The much-vaunted freedom for most women is largely a myth, and women are only taking the position that capitalism assigns to them. The question of women’s freedom resolves itself into exactly the same problem as that of the men. Socialists argue from the basic fact that capitalism's private property relationships and class division are the cause of the oppression of both men and women.
For the materialist, there is no blanket exploitation of women by men. The subordination of one sex to another was coincident with the division of society into classes. Prior to the beginning of civilisation - the period of written history — there existed primitive communist societies in which nobody was afforded superior status. The period from primitive communism to the beginning of civilisation saw the growth of taboos, first on child-parent relationships and then on those between brother and sister, culminating in the 'pairing' family. Monogamy, however, arose as a consequence of social evolution. This form of family, based as it is on the supremacy of the man, arises alongside the advent of private property. Women's biological commitment to childbearing meant that it tended to be the man who acquired property and instruments of production, and once men had these things they wanted to keep them. So the monogamous family has as its aim the begetting of children of undisputed paternity and women's role is essentially a childbearing one. So, to quote Engels: 'The first class antagonism which appears in history (it begins at civilisation) coincides with the development of the antagonism between men and women in monogamous marriage and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male'.
It should be emphasised once more that we are not talking of a consistent oppression of one sex by another. In the early stages of capitalism, for example, women enjoyed certain rights and privileges which they later lost. In early 17th century Britain, where some production was still organised in accordance with guild regulations, women in certain trades were protected against male competition. These rights often related to the work of women in the household, for at that stage domestic and industrial work were not clearly distinct. 'Spinster' meant not an old maid, but a woman who supported herself by spinning; a 'brewster' was a woman who supported herself by brewing beer. Moreover, in spite of Puritanism, women were not thought of as sexually inferior, as is borne out by this 17th-century proverb: 'Women are saints in the church, angels in the street, devils in the kitchen and apes in bed'.
With the increases in the productivity of labour and with changes in the organisation of production these protective features disappeared. The wives of those who owned property were educated to please men, while those who were married to wage slaves simply cooked and looked after the children. The man's wage sufficed to maintain his family as well as to reproduce his own labour power. Then, in the 19th century, when capitalism began to need a greater workforce, part of the worst exploited sections of the working class was composed of women. Being physically weaker and previously out of work, they provided a cheap source of labour. In Capital Marx cites the case of a milliner who died from overwork (she laboured sixteen and a half hours a day in 1863). He further mentions that women were used instead of horses for hauling canal boats because:
labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known
quantity, whereas that required to maintain the woman is below all
The capitalist nonetheless needs labour power—he cannot have part of the workforce dying off. So these extreme conditions were altered and laws were passed improving the conditions of the working class.
Class society, then, creates the conditions for women's inferior treatment. If the wives of the property-owning class are restricted to the home, it is all too easy for the men to reap the benefits. For the same reason, the working man's wage must suffice for himself and for his family. Whatever form the subordination of women has assumed, it is a consequence of the class division of society; in the case of capitalism, the division between owners and non-owners of the means of producing wealth. Before the advent of class society there was no reason for one sex to treat the other as inferior because there were no owners and non-owners of property, and therefore no need for competition.
It is important to point out that there are female members of the exploiting class. Working class women, by contrast, share with others in their class the condition of wage slavery. Whichever form it takes, whether it is real prostitution or working on the assembly line, they have to sell part of themselves — their labour power — in order to live. As Marx put it: Prostitution is only the specific form of the universal prostitution of the working class'.
Women ought to be criticising capitalism and working for socialism, a class-free society of common ownership. In such a society there is no reason to suppose that women will have to become men or men women.
World development has decreed that women shall play a part that is in keeping with the conditions under which they live, and to the women who do not own property this means that under capitalism they will be as much wage-slaves as their brothers. There can be no freedom for the workers, men or women, while they are exploited. Working-class women have an historic mission to perform with their men. There is no time for entering into things that concern the masters only. Let the property holders equalise the holding and sharing of their property between the sexes if they like. It matters not if our employers are men or women, but it does matter a great deal wheher we ourselves understand our class interests. The emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex, and that is the only cause worthy of our support.
The suffering and abuse of women is inseparable the social system in which we live. Socialists are optimists. We insist that the mess that is human society to-day can be changed if we all decide to change it. We made it, no demented divine power ordered it from above, so we can think it out and get it right. There is little value in diagnosis without a cure, but the cure has to come from awareness of the cause of the disease. It has to come through growing dissatisfaction, leading to questioning and consciousness. The worker, the wife, the prostitute, all innocent but jointly responsible for their continuing exploitation, must resist and rebel. The cure is far simpler than the disease. We will dismiss all manifestations of poverty and control—wages, money, law and state—take down all the fences and establish one world where all the human race will share the good things that we have learned to make. Freed from the dictates of the law and the confines of convention, relationships between men and women will find harmony. Marriage and prostitution will have no meaning when people may work together, live together, love together in any way they choose.
Women have got to understand that political power must first be obtained by a socialist working class, who then will reorganise society on Socialist principles. The workers will be in possession of the fields, factories and workshops, and production will be for use and not profit. Those fit will work, and working time will be adjusted to the needs of the population. All will be entitled to what they need, providing it can be produced, and at a glance one can see that the economic ills we are suffering from must of necessity disappear.
There is only one organisation in this country which is working for these ends, and that is ourselves. We do not say "vote for us and we will do it for you." We simply tell you, first understand socialism and then send your representatives to Parliament to carry out your wishes. Knowing what you what, none could bamboozle you.
Women workers are in general less active politically because:.
Firstly, there are practical problems that prevent women from attending political meetings. Most meetings are held in the evening and many women have young children so going out to a meeting is likely to mean finding a babysitter, which is not always easy and often expensive. Socialist Party members should recognise this and wherever possible offer practical help (such as babysitting) to women with children who are prevented from attending Socialist Party meetings because of their child-care responsibilities.
Secondly, many women are, understandably, nervous about going out alone after dark. They may very well be put off going out to a meeting at night if they know they will have to go home afterwards. Again Socialist Party members should be prepared to help out by organising lifts home after meetings if members have cars, or by offering to walk with women who are scared.
Thirdly, many women have been taught from an early age that politics is part of the man's world outside the home, is nothing to do with them and has nothing to offer them. They may very well feel that their first concern is with their domestic responsibilities - the welfare of their children and the problems of trying to fit paid work around the needs of their families. So how can we persuade women workers that socialist politics is as much to do with them as it is with men?
We need to convince women that socialism will not just change the "public" sphere of things that go on outside the home but it will also affect the "private" sphere of family and child care in important ways as well. Socialism, unlike capitalism, will offer women workers not just a choice between paid drudgery outside the home and unpaid drudgery inside the home, but the possibility of doing whatever work or combination of work they themselves find fulfilling. Their role as mothers (if that is what they choose) will not be under-valued but will be recognised and respected. But fathers, and indeed other adults in the community, will also recognise that they have a responsibility for the welfare of children. So caring for children will no longer be seen as a burden, the responsibility of just one or two tired adults but as a joy to be shared in by everyone, male and female. So in very practical ways, socialism has a lot to offer women. We must therefore stress to women workers that while they are absolutely right to say that capitalist political parties have little to offer them, the Socialist Party offers them not only the chance to work together, as equals, with other like-minded workers in order to build a new socialist society, but also the possibility of a full and creative life in that new society. As socialists, we are not concerned with just one area of life - the male-dominated world of politics and politicians. All the conflicts and contradictions of capitalist society affect all of our lives.
Some women may be reluctant to become politically active because traditional sex-roles and conditioning into those roles have convinced them that to be assertive and to speak up for yourself is "unfeminine" and that women are "no good at that sort of thing". As a result, many women lack confidence in their own abilities and are terrified at the prospect of even asking a question at a public meeting. Party members should be aware of this problem (and of course many men may also be nervous) and take practical steps to give women support and to encourage them to take an active part in socialist activities. Some men still believe that so-called "women's issues" are trivial or marginal. They are not, and should not be treated as such. Issues to do with the family, child-care and sexuality are as important as those to do with waged work and affect us all in important ways. The Socialist Party does not make distinctions between men's interests and women's interests. Whether we are talking about child-care or factories these are issues that affect all workers, men and women.
It is vital that we get more women along to our meetings. Socialism is not just for and in the interests of men, and men certainly can't get socialism without women.
Mother Courage: "Poor folk got to have courage . . . Mere fact they bring kids into world shows they got courage."