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International Socialism, March 1977


Judith Hamilton

The Rights and Wrongs of Women


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Rights and Wrongs of Women
eds Juliet Mitchell & Ann Oakley
Penguin £1.25

THE stated aim of the editors is

‘to bring together a collection of original essays on the position of women, written from the perspectives of various“academic” disciplines ... The essays do not offer a unified political perspective.’ (p.9)

It seems to me that the achievement of this aim marks, and helps to explain, the failure of the book.

The essays cover a vast range of enquiry, and range from exciting pieces of new research, which will goad the laziest of us into enquiry and controversy, to the utterly banal. The final result is a rag-bag from which the reader must select, without benefit of guidance from the editors as to a theoretical framework, or theoretical inconsistencies between the essays.

A collection of essays with an underlying theory would have been invaluable to any serious study of women’s oppression – but this would require a coherently stated political perspective. The editors wished to avoid this. An alternative would have been to limit the subject matter and analyse it from different perspectives, to show the differing political implications. For it clear from the introduction that the editors do see their task as political.

‘In differing ways all the essays imply an urgent need for social change; but they insist, too, that this need must not overshadow analytical understanding.’ (p.15)

Their refusal to take either approach (and the ommission of bibliographies which would allow the reader to do this) leaves us with a collection of unrelated, contextless articles, of which only one or two is likely to be of real interest to any individual reader.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of some articles provides more than enough reason to buy and read the book.

Margaret Walther’s essay The Rights and Wrongs of Women is an engrossing account of the way in which three Feminist writers. (Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Simone de Beauvoir) express or suppress the personal problems generated for them by their stand against oppression. It’s a clear and unequivocal critique, and will enrich the reading of the works of these authors immensely. John Goode’s essay Women and the Literary Text suffers badly from his almost incomprehensible use of language. But if you do plough through it to the fourth page it becomes an absorbing account of the way in which women in stories can be used to reinforce, expose or subvert the ideology.

Both these essays made me realise anew just what the problems of confronting oppression are. It’s too easy to think that ‘liberated’ women are cool, smooth, super-confident and good in bed. But constantly throughout these essays the authors show that just because that idea is a product of the male-dominated ideology which stereotypes women as objects of experience, the struggle of the odd woman is at best a series of pyrrhic victories’ (p.251). In exposing this both essays underline the need for a dialectical analysis and revolutionary consciousness of oppression, though neither develops this theme.

Another three essays which particularly repay reading are Women’s Work in 19th Century London, by Sally Alexander, Women and 19th Century Radical Politics; a Lost Dimension, by Dorothy Thompson and Looking again at Engels ..., by Rosalind Delmar. Though not grouped by the editors, they’re worth reading as a group because they all deal with problems of the political economy of women. Sally Alexander develops a theory of the sexual division of labour and the position of women in the reserve army in the peculiar work conditions in the 19th century London. She and Rosalind Delmar both explain oppression primarily in terms. of the imposition of the Victorian ideology of the family. According to Sally Alexander’s analysis, women’s restriction to ‘women’s work’ established them in an inferior position. When factories and mechanisation deskilled the labour force women were already a ‘reserve army’ – so the sexual division of labour was not undermined.

A problem she touches on but does not explore, is the question of oppression and the ‘reserve army’ in areas such as the North where employment was open to men and women equally in the factories. Rosalind Delmar does base her exposition of Engels on this view of women’s participation in social production – but she argues that the oppression of women became possible through the development of the male institution of private property, allied with brute strength. However, since working-class men were not property owners, she is forced to argue that working-class women did not suffer greatly from oppression until it became necessary to expand markets for consumption goods. Both, therefore, tend to analyse the family (and women’s role) as ideologically useful to early capitalism. Neither see the working-class family as economically necessary to early capitalism or as a fundamental explanation of the sexual division of labour, though Sally Alexander does attach some weight to women’s work patterns.

On a theoretical level Dorothy Thompson’s article implies support for this approach. It’s a superb exposition of the leading role that organised women workers played in the Chartist uprisings. The Middleton contingent to the Peterloo demonstration in 1819 was led by women. Many were massacred. It was women who, in the 1820’s, in the Worcester glovemakers’ demonstrations against unemployment, were more disposed to be mutinous ‘... men commonly complain and submit’ (p.116). It was the Elland female radicals, in 1838, who, in welcoming the return of the Dorchester labourers from prison urged them to join the campaign for the release of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners, arrested for conspiracy.

But it was the men who sold the women out on the question of suffrage. The story is a heartening one of women confining their militancy to direct action, impatient with the impotence (sic) of the later Chartist bureaucracy, and not particularly interested in suffrage. But again there’s an underlying theory that where men and women had equal access to work, women were not oppressed.

Like so many essays in this book the extension of the analysis to the present day is perfunctory and unconvincing.

The book-jacket promises us the answer to the question ‘Are the rights of women any more recognised today than they ever were, and are their wrongs any less?’ It’s on the basis of this promise that many people will buy the book. But most of the essays appear to stop short at the position of women in the late sixties. There’s no sense that the women’s movement of the seventies ever happened, that it did permeate the ideology and the women’s magazines.

The education of Girls Today, by Tessa Blackstone is a particular offender in this respect. It’s like a blast of stale air from the 60s. Basically she argues that too few girls compete effectively in a male dominated education system. Nowhere in an essay written in 1976, does she show any recognition of the massive implication of the cuts for the education of women.

It is a pity that no attempt is made to analyse in feminist terms the peculiar effects of the post-war boom on working-class women, when for the first time it was materially possible, and necessary to capitalism, for many women to realise the ‘dream’ of motherhood and suburbanism. An analysis of this period would have led into some recognition of the growth and significance of the women’s movement in the seventies. The book would also have been improved by an essay on the results and problems of the women’s movement, its current position, and, more importantly, the changes in the economy and social structures which will shape its problems for the future.

But the approach taken by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley in the introduction is the key to understanding the problem. When they argue ‘... the wholesale destruction of existing social practices ... may actually be disastrous.’ (p.12), they are arguing from a position of failure – the failure of individuals to find personal solutions to the real problems of oppression, marriage and the family. But to continue, as they do, to attack the notion of ‘sisterhood’ (on the grounds that women’s identification with one another may be suspect) is reactionary.

Their position represents a backtracking from a basic feminist perspective of women’s self-activity. In acknowledging the problems of a reformist women’s movement they retreat from the idea of a movement into individualism and academicism without tackling the problem of reformism. They chart a path for final defeat at a time when the need for revolutionary analysis and activity is urgent.

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