National Sections of the L5I:

Women, work and family

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Women carry out unpaid work in the home and growing numbers also labour outside the home for lower wages than men. But is there a contradiction between the state’s policy on the family and the bosses’ plans for the workforce? Helen Watson investigates.

Marxists have long argued that a vital part of the fight for women’s liberation involves drawing women into the employed workforce. In the nineteenth century Marx’s lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, wrote:

“ . . . to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social production and restricted to private domestic labour. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit the employment of female labour over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends toward ending private domestic labour by changing it more and more into a public industry.”1

Developments in modern capitalism seem to both affirm and contradict Engels’ view. It is certainly true that more and more women have been drawn into social production. It is also true that certain aspects of domestic labour have been socialised. Nevertheless, the reality for millions of women who work outside the home is that when they finish their shift for a boss they return home only to begin another one on behalf of the family, doing the housework and looking after the family. Their oppression appears to be intensified by this “double shift”. This has led some feminists to challenge Engels’ view as simplistic and over-optimistic. Heidi Hartmann wrote:

“For Engels, then, women’s participation in the labour force was the key to their emancipation. Capitalism would abolish sex differences and treat all workers equally. Women would become economically independent of men and would participate on an equal footing with men in bringing about the proletarian revolution. After the revolution when all people would be workers and private property abolished, women would be emancipated from capital as well as from men.”2

Sheila Rowbotham, a socialist feminist, argued:

“One strand of Marxism, following Engels, tended to be optimistic about the potential of women’s involvement in the labour force. Marxists still [in the 1970s] stressed that work enabled women to organise and challenge capitalism—despite considerable evidence that this was not an automatic process . . .”3

These criticisms of Engels miss the point. He wasn’t suggesting that liberation would come simply as a result of women being transformed from domestic slaves into wage slaves. Nor did Engels, or any Marxists since, believe that entry into the workforce would automatically eradicate women’s oppression. What Engels did identify was that the entry of women into social production and waged work would achieve two things: it would provide women with some economic independence from their fathers or husbands, creating a greater potential for them being able control their own lives; it would also draw women into social production with the potential for raised class consciousness, socialisation with other workers, and the possibility of collective action to change society. Both of these implied benefits require the conscious organisation and struggle of the working class, particularly women, to be realised.

Women have increased their economic independence as a result of work to some extent, but low wages mean that this is not absolute economic independence. The last twenty years has seen a big increase in the number of professional women who earn enough to live alone and even to support children, but they are a minority of women. The great majority of working class women face considerable poverty if they choose to live alone with their children. But even limited economic independence should not be dismissed—more women are able to leave violent and abusive relationships with men, and more women are seeking divorce and choosing to live differently than forty years ago.

There is no doubt that work does increase women’s socialisation and companionship, generally with other women, and this is one reason often given by women for wanting to keep their jobs. Women say they appreciate the socialisation of work and prefer not to stay at home full time.4 Some jobs make this very difficult—working in isolated workplaces as cleaners, for example—but for other women this is a great gain over the isolation of staying in the home. To develop this into class consciousness, in organisation and struggle to improve conditions and challenge oppression, women must actively organise within the labour movement.

The feminists who criticise Engels should examine the balance sheet of the last hundred years. Is it the case that the situation for many working class women, primarily in the imperialist countries, has changed for the better? The fact that there are more women involved in the labour movement and in political life, that there have been a whole series of struggles by women workers, even that attitudes towards women workers have changed (albeit only to a limited extent) are all indications that some improvement has taken place as a direct result of the mass entry of women into the workforce.

But women’s oppression has not been eliminated, nor has the bulk of domestic work has been socialised. Capitalism is incapable of achieving such things. Its crisis ridden development has produced a new situation. Many women have been successfully drawn into social production, thereby creating the possibility for such women to collectively fight oppression as workers. But capitalism continues to impose the burden of the maintenance of the family and of domestic labour, more or less exclusively, onto the shoulders of women. This contradiction is an explosive one.

In recent recessions the capitalist state has attempted to cut public spending and shift more of the burden of care back into the family away from collective state institutions, yet at the same time women’s employment has continued to expand while that of men has fallen. Without a fundamental shift in domestic responsibilities away from women, a reversal of the trend towards cutting state welfare provision, or a decline in women’s work outside the home there will be a growing conflict between domestic and work responsibilities for women.

The capitalists in many countries are split over how to deal with this contradiction. Should they increase social provision to help women to remain in work, or should they push women back into the home? Neo-liberal policies have promoted the expansion of women’s work because of the lower wage and other costs for the bosses and the greater flexibility of hours that can be worked by women. While the bosses hope that this in turn will exert pressure on men to accept lower wages and greater flexibility, they also have to contend with the consequences for family life of greater male unemployment, and of the changes in household responsibilities that result from women going out to work.

Alongside the growth in women’s employment there have been significant social changes—divorce has become easier in many countries, abortion and contraception are more widely available, and more women are entering further and higher education. The impact of these developments on the working class has been great. Single parent families have increased in number and divorce rates have risen. These changes could undermine the ability of the family to take responsibility for welfare provision when the state tries to cut public spending.

There has been an increase in women’s employment in most imperialist countries since the early 1950s, after a brief decline in the late 1940s as women were thrown out of their war-time jobs. The growing proportion of women in the labour force in the UK and Sweden are shown in Figures 1 & 2, but trends are similar in much of Western Europe and North America. This rise means that women now make up almost half of the workforce in most countries (Figure 3), and are even becoming a majority in some areas.5

Alongside this general increase, there has been a more dramatic increase over the past two decades in the numbers of married women and women with children who continue to work (Figures 1 & 2).

In Britain, the biggest change in employment in the last two decades is the increase in married women’s work—in 1971 fifty per cent of married women worked; by 1990 that had risen to 71%, while the proportion of single women working remained stable at 72%.6

This means that women are working outside the home for most of their adult lives, with shorter periods of time off for childcare and domestic responsibilities. In the 1950s and 1960s women tended to work before the birth of their first child, and then possibly again after the children had grown up.

Now women are more likely to take only a few years off around the birth of their children.

While these figures show a convincing trend, there are many disputes over how to interpret them. The high economic activity rates for women with children in Sweden and France, for example, are related to systems of maternity leave and benefit which allow women time off while still registering as “economically active”. In other countries, such as the UK, where maternity benefits are far more restrictive, there is still a drop in women’s work at the ages when they have small children.

The increase in women’s employment in the imperialist countries has been associated with a general shift in employment away from heavy industry and manufacturing, and towards greater employment in lighter industries and service sectors. There has always been a strong segregation of the workforce under capitalism, with women concentrated in different industries to men. Within the same industries women predominate in jobs with lower grades. This segregation has meant that the decline in traditional manufacturing and extractive industries such as mining and steel has caused a loss of male jobs, while the expansion of the service sector and industries promoted an increase in women’s jobs. In Britain, for example, in the years 1971-1991 2.8 million fewer men and 2 million more women were employed.

The result is that during the recent recession while overall employment has fallen, it is male jobs that have been hit hardest. In Britain in 1991-2, 1.75 million compulsory redundancies were notified, of which 60% were male, 40% female. In the late 1970s many expected that recession would push women back into the home, and indeed for a period women were losing their jobs twice as fast as men. However, as a whole, the period after 1973 has witnessed female employment rise, both during periods of recession and recovery. This trend is clear in the UK, the US and much of Western Europe. This “substitution” of female for male labour is partly due to the shift in employment away from heavy industry, but is also due to the growth in part time work.

In Britain, the total number of people with jobs rose from 23.3 million in 1961 to 25.7 million in 1991, but this included an increase in part time work from 2.1 to 6.7 million, and a decrease in full time work from 21.3 to 19.0 million. During the last recession, 90% of the compulsory redundancies notified from 1991-2 were for full time jobs.

The increase in women’s employment is therefore the result of a combination of factors. The overall restructuring of the workforce away from heavy industry, the growth in part time work, demands from women for work and greater preference for women workers by many employers all play a key role. One of the main attractions for the bosses is that women’s wages are much lower than men’s. This is true for hourly rates, overall income and for fixed costs of employment such as pensions and benefits, because in most countries women are less likely to be entitled to full benefits.

The ruling class gains enormously from the greater employment of women. But on the other hand, while most women now work for most of their adult lives, they are still responsible for the vast majority of domestic work and child-care. This creates problems not only for the women, who have to juggle two roles, but also for the government which needs women to plug an increasingly wide gap left by the state’s withdrawal from child-support and other provision.

Occasionally this becomes a problem for individual employers, who find that they have to provide workplace nurseries and more generous holiday leave to keep skilled women employees from giving up work. But in general it is an issue for governments, and their response varies from country to country.

In France, for example, government policy has fluctuated with the fortunes of the economy. In the post-war period when employment was growing, the government combined family policies designed to strengthen the family unit and increase the birth rate with employment policies designed to promote women’s work to meet labour shortages. The subsequent growth in unemployment prompted a number of policies designed to give additional support to families where the woman stays at home to look after children, and to those who have three or more children.

In the mid-1980s the Mitterrand government introduced a “bringing up” allowance awarded for the third child, paid for two years to a parent who stopped working. This, combined with tax and benefit advantages, encourages women to stay at home. Women with three or more children are much less likely to work. However, those with one or two children are highly integrated into work, through the extensive state child-care provision. There are far more nursery places in France than in many other countries, such as the UK, so that 33% of two year olds, 80% of three year olds and 97% of 4 to 6 year olds attend nurseries.7

The position in Britain is very different, but the same conflicts exist. In post-war Britain the government had similar concerns about the stability of the family. It developed policies to rebuild the family, promoting adequate mothering and an increase in the birth rate. They did this in part by increasing state welfare provision, such as the National Health Service, and through direct financial incentives, in the form of the family allowance, to encourage women to have children. Women’s work outside the home was explicitly condemned by psychologists, doctors, state officials and the media. An East London Magistrate wrote in 1955:

“Quite simply it seems to me that by far the most far-reaching change in modern society is that the family is not considered to be so important as it used to be and it is because of this that we have in our midst so many suffering, unhappy and delinquent children . . . legislation regulating the working hours of mothers of school age children is one of the most urgent reforms required for the creation of good homes.”8

In fact such legislation was not introduced, but married women were discouraged from working. The welfare changes introduced in this period were based on concepts developed by Lord Beveridge, who assumed that a married woman, whether or not she had children, would not work outside the home and would therefore be effectively treated as dependent on her husband. The welfare policies developed were to assist women in their role as full-time mother and housewife, rather than to relieve her of any responsibilities. So the launch of the great welfare state saw 50% of war-time nurseries close by 1955.

At the same time the government faced a shortage of labour and many women who had worked during the war were resistant to being thrown back into the home, so the employment of women began to rise again. Married women worked, but generally before having children and again once the children had left home—creating two peaks of women’s employment by age. Gradually women with children also began to work more, so that by the 1970s non-working mothers were a minority. However, because the state refused to reverse policies on childcare, and because of its ideological commitment to non-working mothers, women had to combine work with their domestic responsibilities.

Throughout the 1980s Britain was ruled by a series of Tory governments bent on a radical scaling down of state provision. They set out: “to encourage families to resume responsibilities taken on by the state, for example responsibility for the disabled, the elderly and unemployed 18-year olds.”9

This has been achieved by cutting social provision, removing benefit entitlement to young workers, and closing hospitals and other care institutions. Childcare provision remains very low in Britain, with fewer than half the number of day care places for under five year olds than there were in 1945. In 1985 only 20% of 3-4 year olds were in primary schools compared with more than 50% in most European Community (as it was then called) countries. Families have to make their own arrangements, including expensive private childcare—parents of pre-school children now pay 4.5 times as much on childcare as they did eleven years ago. This is in addition to the care provided within the family—50% of childcare for women working is provided by husbands, compared with only 16% in the USA.10

For millions of women workers and their families this creates greater problems balancing work and home lives, and yet working class families cannot afford to exist with only one income, especially if they have extra caring costs in the home. In order to carry out their domestic responsibilities an increasing proportion of women work part time (Figure 3).

What has happened overall, is that women have continued to balance their work and home responsibilities, while providing a highly exploited workforce for the bosses. The working class as a whole, and women in particular, are paying a high price for capitalism’s crises through long hours of work at their double shift. Men have lost full-time higher paid jobs, another way of making the working class pay for capitalism’s inadequacies.

The ideology of “a woman’s place” being in the home is still strong. This ideal has been consciously challenged by socialists and some feminists, but it seems as if men have not taken on very much of the domestic work. One study in Britain showed that working women have only 22 hours of leisure per week, compared with 49 hours for men.11 And within the home there is still a sharp segregation between “men’s” and “women’s” tasks. So women still do the housework, before and after their work shift, and are still the ones to take time off if the children or other family members are ill.

This brings us back to the debate we began with—does work liberate women? The answer is clearly no. But the question is wrong. Work, in and of itself, is not a liberator under capitalism. It is a means of enslavement. For women that enslavement is taking on the form of the double shift, with increased domestic responsibilities imposed on them because the capitalist state cannot afford the level of welfare spending required to seriously socialise domestic labour.

But work is a means of entering social life and of forging collective links with other workers. For women this is and remains a great advantage. It is the key to advancing the struggle for women’s liberation, but it is not in itself the bringer of liberation. To capitalise on this advantage the working class, and women workers in particular, must embark on a great organising drive. Today women are generally less well organised in the unions than men—in Britain the proportion of working women organised in unions is 32%, compared with 39% for men.12 This is due to the type of jobs women have and particularly to the number of part time workers. But it is even more difficult for women to be active trade unionists, due to the lack of meetings in work time, problems of organising childcare, and the inhospitable nature of some union meetings. Therefore women are often poorly represented in the leadership structures of unions. Women also tend to be under-represented in political parties and campaigning organisations, again a reflection of their domestic burdens and social oppression.

To address these problems we must fight for the re-organisation of the unions along lines that open them up to women workers, with meetings in work time, with child-care facilities, with women’s caucuses in the unions. Unions must be made to become champions of the struggle to stop the capitalists savaging the welfare provisions that can alleviate some of the effects of women’s oppression.

They must fight for a level of welfare provision that can begin to genuinely socialise domestic labour—24 hour creche facilities, massive expansion of hospital provision, good quality state run homes for those who require permanent care, and so on.

Unions fighting for such goals can become attractive organisations to the millions of unorganised part-time women, provided that they also actively seek to unionise such women and promise them real support in their fight for equal wages, job security and equal pension and benefit rights.

All of these measures point towards women’s liberation. And they can best be fought for by women workers, and the class as a whole, organised collectively, as workers.

In this sense Engels’ view on the importance of drawing women into social production retains its full validity. Playing a full role in the struggle against capitalism as workers is liberatory. Victory in that struggle, the achievement of working class power, can lay the basis for complete liberation.

Women workers have been involved in militant struggles, fighting for equal pay, improved conditions and for union recognition. What we have not yet seen is the creation of permanent, militant, organisations of working class women fighting specifically against oppression and exploitation at work. Building such organisations is a key task for the working class in coming years. Unless women and men organise, the bosses will shift more and more of the costs of their economic crisis onto the working class. l

1 F Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, London, 1972
2 H Hartmann, “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union”, in L Sargent (ed) Women and Revolution, the unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism, a debate on class and patriarchy. London, 1981.
3 S Rowbotham, The past is before us, feminism in action since the 1960s. London, 1989.
4 Reported in Fiscal Studies, November 1993. Based on interviews with 13,000 adults in the Government’s UK Family Expenditure Survey for 1991.
5 Women are the majority of the workforce in several areas of the UK—in South Wales and parts of London, for example. The participation rate for women is 1.5% higher for women than men in South London. In East Germany prior to reunification, women made up 50.6% of the workforce.
6 Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1991. General Household Survey, London, HMSO.
7 P Bouillaguet-Bernard and A Gauvin, “Women, the state and the family in France: contradictions of state policy for women’s employment”, in J Rubery (ed) Women and Recession, London, 1988.
8 B Henriques, an East London Magistrate, cited in J Lewis, Women in Britain since 1945; women, family, work and the state in the post-war years. Oxford, 1992.
9 Report from the Family Policy Group, 1983.
10 J Lewis op cit
11 Cited in S Newell, “The Superwoman Syndrome: gender differences in attitudes towards equal opportunities at work and towards domestic responsibilities at home”. Work, Employment and Society, 7(2):275- 289, 1993
12 “Still a long road to equality”, Labour Research, 83(3);5-7, 1994.

Women have always worked

The majority of women have always “worked”, carrying out both domestic and waged labour. The changes that Engels anticipated, and that we have seen in the post-war period, relate to waged labour. Before industrial capitalism women worked within the household—not simply on tasks associated with what we now call “housework”, but as part of the family as an economic unit, producing on the land or in the home. Some of the products were for the family, some destined for the market. In 1930, Ivy Pinchbeck, in a classic study of women and the industrial revolution, wrote:

“It is often assumed that the woman worker was produced by the Industrial Revolution, and that since that time women have taken an increasing share in the world’s work. This theory is, however, quite unsupported by facts. In every industrial system in the past women have been engaged in productive work and their contribution has been recognised as an indispensable factor.

But for centuries, under the handicraft and domestic systems, the greater part of their work was carried on in the home and there taken for granted. It was only when new developments brought about the separation of home and workshop that a far greater number of women than ever before were compelled to follow their work and become wage earners in the outside world.” [Pinchbeck, 1981]

During the industrial revolution in Britain, women were drawn into waged labour in large numbers, as were children in some sectors. This trend created terrible hardship for the working class with long hours and intense exploitation of all members of a family.

The reasons for this were clear—capitalism needed more and more labour to increase its profits and, by drawing more members of the working class family into waged labour the wages for each one could be reduced, because the costs of the reproduction of their labour power were reduced.[Marx]

The human cost of the employment of women and children in the factories and mines was enormous, damaging the health and welfare of the whole working class. Where previously women combined productive work in the household with domestic work for the family, now women were out for long hours with no time for domestic work.

The second half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century saw a reversal in this trend, with the widespread exclusion of married women and children from the industrial workforce. This happened for a number of reasons—pressure from the working class demanding protection for children and women workers from the worst effects of exploitation, moves by the male trade unions to exclude women from production because female labour was seen to undermine their wage levels, and moves within the capitalist state to regulate hours and conditions of the working class.

While individual capitalists could make greater profits through increased exploitation of the whole working class in waged labour, this could not be sustained indefinitely as it was undermining the health of the working class. The labour power of the workers has to be reproduced if capitalism is to have a new generation to exploit, and this means workers having time for domestic work and care for children.

Achieving the time necessary for such reproduction was a gain for the working class in the nineteenth century, but it was carried out in a way that reinforced the oppression of women. Rather than all workers having time for domestic work, the working class family was re-established with the woman responsible for all domestic work.

Although many women continued to work in waged labour, the “ideal” family promoted both by the ruling class, the state and most trade unions, was of the male breadwinner with a non-working wife looking after the children at home.

The first half of the twentieth century therefore saw a much lower level of female participation in waged work, particularly for married women. This was reinforced in Britain by a marriage bar at the turn of the century which excluded married women from some sectors of employment.

The long term trends in female employment in Britain show that from 1851 to 1871, 40-42% of adult women worked. This fell to 32% in 1881 and stayed around that level until 1931 when it began to rise again.

These figures, based on census returns, are likely to be underestimates due to the under-reporting of some types of female work (such as domestic based work for other people, homework and casual work), but show how women, particularly married women, were excluded from work.