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International Socialism, Autumn 1985


Sheila McGregor

A reply to John Molyneux on women’s oppression

(Autumn 1985)


First published in International Socialism 2:30, Autumn 1985, pp. 90–106.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In International Socialism 2:25 John Molyneux argued that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression, that because working-class men’s immediate interests are served by women’s oppression this requires a different orientation by the revolutionary party to combating oppression.

I want to reply to John in two parts. To begin with I want to try to answer John’s arguments about working-class men benefiting from women’s oppression. Later on I want to discuss the political roots of his argument and the political consequences of adopting it.

John Molyneux’s argument

John’s argument falls into three parts:

  1. That working-class men materially benefit from women’s oppression because women shoulder the burden of housework and childcare, hence releasing men for greater leisure or political activity.
  2. That as a consequence of these real material benefits, men see their immediate interests being served by maintaining women’s oppression: ‘This immediate interest of male workers in male dominance stands in contradiction to their historical interests in the unification of the class and constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of that unification.’ [1]
  3. That to deny that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression has serious political consequences: ‘The mistake is serious because it has important political consequences, consequences for the way in which revolutionaries relate to the struggles of women workers.’ [2]

As an illustration of his argument John cites the example of Protestant workers in Northern Ireland: ‘The benefits Protestant workers derive from the oppression of the Catholic minority are certainly marginal compared with those of the Orange and British ruling classes or with the advantages of socialism. Nonetheless these marginal privileges have played a major part in securing the loyalty of most Protestant workers to British imperialism for most of the last sixty years.’ [3]

Marx’s own approach to divisions inside the working class was, however, quite different. It is illustrated by his attitude to the role of Irish workers in England and the effect this had on the English proletariat:

And most important of all: Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps. English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. [4]

It is clear from the above that Marx saw division as a means of binding part of the working class to their rulers. Marx goes on to say about the division between Irish and English workers,

This division is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all means at the disposal of the ruling class. THIS ANTAGONISM IS THE SECRET OF THE IMPOTENCE OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the ruling class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it. [5]

In other words, far from oppression benefiting the working class – in part or as a whole – Marx saw oppression as benefiting the ruling class, strengthening the hold of the ruling class in society. The consequences of oppression are to weaken the working class and render it impotent as the revolutionary class in society. Marx and Engels adopt the same approach to the American working class and the impact of racial divisions on it as a class.

If it is the case that oppression divides the working class internally against itself, it can never be in the interests of any workers anywhere at any time to maintain that oppression. To argue that it is in the immediate interests of male workers to maintain women’s oppression, is the same as arguing that it is in the immediate interests of male workers to maintain the rule of capital. In which case it follows that workers should defer building for the socialist revolution and co-operate with capital in their immediate interests.

This line of argument historically has led to an abandonment of Marxism and the socialist revolution as the goal of the working class. Lukács, in his short essay on Lenin, makes clear that orthodox Marxists have to start with an understanding of ‘the actuality of the proletarian revolution’:

The theory of historical materialism therefore presupposes the universal actuality of the proletarian revolution. In this sense, as both the objective basis of the whole epoch and the key to an understanding of it, the proletarian revolution constitutes the living core of Marxism ...

This means that the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, BUT THAT REVOLUTION IS ALREADY ON ITS AGENDA. [6]

Lukács then goes on to explain that this does not therefore mean that the socialist revolution is necessarily immediately realisable but that by this means all questions can be judged: ‘The actuality of the revolution provides the key-note of a whole epoch. Individual actions can only be considered revolutionary or counter-revolutionary when centrally related to the issue of revolution, which is only to be discovered by an accurate analysis of the socio-historic whole.’ [7]

If you judge the working class to be the revolutionary class in society whose immediate interests are served by the overthrow of the rule of capital, then you have to test every proposition in relation to whether it aids the working class in the revolution or hinders it. For example: if Catholics in Northern Ireland campaign for civil rights, is it in the interests of the Protestant working class to support such a campaign? Revolutionaries would argue that it is, as it serves to unite both Catholics and Protestants against their common ruling class and thereby strengthen their ability to fight against it. This would have the immediate consequences of enabling both Catholic and Protestant workers to wring more concessions out of capital. The fact that this has not happened explains why both Protestant and Catholic workers are worse off in terms of wages, housing and living standards generally than Catholic and Protestant workers living in Britain. Catholic and Protestant workers are both better off living in Glasgow or Liverpool than in Belfast! If, however, you separate the immediate from the long-term interests of Protestant workers, as John does in his article, then you end up arguing not only that it in the immediate interests of Protestant workers to preserve their privileges over Catholics, but that unity is not in the immediate interests of the Protestant working class and therefore that Protestant workers realising their revolutionary potential is not in their immediate interests. If that is the case, then we would have to abandon any perspective for socialist revolution in Ireland which involved the Protestant working class.

The same argument applies in relation to working-class men and women. Is it in the immediate interests of working-class men to campaign alongside working-class women for equal pay, 24-hour nurseries, free abortion on demand – to cite but a few examples? I would argue that it is, not simply on the grounds that it would raise living standards all round, enable women to partake in society on a more equal basis and give women greater control over their own bodies, but on the grounds that it would unite working-class men with working-class women against their common enemy, the ruling class. Unity in the face of the ruling class would strengthen the working class overall in opposition to the rule of capital.

For revolutionaries, overcoming divisions inside the working class and creating unity is a prerequisite for socialist revolution and is in the working class’s immediate interests as the revolutionary class in society. We had a concrete example of this during the course of the miners’ strike. Miners’ wives, who abandoned their traditional role in the home and flung themselves into the miners’ fight against the Tories immeasurably strengthened the ability of the miners to fight. It would not be an exaggeration to say, that without their wives throwing off their traditional role in the home, the miners’ strike would not have survived the length it did. A short strike would not have had the same damaging impact on the Tories’ strategy, forcing them to abandon tax cuts, increase pay to the public sector etc. that the year-long strike did. The role of miners’ wives during the strike is, in fact, a powerful illustration of the fact that it is in the immediate interests of working-class men for women to fight their oppression and for men to support them in doing so.

The case of the miners’ strike illustrates that the oppression of women does not benefit working-class men. The question is, why does John argue that it does? I think there are two reasons for this: firstly an underlying misunderstanding of the nature of women’s oppression and secondly a false belief that for sexist ideology to be deep rooted it has to coincide with real interests of workers: ‘One reason why sexist ideology is so powerful is because it connects with the immediate (though not the long term) interests of male workers.’ [8]

The roots of women’s oppression

Marx and Engels both explained the existence of women’s oppression as the result of class society. Engels wrote The origins of the family, private property and the state in order to explain the roots of women’s oppression in class society.

Under capitalism, reproduction of the working class takes place in a privatised form inside the family – i.e. away from the production process itself. Put simply, workers live at home in the family but go somewhere else to work. This does not mean that the family can be seen as something separate and apart from production and the relations of production. The form of the capitalist family can only be understood in relation to the development of capitalism as a mode of production.

Both Marx and Engels initially thought that the impact of capitalism on the working class would be to break up the working-class family completely. In fact the working-class family did not disappear. It was reconstructed on the basis of a division of labour between men and women, which entailed men taking responsibility for being the breadwinner and earning a ‘family’ wage and women staying at home to care for the home and children. [9] Although the ‘ideal’ working-class family never existed, as wives were usually forced to find ways of supplementing their husbands’ income, nevertheless the division of labour was real.

The lot of both working-class men and women was not one to be envied, nor was there much to choose between either. If you were a man in the nineteenth century, work meant a 12-hour day, low pay, poor working conditions and no union for the overwhelming majority. For women it meant eking out an existence on low pay in poor housing conditions, an endless round of pregnancies, deaths and painful childbirth as well as childcare and backbreaking housework with no modern amenities. Women’s oppression was constituted by the fact that women bore the brunt of the family in the home, away from the means of production, without any independent means of existence and without direct access to the means of organising and fighting back at the point of production. Women were completely cut off from the collective experience of being at work and became atomised individuals in the home.

From the point of view of the ruling class, this situation was ideal: in return for paying more or less a family wage, they received a relatively well cared for workforce brought up in the working-class family. What is clear from the above is that women’s oppression does not consist in an unequal division of labour in the home but in a division of labour between the point of production and the home. The difference between the two understandings of women’s oppression is crucial to Marxists, because we do not believe that women’s oppression would disappear if men and women shared equally the burden of the home. This would result simply in working-class men and women being equally oppressed, because the burden of reproduction would still be privatised and fall on individual couples instead of being borne by society as a whole. This is precisely why, in the past, the SWP has argued against wages for housework and sharing of work in the home as being solutions for women’s oppression.

John falls into this trap in the following paragraph in his article: ‘To appreciate the benefit the male worker receives from the unequal division of labour in the home [my emphasis], as it is experienced by workers and as it influences their behaviour in the class struggle, one must ask what he would lose if that division of labour were equalised under capitalism as it is today [John’s emphasis] i.e. with no 24-hour nurseries or neighbourhood restaurants.’ [10]

The above illustrates my point: John mistakes the appearance of a wife’s role in the family carrying through a personal service for the husband, for the reality that wives perform their duties on behalf of capital. The idea that women’s oppression consists in performing personal services for husbands and children is a myth, albeit a powerful one, which obscures the true relationship of working-class women to capital. To talk about the division of labour in the home is to miss the division of labour inside the class with men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Not only does it miss the real division of labour inside the working class, it obscures the solution. If the problem is the unequal division of labour in the home and not the family as such, then it can be remedied by individual men and women snaring the work in the home. If the family is the root cause of women’s oppression, the problem can only be solved by the abolition of the family.

Once you approach the question of women’s oppression from the point of view of a division of labour inside the family, it is almost inevitable that you see working-class men benefitting from being serviced by their wives, because women’s oppression is reduced to the relationship to her husband. It also follows that John fails to see how men and women cannot escape from their respective roles under capitalism. Only if you start from the premise of a division of labour inside the working class imposed on men and women, can you see how men cannot escape from being breadwinners and taking responsibility for maintaining their families, any more than women can escape from their role as wives and mothers. Wage bargaining reflects the same division of labour. Wage demands are often framed on the basis of what it costs to maintain a wife and family, precisely because male workers are expected to maintain a family.

Equally the persistence of women’s wages being viewed as ‘pin money’ is a reflection of the fact that women’s wages are seen as supplementing the main ‘male’ wage, however essential that supplement might be for the standard of living for any given family. The above explains why John refers to ‘the housewife/mother role which almost all working-class men are to some extent involved in enforcing on almost all working-class women.’ [11]

As Tony Cliff argued in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation: ‘this is not to deny, however, that men behave in certain ways which are oppressive to women. To pretend otherwise is to fall into the idealist error of denying that social relations are always relations between real people.’ To argue that men behave in oppressive ways towards women is not the same as arguing that men have a commitment to maintaining women’s oppression. As revolutionaries, we start from the premiss that women’s oppression exists in real ways and that this affects relations between men and women, roles in society etc., but it does not follow that men are instrumental in maintaining or enforcing that oppression.

To argue that men ‘enforce’ women’s oppression is to suggest that women themselves reject their oppression. The truth in society is somewhat different: both men and women by and large accept their respective roles in society and in the process women themselves accept their own role as wife and mother with responsibility for the home and the care of the children. If John is arguing that working-class men enforce women’s oppression on their wives against their will, he would need to explain why working-class men accept their role but working-class women reject it. The truth is that both sexes accept their respective roles in society to a greater or lesser extent, which is why the ruling class always accuse communists of trying to ‘destroy the family’, conjuring up images of children being ripped out of the arms of mothers, and women being torn out of the arms of their husbands. If working-class women did not have an equal commitment with working-class men to the family, such arguments would not be so powerful.

Because John is so concerned to show that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression and therefore have an immediate interest in maintaining it, he fails to see the changes which have been taking place since the Second World War, which illustrate quite clearly that men and women derive their roles and ideas about themselves from their real position in society in relation to the means of production.

Over the last forty years, the pattern of working-class women’s lives has been changing. The post-war expansion of the economy, the widespread availability of reliable contraception and the fact that women now have fewer children on average and therefore spend less of their lives looking after children, means women now work for the majority of their adult lives, taking a break in their late twenties and early thirties to have their family. Before having children, women work full time and then break for 7-10 years before returning to part-time work whilst the children are young and then returning to full-time work. Marriage today in and of itself makes no difference to whether women work. Single women and married women without children participate equally in the workforce. Either husbands must agree with their wives not sticking to their traditional role in the home or have failed to see the benefit which would accrue to them if they did.

More interesting than the above are the factors which determine when women return to work. According to John’s theory, one would expect to find that husbands play a role in the decision-making process. In fact the key factor is the age of the youngest child. Even more interesting, is that for women to return to part-time work outside the home, they are heavily dependent on their husbands for childcare and if not on their husbands, then on mothers or mothers-in-law. [12]

The traditional role of women is thus changing and forcing men to change their role by taking on a certain amount of childcare. Let me make it clear, I am not trying to argue that women’s oppression is disappearing. What I am trying to illustrate is that working class men do not play a determining role in working-class women’s lives, but the needs of capital do and in the process affect both men and women. This is further borne out by surveys of women’s and men’s attitudes to women’s role in society. Tony Cliff quotes a survey by Harriet Holter in Norway to illustrate how women and men change their attitudes according to whether women work outside the home or not. [13] The same effect of women’s employment is shown in a survey done by the Office of Population and Census Surveys. [14]

The same surveys also indicate that husbands with working wives play a greater role in housework and childcare than husbands with wives who do not go out to work. In Gender and Class Consciousness, Pauline Hunt points to one of the effects of women going out to work: that women do less housework by cutting down on the amount of work, i.e. by cleaning rooms less frequently, ironing fewer clothes, turning out cupboards less often and the like. [15]

What we are seeing today, is a partial negation of women’s traditional role in the family. Women still bear the brunt of privatised reproduction in the family, but women’s role as workers is causing some of the load to be redistributed on to other members of the family, husbands, mothers and children with men taking the greater part of the redistribution. The state is not taking any share of it at all. The change in women’s role as workers is also having an effect on women’s own attitudes and on their husbands, although to a less marked degree. To argue in this context that men are the enforcers of women’s oppression is to fail to see that women’s role is shaped by the needs of capital and not by working-class men. Both working-class women and men follow the diktat of capital, not of one another.

I now want to turn to the second reason why I think John argues that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression, the fact that he sees sexist ideas being so deeply rooted because they coincide with working-class men’s immediate interests. Here John is making the mistake of equating what is objectively in the immediate interests of workers with what they conceive as being in their immediate interests. It is not necessary to postulate real interests or benefits for sexist or other ideas to be deeply rooted. Quite the reverse. The vast majority of deeply-held beliefs in society do not reflect the immediate interests of the working class, but rather the ideas of the ruling class.

The majority of miners in Nottinghamshire thought it was in their immediate interest not to join the national miners’ strike but scab instead. Do we therefore postulate that their deeply-held backward views somehow coincided with their immediate interests? Is it true they got 52 wage packets striking miners did not receive, so did they immediately benefit from working? Does that mean it was in their immediate interests to scab?

If we do not argue in the above cases that backward or reactionary ideas held by workers are in the immediate interests of workers, why should such an argument hold water when it comes to ideas about women’s oppression? The truth is that it does not. What is true is that it will take the most monumental upheaval in the lives of working-class men and women which challenges the entire routine of daily life to bring working-class men and women’s ideas about women’s oppression into conflict with ruling-class ideology. For the minority of miners and wives who threw themselves wholeheartedly into the struggle, the miners’ strike was such an upheaval. The process of revolution is such an upheaval, which is why Lenin refers to the revolution as the ‘festival of the oppressed’.

The role of the revolutionary party

John is quite right to point to sexism within the working class as an obstacle to working-class unity and the necessity for a revolutionary party to consciously intervene to overcome sexist divisions. However, it is not clearly stated by John, what form that intervention should take. All he says is: ‘It is the task of the revolutionary party to assist, indeed to lead working-class women in this process [fighting in their own interests] and this will necessarily require special efforts and special methods of agitation and propaganda. (At present the SWP makes no such special efforts but they are perfectly in accord with the Marxist tradition.)’

If John means by special efforts and methods the kind of work the SWP has been doing recently around the Powell bill and the Gillick ruling, then no-one could disagree with him. Such questions are of importance for both working-class men and women and therefore we expect all comrades to raise them at work, in trade union branches and colleges, not simply as a means of mobilising around those particular questions but in order to raise arguments about women’s role in society, women’s oppression etc. The arguments we put are distinctive: we argue that abortion and contraception are class questions not women’s questions, that women are entitled to free abortion and contraception on demand. Our arguments are different from those raised by reformists and feminists. The Labour Party sees abortion and contraception as moral issues, feminists see them as women’s issues. Hence how we raise and argue about such matters is different from other political currents.

However, the whole tenor of John’s argument leads me to believe that that is not what he is arguing about. My doubts stem from two positions put by John in his article. Firstly his contention that sexist ideology connects with the immediate interests of working-class men in maintaining male dominance affects the revolutionary party: ‘Even the most revolutionary of men are not exempt from the influence of the short term benefit men derive from the oppression of women. Hence it cannot be assumed, or taken for granted, that the revolutionary party will “automatically” highlight the interests of women workers.’ [16]

This assertion has profound consequences for revolutionaries. Put bluntly it means that revolutionary men are not capable of fighting for women’s liberation as they cannot be trusted to understand that the revolutionary struggle requires combating sexist divisions inside the working class. If men cannot be trusted to fight women’s oppression, then whites cannot be trusted to fight racial oppression, in fact no one can be trusted to fight oppression unless they themselves are oppressed. The only logical conclusion to such a position is that it is impossible to build a revolutionary party within the working class which will lead a systematic struggle against all oppression and further that the working class itself is incapable of transcending its own internal divisions. If John does not believe that male revolutionaries can be trusted on the ‘women question’, the unstated logic of his position is to require an organisational means by which women can overcome the shortcomings of men in the revolutionary party. Although John may well protest that he is arguing nothing of the kind, it does not prevent the logic of the position he holds being that.

The second reason why I doubt that John is simply arguing a tactical difference is the way he casts doubts on the Marxist tradition. In his support he quotes Marx’s omission on the Paris Commune that women did not get the vote, the problems Kollontai faced in the Bolshevik Party and our own history. Interestingly he omits the Russian Revolution itself, the high point of the Bolshevik Party’s achievement, and the relationship of that to the question of women’s liberation.

Did it, or did it not represent the highest point in the struggle for women’s liberation so far in human history? John would undoubtedly answer that it was. However, he must be only too well aware that criticisms of the Bolshevik Party on the women’s question are traditionally linked with an argument that denies the relevance of the Russian Revolution to women’s liberation. With regard to our own history, I would argue that the problem we suffered from was not that we forgot the question of women’s liberation but that we forgot the Marxist tradition. We suffered in fact from absorbing petty bourgeois feminism into our ideas and our practice in the period when we were engaged in building Women’s Voice groups as distinct from party branches as the means of fighting women’s oppression and combating sexism. If we were to accept John’s proposition that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression, it would lead us, I believe, inexorably towards repeating our old mistakes and the mistakes of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is to the consequences of holding John’s position that I now want to turn.

The Women’s Liberation Movement

The idea that working-class men benefit from women’s oppression is not a new one. It is associated with the theory of patriarchy. It surfaced with the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s in the United States, as this statement by New York Radical Feminists in 1969 testifies: ‘We are engaged in a power struggle with men ... For while we realise that the liberation of women will ultimately mean the liberation of men from their destructive role as oppressor, we have no illusion that men will welcome this liberation without struggle.’ [17]

Such a statement comes as no surprise from avowed radical feminists whose starting point is that the struggle for women’s liberation essentially comprises a fight against men. However, the seeds of the same idea: that women’s immediate interests are different from those of men, therefore requiring women to organise separately from men were also present amongst the socialist feminists who predominated in the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Movement in this country. This is Sheila Rowbotham writing in 1972: ‘But the crucial feature of this new feminism as an organising idea is that these changes will not follow a socialist revolution automatically but will have to be made explicit in a distinct movement now, as a precondition of revolution, not as its aftermath.’ [18]

Although Sheila assumes the need for a socialist revolution, she also argues that women need to organise a separate movement for women’s liberation. Writing in 1973, it becomes clear that Sheila Rowbotham believes that women have to organise separately from men because of the relationship of men to women in the family: ‘Capitalism brought new relationships of property and domination. It brought into being a class which did not own the means of production . . . But men still owned their women body and soul long after they ceased to be property of other men. Men continued to own and control female creative capacity in the family ... Patriarchy, the power of men as a sex to dispose of women’s capacity to labour, especially in the family, has not had a direct and simple relationship to class exploitation’. [19] Not surprisingly, if you see the oppression of women located in men’s ownership and control over women, then the conclusion is for the autonomous organisation of women.

Further on in the same passage, Sheila raises the problems of organisation and strategy: ‘How to retain our autonomy without isolating ourselves from other movements; how to connect immediate demands to the long term creation of a society in which nobody is oppressed.’ [20] To put the argument another way: the immediate interests of women are different from those of men, so that even if the ultimate goal of both is the socialist revolution, because of the existence of patriarchy, women have to organise and struggle separately from men in their own interests.

The justification for women’s separate struggle lies in the theory of patriarchy. The problem with patriarchy theory is that it has as many meanings as proponents and doubtless adherents. What is crucial from our point of view, is that the purpose of patriarchy theory is to explain the dominance of men over women in society and therefore to argue that women have to struggle in some form or other against men. Patriarchy theory also therefore presupposes an antagonism of interest between women and men. Another feature of patriarchy theory is the assumption that the struggle for socialism is not in itself adequate to combat the structures inside society which give rise to women’s oppression as these are seen to be independent of class society, albeit enmeshed with it.

Theoretically socialist feminism is a contradiction in terms. As I argued above, Marxism starts from the view that women’s oppression resulted from the development of class society and can therefore be abolished with the abolition of class society. Inherent in Marxism is the understanding that it is in the interest of the whole of the working class to combat oppression. Hence to argue for both the socialist revolution and the abolition of patriarchy, for the self-emancipation of the working class and the struggle of women separately from men is a contradiction both in aims and methods of struggle. Just as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her arguments against Bernstein that there were not two different roads to the same goal, but two different roads to two different goals, the same is true of socialist feminism. In the end, the choice must be made between the struggle for socialism or the struggle against patriarchy.

In the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement the contradiction was not impossible to live with. Many women were involved in working-class struggle, active in or around revolutionary organisations and active separately from men in the Women’s Liberation Movement. By 1978, however, radical feminism – feminism based exclusively on organising separately against men – came to dominate. 1978 was the last year when a national conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement was held and that was dominated by radical feminists. The fragile unity between radical feminists and socialist feminists was shattered. The question is, what became of the socialist feminists? The tragedy is, that the same forces which were at work in society as a whole which enabled the radical feminists to come to the fore inside the Women’s Liberation Movement, also pushed the socialist feminists to the right and caused them to abandon the cause of socialist revolution and the connection with working-class struggle as a starting point for bringing about socialist change.

In the beginning in Britain the socialist feminists predominated essentially because the working class itself was engaged in several powerful struggles which drew others behind it in its wake. 1972 was the year when the miners defeated Heath and the Tories, the dockers and other workers defeated the Industrial Relations Act, forcing the release of the five jailed dockers in Pentonville. 1974 was the year when the miners toppled the Tories on the issue of trade union power in society. Such was the obvious power of the working class to change things in society, it is small wonder that those women in the Women’s Liberation Movement who argued for working-class struggle for socialism won the day. Small wonder that organising for socialism for socialist feminists was every bit as powerful an idea and practice as organising separately from men.

By 1978, however, there had been a shift in power relations inside society. Working-class struggles were being defeated and organisation was being weakened. This was coupled with an increasing disillusionment with the Labour Party in office. The result was the growth of defeatism inside the working class and a general shift to the right reflecting decreased confidence in workers’ own ability to fight and win. This took its toll amongst the left and amongst socialist feminists, who increasingly abandoned the centrality of working-class struggle in favour of a coalition of movements based on oppression. This position was most clearly articulated by Sheila Rowbotham in 1979 in Beyond the Fragments. Gone is the project of organising for socialism and in comes the project of living pre-figurative forms of socialism in the here and now. If her essay were not such a vitriolic diatribe against Leninism in general and ourselves in particular, I would be tempted to say that it is a cry of despair at the prospect of the working class not fulfilling its destiny as the revolutionary class in society.

Once the erstwhile socialist feminists had abandoned the working class, their move to the right was extremely rapid. In Sweet Freedom (1982), Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell not only talk about the ‘conflict of interest between men and women and the need to maintain separate organisation’, but also the need to get involved in ‘institutional polities’: ‘The Women’s Liberation Movement has so far remained on the edge of institutional politics, dabbling a toe in the water, finding it cold. Most feminists have felt there are better things to do elsewhere, without getting caught up in the hostile currents of the male-dominated “mainstream”. If we are seriously planning to transform society and liberate ourselves we shall have to get in and swim.’ [21] By which they mean of course the Labour Party.

Socialist feminists have now progressed from revolutionary politics, through movementism and now into the Labour Party: in the process, the strategy for change envisaged is reduced to changes within capitalism:

The biggest obstacle, in our view, is not finding the necessary resources, but persuading men to relinquish their privileges. Chiefly this means giving up their privilege to absent themselves from unpaid work and monopolise jobs that are skilled and higher paid. If women are to share domestic labour equally with men, then men will have to increase their time spent on unpaid work. If women are to increase the level of their earnings to the point where they match men’s, then men’s earnings will inevitably decline in relation to women’s. If women are to occupy skilled, higher paid jobs in equal numbers with men, there are bound to be fewer of these jobs available to men. [22]

What we need, therefore, is a redistribution of wealth and jobs inside the working class.

For revolutionaries, ideas of ‘feminist incomes policy’, sharing housework etc., as a strategy for equality may seem absurd. But they have unquestionably taken root and have an effect in the real world. Recently, the following statement was circulated by the principal of the Adult Education Institute in Hackney: ‘There is never enough money. Choices have to be made. In choosing, some people get what they want and others don’t. I am clear that we have to make choices in favour of people who have a history of not getting what they want – women, people who have no employment, people from ethnic minority ethnic groups, elderly people, disabled people. This means not working with people who have traditionally gained from the state – men, employed people, white people, able bodied people.’ [23]

It may come as no surprise to find someone in the position of principal using such arguments. What is, however, appalling, is that in the staffroom, the entire ‘left’ accepted the arguments except for one member of the Socialist Workers Party. Appalling as it may be, surprising it is not, if one bears in mind the extent to which the ideas quoted above from Sweet Freedom have come to be accepted on the left in Britain today.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the development of the Women’s Movement. In 1983, a number of women started a campaign which was to hit the headlines, draw thousands in its wake and influence millions: the Greenham Common women. There were two aspects to the movement around Greenham Common, one which was progressive and deserved the support of all socialists and another which was profoundly reactionary in content. The progressive aspect around Greenham Common was undoubtedly the focus on the campaign against Cruise missiles. This was the aspect of overriding importance which Socialist Worker and many comrades unfortunately overlooked.

Having said that, the other aspect of the Greenham Common women’s campaign is worth examining – the reasons given for why women had to lead the movement, with men only in a supportive and subordinate role, and the nature of the campaign. The argument went something like this: women, as child rearers in society, are therefore more caring and opposed to weapons of destruction than men. Men, on the other hand, are violent and aggressive and therefore are responsible for the production of weapons of destruction. Leave aside for the purposes of this article that the arms race is the product of macho males and not capitalist competition. The argument I want to focus on is the use of motherhood as the reason for women’s progressive role in the campaign. It was taken to the limit: women going to Greenham Common were expected to take symbols of motherhood with them, such as nappies, to hang on the perimeter fence. The glorification of motherhood became mystical.

For women like myself, who became revolutionaries in the late sixties when the Women’s Liberation Movement rejected the traditional role of women in society and demanded the right of women to define themselves anew, the experience of going to Greenham Common can only be described as profoundly alienating. I wanted to take part in the protest against Cruise missiles, but when I got there, I could not stomach the sheer glorification of womanhood, something traditionally associated with movements of the far right and the Tory Party. After all, was it not Patrick Jenkin who declared in 1980: ‘If the good Lord had intended us all to have equal rights to go out to work and to behave equally, you know he really wouldn’t have created men and women.’ [24]

The wheel had turned full circle. A movement which started with total rejection of the traditional role of women in society, now based itself on the same. No wonder people no longer refer to the Women’s Liberation Movement, but talk about the Women’s Movement instead. The notion of liberation has surely disappeared.

Since then, we have now become used to the definition of workers’ behaviour in relation to their sex. All offensive tactics such as flying pickets and mass pickets are now denounced as macho and typical of male violent behaviour. Hidden from history, now, are the 20,000 women clothing workers in Leeds who used flying pickets to spread their strike, the women at Fakenham’s who occupied their factory against closure, the women at Grunwicks who welcomed tens of thousands of fellow workers onto their picket lines, not to speak of the many miners’ wives who joined picket lines and fought back against the police in their communities in the summer and autumn of 1984. Working-class women’s history must now also be buried in order to maintain the theory that militant working-class tactics are, by definition, macho and therefore out of order.

Fifteen years ago, there seemed so little that separated socialist feminists from revolutionaries. What we had in common, the goal of the socialist revolution, seemed to bind us more powerfully, than what divided us, the view that women had to organise separately from men, as men and women’s interests did not coincide when it came to the question of women’s liberation. Today, we are miles apart and no longer share the same goal of the liberation from all oppression.

The history of the Women’s Liberation Movement is a salutary warning to anyone who thinks it possible to incorporate the ideas of patriarchy into Marxism. If we are to have an adequate theory of women’s oppression and how to fight it, we need to base ourselves on the Marxist tradition. John’s position, that working-class men do benefit from women’s oppression, is the first step towards departing from that tradition. It is a step we should not take. We can’t say we haven’t been warned. We have a women’s movement to prove it.


1. J. Molyneux, Do working class men benefit from women’s oppression?, International Socialism 2:25, p. 120.

2. Ibid., p. 117.

3. Ibid., p. 118.

4. K. Marx, quoted in H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2, New York 1978, p. 66.

5. Ibid., p. 67.

6. G. Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought, London 1977, p. 11.

7. Ibid., p. 12.

8. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 120

9. T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, London 1984, p. 229.

10. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 119.

11. Ibid., p. 120.

12. J. Martin and C. Roberts, Women and Employment Survey: A Lifetime Perspective, London 1984, Tables 4.10 and 4.11, p. 39.

13. T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 232.

14. J. Martin and C. Roberts, op. cit., Table 8.7 (p. 101),Table 8.9 (p. 102), Table 8.20 (p. 107).

15. P. Hunt, Gender and Class Consciousness, London 1980.

16. Molyneux, op. cit., p. 121.

17. Quoted in A. Coote and B. Campbell, Sweet Freedom, London 1982, p. 14.

18. S. Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, Harmondsworth 1972, p. 247.

19. S. Rowbotham, Hidden from History, London 1973, p. ix.

20. Ibid., p. x.

21. A. Coote and B. Campbell, op. cit., p. 240.

22. Ibid., p. 247.

23. Statement from the Principal of the Adult Education Institute in Hackney, February 1985.

24. A. Coote and B. Campbell, op. cit., p. 87.

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