50 Years Ago: The Problem of Unemployed Women
On July 22 the Daily News published the report of an interview with Professor Patrick Geddes, in the course of which he said, “a coming discount of women is imminently threatened, and is indeed in accelerating progress”.
The same newspaper then asked Miss Margaret Bondfield, Secretary to the Federation of Women Workers, for her views on Professor Geddes’ remarks. Miss Bondfield confirmed them and proceeded to show where she believes the remedies lie. “To perpetuate the idea that marriage is the sole aim of woman’s life”, she said, “is to court disaster. Many hundreds of thousands of women must make up their minds that there can be no marriage at the end for them. They must therefore be trained to take a real interest in their career”.
Miss Bondfield suggests “social work” as an outlet, particularising child welfare, maternity work and administration. This is her way of meeting the emotional case. For the economic: “One thing is vital—our young people must be sent back to school to learn discipline. The wickedest crime of the government has been the shutting down of educational facilities and the curtailing of continuation school education at the present time, especially when unemployment is so bad. These young women are thus thrown upon the world unprepared. If it costs millions they must be sent back to school”.
Hitherto in the history of capitalism employers have encouraged the presence of women in the labour market; they constituted an abundant supply of cheap labour-power. But with the rising wages of women consequent upon improving organisation, and the falling wages of men resultant from widespread unemployment, the preference is rapidly being transferred to men.
And what value have Miss Bondfield’s remedies? Suppose the fullest use of her Committee what can it accomplish? It can ensure that women shall compete on equal terms with men for such jobs as are to be filled. But since in its normal workings capitalist production never needs all the labour-power that offers itself, and since what it does need is relatively a diminishing quantity, all that the Committee can do is to change the personnel of the army of unemployed: substitute some hungry men for some hungry women, incidentally providing the master-class with better trained, more serviceable material and even of this excellent thing one can have too much, the employers think: do they need Miss Bondfield to point out the virtue of ‘instrument at hand’? Since it would appear that there is no lack of workers sufficiently well trained to do what is required of them, and no near prospect of such a lack, the shutting down of educational facilities is a measure of praiseworthy economy, from the capitalist point of view.