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International Socialism, January 1978


Joan Smith

Women and the Family

(Part 2)


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 11–16.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up fby Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the first part of Women and the Family (IS 100) JOAN SMITH outlined a new Marxist approach to understanding women’s oppression. In this second part to her article, she shows how this approach explains the position of women in capitalist society today and brings out the need to build a movement of revolutionary feminists.

In the first part of this article I argued that the position of women in capitalist society can be understood only on the basis of the distinction made by Marx between two forms of production – the family and the division of labour. On this analysis, women’s oppression under capitalism arises from the fact that the reproduction of this society takes the form of the family.

Children are reared in family units normally consisting of one man and one woman, while the woman assumes the prime responsibility for child-rearing. In other words, reproduction under capitalism is privatised. The state, as the representative of the dominant class in society, is not responsible for rearing the next generation of workers. The individual family is forced to take the social responsibility for rearing children. It does so under the supervision of the capitalist state through the machinery of the courts, the police force, social workers, etc.

In order to maintain this system of privatised reproduction based on the family, the capitalist state must be party to the oppression of all women, and not just the women who happen to be rearing children at any particular time. The young woman of today is a potential mother and the young mother is a potential women worker. (According to a study in Population Today the typical female worker today is a middle aged, married woman who gave up her job when her first child was born and returned when her last child was of school age.)

Women are victimised by the same ideologies, the same educational system, the same legal system. As women workers they face low pay, inequality, and victimisation by unions and employers alike. As mothers at home they face personal isolation, poverty and the patronising attitudes of doctors, etc., who tell them they have nothing to worry about and give them tranquillisers.

Women’s oppression has in the last ten years given rise to a Women’s Liberation Movement – first in America and then in the rest of the world. As women have become an ever-greater part of the labour force, it has become possible for some women to articulate the demands of all women against their oppression. Because more women are today exploited as workers in the process of production, their ability to fight their oppression has increased. The question is – how to do it?


The answer we give to this question depends on our analysis of women’s oppression. Many feminists have concentrated on woman as ‘housewife’ as the starting point for such an analysis. This approach suggests that it is women’s work in the home – cooking, cleaning, etc. – rather than their role in reproducing the next generation – child-rearing – which is crucial to their oppression. But this approach doesn’t explain why the fact that it is women who do the house-work; that would seem to be a historical accident. If we look instead to women’s role in the privatised system of reproduction – the family, the reasons for the identification of housework with women can become clear. Moreover, this approach ignores the fact that the housewife is also a worker. As we shall see, it is only through the analysis of the family’s role in reproduction that we can understand the role of men, women and youths in the labour force.

Other feminists reject any sort of class analysis of women’s oppression. Instead they identify the enemy as men. Society is, and always has been, according to these feminists, patriarchal – women as a social group have always been oppressed by men as a social group. Many supporters of this theory of patriarchy have concluded that women’s liberation requires separatism from men.

The trouble with this analysis is that it won’t actually smash women’s oppression. The women’s self-help movement to whose growth the theory of patriarchy has contributed – women’s aid, women’s medical centres and the rape crisis centres – is very much an ambulance service to rescue women battered by capitalist society. But for the women at Trico and Grunwick and the others like them separatism has no meaning – they need the support of a united working-class movement, male and female, to win their battles.

As I shall show, it is not men as a social. group, but the family system as the means of reproducing capitalist society which underlies the specific forms of women’s oppression today. Revolutionary feminists have to harness the anger which the separatists express while connecting the struggle of women to the struggle of all workers against their common exploitation.

Capitalism claims to treat all workers as equal. The workforce is composed of men and women, each of whom is treated as a separate individual. This general rule involves a crucial contradiction – it is always assumed that every worker is a member of a family existing outside the workplaces.

It is only on this assumption that we can understand the position of women workers. Consistently in all developed capitalist societies, women are the part-time workers, women are the home-workers, women are heavily concentrated in very few industries, women are paid less, women have borne the brunt of unemployment. I shall show, using the case of Britain, how this situation arises from the existence of two forms of production – the labour form and the family form.

Looking at the figures for women workers in Britain one can see how the assumption that one can understand what goes on by looking at individuals to the ground. Here I am only going to consider the figures for part-time workers, home workers, where women work, the wages of women workers and the question of unemployment.

Part-time work: In 1971 over 2½ million women worked part-time. This meant that one in three women workers were part-time women workers, working less than thirty hours a week: nearly one in five worked less than 21 hours a week. Part-time work is directly related to whether the woman has dependent children or not: only 30 per cent of married women with two or more dependent children worked more than thirty hours a week. These figures on part-time work are in striking contrast to those for men – only one man in twenty worked part-time.

Part-time working is especially important in the service industries. Whereas one in five women worked part-time in manufacturing, two in five worked part-time in services. And these figures, of course, do not take into account the numbers of women who work in clubs and bars who aren’t on the books; there are countless numbers of women unofficially employed part-time.

Quite clearly their women are doing two jobs – not home and work, but production and reproduction – and this is also true of the ‘Home-workers’.

Home-work: No-one knows how many home-workers there are. The fines for not registering home-working employees are so derisory that employers don’t bother. In the late 1960s one survey estimated there were about a quarter of a million. Official figures bear no relationship to it – the most recent figure in the clothing industry is that there are only 18,500 home-workers in that industry. A likely story!

Even in the official surveys homeworkers earn on average half what the factory worker in the same industry would earn. Home work is a particularly pernicious system that lives off the backs of women who cannot work because they have dependent children. Immigrant women are particularly at risk. But apart from the traditional manufacturing ‘home-work’ industries, there are other industries which depend upon married women with young children that are not normally seen as ‘home-work’. An entire sales distribution network has now been built up upon these women. ‘Tupperware’ will not sell their products through any shop – only through personal representatives. These ‘personal representatives’ are always housewives, paid through a commission of 1/3 out of which they have to deduct all their expenses including packaging the goods, delivering the goods, and giving ‘presents’ to the hostesses who give the parties, and providing food at the parties. Marks and Spencers ‘seconds’ are sold the same way, as are cosmetics, baby clothes etc. etc. The old ‘catalogues’ saleswomen and the Provident Cheque woman have now become expanded into a vast army of women asked to use their friends and relatives to sell goods.

The whole system of manufacturing and sales home-work, relies upon the exploitation of women with small children. The ‘family’ system of capitalism is designed to force them to work under any conditions. It is proof that no working class family can exist on one workers’ wage. Women don’t work for pin money.

When one looks at ‘home-workers’ and ‘part-time workers’ the category of the ‘Housewife’ disappears in a puff of smoke. Women are at home when they have dependent children and even when they are at home for this small fraction of their working lives (only six to ten years out of a working life of at least forty years), they often take work which never appears in the official statistics for women working.

But the oppression of women is not just seen in this fundamental difference between their working lives and men’s. It is not just a question that at one point in their lives they stop work. On the contrary, the oppression of women can be seen in their exploitation throughout their working lives – in the type of jobs they do and in the pay they get. It is impossible to explain where women work and what they are paid without reference to the Family as the privatised form of reproduction in our society.

Where women work: In 1971 the 8½ million women workers were employed in very few industries. 2½ million women were clerical workers, cooks, canteen assistants etc., nearly 1 million professional, technical workers and artists i.e. teachers and nurses, and nearly 1 million sales workers. These four occupational groups accounted for three out of every four economically active women, but only 1 out of three men. Whereas men are spread throughout the entire production system, women are so concentrated in certain sectors that they staff entire sections and, conversely, are invisible in others.


Although the relationship between the family system of reproduction and part-time working and home-working is obvious, the relationship between the distribution of the female labour force in industry and the family is not so obvious. To understand why women work in certain industries it is necessary to understand the role of the capitalist family in imparting certain skills to the entire labour force.

Marx argued that with the development of capitalism, the level of skills within the working class not only rises but becomes an average level of skill. Instead of, as in the nineteenth century, there being a vast gulf between the skills of the highly skilled worker, able to read and write and create machinery from blackmetal, and the casual labourer, a majority become able to read and write but not to create machinery. Skilled workmen are deskilled, but unskilled workers have a minimum level of skills which enable them to move from one industry to another.

Marx also argued that many of the skills of the skilled worker are actually passed on through the family system of the reproduction of labour. In Capital Volume I he pointed out that the British employers were against skilled workers emigrating during periods of unemployment because not only were their skills lost to British capitalism, which might need them in a period of re-expansion of industry, but also that of their children. Under capitalism it is the family system which actually develops the skills of the next generation.

It has been assumed that this is no longer true – that the rationalisation of education that occurred from the 1870s onwards has replaced family tuition. But this is not so. Before a child goes to school his/her mother has toilet trained them, taught them speech, taught them colours, ordering, and finally possibly, reading and numbers. The work of a mother as portrayed in books such as Teach Your Baby to Read, The New Childhood and How to Teach Your Child to Read is basically that of a nursery nurse and primary school teacher rolled into one. Television programmes such as Play School and Play Away are designed to help mothers teach their children. The entire Pre-School Playgroups movements exist for mothers to get together to teach their children cooperatively – whilst being paid a pittance (60p for a whole mornings work – again the ‘housewife’ disappears).

The development of these skills within the family also has another aspect however. Within the family little girls are trained one way and little boys another! Girls are taught service jobs like clearing up, washing up, cooking, looking after baby – which will one day mean that she qualifies for a whole series of jobs in certain industries. Boys are taught mechanical jobs. It is therefore no accident that women staffed ‘domestic’ service in the nineteenth century, and ‘public’ service in the twentieth. Even if a particular little girl has never been taught to cook it is assumed by society that she will be good at it, because of the family system. As skills become ‘averaged’ throughout the labour force the different skills imparted according to sex discrimination assume greater and greater importance.

Women’s wages: The difference between the wages of full-time male workers and full-time female workers is enormous. In April 1976 the average gross weekly earnings of manual male worker was £65.10, compared with manual women workers over 18 of £39.50.

The differences are even more marked for non-manual workers. The average gross weekly earnings for non-manual men aged over 21 were £81.60 a week, and for women over 18 £48.80. In fact the differences were even more marked: whereas £10 of the sex differential for manual workers could be accounted for in terms of different hours worked (overtime payments), shift payment, or bonuses, the hours worked were nearly identical in the non-manual field.

In these circumstances will Equal Pay legislation made a difference? For years, in the public sector, women have theoretically had equal pay. But in reality women teachers are paid less than men in a profession where they make up 2/3 of the employees? Why? They are not promoted, they do not get higher grades. Even if they all had the same qualifications as men – i.e. were university graduates rather that teacher training college graduates – this would still leave the picture unaltered.


Obviously this fundamental wage relationship between men and women is not an ‘accident’. It is quite directly related the peculiar commodity ‘labour-power’ and the relationship of the family to that commodity. As was pointed out in Women and the Family Part I, Marx argued that the wage of the man fell with the drawing into work of his wife and children Whereas capitalism argues that men should be forced to give over their wages to ‘their’ wife and child’s support, in fact the wage of a man is reduced under capitalism on the assumption of his wife’s working.

It is not just the wage of the women that is reduced because capitalism assumes a family behind its individual workers, it is also the man’s wage, but the wage of the women is reduced more because of her role in reproduction. The more common it is for women to work as well as men, all their lives, the more the woman’s wage will rise towards the man’s. But it is not true to argue that no woman has ever been paid at the value of her labour-power unless it is also argued that no man has. The assumption behind the value of wages bear no relationship to the needs of single men or single women – they are related to the socially necessary cost of reproducing this and the next generation of wage labourers i.e. they are related to the family needs of men, women and children.

Women’s unemployment: As with part-time workers and with home-workers it is very difficult to determine the real figures on women’s unemployment. Most married women do not receive unemployment benefit, or supplementary benefit, there is therefore little gain in them registering as unemployed. But in 1971 a comparison between the Census count of unemployed and the registered unemployed found 270,000 women unregistered.

In March 1977 there were officially nearly 1 million men out of work compared with only 300,000 women out of work. Even adding in the figure of 270,000 unregistered in 1971 (not nearly such a high year for unemployment as 1977) that brings the women’s total to nearly 600,000. But whereas officially, it is believed that half unemployed women don’t register, a survey by Woman’s Own would suggest that ¾ of unemployed women don’t register. In the first instance the actual figures for women unemployed are 2/3 that of men, but in the second they are equal! If we look at unemployment rates the figures are even startling – amongst 9m female employees either 600,000 (first estimate) or 1,200,000 (second estimate) are unemployed – where amongst nearly 13 million male employee there are 1 million unemployed.

At the same time more and more women are employed part-time. 1951–71 nearly all the increases in the labour force was accounted for by the increase in female employment. But whereas in the first ten years it was an increase in full-time women working, in the second ten it was an increase in part-time women working. In June 1975 the figure of 2½ million part-time women workers in 1971 had increased to over 3.4m, whilst full-time female workers were only 5½ million of the workforce (i.e. half the full-time men).

Quite clearly the family is being used to sustain the reserve army of unemployed – in some families it might be the man out of work while the woman gets a job, but in many families it is the man in work whilst the woman is pulled in and out of part-time employment. Capitalism’s reserve army of labour – once a pool of workers in the nineteenth century – is now composed of 16 million family ‘pools’. Unemployed youth are partially maintained by their parents, and their dole is adjusted according to whether they are 16, 17 or 18. Unemployed married women are maintained by their husbands almost entirely, and unemployed men by their wives, part-time working. The derisory sums paid by social security are based on the assumption that there is a family ‘net’ which catches people. For capitalism it is a most useful and flexible system – if industry needs women then it is the women who go out to work, full-time or part-time, if industry needs men then it is the men who go out to work. Marx argued that the job of the industrial reserve army is to drive down wage rates by providing a permanent pool of unemployed who can be drawn into employment – and this is precisely what the family system has done, substituting the role that immigrant labour once played in Britain.

Women workers are engaged in two form of production – the division of labour and the family. They are part of a family system for the privatised reproduction of society under capitalism and that is the key to both their exploitation and their oppression.


They cannot maintain themselves on their wages, but their wage is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the whole family (quite the reverse of the ‘pin money’ argument beloved by the male chauvinist). Nor are men paid ‘extra’ to maintain their wife and children – in fact their wages are less on the assumption that their wife will also work. In Britain today each family faces its own ‘life-cycle’ with two huge periods of poverty, the first when they are raising small children, and the wife doesn’t go out to work the second when they are raising small children, and the wife doesn’t go out to work the second when they both retire. The husband’s wage and the wife’s wage are the socially necessary wage for the entire family.

But because women are also faced with the burden, under capitalism, of reproduction they are also the most at risk in terms of low wages, lousy working conditions etc.

It is now necessary to turn to the relationship between the family and women’s oppression.

The oppression of women in class societies quite clearly cannot be reduced to any economic analysis and the strength of the patriarchal analysis lies in its recognition of this fact. Any angry woman would prefer an analysis in which their oppression was identified as social, all-embracing, and from the cradle to the grave.

But the social oppression of women makes no sense without a Marxist analysis of the family. Men as a group do not oppress women as a group but individual men and individual women live out their lives together in a family system, constantly reaffirmed by capitalism, and it is that family system of reproduction which places women in their oppressed position. Some men go right along with the system – some men don’t. The question is not actually about the attitudes and beliefs of individual men, although they too have to be changed, but about the family form of reproduction of society and what women are going to do about it. It is the family system which creates the virgin, the prostitute, pornography and the oppression of women.

Because the capitalist state is so totally committed to the maintenance of the family system of reproducing society, any legal solutions to particularly problems of women always end up in the most massive compromise. ALRA the Abortion Law Reform Association, one of the earliest pioneers in women’s abortion rights, has now drafted its own bill with its own limits on women’s rights to an abortion. The National Council for Civil Liberties has come out with its own defence of battered wives – an alternative court, family courts!

Not only is the capitalist state totally committed to the maintenance of the family but the state actually views itself as a family – not as a glorified universal mafia but as a cosy semi-detached little nest. In our present-day capitalist state there are only two main analogies. One is the ship where we must all row together – under the guidance of the captain – to pull ourselves out of troubled waters (and along with this goes the Dunkirk spirit). Of course some travel first class and some travel third but basically all us Britons are in the same boat. The another analogy is that we are all members of one big happy family with the Queen, Prince Philip, etc., etc., at the head – and nobody wants a divorce.

One problem with the one big happy family analogy is that it no longer fits – families are no longer big nor particularly happy. Capitalism, whilst attempting to maintain the family, is busily shredding up every little family in sight. Although nine out of ten women will marry at least once by the time they are 50 if the present divorce rates continue between one fifth and one quarter of them (one in four) will also get divorced, and 70 per cent of divorce petitions are sued for by women. The rise in the remarriage rates for divorced people are entirely accounted for by the rise in the number of divorced people able to get remarried, and indeed there is some evidence that young divorced people are remarrying less than before. At the same time the numbers of children each couple are having have fallen to its lowest level since the Second World War – women are having children later and later after marriage.

The figures on marriage and divorce and on birth-rate illustrate the dual impact that capitalism is having on the family – more people get married before breaking up more often and having less children! On the one hand, under capitalism, women can free themselves of burdensome marriages (70 per cent of the divorce petitioners are women) on the other hand the whole assumption of a capitalist society is that people will live in couples. On the one hand women can control their own fertility through contraception and abortion (if they are single – married women have much more difficulties getting abortions). On the other hand capitalism itself controls when they will have children. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the net reproduction rate was always over 1 (i.e. a man and a woman had more than two children on average) Now the net reproduction rate is less than 1 for the first time since the Second World War; at present it is at 0.89, not far off the 0.74 that it reached in 1933, the depth of the depression. This represents both a rejection by some women of the necessity of having children in order to ‘fulfil’ themselves but it also represents a terrible economic reality for others. Women cannot choose when to have a child in our society – that decision is dictated to by economic forces outside her control. Each woman’s personal change of child-bearing should not be related to production – but under capitalism it is. Women’s oppression is totally bound up with the exploitation of capitalism, just as their exploitation is bound up with their oppression.

Capitalist technology has not given women the possibility of controlling their own bodies – it has developed better health care for women and children than ever before. Since the turn of the century the morality rates for mothers and infants have collapsed throughout the capitalist heartlands. But the position of Britain relative to other countries has worsened in recent years. In 1960 out of 15 countries England came eighth in infant mortality and Scotland fifth; in 1971 England had the fifth highest rate and Scotland the second.


The higher British rates can be traced to social conditions. The excess of infant deaths in Britain compared to Scandinavia is due entirely to social diseases – influenza, pneumonia, etc. – which are related to low incomes and poor housing. All women do not suffer equally from the effects of the capitalist crisis – working class women, poor women, suffer more. All women are oppressed, but the degree of their oppression depends upon their class.

In the past British capitalism sought to protect all women from the burden of certain types of work – night shift, poisons, metals like lead etc. – in order to protect the reproduction of society – or the health of the race as most of the ‘reformers’ so quaintly put it. Now that the majority of women workers are married women workers who have finished child-bearing, the needs of a sickly British capitalism must over-ride such considerations. By March 1977 orders allowing exemptions under the Factories Act of 1961 had been granted with respect over two hundred thousand women. Over 40,000 women were exemption in order to do double day shifts, nearly fifty thousand in order to do night shifts, another forty-odd thousand to do Sunday work etc. Some revolutionaries have argued that this is one aspect of equality. Such an ‘equality’ allows women to be pulled in and out of production, exploited in all forms, but remain the oppressed sex in terms of privatised reproduction. Capitalism creates conditions which mean that 1/3 of women workers are part-time workers, they are paid 2/3 the male rate, and then when the issue of finally paying women the same rate for the job demands a ‘night-shift’ as well as the double shift of worker and mother! No trade unionist should fall for that one – the struggle for socialists is to free workers from the domination of machinery!

Women’s oppression is closely bound up with the development or destruction of the welfare state. In part I of this article, I argued that both the family and the welfare state were part of the mode of reproduction. The more the welfare state is destroyed the more burden falls upon the individual family, and the more tragedy also. This is clearly seen in the figures for infant mortality.

The argument that it is ‘equal’ for women as well as men to work the night shift is a confusion between the form and the substance of equality. With the development of capitalism the rights of bourgeois democracy – to vote, to own property – have had to extended to women as well as men because of the social forces that capitalism itself unleashed. Capitalism treats all women as the individual owners of their own labour power, and did so even in a period when women had no right to own any other property at all. By this very act capitalism itself undermined the patriarchal family system and gave rise to the situation where it was possible for women to create a movement to demand their rights.

An extension of the legal rights of women is always progressive but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this extension also fits some of the needs of a rationalised capitalism as well. The ‘night shift’ equality demand is only one example of this. The individualisation of women and women’s individual rights is also part of the entire response of capitalism to fundamental criticisms of the family system as the privatised system of reproduction. Whereas capitalism is not about to “abolish the family it will discuss the problems of women as individuals. Just as individual male workers problems are described in terms of their problems – unemployed workers don’t have the right skills – so women’s problems are seen as the problems of individuals rather than the result of a family system. Just as individual women must prove their right to equal pay against individual men, so it is individual women who are neurotic, and individual women who are battered – the problems of such women can never be seen as the problem of all women, as part of women’s oppression.

It is the same within individual families. A husband will argue, along with the capitalist, that ‘his’ wife is a poor manager – on £20 housekeeping a week! A wife will argue that ‘her’ husband is a poor provider. The families of both will agree that he or she married a loser – all the while ignoring the fact that under capitalism the world is made up of losers. But whereas one set of losers – the men – will generally have some independence all their lives, the other set of losers – women – are forced by the family system into isolation and dependence upon another wage for several years. All kinds of petty tyrannies are possible in this situation – and the capitalist state, totally committed to the ‘happy family’ myth, will allow them all.


The history of the battered wives campaign shows clearly the response of the state to the problems of the ‘unhappy family’. There is no reason why any husband who battered his wife could not have been arrested and charged with ABH (Actual Bodily Harm) or GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm) or, even attempted manslaughter in the worst cases. The only reason that they weren’t charged, as they would have been if they had assaulted a neighbour in a similar fashion, is that the police choose not to charge them. Such disputes are regarded as ‘Domestic’ and there is no ‘interference’ at all. The campaign waged on behalf of women’s rights in this matter has not resulted in forcing the Police to prevent assault but in a new Act ‘The Domestic Violence Act’. Under this Act women have to prove that they have already been assaulted in front of a Judge who then might restrain the husband from doing it again or might, after a couple of times, allow the woman to take out an injunction against her husband. Quite clearly the capitalist state is not in the business of protecting women from the men they live with! It therefore is not surprising that half the murders in England and Wales are not cops and robbers stuff but the murder of women by the men that they live with, and nearly all the multiple pathological murders are murders of entire families.

The situation with regard to battered children is equally appalling. As costs of local authority child care soar most children, even those most at risk, remain in homes unable to care for them or with mothers who themselves receive inadequate help. The mental stress of the mother increases with isolation (tower block living with no garden in particular), the number of children under five, the type of accommodation and their financial circumstances. Instead of housing all families adequately, with enough to live on it is cheaper to employ thousands of social workers to watch over the families that are at risk. This doesn’t give the family any real help – it merely ‘polices’ the family system. The Director of Coventry Social Services, when interviewed, was quite explicit about this role of Social Work – he claimed that social work was entirely aimed at helping individual families to function. Of course at the same time capitalism heaps ever greater burdens on the same families – more costly housing and food, greater stress.

The maintenance of the individual family is done at an enormous cost to hundreds of thousands of women’s mental health. The most common group of people suffering mental illness in hospital is first elderly women, second elderly men and third women from 25–44. But the hospital figures don’t take into account the thousands upon thousands of women prescribed Valium and other tranquillisers weekly by their doctors. One recent survey has shown that Valium is as addictive as any other drug but day in and day out women are given these drugs to take in order to sedate them against reality. Capitalism justifies this by speaking of individual neurotic women – in fact it is the Family system which is neurotic, not the individual.

Unfortunately, for women, breaking up their own individual family is not the answer to this oppression. In capitalism it is the family system that is responsible for the mental health of individual members of society. Capitalism refuses to care for its own alienated, its own oppressed and in our society we must each turn to other individuals for help. Marx argued that religion was the heart of a heartless world, an ‘opiate’ for the people. In the capitalism of our day it is the family that attempts to be the heart of a heartless world – substituting for no relationships with anyone, one relationship with someone. The ideal of ‘romantic love’ is an idealised version of this one relationship. Of course one relationship is a very poor substitute for the dozens of caring relationships that would be possible in a socialist society – but in capitalism there is not a lot else on offer!

Because the entire capitalist system is geared to personal lives lived in families people without families are condemned to loneliness.

Traditionally females committed suicide less than men; in 1901 three men committed suicide to every one female but today it is two women to every three men. As more and more women live out their lives outside the immediate family so they too commit suicide. But for all ages and for both sexes death by suicide or accidental poisoning is less likely for those married at the time. For both sexes in a majority of age-groups widows and widowers were most likely to commit suicide, then came divorcees and then came the single (never married) population.

People without families are not only lonely, they are poorer as well. This is especially true for the single parent families. There are now at least half a million women raising nearly 2m children in single parents families, and 100,000 men raising 160,000 children in similar circumstances. At any one point in their lives these women will become dependent on Social Security and will come face to face with the hypocrisy of the capitalist state. If a woman raising a family on her own goes on Supplementary Benefit she will find that her children are worth less than the children of a widow. A child allowance with a widow’s pension, invalid’s pension, invalid care allowance, guardian’s allowance, retirement pension is £6.45 for the first child and £5.95 for others. With unemployment, maternity allowance, sickness and industrial injury the allowance for the first child is £3.05 and £2.55 for others. With Supplementary Benefit the allowances are £3.60 for a child under 5, £4.35 for a child aged 5–10, £5.35 for a child aged 11–12 and £6.50 for a child aged 13–15. Quite clearly the British capitalist state operates with a conception of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ – the deserving poor, the undeserving poor, and women on social security.

The reality of a women’s life under capitalism is never portrayed to her. The television, the radio chat shows, the magazines, the newspaper all operate with the assumption that women have problems but the family system doesn’t. They themselves actually increase the problems for individual women by presenting women with an image of themselves which is utterly absurd, and a dualist image of womanhood which is ridiculous. Either we are all Virgin Marys or we are all prostitutes or we are all Hollywood sex goddesses. The picture of the good woman is woman with child, the picture of the bad woman is of a sex hungry home wrecker, but at the same time women are told to be sex objects to their husbands. In these conditions sexual development according to the needs and wishes of individuals doesn’t stand a chance. Therefore ‘normality’ has to be imposed by a set of social norms in the case of male-female sex, and by law in the case of homosexuality.

The vast bulk of television, radio, magazines is taken up with the presentation of ‘family’ entertainment. The only situation comedy that had been really funny lately is the one that got away from that – Porridge. But for one Porridge there are dozens of happy families, alongside of Crossroads and Coronation Street. Even the cops and robbers programmes are no different – Kojak is everybody’s daddy, and Starsky and Hutch is everybody’s big brother. In all these programmes sexuality doesn’t exist as an adult phenomenon.

Because of the total destruction of a normal sexual development in capitalist society some have argued that it is possible to deal with this problem by an ‘alternative’ society – communes. Marx argued that within capitalist society it was possible to see the germs of a future socialist society and some have argued that this is what communes represent – a future form of personal life under socialism. I don’t believe it. Communes usually represent something more like an enlarged family system with six people living together instead of two and having six times the difficulties of getting on. The essence of a socialist solution to the problem of the Family is that each individual will have the means and the opportunity to live as they chose – not for some Communal Committee to have the choice of whether they can live with them or not! A socialist society does not reject anyone.

There are also problems with the attempts at consciousness raising that have been made. No one claims that the oppression of women can be defeated by this method but merely that some women can be made aware of their oppression. However for these women the issue then becomes one of what to do about it. Capitalism has given rise to the emancipation of individual women from a patriarchal household economy, it has pushed them into the market, and it is there that they have to organise. There can be no resolution of women’s individual oppression under capitalism – but there can be organisation against capitalism by women in order to fight both their exploitation and their oppression which are necessarily fused. We are, in short, revolutionary feminists. As Barbara Winslow argued ‘Feminism is the awareness of the specific oppression and exploitation that all women face. Feminism also means the willingness to organise a fight against women’s subjection in society.’ As revolutionary feminists, however, we also have an analysis of how that fight should be organised – that although working class women are oppressed as well as exploited the organisation of those women should be distinct but not separate from that of working-class men. It is only a working-class revolutionary party that can break capitalism, but, as oppressed sections of the working class, both blacks and women have a special role to play in the organisation of that party.


We can organise, win and recruit women to revolutionary politics on the basis of their oppression as well as their exploitation. Many women have broken with middle-class backgrounds as well as working-class backgrounds, and as with students it is possible to organise these women around the revolutionary party. But to do this we need an organisation of women wider than the revolutionary party to take up every issue of women’s oppression and women’s exploitation – an organisation which includes women members of the revolutionary party and women who are not members. Because women’s oppression fashions the form of their exploitation, because they do not cease to be oppressed by virtue of walking through the factory door it is pointless to argue that a women’s caucus within a rank and file movement can fulfil the same role. It is necessary for us to build a women’s movement can fulfil the same role. It is necessary for us to build a women’s movement with its own paper which can unite all women – public sector workers, factory workers, women at home. Because capitalism oppresses all women the material base for such an organisation exists; because capitalist exploitation is fused with capitalist oppression that material base fits with the total revolutionary strategy of a working-class party.

Because the material basis of the oppression of all women exists many women in the women’s liberation movement have argued that a revolutionary party has nothing to offer women. But two problems immediately confront any women’s organisation that is separate from such a party.

The organisation of all women irrespective of their class perspective and political commitment builds a movement that is divided within itself with a permanent fifth column of women who aren’t sure whether they want to overthrow society (and their oppression) or not! Such an organisation’s demands always represents the lowest common denominator of demands that are acceptable to all classes and never the working-class movement. While we would seek to organise a mass women’s movement around Women’s Voice and Women’s Voice groups it is a movement built on a revolutionary socialist platform and committed to a working-class struggle for freedom.

Moreover, the separation of women from male revolutionaries means that such women have to rely on their contacts with the trade unions at the ‘official’ level. Women organised around a revolutionary party have a distinct organisation but not a separate one. It is possible to work through the rank and file. It is possible to forge the links between public sector workers (a majority of women) and manual workers (a majority of men). It can forge links between all women and then link them with a revolutionary party which is both male and female. In other words a women’s organisation of a revolutionary party ceases to be an ambulance service and becomes a power arm of struggle.

Obviously such a movement faces the problem of not only uniting all revolutionary feminists from different sectors but also of establishing a women’s strategy that is a integral part of the strategy of a revolutionary party. Women in Britain are very well placed to be able to do this. A higher percentage of women in Britain are in the labour force than in any other country of the EEC. The British crisis means that women are forced to organise themselves more than ever before. From all sides – from the employers to Hugh Scanlon – comes the argument that public sector workers (largely women) are unproductive and should be cut back to make way for the productive. From all sides comes the attack on the welfare state which only minimally shares the reproduction of society with the family.

In part I of this article (ISJ 100)) I argued that public sector workers were necessary but not productive, they were part of the mode of reproduction. This has enormous repercussions for the women who work in those services. They are not productive – therefore capitalism will cut them – but they are necessary for the reproduction of the working class therefore it is possible to build a working class strategy for the defence of the public sector. That strategy will involve a women’s movement as well as a hospital workers rank and file group, or a teachers rank and file group, or the support of the manual working class.

Women are a vital part of our revolutionary strategy. It is not enough for us to build a women’s caucus within the revolutionary party, or a women’s caucus within each rank and file movement – we have to build a women’s movement which stretches out into layers of women that neither of those organisational forms yet reaches. In many ways the building of a women’s organisation around Women’s Voice can substitute for both caucuses – but both caucuses can’t substitute for Women’s Voice groups. We have to get our priorities right in this period and the building of Women’s Voice is urgent. In the past women have made revolutions, and the future will be the same. We have, after all, two worlds to win.

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Last updated on 24 March 2015