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Cooking the Books: Women, Work and Wages

In an interview with the magazine section of the Mail of Sunday (26 March), the author and playwright Fay Weldon provocatively claimed that, through women going out to work,  'the feminist revolution' had led to 'halving the male wage, so it no longer supported a family.'

It is of course absurd to attribute women going out to work to feminism. That resulted from capitalism's need to overcome a labour shortage. In fact, if anything, it will have been women going out to work that led to the rise of feminism. In any event, there is nothing wrong with women going out to work, apart, that is, from under capitalism this being as wage slaves (Weldon's objection is the old-fashioned one that this means that children are brought up by nursery staff rather than their mothers).

This said, is there any substance in her claim that women going out to work has reduced the male wage? This is not as implausible as it might at first seem. In Marx's day and for many years after, when few married women went out to work, men's wages had to cover the cost of maintaining a wife and children. So, Marxian socialists defined the value of labour power as what it cost for a male worker to reproduce his working skills and also to maintain a family.

In time those administering capitalism came to realise that this meant that unmarried men were being paid too much, and a campaign was launched for 'family allowances' as a payment from the state to workers with children. The trade union movement was wary about this as they realised that this would exert a downward pressure on wages, by relieving employers of the need to include an element in wages to cover the cost of maintaining a family and raising a new generation of workers.

We in the Socialist Party had something to say on the subject in a pamphlet we brought out in 1943 Family Allowances: A Socialist Analysis. This endorsed the trade unions' reasoning, pointing out 'that once it is established that the children (or some of the children) of the workers have been 'provided for' by other means, the tendency will be for wage levels to sink to new standards which will not include the cost of maintaining such children.'

Once married women went out to work, drawn into it by capitalism's need to make a fuller use of those capable of working, the next logical economy for employers in the payment of wages would be to no longer pay married male workers enough to maintain a non-working wife. In this sense,  married women going out to work would exert a downward pressure on male wages.

Nowadays, the wage paid by employers has come to be enough to maintain only a single worker, whether man or woman, married or not. The norm now, for raising a family, is for both partners to go out to work and pay for this out of both their incomes. To this extent Weldon has a point but it is an exaggeration to say that male wages have been halved, if only because equal wages for men and women has yet to be achieved. It will, however, have had the long-run effect that wages will not have gone up as much as they would otherwise have done.

This is not an argument either against women going out to work or against equal pay, but rather one against the whole wages system under which workers, male and female, have to sell their working abilities for a wage or salary reflecting costs determined by market forces.