. A theory of patriarchy which located it in the actions of male workers and employers in the heyday of capitalism gave a supposedly materialist explanation to the oppression of women, while still seeing individual men as at least as much the problem as capitalist social relations.
Except it was not a materialist explanation at all, as Johanna Brenner demonstrates so clearly. She argues that the sexual division of labour cannot be understood with reference to protective legislation or trade union exclusiveness. Protective legislation barely existed in the US until well into the 20th century, long after the ‘male breadwinner’ sexual division of labour came into being. The example of Britain is different of course, but even here Brenner argues that the Ten Hours Bill of 1847 and the Mines Regulation Act of 1842 had little effect on the sexual division of labour:
‘To the extent that the Ten Hours Bill was effective, it appears to have limited men’s as well as women’s labour hours….Nor does this legislation appear to have resulted in any significant replacement of male for female labour, either within the [textile] industry as a whole or within particular sectors. In fact, the proportion of women to men in the textile industry continued to increase during the latter part of the nineteenth century.’ [Brenner p. 20]
The trade unions were craftist, elitist and exclusive of women, immigrants and the unskilled workers in general. But their writ did not run throughout the working class; indeed they organised a very small proportion of the working class. Whatever impact their narrow views had on general working class ideology and consciousness, they could not have shaped the whole of the capitalist sexual division of labour.
Brenner also makes clear that much of the opposition to women in particular industries lay in the very well founded fear that the employment of women would act to pull down men’s wages and organisation. The strike of the London Journeymen Tailors Union against homeworking in 1833 was to preserve the male tailors’ position. Its failure worsened the wages and conditions throughout the industry.
‘That competition, rather than ideology, was the crucial determinant of male exclusivism is underscored by the fact that in cases where women were not competing with men, or where women were in the industry from the start, unions tended to include women and even gave substantial support to their attempts at organisation and strike activity’. [Brenner p. 24]
Even within the working class different strategies emerged. So around the beginning of the 19th century the Spitalfields weavers sought to organise women and enable them to serve full apprenticeships, while the Scottish weavers tried to exclude women from apprenticeships completely.5 When the employers tried to break the union of calico printers near Glasgow in 1833 by introducing women and children as cheap labour a strike broke out. Local women workers supported the strikers and helped to throw stones at the scab labour, and refusing to cook for them in acts of class solidarity. 6 So there were contradictory forces at work within the working class between those who could put class interests to the fore and that the trade union consciousness of men may have been narrow but it acted as a defence mechanism for the protection of working class living standards. As Brenner puts it:
‘It is entirely unnecessary to resort to ideology to explain why trade unions were particularly adamant in their opposition to female entry into their trades. It is quite clear that when unions were unable to exclude women, a rapid depression of wages and general degradation of work resulted.’ [Brenner p. 23]
The working class family
The need to defend working class conditions was obviously very important in the attitude that men took to women workers who might potentially undercut their work. But it is by no means the whole story. There is little question that women as well as men welcomed many of the changes in work that led to the shortening of hours and the removal from some of the worst aspects of the satanic mills. They certainly welcomed the ability of their children to grow up safe from the injuries which they were in danger of sustaining in paid work. The shorter hours worked in the mills after 1847 gave women more time to care for their families: ‘the extra hour’s freedom from the mill ….seems to have been almost exclusively devoted to the better care of their homes and families’7 Before the 1842 legislation on mining there were many petitions from the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns calling for women’s work to be limited.8
The commission’s report on the mining industry told of pregnant women miscarrying, of women and children crawling like animals in the dark wet tunnels, and of women having to return to this only a few days after childbirth. The working class saw its living conditions worsening with industrialisation and they wanted to find some ways of protecting themselves. This in turn fed into a more general sense of provision of kinship networks within the working class. The working class could control these networks and provide for those who otherwise would suffer terrible conditions of labour or the perils of the workhouse. Or as Jane Humphries argues ‘the endurance of the family reflects a struggle by the working class for popular ways of meeting the needs of non labouring comrades within a capitalist environment.’ She goes on ‘Thus, the family, as an institution, has been shaped by the aspiration of people for personalised non-market methods of distribution and social interaction. To ignore the role that these aspirations and beliefs have played in guiding human contact and in shaping the class struggle is to fail to understand the working class family and its persistence’. 9
This is the crucial element missing from those who accept the employers’ and male workers’ conspiracy theory. Women’s role in the home reflected in part a desire of working class men and women for a better life – and they saw women’s withdrawal from work as a crucial part of this. Johanna Brenner explains how the low level of wages throughout the working class even in the second half of the 19th century meant that workers could not afford to purchase services to substitute for their household work and childcare. A large amount of domestic work therefore had to be performed inside the home somehow – not an easy task given the long hours men and women worked nor given the primitive nature of household technology. So ‘a division of labour in which one person undertook domestic labour along with supplementary wage work, while another earned wages full time, was preferable to a division of labour in which two adults worked long factory hours and then returned home to do additional labour.’ [Brenner p.29] The inability to nurse new born children led to terrible consequences. Hygienic bottle feeding was non existent, wet nursing not a viable option and infant mortality was high. This increased the ‘logic of the sexual division of labour’ [Brenner p.30] where women, who were likely to undergo large numbers of pregnancies in the 19th century, tended to be the ones who stayed at home if the family could possibly afford it in order to care for themselves and their children.
There is a strong emphasis in this analysis on the biological role of women and how this has shaped the sexual division of labour. Brenner stresses that this emphasis has pitfalls, in particular of allowing the acceptance of some sort of biological determinism or of arguing that biology is women’s destiny. However she is absolutely right to place a very heavy weight on this biological role not because it determines women’s position in society but because it draws attention to the privatised reproduction of labour power within capitalism. There is no reason why women should care for children rather than men and there is no reason why biological parents make better carers than anyone else. But in a world where choices are limited then there are lots of reasons why women rather than men are left holding the baby. In the 19th century rich women led a life of enforced isolation and leisure, paying others to perform the ‘women’s tasks’ of childcare and housework, but being denied any role in the public world. Poor women found that theirs and their husbands’ wages were not sufficient to pay for others to carry out these functions therefore it seemed the least bad option for them to be the homemakers.
The other side of the high fertility levels of the 19th and early 20th centuries was that children still went into the labour market at a very young age, so mothers would expect their elder children to contribute to the household income at a far earlier age than today. So the full time housewife could service not just her husband and young children but young adult workers as well. In Britain, nearly all working class children left school at 14 until after the Second World War. The practice in much of the working class between the wars was to leave school on Friday, start work on Monday and hand over their unopened pay packet to Mum every week. ‘In exchange for the money – which could significantly raise the standard of living in working class homes – the boy was given new privileges. Many recall being bought their first pair of long trousers and enjoying more food on their plate’.10 In the US, Brenner notes, working class people withdrew their children illegally from school in many instances, and in 1920 70 percent of Chicago and New York 16-17 year olds were not in school. [Brenner p.54]
Today young people tend to go to work much later and married women have tended to replace them as a major source of labour power. Women today have far lower rates of fertility, more control over their fertility and a much easier housework load than most previous generations. No longer do we have to devote a day a week to washing (even though we may spend nearly as long washing clothes over a week). But women’s role as mothers still has a major effect. Motherhood often means that women fail to return to their old careers in many instances. Some studies have demonstrated that mothers are more likely to take work which is convenient even if that means failing to utilise skills which could enable them to sell their labour power at a higher price. Women with children may be more likely to work closer to home, to work part time, to ‘fill in’ with unskilled work until their children are older.
Even though the introduction of maternity leave has made a difference in that more women use the opportunity to return to their old full time jobs, there are many other factors which influence women about their position in the labour market. A major factor is the cost of childcare which makes it simply uneconomical for women to work long hours and far from home. To do so requires a major outlay of costs by a full time working couple. Travel costs and other items connected with work take a large part of this but childcare is estimated to cost an average £6,500 a year in Britain. The cost is not for 24 hour childcare or anything of the like but for day nursery or full time registered childminder costs. This is not very far off the take home wage for many women in the lowest paid jobs and is clearly impossible for many. Only the rich can afford nannies. A recent estimate in the Financial Times was that a couple would have to put aside £35,000 gross a year to pay for a nanny.11
A quarter of all families with children in Britain have either the mother or father working evenings or nights, suggesting that co-ordinating childcare plays a major part in determining labour market participation for both men and women.12 The predominance of married women engaged in part time work is another indicator. Mothers who are in a marriage or cohabiting partnership are much more likely to work full time than single parents responsible for bringing up children on their own. Whereas there has been a very big increase in the number of full time working mothers over the past two decades, there has been little movement in the numbers of single mothers working.13 The obvious barrier here is the costs of going out to work, which makes it uneconomical for all but the best paid women. And most women are not well paid at all, their wages standing at 82 percent of their male counterparts and their inability to work as long hours as men overall pushing earnings down even further.14
All these are material reasons for the continuing oppression of women and the continuing relationship between the family and oppression. They create their own ideological justifications. From the out and out reactionary ‘women should be in the home’ to the postfeminist version that ‘women can’t have it all’, problems of work, childcare and life in general are placed at the woman’s door. Ideologies of the family, the centrality of strong parenting and the theories of communitarianism which have become so prevalent in the 1990s reflect these material conditions. Indeed it is impossible to understand the ideological changes and continuity of attitudes to women today without understanding the contradictory situation created by the existence of the family as a centre of the privatised reproduction of labour power. Women are outside the home, educated, legally equal in most respects in countries like Britain and the US – but they cannot escape the material and ideological consequences of their role in the family. Or, at least, most of them can’t. There has been a growing minority, of course, who have seen the world change very dramatically for women over the past two decades in particular. The lawyers, businesswomen, high level managers, heads of schools and colleges who now form the success stories of power feminism, have achieved a status and material comfort, plus a recognition in the world of work and public life, which could barely have been imagined only two generations ago. They have not managed to shrug of their oppression, but they have managed to minimise some of it, particularly the material burdens of work and childcare. They are often grossly discriminated against at the top of their professions – witness the high profile cases where investment bankers receive much bigger bonuses than their female counterparts, or where television actresses are paid at a lower rate than their male co-stars. But usually the material rewards and status of such professions are enough to keep the women in place rather than seeking a more equal opportunities employment.
These women are often employed to manage or supervise other workers, especially women and in this capacity may put forward views which are against the interests of the women whom they supervise – for example, against trade unions or in favour of restrictions on maternity leave. They also pay for the resources of many other workers, again usually women, to care for their children, to clean their houses, to wash their clothes, to cook their food and to deliver their shopping. Their class interests are in direct opposition to many working class women, in the sense that they employ them or control their work. This class division has not meant the end of feminism – far from it.
The future for feminism
A certain sort of feminism is quite compatible with the individual progress of women up the social ladder, regardless of the wider divisions within society. But, as Johanna Brenner argues, it has little to do with the radical or socialist politics which can bring about wider social change. While women in the professions still face discrimination ‘hitting your head on a glass ceiling is not the same as falling into the basement’ [Brenner p.233] Her essay ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ is an overview of what has happened to feminism which is centrally located in the ups and downs of the class struggle. Brenner paints two pictures of women’s lives by the early 1990s, when this essay was written: one is of women breaking into new fields, gaining education, forming organisations to defend women; the other is of worsening conditions at work, the trials of the double burden, continued male domination in the home and violent images of women seeming all pervasive. She comments ‘Both pictures are true’ [Brenner p.220] Feminism’s first wave achieved women’s rights as citizens and its second wave in the 1960s and early 70s made them fully free sellers of their labour power, lifting many of the economic, legal and social restrictions on women’s total participation in work and society. But in many ways this gave women rights long available to men without confronting the basis of the exploitative system of capital itself. The failure of second wave feminism has been its failure to confront these wider questions, settling instead for rights for a minority of women, hitching its star to the Democratic Party as the least bad option for women’s rights, and becoming ever weaker as the wider social movements and trade union movement saw significant defeats which left them weakened and demoralised.
Even in the early 1990s, Brenner notes that the defeats of the movement do not leave women back in their old position. There are many attempts to fight back over issues such as abortion rights, sexual harassment (as in the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case) and gay and lesbian rights. There are many women’s organisations, plus many more whose primary if not exclusive purpose is to organise women. So the effect of the 60s and 70s has remained and many of the changes affecting women have become permanent. Indeed even in the US where the rabid anti abortion right have many friends in government and have succeeded in pressurising the Bush government to cut contraceptive spending to less developed countries, it is impossible to imagine abortion rights being completely rolled back as some would like to see. But the pressure acts to curtail rights in many individual states, to harass workers and users of abortion clinics, to cut state funding, all of which make it harder to get abortion, especially for poor and working class women. To achieve real liberation around these and many other issues will take an onslaught on the oppressive structures of capital itself:
‘The solution to the political impasse facing feminism cannot come from feminists alone. It will require a serious and disruptive challenge to capital, a broad and militant “rainbow movement”, including new, more social and political forms of trade union struggle and national political organisation independent of the Democratic Party’ [Brenner p. 222]
At last there is a feeling of this beginning to happen internationally. As working people world-wide try to reclaim some of the wealth taken from them in the past two decades, we can be sure that women will be at the forefront of many of those protests. They always are when the working class movement is on the rise. The recent council workers strike of over a million in Britain against low pay was the biggest strike of women ever in Britain. Women such as Dita Sari in Indonesia or Arundhati Roy in India have become symbols of movements for unions, against injustice and for the environment throughout the world. Brenner points out that women’s organisation exists much more deeply and extensively among women of colour and working class women than was the case during the height of the women’s movement [ Brenner p228].
But what is left of the women’s movement, in the sense of the historically specific movement which arose in the late 1960s and reached its peak only shortly afterwards? Here the record is much less good. The movement achieved a great deal in achieving awareness of women’s oppression and in campaigning for equality. Campaigns around issues such as beauty contests or abortion heightened consciousness on these questions and created a mass of issues which women took up which had not previously been thought of as political. The politics of the personal, for example round rape and domestic violence, helped to bring legal and social changes in countries like Britain. But they also often led to a political impasse as personal questions became reduced simply to the question of individual behaviour rather than being seen as located in the social relations which gave rise to the individual behaviour. There were always theoretical differences inside the movement, between socialist feminism and radical feminism.
The unity of the early years splintered, leading to various diffuse campaigns and movements and to major areas of dissent – the 1978 women’s liberation conference in Britain dissolved into acrimony, since when it has never been possible to bring the whole women’s movement together in one place. Different strands of the movement went in different directions. If the socialist feminists are the ones who today embody many of the original ideas of women’s liberation, they too contain some political weaknesses, the most fundamental being the acceptance of some sort of system of patriarchy operating separately from class relations which can do little to explain the reality of women’s oppression today. Whatever else it may be based on, male power within the working class household is clearly not the crucial factor.
There is also a certain triumphalism within the movement which sees itself as the cause of social change regarding women, rather than seeing that the movement was itself a product of social change which in turn led to changes in ideas and activity. Did the women’s movement create the changes in women’s lives or did women’s lives changing lead to the development of a movement with feminist ideas which articulated their discontents? I would argue that the second development – the huge increase in women working, the expansion of higher education, and the transformation in fertility for women – was decisive in producing the movement and the ideological challenge that accompanied it. The second wave provided a very important flowering of ideas, but ones which very quickly had little left to contribute in practice. By the mid 1970s, questions of class power and of advance or defeat for the working class and socialist movements were to decide questions of women’s liberation for the coming decade.
The fall back argument of many socialist feminists is that feminism may have its weaknesses but that socialism on its own cannot achieve women’s liberation. Yet, as Brenner shows so decisively time and again, the fate of women cannot be separated from the fate of society as a whole. Further, the failure of socialism to deliver women’s liberation has to be seen as intimately connected with its wider failures to bring about permanent change and to defeat capitalist rule. The history of socialism from below and the attempts at human liberation have been as hidden from history as have the struggles of working women. Yet this history is a remarkable one as far as women are concerned. Ann Lopes and Gary Roth tell the story of one part of it in Men’s Feminism, a study of August Bebel and the German socialist movement. They point out that many of the socialists in the German Social Democratic Party were deeply committed to the theory and practice of women’s rights. Indeed they argue that ‘feminism was as much a men’s as it was a women’s movement [in Germany] and that ‘in general, socialist men proved to be more consistent feminists than bourgeois women.’ [Lopes and Roth p. 31] They also count the German working class movement in general as more progressive than the middle classes about gender equality:
‘That gender equality was at first a working class phenomenon raises many questions about the often-assumed modernising influence of the middle classes....bourgeois thinking in part represented a reaction against ideas of gender equality as then understood within the lower orders of society.' [Lopes and Roth p.31]
The success of Bebel’s life work Women and Socialism was astonishing. It was the most sought after of any socialist book in the German movement, and once easily available after the repeal of the Anti Socialist Laws in 1890 was reprinted 22 times in the 1890s [Lopes and Roth p37]. The leader of the German socialist women’s movement, Clara Zetkin, ‘began her career as an orator in the late 1880s by speaking about Bebel’s book to illegal gatherings of socialist men’. [Lopes and Roth p.70] These were hardly people who ignored or belittled women’s emancipation. Indeed Lopes and Roth argue that men’s feminism motivated relatively large numbers of men to take up women’s issues and demands within the socialist movement in a way which did not happen outside the movement.
The equality of women was certainly an issue for socialists grappling with what was wrong with capitalism. In the period before the first World War the German and Russian socialists brought women’s issues onto the political agenda internationally. They rejected a narrow approach to the suffrage and stressed the importance of organising working women, leading to sharp divisions between Alexandra Kollontai and the bourgeois feminists in Russia, or Sylvia Pankhurst and her increasingly anti working class mother and sister in Britain. The revolutionary wave which swept Europe after the First World War led to the establishment of Communist Parties incorporating ideas of women’s equality and containing within their ranks some of the best militant women of their generation. The Russian revolutionary movement led to real gains for women: divorce, abortion and contraception, legal equality, childcare and the socialisation of many aspects of housework. Free love flourished especially among young people. The achievements were awe inspiring in an economically backward, largely peasant country15 but were a short-lived experiment in a country so poor and where the revolution itself had failed by the late 1920s. The attacks on abortion rights, the ending of many socialised functions of the family, the Stalinist practice of awarding medals to mothers of large families went alongside economic, political and social retreat throughout Russia:
‘The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously – what a providential coincidence - with the rehabilitation of the rouble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, “We have proven still too poor and too ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realise this aim”, the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.’ 16
Between 1917 and 1930 there were 301 party resolutions or party decrees on the subject of women – during the next 30 years there were only three. 17 Yet even in the 1920s and 30s the Communist tradition led to a level of commitment and organisation around the questions of women in various countries around the world, and especially in Germany before the rise of Hitler in 1933. The German Communist Party (KPD) was the only party which defended married women’s right to work, against the leaders of the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party.18 Often this commitment to women’s rights, as with the German socialists of Bebel’s time, was stronger than was that of certain feminists, who saw women’s rights as an extension of legal rights within bourgeois society, rather than challenging the whole oppressive and exploitative system. The mainstream left parties, many feminists and liberals in Spain, Italy, France and Belgium were reluctant to support the extension of the franchise to women on the grounds that the mass of Catholic peasant women would vote as the priests directed them and therefore could not be trusted.19 Equal relationships, sexual experimentation and the like were of great interest to Communist and left socialist women and men, and there is some evidence that they tried to practice such relationships.20
The New Politics
How then could the women who founded the 1960s women’s movement have known none of this tradition or felt so alienated from it that they felt they had to start from scratch? There was of course the submerging of this tradition through the lack of continuity between the old left and the new. The background to the emergence of the women’s movement in the US in the late 60s was a level of sexism and indifference to the question of women which is quite shocking to look back on. The student movement was quite disconnected from the old left. The long boom, McCarthyism, the defeats of Stalinism all saw to that. Women were told that their oppression was of the least importance, and told so in the most contemptuous and elitist way. At the National Conference for the New Politics held in August 1967, where a radical minority of women tried to formulate demands on women’s liberation, drawing on the politics of black power, they were derided by most of the men at the conference. Shulamith Firestone was patted on the head by one of the male leaders and told ‘move on little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s liberation.’21 Such experiences shaped the early women’s movement, which defined itself as dissatisfied with the behaviour of the male left.
The politics of the traditional left were also highly limited. If women’s equality meant anything at all, it tended to be equated with the Stalinised images of women working in ‘men’s jobs’. Many socialists could see little connection between a fairly limited view of the class struggle and women’s oppression. The distortion of socialism as a theory of human emancipation into its Stalinised or social democratic versions left little room for ideas of women’s liberation. Socialists too were prisoners of past history and ideology, sometimes even accepting ideas of eugenics or social engineering as the main underpinning of women’s rights.
By the 1960s, women’s liberation was an idea whose time had come. Ideas of equal rights and of gradual change seemed just too timid and slow for a generation of women who were discovering their independence in every area of life. It is not surprising that those who first embraced women’s liberation were women who had become politicised through campaigning for civil rights, against racism and against war. They rightly wanted the principles governing these campaigns to be extended to the question of women as well. That they were so badly rebuffed helped to shape the women’s movement in particular ways which did not always help the movement or the left. The tradition embodied in these books, and in the many ways that people have fought for socialism and women’s liberation, can help to ensure that we learn some of the lessons of our history.
Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves Ed Women and Socialism/Socialism and Women Berghahn Providence and Oxford 1998
Heidi Hartmann ‘The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union’ Capital and Class no 8 1979
Anna Clark The struggle for the breeches University of California Berkeley 1997
Leon Trotsky The Revolution betrayed New York and London Pathfinder 1972
Sara Evans Personal Politics New York 1979
John Harrison ‘The political economy of housework’ Bulletin of the Conference of Socialist Economists vol. 4, London spring 1974,
Wally Seccombe ‘The housewife and her labour under capitalism’ New Left Review no 83, 1974,
Jean Gardiner et al ‘Women’s Domestic Labour’ On the political economy of women CSE pamphlet no2 London 1976
Mariarosa DallaCosta and Selma James The power of women and the subversion of the community Bristol 1976.
Lindsey German Sex, Class and Socialism London 1989
Margaret Hewitt Wives and Mothers in Victorian Industry London 1958
Ivy Pinchbeck Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 London 1981
Jane Humphries ‘Class struggle and the persistence of the working class family’ in Alice H Amsden Ed The economics of women and work Penguin London 1980
Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon A man’s world BBC London 1996
Financial Times London
Gregg and Wadsworth eds. The state of working Britain 1999
Just Pay 2001
Michele Barrett Women’s Oppression Today Verso London 1980
Richard Stites The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia Princeton New Jersey 1991
1 Johanna Brenner Women and the politics of class Monthly Review New York 2000
2 Barrett 1980
3 For more on this debate see Harrison 1974, Seccombe 1974, Gardiner et al 1976, DallaCosta and James 1976. See also German 1989 p.70-73 for my fuller view.
4 Hartmann 1979 puts this argument succinctly.
5 Clark 1997 p.129
6 Clark 1997 p. 205-6
7 Hewitt 1958 p.25
8 Pinchbeck 1981 p. 244
9 Humphries in Amsden Ed 1980 p. 154
10 Humphries and Gordon 1996 p. 39
11 Financial Times London 19 April 2002
12 Gregg and Wadsworth eds. 1999 p. 106
13 Gregg and Wadsworth eds. 1999 p. 173-5
14 Just Pay 2001 p.1
15 For a full analysis of this period see Stites  p. 317-422
16 Trotsky 1972 p.151-2
17 Gruber and Graves Ed 1998 p.521
18 Gruber and graves Ed 1998 p. 155
19 Gruber and Graves 1998 p.513
20 Evans 1979 p.116-119
21 Evans 1979 p.198-9
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’.
More articles from this author
- Born to rule over us? – weekly briefing
- Lip service to the left, but moves to the right - weekly briefing
- Do not be fooled: Trump is the problem
- Soleimani assassination is an act of war
- Past mistakes, future opportunities - weekly briefing
- What we should take from the election and what we do next
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December