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Norah Carlin

Women and the Struggle for Socialism

(March 1985)

First published as a pamphlet in March 1985.
Reprinted in January 1986 by the Socialist Workers Party.
Reproduced with thanks from Rick Kuhn’s Marxism Page.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


1. The case for women’s liberation

2. Class society and class struggle

3. Women’s oppression and class society

4. Women workers fighting back

5. The family, right or wrong?

6. The revolutionary tradition and women’s liberation

7. Are there any alternatives?

8. Conclusions

Further Reading


SINCE THE REBIRTH of the women’s movement in the mid-1960s there have been many arguments about the relationship between women’s liberation and socialism. Socialists want to change the world, to get rid of the rotten society we live in and build a better one based on workers’ power. Feminists also want to change the world, so that women can be free and equal. Are the two struggles the same, or separate? Can feminists unite with male socialists and trade unionists, or must their struggle always be against men?

In practice, events during the miners’ strike of 1984-5 showed how unity can be achieved in struggle. Through the strength of the women in the mining communities, who stood beside the miners on picket lines and took part in strike committees, as well as organising soup kitchens and food parcels, the unity of men and women became a fundamental fact of the strike.

Socialists, who had often argued that women can fight only as workers, were reminded that wives, mothers and daughters are also part of the working class, whether they have jobs or not. Feminists, who often assume that being a wife means only conflict with the husband, had to face the fact that there can be solidarity in the working class family as well as conflict.

The strike brought many women who thought of themselves as feminists into strike support work for the first time, on local miners’ support committees, in their workplaces and in their communities. It also changed the lives of many miners’ wives who had not thought of themselves as feminists but found themselves going to meetings and picket lines, or travelling to raise support in other parts of the country, while their men minded the kids or made the tea.

In action, the politics of class struggle may cut through the knot of academic and sectarian argument about the relationship between socialism and women’s liberation, but the problems remain. Many men in the labour movement are not convinced that women need to fight for themselves, though they reckon women fighting to support men is all right. Many feminists are not convinced that male workers can really be allies in their struggle: they point to sexist attitudes and male domination of the labour movement as proof that women’s fight is still basically against all men. And some women who have been very active during the strike don’t think that feminism has anything to do with them: they think of it as meaning women refusing to have anything to do with men – an image deliberately exaggerated by most of the press and television.

These problems can be worked out only by looking seriously at the meaning of class struggle and the politics of revolutionary socialism. For Marxists like the Socialist Workers Party, class struggle is the only way to change the world for the better – to get rid of our present ruling class and have a society, run by and for working people, where everyone can be in control of their own lives and free from the threats of poverty, powerlessness or nuclear annihilation. Women must be part of that struggle, and women’s liberation essential to its aims: a socialist society must be one where women are free and equal, sharing control with men in every way.

We do not try to justify the situation in present-day Russia, China or Cuba, which claim to be socialist societies but where it is quite clear that women have not been liberated. None of these are societies where the working class is in control; they are ruled, and harshly ruled, by a class of bureaucrats whose aims are at the bottom the same as the aims of our own ruling class: to exploit working people, accumulate capital and compete with one another internationally. This point is fundamental to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. To claim that socialism liberates women and at the same time to claim that these societies are socialist would be a fraud.

Nor do we defend the way the labour movement is organised and controlled at present, for it is dominated by men to the almost total exclusion of women from any power of decision making or leadership, even where the majority of a union’s members are women. Trade unions should not be run by professional ‘leaders’ on high salaries, often appointed for life, who haven’t worked in the factory, office or mine for years and who see their job as being to perform a balancing act between employers and workers. They should be run by the rank and file members – women and men – from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

Nor do we accept the idea that there are stages of struggle: women can’t wait to be freed somehow after the socialist revolution; nor can the struggle for socialism be postponed until all workers have changed their old ideas about women’s place. Ideas begin to change through struggle, but the changes cannot be completed until the world we live in is changed – until society is organised for human needs instead of for profits. That change can come only through a socialist revolution.

These are the politics of revolutionary socialism: rank and file control in the struggle, the overthrow of our present capitalist society based on profit, and the establishment of workers’ power for a new society of equality and freedom. Women’s liberation can and must be part of the struggle to achieve these ends.

1. The case for women’s liberation

IN OUR SOCIETY today, women are discriminated against in pay, jobs, education and welfare. Most women are financially dependent on a man, and, without assistance, carry the burden of looking after children and caring for the sick and old. Society’s ‘opinion formers’, from judges to journalists, cabinet ministers to advertising copywriters, take it for granted that women are inferior. And in the end, they reduce all women – whatever their occupation, experience, politics or interests – to one dimension, sex, and judge them by whether they measure up to what men desire.

Women are more than half the population and 40 per cent of the workforce. But women’s earnings, on average, are only two-thirds of those of men, and women workers are found mainly in low-paid, low-status jobs. Three-quarters of all catering and clerical workers are women, but only 22 per cent of doctors, 4 per cent of architects and half of one per cent of engineers. There are very few women in positions of power or influence of any kind: less than 14 per cent of managers in industry, 2 per cent of company directors, and 4 per cent of members of parliament, for example.

Although girls get more ‘O’ level passes than boys, and there are more women than men at technical colleges and evening classes, the situation is reversed when it comes to higher education. Only 38 per cent of university undergraduates are women, and only a third of all post-graduate students.

More women than men live in poverty. Added to those who live in poverty with men, there are seventeen times as many single mothers as single fathers, and two and a half times as many women old age pensioners as men, living on social security. Married women who care for the sick at home do not get Invalid Care Allowance, and widows get neither sick pay nor unemployment benefit even though they may have paid full insurance for years.

This is usually justified by saying that it is women’s natural role to look after the home and children, and men’s job to be breadwinners. But history shows, as we shall see, that the care of home and children has not always been separated from other kinds of work as rigidly as it is in our society. In order to look after these things, women are expected to give up everything else – education, work (or at least decent, well-paid work), and outside interests of all kinds, including trade union and political activity. A woman is supposed to devote herself entirely to the care of a man, his children and his or her parents when they get old.

Because most women do what is expected of them and lavish a great deal of love and care on their families, often in very difficult circumstances, the world assumes that women are stupid, or at least simple-minded, unable to understand what goes on outside the home. Most women are economically dependent on men because they can’t carry the burden of household tasks and hold on to a decently paid full-time job as well – but the world says that women are dependent on men because they are weak and helpless without them.

From being described as women’s natural role, home and children come to be seen as women’s only role, even when they are obviously doing something else. In 1981, a Liverpool councillor addressed council clerical workers on strike in the city as ‘the wives, mothers and sweethearts of citizens of Liverpool’. The strikers pointed out that they were ‘typists, machine operators and clerks, not wives, mothers and sweethearts’ and were citizens of Liverpool themselves as well!

Yet young women are encouraged to see marriage and the family as their only aims in life, and are discouraged from learning most skills or studying the same subjects as boys. They are pointed in the direction of jobs such as typing, packing and assembling to ‘fill in’ the time till they get married and have babies. Then they marry with high expectations of family life – but it doesn’t work out like the ideal family of the advertisers’ dreams, especially when money is short and a husband’s job insecure.

Most women are trapped in the family. However much they love their husbands and children, they know they have little choice about it. It is harder for a woman than for a man to get out of a marriage that has gone wrong, and most women whose marriages break down are left to bring up children on their own with little or no support.

On top of that, many women are trapped in their homes by violence or the threat of it. Some men end up beating the woman they live with because they are ground down at work or don’t have enough money to meet their family’s needs – they make women suffer for what isn’t their fault, and most women have no way of fighting back and nowhere to turn to when this happens. What kind of society is it that puts women in this position? Only a society that insists that the family is ‘private’, and that women belong to the men they marry as if they were pieces of property, whatever the law now says.

In rape, women are exposed to a kind of violence which men don’t face, perhaps the most humiliating of all. Women are encouraged to look sexy and attractive to men, and to feel as free as men to enjoy themselves – a freedom long overdue after centuries of a double standard for men and women – but when an attractive woman is raped most men think she must have been ‘asking for it’. How can women feel free when this is going on?

In our society, women don’t have equality, they don’t have freedom, they don’t even have respect in any meaningful sense. What can be done about it? Women have to be able to fight back, for themselves and for the future of all women. This doesn’t mean an out-and-out conflict with all men all of the time. Separatism – the view that women can fight for liberation only on their own and against men – is a counsel of despair and a way of dividing women and men still further. Women have a right to organise with men to fight against the society that keeps us all down, to make men see that the world has to be changed. This doesn’t mean that women can’t organise their own meetings, demonstrations, pickets or whatever, when appropriate – we have that right, too – but we should be trying to reunite women and men in the struggle for socialism.

The people who have power in our society – governments and employers – want to keep men and women divided. They want women not to think about what is wrong with the world and, even more, not to do anything about it. They want strikers’ wives to nag them to go back to work, not to support them like the miners’ wives. They want women as a cheap labour force too, handicapped by household cares and discouraged from fighting for equality. They want to sell us images of the small, private family as the only way to live, and of women as feather-brained sex objects turning overnight into empty-headed household drudges, because they want to sell us more goods.

For too long the struggle against this society has been divided, not by feminism but by men, who have seen the labour movement as purely a male concern. Men who have put down, excluded and ridiculed women who do want to fight back; men who have expected their wives to keep quiet and service them while they do the fighting back; men who think women are good for sex, having babies, cooking and nothing else. Seventy years ago Hannah Mitchell, a working-class woman fighting for the vote, wrote that ‘those of us who were married had to fight with one hand tied behind us,’ and any married woman who has ever thought of fighting for something today must recognise that picture.

In playing the employers’ game, working-class men are tying themselves hand and foot to the governments’ and employers’ world, and all the exploitation and injustice that it contains, as well as denying women their right to freedom and equality. In demanding that men fight for women’s liberation too, we are calling on them to free themselves.

2. Class society and class struggle

AS MARXISTS, we say that we live in a class society. We don’t mean by this that some people have different life-styles from others, live in different areas or have snobbish attitudes and different accents. Class is the material reality on which our society and all others in the world today are based.

The vast majority of people – women as well as men – work to produce profits for the few, whether they assemble cars or televisions in a factory, type figures into a word processor or check out groceries at Sainsbury’s. Or else they sweep streets, dig coal or scrub floors for the ‘public sector’ so that the system can keep going, with the rich making as much profit as possible and the needs of the poor supplied at the lowest possible cost. This is the working class, and without its labour the lights would go out, food and water would be cut off, communications would break down and society would cease to function.

At the top, a tiny minority of people own most of the wealth and exercise most of the control. They decide when factories will close, when prices will go up, when capital will be moved around so as to browbeat governments into doing what they want. Some belong to families who have held wealth and power for generations, others insist that they have ‘worked their way up’ and are ‘still very working class’. But they are all part of the ruling class, and their wealth gives them power. Governments must look after their interests, and keep everyone else quiet enough for the system of power and profits to go on working.

In between, there are the middle classes – small employers, management and the upper layer of professional people. Most small employers and managers identify with the ruling class, because a society based on profits suits their own interests best. Some professionals – doctors, lawyers and the upper levels of the teaching profession – are the managers of society’s services, and think much the same, though sometimes government policies such as cuts in their own professional areas may rouse their opposition.

Most professional workers, however, school teachers, nurses, civil service and council clerks, and most social workers, are simply doing routine jobs with no element of control or decision-making. They are really part of the white-collar working class, along with office workers, draughtsmen and technicians. In the last few decades large numbers of them have joined trade unions because their interests and their need to organise are very similar to those of manual workers.

The point about women is that they are part of all these classes, even though they are second-class members of them. There are rich and powerful women, women workers carrying society on their backs, and women at all levels in between. Can women unite for their own equality and liberation, or does the division of society into classes prevent them?

Up to a point, women do have a common interest in equal rights and can unite to fight for those rights. The gains that were made by the women’s emancipation movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries applied to all women, such as the right to own money and property, the right to have custody of their own children, and the right to an education. A hundred and fifty years ago, when married women could own nothing, whether wages or landed estates, when mothers had no legal right to keep their children, whether little lords and ladies or half-starved infants of the slums, and when even the daughters of the rich had little education other than learning to read and write in their own homes, women of all classes needed to fight for these basic rights.

But the effect of the struggle for equal rights was to leave women more divided, even though the legal rights were a gain and the struggle for them a necessary one.

In 1831, married women could own no property. In 1981, the wife of a Tory cabinet minister was able to purchase in her own name a six-bedroomed house in Somerset with extensive grounds, while in the same year in the same county a woman living in a caravan with her disabled husband was refused a council tenancy because neither of them had a regular job. (Source: Labour Research Department pamphlet, Unfair Shares, 1981)

In 1832, virtually the only women employed outside their homes were factory workers, domestic servants and governesses. In 1982, there were women on the boards of giant companies such as GEC and the Midland Bank, and awards such as ‘Business Woman of the Year’ went to women running catering and clothing firms – in industries that are traditional exploiters of low-paid women – and to one woman who took over her husband’s precast concrete firm and made more profits than he ever did. Yet the vast majority of women are still confined to poorly-paid, low status jobs.

In 1839, a woman could not go to university, practise as a lawyer or enter parliament. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher – university educated, a successful tax lawyer, and independently wealthy as well as the wife of a very rich man – became prime minister. The contrast between Thatcher and a politically ambitious woman of 1839, Caroline Norton, is instructive. Caroline Norton pursued her ambition by becoming a political hostess and close friend of a male politician, Lord Melbourne. As a result, her husband dragged her through a notorious divorce case, and when he was granted a separation he refused her access to her children – even when one of them was dying. Though Caroline’s politics were every bit as reactionary as Thatcher’s (each would recognise the other’s ‘Victorian Values’ very well), Caroline became a campaigner for women’s rights. Thatcher does not campaign for women’s rights because she does not need to: the struggles of earlier generations of women have put her where she is.

Equality with men is not enough, because men are themselves not equal. As long as we live in a class society, some women will be able to use their improved position to exploit and oppress others, and they will do so without sisterly qualms or scruples. There are still comparatively few women politicians, employers and managers, but is more of them what we need? Do women employed by GEC benefit because there is a woman (Sara Morrison, prominent member of the Tory Party) on the board of directors? The answer has to be no – the aim of the company is to make profits, and that means keeping down the wages of women factory workers and closing factories when it suits GEC’s plans for profit.

Would other women benefit if half the Tory cabinet were women? Or if all of them were? The performance of the ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade’ at Tory women’s conferences is enough to suggest that they would not – Tory women are actually more reactionary than Tory men. Any Tory government would come to power on the employers’ terms, and carry out policies ruinous to working-class women.

Women in top jobs also exploit other women directly as cleaners, housekeepers and nannies to take over the burden of housework and family duties, which for most working women means a double shift of drudgery. Nanny agencies openly admit that they recruit young women looking for a short-term career between leaving school and getting married, and the wages these women earn are certainly not in proportion to the increased earning and career opportunities they provide for their employers. The more wealth and power high-paid women enjoy, the less they need to challenge the conventional roles of men and women in the family – all is taken care of by the discreet, and invariably female, modern domestic servant.

Middle-class women, the women in between, can identify with ruling class women, demanding equal access to top jobs and business opportunities; or with working-class women, fighting for equal pay. better social services, or the right to organise. Very large numbers of lower-grade professional workers, especially, are women: they hold two-thirds of all posts in education, health and welfare although these services are mostly managed by men. Their jobs often bring them into close contact with working-class women and children.

Since the mid-1960s, middle-class women have been the main organising force behind the women’s liberation movement, and they have moved left or right according to the situation. Up to the mid-1970s, when many women workers were getting organised and fighting for equal pay, most of the women’s liberation movement saw working-class struggle as important and gave it support. We have seen something of this again during the miners’ strike of 1984–5. But between these years, middle-class women mostly became preoccupied with other strategies, such as separatism, pacifism, and equal opportunities to move up the career ladder.

Why does class struggle matter for women’s liberation? The answer can be put in many different ways, but two things need to be said straight away. The first is that as long as we have a class society, all women cannot be equally liberated by having equality with men. It is one thing to be the equal of a cabinet minister, a cabinet minister or a Whitehall mandarin; it is quite another to be the equal of a miner, a bus driver or an out-of-work labourer. If this is all that women’s liberation means, then you can’t expect working-class women to be particularly interested in it.

The second thing is that only class struggle holds out any hope of getting rid of this system of inequality that we live in now. Class struggle is not just the gut reaction of downtrodden men and women to the nastiness of the ruling class. It is not, as many pacifist women claim, just another form of destructiveness and aggression. It is also the way forward to a better world.

Marx said that socialism is ‘the self-emancipation of the working class’. Women, too, can liberate themselves by being part of that struggle. The self-emancipation of women cannot be by a struggle of women ‘as women’, across all classes, because such a struggle would liberate some a lot more than others. Only by joining forces with the working class can we ever win liberation for all women.

3. Women’s oppression and class society

IT IS SOMETIMES SAID that women have always been oppressed by men, that the antagonism between men and women has its origin deep in human psychology or biology, and that the way women suffer in our society is nothing but the same old story that has been going on ever since human life began.

This is such a pessimistic view that it is hard to understand why it is so popular with feminists today. If women are put at a disadvantage by human nature itself, how can we ever change things? Either an all-out war against men could lead to men being forced to change their ways without changing their basically anti-women ideas; or a few women could separate themselves off from the rest of society and be free in a sense; or the human race could be destroyed by women refusing all co-operation with men. None of these conclusions can be very appealing for the majority of women.

On the other hand, the view that women are oppressed simply because men (and most women too) have the wrong ideas about women can be too optimistic. Liberating women is seen as just a matter of persuasion and education, of explaining to men that they have got it wrong and that they really should share the housework and the top jobs because it would be more fair.

History shows that all ideas can change: none are so deep-rooted in human nature that nothing can be done about them. But they can’t be changed by persuasion, by the light of reason alone, because ideas depend on material relations between human beings.

The idea that black people are inferior, for example, belongs to societies that exploit black people, either as slaves or as cheap labour. To get rid of the idea once and for all we have to get rid of the system that produces the idea. This doesn’t mean that we can’t argue or organise against racism here and now, but it does mean that persuading people that they have the wrong ideas is only the first step to getting rid of the society that is responsible for them.

The idea that women are inferior comes from societies that are divided into classes, where one set of people control the labour of others and enjoy wealth and power as a result. Our own capitalist society is far from being the first society divided into classes, though we hope to make it the last. In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves were exploited by slave-owners, in Europe in the middle ages lords lived off the labour of serfs on the land, and there have been variations of these societies at other times and places. With the rise of manufacture and the Industrial Revolution, those with wealth to invest as capital found new ways to make profits out of wage-earning men and women. In all these forms of society, women have been oppressed.

But there have been, even in quite recent times, societies that were not divided into classes, and where women did not have an inferior position. These were the societies we call primitive, where there was no production other than the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals. Nowadays, most of these societies have been affected by contact with European traders, rulers and missionaries, who have changed their ways of life. But when white men first came into contact with most of the native tribes of North America, Australia and the Pacific islands, these were societies without classes and in which women were as strong and as powerful as men.

When production was simple and population low, women’s role as the bearers of children was important and respected. Though men and women might have their separate tasks and rituals, women as well as men took part in the most important decisions, such as whether to move a settlement or make war on another band or tribe. Couples might live together with their children, but sexual relations were more free and separation easier than in later societies.

When production increased, agriculture appeared, and flocks and herds of animals were kept for food and wealth (for fields and cattle were the first forms of private property), class divisions began to appear. Men of wealth could make others work for them, buy slaves and take advantage of others’ poverty. They began to own wives, too, like cattle, and pass on their wealth to their male children. As Engels argued a hundred years ago, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the oppression of women began when class society began.

Many of the details of Engels’ case have been challenged or corrected by anthropologists (most of whom have been male and have worked for imperialist powers – which gave them a vested interest in challenging him). But his basic argument still stands. The oppression of women is not universal; women are strong and equal in societies with simple production and no class divisions; all societies must have started out like this.

No one could really wish for the whole of humanity to return to this primitive state: the vast majority of people alive today would be wiped out by hunger and disease. Equality for women in the future would have to be based on the full capacity of modern science and technology to fulfil human needs – a capacity that today is largely wasted by the capitalist system, with its drive for profits and lunacies such as nuclear weapons. Women could be strong and free in such a future society because of their role as producers and creators of all kinds, and not just because they bear children or grub roots out of the ground – as they did in primitive society. But to achieve this, it is necessary to get rid of class society.

History shows that there have been as many ways of keeping women down as there have been class societies, and that the position of women has always been different for different classes in the same society. This is important because it helps us to understand the particular ways in which capitalist society oppresses women today and the reasons why. History shows that there is no one ‘natural’ role for women.

Ancient Greece and Rome were slave societies. Slave women had no rights over their own bodies at all: they could be sexually used by their master or sold to others, and their children could be taken away from them and sold too. The masters’ daughters, on the other hand, were married off at an early age and closely confined to their homes to show that they were of the slave-owning class – to be seen going to market, or washing at the well, was to admit to the shame of not being able to afford slaves. Women valued the respectability that slave-owning gave even though it meant many restrictions for them. There were slave women who tried to pass themselves off as free, but no free woman ever tried to become a slave.

In Europe in the middle ages, serfs tilled the land for the lord of the manor, but unlike slaves they lived in families on their own plot of land and could pass the plot on to their children. Serf women were obliged to marry serf men and reproduce the labour force of the manor, and most of them lived in small households of one couple and their children. Noble women lived quite differently, in large extended family households, and when they were married (usually at an early age) they brought property and valuable political connections into their husbands’ families. As heiresses or widows they often owned land and serfs, acting as lady of the manor in their own right and keeping armed retainers to fight for them.

When the mass production of goods for the market began to spread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these were at first produced in the homes of craftsmen and cottagers, by women and children as well as by men. In these families, neither men nor women went out to work, but produced goods at home for the merchant capitalists. Production was so essential to them that babies were sent outside the household to wet nurses almost as soon as they were born, cared for by servant girls or older sisters when they were weaned and returned (if they survived), and sent out again as apprentices and servants at any age from seven onwards. The bond between parents and children must have been very different then from what it is now.

Meanwhile, the merchants’ wives withdrew from the shop or warehouse into comfortable homes with domestic servants to relieve them of work altogether. The separation of work and home, men and women, into separate spheres had already happened for these middle class families.

The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the separation of work from home for the working class as well. At first it was women and children who were drawn out of their homes and into the factories, followed by the men as more of industry was mechanised. But women and children in the factories worked in such appalling conditions of overwork and physical danger that working-class people began to fight to defend the family as a place of refuge for women and children, the sick and the unemployed.

Women, especially in the textile factory districts, often had to go out to work until their children were old enough to take their place as the second wage-earner, because men’s wages were not enough to support a family. At the same time, conditions in nineteenth-century industrial towns made heavy housework a necessity, and as there were no alternatives for the sick, the very young and the very old but to be cared for in the family home, women took on these duties too. No wonder they gave up factory work to take care of the home whenever they could afford it. The demand for a ‘family wage’ for men that would enable wives to stay at home and do the job properly (a target which was hardly ever achieved as far as the majority of the working class were concerned) was popular with women workers as well as with men – women cotton workers on strike in Preston in 1854, for example, fully supported it.

In our own century, the role of working-class women has again changed dramatically. About 60 per cent of all married women are now also working for wages. The typical woman worker is no longer young or single but a married woman between the ages of 35 and 49. There are many reasons for the change, among them the decline of the older heavy industries and the increase in services; inflation and the falling purchasing power of men’s wages (four times as many families would be below the poverty line without the wife’s wages); and the fact that people have fewer children in a shorter time than before, and live longer after their children are grown up.

All this suits modern capitalism very well. It gives many industries a more flexible labour force, for one thing. But it is also an advantage for working-class women. As housewives, women are isolated, divided and dependent on men; they can fight the system only in exceptional cases where the whole community is threatened, as in the miners’ strike of 1984–5 or the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915. As workers, they begin to have a chance to organise and act together, and by earning wages of their own they gain a certain amount of self-respect and independence, even if not as the main breadwinner. It has taken a long time for capitalism to bring women back into the workforce in large numbers, after starting the process in the cotton industry in the early nineteenth century, but in the long run that is the way it has been going. There is no turning back, nor would most women wish it: a new age has begun for working-class women as workers in their own right.

4. Women workers fighting back

THE VAST MAJORITY of working-class women today are workers, but they have not simply become like male workers. There are differences between women’s work and men’s that affect their experience, their consciousness and their struggles.

Two out of every five women workers are part-time (including two out of every three who have children under sixteen). Part-timers have fewer legal rights – redundancy, sick pay, notice, maternity leave and so on – and are paid less by the hour than full-timers doing the same job.

Cuts in public services such as school meals, hospitals, nurseries and nursery classes make it even more difficult for many women to take and keep a full-time job. Sickness in the family, a patient who should still be in hospital being sent home to recover, or the collapse of makeshift child-minding arrangements – all these can mean loss of earnings or even the sack for a woman worker.

Most women are in a worse bargaining position than men. Large numbers of women work for small firms with a high turnover of labour. Most of the skills that women have – such as typing, sewing or cooking – are not scarce skills, so are not paid as skilled work. Because there are always at any one time large numbers of women moving back into the labour force after a break for having children or other reasons, there is a ‘reserve army of labour’ keeping women’s wages low.

Men’s weekly earnings are on average 56 per cent higher than women’s, and this rises to 67 per cent in manufacturing industry. These figures include overtime and shift pay, which men get more of than women, but even women’s hourly earnings are less than 75 per cent of men’s, and the proportion has been going down since 1977.

What all this adds up to is that while women have especially good reasons to get together and fight for themselves at work, they face special difficulties in doing so.

Women can organise and fight back at work. Two-thirds of all new trade union members in the past twenty years have been women, and although women workers are still less fully unionised than men, union organisation is now normal in many fields of women’s work where it was virtually unheard of twenty years ago, such as hospitals and offices.

Women were very much part of the rise in working-class militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Ford’s sewing machinists struck in 1968 for upgrading of their skill, and won a substantial wage increase though they are still, in 1984, fighting for the principle of upgrading. In 1970, twenty thousand clothing workers went on strike in Leeds, reinventing the flying picket shortly before miners and building workers picked up the idea. Up to 1977, there were equal pay strikes in hundreds of workplaces.

Women fought employers and governments; they fought racism (at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, for example), and they fought male workers who tried to obstruct them. They occupied factories, such as the Fakenham shoe factory in Norfolk in 1969, when factory occupations were almost unheard of in Britain.

Even in the 1980s, when it is harder to fight because of the economic recession and anti-trade union legislation, women have been prominent in the struggles that have taken place: the Lee Jeans occupation at Greenock and the Liverpool typists’ strike of 1981, the civil servants’ and hospital workers’ disputes of 1982, and so on.

Though women and men have often stood together in strikes, women have also often had to raise the question of their collective relationship to men workers in the same workplace. In many of the equal pay strikes of the 1970s, for example, men were unwilling to support the women’s demands; but if the women could convince the men and get their support, they were more likely to win (see the pamphlet by Anna Paczuska, Sisters and Workers, published in 1980). Clearly, it is better to try to convince the men that a victory for women is in the interests of all; that the women’s struggle is against the employer, against whom all workers have common cause, but if men workers insist on sticking to their differentials, then women trade unionists will have to fight them.

The way to fight back at work has to be through the trade unions. But it has to be said that the unions have often failed to do much for women. They are mostly run by men, even when they have a majority of women members, and they often don’t take women’s needs seriously.

The way to make trade unions a better weapon – and this goes for men as well as women – is by rank and file organisation. The strength of a union depends on how well its members support each other in the struggle, not on who is leader or how well-trained its officials are. All leaders and officials should be elected by the membership and easily recalled by them, from shop stewards to general secretaries.

The trouble with most trade union leaders today is not that they are men (though most of them are), but that they are remote from their members’ concerns. Women officials are just as capable of becoming remote from their members and selling them out as men. The new woman president of the printworkers’ union SOGAT in 1984, for example, was getting Fleet Street clerical members (most of them women) to back down from a long-standing dispute within a few weeks of taking office.

The way branches and meetings are run in many unions is offputting to most women: not because they are run by men – in fact, the majority of men members are clearly put off as well, to judge by low attendances. While there must be some rules for the conduct of meetings, otherwise the person with the loudest voice and strongest personality will dominate everything, the aim should be to encourage participation, not prevent it.

Instead, many trade union meetings are conducted so as to prevent too many members from talking or raising awkward problems. This is not because there is a man in the chair, but because he is usually a particular kind of man (backed up by his mates the branch secretary and treasurer, and egged on by the district official), the kind who don’t want action or trouble, but a quiet life and a long service medal when they retire.

Shop stewards and other workplace representatives who want ‘respect’ from management, plenty of facility time, and perhaps the convenor’s office next door to Personnel, don’t want to fight for their members but to smooth things over by negotiation. They often dread shop floor or section meetings more than they do interviews with management, because it is harder to satisfy their members than to agree with the powers that be.

Unfortunately, this is what trade unionism has come to mean for many people today: getting union positions for the status they bring, becoming skilled at persuading people to give up their grievances for a compromise, and attending conferences and committees where ‘big’ decisions are made. Some women argue that women need to play this game in competition with men – to get more women officials appointed, more women leaders at the top, more women delegates to committees and conferences.

It is not that these are bad things in themselves, but that they are useless while the unions are bureaucratically run from above. Getting women on to union executives by reserving places for them, or appointing women as district officials, is only removing the most active women from day-to-day contact with workplace members and so making them less effective in terms of any real fight back.

Many male trade unionists have reactionary ideas about women. For example, they may call for women to be sacked first if there are to be redundancies. This is not only an attack on women – the vast majority need their jobs just as much as men, and their families depend on them, too – but an admission of weakness in refusing to challenge the need for redundancies at all and in trying to shift the burden onto someone else instead.

These ideas are not going to be changed by a high-handed union official, or even by a conference resolution, but by women union members constantly organising, arguing and showing their strength. Changing ideas this way is, of course, a longer and harder job than winning an election or canvassing conference votes, but it is what trade unionism really should mean.

The most important thing about women’s trade union struggles is that they should aim to strengthen trade unionism as well as fighting men’s reactionary ideas, not weaken it. So feminists who wanted to see the Thatcher government break the NGA print union in 1983 because it is a male-dominated union were undermining the trade union rights that enable other women to fight back too. A defeat for the NGA set all trade unions back.

This is not to underestimate the problems of an industry such as the print, where the newspaper proprietors have been trying to use new technology and cheaper female labour to break the power of the unions, and union members have become even more anti-women as a result. But it is just not on for women to ally with the bosses, still less with the Tories and their anti-union legislation, because they are weakening themselves by doing it.

In the USA, under the Positive Action Programme, women have gained access to many skilled jobs from which they were previously excluded, by allying with the state, through compulsory arbitration, to impose these concessions on the unions. As a result, many of the unions are still hostile to the women who have entered these jobs (for example in the mining industry), and the women may still suffer from poorer pay and conditions than the men. Overall, such Positive Action has made little difference in the USA: 80 per cent of women workers are still in ‘women’s jobs’ in clerical, service, sales and manufacturing firms, and in 1982 women’s average earnings were still only 62 per cent of men’s (worse even than in Britain).

But Positive Action has also come to mean getting women into management posts rather than skilled jobs. As noted before, the number of women in white collar and lower grade professional work has expanded while the managerial hierarchy remains predominantly male, and seeing well-qualified women passed over for promotion can often rouse women to protest.

Being bossed around by men is certainly something women should fight against, but do we want to be bossed around by other women instead? Once they get there, women managers are not necessarily more sympathetic to the real needs of the women under them, and sometimes even harsher. While women have as much right to management posts as men, demanding more women managers is not a good strategy since it benefits only a few, and if successful it divides women from one another more than it unites them.

A better way to fight male management is by attacking what are grandly called nowadays ‘management prerogatives’. Why should decision-making, discipline, hiring and firing, and so on, be imposed as if by absolute power from above? The more restrictions the workforce can place on management’s power to do as they like, the stronger and better off its members will be. If women in a workplace can organise, for example, to prevent women being disciplined for taking time off to mind sick children, they will gain far more than if they get a woman into management.

The very words ‘Positive Action for Women’ suggest that negative actions such as challenging management power, upsetting production or going on strike are to be avoided. You have to remember that what is positive for the bosses is negative for the workers and vice versa. Otherwise you end up saying, like the authors of a recent guide to positive action, that ‘Good business means getting the best from everyone – the under-utilisation of women is bad business’ (S. Robarts, A. Coote and E. Ball, Positive Action for Women, The Next Step, published 1982). Good business is greater exploitation of the workforce, and we want to end it, not to make it work better!

5. The family, right or wrong?

WOMEN’S POSITION at work can never be completely separated from their position in the family, as long as the family continues to exist as we know it. As long as people live in small, private households of one couple and their children, with a distinct division of labour between women and men, women will be at a disadvantage in the world.

Many people feel that the love, warmth and security that family life provides are sufficient compensation for any disadvantages. The nuclear family seems ‘natural’ (though our brief account of history has shown that it is not universal), and timeless, even though it has in fact changed as much as any other human institution.

Socialists often describe the advantages of co-operation in terms of family relationships: fraternity, sisterhood, the brotherhood of man and so on. Trade unionists are Brothers and Sisters; branch officers in the print have been Fathers of the Chapel for hundreds of years, but have recently been joined by Mothers of the Chapel in some branches.

The family life of the working class has often been threatened by poverty and harsh laws. The Old Poor Law of Queen Elizabeth I broke up families by taking women and children ‘on the parish’ only when they had no man to support them – thus men who were unable to support their families through unemployment or poverty were forced to desert them, as the only way they could get any support.

This law also separated poor children from their mothers at the age of seven and sent them to be apprenticed. The New Poor Law of 1834 threatened destitute families with the workhouse or ‘Poor Law Bastille’ where men, women and children were separated, disciplined, and often half-starved into the bargain as a punishment for their poverty (or ‘pauperism’, as it was called).

Working people all over the country, but especially in the new manufacturing districts, organised resistance to the harsh New Poor Law. They also organised to demand an end to the exploitation of women and children in the factories. They defended their right to a decent family life, not because middle-class preachers and philanthropists told them that was how they ought to live (though they did tell them), but because without the family they had nothing. Victorian society provided no alternative for the sick, the old, the very young, or the day-to-day needs of the working class.

Today we have a Welfare State which (even under Thatcher) is humane by comparison with the Poor Law Bastilles. Yet it is still no substitute for family life. The more it is ‘rationalised’ – in other words costs cut and managerial authority increased – the more impersonal, bureaucratic and obviously inadequate it becomes.

It is probably true, for example, that patients recover better at home than in a large, impersonal hospital, even if that means a wife or mother sacrificing her job. But what happened to the small, local convalescent homes and cottage hospitals? We are told again and again that children who go to nursery grow up with more problems than children who stay at home with their mothers. But if nursery provision is so low that there are places only for children who have problems at home already (which is the way it is in most parts of the country) the ‘facts’ don’t prove anything at all.

It is often said that even a bad family is better than a good institution, and this opinion has had great influence on the modern Welfare State, which has been even more reluctant to provide good institutions than to provide real support for families who need it. It is, of course, nonsense.

Even Victorian schoolmasters like Dickens’ Wackford Squeers rarely beat children to death; in Britain today, three hundred children a year are killed in their own homes by a parent or parent’s partner. No one knows how many battered wives there are, but a serious estimate of the number of places in women’s refuges required to satisfy the known needs of battered women is one place per two hundred families. Over half of all women murder victims are killed by the men they live with, and 25 per cent of all violent crime reported to the police is domestic violence (even though most domestic violence is not reported to the police).

What is ‘love’ in the modern family if it can include all this? The small family household is a boiling cauldron of intense emotions focussed on a few people – hate as well as love, selfishness as well as caring, competition as well as sharing – with the lid screwed down ever more tightly by modern notions of privacy. As we have smaller households, less contact with other relatives and neighbours, and more indoor entertainments and preoccupations, it is no wonder that family explosions can be so terrible.

The family is changing under the pressures of modern capitalism, but it is not yet disappearing – as many people fear and a few, perhaps, hope. The divorce rate is higher than ever before, but many marriages that are broken in the divorce courts today would have been broken by death in the past. In 1911 the average bride could hope to survive for 22 years from the wedding day, and the average bridegroom 17 years. Now the figures are 42 years for the bride and 40 for the groom – ‘till death us do part’ means twice as long as it used to! The number of divorced people who remarry is constantly increasing, too: though many marriages fail, most of those involved try again sooner or later.

The number of single-parent families is also increasing, especially the number of women bringing up children on their own (about 11 per cent of all families with children). If this is a sign that the family is breaking up, it is a very unfavourable one for women. Most single mothers are not like the middle-class women in their thirties who are constantly telling the Guardian women’s page what a wonderful experience it all is (one wrote that she decided to have a baby because ‘I had my own home, I had fur coats, I’d had rich lovers, I’d had this, that and the other ...’). More single mothers are very young women who, faced with long-term unemployment when they leave school, find having a baby is the only ‘adult’ occupation open to them, and who find themselves much worse off than married mothers as far as housing, jobs (fewer single mothers work than married ones) and general freedom of action are concerned; many later marry as the only way they can see of improving their position.

More couples now live together without getting married than ever before – though ‘common law marriage’ has always been well known among the working class and sex before marriage was for hundreds of years a well-established custom that the churches never succeeded in stamping out. Most couples who ‘live together’ with their children nowadays are families in every sense except the formal, legal one, with very similar relationships to other families. The middle-class ‘progressive relationship’ is not the commonest kind of non-married couple.

Only 40 per cent of households actually consist of a couple and their children nowadays – but this does not mean that 60 per cent are childless or unmarried people! Because couples now have fewer children over a shorter span of time, they often live together without children for longer than they do with children. After their children have left home, they may have to take on other responsibilities: a survey in North-East England in 1979 found that more households included an elderly or handicapped relative than children under sixteen. This contradicts the picture painted by the Tory government of families having abandoned their traditional responsibilities. The proportion of elderly people in institutions is now many times smaller than it was at the turn of the century, when far fewer people survived to grow old.

The family continues to exist because it is the most convenient way of reproducing and caring for the workforce in a capitalist society. No government is going to spend resources on providing a full range of alternative care – nurseries, canteens, dormitories, and so on – and if they did these would probably be exactly the kind of bureaucratic and regimented institutions that most people think of when they hear such suggestions, because they would be planned from above for cost-saving and efficiency.

In Western capitalist society, private property is transmitted through the family; in state capitalist societies such as Russia and China, it is the privileges of the bureaucracy that are passed on to their children through better education and job prospects. Yet all these societies keep up a myth that people get where they are because of individual effort: the myth of free competition in the West, the myth of the classless society in the East! But in each case, the family reinforces existing class divisions.

How can we change all this, and begin to live in a way that produces fewer disasters and more freedom and equality? There is no way the family can be ‘abolished’ from above – like religion, banning it would simply drive it underground. The family can disappear only when people choose to live differently. Only a socialist society could offer a better way of life because it would respond to human needs instead of to the drive for profits.

Many different ways of living together and sharing tasks could be tried, for instance, if houses were not all built to the standard one-family pattern; if eating good food outside the home was not an expensive privilege; if adults shared children instead of owning them and smothering them with their own needs and desires. If women and children were not financially dependent on individual men (and if men were not dependent on individual women for personal services!) then tasks might be more reasonably shared and everyone equally rewarded for the work they do. If married couples were not so isolated they might be less possessive and break-ups less frequent or at least less traumatic.

The way that people live will not change until the material conditions – such as housing, social services, the structure of pay and production – change. But socialism means more even than that, for there are ideas and feelings imposed on us by our present kind of society that will be irrelevant and out-of-date in a society run by working people for themselves.

Capitalist society produces people whose aims and desires are ‘privatised’. Most people have little or no control over anything outside their own homes. Work consists of boring, repetitive tasks carried out under orders; the only thing that’s worse is not having a job at all. Democracy means putting a cross on a piece of paper once every five years. The only place where people are free to make choices and decisions, to do the things that really interest and absorb them, is Home. Literally, you can call your home your own when nothing else is (even if it’s mortgaged for the rest of your working life).

In a really socialist society, where the working class was in control, the field of choices and responsibilities would move outside the home. Working people could call the whole of society their own, and would have access to a far greater range of satisfactions than most of us have at present. When most people are busy and happy running things over which they previously had no control, they will not want to be cooped up at home any more.

This will not happen on the day after a socialist revolution, and presumably some people will want to give up small-family life sooner than others, but it will surely happen sooner or later if we manage to arrive at a socialist society. Family-centred feelings will seem as outdated and irrelevant then as the feudal concept of fealty or the ancient Roman idea of honour do now!

Some people already feel that they are happier outside a conventional family situation, and think that if enough people changed their attitudes and lifestyle it would just quietly disappear. That is all right for those who can afford it. It is much easier for people with middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes to find more flexible housing, distribute their time between work and home differently, pay for good childcare and even afford not to cook for themselves so often. (It is even possible for people on the dole to do a few of these things if they don’t have children and don’t mind living in squalor.) For the majority of working people, these alternative lifestyles are just not available.

People still turn to farnily life as a haven from a harsh and unpleasant world, even if it often a very choppy haven and sometimes a downright dangerous one. The only way this will be changed is by changing the world they are turning away from. It will not be changed by moralising about the family, telling people how they ought to live, or refusing to defend families when they are under attack – as many working-class families are under the Thatcher government’s programme of cuts, restrictions and unemployment. There is no eternal right and wrong about the family: it has always been a changeable institution, and it will go on changing whether we like it or not, according to material conditions in the world outside and not according to ideas of morality.

6. The revolutionary tradition and women’s liberation

UNLIKE THE WARS waged by one ruling class against another, class struggle has never been an exclusively male affair. Women have been part of revolts, riots and revolutions in past class societies, and in workers’ struggles against capitalism in modern times. Marxism comes out of this tradition of class struggle, and the link between women and revolution is not new.

In the French Revolution of 1789, women played a crucial role in riots and demonstrations, forcing the revolution forward despite the reluctance of moderate leaders. They led the march from Paris to Versailles which forced King Louis XVI and his family to move to Paris and recognise a new constitution. They took part in the republican movement that led to the abolition of monarchy and the rule of the radical Jacobin party, even though the Jacobins were unsympathetic to women’s demands. But women in radical groups and clubs such as the Club of Revolutionary Republican Women were well aware of class and political divisions among women as well as men, and were prepared to attack aristocratic women and supporters of the moderate party physically as well as in words.

Despite the bitter defeat women suffered in this revolution – the downfall of the Jacobins did not improve women’s position, it made it a great deal worse – the tradition of revolutionary action by women did not die, but reappeared in Paris in the 1848 revolution, when the working class first appeared as a separate political force in a revolutionary situation, and during the Paris Commune of 1871, when thousands of women died on the barricades to defend a workers’ government.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had transformed working class life in many parts of Europe, but first and foremost in England. Women were becoming involved in the new movements of the industrial working class: they joined and formed unions, went on strike, and took part in industrial protests. The poet Southey wrote about a women glovemakers’ protest in 1807: ‘Women are more disposed to be mutinous: they stand in less fear of the law ... and therefore in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.’ The ferocity of women was also noted in the Derby silk riots of 1833 and the ‘Plug Plot’ strikes in Lancashire in 1842. Women readily joined the trade unions that sprang up in the 1820s and 1830s, and were involved in Britain’s first socialist movement, which was led by the manufacturer Robert Owen but involved many working people (see Barbara Taylor’s book, Eve and the New Jerusalem, published in 1982).

But the rise of modern industry often set men and women against each other, as employers tried to use women as cheap labour to undermine men’s traditional skills and organisations, while men tried to exclude women from many skilled trades. Within the working-class movement there were many reactionary ideas about women, the worst perhaps being among the followers of Proudhon in France, who said, ‘Woman must be housewife or whore,’ and wanted to exclude women from the workforce altogether.

By 1850, the still young socialist movement was beginning to divide on the question of women, and on the question of class struggle too. The followers of Proudhon believed in small property and gradual economic reforms; the Owenites turned to philanthropy and experimental communities; and as trade unions became more stable and permanent many of their leaders wanted to co-operate with capitalism instead of opposing it.

Marx and Engels, in their first important piece of political writing, the Communist Manifesto of 1848, came down clearly on the side of both class struggle and women’s liberation. They rejected all utopian communities and ideas of benevolent manufacturers or gradual reforms, insisting that only the working class could free itself from the tyranny of capital. They ridiculed the reaction of the ruling class to the shocking ideas of women’s liberation:

Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists ... The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production. (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848)

In the First International (known as the International Working Men’s Association in English), Marx and Engels argued against the anti-women ideas of other political groups. They welcomed the affiliation of striking women silkworkers at Lyons in 1869, and tried to have one of the strikers attend the Congress of the International at Basle in support of a resolution on women’s right to work and to membership of the International; but this was prevented by the local section at Lyons, under the influence of the anarchist Bakunin.

Both Marx and Engels were intensely interested in the history and origins of women’s oppression, though it was Engels who wrote the book they had both planned, after Marx’s death. By that time, the movement for equal rights for women was well under way in England, and one of the most interesting things in the book is Engels’ comment on the question of legal equality:

With regard to the juridical equality of man and woman in marriage: the inequality of the two before the law, which is a legacy of previous social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of women ... The necessity, as well as the manner, of establishing real social equality between the two will be brought out into full relief only when both are completely equal before the law. (Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884)

A hundred years on, when we have come much closer to complete legal equality but are still a long way from women’s liberation, Engels’ words still ring true.

Since the days of Marx and Engels revolutionary socialists in the Marxist tradition have tried to keep the link between socialist revolution and women’s liberation, despite the hostility of other tendencies in the labour movement and the reluctance of many men in the revolutionary movement itself. It has been at the highest points of class struggle, when the most working-class people have been involved, that the link has been strongest. Many of these are dealt with in Tony Cliff’s book, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (published by Bookmarks in 1984), but the most important is the Russian Revolution of 1917, because this did succeed, though only for a few years, in creating a genuine workers’ state.

In Russia, working women’s struggles were sometimes ahead of socialist theory from the start. Even before the first mass strike wave of 1905–7, women were a substantial part of the new industrial labour force and had begun to take strike action for specifically women’s demands such as maternity rights, time off for breast-feeding and laundry days, and the end of sexual abuse by management, as well as for improved pay and other conditions. During the early years of the First World War, women organised to fight falling wages and factory layoffs; they formed unions of domestic servants, soldiers’ wives, laundry workers and bakery workers, as well as the older textile and manufacturing unions.

Leading members of the Bolshevik Party such as Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Klavdia Nikolaieva (a typesetter who had joined the Bolsheviks as a girl of fourteen during the 1905 revolution) took part in women’s struggles and urged women to join the party. For a time in 1914 (until it was raided by the police) and again in 1917, they published a paper for women, Rabotnitsa or Woman Worker. They argued that working women could not and should not join aristocratic and middle-class feminists in the women’s movement (who, like most of the Suffragettes in England, came out in full support of the 1914 war). They argued that working women should fight for and with their own class. Women workers played an important part in the two revolutions of 1917, while aristocratic and middle-class feminists were bitterly opposed to revolution, especially the workers’ revolution of October.

The newly-born soviet government of October 1917 soon took steps to carry out the legal emancipation of women. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the hold of the Orthodox Church over marriage was broken, and the state took responsibility for the welfare of mothers and children.

But the Bolsheviks recognised that legal emancipation was only the first step to women’s liberation. Without far-reaching changes in social and economic conditions, women could not obtain the freedom that the law promised them. Russia was a huge and backward country with a mainly peasant population and the hold of reactionary religious ideas was still strong. ‘Women’s Departments’ were set up in all areas to bring women together actively to change things.

For the oppression of women in the old Russian patriarchal family to end, state provision for women and children had to become a reality, with maternity homes, nurseries and schools for all. Experiments in collective living, too, were encouraged, though the state had even less money to spare to support them than it had for the essential facilities. The determination to tackle these vast problems was there.

But by 1929, power in Russia had passed into the hands of a new ruling class headed by Stalin, hostile to women’s liberation and determined to do away with all traces of workers’ power – though they retained the rhetoric of socialism and women’s liberation to hide what they were doing. The Women’s Departments were closed down, and the progressive legislation of the 1917 revolution bit by bit reversed. Many people continued to believe that Russia was still socialist, despite an increasingly authoritarian regime; they had to pretend that women were liberated in Russia because they drove tractors or mined coal. But to the few critics of the retreat from socialism in Russia, the reversal of policies on women and the family was one of the most obvious signs of the betrayal of the revolution. Leon Trotsky, who was thrown out of Russia in 1929 for opposing the rise of the new authoritarian state, regarded the question of the family as crucial, and in his book, The Revolution Betrayed (published in 1937), denounced the new family policies of Stalin’s regime.

It is the revolutionary socialist tradition that women’s liberation goes hand-in-hand with workers’ power which we want to rebuild now. We reject all the other, anti-women traditions that have existed in the labour movement, and the idea that women’s liberation can come about by other means. We want, someday, to be able to carry on from where the Russian Revolution was forced to stop.

7. Are there any alternatives?

MANY PEOPLE think of feminism as an alternative to revolutionary socialism. Because there is no organised feminist movement, no feminist programme, it is often hard to tell what women mean when they call themselves feminist. The word may simply mean that a person (woman or man) is committed to the cause of women’s liberation – and in that sense, as I have been arguing in this pamphlet, it is fully compatible with revolutionary socialism.

But there has been, ever since the nineteenth century, a feminism that is definitely incompatible with revolutionary socialism; indeed that is an obstacle to class struggle and the participation of women in the socialist movement. This kind of feminism centres on the view that all men are enemies of women, including working-class men – perhaps particularly working-class men, as middle-class feminists seem a lot readier to denounce printers and miners for their sexist ways than Tory politicians or captains of industry. Rather than trying to change the outlook of working-class men, get them to support women in practice, and perhaps change their ideas more radically too, such feminists simply say that there can be no common cause of men and women in class struggle. In the early 1980s, this view became widespread among feminists in Britain.

Yet it is remarkable how many women who thought of themselves as feminists found themselves supporting the miners’ strike in 1984–85, simply because miners’ wives were leading the way and a defeat for the Thatcher government seemed like a good idea for feminists as well as socialists. Many feminists’ ideas are vague rather than clear-cut, and they do not accept all the consequences of a struggle ‘against men’. Many think of themselves as ‘socialist feminists’, but without accepting the revolutionary tradition.

Most feminists are not in the least like the lesbian separatists pictured by the media. Most lesbians are not like that either, since being attracted to other women and wanting to live together doesn’t necessarily mean lesbians have to be extreme feminists in their political opinions. The opinion-formers in our society want to create a picture of a threat that is at once political and sexual, and they play on people’s prejudices to create it.

But there is often among feminists a preoccupation with the personal and the trivial – the way people (especially other women, as it happens) live, dress and talk. In the 1960s, the slogan ‘the personal is political’ was a good one, because for decades many questions crucial to women in the socialist movement had been dismissed as private matters. But more recently it has become an excuse for ignoring political arguments about class struggle because only the personal is seen as political. The point is that the way most people live, dress or talk can’t be changed by moralising argument, but only by changing the world around us, by working for socialist revolution; and if that is achieved, people will choose new ways of living, dressing, talking (and loving) without instruction.

It is often considered essential to feminism to believe that women can only organise and fight separately from men. Because men have for so long excluded women from most organisations and struggles in the labour movement, women argue that they can no longer take part in organisations with men, who will only try to dominate them in the same old way. There is a problem about men’s way of running the labour movement without women, but it cannot be fought by separatism, because this method avoids confronting men and insisting that they give way on their ‘own’ ground.

The question of women’s organisation is above all a tactical one. During the miners’ strike, for example, women were usually mobilised into support of the strike by setting up a women’s committee associated with a pit or village – like the Women’s Auxiliaries often set up in the American strikes and occupations of the 1930s. But in many areas women also sat on the strike committee, which was even more valuable because they were gaining admission to the sort of discussions and decisions from which they had previously been excluded. Both of these were good tactics: what is wrong is to insist that women can only or must always organise separately.

Perhaps there could be a women’s movement which, while not feminist in the sense of being against all men, could be a separate but equal part of the class struggle? This depends on what kind of organisation you believe the working class needs so as to be able to fight effectively. In the end, the outcome of a revolutionary situation like that in Russia in 1917 (and many others that have not resulted in successful revolutions, like Spain in 1936 or France in 1968) depends on clear, decisive and often rapid action. A loose alliance of separate organisations with different ways of working cannot just suddenly jell into an effective revolutionary force at the eleventh hour; it is necessary, from long before a revolutionary situation arrives, to build an effective revolutionary party with a mass membership. Therefore, it is necessary to make sure that women become an important and recognised force in any such organisation, not outside it.

Our outlook on workers’ organisation is, therefore, different from that of the Labour Party. Large numbers of women who have been active in the women’s movement are now being drawn into the Labour Party (and to a lesser extent the wing of the Communist Party that is closest to the Labour Party). Why do we as revolutionary socialists refuse to join the Labour party, where, it is often said, we would have the chance to influence more people and even affect policies at the parliamentary level?

We are not in the Labour Party because we do not believe that society can be changed by a series of gradual steps in the right direction. The people who hold power in our society will not be removed except by the opposite power, the working class. Parliament does not have real power to transform society: as soon as it starts treading on the toes of big business it is brought back into line. The hope that the position of women in our society can be radically improved by parliamentary action is an illusion. Even the legislation that we do have, the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts, have been ineffective in themselves: the only thing that gave the Equal Pay Act some teeth in the mid-1970s was that women in hundreds of workplaces took action to see that they got what it promised.

All feminist calls for reform assume that the state is a neutral force which can redress the balance between men and women by action from above. But the state is not neutral, even under a Labour government, and the inequality of men and women is too deeply rooted in our system of society, the capitalist system, to be removed by a few reforms from above.

In addition to this, most reforms that feminists in and around the Labour Party have suggested in recent years have proposed to sacrifice the interests of the working class as a whole to the supposed benefit of women. Such is the ‘feminist incomes policy’ which, they claim, would hold men’s wages down and allow women’s to rise. But the experience of all incomes policies shows that while they can hold wages down, they cannot make employers redistribute the difference to lower paid workers. Incomes policies have in practice weakened lower-paid workers, such as the council manual workers who were made an example during Labour’s incomes policies of the late 1970s even though they were among the lowest paid.

Another feminist proposal, that the state should guarantee an adequate income to housewives and mothers whether they stay at home or go out to work, sounds like a good idea for making women financially independent, but could well have the effect of driving women out of the labour force in large numbers. The arguments for sacking women first when there are to be redundancies would be overwhelming, and many women would prefer to give up the unequal struggle for jobs and go back to being isolated in the home. Reforms like this, that tinker with the system without attacking the root of the problem, capitalism itself, could do a lot more harm than good for women.

At the local level, many feminists have been involved in left-wing Labour councils, and see their aim as being to improve life for women in their area. This has really amounted to two things. On the one hand, some small amounts of money have been given to voluntary organisations and women’s groups of various kinds, about which the media have made a quite disproportionate fuss, usually based on outright misinformation. On the other hand, women’s officers and committees have been set up within the councils’ own administration, often involving new posts at senior executive level to prove that women’s equality is being ‘taken seriously’, with salaries in the £15,000–£20,000 bracket even though the total amounts are still a drop in the bucket of council finances.

Despite the many hostile comments from the press and television on these ‘socialist republics’ or ‘parish communes’, the fact is that they are quite unable to improve life for the majority of women who live in these usually poor inner city areas. Central government (already under Labour in the late 1970s, but increasingly so under the Tories) has been starving these councils of the resources needed to keep essential facilities such as housing, transport and jobs at an adequate level, let alone improve them and supply other things that women need such as nurseries, out-of-school play facilities for children and refuges for battered wives.

What makes it worse is that the measures taken by even the most well-intentioned Labour councils are handed down from above and on their terms. Some Labour councils provide special facilities for women’s trade union committees, while keeping shop stewards’ meetings to an absolute minimum; others finance research into the changing position of women in the labour market, but denounce council typists who are trying to prevent the loss of jobs by themselves controlling the introduction of new office technology.

In circumstances like these, the news that a Women’s Adviser has been appointed at £20,000 a year or that women councillors use official cars to collect their children from school because they are too busy with committee meetings to wait in long bus queues like other mothers, is bound to infuriate many working-class women. Women reformers in local government have sadly often widened the gap that separates them from the women they claim to represent.

8. Conclusions

THE SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY is not claiming to have womens’ liberation all neatly wrapped up in a parcel with revolutionary socialism ready to be delivered on the doorstep of the ruling class. We do aspire to build a party that can make the unity of the class struggle and women’s liberation a fact, a party that can one day be at the forefront of the class struggle with a clear revolutionary perspective for getting rid of capitalism and achieving workers’ power. We want to encourage other women to join us and to play an equal (not a separate) part in that struggle.

We do not accept the divisions between men and women that have been built into the labour movement by men’s selfishness and short-sightedness and by bureaucratic manipulation from above. But we do not accept, either, the divisions that many feminists would insist on, setting working-class men and women against one another and letting the class struggle grow weaker as a result.

We believe that the Marxist explanation of the origins of class society and women’s liberation is the key to understanding the position of women, but we do not regard this as a purely academic argument. As Marx said, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’

The revolutionary socialist tradition holds out a glimpse of how the world can be changed for the better, in the vision of the few years following the Russian Revolution of 1917 before Stalinism took over.

We do not believe that feminism, in the sense of a struggle of women against men, holds out any such hope of changing things.

Further Reading

Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. For recent comment on the debates over Engels’ classic work, see Chris Harman’s article, Women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism, in International Socialism 2:23 (1984), especially pages 3–10.

Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation gives an analysis of the political differences between feminists and socialists as the history of each developed.

Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us is a history of the role that working-class women played in the struggle for the vote in Britain

Cathy Porter’s Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography is a history of women in the Russian Revolution as well as a biography of the best-known woman Bolshevik.

Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries is the classic history of women in the Paris Commune of 1871.

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Last updated: 31.3.2013