Issue 265 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review


Women: give us a break!

The number of women at work may have reached record levels but Lindsey German argues they still have a long way to go to achieve equality with men--let alone genuine liberation

US wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter
US wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter

It's a man's world, as the saying, the song and women's direct experience all testify. It shouldn't be, of course. The old imagined world of 'femininity', where women were supposedly put on pedestals, where they waited at the hearth for men to come home, is long gone. Women are expected to work outside the home as well as in it. Their work has expanded at a truly terrifying rate. Around 65 percent of women with dependent children go out to work, including a majority with under 5s. Young women working in Britain now can expect to spend a decade longer at paid work than their grandmothers did. There is very little break from work to bring up children. By 1996, 67 percent of women worked during pregnancy and returned to work within 11 months of birth. A quarter of women with dependent children work 40 or more hours a week.

A major part of the increase in the working class worldwide--which has grown massively over the past four decades--has been women. Whereas in our mind's eye workers are still seen as men in overalls, increasingly today the typical worker is a young woman, who makes branded goods in Indonesia, or staffs a call centre in South Wales, or is a uniformed worker in one of the big supermarket chains throughout the Western world. Those who think that white collar workers are not part of the working class, and that this change in the gender balance of workers has led to a weakening of the working class, should look again. These women are as likely as men to join unions, they tend to earn less than men, and they are subject to many of the same restrictive and exploitative conditions as manual workers have traditionally faced.

Ken Loach's film Bread and Roses, about Latino workers cleaning offices in LA who, despite their terrible personal conditions, organise in a union and go out on strike, could not have been made 30 years ago. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, strikes like those of the night cleaners or the Ford equal pay strike women were sufficiently exceptional to be remarked on. Now on a world scale it is expected that women will be part of strike movements and that they will engage in political action. In Britain groups like the medical secretaries in Scotland and the north east of England who struck over pay, the young teachers striking over London weighting, the women who drive buses and work on the railways, are making breakthroughs that would have seemed unthinkable to previous generations.

These are not the only changes in women's lives. Only 100 years ago it was a real struggle for any woman to receive a higher education in Britain. Only the richest women stood any chance of going to university and even then they had to fight very hard to even be accepted at most colleges. Women such as the suffragette Christabel Pankhurst was one of the first women at universities such as Manchester. Oxford and Cambridge introduced segregated 'ladies' colleges' only in the late 19th century. Real access to higher education only became possible with the grants system after the Second World War and this made a huge impact on women's lives. Today, with the general expansion of higher education, young women play a full part in going on to university, doing so in even greater numbers than young men. It is now commonplace to hear complaints about boys' 'underachievement' in the education system while girls seem to flourish in comparison.

Working mothers

  • In the 1890s the typical working class mother spent 15 years in a state of pregnancy and nursing a baby in its first year
  • Between 1975 and 1998 the rate of employment for 28 year old women increased from 42 percent to 69 percent
  • Mothers of under 5s increased their average weekly work by 4 hours between 1984 and 1994
  • Housework has been transformed

    Work and education has also meant women having fewer children and--in the case of up to a fifth of young women--the decision not to have children at all. The average family of one or two children can be coped with alongside part time or even full time work. So women have developed lives which do not centre on the home after marriage and childbirth. The nature of childcare and housework have themselves been transformed--firstly by technological changes which have meant that there is no longer one day a week dedicated to washing within the working class household, and secondly by paid work itself. Women now buy childcare, prepared food, and laundered clothes as commodities on the market in order to alleviate some of the domestic burden which they cannot carry because of paid work. Women work to pay for the commodities and pay for the commodities in order to work.

    Their labour power is a commodity too which they sell to Tesco or Alliance & Leicester--but they sell that labour power at a disadvantage compared with men. Their labour power commands lower wages--on average earnings are 82 percent those of men. Women's hourly rates are around 75 percent of men's. They are segregated into jobs which are the lowest status and lowest paid, or remain in the lower grades of jobs where men work. Women make up 90 percent of typists and secretaries and nearly two thirds of teaching professionals. Part time work is even more discriminated against on both counts. And women are given no special treatment for being the primary childcarers. Maternity leave is miserly and too short and childcare is privatised, to be paid for out of the family wages. Hardly any men take significant time off when a child is born.

    Much of the talk about a crisis of feminism--do we need liberation any more, and the other questions which so exercise the newspaper columnists--is a recognition that women have been short changed. They have not achieved liberation or anything like it. Their work is if anything harder; there is more openness about sex but it is much more of a commodity now than a generation ago; and women's domestic burden still looms large in their lives. The ideology of women's liberation does not appear to have led to real change. Women's oppression remains like a huge but invisible barrier which prevents women from realising their potential. Why is this still the case?

    Women's oppression has its roots in the contradiction between social production and privatised reproduction. Childcare remains the responsibility of the individual family and overwhelmingly of the mother. Most non-parental carers for children are women such as female relatives and professional childminders. Why, in the 21st century, in the most technologically advanced society ever known to humanity, should women be the ones who carry this burden? After all, lengthy periods of breastfeeding are no longer necessary and certainly there is no biological reason why the woman who bears a child has to be or should be the main carer for that child. In an advanced capitalist society there are many alternatives to this. But economics rears its ugly head. There are many good financial and social reasons why it is women who end up holding the baby.

    The privatised family with the woman at its centre is the hub of much of the caring carried out in capitalist society. The young, the old and the sick rely heavily on the family and on the unpaid labour of family members, predominantly women. The family is the main means of reproducing the next generation of workers, of ensuring that there is a constant replenishment of labour power which is cared for, educated and socialised to enter the labour market. It is also a place of solace and comfort for millions of working men and women, the relief from the relentless pressures of exploitation at work. There are two sides to the family, of course, with its misery, its physical and sexual abuse and its stifling effects on individual lives. But it is also true that much of what keeps individuals going is centred in the family--holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, and above all the hopes that parents invest in their children. Yet the family's existence rests on women's unpaid labour, as well as their paid labour outside the home.

    Could the capitalist system achieve the care of its existing generation of workers and bring up the next generation of workers without the family? In theory yes, through socialising many of its functions and perhaps even achieving economies of scale in doing so. In practice, however, such a development would require investment which no national capitalist class would be prepared to make given that is has to compete with other capitals, and when it already has access to such a large pool of unpaid labour. During the Second World War, attempts were made to socialise some of these family functions with some success. As soon as the war ended, communal nurseries and restaurants were shut down, as capital collectively and individual firms saw that the costs of these services could once more be pushed onto the shoulders of individual working people. Childcare paid for in the open market is expensive. A nursery place costs £6,200 a year. Parents meet 93 percent of childcare costs in British society as a whole.

    Women:give us a break

    Sexual division of labour

    Once the family is seen as the main institution for bringing up children, several other factors follow. The fact that women are low paid and segregated from men in the workplace means men's earning power is on average much higher. The sexual division of labour in the household therefore reflects this with men working longer hours while women have more domestic burdens. It 'makes sense' for the woman to stay at home if one parent needs to because she loses less pay. The main exception to this tends to be among the professional middle classes, where women are much more likely to command equal pay, or even more pay than their male partners. But these remain a minority of relationships. In only one fifth of working couples does the woman earn more than the man.

    Ideological commitment to the family is enhanced by the media, government and employers all stressing the importance of women being good mothers as well as workers. Women whose children do not attend school are penalised while the ideal family of Tony and Cherie Blair is praised. Theories such as communitarianism stress the importance of the family and see failings in the family or in the upbringing of children as the fault and responsibility of individual family members. They are the underpinning of much of the New Labour authoritarianism which passes for social policy these days.

    So despite the very profound tendencies of capitalism to undermine the family it is kept going economically, ideologically and politically by the institutions of capitalist society. Desperate attempts are made to keep the family together and to penalise those who act against this aim. Marriage is in decline and divorce continues to rise, yet weddings are still portrayed as the pinnacle of a woman's achievement and heralding a lifetime relationship. There are no magazines devoted to divorce even though this might turn out to be the happiest day in a woman's life. More children are born outside marriage than ever before but single parents are still penalised as inadequate role models.

    The economic and ideological role of the family ensures its continuation. The family nurtures those who sell their labour power and so contributes indirectly to the profits made by the companies which employ them. This is the sense in which we can talk about women's oppression being kept going by the class system of exploitation, which finds in the family a relatively cheap and convenient means of the reproduction of labour power. The family is also a unit of consumption: the individual family is structured in such a way that each household consumes its own washing machines, cookers, fridges, clothes, videos, cars and toys--at vast profit to the capitalist class.

    The limits of women's liberation in our society are also the barriers of class. The 1960s and 1970s marked a great change in women's lives which was largely for the better. But there were always those who questioned the most narrow definitions of women's liberation. Was the 'right to work' for women just the right to work alongside men in the same terrible conditions, or was it about opening up the horizons of work for both sexes? Did the demand for childcare mean working mothers rushing to pick up children after work and being limited in the childcare they could afford, or did it mean a free childcare service which benefited children but where parents also had time free from work and domestic labour to be with their children? Was liberation about a small number of women achieving legal equality and becoming managers, judges or investment brokers, or was it about raising the position of the poorest and most oppressed working class women?

    To ask these questions is to begin to question how the whole of society operates and how its division into classes narrows and stultifies the lives of nearly everyone, both men and women. For much of the past 30 years, many have been content to accept a much narrower definition of liberation, since the prospects of wider human liberation seemed so distant. That is beginning to change as a growing movement to challenge the system sweeps the world.

    Much of feminist ideology fits with the most limited change, with liberation for a minority on a limited scale. That is why today there are feminists on both sides of the class divide. There are those who manage health trusts or local government, or those who advise or are part of the Blair government, who have a strong commitment to women's equal rights, but no commitment to class equality. Such commitment would mean challenging the powerful interests which run society. Instead, these feminists leave most women at the bottom of the pile, blamed for their own inadequacies in failing to equip themselves for a career. There are others who understand that the only liberation worth fighting for is one which changes the lives of millions, even though that means a challenge to those who run society at present.

    There have been these divisions before, especially when society has begun to experience a sharper polarisation between rich and poor. The socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, a fighter for women's suffrage before the First World War, understood that she could not fight for women's rights without also improving the conditions of the working class men like the London dockers, many of whom did not have the vote either. Questions of class came to the fore.

    As this happens again, so the failings of feminism become more acute and its inability to change the world becomes more obvious. But women still want the gains that feminism has promised--of a life beyond work and domestic labour which allows them free sexual and personal expression. This time we will have to fight for them in a different way--by showing the integral connection between socialism and women's liberation.

    Lindsey German is the author of Sex, Class and Socialism. She is working on a forthcoming book on women

    Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page