Women’s Oppression under Capitalism

Revolutionary Communist 5 November 1976


1. The Capitalist Crisis 

The post-war boom saw the greatest rise in industrial production ever known. Yet the remarkable fact remains that there are less nursery places today than in 1900.

‘In 1900, 620,000 children aged three and four were in school, or 43% of the age group. By 1973 there were fewer than 400,000 children of that age in nursery schools, or a little more than a quarter. Provision is not expected to return to the level achieved at the beginning of the century for another 75 years.’[1]

Capitalism was not able, even with this rise in industrial production, to provide one of the basic requirements for the emancipation of women – adequate nursery provision. What then is in store for women in a period of deepening crisis? Dismissive of all the current calls for equal opportunity, the ruling class makes ‘equality’ serve an end especially its own,

‘In times of crisis women are always called on to do their bit ... Today it seems that unemployment and inflation have made it imperative to convince women that their place is in the home because the country cannot afford to employ them or pay for the support facilities they need.’[2]

Unable to create in a period of boom those material conditions essential for the liberation of women, capitalism faced with a deepening crisis now insists that women return to their traditional role.

The crisis is not a peculiarly British crisis. Internationally capitalism faces a crisis of profitability. The profit rates of the capitalists are falling. British capitalism is experiencing the crisis in a particularly intense form, due to its relatively weak position in relation to other imperialist nations.[3] And in Britain, the Labour Government has taken on the task of implementing the capitalists’ programme,

‘The Government emphasises the importance of sustaining a private sector of industry which is vigorous, alert, responsible and profitable … For the immediate future, this will mean giving priority to industrial development over consumption or even our social objectives. There is no other way of developing the industrial base on which the Government’s whole programme of economic and social reform depends …’[4]

What this means, translated into simple terms, is a direct attack on workers’ living standards, through both a cut in wages and a massive reduction in State expenditure. Unemployment will be allowed to grow, creating the necessary preconditions for driving wages down below the value of labour-power. It is precisely to satisfy the needs of capital at the present time that we have witnessed an unprecedented attack on workers in the State sector. University academics lend respectability to the view that ‘the appalling economic performance’ of the British economy is ‘due to the growth in State employment.[5] ‘Too few hands, too many mouths’ shrieks the Daily Mirror, giving this view its more popular form, in an article which attacks the growth of jobs in the State sector.[6] The attempt is being made by the ruling class to divide workers against each other, the better to attack the whole working class.

The defence of women becomes of heightened importance under these conditions. Women form the majority of the workforce in many public sector services. For example, 76% of health workers and 67% of education workers are women.[7] During the post-war boom, much of the growth in women’s employment was due to the extension of the public sector services.[8] Married women, many working part-time, were an important source of labour for capital in the boom.[9] As capitalism sheds its reserve army, women workers in the State sector will be among the first to go.

How does the ruling class justify this move? It points to women’s economic dependence on the family ‘breadwinner’. There has been no shortage of helpful advice on this matter recently,

‘Willie Hamilton, Labour MP for Central Fife and one-time women’s liberation campaigner, threw in the suggestion in the Commons yesterday that the Scottish education authorities should consider dismissing married women teachers with working husbands to make way for newly qualified youngsters ... Of course one would hope that it would be a temporary step and when we get over our economic difficulties these women would be able to get their jobs back.’[10]

The call for women to return to the home expresses the inability of capitalism to employ them, or provide the facilities that can liberate them from domestic drudgery. Even in periods of prosperity,

‘There is no immanent tendency within capital to assume direct responsibility for the individual consumption of the working class, to cook its meat, polish its boots, keep its furniture and dwellings clean, care for its children after the process of production has ended.’[11]

In the crisis this point is forcibly driven home.

The insistence on the need to cut back State expenditure will result in a drastic reduction of social service provision, an ever greater burden of work thereby falling on women in the home. No more nurseries are to be opened,

‘Dr. David Owen, Minister of State at the Department of Health admitted that there was to be no improvement in existing facilities for under-fives for the simple reason that there was no cash in the kitty.’[12]

The cost of maintaining those who are unable to produce profits for capital – the elderly, the mentally ill, the handicapped – is being reduced to the minimum.[13] The ‘community’ must provide for its own. As local authorities decide where to make ‘economies’ in the NHS, contraception and abortion facilities, along with gynaecological and maternity care, are considered to be amongst the lowest priorities,

‘The scrapping of free family planning services is being considered. It is either that or the closure of a hospital.’ (SW Thames Regional Health Authority spokesman)[14]

This ordering of priorities has a definite logic. Its justification lies in the crisis itself. As women are driven out of work, as social service cuts and the fall in real wages force women to work more intensively in the home, the ruling class has no lack of apologists and academics willing to offer ‘expert’ advice on the desirability of women fulfilling their ‘natural’ role as mothers and housewives.

2. The Ideological Offensive

The EEC’s Court of Justice has ruled that, as from 8 April 1976, ‘only workers with cases actually pending’ can invoke Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome against member countries that have failed to enforce equal pay since joining the Common Market.[15] The law books have been re-written, ‘equal rights’ repealed, in response to frantic protests from member nations at the prospect of being held liable for back-dated equal pay. The British government threatened that backdating could,

‘overturn the economic and social situation in the UK.’[16]

The Irish government warned that the sums involved,

‘would constitute a burden on the Irish economy which it would not be in a position to bear.’[17]

Many British firms would face liquidity crises,[18] whilst the cost to the State sector alone in Ireland would be around £35 million.[19]

It was in the light of such considerations that the Dublin government attempted to withhold the final phase of equal pay from female civil servants, and inserted an ‘inability to pay’ clause in its Equal Pay legislation.[20] The bourgeoisie erected its panoply of equal rights legislation during the period of the post-war boom, holding out the promise of equality to women as a reward for their contribution to capitalist prosperity. Traditional views of ‘a woman’s place’ were undermined as women entered the labour force at an ever increasing rate. The conditions however have altered, the needs of capitalism have changed. By November 1974 The Economist could see the writing on the wall,

‘Women workers are the first to be chucked overboard when Europe’s economic ship is listing. More than 40% of the EEC’s 3.3m unemployed are women. A year ago their share of a much smaller total was 30%.’[21]

In Britain, female unemployment rose by 127% between 1974 and 1975, compared with 66% for male unemployment.[22]

It is not only women workers who are being driven out of the labour force as the economic climate turns cold,

‘The tide has turned against migrant workers in Western Europe ... since 1973, 2m out of the 6m migrant workers in Western Europe (or three out of every ten) lost their jobs …’[23]

The ‘guest-workers’ from Southern Europe and North Africa have overstayed their welcome; the imperialist ‘host’ countries are hastening to impose stricter immigration controls. Speaking of the need to increase overseas students’ fees, The Times editorial stated,

‘What was once seen as the natural munificence of the imperial mother country, indeed as one of the duties of the empire, is now regarded in a changed atmosphere of post-imperial retrenchment as a potential burden which may divert scarce resources away from more urgent priorities for the welfare of Britain.’[24]

The ideological climate has changed. Equality for women and ‘munificence’ towards ‘foreigners’ were topics for discussion in the period of the boom and a shortage of labour. Today, however, principle and practice are at loggerheads. ‘Equal rights’ are a luxury the bourgeoisie cannot afford.

It was the Labour MP, Willie Hamilton, present-day advocate of married women giving up their jobs, who introduced the Sex Discrimination Bill in Parliament in 1973. The Financial Times applauded

‘... Mr William Hamilton’s newest Bill, which would make it illegal to refuse training, promotion or employment to anyone on the ground of his or her gender. A special board, modelled on the Race Relations Board, would enforce the law, working first through persuasion and, if necessary, going on from there to prosecute recalcitrant employers in the courts.’[25]

The erstwhile ‘women’s liberationist’, William Hamilton, has moved with the times and today is leading the chorus of appeals for women to get back into the home.

The ‘experts’ have entered the stage, and with an air of scientificity are busy rediscovering some old home-truths. Namely, that the best way to convince women of where their duties lie is by pointing to the dire consequences of ‘maternal deprivation’. Such ‘theories’ served the bourgeoisie well in the early 1950s.[26] Vast numbers of women workers lost their jobs at the end of the Second World War. The nurseries and creches that had been provided for the duration of the war were closed down.[27] Immigrant workers were employed in preference to married women in the early stages of the post-war boom, as a matter of government policy. For the ruling class it was clear that the role of married women in the period following the war would be that of child bearers and child rearers of the British race.

‘The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home is not and should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties … In the next thirty years housewives as Mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and British Ideals in the World.’[28]

The renewed increase in married women’s employment had not yet begunonly 22% of married women worked in 1951, compared with 42% by 1971.[29] John Bowlby’s famous thesis that children who were neglected due to their mothers going out to work would grow up to be delinquents, accorded well with the needs of capitalism. This seemingly obvious point in fact suggests something quite different, indeed the opposite to what is intended. Children of working women who had to work were neglected, and many women were unable to work because nursery and childcare facilities were being withdrawn. It is precisely the ideas of John Bowlby which are being revived today.[30]

Dr. Mia Pringle, director of the National Children’s Bureau, has recently put forward the view that every woman must be prepared to spend at least the first three years of her child’s life at home, giving her undivided attention to child-rearing.[31] Breast feeding is being widely promoted in Britain and internationally.

‘It’s the physical contact between mother and child, the touch, the smell, the warmth that’s important.’[32]

says Dr Adeoye Lambo, deputy director of the World Health Organisation. Recent ‘revelations’ about the inadequacies of subsidised dried milk, and the ‘prohibitive cost’ of safer varieties, all point towards the common sense conclusion that, ‘The best milk yet discovered is mother’s own’.[33]

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, ‘now includes mothers’ milk in their inventory of essential world food stocks.’[34] Breast feeding is not only being promoted as ‘best for baby’. It is also ‘this week’s hot inflation tip for mothers’.[35] The renewed interest in breast feeding does not arise from a suddenly awakened concern for the welfare of mothers and children. Regardless of the benefits of breast feeding, working mothers during the period of the boom were expected to make do with bottle feeding. It is only the re-emergence of crisis conditions, and the necessity to convince women that their place is in the home, that has prompted the barrage of ‘expert’ advice on the question. Neither in the boom, nor today, has capitalism provided the maternity facilities for working women which would allow them to breast feed their children if they choose to.

Recent attempts to restrict the availability of abortions represent part of this growing trend. Hypocritical bourgeois ‘morality’ is invoked to justify the denial of the most basic democratic rights to women. In Britain, ‘The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child’, ‘Life’ and ‘Women for Life’ have been gaining considerable support, campaigning against abortion on the grounds that it constitutes a criminal acta denial of life to the unborn child. In the USA, a Boston obstetrician was found guilty of manslaughter for performing a late abortion, on the grounds that the foetus was viable and therefore ‘a person with rights’.[36] President Ford has announced that he favours amending the abortion laws, ‘to return jurisdiction to the individual States.[37] Worldwide, ‘liberal’ abortion legislation is being made more restrictive, whilst women in countries where abortion is virtually illegal are finding the possibility of abortion reform blockeddue to both the activities of anti-abortionists and the conciliatory, vacillating stance of the reformist organisations on the question.[38] The regressive ideas of the anti-abortion movement fall upon fertile ground in a period when the bourgeoisie is reinforcing the view of woman as procreator. In Britain it has been recommended that restrictions be placed upon abortions beyond the 20th week of pregnancy, and on the numbers of foreign women receiving abortions in Britain.[39] As NHS contraception and abortion facilities deteriorate still further, these legal restrictions can only increase the number of late, dangerous abortions and unwanted pregnancies. The obscurantist debates over the ‘viability of foetuses’ are being conducted in the midst of a major attack on women, of which the anti-abortion campaign is but the first symptom. As we shall go on to show, a position on the question of abortion that is to defend the interests of women must take as its starting point the existence of capitalist relations of production, which deny the working class any ‘choice’ in relation to child-birth and child-care.

The intimate connection between capitalism’s requirements in the present period, and the views of its ideological spokesmen, was borne out clearly in the infamous ‘Back to the Home’ speech of Sir Keith Joseph, leading adviser to the Conservative Party. As a long-standing advocate of cuts in State expenditure, he argued that one of the consequences of the ‘burgeoning State sector’ had been to deny the individual family its traditional responsibilities,

‘Parents are being divested of their duty to provide for their family economically, of their responsibility for education, health ... saving for old age, for housing ... But the only lasting help we can give the poor is to help themselves. To do the opposite is to create more dependence … throwing an unfair burden on society.’[40]

It is in order to get rid of thatunfair burden’ that the bourgeoisie has intensified its ideological offensive against women. The degree to which it can succeed in throwing the full responsibility for child-care, housework and domestic work in general upon the working class family is dependent upon the resistance it meets from the labour movement.

3. The Response of the Labour Movement

The political response of the working class, the ability of its leadership to combat the views of the bourgeoisie these are the decisive factors for women in the present crisis. The ruling class is making it perfectly clear that the interests of women must be subordinated to the needs of capital. Ever greater cuts in state expenditure are expressing this fact very directly to the high proportion of women workers in the public sector as services are cut, redundancies implemented and work intensified. British capital requires, as part of the conditions for restoring profitability, an increase in the ranks of the unemployed and the driving down of wages below the value of labour power. It is these ends that are in view, not the interests of the working class, when the Labour Government implements its ‘programme’ of cuts. To ensure the defeat of the whole working class, the bourgeoisie aims to strengthen already existing divisions within the working class. The political ideas ex pressed by the labour movement in relation to the crisis and the cuts have very real consequences therefore for the defence of women’s interests. How in particular are the public sector unions able to defend politically the jobs of public sector workers against the attacks of the bourgeoisie? Insofar as they share, or are unable to challenge the bourgeoisie’s view of the ‘cause’ of and ‘cure’ for the crisis, they are unable to defend the interests of women and of all workers in the state sector, and thus aid the bourgeoisie in dividing the working class.

The response of the public sector unions to the crisis and the cuts has been overwhelmingly sectional in character. This is not surprising since these unions have publicly accepted the necessity for ‘some’ cuts in the interests of restoring British manufacturing industry. For the public sector unions, as with many others, the problem lies in a ‘technical’ fault in British industry which means that it is no longer able to support a large public sector. The National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) for instance states that,

‘The major structural fault in the economy is the decline of manufacturing industry which is the main source of the national income ... Because manufacturing industry has become trapped in a spiral of decline the public services in which NUPE members are employed have been starved of resources in recent years: the money to provide public services is not being earned in industry …’[41]

NUPE’s Executive Committee fails to grasp that it is a decline in the rate of profit that lies at the root of capital’s present crisis, and not an insufficiency of funds. Because the NUPE leaders do not understand this they commit themselves to the restoration of British industry as the precondition for a flourishing public sector. But here they are caught in a dilemma, for capital’s precondition for a restoration of the rate of profit in British industry is the defeat of the entire working class, in which cuts in state expenditure and the resulting loss of jobs are but a preliminary stage. Thus, by accepting the bourgeoisie’s argument for the ‘regeneration of British industry’, the way is laid open not only for the bourgeoisie’s attack on public sector workers, and therefore on women workers in particular, but on the entire working class. NUPE is the union with the highest number of women members, and which has had the highest rate of recruitment of women workers of all trade unions since 1950.[42] As the jobs and working conditions of these women members are threatened, the union leadership has displayed its inability to do anything more than argue that its members, at least, should be treated as a special case’. The claim to be more hard-done-by than anyone else has been repeated throughout the public sector, each union clamouring for the largest slice of a rapidly ‘diminishing’ cake.

‘The NHS is the poor relation of public spending …’

(Alan Fisher, NUPE)[43]

‘We suspect that education is taking more than its fair share of cuts …’

(Alf Wilshire, NUT Vice President)[44]

‘If public cuts are necessary, let the NHS be the last to suffer …’

(COHSE in Health Services)[45]

Such arguments inevitably lead one step further. In all departments of the public sector administrative workers have been singled out for attack by the unions themselves. It has generally been accepted that such workers are ‘most unproductive’ of all. In an article entitled ‘Administrators up by 5%nurses down by 10%’, in COHSE’s journal Health Services, the following complaint was made,

‘It seems clear from our returns that revenue cuts are having a disproportionate effect on nursing staff. The Secretary of State made it clear in her speech that administrative costs should bear the first burden … only four branches report cut-backs in admin staff …’ [46]

This is a direct assault on the jobs of administrative workersa large proportion of whom are women. These arguments take the working class nowhere and actively aid the bourgeoisie in its task of dividing one section of workers from another.

It is the case that a number of public sector unions have recently mounted campaigns to recruit more women members and have therefore given prominence to the question of ‘women’s rights’. However, the jobs of women workers in the public sector and the provision of social services on which women depend will not be defended on the basis of the sectional and divisive arguments we have described here. It is the adherence of the reformist leadership of these unions to the perspective of saving British capitalism that reduces their appeals for ‘women’s rights’ to ineffectual moralising. As the crisis deepens the bourgeoisie will attempt to deepen the existing divisions within the working class to serve its own ends. Once the principle of ‘some cuts’ in the public sector is accepted, the road is open for an attack on those workers who are least able to defend their jobs. Once the labour leadership is seen to be haggling over where ‘cuts’ and ‘savings’ can be made, it becomes a far easier matter to play off one set of workers against another. The reformist conception of a shrinking ‘national cake’ gives rise to the view that, for every immigrant, female or service worker employed, a job is denied to the worker who is productive, British and a family ‘breadwinner’. Unless these ideas are challenged, the competitive struggle between worker and worker will intensify as the crisis deepens and unemployment soars, enabling the capitalist class to drive home its attack on the working class. The divisive character of the response to the crisis within the leading sections of the labour movement stems from an understanding of the crisis that shares the same premise as that of the bourgeoisie, namely that it is brought about by an insufficiency of funds for investment. The leaders of the labour movement are thus unable to defend the interests of all workers against the onslaught on living standards, but in particular it is the interests of those who are most weakly represented women and immigrant workersthat are undermined.

Birmingham’s Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) branch voted last year to lay off 72 part-time female workers in preference to 36 full-time male workers. The UPW leaders have offered no serious resistance to the redundancies which are underway in the Post Office as a result of automation. It is no accident therefore that the redundancies of the weakest section of the workforcewomen part-time workers were voted for and that the layoffs were not resisted as part of the attack on all workers.[47] Chauvinism and racism express the ideas of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement and cannot be challenged by reformist ideas. On the contrary, the very policies supported by the labour leadership lead to deeper divisions within the working class. Today married women are being urged to give up their jobs for younger workers. Older workers are being called upon to retire early to make way for the younger generation. Immigrants are under attack from sections of the trade union movement itself. At the 1975 Annual Conference of the National Union of Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers, a motion calling for a halt to further immigration was only narrowly defeated: The union covers the wool textile industry which employs 120,000 workers, 10,000 of whom are immigrants, mostly from India and Pakistan.[48] It is no coincidence that such a motion came from a sector of industry which is in rapid decline, laying off more and more workers as a result of its deteriorating position in the world market. The reactionary call for import controls from the textile workers’ unions is supported by Tribune and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Import controls are part and parcel of the same national perspective which culminates in the demand for immigration controls. Once the protection of British jobs is accepted in one formby import controlsthe protection of British jobs in another formby immigration control and repatriationis the logical next step. Chauvinism and racism cannot be challenged by reformist politics. It follows therefore, that the defence of women, of immigrants, of workers in the public sector can only be conducted on the basis of a perspective that challenges the ‘right’ of capital to impose its solution to the crisis on the working class.

* * *

The defence of women’s rights cannot take place within the context of bourgeois solutions to the crisis. What is necessary then for the real defence of women’s interests? How are women to be won to the side of revolutionary politics, and the working class as a whole convinced of the necessity to take up the struggle for women’s equality? The rest of this article is concerned with these questions. Our starting point is an analysis of the material basis of women’s oppression under capitalism, using the categories developed by Marx. Without this precise understanding of women’s role in capitalist society the working class movement will not be equipped to defend the interests of women or to challenge the chauvinism within its own ranks. Because such an· analysis is a precondition for the unity of the working class, we necessarily go on to take up some of the recent debates that have emerged on the question of women’s oppression. We will then illustrate historically, using the particular example of Britain, that despite relative changes in women’s position in advanced capitalist society, the material basis of their oppression has been reinforced and perpetuated by the capital accumulation process. Finally, we will discuss in the context of the response of the working class movement internationally, what is necessary for revolutionary work on the question of women.


1. Domestic Work and Social Production

(a) Introduction

As capitalism moves into crisis women are bearing the heaviest burdens and the sharpest attacks. Women’s position has always been subject to the needs of capital at any particular time. Their position as domestic workers means that they are not only primarily responsible for the maintenance and rearing of the labourers themselves, but also available to augment the reserve army of labour. And, as part of this reserve army, women can be drawn into production in times of boom or war when capital will be forced to provide the minimum necessary child-care facilities, and are equally vulnerable to redundancy or the introduction of part-time work during periods of recession. Part of the confusion and one-sidedness of the debate on domestic work has been a failure to deal adequately with this interrelated aspect of women’s oppressionwomen as domestic workers and as wage-labourers. The specific oppression of women under capitalism lies in their dual role in capitalist society. Women bear the main burden of domestic work while at the same time occupying an inferior position in social production. These two aspects are mutually reinforcing. Insofar as women work in factories, offices and so on, they perform social labour. However, women as domestic workers carry out work in the home which is both separate from and integral to the process of capital accumulation.[49] Their work is necessary for capital and yet it is outside of social productionprivatised.

To understand this essential point we should recognise that this was not always the case. Only under capitalism do women perform two types of labour, social labour in factories etc and privatised labour in the home. In pre-capitalist collectivist societies, before the existence of private property and class society, the matter was quite different. Household tasks in these societies were an integral part of social production. The labour of women who carried out these tasks was directly social labour. It was part of the communal labour of the society as a whole. The sexual division of labour within the family did not assign an inferior role to women. Engels made this point extremely clear.

‘In the old communistic household, which embraced numerous couples and their children, the administration of the household, entrusted to women, was just as much a public, socially necessary industry as the providing of food by the men.’[50]

It was only with the increase of wealth over and above the needs of the household (community) leading to the growing importance of inheritance, and the development of class society, that matters began to change. Products were now more and more produced for exchangethey became commodities. The administration of the household gradually lost its public character and became, as Engels put it, a private service.

‘[The division of labour within the family] remained unchanged and yet it now put the former domestic relationship topsy-turvey simply because the division of labour outside the family had changed. The very cause that had formerly made the woman supreme in the house, namely, her being confined to domestic work, now assured supremacy in the house for the man: the woman’s housework lost its significance compared with the man’s work in obtaining a livelihood; the latter was everything, the former an insignificant contribution.’[51]

The development of commodity production carries in its wake the separation of domestic work from social production. With capitalist production the labour performed by women changes out of all recognition. Firstly, even when she is engaged in social production her labour is no longer directly social in character but takes on a value-form, that is, is indirectly social in character. Secondly, insofar as she performs domestic work in the home her labour is not even indirectly social; it is privatised. So the essential characteristic of capitalism is that all workers perform indirectly social labour and, in addition, women bear the main burden of privatised work in the home. In order to explain the nature of value-creating labour that is indirectly social labour, it is necessary to understand the nature of commodity production.

(b) Commodity production

In commodity producing societies, unlike pre-capitalist collectivist societies, the labour of individuals is not directly social labour. Individuals relate to one another indirectly through the commodities they exchange. The commodity is a use-value, it is the product of concrete labour, eg the labour of the weaver or tailor. Considered in this way, as use-values, commodities are qualitatively very different. If they were not different there would obviously be little point in exchanging them. Coats are not exchanged for coats, one use-value is not exchanged for another of the same kind. Just as commodities as use-values are different so too is the labour that goes into their production, ie weaving, tailoring. However when commodities are exchanged, when for example, 20 yards of linen are exchanged for 1 coat, we express a relation of equivalence. We have equated the products of two different kinds of activity. When commodities are equated in this sort of way, the different sorts of labour that have gone into their production are reduced to their common character of being human labour in general.

‘If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour.’[52]

Marx refers to this labour from which all differences have been abstracted as value-creating labour. The labour which creates value has no individual identity of its own, it is labour which ranks equally with every sort of labour, no matter what its kind, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining hence the expression abstract labour.

‘Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.’[53]

Since the labour embodied in a commodity can be equated with the rest of the labour in a commodity producing society it follows that this abstract human labour is the expenditure of social labour. Producers express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society by comparing commodities, that is through their exchange. Under a system of commodity production the labour of different individualstheir concrete labourcan become social labour only by taking on the form of its direct opposite, the form of abstract labour. This is quite, different from the system of pre-capitalist collectivist societies. There the communal character of production made the use-values into a social product from the start. The concrete labour of the producers did not have to pass into its opposite, abstract labour, to become socially useful.

To make matters more complex, the exchange of commodities disguises the social relation which the exchange itself expresses. Commodities are not just values, but values of a definite magnitude. Each commodity embodies a definite amount of the sum total of social labour that has gone into the production of all commodities entering into exchange. However, when one commodity is exchanged for another, we do not say ‘these 20 yards of linen are worth forty hours of social labour’, but ‘they are worth as much as one coat, or one ounce of gold etc.’ In other words the magnitude of a commodity’s value is expressed by the quantity in which one commodity is exchanged for another. It is this quantitative relation between things which we call exchange-value. It is important to remember, that exchange-value is only an outward form of the social relation that exists between producersexchange-value merely expresses the common value which exists in commodities.

We can now summarise the points that we have made so far. In pre-capitalist collectivist societies the concrete labour of the woman in the household, just as that of the man hunting for food, was directly social in character. In capitalist society, however, the concrete labour of the individual man or woman becomes social in character only insofar as the product of labour acquires an exchange-valueonly insofar as the man or woman produces value. To do this the individual must enter the labour market, sell his or her labour-power and produce commodities for the capitalist.

Having explained the conditions under which women perform social labour under conditions of capitalist production, we must now turn our attention to the other type of labour which women performprivatised labour in the home.

(c) Capitalist production and domestic work

Capitalism has as its sole aim and end the accumulation of capital, that is the purchase of labour-power for the purpose of expanding value. In this society the production of use-values is subordinate to the necessity to accumulate capital. The general condition for this to occur historically is that labour-powerthe capacity to labourmust itself be a commodity. What the worker sells to the capitalist is his capacity to labourIabour-powerwhich is the only commodity that has the property of creating more value than it itself possesses. This is what interests the capitalist. It is from the exploitation of the labourer that all surplus-value, the source of capitalist profit, is created. By turning labour-power into a commodity capital has separated the labourer from his labour-power and the product of labour from the labourer. As a result of the separation, two sorts of consumption take place in a capitalist societyindividual consumption, ie the consumption that takes place outside social production, and productive consumption, ie the consumption that takes place within social production.

This distinction is important. There is firstly the productive consumption of the worker’s labour-power by the capitalist who bought it for the purpose of producing products of a higher value than that of the capital advanced. Secondly, there is the individual consumption of the worker in replenishing what previously the capitalist had consumedhis labour-power.

‘In the former, he acts as the motive power of capital and belongs to the capitalist. In the latter, he belongs to himself, and performs his necessary vital functions outside the process of production.’[54]

The individual consumption of the worker’s means of subsistence requires the expenditure of labour-time on cooking, cleaning, child-care and so on. This is concrete labour which does not assume a value-form. It falls upon the working class to carry out this labour for itself. By doing so it preserves for the capitalist the efficacy of the commodity labour-powerthe means by which he alone can remain a capitalist.

‘The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation.’[55]

Domestic work – child-care, cooking, laundering, cleaning and so onfunctions in capitalist society as a whole to produce those use-values which are necessary to the life of the individual. Domestic work is privatised, individual toil. It is concrete labour which lies outside the capitalist production process and therefore cannot produce value or surplus value. Insofar as domestic work is carried out by women outside social production it is neither productive nor unproductive labour.[56]

Productive labour is labour exchanged with capital and engaged in the production of surplus-value. Unproductive labour is labour that is not engaged in the production of surplus-value but is exchanged with money (revenue). In the latter case the domestic servant for example sells her service for the purpose of having it individually consumed. Domestic work since it involves neither an exchange with capital nor revenue is, therefore, neither productive ‘nor unproductive labour. Domestic work entails the production of use-values as well as the maintenance of the workers themselves.

As comrade Howell put it, domestic work

‘… is a specific form of concrete labour, toil, which although not assuming a value-form nevertheless remains a vital and necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. The woman pays in persona. Her toil is bestowed gratis on society and consequently on the capitalist and does not enter into the price of labour-power or into the creation of value in general.’[57]

The separation of labour-power from the labourer is inherent in the process of capitalist production. At the end of the working day the worker must leave the production process in order to replenish what previously the capitalist had consumedhis labour-powerso that this commodity can be sold again the following day. The replenishment of the capacity to labour takes place through the individual consumption of the worker. This individual consumption requires the expenditure of labour-timedomestic workas meals must be cooked, houses cleaned, children cared for and so on. Domestic work while a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital remains, nevertheless, outside of social production as privatised toil in the home.

There is no immanent tendency within capital to take over direct responsibility for the individual consumption of the working class after the process of production has ended. Although some capitalists may put domestic workers to work capitalisticallyin commercial laundries, restaurants and so onthis merely means that while some workers are having their labour-power replenished, others are having theirs consumed. After their labour-power has been consumed by the capitalist, these workers are still obliged to carry out their own domestic work, since

‘To assume a never ending chain of workers employed in restoring the labour-power of other workers is to lose sight of the process of capitalist production as a whole.’[58]

There must be a period, outside of the working day, after the process of production has ended when domestic work is performed by the working class as a whole. And since no surplus-value can be produced by domestic work capital has no interest in its socialisation. Even assuming the unlikely possibility of the full incorporation of women into social production, domestic work would still need to be performed after the working day had ended. Capital itself sets an absolute limit on the extent to which domestic work can be socialised.

The necessity for the working class, and in the main the female section, to carry out domestic work thus flows from the conditions imposed by capital itself. ‘Only when labour power is no longer consumed by another, only when it ceases to be a commodity will the reproduction of wealth in general become inseparable from the reproduction of the human race’. To posit the complete socialisation of domestic work, and with it the rearing of children, by capital is therefore to fail to understand the fundamental nature of capital itself. Far from being able to socialise domestic work, capital reproduces the very necessity for privatised toil in the home.

What we have shown so far is that there are absolute limits on the extent to which capital can socialise domestic work. Later sections will show it is women’s role as domestic workers under capitalist production which leads to their inferior role in social production, and how this in turn reinforces their role as domestic workers. The extent to which women are incorporated in social productionthe relative position they occupywill vary considerably from country to country and with the stage of capital accumulation and the intensity of the class struggle. However this must not be allowed to obscure the central point. Domestic work cannot be socialised under capitalism,

Capitalism, as we have shown, will necessarily perpetuate the role of women as domestic workers. It is precisely because of this that women have a direct interest in the struggle for socialism. So long as the capitalist social relation remains, women have no possibility of gaining social equality in society. Capital must be overthrown as a precondition for establishing a society where the responsibility for the reproduction and care of the living members of society is allocated socially and not assumed privately.

We now turn to the domestic work debate. The inadequacy of this debate so far, as we shall show, rests on its inability to show the absolute limits to the socialisation of domestic work under capitalist production.

2. The Domestic Work Debate

(a) Introduction

It is only in recent years that there has been a revival of interest in the question of domestic work and the position of women in capitalist society. The importance of Marx’s revolutionary critique of political economy has been finally acknowledged and attempts made to use Marx’s categories to explain domestic work, However, the contributions to the debate so far have suffered from imprecision, distortion and downright destruction of Marx’s thought which has led to their advancing wrong and dangerous perspectives for a revolutionary strategy for women. As in other spheres a failure to argue from a Marxist standpoint must eventually lead to a reformist political practice. This is why we shall take up and criticise these arguments. Theoretical clarity is absolutely essential for women and the working class movement as a whole.

We look at these theories of domestic work from the standpoint of the materialist analysis we have given already, which shows that domestic work is integral to the capitalist mode of production although separate from social production. Our standpoint is that capital places an absolute limit on the socialisation of domestic work and that it is this which gives women a direct interest in the struggle for socialism since the real emancipation of women can only finally be completed once capital has been overthrown. We ask therefore, what political consequences do the contributions to the debate have for the working class? Do they show why domestic work exists and how it can be abolished as a burden on the working class? Do they show that the specific oppression of women depends on the perpetuation of domestic work by capital and thus show the necessity for women to be at the centre of any revolutionary strategy?

(b) Does she or doesn’t she?

Does the housewife produce value and/or surplus value, or does she not? Our radical economists have three possible answers to this question yes, yes and no, and no.

(i) An unqualified yes: the housewife as ‘productive’ worker.

For Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James there is no equivocation.[59] They give a resounding ‘yes’. For them the home is the ‘social factory’, the very centre of ‘social productivity’. The labour of the housewife produces not only use-values but labour-power as a commodity and therefore surplus-value. In the second edition of their pamphlet they make this point very clear:

‘What we meant precisely is that housework as work is productive in the Marxian sense, that is, is producing surplus value.’[60]

Dalla Costa and James use these arguments in their call for Wages for Housework. They believe that by doing this, by giving women a wage, they offer women the possibility of fighting against their specific oppression as domestic workers. In reality the effect of their position is to tie women even more firmly to the home by sowing illusions in the possibility of capitalist society being able to socialise domestic work. In demanding that the state should pay wages for housework, apart from being utopian they are being quite reactionary, since by attempting to give housework a wage form they obscure the specific oppression of women by capital. Domestic work is a backward, stultifying form of work. On this we and Dalla Costa and James agree. To bring it into social production, to free women from privatised work in the home would represent an enormous step forward for women and the working class. However, the way to achieve this is not through the short cut ‘remedy’ of demanding ‘wages’ for houseworkwhich would be a wage in name onlybut through the political organisation of the working class against capital. This organisation must be based on an understanding of the specific oppression of women under capitalism. Dalla Costa and James’ position represents an extreme form of economism in the women’s movement. Domestic toil is to be socialised purely on the basis of an economic programme. For them the political struggle is to be taken at a later ‘stage’, when ‘consciousness’ has been ‘raised’ on the basis of a struggle for ‘Wages for Housework’.

In criticising the naive and backward position of Dalla Costa and James, others have made a number of concessions to their position. Marxism has been liquidated to the point where the current contributions to the debate on domestic work share a common approach, that of economism. Seccombe, Harrison and Gardiner[61] all share the same overwhelming desire to prove that domestic work, directly or indirectly, creates value. Misunderstanding and misusing Marx, the only possible connection they make between housewives and the working class as a whole is in giving housework the quality of creating value and/or indirectly surplus-value.

(ii) Another unqualified yes: the housewife as unproductive worker

Wally Seccombe’s contribution to the debate has been widely discussed. Having stated that Marx, in Capital, ‘laid out a framework within which domestic labour clearly fits’,[62] Seccombe demonstrates only that he neither understands domestic work nor the categories of Marx’s Capital. We are told that:

1. Domestic work creates value and that ‘the value (the housewife) creates is realised as one part of the value labour-power achieves as a commodity when it is sold.[63]

2. That while domestic work ‘achieves value in the selling of labour-power’ it remains outside the exercise of the law of value since it is ‘privatised labour’.[64]

3. That domestic work is unproductive and conforms with Marx’s description of unproductive labour, that is, it is exchanged not with capital but with revenue (wages or profits).[65]

How the housewife can create value yet be unproductive and also can create value while her labour remains outside the exercise of the law of value is a mystery that Seccombe attempts to unveil. Seccombe’s argument that domestic work creates value is summed up in the following passage from his article,

‘When the housewife acts directly upon wage purchased goods and necessarily alters their form, her labour becomes part of the congealed mass of past labour embodied in labour power. The value she creates is realised as one part of the value labour-power achieves as a commodity when it is sold. All this is merely a consistent application of the labour theory of value to the reproduction of labour-power itself – namely that all labour produces value when it produces any part of a commodity that achieves equivalence in the market place with other commodities.

… Now labour-power enters this market place and draws a monetary price. The past labour embodied in this special commodity is therefore brought into relation with the average labour of society via the wage. It matters not at all that the concrete conditions of domestic labour are privatised. The fact is that labour-power as a commodity sold in the market place abstracts each of its labour components regardless of their private origins.’[66]

There are two major connected errors in this formulation. In arguing that the housewife creates value since it is ‘realised as one part of the value labour-power achieves as a commodity when it is sold’, Seccombe explains value by exchange, the production of value by its realisation. The second error lies in his failure to see that under capitalism, domestic work cannot be related to the average labour of society since it is precisely the quality this average labour possesses, that of being abstract (social) labour, that housework as privatised toil can never attain.

Seccombe deduces that domestic work creates value from the fact that ‘labour-power as a commodity sold in the market place abstracts each of its labour components regardless of their private origins’. So that it is not necessary for the housewife to sell her labour to the capitalist for her labour to be value-producing, but sufficient for the worker (her husband) to sell his labour-power. The woman stands behind the man, creates value in his image value by proxy. Seccombe then, with a spurious scientificity, details those ‘components’ which he sees as being part of domestic work. However, if the domestic work of cooking, sexual relations etc (part of Seccombe’s list) are value-creating, so are all the ‘concrete’ labours ‘the housewife carries out. On this reasoning the concrete labour of eating and indeed the other end of the process must be regarded as productive of value, This kind of nonsense, indulgent speculation, has no place in Marxist theory.[67]

Because value can only be realised in the act of exchange does not mean that the act of exchange itself transforms privatised toil into abstract labour. Seccombe assumes that the mere exchange of labour-power in the market place is sufficient to bestow on all activities which have entered into the maintenance of the worker a value-creating quality. He has failed to realise that value is in fact created before the actual exchange takes place. In terms of his argument the opposite seems to be the casevalue is created post festum. That is why Seccombe can argue that the exchange-value of labour-power regulates the magnitude of the component values it contains. However as Marx clearly argued,

‘Our analysis has shown that the form or expression of the value of a commodity originates in the nature of value, and not that value and its magnitude originate in the mode of their expression as exchange value.’[68]

Seccombe has clearly confused concrete labour and abstract labour. It is the fact that commodities are the product of abstract (social) labour, products of the same homogeneous substance, that allows them to be measured, compared and exchanged. While it remains true that only in the act of exchange can values be realised, value is in fact created before the actual exchange takes place.[69]

Seccombe’s second error has its basis in his failure to understand the significance of the separation of labour-power as a commodity from the labourer. He fails to distinguish the productive consumption of labour-power in the process of production from the individual consumption of the labourer in replenishing what previously the capitalist had consumedhis labour-power.

The capitalist purchases the commodity labour-power for a period of time for the purpose of increasing value, that is, for the purpose of producing surplus-value. For this a wage is paid. The wage the capitalist pays the worker is the money expression of the value of labour-power. This wage is equivalent to the value of the means of subsistence necessary to sustain the worker, to renew his capacity to labour.[70] Marx clearly saw it in this way when he wrote,

‘The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. It therefore varies with the value of these means or with the quantity of labour requisite for their production.’[71]

Once the labourer has acquired these necessary commodities they must be consumed. We are now concerned with the individual consumption of the labourer. The consumption of the labourer’s means of subsistence requires the expenditure of labour-time, meals must be cooked and so on. As we argued earlier, it falls upon the working class and women in particular, to carry out this labour for itself. This process, in general, takes place outside of social production – it is privatised. The labour expended in this process cannot produce value precisely because it remains outside of social production. It is a specific form of concrete labour which, while not assuming a value form, nevertheless remains vital for the reproduction of capital through the reproduction of labour-power. This labour is given gratis and cannot enter into the price of labour-power or into the creation of value in general.

Seccombe shows us his utter confusion when he argues that ‘domestic labour figures substantially in the relative value of labour but is no part of its equivalent expressed in the wage’,[72] after having previously said that domestic work remains privatised labour outside of the exercise of the law of value. This is alchemy indeed! Not to be deterred, however, he continues in his own remarkable way,

‘Of course the wage and labour power are of equal value, and so abstractly equal amounts of social labour are expended on each side of the equation, but this equivalence is not an identity, concretely. The labour that produces labour-power, and the labour that produces the wage are two entirely distinct labours. Domestic labour is a part of the former and not of the latter.’[73]

If they are two entirely distinct laboursthe one concrete and the other abstracthow can they be compared? Seccombe is able to argue this precisely because he confuses the concrete labour of the individual which assumes a value-form with the privatised labour of the housewife which does not.

The work of the housewife involves the production of use-values for the individual consumption of the labourer. It is not production for exchange but for use. That is why it does not have a value-form. It is privatised, outside of social production. There is no social process by which the time taken by one housewife to carry out a domestic task can be compared with that of another who might take a longer or shorter time. The discipline of the wage-form does not and cannot exist here. It is therefore not possible to compare domestic work and wage labour. They have different qualities and are not commensurable. To conclude our argument here, the wage is merely the phenomenal form which the value of labour-power assumes in the exchange between labour and capital. Further, the proportions in which commodities are exchanged are regulated by their values. Domestic work creates no value and therefore cannot be computed as part of the wage.

Domestic work is not part of social production. The categories productive and unproductive labour relate specifically to the exchange between capital and labour, or between revenue and labour. Seccombe’s crude attempt to equate domestic work with unproductive labour must therefore necessarily fail.

However, leaving this obvious point aside, it is clear that Seccombe has not even vaguely understood the category unproductive labour as argued by Marx. Domestic work is said to be unproductive labour and yet it supposedly creates value and is a component part of the wage. Marx, a few pages on from the definition of unproductive labour which Seccombe quotes, argues in the case of a cook who is an unproductive worker, something quite different, in fact quite the opposite to what Seccombe maintains,

‘The cook does not replace for me (the private person) the fund from which I pay her because I buy her labour not as a value-creating element but purely for the sake of its use-value. Her labour as little replaces for me the fund with which I pay for it, that is, her wages, as for example, the dinner I eat in the hotel in itself enables me to buy and eat the same dinner again a second time.’[74]

The labour of the cook is directly exchanged for money (revenue); it is a direct payment for a service rendered. However, no value or surplus-value is produced as a result of this labour. The money which is used to purchase the services of the cook is simply circulated. Nevertheless, this is wage labour and the discipline of the wage remains. However, this service is not essential for capital, nor is the circulation of money as revenue which results.

The matter is quite different in the case of domestic work. The latter as we have shown is essential for the reproduction of capital although it lies outside the discipline of the wage-form. Indeed servants who sell their services to the capitalist are also domestic workers performing domestic toil in their own homes. The domestic work of the woman differs from unproductive labour precisely in that it is not exchanged for revenue. It is concrete labour necessary for the reproduction of capital and is given for nothing.

Because of his inability to understand the nature of domestic work and therefore the specific oppression of women, Seccombe cannot argue why capital has not been able to socialise domestic work. On the contrary, by arguing that it creates value he is inevitably forced to conclude that capitalism, at least theoretically, could socialise domestic work,

‘Precisely because there exists no continued impetus to reorganise domestic labour to improve its efficiency, it is the one labour process that has not been socialised, though there is nothing inherent in the work itself that would prevent it from being so.’[75] (our emphasis)

By arguing this, it is impossible to show how the struggle against women’s oppression and the struggle to overthrow capitalism must be united.

(iii) Yes and no: housework as a separate mode of production

Harrison takes the analysis of domestic work one stage further (back) by asserting that housework, along with the state sector, is a non-capitalist mode of production in which woman carry out unpaid surplus-labour.[76] This non-capitalist mode of production is said to be analogous to petty commodity production, in that the constraints imposed by these ‘modes of production’ are qualitatively different (more freedom exists) than those imposed by the capitalist mode of production. Each has a very low degree of socialisation and virtually no internal division of labour. However, unlike petty commodity production, the use-values produced in housework are not produced for exchange. Housework does not produce the commodity labour-power, rather it produces use-values which enter into the subsistence of the worker. Finally, housework, while being a mode of production quite distinct from the capitalist mode, is dependent on the reproduction of the capitalist mode for its own reproduction.

But all this is very straightforward compared with what comes next. First of all, we are told that the value of labour-power is clearly not just the labour-time involved in the production of the part of the worker’s means of subsistence produced within the capitalist sector. We have also to take account of the labour (housework) performed outside the capitalist sector which contributes to the worker’s standard of living. Yet later, on the same page we are informed that the housewife produces use-values not commodities and her ‘labour time is not value’. Housework we are told is therefore not value-creating but it enters into the value of labour-power. That is to say, women’s labour is value-creating and not value-creating.

Blissfully ignorant of the confusions he has already introduced, Harrison goes one step further and informs us of a new category in political economy ‘actual labour time’. We are told that:

‘When calculating surplus labour in housework the housewife’s production should be reckoned in actual labour time (including that part of her subsistence that she produces for herself) while the elements of her subsistence produced within the capitalist sector should be reckoned in terms of socially necessary labour time.’[77]

‘Actual labour time’ has to be reduced to its socially necessary equivalent under the capitalist mode of production. This it seems can be done by comparing productivity levels in the two sectors if the same commodity is produced. However, if the same commodities are not produced, ‘there can be no question of adjusting the housewife’s actual labour time to take account of productivity differences’.[78] There is little point in quibbling about this ‘actual’ nonsense. But nonsense or not, it has a purpose nevertheless. Harrison’s aim is to show that surplus labour is appropriated in housework and is transformed from housework to the capitalist sector through payment by the capitalist of wages below the value of labour-power. This occurs because the housewife is not paid for the use-values she contributes to the worker’s subsistence and yet she contributes, according to this remarkable logic, to the value of labour-power. The capitalist however, only pays the worker part of the total subsistence requirementsin labour-time units, of course of the worker and his wife.

Finally Harrison draws out the political implications of this position. Capital does not need housework in the sense that there is no other way that the functions of housework could be fulfilled.

‘All of the economic functions of housework could be fulfilled under capitalist production relations. There is no reason, at the level of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production, why the principle of launderettes could not be extended to capitalist creches, and if you like, brothels.’[79]

By regarding housework as a separate mode of production[80] and not integral to the capitalist mode of production, Harrison is unable to explain the specific oppression of women. He cannot show why the struggle against the specific oppression of women is integral to the struggle of the working class to overthrow capitalism. On the contrary, for Harrison, as in the case of Dalla Costa and James, and Seccombe, capital can abolish housework, can socialise domestic work.

Whatever his intentions, Harrison has given an ideological justification for separating the interests of women in their struggle against their specific oppression under capitalism from the struggles of the working class against capital itself. The real task facing revolutionaries is to bring to the working class an understanding of the unity of the struggle against capital and domestic work. The struggle against capital is the struggle against domestic work and the struggle against domestic work is the struggle against capital. In this sense, Harrison’s arguments are fundamentally divisive. They only give strength to the present attempts of the ruling class to create divisions within the working class.

Jean Gardiner, in an article in New Left Review 89 on the role of domestic labour argues, in a similar vein to Harrison, that

‘in attempting to pose an alternative approach to the role of domestic labour, I have argued that domestic labour does not create value, on the definition of value that Marx adopted, but does nonetheless contribute to surplus value by keeping down necessary labour, or the value of labour power to a level that is lower than the actual subsistence level of the working class.’[81]

Like Harrison she can offer no reason why capitalism cannot socialise domestic work in a period of its expansion. She can point to psychological and ideological factors working against the socialisation process and to conflicting economic pressures of different stages of capital accumulation.[82] But she takes the discussion no further than Harrison in this respect.

Not surprisingly, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) of which Gardiner is a member, can therefore call for the sharing of domestic work as central to the struggle against women’s oppression. An enthusiastic report of the Newcastle Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) Conference by Judith Gray, clearly expresses this view:

‘Indeed the need to look at the sharing of housework and the caring of dependent relatives and to voice this as a demand of the WLM came in the shape of a paper from Brighton which suggested that a 7th demand was needed … Most women felt that there was a need to raise the issue of housework sharing now and not simply and solely put pressure on the state for socialised facilities.’[83]

It seems that the central problem is ‘male supremacist ideology’ and not, as we have shown, the inability of the capitalist system to socialise domestic work. CP member Rosemary Small makes this standpoint admirably clear:

‘within the structure of capitalism, male supremacist ideology has to be fought at all levels, including within the family so that a more equal sharing of chores and responsibilities is achieved.’[84]

While we support all struggles against women’s oppression both inside and outside the home, these struggles will degenerate into reformist ones unless grounded within a revolutionary perspective guided by revolutionary theory. Our analysis of domestic work shows that the struggle to distribute toil evenly over the family is not the struggle. The aim is not to ‘equalise’ toil in the home but to abolish it. We reject a ‘two stages’ approach to the revolution. For Marxists the inability of capitalism to socialise domestic work, to subsume the production of the use-values necessary for the reproduction of the population, as well as the labour performed in maintaining and rearing the population, under social production, is the cornerstone of the strategy for women’s emancipation. The fact that the working class, male and female, is forced to labour on its own behalf, in its ‘free time’, in order to sell itself the next day for a wage, is not to be altered by a redistribution of housework between the sexes. It is the existence of domestic work as privatised toil which denies women the possibility of achieving social equality. The separation of the labourer from the product of labour and the labourer from labour-power is the fundamental obstacle to abolishing domestic work. It is this that must be overthrownthe capitalist relation itselfif women are to achieve the possibility of liberation.

(iv) An unqualified no: but can capitalism socialise domestic work?

Gardiner’s latest contribution, co-written with Himmelweit and McIntosh, criticises her own (and Harrison’s) earlier position which compared domestic labour with wage labour ‘in a quantitative way’.[85] Yet the authors go on to show that they do not understand the significance of their point. They follow this criticism by repeating the mistake in a slightly different, but equally wrong, form, by stating that;

‘ … the value of labour power is not synonymous with the labour time embodied in the reproduction and maintenance of labour power once one takes account of domestic labour (and the State) … What this discussion has rejected is an analysis which calculates a transfer of labour from domestic labour into profits. What it has not rejected is the idea that husbands may benefit from the work of their wives.’[86]

Husbands do benefit from the labour-time of their wives. This is certainly true. However, according to this argument, domestic work could be said to be oppressive not because it is a result of the necessary separation made by capital between labour-power and the living labourers, but because it is carried out for the benefit of ‘men’. The interests of capitalists and male workers are made to converge.

The authors also seem to share Harrison’s optimism that capital could abolish domestic work.

‘Up to now, capital has been unable to overcome the obstacles to complete socialisation of domestic labour, … A lack of adequate accumulation or of sufficiently labour saving technology may be a bar to the further socialisation of domestic labour by capital at any historical moment.’[87]

It is the underdeveloped character of capitalism or the unfavourable conditions it faces which explain the inability of capital to socialise domestic work. In a similar way they suggest that the socialisation of child-care through free, or heavily subsidised state nurseries could only be ‘likely to occur in a boom situation, in which there was a rapid accumulation of capital and consequent productivity increases.’[88] For them the specific oppression of women relates only to the level of capital accumulation, thereby confusing the absolute limits capital places on the socialisation of domestic work with the relative position of women within social production at any particular time. They do not understand why capital is unable to eliminate domestic work and with it the specific oppression of the female section of the working class.

Magas, Coulson and Wainwright of the International Marxist Group (IMG) have made a number of correct points against Seccombe. They argue that

‘(domestic labour) does not create value at all, because its immediate products are use values and not commodities; they are not directed towards the market, but are for immediate consumption within the family.’[89]

However, they still do not understand the specific oppression of women under capitalism. For them, correctly, the central feature of women’s position under capitalism ‘is the fact that they are both domestic labourers and wage labourers’.[90] They fail, however, to explain the necessity for this relation. We show in a later section that the ability to move women between private and social productionbetween the home and the labour forceas well as to treat them as part of the reserve army of labour has always been a central feature of capital accumulation. While they understand this, Magas, Coulson and Wainwright can in no way explain the dual role of women because they cannot explain the necessity for the continued existence of domestic work. It is necessary to show why domestic work exists as a burden on working women. It is necessary to show why, in spite of the enormous increase of the productivity of labour during the post-war boom, domestic work still remains privatised toil outside of social production. That is, it is necessary to fulfil the claim made by Magas, Coulson and Wainwright to explain why capitalism cannot socialise domestic work.[91] This the authors fail to do. Their own answer amounts to the assertion that ‘in a society dominated by the market, the bourgeois family and domestic labour are spontaneously generated within the working class’[92] together with the observation that:

the existence of the bourgeois family … is by no means brought into question by conjunctural upswings in the cycle of capitalist production.’[93]

This might well be true but it is precisely this which needs to be explained. It is because the relation of domestic work to capital has not been understood in the debate so far that the real significance of the family as an economic unit in capitalist society has not been grasped. It is to this we now turn.

3. The family

The question of the family has been a perennial problem for the women’s movement and for all those who have attempted an analysis of women’s oppression. Women’s oppression has been persistently ascribed to the family and to the biological division of labour within it. In particular, Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex expresses this idea and calls for the abolition of the family and indeed of the division of labour in its entirety.[94] The radical left in Britain, lacking a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression, has adapted to this bourgeois feminist ‘solution’ to the problem. The IMG cite Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky to back them up in their demand for the overthrow of the family.

‘Ever since the Communist Manifesto of 1848 sexual equality has been a demand of revolutionary socialists. The form in which it was raised by Marx, by Engels, by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky was in the call for the abolition of the family. The institution of the family is the main obstacle to the equality of women.’[95]

The International Socialists (IS)’ say that capital could abolish the family

‘... in theory, Capitalism could do without the family. It could turn the job of caring for the workers of today and rearing the workers of the future into an industry employing waged workers.’[96]

The CPGB is confused about the family. Executive Committee (EC) member Judith Hunt’s view is that the family is an ideological unit which reproduces itself autonomously from the capitalist system of production.

‘The social function of the family is increasingly ideological ... In particular the family plays a major part in reproducing the sexual inequality that is its own root. Ideologically the family reproduces itself.’[97]

For her, the oppression of women is a result of outdated attitudes.

‘The economic and material base for women’s oppression need no longer exist in society; its continued re-creation is a measure of the strength of traditional ideas and prejudice.’[98]

Rosemary Small’s opinion is that the family should be defended since it provides

‘ … at worst, some sort of bulwark to cling to, at best a source of support and security, warmth and happiness.[99]

Although she attempts to show that women’s oppression derives, not from family life as such, but from the family as an economic unit in class society, she cannot, in common with other groups of the left, show how women are specifically oppressed under capitalism.

This is the crucial point. An understanding of the position of women shows that it is the form of the family under capitalism and the existence of domestic slavery that is at the root of the oppression of women, not family life as such. All human life concerns personal relationships. It is not this aspect of family life that revolutionaries attack, but the family as an economic unit in society. Personal relationships are a reflection of this. Engels makes this point very clearly in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It has been his fate, however, to be misinterpreted and misunderstood by his supposed supporters.

Engels shows the growth of the family in its historical context, leading up to the form of the family corresponding to late nineteenth-century capitalism. This historical method is important since it allows Engels to show that changes in the form of the family are brought about by changes in the economic organisation of society. Engels traces the development of private property and inheritance through to the development of capitalism and along with this the changes in the relationship between the sexes from the mother-right family, through the patriarchal family, monogamous marriage and finally, modern bourgeois marriage. Engels saw that the position of women had its particular oppressive characteristic not because the family continued to exist but because domestic work had become privatised and outside social production. He concluded from this that although women might gain legal equality under capitalism they would never achieve true social equality until ‘the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished’.[100] Engels is thus arguing for the socialisation of domestic work, not for the abolition of family life as such. He shows that the form of the family changes with the economic organisation of society. We take this analysis further and show precisely how domestic work relates to the capitalist system of production as a whole and why, therefore, the overthrow of capitalism is a necessary precondition for the emancipation of women. It is this revolutionary significance of women’s oppression under capitalism that is obscured by theories which focus entirely on the need to abolish the family.

The IMG provide a prime example of the reactionary consequences which flow from a failure to understand that women’s oppression derives not from family life as such, but from the capitalist relation itself. In a letter to the women’s section of the African National Congress South Africa, the IMG feel obliged to correct the women of the ANC for opposing the pass laws in South Africa because they destroy family life. In her reply Janice Mills, for the IMG, says

‘The family in any form is not compatible with full equality for women, nor with socialism. The oppression of women is not abstract but real, actual, daily and with an identifiable social root – the family. The masses themselves have already outgrown the family. Every revolutionary struggle tears women out of the home and makes domestic tasks and the care of children the responsibility of the whole community. The inhumanity of the pass laws is not contained in their destruction of family life.’[101]

The oppression of black women in South Africa can hardly be ascribed to black family lifethe racist South African regime has all but destroyed it. Far from it being the revolutionary struggle that has torn women from their homes and children, it is South African capital that breaks up families and destroys communities. While any form of durable family life is all but destroyed for Africans, capital in South Africa gives the family as an economic unit a most striking and barbaric form. Nowhere is the privatised nature of domestic work so directly pronounced. Michael Williams has expressed this point particularly well.

‘What the women of the reserves were rearing and maintaining were the labourers themselves, the living repositories of the commodity labour power, the most essential element of productive capital. South Africa is no exception to the rule that this specific form of concrete labour which is foisted upon women under capitalism will always take place alongside the process of surplus value extraction as it is carried out in the direct process of production. Only now ... does this law present itself in its most striking and barbaric form.’[102]

In South Africa today the possibility of family life for the black population would be a positive advance in the struggle against South African capital because it would mean all-out opposition to the system of the pass laws and segregation into ‘homelands’. The struggle for family life in South Africa is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. Pompous assurances from the IMG that ‘the masses themselves have already outgrown the family’ do not help matters much in South Africa where every day Africans are arrested for ‘illegally’ living with their spouses.

Yet neither Marx, Engels, Lenin nor Trotsky called for the abolition of family life as such. Lenin well understood that the oppression of women rests on their position as domestic slaves and that the condition for the emancipation of women is the abolition of domestic toil:

‘Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour in barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding state-power) against this petty housekeeping or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.’[103]

As Trotsky wrote. ‘You cannot abolishthe family; you have to replace it’.[104] This is the central pointhow to abolish the family as an economic unit. As Lenin and Trotsky pointed out it is only a socialist planned economy that can provide the systematic development of the productive forces required to abolish the family as an economic unit and establish personal relationships free from the requirements of capital. The ‘survival’ of the family as an economic unit is based on the continued existence of capital and the continued need for labour-power as a commodity and therefore the need for privatised domestic work. The first step towards the ‘replacement’ of the privatised economic function of the family by socialist planning must be, as we have shown, the overthrow of capitalist relations of production. Under capitalism family life is destroyed while at the same time the family as an economic unit of society is maintained. Under socialism the reverse will be the case. Family life will take on a new form as the family as an economic unit is destroyed.

4. The relative position of women and capital accumulation

We have argued that the relative position of women depends on the stage of capital accumulation at any given time and differs from country to country and with the intensity of the class struggle. These developments will be examined concretely in Part III using the example of Britain. In this section we will establish the importance for the specific oppression of women of capital’s ability to create continually a ready supply of exploitable labour. The perpetuation of domestic work, performed gratis for capital, means not only that women are domestic toilers but that they also exist for capital as a cheap, unorganised source of labour. They can be called upon to augment the industrial reserve army, available to be drawn into or thrown out of employment according to the needs of capital accumulation at any particular time.

(a) The reserve army of labour[105]

The aim and end of capitalist production is the accumulation of the greatest amount of surplus-value with a given amount of wealth. This is the driving force behind capital and all increases in the productivity of labour under capitalism. In exceptional cases it is possible for surplus-value to be increased without a change in technology, for instance by the extension of the working day. This is the production of absolute surplus-value. There are limits to this process, however, namely the physical and social limits to the working day. Surplus-value can also be increased by increasing the intensity of labour, so that capital obtains more value per unit time from the same worker. This also has physical and social limits. Because of these limitations there is a tendency therefore to increase surplus-value by increasing the productivity of labour and thereby to decrease the time necessary for the worker to produce the equivalent of his own means of subsistence and those of his family. In other words, necessary labour-time is decreased relative to the total length of the working day and the value of labour-power is lowered. This is the production of relative surplus-value. This means therefore, that the main method open for increasing surplus-value under developed capitalist conditions of production is through an increase in the productivity of labour brought about by technical change the production of relative surplus-value.[106]

Marx pointed out in Capital that an increase in the productivity of labour involves a change in the technical composition of capital; the number of workers diminishes relative to the mass of machinery and raw materials worked by them; the subjective factor of the labour process diminishes compared with the objective factor.[107] Under conditions of capitalist production this leads to a change in the value composition of capital, that is, the value of means of production (constant capital) increases at a faster rate than the value of labour-power (variable capital).[108]

With the advance in the productivity of labour a constantly increasing quantity of means of production is set in motion by a progressively smaller expenditure of human labour-power. Additional capital invested requires fewer labourers relative to its size and the old capital is gradually replaced by new capital employing less labour than before.[109] Thus the capitalist mode of production creates the industrial reserve army of labour which,

‘... belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase in population it creates for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.’[110]

The size of the reserve army is relative to the rate of capital accumulation. During periods of stagnation and average prosperity it weighs down on the working population and during periods of expansion it holds back the ‘pretensions’ of the employed workers. The industrial reserve army is therefore,

‘... the pivot upon which the supply and demand of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and domination of capital.’[111]

It is precisely capital’s requirements for self-expansion that lead to the formation of the industrial reserve army of labour.

(b) Women and the reserve army of labour

Capitalist production has consistently used women as part of the industrial reserve army of labour. In the early stages of capitalist development the introduction of machinery meant that less skill and strength were needed, women and children could be drawn into production in the place of skilled men. Marx and Engels noted in the Communist Manifesto that,

‘The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words the more modern industry becomes developed the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour more or less expensive to use according to their age and sex.’[112]

The value of labour-power no longer achieved equivalence in the wage of the man, but was now spread over his whole family. The value of labour-power of the working class as a whole was thus depreciated as women and children entered the labour market. To use Marx’s example:

‘Machinery, by throwing every member of that family onto the labour market spreads the value of the man’s labour-power over the whole of his family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers costs more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but in return four days labour takes the place of one and their price falls in proportion to the excess of surplus-labour of the four over the surplus-labour of the one. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expand surplus-value for the capitalist.’[113]

The advantages for capital are clear: surplus-value is increased since more workers are exploited, as well as the rate of exploitation (ratio of surplus-value to the value of labour-power) being raised. The introduction of machinery and the new demands of capital thus meant that ‘compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place ... of free labour at home’. Women were progressively transformed into both domestic slaves and wage slaves; men were consigned either to the reserve army of unemployed or to employment at lower rates of pay. The effects on domestic work were often simply that it was not carried outwith disastrous effects on the children of employed mothers. Or, as Marx notes,

‘Domestic work, such as sewing and mending must be replaced by the purchase of ready made articles. Hence the diminished expenditure of labour in the house is accompanied by an increased expenditure of money. The cost of keeping the family increases and balances the greater income,’[114]

At this early stage of capital accumulation, the capitalist was able to buy with the same capital a greater mass of labour-power as he progressively replaced skilled labourers by less skilled, men by women, adults by children.[115] The drawing of women into production and the creation of a reserve army of labour went hand in hand with this process since it tended to throw men and skilled workers out from production and replace them by greater numbers of women and children.

With the limits encountered by the production of absolute surplus-value and the growing strength of the working class movement this phase of capital accumulation came to an end in the advanced capitalist countries. Accumulation comes to depend relatively less on the natural growth of the population and more on increases in the productivity of labour. The new period which was ushered in by no means overcame the contradictions of absolute surplus-value extraction, but raised them to new levels. As capital accumulation develops, increases in the productivity of labour are expressed by a rise in the organic composition of capital. That is, more capital is invested as constant capital, on machinery and raw materials, than is paid out as wages for productive workers. Profits arise out of the exploitation of workers alone but the rate of profit is measured over the total capital invested and not just that invested in labour-power. So that as productivity increases there are relatively fewer workers exploited by a given amount of capital and a larger cost of machinery etc over which to measure the rate of profit. This means that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The central dilemma for capital lies in the fact that the very expansion of capital is based on increases in productivity, but it is just these increases in productivity which tend to bring about a fall in the rate of profit. This in turn leads to the capitalist crisis.[116]

The capitalist crisis is both the expression of the contradiction of capitalism, of the fall in the rate of profit, and of the way that capitalism attempts to resolve these contradictions internally. It is both the disease and at the same time the way to a cure. Too much capital has been invested relative to the rate of exploitation. In the crisis capital is destroyed as capital, buildings and machinery are not used and capital is written off. Firms are forced out of business and become bankrupt. A large amount of capital no longer functions as capital and therefore claims to the mass of profits are reduced. In the crisis the process of concentration and centralisation of capital is intensified as the least efficient firms are forced out of business.

One of the most important ways with which the crisis is resolved is by the increase in the reserve army of labour which puts capital in a stronger position to restore profitability by attempting to drive down wages below the value of labour-power. The increase of the reserve army of labour thus lays down the foundation for the ‘cure’ to the crisis. The larger the reserve army of labour, the greater the ability of capital to carry out attacks on the working class. The specific oppression of women enables capital to carry this out all the more. Capital has different requirements for labour at different stages in the accumulation process. The existence of a section of the population which is acquiescent to its differing demands is thus of great importance for capital. Women, given their role as domestic slaves, exactly comply with capital’s need for a fluctuating reserve army of labour. They are available at home to be drawn into production when necessary and can be thrown back into the home when accumulation stagnates. As the following section will show more fully in relation to the specific oppression of women under capitalism in Britain, women as domestic slaves have always been available to augment capital’s reserve army of labour. Women have entered the workforce at lower rates of pay (below the value of labour-power) and some have even remained in employment after men have been thrown out, precisely because it was in the interests of capital to pay wages below the value of labour-power. In the present crisis, as capital attempts to restore profitability, capital once more requires an increase in its reserve army of labour and a reduction in the standard of living of the working class.


The relative position of women in capitalist society depends on a number of factors: on the stage of capital accumulation in a particular country and the intensity of the class struggle. On the other hand, as we have shown, capital is absolutely unable to free women of the necessity to perform privatised toil in the home. The particular example of Britain shows how the two aspects of women’s oppression their role as domestic toilers in the home and their consequently inferior position in social productionhave mutually reinforced each other as a result of developments in the capital accumulation process.

The complete separation of domestic toil from social production took place historically with the development of capital accumulation proper and it is in this period therefore that the dual aspect of women’s oppression under capitalism becomes clear for the first time.

1. Development of the factory system and the separation of domestic toil

In Britain before the Industrial Revolution industry was generally cottage basedDomestic Industry.[117] Within the home the running of the domestic household and social production existed alongside each other. Gradually, Manufacture, based on a division of labour, superseded individual handicraft production. The tendency for capital to accumulate in the hands of middlemen, who organised the hiring and firing of families and the distribution of products, was the basis for the development of larger machines and steam powerthe beginning of the factory system itself. At last the critical point had been reached.

‘The basis of the old method, sheer brutality in the exploitation of the workpeople, accompanied more or less by a systematic division of labour, no longer sufficed for the extending markets and for the still more rapidly extending competition of the capitalists. The hour struck for the advent of machinery.’[118]

Productivity in factories increased to an extent where it became impossible for cottage based industry and Manufacture to survive competitively. By the middle of the 19th century cottage industry had virtually disappeared in a confrontation whose result was ‘as sure as is the result of an encounter of an army furnished with breech loaders and one armed with bows and arrows.’[119] The development of the factory system brought about a total separation in time and place between social production in the factory and domestic toil in the home. For the first time, the nature of domestic work as separate, privatised toil outside social production, was clearly revealed. At one and the same time women became both domestic toilers in the home and a source of cheap labour for the capitalist in the factory.

In the textile industry, the development of machinery displaced the skilled handicraft workers by creating the conditions for the increasing employment of women and children in the factories. Old skills, broken down into simpler processes were now performed by machines which could be operated by the unskilled, cheaper labour of women and children. By 1835, out of a total of 288,200 workers in textiles 46% were women and 15% children.[120] However, although women were being drawn rapidly into the textile factories, it was still the case that the vast majority of women workers were employed in domestic service. The 1841 census points clearly to this fact:

1841 census: employment of women[121]

Domestic service         712,000

Cotton manufacture    115,425

Dressmaking etc          89,079

Agriculture                   50,654

Laundry work                          45,019

Teaching                       29,253

Thus a high proportion of women workers remained isolated from the developing industrial proletariat under the relatively backward and paternalistic conditions of employment in domestic service. The number of women workers employed in this way did not fall significantly until the First World War. Despite the harsh conditions of work in the factories the employment of women and children outside the home was a progressive step in terms of their economic and social emancipation. Lenin, in assessing the similar but later development in Russia, had this to say,

‘Particularly, in speaking of the changes the factory has brought about in the conditions and life of the population, it is necessary to observe that the drawing of women and adolescents into the factory is, in the main, a progressive phenomenon. Unquestionably capitalism extremely worsens the conditions of these categories of workers and it becomes particularly necessary to regulate and shorten their working day, to guarantee hygienic conditions of labour etc; but to strive to completely prohibit women and adolescents from going into industry, or to preserve the patriarchal system which prevented them from doing so would be reactionary and utopian. By destroying the patriarchal isolation of these categories of the population who formerly never emerged from the narrow circle of domestic family relationships, by drawing them into direct participation in social production, large scale machine industry stimulates their development and increases their independence, ie creates conditions of life that are incomparably superior to the patriarchal immobility of pre-capitalist relationships.’[122]

The progressive aspect was no 1imited by the harsh conditions of work. Increases in ‘productivity in the growing number of factories lead to an extension of the industrial reserve army as workers were replaced by machinery. Engels shows in a survey of 35 factories in 1841, that 1,060 fewer male spinners were employed than in 1829, although the number of spindles had increased by 99,329.[123] Marx points out that in the textile industry in Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, between 1860 and 1865, looms had increased by 11%, spindles by 3%, engine power by 3%, while the number of workers employed had fallen by 51/2%.[124] The effect of this, on the industrial reserve army as the textile industry went through series after series of slumps and recoveries is described by Marx.

‘This qualitative change in mechanical industry continually discharges hands from the factory, or shuts its doors against the fresh stream of recruits, while the purely quantitative extension of the factories absorbs not only the men thrown out of work, but also fresh contingents. The workpeople are thus continually both repelled and attracted, hustled from pillar to post, while at the same time, constant changes take place in the sex, age and skill of the levies.’[125]

Initially, women and children had often been drawn into factories on a subcontractual basis through the male worker, a remnant of the manufacture system. The development of the division of labour within the factory as mechanisation increased meant that women were employed on a regular basis, independent of the sub-contractor. Machinery, therefore, not only made possible the increased employment of women and children at lower rates than men, it also brought about a fall in men’s wages as skilled processes were broken down. The response of male workers in the 19th century was often to react against these effects of mechanisation by opposing the employment of women and children. Although skilled male workers were unable to halt what Marx and Engels referred to as the ‘constant revolutionising of production’[126] what their reaction did reinforce was the situation whereby the interests of women workers were largely ignored by the developing labour movement. This enabled the capitalist to continue employing women at cheaper rates than men, which of course worked against men’s interests. In 1868, the newly formed TUC denied admission to women workers. Female membership of trade unions tended, apart from Textile workers’ unions, to take the form of separate unions for women. Trade union membership for women was therefore very low in relation to the number of male workers who were unionised.

Trade Union membership[127]


                        Female           Total               Female as % of

                                                                        total membership

1886                37,000             635,580           5.8

1896                118,000           1,076,000        11.0

1906                167,000           1,555,000        10.7

Protective legislation for women and children, as well as being fought for by the working class to protect these sections of the workforce from the most brutal aspects of work in the factories and mines, also had the effect of limiting competition for male workers from this cheaper, less organised source of labour. Although the first piece of legislation excluded women from work in the mines and the 1844 Factory Act classified women and children as ‘protected persons’, for the bourgeoisie the word ‘protected’ had an extremely limited meaning. The working day for women and children in the textile industry was cut down to 12 hours a day and in 1847 a 58-hour week was made the legal limit. In fact, women and young people in particular continued to work well over these limits up until the 1930s.

In 1851 24% of married women worked. By 1911 this had fallen to 13%.[128] This decline together with protective legislation and the introduction of compulsory elementary education in the 1870s, reflected the fact that capital accumulation at a higher level of productivity now depended relatively less on drawing these sections of the population into the workforce. However the economic pressure for married women to work remained. Not surprisingly the Principal Lady Inspector of factories in a report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (1904) was able to conclude that the main reasons why married women worked were the death, unemployment or low wage of the husband.[129] However large numbers of married women did not work and the existence of this potential source of labour was to assume its full significance for capital with the advent of the first major imperialist conflict the First World War.

2. The First World War

Developments that took place in the First World War demonstrated very clearly the ability of capital to utilise this potential source of labour for its own endsin this case to produce arms while the male working class was being slaughtered in the interests of British Imperialism. The introduction of masses of women into the engineering industries did not take place without friction however. We have pointed out how women were drawn into employment in industry as machinery broke down aspects of the production process and how they remained unorganised and lower paid than men. The labour movement was presented with these problems in an accentuated form during this period as dilutionthe breaking down of skilled processestook place in the engineering industries.

a) The influx of women into industry

Until the First World War women were mainly employed in domestic service and textiles and only ‘worked in the engineering industries where mechanisation had been introduced. The extraordinary demand for female labour particularly after 1915 when conscription was brought in, was met by 1. directing women from domestic-service and less essential industries 2. drawing large numbers of women into work for the first time. As the war economy boomed unprecedented rationalisations in the form of the breaking down and standardisation of production methods together with intensive mechanisation, provided the basis on which women could be drawn as unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the munitions industries.


Changes in women’s employment, July 1914-July 1918[130]


                                                July 1914                   July 1918                   Increase or

                                               (thousands)                (thousands)                decrease


Self employed                         430                              470                              + 40

Industry                                  2,179                           2,970                           +791

Domestic service                     1,658                           1,258                           –400

Commerce etc                         505                              934                              +429

National and local

government (+ education)     262                              460                              +198

Agriculture                              190                              228                              + 38

Hotels, theatres etc                 181                              220                              + 39

Transport                                18                                117                              + 99

Others                                                 542                              652                              +110


Total                                       5,966                           7,311                           +1,345


Although, as we shall see, the number of women in employment changed only slightly between 19J1-21 since most women lost their jobs at the end of the war, for the duration of the war itself capital drew 1.3m women into work for the first time and about 800,000 women into industry for the first time. The fall shown here in the number of women employed in domestic service was a trend which was to continue in general, although the crisis of the 20s meant that women and men were forced back to some extent into this type of employment. In addition to industry, the administration of the war economy brought about large increases in jobs for women in commerce, national and local government. Throughout the whole previous period women had increasingly gone into clerical work. In 1851 there had been only 19 female clerks but by 1911 this had risen to 146,000. ‘Clerk’ in the 1850s had been a management job but the developing needs of industry, added to the deskilling and division of labour within the office, meant that this rapidly became another area of ‘women’s work’. Thus, 627,000 women were drawn into commerce, national and local government between 1914 and 1918.

 b) Dilution

Dilution in the First World War was an intensification, in a short period, of the overall tendency to deskill the labour process, and the attitude of the labour movement therefore deserves particular attention. The following table shows the extent to which women were drawn into different industries for the war period.


Women’s employment in industry 1914-18[131]


                                    July 1914       July 1918       Increase or                 % of total

                                   (thousands)    (thousands)    Decrease                    1914                1918



Metals                         170                  594                  +424                            9                      25

Chemicals                    40                    104                  + 64                             20                    39

Textiles                       863                  827                  – 36                             58                    67

Clothing                      612                  568                  – 44                             68                    76

Food, drink, tobacco   196                  235                  + 39                             35                    49

Paper and printing      148                  142                  – 6                               36                    48

Wood                          44                    79                    +35                              15                    32

Pottery, leather etc     104                  197                  + 93                             4                      10


   establishments         2                      225                  +223                            3                      47


Total                           2,179               2,970               +792                            26                    37

The problem for the ruling class in 1915 was two-fold; firstly, large numbers of unskilled, semi-skilled and female workers were needed to provide armaments for its imperialist war; secondly, agreement had to be reached with the unions of the skilled male engineering workers, which had rules preventing the employment of women in most sectors, and who were insisting that their skilled jobs and pay differentials should not be eroded as a result of dilution. The problem was to a great extent solved politically for the ruling class by the capitulation of the Labour Party and TUC leadership in support of the imperialist war, and the actual co-option of some of them into the War Cabinet. In 1915 dilution was accepted by the unions in the Shells and Fuses Agreement for the duration of the war. This was on condition that the preference for semi-skilled, unskilled and female labour would be confined to the war period, and that after the war, dilutees would go.

The point here is that the engineering unions only put aside their sectional interests at the expense of the dilutees and in cooperation with the bourgeoisie’s war-effort. In an atmosphere of national chauvinism and with no serious political challenge by any significant section of the labour movement, the ruling class was able to implement conscription in 1915 and in the same year to enforce the Munitions of War Act. The latter denied all basic Trade Union rights – the right to strike, to change jobs without the employers’ permission, and made overtime compulsory and even unpaid in some cases. It was therefore an erosion of the gains of the whole previous period. Although there were pockets of fierce resistance to these measures notably in Clydeside, Sheffield and South Wales, overall, with the collaboration in the war effort of the Trade Unions and the role women were to play in the munitions factories, the capitalist class was able to get down to the business of producing armaments on a large scale.

The acceptance of dilution in principle did not solve in practice the problems of either women or less skilled male workers or the engineering unions. Antagonism was generated by the fact that working at piecework rates they were encroaching on the pay differentials of the skilled workers; in some cases, women doing the same work as men were being paid considerably less. At the beginning of the war most women were not in unions and the average female wage was 11s 7d per week, roughly one third of the male wage. By the end of the war women in the munitions industry were earning a much as two thirds of the male wage, although this was because of piecework and long hours. Further, the rise in wages that took place towards the end of the war was made meaningless by inflation. Women worked for long hours in difficult conditions. The introduction of rest rooms, canteens and recreational facilities, the increase of factory inspectors, served the purpose of attracting women into industry from the more paternalistic conditions of employment in occupations like domestic service.

The problem of organising women workers was therefore not confronted by the official labour movement and there were only 660,000 women in unions out of 7m in employment by the end of the war. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers had refused to admit women members and preferred an alliance with the National Federation of Women Workers. The motive behind this was that by keeping women separate from the male dilutees there would be less threat of competition from these workers as a whole after the war.[132] The transient nature of the influx of women was revealed by the rate at which they dropped out of employment after the war – 500,000 by the end of 1919 although the economy boomed. The number of women employed in 1920 was only 200,000 greater than the number employed in 1913.[133] Faced with the introduction of a mass of women workers into industry the response of the labour movement had been simply to ensure that they were the first to go at the end of the war. The main leaders of the working class movement in Europe had supported their own capitalist class and participated in the war between the imperialist nations. The major exception to this was the Bolsheviks in Russia. The defeats of the working class in Britain during the First World War prepared the way for the defeats of the 20s and 30s and the culmination of that period in another imperialist war, when the ruling class was able once more to call on women to play their part in the ‘defence of the nation’.

3. The 20s and 30s

After the initial short-lived boom following the war the British economy began a severe downturn –trade in 1920 had dropped by one third compared with the level of 1913. Britain’s position as the leading industrial and imperialist power, in decline from the 1890s, was now seriously eroded. Industrially Britain’s position was superseded by the US where the productivity of labour in 1921 was 150% greater than that in Britain. The decline in Britain was most marked in traditional industries such as coal and iron, where productivity was 20% less in 1920 than in 1913 The response of the capitalist class was to implement rationalisations, wage cuts and import tariffs which brought about drastically rising unemployment from 1923 onwards. This period saw the defeat of the British working class in the 1926 General Strike which laid the basis for the defeats of the 30s.

The role of women in the crisis of the 20s and 30s was twofold. Despite falling levels of employment for women and men, women’s employment increased in some sectors. Women were employed as low paid, unorganised workers to work longer and harder than organised male workers. Secondly, their domestic toil in the home was intensified by the effects of the crisis.

With the crisis, the capitalist demands not only wage cuts. but an increase in the length of the working day and increased intensity of labour in order to restore profits. This was the significance of the miners’ struggles in the 20s: against wage cuts and to preserve the 7-hour day. In the textiles industry where the larger proportion of workers were women, there was some resistance by strike action: against pressure on them to use 6 or 8 looms instead of 4, as employers accepted orders at cut-throat prices. But with, rising unemployment and falling wages it was possible for increased intensity of labour to be forced on the working class, and women as an available source of cheap labour were drawn into production. Many of the early struggles of the working class had taken place over the length of the working day. Although, due to union pressure, a 48 hour week was generally the case by the 1930s, in contrast to male workers, women and youth worked up to 60 hours a week in non-textile factories and up to 55 hours weekly in the textiles industry.

A factory inspector’s report of 1935 makes the essential point on the use of non-organised low paid women workers.

‘Sometimes in the same works men in an organised trade are to be found working 48 hours weekly, while women and girls over 16 on another class of work are working up to the legal limits. In one case they were found to have been employed for more than three months on presses making domestic hardware for more than 60 hours weekly.’[134]

The main areas of growth in the employment of women in the 20s and 30s were in new industries such as electrical engineering, food-processing, man-made fibres, and the services sector. Total employment in the service industries increased by 1,185,000 between 1924-37 as opposed to an increase of only 530,000 in manufacturing industry.[135] The growth of women’s employment in these areas was to become increasingly important after the Second World War.


Increase in women’s employment ID selected non-industrial jobs 1921-31[136]


                                              1921                            1931                            % increase

                                              (thousands)                (thousands)

Commerce                              504                              604                              20

Clerks, typists etc                  430                              580                              35

Professional                           348                              390                              12


Changes in employment of men and women: selected industries 1923-36[137]

(figures in thousands)


                                                June 1923                  June 1936                  % change

                                                Male   female                        male   female            male   female


General engineering, iron         818      252                  780      289                  4.7     +14.7

+ steel, footwear                                 252                  38      +37                  4.7     +14.7


Cars, aeroplanes, electrical      1,100   353                  1,580   482                  +43.5 +36.6

engineering, chemicals,

food, drink, artificial silk


Bread, biscuits, cake               314      352                  403      508                  +28.4   +44.3

confectionery, misc.

(Note to online readers: The original printed table does not make sense. We are trying to establish the real figures for this table.)

Because areas of men’s and women’s work were clearly delineated even within a particular industry or factory, it is not possible to assert that women replaced men in industries where they were drawn in at a relatively greater rate than men. What we can say, however, is that the areas of ‘women’s work’ were constantly extended by the introduction of new production methods. The pattern of women’s employment in the crisis was not therefore straightforward. Women were not automatically ‘the first to go’ because where the capitalist could reduce costs by employing cheaper female labour he did. The Trade Union movement responded to the reality of this situation in a no more illustrious fashion than in the First World War. Although women’s membership of Trade Unions was at a peak of 1,342,000 in 1920, it fell along with the general rate after the 1926 General Strike, and remained at the 700,000 mark until the end of the 30s.

In addition to drawing women into certain industries as a cheap source of labour, the effect of the crisis was to increase women’s domestic drudgery in the home. Rising unemployment allowed the capitalist to force down wages. Unemployment was particularly severe in areas where traditional industries were concentratedScotland, Wales, the North and North-East of England. In Merthyr, for instance, 76% of the workforce had no work for 1 year, 56% for 2 years and 35% for over 3 years.[138] Inflation, the fall in wages, the Means Test and cuts in unemployment benefit meant that working class women struggled to ensure the subsistence of their families. In one of the many surveys made of the health of the working class in the 30s, it was found that 30% of the population had a seriously deficient diet. Rickets and anaemia were the rule rather than the exception among children in areas like Newcastle, where it was found that 80% of the children were anaemic. Access to doctors and hospitals was (except for insured workers, who had free access to a doctor) based on a system of privately paid contributions (through Doctors’ clubs, etc), or paid for at the time of treatment. Both of these methods left most women, old people and children without any independent access to medical treatment. Most working class women did not see a doctor except in case of a major illness. In a crisis of profitability, capital was unable to extend or even maintain the very minimal social services that existed. At the same time that there was economic deprivation on a large scale, consumer goods like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, canned food, mass-produced furniture, clothes, cosmetics and man-made fibres appeared on the market, but were not to become part of the subsistence of the working class until the increases in productivity of the post-war boom in the 50s and 60s. The growth of suburban areas and owner-occupied houses in the Midlands and South-East, where new industry was almost totally concentrated, presented a sharp contrast to the depressed areas, where whole sectors of traditional industry had stagnated.

The economic crisis took its most severe turn in 1931. The ruling class implemented cuts in unemployment benefit, the Means Test, and cuts in education and welfare. The introduction of these measures split the Labour Party, brought down the Labour Government, and led to the formation of a National Government to deal with the crisis. Women workers were particularly attacked by the measures put forward. Although unemployment insurance had been introduced almost universally from 1920, two categories of workersthose in domestic service and clerical workwere excluded. The only recourse for these sections, a major proportion of whom were women, was the Poor Law Authority. Unemployment benefit was cut in 1931 from 17s to l5s 3d for men and from 9s to 8s for women. The most insidious piece of legislation for women was the Anomalies Regulations, introduced in the same year, which specifically disqualified large numbers of married women from unemployment benefit. 134,000 were disqualified in the first year. Legislation of this kind brutally reinforced the fact that women and children were dependent on the male worker, and, in the case of the Means Test, that women were penalised if they did work for a wage. The Means Test principle is based on the premise that the family is the social unit for reproducing the living labourer, and therefore the whole family incomepensions, savings, children’s earningswas taken into account. Many people, especially the young, left home to avoid the effects of the Means Test. Education was cut in the Emergency budget of 1931. Teachers’ salaries were cut by 10%, an increasing share of expenditure was put onto Local Authorities to encourage economies, and school building was cut to almost nothing.

The culmination of the crisis of the 20s and 30s was the second major imperialist conflict: the Second World War. The defeats of the working class, together with the rise of fascism and the war itself, laid the basis for a renewed period of capital accumulation. The employment of women especially in new industries and the services sectorduring the 20s and 30s meant by the end of the 30s that most single women worked. It was married women, therefore, who formed the potential source of labour for capital to employ in its war industries and throw out again at the end of the Second World War.

4. The Second World War

Two million married women were drawn into industry during the war, nearly one million of these being employed on a part-time basis. Capital was forced, therefore, to take certain measures to guarantee that the war economy could function fully. Thus school meals and milk, Local Authority restaurants, nurseries and other welfare provisions, all of which ‘had been a pressing necessity in the 20s and 30s were now introduced, despite the exigencies of the war economy. Unlike the situation at the beginning of the First World War, most unmarried women aged 20-30 were at work. The main reserve of labour was therefore married women.

The ruling class was prepared for war this time, and conscription was introduced for some categories of women in 1941. Conscripted women could choose between the Armed Forces, industry and Civil Defence. Women choosing industry came under the Registration of Employment Act of 1941, which meant that they could only take jobs through the Employment Agency of the Ministry of Labour, where they were directed into essential work. This consisted of work in the Royal Ordnance Factories; engineering and allied industries and transport. With the influx of women into industry, the question of dilution was posed for a second time. As in the First World War, the introduction of large numbers of women into the war industries threatened the established wage rates for particular jobs, since employers could ‘justify’ paying women lower rates. The struggle for equal pay was conducted only at the level of negotiation with the government and employers, with the supposed long-term interests of male workers to the fore. In 1939, the Institute of Statistics, in consultation with the Ministry of Labour,[139] predicted that 4,000,000 women would be absorbed into industry, of which a third would be married. The bulk of these women were to be absorbed in metal industries and engineering. The rate at which this took place can be seen from the following table:


Proportion of women in the engineering industries 193945[140]


                                                            Women employed as % of total labour force

                                                            1939                1941                1943                1945

Engineering, boilermaking etc  10.5                 21.6                 35.2                 31.2

Marine engineering                              2.1                   4.8                   14.7                 12.9

Motor vehicles, cycles and planes,

maintenance etc                                   9.5                   23.0                 36.6                 31.8

Railway engineering                            5.0                   9.7                   16.2                 15.0

Electric cables etc                                40.6                 50.7                 59.2                 59.9

In May 1940, the AEU /TGWU /NUGMW signed an agreement with the government and the Allied Employees National Federation which governed the pay of women in these industries. Having accepted that the national interest was of prime importance, it was in the interests of male workers that equal pay, as a principle, should be introduced in order to maintain male wage levels and categories of ‘male work’. On the other hand, they were willing to capitulate to the interests of the employers, who maintained that women were more expensive to employ on the grounds of having to provide welfare facilities, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and the need for training. The outcome of the agreement meant that women worked at a reduced rate over the first 32 weeks, and the final decision whether they qualified for male rates was left in the hands of the employers. For industries where the work was semi-skilled, and therefore ‘women’s work’, the pay rates were to be governed by the National Women’s Schedule rate or the Boys and Youths rate, whichever was the higher. This applied even where women took over the jobs of men. This cooperation by the unions in the ‘national interest’ was a necessity for the bourgeoisie, and it is important to note here the role of the CPGB.[141]

For the CPGB, the Second World War was of a different character from the First, since the defence of the Soviet Union was at stake. Instead of calling for working class action throughout Europe to smash fascism and end the war together with seizing power from the bourgeoisie, the CPGB placed its faith in the national bourgeoisie who would achieve the first two aims with the co-operation of the working class. They therefore had to exhort all workers to keep production at a maximum, and urged the government to

‘establish effective centralised planning for the utilisation of all available productive resources and manpower, eliminate bottlenecks and wasted capacity, and override all sectional interests which stand in the way of maximum production.’[142]

These ‘sectional interests’ were to include the interests of women. Along with the trade unions, the CP argued for ‘the rate for the job’, but, as we have shown, this only protected the interests of those women who took over jobs governed by the ‘male rate’ schedule. For those women who took on semi-skilled work, or work whose nature had been slightly altered from before, ‘the rate for the job’ was inadequate. For the CP, the condition of lower paid workers, and therefore women workers, was only of interest in so far as it affected productivity:

‘Wages policy should be concerned mainly with raising wages of the lower paid workers who are unable through poverty to maintain the decent standard of living commensurate with the skill and efficiency required by their employment.’[143]

For the CP this amounted to a ‘sleight of hand’. By maintaining the prime interest of the bourgeoisie, productivity, they were able at the same time to appear to champion the interests of the lower paid. Money earnings did rise during the war, however this was largely offset by inflation. Although, in industry overall, weekly wages rose by 32% for women between 1938 and 1944, hourly rates rose less, and even by 1944 women’s wages were still only approximately half of men’s. The increase in wages that did take place arose, as in the First World War, from extremely long hours of work. Work in the Royal Ordnance Factories, for instance, consisted of a 60-hour week plus 2-4 hours travelling in many cases, as the factories were sited away from the towns because of the danger of air attack. 70% of the workers in these factories were women and only 3% were skilled male workers.

By 1941 the labour shortage was desperate. To meet some of this need, the Ministry of Supply began to recruit directly in both the North and South of Ireland. Between 1942 and 1945, 30,000 workers came to Britain, 30-40% of whom were women. The other measure was the recruitment of married women on a greater scale. They came both as full-time and part-time workers, but by 1944 there were 900,000. Part-time work enabled women both to look after the home and to work, but, by 1942, the ruling class was so desperate that, for the first time, the introduction of state nurseries on a large scale was seen as necessary.

In July 1941 there were 118 full and part-time nurseries; by July 1945 there were 1,559, catering for 71,806 children.[144] The type of industry, the urgency of the demand for women workers, and the potential supply were the conditions which determined whether a nursery was set up. Predictably, the nurseries closed down rapidly after the war, at the same time as the numbers of women in industry declined. As far as capital was concerned, the cheap workforce that had produced arms and aeroplanes and kept the war economy going could now go back into the home until economic recovery in the post war boom once again called for female labour on a large scale.

5. The Post-War Boom

The Second World War was ‘the final culmination of the crisis of the 30s and the defeats of the working class. Those defeats, fascism, the destruction of capital and the dominance of the US in the world economy provided the basis for the resolution of the crisis and made possible the restructuring of industry and the restoration of profitability.[145] In Britain, Keynesian policies of ‘full’ employment[146] and the ‘mixed’ economy in the form of state interventionnationalisation of basic industries, the extension of credit and the Welfare Statewere seen as necessary, both politically and economically. The post-war Labour Government had to ensure that political and social instability, like that which had followed the First World War, did not become a barrier to the renewed expansion of capital.

(a) The Demand For Labour

Although masses of women rapidly left employment at the end of the war, the restructuring of industry and the introduction of the Welfare State meant that the demand for female labour gradually increased in comparison to pre-war levelsalthough it did not rise to the exceptional level of the war years. In Britain, the proportion of women working as a proportion of all women grew from 35% in 1951 to 43% in 1971. This is particularly marked from the middle 60s onwards, due to employment in the services sector.

Britain: population and labour force,

19111968, 197374[147]

(Figures in thousands)


                                                Labour force                          % of total labour force

                        Population     Male               Female           Male               Female

1911                40,831             12,927             5,424               70                    30

1921                42,769             13,656             5,701               71                    29

1931                44,795             14,790             6,265              70                    30

1951                48,918             16,007             7,419               68                    32

1968                53,781             16,322             8,936               65                    35

1973                55,900             16,200             9,400               63                    37

1974                56,000             15,700             9,400               60                    40

The tendency for women to be drawn into work at a relatively faster rate than men, a tendency which has asserted itself at certain periods of the capital accumulation process, greatly accelerated in the post-war boom. The number of women working grew between 1951 and 1973 by 26%, while the number of male workers increased by only 1.2 % over the same period. Further, in all advanced capitalist countries it is married women who have accounted for most of the growth in female employment. In the UK, the proportion of married women working grew from 10% in 1931, to 22% (2.7m) in 1951, to 42% (5.8m) in 1971.[148] Married women were not the only additional source of labour for capital during the post-war boom. A ready supply of war-time refugees from Europe, followed by immigrants from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and East Africa, were seized upon as an expedient source of labour by both Tory and Labour post-war governments. Immigrant workers enter the labour force with similar problems to those that women face as part of capital’s reserve army of labourproblems that are reinforced by racial chauvinism both within and outside of the ranks of the working class. For Asian women and the particularly high proportion of West Indian women who work,[149] this racial chauvinism is added to their specific oppression as women.

The general trends we have outlined are not accidental or inexplicable phenomena, but are results of the massive expansion of capital accumulation over the post-war boom. The increase in women’s employment, together with the introduction of the Welfare State and an increased consumption of labour-saving devices, has brought about certain changes for many women. The question we have to answer, therefore, in view of these developments, is: why, during this period of its greatest expansion, has capital been unable to provide even the most basic preconditions for women’s social equality? Why do nursery facilities barely exist, and why is legislation on Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination unable to confront the problems of working women? The answer lies in the fact that the dual aspect of woman’s oppressionher position as domestic toiler in the home and her consequently unequal position in social production has not been eroded, but, on the contrary, reinforced by developments over the post-war boom.

(b) Labour-saving goods

The increases in productivity of the post-war boom, as well as drawing greater numbers of women into work, enabled the working class to buy products which had formerly been luxuries. Despite the fact that labour-saving devices such as the vacuum cleaner were invented as early as the turn of the century, it was only with the boom of the 1950s and 1960s that these goods were produced and purchased on a mass scale. Productivity in these industries was raised directly as a result of the technological advances that were made during the war. A higher level of technology and the consequent use of labour which was equipped with less skills (and in the electrical engineering industry a high proportion of such labour consists of women workers) has enormously cheapened the production of these goods. The Economist of 26 December 1959 thus felt able to make the following claim:

‘Ten years ago the ordinary woman – nearly half of the nation – was a slave in an antiquated kitchen; today mechanical slaves on hire-purchase have sprung up around her as she works in non-telly hours …’[150]

Percentage of households owning appliances,

1938 and 1971[151]


                                    Total               Total               Unskilled

                                    households    households    manual workers

                                    1938                1971                1971

Refrigerator                 3.0                   73.3                 55.6

Washing machine        3.8                   66.1                 60.2

Vacuum cleaner           27.0                 86.8                 76.7

Despite the fact that even by 1971 (and figures given for the households of unskilled manual workers indicate this) these goods are not consumed on the universal scale trumpeted by The Economist in 1959, it has appeared that women, by being able to purchase labour-saving goods, have to some extent been freed from domestic slavery in the home. However, although these results of increased productivity may have altered, to a degree, the form of domestic work for the individual woman in the home, the privatised, unpaid nature of her drudgery, has not changed at all.

(c) The Welfare State

Although there is no immanent tendency in capital towards the socialisation of domestic work, the Welfare State was a recognition of the necessity for capital to take on and rationalise certain aspects of the reproduction and maintenance of the working class. Necessary for capital in two sensesto achieve political and social stability, and to provide a workforce of a standard adequate to meet the new needs of restored capitalist profitability. It is the state, invariably, that assumes direct control over the ‘maintenance and training’ of the working class on behalf of capital. Health and education, however, only contribute to the value of labour-power to the extent that they are expended on labour-power that is productive for capital: labour-power which produces surplus-value. The vast majority of expenditure on health and education is not of this kind as we have shown elsewhere.[152] In a society concerned with the maximum amount of profit, it is of vital interest to capital that costs are kept low. Thus, the state takes on the maintenance and training of the working class to ensure that labour expended on workers is kept to a minimum. It is important to note here that the major ‘concessions’ made by capital to the working class in health, education and social insurance and so on have tended to take place after the major imperialist wars. Developments in this direction occurred after the Boer War, and after the First and Second World Wars, when the working class had been called upon to defend the interests of the national capital.

The post-war Labour Government introduced full national insurance in 1948, and, in the same year, the National Health Service. The cost of the NHS rose dramatically from £218m at the outset to £1,000m by 1960revealing the latent demand there had been for medical attention. Visits by the working class to GPs increased by 20% after 1948.[153] Costs rose by a further 100% between 1960 and 1973. Despite the increase in costs, however, spending on buildings and equipment for the NHS was low: the hospital building programme was virtually static in the 1950s despite the antiquity of many hospitals, and the number of hospital beds per 1,000 population actually fell from 10.8 in 1937 to 10.5 in 1959.[154] Charges were introduced for spectacles, dentures and prescriptions in 1951, whilst schemes such as Health Centres, which had been part of initial plans, did not get off the ground till the 1960s. The need to keep capital spending on buildings and equipment low, together with the difficulty in raising productivity in the NHS, has kept it necessarily labour-intensive.[155] The number of NHS employees increased from 729,000 in 1959 to 1,113,000 in 1974.[156] The massive increase in costs has therefore been due to the wages bill, and it is no accident that, in order to keep wages as low as possible, it has been those sections of the workforce that are the most lowly paid and badly organizedwomen and immigrant workersthat have formed the overwhelming proportion of the labour force.

In the field of education, the 1944 Education Act had raised the school leaving age to 15, which, along with the boom in the birthrate after the war, necessitated school building programmes and an all-out campaign to attract new teachers. Education expenditure trebled between 1954-55 and 1964-65, and today forms nearly 6% of the GNP. However; it is the case that for the male population between 1931 and 1961, the average length of full-time education only increased by just over one year – almost wholly accounted for by the raising of school-leaving age.[157] Higher education expandedtechnical colleges in the 1950s, Colleges of Advanced Technology and universities in the 1960s. Teacher training was increased to meet the rapid growth of all sectors and the number of workers in education nearly doubled, from 873,000 in 1959 to 1,693,000 in 1974.[158]

The growth of state intervention after the Second WorId War was not only an economic necessityas the state was forced to guarantee the maintenance of basic production industriesbut a political one for capital. Although productivity doubled and industrial production more than trebled in the UK over the post-war boom, the growth of employment in the private sector was insufficient to reemploy those workers thrown out by increases in productivity. The number of workers employed in manufacturing industry fell from 9,010,000 in 1964 to 7,934,000 in 1973.[159] The growth of the state sector over this period therefore prevented a rise in the reserve army of unemployed concurrent with this fall in employment in manufacturing industry. State expenditure increased rapidly and the effects of this expansion on women are of importance not only in the post-war boom but in relation to the present crisis.[160]

Growth of expenditure on social services 1951-73[161]

(£ million)

                                                                                                            % of total spent

                                                                                                            on social services

                                    1951    1961    1971    1972    1973                1951    1973

Social security             689      1,628   4,309   5,119   5,525               11.8     17.3

Health and personal

social services           587      1,088   2,785   3,222   3,716               10.1     11.6

Education                    398      1,012   3,023   3,559   4,134               6.8       12.9

Housing                       404      555      1,253   1,433   2,221               6.9       6.9

Womens employmentthe main trends

There has been a change in the nature of employment over the post-war boom and the employment of women provides, for particular reasons, a sharpened expression of this tendency. The growth of investment in manufacturing industry has not been sufficient to re-employ those workers thrown out by increases in productivity; this has led to a sharp increase of employment in the services sector and in particular by the state sector. The effect of these developments on women has been to draw them increasingly into employment and almost exclusively into the service industries.

The three main sectors of manufacturing industry in which women work are food, drink and tobacco; engineering and electrical goods; clothing and footwear. Productivity has greatly increased in these industries. In the food, drink and tobacco industries, for example, investment in plant and machinery rose by 63.5%, while the number of workers fell by 9.4% between 1964 and 1973.[162]

Decline of women in employment 1956-73[163]



                                                                                1956                1967                1973

Food, drink, tobacco                                                   400                  308                  295

Textiles, leather, clothing, footwear                            1,032               684                  583


The extent to which the decline in manufacturing industry has been taken up by employment in the state sector is shown by the table.

Growth in employment in public services, 1964-1973, Great Britain[164]



                                                    Males        % rise       Females    % rise        Total         % rise

National Government   1964      351.0                             176.5                             527.4

Service                        1973      349.0          –1               234.3          +33             583.4          +11

Local Government        1964      569.0                             191.9                             761.7

Service                        1973      643.7          +13            316.4          +65             960.1          +26

Medical and Dental      1964      221.0                             639.5                             860.5

Services                       1973      268.9          +22            834.7          +31             1,103.6       +28

Gas*                           1964      107.9                             16.2                               124.0

                                  1973      83.2            –23             23.2            +43             106.0          –17

Electricity                   1964      206.2                             30.9                               237.0

                                 1973      153.9          –25             32.1            +4               186.0          –22

Water                         1964      40.9                               3.2                                 44.1

                                   1973      38.6            –6               4.4              +38             42.9            –3

(*The figures for Gas have been corrected from the printed edition)

The fall in male employment in Gas, Electricity and Water follows the general trend in manufacturing industry over the period. The increase in female employment in these sectors is in clerical and administrative work. We can see, therefore, that although the expanding state sector did prevent unemployment from rising to some extent, it is women workers that have accounted for most of the growth. In 1973 women formed 76% of workers in Medical and Dental services and 67% of workers in education. This high proportion of women workers is not restricted to services run by the state. The growth of the service industries, both in the state and private sector, has been a continual tendency of the post-war boom. Much of the increase has been due to the state sector, but not all. The increase of banking, commerce and professional work has added to this. In the UK over two thirds of all employees in the service industries are women. More than half of these fall into three groups: distributive trades; professional and scientific services; miscellaneous services (laundering, catering etc). These industries have grown along with the increasingly complex demands of capital accumulation, and post-war developments are a continuation of the pre-war trend. An indicator of this tendency is that the increase in Britain of non-industrial jobs as a proportion of industrial employment between 1962 and 1973 was 29%.[165] In general, in all advanced capitalist countries, it is women that have accounted for most of the growth in employment in the labour intensive service industries.[166]

Proportion of women in the services sector, 1960-72[167]


                                    Year                %                    Year                %

Canada                        1962                72.6                 1972                76.8

France                         1960                49.4                 1968                60.4

Italy                            1960                33.3                 1968                41.7

Japan                           1960                40.0                 1972                51.8

Sweden                        1960                64.7                 1971                79.5

US                               1960                80.3                 1970                82.8

We have established historically how, as a consequence of the necessity to perform domestic toil, women enter the labour force as low-paid workers, both to do jobs which have been deskilled by mechanisation and also to work in labour intensive sectors. As a result of this, the tendency has been for womens work to be defined as such throughout the whole period. All these trends have been strengthened in the post-war boom. There is no single reason why womens jobs are confined to certain areas. What we can conclusively state is that the common denominator of womens work, whether in services, sweatshops or highly automated industry, is low pay for less skilled work. The following tables show clearly that women continue to exist as a cheap labour force for capital:


Womens average weekly earnings as % of men’s – full-time manual[168]


                        1950                1955                1965                1970                1974                1975

                        58.7                 51.7                 49.0                 49.9                 55.5                 57.4

The wages of full-time manual women workers in 1973 were therefore approximately half of mens; those of full-time non-manual women workers were only 56% of mens. The table below illustrates the below-average employment of women in certain areas, such as highly skilled engineering industries and their above average employment in the services sector. (Women formed 39% of the total labour force in mid-1973).


% of NALGO members below TUC low pay target (£30 pw Sept 1974)[169]


                                              Men %                       Women %

Local government                    8.0                               33.0

Health                                     4.5                               36.5

Gas                                          5.0                               32.0

Electricity                               12.5                             48.5

Water                                      10.5                             42.5


It is low pay for less skilled work therefore that ensures that 72% of workers employed in leather, clothing and footwear are women, as opposed to only 13% in mechanical engineering and 12% in the car industry. Similarly in the services sector women form only 36% of employees in Public Administration but 64% in catering and hotels. We must examine further precisely why capital is able to maintain the existence of this source of cheap labour.


Industrial distribution of employees, mid-1973[170]


Manufacturing industry                              Total

                                                                        (thousands)               % women

Food, drink, tobacco                                       728                              25

Chemicals etc                                                  425                              29

Mechanical +instrument engineering              1,115                           13

Electrical engineering                                       795                              40

Vehicles                                                           789                              12

Textiles                                                           555                              46

Leather, clothing +footwear                            462                              72

Gas, electricity +water                                   335                              18



Transport, communications                            1,501                           17

Distributive trades                                          2,691                           55

Insurance, finance, banking                             1,043                           52

Educational services                                        1,620                           67

Medical and dental                                          1,104                           76

Catering, hotels                                               754                              69

Miscellaneous                                                 1,330                           51

Public administration                                      1,544                           36


(d) Part-time work

One of the most significant developments in women’s employment over the post-war boom has been the growth of part-time work. In June 1974, 3,421m out of 8,833m women were employed as part-timers. Although the number of women workers employed in manufacturing industries has fallen, the number of part-timers has increased. In the service sector, the growth in part-timers has been tremendous:

‘Between 1961 and 1971 almost all the growth in service employment was due to the growth in the number of female workers, by nearly 1.2m, and the indications are that almost all this growth has been in part-timers.’[171]

Part-time work increased on a significant scale during the Second World War, and since that time has come to be central to the expansion of the workforce. From the point of view of capital as a whole, part-time work provides the means by which women can be brought into employment in increasing numbers without any necessity for the state to provide or extend nursery facilities. From the standpoint of the individual capitalist, the indications are that the productivity of part-time workers is higher than that of full-time workers:

‘to obtain a rough estimate of the effect on productivity of the proportion of part-timers in the labour force, output per head was recalculated expressing employees in terms of “full-time equivalents”, calculated by weighting full-time and part-time workers by their average hours worked. The effect of this adjustment is to change the 0.2% rate of reduction in the output per head between 1971 and 1973 in other services into a 0.2% increase, and to raise the 3.1% increase in distributive trades to 3.6%. The rate of productivity growth for the whole economy is raised from 2.8% to 3.3%. From this, it would appear that to employ part-timers in preference to full-timers can actually increase profits.’[172]

In general, part-time workers are particularly badly organised, given that women working in canteens, as cleaners etc are often separated in time and space from the main body of the workforce. Under the 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, part-time workers are not protected from unfair dismissal. Further to this, until 1977when a new Employment Act is dueall part-timers working under 21 hours a week have no right to redundancy payments. In the NHS, workers working less than 19 hours have no annual paid leave, no annual increments, no promotion prospects and are not eligible for day-release. All these factors have contributed to the extent to which part-time work is now becoming a structural necessity for capital. The comparative ease with which part-time women workers can be drawn in and out of work, according to capital’s short term needs, assumes its full significance when we see that during the mini-boom of 1973-74, part-time women’s employment increased by 258,000 while that of full-time women workers fell by 29,000, and that of full-time male workers by 138,000.[173] The highest increases were in food, drink and tobacco, 10.7%, and electrical engineering, 16.2%.[174] In 1973, 50% of women workers in Education worked part-time and 32% in Medical and Dental services.[175] As the present economic crisis deepens, therefore, the ‘contradictory position of women as part-time workersin that they are easier to make redundant and yet at the same time are more productive and cheaper to employ for the capitalistwill become heightened.

(e) ‘Equality’ at work

The growth of part-time work presents a real barrier to the realisation of Equal Pay for women. The Financial Times pinpointed the logic of capital when it recently stated that the Equal Pay legislation may have contributed to the growth of this type of work:

‘Perverse as it may seem the increased demand for part-time women workers may have been partly caused by the Equal Pay Act which came into force in December last year. During the run up to the Act until December female labour became progressively more expensive … And as a result, industry started looking for ways of cutting this extra cost. Under the law it is much harder to compare the similarity of part-time jobs than full-time ones simply because there are so few men in part-time employment. By increasing part-time opportunities for women, employers could thereby avoid some of the economic consequences of the law.’[176]

This occurrence is but one expression of the fact that the dual aspect of women’s oppression has been reinforced by developments over the post war boom. Part-time work, lack of training, the low level of maternity benefits and above all lack of nursery provision not only reflect women’s unequal social status but perpetuate the conditions whereby women are prevented from taking up the struggle for their equality. This is shown clearly by the fact that maternity leave of a mere 6 weeks plus protection from dismissal was made a legal right for women only in 1975. The growth of higher education and training for women over the post-war boom has not served to broaden but has rather preserved the narrow range of women’s employment. In 1972 there were half a million men but only 100,000 women in day-release schemes;[177] out of school-leavers entering employment in 1972 39% of boys took up apprenticeships but only 8% of girls, most of these being in hairdressing.[178] It is no accident therefore that whole areas of employment are predominantly female, as shown by the following table.


Predominantly female occupations (thousands)[179]


90% or over female occupations

                                                                                    All persons                Women

Hand and machine sewers, embroiderers                    238                              230

Nurses                                                                         432                              394

Maids, valets etc                                                         443                              428

Canteen assistants                                                      304                              293

Typists, secretaries etc                                               770                              759


75% and under 90% female occupations

Shop assistants                                                           969                              786

Charwomen, sweepers and cleaners                           522                              456

Kitchen hands                                                             122                              100

Office machine operators                                            177                              153

Hairdressers etc                                                          159                              124

Telephone operators                                                   107                              89


60% and under 75% female occupations

Clerks and cashiers                                                    2,475                           1,546

Waiters and waitresses                                              113                              82

Primary and secondary teachers                                 496                              318

Packers and labellers etc                                            183                              121

Bartenders                                                                103                              73

This is the reality faced by the mass of women today. A recent Labour Research survey on the new Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination legislation found that 60% of cases in the first half of 1976 were withdrawn before they reached a hearing. Out of those heard, 72% concerning equal pay and 73% of those concerning sex discrimination were dismissed. Capital perpetuates the conditions of women’s inequality and it is no accident that it is in the area of child-care that we see presented most sharply capital’s inability to free women from the burden of domestic toil and consequently from their unequal position in the labour force.

(f) Child-carethe crucial factor

We have indicated a clear relationship between the growth of part-time employment for women and the lack of child-care facilities. We must now go on to examine the limited nature of this provision which forces women to take up part-time work, or prevents them from working at all. During the Second World War, state nurseries were set up on a scale unknown previously, in order to draw married women into the war industries. They were closed down rapidly afterwards. During the post-war boom, the proportion of married women working has risen to 24% in 1951 to 50% in 1971 and in 1976 they form two-thirds of all women workers.[180] What is remarkable, therefore, given the growth in expenditure on social services, is the absolutely minimal increase in child-care facilities provided by the state. In order to understand why there has been no necessity for capital to undertake systematically this most crucial aspect of women’s domestic work in the homechild- carewe must re-emphasise some of the main points in our analysis.

Although compulsory education, struggled for in an earlier period by the working class, was largely taken on by the state on behalf of capital, only a very small proportion of this training contributes to the value of labour-power. The greater proportion of education does not add to the skill of the labourer, that is the use-value of his labour-power for capital.[181] Nursery education, and even more to the point, day-care provision is not only least necessary from the standpoint of capital for the education and training of the workforce, but, and this is the substantial point, the work involved here is normally carried out in general for nothing by women in the home. Despite changes that have taken place for sections of women as the productivity of labour has increased, it is still the case for capital that the care of young children may safely be left to the working class and therefore in the main to women.

Changes in the family structure over this period have tended to reflect the double burden that capital places on women as both child-rearers and wage workers. Women now marry at an earlier age than previously and their childbearing years are compressed into a shorter period. By 1971 more than half of all babies were born in the first five years of marriage and more than three-quarters in the first 8 years.[182] Even though married women in the 25-34 age group have a significantly lower rate of employment (which decreases in proportion to the number of children), the proportion of married women who work who are also of child-bearing age has greatly increased.

Increase in proportion of married women working, 1951-1971[183]

                                    Age 15-24 %              Age 25-44 %

1951                            37                                25

1961                            41                                34

1971                            45                                46


Although it is true to say that the care of young children is the barrier to many women working, economic necessity has demanded that an increasing proportion of women with children work for a wage. It is the growth of part-time work (and we have pointed out its advantages to capital) ‘twilight’ shifts, night work etc that provides the means by which women work for a wage and care for growing children. Women are forced to take part-time and temporary jobs near home in order to perform this double role in the absence of child-care facilities. Capital therefore secures a double advantage for itselfthe existence of a reserve army of part-time or temporary workers, and the care of these workers’ children gratis.

Children’s services, 1961-1973. England and Wales (thousands)[184]


                                                                        1951    1961    1966    1972    1973

Maintained day nurseriesplaces                 40        22        21        23        24

Registered (private) nurseriesplaces           10        18        75        296      335

Registered childminderplaces                      1          14        32        90        92

Nursery education  full-time                                226      237      296      325

                               part-time                                         32        86        101

What is striking is the absolute fall in day nursery places and the minimal increase in nursery schools (nursery education). The distinction must be made between maintained day nurseries which provide day-care facilities and nursery education. The provision of day-nurseries, the only aspect of child-care that frees women to work, has fallen. An indicator of the backward attitude to day nurseries is that they are considered necessary for only the most deprived children and in fact only the next best thing to Local Authority care. Nursery education, often part-time, caters only for children who are over 3 and in general for children who are almost of school age. Thus women are not freed to work. If full and part-time pupils are taken as a percentage of all children aged between 2 and 5, it can be seen that the increase in nursery facilities over the whole period has been minimal indeed.

                                    1961    1966    1971    1972    1973    1974

% at nurseries             10.3     10.2     13.7     15.6     17.7     19.2[185]


increase %                               0.1     +3.5     +1.9     +2.1     +1.5

The enormous growth of private nurseries shows the dimensions of the need for nursery facilitiesa need which has not been met by the state. Factory nurseries are few and exist mainly in areas where female employment has been traditionally relied upon.[186] There are a small number of private companies providing creche facilities for firms,[187] but factory creches, in general, are restricted to areas with a high demand for female labour and to firms with high profitability. Childminding has grown apace with private nurseries as a source of child-care. The DHSS figure for January 1976 states that there are 56,700 children with childminders. NUPE, however, suggest that 1m is nearer the mark, taking into account the vast majority of unregistered childminders.[188] A letter to the Times Educational Supplement makes the essential point:

‘Cost: a day nursery costs £3,000 a place capital; plus £700 a year. Nursery school capital sums are always debatable, but they tend to exceed this figure ... A childminder place at our last analysis normally costs most authorities around £1.69 a year in supervision and legislation fees (DHSS figures argue £2.50 each). There is no capital cost.’[189]

Playgroups, of which there were 8,000 catering for a quarter of a million children in 1973, have provided an other cheap form of childcare for capital.[190] These groups often rely on the free labour of mothers, and children usually attend for only half a day. Therefore in no way do they serve the needs of working mothers. The setting up of these groups is encouraged as a cheap stop-gap for adequate facilities:

‘... You don’t necessarily need modern, smart premises ... in Durham, a playgroup has recently been formed in an old tin hut formerly used for storing school furniture. Some time ago two mothers noticed it and asked permission to set up a playgroup there. Now they have the place free of charge, which keeps fees low – just as well because most of them come from the poorer part of town.’[191]

In 1976 full-time provision in all forms of child-care for children under 5 in public and private nurseries, and playgroups, is approximately 30% for Wales, 19.8% for England, 14.8% in Northern Ireland and only 8.8% in Scotland.[192] However, it is the restricted provision of that most crucial service for women – child-carethat is one of the first to be cut back in the present crisis

6. Effects of the International Crisis of Capitalism on Women’s ‘Progress Towards Equality’

The fundamental tendencies of the present international crisis of capital and its particular form in the UK have been dealt with extensively elsewhere.[193] What is important here is to show the form that the crisis takes in relation to the position of women. The intensification of women’s toil in the home, inflation, cuts in state expenditure and rising unemployment are all part of capital’s attempt to solve its crisis at the expense of the working class. The role that women are forced to play in the current crisis, because of their specific oppression, is a vital question. Vital not only for women, as what appeared in the post-war boom as a certain ‘progress towards equality’ is reversed, but for the whole working class if the attacks of the bourgeoisie are to be resisted.

We have seen that over the period of the post-war boom, whilst capital has been unable in an absolute sense to free women from domestic work, some women have been relatively freed from aspects of toil in the home. The increase in women’s employment, state expenditure on health, education and social services; the rise in working class consumption of labour-saving goodsthese were all a result of the expansion of capitalist production over the post-war boom. It is these developments that have represented a certain advance for sections of women. We have already pointed out the limitations of this progress in the boom periodthe employment of women in ‘women’s work’, as part-time and temporary workers, the inadequacy of the Welfare State, and the inability of capital to provide adequate child-care. With the onset of the crisis, however, it is precisely those already limited gains that are being reversed.

(a) The cuts in state expenditure

We have seen how employment by the state sector prevented unemployment from growing and prevented wages from falling below the value of labour-power during the post-war boom. The significance of the present massive cuts’ in state expenditure is that they are both an attempt on the part of capital to drive down wages below the value of labour-power as the reserve army of unemployed is allowed to grow and an attempt to restore profits as taxation on the individual capitalist is reduced. The Labour Government proposed an initial cut of £3bn in public spending by 1978-9 and others have followed. It is concentrating its strategy for economic recoverythat is, the restoration of capitalist profitabilityon the ‘regeneration of British industry’. Such a regeneration, whether proposed directly as the strategy of the capitalist class by Healey, in the form of vast cuts in services and mass unemployment, or whether adorned in left wing rhetoric by the Labour ‘lefts’ will have the same result: that the working class will bear the burden of the capitalist crisis. The Welfare Statethe NHS, education and social servicesis the first area to be cut back. Although it is necessary for capital to reproduce and maintain a workforce adequate to its needs, the increasing proportion of the population that is not employed productively for capital means that the health service, nursery and further education, social services (primarily for the old, young, sick and unemployed) become dispensable for the ruling class. The implications of the cuts in state spending are therefore particularly ominous for women, both as consumers and employees of the Welfare State.

A cut of £75m in the NHS budget follows the cut of £111m by the Tory government of 1973. Capital spending on the NHS only began to rise during the 1960s and has now received severe cutbacks. Although a basic maintenance of workers who produce profits is necessary for capital, cutbacks in the NHS are now proving to be a greater necessity. For women, both as users of the services and as 76% of employees the effect of the present cuts will be severe. Because of the labour intensive nature of the NHS, and, in fact, of all welfare services, together with the fact that spending on buildings and equipment has always been low, cuts mean a reduction in staff and an intensification of work for those who remain in employment. Thus in the NHS newly-trained nurses are unable to find jobs and the number of ancillary workers is being cut down by ‘natural wastage’. Hospital closures and the length of waiting lists will add to women’s increasing burdens. Since 1967 when the present abortion act became law, the number of legal abortions taking place has trebled. The NHS has not expanded to meet the need for abortions and the proportion performed on the NHS has fallen from 62% in 1969 to 36% in 1972. The Family Planning Association (FPA), a private charity, has until recently provided the main bulk of contraceptive facilities. The transfer of FPAs to Local Authorities, in theory a progressive move, has meant that in practice their decline is ensured by cutbacks. Although the number of women attending FPA clinics has risen considerably, the number of clinics has declined.[194]

                                                      1971                1972                1973                1974

FPA clinics                                       1040                1016                944                  793

FPA patients (thousands)                  735                  806                  784                  1151

In education, where women form 67% of the employed workforce, the number of unemployed teachers in September 1975 was 5,200 – a 20% increase on the previous year’s figure. In 1976 the estimated number of unemployed newly-qualified teachers is judged by the NUT to be at least 20,000. The number does not include existing jobless teachers such as married women who are not registered as unemployed. The latest NUT survey states that education authorities have appointed 28% fewer married women returners and married women graduates than in 1975. For teachers as a whole; the number qualifying and getting jobs has fallen by 30.7% from last year.[195] Teacher training colleges are due to be cut by 46% by 1981. Intensification of work for teachers is taking the form of larger classes and longer hours in view of the slashing of staffing quotas for schools. The ideological attack in all sectors has been particularly directed towards administrative workers, a large proportion of whom are women. In the last decade the number employed by Local Authorities rose from 800,000 to 2,700,000, a large proportion of whom are administrators: attempts will be made to divide ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ workers in these areas. Civil service unions have estimated that proposed cuts will reduce employment by 20,000 from current levels and by 40,000 from previously predicted growth levels. Nearly two-thirds of employees in this area are women.

(b) Women’s role in the reserve army of unemployed

There is no doubt that women workers, together with immigrant and young workers, as the most vulnerable sections of the workforce, are bearing the major burden of unemployment. As the ranks of the reserve army of unemployed increase, the double role that women workers playeasier to make redundant and yet on the other hand a source of cheap labour for the capitalistwill not only affect the women workers concerned, but will work against the interests of the entire working class as capital attempts to drive down wages below the value of labour power. The official unemployment figures for August 1976 show that the unemployment rate among women is rising almost twice as fast as that among men. In the month mid-July to mid-August, out of a total rise of 38,250 in the unemployed adult workforce, 38,200 were women.[196] The official figures do not of course include the large numbers of married women who are not registered as unemployed. Between 1971-75 women were 15% of the unemployed. This rose to 19% in 1975 and to 24% in 1976. On the other hand, in the case of female part-time workers, their position as unorganised, low-paid workers leads to an increase in their employment in certain industries in preference to full-time male workers. Thus, while the number of full-time women workers has fallen from 5.45m to 5.42m between 1972-75, the number of part-timers increased from 2.8m to 3m.[197] It is no surprise that in addition to women other oppressed sections of the workforce are being hit severely by the crisis. In the UK, the number of work permits for workers from Southern Europe who work mainly in services such as hotels, restaurants and so on was halved during 1975. In the case of young people who have just left school it is estimated that there are 300,000 under-25s without work, a 50% increase from 1971 and an 81% increase in the number of girls. In the 18 months up to May 1975, black unemployment rose two-and-a-half times faster than unemployment generally, and more severely in the case of black women and youth. The 1971 Household Census indicated that even in 1971 16.2% of black young people were unemployed as compared with 8.1% of all youth.

(c) The trade union response

Female membership of trade unions in January 1975 was 3,613,000 as compared with the total number of women in employment, which was 8,891,000. These figures are of course deceptive, in so far as women play an insignificant role in trade union activity, given their family commitments and their lack of consciousness of themselves as workers. Overall female trade union membership has increased by 684,000 between 1961 and 1971, and the increase has, predictably, been greater in white collar unions like APEX and ASTMS, which have been recruiting such workers. The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Act and last year’s TUC call for ‘Free Abortion and Contraception on Request’ have been applauded as signs that the trade unions are at last taking up the cause of women’s equality. Those who rush to applaud, however, are closing their eyes to the TUC’s acceptance of wage restraint, rising unemployment and cuts in state services in the ‘national interest’. The ‘national interest’ is that of capital itself and it is in order that capital may attempt to solve its crisis at the expense of the working class that a rapid halt has been called to women’s ‘progress towards equality’. The main resolutions to come out of the 1976 TUC in ‘defence’ of women’s interests were a demand for positive discrimination for women within the Trade Union movement itself and a demand for changes in the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination legislation. Such demands ignore the fundamental point that the rapid rise in women’s unemployment denies the right to these workers even to hold a trade union card. The failure of Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination laws, lack of trade union organisation, women’s employment as low-paid and part-time workers, all aspects of their social inequality, are not matters that can be overcome by legal reform, but have their basis in the oppression of women as domestic slaves which capital is unable to overcome.


Our examination of British capitalism shows that despite the rise in the productivity of labour under capitalism, capital remains the barrier to the socialisation of domestic work. This is clearly indicated by the bare minimum of child-care facilities in existence over the period of capital’s greatest expansionthe post-war boomwhen women were drawn into employment at a rapidly increasing rate. In the early period, the development of the factory system brought about the final separation of privatised work in the home from social production in the factory. Precisely because women were forced to perform both domestic work and wage-labour their position in social production was, and remains, unequal. The consistent failure of the working class movement to take up the interests of women has aided capital to maintain this inequality. It has been the case that capital has been able to call on women, and in particular married women, to augment the industrial reserve army and to throw them out again according to its own needs and requirements at any particular time. The two World Wars provide the clearest example of this as women played their part in defence of the national capital. In addition, during the crisis of the 20s and 30s the existence of this source of cheap labour aided the capitalist class to hold down wages overall. The tendency for women to be drawn into employment at a relatively greater rate than men at certain periods became a consistent one during the post-war boom. However, the rapidly increasing proportion of women employed as part-time workers indicates the extent to which capital is able to employ women without providing child-care facilities and simultaneously therefore to perpetuate the inferior status of these women at work. That the vast proportion of women’s employment is in the service industries, particularly in the state sector, is a fact which cannot be ignored by the working class movement. The present cuts in state expenditure are part of the attempt by the capitalist class to swell the number of unemployed and thereby to drive down wages below the value of labour-power. The cuts in state expenditure and the rise of part-time employment are reinforcing the oppression of women as well as attacking the living standards of the whole working class. The struggle against the specific oppression of women and the defence of the working class are therefore inseparable.



1. Introduction

We have analysed the material basis of the specific oppression of women, their role as domestic workers and their inferior status at work. The extent to which capital accumulation has determined when women are drawn into and thrown out of work, and therefore the degree to which the state and capital have taken over some aspects of domestic work, was shown through the example of Britain. The conclusion of this analysis must be that the capitalist system, the relations of production themselves, is the obstacle to women’s liberation. This shows that the struggle for women’s liberation is a necessary part of the revolutionary tasks of the working class.

We must now, to conclude our analysis, show how the working class movement has taken up the question of women’s oppression. We will examine the response of the working class movement internationally through the examples of Germany, Russia and ‘Britain. These demonstrate the central questions at issue and show the importance of a revolutionary strategy on women’s oppression (or the struggles of the working class.

2. GermanyResistance to Women Workers and Protective Legislation

An examination of the position of women in the industrialised countries of Europe in the late 19th century shows clearly how the development of capitalism had overturned the accepted social order, and placed women in a particular relation to social production as both ‘domestic slaves’ and wage workers. Women were drawn rapidly into production as the needs of capital accumulation expanded. In general work conditions were harsh because of long hours, hazardous conditions and low pay. In Germany the expansion of capitalist production after the 1848 revolution had transformed it from a country of handicraft and domestic industry. By 1872 there were 1,116,695 women workers; this had increased to 5,531,517 by 1882 and to 9,492,881 by 1907 (26.4 % of the total workforce).

The German workers’ movement saw the question of female employment one-sidedly. The employment of women seemed to have three immediate consequences for male workers:

1. It provided competition for the male workforce: women could be employed at cheaper rates and therefore men faced the possibility of unemployment whilst women worked.

2. This had a tendency to drive down the wages of the whole working class; to reduce male wages below the value of labour-power.

3. The long hours and poor conditions of work for female workers placed enormous strains on working class family life.

These consequences created growing hostility to female employment amongst sections of male workers. The predominant view in the German workers’ movement seemed to answer the needs of the working class. Under the influence of Lassalle they sought to protect the male working class from the effects of female labour by keeping women in the home or by restricting them to specifically female work. Thus the 6th General Meeting of the General German Workers Association adopted the following resolution in 1886.

‘The employment of women in the workshops of modern industry is one of the most scandalous abuses of our time. Scandalous because it does not improve the material situation of the working class but makes it worse, and because the destruction of the family in particular reduces the working class population to a wretched state in which even the last remnants of its ideal possessions are taken from it. This gives us all the reason to reject the current efforts to increase even further the market for female labour.’[198]

In the same year a discussion document of the German section of the International Workers Association put forward the most reactionary position and took refuge in what the Communist Manifesto had previously characterised as ‘bourgeois claptrap’.

Alongside the solemn duties of the man and father in public life and the family, the woman and mother should stand for the cosiness and poetry of domestic life, bring grace and beauty to social relations and be an ennobling influence in the increase of humanity’s enjoyment of life.’[199]

Such arguments were put forward to try to prevent women from working in the face of hostility of male workers to female labour. Furthermore, the Lassallean view maintained that wages could not rise above a certain subsistence level under capitalism (the iron law of wages). Capitalist production provided a wage fund which had to be spread over the entire workforce. Women brought into production would merely add to competition for a share of this fund, hence reducing all wages and worsening conditions for the whole working class. The immediate effects of female labour reaffirmed this view. For the Lassalleans the only solution was to abolish the wages system altogether, but this could only be posed in a utopian fashion. In the meantime capitalism had to be rendered more tolerable and this could only be achieved by keeping women out of work. Economism and Sunday-school socialism existed side by side.

Thus by analysing the problems they faced at the level of appearances, they arrived at reactionary results. Because their only answer was utopian they had to cling to the pre-capitalist ‘idyll’ of family life. Just as the Luddites in England had destroyed machinery in an attempt to protect their jobs at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the Lassalleans wished to keep women out of social production to protect the male workforce, until wages could be abolished altogether. This provided no practicable way forward for women workers who needed to work to subsidise the family income, and very often to avoid prostitution and starvation. The Lassalleans’ policy could only strengthen the divisions within the working class.

What then was the way forward for the working class as a whole? Engels explains the basis for the solution,

‘... the peculiar character of man’s domination over women in the modern family, and the necessity as well as the manner of establishing real social equality between the two, will be brought out into full relief only when both are completely equal before the law. It will then become evident that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry, and this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.’[200]

Engels is pointing out that the struggle for equal rights cannot achieve real social equality but will show the necessity to overthrow the capitalist system of production. The task of the German movement was to begin this struggle, to remove all obstacles to female employment, and fight for equal pay. Equal pay, if taken up by the entire working classnot just one section against another, would not only protect the interests of women, but also prevent the erosion of male wages. This was the exact opposite to the point of view of the Lassalleans.

At the 1889 International Workers Congress in Paris (First Congress of the Second International) Klara Zetkin argued this against the Lassalleans’ programme,

‘This assertion is based on a correctly felt but incorrectly proven historical truth: that as the liberation of the proletariat is possible only through the abolition of the capitalist productive relation, so too the emancipation of women is possible only through doing away with private property. However, from this truth it is still a long way to the fundamental exclusion of women from all political and economic units.’[201]

In fact the continued rise in the number of women workers, because they needed to work and because of the demands of capital accumulation, proved to be the real obstacle to the Lassallean ideas gaining ground. At the 1889 Congress the Lassallean arguments were defeated and Zetkin established that work must be begun organising women workers around their specific oppression, in particular in relation to equal pay and the right to work.

The debate on women now turned to the conditions of women at work. The dilemma was this: the working class as a whole faced harsh conditions at work, in particular this was true of women and children. Should socialists demand protective legislation for women and children, or demand better conditions for the whole working class?

The bourgeois feminists, who championed the interests of the female sex rather than the working class, were opposed to special protection for women. They were fighting for equal rights within the framework of capitalism. Accepting special protection would be an admission that women were not equal and would prove an obstacle to the attainment of ‘free competition’ with men.

Some members of the SPD who had opposed the ‘protection of women from the evils of capitalism’ arguments of the Lassalleans tended to adopt the same false view as the feminists. For example Klara Zetkin argued at the 1889 Congress,

‘we (women) demand no more protection than labour as a whole demands against Capital.’[202]

This was a formal view of bourgeois equality which took no account of women’s special needs. The health of women workers could not be sacrificed to the formal achievement of equal rights. The Congress therefore rejected Zetkin’s views and adopted the following motions,

‘Prohibition of female labour in all branches of industry where work is particularly damaging to the female organism; the prohibition of night work for women and young workers under the age of 18; the prohibition of such branches of industry and labour processes as are prospectively detrimental to the health of workers. The Congress further declares, that male workers have a duty to take women into their ranks on a basis of equal rights, and demands in principle: equal pay for equal work for workers of both sexes and without distinctions as to nationality.’[203]

Zetkin later changed her position on the question recognising the dangers of placing a formal conception of equal rights before the interests of the working class. The issue of protective legislation was the main difference between the bourgeois feminists and the socialists of this time. We will see how the issue of equal rights repeatedly forms a major difference between the approach of revolutionaries and that of the bourgeois feminists throughout the history of women’s struggles.

3. Equal Rightsthe Suffragette Movement in Britain

The history of the Suffragette Movement in Britain illustrates clearly the anti-working class nature of bourgeois feminist ideas and methods of organisation. Bourgeois feminists claim to represent the interests of all women, on a cross-class basis, in the struggle for equality with, and freedom from the oppression of, men. They locate the roots of oppression in the domination of men over women. They therefore reject the Marxist analysis of women’s oppression which demonstrates that private property is at the root of this oppression, and it is the capitalist system which perpetuates itnot merely the attitudes of men, attitudes which themselves are a product of class society. It is the interests of the working class which are primary, not the interests of a particular sex. Any struggle led from a feminist standpoint will inevitably tie women’s interests to those of the bourgeoisie.

We will show that demands for legal reforms under capitalism can only be in the interests of the working class in so far as they are taken up from a consistent revolutionary standpoint. Revolutionaries take up the struggle for democratic rights not as ends in themselves, but in order both to train the working class in the spirit of the struggle for democracy and to lay bare that it is the capitalist system, not lack of rights, which perpetuates oppression. Lenin expressed this clearly in A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,

‘But Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression. It only makes the class struggle more direct, wider, more open and pronounced, and that is what we need. The fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their “domestic slavery” is capitalism, not lack of rights.’[204]

This is however no automatic process. Revolutionary leadership is essential to show that it is the capitalist system which prevents the realisation of social equality and true democracy.

Campaigns for votes for women arose in the late 19th century in the industrialised countries of Europe – Germany, France and Britainand also in Scandinavia and the USA at about the same time. In Britain the expansion of capital accumulation had brought about the introduction of women workers into factories to meet the shortage of labour with the added advantage of being cheap. On the other hand bourgeois women were expected to remain at home organising domestic servants and rearing large families. Work was the prerogative of working class women who in general needed to subsidise the family income. The Victorian’ ‘ideal’ of stable family life organised by the full-time wife and mother was true in practice only for the bourgeoisie. However, at the end of the century the rapid growth in commerce, together with a simplification of office work, opened up a restricted area of work for petit bourgeois women. At the same time the introduction of domestic gadgets, washing machines, gas mantles and carpet sweepers, made housework quicker for those who could afford them. Meanwhile private women’s colleges were thriving and the struggle for professional status in medicine and law, fought for by various individual women, made education a worthy pursuit. The number of educated women, mostly single, was growing rapidly. But educated for what, when practically all avenues to ‘respectable work’ were closed, and women had no political rights to exert influence for change? Petit bourgeois women, particularly if single, faced this predicament: either there was no suitable work and they had no political rights, or if they did have work, then the political rights which accompanied this for men were denied them. The Suffragette movement arose from this.

In the 20 years from 1881 to 1901 the number of women in employment in Britain increased by 60%, a significant proportion of this increase being women in the professions and commerce. Under the existing franchise laws, single or widowed women owning property could vote in municipal elections but not at national elections. Married women, and men without property, could not vote at all. The parliamentary vote did not extend to the whole male population because the property qualification excluded many working class men.[205]

The Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903, primarily by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters. Traditionally the Pankhursts were politically allied to the Independent Labour Party, although a rift was soon to emerge. The tactics of the WSPU in its first years were directed at lobbying for parliamentary support, believing that parliament could be persuaded to pass a bill giving women the vote given enough support for such a move. In spite of verbal support given by leading Liberals before 1906, when the Liberals came to power in that year this belief was to prove ill-founded.[206] By this time Emmeline Pankhurst had cast off any socialist pretensions and the events of 1906 confirmed for her the necessity for a single issue campaign on women’s right to vote. The years following witnessed the emergence of a feminist campaign, without party political allegiance, employing sensational means to gain publicity and embarrass the government.

The Conservative Party was firmly set against votes for women holding the belief that women should remain ‘in the home’. Some individual Liberals supported the demand, but this was never translated into practice. Most significant of all were the positions of the emergent Labour Party and the revolutionary groups which later formed the CPGB. The ILP was split on the question of votes for women, between those who argued for votes for all men as a transitional step, and those who argued that universal suffrage was the only correct demand. They effectively distanced themselves from the growing support for Votes for Women, whilst offering little in its place in practice. The revolutionary left in Britain consisted of two main groups, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF –later to become the British Socialist Party) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP).

From its formation the SDF had been distinguished by its sectarian policies which posed socialism as a utopian goal unrelated to the current struggles facing the working class.[207] It therefore remained isolated from the class struggle mainly because of its unswerving opposition to all reforms. The party leadership maintained that the suffrage movement was ‘a plot to enfranchise the wealthy’ and that therefore it should refuse to participate in any struggle for partial reform,[208] thus successfully isolating themselves from the growing support for the suffrage movement. On the other hand, the SLP, rejecting the SDF’s attempt to turn Marxism into an exclusively ‘political’ doctrine reflected in its attitude to the trade unions, itself rejected all forms of parliamentary struggle. Consequently the struggle for the vote was completely irrelevant. The necessary revolutionary leadership for the campaign for votes was completely absent in the working class movement, leaving the field clear for the feminists in the WSPU.

The WSPU could maintain a progressive veneer and unity within its ranks so long as other issues did not impinge on its ‘straightforward’ task. This unity was soon to be shattered by the crisis and the First World War which demanded that its members decide between the interests of the working class and those of the bourgeoisie. In 1912 Sylvia Pankhurst began work in the East End of London with the intention of raising mass working class support for female suffrage. This work was the beginning of the divergence between her views and those of the mainstream of the Union. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had now entrenched themselves as the authoritarian leadership of the Union: they had rejected a democratic constitution and were violently opposed to any ‘divergence’ from its central task. For them, the members of the WSPU were ‘an army of obedient women’[209] bent on a single aim. Since the chief obstacle in their view to female suffrage was the attitude of men, the Union had remained open to women only. What is more, Christabel Pankhurst’s main criticism of Sylvia Pankhurst’s work in the East End was that working class women, ‘the weakest section of the female sex’, ‘the least educated and the least powerful’,[210] could be no use whatsoever in the struggle. The support of the working class was clearly of no interest to these single-minded feminists.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s attendance at a London meeting to protest at the imprisonment of Jim Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Federation, was the last straw for the feminists. Such actions could only dilute the struggle, so she was expelled from the union. These women who claimed to be fighting for democracy, regarded the most crucial struggle of the Irish people for freedom from British oppression as completely irrelevant to their own struggle. The most significant mention this question gets was Annie Kenny’s[211] admission that she had used Sir Edward Carson’s pro-Ulster speeches as her own, only changing the word ‘Irish’ to ‘Woman’. Sylvia Pankhurst on the other hand, recognised the importance of the Irish struggle for self-determination: that as long as the working class supported Britain’s imperialist role in Ireland they would be tied to the interests of the bourgeoisie. For her the issue of women’s emancipation was no longer separate from the struggle for socialism. In the following years the East London Federation of Suffragettes was to change its name to the Workers Socialist Federation, taking up all questions which faced the working class. The WSF consistently put forward the demand for Irish self-determination and criticised the token support of the British trade union movement for the struggles of the Irish people.

The culmination of the world crisis, the outbreak of the First World War set the reformists and the feminists running in one direction, to support their national bourgeoisie. The Home Rule Bill for Ireland was shelved and the Ulster Unionists buried their differences for the duration of the war. Support for the Irish struggle in the British socialist parties had been practically nil, foreshadowing their response to the Imperialist War.

The failure of social democracy throughout Europe to take an internationalist independent working class stand on the outbreak of imperialist hostilities spelt the end of the Second International as a revolutionary force. The pious utterances at congress after congress of each national section that such a war should be ended immediately by the working class, came to nothing when action was required. All the major social democratic parties in Europe, with exception of the Bolsheviks, came down on the side of the national interest of their own bourgeoisie. Lenin spelt out the consequences of this war for the working class,

‘... distracting the working masses from the internal crises in Russia, Germany, Britain and other countries, disuniting and national stultification of the workers, and the extermination of their vanguard so as to weaken the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.’[212]

The failure of the most powerful section in Europe, the German SPD, to take an internationalist position set the pattern for the other main sections of the Second International.

In Britain the TUC immediately capitulated to the war effort. On 24 August 1914 the Parliamentary Committees of the Labour Party, together with the TUC, declared in favour of urging all unions to observe an industrial truce for the duration. A climate of extreme national cnauvinism was already beginning to emerge.

The response of the feminists in the WSPU to the War was the clearest indicator of their bourgeois class position. Emmeline Pankhurst announced that for the duration all hostilities would cease, the WSPU would call off militant activity so as not to embarrass the government further. In fact they regarded this as their big chance to prove that they were as nationalist and patriotic as men, and therefore just as worthy of the vote. As a measure of good faith on the part of the government, the imprisoned suffragettes were released and Emmeline spelt out the feminist nature of the campaign,

‘So ends, for the present, the war of women against men. As of old the women become the nurturing mother of men, their sisters and uncomplaining helpmates.’[213]

A campaign of virulent chauvinism’ was taken up by the, WSPU. Suddenly women’s political situation in Britain was better than in any other country (especially Germany) and the Germans represented the ‘savagery and barbarism of the Dark Ages’.[214] Along with this, the Union, with government backing launched a drive to recruit women to the munitions factories and armed services. In June 1915, the WSPU received a grant of £2,000 from Lloyd George to organise a demonstration of women under the banner ‘The Right to Serve’, aimed at the free admission of women into industry. ‘Free admission’ in the sense that it was organised against the trade unions’ attempts to preserve wage levels and fight for better conditions. In July the demonstration of 30,000 women took place, attended by Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. Never had a demonstration of women received such recognition! The reactionary struggle of the trade union to protect their wages and jobs by opposing the employment of women could only confirm for the feminists that men were the true enemy of women’s equality. Later Emmeline was to visit Russia to muster support for the Kerensky government after the March revolution, and rally women behind the reactionary Women’s Death Battalion.

The support of the feminists for the bourgeois national interest was no unhappy quirk of fate or individual eccentricity. The logical consequence of the campaign which aimed at equal rights within capitalism, ‘a war of women against men’, was that in the final analysis the interests of women lay with the perpetuation of the capitalist system. Whilst Sylvia Pankhurst organised for an end to the war, equal pay for women in order to protect all wages and jobs, and universal suffrage, her feminist sisters placed their emphasis on formal equality. Women therefore had to suffer and sacrifice with men to prove their equal worth. The sacrifice of interests of working women, under the grip of the Munitions Act, unable to change jobs and ruining their health with TNT, was their way of proving this.

Whilst sections of the left opposed the outbreak of Warin particular the SLP denounced it as an Imperialist War this was never demonstrated in practice. Many sections refused to join the army on purely pacifist grounds. With the exception of the struggles in Clydeside, South Wales and Sheffield, active struggle to end the war was never attempted. Unable to lead the working class movement on an independent class programme to end the war, neither could they lead any struggle on the question of women’s employment. The policy of the government was that the large scale employment of women in industry was only for the duration of the war. Again they refused to challenge the government; on the one hand they put forward protectionist policies to keep women out of work, on the other, they consoled themselves with the ‘temporary’ nature of the situation.

The question of the struggle for the vote cannot be seen in isolation from the overall programme of the socialist parties at this time. Bourgeois feminist leadership of the struggle inevitably betrayed the interests of women because it abandoned the overall interests of the working class. The interests of women and the working class were sacrificed to the interests of capital. The programme and strategies of the socialist parties summed up their sectarianism and demonstrated that they had relinquished Marx’s revolutionary theory. In no way therefore could they provide an alternative to the leadership of the WSPU.

4. The Organisation of Work Amongst Women

The entry of women into social production also heralded their entry into political life. The fact that women constituted a growing proportion of the labour force made the women question a central one for the revolutionary movement, and made it a necessity that women should be politically organised. The work of Marx and Engels had explained the revolutionary significance of the struggle for women’s emancipation. How was this work to be carried out?

The development of work amongst women in Germany and Russia before the First World War demonstrates the communist tradition on methods of organisation. They show clearly that these methods were directly connected to their political analysis: that the struggle for female liberation cannot be separate from the revolutionary tasks of the working class.

*   *   *

The publication of Bebel’s work on Women and Socialism in 1878, and Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884 had established the theoretical basis for work amongst women. In 1889 Zetkin published a pamphlet entitled The Question of Women Workers and Women at the Present Time, which presented the ideas of Engels and Bebel on the relationship between class struggle and women in a popular form, and established that a socialist women’s movement could not exist outside the revolutionary movement. This pamphlet indicated the importance of educating and organising women industrial workers, and the necessity for them to participate in the struggles of male workers. In 1890 Bismarck’s Anti Socialist Laws, which had prevented the SPD from intervening and organising openly, were revoked. The SPD soon established control over a growing trade union movement. The Erfurt Conference in 1891 confirmed the Party’s support for equal rights and suffrage for women and also provided for agitation amongst women in local areas.

In 1891 Die Gleichheit (Equality), a paper for women workers, was first published under the supervision of Zetkin. This paper had the clear aim of educating working class women in the need for socialism,

‘For it is only in such a society (socialism), along with the disappearance of property and economic relations presently dominant, will the social contradiction disappear between those who own property and those who do not, between man and woman, between intellectual and physical labour. The elimination of these contradictions can however only come through class struggle: the liberation of the proletariat can only be the work of the proletariat itself. If the proletarian woman wants to be free, she must join with the common socialist movement.’[215]

Die Gleichheit does not hesitate also to express its opinion that bourgeois feminism constitutes a threat and is completely opposed to the interests of working class women.

‘But the characteristic standpoint, the standpoint of class struggle must be sharply and unambiguously emphasised in a magazine for the interests of proletarian women. And this must be done all the more sharply, the more the bourgeois women’s libbers make it their business by the use of general humanitarian phrases and petty concessions to women workers’ demands for reform, to bring intrigue into the world of proletarian women and seek to draw them away from the class struggle. Education of proletarian women precisely for the class struggle will in future be the chief task of Die Gleichheit.’[216]

The Combination Laws, which came into force in 1892, prevented women from openly joining political organisations, but from 1895 onwards women joined the trade unions in their thousands. The task for the German SPD was to find the best means of organising and educating these women to bring them into the working class movement. Their method of organisation stemmed from this central aim. Special bodies, directly under the control of the Party were established for work amongst women. A system of ‘representatives’ carried out this agitational work, putting forward the whole party programme and relating it to specific issues affecting women; child-care, protective legislation, maternity benefits, equal pay. This system of party work was officially established in full force in 1896 at the Gotha Conference and continued with few changes until the First World War. It did not, however, continue without opposition or debate related specifically to the growth of revisionist ideas within the Party. We will examine this in a later part of this section.

Specific agitational work amongst women in Russia, organised centrally by the Party, was not introduced until 1913. There were specific reasons for this which we will examine, related to the nature of the Party’s work. The debate on this question took on a particular form related to the growth of the bourgeois feminist movement.

Before the 1905 revolution, although the Bolsheviks were beginning to establish their work with the industrial proletariat as a whole, work amongst women barely existed. After the 1905 strikes the number of women workers increased[217] since the employers considered them more docile and less organised. After the strikes were defeated, the Tsarist regime, in order to pacify the workers, granted the vote to all men, along with representation on various committees. Previously no section of the working class had had this right. Women however were still without the right to vote and this reform enraged the wives and daughters of bourgeois and petit bourgeois families. Movements for equal rights quickly sprang up and attracted considerable support. The political basis for the equal rights clubs and societies was an all-class alliance of women campaigning for equality with men, on the grounds that men’s attitudes prevented this.

The dangers of such feminist campaigns leading working class women away from allegiance to their class were recognised by Kollontai, who proposed that the Party introduce work amongst working women. She organised clubs for working women in Petrograd, aiming to educate these women in the work of the Party and encourage them to join the unions. Her proposals that this work should be directed centrally by the Party were defeated. This disregard for the question of women was remedied the more the Bolsheviks developed in strength and political experience.

However, it is worth examining some of the arguments used in the debate since they represent some of the pitfalls of purely formal adherence to principles. Kollontai expresses the dilemma in the introduction to her pamphlet Women Workers Struggle for their Rights.[218]

One might think that there would be no clearer or more well-defined notion than that of a Women’s Socialist Movement. But meanwhile it arouses so much indignation and we hear so often the exclamations and the questionswhat is a women workers’ movement? What are its tasks and its aims? Why can’t it merge with the general movement since the Social Democrats deny the existence of an independent women’s question? Isn’t it a hangover from bourgeois feminism?’[219]

There were two polar opposite views which were expressed by those who rejected Kollontai’s position. On the one hand, the feminists argued that women should be organised independently of their class interests, in a ‘women only’ autonomous movement. Others, within the Russian Social Democratic Party, argued that no account should be taken of the specific oppression of women; that they should be won to the Party through the same methods as male workers. The latter position ignored the divisions within the working class between male and female workers as well as women’s special needs and consciousness. In this sense it parallels Zetkin’s earlier position on protective legislation, where ‘equality’ is treated as a formal principle. Opposed to this, centrally organised work amongst women taking up their specific oppression recognises the necessity to win women to the working class movement through their understanding that social equality can only be achieved by the destruction of the capitalist system. It relates to both their needs as women and to their class interests.

Rising militancy, particularly amongst women workers, in the period from 1910 to the outbreak of war in 1914 forced the Bolsheviks to recognise the importance of this work. 1910 saw the beginning of a wave of strikes by women in Russia, most notably in the textiles industry where large numbers. of women were employed. The conditions at work were uniformly poorlow pay, long hours, and hazardous conditions. A number of these strikes were organised to get better conditions for women at workin particular relating to maternity leave, facilities for breast feeding, introduction of female factory inspectors to free women from sexual abuse from foremen and employers, use of factory laundry facilities.[220] The danger of women being won to the feminist camp, since these campaigns were the only ones to cater specifically for the needs of women, became more real. In 1913, a special women’s page was introduced in Pravda and its popularity led to the publication of a special paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) in 1914. This addressed itself to the specific problems of women workers: poor conditions in the factories, inflation and the war. Its aim was to educate women that their interests were the interests of the whole working class. The outbreak of war prevented further production of Rabotnitsa until after the revolution, but agitational work continued in relation to rising prices, food shortages and the worsened conditions for women at work.

Neither the German SPD nor the Bolsheviks saw the building of an autonomous women’s movement as part of their strategy. In fact precisely the opposite. Revolutionary work was carried out amongst women in order to win them to the Party and the struggles of the whole working class. In order to do this it was necessary to address specific agitation towards women based on their special needs. In both Russia and Germany this work was intended to counteract the influence of the ‘women only’ equal rights movements which threatened to divert women away from an independent working class standpoint. Lenin further clarified the relationship between the Party and work amongst women in the post-revolution period.

In October 1917, the Russian proletariat took power from the bourgeoisie. The immediate task of the Soviets was to retain state power in the hands of the working class and to consolidate support throughout Russia against the intervention of the White army. Due to the backward nature of the Russian economy, progress towards socialism would depend on the success of the proletarian revolution in the major industrialised countries of Europe. It was in the context of consolidating power within the Soviet Union that work amongst women was taken up in earnest. Special bureaux of party members were set up to conduct agitation amongst, and organise, women in support of the revolution. The Bolsheviks also made it clear that social equality for women would be integral to the construction of socialism. In spite of the social turmoil of the post-revolutionary period, immediate legal changes were announced: marriage was made a civil ceremony; inheritance abolished; illegitimacy was not recognised by law and abortions and divorce were freely available.

The development of Communist Parties in the major industrialised countries of Europe, in order to break the working class movement from the reformist Second International, was a vital part of the Bolsheviks’ strategy to lay the basis for the European revolution. By 1920 Lenin saw the founding of an International Communist Women’s movement as an essential part of the work of the Comintern, and pointed out to Zetkin that this work had hardly begun.

‘However in spite of all this, we do not yet have an international Communist Women’s movement and we must have one without fail. We must immediately set about starting it. Without such a movement the work of our International and of its Parties is incomplete and never will be complete. Yet our revolutionary work has to be fulfilled in its entirety.’[221]

Attempts to establish this work revealed widely different levels of understanding of the question of women among different national sections of the International. In France, Italy and Spain the majority of women had not been brought into social production. The Parties in these countries had not been faced with organising and winning the support of large numbers of female workers, and their positions on this question were backward. In England the newly formed Communist Party, with its sectarian tradition, had hardy established any audience for its ideas in the working class movement. The Comintern therefore had to establish methods and guidelines for this work. The debates of earlier years re-emerged and the position had to be clarified in order to convince the more reluctant national sections of the International that the method of work amongst women had a precise relationship to the political position of the Party. Kollontai again points to the problem,

‘But most curious of all it is where the women workers’ movement is least developed, where organised women workers are least numerous in the Party and in the Unions, that one hears loudest and most assured the voices of those who deny the necessity of technically separated work among the women proletariat.’[222]

From the earlier work in Russia and Germany the methods of this work amongst women were clear. However, opposition still existed on the grounds that this smacked of a bourgeois feminist deviation. Lenin gave a very precise account of the organisational principles involved,

‘We derive our organisational ideas from our ideological conceptions. We want no separate organisations of Communist women. She who is a Communist belongs as a member of the Party just as he who is a Communist. They have the same rights and duties. There can be no difference of opinion on that score. However we must not shut our eyes to the facts. The Party must have organs, working groups, committees, commissions, sections, or whatever else they may be called, with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women, bringing them into contact with the Party, and keeping them under its influence.’[223]

The Comintern began a concerted campaign to encourage its national sections to adopt these methods. However, the failure of the European Communist Parties to do so is less a reflection of their doubts on the question, than a reflection of their overall weakness.

5. The Defeats of the Working Class and the Decline of the Women’s Movement

The seeds of revisionism in the German SPD had been present in the early 1890s. Already dependence on electoral support was beginning to dominate their policies. Bernstein’s theory that the capitalist state could be democratically reformed in the interests of the working class removed the necessity for revolutionary struggle. The Trade Unions’ hostile reaction to the 1905 strikes in Russia forced the SPD to concede that the trade union leadership could veto any proposals ‘on matters of mutual interest’. The trade union bureaucracy was therefore able to strangle any revolutionary upsurge, since they were openly opposed to mass strikes as a political weapon. Kautsky’s theory that imperialism was merely the result of war-mongering policies amongst certain sections of the bourgeoisie heralded the capitulation to the national interest at the outbreak of the First World War.

Already in 1892, criticisms of Die Gleichheit were being made. It was too difficult, too theoreticalit needed to be popularised. The growing revisionist current which voiced these criticisms as a veiled attempt to eliminate its Marxist content failed to gain control of the magazine throughout this period. In 1914 Die Gleichheit became the organ of opposition to the reformist majority. The attack, however, continued and the theoretical difficulty of the magazine was blamed for the failure of the SPD to win large numbers of women members. In 1915 Zetkin was sacked as editor. By 1916 a new trade union women’s paper was being produced alongside the ‘popularised’ Die Gleichheit, which advanced the view that trade union struggle was the only way forward for women. The SPD, now well established as part of the War Government, maintained that the increase in female employment during the war was a major step forward to female emancipation.

New heights of class collaboration were reached when the war ended. The question of the vote for women had been the central aim of the party in relation to women for some time, since it fitted admirably into its reformist perspective. The granting of the vote in 1919 spelled the end of the women’s movement since they could now according to the SPD, participate fully in political life. The ‘giant stride’ forward of women’s employment in the war was the only remaining embarrassment. The SPD’s role in the government demanded that it support the sacking of women to make way for returning soldiers. However Edward Fischer, an SPD theoretician, was able to provide them with a ‘new’ theory to meet this dilemma. In 1905 Fischer had attempted to revive the Lassallean idea that work for women was degrading, but had met with little success. After the war however, these ideas met with more success. He proposed that the increase of female employment only took place in periods of social distress like the war. In periods of normality, circumstances would show,

‘a movement towards the disappearance of wage labour for married women, since wage labour cannot enrich their lives more than housework can. It is a burden and reduces the enjoyment of life.’[224]

The German Movement had come full circle. The women’s movement could only wither away since women had achieved ‘full political equality’ through the right to vote and were better off in the home than at work! It was envisaged that any remaining inequalities could be dealt with through law reform. The women’s movement declined as revisionism tightened its grip on the SPD. It became the SPD’s conscience: on the one hand representing ‘women’s point of view’ for legislative matters, on the other hand as a ‘social work agency for poorer sections of women.

In Britain a similar situation prevailed for the women’s movement dominated by the WSPU and other bourgeois suffrage societies. Most working women were forced to leave their jobs to make way for returning soldiers at the end of the war. The suffrage societies had hailed the ‘patriotic fervour’ of women entering industry during the war, whilst disregarding the fact that necessity was the main ‘inspiration’ for working class women. They had little to say when women were thrown out of work in 1918 with the dismantling of the war industry and the necessity to employ men for the sake of social stability. Again working class women needed jobs as their husband’s real wages fell and unemployment of both men and women grew. The government attempted to redirect some women into domestic service, setting up training centres for this purpose in 1919 since ‘rough’ factory girls had no idea of the ‘delicacy’ necessary for household duties![225] The Suffragettes consoled themselves that some women, in the clerical and banking sectors, were at least able to retain their jobs.

In 1918 the government was forced to review the laws concerning the vote when faced with the return of large numbers of soldiers to a ‘land fit for heroes’ who were still unable to vote. As a sop to ensure social stability, the law governing male voters was liberalised and female householders and wives of householders over 30 years old were enfranchised. Although the Suffragettes had doubts about the age limit, they considered it to be at least the first step and so gave the government their support. In the post-war period their remaining efforts, in spite of the desperate plight of many working class women, were centred on gaining further reforms in the laws governing entry to professions, divorce and guardianship of children, and admission of women to the House of Lords. Necessary though some of these reforms were, they hardly answered the needs of the majority of working women. In 1928 equal suffrage with men was granted, but the unchanged living conditions of working class women along with working class men are the testimony to the illusions of the suffragettes and reformists in parliamentary reform.

As a result of the decision of the Second World Congress of the Third International the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was founded in 1920. In 1922 the Comintern criticised the CPGB’s failure to carry out work amongst women,[226] in particular with the large numbers of women members in the reformist and suffrage organisations.

‘The British Section of the International cannot remain indifferent to the fact that in its country many millions of proletarian women are organised in women’s suffrage societies, in women’s trade unions of the old type, in consumers’ co-operatives, in the Labour Party, and in the Independent Labour Party. It behoves the Communist Party to engage in struggle with all these organisations for capturing the minds, the hearts, the willpower and the actions of the proletarian women. Therefore it will in the long run realise the necessity for the organisation of special organs by means of which it will be able to organise and train the Communist women within the Party, and to make the proletarian women outside the party willing fighters for the interests of the class.’[227]

Undoubtedly the CPGB was in a very weak position. Its membership figures (1920, 4,000; 1921, 3,000) were low and it had hardly progressed in establishing its influence in the working class since its inception. The excuse given at the 4th Congress of the Comintern was that the Party was too weak as yet to devote its resources to the question of women. However the Comintern speakers at the Congress made it quite clear that these excuses were not acceptable.

In England organisations for conducting systematic agitation among the female proletariat are altogether lacking. The Communist Party of England excused itself by its weakness and has continually refused or has postponed the setting up of a special body for systematic agitation among women. All the exhortations of the International Women’s Secretariat have been in vain ... Our women comrades have organised various meetings on political education of the Communist women and their closer connection with the Party out of their own feeble means ... The attitude of the executive of the Communist Party of Great Britain is, in my opinion, not only an outcome of its financial weakness. but partly also to its youth and the short-coming resulting from it.’[228]


There is some indication from the CPGB’s periodical The Communist that they began at least to publish articles on the organisation of women after this date. But how far this was reflected in practice is indicated by the increasingly bitter attack by Smidovitch (Comintern) in a report in The Communist in 1924. In this she attacked all the Western European Parties for their indifference to this question and admitted that little progress had been made since the Second Congress of Communist Women in 1921.

‘It is true that women have distinguished themselves in the revolutionary struggles of Germany and in struggle with the Fascists in Italy and other countries. But is this due to the efforts of the Communist Parties? How much earnest, difficult and tedious work have the parties done in this direction, and do they fully appreciate the importance of this kind of work? Is it not a fact that having established work on Women’s Sections the Communist Parties are content to rest at that? The prevailing idea seems to be let the women bother about the petty women’s affairs, we give our thoughts and energies to the more important questions. Does this not explain the inadmissable indifference of the French Communist Party to the splendid dressmakers’ strike, and to the strike of the women textile workers. What was actually done by French Communists in the direction of making good use of the mood and temper of the women on strike? What does the British Communist Party do to increase the ridiculously small number of women members in its ranks?’[229]

The weakness of the Western European Parties, their political inexperience and isolation from the working class meant that the Soviet Union could not count on their immediate assistance. Already in 1922 the New Economic Policy reflected the internal pressures in the Soviet Union as it attempted to protect itself from capitalist encirclement. The revolution in Europe was essential to the resolution of these pressures. The emphasis placed on the Comintern’s work reflected the urgency of the creation of CP hegemony over the European working class.

Although Lenin had characterised the period following tile outbreak of the First World War and the seizure of power in Russia as the epoch of socialist revolution, this did not preclude partial and temporary stabilisation in capitalist economies. He emphasised however that any upturn would have a temporary character and that the task of the revolutionary movement during such periods was to consolidate its leadership in the working class to prepare for the periods of crisis. The essential task was to win the working class away from the leadership of social democracy, and place it under a firm and correct lead from the Comintern. European capitalism appeared to be going through such a period of stabilisation in the middle of the 1920s. The pressures on the Soviet Union to maintain state power, coupled with the defeat of the German revolution, provided the basis for Stalin’s turn away from internationalism. Instead of the current stabilisation being temporary, the Stalinists predicted that it would have a much more lasting character. In these circumstances, according to Stalin, it was necessary primarily to defend the Soviet Union and develop socialism in Russia, without the necessity for proletarian revolutions in Western Europe. The current struggles of the working classin Britain the General Strike, the Revolution in China, the struggles in Austriawere therefore seen as mere rumblings of discontent not potential revolutionary struggles. They therefore had to be sacrificed to the ‘diplomatic’ interests of the Soviet Union, and the Comintern had to become the agency for this diplomacy.

The earlier changes in the laws affecting women had established the Bolsheviks’ intention to lay the basis for social equality. However, as Trotsky said, ‘the actual liberation of women is unrealizable on the basis of generalized want”.[230]

In order to advance socialism and liberate women, the productivity of labour and with it the growth of output had to be massively increased. For the Bolsheviks this was only possible through the creation of a planned economy dependent on workers’ democracy, along with the assistance and aid of a socialist Europe. Having abandoned an internationalist standpoint, however, the only basis on which the Stalinist regime could significantly increase output in order to hold its own against European capitalist industry was by depriving workers of democracy and reducing the standard of living of the working class. Women, therefore, had to remain tied to their domestic duties, reproducing the workers’ ability to labour at no extra cost to the state. The traditional difference between male and female wages also had to be maintained. Among the unskilled in three different branches of industry, the earnings of women in March 1926 were 51.8%, 61% and 83% of the earnings of men. In the same year there was also ‘an obvious lowering of the wages of women as compared with those of men in almost all branches of industry.[231] Stalin’s policy of ‘rationalisation of labour’ had particularly affected women, so that in 1927 the demand for equal pay for women had to be one of the demands of the Left Opposition Programme.

The steps which Stalin introduced to defend the Soviet Union and provide an economic basis for its survival, inevitably reversed the steps already made towards socialist society. There was no longer any possibility of the socialisation of domestic work, or therefore of social equality for women. In the 1930s further reversals were made. The food card system which had encouraged workers to eat in communal canteens was abolished, the laundries became more and more inefficient, nursery care facilities were hardly increased and the quality of care deteriorated. In 1930 the special department for work amongst women was disbanded on the grounds that women were now liberated. Later abortion became illegal and divorce restricted by payment. These changes reflected the necessity to stabilise family life and increase the birth rate and hence the workforce. This ideological onslaught portrayed the ‘joys of motherhood’ in the new socialist society as both heroic and patriotic.

The obliteration of the woman question in the Soviet Union ensured that the European Communist Parties under the leadership of the Comintern were unable, or thought it unnecessary, to take up the specific oppression of women in their propaganda. The parties, which had been particulary weak in the early twenties, had their position weakened further by Soviet foreign policy. In England the CPGB had been crippled by Soviet policy in the General Strike. Similarly throughout Europe the Communist Parties were disoriented by the right and left swings of Soviet policy. In Britain women had been betrayed by bourgeois feminism; in Germany the ‘movement had degenerated under reformist leadership. In Russia the Communist women’s movement and the gains of the revolution had been trampled on by the Stalinist regime. Overall this reflected the defeat of the working class movement. Throughout the 1930s the question of women was only a peripheral issue for the socialist movement, while those who still campaigned for equal rights did so within the bounds of the capitalist system.

6. The Post War Boom and the re-emergence of the women’s movement

Our analysis of the response of the working class movement has demonstrated that the failure of the revolutionary movement to advance a Marxist position has allowed feminism and economism to dominate the movement and eventually led to the betrayal of the working class. In todays conditions these ideas are again threatening the movement and have gained currency because of the absence of a Marxist tradition in the working class movement. Earlier we examined the issues of protective legislation in Germany and the Suffragette movement in Britain. We shall now illustrate our central point through an examination of two particular issues: the campaign on abortion and the struggle for equal rights at work.

(a) The ‘new’ feminist movement

Feminist ideas are chiefly represented today by the Womens Liberation Movement which developed out of the student movement in the 1960s. In common with the Suffragettes, it developed from the dissatisfaction of educated petit-bourgeois women who were denied equality in education and job opportunities with men. It therefore represented the spontaneous struggle of petit-bourgeois women for equality. The way that the problems of women present themselves under capitalism suggests that the obstacle to equality is primarily the attitudes of men who dominate society deny women access to good jobs, use the media to bolster women’s inferior status etc. From this basis the ideas of the feminist movement have emerged and it has continued to direct its energies against all manifestations of ‘male chauvinism’. Its ideas range from support for equal pay to the belief that only by freeing women from their reproductive role can they achieve equality.[232] The organisational ideas of the movement stem from their anti-male approachthat only women can achieve women’s liberation. Men are excluded from the movement and democratic methods of organisation have been rejected on the grounds that these are ‘male authoritarian’ methods. Women are therefore to organise themselves separately and autonomously from any other oppressed strata. The bourgeois character of the Womens Liberation Movement is not merely a result of its largely petit bourgeois following but is expressed by its political stand which sees all men, not capitalism, as the perpetuators of female oppression. There is no basis, therefore, in the ideas of feminism for a common struggle with the working class to overthrow the capitalist system. As we have seen from the example of the Suffragettes, separating the interests of women from those of the working class leads directly to support of bourgeois rule.

The left’s reaction to women’s spontaneous response to their oppression has been to capitulate to the growing feminist movement. The left’s task was to ensure that a Marxist view of women’s position in capitalist society was brought to the movement, but it has failed in every respect to do this. It has accepted the women’s movement as a separate autonomous movement fighting against the existing system alongside the working class and other oppressed groupseven as a pressure group for women’s interests. In so far as the feminist movement opposes capitalism, this only rests on the belief that male domination is allowed full reign through the structure of society under capitalism, and therefore capitalism must be overthrown. It in no way recognises that female oppression is perpetuated by the relations of production under capitalism and is therefore directly rooted in the exploitation of the working class, and that male attitudes to women stem from this material basis. Feminism ascribes to male chauvinism a natural and perpetual role which only women can defeat. By failing to advance a Marxist position on women’s oppression, which shows directly the unity of women’s struggles with those of the working class, the left has given credence to these ideas. The recent campaign on abortion provides both a vivid example of the inability of feminism to take this struggle forward, and of the way the radical left has abandoned the leadership of this movement to the feminists.

(i) The question of abortion

Britain is now facing the deepest crisis of capitalism since the Second World War. Capital is making every attempt to resolve this crisis at the expense of the working class. The working class has experienced massive cuts in public spending, in particular in the NHS, education and the social services, with worse yet to come. Expenditure on nurseries was amongst the first sectors to be cut back even though existing provision was minimal. Women are being thrown out of work by the cuts, and find it impossible to work because of the lack of nurseries. It is against this background that the question of abortion has arisen. In these circumstances the right to free abortion on demand is a necessity for all women. Under capitalism the burden of child-care is placed on the individual woman. Because capitalism cannot provide the material conditions for society as a whole to accept responsibility for all its children, each family remains responsible for its own offspring. In particular the burden falls on the working class family, primarily on working class women, unable to pay for private nurseries, nannies, public schools and the like. Rich women have never had to resort to the backstreet abortionist, they have always been able to pay for the ‘right’ to terminate a pregnancy. Working class women have never had this ‘right’, and it is now in a period of deepening crisis and worsening living standards for the working class that even the limited gains of the 1967 Abortion Act have been threatened by the James White Amendment Bill. The effect of restricting provisions is to increase the burden on working class womento keep them tied to the home caring for children, and thus to reduce the standard of living of the working class by preventing women from working.

The James White Amendment Bill attempted to restrict severely the chance of any woman getting an abortion, under the guise of preventing ‘unnecessary’ abortions and stopping the exploitation’ of foreign women by private clinics. The Bill proposed to include a clause making abortion illegal unless the mother was at ‘grave risk’, with the burden of proof on the doctor. The Select Committee’s report, which was accepted by Barbara Castle in October last year, includes such chauvinist recommendations as the severe restriction of private abortions for foreign women. They are attempting to prevent such abortions unless these women become pregnant in Britain. Whilst women in other countries such as Ireland and Italy suffer under archaic laws which prevent access to abortion and contraception, our duty is to show solidarity with their struggle by ensuring that these facilities are available for them in Britain. Under the guise of preventing their ‘exploitation’, far from providing the facilities necessary for cheap and safe abortions, the British government is attempting to deny these women abortions.

The question of abortion cannot be seen in isolation from other problems which face women. In particular the demand for free and safe contraception must be integral to any struggle on abortion. No woman wants an abortion out of choice when safe methods of contraception are available. It is our responsibility to fight for facilities which will decrease the number of necessary abortions. Whilst the capitalist system has been able to provide limited contraceptive facilities, the system itself prevents the development of the productive forces to a level which would ensure the provision of free and safe contraception for all women. It is profit which guides the research and production of contraceptives under capitalism and it is this which prevents the development of efficient contraception. A large proportion of abortions result from failure to use any contraception at all. This shows the necessity for an active programme of education which will make women aware of the facilities and rights available, and begin the struggle to improve these services.

There are now fewer family planning clinics serving more women since the re-organisation of the service. Because the service has been reorganised to save money, in line with other sectors of the NHS, each woman receives less individual attention, and therefore the use of contraception is less safe.

The Pill is prescribed more often with fewer safeguards and checks on women’s health. The conditions for the nurses in clinics have deteriorated as this work has become more intensive. Along with abortion facilities we must expect that contraceptive facilities will be cut back in the next round of public sector cuts.

The primary excuse used by the government for its support of the Select Committee’s findings on abortion has been ttat it seeks to protect women from exploitation by private clinics. In practice the government has made it more difficult for the non-profit making, private clinics to function, whilst it is running down the provision available on the NHS. The attack has been double edged. In 1969, 62% of all legal abortions were performed on the NHS. By 1972 this had been reduced to 36%. The bulk of the expanded service available since the 1967 Act has been provided by private clinics – the very clinics which the government is trying to restrict. The recent cuts in public spending mean that the NHS will deteriorate rather than improve to meet the extra demand caused by closure of private clinics. This can only mean that fewer women who need abortions will be able to get them. We must demand in a society which is unable to provide the housing, child-care and other facilities necessary for children, and which therefore places an intolerable burden on the individual woman, free and safe contraception and free abortion on demand as a necessary right for all women. Above all, through these ideas we have to show that the question of abortion is a matter which concerns not just the individual woman but the whole working class. It is at their expense that the capitalists are attempting to resolve the crisis. By restricting women’s right to abortion a further burden will fall on the working class family, and the oppression of women as domestic workers will be intensified.

We must be clear that in demanding this legal right for women we have no illusions that this in itself will fundamentally alter the inferior status of women in capitalist society. Whilst we support the demand for free abortion, this will not free women from domestic toil nor overcome their unequal position at work. As revolutionaries our aim is to establish social equality for women in all aspects of their lives. It is capitalism which is the barrier to social equality. Legal rights under capitalism cannot achieve this. A campaign on the question of abortion has to go beyond the question of this legal right to show the working class as a whole the real obstacle to social equality.

(ii) The National Abortion Campaign – ‘Biggest since the Suffragettes’[233]

The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was formed in March 1975 in response to the threat of the James White BilI and the propaganda of SPUC and the Church. The aim of the campaign was to defeat the Bill through large demonstrations and by lobbying individual MPs. NAC has limited the struggle on abortion to gaining a legal right for women under capitalism. This is summed up by the slogan of the campaign, agreed in October 1975 ‘Free Abortion on Demand a Woman’s Right to Choose’. This slogan implies that by gaining the right to abortion women will establish control over their own fertility. But this ignores the central point, working class women do not have the right to choose. A legal right is not a social freedom. When working class women are forced to have an abortion through lack of child-care facilities, poor housing and falling living standards, this right to choose is an empty one. It further ignores the moral pressure of bourgeois ideology through the Church, the media and the State which persuades women to have children when this means an intolerable burden on them and their families. While women are socially unequal in all aspects of their lives they have no freedom to choose. In a period of crisis, to raise the question of abortion at the level of conscience, around the question of ‘who chooses’, obscures the class nature of the issue. We recognise that the achievement of free abortion on demand will be a clear step forward for women and the working class, but it can only be fought for on the basis of the independent interest of the working class. This means that we have to fight for the right to abortion as a necessity for women in capitalist society because a denial of this right intensifies the oppression of women. It is part and parcel of the attack on the living standards of the working class, and the effort to drive women out of social production, back into the home.

By adopting the slogan for ‘A women’s right to choose’ and by maintaining it as a ‘single issue’ campaign, NAC and the radical left have failed to raise the independent interests of the working class. They adopted this slogan on the grounds that it would exclude no oneit was the lowest common denominator for those struggling on abortion. In this way they hoped to attract mass support to pressurise parliament. In spite of two large demonstrations the campaign has failed to maintain the support it had. More significantly, by keeping its propaganda at the level of individual rights the campaign has failed to attract the mass support of the labour movement. The TUC and the Labour Party Congresses have been able to pass empty resolutions of support precisely because the issue has been raised at the moral level of individual conscience, rather than as a political question for the working class as a whole. The support of the whole working class is necessary in order to win the fight for free abortion and to further the fight for women’s social equality. The NAC has isolated this issue from the class struggle. This is the result of their feminist standpoint. Men have been excluded from the steering committee of NAC and the campaign has focused on the parliamentary process. It is only by changing the political basis of NAC that it can begin to win the support of the working class.

The CP and the radical left have given their support throughout to the campaign and its slogan,[234] and have failed to recognise the dangers of its feminist direction. In spite of calls for the campaign to be taken into the labour movement at the NAC conference in 1975 and many times since, this has remained an empty platitude because no challenge has been made to the real barrier to this happen ingthe political standpoint of the campaign. The parallel with the Suffragette movement is clear since NAC orients itself totally to gaining this legal right within the bounds of capitalism. It is a feminist campaign which can never take women and the working class beyond the limits of bourgeois ideas. It is to this that the radical left has capitulated. Faced with a spontaneous struggle of women and unable to offer a Marxist response the radical left has placed the leadership of this campaign squarely in the hands of the feminists.

(b) The struggle for equal rights at work

In March 1972 at the TUC Women Workers’ Congress, Vic Feather put forward a view on women’s equality that women can achieve equality through legal rights, like the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, and above all through making their voices heard in the movement. For today’s reformists the major obstacle to women’s equality lies in the present attitudes of society. The solution is for women to join men in the trade union movement to ensure that women are adequately represented and male attitudes thereby changed.

‘It is the sustained, persistent determination of trade union women which will bring about a greater measure of equality, a greater recognition of women’s rights and men’s rights, and children’s rights and human rights ... We have got to get more women not only into membership of the unions but also as active members. I know this sometimes means self-sacrifice by women who have domestic duties, but nonetheless this is essential so that there is goodwill towards the establishment of greater representation by women at all levels of society.’[235]

This same Congress began a campaign in the trade union movement to recruit more women members in the belief that only the organisation of women into unions could ensure equality. At the 1975 TUC Congress, Marie Patterson applauded the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts and went on to say,

‘the better example we set in our movement, the better the chances will be for women to find their rightful place in every other walk of life.’[236]

It is the belief that the spontaneous trade union struggle will achieve ‘human equality’ without doing away with capitalism itself which is the hallmark of reformist ideas. Economism echoes these ideas and asserts that an intensification and generalisation of these struggles will lead to revolutionary consciousness.

It is four years later, in a period of deepening crisis and growing unemployment, that the CP and the radical left, in economist fashion, are echoing Vic Feather’s views. Ken Gill, AUEW (TASS) General Secretary and CP Executive member, is a forthright advocate of the primacy of the economic struggle.

‘Here we come to the crux of the questionability to fight. What do women need to arm themselves with to win equality? Our definition of women as workers gives us the key. As with other workers the union is the only answer the first priority therefore is to organise women and widen the fight for wages.’[237]

The Morning Star’s answer to the complete failure of the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts to advance the overall interests of women in any significant way is to argue that the solution

‘lies in the extension of collective bargaining and trade union membership to under-organised sectors of industry.’[238]

While it is essential to draw women into trade unions and to fight for the extension of collective bargaining, the standpoint of the CP misses the central point. It completely ignores women outside social production, domestic workers, as well as the problems of women who in this period of crisis are unemployed. That is, it ignores the specific oppression of women. Because of this it can suggest that trade union struggle can provide social equality for women and remove their inferior status at work.

The women of the CP know from their experience that the trade union movement has continually failed to take up the questions which concern women and to fight consistently for women’s equality. The feminist response of the Communist Party women has come forward in the form of an addition to the economist standpoint – ‘positive discrimination’ for women in the trade unions.

Those arguing for ‘positive discrimination’ recognise the failure of the trade unions to take up the question of women and have also noticed the absence of women from leading positions and committees in the unions. Connecting the two questions in simple fashion they argue that unions should discriminate in favour of women to ensure that there are more women on committees, as delegates etc. This demand is coupled with the correct argument that unions should ensure that it is possible for women members to attend branch meetings and take part in trade union activity. It is the former argument that we shall deal with. The CP itself is a major advocate of ‘positive discrimination’ for women on the grounds that they have to ‘make up for the past’. In an article in Link Summer 1976, Judith Hart explains that one third of trade unionists are women and yet they are under-represented ‘at every level of voluntary and full time office’ and on the General Council of the TUC. She then goes on to explain that,

‘Because the movement as part of our society is male dominated, history and our experience has shown that the issues of women’s liberation are overlooked and ignored.’[239]

Here we have the main reason put forward for positive discrimination. It is not the reformism of the trade union leadership which has prevented :the question of women being raised, but the fact that these leaders are men. The International Socialists (IS) hold a similarly anti-male view, put forward in a more sensational form in the October 1976 issue of Women’s Voice. A report on the recent TUC Congress states, under the headlineGrey Hair, Bald Heads’,

‘That’s what you saw if you turned on your TV last month to watch the TUCs Brighton Conference. Not only was it packed out by men and old men at that, but a huge proportion of those who spoke were full time officials.’[240]

The article goes on to give statistics of female trade union membership and their lack of representation, with no word of the political positions put forward by trade union leaders. It is sufficient criticism for the IS that they are old, bald and men. The primary justification for positive discrimination in itself bolsters the divisions in the working class between men and women by blaming men as a sex for the neglect of women’s problems.

The Working Women’s Charter contains its own clause which calls for women to take a more active role in trade unions and political life ‘so they may exercise an influence commensurate with their numbers’. This demand, considered by the CP to be a key one, has now been extended to encompass the demand for positive discrimination. The Charter, under the leadership of the IMG and International Communist League (I-CL) is critical of the trade unions on the grounds that they are ‘male dominated’ and ‘bureaucratic’,[241] but argues that trade unions are ‘the first means of organisation to defend our living standards under capitalism’. Through this logic they are then able to argue for positive discrimination on the grounds that more female members on trade union leading bodies will rectify the weaknesses caused by ‘male domination’ and ‘bureaucracy’. It is by starting with this criticism of the trade unions that they are able to go on to argue for positive discrimination.

It has been left to the I-CL to take the position on positive discrimination to its ludicrous conclusion. In a paper presented to the Working Women’s Charter Conference on 10/11 April 1976 it expressed the following concern for women and blacks,

We are against redundancy on any basis. However, where redundancies do go through we are against weaker sections such as blacks and women being put on the redundancy list first as a matter of principle.’

Well intentioned though this may appear, the consequences of such a statement are dangerous and flow logically from the ‘positive discrimination’ position which the I-CL fully supports. It fails to recognise that the question of female and black redundancies, where they are singled out as the first to go, can only be fought on the basis that there should be no redundancies at all. This is the revolutionary position which overcomes, instead of fostering, divisions in the working class. Instead, the I-CL wished to invert the chauvinism of the movement in favour of women and blacks. For revolutionaries there can be no rider to opposition to all redundancies. The I-CL has not yet stated which sections of th e working class should be ‘on the redundancy list first’, but it has taken the first step in arguing what the CP has already hinted at,

‘ … single women may well need a job more desperately than a married but childless man, or a single man without dependents.’[242]

Such arguments aid the bourgeoisie in their task, in a period of crisis, of ‘rationalising’ the labour force. It is all the better for them if the working class will agree about which sections have to go. The I-CL and CP have provided the basis for such an argument.

Once again the failure to start from the specific oppression of women under capitalism, to see the struggle for social equality in fundamental opposition to the capitalist system itself has led to arguments and positions which undermine the struggle of the whole working class.

(c) The organisation of work amongst women today

The feminist conception of an ‘autonomous’ women’s movement is a spontaneous’ response to a labour movement that has never consistently fought for women’s interests. It is the failure of the working class movement to take up the struggle for women’s liberation from a Marxist standpoint that lends support to feminist arguments and feminist organisations.

If women are to be won to the side of the working class struggle against capitalism, the organisations of the working class must first demonstrate practically that they can defend the interests of women. This they have not done. We shall deal briefly with the two standpoints on the organisation of women that correspond to the ideological standpoints of feminism and economism. Since these two radical bourgeois views exist side by side within the CP and the radical left, it is not surprising to find that the organisational expressions of these views also coexist. Thus it is that the CP is at present conducting an open debate on whether or not to provide ‘socialist leadership’ for the women’s movement.[243]

The overwhelming majority in this debate have expressed the view that the resolution passed at the last CP Congress[244] was incorrect because it stated,

‘It is our party’s responsibility to give socialist leadership to the women’s movement.’[245]


The critics of this resolution argue that, on the contrary, the women’s movement has much to teach the CP. According to Sue Beardon, Executive Committee member of the CP,

 ‘The women’s movement has become a truly revolutionary movement.’[246]

The criticisms of CP policy on the question of women are made from a feminist standpoint. One contributor after another has argued that the heterogeneous, ‘structureless’ nature of the women’s movement precludes any single organisation from leading it, and that this is as it should be. The women’s movement is characterised as one of the ‘chameleon-like forces on the fringe of the labour movement’, that have their own, separate role to play.[247]

These views are a response to the CP’s inability to give socialist leadership to the struggle against women’s oppression. Because the CP’s position on women is not based on a Marxist understanding, it cannot show why the struggle for women’s equality and the struggle against capitalism are inextricably bound together. It is not surprising therefore that the only strategy the CP leadership has for overcoming the inferior status of women in social production is to draw more women into trade unions. Those CP members who have witnessed the failure of the trade unions to improve significantly the conditions of women do not, as a result, have much faith in the ability of the CP leadership to take up the struggle for women’s liberation.

Their criticisms amount to saying that only women have a genuine interest in women’s liberation a belief founded in the chauvinist rejection of their interests by the labour movement and therefore that women need their own, separate movement. This is also the view of the International Marxist Group,

‘The founding of the WLM showed that women recognised that we cannot rely on any other form of organisation to conduct our struggle for us.’[248]


The feminism of the CP and the radical left is simply an inverted form of chauvinism. Unable to conduct a principled struggle for women’s liberation within the working class, they leave it up to ‘the women’s movement’ to look after the interests of women.

When, occasionally, the necessity for the working class to fight for women’s liberation is raised by these organisations, their true economist colours emerge. The feminist ‘sisters’ of yesteryear reappear, chameleon-like, under the banner of. the ‘Working Women’s Charter’.[249]

The ‘Working Women’s Charter’ is the CP and the radical left’s ‘trade union’ programme for women. It represents an attempt to ‘raise’ the question of women in the labour movement not with the aim of challenging the dominant reformist and chauvinist standpoints within the movement, but rather to gain support for some ‘minimum’ demands on behalf of women. Its perspective is an economist one, of winning equality for women through the trade unions, meanwhile campaigning for special provisions to ‘compensate’ for women’s present, unequal status. The ‘Working Women’s Charter’ campaign, precisely because it is restricted to this economist perspective, cannot confront the real barriers to achieving women’s social equality.

This was borne out at the February 1976 ‘Women and Cuts’ Conference, organised by the ‘Working Women’s Charter’. The Conference resolved,

to ensure that the needs of women are adequately defended within the campaigns against the cuts, and to fight for solidarity actions on struggles around these needs.’[250]

However, as it turned out, the Conference was not about defending the needs of women at all. The resolution that was adopted by Conference was about,

‘the nationalisation without compensation of the drug, health and education supply industries, of land, building and the banks.’


supporting the Right to Work March’


inserting and workers control”’

and making sure that,

‘priority is given to these actions: a) demonstrations mobilising new layers of workers; b) support for strike action in defence of jobs and conditions; c) occupations where closure or rundown is threatened.[251]

It contained all the old, familiar refrains. What it did not contain was a political strategy for fighting against the oppression of women. A comment on the Conference resolution by the Workers Socialist League makes this abundantly clear,

‘Although this was a long arid rambling resolution and although we are extremely sceptical of either the IMG or the Working Women’s Charter actually fighting for these demands in practice, it did actually contain all the main transitional demands.’[252]

It had all the main ‘transitional demands’ indeed, but nothing on women’s specific oppression! As far as the majority of the Conference was concerned there was no need for it. It was sufficient to,

‘Campaign for the trade union and labour movement to honour its opposition to the cuts by mobilising the strength of the working class against themincluding solidarity action with all struggles which defend women’s needs.’[253]


Women as usual are tagged on at the end.

It is the lack of a revolutionary political strategy in the movement, not the failure to keep its word, that is the obstacle to defending the working class against the cuts in the public sector and the attacks on women. It is this obstacle that any serious campaign on ‘Women and the Cuts’ must begin to overcome by taking a Marxist understanding of the nature of the crisis, and a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression, into the working class. It was this task that the ‘Women and the Cuts’ Conference rejected.

The Revolutionary Communist Group presented a paper and a resolution to the ‘Women and the Cuts Conference which could begin to lay the basis for politically convincing the working class of the necessity to fight against women’s oppression. The RCG called for a national conference and a regular national bulletin on ‘Women, the Crisis and the Cuts in State Expenditure’ as a means to this end.

To understand why this was necessary let us reiterate the positions developed by the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary section of German Social Democracy on revolutionary work amongst women. The necessity for social work amongst women was always posed within the context of the overall interests of the working class movement. Neither an ‘autonomous’ women’s movement, nor the chauvinist rejection of women’s specific needs, were considered to be in the interests of the working class as a whole. Rather, special women’s organisations were created, under the direction of the Party, with the precise aim of winning women to revolutionary politics. We should remember, when the CP today speaks of a ‘mass’ women’s movement, that the female membership of the CPs in, for example, 1922 ranged from 18,000 to 36,000 in the major European parties (between 2-11% of total party membership).[254] The figures are incomparably greater than today precisely because the size and influence of the revolutionary movement as a whole was so much stronger. This is the context within which we must place the question how should women be organised to fight for their liberation today?

The immediate, practical task for revolutionaries is to take a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression into the labour movement. Women will only be convinced of the political unity between the struggle for their liberation and the struggle against capitalism when the working class movement begins to fight against the specific oppression of women. The chauvinism in the working class movement will only be undermined when it is understood that the class as a whole has a direct interest in the liberation of women from their oppression. The political unity of the working class can only be based on a Marxist understanding of the specific oppression of women.


Our analysis shows that it is capital itself that perpetuates the conditions of women’s inequality through the absolute limits it imposes on the socialisation of domestic work. It is clear therefore that the struggle for women’s emancipation directly involves a struggle against capital itself. It is the existence of privatised, individual toil in the home together with the inferior position that women occupy in social production that forms the material basis of women’s oppression under capitalism. This will only be eroded in a society where planned production can ensure that there is no separation between the production of wealth in general and the reproduction of the human race. Therefore, there is no separation between the interests of women and the independent interests of the working class as a whole. Both interests can only be defended by overthrowing capitalism. This is the only standpoint from which a revolutionary perspective for the defence of women’s interests can be developed.

The position of women today is just as much dependent on the needs of capital accumulation as at the beginning of this century. The increased employment of women, the growth of state services, the increased consumption of labour-saving goods, have only resulted from a higher level of capital accumulation. However, the absolute position of women has not changed. In spite of the post-war boom even the basic preconditions for women’s true social equality, such as childcare facilities, have not been established. Capital thus continues to benefit from the oppression of women in the following ways:

1. The essential tasks of childbearing and childrearing are performed gratis.

2. A section of the workforce lies outside production and can be called upon, according to capital’s needs, to augment the industrial reserve army.

3. Women are a source of cheap labour.

4. Divisions are created among the working class.

Once again as capitalism goes into crisis, cuts in health and education, unemployment, the denial of equal pay, demonstrate even more clearly that the source of women’s oppression is not lack of rights but the existence of capitalist relations of production.

The question of women’s oppression is a central one for the working class. Women’s domestic slavery in the home is essential in reproducing the social relations of capitalism. The role that women are forced to play in the crisis, working harder in the home to offset inflation and unemployment, being sacked and re-employed more easily, working harder and for less pay than men, will aid capital in its attempt to solve its crisis at the expense of the working class. The divisions between men and women workers will not be overcome unless women’s interests are taken up centrally by the working class. On this question there is no choice for the movement. The response of women to their oppression in the past has played a crucial role in the revolutionary movement. Similarly today, the struggles such as those for equal pay, nurseries and abortion are essential to the revolutionary struggle of the working class as a whole.

In ‘Our Tasks and Methods’, the founding document of the RCG, we outlined the tasks necessary today: developing a programme, winning a vanguard and training a cadre. These are simultaneous tasks and the RCG sees the struggle against women’s oppression as central to carrying them out. Central and necessary in two senses: to draw women into the revolutionary movement and as part of the struggle against bourgeois ideas in the working class.

The ruling ideas on the position of women can only be challenged by a Marxist understanding of the real conditions of society. By showing that the oppression of women is rooted in capitalist relations of production, it becomes clear that women’s struggle for equality is part of the struggle against capital. It is vital therefore that a Marxist approach to the question is taken into the labour movement. The vacillations of the Communist Party and the radical left on the question are a fetter to this process. A revolutionary Marxist standpoint is the only way that the political basis for the defence of womens interests and the working class as a whole can be developed. The building of a revolutionary party to overthrow capital, with womens struggles against their oppression at the centre of its programme, is the task facing the revolutionary movement.

Olivia Adamson, Carol Brown, Judith Harrison, Judy Price

October 1976

[1] The Times 29 April 1976. These figures exaggerate the level of nursery provision today. ‘A little more than a quarter’ refers to the total of all registered forms of preschool childcare. Also see J Tizard, P Moss, J Perry All our children: pre-school services in a changing society Maurice Temple Smith 1976 p88.

[2] The Sunday Times 2 November 1975.

[3] P Bullock and D Yaffe ‘Inflation, the Crisis and the Post-War Boom’, Revolutionary Communist No 3/4 November 1975 pp6-8 and pp11-13.

[4] Dennis Healey in The Times 6 November 1975.


[5] Bacon and Eltis ‘How We Went Wrong’, The Sunday Times 2 November 1975.

[6] Daily Mirror 13 November 1975.

[7] Social Trends, HMSO No 5 1974 p16.

[8] Today, almost 3 million women work in the public sector. ‘One third of those women in paid work are in the welfare services, local and central government and the public corporations’. Women under attack: CIS special report Counter Information Services 1976 p29.

[9] In 1971, one in three of all female employees worked part time (30 hours or less per week). Outside of manufacturing industry 45% of all women employees worked part time. By 1966, more than 80% of all female part-time workers were married, and 46% of married women were working part time. See Women and Work: a statistical survey Department of Employment Manpower Paper No 9 HMSO 1974 p13.

[10] The Guardian 21 May 1976.

[11] P. Howell ‘Once Again on Productive and Unproductive Labour’, Revolutionary Communist No 3/4 op cit p55.

[12] The Guardian 24 January 1976.

[13] The Guardian 25 March and 2 August 1976.

[14] The Sun 29 October 1975.

[15] Financial Times 9 April 1976.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Sunday Times 11 April 1976.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Financial Times 9 April 1976.

[20] The Guardian 9 January 1976.

[21] The Economist 30 November 1974.

[22] Cited in Society of Civil Servants, Press Release 5 February 1976 p2. These figures only refer to registered female unemployment and therefore very much understate the true situation.

[23] Financial Times 15 March 1976.

[24] The Times Editorial 23 January 1976.

[25] Joe Rogaly ‘A Few Gentle Questions About Women’, Financial Times 13 February 1973.

[26] See for example J Bowlby Child Care and the Growth of Love Penguin 1965.

[27] See Part III.

[28] W. Beveridge 1942 Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services Cmd 6404. HMSO Reprinted 1966 pp51-53.

[29] Women and Work op cit p5.

[30] Bowlby op cit.

[31] The Sunday Times 2 November 1975.

[32] ‘When Free Milk Dries Up ’, The Guardian 11 February 1976.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] The Economist 22 February 1975.

[37] Ibid. State Assemblies have taken notoriously reactionary positions on abortion in the past.

[38] The Guardian 8 March 1976.

[39] These were amongst the recommendations of the reconvened parliamentary Select Committee on Abortion.

[40] The Times 21 October 1974.

[41] NUPE Executive Committee Policy Statement, Public Employees June 1975.

[42] NUPE had 321,302 women members in 1975 (the union with the second highest number of women members was the TGWU, with 286,829). Between 1950 and 1974 NUPE had the highest rate of increase in the recruitment of women members of all unions24.2% of its members were women in 1950, 62.6% in 1974a total change of 38.4%. See J Hunt ‘Organizing Women Workers’, WEA: Studies for Trade Unionists Vol 1 No3 1976 p9.

[43] Alan Fisher, General Secretary of NUPE, Public Employees July 1975.

[44] Alf Wiltshire, Vice-President of NUT, The Teacher 19 December 1975.

[45] Health Services (COHSE Journal) November 1975.

[46] Health Services December 1975.

[47] Women Under Attack op cit pp14-15.

[48] Financial Times 26 May 1976.

[49] This characterisation of domestic work is used in an article by Terry Fee ‘Domestic Labour: An Analysis of Housework and its Relation to the Production Process’ in Union of Radical Political Economics Vol 8 No 1 Spring 1976 p7. Although this article points in the right direction its weaknesses lie in a failure to grasp the revolutionary significance of the position it adopts. In a footnote Fee actually says ‘in my opinion this [the issue of the correct revolutionary strategy] is surely not one of the most crucial aspects of the woman’s question’ Ibid p2.

[50] F Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Pathfinder Press, New York 1972 p81.

[51] Ibid p311.

[52] K Marx Capital Vol I Lawrence and Wishart 1974 p45.

[53] Ibid p46.

[54] Ibid p536.

[55] Ibid p537.

[56] See P Howell op cit. for a discussion and analysis of the differences between productive and unproductive labour. Because domestic work remains outside social production, although integral to it, it cannot therefore be subsumed under any of these categories. The analysis of domestic work given here follows comrade Howell’s substantially.

[57] Ibid p54.

[58] Ibid p55.

[59] Dalla Costa and James The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community Falling Wall Press, Bristol 1972.

[60] Ibid p31.

[61] Wally Seccombe ‘Housework under Capitalism’ New Left Review 83 January-February 1974 pp3-24; J Harrison The Political Economy of Housework’ p42 Conference of Socialist Economists Bulletin (CSEB) Winter 1973; J Gardiner ‘Women’s Domestic Labour’ New Left Review 89 pp47-58.

[62] Seccombe, op cit p4. Seccombe uses the term domestic labour for privatised toil in the home. In this article the more precise term domestic work is generally used.

[63] Ibid p9.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid p11.

[66] Ibid p9.

[67] See Theories of Surplus Value (TSV) Part I Lawrence and Wishart 1968 p185, where Marx criticises this kind of reasoning.

[68] Capital Vol I op cit p66.

[69] For a discussion of these issues see D Yaffe ‘Value and Price in Marx’s CapitalRevolutionary Communist No 1 January 1975 (Second Edition May 1976) especially pp43-45.

[70] We have ignored the absurdity in Seccombe’s article of regarding the wage as a commodity. This is another factor which shows how little Seccombe has understood. See Seccombe, op cit p7.

[71] Capital Vol I op cit p169.

[72] Seccombe, op cit p10.

[73] Ibid p10.

[74] TSV Part I op cit p165.

[75] Seccombe, op cit p17. Our emphasis.

[76] Harrison, op cit p40.

[77] Ibid p42.

[78] Ibid p43.

[79] Ibid p51. In a later article with Gough, Harrison’s emphasis has slightly changed. Recognising that capital will employ women in social production when it is profitable to do so, they then argue

‘However there is also a tendency for capital to maintain the housework mode of production, based on its ability to appropriate surplus labour performed there, and thus, by obtaining a given quality of labour power at a lower wage, make more profit. This tendency will manifest itself more powerfully when the rhythm of accumulation is increasing, rather than exhausting, the reserve army.’

See Harrison and Gough ‘Unproductive Labour and Housework Again’ p5 CSEB 4, i February 1975. This point disregarding the main error relating to the transfer of surplus-value to the capitalist sector, suggests that capital could socialise domestic work if the expansion of surplus-value production could automatically be maintained. In that sense it does not show the absolute limit to the socialisation of domestic work under capitalism; rather it suggests how the relative position of women changes with the rhythm of capital accumulation.

[80] He also, inevitably, regards women as a separate class. As domestic workers women, he argues, are neither proletarians nor capitalists. Indeed, if they work for the capitalist as well they can be part of two classes. See Harrison, op cit p51. For a rejection of the concept of different ‘modes of production’ taken up in relation to the reserves in South Africa, see M Williams ‘An Analysis of South African CapitalismNeo-Ricardianism or Marxism’, CSEB February 1975 pp28-31. He shows how the reserves are integral to South African capitalism. We have tried to argue that the same relation exists for housework in relation to capital in general.

[81] Gardiner, op cit p58.

[82] Ibid pp55-56.

[83] Comment Vol 14 No 126 December 1976 p182.

[84] Marxism and the Family (selected contributions from a discussion in Marxism Today) CP Pamphlet p5.

[85] Gardiner, Himmelweit, McIntosh ‘On the Economy of Women’, CSE Pamphlet No 2 Stage 1 1975 p11.

[86] Ibid p11. An indication of the confusion here is that later they speak of an ‘undervaluation of housework’ in terms of the overall family wage and the earnings of the man and wife. This suggests that more ‘fair’ valuation would improve matters. We, on the contrary, insist that the only way to overcome women’s oppression is through the socialisation of domestic work and not by giving it a fairer valuation. (Ibid p12)

[87] Ibid pp13-14.

[88] Ibid p14.

[89] Magas, Coulson and Wainwright ‘The Housewife and her Labour Under CapitalismA Critique’, New Left Review 89, p62.

[90] Ibid p65.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid p69.

[93] Ibid p68.

[94] See Shulamith Firestone The Dialectic of Sex. The central point herethat women’s oppression derives from their position as childbearers within the familyis thus psychobiological. Her solution is to ‘free’ women from their biology entirely by means of technology, so that women will no longer be childbearers.

[95] Africa in Struggle Revolutionary Marxist JournalBlack Africa (FI) Vol 2 p26.

[96] International Socialism No 68 1974 p27.

[97] Marxism Today February 1974 p59.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Marxism and the Family op cit.

[100] F Engels The Origin of the Family op cit p82.

[101] Africa in Struggle op cit.

[102] Michael Williams, op cit pp28-31.

[103] V Lenin On the Emancipation of Women Progress Publishers, Moscow 1972 p65 (emphasis as original).

[104] L Trotsky Revolution Betrayed New Park 1970 p145.

[105] This section follows substantially the analysis given in D Yaffe and P Bullock, op cit, particularly pp17-19.

[106] Capital Vol I op cit pp545-546.

[107] Ibid p574.

[108] Ibid. In so far as the value composition is determined by its technical composition and mirrors the changes of the latter, it is called the organic composition.

[109] Ibid pp551-552 and 554-555.

[110] Ibid p592. Our emphasis.

[111] Ibid p598. Our emphasis.

[112] K Marx and F Engels The Communist Manifesto Pathfinder Press 1970 p23.

[113] Capital Vol I op cit p373.

[114] Ibid p373 footnote 1.

[115] Ibid p595.

[116] For a fuller account of the capitalist crisis see D Yaffe and P. Bullock op cit.

[117] For a full description of the transition from Domestic Industry to Modern Industry see K Marx Chapter XV ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’, Capital Vol I op cit.

[118] Ibid p443.

[119] Ibid p424.

[120] Figure quoted in a A Oakley Housewife Allen Lane 1974 p37.

[121] Census figures from Housewife op cit p40.

[122] V Lenin The Development of Capitalism in Russia Collected Works Vol III Progress Publishers Moscow 1964 pp546-547.

[123] F Engels The condition of the working class in England Progress Publishers 1973 p174.

[124] Capital Vol I op cit p422.

[125] Capital Vol I op cit pp427-428.

[126] The Communist Manifesto op cit p19.

[127] Total membership figures from BC Roberts The Trades Union Congress 1868-1921 George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1958 Appendix A p379.

[128] All Our Children op cit pp38-39.

[129] Ibid p40.

[130] Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, HMSO Cmnd 135, 1919 pp80-81 cited in War on Women’s Employment International Labour Organisation, Montreal 1946.

[131] War on Women’s Employment op cit p3.

[132] There were mixed unions. The National Union of General Workers had 60,000 women members and the Workers Union approximately 120,000.

[133] War on Women’s Employment op cit.

[134] See N Branson and M Heinemann Britain in the 1930s Weidenfeld 1971.

[135] See GA Phillips and RT Maddock The growth of the British Economy 1918-1968 George Alien and Unwin Ltd 1973 p39.

[136] Figures for non-industrial jobs from War on Women’s Employment op cit Table V p9.

[137] Figs from The Ministry of Labour Gazette Dec 1936 p440, from table on number of insured people in employment 1923-36.

[138] Cited in N Branson and M Heinemann op cit.

[139] See Youth for Socialism (paper of the Revolutionary Communist Party) January 1940.

[140] See UK Cabinet Office History of the Second World War: UK Civil Series, P Inman Labour in the munitions industry, HMSO 1957.

[141] In 1939 the CPGB had maintained an anti-war position, calling for a ‘People’s peace’ and ‘proclaimed’ the anti-working class nature of the hostilities. This temporary position was dissolved when Germany invaded Russia in 1941, and the CPGB came out in full support of its national bourgeoisie.

[142] See An urgent memorandum on production CPGB March 1942 cited in P Turner ‘The Communist Party of Great Britain’ RCG Discussion Bulletin No 8 April 1976 p64.

[143] An urgent memorandum on production op cit p15 quoted in P Turner op cit p65.

[144] See Creech-Jones Nurseries and nursery schools Fabian Research Pamphlet No 89.

[145] For a full explanation of these developments see D Yaffe and P Bullock op cit pp37ff.

[146] Beveridge’s estimate of full employment was 3% male unemployment. Beveridge Full employment in a free society George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1944 p128.

[147] 1911-1968 figures from GA Phillips and RT Maddock op cit. 1973-4 figures from Government Statistical Service: the UK in figures HMSO January 1975.

[148] Figures from Social Trends, HMSO 1972 and 1974.

[149] According to the 1971 General Household Census HMSO 1972, 68% of West Indian women work.

[150] TAB Corley Domestic and Electrical Appliances Cape 1966.

[151] Figs for 1938 from TAB Corley op cit. Figs for 1971 from 1971 General Household Census op cit p74 Table 2.33.

[152] For a full discussion of this see P Howell op cit pp54-55.

[153] J Jewkes and S Jewkes The Genesis of the National Health Service Oxford, Blackwell 1961.

[154] J Jewkes and S Jewkes, op cit.

[155] Given the personal nature of health care, the massive capital investment needed to raise productivity here is not in the interests of capital.

[156] D Yaffe and P Bullock op cit p42.

[157] GA Phillips and RT Maddock op cit pp47-48.

[158] D Yaffe and P Bullock op cit p42.

[159] Ibid p41.

[160] For a full discussion of alI these tendencies see D Yaffe and P. Bullock op cit.

[161] Social Trends 1974 op cit Table 188 p199.

[162] D Yaffe and P Bullock op cit p41.

[163] 1956 figures from Annual Abstracts of Statistics 1957 (94) Table 130 pl05. 1967, 1973 figures from The Department of Employment Gazette Vol LXXXIII No 3 HMSO 1975 pp197-200. In the engineering industries as a whole, womens employment rose by 14,000 between 1956 and 1967 but had fallen 3,000 by 1973. The increase took place primarily in electrical engineering. Male employment fell in these industries by 190,000 between 1956-1973.

[164] The table refers to figures in The Department of Employment Gazette op cit.

[165] D Yaffe and P Bullock op cit p40.

[166] For example in the US health services, which are not run by the state, out of a total of 1,230,383 employees, 1,032,837 are women.

[167] The role of women in the economy OECD Paris 1975 Table 2 p21.

[168] Department of Employment figures cited in Women Under Attack op cit p3.

[169] Ibid p6. It is important to note here that Equal Pay has existed in theory in local government for many years.

[170] Social Trends op cit Table XIII p16.

[171] The Department of Employment Gazette October 1975.

[172] National Institute Economic Review No 71 February 1975 p19.

[173] Women Under Attack op cit p17.

[174] Ibid p17.

[175] Figure from Social Trends op cit.

[176] Financial Times 15 September 1976, The Management Page.

[177] Social Trends op cit p14.

[178] Ibid p14.

[179] Ibid Table XIV.

[180] Figures from Social Trends op cit pl5 and The British Economy in Figures Lloyds Bank Ltd 1976.

[181] For a full explanation of this see P Howell op cit p54.

[182] Between 1931 and 1974 the proportion of women who have married rose from 64% to 80%. The proportion who married in the age group 20-24 more than doubledfrom 26%-60% over the same period.

[183] Social Trends op cit p15

[184] lbid Table 20 p87.

[185] Figures calculated from Social Trends op cit.

[186] In March there were 81 nurseries run by employersfor example, John Brights, Rochdale and UTD Biscuits. A recent study by Incomes Data Services states that employers are ‘insistent that they do not implement them (creches etc) for the benefit of the mothers or for social reasons, but to keep up production and recruit the ‘necessary numbers into the workforce.’ See the Financial Times 29 September 1976.

[187] ‘Kiddicare’ for example.

[188] Letter to The Times Educational Supplement 6 February 1976 from the National Educational and Development Trust.

[189] Ibid.

[190] See Social Trends op cit Appendix A Note (5) to Table 19.

[191] The Guardian 3 February 1976.

[192] Labour Research pamphlet, April 1976. Of other European countries, Sweden has the largest percentage of preschool age children of working mothers in some form of childcare53.7%. The US which had 5.6m pre-school age children of working mothers had under 1m in licensed and public nurseries.

[193] For a full analysis of the international crisis see D Yaffe and P Bullock, op cit.

[194] Figures from Social Trends op cit.

[195] See The Teacher (NUT newspaper) Vol 29 No 12 17 September 1976.

[196] The Guardian 25 August 1976.

[197] Financial Times 15 September 1976.

[198] Cited in Werner Thönnessen The Emancipation of Women. Germany 1863-1933 Pluto Press 1973 p15.

[199] Ibid p20.

[200] F Engels The Origin of the Family, op cit p82.

[201] K Zetkin Zur Geschichte der proletarischen Frauenbewegung Deutschlands.

[202] Cited in Thönnessen op cit p39.

[203] Protokoll des Internationalen Arbeiterkongresses. Paris 14/20 July 1889 p122. Cited in Thönnessen op cit p40.

[204] V I Lenin A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Progress Publishers Moscow 1969 pp64-65.

[205] Those who did not qualify were young men living at home, or lodgers paying a rent of less than £10 per year. In cities and in the country tenants of property rated at less than £12 per year.

[206] In spite of the verbal support of some Liberal MPs, in 1906, when the Liberals came to power, the cabinet were openly opposed to votes for women, and therefore squashed any backbench support.

[207] Of the SDF, Engels said,

‘The S31/1/13F here shares with your German-American socialists the distinction of being the only parties which have contrived to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. This theory is to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development, as articles of faith, instead of making workers raise themselves to its level by dint of their class instinct. That is why both remain mere sects, and as Hegel says, come from nothing, through nothing, to nothing.’ (Engels to Sorge 12 May 1894, Marx and Engels on Britain, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1962 p582.)

During the mass strike wave of 1910-1914, socialists completely failed to offer any lead. The Trade Union leadership deplored the strikes; the ILP regretted that the working class should show such disregard for parliamentary reform; and Hyndman, leading member of the SDF, declared: ‘Can anything be imagined more foolish and harmful, more in the widest sense of the word unsocial than a strike?’ (Hyndman, Further Reminiscences London 1912 pp427-8). This isolation from the current struggles and consciousness of the working class left the field wide open to leadership by the syndicalists and industrial unionists.

[208] Cited W Kendall The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1969 p31.

[209] Quoted in M Mackenzie Shoulder to Shoulder Penguin 1975 p269.

[210] Ibid.

[211] Ibid.

[212] VI Lenin The War and Social Democracy’ Selected Works Progress Publishers 1967 p657.

[213] Quoted in M Mackenzie op cit p280.

[214] From The Daily Telegraph September 1914 Christabel Pankhurst announced:

Everything that we women have been fighting for would disappear in the event of a German victory. The Germans are playing the part of savages, over-riding every principle of humanity and morality and taking us back to the manners and methods of the Dark Ages’ (quoted in M Mackenzie, op cit p286).

[215] Cited in Thönnessen, op cit p40.

[216] Ibid.

[217] In 1901, 441,012 women worked in large scale industry. By 1910 this number had increased to over 600,000 compared to a virtually static number of male workers (1,252,240 in 1901 and 1,267,575 in 1910).

[218] This pamphlet was published in 1917, after the revolution, although it refers also to the debates of the earlier period.

[219] A Kollontai Women Workers Struggle for their Rights Falling Wall Press 1973 p13.

[220] The question of equal pay rarely arose since female wages a much higher proportion of male wages than was in general the case in most European countries. Male wages were in general a bare minimal level since the working class had few political rights to organise or struggle for higher wages.

[221] K Zetkin ‘Memories of Lenin’ from Lenin On the Emancipation of Women op cit p98.

[222] A Kollontai op cit pp13-14.

[223] On the Emancipation of Women op cit p110.

[224] Cited in Thonnessen op cit p105.

[225] See R Strachey The Cause G Bell & Sons 1928 p372.

[226] For other criticisms of the CPGB’s ideological weakness, see Lenin on Britain Lawrence & Wishart.

[227] Bulletin of the 4th Congress of the Comintern Moscow 4 December 1922 p3.

[228] Ibid.

[229] The Communist journal of the CPGB 1924.

[230] L Trotsky Problems of Everyday Life Monad Press 1973 p81.

[231] Platform of the Joint Opposition 1927 New Park Publications 1973 p15.

[232] Shulamith Firestone is the main exponent of this reactionary view.

[233] This was a headline from the first issue of NAC News, Summer 1975.

[234] At the October 1975 Conference of NAC, none of the participating groups with the exception of the RCG opposed this slogan. The WSL has recently changed its position from one of ‘complete support’ for the slogan to opposition on the grounds that it ‘clouds the issue’. They have not accounted for this change as yet. See Socialist Press 19 May 1976.

[235] Women Workers 1972 Trade Union Congress pp69-70,

[236] TUC Report 1975, Trade Union Congress p369.

[237] Ken Gill Comment 9 August 1975.

[238] Morning Star 3 January 1976.

[239] Link, Communist Party women’s journal Summer 1976 pp3-4.

[240] Women’s Voice October 1976 p3.

[241] Women’s Charter, paper of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign, Summer 1976.

[242] Morning Star 17 December 1975.

[243] See Comment 10 January 1976 onwards. Also Link Summer 1976.

[244] See Comment 29 November/13 December 1975.

[245] Ibid.

[246] Comment 10 January 1976.

[247] See Comment 21 February and May 1976. Also Link Summer 1976.

[248] See The Sex Discrimination Act and the Struggle for Women’s Rights IMG pamphlet 1976 p22.

[249] Founded in March 1974.

[250] Planning Committee Resolution to 28 February 1976 Conference.

[251] Ibid.

[252] Socialist Press 28 July 1976.

[253] Planning Committee Resolution op cit.

[254] Bulletin of the 4th Congress of the Comintern op cit. If we compare these figures with say, the largest march mobilised by the National Abortion Campaign20,000 – we have an indication of the entirely different conditions in the 1920s and today.


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