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International Socialism, Autumn 1981


Lin James & Anna Paczuska

Socialism needs feminism


From International Socialism, 2 : 14, Autumn 1981, pp. 105–119.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘[In Siberia] ... the women usually took home the men’s linen; but Bronstein [Trotsky] refused to benefit from such comforts, washed his own linen and mocked at revolutionaries so ensnared in bourgeois habits and prejudices as to burden their womenfolk with such work.’ Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879–1921, Oxford 1970, p. 41

In 1902 Anita Augsburg, a radical feminist, criticized Clara Zetkin, the leader of the German socialist women’s movement:

‘If Clara Zetkin expects that the men of a victorious, post-revolutionary Social Democracy will voluntarily extend to women the rights which (Social Democratic) women voluntarily deny themselves, then she has not learned much from the lessons of history on which she places so much weight. In the 110 years since the French Revolution ... the men who fought for liberty, equality and fraternity have not changed much in the least so far as the rights of women are concerned.’ [1]

There were two main groups of women active in Germany at the beginning of the century. One group, commonly referred to as ‘bourgeois feminists’ or ‘equal rights feminists’, believed that the division of society into men and women was more important than the division into social classes, and that women’s oppression should be confronted directly. Socialist feminists like Clara Zetkin on the other hand, worked to organize working class women to fight for their class interests in the belief that only a successful social revolution along class lines could lay the basis for true female emancipation.

The present feminist movement has arisen in circumstances widely different to those which existed in Germany between 1890 and 1914, and it is not possible to draw exact parallels. But the division between socialists and feminists has continued.

The persistent socialist hostility toward feminism is reflected in the idea that: ‘there always existed two separate movements with more or less sharp struggle between them ... the movement of the leisured ladies of the bourgeoisie and the movement of working class women’. [2]

The division between women of different classes was never so clear-cut. The ideas of feminists as well as of socialists influenced and organized working class women [3], and Clara Zetkin herself was considerably influenced by feminism as a young woman. Radical feminists in the German feminist movement petitioned the Reichstag for the extension and control of safeguards to domestic labour, supported provisions for the protection of working mothers in industry, campaigned to form women’s unions and to train girls for skilled crafts, and produced a magazine for women workers in 1904.

Today in Britain feminists have worked within the unions campaigning against discrimination and notably winning the support of male and female workers for the feminist campaign for abortion rights.

Working class women have supported feminist initiatives, often in the face of considerable hostility from working class men. Many thousands of working class women supported not only the working class ‘suffragists’ in their campaigns for votes for women, but also the initiatives of the suffragettes – in which the interests of working class women were ditched when the campaign eventually decided to go for a compromise in which propertied women only got the vote. The campaign itself was suspended when WSPU got caught up in patriotic fervour in 1914. The SPD was also killed by the growth of patriotism at the outbreak of war.

The support of working class women for what was essentially a feminist campaign for the vote followed on from the class based campaigns for universal suffrage which had been supported by both working class women and men, but which had turned out to be a struggle for votes for men only. Thus in the suffrage campaigns working class women were alternately attracted to support struggles along class lines and along sex lines – and were not adequately represented by either. This was hardly surprising given the long established tradition that oppression is something that ‘feminists’ fight while exploitation is left to ‘socialists’.

Working class women don’t see the world in such a compartmentalized way. Their position as women affects their position as workers and vice versa. Theoretically it may be possible to outline oppression and exploitation separately, and even identify one as more important than the other. In reality the effects of oppression and exploitation interact.

‘Oppression is not something that goes on within the four walls of the home to be left behind when the front door slams and be taken over by exploitation at work. It follows women to work, both making them “second class citizens” doing women’s work – but also in their heads in the way they see themselves and experience work. At the same time, the fact of being in the world of wage labour, of being in a collective situation, and of having to confront exploitation ... alters the experience of oppression. So while the experience of female oppression shapes their exploitation, their exploitation alters their oppression.’ [4]

Thus in the debate between Clara Zetkin and Anita Augsburg, Clara Zetkin was undoubtedly in the right when she asserted the need for working class women to look to class struggle to lay the basis for their emancipation. But Anita Augsburg also had a point. She touched on a problem that socialists rarely admit – the sexism of socialists. While sexism is often only described in the way that it expresses itself in personal relationships, for socialists sexism is not just a ‘personal’ problem. The need to confront sexism and to fight women’s oppression is posed by the division that exists in our class between women and men.

That division is deliberately fostered and reinforced by the ruling class – employers divide the workforce along sexual lines and the state treats women differently from men. The division reflects itself in class struggle: undermining the unity of working class organisation, provoking divisions along sexual lines during strikes, showing itself in the small proportion of women in revolutionary socialist organisations.

When we speak of confronting sexism, we are talking not of the need to change or reform the personal characters and behaviour of individual male socialists (although that would certainly be a bonus), but we are arguing for the need for all socialists, women and men, to understand the effects of women’s oppression, and hence to understand the need for feminism in our socialism. Feminism is not a set of ideas which have relevance only to the aspirations of middle class women. Feminism – the understanding that women have to fight for their own interests as women – has relevance for working class women too. Early socialists had to some extent understood this. The German socialist Bebel argued as early as 1879:

‘The female sex ... suffers doubly, first she suffers social dependence on the male world, second economic economic dependence... Because of all this, all women regardless of class status, have an interest in changing this situation as much as possible through alterations in the laws and institutions of the existing state and social order ... An essential part of the SPD programme is the true equality of women, their liberation from all dependence and oppression. There can be no liberation of humanity without social independence and equality of the sexes.’ [5]

It is not possible therefore to choose between ‘middle class’ feminism and ‘working class’ socialism. Feminism is a vital aspect of our socialism.

Problems of feminism

Feminism, like socialism, has come to have a variety of meanings. On the other hand it can be a radical philosophy so hostile to men that it aims ‘to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’ [6] On the other hand it may be an altogether more tame affair relying not on revolutionary direct action to achieve women’s rights, but rather ‘on a quiet word in the ear of the men in power’. [7]

Spanning these extremes is the idea that all women have an interest in uniting together to fight male oppression. Much feminist writing and activity is inspired by the notion that: ‘there can be a common bond which feminists ... can develop constructively across class lines and racial divisions’. [8] Common to all feminisms is the recognition that men oppress women and that women have to struggle against that. Differences arise as to the cause of the oppression, and therefore how to fight it.

Some feminists have used the fact that male domination existed in societies that preceded capitalism to conclude that sexual divisions are the primary divisions in society. Many feminist writings support patriarchy theory, and the idea that women can only be liberated by a separate struggle against men. [9] The sheer volume of written material which supports Patriarchy theory serves to give the impression that organised feminists are almost wholly in agreement with it. This impression is compounded by the fact that the word patriarchy has a double meaning, being used both as a shorthand term for patriarchy theory and in the general description of societies which are male dominated. [10]

Marxists believe that male domination is the result not of an inherent antagonism by men toward women, but of the division of society into classes resulting in a division of labour such as to both cause and constantly exacerbate sexual antagonisms. Feminist writers have displayed considerable hostility toward Marxist ideas and to Marxist organisations in particular. Women in Marxist organisations are often condemned for their naivete in believing that socialism, run by men, will liberate them. Such views come not just from feminists who agree with patriarchy theory. They also come from feminists who call themselves socialists and who have often been members of organisations which have a class analysis of society.

Their hostility is based not on an abstract idea about the inherently oppressive nature of men but on reality as they found it. With numerous accounts of trivial but painful incidents, they pose the problems encountered by women in their efforts to unite with men in class struggle, while fighting for their liberation as women.

When Marge Piercy wrote of the American Left in the sixties ‘most movement males’ ideas of women’s liberation is something for their girlfriend to do to other women while they’re busy decision making’ [11], she touched a raw nerve. Many such radical women came to her conclusion that:

‘I once thought that all that was necessary was to make men understand that they could achieve their own liberation too by joining in the struggle for women’s’ liberation: but it has come to seem to me a little too much like the chickens trying to educate the chicken farmer.’ [12]

More recently Beyond the Fragments – a set of essays highly critical of the organised left – played to the same set of experiences. The book enjoyed a great deal of success not because women agreed with the strategy outlined in it (the lack of organisation around that strategy is an indication of that), but because they identified with the subjective experiences outlined in it.

The recognition that such experiences were a general and recurring phenomenon led socialist feminists like the authors of Beyond the Fragments to conclude that it was not possible to work for women’s liberation by fighting for workers emancipation through the Marxist organisations which exist today. Instead they revived a Utopian ideal of ‘living your politics now’ which for them replaced the need for class struggle, and in which women’s liberation was somehow guaranteed by promises of ‘good behaviour’ by the individuals who committed themselves to the struggle. Unfortunately such individual moralism is no guarantee of women’s liberation. It is a powerless concept of change. [13]

To achieve women’s liberation class struggle is necessary to change the economic basis of the society which causes our oppression as women. Yet we must also be clear that the struggle for socialism is a struggle to end both exploitation and oppression for the working class. Thus socialism must be a conscious struggle to end the subordination of women to men as well as the exploitation of workers by employers. That means participation in the whole range of struggles which involve women as women: the campaign against violence against women is essential as well as the struggle to get male support for women workers on strike, the commitment to mobilise trade union support for abortion rights is crucial as well as the need to mobilise housewives to support male workers on strike.

In practice socialist organisations have always tended to underestimate the struggle against women’s oppression, and indeed have tended to overlook the extent of the problem. That is perhaps because socialist organisations have always been male dominated. Socialist men, like all the men in male dominated society, enjoy privileges, and like all those with privileges they insist on telling us the privileges are not up to much anyway. Thus they will stress that the task before us is: ‘to oppose any women’s separatism, and to fight for complete unity of men and women in one revolutionary party’. [14]

You can achieve such unity by acknowledging women’s oppression and making the fight against it a major part of your strategy. Or you can, as Tony Cliff does, try to relegate the problem by dismissing those who raise it with workerist comments about ‘the leisured ladies of the bourgeoisie’. Such easy sarcasm cannot conceal a disconcerting failure on the part of many socialists – women as well as men – to realise the nature and extent of women’s oppression.

In her article, Lindsey German quite correctly sets out to establish that class struggle is central to women’s emancipation. However she makes the case at the expense of women. For she takes such great pains to stress that men and women both suffer under capitalism, and therefore need to be united to overthrow it, that she insists that only capitalism (in the abstract) rather than men (in particular) benefit from women’s oppression. In denying that men benefit from women’s oppression, Lindsey totally misrepresents its effect and its nature.

She argues: ‘we say housewives are oppressed while workers are exploited. But it does not signify that male workers benefit from women’s oppression ... just because women suffer a double burden of both directly producing surplus value in the factory or office and of reproducing surplus value in the home, it does not follow that the male worker’s single burden is less.’

A crucial weakness in this line of argument is the assumption that ‘women workers’ and ‘housewives’ are mutually exclusive groups. She goes on to say: ‘it is true that women bear the brunt of childcare and housework in the home’, and asks, ‘does it follow that men benefit from women’s labour?’ To any working woman ‘bearing the brunt’ of a husband and children, such a question would be astonishing!

She then asserts that: ‘It is doubtful if husbands benefit in more than a marginal way’. And she even manages to infer that housewives have an easier time of it overall. Workers we are told suffer ‘occupational diseases, horrific accidents, acute fatigue, and often an early death’. Housewives by contrast suffer ‘demoralisation, atomisation, insecurity and a variety of ailments that are normally ignored by doctors’. She omits to mention that women workers suffer both.

What Lindsey is saying flies in the face of a readily observable reality. Of course men benefit from the fact that women do all the domestic work, and that they are socially subordinate to men. And to take up a point which Lindsey ignores – it isn’t ‘capitalism’ that beats wives, rapes women, hires prostitutes, and degrades women in pornography – it’s men. You may argue that capitalism forces men to do these things, but if you believe that men have no choice then socialism can be forgotten.

Lindsey’s reluctance to admit that men are the instruments of women’s oppression leads her into many difficulties. First she compares only the physical situation of women and men – one isolated at home, the other suffering industrial injury at work. She does not seem to understand that skilled wage labour gives social dominance to male workers over women, that financial dependence and inferior status combine to undermine women’s confidence and initiative, and that in extreme cases the differences cause women to see their interests as different from those of male workers. Lindsey misunderstands oppression and as a result does not acknowledge the obstacle to class unity. She briefly admits that workers are sexist: ‘men are sexist even within the party and after the revolution’ but dismisses this with the platitude that fighting sexism must be ‘an integral part of the class struggle’. Overall her undervaluing of oppression leads to an incomplete strategy for organising women workers, and for building socialism.

You can’t balance oppression for women against exploitation for men in the way Lindsey attempts to do. Oppression is not just about a different sort of suffering as she seems to think. Oppression is a relationship in which women are subordinate to men socially and economically. And just as a boss may work harder than his employees and still exploit them, so a man can dedicate his life to fighting to liberate his class but still oppress women.

Women’s oppression results in divisions between women and men workers which affect class struggle. ‘Back to work’ protests are the clearest example. Women have fought alone in their equal pay strikes: the SEI women at Eccles in 1975 and the Trico women in 1976 are perhaps the best known. But many women workers have had comparable experiences to the GMWU members in Wednesbury who during an equal pay strike were faced with ‘a local union official encouraging his male members to cross the picket line’. [15] The most recent example was during the Tetley’s strike in West London. Women workers who turned up to picket were at first sent away by the men workers who argued that a picket line was no place for women. The women had to fight for their right to picket.

Such events cannot be swept under the carpet. And to keep silent about them, as Socialist Worker did, does not make for greater class unity. On the contrary it ensures that because the problem is not confronted it will recur. Nor can such divisions be overcome simply by the ‘special mechanisms’ for organising women workers that Lindsey German talks of. It is a step in the right direction to recognise that women have to be organised in a specific way, and indeed Clara Zetkin recognised that over 60 years ago:

‘The Communist Women’s movement is not an independent women’s movement. It exists for systematic Communist propaganda among women. It has a double purpose: first to incorporate within the national sections of the Comintern those women who are already filled with the Communist ideal ... second, to win over to the Communist ideal the indifferent women and draw them into the struggles of the proletariat’. [16]

But organising women for socialism is not necessarily the same as arguing for women’s liberation ideas at the centre of our socialism. Such ideas are vital in the struggle to organise working class women. They are necessary to cut across the ideology that keeps women oppressed and inactive. It is not sufficient to presume that class interests unite working class women and men – experience shows otherwise. Nor is it enough to make a ‘special effort’, talking louder, longer and more simply to women. To organise women in class struggle we must challenge the ideas of passivity, femininity and responsible motherhood which lead them to see their interests as different from male workers. Strikes which involve women pose the need for women to organise not just in traditionally ‘spontaneous’ ways, but involve understanding also the way women’s oppression interacts with exploitation, and organising to take into account the difficulties women face with domestic commitment, in maintaining ongoing involvement in workplace organisation. Women’s liberation ideas about the right to work and the right to financial independence justify making a priority of workplace issues, and demanding the back-up facilities like day care to do that properly.

At home and at work women must challenge their traditional role as women in order to participate in their own emancipation. In this way the ideas of women’s liberation, feminism, are essential to building a working class movement through which women and men can fight to control their destinies.

Furthermore a feminist socialism, a socialism in which men and women actively fight women’s oppression, will give us a confidence in our politics which will mean that the indignities of our everyday relationships with men need neither be glossed over nor constantly emphasised – they can be understood as we understand all the other aspects of a society which we live in but fight against.

The origins of feminism

Individual women have rebelled against their oppression throughout recorded history; but women organising as a group to fight oppression marked the coming together of various forces – most importantly the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution.

Early industry used women in a selective and highly exploitative way. The female wage was set much lower than men’s, and there was sexual segregation between men’s and women’s work. Factory labour thus served to consolidate the social divisions that had already developed between women and men and laid the basis for a deep male hostility towards women workers.

Working class self-organisation from the start of the industrial revolution was dominated by men. The trade unions in particular were hostile to working women. Joint organisations like those in the textile industry developed against the stream and did not widely influence the trade union movement.

The separation of women workers from men in the workplace organisations not only weakened the workers in the face of the employers. It also often left women workers unorganised and isolated. This inevitably made them much more open to the ideas of middle class feminists when they began to organise among working class women.

Feminism was born among the women of the rising middle class. It grew up in America in the 1840s and spread to Europe soon after. The women who became the leaders and activists in the feminist campaigns of the nineteenth century were women who had traditionally looked to marriage as a career. Various factors combined to change that. First a population imbalance forced many more women onto the job market than would otherwise have been the case. But the expansion of the middle class and the increasing job opportunities presented for middle class men by the development of industry also caused middle class women to look beyond life in the home. [17] The French revolution gave them the language in which to argue for equality with men of their class.

The French Revolution was essentially a bourgeois revolution. It swept away the control over land and the state exercised by the aristocracy and laid the way open for the rising capitalist class. To do so it had to mobilise the majority of the people to its support. The ideals ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ did that.

Middle class women took over those ideals and fought for their share of what was coming to the middle class. Thus feminism emerged as the articulation of the aspirations of middle class women for equality with men of their class. This was reflected in their campaigns – for education opportunities, for entry to the professions, for the right to own property and to participate independently in political life.

But feminism was a philosophy that was to affect and indeed mobilise working class women too. Two examples of this are the women’s unions and the movement for women’s suffrage. In both these campaigns working class women mobilised around demands put forward by middle class women, who were able to act across class divisions in this way because they moved into the gap left by the male chauvinism of the trade union movement and the sexism of the radical and socialist movement (as Janet Vaux points out elsewhere in this journal).

The suffragette campaign, popularly remembered in the militant activities of middle class women like Christabel Pankhurst, attracted many working class women. Hannah Mitchell, an ILP member and a suffragette, is one of the few working class women to have written of her experiences. ‘I soon found that a lot of socialist talk about freedom was only talk and those socialist young men expected teas with home made cakes, potted meat and pies, exactly like their reactionary fellows ... They believed in freedom’s cause but thought that liberty is a kind of thing that “don’t agree with wives”.’ [18] When she writes of the struggle for the vote she says: ‘I realised that if women did not bestir themselves the socialists would be quite content to accept Manhood Suffrage in spite of all their talk about equality.’ [19]

Thousands of working class women supported campaigns for the vote run both by working class women and by middle class women. It is not possible to detail the suffragette campaigns: what is clear is that the women’s suffrage campaign cut across class loyalties and at times obscured class interests. Its ability to do that was in large measure due to the sexism of the radical organisations who campaigned for the vote under the slogan universal suffrage, but in reality fought for the vote for men only.

Only when women themselves began to organise did socialists and radicals see the need to actively commit themselves to support for women’s suffrage. An ILP delegate to the Labour Party conference in 1912 unwittingly confirmed this: ‘Franchise reform has been forced to the front, not by what enfranchised men have done, but by what unenfranchised women have done.’ [20]

The ability of the women’s suffrage movement to mobilise women across classes existed from the very start. The Leeds Society which began in the late 1860s was run by a wealthy manufacturer’s wife. ‘She mainly concentrated her activities on building committees of working women staffed by themselves in Morley and South Leeds.’ [21]

And working class women moved to instigate their own campaigns. At the beginning of the century women in the textile towns of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire collected a massive petition and campaigned in trade union branches, trades councils, labour clubs and socialist societies to gain commitment to their struggle for women’s right to vote. [22]

The northern suffragists inspired southern women too. In 1902 some were invited to speak at a meeting in Chelsea Town Hall and in their speeches the women workers indicated their interests in issues beyond the vote. A former millworker from Bolton said ‘we want shorter hours, more leisure, more opportunities of recreation and rational means of living together than we have at the present time’. [23]

Such demands were well outside what the suffragettes would have stressed. And inevitably class differences began to divide the women’s suffrage movement. Sylvia Pankhurst broke with Christabel and went on to organise working class women in the context of class struggle in London’s East End. In 1907 Charlotte Despard led another breakaway to form the Women’s Freedom League.

The various organisations continued to demonstrate and campaign sometimes together, sometimes separately. Eventually the suffrage movement was split when war broke out – the middle class women who led it supporting the war, the socialists opposing it.

The important thing to note is that working class women and middle class women alike flocked to support the feminist demand ‘votes for women’. They came together at the same period of time in history inspired by feminist motivations in the light of the experience that neither working class organisations nor bourgeois political parties would fight for them.

Against this background of loyalties across classes, and conflicts within classes on the issue of women, the writings of Engels and Marx provide a remarkably clear understanding of the situation of women in society, and of their oppression in the family.

Marxists and women’s oppression

Engels argued that the transference of power or dominance to men within the family division of labour was a ‘revolution’ – ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex’. Engels and Marx understood clearly that this process subordinated, degraded and enslaved women.

The German socialist August Bebel in his immensely popular book The Emancipation of Women, which pre-dated Engels (1878) brought into popular currency the metaphor ‘in the family the man is the bourgeois, the woman represents the proletariat’. This summarizes so effectively the way that family relationships, themselves structured by sexual divisions in the workforce, help to recreate those divisions, that the German Socialist women’s movement, under the leadership of that uncompromising opponent of ‘bourgeois feminism’ Clara Zetkin, adopted this metaphor as one of its watchwords. [24]

Some early Marxists recognised the importance of the necessity of the self emancipation of women. It was a theme stressed by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their review of Bebel:

‘The truth, not fully recognised by those anxious to do good to woman is that she like the oppressed classes is in an oppressed condition ... women are the creatures of an organised tyranny of men as the workers are the creatures of an organised tyranny of idlers ... Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation must come from themselves. Women will find allies among the better sort of men, as the labourers are finding allies among the philosophers, artists and poets. But the one has nothing to hope from men as a whole, and the other has nothing to hope from the middle classes as a whole.’ [25]

It is interesting that in this article, Eleanor Marx seems to refer to women as a class, a confusion also to be found in Engels and Bebel. [26] The confusion stems from the strength of their conviction that although the long term interests of men and women lie in their joint struggle, in the short term powerful and deep-rooted material interests militate against that.

The conflict between the short term and the long term interests of sections of the working class confronts socialists all the time. The most obvious examples are the issues raised by the desire to maintain craft differentials over unskilled workers, the demand for import controls raised by workers threatened with unemployment, and the support of workers for ‘nationalism’.

The conflict is never easy to resolve – but certainly it cannot be solved by denying its existence. Early Marxist writers stressed the extent of women’s oppression. To assert that men have an interest in the oppression of women and that they benefit from women’s oppression is not to claim that all men have a wonderful life under capitalism. Nor is it to assert that waged work outside the home, no matter how dangerous and ill-paid, is somehow more ‘enjoyable’ than child-care and housework. It is simply to recognise, as Marx did, the revolutionary potential of women’s work in the factories which can break down aspects of women’s oppression, and, through involvement in the workforce, give them the potential collective power to smash the chains of capitalism where they are forged.

The founders of Marxism were writing at a time when women had only recently started to work as waged individuals in their own right, and they were optimistic about the subversive potential of this development. Now women have been involved in waged work outside the home for over a century. We can see that their involvement has been structured and limited by their role in the family, and that the subversive potential of their employment has been undercut by the extent to which they are ‘housewives in their heads’ even on the factory floor. Oppression and exploitation combine in the situation of the women worker. And we cannot hope to respond with a one-sided approach which treats women either simply as workers or simply as women.

Male chauvinism and socialism from below

Practice doesn’t always grow clean from theoretical roots. Although the analysis of the functions and future of the family is an essential part of Marx’s Capital, it is not so central as to force its way into the heart of subsequent Marxist attempts to organise.

Marx himself in 1868 had to assure a correspondent that ‘of course’ women could join the First International. [27] Later it was Marx who proposed a resolution to the General Council calling for the formation of ‘working women’s branches’ or ‘female branches among the working class’ without however interfering ‘with the existing or formation of branches composed of both sexes’. At the 1871 Conference of the International Marx moved this in the name of the General Council, stressing the ‘need for founding women’s sections in countries whose industries engage many women’. [28]

Marx’s theory of socialism was a radical break with the socialist thinking that preceded him. Previous writers had been profoundly elitist and anti-democratic in their ideas of socialism. Marx counterposed their ideas with the notion that socialism should be brought about by the majority of society acting on its own behalf and in its own interests. The ideal of working class self-emancipation – socialism from below – was inspired by the emergence of the organised working class as a political force for the first time in history. Between the years of 1830 and 1848 the activities of the industrial working class changed the shape of European politics.

The upsurge in militant working class activity conjured a vision for Marx – of factories, mines and workshops which could be controlled by those who worked in them. His idea of how this could be achieved involved working within the organisations which had already evolved among workers. In the Communist Manifesto he argued that socialists should not form separate organisations which tried to act on behalf of, but apart from, the class. The Manifesto: ‘Firmly established the concept of leadership won on the basis of performance in the class struggle and the principle of raising, within everyday economic and political struggles of the workers, the overall aims of the movement.’

But for women this presented a major problem. The organisations which evolved among workers were almost always opposed to the interests of women workers. Thus, in the revolutionary workshops of the 1848 revolution in France – events which considerably influenced Marx – men tried to exclude women. Jeanne Deroin, a seamstress, argued against them: ‘It’s not right as you say to get women out of the workshops, but instead it’s necessary to transform the workshops’. Workwomen’s delegates were sent to the 1848 Commission of Revolutionaries at the Luxembourg Palace, where they were segregated from men. [29]

The British trade union movement too was founded upon a deep hostility toward women workers. Marx himself understood the problem. In 1868 he wrote of the chauvinism of the French and British working class organisations in his comments on an American workers’ conference:

‘Great Progress was evident in last Congress of the American “Labour Union” in that, among other things, it treated working women with complete equality. While in this respect the English, and still more the gallant French, are burdened with narrow mindedness, anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment.’ [30]

Marx’s insight into the situation of women in society could not immediately remedy the ‘narrow-mindedness’ of working class tradition. Early Marxists recognised that reactionary attitudes towards women had to be fought. In Germany, some Marxists waged a fierce battle with the majority of the SPD who followed Lassalle in opposing the entry of women into the workforce. These socialists counterposed the common idea that a woman’s place was in the home with demands for a woman’s right to work, and further argued that women workers should be organised into trade unions.

Yet while marxists in theory understood the position of women in society, the rank and file activists were recruited out of, and inevitably reflected, reactionary and dismissive attitudes towards women. [31]

This conflict within socialism between a theoretical understanding of women’s situation in the abstract, and activism which reflected a movement which was profoundly anti-women, is one that persisted and has not yet been resolved.

This is not to say that some leading activists were not aware of the problem. J.T. Murphy, a founder member of the Sheffield Workers Committee in 1917, and one of those who did a great deal to build the shop stewards’ movement in Britain characterised the problem: ‘The skilled men resent the encroachment of the unskilled, the unskilled resent what appear to them the domineering tactics of the skilled, and both resent the encroachments of women workers.’ [32] As he saw the problem: ‘The men and women of today will have to pay the price of men’s economic dominance over women which has existed for centuries. Content to treat women as subjects not equals, men are now faced with problems not to their liking.’

He concluded this particular argument by calling for a united effort by all workers to oppose the employers and ‘invigorate the labour movement with the real democratic spirit’.

But it seems the labour movement was lacking in ‘real democratic spirit’, and that was not quite the basis on which the shop stewards’ movement was built. Women had to wait another thirty years before they could even join the engineering union in which Murphy and his fellows were organising to build workshop committees. That was not because Murphy did not understand the problem, but because the movement in which he was agitating was deeply structured against women already. A general statement about women workers could not possibly suffice to redress the balance.

The problem still exists. The rise of the women’s’ liberation movement in the sixties alongside working class industrial actions in which women and men were divided highlighted it. A delegate to the TUC women’s conference explained it: ‘I don’t want to separate men from women because I see this as a working class problem. We see appalling unemployment figures today. Where industries can get women at half-price they will not employ men at full price.’ [33] And another pointed out the results: ‘They are playing the men against the women, because when I have been trying to get men to accept equality of opportunity for women they have said “oh if we let the women get the jobs then the employers can do anything they want with us”.’ [34]

And the conflicts were sometimes even greater in action. In 1974, 400 women workers went on an equal pay strike at SEI, Heywood, near Manchester. The women workers believed that: ‘they were instrumental in getting the men’s last strike settled by threatening all to come out. It was settled over the weekend when the women threatened to come out’. Yet the women experienced no such unity in their own dispute. The men’s support for the women was: ‘negative support. The men have even actively worked against us. One of our own union members, one of the men, helped to break the sit-in by smashing down one of the doors.’ [35]

Capitalism is not sex-blind, and we cannot be either in our struggle to overthrow it. If we are to build a united movement capable of doing that we have to recognise the real differences of experience and expectations of working class women and men – not in order to exacerbate them, but so as to overcome them.

The struggle against women’s oppression is not just a women’s struggle. Women have been forced to fight it alone because men have not understood how deep are the divisions: mere slogans for class unity cannot hope to overcome them. The mobilisation of working class women for their emancipation in common with men can only be achieved by consciously fighting against the ideas which make those divisions between men and women possible.

So long as socialists fail to understand fully the effects of women’s oppression in class struggle, then they will continue to number very few working class women among the membership of their own organisations. The socialist struggle is broadened and strengthened by an understanding of women’s experiences. Without them it cannot emancipate the whole working class. Socialism cannot be won for one half of the class at the expense of the other. To organise working class women we need feminism. By committing themselves to fighting women’s oppression, socialist men have nothing to gain – except working class unity. Without it, women are condemned to fight alone.


We should like to thank Robyn Dacey, who read the draft and made many suggestions which have been incorporated into the final version, and Elana Dallas, who edited the article.

1. Anita Augsburg 1902 – Die Socialdemokratische Frauenconferenz, FB 8 (20) 55. Quoted in Richard Evans, Bourgeois Feminists and Women Socialists in Germany 1894-1914, Women’s International Studies Quarterly, 1980, Vol. 3.

2. Tony Cliff, Clara Zetkin and the German Socialist Feminist Movement, International Socialism 2 : 13, p. 29. Cliff’s defence of the ‘two movements’ argument presents many problems; chiefly: (a) appearing to deny the progressive nature of middle class radicalism both in the French Revolution and up to 1848. and its massive influence on early socialism (theory and organisation); (b) deliberately confusing periods of history, namely the Commune and the French Revolution, and (c) deliberately equating middle class women with feminists as instanced by his use of Rosa Luxemburg’s description of middle class women in the defeat of the Commune (‘the wild raving women of the bourgeoisie exceeded even their bestial men in their bloody vengeance over the stricken proletariat’) and inferring that they were all feminists, or that all feminists agreed with them. Neither was the case.

3. Tony Cliff barely acknowledges this although he does not speculate about the effects of ‘bourgeois feminism’ on Clara Zetkin’s politics, op. cit., p. 33.

4. Anna Pollert in Girls, Wives, Factory Lives, to be published later this year by Macmillan.

5. August Bebel in his introduction to Die Frau und Sozialismus, 61st edition (East Berlin 1964), quoted in Robyn Dacey, The Geman Socialist Women’s Movement, Socialist Review, No. 1.

6. Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto, New York 1971.

7. Irene Breugel’s review of Family in the Firing Line, Womens Voice 54, June 1981.

8. Jill Lewis, Spare Rib 108, July 1981.

9. It should, however, be noted that there is a debate within the feminist movement about patriarchy theory. Radical feminists are by no means agreed as to the nature and dynamic of patriarchy – but for the purposes of this article we see no need to go into the various theories which have evolved. It is sufficient to know that many feminists think sexual divisions are primary and that ‘patriarchy’ is more important than class divisions.

10. Engels himself wrote ‘with the patriarchal family we enter into the field of written history’ – using the term in precisely this second way. F. Engels. Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, London 1946, p. 61.

11. Marge Piercy, The Grand Coolie Dam, Boston 1969.

12. Marge Piercy, ibid.

13. For a full discussion of the problems presented by the political strategy of Beyond the Fragments see Pete Goodwin’s review, International Socialism 2 : 9.

14. Tony Cliff in Clara Zetkin and the German Socialist Feminist Movement, International Socialism 2 : 13.

15. Described in Women in Crisis, CIS Report, London 1979.

16. Clara Zetkin’s speech to the 4th Congress of the Communist International; edited extracts reprinted in International Socialism (First series), No. 44.

17. There has been much debate over the exact influences which shaped organised feminism. Ray Strachey in The Cause (London 1977) acknowledges both the industrial and French revolutions. Richard Evans in The Feminists (London 1978) talks specifically of the various economic and social influences which acted on middle class women as brought about as the result of the industrial revolution.

18. Hannah Mitchell, The Hard Way Up, London 1977.

19. Hannah Mitchell, op. cit. It is worth noting that the radical commitment to women’s suffrage was dubious from the outset. In 1842, Elizabeth Pease wrote that ‘the Chartists generally hold the doctrine of women’s rights – but I am not sure whether they do not consider that when she marries, she merges her political rights in those of her husband.’ For further information about the women in the early struggle for the vote, see Dorothy Thompson, Women and Nineteenth Century Radical Politics – A Lost Dimension, in Rights and Wrongs of Women, Harmondsworth 1976.

20. Quoted in Marion Ramelson, The Petticoat Rebellion, London 1972.

21. Marion Ramelson, op. cit., p. 80.

22. Their story is told in Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us, London 1978.

23. Quoted in Marion Ramelson, op. cit.

24. Hal Draper mentions this in Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation, International Socialism (First Series), No. 44.

25. E. Marx and E. Aveling, The Woman Question, A Socialist Point of View, Westminster Review 1886, reprinted in Marxism Today, vol. XVI, March 1972, cited in Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, Harmondsworth 1975. Incidentally, if Tony Cliff really wants to read Sheila Rowbotham on Zetkin and Kollontai, he should try reading this book rather than the index to Hidden from History, which is about the women’s movement in Britain.

26. Bebel’s work was a mixture of Marxism, which he’d scarcely read in 1878, Darwinism (of which there was plenty in Engels Origins, too) and progressive liberalism. Its Marxism increased with each new edition of the book.

27. Quoted in Hal Draper, op. cit.

28. Ibid.

29. Quoted in Sheila Lewenhak, Women and Work, London 1980.

30. Quoted in Hal Draper, op. cit.

31. This tension between the prejudices of their audience and a theoretical commitment to women’s equality could occasionally result in grotesque playing to the gallery by people who should have known better. An example is Clara Zetkin’s speech to the 1896 SPD Congress. She made it clear that women’s emancipation was a class question, and that the socialist movement must actively support the ‘women’s righters’, but that this was only a means to the ends whereby women could ‘struggle with the same weapons with the male proletariat.’ It was then that she made the well-known declaration that ‘we have not to develop special women’s agitation, but socialist agitation amongst women.’

One thing was clear:

‘It is impossible that the purpose of socialist women’s agitation could be to alienate the proletarian woman from her obligations as mother and wife ... The more she can be the educator and the rearer of her children, the more she can enlighten them, the more she is able with the same spirit and enthusiasm and sacrifice as ourselves to struggle with the rank and file for the liberation of the proletariat. When the proletarian man then says: “My wife”, he thinks, “the comrade of my ideals, the fighter of my struggles, the educator of my children for future struggles.” So the mothers, the wives, who fill their husbands and children with class consciousness, do just as much as the women comrades we see in our meetings.’ (Enthusiastic applause) (Richard Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany, London 1976, pp. 114–5.)

32. J.T. Murphy, The Workers Committee, reprinted by IS History Group, 1972.

33. Miss D.C.M. Nolan (Post Office Engineering Union), Woman Worker 1971, Report of the 41st TUC Women’s Conference, p. 59.

34. Miss G.P. Wood (Scottish TUC Womens Advisory Committee), op. cit., p. 101.

35. Quotes from an interview with a woman steward at SEI, Socialist Woman, Autumn 1974.

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