Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Women’s Group (CFB-London)

Women’s Liberation: Critical Notes on Selma James’ Pamphlet

First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 5, Summer 1973
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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The W.L. MOVEMENT has been in existence now for about five years. Many different factors brought women together: some left the various ’left’ organisations because of the ’male chauvinist’ attitudes existing in these groups[1], some women were encouraged by the 1968 strike of the Ford women[2], others were influenced by the movement in the United States, others for personal reasons. All of these women organised in separate groups discussing various problems, various specific ’women’ issues. These issues went from pure ’consciousness-raising’[3] discussions to more elaborate discussions about the theory of women’s oppression.

All through these years the movement was concerned with specific problems which tended more and more to bring into question the economic, cultural and social basis of the bourgeois system. For example, the women involved in the Contraception and Abortion Campaign, who were primarily concerned with ’individual’ cases of abortion, began to understand, through struggle, that this question is linked to the way in which the bourgeois system works and cannot be solved on an individual basis. At the same time, the movement retained its basically spontaneous nature. All work was directed towards four immediate issues, and little or no attempt had been made to work out long term perspectives or a programmatic basis for the movement as a whole[4].

“Women, the Unions and Work”

It was at this stage in the development of the women’s movement that a paper entitled “Women, the Unions and Work”[5] was written by Selma James of the Nottingham Hill Women’s Liberation. This was first presented at the National Conference of Women on March 25-26, 1972.

This paper is important insofar as it tackles a vital issue for the WL movement: that of the unions and work for working women. It also represents a possible turning point in the movement, that of providing an organisational platform for feminism. It must be noted that Selma James does have some kind of ’revolutionary’ perspective: she argues that women in general, represents the most oppressed ‘class’ in this society and therefore the most progressive force in the ’working class’ movement, regardless of their relationship to the means of production. Since the existing working class organisations are predominantly male-dominated, she argues that women in general, must organise separately “where they work, for wages where they shop, where they live and work..” (p.17)

This paper is also important for its analysis, for the problems it raise and the demands it makes.

The Analysis

It is clear that Selma and her group view ’men’ as the main enemy. The paper mentions capitalism and its oppression of the working class, but the emphasis is definitely put on the ’sex-battle’. Selma James is right when she says that bourgeois society is male dominated and male orientated, that union officials are mostly men, even though women represent some 40% of the labour force, that ’left’ organisations are male dominated and most of them have a male domineering attitude and mentality, etc.

This is not to be denied. But it is totally wrong to explain these phenomena in terms of Male/Female antagonism. To do so is to argue that abstract human nature exists and that men are by nature antagonistic/superior/patronising, etc. towards women. This is in contradiction to the Marxist view that attitudes and ideologies (’human nature’) are socially determined. The emphasis must be placed on the class struggle of exploiters and exploited, and the effect which bourgeois ideology (as part of that struggle) has on men and women alike[6].

One must be clear that women do not form a ’class’ of their own, in the same way as the blacks in the United States are not a class (a parallel often made by Selma James). If one talks about women’s oppression one must be careful to stress that this oppression is at different degrees depending on the social class specific women belong to. The wife of a Managing Director is not oppressed in the same way or to anything like the same degree as a working class woman.

The Problems

Selma James sees two main problems for the Women’s Movement, the first is the capitalist machine itself, ready to incorporate more and more women because of the increasing need for cheap labour (p.2). The second one, more insidious, and it is implied, more dangerous, are the left organisations who understand the need for the co-operation of women within the class struggle but who consider them as backward and therefore use them only marginally: ”They effectively want to make us auxiliary to the ’general’ struggle.” (p.2). And this is so because: “for them the ’real’ working class is (white), male and over thirty”. Therefore male chauvinism is deeply rooted even among those who speak for the working class and in its interests. They talk the language of men, always forgetting that women are part of the working force.

In general there is much truth in these characterisations. As we shall see later, however, the (feminist) solutions proposed are totally incorrect. Specifically in relation to the first point, this is perfectly true. However it is idealist to suppose that you can fight capitalism from ’without’ (p.2), for fear of more enslavement of women. The only way to fight capitalism and destroy it is from within, from the ranks of the working class movement, where men and women unite together to fight the common enemy, capitalism, and its oppressive system, the bourgeois ruling class and its state.

Selma James and the Unions

Selma James attacks the Unions for many reasons:

”They do not help the struggle of women for equal pay, in fact they have helped to maintain unequal rates of pay”.
“They worry that ’equal pay’ might disturb wage differentials among men”.
“They are not much concerned with unionising women (p.5) e.g., the Night Cleaners”.
“They are not interested in women who do not work”.
“The Unions work hand in hand with the capitalist classes (p.6), for they have convinced workers that If they (get) a rise in pay they (get) a rise in standard of living.”

All of these questions must be tackled separately, but one thing is clear at the outset: Selma James’ confusion over the unions. She does not know precisely what a union is nor its role and limitations in the fight against the capitalist system; she sees no difference between the leadership and the rank and file.

Moreover, she confuses political and economic struggles.

1. She asserts the treachery of the Unions in that they have “helped to maintain unequal rates of pay”. In fact this problem is far more complex than that one need only consider the NUT which has obtained equal pay for women. Does this make it a progressive union? The example of the NUT underlines the fact that wage differentials, insofar as they are the result of Union policy[7], are caused by the relative strength and economic bargaining power of groups of workers, not by their sex. The fact is of course that many women are employed in menial, unorganised and low-paid industries. The question of why this is so is one which we must examine, but the question of wage differentials; although more acute in the case of women (for the reason outlined) is only part of the general problem of the low-paid worker.

2. (A related point) She stresses the grading in pay and the concern felt by men over equal pay for women. Again this is the wrong way of looking at the problem. The capitalist system has always played men against women and grading is an expression of this. There can be little doubt that the trade union are now essentially bourgeois structures which disseminate basically bourgeois ideology. Whereas there was an economic basis for the bourgeois ideology of male superiority (see note 6), this is becoming increasingly irrelevant. However the survival of this ideology is in the interests of the capitalist class in the same way as it is in the interests of that class for the working class to be divided on the basis of race or (as in Northern Ireland) religion.

3. The Unions’ lack of concern to unionise women – inasmuch as it exists – is very much connected with the question of rates of pay (point I above).If the unions are unwilling to unionise women it is not so much because they are women as because they tend to work in positions of low organisation and solidarity. In general the unions are reluctant to organise such groups of workers, whatever their sex. It must also be said that despite the masculine bias in the unions, their policy is increasingly orientated towards women, since women represent a large percentage of the working class.

4. In criticising the unions’ lack of interest in the wageless, Selma James is again turning a general characteristic into one which is directed specifically against women. In addition it shows a lack of clarity concerning the role of the unions. Unions are, by their very nature, concerned with working people, and thinking that they should take care of the wageless is beside the point, since the problems of ’wageless’ people (i.e., housewives) are different from those of wage earners.

5. The attack on the class-collaborationist nature of the unions, while it starts from a correct understanding, is developed on completely mistaken lines. One of the main aims of the working class is to gain a higher standard of living through economic struggle (strikes), with the help of the union organisation. The more the working class strikes the more it threatens the capitalist system, the more it recoups its standard of living if inflation ’follows’ the rise in wages, as the capitalists want us to believe, this does not mean that economic struggle is useless and the working class is being deceived. It is an inevitable process under capitalism which lives on profits made on the backs and sweat of the workers. If workers want a greater share of the wealth they produce the capitalist class, because of the way the system works, must inflate prices. This does not mean that economic struggles are useless. On the contrary they are very important and necessary: capitalism is forced to make greater concessions and overall it becomes clearer to workers that economic struggle is not an end in itself but a tool to help in the destruction of capitalism.

Economic struggle in itself will not bring down capitalism; it must be developed into political struggle and action. That is to say that unions, the organisations of the working class uniting in order to gain and defend certain rights can be seen only in the context of economic struggles. Workers, organised in unions, can only deal repeated blows to the capitalist system and bourgeois state; the final blow to destroy them must be a political one, which only a political party can provide.

When speaking of unions we must be careful to distinguish between the so-called leadership and the rank-and-file. The militancy is to be expected at rank and file level, not at the leadership level: union leaders, by their very position, will tend to be ’co-opted’ into the bourgeois state, and in this way to betray the long-term interests of their class (e.g., Lord Cooper). Workers have more need of the organisation and what it can provide than of the men at the top.

The Six Demands

We shall now consider Selma James’ six demands. They are as follows:

1. We demand the right to work less (for starts a 24 hour week)
2. We demand a guaranteed income for women and men, working or not working, married or not; we demand wages for housework
3. We demand control of our bodies. We demand the right to have or not to have children
4. We demand equal pay for all
5. We demand an end to price rises
6. We demand free community controlled nurseries and child care

Demand No. 1

It is a wrong demand. At a time when a correct demand is contained in the campaign for the ’right to work’, this demand can only be confusing, or at worst reactionary .At the present time the capitalist class would be only too pleased to grant such a demand, as it is expressed. Even if we were to demand the right to work less it must be accompanied by the demand for the same pay. In addition the proposed 24 hour week is totally unrealistic and will not attract people or make them organise. Some people (e.g., the car workers) are demanding a 35 hour week, a realistic demand which can be organised round and fought for. Besides, one must point out that work in itself is not bad. Selma James is considering work as something which exists on its own, and not something, the characteristics of which are determined by social conditions. Under socialism work will still exist and be more necessary than ever, but it will be satisfactory because the relationship between the ’workers’ and work will be basically different.

Demand No. 2

Asking for wages for housework is a completely mistaken and reactionary demand. It is in contradiction with the main idea of the WL movement, which is to get women together in order to break the mental, cultural and psychological isolation of women. Through working women have been breaking this isolation. At the factory or in the office women find other women with the same problems as themselves.

Such a demand not only contradicts this basic idea but is also reactionary. Institutionalising individual housework (by introducing wages) would make women more enslaved and more isolate from social production. In some circumstances it would even be of great benefit to the capitalist system.

As Marxist-Leninists we hold that women should be involved in social (not individual) production, should mix with other women, and with men, join their unions and involve themselves in struggles as a first step towards economic independence. This will assist in the development of political consciousness. It is high time that women stopped, thinking (as this society makes them think) that ’politics is a business for men’.

Politics is everybody’s business. Women should join men in economic struggles in the same way as men should join women in economic struggles. The bourgeois ideology of men superior/women inferior must be defeated through the joint attacks of women and men. This ideology will be defeated only when men fully understand that the revolution will not be possible without women, and for that they (the men) must be educated. Only then will it be possible to set up a true revolutionary party.

Demand No. 3 (control of our bodies)

It is on the whole a correct demand. It would be better phrased as free contraception and free abortion on demand. In addition a true progressive demand would be sex education for both women and men during adolescence and free contraception.

Demand No. 4

Equal pay for all sounds nice, but it is a completely utopian demand. It negates class struggle and struggle in stages according to the specific objective conditions. According to Selma James, women do not have to fight for this demand, they just have to ask for it to be conceded. Besides, even socialist society maintains wage differentials, for very good reasons (to each according to his work). To raise such an egalitarian demand in capitalist society is totally meaningless and divisive. In any case what does equal pay for all mean? Should a family with one child have the same pay as a family with ten children? The only way this demand can have any meaning is if it is the long term, communist aim of “to each according to his needs.” As such it is a part of our long term perspectives, but not a demand that we raise now.

Demand No. 5

The demand to end price rises is a good agitational demand; however it is not a demand aimed specifically at women – men and women must organise together against rising prices. It is important that this is done within a wider political context otherwise it might be argued that the Tory Government’s ’freeze’ is aimed at the same target. In capitalist society price rises cannot end since that society is based on profits. Therefore workers (women and men) must organise politically to destroy that society and construct a more advanced one based on the needs of the people and not the profits of the minority.

Demand No. 6 (’community controlled nurseries....’)

This is a good demand, but again it must be placed within a wider context. It is a good basis to get women together and organise them, but experience shows that this kind of campaign, after a militant beginning, collapses in the face of bourgeois bureaucracy. This is particularly so since this is the kind of demand which capitalist society can (formally at least) agree to. Nevertheless it is a vital demand and worth fighting for.

The fact that it is an isolated campaign separates women in this movement from other struggles. It must be understood that it is one aspect of a wider struggle (working-class struggle), and in the process of fighting for it there is a better understanding of the limitations imposed by capitalist society. That is’ why a wider (political) organisation is necessary to link all the aspects of different struggles together and to overcome the dangers of isolation.


It will be noted that of the six demands, those which have some positive aspects are the same as the existing campaigns, around which the movement has been structured (see note 4). Otherwise we are faced with a collection of demands, the overriding characteristic of which is that they attempt to provide an organisational platform for feminism, based not on class struggle but on sex struggle.

Selma James shows no understanding of the continuing class struggle as it manifests itself, both structurally and ideologically, in the trade union movement. Realising that working women do not enjoy the same status as working men in this society, are not very highly organised, and have in fact two jobs (one outside and one at home), she does not attempt to analyse why this is so, but hits at the first obvious but superficial things; the unions and men. But you don’t kill a tree by cutting it down, you must pull up the roots. What we mean by this is that the roots of low-level organisation amongst women, their unequal status and their double slavery are to be found in the answers to such questions as:

What are trade unions for women? What are their limitations?
Why are women reluctant to join trade unions?
Why do they accept this double slavery?
Why do even organised women tend to have a low political consciousness?

Through these questions the problems will present themselves more clearly to be more correctly solved.

Selma James’ pamphlet advocates that women should not join unions or should leave them on the subjective grounds that they are dominated by male chauvinists. Her alternative is a female union. This is feminist and can only divide the working class along ’sex battle’ lines: male unions v. female unions. This will worsen the subjective ideological problems between men and women and will objectively be of great help to the ruling class. It will be a diversion from the class struggle and will make it more difficult for a revolutionary party of the working class to be created.

Again we stress very strongly not only the need but the urgency for women to organise at their place of work, to unite with men in their everyday struggles against capitalism, but we do not make the common, supposedly ’left’ claim that socialism will bring equality on a golden dish – a view apparently held by the CPGB and CPBML[8]. We think that struggles for women to gain equality start now, under capitalism, for male chauvinism is not the prerogative of the ruling class. The working class has accepted many bad things from capitalism, one of them being the bourgeois ideology of male superiority. These subjective factors which are reflected in every sphere of life must be exposed now, must be explained to men, must be fought against, and it is vital for the development of the working class movement that men should be involved at all stages. The struggle of women is on three fronts: psychological, economic and political.

Women’s Group (CFB-London)


[1] Many women found that the ’left’ organisations had the same prejudices as are found in society in general. Women are just good enough for typing stencils, preparing the coffee, etc. Very few are taken on the same level as men.

[2] The 1968 Ford Strike was the response of women at that plant to the controversial equal pay bin which was going through parliament at the time. Women machinists at Fords, Dagenham, demanded the right to operate a higher grade machine, traditionally reserved for men, and get their rate of pay. Over 1,000 women came out and soon after they were backed and supported by the men. After a tough struggle they won 97.5 % of the male rate, but lost the right of access to the highest paid grades. The relative success of the Ford women made many women (especially among the small existing WL groups) realise that it was possible to struggle and change things which had seemed unalterable.

[3] Consciousness-raising is the term generally applied by women in the WL movement to the process of discussing personal problems: Through discussion comes the realisation that they are thinking human beings with common problems. Through this raising of their consciousness as women, rather than sex-objects, they begin to understand their oppression and it helps them to revolt against it. It is generally the first step taken on forming or joining a WL group. The danger of this consciousness-raising process is that some groups have tended to do just that – have closed themselves up and not opened themselves to the world and the various problems comprehended in women’s oppression.

[4] The four immediate issues were:

Equal Pay
Equal Education and Job Opportunities
Free 24 hour Nurseries
Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand

They were decided on a more or less national scale and were first fought for at the First National Demonstration (London, March 6, 1971). Of these issues, only the fourth one (Contraception and Abortion) is still developing.

One of the reasons why the others have hardly taken off the ground is to be found in the fact that the WL movement is basically a spontaneous movement, with very loose central co-ordination (Women’s liberation Workshop), whose main concern is not to take general decisions to be approved or rejected by the groups, but to convey information.

[5] Women, the Unions and Work, printed by Crest Press, can be obtained from the WLW, 3 Shavers Place, London W.I.

Our article discusses mainly the practical implications of S.J.’s pamphlet. There is a need for further discussion on the wider theoretical implications, for which see Women and the Subversion of the Community by Maria Rosa Dalla Costa (the theoretical inspiration for S.J.’s work).

[6] The economic basis for the division between men and women is well analysed by Engels:

“In the old communistic household, which embraced numerous couples and their children, the administration of the household, entrusted to the women, was just as much a public, a socially necessary industry as the providing of food by the men. The situation changed with the patriarchal family, and even more with the monogamous individual family. The administration of the household lost its public character. It was no longer the concern of society. It became a private service. The wife became the first domestic servant, pushed out of participation in social production.” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Section II. Marx/Engels Selected Works (1968) p. 509).

[7] On this point see S.M.’s Notes on the Labour Aristocracy, in particular part 2 (MLQ 3).

[8] In their pamphlet – Women in Class Struggle, the CPBML tackle the problem from an economist standpoint, and pay no attention to the political and ideological problems involved. Their advice to women is to stick to the working class man in the struggle against the capitalist system and for socialism and all their oppression will disappear, since the basis of it is economic. Crudely speaking this may be correct but it is simplistic and incomplete, ignoring the ideological struggle which must start now, as well as the existing WL movement.

The CPGB have a more subtle line, in their pamphlet Women, the Road to Equality and Socialism by Rosemary Small. But their subtlety does not disguise the fact that all they are advocating is: Join the CP, vote the Tories out and bring in a new Government committed to socialist policies, etc., i.e., again women are relegated to a subordinate role and heaven for women is to be found under (the British road to) Socialism.