MIA: Subject Archive: Women and Marxism: Sheila Rowbotham
Sheila Rowbotham 1973
Hidden from History
Source: Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It, Sheila Rowbotham, Pluto Press, 1975. 6 of 23 chapters reproduced here;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
There existed a strong minority tradition in radicalism which questioned the whole social and sexual position of women. This was linked to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, the movements of utopian socialists in France and co-operators and community builders in Britain and the United States, and was the secular descendant of religious millenarianism. It emerged in distinct opposition to the middle-class radicals, who were called utilitarians, and wanted reforms which would make capitalism more effective.
James Mill, the middle-class economist and philosopher, could see no utility in women and children having legally separate interests from husbands and fathers. In reply William Thompson published his Appeal of one half of the human race, women, against the pretensions of the other half, men, to retain them in political and thence in civil and domestic slavery in 1825. Thompson was a remarkable defender of people whose interests were not his own. He was an Irish Protestant who supported Catholic political liberties, and a landowner who believed in peasant co-operatives. Against middle-class political economy he defended the workers’ right to their produce and he was one of the earliest radical thinkers to perceive the psychological consequences of capitalist production long before they were fully evident in society.
In the Appeal he defends women with a rare passion. He dedicates the book to a woman called Anna Wheeler. Like him she was an Irish protestant. She had left her dipsomaniac husband after twelve years of unhappy marriage in which she bore six children, four of whom died. Despite her isolation in the countryside she had read widely, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and the French rationalist philosophy, much to the disgust of the neighbours. She finally ran away and went to live with a relative in Guernsey in 1812, and was to be an important mediator between several different tendencies in radical thought. Like Mary Wollstonecraft she was both a feminist and a radical, Thompson remembers Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays in his dedication. He regrets Anna did not write herself and is very conscious that he does not share her oppression directly.
‘Though I do not feel like you-thanks to the chance of having been born a man ... though I am free from personal interest in this question; yet can I not be inaccessible to the plain facts and reason of the case.’
Thompson believed women’s physical weakness and the task of rearing children had placed them at a disadvantage and made it hard for them to compete with men. This disadvantage had been increased by the exclusion of women from knowledge, from work and from property ownership and political rights. The existing system of marriage and the way women’s minds were ‘moulded’ by a culture in which men were supreme had also further contributed to subjection. He attacked the hypocrisy of men who described the home as bliss but found their pleasures outside, and the unequal sexual code which condoned this. Women were economically and legally helpless in the home. How could women be ‘happy’ when their happiness depended on the whims of another. Thompson went on to demand political rights for women. He was also critical of the idea that masculinity meant domination and feminity submission.
In fact behind the Appeal there is an attack on the whole basis of competitive society, which he believed would continue to keep women at a disadvantage. Under the existing system men would be afraid of the competition of women’s work. Women needed also some recompense for the labour in bearing and rearing children which the wages system could not provide. Women would remain dependent on men for support unless care was made social. It was the ‘dread of being deserted by a husband with a helpless and pining family"’ which often forced women to submit to the barbarities of an exclusive master.
‘Though nothing short of “voluntary association” or the “mutual co-operation of industry and talents in large numbers” could entirely heal the flagrant evils of our present artificial social system, and particularly the desolating injustice practised on women; yet would the mere removal of restraints of exclusions and unequal laws, so improve their situation and the general aspect of human intercourse, that they would be no longer recognised for the same.’ [ibid]
The distinction between reforms to be won while the structure of society remained based on private profit and competition, and a fully co-operative society is important. If particular ‘negative advances’ were made, education, legal changes, domestic rights, access to jobs, it would be more possible for women to struggle for the ‘positive replacement of existing social institutions’. Until these initial reforms were achieved, women were not fully human. ‘To be a woman is to be an animal.’
Thompson makes the comparison with slavery. Female oppression was determined by birth, ‘like the skin of the Black’. The unequal social relationship between men and women meant that men could ‘brand’ women with ‘mental incapacity’ and call it ‘nature. Women often accepted men’s definition of their ‘natures’. Thompson called on them not to submit to masculine versions of female inferiority. Once women became conscious of this cultural imposition which defined them as inferior, the ‘fetters’ would be ‘loosened’. He added, ‘their magic depends on your ignorance, on your submission.
He did not neglect the inadequate understanding of specifically female oppression even within the radical movement.
‘What wonder that your sex is indifferent to what man calls the progress of society, of freedom of action, of social institutions? Where amongst them all, amongst all their past schemes of liberty or despotism is the freedom of action for you?’
Women must make men relate to them differently:
‘... You must be respected by them; not merely desired like rare meats to pamper their selfish appetites. To be respected by them you must be respectable in your own eyes; you must exert more power, you must be more useful.’
Thompson mentions the influence of the French utopian socialist Fourier. He had also come into contact with the ideas of another utopian thinker and his followers, Saint-Simon, when he travelled abroad in the early 1800s. Anna Wheeler had been a member of a Saint-Simonian circle in Caen in 1818.
Fourier advocated great phalanxes or communes, where he wanted work to be organised to allow people to pursue their interests and express their feelings. In this society of free association people would be housed in large buildings which would be equipped with various services including créches. Young children would be cared for communally. There would be communal restaurants and public rooms, but each family was to have its own apartment. Fourier’s first book Theorie des Quatre Mouvements was published in 1808 but he was still writing in the 1820s and gained a following in France which included working women. He often used the words ‘mutualisme’ and ‘association’, to describe his ideal society-terms which Thompson also uses. Hugh Doherty, who popularised Fourier’s theories in England, called the new society ‘socialism’ and the new forms of relationship ‘solidarity’.
Fourier was among the amateur originators of anthropology. In his Theorie he tried to explain how the existing social order had come about by searching for its origins, and working out various social stages. He believed the position of women was an important indicator of the level of civilisation achieved by the different societies, an idea the young Marx borrowed, changing as he did all his intellectual loans from a moral to a social notion. Fourier became more cautious as time went on about the emancipation of women but the testimony of his early writings remained.
Saint-Simon believed in a union of the classes involved in industry against the ‘parasite’. He did not make any clear distinction between employers and workers. It was still possible to see their interests as being socially united because the system of small workshops predominated. When he died in 1825 he left his followers with a book called The New Christianity which predicted an era of peace, industry and internationalism. His followers soon began to split over the economic question of the workers’ right to their produce as opposed to the employers’ right to profits. One group split off under a man called Enfantin who saw himself as the ‘master’ or father of the group, which was extremely hierarchical in structure. Enfantin developed the idea that God was both male and female and that female equality followed from this. In order for the new era to begin, a female messiah, or mother, had to be found to complement the father. The Saint-Simonians went on to attack inherited property and Christian marriage as an oppressive institution. Marriages should be ended at will. They lived as a ‘family’, sharing their possessions, and men and women wore similar clothes, tunics over floppy trousers. They were persecuted by the French government for their beliefs and life-style.
The situation in the 1820s and 1830s was remarkably fluid. Ideas passed to and fro across the Channel and even across the Atlantic and although there was much argument and inter-sect sniping between Saint-Simonians, Fourierists and followers of the English co-operator Robert Owen, there was much common ground and much interchanging of ideas. There were connections between the idea of a female messiah which appeared among the socialists, and the millennarian visions of Joanna Southcott too. In Ashton-under-Lyme ‘Shepherd’ Smith, a preacher, met one of Joanna’s disciples, John Wroe, and was attracted by the idea of a female deliverer. He later came in contact with Anna Wheeler and set off on a quest for the ‘free woman’. He believed male spiritual power was exhausted and was to be superseded by the feminine-materialist world. Smith noted the great number of female messiahs in recent times and said the new era would be the ‘age of the Bride’.
However he shared with other searchers for the ‘Mother’ a feeling that no man was really worthy of the role of deliverer.
‘Is there a woman in England who can represent her sex? If there be let her come forth, for be assured that until she appears there is no salvation even for men. It is needless to reproach man for not doing woman’s work. Woman has a work of her own to do. She has her own feelings-she only can express them; she has her own wrongs, she only can describe them.” [W Anderson Smith]
Saint-Simonian ‘missionaries’ arrived in Britain in 1833-34. They directed their propaganda to women and to workers. They hired the Burton Lecture Rooms for socialist and feminist addresses and on one occasion the speaker was a mechanic’s wife. Lectures included ‘Organisation of Industry versus Community of Goods’, ‘The Fallacy that Owenism is Practical Christianity’, ‘The Saint-Simonite Attitude to Trade Unions’, and ‘Female Emancipation, Matrimony and Divorce’. They alienated middle-class radicals like J S Mill by appealing to the workers, and were suspected by many trade unionists and working-class radicals for their ideas about industry, religion and feminism. However ‘Shepherd’
Smith supported them in his paper The Shepherd and the Owenite paper The Crisis printed Anna Wheeler’s translation of an article from the Parisian women’s paper, La Femme Libre. It was headed with the statement:
‘With the emancipation of women will come the emancipation of the useful class.’
The women argued,
‘Up to the present hour, have not women through all past ages been degraded, oppressed, and made the property of men. This property in women, and the consequent tyranny it engenders, ought now to cease ...’
‘Let us reject as a husband any man who is not sufficiently generous to consent to share with us all the rights he himself enjoys.’
The article called on women of every class to spread the ‘principles of order and harmony everywhere’.
The Destructive and Poor Man’s Conservative – despite its title a radical paper – replied to this. It did not accept the connections made between the liberation of women and the useful classes, but claimed that ‘change in the institution of property must precede every other great change’. These ‘new-fangled dogmas’ could not be turned to practical account and merely confused people.
‘Why talk of making women rational until we have first made ourselves rational? Or why talk of restoring them to their social rights, till we have first obtained our own? We may sigh for the conditions of women as we did for the poor Poles, but until we secure our rights of citizenship we can do nothing for them.’
The women might well have replied it was not what the men could do for them, but what they would do for themselves. The missionaries must have achieved some success however in popularising Saint-Simon’s ideas, for a cheap edition of The New Christianity, or the religion of Saint-Simon, translated by none other than ‘Shepherd’ Smith with a portrait in colour of ‘A Saint-Simonian Female’ in her short dress and pantaloons was being advertised by a Manchester book seller, Abel Heywood, in 1839, along with Shelley’s poetical works and pamphlets by Cobbett and Owen.
Owenite millennarianism took a more clearly secular and rational form. The new moral world had to be made by the efforts of men and women in the here and now. By the 1830s and 1840s Robert Owen had moved far away from the enlightened manufacturer who in the early 1800s had tried to create a model factory community at New Lanark, and his own ideas had been taken over by working-class Owenites.
In the course of agitation for co-operatives, for the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and for a National Equitable Labour Exchange, which Owen thought would secure for workers the value of their labour, Owenism. changed from an external paternalistic creed into a propagandist force which came out of the radical working-class movement. Owenism was more than Owen. By the late 1830s, it was a large and growing sect, organising branches and meetings for lectures and discussions, sending out travelling missionaries into remote places, issuing cheap printed propaganda. It was a living witness to Owen’s original impulse-the idea that human character was infinitely perfectible. Like subsequent working-class movements they adopted the Methodist system of class meetings, informal gatherings where a class leader would set off discussion and everyone participate in the debate. Women were not excluded. In Huddersfield for instance in 1838 the Owenite classes included wives and female friends and relatives. Owenite Hans of Science provided a radical alternative to the Mechanics Institutes patronised by employers and Owenites pioneered co-operative infant and nursery schools where the children were taught not by a system of terror, rewards and punishments, but by making learning pleasurable. There were Cooperative Sunday Schools too, for both adults and children.
Owenite education was inseparable from the creation of the ‘New Moral World’, it was part of the making of a co-operative community and was necessarily in opposition to the existing state of society. Owen disassociated himself from the people who formed infant schools to inculcate respect for God and employers into children at an early age. Although he was one of the earliest advocates of national education he did not see education only as a formal learning process in institutions. He believed people learned through the way they lived, through their whole culture. Thus, if one was serious about making a new world, one had to attack the means by which its values were maintained and reproduced.
Like Mary Wollstonecraft he saw education in its widest sense, but unlike her he was not confident that the small family unit of parents and offspring which was being created by industrialisation could be the basis of a society in which men and women were equal. Instead of supporting this new middle-class ideal of the family, where people were free from kin ties and supposedly had free choice, even though men and women performed different tasks and women were not equal to men in society, Owen saw the family which was appearing in the early nineteenth century as an obstacle to co-operation. Small isolated family units promoted individualism and competition and thus held back the possibility of a co-operative society. Owenites envisaged a much larger family -they wanted to extend the home and break down the division between the contained family circle and the community as a whole.
It was not merely that the existing structure of the family maintained capitalist ideas; the family was also the means of handing on private property.
‘... Separate interests and individual family arrangements with private property are essential parts of the existing irrational system. They must be abandoned with the system. And instead there must be scientific associations of men, women and children in their usual proportions, from about four to five hundred to about two thousand arranged to be as one family.’ [Owen, The New Moral World, 1844]
Like William Thompson the Owenites opposed the existing system of sexual morality with its different standard for men and women. With the Saint-Simonians they were against Christian marriage which they believed would have to be ended before the ‘New Moral World’ could come about. It was this emphasis on consciousness and cultural change before the coming of the new society which meant they stressed the significance of relations in the family and the rituals of old forms of personal life. Christian morality prevented frank relations between the sexes and encouraged ‘prudery’ and false shame. Marriage without feeling was prostitution. Owenites had to struggle against existing culture as part of the creation of the co-operative community. Thus these cultural changes were not to be deferred until after male workers had achieved political or economic rights within the existing society.
Owen put forward these ideas in his ‘Lectures on the Marriages of the Priesthood of the Old Immoral World’ in 1835. But the Owenites believed in practising what they preached. In The Crisis on 4 January 1834 an advert appeared for an Owenite wife. She had to be 40 years of age and possess an income of f50 a year and her ‘womanhood’. The editor added in a note, ‘Virginity we suppose is not necessary-no socialist could insist upon it.’
Owenites sometimes performed their own marriages, using the civil ceremony and thus took over some of the functions of religion over personal life. A marriage took place for example at the John Street Institute in London in 1845. They did not believe marriages should be binding on partners who no longer cared for one another and consequently favoured easy divorce. Like Place they thought celibacy was unnatural, leading to diseases of body and mind. It is not clear what part Robert Owen played in the birth control movement, though William Thompson supported contraception and Robert Dale Owen, Owen’s son, was the author of a popular book on birth control which was among the immoral and seditious works sold in Manchester in the 1830s.
Owenite strategy was rather different from William Thompson’s, with his ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ notions of change. Owenites were not interested in any intermediary reforms, they thought people should set about the whole task immediately. As faith in the possibility of building a completely new world faded, and after the defeat of the Chartist movement, these ideas about transforming relations between the sexes and struggling in the area of personal life faded in the working-class movement until the socialist movement was reborn at the end of the century.
Feminism came, like socialism, out of the tangled, confused response of men and women to capitalism. Feminism protested against the continuation of man’s property in woman. It contained an essential ambiguity however, for the feminist attack on man’s continued possession of woman did not necessarily imply a rejection of the private ownership of capital or of the wage-system. On the contrary women could well ask for admission into that system on terms of equality, but this would mean that men of all classes faced competition from women. It would also shatter the middle-class image of woman and the family as a retreat from the hostile competition of the world outside. The model of the free market and freely competing economic atoms required sentiment to give it cohesion, as long as this emotion was kept in its proper place. Otherwise bourgeois man was left with a Hobbesian world which dissolved under its own rationality.
The Victorian middle classes found their sentiment in their women folk encased in their crinolines. The Victorian wife was quite literally insulated from the sources of her man’s prosperity. As the century progressed not only women’s clothes but also the household became larger and more upholstered. It was the visible sign of the wealth and security of the middle-class man. The number of servants multiplied and by the 1870s there were complaints that women were no longer involved in even supervising them. Although the circumstances of middle-class women improved with the growing power in society of their men, their relationship was one of increasing economic dependence. In this sense patriarchy was strengthened. The women were part of the man’s belongings, their leisure the sign of his conspicuous consumption.
This situation had no sooner started to develop however, when some women came to regard it as intolerable. Even in the 1830s and 1840s women had come to question their relationship to men and their position in society not because they wanted to transform all forms of domination but because they wanted particular improvements which were apparently consistent with capitalism. An ex-governess, Anna Jameson, observed that it was absurd to educate girls to be ‘roses’ and then send them to pass their life in an arctic zone. It was evident that women’s situation was an incongruity. A few years later Anne Lamb criticised the idea of spheres of influence for women and the way women were treated as children, angels, or playthings to be discarded when they ceased to amuse.
A new ideal of the relationship between men and women, reminiscent of the puritans, and of Defoe’s notion of wives as companions appeared very clearly by the middle of the century. In Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’ the old man asserts the traditional notion of patriarchy. Women, once promised, were property to be taken by force if they resisted. But the young man wants to possess the proud, independent woman in a different way. He wants to possess her through her feelings and subdues her with a kiss. The Victorian bourgeois hero thus played ‘the slave to gain the tyranny’.
As the idea of marriage as a companionship developed, direct patriarchal power became unacceptable to many middle-class women at a time when their actual economic dependence on men was increasing.
The similarities between the slave as property and the woman as property were brought out by the anti-slavery agitation. In 1840 an antislavery conference was held in London, and although Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Stanton were delegates from the us a vote taken at the conference excluded women from the discussion. This decision provoked antagonism. The general connection between the English anti-slavery movement and subsequent feminist organisation remains unexplored. In America it was very close. Though less important than in the us it has probably been greatly underestimated.
As the reports on women’s conditions in industry, especially the 1842 report on the mines appeared, the idea of feminine incapacity and delicacy was made to look increasingly absurd. In Shirley by Charlotte Brontë the heroine longed for a trade – even if it made her coarse and masculine-instead of the vacant, weary, lonely life of a woman of her class. Out of this despair over uselessness came the energy of middle class women, bustling about doing charity work. At worst they were interfering intruders, at best they found a kind of peace through activity and learned to respect the workers they sought to reform. But they remained aliens. The gulf between them is hard to imagine now. The cultural values and life style of the middle class in the nineteenth century was as remote from the working class as it was from the African tribes which this same middle class was conquering and ‘converting’. Indeed they saw themselves as colonisers winning the workers for civilization – their civilisation of thrift, abstinence and hard work. In the mid-nineteenth century most middle class people involved in charity still believed the unequal distribution of wealth was justified by the personal failings of the poor and by economic law. Poverty was intimately connected to sin. However, within the limitations of this framework they were beginning to search for a ‘scientific’ approach to charity. Cautiously women began to argue in the meetings of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science that women should be educated for charity work.
‘It has now become the fashion to advocate the industrial training of girls of the lower classes. The need of it is nearly as great amongst the upper, declared Mrs Austin at a Conference of the Association in Birmingham in October 1857. She argued that educated women should be appointed to administer the female workhouses and that committees of visiting ladies-there was already one in West London-should be set up. She believed that this would not only improve the conditions of women and young girls in the workhouses but would also provide an outlet for the ‘longing for practical work’ that ‘comes to us all’. She noted that it was not only ladies who were idle and useless but the wives and daughters of trades people as well:
‘Young women of this class do not now, as formerly, occupy themselves exclusively with household drudgery, as it is called, and no longer follow the good old paths of their grandmother in the care of the house and family.’
The notion that social service was a secular and scientific task that required its own investigations and its own training, rather than a religious duty based on spiritual purity began to undermine some of the assumptions of earlier charitable endeavour. The Congresses of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science provided an intellectual outlet for the women who participated and were early testing grounds for the talents of several who were later to become active feminists.
Women started to campaign for particular reforms in the nineteenth century not because they saw themselves as feminists but because circumstances in their own life forced them to protest. An aristocratic, woman for example, Caroline Norton, struggled tirelessly to limit the legal control of husbands over wives. Her alcoholic husband whom she had left prevented her from seeing her dying child. In 1839 children were declared in Parliament not to be the property of their fathers in certain cases. Another Act in 1858 allowed a woman who left her husband to retain anything she inherited or owned after separation. The married woman was still not affected by this legislation. However, they were eventually allowed to keep their own earnings, and in 1882 finally came into independent ownership of their own property.
But while some of the legal power of patriarchy was whittled away, the control of men over women in society was evident in education, work and politics. The long struggle of women for entrance into schools and colleges was heartbreakingly slow.
The vote seemed to be the key. If women could vote they could change man-made laws. The working-class agitation for the franchise raised the hope that women might be included. When J S Mill, the author of The Subjection of Women, became an MP he introduced an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act by substituting the word ‘person’ for the word ‘man’. When this was defeated, supporters of women’s suffrage started a legal case to establish that words of the masculine gender legally included women. In Manchester the Suffrage Society began a great campaign to get women to register, but the judges decided that only in cases of punishment and obligations were women included under the term ‘man’. Patriarchy remained supreme. Another bill was introduced but blocked by Gladstone. The women had to wait until 1884 for the issue to be raised in Parliament again when a new bill to widen the franchise was introduced. Gladstone threatened to drop the whole bill if the women’s amendment was not taken out. At the end of the 1880s there was another bill, but again the women were disappointed. Women were not to be included in the franchise in the wake of the working-class man. The militant feminist movement was to come out of these constitutional setbacks.
For in 1889, exasperated by the apologetic caution of the leaders of the suffrage movement, a new group, The Women’s Franchise League, was formed. Among its council members was Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, encouraged by her husband Richard Pankhurst, but still afraid of public speaking. The Franchise League took up the rights of married women. The feminists had tended to seek reforms for the unmarried-the failures -even excluding married women from their demand for the vote. The League campaigned for complete equality of women in divorce, inheritance and custody of children. The politics of the League were radicalliberal, although the Pankhursts had already had some contact with the socialist movement and were soon to join the Independent Labour Party.
Conservative opponents of women’s suffrage were quick to see a connection between political rights and the social and sexual position of women The Saturday Review, for example, was of the opinion in 1871 that women’s votes would ‘endanger the institution of marriage and ~J~; the family’.
In fact liberal feminism in the late nineteenth century was reticent on the question of women’s sexual liberation, although these ideas were being again discussed in the socialist movement. Liberal feminists faced such overwhelming opposition to their most cautious demands that they were unwilling to face the public notoriety of a Victoria Woodhull, who attacked sexual hypocrisy and defied Mrs Grundy in America in the 1870s.
Moreover many middle-class women were more inclined to insist that men observed their own moral code than to demand the right to love freely. Upper and middle-class women who became involved in rescue’ work could not help but confront personally the responsibility of men of their own class in making girls take to prostitution. In the 1860s the roads of Oxford Street, Haymarket and the Strand were full of street-walkers, while in Rotten Row the fashionable Miss Walters paraded. She was called ‘Skittles’ because she had told some drunken guardsmen who insulted her that ‘if they didn’t hold their bloody row, she’d knock them down like a row of bloody skittles’. Kept by Lord Hartington with her own income of E2,000 a year, Miss Walters was at the top of her profession. The future poet laureate, Alfred Austin, even wrote a verse about Skittles’ sexual bravado,
spurning frown and foe
With slackened rein swift Skittles rules the Row
Though scowling Matrons stamping steeds restrain,
she flaunts Propriety with flapping mane.
There was a middle stratum in prostitution, the women of the business classes, kept in suburban villas on the new railway lines in London. Less openly provocative than the upper-class mistress, the half-respectable kept women still presented a threat to the middle-class wife’s position.
Venereal disease, unmentionable and yet impossible to ignore, lurked behind the Victorians’ moral code. In 1864 a bill to prevent Contagious Diseases in the armed forces was introduced. This bill meant that any woman who was said to be a prostitute could be forcibly examined and imprisoned if she resisted. If she had VD she could be kept in the ‘Lock Hospital’ for three months. There was no compulsion on men to be treated for VD. Instead of being innocent until proved guilty, the women were defined as guilty and had to prove their innocence. However, the supporters of the Bill believed these measures would help in the rescuing of fallen women as well as reducing venereal disease in the armed forces. They included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of the tiny minority of women doctors.
Opposition began to develop when the bill became law in 1869. Among the opponents of the Contagious Diseases Acts were people who had been involved in rescue work among prostitutes. Josephine Butler was the daughter of a prosperous Northumberland radical who had been connected to the Anti-Slavery agitation in the 1840s. In 1866 her husband moved to Liverpool, her daughter had died tragically while still a child, and Josephine Butler had thrown herself into rescue work as a release from her personal grief. She accepted the position of national organiser of a new society formed to campaign against the Acts with considerable apprehension, knowing that she was going to become publicly notorious.
Not only did the campaign against the Acts make the middle-class women aware of the hypocrisy of male dominated morality towards women of their own class and the evils which, in Josephine Butler’s words, ‘bore with murderous cruelty on other women’,” it also gained working-class support. The complacency of middle-class men about the prostitution of working-class women was in marked contrast to their concern about the virginity of their own daughters. ‘The Working Men’s National League’ enrolled 50,000 members, and the TUC supported repeal.
The campaign thus attacked sex and class dominance within one of the most taboo areas of Victorian sexual culture. What is more it was led by a woman who was determined to insist that upper class men were to be subject to their own moral code. Not surprisingly it provoked much antagonism. Sir John Elphinstone MP said, for instance. ‘I look upon these women as worse than prostitutes’. Knowledge and activity among women of their own class threatened the control ruling-class men could exercise over all women.
The insistence by the campaigners that moral codes should apply without discrimination was to be a persistent theme in feminist propaganda. Many women went into the feminist movement because they felt it was wrong that existing morality was defined by men. This was part of a wider movement for the sexual protection of young girls. In the 1870s the age of consent was still 12 years of age and child prostitution was common. In 1881 a committee reported on prostitution among working class girls and the sale of girls to foreign brothels. In 1885 W T Stead, a radical journalist, wrote a series of exposures of the white slave traffic. These radical moral campaigns represented an attack on the sex and class power of the upper-class men, but they were also acceptable within the general framework of the Victorian attitude to women as helpless and in need of protection.
The prevalence of child prostitution inevitably meant that there were extremely young unmarried mothers who had to choose between the grim discipline of the workhouse or the streets. Before 1873 no mother of an illegitimate child could take any action to make a man in the army or navy financially responsible and civilian fathers could only be made to pay 2s 6d a week in the unlikely event the girl got them to court. In the 1880s the first charitable homes for young unmarried mothers were set up. The girl was still assumed to have ‘fallen’ but at least she was thought to have a right to some alternative to the workhouse or prostitution.
Middle-class reformers by the 1880s and 1890s were being forced to look towards the structure of capitalist society rather than at individual failing as the cause of social problems. Some turned to the collection of empirical data, believing that conditions could be changed if only they had the ‘facts’. Though some were merely confirmed in their support for the status quo others moved towards the new socialist groups. The women were no exception. Middle-class investigators began to look at the economic situation of working-class girls. They exposed the conditions of home work and sweated industries, the exploitation of women in the dangerous trades like lead-making. They demanded more legislation and women factory inspectors and magistrates to enforce the new laws. Some of them attacked the condescending patronage of upper class philanthropy. Isabella Ford was a Leeds feminist and socialist active in the Women’s Trade Union League. In a pamphlet written in the 1890s called Industrial Women and How to Help Them, she pointed out that the whole education of girls taught them to be submissive and patient.
‘The general tone of this influence is against the idea that women should assert their rights as human beings, or that they should be loyal to a cause, and to their comrades, known and unknown in that cause, sooner than to their own immediate interests.’
This was reinforced by many teachers and charitable people:
‘The earnest-minded band of women who spend their lives in rescue work ... end to perpetuate the evil they detest, since everyone who works on curative rather than preventive lines must do so in some degree ...’
‘The industrial woman ... must be roused to desire and work out for herself her own salvation.’
The role of ‘persons not of the proletariat class’ was to help working class women to ‘find a voice’ to ‘express their needs’. This kind of attitude represented an important shift in progressive middle-class attitudes to social work which was to lead some middle-class men and women into Fabianism, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and even into the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
Capitalism broke down the old forms of social relations both at work and between men and women in the family. The consequences were, however, different for the working class than for the middle class. Middle-class women found themselves cut off from production and economically dependent on a man: working-class women were forced into the factory and became wage-labourers.
So although patriarchal authority was actually strengthened among the dominant class, the economic basis of the working-class man’s ownership of his woman was undermined by the wages the woman could earn outside the home. The concern of the middle-class rescuers to protect working-class women frequently ignored the economic and sexual realities of working-class life. The rescuers persisted in seeing the values of their own class as universal and in seeing the state – their state which enforced their class interests – as a neutral body. The working class very often saw the factory inspectors, the housing investigators as alien interfering intruders who would reform their livelihoods away. Also the rebellion against patriarchal authority evoked little immediate response among working-class women for here capitalist development was undermining such authority in brutal and inhuman ways and many working-class men and women resisted what they felt to be a violation of natural bonds between men and women, parents and children.
One of the frequent complaints in the early stages of the industrial revolution was that although women and children could find work, the men could not. This had very direct effects on authority in the family. But as Engels points out in his Conditions of the Working Class in England of 1844, wage-labour in early nineteenth century capitalism brought not freedom, but a reversal of the economic position of men and women. They were still tied not by affection but by economic necessity. Because other social changes had not accompanied the alteration of economic power in the family, the man felt degraded and humiliated and the woman went out to work for less pay, and consequently greater profit for the employer. For although the factory system began to undermine the economic and social hold of the working-class man over the women in his family, patriarchal authority continued in society as a whole. The ruling class could benefit from the assumption which was still strong that women belonged to men. Thus the unctuous Ure wrote The Philosophy of Manufactures, delighting in the prospect of workers becoming appendages to machines and justifying women’s low wages.
‘Factory females have in general much lower wages than males, and they have been pitied on this account with perhaps an injudicious sympathy, since the low price of their labour here tends to make household duties their most profitable as well as agreeable occupation and prevents them from being tempted by the mill to abandon the care of their offspring at home. Thus Providence effects its purpose with a wisdom and efficacy which should repress the short-sighted presumption of human devices.’ [Ure]
Capitalism in dividing work from home had produced a contradictory need. There was a new demand for female labour in the factory, but somehow children had to be cared for, and families fed. Women were not able to turn this contradiction to their advantage. Instead they were forced to labour both at home and at work.
From the 1830s the agitation for protection for women at work gained some success. Slowly hours were reduced, and women and children barred from the mines. Later efforts were made to extend protection beyond factories and mines. Humanitarian feeling combined with fear that the family was disintegrating. Shaftesbury believed that, if the factory system were allowed to go unchecked, ‘Domestic life and domestic discipline must soon be at an end; society will consist of individuals no longer grouped in families; so early is the separation of husband and wife’.
Single women began to fear that women would be banned from working altogether and that all women without men to support them would have to emigrate in search of husbands. Protective legislation concentrated on reducing hours, and men’s. hours tended to follow the women’s. But there was often initial distress because the protectionists failed to provide any alternative sources of income. Women told the Commission of 1842 that they did not like work in the mines but they needed some other employment before they could stop going down the pit. In isolated mining districts, especially in East Scotland where there was no other employment, women dressed up as men and sneaked down the pit.
Not only did capitalism affect the economic relations between the sexes. As the cities grew rapidly the old kinship networks of the countryside and the small towns disintegrated. Popular sexual customs which belonged to a non-industrial society lost their function and their force. Upper-class opposition to the factories often connected the pathetic wage of the factory girl with sexual insubordination but there was both confusion and hypocrisy here. They assumed their morality was normal and the sexual culture of the poor was a deviation. In fact the sexual mores of the middle class were alien to the pre-industrial poor and to the new working class in the cities. In The Manufacturing Population of England Gaskell says,
‘... Sexual intercourse was almost universal prior to marriage in the agricultural districts. This intercourse must not be confounded with that promiscuous and indecent concourse of the sexes which is prevalent in towns and which is ruinous alike to health and morals. It existed only between parties where a tacit understanding had all the weight of obligation-and this was that marriage should be the result.’
The large towns made old understandings harder to enforce. The factory wage, small as it was, meant girls could leave home and set up with boys very young. The upper and middle-class shock and horror about the pathetic and momentary ‘freedom’ of the factory girl was profoundly hypocritical. It was the flicker of independent sexual choice they feared in the mill girls for the sons and fathers of the rich took their pleasure with the female servants who were dependent on them and then deplored the tawdry gaiety of factory workers.
The life of women in the countryside before the industrial revolution was very hard. The poor had only the bare necessities and complaints about the decline of housekeeping and the neglect of children, both idealised the pre-industrial family and forgot that the rural poor had had no say in the new forms of capitalist exploitation. Many of the campaigners for protection were more concerned about social stability than the real situation of working-class women.
Without idealising the past it was still true that the cumulative effects of the new manufacturing towns, and the specific kind of poverty of the town-dweller meant a different species of wretchedness. For women the separation of work and home and the new discipline of the factory made their diverse activities less easy to combine. The factories created special problems for nursing mothers, or women with very small children. Engels describes the women rushing home in the factory break to feed their babies. Not surprisingly they stopped breast-feeding as soon as they could. Instead the babies were fed with watered-down, often infected cow’s milk. Later, after the 1870s they were given condensed milk, and a pap of bread and water sweetened with sugar or treacle.
When women had to go out to work the children were left with old women, grandmothers or baby minders. The minders crammed as many children as possible into a small space and kept them quiet with laudanum. Infant mortality was very high, and pregnancy was dangerous throughout the nineteenth century. A few nurseries were started in the factory districts, but they were usually far beyond the women’s means and did not begin to cope with the problem. Instead of providing nurseries most middle and upper-class people blamed women for neglecting their children, not seeing that they were forced to send their children out to baby minders and when they were older into the factory because wages were so low. They blamed the women for being bad housekeepers, not asking how women could keep a house when they worked sixteen hours, and earned so little money they had nothing to keep it with.
Marx pointed out that it was absurd to blame working-class parents for sending their children out to work. Against abstract morality about a woman’s ‘natural’ place, he supported protection for all workers because this was a way of preventing employers extracting more surplus value.” In Capital Marx wrote that it was ‘modern industry, in overturning the economical foundation on which was based the traditional family, and the family labour correspondingly to it (which) had also unloosened all traditional family ties’. [Capital, Volume 1] These consequences sprang from the capitalist mode of production and not from the ‘immorality’ of working-class men and women.
Capitalism left women stranded in an ambiguous situation that was neither fully exposed to the cash-nexus nor completely freed from the older form of property ownership. The man’s ownership of the persons of his woman and his children and his complete control over their capacity to produce was broken in the immediate relations of the working-class family. They ceased to be directly means of production for the man. However their low wage was still supplementary in the commodity system. Women could not enter commodity production on the same terms as men. Like the man they sold their labour power now as a commodity. But they still worked to maintain the labour force at home. In the early years of the industrial revolution the work of women in reproducing the men’s and children’s capacity to labour was drastically reduced. With protective legislation and fewer hours in the factory, women workers spent more time doing housework in the family. The need for women’s labour in the family, in reproducing and maintaining labour power thus exercised a certain restraint on the direct exploitation of women’s labour power in industry. But women’s social usefulness was
never recognised or recompensed. Instead their dependence on the male bread-winner and their work in the family reduced their capacity to organise. They were thus placed at a double disadvantage.
Also men still dominated in society. Although the economic basis of patriarchy was weakened, cultural and sexual attitudes about female inferiority continued and contributed to women’s economic compliance. In a competitive labour market the men had an obvious interest in keeping women out of the labour force. When the demand for labour power made this impossible men managed to exclude women from the skilled, highly paid jobs where they were organised. Consequently, women and foreign workers, the Irish and later the Jews, were forced into low paid work.
The man’s direct ownership of women and children in the family was also modified by the state. By the end of the nineteenth century the ‘free’ market economy was being increasingly influenced by state intervention. While the short-term interest of the individual capitalist was to extract as much surplus value from workers regardless of age, sex or physical strength, the long-term interest of capital demanded some protection and guarding of future capacity. Thus not only protective legislation against the exhaustion of human body and mind at work, but public health measures, national education, and various efforts to protect small children from neglect were introduced.
Contemporaries often confused these changes with socialism, and indeed it was often trade unionists, radicals and socialists who forced them through. They were obviously important defences against the expansion of capital at the expense of human physical and mental capacity. Changes in education, public health and later in the beginnings of welfare also made possible the emergence of a working class which bargained with a new scale of expectations. But they brought also an extension of state power and a direct relationship between the centralised bourgeois state and everyday life, and represented a newly assumed responsibility by capitalism for preserving capacity and skills for a more ,rational’ exploitation.
Already in the last quarter of the century the state began to take over some of the family’s former responsibility for upbringing and education. This was only the beginning of a process which was to become more marked in the twentieth century. As the state became more involved in the physical welfare and cultural attitudes of the working class, public health, municipal reform and national schooling assumed a new importance and began to challenge the old policy of laissez-faire which had been the ideology of the earlier years of the nineteenth century.
After sections of the working class got the vote in 1867 there was pressure to remove the legal restraints on the trade unions: in the first half of the 1870s there was an expansion in trade-union membership along with the trade boom. This took the form not only of the increasing strength of existing unions, but also of the growth of unions in new areas like agriculture, and among unskilled workers..” In 1872-74 as in the period 1833-34 there were attempts to recruit women. In 1872 the Edinburgh Upholsterers Sewers Society was established, an au-women union which survived for some considerable time. In 1874 Emma Paterson, daughter of a school teacher and married to a cabinet maker, formed both the Women’s Protective and Provident League to encourage trade unionism among women, and the National Union of Working Women in Bristol. She had got the idea of women’s unions from the Female Umbrella Makers Unions in the United States. She was opposed to mixed unions Eke those in the cotton industry because ‘the women paid only half contributions and were excluded from management’.
When in 1874 a strike of unorganised woollen weavers broke out in Dewsbury against a cut in wages, the League moved in and the women won. In the following year several small unions among London women bookbinders, upholsterers, shirt and collar makers and dressmakers were formed. In 1876 Mrs Paterson and Mrs Simcox, from the London Society of Bookbinders, Upholsterers and Shirt and Collar Makers, took their place in the TUC. At first they were welcomed but conflict soon broke out. The League got its funds from ‘middle-class friends’, the male trade unionists were suspicious of the influence of middle-class women. Men like Broadhurst, who was a prominent trade-union leader, were dubious about women organising in unions. He said it was ‘very natural for ladies to be impatient of restraint at any time’, therefore the factory was an unsuitable place for them. ‘Wives should be in their proper place at home’.
By this time trade was depressed and unemployment increasing. The men tended to see protection as a means of eliminating competition. Mrs Paterson opposed the Factory and Workshops Act of 1877 because she feared it would place women at a disadvantage. She explained she was not for long hours, but until women got better pay any reduction in hours made their wages even lower. There were similar disputes in the 1880s. Later Mrs Paterson healed the breach somewhat by urging higher pay for women so they could not be used as cheap labour.
In the second half of the 1880s, and in the 1890s, workers who had been outside craft organisation started to enter the trade-union movement. They brought with them a new consciousness and a wider area of trade unionism. They affected the older societies’ structure, and the attitude to the women’s unions and participation in trades councils improved.
The action of working-class women at work also forced trade unionists to take their predicament and determination seriously. From 1888 to around 1892 there was a considerable amount of spontaneous industrial action not only by men but also by women who had never organised before. The matchgirls’ strike is the best known because of the publicity the socialist Annie Besant gave it in papers and journals. However Commonweal, the paper of the Socialist League, reported several other incidents of female militancy in the same year. Blanket weavers in Heckmondwike, female cigarmakers in Nottingham, girls in a tin box manufactory in London, who pelted men who continued to work after they came out with red-ochre and flour, cotton workers, and jute workers in Dundee, took action spontaneously in 1888. The reasons for striking varied, from demands for increases to resistance to cuts, or opposition to fines. Again in 1889 mill girls in Kilmarnock came out over the bad quality of yam they were being given. At Alverthorpe, near Wakefield, woollen weavers, women and girls, rejected a reduced rate and marched in procession headed by girls with concertinas. This was broken up by the police, and the girls with concertinas-obviously regarded as ‘leaders’ -were fined for obstruction. Even waiters and waitresses demonstrated at Hyde Park in October 1889-though unfortunately they saw foreign. workers not their employers as their foes.
The socialist groups were often involved in these strikes, although radicals, liberals and Christians were also sometimes to be found helping women workers because of the moral outcry against sweated labour.
The Socialist League for instance, was helping cap-makers in Manchester form a union in August 1889, and an urgent appeal for help came from Bristol comrades for money for cotton workers on strike in November 1889.
In 1891 there was a long and desperate strike at Manningham mills in Bradford. Isabella Ford supported the mill girls because her parents had started one of the first evening schools for working-class girls and she had grown up knowing the conditions in the mills. Although initially very afraid of speaking, she defended the girls on the platform and demonstrated in the streets with them. Isabella and her sister Bessie lived at Adel near Leeds and their house was a kind of informal centre where socialists, trade unionists and radicals would meet. Among the Leeds socialists was Tom Maguire, who organised the unskilled gas workers’ strike and helped with the tailoring union. He was a poet as well as a political organiser and wrote some verses to women in the tailoring trade called ‘Machine-Room Chants’. In one called ‘The Duchess of Number Three’, he was ironic about a very beautiful, proud girl who said she did not need to join the union as she was all right on her own.
In London too women workers were helped by the new unionists and by socialists. Laundresses tried to make a union. They were supported by 27 trades councils and held a joint demonstration with railway workers in July 1891 in Hyde Park. According to the records of the Women’s Trade Union League this was the first demonstration of working women in the Park-presumably the waitresses were not counted. Evidently several thousand laundresses and other workers turned out, and there were three platforms with Miss Abrahams from the Women’s Trade Union League on one, and Tom Mann and Clem Edwards, a docker, on the other two.
More male trade unionists were beginning to see the need to work with the women and sensing the wider implications of female industrial militancy. For example a representative of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors wished the Women’s Union ‘God Speed’ at the annual meeting of the League in 1892. It was his ‘opinion ... that the women should be allowed to work out their own political and social questions for themselves just the same as men are doing now’.
The publicity the strikes received was partly stimulated by middleclass guilt, but it also encouraged women to report and investigate the conditions of working class women’s work. Beatrice Potter (later Webb) wrote Pages from a Work Girl’s Diary in 1888 about East End tailoring. Annie Besant wrote up the conditions of the match girls in her paper The Link. Clementina Black exposed the conditions of home work as well as helping women to organise in Glasgow. Middle-class women thus learned about the situation of working-class women and came to see them not as passive objects of pity but as people who had to organise. in many cases this experience radicalised the middle-class observers.
‘Unless you have lived among oppression and injustice,’ wrote Isabella Ford, ‘it is most difficult to realise how full of it is our industrial system particularly when it touches women.’
There are many questions about the relationship of middle-class women to the trade-union organisation of the working class which remain completely unstudied. It is not clear whether they simply imposed their own concerns for the unfortunate upon working class women, or whether they broke with ‘rescue’ work. Although this is partly a political question-the socialists were less likely to see trade unions in theoretical terms as an extension of ‘rescue’ than were the liberals-it is also a more complex question of personal class response. The same problem of course existed for the middle-class male radical and socialist.
It is certain however that there was some interconnection between the feminist movement and women involved with the organisation and conditions of working-class women. Also there was evidently an awareness in the 1890s among working class women of the wider implications of militancy. Margaret McMillan, a member of the ILP, writes in her biography of her sister Rachel, that although women were never equal in the trade union, within the labour movement
‘A new feature ... was the stir and murmur among women. Overworked mothers and wives, young girls too and older women who were unmarried, and living by their own labour, at factory or workshop, wakened as from sleep and began to conceive new hope and purpose.’
It is very difficult to know how extensive this feeling was or what it involved in terms of organisation. We know very little about what working-class women discussed amongst themselves because they have only been considered worthy of history in exceptional instances. Thus it is not clear whether they were questioning their position as women, or demanding new rights like the vote. The responses of men are a little more accessible. Predictably there was both suspicion and enthusiasm among the leaders in the labour movement.
The TUC had been committed to adult suffrage as long as it had been in existence, and to votes for women since 1884, but in a pious rather than an active manner. Real doubts about giving the vote to women on the existing property terms, which weighed in favour of the middle class, mingled with a straightforward feeling that women should stay in their place and let men decide on politics. The fear of women becoming active went beyond the vote. A member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which was formed by Mrs Acland towards the end of the nineteenth century, remembered her husband’s suspicions many years later. ‘Sometimes my husband rather resented the teachings of the Guild.... The Guild he said was making women think too much of themselves."”
There was at least some awareness of the connection between women’s oppression at work and in the home among the ‘new’ unionists. Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the new unionism, wrote:
‘Who would choose to be a workman’s wife, with its washing every week, bed-making every day, meal-preparing every few hours, and for a change, to be up early on a bank holiday, wash and dress, and carry a number of youngsters to the station, look after them for a dozen hours, get jammed in half a dozen crowds, reach home ready to faint-lucky if no limbs are broken-and get up next day for the usual round?’ [Tom Mann]
He proposed that women should organise co-operative child care, shopping, cooking, eating, washing, and use gas instead of coal. There should be music and dancing for the children. He was careful to emphasise that the women should remain ‘virtuous’. Co-operative housework did not imply ‘free love’ or ‘mormonism’.
Behind middle-class anxiety lay not only pity for the weak but also fear of the strength of the working class and apprehension about the consequences of the new socialist groups which were breaking with the assumptions of liberalism. Out of this socialism came discussion of hitherto submerged questions. Like the utopian socialists earlier, revolutionaries in the 1880s and 1890s tried to connect sexual subordination to property ownership, and to discover the relationship between the oppression of women and the exploitation of workers.
The direct influence of Marx was not very great in England before the early twentieth century. Although his general ideas spread through works of popularisation, most of his early writings were only published later this century. In the Economic and Philosophical Mss of 1843-4 he had followed through Fourier’s ideas about the position of women being an index of social development. The relation of man to woman was part of the whole relationship of human beings to the external natural world. ‘The relationship of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It indicates therefore how far man’s natural behaviour has become human.’ [Marx, 1844 Mss]
Shortly after, in The German Ideology, he described the division of labour between men and women in the family, and in the sexual act and the relationship of productive forces to human consciousness. The family was part of the productive forces. ‘The production of life, both of one’s own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship.’ [Marx, German Ideology]
The private ownership of property affected all social relations including those between men and women. The worker’s sale of labour power as a commodity was thus connected to the woman’s sale of her body. ‘Prostitution is only a specific expression of the universal prostitution of the worker.’ [Marx, 1844 Mss]
In order to understand this connection historically both Marx and Engels studied pre-capitalist societies. At first Marx believed that the family was the original social relationship, and that the tribe followed. But he changed his mind later and came to the conclusion that the various forms of the family came out of the ‘... first incipient loosening of the tribal bonds’. [Engels footnote in Capital] He believed he could see the same process within capitalist society, as the pre-industrial family disintegrated. Out of this disintegration came a new synthesis, the basis for relations between men and women, parents and children which were not distorted by property and ownership.
‘However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production outside the domestic sphere to women, to young persons and to children of both sexes, creates a new economical foundation for a higher form of the family, and of the relations between the sexes.’ [Capital, Volume 1, Marx]
Then he jumped into the future to say it was obvious that the ‘collective working group’ of people ‘of both sexes and all ages’ must, ‘under suitable conditions’, become a source of ‘humane development’, though its capitalist form was ‘brutal’, and the ‘labourer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the labourer.’
However, this left the intervening period vague and mysterious. While capitalism continued, the collective working group meant the subordination of men, women and children to the expansion of capital. Nor did Marx take into account the consequences of the intervention of the state in the reproduction of labour power. He apparently presumed that the capitalist mode of production would completely erode au former kinds of property and production.
In fact their relationship proved more complex. Certain aspects of patriarchy continued to serve capital, by maintaining female subordination in the family and the state. The idea of the woman’s body being the property of the man continued in cultural and sexual life even while the economic control of men over women’s persons in the working class disintegrated, It had a useful economic function. Marx had observed how women were used as part of the reserve army of labour; they could be reabsorbed in the family when labour was plentiful and there they played their part in the reproduction of labour power.
Marx saw communal domestic economy as presupposing the development of machinery and the use of natural forces, but, like Engels, he never envisaged the consequences of contraception. Capitalism was to create a technology which made control over production and over procreation technically but not socially possible. The family was streamlined but patriarchy did not disintegrate completely. The erosion of man’s property in women, and of the ideology of man’s superiority over women, occurred more slowly, too, than Marx imagined. The precise relationship between the continuation of patriarchal authority and the class system in capitalism was left unclear along with the more general problem of the connection between material and ideological structures.
In 1884 Engels’ Origin of the Family Private Property and the State was published. This was an attempt to analyse the oppression of women in terms of the relationship between the mode of production and procreation and the connection between forms of the family and systems of property ownership. He stated his intention in the preface.
‘According to the materialist conception the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This again is of a two-fold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, articles of food and clothing, dwellings and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular community live is determined by both kinds of production, by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.’ [Engels, Preface to Origin of the Family]
The idea of production in the family being a factor in historical development was subsequently obscured in marxist thinking. But even in The Origin of the Family the specific form of the influence of ‘the production of human beings’ upon ‘the production of the means of existence’ is left unclear. Also human production is separated from human sensuous experience and feeling. Engels has here substituted a narrow conception of economic relations for a wider definition of material existence.
Nonetheless his argument is worth looking at in some detail. He saw the monogamous family as the result of the private ownership of property. The family was a microcosm of the contradictions and oppositions in society as a whole. Monogamy had meant the subordination of women. Men had appropriated individual women as property. Monogamy was based on the ‘supremacy of the man’, its ‘purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity’,[ibid] who could inherit his property. The division of labour in the family regulated the division of property. Engels believed monogamy and private property were preceded by a period of primitive communism, in which this appropriation of women did not exist. Monogamy thus meant at one and the same time a great historical set-back for women, but also the necessary basis for a transformation of sexual relations. He thus saw monogamy as the equivalent of capitalism, and sex as the equivalent of class. The ‘first class opposition that occurs in history coincides with the development of antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage’. [ibid]
He generalised the experience of middle-class women. Housework became a ‘Private service, the wife a ‘head servant’. [ibid] In fact of course not all women were excluded from production. Engels believed that modern industry opened the possibility of ending the ‘domestic slavery of the wife’. It absorbed women back into social production, and he thought it would make private domestic labour public. As it turned out capitalism did not need to make household labour public: instead women had to work both outside and at home. The reduction of family size made the continuation of the individual nucleus of the family possible while married women were absorbed into the labour force.
Engels saw individual sex love as a historical creation connected to monogamy. He believed that like monogamy and capitalism it was to be transcended. While reticent about making prophecies for the future he, like Marx, envisaged sexual relations in which economic dependence played no part. Capitalism had distorted the ways in which individuals experienced sexual love. Prostitution was the other side of monogamy, love was confused with possession, morality was bound by external codes, and not by the relationship between people. The evils of capitalist society were covered by the ‘cloak of love and charity, to palliate them or to deny them’. [ibid] But in subsequent revolutionary movements it was to prove very hard to decide what elements in bourgeois romantic love should survive in socialism, and what aspects of sensuous individualism were antagonistic to the creation of communism.
Engels raised many questions which are still very relevant, though his analogy of female oppression with class exploitation does not really work. The notion of women as a class, as the proletarians in marriage, with the men as the bourgeois, means that only the economic aspects of woman’s relations to man is discussed. The sexual difference between men and women is obscured by reducing the whole relationship to one of woman’s capacity to work. This ignores that sexual relations are part of a whole human relationship to the external world, though in different communities these assume a variety of institutional and social forms. Moreover the family has a complicated connection to production and ownership of property. It does not always change neatly as they are transformed. Nor is sex the equivalent of class. Individuals in the past have been able to move from one class to the other. But women, except in very modern exceptional instances, cannot become men, any more than black people can become white. Also the victory of the proletariat means the abolition of class. The proletariat has no need for the capitalist. But the end of the subjection of women does not thus mean the abolition of men. The analogy of sex and class is confusing.
There are also problems about the type of anthropological material that was available to Engels when he and Marx studied these questions. He used the work of an anthropologist called Morgan, who was part of the evolutionary school. Evolutionary anthropologists were concerned with tracing back the origins of human society: there was much debate about the earliest forms of property and sexuality, and whether there had been a universal early stage of promiscuity and communal ownership. The belief that primitive communism might have existed, suggested that capitalism and monogamy also might be superseded, and shocked conservatives. Engels felt that Morgan’s work related to his own and to Marx’s study of capitalism.
However, because they were talking about a pre-historical period there was very little evidence, except for myths and existing primitive societies. It is very doubtful whether myths are literal descriptions of actual societies or historical happenings. They have been seen as the attempt to know a reality that remains hidden, as a means of bolstering the claims of one group against another, to express concealed fears of one group against another. The assumption that the existence of myths about an age in which women were not subordinate proves that such an era actually existed is thus almost certainly an oversimplification.’ Also there is no necessary connection between a system of inheritance which passes through the woman in the family (matrilineal) and the political, social and economic dominance of women (matriarchy). The main difficulty though about the evolutionists’ assumption that there was a universal stage of society which preceded private ownership, is that they were forced to use existing primitive societies as evidence. They regarded the development of human society as a kind of biological childhood in which the ‘children’ always grew up in the same way. Yet one cannot with any certainty recreate the earliest societies from abstractions about existing ones. It would seem that the idea of a single universal stage must remain an hypothesis which can never be proved either way.
Nonetheless Engels’s attempt to synthesise existing anthropology with marxism stimulated other revolutionary socialists in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century to study this whole area. When the evolutionary method was attacked by subsequent anthropologists they neglected to ask the kind of questions Engels had felt were important about the ownership of the means of production and the position of women in society. Since the 1920s Marxists, too, have neglected the role of the family in historical development, and have contented themselves with a defensive return to Engels’s system of categorisation. Only recently has a marxist anthropology conscious of the oppression of women begun to emerge.
Some of these more general questions were taken up by others in the socialist movement in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, with Edward Aveling, reviewed Bebel’s book Women in the Past, Present and Future in the Westminster Review in 1885, in an article ‘The Woman Question from a Socialist Point of View’. They were very sympathetic to Bebel’s study and also referred to Engels’s work. They were aware of contemporary feminist agitation for higher education, the vote, and against the forced inspection of prostitutes. They believed these reforms were important but did not strike at the structure of female oppression, which they believed, like Engels, was of an economic origin.
‘Women are the creatures of an organised tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organised tyranny of idlers ... no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society.’ [Eleanor Marx in Westminster Review]
They used the idea of women being the equivalent of the proletariat, and returned to the early radicals’ insistence that women could not be freed by men. Women, like workers, had to recognise ‘that their emancipation will come from themselves’. They would find allies among men, just as the workers found allies among the philosophers, artists and poets, but they had nothing more to hope from men as a whole, than the workers had from the middle class. Eleanor was very interested in Shelley and Ibsen and it is possible that her belief that marriage and morality were based on the economic organisation of society, her support for easier divorce, and her feeling that the ‘sex instinct’ was repressed in modern society, came from them as well as from her own relations with Aveling.
Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age appeared about ten years later, in 1896. This was a collection of pamphlets originally published by the Manchester Labour Press, which had sold well in socialist and ‘forward’ circles. The willingness of the Labour Press to publish pamphlets on ‘Sex Love’ and ‘Women’ in the 1890s is itself an indication of the connection between Northern socialism and interest in sexual and psychological matters. Carpenter was an ex-clergyman who became a university extension lecturer in the North and then became involved in the socialist movement and developed an interest in Indian mysticism. Carpenter’s whole life was a personal attempt to bridge the separation of man from nature, as well as the class and sex divide. He lived on a small farm near Sheffield in great simplicity and gave his private income to socialist causes. He was friendly with Havelock Ellis, an early sex psychologist.
In Love’s Coming of Age he tried to connect existing anthropology and psychology to a vague rather mystical marxism. Like Engels he saw the family changing with different forms of society. He was enthusiastic about the contemporary feminist movement and not only supported the liberation of women, but questioned whether sexual differences were as fixed as people imagined. Homosexuality was even more taboo in the 1890s than discussion of heterosexuality. Carpenter published a pamphlet called ‘Homogenic Love’ through the Labour Press. Fisher Unwin panicked and turned down Love’s Coming of Age at the last minute because Oscar Wilde had been convicted. So the courageous Labour Press brought the first edition out. In 1906 he added a chapter called ‘The Intermediate Sex’ in which he described the suffering of young people of ‘the intermediate sex’ whom he called ‘Urnings’. Because ‘a veil of complete silence’ was ‘drawn over the subject’ they faced ‘the most painful misunderstanding and perversions and confusions of mind’.
Carpenter did not exactly ‘come out’ but his own homosexuality was not concealed from his socialist friends, including his working-class comrades in the Sheffield Socialist Society and in the Lancashire and Yorkshire movement. Carpenter belonged to a circle of intellectuals who broke very determinedly if self-consciously from their own class and sex supremacy. His attempt to think through the problem of sexual liberation was, however, restricted by the lack of any effective system of contraception. In 1909 he added the notes on Preventive Checks to Population. He believed women should not be a ‘mere machine for perpetual reproduction’. However he said:
‘artificial preventatives ... are for the most part very unsatisfactory, their uncertainty, their desperate matter-of-factness, so fatal to real feeling, the probability that they are in one way or another dangerous or harmful, and then their one-sidedness, since here-as so often in matters of sex – the man’s satisfaction (is) at the expense of the woman.’
Despite the inadequacy of contraception he grasped the significance of non-procreative sex. When sexual pleasure was separated from conception, and when propagation was within human control, a new realm of freedom became possible. He did not think though in terms of improving contraceptives. Instead he introduced into the English socialist movement the idea of ‘prolonged bodily conjunction’ without male orgasm. These ideas came from the theories of an American, J H Noyes, who had advocated free love and communal living based on male continence. It is possible too that Carpenter was influenced here by his study of Indian culture.
There was in the 1890s and early 1900s a good deal of discussion about sexuality, family, alternative ways of living, and an attempt to try and live something of the socialist society of the future in the here and now. This awareness of the connection between beliefs and practice did not only exist among middle-class people, who, like Carpenter, went off to live in cottages in the country and shared housework equally. Carpenter’s influence was important in the North-many working-class socialists broke with Mrs Grundy along with liberalism. In East London anarchists like Rudolf Rocker and his wife defied existing conventions by living in a free union. In Pioneering Days Thomas Bell, later to become a communist, describes how class consciousness, the theory he learned in the Glasgow marxist economics study groups, and the attempt to live with his wife and children without giving in to the old world, came together in his political development.
Some marxists and socialists however were opposed to Engels’s and Carpenter’s books. H M Hyndman, the autocratic and sectarian leader of the marxist Social Democratic Federation, not only disliked Engels personally but regarded The Origin of the Family as ‘a colossal piece of impudence ... to garble Morgan’s grand work’. The young rebels in the group, soon to split, got copies of Engels’s book from America along with works by the industrial unionist Daniel de Leon.
Engels argued generally against the SDF leaders who, he said, saw marxism as an orthodoxy that had ‘to be forced down the throats of the workers""’ and swallowed whole, Any participation in everyday union struggles was dismissed. Socialism was seen as being produced by a crisis, an objective process in which the consciousness and activity of men and women played a negligible part. They saw socialist ‘education’ as being not a learning through doing, organising and discussion in action, but as something which was brought from outside as received truth. This sectarianism reduced their effectiveness. It also meant that they displayed the same intolerance to the feminist agitation as they did to trade-union militancy.
There was also opposition later from the non-marxist socialists. They were afraid discussion of the family and sexuality would give socialism a bad name and put people off. Robert Blatchford editor of The Clarion, a socialist newspaper, wrote to Carpenter after Love’s Coming of Age was published, saying he was sure Carpenter realised the economic changes had to come first and wouldn’t it be better to keep quiet about sex until after they had got socialism and change things then.
In fact the sacredness of the family was part of Blatchford’s socialism. He believed in the rule of the ‘efficient’, the recreation of the Empire, and ‘reverence for women’. He loved ‘the common people’, ‘the women’, and ‘England’. Women were ‘civilisers’, ‘angels’. ‘It is when we need women that we learn their value. It is when we trust ourselves fearlessly to her protecting arms that we find the goodliness and loveliness of Mother England.’ Blatchford’s idealisation of the woman as mother meant, not surprisingly, that he was wary of Carpenter’s socialism.
In Britain for the British in 1902 he wrote, ‘Socialists, it has been said, want to destroy home life, to abolish marriage, to take the children from their parents, and to establish “Free Love.”’ Blatchford reassured everyone that free love was no more to do with socialists than it was with tories or liberals and he would never let his children be taken off by the state. Far from seeing the family as changing in different societies, he saw it historically and morally as the basis of the nation. ‘I believe that the nation should be a family’. The nation ‘family’ had to be made safe, and protected against foreign competition. The ‘family’ had to be made healthy so the workers could control the Empire.
Blatchford was a skilled propagandist and his ideas appealed to many of the existing attitudes in the working class. He was one of the ‘non-ideological’, ‘practical’, ‘commonsense’ socialists who believe in gradual reform and are convenient scarecrows decked out in the left-over rags of ruling class ideology and values. Other socialists, like Bruce Glasier in The Meaning of Socialism in 1919, waxed sentimental about the family. In its existing form in capitalism it was evidently ‘... a small socialist community’ which should be extended into the nation as a whole.
Thus while the Hyndman type of revolutionary socialist dismissed the family and sexuality as being irrelevant to marxism, the reformists saw the family as a moral absolute not as a changing social relationship, and idealised women as angels and mothers. Both these attitudes have had a curious longevity.
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