Socialism and Woman’s Suffrage: why we are opposed

The Ultimate Object
At  the moment of writing there appears to be something of a lull in the militant suffragist movement; and, therefore, before our blood is once more made to creep by the harrowing stories of struggle and martyrdoms – so ably narrated by that institution of sweetness and light, the daily Press – perhaps neither time nor labour will be wasted in briefly studying the agitation for Woman’s Suffrage from the stand-point of Socialist philosophy.

It may be taken for granted that the mere attainment of the power to register a vote is not in itself the end aimed at, although there would seem to be a few deluded individuals who have conceived the brilliant idea that the vote, per se, is all that is necessary for the ushering in of the millennium, or some other equally vague Utopia. However, a glance through the columns of such periodicals as The Vote or Votes for Women will show that the ultimate object on which the efforts of the Suffragists are concentrated is, according to the writers in these literary productions, the total emancipation of women from the thraldom (!) of the male sex. The Woman’s Suffrage movement is, in effect, a struggle between the sexes, and is therefore more or less anarchical in character. Now while the writer has no objection to propertied women (the Mrs. Pethwick Lawrences and Lady Constance Lyttons) squabbling with their male relatives and friends, or indulging in the intellectual pastime of mobbing Mr. Asquith or knocking off inoffensive policemen’s helmets (any more than he objects to the Liberal and Tory parties playfully fighting with one another over the Budget or the Lord’s Veto), yet it becomes altogether another story when it is seen that a section of the working class (and a very large and important section) is being beguiled into believing that the necessity of agitating for the vote is of the utmost importance. What is of the utmost importance is that the working-class women, inside and outside the various suffrage societies, whose time, money and sympathy are asked for (and often obtained) by the leaders and organisers of these societies, should be in a position to understand the real facts of the case.

Lessons from the Past
During the French Revolution the proletariat of France were used unsparingly by the French bourgeoisie to help overthrow the remnants of feudalism and then, when that object was attained, were themselves thrown contemptuously aside by their bourgeois compatriots. A very similar thing is happening in the present movement for Women’s Suffrage. The women of the working class are being used for the our purpose of obtaining a limited suffrage in the interests of propertied women, and when that is accomplished there is not one iota of doubt that they will be thrown on one side with the same contumely that was meted out of their French fellow-victims something over a century ago.

Women of the working class are led to believe that the possession of the franchise (even when it is intended that they should possess it) will enable them – by means of Parliamentary representation – to pass such measures of reform as will ameliorate in no small degree their present economic position. We should like to hear what measures of reform these may be.

On the question of Wages
Let us consider what would happen if a measure were passed through Parliament making all women “economically independent of men” (if that were possible under capitalism). The unmarried women and the married women without “encumbrances” engaged as wage-workers would remain in very much the same position as now. The claim is often put forward by advocates for the “economic emancipation of women”, that following upon this alteration in the status of women their rate of wages as workers would inevitably tend to rise. Doubtless there would be this tendency, but it does not at all follow that the standard of living prevalent among women of the working class, or among the working class as a whole, would be improved thereby. Most women are at present able to accept a wage lower than their actual cost of subsistence, because they have a legal or sentimental claim on their male relatives – their husbands, or fathers, or brothers, as the case may be. But with the political and economic equality of men and women these claims would cease to operate, and this in itself would necessitate an increase in the wages paid to women, to enable them to exist as workers. With this increase, however, would come a corresponding fall in the wages paid to the male section of society, the extra amount previously paid to men and used by them to eke out the scanty wages of their wives, or daughters, or sisters, being no longer absolutely necessary. Thus the increase obtained by one section of the working class would be balanced by the decrease in the wages of the other section, and the working-class position as a whole would not be altered for the better.

The State as Parent
We hear a great deal of what is known as “The State Endowment of Motherhood”, which is considered by many Suffragists as an inevitable outcome of the economic independence of married women. Superficially it may be a fine conception, but examination of its meaning and results speedily shows its intolerable impertinence towards the class on which it is to be thrust. The State endowment of motherhood would bring with it the State maintenance of children. It is hardly conceivable that the father would be allowed to perform more than the masculine functions absolutely necessary for the propagation of the child. After that his duties would be finished, and the future rearing and training of the child – until he or she was ready for his or her onerous position as a wage-worker or child-bearer – would be in the hands of the State-endowed mother and other servants of the State. Of course, it is possible that the father (if he were an honest, hard-working, God-fearing person) would be allowed the privilege of visiting his children so many times a year, although this might be – and quite logically might be – denied him and his child entirely withheld from him. Presumably the mother would be expected to care for the child during its early years, and would be paid by the State for so doing. It would follow that the wages of the male section of the working class would decrease upon the introduction of official maternity. The cost of reproducing the labour-power necessary for the upkeep of capitalism in the next generation would now be borne by the State, and the working man’s wages would not require to be so large as when he had a wife and family to provide for besides himself. The wages of the section of the working class immediately engaged in industry would still remain on the average at or about the amount necessary for reproducing the labour-power required by the capitalist class.

Breeding for Points
To come back to the State endowed mothers. Whether the endowment would apply to propertied women does not affect the question. As Socialists and members of the working class we are only concerned with the working-class conditions. The State officials specially engaged in dealing with this question of the endowment of maternity – it must be remembered that their main object would be, in common with the object of all State officialdom, the conservation of the existing capitalist regime – would not be likely to expend the money entrusted to their keeping without being pretty sure of an adequate return. No one with any intelligence expects the State suddenly to conceive an overwhelming desire for philanthropic enterprise. This being so, it would seem only logical to suppose that the State would take under its care the entire breeding and rearing of the children. The men and women among the working class best suited from a capitalist standpoint for propagating the species would be chosen (what would happen to the remainder on reaching maturity [they would not, of course, be allowed to mate indiscriminately] may be left to the imagination); the various processes of generation would be under the supervision of the State Department authorised to deal with this function; the child would in early youth be under the care of the State-endowed and State-supervised mother, and would indisputably then be entirely taken charge of by the State through its agents, who would rear and educate it in accordance with the best capitalist traditions of the efficiency necessary for its entry into wagedom.

Many questions  might be asked in regard to this. For example, does the endowment of the mother (or rather, the potential mother) commence at the time of the union of the man and woman or are the wages of the mother to be paid by results? Suppose that by some unforeseen circumstance the result of the union is nil, what becomes of the woman? Would the production of sickly child be paid for at the same time as the production of a healthy one?

Strange as it may appear to some enthusiastic advocates for the Economic Emancipation (so-called!) of Women and its concomitant, the State Endowment of Motherhood, the ideal put forward above is not one that appeals particularly to us. Possibly our point of view is somewhat different from that of such strenuous Eugenists as Dr. Saleeby and Miss Murby (to mention two of many). But really it is hardly thinkable that the proposed Eugenist method of breeding and rearing the children of the working class, very much in the same way that cattle are bred and reared on stock-farms, is one that will altogether command itself to the more intelligent working-class man and woman, however beneficial its results might be from a capitalist standpoint.

The agitation for Woman’s Suffrage as at present constituted is one that depends for its success upon the increasing antagonism between the sexes. Instead of the political and economic separation of men and women, we, as Socialists, want a closer political and economic union; we want the organisation of men and women, not in opposite camps, but in one world-wide body, out for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth, which alone can give economic emancipation to the workers of the world, male and female. The oft-quoted lines by Tennyson (who by some unaccountable means did occasionally say something that was worth saying):

“The woman’s cause is man’s: they rise or sink
Together, dwarf’d or godlike, bond or free”;

apply with irresistible force to the working class. The education of women in the principles of Socialism is equally important with that of men. The influence of women could be of inestimable service to the cause of Socialism. As mothers they have at their disposal many opportunities (many more than the fathers) of counteracting the pernicious doctrines and formulas of so-called “respectability” and contentment inculcated into the susceptible minds of the children by the priests and the educational authorities.

There is little doubt that many women are now taking a much greater interest in political and economic questions than hitherto, and the number of them so doing is daily increasing. The development of capitalism, in throwing upon the labour market the labour-power of an ever-growing number of women, may bring in its train the political representation of, at least, some women of the working class. In the near future by political action, and now and at all times by Socialist propaganda in their homes, women could and should be of incalculable value in aiding and forwarding the work in which the Socialist Party is engaged. This must be the apology – if apology is needed – for the above article.

(Socialist Standard, July 1910)

Leave a Reply