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International Socialism, September 1977


Irene Bruegel

Women and the Welfare State


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Women and the Welfare State
Elizabeth Wilson
Tavistock £2.20

A FEW years ago Elizabeth Wilson wrote a pamphlet for the Red Rag women’s collective on women and the welfare state. It cost all of 25p. In it she tried to show how, in a whole variety of ways, the British welfare system had developed to keep women in their place. Her book, produced in the glossy Tavistock series on Women’s Studies at £2.20 is an object lesson in what can happen when a commercial publisher tries to turn the literature of the women’s movement into a profitable and academically respectable commodity.

Even at the narrow academic level the book leaves much to be desired: it is badly organised, repetitive, and contains many glib generalisations. For example, on page 59 we learn that the new feminism could only have arisen out of the Welfare State – the post-war settlement based on Beveridge’s principles. How, one wonders, then, did the new feminism arise in the USA? There are numerous inaccuracies.

But the basic problem with the book is its theoretical and political perspective. Instead of developing a coherent analysis of how the welfare state operates today as part of the overall structure of women’s oppression, Elizabeth Wilson retreats into history. Instead of showing how revolutionary feminists could begin to combat the family and the state as they exist today, she has filled her book with a detailed and bland rehash of fairly conventional accounts of British social history and the rise of the welfare state. In doing so she has unearthed some interesting quotes. Her starting point is essentially correct: the development of the welfare state reflects both the needs of capitalism and the demands of the working class, and has embodied and enforced the oppression of women through the basic identification of women with the family. However, this analysis has little or no bearing on her perspective for the present day. The failure to make the links lies in the failure to develop a sound theoretical base.

Insofar as her theoretical perspective is at all coherent, it relies on a fairly rigid distinction (culled from Poulantzas) between ideological and economic spheres. There is indeed a tension between the economic needs of capitalism and its ideological needs with respect to women and the family, but Elizabeth Wilson goes beyond this and moves towards the perspective of the two as separate spheres, to be confronted by and large separately. Accordingly the labour movement, concerned as it is with the economic, necessarily fails to confront the ideology of male domination and therefore needs to be supplemented by an autonomous women’s movement operating at an ideological level. (This approach is obviously congenial to those who view Russia as socialist as Ms Wilson does. It allows her to explain away women’s oppression there without a fundamental analysis of Soviet society. Women’s oppression is simply due to a failure to engage in the ideological struggle against male domination). This approach rests on the proposition that ‘sexism and male dominance are even more deeply rooted than class divisions and perhaps originate from a different source’. It is this which allows her, in effect, to dismiss the labour movement as a weapon in the struggle against women’s oppression.

To her credit, Elizabeth Wilson seems to be aware of her failure to provide an adequate theoretical analysis of the welfare state, which can encompass the basic conflict of classes in capitalism and the oppression of women. In a revealing final note, she writes:

Poulantzas has also discussed class in relation to politics and particularly the nature of classes in modern advanced capitalist societies. The relationship of women to the class structure is a complex one, which he has by no means fully explored, and I am aware that I too have merely skated over it. At times I have used the word ‘class’ in the sociological sense, meaning class as defined by occupation, at times in the Marxist sense to denote the relationship of the individual to the means of production. The position of the women’s movement as regards to its class structure is ambiguous ... it should probably ... be seen as a petty bourgeois movement although one that is more wholly progressive than the connotations of ‘petty bourgeois’ might suggest. The whole question is too important to be dealt with here ...

Given the political perspectives she presents in her final chaper, such a cop-out will not do. She characterizes the women’s movement as ‘genuinely revolutionary’ and ‘in essence spontaneously socialist’; and claims it is able to act autonomously to change capitalism by undermining the family. She argues that the family is disintegrating under the combined influence of the women’s movement and capitalism’s need for women workers. Thus, in her analysis (p.179), capitalism is ‘hoist on its own petard’. But here she exaggerates the impact that the women’s movement has had (arguing that it brought about the Equal Pay Act and the current decline in the birth rate) and denies the effect of the crisis on women’s employment. Having done this, she can go on quite comfortably to ignore the role of the working class has to play in transforming society. Instead of criticizing the women’s movement for its failure adequately to root itself in the working class, she it simply for failing to ‘gain broad based support from the emancipationalist and progressive or partially progressive women’s organisations.’

Whatever that may mean.

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