Against feminism, for the working class
Geraldine Duffy writes for International Women's Day in March 1985
These extracts from a Geraldine Duffy International Women’s Day supplement in the March 1985 issue of The Leninist - forerunner of the Weekly Worker - obviously had political limitations. But, for all its occasional roughness, it drew real strength from the inspiring, living example of the Women Against Pit Closures movement. As comrade Duffy wrote in her intro, “our thoughts and hopes [went] out to the fighting women in the mining communities” and the “magnificent example for all working class women” they provided.
Women take sides
They talk about statistics,
about the price of coal.
The cost of our community
is dying on the dole.
In fighting for our future
we’ve found ways to organise.
Where women’s liberation failed to move,
this strike has mobilised.1
The message in this verse sparked the latest round in the debate over the women’s question within the Communist Party. In general terms the party is deeply riven and this expresses itself in a particularly vivid way over the question of women. It was comrade Barbara McDermot who quoted the song in a pointed article in the Star arguing that women mobilised by the miners’ strike owed nothing to the women’s liberation movement.
The barb was caught by the feminists in the party, whose response to comrade McDermot was very much a defensive one. The replies to her article in Communist Focus (the Euros’ factional paper for conducting inner-party struggle) demonstrate that the role of women in the miners’ strike is indeed a ticklish theme for the feminists. The best counter-argument that this trend have come up with is that the pit women’s movement would have been impossible without the increased confidence given to all women by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s: “The growth of a women’s movement in the coalfields ... would have been inconceivable without the changes brought about in women’s confidence and in the circumstances of women by the women’s liberation movement.”2
This is the sort of distortion that has been used by feminists since their emergence. At the beginning of the century bourgeois women began to struggle to enter the professions and the obstructions put in their path gave rise to “‘feminism’ - the attempt of bourgeois women to stand together and pit their common strength against the enemy, against men”.3
The women who were demonstrating at [Greenham Common] were bringing to our notice the moods they share privately: a capacity to nurse and nourish, to care, tolerate, improve and preserve and demonstrate a set of values contrary to the machismo of men now insanely conquering outer space in phallic warships and preoccupied with phallic missiles.4
The idea peddled by the Greenham protest is that women are naturally peaceful and men naturally aggressive. In itself this is a dangerous notion, but what is much more dangerous is when others peddle the same politics under the name of ‘communism’ and seek to direct the struggle of working women in this direction. These women emphasise women’s stereotyped role as life-givers, adorning the fences of Greenham with baby clothes, children’s toys and family photos. But in reality there is no natural connection between gender and violence; the classic modern-day example of this fact presents itself in the form of our prime minister - one of the most vicious leaders this country has seen in a long while.
Feminist organisations have a history of pacifism, but when war breaks out everyone has to take sides and class forces tend to polarise; when it comes to this choice, feminists have a bad record. The fact that these women’s movements have been dominated by bourgeois ideas has led them to take the side of that class from 1914 to Ireland today ....
So, while there is no natural connection between violence and gender, there is a connection between pacifism and feminism. Both movements are led by middle class individualists who reject working class politics and working class violence. Trapped between the picket line violence and the violence of the police, they express the view of an ‘innocent bystander’.
The most tragic feature of all this is that such views have taken root in the party. Thus comrades Bea Campbell and Janie Glen condemned the violence used by the Warrington pickets in the National Graphical Association dispute5 and, throwing caution to the wind, comrade Glen also condemned miners’ violence as ‘male’. For example, in a recent article in Focus Glen poses the “question of the difference in the amount of violence at Greenham and on the miners’ picket lines”; the answer she comes up with is unfortunately predictable: “Men, when faced with provocative and emotional situations, are often only able to release their emotions through violence; whereas women have developed other and more constructive ways of expressing and dealing with emotionally charged situations.”6
Because of their class orientation Glen and Campbell do not understand what many a miner’s wife has learnt - these conflicts are not between groups of males, but between the ruling class and the working class. Comrades that fail to appreciate this, who attack the violence of the unarmed working class against the armed state, objectively take the side of the ruling class; they have nothing to do with working class struggle.
This is why the feminists in the party have been trying to divert the orientation of the pit women towards Greenham-style tactics. Again they are playing into the hands of the ruling class by urging passive resistance as opposed to militancy. Against this, the pit women have largely rejected this method of organisation, even though many of them believe Greenham to be a good thing. There is a simple explanation for this: Women against Pit Closures know that the state will not have any qualms about using violence on them, women or no. Greenham is just an irritation to the bourgeois state; the miners’ wives represent much, much more and it is for this reason that “The police are just as violent with the women and children as they are with the men.”7
For working class women who want genuine peace a war with the forces of law and order in Britain is unavoidable - pit women have already experienced this. To deny this lesson and instead to promote Greenham-type activity is a crime against the working class. Greenham not only glorifies a view of women which derives from the inferior position of women in bourgeois society; it also presents a view of ‘peace’ as the status quo in a society whose nature can never mean true peace for the working class. Working class women also care about their children, but they cannot afford peace at any price, which is why their place is not with bourgeois women, but alongside men in fighting capitalist oppression.
Where, then, is that general ‘woman question’? Where is that unity of tasks and aspirations, about which the feminists have so much to say? A sober glance at reality shows that such unity does not and cannot exist ... The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat ... Thus, although both camps follow the general slogan of the ‘liberation of women’, their aims and interests are different.8
In a society based on class contradictions there is no place for a women’s movement indiscriminately embracing all women. As we have already demonstrated, bourgeois women and working women instinctively represent the interests of their class, and this gives a bias to their aims and actions.
The feminists always oppose themselves to men and demand their rights from men. For them contemporary society is divided into two categories - men and women. But for working class women their class brethren are not their enemies, because that which unites them is much stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common needs and their common exploitation.
That women, like men, respond along class rather than sex lines has been shown again and again by history. The Paris Commune was a good example of where both sides were not averse to violence for the victory of their class. Working women played a valiant role in this struggle and were courageous to the last. When the Commune fell, one woman replied to the accusation of having killed two soldiers: “May God punish me for not having killed more”.9 Over this struggle there was no common ground between the bourgeois and working women. After the fall of the Commune it was the bourgeois women whose vengeance was most vicious towards their working class ‘sisters’: “Elegant and joyous women, as in a pleasure trip, betook themselves to the corpses, and, to enjoy the sight of the valorous dead, with the end of their sunshades raised the last coverings.”10
Socialism - the key
Hail the women! Hail the International! The women were the first to come out on the streets of Petrograd on their Women’s Day. The women in Moscow in many cases determined the need of the military; they went to the barracks, and convinced the soldiers to come over to the side of the revolution. Hail the women!11
The Russian Revolution was begun by women. On International Women’s Day in 1917 women textile workers went on strike in Petrograd for bread, against the war and against the autocracy. The women appealed to other workers to support them and this strike proved to be the start of the revolution. This one fact is an argument in itself for anti-feminism. The Bolsheviks had put much energy into countering the feminists, into polarising working class and bourgeois women and into strengthening the ties between working class men and women. The result was the leading role of women working in the revolution - a revolution which was, needless to say, not supported by the bourgeois feminists of the time.
After the revolution, for the first time in history women won full equality, a fact that sent shock waves throughout the entire bourgeois world and that has never been equalled by any capitalist country to the present day. However, even then all the equality legislation that the Bolsheviks passed did not mean that Soviet women were actually equal - it made them formally equal, as distinct from real social equality. Lenin was well aware that actual equality took a long time to build: “the more thoroughly we clear the ground of the lumber of the old bourgeois laws and institutions, the more we realise that we have only cleared the ground to build on, but are not yet building.”12
.… For this reason the Bolsheviks were fully committed to the socialisation of domestic labour. In a nutshell this concept means that all the housekeeping functions of a family, such as washing, cleaning, cooking and childcare, are provided by services of the socialist society. This does not mean, as the individualism of the feminists has often led them to proclaim, that every aspect of people’s lives is institutionalised, but rather that families and especially women are freed from the drudgery that occupies so much of their time and consequently enables them to lead much more fulfilling lives.
For a start this means that such social services have to be of a very high standard. Nurseries have to be locally situated places, where children look forward to going because they have more fun than if they were shut up at home. Parents must be able to relax, knowing that their children are being well cared for and happy and for that matter mothers and fathers should be able to share in this community care for their own and other people’s children.
Similarly with laundry, cleaning and cooking. If the services provided were not high quality, then women would tend to opt for the drudgery of doing it themselves. Again feminists come out with remarks like “24-hour institution food - ugh!” They would be correct if canteen level was all that society aspired to, but we have a lesson to learn from the bourgeoisie here. When people talk of communal eating the immediate parallel that is drawn is the one of social dinners or workplace canteens and their plastic food - but surely the Ritz is also an institution which caters on a mass scale? The working class, having struggled hard for their liberation, must aspire to the highest common denominator, not the lowest.
If the necessary resources are provided, and those preparing the food trained and in contact with their consumers and if everyone in the community can regularly take turns at work, then the drudgery of cooking day in day out can be removed. The canteens of the miners’ strike show in a small way the social and community atmosphere that comes through such organisation.
Of course, organising our lives in this way does not mean that people cannot cook for themselves for pleasure. But it does mean that daily necessity no longer rules our lives. The same applies to washing and cleaning - the bourgeoisie has always sent its washing to private laundries and had their houses cleaned for them. Working class women must have these facilities, but the difference is that, like eating and childcare facilities, these will be provided within their communities.
Women under capitalism
Studies have shown that for married women who go out to work the family and the home are still the main interests, and are regarded by themselves ... as the prime responsibility ... Employers accept this attitude as socially right: it should not be changed. The economic value of the mother’s work in the home cannot be calculated, but the social value is unquestionable.13
Under capitalism, labour-power as a commodity is quite unique: it is the only commodity which has the potential to create more value that it itself possesses. It is from this living labour that the capitalist extracts his surplus value, the source of his profit. This labour-power and its ability to produce surplus value for the capitalist must itself be serviced by the expenditure of labour-power to maintain its efficiency. Just as a machine must be regularly oiled and cleaned to maintain it in working order, so too must a worker be fed, clothed and generally ‘serviced’ to ensure that he is available and fit for work the next day.
This domestic work - cooking, cleaning, laundering, etc - is privatised, individual toil that lies outside the sphere of social production. No surplus value can be realised by its socialisation; therefore capitalism is neither interested in nor capable of removing it from the sphere of the individual (female):
The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and this must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and propagation.14
As early as the Communist manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels polemicised against the idea that these ideas meant that communists were the enemy of the family per se - the ‘shock/horror’ tactic used by the bourgeoisie to discredit Marxism. Familial relations of one sort or another are inevitable. What Marxists attack is the economic function of the family - its role as an economic unit in class society, concerned specifically under capitalism with the gratis maintenance of the exploitability of the working class’s labour-power. It is this economic content of the family unit and the domestic slavery it entails that produce the stultification and oppression that characterise personal relations in modern bourgeois families. It is capitalism, not socialism, that destroys family life.
Fitting in with their domestic role, women also perform another important function for capitalism. Given their marginal position to the general process of social production, women are ideal candidates to form an important part of a fluctuating reserve army of labour. Such a reservoir of exploitable labour can be sucked into the production process in times of boom or war and expelled from the ranks of the employed when accumulation stagnates. Women’s specific form of oppression dictates firstly that when employed they are systematically regulated and ghettoised into a narrow range of second-rate ‘peripheral’ jobs and secondly as ‘natural’ wives and mothers they are easier to throw out of work and back into the home.
Around 60% of all women are in paid employment of one sort or another and they thus constitute about 40% of the British workforce. On average, however, women earn just 65% of men’s wages and they make up some 60% of Britain’s four million low-paid workers. This is unsurprising when you examine the patterns of women’s employment. In 1983 some 200,000 more part-time jobs came onto the market, while the same period saw over 150,000 women’s full-time jobs disappear. In the words of the house journal of the British bourgeoisie, “part-time women workers in Britain are not just cheerful, but cheap”.15 The same issue of this publication went on to estimate that in the service sector up to 70% of women part-timers were earning less than the £34 a week national insurance threshold.
With the onset of the crisis, capitalism sets to work squeezing women out of the workforce - women are currently losing their jobs at twice the rate of men. The reactionary apologists of the bourgeois order are wheeled out to justify and excuse the state’s attacks on the rights and position of working women. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the 1979 Tory Party conference when Patrick Jenkin, evidently a little choked up himself, spoke of “the family ... [that] has been the foundation for virtually every free society known to history. It possesses strength and resilience, not least in adversity.”
Working class families under the Tories of course have come in for quite a lot of “adversity”. Cuts in social services and educational provisions have meant that working class women have had intolerable burdens placed on them, as they attempt to look after the unemployed, the elderly or the disabled, who have literally been thrown out onto the streets by the Tory cuts.
The Tory Family Policy Group was set up in 1982 to give justification and direction to these attempts to remove women from the labour force and to take on unpaid responsibility for services which the Tories intend to axe. While it has organised in its orbit some of the type of ‘loopies’ of the Tory establishment who look and sound less believable than their Spitting image doubles, its central policy recommendations have on the whole made sound economic sense for the bourgeoisie. On its ‘ga-ga’ fringe there is Ferdinand ‘Ferdy’ Mount, author of The subversive family. While Mount’s views do not necessarily represent the mainstream of the ruling class’s thinking, his basic rabidly anti-woman stance is fairly typical. For example, Mount evidently does not consider it a fact that women have been oppressed throughout the history of class society. Instead, apparently, it’s simply that men have had rather a bad press: “... at times in the Middle Ages we are deafened by complaints of henpecked husbands and women asserting their right to choose husbands or lovers.”
While the Family Policy Group does not quite want to take us back to the good old days before the sexually promiscuous ‘swinging’ Middle Ages of Mount’s colourful imagination, it certainly is intent on removing the fragile and extremely limited gains that women have made in the post-war period.
The reactionary ideas of John Bowdley are resuscitated to give credence to the hysteria about the ‘latchkey kids’ of working mothers: women are encouraged to rediscover their natural ‘caring’ role of looking after those who have become useless to capital - the old, the sick or the unemployed; and as a safety net, should all of this prove too much for working class women to stand up to, we must, according to the Family Policy Group, have “more emphasis and encouragement to community-based services like day or short-term care”. For “community-based” read ‘on the cheap’ and for “short-term”read ‘inadequate’.
Abortion and contraception rights are under ideological and financial attack and every ploy is used to justify walling women up in the home until they are needed again by capitalism. ‘What’s best for baby’ now entails mother staying at home and the sickly sweet propaganda of the bourgeoisie is in stark contrast to its denial of basic rights to working class women and their children. In the economic boom working mothers had to make do with bottle-feeding their infants, whatever the dangers. Now though, in recession, the ruling class gushes, “The best milk yet discovered is mother’s own.”16
Similarly, 30 years ago Maggie Thatcher was all for women following her example and attempting to combine “marriage and career” and she pooh-poohed the notion that it had detrimental effects at home: “... the idea that the family suffers is, I believe, quite mistaken.” In the cold light of 1982, however, she was altogether more cautious: “Material goods can never be a substitute for loving care.”
It is not the way Mark Thatcher as the ‘latchkey kid’ of the working mum has turned out that has changed the Iron Lady’s mind on this matter (although that would be understandable ...). No, it is the fact that today we are in the depth of economic recession and, as a political representative of the bourgeoisie, Thatcher’s job is now to encourage or force women back into the home rather than entice them out.
For an even more graphic exposition of the same basic idea, let us turn to Sir Keith Joseph, a man always in the vanguard of Tory reaction. The Mad Monk was spelling it out in no uncertain terms way back in the mid-70s: “Parents are being divested of their duty to provide for their family economically, or their responsibility for education, health ... saving for old age, for housing ... But the only lasting help we can give the poor is to help themselves. To do the opposite is to create more dependence ... throwing an unfair burden on society.”17
The feminists, with their reformist and reactionary mumbo-jumbo, are totally incapable of resisting the attacks of the state on working women. Tricia Davis, for example, ponders on the idiosyncrasies of modern-day “society”, which has an interesting parallel with the Keith Joseph quote above: “It is a society in which there can be no simple return to full employment ... In such a society an alternative economic strategy which constructs our working day, year and life around this concept of caring is the only one which makes sense ...”18
A component part of this ‘caring’ package is, apparently “... equal domestic responsibility for men and equal contact with both parents for children”.
Thus, instead of proposing a militant campaign for a working class woman’s right to work regardless of whether capitalist “society” can afford to employ them or not, comrade Davis smugly accepts the prospect of mass unemployment - one has to be realistic, after all. Her Alternative Economic Strategy is consequently based on ‘caring’ - by which she appears to understand that men take equal responsibility for the daily drudge of domestic work, instead of removing it from the sphere of the individual altogether ....
How to fight
.... Contrary to the image of women as an easy touch for bosses, working class women have been consistently involved in militant struggle over the last couple of decades, their action ranging over everything from strikes to fights over hospital and school closures. However, these women have largely remained isolated, unable to communicate their experiences to other women workers, and thus organise on a large scale.
The crying need is therefore for a working class women’s movement that could link up the best militant working class women nationally across union, industry and community boundaries. Such an organisation would give enormous strength to working women in struggle; it would be the scourge of bosses wanting to use women as a source of cheap unorganised labour and of union leaders who fail to back their women members in struggle.
The failure of the unions to defend their women workers is in fact a major reason for the necessity of a working class women’s movement. The record of unions on women s disputes is appalling. The classic example is that of Grunwicks in 1977, when mainly Asian women struck for union recognition. The Apex leaders19 in effect supported the boss and the police by trying to limit the numbers of pickets on the gate and by refusing to organise the blacking of Grunwicks by other unions. Their betrayal led to the workers’ defeat.
This is one obvious example, but in general there can be no doubt that unions do not work effectively for their women members. Proof of this lies in the fact that many unions with overwhelming female membership are led by male trade union officials. Union meetings are usually inaccessible to women, being held after work in pubs and without crèches, etc. One of the first campaigns for a working class women’s movement must be for union meetings to be held in the bosses time ....
A sign of things to come
.... The pit women are obviously a beacon for the future of a working class women’s movement. The miners’ strike has seen the political organisation of working class women on an unprecedented scale in British history. These women workers and housewives have united in the common struggle to save their communities and in doing so they have shocked both the bosses, who expected them to drive their menfolk back to work, and even their class brothers, who didn’t expect their support to take on such a militant and political face.
But one strike does not a movement make and therefore communists need to be working hard to consolidate these positive developments and to give a lead to the spontaneous militancy these women have thrown up. The Euros in the party have attempted to give a lead, in that they have tried to impose the ‘go floppy’ tactics and ideology of Greenham on the miners’ wives and to set them against the violence used by the miners to fight back. It is up to genuine communists to counter this course, which can only lead to failure for the pit women and cause divisions within the working class. We need to adopt the slogan, ‘Agitation and propaganda through action’: in other words, we must lead by example and show working class women through experience that every action directed against the exploitation of capital, every step towards reforging a Communist Party, is a blow struck against women’s oppression.
The miners’ wives learnt to organise themselves and the lack of communist leadership has made the lessons that more painful. Kay Sutcliffe of Kent Women Against Pit Closures expressed this in an interview in February’s edition of The Leninist: “I feel sorry that we didn’t contact the wives of the British Leyland workers when they had their industrial dispute, and also the dockers. I think we missed our chance there; we should have gone straight in.”
It is this sort of perspective that needs to be initiated. The building of a working class women’s movement cannot be put off to some distant date. It is not only necessary now, but we would be failing our class if we did not try to nurture the seed that the pit women have planted. By making links with other women in struggle and the wives of male workers in struggle, and by organising national coordination of the existing Women Against Pit Closures groups towards this aim, the beginnings of such a movement can be made.
It is in this way that working class women will start to shatter one by one the chains that are forged for them under capitalism. The awakening of the women will be the harbinger of the society of the future, communism, which will see not simply the full equality of women, but the emancipation of all humanity.
1. First verse of a song written for pit women, quoted in the Morning Star January 8 1985.
2. Comrade Tricia Davis Focus January 17 1985.
3. AKollontai The social basis of the woman question.
4. LeoAbse, Labour Party MP Hansard December 17 1982. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was a long-running protest, beginning in 1981, against nuclear weapons outside the Greenham Common RAF base
5. The reference is to the dispute between the print union, the National Graphical Association, and the noxious reactionary, Eddie Shah, who utilised Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws and selective sacking of union activists in a dispute in 1983. The NGA responded with mass picketing of the outlets concerned - the Warrington Messenger - and on November 30, 4,000 trade unionists confronted riot-trained police from five surrounding areas. The NGA speaker van was attacked and overturned by police, while squads in full riot gear repeatedly charged the pickets.
6. Focus February 7 1985.
7. Mari Collins,leading Kent activist, interviewed in The Leninist February 1985.
8. A Kollontai The social basis of the woman question.
9. SEdwards The Paris Commune 1871 p330.
10. PLissagray History of the Paris Commune p419.
11. Pravda editorial after the February revolution.
12. VI Lenin The emancipation of women.
13. CBI Employing women: the employer’s view September 1967.
14. K Marx Capital Vol 1, p537.
15. The Economist September 29 1984.
16. The Guardian February 11 1976.
17. The Times October 21 1974.
18. Marxism Today October 1983.
19. The Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (Apex) was originally founded in 1890 as the Clerks’ Union. It merged with the GMB in 1989.