Marxism and women’s oppression today

Issue: 138

Sheila McGregor

We live in contradictory times: they reflect how much in society in relation to women has changed, but also how much appears to have stayed the same. Women make up almost half the workforce and just over half of trade union members.1 The level of unemployment among women has risen by 19.1 percent since 2009 and by only 0.32 percent among men, although more men are unemployed than women.2 Some £11.1 billion of George Osborne’s £14.9 billion savings since 2010 have come from women although women earn less than men.3 Small wonder that we saw the biggest strike of women workers in British history in response to the government’s attack on pensions on 30 November 2011, and that hundreds of women turned out to lobby parliament on 24 October 2012 in protest at the impact of austerity on women, chanting slogans such as “Hey, ho, patriarchy has to go.”

David Cameron has introduced a law to allow “gay” marriage but simultaneously wants to introduce tax changes to support marriage while being personally in favour of the tightening up of time limits for
abortion.4 Cameron wants to appear “modern” but blame the poorest in society for being poor and make women and the family subsitute for the cuts in the welfare state. Meanwhile the Church of England can’t even countenance women bishops. Raunch culture has become ever more pervasive, but there are also protest movements against overt sexism such as the SlutWalks in 2011 and 2012.5 The revelations about Jimmy Savile’s paedophile behaviour led to an outpouring of anger while exposing the continued disgraceful sexist culture of the BBC and other institutions. And mass popular demonstrations erupted across India in protest at the appalling gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a bus on 16 December 2012.

Revolutionary socialists take part in all struggles against exploitation and oppression, whether they are against austerity measures, sexual violence, the impact of war, police racism or the growth of fascist organisations, attempting to unite the maximum number of forces in any given struggle. At the same time, revolutionary socialists are concerned not only with combatting the particular effects of exploitation and oppression, but also with taking the struggle forward so as to break the very chains of exploitation, which give rise to all forms of oppression.

Thus involvement in struggle is both a practical question of how best to build a protest or strike and an ideological question of how to win those you are struggling alongside to an understanding that it is not enough to win over the particular struggle, but that what is required is a revolutionary transformation of society. When people embark on a struggle over an issue, they usually come with a mixture of ideas about the society they live in, what they are fighting for and how best to achieve their goal. Inherent in any struggle is a debate about how to take it forward. Struggles against sexism are no exception to this.

In 1975, in the first battle to defend the 1967 Abortion Act against the James White Bill, there was a debate in the National Abortion Campaign over whether to take the fight to defend abortion rights into the trade unions as a class issue that obviously affected working class women but also affected men. The success of socialist women in both winning and implementing this strategy led to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) leading the successful demonstration against John Corrie’s 1979 bill to restrict abortion rights.

Women not only raised the issue in mixed unions, but also in union branches with only male members such as among miners and boilermakers. Male trade unionists were faced with the argument that the right of women to control their own bodies was a trade union issue. The slogan “No return to backstreet abortion” encapsulated the fact that it was working class women who suffered most from the lack of free and legal abortions.6

Today, as women and men protest against sexism on SlutWalks, in defence of abortion rights, and against austerity measures with their specific impact on women, the “common sense” of many, if not most, is that “patriarchy” is to blame for what is happening to women. The concept of patriarchy is sufficiently elastic and imprecise as to appear to explain the behaviour of individual men, sexism, discrimination, the unions as well as the state. There is also a resurgence of interest in ideas about women’s oppression such as Wages for Housework, dating from the 1970s, as well as using Marx’s Capital to explain women’s oppression. However, Frederick Engels’s contribution to understanding women’s oppression is often rejected.7

The purpose of this article is to look at three things: first, the importance of Engels in understanding the roots of women’s oppression; second, the way in which the drive to accumulate at the heart of capitalism transforms the position of working class women inside society and the nature of the working class family; and third, the importance of being part of the waged workforce and working class struggle for women’s liberation.

Engels and the origins of women’s oppression

The relation between man and woman is the most fundamental, or as Marx puts it, “the immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is also the ‘relation of man to woman’”.8 Thus relations between men and women are a measure of the “humanness” and extent of equality of society. In addition, women’s oppression is the oldest oppression and will be the most difficult to overcome as the roots are located in an institution that shapes the most intimate sphere of human life, in relationships between men, women and children in the family.9 This leads many people to assume that all human societies have been based on unequal relationships between women and men and that it is inherent in “human nature” or if not in “human nature”, then in all forms of society. The commonsense view today, as in the time of Engels and Marx, is still that women’s oppression has always existed.

Marx and Engels, however, both insisted on tackling our evolution historically. Human beings emerged historically as social beings. And, as Heather Brown argues, “men and women always exist and interact within concrete circumstances mediated by definite social relations”.10 Both Marx and Engels were profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in 1876 Engels wrote his short pamphlet The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, in which he presented the arguments for us emerging as “gregarious” beings with the use of tools driving our evolution.11 He then wrote a later text, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, to establish that the oppression of women arose historically and had not always existed.

Some writers are willing to look to Marx but not to Engels. For example, Heather Brown, in her excellent book Marx on Gender and the Family, rejects Engels’s contribution to understanding the family because she believes he suffers from economic determinism, linking women’s oppression to private property and failing to “challenge the distinction between the public and private spheres”.12 She argues that since women’s oppression existed in Greek and Roman times where private property was not fully developed and in societies such as the Soviet Union based on state property, Engels’s analysis must be fundamentally flawed.

On the first point, the development of the analysis of the Soviet Union as state capitalist by Tony Cliff involved rejecting the view that capitalism could only exist based on private ownership by individual capitalists. Furthermore, when the state owned and controlled the means of production, as in the case of the Soviet Union and similar societies, the state could function as a single capitalist in competition with other capitals on a global basis and the separation of workers from any control over the means of production meant they were exploited as a class in a similar way to workers in the West. That being the case, the reproduction of labour power in the Soviet Union could be analysed in a similar way to other capitalist societies.13

On the second point, where she objects to Engels’s argument that a communist society would “make the relations between the sexes a purely private affair, which concerns only the two people involved”, Brown concludes that this could lead to women remaining in the home, “or if the society was run more communally, a few women would remain to do the housework”.14 Elsewhere in the same text Engels talks about society being based on an association of all individuals who take decisions about the direction that society would go in and women and children no longer being economically dependent on men.15 It is true he does not spell out how the task of reproduction would be organised, but then he doesn’t give a blueprint for how production would be organised. In that light, it is surely better to interpret his comments about relations becoming a “private affair” as an indication that personal relationships would be based on personal choice.

Unfortunately, Lise Vogel in Marxism and Feminism dismisses Engels’s analysis of women’s oppression as “a defective formulation”.16 Some of her criticisms may be accurate, but she dismisses an important text for explaining women’s oppression historically. Engels’s arguments need to be taken more seriously.

The road to the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens is a long one going back three to seven million years.17 In 1994, Chris Harman undertook a review of Engels’s The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Harman surveyed the existing knowledge of the behaviour of pygmy chimps and gorillas, our nearest relatives, pointing to a series of features, two of which are particularly salient to any discussion about the relations between males and females in our evolution: 1) the degree of social cooperation; and, 2) the role of the female in initiating sexual contacts. He also noted that “their cooperation is essential if males are to have special relationships with them”.18 Philippe Brenot and Pascal Picq, in a book which looks at the development of sexual relations in human evolution, observe that the sexual practices of orangutans, which are more distant from us in evolutionary terms than pygmy chimps, are quite remarkable in that they are about satisfying desire, not just reproduction: “Orangutans practise face to face copulation, and what may surprise us, amuse themselves with a variety of preliminaries: caresses, touching, reciprocal masturbation, oral sex, kissing of the genital areas and all that at tens of metres above the ground”.19 They argue, reasonably in my view, that practices that involve both seeking and giving pleasure presuppose a capacity to conceive of the needs and desires of the other.20

The task of trying to establish the transition of ape to man is complex and hampered by the scattered record of skeletons which can be used as a basis for analysing how our ancestors lived their lives. Nevertheless, there are certain features about human beings which have a bearing on understanding the evolution of human society and relations between human beings:

1) Walking upright and the attendant vulnerability.

2) Regular meat consumption.

3) Sophisticated tool making and use.

4) The separation of the sex act from ovulation and the oestrus cycle.21

5) The whole human body as an “erogenous” zone.

6) The length of gestation for a human baby.

7) The vulnerability of the human baby and the length of time and socialisation required to attain adulthood.

These features are strong indicators of human beings having evolved both as social beings and with a tendency towards forming couples. The fact that sexuality is not tied to reproduction is a clear indicator of the potential for same sex sexual practices. The emergence of desire and response to the needs of the other in other primates should also be a caution against automatic assumptions about male predatory sexual practices that have to be tamed.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Engels presents evidence from his day of the existence of egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies with non-hierarchical, non-oppressive relations between men and women. Contemporary evidence that groups of human beings have lived in this way until relatively recently has been thoroughly presented in the pages of this journal.22 There are several important points that we can draw from our knowledge about such societies. First, what underpins egalitarian relationships is the autonomous but essential contributions men and women make to the survival and well-being of the group regardless of the existence and extent of any sexual division of labour23 beyond the obvious one inherent in women’s childbearing capacity.24 Second, women’s childbearing role is not an impediment to their autonomy. Third, childcare is a shared responsibility of the band, not uniquely of the biological parents. Fourth, at least some hunter-gatherer societies have accepted a choice of “gender” role.25 Fifth, the public nature of such groups meant that interactions between people would be within sight or earshot of others, not hidden behind four walls as in today’s world of the nuclear family.

Equally important for Marxists is to be able to account for the rise of women’s oppression. Engels focused on the emergence of agriculture and on changes in ways of producing food, which over time led to societies creating a surplus sufficient to sustain a group or class not directly involved in food production. But why the change if many hunter-gatherer societies experienced a luxury of time as well as reasonable conditions for survival?26 And why should such changes lead to the emergence of male dominated ruling classes, with subordination of women in the family in every class?

Harman gives an extended account of the impact of accumulated changes in food production, use of metals, diversity of tasks, trade, rising population and warfare to illustrate the rise of class society in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC.27 He also depicts how changes in agricultural techniques linked to the male role in agriculture, such as harnessing oxen to the plough, improved productivity and shifted control away from women to men. Such changes, alongside the increasing importance of childbirth for a settled agricultural society, the emergence of systematic warfare to defend stored surpluses and trade, would lead to the loss of women’s autonomy. The rise of the family with women subordinate to men then secured control over the means of producing the surplus and the surplus itself.28

Once the transition to class society occurs, in which the surplus generated is sufficient to sustain a ruling class and a range of occupations such as warriors, priests, traders and the like, there is no way back to some “golden age” hunter-gatherer society. From that point the majority of men and women are subjected to exploitation and all women are oppressed, hence Engels’s linking of the rise of the family to the rise of class society and the state. But this too has to be grasped historically. In the chapter on the family Engels discusses the changing nature of love and desire in the Middle Ages compared with Antiquity while projecting forward to the potential for different ways of living inherent in the overthrow of capitalist society:

Thus what we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.29

The family is not a static institution that transcends the mode of production, but a form of reproduction which is moulded by society and by class. Engels ends the chapter with a quotation from the great American anthropologist Lewis Morgan:

When the fact is accepted that the family has passed through four successive forms, and is now in a fifth, the question at once arises whether this form can be permanent in the future. The only answer that can be given is that it must advance as society advances, and change as society changes. It is the creature of the social system and will reflect its nature.30

Capitalism and the family

Capitalism is a highly dynamic system “constantly revolutionising” the way we live our lives. Marx and Engels’s writings are necessarily located in analyses based on early capitalism. Their observations of the impact this had on workers’ lives led them to conclude that the basis for the family in the working class had disappeared: “First, they said, private property and its associated property rights are irrelevant to the working class of the towns and the cities—who have no property. Second, the mass employment of women and children in the factories would abolish the dependence of women on men”.31

Moreover, Marx left a rather unhelpful formulation for future generations of Marxists: “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of the working class. But the capitalist may safely leave this to the workers’ drives for self-propagation”.32 Although this is a somewhat terse statement, and some would argue, a trifle reductionist, there are three points which should be made about this: first, men, women and children do seek to eat, drink and find shelter in the most horrendous of circumstances such as war and famine. Men and women have sexual relationships leading to women continuing to give birth. Second, Marx and Engels were both personally horrified by and amply documented the devastating impact on the living and working conditions of the working class even if they failed to appreciate the impact industrialisation would have on the ability of the working class to reproduce itself.33 But neither of them looked at the way in which the capitalist class began to intervene in society, taking certain elements of the old patriarchal household and “recombining them into the new working class family”.34 Third, any reference to nature in Marx, such as “workers’ drives”, needs to be historicised and grasped in its social and historical context. Human beings do need to eat, drink, sleep and develop relationships with others, but how we do so is always shaped by society at particular times and in particular places.35

So Marx and Engels were wrong in the mid-19th century about the possibilities for the construction of a working class family. But they were right that the mass employment of women has had a crucial impact on relations between men and women since the latter part of the 20th century until today, and has significantly undermined the model of the working class family which finally emerged by the end of the 19th century.

The failure of Marx and Engels to provide an analysis of the working class family is one reason cited by socialist feminists and academic Marxists for criticising them. There are many others. Juliet Mitchell argued that “the problem of women becomes submerged in the analysis of the family”.36 Lise Vogel herself talks about both Marx and Engels being “imprisoned within the limited and sexist horizons of their period”, adding that Marx was a “Victorian husband and father with traditional attitudes in his own family life”.37 Indeed, Engels is often accused of an over emphasis on heterosexuality and homophobia because of his derogatory remark about homosexuality in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.38 Vogel also blames Engels for formulations that led socialist feminists to develop “dual systems” theories. The conclusion is very often that Marx and Engels could—or can—explain class and exploitation, but they couldn’t—or can’t—explain women’s oppression that requires other tools such as patriarchy theory. This is a pity, as the reasons that socialist feminists and Marxist feminists seized on a formulation in Engels,39 to justify a dual approach, lie in how those writers perceived the issue of women’s oppression, rather than in Engels’s formulation. Vogel herself does not go down this route although her own analysis is, in part, about establishing the potential for cross-class alliances among women.40

However, Marx and Engels provide a historical method and a theoretical understanding of capitalism that allows us to overcome the limitations in their analysis of the family. In Capital, volume one, Marx points to the central importance of the reproduction of labour power (the working class) for capital:

The capital given in return for labour power is converted into means of subsistence which have to be consumed to reproduce the muscles, nerves, bones and brains of existing workers, and to bring new workers into existence… It is the production and reproduction of the capitalist’s most indispensable means of production: the worker. The individual consumption of the worker, whether it occurs inside or outside the labour process, remains an aspect of the production and the reproduction of capital, just as the cleaning of machinery does, whether it is done during the labour process, or when intervals in the process permit.41

So the reproduction of workers is essential for capital accumulation. However, the form this takes is not predetermined by the drive to accumulate. Writers in the tradition of International Socialism have long argued that, for historical reasons in Britain and many other capitalist societies, this has been done by the working class family, defining the family as the privatised reproduction of labour power. However, this is not always the case. In West Germany (pre-1989 Germany was divided between West and East Germany) after the Second World War, Turkish and Italian Gastarbeiter (guest workers) were housed in hostels while any family they might have were forced to remain outside Germany. The apartheid system in South Africa also had similar arrangements. In addition, certain aspects of the process of the reproduction of labour power can be and have been undertaken by the state to varying degrees.

Kath Ennis, Irene Breugel, Chris Harman and Lindsey German all argued convincingly that while the reproduction of labour power is essential, this does not necessarily have to take the privatised form of the family.42 Ennis points out:

Housework could be eliminated if a small fraction of the technology which can send men to the moon was to be applied to the household. Cooking could be socialised instead of everyone doing their own. And new forms of social care for the young, the old and the sick, could leave women free to lead their own lives.43

However, Ennis also argues, rightly: “In theory, capitalism could do without the family”, but: “In practice, however, this would require such fundamental changes in society, it is hard to imagine them ever being carried out”.44 Not only would the level of investment be enormous, but it would also mean fundamentally attacking and challenging the ideas that underpin the family. This is unlikely outside of all-out war, where as many people as possible have to be drafted into fighting on the front line or on the production line. Equally, no individual employer in constant competition with other employers is going to go down that road. It is also fairly obvious that in current economic conditions the capitalist class is unlikely to see any need to socialise or take over the tasks of the family.45 A further point is that the family, all appearances to the contrary, serves the interests of capital in maintaining the reproduction of labour power.46

Domestic labour and women’s oppression

There was an attempt to argue that women’s work in the home should be seen as a direct contribution to surplus value and therefore be equated with the sale of labour power in work. In 1976 Irene Breugel, followed by Judith Hamilton and Elana Dallas, wrote a convincing critique of the demand for wages for housework, pointing out that housework is not unpaid wage labour: more importantly, a wage would trap women in the home whereas the focus should be on the power of women workers in social production and the fight for the tasks of the household to be socialised.47 To put it in Marxist terms, work in the home has a use value but no exchange value and therefore is not part of the process of the production of surplus value.

Perhaps inevitably, the focus on domestic labour leads to seeing husbands and male partners as the beneficiaries and thence to the conclusion that men are the enemy. In some cases it leads to the demand for wages for housework. Silvia Federici, a long-time proponent of wages for housework, argues in the preface to Ground Zero:

capitalism requires unwaged reproductive labour in order to contain the cost of labour power, and we believe that a successful campaign draining the source of this unpaid labour would break the process of capital accumulation, and confront capital and the state on a terrain common to most women.48

Federici argues that waged work is not a path to liberation.49 In a different variation, Pamela Odih, for example, argues that the exclusion by Marx of domestic labour as a category of capitalist accumulation “is part of the more general economic dominance and hegemony of men over women”.50 She fails to see that the oppression of women is nonetheless real for all that domestic labour does not generate surplus value, and that women workers are “equally” as exploited as male workers. The fact that domestic labour is mainly done by women does not place male workers in an alliance with capital.

Arguments around domestic labour as the cause of women’s oppression also suffer from being incoherent and ahistorical, failing to take account of the changes that have occurred over the last 50 years. Single men and single women have to do all their own housework.51 Does this mean that single women are not oppressed and that single men are not the enemy, but only male partners of women?

Housework and childcare are shared by couples. Overall men today are contributing more in terms of housework and childcare, even if women still do more. Where both work fulltime, housework and childcare are shared more equally, but men work longer hours and travel further to work than women. And men still do most of the DIY.52 Many fathers would like to spend more time with their children. This is not to say that men and women should not share equally both housework and childcare, but that the argument about who does what misses the obvious solution: as far as possible to socialise domestic labour. It also misses the devastating impact on everyone of the stressful long-hours culture in modern Britain.

Moreover, the logic of the arguments around domestic labour is to argue for two struggles: one against exploitation, the class struggle, and another against patriarchy, women against men. This is quite different from locating women’s oppression in the family as the privatised reproduction of labour power for capital, which traps men, women and children in hierarchical gender relations. The solution in the latter case is the socialisation of reproduction, with men and women workers combining together for social and economic change.

The rise of the working class family

The re-emergence of the working class family, despite Marx and Engels’s predictions that it would disappear, led to a key debate between Marxists and patriarchy theorists. Did male workers collaborate with the ruling class to exclude women from jobs and impose a family wage?

Heidi Hartmann, a leading patriarchy theorist, argues that: “the material base upon which patriarchy rests lies most fundamentally in men’s control over women’s labour power”.53 According to Hartmann, male workers, in alliance with capital, ensured women were excluded from economically productive resources and also controlled their sexuality. Male workers feared economic competition from women workers as well as the threat to their authority. She goes on to argue: “In the absence of patriarchy a unified working class might have confronted capitalism, but patriarchal social relations divided the working class, allowing one part (men) to be bought off at the expense of the other (women)”.54

Jane Humphries undertook a forensic examination of these arguments in “Protective Legislation, the Capitalist State, and Working Class Men: The Case of the 1842 Mines Regulation Act”. This was the first piece of protective legislation that specifically mentioned women. Essentially, Humphries analyses one type of mining where women were employed underground. She shows that the male miners preferred to recruit their own wives and children to work alongside them as this was both safer and also ensured the wage paid to them did not have to be shared with anyone outside the family. The male hewer’s or miner’s wage acted as a “family” wage. Members of the family tended to look out for one another more, were more dependable, honest about the amount of coal dug out, and parents were less harsh towards their own children. Male miners preferred employing their own daughters rather than other people’s sons.55

Humphries also shows that male miners did not appear to object to the independent attitudes of their wives and daughters, nor necessarily consider them “inferior homemakers” compared with other working class women.56 The degree of comfort of the family home appeared to relate more to income than to whether women worked or not.57 The organisation of the work as a “family” effort had an impact on personal relations between men and women in another way: it led to earlier marriage as men wanted wives to work with them rather than to have “to pay wages to their assistants which were a substantial drain on their wages”. It also led to large families. Humphries continues:
“Not only did women’s employment promote early marriage, it also allegedly affected the choice of a partner. Strength was the usual criterion, rather than ‘aptitude for domestic duties’ or ‘liking’.”58 Young women stood up for themselves with one witness to the commissioners who compiled the report for the 1842 legislation recounting: “If a man was to offer any insult to a girl in a pit she would take her fist and give him a blow in his face”.59

Life was extremely tough down the mines and took its toll on everyone, but particularly on nursing mothers and pregnant women, who often gave birth in the pit and returned to work within days of childbirth. Miscarriages and stillbirths were frequent.60 In contrast, the subcommissioners who compiled the report were less concerned about the level and nature of accidents, the impact on all miners’ health, never mind the impact on pregnant women and nursing mothers, than with the sexual mores of the women miners.61 This reflected their own bourgeois attitudes shaped by their experience of the bourgeois family, morals and sexuality. They were mortified by seeing half naked men and women together: “The youths of both sexes work often in a half naked state and their persons are excited before they arrive at puberty. Sexual intercourse frequently occurs in consequence…women brought up in this way lay aside all modesty, and scarcely know what it is by name”.62

In a more practical vein, the mine owners themselves believed that if women were no longer allowed to work underground it would discipline the men to turn up more regularly and be prepared to work for longer hours to compensate for the loss of their wives’ wages.63 In other words, protective legislation which banned women from working would help discipline male workers.

Humphries’s analysis points to the importance of careful historical research which investigates concretely the situation of male and female workers as well as the different class interests at play in the 1840s, both from the point of view of individual mine owners, the capitalist class and men and women workers themselves. Of all the forces which contributed to the introduction of the 1842 Act, it is clear that Hartmann’s theory of patriarchal structures uniting male miners, mine owners and the bourgoisie is a myth, which does not stand up to examination.

The same can also be said about other versions of patriarchy theory, whether they are based on ideology, arguments about a patriarchal state, biology and the like, which collapse very quickly when subject to serious historical class analysis. Historically, part of the purpose of patriarchy theory in all its forms has been precisely to replace a class analysis with one based on sex in order to further an argument for cross-class alliances of women to fight men.64

Other extensive accounts of how and why a working class family was created have been given by Tony Cliff and Lindsey German in particular.65 They both draw extensively on research done by historians of the working class and the family in the 19th century. They both show that although the driving force to constitute a working class family came from above, there was not huge resistance from either women or men:

So there was a coincidence of interests between the capitalist class and the working class. But this did not flow from a patriarchal convergence, as some feminists argue… For working class men and women it came from the wholehearted desire for a better life.66

Both Cliff and German assume, in my view rightly, that men and women do seek relationships with one another and very often do want to have children and bring them up in decent conditions. The conditions wrought by early capitalism were literally wrecking the lives of men, women and children and as German argues: “It was out of these conditions that the demand for protective legislation and the family wage came”.67

The consequences for women.

German asserts that the development of the family wage in mid-19th century Britain, with women supposedly becoming homemakers while men continued to go out to work, came at a price:

However, as a solution to the problems of the working class family it was an extremely narrow and backward looking approach. It implied that women had to be dependent on men for their livelihood, and that men had a greater right to work than women.68

More than that, it led to a development of gender roles allocated to women and men on the basis of a sexual division of labour: the male breadwinner going out to work and the female homemaker responsible for child rearing and work in the household, all because women can bear children. The nuclear family, man, woman and children, came to ossify gender roles and hierarchical relationships with children at the bottom of the hierarchy. It became a prison as well as a haven, a source of conflict as well as solidarity.

However, possibilities of forcing the ruling class to socialise the reproduction of labour power by providing 24-hour nurseries, cafes and restaurants and the like were totally unrealistic in the aftermath of the defeat of the Chartist movement in 1848.69 Instead:

the ruling class was concerned to secure the family as a means of reproducing labour power. The same period also saw serious attempts by the state to regulate sexuality. This was a ruling class offensive designed to impose bourgeois norms of family life on the working class. The Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, by outlawing outdoor relief for unmarried mothers, helped break earlier patterns of premarital sex. Other laws in the 1880s raised the age of consent for girls, regulated obscenity, prostitution and homosexuality and were part of a drive to establish the marriage bed as the sole legitimate place for sexual relations, at least for women.70

Despite all this, the reality did not live up to the ideology about the working class family. Many working class women found they still had to work as their husbands did not get a family wage. Hilary Land argues:

Married women were not expected to make an economic contribution to the household and if they did it was often not perceived to be “productive work”. Men were assumed to earn a family wage. In practice not every man did earn a wage high enough to support a wife and children. Charles Booth’s and Seebohm Rowntree’s poverty surveys carried out at the turn of the century showed that irregular or inadequate wages accounted for a substantial proportion of poverty. Indeed, low wages were the largest single cause of poverty among working class families. Booth, for example, estimated that in London’s East End 30 percent of the population was unable to rely solely on the man’s wage. The economist Arthur Bowley estimated on the basis of the census of 1911 that only 41 percent of working class families were dependent on a man’s wage alone. On average the man’s wage comprised 70 percent of the family income.71

Unsurprisingly, in such circumstances: “Married women had to find some way of contributing to the family income and, not finding it in factory employment, they were forced to earn a little by taking in washing, going out charring, taking in lodgers and childminding—all extensions of women’s normal domestic work”.72

From the post-war boom to today

Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.73

The long period of capitalist expansion that started in the 1930s and continued into the early 1970s brought about enormous changes which have continued until now. In many ways, by 2000, the way of life for women, children and men was unrecognisable compared with a century earlier.

It is worth looking at the changes brought about, by looking first at the changing role of women going out to work, before looking at other important changes and the impact of working class struggle and social movements such as second wave feminism and the LGBT movement. It is also worth stressing that the impact of the long boom on women and the family has to be firmly embedded in the understanding that women bear the brunt of childcare and housework in the family. Women going out to work means women being both oppressed and exploited, with their working lives shaped by the fact of being women and the nature of the oppression being shaped by the question of exploitation.

The key change for women has been their entry into the labour market as wage workers. This started in the 1930s, accelerated with the impact of the Second World War (an aspect of the war made famous by the film Rosie the Riveter) and then slowed for a short time in the aftermath of the war. This trend then accelerated once more, continuing through the period of the long post-war boom and through the various economic crises from 1973 until now. Crises are “sex blind” in the way they work, in the sense that the choice of workplace to close is not decided primarily by whether women or men work there but by the sector undergoing the crisis. The closure of the mines, steel plants and docks in the 1980s, in the main, threw men onto the dole. The differential impact on women today is because of the high percentage of women working in the public sector and the decision by government to cut back the welfare state.

Women today are no longer part of the industrial reserve army of labour but a permanent part of the modern waged workforce. From 1971 to 2011 the economic activity rate among women rose from 59 percent to 74 percent while the female employment rate rose from 56 to 69 percent. In the same period the economic activity rate among men fell from 95 percent in 1971 to 83 percent in 2010 and the employment rate fell from 92 to 75 percent. The employment rate plateaued through the 1990s until today and is lower than in other OECD countries.74

At the same time, the fact that women still do the majority of housework and childcare means that their working lives are still shaped by their role as mothers and homemakers. Women do not leave their oppression inside the door when they go off to work. When they get to work they find they have taken it with them. This shapes women’s lives, regardless of whether they are single, married, cohabiting, divorced or lesbian. Women’s oppression is structured into the world in which we live. Women still do not get equal pay with men. The hourly rate for full-time women workers is still 14.9 percent less than that of men.75 This is a decline of 1.28 percent since 2011. Gaps in pay between men and women vary according to sector, rising to 55 percent in the finance sector and 33 percent in the banking sector.76

The gap between part-time women’s pay and men’s pay is much greater as part-time women’s rate of pay is lower than full-time women’s rate of pay. In 2005-6 it was 26 percent lower than full-time women’s pay. In 1975 the gap was only 10 percent. One of the reasons for this is the greater “part-time pay penalty” in the UK than in other parts of Europe. More women move jobs when they move from full-time to part-time work after having a child.77 This often leads them to taking less skilled and therefore less well-paid work than when they worked full-time. Part-time work is in any case more prevalent in less-skilled and less well-paid sectors:

Compared with women who work full-time, part-time women are more likely to have low levels of education, to be in a couple, to have dependent children that are bothyoung and numerous, to work in small establishments in distribution, hotels and restaurants and to be in low-level occupations. Almost 25 percent of part-time women are shop assistants, care assistants or cleaners. 15 percent of full-time women are managers but only 4.4 percent of part-time women.78

The reason the majority of women work part-time is connected to their role in childcare in the family.

Existing research reveals in broad terms why women work part-time. These reasons include: domestic circumstances; the lack of affordable childcare, access to qualifications; and labour market conditions and opportunities. These circumstances and conditions operate as constraints on women in the labour market. Part-time working is also associated with specific stages in the life cycle. In particular, many women with young children find that only by taking part-time employment can they balance the responsibilities and demands of family life and work.79

In 2010, 29 percent of overall jobs were part-time, of which 75 percent were women’s, with an increase in 10 percent of male part-timers compared with 3 percent of women part-timers.80 However, women’s attitudes also seem to be changing, possibly as a result of the impact of some of the government’s austerity measures.81 For example, an analysis by the TUC shows “that while the number of women who are working part-time but would like to be full-time is on the rise, the number of women working part-time who don’t want a full-time job, often because of family and caring responsibilities, has been falling”.82

One thing is certain, that men and women in the UK have higher childcare costs compared with other parts of Europe: 66 percent of mothers in the UK are in work, compared with 72 percent in France and 86 percent in Denmark.83 Some of the recent changes in childcare support implemented by the government since April 2011 are perverse. Single parents working over 16 hours a week and second earners are worse off. The overwhelming majority, of course, in those two categories are women.84 “By cutting the maximum level of support available through the child care element of Working Tax Credit from 80 percent of costs to 70 percent of costs, the average claim has fallen over £10 per week”.85 At the same time low to middle two-parent households are becoming more than ever dependent on the contribution of women’s pay. In 1968 women’s pay made up 11 percent of the household total, whereas by 2008-9 it had risen to 24 percent.86 If that were not enough, the government is intent on damaging childcare provision by permitting an increase in the ratio of child to carer in nurseries from 1:5 to 1:8.

The changing rate of employment of women has been driven by the needs of capital, even if the hours they work are determined by childcare. But the vast expansion of women’s role as wage-labourers has had enormous social consequences, extending their expectations and powering the rise of the women’s movement.

The working class came out of the Second World War expecting changes and sections of the ruling class fearing revolution. The net result was the development of the welfare state, a system comprising a National Health Service, universal benefits, the building of decent council housing, benefits paid for through national insurance, a safety net for the temporarily unemployed, pensions and maternity services. Thus some of the tasks of the reproduction of labour power were socialised.

Longer schooling and mass university education for young women and men transformed the lives of children and adolescents,87 providing not only some kind of education and training, but arenas for socialisation and experience away from the family. Increasingly, household tasks were mechanised. Washing, which previously took all day and involved heavy work, was transformed with the use of washing machines that washed, then spun clothes, sheets and babies’ nappies. The latter, in turn, have often been replaced by a disposable version. Cleaning was lightened through electrical appliances and different materials used for kitchens and bathrooms. Gradually coal fires came to be replaced by central heating. All these changes have led to a decline in the time spent on household chores, although women still do more than men.88

The same period also brought changes which facilitated a transformation in women’s ability to control their own lives, including their sexuality: the development of reliable forms of contraception, access to legal abortion, easier access to divorce, the right to take out loans, to name but a few: “The conservative mood of the 1950s, reinforced by the Cold War, gave way to a liberalisation of social attitudes”.89 British society continued to become more equal overall,90 with increasing levels of trust, better social relations and increased status of women.91 Working class adults formed couples on the basis of mutual desire or love rather than on the basis of supporting one another in work.

In the 1960s, as these changes were taking place, the level of working class confidence was rising in the key industries of car making, engineering and the mines. In the universities students were starting to agitate over issues such as Ban the Bomb, the Vietnam War and student grievances. The civil rights movement in the United States spilled over into the student movement. A mass student movement developed in Germany and then France culminating in the French general strike of May-June 1968.

All these struggles were mutually reinforcing, raising the confidence of all involved and opening vast numbers of people to new ideas. The ideas of the Women’s Liberation Movement or second wave feminism chimed with the experiences of women workers coming up against problems of unequal pay, job discrimination, problems of childcare and the like. The Ford women sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 forced Barbara Castle, Labour Minister of Employment, to introduce the Equal Pay Act. The ideas about gay and lesbian liberation, arising out of Stonewall, touched a chord with all those who felt unable to openly articulate their same sexual desire.92 Women demanded access to the pill outside of marriage and attitudes to women’s sexuality began to change with the demands of women for sexual satisfaction. Arguments about the appropriateness of wearing short skirts and the picketing of the Miss World competition in 1968 made the point forcibly that women were not sex objects. At the same time, women’s refuges and rape crisis centres were opened in the 1970s to address the very real problems of domestic and sexual violence that the development of the movement made more visible.93

The impact on the form of the family

Entry into work and the changes outlined brought about significant changes to women’s traditional role as mother and housewife. The Social Trends report in 2009 described what has occurred since 1971: a 20 percent decline in births to women under 25; a 51 percent drop in marriage of women by the age of 30. Adults living alone had increased from 6 percent to 12 percent. Single parent households had increased from 4 percent to 11 percent between 1971 and 2008.

The number of married couples in 2009 was the lowest since 1895. In the Second World War there were 471,000 marriages in England and Wales and by 2006 this had dropped to 237,000 marriages. The number of children living with an unmarried couple has risen from 1 million in 1999 to 1.66 million in 2009, while the numbers of children with married couples has dropped from 9.57 million to 8.32 million in the same decade.

Even though the majority of children appear to be born to couples David Wallop reports that 1.12 million children with married couples face a family break up by the age of five compared with 1.2 with cohabitees who face a family break up by the age of five.94

According to Gingerbread, 23 percent of households with dependent children are headed by single parents, 90 percent of whom are women. These households care for 3 million children. 57.2 percent of single parents are in work—an increase of 13 percent since 1997. The rate of employment of single parents varies according to the age of the youngest child but at 71 percent is similar to that of women in couples once the youngest child is 12 years old.

However, a report commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) concluded: “It does not appear that becoming a lone parent is a ‘decision’ taken easily, lightly or wantonly. The single and non-cohabiting lone mothers appear to have the least choice”.95 This lack of choice reflects the extent of damage caused by inequality in the UK. International comparisons of data on single parent families show: “There is no connection between the proportion of single parents and national standards of child well-being.” In Sweden only 6 percent of children with a single parent in work and 18 percent of those without were in relative poverty. In the UK the figures are 7 percent for single parents with jobs and 39 percent for those without.96 Equally, there is a strong connection between inequality in society and child well-being. They stand in inverse relationship to one another.97

Teenage mothers are often denounced as being “feckless”,98 even though they only make up 2 percent of single parents. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out that “there is a strong tendency for more unequal countries and more unequal states to have higher teenage birth rates—much too strong to be attributable to chance”.99 They also argue there is a strong link between poverty and deprivation and teenage births.100

Women’s status as workers continues to underpin many of the advances that have been made, bearing out Marx’s prediction about the undermining of the traditional family and a tendency towards the equalising of relationships.101 Today men and women who enter relationships with one another can get married, cohabit, separate, remarry, cohabit with someone different in either heterosexual or same sex relationships or stay single. Those with children can do the same.

Marriage, cohabitation and single parenthood do not change the fact that couples or single women (and sometimes men) bear the burden of reproduction. Underneath the surface there are possibly class differences between those who marry and those who cohabit that are likely to be reinforced by the £20,000 now spent on the average wedding. What is certain is that single parenthood certainly goes hand in hand with poverty and poverty has the biggest bearing on educational and health outcomes for children.

Changes in sexual behaviour

A great deal is written, rightly, about the commodification of sexuality, but there are also indications that changed attitudes to sexuality have influenced people’s sexual behaviour. German writes:

When the pioneering gynaecologist Helena Wright asked her working class patients in the 1930s what they got out of making love, most of them blinked uncomprehendingly. Sex was much more likely to be something which men wanted, and women suffered… The difference from modern women was total. As Helena Wright says, today “the contrast is extraordinary. The girl’s face shines brilliantly and she says, ‘Oh Doctor, it’s glorious’.”102

There have been other particular changes: “Only 3 percent of women who started having sex in the 1950s had ten or more partners during their lifetime, while 10 percent of women starting intercourse in the 1970s claimed this figure.” “Being in love” is given less frequently as the reason for first intercourse. Based on a study from the 1990s, German continues: “In the age group 16-24, of those who had ever experienced vaginal intercourse, 85 percent had also experienced oral sex”.103

But the invisible hand of the market that pulls women into work intrudes everywhere, even into the most intimate sphere of people’s lives. Women’s bodies became central to advertising and women were encouraged to buy all sorts of products to make themselves look like the advertising images of their own bodies. Since the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement ebbed away, there has been a resurgence of a new sexism. Sex itself has become yet another commodity to be bought and sold; women reshape their bodies into objects for male pleasure, including putting them under the surgeon’s knife. All this with the added twist that the more sexually alluring a women appears to be, supposedly, the more she is empowered. Judith Orr writes about these developments:

This is what marks the new sexism from the old. It reflects and has absorbed the history and language of women’s struggles to assert their sexual needs and desires, to be more than mere objects for the enjoyment of others, all the better to continue that very process. Raunch culture is sold to us as a liberated way to express our sexuality and so, paradoxically, it has persuaded us to accept being objectified in ever more crude and shocking ways.104

So entry into work has partially transformed women’s and men’s and children’s lives with important gains for both women’s autonomy and a degree of sexual freedom unheard of since the establishment of the working class family in the middle of the 19th century. Homophobia continues, but same sex relationships are acceptable. And transexuality is becoming more familiar to a wider number of people in society.

However, the family, regardless of the form it takes, still embodies the privatised reproduction of labour power. And whatever kind of relationship men and women happen to be in, none of us can escape the socialising force of the nuclear family. It is still based on the assumption that a woman should play a particular role as partner and mother because she is able to bear children while men cannot. Thus the gender roles for women and men and the normative view of heterosexuality continue. Commodified sexuality coexists with a prurience about teaching children and adolescents about sexuality. Since our species does not teach sexuality through observation of the sex act, unlike other species, everyone has to learn the best way he or she can, through trial and error, and pornography in a society where women are supposed to be eternally young and sexually alluring for men and patterns of long hours of work and stress make the real prospects of satisfying personal relationships more and more difficult.

Domestic and sexual violence

“No one walks down the aisle in a white dress thinking they are doing this for the benefit of capital or to reproduce the next generation of workers”.105 The family is the place women and men expect to be loved and cherished, perhaps to bring up children, whether their own or those of their partner. However, the stresses and strains of daily life can make that a nearly impossible task. The family creates expectations about hierarchy and gender roles for all men and women and children, which can be unbearable for individual family members. Often relationships creak under the strains they are expected to bear; sometimes the family is an unbearable place to be and at times it explodes.

The facts about domestic and sexual violence make this all too clear.106 Some 54 percent of UK rapes are committed by a woman’s current or former partner. On average, two women a week are killed by a male partner or a former partner. Serious sexual assault is most likely to be committed by someone known to both female and male victims. “Abused women are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, eating problems and sexual dysfunction.” Children also suffer: “They are at increased risk of behavioural problems and emotional trauma, and mental health difficulties in adult life… In 75 percent to 90 percent of incidents of domestic violence, children are in the same or the next room.”

The almost constant stream of revelations about sexual harassment and worse in the public domain are a reminder, if one were needed, that women are not necessarily safe at work. The Jimmy Savile scandal is appalling, showing that a serial child abuser close to Margaret Thatcher and the political establishment was allowed to prey on young people for decades. This is appalling not just because it revealed the extent of the sexist culture within the BBC in Savile’s time, but what emerged about the BBC today. An article about the BBC in the Observer, written by an anonymous TV producer, recounts one incident after another of women having to listen to sexual innuendos (so-called “banter”), or being groped by “sleazy” men. She concluded: “In an industry with virtually no job security, with even the channels themselves turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, it’s little wonder that women are resigned to putting up and shutting up. It’s why you won’t find my name on this piece—and perhaps why the likes of Jimmy Savile got away with it for so long”.107

As explained at the beginning of this article, feminists and socialists combined in the 1970s to campaign successfully in defence of abortion rights. Today there is no reason why a similar campaign in unions and workplaces could not be equally successful in establishing that sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable. The acceptance of sexist language in society should be challenged.108 Far from empowering women, it reflects the view that women are subordinate to men and reducible to their sexuality. The problem of sexual harassment is very often linked to the power of the employer and fears women have of losing their job or chance of career progression. Women, gay, lesbian and trans people need to be encouraged to join the relevant union and get the unions to take up their complaints.109 Indeed, in the Russian Reolution of 1917, women workers settled accounts with sexist foremen and employers. Equally, employers should be forced to combat sexual harassment in workplaces and to keep their hands and comments to themselves.110

The centrality of wage labour

Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, Lenin and Trotsky were all insistent on the importance of women workers. The reason is, in part, what Rosa Luxemburg said so succinctly: “Where the chains are forged there they must be broken”.111 The only power that can contest the power of the ruling class and the state lies in the ability of the working class to take control over the whole of production and the functioning of society. Collectively, workers are powerful.

But there are also other reasons that are intrinsic to Marx’s theory of revolution. Being in work changes the individual from being a private citizen into a social citizen. Whatever the task, paid work makes an individual part of a collective with independent means—a wage or salary that belongs to him or her. It inserts the individual into a collective with contact with other workers, people you can talk to and socialise with.112

It also has an impact on gender roles. Engels wrote up his own observations of the impact of industrialisation on men and women in The Condition of the Working Class in England. He draws attention to the way in which older and younger women break out of their normal roles as wives and children, going to the pub straight after work, drinking away their wages and defying the authority of their husbands and fathers.113 Engels continues:

We must admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can have come to pass only because the sexes have been placed in a false position from the beginning. If the reign of the wife over the husband brought about by the factory system, is inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the wife must have been inhuman too.114

These kinds of insights are borne out by the way in which modern women’s behaviour is becoming more like that of men in such matters as drinking, smoking and socialising. Similar effects have been identified in relation to women’s response to rape inside marriage: “A woman’s ability to leave marriages after being raped is also heavily conditioned by economic factors. Most women, some 87 percent in fact, tried to leave and 77 percent succeeded”.115

Being at work is also potentially a great leveller. When the employer attacks pay and conditions, brings disciplinary charges or wants to make changes, the only means of effective resistance is a collective one. And developing a collective response requires meetings, discussion and decisions. Frequently it is the younger workers who are most daring.116 A meeting in January of London National Union Teachers school representatives was dominated by women speakers articulating the anger of their members at government attacks and demanding the union lead a fight.

When votes are taken at workplace meetings, everyone, whether man or woman, gay, lesbian or straight, black or white, Christian, Muslim or atheist has only one vote and therefore finds themselves in a position of equal status with the other. Thus the process of class struggle itself sets up a dynamic which is both democratic and gives a voice to everyone. That is why Marx could talk about the potential transformation of relationships between men and women as a result of the creation of the modern working class.

The impact of austerity

In the UK today work is not a route out of poverty and single parent households are twice as likely to be poor as households with couples. The UK is already one of the most unequal societies. The wave after wave of austerity measures being implemented by the government can only make that inequality worse as support systems for the most vulnerable are whittled down and kicked away. But cuts to the public sector hit women doubly hard as they make up 65 percent of the public sector workforce. So women public sector workers find their pay is frozen and that they have to work longer for a reduced pension. The cuts in services are hitting women hardest, followed by pensioners.

The cuts are reaching to every corner of people’s lives from transport costs through education to housing. The cap in housing benefit due to come into force in April 2013 will set in train a form of class cleansing as “poor” families are forced out of areas where they can no longer pay the rent. The uprating of benefits by the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index hits women more than men as 30 percent of women rely on state support compared with 15 percent of men. Some 50,000 jobs in health are set to go to achieve the £15 to 20 billion savings demanded by the government. Cuts in mental health provision will hit women who are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and from domestic and sexual violence. Social care budgets for the elderly are being cut on average by 8 percent. The majority of users of such services are women as the carers. The Sure Start budget, which provides services for 68 percent of parents with children under one year, is no longer being ring fenced; 3,000 posts for youth workers are being cut. Support provided by councils for rape crisis centres is disappearing.117 On every single measure, those who are already vulnerable will be hit hardest.

There is no way that women and existing family structures will be able to substitute for state provision as it disappears. Life at the bottom of society is going to get meaner and tougher as a direct result of government policy, with single women and single parents with their children among the worst affected.

We have seen how the aftermath of the Second World War led to a transformation in women’s lives with women being drawn into work and elements of the reproduction of labour power being taken over by the welfare state and mass education. This undermined the traditional nuclear family and opened up a space for a greater variety of more equal relationships giving greater freedom to women and men, bearing out one of Marx’s predictions about the impact of work on relations between men and women. However, these trends are limited by the realities of capitalist crisis and the continuation of the family as the key institution for the reproduction of labour power.

The current obsession of the ruling class with austerity measures will continue to hit women workers in the public sector but still leave them strategically placed both in the public sector and in the economy overall. Austerity will seriously undermine the very institution, the working class family, the government expect to take over the reins of the welfare state it is dismantling. Millions of people are going to suffer.

But there will be resistance. It will no doubt take many different forms as the student demonstrations over student fees, the SlutWalks, the Occupy movement, the marches over hospital closures and the one-day strikes over pensions, have shown. But women workers are now at the very heart of the working class movement, in unparalleled numbers and levels of union organisation. Women workers need to use their collective strength (alongside men) to fight over pensions, jobs, pay and services and against sexism. Revolutionary socialists have a key role to play in encouraging and participating in resistance whether it is to sexist comments, harassment, the government’s austerity measures or bosses’ attacks on wages and conditions. Equally, it is of fundamental importance to win the strategic argument with all those in struggle, students, workers and the unemployed alike, that women are both exploited and oppressed in capitalist society and that women must look to their collective strength as workers alongside male workers to bring down a society which both exploits and oppresses women.


1: X

2: Gold, 2012.

3: Quoted in Martinson, 2012.

4: The recent death of a woman in the Republic of Ireland, as a result of being refused an abortion, is a reminder of the importance of the right to free, legal abortions.

5: The SlutWalk protest marches began on 3 April 2011, in Toronto, Canada, after Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a police officer, suggested that to remain safe, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Participants expressed their rage at trying to explain or excuse rape by referring to any aspect of a woman’s appearance. Similar marches were held across the world.

6: If my memory serves me correctly, it was the then national secretary of the International Socialists who suggested the slogan when I was women’s organiser and editor of Women’s Voice.

7: See Federici, 2012, and Vogel, 1983 (but about to be reprinted).

8: Quoted by Brown, 2012, p28.

9: This point will be further developed in later sections of the article.

10: Brown, 2012, p28.

11: Quoted in Harman, 1994, p85-86.

12: Brown, 2012, pp54-55.

13: Cliff, 1974.

14: Brown, 2012, p55.

15: “Above all, it [the new social order] will have to take the control of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals, and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole-that is, for the common account, according to a common plan, and with the participation of all members of society… It will, in other words, abolish competition and replace it with association”-Engels, 1847.

16: Vogel, 1983, chapter 6.

17: This depends on dating skeletons from the human line, Brenot and Picq, 2012, p85.

18: Harman, 1994, p89. In its narrowest sense, sexual reproduction does not change, how individuals make sexual approaches to one another, and what sexual practices are considered acceptable or otherwise are shaped socially and historically.

19: Brenot and Picq, 2012, p42.

20: Brenot and Picq, 2012, p43.

21: You can’t see whether a woman is ovulating by looking at her body, so a “desire” for sex has to be signalled in other ways.

22: See Harman, 1994. Harman draws heavily on the writings of anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock, Richard Lee and Colin Turnbull among many.

23: A survey of the accounts of hunter-gatherer societies shows a huge range of tasks undertaken by women. See Harman, 1994, and McGregor, 1989.

24: Marx sees this as essential for the reproduction of the species, a position with which I would hope most people would concur.

25: See Blackwood, 1985, pp27-42.

26: In fact, Marshall Sahlins coined the term “the original affluent society”: quoted in Harman, 1994, p118.

27: Harman draws heavily on the Marxist archaeologist V Gordon Childe and C K Maisels for this account-Harman, 1994.

28: Harman, 1994, pp134-139.

29: Engels, 1978.

30: Quoted in Engels, 1978, p97.

31: Cliff, 1984, p196. See also German, 1981, p37, and Harman, 1984, p5.

32: Marx, 1976, p718.

33: Marx, 1976, Engels, 1993.

34: Harman, 1984, p7.

35: See Brown, 2012, pp72-76.

36: Quoted in Vogel, 1983, p35.

37: Vogel, 1983, p34.

38: “They fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods and themselves with the myth of Ganymede”, in a discussion about the low status of women in Greek society-Engels, 1978, p74. There is a debate about the translation of the German, as the expression is “die Wiederwärtigkeit der Knabenliebe” , which could perhaps be better translated as “the unpleasant nature of sodomy”. Regardless of that, this is a case of condemning Engels for not rising above the prejudices of his day. He didn’t in this case, but his overall approach to understanding how society shapes men and women provides a sympathetic reader with necessary tools of analysis.

39: “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life”-Engels, 1978, p4.

40: Vogel, 1983, p168.

41: Marx, 1976, pp717-718.

42: Breugel, 1976, German, 1981, Harman, 1984.

43: Ennis, 1974, p27.

44: Ennis, 1974, p27.

45: Ennis, 1974, p27.

46: Ennis, 1974, p26, German, 1981.

47: Breugel, 1976, p22, and Dallas Hamilton, 1976, p22.

48: Federici, 2012, p8.

49: Federici, 2012, p9.

50: Odih, 2007, p11.

51: Women spend on average ten hours a week and men seven-German, 2007, p112.

52: German, 2007, p111.

53: Quoted in German, 1981, p36.

54: Quoted in Humphries, 1981, p3.

55: Humphries, 1981, pp13-14.

56: Humphries, 1981, p17.

57: Humphries, 1981, p15.

58: Humphries, 1981, p14.

59: Humphries, 1981, p26.

60: Humphries, 1981, p22.

61: Humphries, 1981, p23.

62: Humphries, 1981, p25.

63: Humphries, 1981, p23. Too many miners celebrated Saint Monday!

64: See German, 1981, for a review of Juliet Mitchell and Heidi Hartmann in particular, Harman, 1984, for a review of the debate in International Socialism, and Molyneux, 1979, for a review of Christine Delphy.

65: Cliff, 1984, and German 1989, 2007.

66: German, 1989, p34.

67: German, 1981, p37.

68: German, 1989, p35.

69: Cliff, 1984, p202.

70: McGregor, 1989, p10.

71: Land, 1980, pp55-77.

72: Land, 1980, pp55-77.

73: Marx and Engels, 1848.

74: From “The Missing Million” report –



77: In my school the head will not contemplate a head of faculty going part-time, so any woman who needs to go part-time has to give up her responsibilities and therefore take a substantial pay cut.


79: Grant, Yeandle, and Buckner, 2005.


81: The interaction of the changes in the tax and benefit system for adults with young children needing childcare are complex. Each individual/couple has to look carefully at their income to see where and how the changes will impact on them. Very often a second earner will find she is working for nothing, such are the costs of childcare. See Alakeson and Hurrell, 2012.

82: Harris, 2012.

83: McVeigh, 2012.

84: Alakeson and Hurrell, 2012.

85: Daycare Trust, 2013.


87: “Between 1960 and 1965 there was a 57 percent increase in women gaining degrees (the equivalent rise for men was 25 percent)”-Orr, 2010, p 31.

88: German, 2007, p111.

89: McGregor, 1989, p12.

90: Danny Dorling dates the start of the process of becoming more equal in the UK and France to the 1930s lasting through until the 1970s-Dorling, 2012, p102.

91: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p58.

92: For a comprehensive analysis of the period, see Harman, 1988.

93: The first one opened in London in 1976-Cochrane, 2012.

94: Wallop, 2009.


96: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p187.

97: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p23.

98: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p119.

99: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p125.

100: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, pp125 and 142. They present a case for teenagers becoming mothers in response to low self-esteem. The conception rate is similar across teenagers, but abortion is a way out.

101: “However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large-scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes”-Marx, 1976, pp620-621.

102: German, 2007, p20.

103: All quotes from German, 2007, p43.

104: Orr, 2010, p36.

105: German, 2007, p58.

106: Statistics from

107: Anonymous, 2012.

108: The words “bitch” and “cunt” are often used by women and some people, like Laurie Penny, argue it is empowering.

109: Schools already have to provide “Child Protection Officers” so children and adults know who to report suspected child abuse to.

110: This is an adaption of a formula used in schools where children are in the habit of fighting and making nasty comments to themselves.

111: Luxemburg, 1918.

112: Over the last five months I have been struck by the way in which work has provided a form of community for a group of women who were all pregnant about the same time. Not only could they discuss among themselves how best to tackle everything, but other women, mothers, were on hand to pass on their advice. It also served to educate others, including fathers to be, about the different phases of pregnancy and what it entailed. There is also a tradition of informally introducing babies to the staff. So new fathers and mothers bring in their babies who get passed around the staff to hold, with a great many men showing their expertise when taking their turn.

113: Engels quotes Lord Ashley in the House of Commons on this: “A man berated his two daughters for going to the public house, and they answered that they were tired of being ordered about, saying ‘Damn you, we have to keep you!’ Determined to keep the proceeds of their work for themselves, they left the family dwelling, and abandoned their parents to their fate”-Engels, 1993, p15. Marx is also often ambiguous in his comments about the impact of the new factory conditions on women. See Brown, 2012, pp84-92, for a sympathetic analysis of Marx and morality.

114: Engels, 1993, p156.

115: McGregor, 1989, p18.

116: Where I work it is often, but not always, the young women who are most vociferous about fighting back.

117: All the figures are taken from Stephenson, 2011.


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