The Competition of Women
Every little while a cry goes up that women are displacing men in some industry or another, and the terror-stricken males affected, rave wildly about the duties of women and the “rights” of men, while the dear old platitudes about the “proper sphere of women” are trotted out. On the other hand there are enthusiastic feminists who rave as wildly about woman’s “rights” and the utter selfishness of men, and who assert anarchistically that no restrictions whatever should be placed on female labour, and who virtually claim the right of woman to “blackleg” male labour if necessary. The advocates of each side, their intellectual vision bounded by the capitalist system, see nothing in the future but the gain of men at the expense of women, or the employment of women to the detriment of men. How superficial are such views and how utterly futile are the measures proposed, may be gathered from a brief review of this vexed question.
The fact that women are entering more and more into industrial pursuits is too patent to be disputed. In trade after trade the fact is noted. Here it is the clerks, there the textile workers, and here again it is the cycle machinists. During the half-century 1841 to 1891 the number of males engaged in the principal manufactures has increased by 53 per cent., whereas the number of females employed has increased by no less than 221 per cent. The influx of cheap labour into already overcrowded industries cannot fail to intensify the already acute distress due to the lack of employment.
The reasons for this increase of female labour are not far to seek. The precariousness of employment for males renders marriage less desirable, forces fathers to send their daughters, and husbands their wives, out to work to supplement the family earnings, while on the part of the women there is at the same time a growing necessity to find something other than marriage as a means of subsistence.
The steady increase of power-driven machinery renders strength less essential in industry, while the displacement of handicraft by the machine makes it possible to employ a lower grade of labour than formerly; therefore the employers, eager as ever to obtain the cheapest labour that is profitable, make use of the thrifty and industrious womanhood of the country for their purpose.
Here, as elsewhere, the law of wages is seen, and since women can live more cheaply than men, they get less in wages. Nay, since women and girls are in many cases partly kept by the males of the families, and are often only sent to work to obtain dress or pocket money until marriage, it requires a still smaller contribution from the employer towards their keep; and they, of course, usually get it. Women’s wages are thus depressed, and men give a portion of their wages to subsidise competitors on the labour market.
During the past few years the decline in average wages and increase in cost of living has been particularly noticeable, whilst the unemployed have grown more numerous than ever. The displacement of men by machines, the development of machine industries in countries which were once markets for the produce of this country, all tend to decrease the effective demand for products while productive powers increase at an ever faster rate. The foreign trade is going by the board, whilst the home market is severely stricken owing to the decreasing purchasing power of the masses and the competition of other centres of production. This must mean, it is clear, great “over-production,” bankruptcies, stagnation of trade and unemployment, even without the additional factor of a greater over-supply of labour by reason of the employment of nen. Indeed, the future of capitalism is seen to be full of dark clouds by even the most optimistic of men.
What, then, should be the policy of those who have the welfare of women truly at heart ? By some “woman’s righters” the abolition of all restrictions upon the employment of women is advocated as a solution of the question as far as women are concerned. It is obvious that this means neither more nor less than the right to “blackleg” male labour, since under existing conditions to become employed at all women must work cheaper than men. This must not only increase the unemployed by displacing men, but it will render it less possible for men to support families than hitherto, thus forcing more and more wives and daughters into competition with husbands, brothers, and each other. To flood the already overcrowded labour market in this way is to make employment more difficult to find even at wages that will barely suffice for one, not to speak of a family. This surely is no solution. Others, again, advocate the severe restriction of woman’s labour, or the prohibition of female employment except at wages equal to that obtained by male labour of similar quality. Even were it possible to bring this about under capitalist rule, it would be worse than useless, for the following reasons : Owing to custom and predudice, employers would in most instances rather employ a man than a woman, other things being equal, and women would hardly be employed at all, because they would be no cheaper than men. This would inflict great hardship on those numerous women who must earn their own living, while machinery and the competition of other centres would soon make the men worse off than ever. This again is no remedy.
What, then, is the solution ? To find this we must go a little deeper into the problem than we have yet gone. It should be evident that, within limits, the employment of women should vastly increase the national wealth owing to the great increase in labouring power that is made accessible to society. Yet at present, we know that it would mean greater misery to the wealth-producers. The same is true of all the improved methods of wealth production. The greater efficiency of labour, the improved organisation of industry, the increase of labour-saving machinery should, it would seem, vastly increase the wealth and decrease the toil of the people. At present, however, the contrary is true, and every year sees an intensification of competition, and every machine swells the ranks of the unemployed.
If the increase in the nation’s wealth does not at present benefit the wealth producers; if the increase of willing workers and labour-saving machinery serves only to make heavier the burden of the worker, we have to ask an explanation of such an anomalous state of things. The explanation is indeed easily grasped. When the producers own the means of production and raw material they will reap the benefit of every improvement: but if the means of producing wealth are the property of a handful of individuals who use them as a means of profit only, then the greater the skill and number of propertyless workers, the fiercer will competition be between them, and the greater the portion of their produce they will tacitly be compelled to bid to the owners of the machinery of production in return for permission to earn a living. Since men cannot obtain a livelihood without having access to land and machinery, the owners of these wield supreme power over the non-possessors: and the propertyless in competition are compelled to forego, under the forms of rent, interest, and profit, practically the whole of what remains after the cost of maintenance of the worker and his family has been deducted from his total product. This, then, is the broad fact, obscure to most people by reason of the complexity of modern society, but at the bottom undeniable. It engenders the antagonism of interests between, exploiter and exploited that is the basis of the modern war of classes.
If, therefore, the anomalous state of things which makes an increase in wealth-producing power spell a decrease in the well-being of the worker, is due to the divorce of the producers from the means of production, and the ownership of the latter by a parasitic class: the remedy is obviously not the reduction of society’s producing power, but evidently the ownership of the productive and distributive machinery by the producers of wealth, and an end of class parasitism. In short, the disease is inherent in Capitalism and can be cured only by Socialism. Quack “remedies” which touch symptoms only are useless, the root cause must be abolished or the disease will grow worse.
We now see the only way with women’s labour. Neither permission to women to “blackleg” nor their relegation to the harem is of the slightest use. So long as the system of capitalist production endures, so long must toil and trouble increase for the workers, both men and women. The only hope for both is in Socialism, for then only will wealth producers benefit by a plethora of wealth, and labour-saving devices mean a lightening of toil. It is now both impossible and undesirable to go back to, that dream of the poet, the middle ages, when each man owned his simple means of producing wealth. The mighty modern machine is a social instrument, ownership of which imparts almost absolute power. Too huge to be owned individually by the worker, the machine must be owned socially, and the workers can only throw off the yoke of wage-slavery and become their own masters by collectively assuming control of the machinery of industry and using it in the interests of the wealth producers.
The destinies of men and women are bound up together, and the emancipation of women can only come with the emancipation of men. Socialism is the only hope of the whole working-class irrespective of sex, and The Socialist Party of Great Britain is the only party that stands for undiluted Socialism.
F. C. W.