What is women’s liberation?

Women are not inferior to men. They are quite capable of participating to the same extent as men both in the production of wealth and in the general running of social affairs. That they do not do so today is not due to any inherent disability but to their having been denied the same opportunities as men to acquire the skills needed for such participation. This may seem to be stating the obvious, especially in the columns of a socialist publication, but there is a widespread popular prejudice, reflecting itself in discriminatory practices, which denies this.

An increasing number of women have come to resent and oppose this prejudice and discrimination in a movement which has become known as Women’s Liberation — misleadingly since this suggests that the disappearance of these anti-women prejudices and practices would amount to the liberation of women. Which would be far from being the case as all the demands of the women’s movement, even the most radical, are compatible with capitalism and in fact amount to no more than demanding the creation of conditions that would permit women to compete on the labour-market with men.

The capitalist state has long accepted equality of women with regard to the vote and property ownership and has recently legislated to try to ensure equality over wages, recruitment, promotion, pensions and social security. Socialists, who understand how the economic laws of capitalism function, have doubts about how effective legislation can be in ensuring equality of wages as long as the quality of the labour power of many women is impaired by the discrimination they suffered when they were brought up and educated. In these circumstances to force employers to pay equal wages for unequal labour powers can only lead to them choosing not to employ the poorer quality — to increased unemployment amongst women.

Paying “wages” for housework (presumably by the state) would come up against the same economic laws of capitalism and lead to a reduction in wages generally since the wage of a man with children at present includes an element for maintaining the family. If this were paid directly by the state then the employer would no longer have to pay it. This was long a trade union objection to family allowances which, now that they are paid direct to the mother, are a sort of “wage” for housework.

It is a recognition of this harsh economic fact that the skills of many women are at present inferior to those of many men that has led some sections of the women’s movement to go even further and challenge the way women are brought up and educated. They complain that, from the earliest age, girls are taught to consider themselves as the “weaker sex” and to concern themselves with activities connected with the home rather than with more outward-looking activities reserved for boys.

Of course this handicap is not insurmountable and many women have overcome it but it still remains an obstacle which results in women being at a disadvantage with men when competing on the labour-market. On the other hand, it leads to women accepting jobs that are more like the activities they were brought up to consider a women’s role such as teaching, nursing and being secretaries, thus reinforcing the prejudice that it is only these jobs that women are capable of doing.

It is in this sense that some sections of the women’s movement are quite logical, in terms of the aim of achieving equality of opportunity for women to compete with men, in directing their criticisms against the way in which girls are at present brought up. But however radical their proposals in this connection may be — and they involve a complete revision of all children’s books and even nursery rhymes — these still remain compatible with capitalism.

The same goes for other demands like challenging the necessity of a woman taking her husband’s name on marriage and the replacement of “Mrs” and “Miss” by a common “Ms”. There is in fact no way in which the current practices can be rationally defended once the premise that woman are human beings in their own right who should enjoy the same treatment as men is accepted, but who would argue that their abolition would pose a threat to capitalism?

Another of the handicaps women face when competing with men in the labour-market is their biological nature as child-bearers which requires them, whenever they have children, to withdraw from working for wages for a while. The women’s movement proposes as the solution here the provision of more nurseries including at the place of work; to which neither employers nor the capitalist state have any objection in principle and which they are often prepared to provide, even if as inadequately as all so- called “social services” under capitalism.

The demand of the more radical sections of the women’s movement for “free contraception” and “free abortion on demand” is also in the end a proposal to overcome this handicap to equal competition. For, if implemented, one of its aims would be to permit women, like men, to engage in sex without having to worry about their wages career being unexpectedly interrupted by having to bear children.

To say that the demands of the women’s movement are compatible with capitalism is not to say that these demands are not worth having (especially those concerning the treatment of women as equal human beings), but is to answer those who mistakenly argue that these demands are inherently anti-capitalist and that the women’s movement is therefore somehow implicitly socialist.

Capitalism is a system of society based on the exploitation of wage and salary earners for a profit. All wealth, including that portion which under capitalism takes the form of profits, is produced by the application of human labour power to Nature-given materials. The more productive workers are, the more profits they can produce. This is why capitalism as an economic system is not interested in the language or the skin colour or the sex of workers; it is interested only in their productive capacity.

Capitalist employers are now coming to realise that discrimination against women denies them a huge source of productive talent which they could be using to increase their profits; how many women who would make good mechanics, engineers or scientists are denied the opportunity to work in these fields because of out-dated prejudices and practices inherited from the patriarchal societies that preceded capitalism (and which capitalism was itself in its early days when family businesses were the predominant form) and from the religious dogmas that went with them?

This is why modern capitalism could easily tolerate, in fact would positively welcome, equality of opportunity for women in the labour-market. It could also tolerate even the radical changes in family structures that achieving this fully would have to involve. Despite the dubiously scientific psychology of those who argue with Wilhelm Reich that capitalism requires the patriarchal family in order to breed the authoritarian and repressed personalities needed to prevent people challenging it, capitalism could — and does — accept what used to be called “free unions” in which the man and woman don’t bother to get a licence from the state or church to live together and in which they treat each other as equal partners. Indeed the vast majority of those who practice this — which of course will be the basis of relations between the sexes in socialism — are not socialists but supporters of capitalism and even members of the capitalist class itself.

Capitalism, in other words, could “liberate” women if “liberation” is to be restricted to meaning the equal treatment of women with men on the labour-market and, as a condition for this, in the home too. If this is seen as a step forward for women even within capitalism, it does not represent the real liberation of women.

If we accepted that it is then we would have to accept that men — or rather, to be precise, those men, the great majority, who are forced to work for a wage or salary to gain a living, the men of the working class — are already liberated. Which denies that capitalism is a system based on the exploitation and oppression of the working class in which the producers are wage slaves in the sense that they are economically dependent on the class of capitalist employers to whom they must sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. The implementation of the full programme of the women’s movement would leave women equal wage slaves with men.

Real liberation for the women and men of the working class can only be achieved through the establishment of socialism — by the conversion of the means of production and distribution into common property under the democratic control of the whole community. On this basis the wages system — working for an employer for a wage or salary — would be abolished and the production and distribution of wealth proceed on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. Women and men would cooperate with each other in order to produce an abundance of wealth to which they would then individually have free access according to need. Individual free access for all members of society, including women and children, to consumer goods and services will put an end once and for ever to the economic dependence of women on men and of children on parents which so poisons relationships today.

In socialism women would participate equally in the running of every aspect of social life. An equality of women with men is, we have argued, theoretically compatible with capitalism but it would then only be an equality in wage slavery, leaving untouched the fundamental inequality between the women and men of the capitalist class on the other. Women’s equality will only acquire real meaning in socialism where all humanity would be liberated, freed from the economic slavery of the wages system and from the inevitably anti-human operation of capitalism and its production for profit. This is why we argue that real “women’s liberation’’ can only be achieved as part of the general human liberation that the establishment of socialism will bring.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain does not support the women’s movement nor advocate its demands, not because we are necessarily opposed to the demands but because it is our general policy not to advocate reforms of capitalism however desirable they may seem.

As a matter of fact we agree entirely with the philosophy behind the women’s movement that women are not inferior to men and should be treated as equal human beings. This is an integral part of the socialist case, dating from the early part of the 19th century when the Utopian Socialists were amongst the pioneers of women’s equality.

So we don’t advocate women’s equality under capitalism because we don’t advocate reforms of any kind. And we don’t advocate reforms because we don’t want to attract the support of people who merely want to reform some aspect or other of capitalism. History has shown that parties which try to combine advocating reforms with advocating socialism end up by becoming reformist organisations which forget altogether about socialism.

If we were to advocate equality for women under capitalism we would run the risk of attracting the support of those who wanted this change without wanting socialism. That this would be a real danger can be seen from our demonstration above that not one of the demands of the women’s movement is incompatible with capitalism. To the extent of course that we succeed in propagating socialist ideas we combat prejudice and discrimination against women under capitalism, since becoming a socialist involves among other things discarding such prejudices and practices. The spread of socialist ideas under capitalism will thus help breakdown prejudice and discrimination against women. But it will also pave the way towards the establishment of socialism which will, in the words of Clause Four of our Declaration of Principles, mean the “emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex”.


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