Women and Socialism
The following is made up of two extracts from the Socialist Party’s latest pamphlet which examines women’s role in society, the weaknesses of feminist theory and how socialism will be a society without distinction or inequalities based on sex.
From her earliest years the female child is conditioned into a ‘feminine’ role: she is likely to be dressed in ‘pretty’ clothes encouraged to play quietly with dolls or to ‘help mummy’ with the household chores. Her brother, meanwhile, will be dressed in clothes appropriate to the rough-and-tumble games considered normal for little boys; he will be given cars, trains, and other toys that require manual dexterity and technical skills. He will be praised for being clever, brave and strong, his sister for being pretty, good and quiet. These ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles, instilled in early childhood, will then be further reinforced throughout life regardless of whether or not they suit the personality or preferences of the people concerned. Even if in later life there is a conscious attempt to overcome this early conditioning and to break out of the stereotyped roles, it may leave scars: thus the woman who rejects motherhood and hopes instead for a ‘career’ may feel that she is forced to adopt the ‘other’, masculine role and become the hard-nosed businesswoman. Likewise, the woman who attempts to combine both full-time paid work and motherhood may feel guilty because she is neglecting her first responsibility to her children. For men too, early socialisation into a ‘masculine’ role may create difficulties in later life: some men become locked into the ‘tough’ role. This leaves them incapable of expressing themselves emotionally and fearful of allowing the gentler sides of their characters to emerge in case they are labelled ‘soft’. Men generally seek status and a sense of personal fulfilment through their work; as a result, when unemployed, they frequently experience a sense of having failed because they are not fulfilling the role for which they have been psychologically prepared throughout their lives.
As the child progresses through the education system, she or he is exposed to further pressures to conform to stereotyped gender roles. For example, boys are more likely to be encouraged to do sciences and girls to do arts. Boys take more and higher examinations – after all they will, in theory, spend a large part of the rest of their lives in paid employment where qualifications are an important means of ‘getting on’, i.e. earning more or getting a more interesting job. For girls this is felt to be of less importance since it is still widely believed that most girls will eventually get married, that this will be their ‘career’ and any paid work they do outside the home will be secondary. Besides, much women’s employment is unskilled and low paid and so does not require any formal qualifications.
Adolescence brings with it more pressures to conform to what is considered to be natural. The teenage girl is intent on attracting the opposite sex and learns that to do this she should model herself closely on the image of what is currently deemed to be beautiful – she must be the right size and shape, wear the right clothes and use the right make-up. These images confront the young woman from advertising hoardings and stare up at her from the pages of glossy magazines and from television screens. The message is unambiguous: ‘Come on girls, look like us and men will find you irresistible. They’ll sweep you off your feet and carry you away to true love and happiness!’
With the approach of adulthood and entry into the labour market, boys and girls are again likely to find their respective opportunities circumscribed. Many young women will go into the ‘caring’ professions like nursing, teaching and social work. They are well suited for these by virtue of their early social training. Many more women, however, will enter low-paid, unskilled or semi-skilled work in manufacturing and offices. Despite recent Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay legislation a sexual division of labour continues to exist and on the few occasions when that divide is crossed we read about it in the newspapers (the first woman judge, crane driver, astronaut, etc.).
The nature of much women’s work – the fact that it is often carried on in isolation from other workers and is subject to interruption for child-bearing – is such that women are frequently not in trade unions and therefore lack the necessary muscle and organisation to enable them to protect their pay and working conditions Many trade unions have been historically reluctant to admit women members or to take action on their behalf. Sexism can still be found within the trade union movement. Also, for many women, to enter the world of trade union activity is to enter a world where it is necessary to be assertive and vociferous, types of behaviour which are not encouraged in women and from which many women shy away.
For the woman worker, marriage and children bring new roles and new problems. Most women continue in paid work out of financial necessity after their marriage and will return to work as soon as it is possible after having children, provided they can find child-minders. But now they have the additional burden of caring for their home and family on top of work outside the home. The domestic chores of childcare, cleaning, cooking and shopping are still generally considered to be the woman’s responsibility, even where the man does ‘help’ around the house. For the woman who does not go out to work, small children are not the most stimulating of companions if they are the only people you see for most of the day. That ‘dream house’ on a modern housing estate can quickly turn into a nightmarish prison for the young mother who is forced to stay there all day. It is no wonder that so many women prefer the companionship of the factory production line despite the boring nature of the work.
As her family grows, so will the demands made on the woman’s emotional and physical energies. Her life is likely to be spent almost entirely in the service of others – employer, husband, children – until in middle-age with the approach of retirement, her children having left home, she is left without a role. Small wonder that some women of this age become depressed unless they are able to pick up the threads of their own lives again or find themselves usefully re-employed looking after their children’s children so that their daughters can go out to work.
Clearly this is only a generalised picture of women’s lives today. Not all women experience all these aspects of sexism. But most women have experienced at least some.
Now let us imagine something different. Let us imagine that our children have been born instead into a society where life is not organised around the need to produce goods for profit but where people co-operate freely, irrespective of sex, to produce the things they need in such a way that everyone contributes what she or he is able. In such a society children, both boys and girls, are given adequate opportunities to develop their skills and abilities, whatever these might be, without consideration of what is or is not ‘natural’. Thus girls who show an aptitude for, say, metalwork are encouraged in this direction while a boy who shows an interest in the care of young children has the opportunity to participate in that. Education is organised not on the basis of competition and the acquisition of a narrow range of skills of use to the labour-market but rather as a continuing and life-long experience of giving and receiving skills and knowledge which enable people to pursue whatever kind of life they think most likely to result in their own happiness.
Work in this kind of society – socialism – will not be wage-slavery. People will not have to sell their energies to the minority who own the means of production and distribution – the factories, offices, transport systems, shops, etc. – in return for a wage or salary. In socialism – a society based on common ownership – people will co-operate to produce those things which they need as a community- useful things, which will be freely available to all members of society. With the profit motive removed, men and women will be able to choose their work in accordance with their talents, skills and preferences, contributing as much or as little as they feel able. The criterion for choosing one kind of activity rather than another will no longer be which one pays the most, has the best perks, the best prospects for promotion or the most job security. All these considerations will be obsolete in a moneyless socialist world. Work will no longer be the activity we do to obtain the wage packet or salary which enables us to survive.
In socialism women will not be forced to choose between children and paid employment or to work out unhappy compromises between the two. Children will no longer be seen as the sole responsibility of the mother or even of both parents, but of the community as a whole. Women, if they wish, will be relieved of having to care for small children twenty-four hours a day, freeing them to pursue other interests as well as being mothers. Men too, freed from the tyrannical demands of wage-slavery, will be better placed to participate equally in the raising of children. Those men and women who care for children in socialist society will do so because they want to. Socialism will have no need for marriage in the sense of the property relation which, in essence, it is.
Men and women will not be bound together by pre-determined roles and notions of what is or is not ‘natural’, or out of economic necessity. Rather they will be free to enter into relationships which are suited to the emotional needs of the particular individuals concerned.
In capitalism because of the need for the ruling class to protect its own interests against the opposing interests of the workers, the majority have very little say in the decision-making process – in central government, at local level, or at work. In socialism, however, each individual will be able to participate fully in the making of the decisions which affect their lives. Democracy in socialism will not be the sham that it is in capitalism but a meaningful process which recognises the worth of everyone and through which people will be able to contribute fully to society in accordance with their particular skills, knowledge or experience. And in this women and men will be recognised as equal.
In capitalism the world is divided into nation-states, reflecting the territorial interests of the capitalist class. This is the cause of patriotism, nationalism, and futile wars in which the working class are sent to be killed themselves, or kill other workers in order to protect the interests of their masters. Socialism will be a world-wide system without arbitrary and divisive distinctions between one area of the world and another.
Socialism will include the liberation of women as part of its project of human emancipation. This will not come about in an automatic or inevitable way. A political organisation whose object is socialism cannot permit sexism within its ranks on the grounds that nothing can be done now and that the problem will be resolved ‘after the revolution’. For a political organisation to be credible, it must embody the attitudes, values and practices that it seeks to institute in society at large. Socialists believe that all people, men and women, are equally worthy of respect – and the Socialist Party of Great Britain includes in its Declaration of Principles, and has done since 1904, the following clause:
. . as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
Copies of this pamphlet can be obtained from the Literature Department, SPGB, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4. Price 55p post paid.