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Julie Waterson

The poor are always women

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Working your way to the bottom – The feminization of Poverty
Hilda Scott
Pandora, £4.95

FOR THE first time in many years, people are shocked by the sight of queues at ‘soup’ kitchens in America and at the thought of many unemployed and low paid workers in Britain being forced, by government regulations, to sleep rough.

Lack of proper food and housing are only two aspects of ever rising poverty. As the recession bites deeper, so do its effects.

There are nearly 40 million ‘officially’ poor people in the United States, or 15 percent of the population. Seventeen percent of Britain’s population are ‘officially’ poor, and one person in four lives ‘on the margins of poverty’.

A new book by Hilda Scott looks at why poverty exists and argues for a serious examination of the ‘feminization of poverty’ – a phrase used chiefly to describe the economic vulnerability of women who are the sole supporters of their children.

She argues that women are joining the ranks of the poor quicker than men, due to high divorce rates and single mothers, and that, across the classes, women are by and large poorer than men.

The effects of the crisis do hit unevenly. It would have been useful to have read a book which expanded, in a constructive manner, the arguments as to why this is and how it could be overcome. But overriding in her book is the idea that divisions in society lie across the lines of sex – and not class. The fact that it is working class women who suffer most – from the brutal oppression and exploitation of a rich class consisting of men and women – is never fully developed. Instead all we are treated to is a piece of romantic, reactionary nonsense.

Hilda Scott’s book takes us from a historical – both social and economic – appraisal of women’s position in society through to recent debates on the ‘value’ of unpaid work. It ends up arguing reformist feminist solutions which leave working class women, and men, passively on the sidelines.

The book is vehemently anti-men. ‘Misogyny pervades our history and our culture,’ she says, and adds:

‘On the left it is held that to talk about the feminization of poverty is to divert attention from issues of class and race, that women’s poverty cannot be discussed separately from men’s poverty. What I hear... is that there is nothing wrong with women that an employed husband could not cure.’

Family wage

Her patronising attitude, not only to the ‘left’ but to women, is twinned with the inference that women are passive observers of their fate. Even if many of her examples – of women being the economic lynchpin in some societies (a whole chapter) or of women fighting against their exploitation as workers (a few lines) – show differently, the conclusions she draws leave women at the mercy of men.

When discussing the rise of capital, she falls into the trap shared by many feminists – that of misunderstanding the ‘family wage’.

‘A major share of the responsibility for the marginalisation of women and the establishment of occupational segregation under industrial capitalism rests with the trade unions ... They refused training to women, threatening expulsion to any member who instructed women in the trade. When women organised themselves national unions refused to admit them. The protective legislation for which they pressed effectively excluded women from many male occupations. Men preferred to fight for a "family wage" rather than extend their class solidarity to women who needed jobs.’

This is a distortion of why the ‘family wage’ arose.

The demand for the family wage – the idea that employers would pay male workers enough not only to feed and clothe themselves but their wives and children too – was one which, in the mid-1800s when the introduction of capitalism was literally killing people off, suited both working class men and women.

The development of capitalism, and with it craftism and a trade union bureaucracy, led not only to the exclusion of women from certain trade unions and industries, but of immigrants and unskilled workers too.

We are not shown in any way how this was fought against.

In her chapter on economics we are given a further insight into how rotten her politics are:

‘As the experience of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries amply illustrate, however, after private property is overthrown male priorities continue to be anchored in the categories that are visible to men.’

You can almost sympathise with her views on patriarchy – if you believe Russia to be socialist.

We are given a tirade against Marx and Marxism (‘He saw the world through the eyes of the male, working class ... not enough to illuminate the economics of personal life’) and on how awful and male-dominated revolutionary parties are.

Never does the book look at what women and men, as workers, can do to change the world around them. Even when she examines class – and she seems to recognise that working class women do get the worst deal – the overriding feature is that women bear the burden of ‘unpaid work’, housework, child rearing etc. This is true. No one can deny that this system treats women and men totally differently – and unequally.

More so, women and men of different classes are treated differently. The nanny, the maid and the boarding school have never been a feature of working class households. They are in ruling class homes and these features, among many, give rich women the escape from their position that working class women don’t have.

But revolutionaries see some way out of the divisions that arise. When working class women and men fight alongside each other, inequality may not be automatically overcome, but it’s a challenge to the divisions that exist.

This sees the basic division as class – unlike Hilda Scott’s view. She does not look to the transformation of society by workers, of which women are an integral part, but that:

‘A positive alternative could be put forward by a coalition of women, minorities, peace, and environmental movements and labour if they could agree on some common goals and immediate aims.’

In other words, a cross-class alliance to fight the results of a class society based on massive inequality. Her sentiments, of women and men equally sharing housework child rearing and leisure time, are not to be sniffed at – they are admirable. Her perspective for getting it is politically bankrupt.

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