Where Women’s Liberation fails
At the beginning of this century women had a life expectation of only about 45 years; women passed their prime in reproduction and the main cause of death in the 25-to-35 age group was childbirth. Now marriages tend to start at a younger age and women are able to exercise some choice over the size of their families. The Pill has not led to a postponement of maternity; in fact the tendency is for babies to be born at the beginning of marriage. This means that a mother may now have some forty years in front of her when the youngest child starts school.
Still, for most girls, getting married and having a family is considered sufficient ambition and this is reflected in their education. Three times more girls than boys leave school at the age of 15, and 75 per cent. of all 18-year-old girls do not receive any higher education or training. Household chores are easier now than they were even twenty years ago, even if we do not have all of the latest labour saving gadgets. Whether housework is menial or not may be open to argument but it is certainly not a lifetime’s vocation.
Work and Wages
Unfortunately, most wives cannot take advantage of easier housework and less time involved with infants. Those in the Women’s Liberation movement may decide whether or not married women gain some advantage from taking part in socially productive work, but for most of us the discussion is hardly relevant. For despite the myth that women work outside the home in order just to find companionship, or escape from the boredom of housework, in this consumer-orientated society there is no real choice. How else can the family take a holiday, buy that modern home equipment or simply make ends meet? One might also ask just what the “starlight” shift, popular with mothers of young children, does for companionship in the home.
Selma James is among those who have seen through the notion that women gain some kind of liberation by working outside the home as well as in it. However her suggested demand in her pamphlet Women, the Unions and Work for “wages for housework” seems a little naive. Wages are the price for which workers sell their labour power. That price will be generally sufficient to keep a worker, and his family, at a socially accepted standard. Payment made for housework, like family allowances or free transport, would act as a brake on wages. When a wife first takes a job there may be an improvement in the family living standard but her income soon becomes an integral part of the family budget.
Question of Cash
But when it is only the husband’s income which endeavours to meet the family expenses it is hardly surprising that conflicts arise about just how, or by whom, the money should be spent.
“It is a class thing, really, money is power in a husband-wife relationship where there is only one weekly wage packet”: according to Mr. Nicholas Tindall, of the National Marriage Guidance Council. (The Sun, 16.10.72)
In her pamphlet, Selma James makes a comment about a woman earning enough money “to avoid having to degrade herself by asking her husband for money for tights”, which speaks volumes on the blighting effect that money can have on personal relationships. The decision to supplement the family income, or achieve a degree of financial independence, means joining the majority of working women who are used as “little better than cheap labour, doing low-grade repetitive jobs, with rates of pay to match.” (TV Times)
Women are conditioned and, for the most part, educated for stop-gap jobs —to fill in time until getting married — and yet they form 38 per cent. of the work force. More than half of the women who go out to work are married. Many women accept the idea of getting lower pay than men and in the past few of them have joined unions. Out of 9 million working women only two million are union members.
Complaints about the type of work available to women give the impression that all male work is skilled, creative and interesting; that men do not get involved with their children or ever give help (unpaid) in the home. Of course the constant round of childcare and housework can be frustrating but what do most men, and women, get out of their employment? Only the pay packet (or salary cheque)!
Dissatisfaction with women’s rôle in society has led to some discussion of the shortcomings of the social system itself, but what a pity most members of the Women’s Liberation movement seem prepared to settle for so little. The movement, which began in this country in the late sixties, is broadly based and lacks a coherent policy. Emphasis is placed on the continuous development of ideas supposedly by learning through struggle.
Struggle for what? Despite the use of much revolutionary-styled rhetoric, members of the movement essentially seek equality with men in capitalism. When men and women compete for jobs on equal terms and the Equal Pay Act (1970) is fully implemented, plus, of course, the provision of more nursery education and free contraception, their aims will be achieved.
For women to join in one organisation because they are women is about as logical as the idea that all black people have common cause because they are black. The oppression of different groupings within the working class varies in intensity and in form. It is this variation which tends to mask the common factor which applies to all of the groups: women bringing up children alone, immigrants, the homeless, pensioners, etc., etc.
The Working Class
The common denominator which applies to about 90 per cent. of the population is their alienation from the means of production. The only viable definition of the term “working class” includes all those who, because they possess only their ability to work, must sell their mental and physical energies to an employer in return for money (wages or salary). It makes no difference whether the price for their labour and job-status is high or low. The class which owns the factories, land etc. is at an opposite pole. Its members do not need to compete for jobs. Not even for better-paid jobs in management, administration and the professions. Neither will old age or lack of employment throw them on the Social Security scrapheap.
Justification for an autonomous women’s movement is largely based on giving women’s claims priority over the achievement of Socialism, even where it is the alleged aim.
Marx and Engels both saw that when women took a decisive part in large-scale production, and were only occupied by domestic chores to a minor degree, their emancipation became feasible and that furthermore the foundation was laid for “a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes”. They plainly knew that, though the pre-conditions for the emancipation of working-class men and women have been met within capitalism, we cannot in fact be set free without a revolutionary change to Socialism. This revolution the world has yet to see.
What will the position of women be in Socialist society?
When the means for production are the common property of the worldwide community, production for use will have replaced the outmoded system of market production. We will contribute to the well-being of society as free individuals and will, without exception, have free access to those goods and services required to fulfil our own needs. (Wages for housework! Who wants wages?)
Though we cannot know exactly what form the family will take, we can say that the “nuclear” family will no longer be the economic unit of society. Men and women will live together because they mutually wish to do so, the bonds between them and their children being neither legal nor financial. Children will be a social responsibility and even a chance pregnancy will not be cause for alarm.
The working class is already armed I with the only weapon a politically- aware majority will need to abolish capitalism and replace it with Socialism. Whether or not we are in unions, or in employment, we have the vote!
A Single Aim
Women’s Liberation is yet another movement dividing the working class. This time with the absurd notion that female oppression is caused by male domination, while in fact but a special aspect of human oppression under capitalism. Even when the end of capitalism is recognised as the only demand “not co-optable” it is dismissed in favour of a reformist struggle.
“The movement is largely anti-capitalist and as such assumes the distortion of everybody’s life and potential today. But such generalities are moral, not political, and though everyone wants liberation for all (men and women) this cannot but be Utopianism unless at this stage, we organise around specific oppressions.” (Women’s Estate, by Juliet Mitchell, p. 58)
We in the Socialist Party of Great Britain have but one object because the demand for Socialism is of itself a call to end specific oppressions. The demand for Socialism is of itself a protest against war, against poverty and against the frustration of millions of lives only half lived. But more than that, the demand for Socialism recognizes that we can only solve these problems by ending the social system which causes them.
We will not settle for less.