Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

13. The survival of the family



Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx argued again and again that under capitalism the working-class family would wither away. This has not happened. The institution of the family has been preserved, and not against the wishes of working people, including women.

Engels and Marx put forward two reasons why they expected the family to disappear. First, they said, private property and its associated inheritance rights are irrelevant to the working class of the towns and cities – who have no property. Secondly, the mass employment of women and children in the factories would abolish the economic dependence of women on men. In The German Ideology (1845) Marx wrote: “the family is actually abolished ... with the proletariat ... There the concept of the family does not exist at all.” [1] In the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Engels wrote of the impact of industrial capitalism on the family:

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain ... But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians ... The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of 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. [2]

Some four decades later, in 1884, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels repeated the argument:

... since large-scale industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market and the factory, and makes her, often enough, the breadwinner of the family, the last remnants of male domination in the proletarian home have lost all foundation. [3]

In the early years, when industry was growing on a massive scale, this did seem likely to be the case. Women – and children – were employed in huge numbers in the textile mills. Employers, indeed, were eager to take on women:

men were more “difficult to manage”, and more likely to cause trouble by their combinations. These disadvantages were not compensated for by extra production, since the steam loom placed all workers on the same level. Hence ... women’s work was accounted for by the fact that the master, finding that the child or woman was a more obedient servant to himself, and an equally efficient slave to his machinery – was disposed to displace the male adult labourer ... [4]

In 1856 in Britain, which is where the patterns of industrial development were first set down, 57 per cent of all textile workers were women, with children a further 17.2 per cent, and men only 25.8 per cent. [5]

But after the middle of the nineteenth century this trend was reversed. The relative importance of the textile industry declined drastically, while iron and steel production, the manufacture of heavy machinery and the development of the railways became the dominant elements in the British economy. These employed practically only men. By 1907 women were only 3 per cent of the workforce in the leading industry, engineering. [6] In 1911 only 9.6 per cent of married women worked outside their own homes. [7]

Why did this happen? Practically all radical feminists [8] argue that it was the result of antagonism by male workers to the employment of women. There is an element of truth in this where skilled craft workers are concerned, for they used their trade unions to exclude women from some trades – as they excluded many men too, namely unskilled and immigrant workers. But that is not the full explanation. After all, only a tiny proportion of workers were in trade unions in those years – 11.2 per cent in 1892, for instance.



Reaction to the horrors of the industrial revolution

The main reason lies in the reaction of workers – both men and women – to the horrors and misery associated with the industrial revolution. [9] This is a description of women’s work in the coal mines:

Quite often women did the lifting and heavy part of the work, and endured conditions which men would not tolerate. “Females submit to work in places where no man, or even lad, could be got to labour in,” said one mining foreman; “they work in bad roads, up to their knees in water, in a posture nearly double.” The natural result of this compliance was that women’s labour was most frequently to be found in the worst mines, where they endured the most arduous toil in a foul atmosphere, dragging their loads along low, slushy roads in water-laden pits ...

“Chained, belted, harnessed, like dogs in a go-cart,” said a Commissioner in describing “hurrying” or “putting”, the task that employed the greatest number of women and young people of both sexes, “black, saturated with wet, and more than half naked, crawling upon their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them – they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural.” [10]

Here is a description of the results of working conditions in Oldham textile mills:

In the early 1850s deaths in Oldham from tuberculosis, the characteristic disease of overwork, were more than double the national average. The group worst affected, with treble the national rate, was women aged between twenty-five and thirty-four – the same group that also supplied the greatest share of millworkers. One in eight of Oldham’s women died while in this age group, and over one-third worked in the mills. [11]

In the 1850s William Acton, a doctor, commented:

If we compare the prostitute at thirty-five with her sister, who perhaps is the married mother of a family, or has been the toiling slave for years in the overheated laboratories of fashion, we shall seldom find that the constitutional ravages often thought to be the necessary consequence of prostitution exceed those attributable to the cares of a family and the heartwearing struggles of virtuous labour. [12]

Above all working people’s heads hung the terrible threat of the Poor House. In 1834 a new Poor Law was passed, abolishing “outdoor relief”, forcing those who fell destitute to enter workhouses, or, as the only alternative, to take extremely low-paid jobs, if they could get them. The workhouse separated man and wife and mother and child. Michael Anderson records that in Lancashire the mass of the population “almost invariably speak of the workhouse as the ‘Bastille’, and to be taunted as a ‘pauper’ would be by many regarded as the most opprobious of epithets.” [13] A contemporary witness writes in 1857:

Misery is running riot through the greatest part of this district ... The poor here have resolved to die rather than go into the union houses, and I have not the least doubt that numbers would have starved sooner than go there; certainly they would have resisted hunger until the feebler bodies of their children perished, or been so reduced as never to recover their health. [14]

Misery enhanced family loyalties. In the absence of statesMpported social services, members of the family had to depend on one another. Barbara Taylor, in her brilliant study Eve and the New Jerusalem, shows how, in contrast to the dreams of the early nineteenth-century utopian socialists for women’s liberation, women turned towards the family as a refuge in a cruel world, and many looked to the husband as a provider. From the widespread common-law marriage among working-class people of the early nineteenth century, working-class women from about the middle of the century onwards started looking for security in legal marriage:

The combined effect of pressure from above and a changed social environment from below was to narrow women’s options and increase their sexual vulnerability. Under these circumstances, women were usually more interested in enforcing the obligations of marriage than in abolishing them. Safer relationships, rather than freer ones, were a common goal. It was at least partly for this reason that many women turned to the church, in the hope of imposing its conjugal code on men ...

In a period when women’s prospects outside marriage were worsening and the burden of family support falling on many women inside marriage was intolerably heavy, it is not surprising that women themselves tended to look towards a home-centred existence, supported by a reliable male breadwinner, as a desirable goal. Or perhaps more accurately, they found it almost impossible to imagine any real alternative, except in the current reality of economic insecurity and overwork. [15]

The scene which shows up most sharply how defence of the worker’s family served the interests of all its members – man, woman and child – is the fate of black slave families in the United States. Legal marriage was denied to slaves, and relationships were impossible to sustain. It was common for a woman slave to be sold away from her man and/or children, or vice versa. Numerous slave narratives provide dramatic accounts of the events surrounding the forced separation of couples, or parents and children.

Slavery dehumanised the black man and the black woman equally, atrocities being meted out to men and women with equal ferocity. Angela Davis sums up:

The sheer force of things rendered her equal to the man ... Though the ruling class was male and rabidly chauvinistic, the slave system could not confer upon the Black man the appearance of a privileged position vis-a-vis the Black woman. The man-slave could not be the unquestioned superior within the “family” or community, for there was no such thing as the “family provider” among slaves. The attainment of slavery’s intrinsic goals was contingent upon the fullest and most brutal utilisation of the productive capacities of every man, woman and child. They all had to “provide” for the master. The Black woman was totally integrated into the productive force. [16]

... the slave system also discouraged male supremacy in Black men. Because husbands and wives, fathers and daughters were equally subjected to the slavemasters’ absolute authority, the promotion of male supremacy among the slaves might have prompted a dangerous rupture in the chain of command. [17]

The slavemasters smashed the slave’s “family”, so as “to crush every symbol of humanity, affection, and compassion within slaves”. [18]

Against this, the slaves fought hard to defend the “family”. Joyce Ladner tells of “numerous historical accounts of black men lashing out against slavery because of its inhuman effects upon their families”. Although “countless slave families were forcibly disrupted” through “indiscriminate sales of husbands, wives and children”, she says that “the bonds of love and affection, the cultural norms governing family relations, and the overpowering desire to remain together survived the devastating onslaught of slavery.” [19] “The family’s vitality,” argues Angela Davis, “proved stronger than the dehumanising rigors of slavery.” There is “fascinating evidence of a thriving and developing family during slavery”. [20]

Thus in the case of the slaves also, the defence of the family’ played a crucial part in their class struggle.



Rebuilding the worker’s family

Marx clearly recognised that the structure of employment of the working-class family was central in determining the value of any industrial worker’s labour power. The employment of men, women and children spread the value of labour-power over the whole working-class family, and so reduced the value of the labour-power of each. In addition, competition for jobs became sharper. Thus John Foster’s book The Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution shows that in the Nottingham footwear industry wages fell so radically after the 1820s as a result of the drawing of women and children into work in the factories, that the total wages of all members of the family was below the wages earned by the man alone before women and children were employed. [21]

Working-class recognition that the employment of women and children cut living standards and raised the degree of exploitation, and that this trend could be fought through a campaign for a “family wage” – a wage sufficient to support the man and his wife and children without their working – is reflected in the following extract from the Trades Newspaper of 16 October 1825:

Wages can never sink below the sum necessary to rear up the number of labourers the capitalists want. The weaver, his wife and children, all labour to obtain this sum; the blacksmith and the carpenter obtain it by their single exertions ...

The labouring men of this country, of all classes, should return to the good old plan, of subsisting their wives and children on the wages of their own labour, and they should demand wages high enough for this purpose ... By doing this, the capitalists will be obliged to give the same wages to men alone which they now give to men, women and children ... I recommend my fellow labourers, in preference to every other means of limiting the number of those who work for wages, to prevent their wives and children from competing with them in the market, and beating down the price of labour. [22]

Jane Humphries also argues, correctly, that women’s domestic labour could, by producing things of value in the home, raise the family income to levels higher than when they were all working.

Tilley and Scott in their book Women, Work and the Family, provide ample evidence of the gains made by women from the achievement of the “family wage”:

A factor which influenced married women’s employment rates was related to improvements in real wages. The increased standard of living improved the diet, the health, and the life span of working-class adults. The decline of incidences of illness and death of a husband thus drove fewer married women into the labour force. In the course of her lifetime, a wife faced fewer emergencies which compelled her to become the family breadwinner. [23]

The “family wage” and the retreat of women from employment, were of course blows to women’s sexual equality, constituting an important factor in women’s oppression. The cash nexus, plus the economic dependence of women on men, inevitably meant the devaluation of work at home, and women’s social inferiority. As Margaret Benston points out, “in a society in which money determines value, women are a group which works outside the money economy. Their work is not worth money, is therefore valueless, is therefore not real work.”

Women became restricted to marriage – to becoming wives and mothers. With this vocation came all the accepted attributes of femininity: submissiveness, passivity, emotionalism, caring. Women also became passive objects to be won or taken by the virile men.

These changes were the inevitable results of women’s massive withdrawal from gainful employment. But under the conditions of the nineteenth century there was no other way of defending the elementary physical and moral needs of women, children and men of the industrial working class.

In the abstract, of course, there could have been a fight for adequate childcare facilities, maternity leave and equal pay. Heidi Hartmann argues:

Instead of fighting for equal wages for men and women, male workers sought the “family wage”, wanting to retain their wives’ services at home. In the absence of patriarchy a unified class might have confronted capitalism, but patriarchal social relations divided the working class, allowing one part (men) to be bought off at the expense of the other (women). [24]

This is nonsense. The labour movement at the time was far from having the knout to achieve any part of such a utopian scheme. Jane Humphries answers the supporters of the theory of patriarchy very well:

... any analysis that treats working women as mere passive victims in the face of the imperatives of capital and the attitudes of man charactenses them as sheep-like creatures incapable of perceiving, defending or acting upon even their most basic interests.

This would deny working-class women “any semblance of self-determination and dignity”. [25]

The working-class family of the second half of the nineteenth century was created and recreated jointly, though not usually amicably, by men and women, the woman both resisting and accommodating to her own oppression. While the family provided the man with privileges, it gave the woman, while removing her from productive labour, a sense of dignity and security, especially in her function as mother. Linda Gordon gives an excellent description of this:

In the nineteenth century women needed marriage far more than men. Lacking economic independence, women needed husbands to support them, or at least to free them from a usually more humiliating economic dependence on fathers. Epecially in the cities, where women were often isolated from communities, deprived of the economic and psychological support of networks of relatives, friends and neighbours, the prospect of dissolving the cement of nuclear families was frightening. In many cases children, and the prospect of children, provided that cement ... Women ... were also dependent on their children to provide them with meaningful work. The belief that motherhood was a woman s fulfilment had a material basis: parenthood was often the only creative and challenging activity in a woman’s life, a key part of her self-esteem. [26]

It is true that the idea of the family in which the wife does not work outside the home was initially established by the capitalist class itself. The influx of workers into the new cities of the Industrial Revolution brought about the virtual collapse of the old peasant family.

In addition to alienation and exploitation at work, the proletariat had to contend with fragmentation and alienation, as the old rural forms of collective life were threatened in the cities ... Proletarian children, it was often said, were raised by the street, not by the family. [27]

The nineteenth-century philanthropists concerned themselves with the increasing cost to the state of maintaining abandoned children, and with the problems of disease, “vice” and “disorder” arising in the vast concentrations of working-class men and women in cities such as Manchester.

The solution was to turn the working-class woman into a housewife performing the labour of caring for man and children in the home. Jacques Donzelot explains:

This solution offered three advantages. First, it would allow a social expense to be replaced by an additional quantity of unpaid labour. It would also allow elements of hygiene to be introduced into working- class life in the areas of child-rearing and nutrition, and would make possible a regularisation of behaviour, the lack of which explained the frequency of premature deaths, illness and insubordination ... Finally, this would make it possible to have the man controlled by the woman, since she would provide him with the benefits of her domestic activity only to the extent that he deserved them ... [For the philanthropists] woman, the housewife and attentive mother, was man’s salvation, the privileged instrument for civilising the working class. [28]

Various techniques were used by the capitalist class to encourage workers to adopt this solution, through schooling, religion, entertainment, and many other channels. For example, state-provided housing began to be built, small enough for only a nuclear family of man, woman and children to live in, with separate bedrooms for parents and children of different sexes. Since the development of the welfare state, many new methods have been devised – taxation, social security benefits, the intervention of social workers in the home – all these encourage working-class men and women to adopt the nuclear model of the family as their own.

A variety of different pressures, both from above and from below, thus led to the creation of the modern working-class family. But workers adapted the values and standards imposed from without to their own needs. For working-class women motherhood, however tough, was in fact the most important and significant part of their oppressive lives, which they preferred to its only possible alternative.

The assumption of many present-day feminists that working-class women were anxious in the past for work outside their homes, but prevented from it by their husbands’ opposition, has been shattered completely by the massive entry of women, including married women, into employment since the Second World War, on a scale comparable to the absorption of agricultural labour into the early factories.

If the crucial factor in the workers’ class struggle for a century – from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries – was the striving of men and women workers to defend the family, keeping practically all married women at home, now it is the withering away of the “family wage” by the involvement of women workers in work outside their homes which is the crucial factor in women’s struggles.

The feminists explain the rise of the “family wage” in the nineteenth century mistakenly, and they are no less mistaken in seeing all women today as mainly housewives, rather than wage-earners – which is how it is first and foremost for working-class women. Paid employment is the key for working-class women in gaining strength and confidence and thus in winning women’s liberation.


1. Marx and Engels, Works vol.5, pp.180-1.

2. Marx and Engels, Works vol.6, pp.501-2.

3. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York 1979) p.80.

4. I. Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (London 1981) pp.187-8.

5. Hutchins and Harrison, p.110.

6. J.B. Jefferys, The Story of the Engineers (London 1945) p.207.

7. L.A. Tilly and J.W. Scott, Women, Work and Family (New York 1978) p.196.

8. See, for instance, H. Hartmann, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, in L. Sargent (editor), The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (London 1981).

9. Jane Humphries has documented this well in The Working Class Family, Women’s Liberation and Class Struggle: Nineteenth Century British History, in Review of Radical Political Economy (February 1977).

10. Pinchbeck, pp.248-9.

11. J. Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (London 1974) pp.91-2.

12. R. Davies, Women and Work (London 1975) p.126.

13. M. Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth Century Lancashire (Cambridge 1971) pp.137-8.

14. P. Hollis (editor), Class and Conflict in Nineteenth Century England, 1815-1850 (London 1973) p.210.

15. B Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem (London 1983) pp.205 and 273.

16. Sargent, pp.95 and 99.

17. A. Davis, Women, Race and Class (London 1982) pp.7-8.

18. J.A. Ladner, Racism and Tradition: Black Womanhood in Historical Perspective, in Carroll, p.188.

19. Ladner, p.187.

20. Davis, pp.4 and 14-15. One crucial role of the pass laws in South Africa today is the deliberate destruction of the family life of black workers.

21. Foster, p.87.

22. Quoted in Hollis, pp.193-4.

23. Tilly and Scott, p.199.

24. Sargent, p.21.

25. Humphries.

26. L. Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right (London 1977) p.110.

27. M. Poster, Critical Theory of the Family (London 1978) pp.192-3.

28. J. Donzelot, The Policing of Families (London 1980) pp.39-40.


Last updated on 31.7.2002