Women and the struggle for socialism: It doesn’t have to be like this

Christine Thomas’ book outlines how inequalities and discrimination against women have not disappeared and women’s struggles must be bound up with wider class struggle to be successful. Read the complete book online here.


At the turn of the millennium we were promised that women’s equality was just around the corner – and to many it really did seem possible. We had travelled such a long way compared to our grandparents and even our parents’ generations.

Legally women had the same rights as men, girls were outperforming boys in school and the labour market was so transformed that in some countries women had become a majority of the workforce. Economic and social changes were undermining traditional ideas about men and women’s roles in society and significantly altering personal relations.

But scratch the surface and the old inequalities and discrimination had not disappeared. Despite laws against inequality, women’s wages in the more economically developed countries were still on average much lower than those of men. So most women continued to shoulder the main responsibility for childcare and housework, leaving them feeling exhausted, guilty and unfulfilled. Every week two women were dying as a result of domestic violence.

This was the reality for millions of women even before the worst economic crisis since the 1930s wreaked its havoc around the globe.

What consequences will the crisis and its aftermath have for women? Will the important changes that have already taken place withstand the effects of this dramatic new period or will the film of history begin to unwind? Are inequality, discrimination and oppression an inevitable part of our lives?

This book argues that it doesn’t have to be like this. It is true that discrimination and oppression have been in existence for thousands of years. However, as chapter one explains, women have not always been second-class citizens. For the majority of human history we lived in societies where this was not the case. Of course, our conditions of existence are worlds apart today. But if there was a time in the past when oppression did not exist then a future without it is also possible.

But how can we fight back? Should women try and transform themselves, should they try and alter men or is a fundamental change of the economic system needed? Should women fight on their own, together with other women or united with men? Can we change things bit by bit or is a more radical transformation necessary?

We attempt to briefly address all of these questions from a socialist and Marxist point of view and to dispel some of the confusion which surrounds the issue of women’s oppression today.

Part One traces the history of women’s oppression until the present day. It shows how oppression was connected to the emergence, around 10,000 years ago, of class-based societies in which the family became a basic social structure. It explains how capitalism, the dominant form of class society today, underpins and reinforces the problems which women still continue to face and how ending oppression is linked to ending capitalism and class society.

Part Two looks at how we can organise to fight for women’s liberation. It argues that it is important to fight for every improvement possible in the lives of women but, because of the way in which capitalism is structured and organised, real liberation cannot be achieved through gradual reform of the current system. A radical transformation of the way in which society is structured is needed. The main struggle is not one of women against men, or of women changing themselves, but of women organising and uniting with working class men to end capitalism and replace it with a socialist society.

Socialism would transform the lives of women and men. This book gives a glimpse of how life could be different and how another world free from discrimination, inequality and oppression is possible.

Part One: A history of women’s oppression

1. Have women always been oppressed?

“Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear and raise children.” (Martin Luther, 1531) (1)

For centuries biologically based arguments have been used to portray as ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’ inequality and the ‘division of labour’ between men and women – with women having responsibility for children and the family and men being the economic providers.

Today, most women would burst out laughing if they were told that they earn less money than men because they have broad hips, because their brains are smaller or because of their reproductive organs. Science and social attitudes have moved on! But, even in the 21st century, evolutionary psychologists tell us that ‘universal’ behaviours such as male promiscuity, rape and violence against women, and even men not ironing, are determined by our genes, which are the product of natural selection. The arguments may have become more ‘sophisticated’ but the idea that ‘biology is destiny’ has not disappeared.

In the 1970s, the women’s movement set itself the goal of challenging male dominance in all its forms and had an important effect on attitudes and social policy. But some radical feminist ideas were themselves rooted in biological differences between men and women – focusing on women’s ‘caring’ and ‘nurturing’ natures and men’s ‘violence’ and ‘aggression’. Other strands of feminism eschewed these more extreme forms of biological determinism. They concentrated instead on social structures – in particular patriarchy, which has many different definitions but can be summed up as the institutionalised dominance of women by men in society. But whether they focus on biology or social structures or a combination of both, most feminist theories view male supremacy as universal and having existed for all time, regardless of the economic basis of society. Socialists and Marxists, however, argue that the oppression which women experience today has not always existed but is rooted in the rise of societies based on private property and divided into classes – a process which began to take place around 10,000 years ago.

These differences might appear at first sight to be hair-splitting, with little relevance for the struggle today. But that is not the case. For socialists and Marxists, theory is a guide to action – to changing what is wrong with the world. If patriarchy exists as a social structure independent of class society, then the conclusion could be drawn that the main struggle, perhaps even the only struggle, that needs to be waged is one by women against men. This has in fact been the position of many feminists. Socialists and Marxists, however, view male dominance, both in its origin and in its current form, as intrinsically linked to the structures and inequalities of class society. The main struggle is therefore a class struggle, in which the struggles by women against their own specific oppression dovetail with those of the working class in general for a fundamental restructuring of society to end all inequality and oppression.

The origin of the family

The most famous Marxist contribution to the discussion of women’s oppression is the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which was written by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s closest political collaborator. Published in 1884, the ideas in this book were politically explosive – challenging not just the prevailing ideology about the roles of men and women in society but the whole social system itself.

In the Origin of the Family, Engels took the Marxist method of historical materialism and applied it to existing archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence to develop his revolutionary ideas on how and why women came to be oppressed and how they could be liberated. He argued that people’s social arrangements and the institutions, ideas and values in society are products of particular historical circumstances. So, for example, the family unit of male head of household and economically dependent wife and children was not, as existing capitalist ideology maintained, a natural, eternal and unchanging institution. Societies had existed where the ‘bourgeois family’, as it was known, had not been the basic unit of society – other social arrangements had predominated and women were not systematically oppressed.

When the economic basis of society changes, wrote Engels – when new methods of production develop – then institutions and beliefs also change, albeit in a complex and non-mechanical way. And if this had been the case in the past then it could also be the case in the future. A transformation in the economic basis of society from capitalism to socialism would in turn alter social relations and lay the basis for ending all social inequalities and achieving the liberation of women.

These were powerful arguments which undermined official ideology – representing capitalist institutions as fixed and unchanging – and potentially threatened the continued existence of the capitalist system itself which relies on unequal social relations, including those between men and women in the family and in society generally, to maintain the status quo.(2)

Engels wrote the Origin of the Family over 120 years ago when archaeological and anthropological evidence was extremely scant in comparison with today. Inevitably some of the details which he outlines in the book have been proven incorrect in the light of subsequent scientific advances. (3) Nevertheless, research by anthropologists over the years has vindicated the general thrust of Engels’ analysis. (4) There is ample evidence to show that societies existed in the past which were not organised on the basis of private property and the division of society into classes; where there were no institutionalised hierarchical and exploitative social relations and women were not systematically dominated or oppressed by men.

Such societies are usually referred to as ‘hunter-gatherer’, because of their economic basis, and account for 99% of human history. The basic social organisation of these societies was the kinship group – whose size would vary depending on the environment. While most people in the group would be biologically related to each other, this was not necessarily the case. These were subsistence economies, with members of the group producing just enough to satisfy their immediate needs, and in general they were organised around a division of labour based on sex with men hunting and women gathering fruit, nuts, berries, etc. Women also usually had the main responsibility for childcare.

Division of labour

Despite clear evidence backing up Engels’ core argument that class-based societies and women’s oppression have only existed for a fraction of humanity and that conditions can change, this has not gone unchallenged. Strands of sociology have argued that since this division of labour existed in early societies, and men and women have continued to assume different roles throughout history, these differences must have a genetic base; that they represent behaviour which is the result of genes which have been selected over time because of their importance for the survival of the species.

So it is natural, therefore, and socially expedient, that men should go out to work and ‘hunt’ to provide for the family while women stay at home and look after the children and the household. At the same time, ‘man the hunter’ is by nature aggressive, competitive, dominant and promiscuous while women are genetically programmed to be nurturing, passive and monogamous.

Some feminists have also attributed women’s oppression to innate male aggression and the fact that men are physically more powerful than women and therefore able to assert control over them, particularly over their sexuality. (5)

Sociobiologists often refer to aggressive and dominant behaviour in other animals to back up their arguments. However, studies of animals including primates (such as baboons and chimpanzees who share over 90% of our genetic makeup) show that animals display a vast variety of behaviours which are influenced by their environment and subject to change. All of human behaviour is biologically based and biology places certain limits on what we can and cannot do. Human beings, for example, are not born with wings and therefore cannot naturally fly in the way that birds can.

Nevertheless, our culture has enabled us to develop the technology to manufacture aeroplanes which allow us to overcome our biological constraints and fly all over the world. It is this cultural evolution, which is the consequence of our ability to labour and control our natural environment, which distinguishes us from other animals and is the most important factor influencing most human behaviour. (6)

The picture that is usually painted of early societies is one of an aggressive male striding off alone with his spear in order to hunt down ferocious wild beasts and then come back to camp, victorious, with food to feed his dependent wife and children who are patiently waiting for him. Evidence of hunter-gatherer societies which have continued into the modern era suggests, in fact, that this is a false picture. Hunting, when it took place, was not generally a solitary, aggressive pursuit but involved group members cooperating together to stalk and catch their prey. There was often flexibility in the tasks which people undertook. In many societies women were in fact involved in scavenging and hunting, particularly if they were not pregnant or nursing small children. And men would also play a role in caring for children. Gathering foodstuffs such as fruit and nuts (which accounted for the majority of the diet of hunter-gatherer societies) often involved women travelling long distances away from the group’s base.

In modern capitalist society, the system in which we currently live, the fact that women give birth to, and have the main responsibility for bringing up, children can place them at a big economic and social disadvantage. Lack of adequate or affordable childcare means that working-class women in particular are forced into part-time, low-paid, low-status insecure jobs. Taking time off to have children can seriously harm women’s future job prospects. Low pay and insecurity can make it difficult for women to leave unhappy relationships and when they do, they can face severe economic hardship as a lone parent.

Some feminists have drawn the conclusion that women were similarly disadvantaged in early societies because of the division of labour between men and women. But, although in general, women and men carried out different tasks, this does not mean that women were necessarily disadvantaged or that their work and the contribution they made to the group were devalued or considered inferior to those of men. Studies suggest that hunter-gatherer societies were organised on a cooperative, collective basis in which everyone’s contribution was valued and respected. Women and children were not economically dependent on a single male provider, all members of the group were dependent on each other for their economic survival, sharing and working together. So if a couple split up (and personal relations were quite fluid) women and children would not necessarily be economically disadvantaged in any way. Looking after children was considered a common responsibility which benefited the whole group and not that of an individual, private family.

Although some individuals might have had more prestige or influence within the group due to their wisdom, experience and ability, decision-making was collective with people making decisions about the activities for which they were responsible. (7) Individuals were not in a position to enforce their will on others, including men over women.

Why did it all go wrong?

In the Origin of the Family, Engels argued that the “world historic defeat of the female sex” came about as a result of processes unleashed by revolutionary changes in methods of production – that is the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops. A radical transformation in production and technique meant that group members no longer had to live from hand to mouth, hunting and gathering foodstuffs, but had the potential to produce over and above their immediate needs. This in turn led to the development of private ownership of the means of producing wealth, the division of society into classes of exploiters and exploited and a state apparatus to maintain the economic control of the ruling class. Women’s oppression was intimately bound up with these developments which involved the rise of the nuclear, patriarchal (male-dominated) family.

Although Engels made some mistakes in relation to detail, anthropologists agree that hunter-gatherer societies underwent a radical transformation around 8-10,000 years ago, based on their newly discovered ability to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. This is often referred to as the Neolithic revolution – which like all revolutions was a process and not a single event, in this case taking place over thousands of years and arising independently in several parts of the world. Whereas previously most groups were compelled to move around to secure the foodstuffs they needed to survive, they were now able to stay in one place which led to a big growth in population.

Now that they could produce over and above their day-to-day requirements it was possible for some members of the group to withdraw from production and to specialise in particular tasks. Groups and individuals became responsible for storing, guarding and distributing the surplus, for trade and warfare and for organising production, which conferred on them a certain prestige and status. To begin with, these tasks would have been carried out on behalf of the group as a whole. But it was from amongst these prestigious groups, individuals and households that, in some societies, the first exploiting classes arose as, over time, the wealth at their disposal, and the means of producing it, came to be considered their own private property which they could pass on to their own descendants.

Women’s oppression

The general division of labour by sex had not disadvantaged women in the communal kinship group. But as this economic and social transformation unfolded it was those tasks undertaken by men – organising production through irrigation and ploughing, trading, administering the surplus, etc. – which lay the basis for both class rule and the systematic oppression of women (although of course not all men formed part of the ruling class). This was a lengthy, complicated and contradictory process, however, as new social forces and structures came into conflict with the old collective and communal ways of organising society. It was as part of this process that individual households came to replace the kinship group as the main economic and social unit, with women becoming economically dependent and under the control and authority of men within the family.

Over time this oppression became systematised and legitimised as a state apparatus developed.

So women’s oppression and class society have not developed as separate structures, but are interlinked, rooted in the same economic and social developments that took place thousands of years ago. Capitalism, the current dominant form of class society, has incorporated some of the social structures and ideology which existed in previous class societies, including the family and the second-class status of women. These have formed an essential part of the state apparatus in order to maintain the capitalists’ economic and social dominance. However, these have not remained unchanged, either compared to previous feudal or other class societies or as capitalism itself has developed over the past 300 years or so, but have instead been modified and adapted by economic, social and political processes. And, as the family and women’s position in society have changed, they have in turn impacted on wider social developments.

2. The role of the family

The word ‘family’ comes from the Latin word ‘familia’ – meaning the total number of slaves belonging to one man. It’s not just the word, however, that can be traced back to Roman slave society (an early form of class society) but many of the laws which have governed the family in capitalist society in Western Europe and elsewhere. In fact, most of the discrimination and oppression which women continue to experience today cannot be fully understood unless placed in that historical context.

The ‘patriarchal’ family of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times was a hierarchical economic and social institution which invested in the male head of household, the ‘paterfamilias’, total authority over his wife, children, apprentices and slaves – including control over whether they should live or die. Economic production, based on the ownership and exploitation of slaves, was organised through the family, which was also a means of passing on wealth to male descendants of the ruling class. While couples who married might feel some love and affection for each other, marriage for the ruling, slave-owning class was primarily concerned with forming alliances with other families in order to increase their wealth and status.

Marriage and divorce played a similar role for the landowning aristocracy under feudalism, the class society which replaced slavery. Its main purpose was to obtain new land and allies and enhance the power and wealth of the ruling elite. Songs and tales from the Middle Ages frequently referred to love as something quite separate from marriage. Similarly, with industrialisation the rising capitalist class used marriage as a means of consolidating and extending capital and furthering their economic and political ambitions. This didn’t mean that couples had no feelings for each other, but marriage was mainly viewed as another business contract. Marriage and the family were important for inheritance, for passing on wealth to legal heirs, and divorce laws were primarily centred on dividing and allocating property. This has continued to be the case in most countries, with even children treated as the ‘property’ of parents by the courts.

For those who were not from the ruling class, however, family reality was very different. Slaves in Roman society not only had no property, they were property themselves, forbidden by law to marry. Couples could be separated from each other and from their children, and personal relationships ripped apart whenever a slave owner decided to sell his property. In the same way, as capitalism developed, the emerging working class, unlike the capitalist class, had no economic wealth to extend and consolidate or for its children to inherit.

However, in general, the ruling classes throughout history have held up their own family arrangements as the ideal, to be emulated by other classes in society. As the dominant economic class, they have also controlled the legal system, religion, science, education and ideas generally, and used this control to consolidate and perpetuate their economic rule.

Sexual commodities

In Roman times, women were in effect commodities to be exchanged through marriage and divorce. Until they married they were the property of their father and then authority and control passed to their husbands. Husbands expected complete obedience from their wives and this was enshrined in the legal system. Early marriage laws “oblige the married women, as having no other refuge, to conform themselves entirely to the temper of the husbands and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions”. (1) Whereas men were engaged in the ‘public’ arena of politics, business, culture, etc., women’s role in society was normally confined to the family and the ‘private’ sphere with restrictions placed on their appearance in public places. Women of the ruling class had the responsibility of overseeing and managing the household where their main function was to give birth to and raise the children who would inherit property and wealth. This was very different from hunter-gatherer societies where women’s caring role was a public not a private function but carried out for the benefit of the whole kinship group and not an individual family.

Whereas women in early pre-class societies experienced sexual freedom and relationships were quite flexible, in slave society women’s sexuality was heavily regulated and controlled, backed up by religion and the law. The worst crime that a woman of the ruling class could commit was adultery (adultery by women of other classes was not considered a problem). This was because men wanted to be able to guarantee the paternity of the children who would inherit their property – something completely unnecessary in egalitarian communal society where there was no private ownership of the means of producing wealth. In Roman times, adultery, defined as sexual activity between a married woman and a man not her husband, was a crime against property (as was rape) punishable by divorce and even death.

The Roman censor Cato summed up this double standard in one of his speeches: “If you should take your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial – but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it.” (2) Severe punishments were also meted out to women who drank wine, walked unveiled in the street, made poisons and any other behaviour which could lead to their committing adultery or aborting an unborn child. Men, on the other hand, were not expected to be monogamous and regularly took concubines or went with prostitutes. Prostitution in fact developed as the ‘other side’ of the monogamous (for women) family.

Controlling women

All over the world, since the existence of class society, various controls and restraints have been placed on women’s bodies and sexual freedom – from the wearing of the veil, to foot binding and the brutal practice of female genital mutilation aimed at denying women sexual pleasure.

Today, many of the most severe restrictions to which women are subjected internationally have become associated with Islam. In fact, Islam, which arose in the seventh century in Arabia, was quite enlightened in relation to women’s rights given the prevailing attitudes to women at that time in most of the world. According to the Koran, women were permitted to inherit property, were expected to enjoy sex and had the right to divorce if they did not – rights which women in Europe were still fighting for well into the 19th century.

Practices such as the wearing of the veil, honour killings or female genital mutilation are not specific to Islam but have also been imposed by other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity. Women’s sexuality was being controlled long before the rise of Islam, from the time that the first class societies emerged. But as Islam spread throughout the world, it adopted practices which were already being enforced in the conquered territories, and then integrated and incorporated them in the interests of the ruling elite. In all class societies religion has been used by the economically-dominant class to legitimise inequality and oppression in order to maintain its economic and social control.

The Koran is the product of the society and times in which it was written and it is open to many different interpretations. The right-wing fundamentalist rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, enforced a brutal oppression of women. There, and in other countries, women have risked their lives to fight against restrictions imposed by reactionary theocratic regimes, including the wearing of the burqa.

The veil is historically a symbol of oppression which progressive women, including in Muslim societies, have fought against. However, it is not necessarily viewed as oppressive by all Muslim women who wear it in the West. There are many reasons why they might freely choose to wear the hijab (or, more rarely, the full veil or niqab); as a means of asserting their identity in the face of increased racism and Islamophobia; as a statement of solidarity with Muslims facing oppression around the world or as an act of defiance against imperialist aggression. Some also view it as empowering and liberating – a reaction against a capitalist society which objectifies women – forcing people to see them as individuals and not as merely bodies or sex objects.

Socialists and Marxists oppose and expose the role that all organised religions have historically played, and continue to play today, in maintaining inequality, exploitation and oppression. At the same time, we support an individual’s right to freedom of religious expression. Women should not be forced to wear the veil against their will but they should also have the right to wear it if they choose to. So we have supported the struggles by women in Iran, for example, for democratic, religious and personal freedoms and those of young female Muslims in France and other parts of Europe for the right to be able to wear the headscarf in schools and workplaces. We have also backed the struggles of women in western countries who have challenged the role of the Catholic Church in denying women reproductive rights.

Violence against women

Under capitalism the stereotypical representations of women which abound in the media, advertising and general culture have their roots in the rise of class society. (3) The same is true of violence against women. Worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from violence at the hands of men than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined. Even in the developed industrialised countries a quarter of women at some time in their lives will suffer from domestic violence.

Many reasons have been advanced in an effort to explain why this abuse still continues today at such a high level.

Some people blame economic problems such as unemployment and bad working conditions. But such a crude ‘economic reductionist’ explanation is completely inadequate. Domestic violence takes place across all social classes and is not just confined to the poor and the working class. Alcohol is also often cited as a cause. However, while some perpetrators are abusive after drinking alcohol others are violent while completely sober. Alcohol, like unemployment, long working hours and the general pressures and strains of life in capitalist society can contribute to and trigger domestic abuse but they are not the underlying cause.

Women also suffer from stress. In fact, it could be argued that, as working-class women usually have to juggle work and assume most of the responsibility of looking after children and the home, their lives are even more stressful than those of men. Sometimes women will themselves resort to violence within relationships but the overwhelming majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women.

So why is it that men feel justified in using violence in situations where women normally do not? Male abusers often seek to justify their behaviour by blaming the women themselves; they provoked them by “nagging”, by not getting a meal on the table in time, not keeping the house clean, or the children quiet. As a consequence, many women who experience domestic violence, especially if the abuse continues over a period of years, come to believe incorrectly that the violence is their own fault. They may then try to modify their behaviour, to avoid anything which might ‘provoke’ the abuser, but the violence and abuse does not stop; in fact in many cases it escalates.

From the ‘excuses’ given by male perpetrators it is clear that traditional beliefs about the need for women to be loyal and obedient to their husbands, and men having the right to use fear and coercion to keep them ‘in their place’, still influence behaviour and attitudes today. The hierarchical, patriarchal family based on male authority and control served the economic and social needs of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times. And the family has continued as a social institution central to all class societies, although its form, of course, has not remained the same.

In the feudal societies of mediæval Europe, for example, the family of the landowning aristocracy was organised differently to that of the peasant/serf household which was an economic unit at the centre of production of goods consumed by themselves and the Lord of the Manor. Feudal society was hierarchical with God at the top and the peasants/serfs at the bottom of the pile. Everyone knew their place in a rigid order based on obedience to authority and unequal rights and responsibilities.

The patriarchal peasant family, with male authority sanctioned by the legal system and legitimised by God and King, both reflected and reinforced the hierarchy of society in general and functioned as a means of social control. The double oppression peasant women suffered was clearly reflected in the Lord’s right to bed a bride on her wedding night.

For centuries men have been legally and morally obliged to control the behaviour of their wives. It was perfectly legitimate, in fact expected, that a husband would use physical coercion against a ‘nagging’ wife or one who failed to fulfil her ‘wifely obligations’. Laws that did exist were mainly concerned with setting limits on how far they could go. For example, the English saying “rule of thumb” is thought to stem from the fact that it used to be stipulated that the thickness of the stick used by a man to beat his wife could not be greater than his thumb.

In Britain in 1736, a dictum from Sir Matthew Hale, the head of the judiciary, stated that rape in marriage could not take place because “by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract”.

Such ideas became deeply embedded in society over centuries. It was only in the early 1990s in Britain that the Law Commission declared marital rape illegal. Prior to that, the idea that women’s bodies became the property of men on marriage still prevailed in law. Although there has been a big shift in social attitudes in relation to domestic violence and rape over the last few decades, backward ideas still hold sway. There is still reluctance, for example, on the part of the criminal justice system to prosecute in cases of marital rape, and the courts often view it as less serious than rape by a stranger.

Capitalism itself is a hierarchical system, based on inequality and exploitation by a minority in society. The ruling capitalist class will resort to violence if necessary to maintain its rule – by the use of the police against striking workers and protesters, for example, or the armed forces in wars for profit and prestige. The capitalist system of inequality, dominance and control, in which the family plays a crucial role, permeates the whole of society including personal relations, resting on and perpetuating backward ideas which originated in the early class societies thousands of years ago. (4)

3. The family under capitalism

One of the most significant changes to the family as an institution, which in turn had an important effect on the position of women in society generally, came about as a consequence of industrialisation and the rise of capitalism.

In pre-industrial society, individual families that did not form part of the ruling economic class were mostly centres of economic production, organised through the male head of household. Whether domestic production was geared towards manufacture or agriculture, the work of women, although extremely arduous, was central. Although the division of labour between men and women was clearly unequal, no distinction was made between the value of tasks which women performed, such as spinning, childcare, cleaning or agricultural work – all were carried out in and around the home and all were considered productive and necessary work. But with industrialisation, goods previously produced in the home such as food, drink and clothing were now socially produced in the factories and mills – although ownership of the means of production was in private hands.

This had a big effect on the family and on personal relations. In the early stages of factory production women and children were the main labourers sought by the capitalists. This created a clear division between the paid work that women carried out in the workplace, where they were brutally exploited in barbaric conditions, and the unpaid work of cleaning, cooking, caring for children, etc., which women continued to perform in the home as they had traditionally done.

In an economic system in which wage labour predominated, this unwaged domestic work was devalued and in turn impacted on women in the workplace, where they were devalued as workers, paid lower wages than men and suffered inferior working conditions. Even when working-class women toiled in the workplace, their main function in society was still considered to be that of wife, mother and homemaker.

Wage labour

Once women became wage labourers in the factories they secured a degree of economic independence which to a certain extent undermined male authority within the family. In fact, with economic production organised in the factory under the control of the capitalists, it appeared that the material basis for patriarchal control in the working-class family no longer existed.

As Engels explained: “Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence there is no incentive to make male supremacy prevail… and now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labour market and into the factory, and made her often the breadwinner of the family, the last remnants of male supremacy in the proletarian household are deprived of all foundation, except, perhaps, for a leftover piece of the brutality towards women that has become deep-rooted since the introduction of monogamy.” (1)

Nevertheless, despite the enormous economic and social upheavals that industrialisation unleashed, the patriarchal family not only survived but became strengthened as the newly-emerged capitalist class attempted to use its economic, legal and ideological control to mould it in the interests of its own class rule.

In the course of the 19th century it became increasingly a sign of the growing wealth of the capitalist class that their wives did not work outside the home but were economically dependent on a male breadwinner. One of the bourgeois woman’s main roles was to tend to the emotional needs of her husband – the so-called ‘angel in the house’ – leaving men free to engage in industry, finance, politics, etc. in the public sphere. Women’s other role centred around reproduction – bearing and rearing the future ruling class. It was a sign of respectability for the capitalist class, marking it off from the ‘dissolute’ aristocracy and the ‘feckless’ working class.

The situation was very different for the working class itself. When industrialisation first began it was far from clear that capitalism – unstable and crisis ridden – would last as an economic system. Women and very young children were in many cases literally worked to death in the ‘dark, satanic mills’ as the capitalists squeezed every last drop of profit from their labour. Brutalised, toiling for unbearably long hours in dangerous conditions in exchange for wages barely enough to stave off starvation, they returned exhausted to disease infested, overcrowded slums.

It was impossible for women to care adequately for children in such terrible conditions. Babies and small children were often left with other siblings and given gin and opium to silence their cries. Levels of infant mortality were extremely high and family life virtually non-existent. “It is quite common for women to be working in the evening and for the child to be delivered the following morning and it is no means uncommon for babies to be born in the factory itself among the machinery,” wrote Engels in the Condition of the Working Class in England. “It is often only two or three days after confinement that a woman returns to the factory, and of course, she cannot take the baby with her.”

Concerned only with short-term profits, individual capitalists brutally resisted working-class struggles to improve their working and daily lives. But as capitalism stabilised, the more farsighted sections of the capitalist class took a longer-term view. Realising that the system as a whole would benefit from having a healthier and more educated workforce, they were prepared to grant some concessions to the working class. Amongst the earliest reforms were protective laws enacted in the 1830s which restricted the hours and labour of women and children in the factories. At the same time, it became clear that the family, which seemed to be disintegrating amongst the working class, had an important role to play in maintaining existing workers and nurturing the next generation of workers to produce profits for the capitalist class.

Economic and ideological role

The capitalist system could reap the benefits of a healthier and more educated working-class but the capitalists wanted to achieve this with as little cost to themselves as possible. It suited their interests for individual working-class families to take on this responsibility, and to feed, clothe and care for all ‘unproductive’ members – all those whose labour power could not be exploited in the workplace – such as young children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed – – with no recourse to the state.

The capitalists also required a workforce that was disciplined, obedient and deferential to authority. The patriarchal family, in which men had control over women and children, including through the use of physical violence, was a useful institution for instilling these values and for promoting appropriate gender roles. The family was also a means of disciplining working-class men themselves. It was an enormous burden for men to assume responsibility for providing economically for all dependent family members. The capitalists exploited this responsibility during strikes, for example, in an attempt to force strikers back to work.

Through their control of the legal system, religion, education and ideas in general the ruling classes of the main capitalist countries promoted the bourgeois family – with women responsible for the home and nurturing children, and economically dependent on the male head of household – as natural, eternal and the model to which all classes in society should aspire. ‘Family values’ propaganda and periodic ‘moral panics’ focused on the supposed crisis in working-class families.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Britain, the world’s dominant capitalist power by the end of the 19th Century. The ruling class required healthy and fit working-class men to serve as cannon fodder for the British Empire. The poor health of potential recruits and poverty in general was blamed on ‘inadequate’ and ‘feckless’ working-class mothers who failed in their nurturing and mothering duties – a convenient scapegoat for an unequal economic system that was incapable of meeting the most basic needs of working-class people.

The physical and moral health of the nation and the British Empire were equated with the health of the family. But the only family considered morally healthy was the heterosexual bourgeois family, and the state encouraged intolerance and repression of anything that seem to challenge or undermine it. Women who gave birth to illegitimate children, for example, were punished with the workhouse. In 1885 homosexuality was criminalised for the first time and in 1895 the playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for ‘gross indecency’.

There was no corresponding legislation against lesbianism. It was not considered to exist as women were not thought to have sexual desires and urges. Sexuality in general was meant to be repressed in the interests of reproduction, wealth creation and capital accumulation. The infamous Contagious Diseases Acts viciously repressed women who were deemed responsible for the spread of venereal disease. Any working-class woman could be identified as a “common prostitute” and forced to undergo internal examinations and locked up in hospital if found to be suffering from gonorrhoea or syphilis.

The ‘ideal’ family

By the end of the 19th century, the ruling class had become relatively successful in ideologically establishing the bourgeois family as the ideal family form. Part of this success was due to the fact that the bourgeois family model appeared to coincide with the material interests of working-class people themselves. They wanted to change the desperate conditions which they were forced to work and live in. The reasoning went that if married women did not have to work long hours outside the home it would be better for them, and they would have more time for domestic tasks and for caring for children and other family members – consequently improving all of their lives.

The idea of a ‘family wage’, which would be paid to a male head of household and would be sufficient to meet the needs of the whole family, gained support amongst the working class. But in reality only a section of skilled working-class men managed to achieve it. In many households, wages were so low that all family members were compelled to work in order to survive. Women who were widowed, deserted or on their own for whatever reason had no choice but to work, although a single female wage was often barely enough to prevent starvation.

Married women continued to work outside the home, did piecework at home or took in lodgers or other people’s laundry. But at the same time, they were expected to clean, prepare meals and cater for all the physical and emotional needs of other family members, without of course the maids and servants which ruling-class and many middle-class families had. This ‘double burden’, together with numerous pregnancies and births, took an enormous toll on working-class women’s health and lives.

So in fact, for the working class family reality fell way short of the supposed ideal. Nevertheless, ideologically the bourgeois family has permeated the whole of capitalist society, shaping legislation and attitudes. Its durability is due to the dual role which the family plays. On the one hand, it is an economic and social institution which fulfils a vital economic and ideological function for the capitalist class. But at the same time it is a site of personal relations that are central to most people’s lives. Although the family is often a place of inequality, violence and abuse, it also meets people’s needs for love, companionship and emotional support, as well as economic support. But under capitalism these two roles constantly come into conflict, causing tensions and contradictions that capitalism is incapable of resolving.

Welfare responsibility

Poverty wages and insecure employment meant that it was impossible for individual working-class families to meet even the most basic needs of all of their members. They lived in desperate fear of being struck down by unemployment, sickness or disability. Children were malnourished and child mortality rates extremely high. Women suffered countless pregnancies which ruined their health and they often died in childbirth. Prostitution flourished and old age could mean total destitution. In England at the end of the 19th century social investigators like Charles Booth lifted the lid on the terrible poverty of the working-class. His report on the East End of London found that 35% were ‘poor’ and a third of those were suffering from acute ‘distress’. When mobilisation took place for the Boer War the ruling class became acutely aware of the how the physical condition of working-class men had been undermined by years of poverty and neglect. As many as 40% of men called up were deemed physically unfit to fight. (2)

In an attempt to survive and to provide some kind of protection against the disasters and problems of everyday life, sections of the working class united together in organisations such as trade unions, friendly societies and cooperatives. But at the same time they fought for the state to assume collective responsibility for education, health and the welfare of all those who were unable to provide for themselves, rather than the responsibility falling on individual families who did not have the resources to cope.

It was against the backdrop of growing class struggles and/or the fear of revolution that the ruling class in some countries moved to introduce the beginnings of a welfare state. So in Britain, for example, the Liberal government of Lloyd George initiated national insurance and other reforms in 1911 at a time of heightened class struggle. The National Health Service itself, which was implemented by a Labour government in 1948, came about because the ruling class faced an angry and militant post-war working class which was not prepared to return to the miseries of the past and was demanding a better future.

Although often far short of what was needed to provide a decent standard of living, state pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit, child and maternity benefits all relieved some of the insecurities and financial burdens placed on individual working-class families. The provision of public housing, health care, nurseries, facilities for elderly people and the disabled made an enormous difference to the lives of working-class people, especially women.

However, although the state began to carry out some of the tasks that had previously been carried out by the family, the idea of the traditional nuclear family, with a male breadwinner and economically dependent wife, continued to underpin most welfare policy. In Britain, for example, women did not have an individual right to some state benefits, the assumption being that they would be provided for by their husbands, thus reinforcing the patriarchal family. The welfare state also differentiated between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, with widows receiving higher benefits than divorcees, for example.

Nevertheless, the existence of the welfare state transformed the lives of many women. It lifted some of their domestic burden, allowing them to work outside the home. In fact, the welfare state itself became a major employer of female labour, with women making up the overwhelming majority of teachers, nurses, carers, etc. In those countries where public housing and minimal benefits have existed, women have been able to leave unhappy relationships and have some form of economic independence, however inadequate.

At the same time, as a consequence of struggles by women and the working class in general, and changing public attitudes, women in many countries have gained easier access to divorce, as well as free contraception and abortion rights. Having some control over when and whether to have children has given women more freedom of choice, allowing them more independence and greater access to education and to work outside the home.

Women in the workplace

In the Origin of the Family, Engels wrote that the first condition for the liberation of women is to bring the “whole female sex” back into public industry. Paid work outside the home weakens the economic and financial dependency of women on individual men within the family and gives them the confidence to challenge traditional ideas about their role in society. When women are isolated in the home caring for children, consumed by the monotony of housework, it is easy to feel that all the problems of daily life are personal and individual and to blame themselves for everything that is happening to them. Breaking down that isolation, working alongside others in the workplace broadens women’s horizons and it becomes easier to view these as social rather than individual problems. Although the capitalist class do everything in their power to sow divisions amongst working-class people along the lines of sex, race, sexuality, etc., it is in the workplace that the potential for collective struggle for change is clearest.

Since the industrial revolution working-class women have always worked outside the home. But that work was considered secondary to their main domestic role within the family. This enabled the capitalist class to justify paying women lower wages in order to exploit them as cheap labour to boost their profits. But capitalist ideology has varied, depending on the ruling classes’ economic and social needs at any particular time. So in the First and Second World Wars, for example, the capitalist class needed women to labour in the munitions factories and to do the jobs left vacant by the men who had been mobilised to fight at the front. They encouraged and sometimes compelled women, including married women with children, to go into the labour market and to take on work from which they had been previously excluded; and these women proved in practice that they were just as capable as male workers. State propaganda informed women that it was their ‘patriotic duty’ to work outside the home. “Men trenches; women benches”, declared one slogan in Britain during the First World War. (3) During that war, nearly one and a half million women flooded into the workplaces and over two million during the Second World War, many of them married women with children.

Inevitably, in most cases women were paid a lower rate for the job than men. Male workers, especially in the engineering industry, organised against what became known as ‘dilution’ – women workers undermining the skills and pay of men. But there were also joint struggles for equal pay as female union membership increased by over 150%. The demand for female labour forced the state to step in and alleviate some of the domestic tasks of women with children. Government grants helped pay for the setting up of local authority day nurseries and there were big improvements in maternity care. But when war was over the propaganda changed again. With millions of men returning home after 1918, it was now women’s ‘patriotic duty’ to give up their jobs to unemployed men. A stable family life was deemed necessary to increase the birth rate and rebuild the country after the devastation of war. The day nurseries closed down and tens of thousands of women found themselves back in the isolation of the home and economically dependent on their husbands.

Over a million women also lost their jobs when the Second World War came to a close, although it was now considered acceptable for married women to work part-time. This suited the need of the capitalist class for cheap labour in the post-war economic upswing and a ‘reserve army’ of labour which could be dispensed with when necessary in periods of economic crisis. And although married women’s wages were disparagingly referred to as ‘pin money’ (and therefore the capitalists felt justified in continuing to pay women a lower rate than men) these wages became essential in maintaining and improving the living standards of working-class families during the boom.

4. The family and women’s oppression today

Today women work in unprecedented numbers outside of the home. In fact, in some of the developed capitalist countries they make up half or even a majority of the workforce. And this ‘feminisation’ of the labour market has been an international phenomenon affecting the neo-colonial countries as well.

In some of the developed countries, the rise of women in the workforce coincided with a decline in male employment – provoking some commentators to suggest that a ‘genderquake’ had taken place, and that equality was within women’s grasp. (1) Others bemoaned a shift in gender

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