Capitalism, socialism, and women

Submitted by martin on 25 December, 2014 - 12:00 Author: Lynn Ferguson

First section of chapter 2 of "The Case for Socialist Feminism"


Women have been oppressed for thousands of years. Possibly they resisted the beginnings of this oppression with violence. For sure individual women have always kicked back and stood up for themselves. But the programme of women's liberation dates from capitalist society. Mary Aspell put it like this in 1706, linking women's liberation to the democratic manifesto of the bourgeois revolution: "Is it not partial in men in the last degree to contend for and practise that arbitrary dominion in their families which they abhor and exclaim against in the state?... If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?"

Capitalism continued the oppression of women, but changed it. In the old patriarchal household, women were domestic slaves. But the division of labour and the relations of power were all worked out within the household, which existed for the outside world only through the head of the household, the man. Capitalism brought women into the labour force as independent individuals. However underpaid and overworked the woman factory or office worker, in the workplace she is not part of any man's household, but an independent person. In line with this, capitalist laws have given at least a measurer a promise of formal equality to women.

The underpinning of women's oppression in most societies has been the family property or plot of land, handed down from father to son. The woman is an indispensable part of the family - for children are economically necessary -- but a secondary one. Jewish, Hindu,Islamic and Christian ideologies all defined women as subordinate. Traditional Chinese usage bound women's feet. Ancient Greece was particularly ruthless in imprisoning women in the home. Roman law recognised women only as dependents of fathers or brothers. Ancient codes of law punished female adultery severely while not touching male adultery.

Probably feudal Western Europe was, of all major pre-capitalist civilisations, the least harsh in its oppression of women. The sexual division of labour was not rigid. Women workers were frequently paid the same as men for the same work. Women, though their economic activity was much more centred on the home than men's, played a large role in social life. They dominated important trades, as for example the ale wives dominated brewing in medieval England. A widow could engage in trade as more or less the equal of men. Women at the head of convents were important people. Still, women were clearly subordinate. They could not hold any public offices. Even guilds of tradeswomen were headed by men. Generally they could not appear as independent persons in court. Rape, for example, was defined by law not as an attack on a woman's body, but as a crime against a man's property; and lords could rape peasant women with impunity. Women inherited property only exceptionally, and in such cases the property was likely to be seen as dowry for a future husband rather than as a basis for the woman's independence. The household headed by the father was the norm on which society was based; and for each individual woman the best available course was to find a "good" husband.

Oppression does not always, by any means, produce rebellion; and the oppression of women in feudal times produced no women's rebellion. There was no arena where women could gather collectively, as independent persons. Oppression produced not rebellion but a search for consolations, as in the medieval Catholic cult of the Mother of God.

Industrial capitalism did not abolish women's old household drudgery, far from it. But the nature of housework was changed. It became a sphere sharply separated off from social labour, rather than closely intermingled with it. In the old order, the household was the basic economic unit. Most production was done in or around the home. Under the new industrial capitalist order, the centre of production was the factory, outside the home, bringing together people from thousands of different households.

But the new factory system was not self-contained. The job of transforming the exhausted, dirty and hungry worker at the end of one day's work into a fresh, clean and fit person, ready for labour the following morning, was left outside it. So was the upbringing of children. Seizing upon the subordination of women which it inherited from older societies, capitalism imposed this "housework" on women. The natural role of women in childbirth solidified the allocation.

The state has taken on a few parts of the work (schools, nurseries). Some laboursaving devices have been introduced for the home. Yet average hours of housework are still reckoned today at about 70 a week - though in fact housework merges into (and blights) life, while wage labour is sharply separated from it. Despite the fact that more and more housewives are also wage-workers, there is no sure evidence that hours of housework are decreasing. Unlike wage-labour,housework is structurally cut off from the laboursaving benefits of cooperation and (above a certain point) of mechanisation.

This burden of housework has become the basis for the whole elaborate structure of women's disadvantage in capitalist society, including the relegation of women to lower-paid wage-jobs modelled on their domestic roles, the organisation of labour without regard for women's special needs and problems (periods, maternity, etc.). It is structurally impossible to remove the burden within capitalism. State provision will always be limited because it is not profitable and because capitalism is inherently an individualistic system (families would not want to socialise all their housework under capitalism even if the capitalist state provided facilities). Enlightenment, feminist protests, and conscience can drive men to take over more of housework,but all evidence suggests that such a process of purely moral reform is and must be very limited in its effects.

Thus capitalism keeps women oppressed. In some respects it even worsens their situation. But the replacement of the old order of god-given hierarchies and social stagnation by a new society which is fluid,which preaches the abstract equality of all people, and which changes itself constantly with the aid of science, contained a huge potential for women to demand and get better conditions. The relegation of the household to a secondary place in the economy likewise opened the way for women to become workers as independent persons. The coming of capitalism was tremendously progressive for women.

Under capitalism, as Marx commented (Capital, Vol.1), "the notion of human equality" for the first time "acquires the fixity of a popular prejudice". This is because of the basic economic structure of capitalism, geared around formally equal individuals in the marketplace and not, like all previous class societies, founded upon relations of personal dominion.

Many men, of course, wanted to restrict this notion of human equality to males. "It might well have been expected that the (French) Revolution would change the lot of women. It did nothing of the sort. That middle-class Revolution was respectful of middle-class institutions and it was accomplished almost exclusively by men... Middle-class women were too well integrated in the family to feel any definite solidarity as a sex; they did not constitute a separate caste capable of imposing claims... Women who... could have taken part in events were prevented from doing so on account of their class (the working class), (but) those belonging to the active class were condemned to stand aside as being women" (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp.139-41).

But women were similar to men in all the basic human attributes on grounds of which human equality was claimed. The biological differences between the sexes had no bearing on the basic argument for equality. Thus, as early as 1789 the French Revolution prompted Olympe de Gouges to produce a "Declaration of the Rights of Woman" alongside the "Declaration of the Rights of Man". Capitalism irresistibly impelled women to demand equality.

Capitalism makes the promise of equality, and incites the demand for equality, but beyond a certain point its roots in the family household make it incapable of satisfying those demands and those promises. That is why the movement for women's liberation is a child of capitalism, but potentially a tremendous force for anti-capitalist revolution.

What can socialism do? Socialism can socialise housework and thus release the drive to equality generated by capitalism. But if it can, why should it do so? Why should the working class be expected to be responsive to feminist demands? For sure the capitalist class will not be. Not even the women of the capitalist class will be. Beyond some formal legal reforms,which have their limits, women's equality is expensive to capitalism. It also threatens capitalism politically, by mobilising 50% of the working class out of passivity. The women of the capitalist class are integrated into and depend on their households. They will not sacrifice their income, and ultimately the whole system of privilege they rest on, to sex solidarity. Besides, they have the material means to evade the burden of housework, the hard core of the oppression which bears down on the working-class woman.

Working class men gain materially from sexism. But their position is different. Whatever the annoyances of women refusing the role of submissive housewife, the overall programme of socialism and women's liberation offers a levelling up to both working class men and women, whereas for women of the capitalist class it means catastrophe.

Short-term interests divide the working class in many ways -- skilled versus unskilled, employed versus unemployed, permanent workers versus temporaries, natives versus immigrants, and so on, as well as men versus women. Yet it is possible in struggle to overcome those divisions and unite round a common long-term programme. The experience of working together in the factory or office and in the strike can make working class men come to support the measures needed to give women full equality.

It is not automatic; of course not. But over 50% of the working class are women. They can be expected to respond to demands for women's liberation; and then they will put a very powerful pressure on working class men to support those demands. It is hardly conceivable that they should not succeed at least to a large extent. Dozens, hundreds and thousands of households can break up because the man obstinately resists the woman's attempts to enlighten. Can we imagine the majority of the working class breaking up into two camps unable to communicate with each other, men and women? No: if working-class women become sufficiently mobilised for their own emancipation, they will pull the men along with them. The miners' strike showed us how.

Working class women are not yet sufficiently mobilised. The working class is still sexist. Yet in almost every case the fact is that the working class movement is more enlightened on women's issues than the capitalist parties. Even the most hidebound social-democratic or Stalinist party, the most bureaucratised trade union movement, will be more radical than its ruling-class opponents.

Our day-to-day concern, of course, is usually to denounce the limits of that radicalism, yet it is a fact worth thinking about. The Labour Party supports abortion rights (hypocritically); the Tories oppose them. The trade unions pursue claims for equal pay (sluggishly); the employers oppose them. Why is it not the other way round? There are basic social pressures which drive the working class and women's liberation towards an alliance, pressures which make themselves felt dimly even despite the inertia of the most conservative leadership.

The demand for the socialisation of housework, and particularly of childcare, for the "abolition of the family" is one which often calls to mind the idea of a rigidly structured, regimented, impersonal society. Even many socialists have a rather ambivalent attitude about the spectre of "24 hour concentration camps for children". Hardly, surprising, really. In capitalist society, forms of social organisation which are quite historically specific assume the appearance of timeless truths - even strands of modern feminism assume something mystical and essential about the mother-child bond. Moreover, in many ways, the family provides for the human needs which are missing in outside society. In an increasingly impersonal,violent, often alien world, the family provides love, refuge and personal warmth -- it is the heart of a heartless world. Not surprising then that the notion of "abolishing" this fills many with horror!

But there is another side to this. The "labour of love" which a wife performs often willingly for husband and children - wanting to see them well fed, clothed and cared for, is in essence a boring, mindless continuous round of cooking, washing, cleaning, washing up which never ends. Once you've finished, you start all over again. What is performed out of love produces a fit labour force for capitalism to make its profits out of. And for many women and children the home can be little better than a prison. Wife-beating, child abuse (both mental and physical), rape, incest - all take place within the four walls of the domestic idyll. The power relations within the family, where "the man is the bourgeois, the wife the proletarian", where children are deprived of the most basic rights, reproduce the power relations within society as a whole. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto:"The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation between parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour." The hypocrisy of bourgeois values, which shout for the tightening of family ties, the importance of the nuclear family to children, in fact reinforce the very inequality of power which leads to rape, child abuse, etc.

But do we want to simply "abolish the family"? In the Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky said: "We cannot simply abolish the family; we have to replace it." Socialism does not intend to rip families forcibly asunder (though doubtless in a revolutionary period traditional ties will be loosened, and different relationships formed), but to remove the economic and social constraints which force men and women to maintain relationships they no longer want, which tie the women to home and childcare. With the provision of good quality social facilities, creches, etc., with the development of building programmes which do not design houses around traditional small family units, individuals will have the freedom to choose how they live, what relationships they form, children will have more freedom to form a variety of relationships through choice, not pure necessity. We cannot crystal-ball gaze and prescribe exactly how people will live - presumably there will be a variety of forms. But we do know that this will be based on a real choice.

The family as we know it is a historically specific thing. Often the traditional man, woman, two kids, cat and dog model doesn't correspond with reality. It never really has done. In previous societies,families were very different, broader things than they are now. Even today, in the Israeli kibbutz, childcare is very different from in the stereotype family. The key is to break from the confines of the narrow view of relationships which bourgeois society imposes on us and to look at things in a historical perspective. Our programme is for a society based on choice rather than naked economic compulsion.