Women and class
IN 1904, THE YEAR THE SOCIALIST PARTY of Great Britain was formed, it was usual for political parties to have their women helpers. There was the Primrose League for the Conservatives and the Women's Liberal Federation. In the Social Democratic Federation the membership of men and women was on equal terms. The Object of that party included "the establishment of Social and Economic equality between the sexes", and the demand for "Equal, direct adult suffrage" had long been part of its Programme.
The SPGB has only one section and that is for socialists. The Party was formed by men and women, ex-members of the SDF, who together drafted the Object and Declaration
of Principles. Clause 4 states that the emancipation of th; working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind "without distinction of race or sex". The wording of this clause was no accident. It reflected the understanding that
those founder members had of social evolution and economics. In capitalism the majority of men and women have a common class relationship in that they own no part of the means of production. The class division in capitalist society cuts across all diffsrencss of nationality, race or sex.
The earliest Socialist Standards pointed out that the destinies of men and women are bound up together and that Socialism is the only hope of the whole whole working class irrespective of sex. Both sexes of the workers are exploited and suffer as victims of ths class which owns the means of life. The emancipation of woman can only come together with the emancipation of their class through the realisation of Socialism.
That women held a generally subordinate position before the capitalist era is not disputed. Frederick Engels acknowledging the work of L. H. Morgan, showed that the suppression of women had its origin in the rise of private property. Some anthopologists, and the modern women's movement, continue to attack this view of both Morgan and Engels but they fail to provide a satisfactory explanation of human social development.
Through centuries of change in property relations and the form of society, leading in Western Europe to feudalism and then to capitalism, the monogamous family and the dependence of women had become long established. This was to have special significance for women workers, when, late in the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution was to produce social conditions recognisably like those of modern capitalism.
From the earliest ages, women and children were economically productive in the home. Prior to the industrial revolution families worked in the expanding cottage industries. Village women took an active part in the work connected with their family patch of ground and stock and helped in the fields at harvest time. The growth of the factory system and of capitalist agriculture involved a number of changes in the employment of women. Cottage industries could not compete with factory production and their decline meant the break up of many small rural households. The move to the factories was not immediate and there was much unemployment and misery for single women. During the Napoleonic wars gangs of women began to be employed all the year round as field workers on large farms. In the second half of the nineteenth century the gradual increase in the field labourer's wages, and the use of agricultural machinery, reduced female employment in agriculture.
The industrial revolution condemned poor families to long hours of hard work in the factories and coalmines, leaving little time or energy for anything but the simplest meal and sleep. Yet despite the suffering and discontent caused by the rapid expansion of capitalism it is precisely this system which makes the emancipation of women feasible, since it gave women a role in social production to be fulfilled outside the home. However a role in social production does not in itself constitute freedom.
The business establishments of the rising merchants and manufacturers became separated from the home; as there was extensive employment of domestic servants their wives were isolated with little domestic work to do. They were subjected to the authority of their husbands and were in the legal position of permanent minors. Women from the 'middle class' were expected to marry. If they remained spinsters, or were widowed, there was little prospect of suitable employment. In 1859 the supply of governesses exceeded the demand by 99%. (There was an Educated Women's Emigration Society.) The early stirrings of protest about their position as compared to men really came from these women. Among the several demands made by women were for better education and employment opportunities, and for the vote. Although as early as the 1780s William Pitt, Tory Prime Minister, and his Whig opponent, Charles James Fox, had both been in favour of what they called 'universal' franchise, it was only men they had in mind. (The possibility of Parliament agreeing to this disappeared when the French Revolution in 1789 frightened the British ruling class.)
By the 19th century political theory was developing towards the idea of individual voting rights. The 1832 Reform Act was the first statutory bar to women voting since it specifically enfranchised 'male persons' who had the necessary property qualifications.
In that same year the issue of women voting was first raised in parliament when 'Orator' Henry Hunt presented a petition for the 'enfranchisement of unmarried females with the necessary property qualifications'. Getting the vote was seen first as a way of obtaining what they called social justice but the all embracing demand was later whittled down to a demand for the vote. The year 1866 marked the start of the continuing suffrage campaign organised by women. In 1897 all existing societies devoted exclusively to women's suffrage federated into the National Union of Suffrage Societies. This was the chief constitutional association and, following the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, was led by Mrs. Millicent Fawcett. The 'militaar" Women's Social and Political Union, led by Mrs. Pankhurst, was not formed until 1903. Both sections of ae movement, militant and constitutional, sought the vote on the same terms as men. Two further Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had extended the franchise to include all male householders (£10 franchise) which still left one third of adult males without the vote. Since a much larger proportion of women would not qualify as householders the campaign essentially aimed at votes for propertied women. Some of the campaigners thought that with the vote they could look after the interests of the factory girls. There was some support for WSPU activities among working class women. The Women's Co-operative Guild supported women's suffrage.
The SPGB refused any support to the suffrage campaign. A request for financial help from Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (Socialist Standard April 1906) met with the reply that class consciousness must come first. Of what use the vote when the working class used it against their own interests. (The working class were already in the majority at the ballot box by more than 3 to 1.) And "Sex equality could not be the fruit of Suffragette humbug, it could come only through economic equality — and economic equality is impossible except through Socialism". (Socialist Standard June 1908.)
By 1918 when the franchise was extended to women aged 30 (men at 21) many of the earlier aims for which the vote was sought had in fact been realised. Women had gained entry into universities, could become doctors and get divorced. The 1882 Married Women's Property Act gave right of separate ownership over every kind of property. In 1894 duly qualified married women were permitted to vote in municipal elections. A right which single women ratepayers had received 25 years earlier.
Changes which affected a larger number of women came from the expansion of non-manual occupations. In the 1870s when the Post Office gave effect to government approval of the extended employment of women, the Postmaster General stated that the attraction from the standpoint of the Post Office as employer was that the women clerks would accept lower pay than the men and would be more docile, i.e. would not want to join the unions formed by men. Other employers counted on the same attitude. Around the turn of the century there was increasing employment for women in offices and in teaching. The first world war further accelerated changes in female employment. Women were employed in almost every kind of work, the exceptions being underground mining, stevedoring and steel and iron smelting.
Admirers of the suffragettes should remember both their limited objective and the actions of these erstwhile champions of women's rights during the war. The same kind of zeal used in the suffrage campaign was applied by them to supporting the war. There were exceptions, notably Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst who couragousiy spoke against the war at public meetings. Union membership among women rose from 360,000 in 1914 to nearly 2,000,000 in 1918. The return of men from the war and high unemployment meant a retreat for women from many occupations but attitudes were permanently changed. By 1918 the number of domestic servants had shrunk by 450,000 in Britain, though in 1931 domestic servants still accounted for 23.8% of working women. The second world war again brought women into the factories but the outstanding feature of employment since the war is the increase of women in office work and the service industries.
The modern Women's Liberation Movement was formed first in the late sixties, in the United States. Its promoters were women who had been active in the Students, Civil Rights and Vietnam War Protest Movements. They objected to women's subordinate position in society, which they said was also reflected in these movements and in the so-called 'Left-wing' parties.
Similar groups had been formed in Britain in 1968-9, but it was not until the first national women's conference, held at Ruskin College in February-March 1970, that a women's liberation movement could be said to exist; though without formal membership. It was not a single unified movement but consisted of small autonomous groups under, roughly, four headings: (a) political, incorporating or accommodating left-wing aims; (b) reformist, seeking particular improvements; (c) feminist, endeavouring to promote 'female consciousness'; and (d) radical feminist, rejecting women's biological role. Early feminist discontent had many aspects but getting the vote became the main focus of attention. The modern movement has no demand equivalent to the vote. (It is, in fact, in existence became the vote in itself proved an inadequate answer tc female subjection. Women as voters did not bring to political life a new surge of determination to end exploitation and war, as it was claimed it would during the suffrage campaign.) Though it focused attention on the position of women in society it was in many ways a reflection of changes already taking place. It was women who had benefited from higher education who complained about their promotion prospects. The women's liberation movement encompassed widely divergent aims, ranging from concern with personal problems, obtaining equal opportunities with men under capitalism and covering all the muddled ideas associated with the so-called left. However, there are concerted campaigns, for example, the National Abortion Campaign, and general acceptance of the original four demands formulated at the Oxford conference. These were equal pay, equal education and opportunities, 24-hour nurseries, and free contraception and abortion on demand.
The Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimniation Act 1975 both came into force on 29 December 1975. The intention was for the equal pay requirements to be fully met by that date. The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up to ensure effective enforcement of both Acts. Like other reformist movements seeking by legislation to change the way capitalism operates, the well-meaning people who sought equal pay and opportunities for women disregarded the fact that the aim of the employer, whether private company or state organisation, is to make profit. Legal enforcement of higher wages for women (as happens with minimum wage enforcement generally) decreases the low-pay attraction to the employer of employing women. There are already indications that unemployment among women, which was formerly less than among men, will increase. As has also always happened in mimimum wage industries, at time of heavy unemployment there will be widespread breaches of the law by employers that will be accepted by women workers rather than lose their jobs.
The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination, on grounds of sex, in employment, education, credit and mortgage facilities, etc. The Act gives legal enforcement to many feminist demands, but its effectiveness with regard to employment and promotion prospects will largely depend on the needs of capitalism. It was economic necessity not women's liberation movements which opened all kinds of careers to women in many countries as for example in Russia.
The SPGB does not support women's liberation movements. Despite all the theorising they turned out to be no different from all the other movements which choose to put immediate demands before the socialist aim of a revolutionary change in the social system. Claims were made that the movements were not political, but most of their aims could only be achieved, with support from political parties, through government legislation. The likely success of these aims, and those concerned with female conscicusness and personal relationships, have to be seen against the background of capitalism. The vast majority of women and men, including non-employed housewives and pensioners, belong to the working class. It is membership of this class which places limitations on the personal life of both sexes. The logical solution is for one working class organisation having Socialism as its sole object.
Common ownership, and democratic control, of the means of production and distribution will mean the end of economic exploitation. Every human being will have the same free access to the abundant social wealth. There will be no possibility for any group to hold another in subjection. Men and women will be free to arrange their personal lives according to their individual choice. Whatever form the family will take, parents will not have to care for their children in isolation and childcare will not be the sole occupation open to men or women except by choice.
We cannot emphasise too strongly that women have an equal opportunity with men to work for Socialism.
Women and Socialism SPGB Pamphlet 1986 (.pdf)
Suffragette Humbug Socialist Standard 1908 (.pdf)
Up In Arms Socialist Standard 1971 (.pdf)
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