Dora B. Montefiore Justice, 12 November 1910

The Family as the Unit of Society

Source: “Our Women’s Circle, Justice, p.5, 12 November 1910;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford

At the recent Conference on the Minority Report called by the I.L.P. in the Memorial Hall, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald was good enough to state from the chair that “women were the problem of the hour”; that he was not in favour of society providing for childbearing women; and that he looked on the family as the unit of society, and as likely to continue so. I do not know if women, as a sex, are duly impressed with the honour done them when they are spoken of by a statesman of Mr. MacDonald’s outlook as “a problem” but it strikes some of us who are working at some of the human problems of the day that if we were looked upon more as human beings and less as creatures of sex by some of these gentlemen with the reformer’s concept, we, as human beings, might perhaps be able to solve our own problem more cleanly and concisely than could any brainy statesman or fussy reformer.

The same formula surely applies to women as to any other of the unprivileged: “Give them access to the means of life, and let them work out the rest of their problem for themselves.” The well-to-do folk nowadays tell us such a proceeding would demoralise the people and take away all incentive to do more than the minimum task prescribed by the community. And the reforming folk tell us that such a proceeding would, as far as women are concerned, demoralise them and take away all incentive to virtue; because economic dependence on some man is the best way to ensure obedience and chastity on the part of maid and wife. They apparently forget – these well-to-do folk and these reformers – that some of the best work done, even under the present system, is done without the incentive of compulsion or reward; and that, though under capitalism an enormous number of women are economically dependent on some male relative, the number is daily lessening as women go out into the field of industry, or of the professions; and that, though the conditions under which both they and men have to work are bad – very bad – yet the women thus forced into economic independence are gaining in breadth of outlook, in knowledge of the real things of life, and of the matters of choice in conduct which life offers.

Let us look for a moment into what this question of the family as the unit of society means. So long as the individual family provided in the past its supplies by hand-labour, the family was necessarily the economic unit of society. As production becomes more and more socialised, the individual family becomes less and less the economic unit of society. Finally, as scientifically organised production and distribution (first through trusts and combines, and then through the community) becomes the order of the day, the family will lose altogether its importance as the economic unit, and will occupy only a sentimental position as regards society. All our Socialist demands and palliatives at the present time must keep these facts and interpretations strenuously to the front; and that is why, as Socialists, we repudiate any reforms tending to further enslave economically any group of individuals. If we interpret that every palliative must contain the germ of the future reconstruction of society, then – as child-bearing women, infants and young children will be maintained in that reconstructed society – we, as Socialists, must now carry on our agitation along those lines, and must refuse to be side-tracked by those who have merely a concept of reform of the existing state of things. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald was pleased to say on the same occasion that those who were demanding the maintenance of child-bearing mothers were “Young Women in revolt.” Again, I would retort it is not as women, whether old or young, we are demanding it but as human beings, realising that the interests of the future race make it the next step in our revolutionary programme.

It was for this reason that we of the British section of the Socialist Women’s International Bureau brought forward our resolution at the Copenhagen Women’s Conference, demanding that, as the Conference stood for the national and international socialisation of the means of life, international Socialists should agitate, for the maintenance of child-bearing women, infants and young children. As this resolution was passed almost unanimously by the international Socialist women, we can now carry on our agitation along those lines; for, having stated the principle and the revolutionary nature of our demand, we are then at liberty to snatch though legislation any palliative in harmony with the principle, and to point out why any reform which side-tracks the principle should be rejected.

With all deference to Mr. Macdonald’s perturbations, we Socialists look upon poverty, and not women, as the problem of the hour, and that problem of poverty can only be solved by the social and economic revolution about which Mr. Macdonald is so tired of hearing. The woman who is working as an economic unit of society will benefit by that revolution equally with the man; and together they will, solve the various human problems as they arise; for “the worker, having made everything, he can destroy everything, and he can remake everything.” As human beings, we are beginning to learn that there are no rights without duties, and no duties without rights; that once the idea of one human being having property rights in another human being is, with other private property ideas, shut way in the limbo of the past, all workers, whether men or women, will be able to throw themselves consciously into the task of the social struggle for existence against nature so as to achieve a victory over natural forces, which will redound to the advantage of all humanity.