1920s >> 1929 >> no-301-september-1929

Aspects of the “Woman Question.”


(Based on Notes of a series of Lectures on “The Sexes in Evolution.”)

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It is not surprising, perhaps, that during the ages when no scientific knowledge existed, when nothing was known regarding the development of life on the earth, that man should have regarded himself as an infininitely superior being, possessing mental and physical qualities which were peculiarly “masculine.” Neither is it remarkable that woman, who was supposed to have appeared later on the scene as the result of a surgical operation performed upon him, should have been regarded simply as an adjunct, a being created to satisfy the requirements of the masculine nature. But when the scientific age dawned, when it became possible to trace through the ages the evolutionary development of the human race, it might be thought, especially in the light of modern knowledge, that these antiquated prepossessions would disappear. This is by no means the case.

When man was compelled to turn his attention to the crude agricultural pursuits which woman first of all developed, the so-called superior qualities which he possessed —acquisitions of war and the hunt—enabled him gradually to improve on these rudiments. The changeover from matriarchal to patriarchal forms necessarily involved changed conceptions of relations, both sexual and political, and man’s power over woman received the necessary sanction of custom and law. And there it has stood, with slight variations, ever since, with the blessing of the Church behind it. Even when we turn to the most advanced scientific writings we find that the old prejudices are by no means eradicated, and any discussion of the sex question still reveals traces of the old prepossession of man’s superiority over woman. Scientists have even, on occasion, gone out of their way to justify the subjection of women

Now that suffrage is practically universal, there are those who deplore the extension of the franchise to women on the grounds that as women outnumber men they may sweep the board at any and every election in the Labour interest, since the majority of women belong to the working-class. On the other hand, Labour politicians are jubilant, believing it to be a likely consummation. Strangely enough, the Conservative Government, which conceded this “power” to the women, depended upon them to support their class out of gratitude for the concession. At the time they pointed out that they were democratic enough to recognise and appreciate what the women had done for the country. Since women worked and suffered and paid exactly as the men did, it was only right and proper that the same rights and privileges should be extended to them. Selah ! In other words— women had proved their worth as citizens, which, by the way, apparently implies that up to that point they hadn’t.

In presenting what is, after all, merely a rough outline of the position of the sexes in society, the interpretation can, of necessity, only be a sketchy one. In the opinion of the Socialist the hopes and fears engendered by the extension of the franchise to women are by no means justified. The Liberal and Conservative Parties seek the support of the women, because they believe they can be bluffed. The Labour Party counts on the women’s support also, believing they now possess what the men have long possessed—political liberty—and that the moment has now come when woman will assert herself and strike a blow for social freedom. It is quite true, of course, that the employing class has always opposed any “rights” for women, probably actuated by fear that the labour market might suffer, and that, by and by, through a possible extended organisation on the part of men and women an end would come to class rule. Though their fears, at the present stage of working-class political education, are groundless, it was probably this aspect that the Liberal and Conservative Parties had in mind when they solicited the support of the enfranchised women. The mistake made by the Labour Party has been to assume that women were politically intelligent to a certain degree. They are not— for how can women be expected to attain a condition which men have not yet reached after years and years of agitation and education? The sad fact remains—the majority of men and women of the working-class are positively indifferent to the political an industrial welfare of their own class. Many there are—men and women—who have fought for years to improve the conditions under which workers live, and have given of their best to the end, that some day the workers would wake up and take what was rightly theirs. But ask them—has the task been an easy one? Have they perceived any tangible change in the workers’ attitude ? Have they received any encouragement even?

It might be asked—did the Socialist not see any usefulness in the extension of the franchise, since the vote is the only sensible weapon with which the working-class can emancipate itself? To which the Socialist might retort—the franchise for a great many years gave the males the power to effect any purpose, but so far it has been utilised to maintain their masters in political power. That means that workers have used their votes against their own interests. Why? Because of political ignorance. The vote is a mighty weapon, used intelligently. But in some respects it is like a razor—one can shave or cut one’s throat with it. So that the importance of the vote lies not in the securing of the vote itself, it is in the way it is used. What matters most is the recognition, by men and women alike, of their class position. That can come only by education and study along Socialist lines.

Much of the credit for the women’s “victory” has been claimed by those who support what is euphemistically termed the “women’s movement.” But a more obvious factor was a Government facing disaster. And when a Government, facing the probability of defeat, introduces complete enfranchisement, it can only be because they count on swelling the total number of votes to such an extent as to increase their chances of victory, knowing, as they do, that the already existing electorate is anything but politically wise.

It has been called “The Awakening of Women.” If that is true, then God help the men !

(To be continued.)


(Socialist Standard, September 1929)

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