Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Revolutionary Union

Red Papers 3: Women Fight for Liberation

Women on the job

“When I hear ’Southern womanhood’ defended by racists, I just have to laugh. I am ’Southern womanhood,’ and I’ve had to work all my life like an animal. I took in washing and ironing; I picked and chopped cotton, worked in the peanut fields, and took care of children for women who were lucky enough to get jobs in the cotton mills.” This statement made by Peggy Terry, who has organized working class people in the South and in Chicago, puts everything exactly like it is: the image of the rich women who are supposed to be protected because they are weak and ladylike; and the reality for most women, working class women, who are “lucky enough” to get a job or are left to take care of the children for even less than the cotton mills pay. There it is in all its inequality. And what are we to do about it?

The first division of labor is that between men and women in the bearing of children. In the early primitive societies, that division of labor led to the woman’s taking care of domestic chores while the man took care of outside activities. Yet when some men took over property and needed people to work for them, they did not hesitate to break up such “domestic bliss” and turn women as well as men into slaves. With the Industrial Revolution, the capitalists hired women as well as children to work side by side with men as wage slaves.

By fostering the idea that “woman’s place is in the home,” the capitalist bosses can have their cake and eat it, too: they can convince half the population that we should be at home, or, if we must go to work, that we should expect to get lower wages than men, a higher unemployment rate than men, less attention from the unions, and all the discriminatory hiring practices that go along with that kind of policy. This system which puts women in a position that is inferior to men is male supremacy, and the attitudes that spring from it are male chauvinism.


Like men, women workers are exploited as workers who must sell their labor power to a capitalist. The capitalist pays the worker wages which are only about half as much as the worker produces. The rest goes into the capitalist’s pocket as his “private profit.” This exploited labor is the basis of the profit system. But women are super-exploited: their wages fall far below those of men. The amount of profit the boss squeezes out of them is far greater. Since women make up 40% of the labor force, this means huge profits for the capitalists. The margin of profit is getting higher because while women have been entering the labor force at a higher percentage than men (from 1947 to 1964 the number of women in the work force increased 53% while the number of men went up only 12%), the gap between the incomes of men and women has widened in recent years. (All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from the 1965 Handbook on Women Workers, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Women’s Bureau.)

Much of this profit is made off third world working women. As a Black Panther woman said, “Black women as generally a part of the poor people of the U.S., the working class, are more oppressed, as being black, they’re super-oppressed, and as being women they are sexually oppressed by men in general and by black men also.” (“Panther Sisters on Women’s Liberation,” The Movement, Sept. 1969) A greater percentage of third world women work than white, and they are concentrated in the most ’ menial jobs open to women; their unemployment rate is highest, and their average income lowest. For example, in 1968 for every $100 the average white working man made, the average black working man made $68.60, the white working woman $58.20, and the black working woman $45.


Contrary to the myth sponsored by the bosses that “women don’t need to work” and therefore don’t need to get as much money as men, most women who work do so out of economic necessity. Women, like men, take boring, low-paying jobs because having a job is a matter of life and death. Four out of every ten of the nation’s poorest families are headed by women. In 1965, out of every 100 women who worked, 42 were the sole support of themselves and their families. Out of every 100 white working women, 37 have children under 5 years old, and out of every 100 black working women, 51 have children under 5. Twenty-four women out of every 100 working women have husbands who make less than $5000 a year. As Mickey and John Rountree point out (in their article, “More on the Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review, Jan. 1970), 29% of all husband-wife families had incomes below $7000 in 1966 when the wife and husband worked; 49% had incomes below that level when she did not work. Ten out of every 100 wives who work in this country do so in order to get the family out of the below-$3000-a-year bracket.

We know that the costs of food, housing, clothing, education–everything–are soaring while at the same time taxes are spiraling upward. Meanwhile, there are increasing lay-offs and unemployment, the welfare rolls are filling up and sometimes filled. The workers are caught in the middle–paying for the bosses’ wars while making the bosses’ products. We know that we have to unite all workers to resist the attack on living standards by the monopoly capitalists. How to begin?


This unity can only come through struggle around the rights of working people. And to fail to build unity between men and women in struggle can only lead to defeat. For example, in last year’s strike against Standard Oil, the workers at one Standard unit, Chevron Chemical Co., in Richmond, California, lost their union shop because the male majority in the union ignored the basic grievances of the women, before and even during the strike. So the women did not really feel that the strike was their struggle, certainly not as much as the men’s. When the going really got rough, many of the women led a back-to-work movement that broke the back of the strike and forced the workers back into the shop with no union.

Women at Chevron are forced to do the most boring, lowest paying work with no real chance to advance. The men, when they are first hired, work on the same lines for the same pay as the women. But they advance to easier, higher-paying jobs in a few months. This, plus the fact that the union and the strike was run by men, made the women feel that they had no great stake in defeating the company. The potential power of the women, united as equals with the men, was shown by several militant women workers, who played a leading role in the strike, especially in the front lines of battle, despite all the obstacles of male supremacy and male domination.

Women must make this clear to men: that if the bosses can get away with paying third world men, white women, and third world women lower wages than they pay the white men, then it keeps the white men’s wages lower, too–we are all in it together. For instance, when Northern laborers got organized, the bosses moved their textile mills to the South; now that Southern laborers are winning some wage struggles, they’ve moved a lot of their textile mills all the way to Saigon! But the Vietnamese people, through long years of struggle with invaders from many countries, have developed a revolutionary party with working class leadership; they are fighting against being the slaves of U.S. imperialism. They work with rifles ready in case of attack. Their struggle is directly related to the struggle of women working in the textile mills of this country; they are refusing to be the bosses’ wage slaves.


Out of every 100 working women, 15 work at the point of production in factories. In the manufacturing industries, women are more likely to be employed in “soft” goods, like clothing and food, than in “hard” goods, like cars, machinery, etc. But women’s employment increased more in hard goods than in soft goods from 1950 to 1965 in electronics, for example. The word is that the electronics industry needs women because of their “agile fingers.” If that were the reason, why hasn’t the medical profession been calling for women heart surgeons all these years? Women make up almost 3 out of 10 workers at the point of production. These women, along with industrial working men, make up the industrial proletariat–the workers who can, because of the knowledge they have gained through practical experience, take over and run our industries to serve the people rather than the bosses.

Sixteen out of every 100 working women are in the service industries. Of these, more than a third are waitresses, bartenders, and cooks. Another large group are attendants in hospitals and other institutions. The rest are in personal services–beauticians, servants, etc.

The largest group of women workers–32 out of every 100–are clerical workers. About a third of these are secretaries, stenographers, and typists. The others are in other office work and communications work–primarily telephone operators. Although 70% of the nation’s clerical workers are women, only 30% of these women belong to unions. One reason is that many women hesitate to identify with the working class, preferring to identify with the women in the magazine ads. This is part of the brain-wash we receive which glorifies the ruling class even while they are bombing and starving millions upon millions of people to death. That is why the industrial proletariat will be the vanguard–in the forefront of the struggle. People at the point of production cannot deny their working class being; these workers are not removed from reality by skyscraping architecture, closets full of clothes, or the papers and pens of bureaucracy.


As the struggle intensifies and the contradictions become more obvious, more and more women in the professions, such as nursing, teaching, social work, will join the revolutionary ranks. Many of the women already in the Women’s Liberation Movement come from these fields. Nurses especially are in a position which makes them ready allies with the true proletariat. Not only are their wages low, but they find the doctor-nurse relationship the same as it was when the doctor’s kit went to the boy and the nurse’s kit to the girl as children; so they have a very real understanding of their oppression as women in a “man’s world.”

Most women who choose nursing as a career do so because of humanitarian desires to serve the people, but they are then witness to the inhuman system of medical “care” (which looks after the rich and does its best to ignore the poor. After a recent police killing of a teen-aged boy, several nurses expressed support for community control of the police; they had seen too many such cases.

The humanitarian desire to serve the people is common to other kinds of health workers, teachers, social and welfare workers, VISTA workers, even peace corps volunteers and some lawyers. But the system puts them into positions where they are forced to see the corruption of a society which makes money the goal of every enterprise. Recently we heard from a VISTA worker the story of how, as a lawyer, he was asked to file a report that blamed a 5-year-old girl instead of the company-owners for an accident in which she crawled up on a cement mixer and got her arm cut off. He simply refused to do it.

And most teachers want to teach. The young and honest find that their main job instead is to maintain discipline in a prisonlike atmosphere. They are quick to understand what third world people mean by relevant education–education that relates to real everyday life. Yet when they try to teach what their students need to learn, they put their jobs on the line. We can see evidence of growing unrest in the increasing number of welfare workers’ revolts, peace corps revolts, VISTA workers getting out of line, nurses’ and teachers’ strikes.


In the struggle for the equal participation of women in the liberation of all people, the fight against male supremacy must be carried to the unions. Where there are already unions, membership must be open to women. Protective legislation and minimum wage laws must be extended to all workers. There must be no jobs based on sex or race. There must be equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leaves with no loss of seniority, 24-hour-a-day child care paid for by the companies and controlled by the parents, and free, paid training for women who have been denied this training previously because of their sex. Although recognizing that the unions are mostly run by sell-out leaders, we also recognize that we must fight for the workers’ interests within the unions. We must, as a worker’s wife at the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel (PDM) strike said, “Organize the organized.” Women’s caucuses and rank-and-file movements within unions and the formation of solidarity committees of workers from many plants will also be important in this struggle.

In 1964 only one out of eight women workers were joining a union compared to one out of four men workers. Where unions don’t exist, we must organize the unorganized: the women in domestic and farm work, in the garment sweatshops, in clerical and electronic work, and in other jobs now largely unorganized and ignored by the unions. Women textile workers, always leaders in the labor struggle, recently led a strike to get a union at a hosiery corporation in South Carolina. The company refused to sign a contract for six months, but the solidarity of the black and white workers (mostly women) held out to victory.

Wives of union men must be encouraged to come to union meetings and participate in the discussions and struggles. When this happened at the PDM strike, it was helpful in getting wives to support the strike. One very strong wile was named chairman of the Workers’ Committee that grew out of the strike.

Working women and workers’ wives–as well as their husbands–must be encouraged to help develop working class newspapers, which are an excellent way of communicating among workers–informing workers of other workers’ struggles. We have found that distributing working class newspapers is a good way to get people involved in making other people aware; it is also a good way of getting to talk to people.

And we must reach out to those who are unable to work–unemployed women and women on welfare. Capitalism never has offered full employment and, by its nature, it cannot. Unemployment is highest among women workers: once again the scale goes white men, third world men, white women, third world women. That gap is widening as more and more women seek jobs. Nixon’s plan to increase unemployment in order to slow down runaway inflation is hitting and will continue to hit factory workers hardest. From 1959 to 1964 unemployment among women factory workers went up 9 to 13%.

And many women work only part time. This use of women as fill-in help is a windfall for the capitalists, who in this way avoid paying many of the fringe benefits which full-time workers have fought for and won. Women who work the land–the tenant farmers’ wives and daughters, the black migrant laborers in the South, the brown farmworkers of the Southwest–are only seasonally employed and are among the most oppressed people in the nation.

Modern industry has made it possible for women to enter the labor force, but it has not made it possible for all women to do that any more than it can make it possible for all men to have jobs. So society offers what it calls “welfare.” Right now in Santa Clara County, Calif., supposedly one of the wealthiest counties in the whole country (average per person income is around $13,000 per year), comes this headline: “Crisis in Santa Clara over Big Welfare Jump.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/21/70) “Armies of new welfare recipients, including many middle class persons never before on welfare, are being driven to the welfare rolls by an economic recession and inflation,” said a welfare spokesman. “Major employers, such as Lockheed, are laying off people because of loss of government contracts.”

We must find ways to serve the needs of all oppressed and exploited women and unite women to lead in the proletarian revolution. This organizing takes many forms: within unions and workers’ committees, newspaper work and distribution, child care organizing (for women on the job and at home), tenants’ unions, women’s groups where women read together, talk, watch films, etc.–any form that serves the real needs of the people. We need to exchange the experience we gain from our failures and successes.