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International Socialism, April 1974


Kathy Ennis

Women’s Consciousness


From International Socialism, No.68, April 1974, pp.25-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The development of the women’s liberation movement in the past five years has forced the socialist movement to come to terms with problems ignored for some time. Kath Ennis takes up some of these problems in this review of an important new book, Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World, by Sheila Rowbotham (Penguin Books 35p)

HOUSEWORK is not like other work in our society. There is no clocking in or out. No clearly defined 40 or 45 hour week. No distinction between basic hours and overtime for the woman who doesn’t go out to work. Housework fills the whole space of her existence – from the moment she wakes up in the morning until the time she goes to bed at night. Workers can escape from the factory. Their lives are divided into work time and leisure time. But for the housewife the four walls of the home are, in a very real sense, a prison from which there is never any escape.

There is no wage attached to housework. There is no boss and no foreman. There are no goods produced which can be stockpiled for the future – today’s cleaning and washing has to be done all over again tomorrow.

Workers in factories and offices work as a collective, everyone performing a small part of a larger process. In a car factory one group designs the engines, another makes the bolts for them, another sews the seats for the car. But the housewife has to work in isolation. Within the confines of a single home she has sole responsibility for the household chores and the kids. And she has to perform these jobs on her own. She is cut off from other housewives and from other workers.

Consequently, for the woman in the home there is no union and there are no strikes. There is no feeling of the collective power which the working class can wield against capitalism. So in most periods women’s class consciousness lags behind men’s.

Because of this, many socialists and trade unionists tend to dismiss women as too backward to play a role in the struggles of their class. At work, the argument goes, women lack trade union traditions, and in the home they drain a man of his militancy. The implication is that this is inevitable: women cannot be expected to understand the class struggle since their natural sphere is the home and the family.

This way of thinking leads to very reactionary conclusions, for the cause of woman’s lower level of class consciousness is to be found not in her nature but rather in the nature of housework in capitalist society. And the family is not outside the class struggle but an integral part of it. Capitalism does not begin and end at the factory gates. It permeates every aspect of our daily lives – the bed and the kitchen sink included.

Among other things, Sheila Rowbotham’s recent Penguin Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World takes up these themes. It is not a book written for working class men and women. It does not come out of the experience of the working-class movement but out of the predominantly middle class women’s liberation movement. Nonetheless it contains insights which are valuable for all of us.

Sheila shows how the family is seen as a place of retreat, a place where we can relax and be ourselves, where human beings can give each other love, tenderness and compassion – emotions which have no place in the cut throat world of capitalist competition.

But the family can never live up to this ideal because it is riddled with contradictions. In a society based on private property and competition, the family will tend to reflect the outside world. Children come to be seen as investments and women as the man’s property. The structure of authority in the family becomes a miniature reproduction of authority in the factory – with the man at the top and the smallest child at the bottom. The values upheld in the home become the values which make for survival and getting on in the world outside.

The relation between men and women in marriage is held up as the most intimate of human relations. But it is an intimacy which is poisoned at the roots: marriage institutionalises the financial dependence of women on men and the inferior position of women in society as a whole. Because women receive no wage for housework and cannot earn a living wage at work they are dependent on men. Because women receive no wage for housework and cannot earn a living wage at work they are dependent on men. Because housework is cut off from other work and is unpaid, women occupy an inferior position to men in society as a whole. From early childhood women are conditioned into personality traits which will fit their inferior role later in life. And men are conditioned to dominate women.

Women’s financial dependence on men means that many couples stay together hating each other because they can see no alternative for the children. Men come to resent the way in which women try to bind them down, confining them within the enclosed territory of the family. Women respond in this way because they are terrified of the consequences of political involvement, strikes, or indeed anything which threatens the tenuous stability of the working class family. Men come to find companionship in the pub rather than the family, because the isolation and the emptiness of the woman’s life narrows her horizons to the four walls of the home. In turn, the woman comes to resent the man’s freedom in a world which has trapped and tied her down.

MORE fundamentally, the family can never live up to the ideal because it is first and foremost an economic unit. Woman’s unpaid labour in the home is vital to the capitalist economy. If there was no one to bring up the workers of the future and care for the workers of today, the wheels of industry would soon stop turning.

Women indirectly contribute to the bosses’ profits. They contribute towards the production of a vital commodity for the system – namely, labour power. It is the combined labour of men outside the home (to earn the money to buy goods to keep himself and the family) and women in the home which daily reproduces this commodity for capitalism. Similarly, the surplus (profit) extracted by the boss is a surplus not simply from the man at work, but from the combined labour of the man at work and the woman in the home.

While the family provides capitalism with labour power, capitalism pays the worker a wage not only for himself but also to sustain his wife and children. The value of labour power is the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer and the production of fresh labour power (i.e. the workers’ children).

This means that in capitalist society, the essence of the family lies in the role it plays in commodity production. It is in this context that relationships between men and women within the family have to be understood. Thus, although men gain certain privileges from women’s inferior position – e.g. they can dominate women because women are financially dependent on them – it is not men who create and sustain women’s inferior position, but capitalism.

Sheila presents an analysis which conflicts with this one. She argues that because the woman does not sell her labour power to the man as a commodity, but serves him in exchange for care and protection (not a money wage), their relationship resembles the bond between man and man in feudal society. The family therefore contains elements of pre-capitalist forms of production, and so is not a part of commodity production but a separate mode of production within capitalism.

Now it is true that the woman does not sell her labour power to the man. But if we are to understand the role housework plays in capitalism, then it is not the relationship of the woman’s labour to the man which is of primary importance, but rather the relationship of the combined work of men at work and women in the home to the system. And, as we have shown, once you analyse this, housework is a part of commodity production and not a separate mode.

The argument that housework is a separate mode of production has very serious political implications. It leads to the view that men and women form two different classes.

Many feminists hold this view. Some of them (e.g. Shulamith Firestone in her Dialectic of Sex [1]) try to reconcile this with Marxism. They argue that the course of history is determined in two separate ways: firstly, by the means of existence in industry and the class conflict which arises on the basis of this; secondly, by the reproduction of the species in the family and the conflict between men and women. Socialism therefore requires two different revolutions: the overthrow of the ruling class by the working class and the overthrow of male supremacy by women. This is the logic behind the argument that housework is a separate mode of production.

It is a logic which has one fatal flaw: ever since its origins the family has been dominated by the class and the property system. In every epoch in history the ruling class has moulded the family to its own needs. Consequently, women can have no separate identity as a group in society as a whole, but only as a group within a class.

In capitalist society, for example, the women of the ruling class play a part in the exploitation of working class men and women. They care for the rulers of today, rear the managers and directors of the future, and share in the gains which accrue to their class. Consequently, their interests are diametrically opposed to those of working class women. And their demands for equality – entry to the stock exchange, boards of directors, the professions, etc. – are essentially demands for a direct share in their husbands’ power to exploit the working class.

Sheila avoids the conclusion that men and women form two different classes because she argues that the housework mode of production exists in a completely subordinate and dependent relationship to commodity production. But this is not a tenable position. For the whole point behind the concept of a mode of production is that it enables us to distinguish the different ways in which surplus production has been extracted in history and the class relationships which have resulted, ie capitalist and worker, feudal lord and serf, etc.

Sheila does not accept the feminist analysis, and argues that the relationship between men and women has to be understood through that of the capitalist and the worker. But her definition of housework as a mode of production explains nothing and only leads to confusions.

The Road to Liberation

THERE can be no doubt that the women’s liberation movement has been a tremendously creative current in contemporary politics. It has brought the politics of the family and everyday life back into the revolutionary movement. It has, however, been less satisfactory in advancing a strategy for the fight to end women’s oppression.

In order to liberate women, the division of labour between men and women in the family has to be broken down. Housework could be eliminated if a small fraction of the technology which can send men to the moon was to be applied to the household. Cooking could be socialised instead of everyone doing their own. And new forms of social care for the young, the old and the sick, could leave women free to lead their own lives. Looking after small children is important work, but there is no reason why one person (the mother) should have to do it all the time.

Changes along these lines in the home, and equal pay and equal job opportunities at work, would lay the material basis for women to cease being socially inferior human beings.

Now, in theory, capitalism could do without the family. It could turn the job of caring for the workers of today and rearing the workers of the future into an industry, employing waged workers. (Even baby farms and state controlled breeding are theoretical possiblities). In practice, however, this would require such fundamental changes in society, it is hard to imagine them ever being carried out. The family and woman’s role have been so idealised that any attack on them would be seen as an attack on the very foundations of society.

Similarly, equal pay (with women working nights like men) and the provision of nurseries could increase profits in the long term. But because capitalism is an irrational and competitive system, individual employers, thinking of their own immediate gains, will oppose such reforms whenever they can. This is particularly true in times of recession hi the economy when social services are the first cuts and wage restraint is the order of the day. Besides, even if these changes were to be implemented under capitalism they would only give women equal exploitation with men.

For these reasons, women’s liberation can only be achieved in a socialist society where human need and not profit comes first.

This is a central theme in Sheila’s book. But like many women in the movement, she sees revolution primarily in terms of creating consciousness. In fact, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World is essentially about the problems of creating a socialist feminist consciousness.

Sheila shows how the post-war Marxist tradition in this country has ignored the family and defined politics only in terms of the factory. She argues that if Marxism is to prove useful as a revolutionary weapon for women, then it has to be extended to analyse their everyday experiences. And if women are to become politically committed then they must be brought to an awareness of their oppression in the home and the way this is related to exploitation in the factory.

Now certainly a major task of a revolutionary movement is to create such an awareness. As Sheila says of women workers: ‘... they need to find a new notion of womanhood which will give them as a group the dignity and solidarity essential for industrial organisation. This can come partly from work but it has to come also from all the other aspects of women’s lives – all those moments of subjugation which contribute to hold women down’.

But the important question is: how can such a new notion of womanhood develop? Sheila’s perspective reflects the experience of a movement whose ideas are dominated by the situation of middle class women. In the women’s liberation movement most women have come into politics on the basis of their own individual experiences as women. For them the primary purpose of a political organisation is to make communication between women possible, and to create collectively a new female consciousness and a new female culture.

There are two major problems with this viewpoint. Firstly, working class men and women do not come into politics to try to understand themselves. They join an organisation because struggles with their fellow workers and housewives have given them a sense of their collective power and the confidence that the working class can change society.

Secondly, an understanding of women’s oppression can only develop in the practice of trying to fight it. And because the working class is the key to changing society, it has to be an understanding which is concrete and specific to the everyday life of working class women.

Consequently, a socialist feminist consciousness can only be created when there is a fighting organisation which has real roots among women workers and housewives.

The women’s liberation movement is not a fighting organisation. Because it puts the question of consciousness first, not the taking of power by the working class, it has its own distinctive structure:– there is no clearly defined membership (you don’t join, but simply go along to meetings), no unified politics (it embraces women with very different political views), and no centralised organisation (every small group is independent). What unites everybody is the notion that women should have a separate organisation from men.

In contrast, an organisation which has the taking of power as its aim, needs centralisation and a unified politics. It also

needs to be an organisation which embraces both men and women. Because women’s liberation can only be achieved by overthrowing capitalism, women’s struggles against their oppression must be united with those of male workers.

Women’s Liberation and the Revolutionary Party

THIS UNITY cannot be achieved as Sheila seems to think, by informal links between separate organisations representing men and women. For what is needed is that men and women fight around a common strategy at every stage in the class struggle (e.g. Phase Three). And a common strategy can only emerge and be implemented where there is a single politics and a single organisation.

Women must be members of a revolutionary party which covers the whole of the working class. The existence of such a party is vital for the achievement of women’s liberation. But there is also another side to the coin: women members are vitally necessary for the party.

One of the deepest divisions in the working class is the division between men and women. As we have seen, women’s situation in the home gives rise to an uneven level of class consciousness between men and women. Even when women go out to work this unevenness still exists, as women workers see themselves primarily as housewives.

The employing class continually attempts to use women against the class as a whole (witness the Tories over the past three and a half years). They will always exploit divisions in the class – black and white workers, skilled and unskilled workers, men and women – because they know that if we are fighting one another, we cannot effectively fight them at the same time. Consequently, if IS is to build a leadership capable of uniting men and women in the fight against capitalism, then we need to have women members capable of leading the struggles of women workers and housewives.

Women are also vitally necessary for the party because socialism cannot be achieved without women’s liberation. Under capitalism the family is a fundamental pillar of society. It helps to ensure ruling class exploitation and ideological domination of each generation of the working class. Just as the bourgeois state has to be smashed, so does the bourgeois family.

In capitalist society, the employing class has no need for upper class women to be equal to upper class men. The morality of assigning women to the home and men to the world of work, is a morality which is ideally suited to a society in which power lies in the hands of a small minority. It is, however, a morality which the working class cannot afford.

Under socialism, where workers collectively run society, there can be no place for the servility and submission – to husband and boss – which characterises so many women under capitalism. Above all else, socialism opens the possibility of a higher type of human relationship. And this must apply first and foremost to relations between men and women.

Liberating women is, perhaps, the most difficult of all the tasks the working class will have to accomplish. The family will not be miraculously transformed with the creation of a workers’ state. Even with the transformation of housework

and childcare it will take years of conscious and patient work. As Trotsky said, referring to Russia in the early twenties:

’Domestic life is more conservative than economic ... In politics and economics the working class acts as a whole ... In domestic life the working class is split into cells constituted by families ... A radical reform of the family and, more generally, of the whole order of domestic life requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass of the working class, and presumes the existence in the class itself of a powerful molecular force of inner desire for culture and progress. A deep going plough is needed to turn up heavy clods of soil.’

Under capitalism, the party cannot be a miniature reproduction of a future socialist society. Male chauvinism and the backwardness of women’s class consciousness in the outside world will be reflected in its ranks. This, however, can be no excuse for ignoring the importance of the issues at stake.

Women’s liberation is a very real part of our traditions of the revolutionary movement. It is a part of our traditions which was lost with the domination of the world communist movement by Stalinism, and only brought back to life by the women’s liberation movement.

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all wrote about women’s oppression. The Communist International, in its earliest years, had an International Women’s Secretariat which worked to ensure that systematic work among working class women (particularly women workers) was carried out by the communist parties all over the world. Many parties held separate meetings for women and produced separate women’s papers. These are tactical questions which depend on the stage of development of an organisation and the state of the class struggle. But they point to an underlying recognition that women workers are oppressed by capitalism in different ways to men and must be approached through different forms of propaganda and organisation.

Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World is, to date, the best book which has come out of the women’s liberation movement. Many of the ideas in it were being discussed in meetings round the country as long as four years ago.

Because of its politics, its structure and its middle class orientation the women’s liberation movement can have little left to contribute in practice. The tragedy is that IS has not yet absorbed the best of its ideas, and has so far been unable to advance very far beyond them.

It is our task to bring the ideas of women’s liberation and their connection with revolutionary politics into the working class movement. No one else is going to do it. We have only just begun to sink the shallowest of roots among working class women. In the coming years we must be able to recruit hundreds into our organisation.

Our emphasis has to be on women workers. Their experience fighting the boss in the factory and office gives them a confidence and a sense of their own power which it is difficult for housewives to achieve. At the same time, they are exploited at work, not only because they are workers but also because they are women. Consequently, they have to fight their exploitation as workers and their oppression as women at one and the same time.

These are mammoth tasks. But they are vital to the whole future of the working class movement in this country.


1. Paladin Books, 50p

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