‘A damned nuisance’
William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago
Only one in eight members of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain were women. While this proportion broadly reflected the level of women’s involvement in the wider workers’ movement, there should have been be no complacency about this imbalance. It was a real obstacle to party work among those who were not only oppressed on the basis of their sex but who constituted roughly half the entire population.
Yet it was 11 months before the first significant article on the communist approach to the woman question appeared in the CPGB’s paper. This weakness was not unique to Britain. There were protests in the Communist Party of Germany - the largest outside the Soviet Union itself - that, despite a myriad of worthy resolutions voted through at various conferences, little was being done to develop systematic communist activity amongst proletarian women.
The communist movement had produced outstanding individual female cadres - Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and many others. However, the gargantuan task of winning the mass of women to communism trailed other fields of work.
This short article below by Leonora Thomas is fascinating, despite its flaws. In some places it shows a narrowness in the way it deals with the ‘domestic’, and in others a tinge of utopianism, as it strays into drawing up overly detailed plans for the society of the future. That said, its fierce denunciation of inequality under capitalism is stirring.
Clara Zetkin was the key organiser and chief spokesperson for Comintern’s Women’s Secretariat in Western Europe. Via her, the International sharply expressed its concern with the apparent reluctance of its British section to recognise this sphere of work as vital and to direct sufficient resources to it. In January 1922, the CPGB’s coverage of the ‘woman’s question’ did increase.
Urged on by Comintern, the party began to feature a regular women’s page in The Communist - pointedly named ‘A page for women (that men can read with advantage)’. It set up a Women’s Department under Helen Crawfurd, who was also the “women’s representative” on the political bureau.1 The first CPGB women’s conference was held in May 1924.
However, our party was strained on several campaigning fronts at that political juncture. Its income was contracting due to membership loss. Finding the cash to fund many areas of work was difficult, including the CPGB’s political engagement with working class women.2
That said, the barbed humour in the first two paragraphs of comrade Thomas’s article makes clear that male chauvinist backwardness also played its own, disruptive role.
Women and communism
The Communist July 9 1921
If a woman, greatly daring, suggests to the male revolutionist that there is a woman’s problem to be solved by revolution, she is met with one of two answers. The first and most common is that women are a damned nuisance. The second is that the women’s problem is the same as the man’s.
There is certainly much to be said for the first answer. The difficulties of the transition period of revolution would be less if there were no women; but, as matters are, it is worse than useless to funk the problem.
As to the second answer, only in so far as revolution is the only hope for women’s emancipation is the problem the same as the man’s. But, just because the woman’s position under capitalism is different from the man’s, she has even more to gain than he has by the overthrow of that system.
Under capitalism women are, according to their class, either slaves or parasites. The agitation for the vote or the entry of women into industry and the professions has not altered women’s position in the mass. The greater freedom and independence of a few middle class women does not affect the problem: and it was no desire for freedom that sent working class women into industry.
Observe the position of the latter. Economic circumstances forced the children of the workers into factories, when they should have been at school, and economic circumstances keep the women in industry after marriage. Conditions are no better in those homes where both man and woman are working, because wages under our present system are based on the family standard. The effect of the entry of women into industry has been either to reduce men’s wages, as in the cotton industry, or to drive them out, as in the teaching industry. Working for wages has done nothing, and can do nothing, towards woman’s emancipation except to put her in the position to join the ranks of the organised workers.
We do not get to grips with the problem until we realise that the greatest factor in a woman’s life is her sex and that the fact that she is a potential mother dominates all else. It not only concerns the home and social relations, but has its reaction throughout industry too. A woman’s probable marriage and consequent departure from industry is an excuse for low wages and for blind-alley occupations. Her occupation is marriage.
And what does marriage mean to the majority of working women? In the Daily Herald recently women gave timetables of their day’s work. Their working day lasted in most cases from 6.30am to 10pm. The conditions of some are worse than others, but all are bad. Anyone with knowledge of mining villages knows the horrible round of unmitigated toil which is the lot of the miner’s wife. Primitive housing conditions make matters worse, but better houses would not alter the fact that the average married woman works too long and has little or no recreation.
What is even more dreadful is her lack of communal life. Many women spend week after week, year after year, with no other human intercourse than that of husband and children - a terrible isolation, conducive to the retention of ancient superstitions and the dwarfing of the race.
The work of motherhood and housekeeping is arduous and highly technical, involving as it does several other occupations, such as cooking, teaching and nursing. For this the working girl has no training. In other times girls were trained by their mothers, so that any natural inability was to some extent minimised.
It is customary to disguise the deep social injury of this lack of training under the false sentiment of ‘A mother knows by instinct’. As well as a man knows by instinct how to be a doctor.
This, then, is a woman’s position under capitalism. Before marriage she is a wage-slave, usually under worse conditions than a man; after marriage she is a slave to a bad housekeeping system and forced to do work for which she is untrained and in many cases temperamentally unfitted, and she is shut off from any communal life.
What will be her position after the revolution? How will the revolution solve the problem?
The need for greater production and saving of available material will probably force a communal housekeeping system even during the transition period. Women with the ability to do on a large scale what they did before on a small scale will quickly find their places. The others will be absorbed into occupations for which they are fitted, and, as time goes on, the process of selection and training will alter the whole status of the women doing the work that was previously done in separate houses.
Those doing house cleaning will be organised in a house-cleaners guild, which will not be composed entirely of married women, but of all - men and women - who are engaged in any part of house cleaning. As members of the guild they will be entitled to vote for or be the delegates to the workers’ committee, and so take a part in the government of the commune.
The sensible and economic organisation of what is now classed under the head of housekeeping will not only abolish slave conditions, but will also release an enormous volume of energy and ability to serve the community in other occupations.
‘How about the children?’ someone asks. A woman during her actual child-bearing period will be exempt from any work which would injure the health of herself or the child. When the time comes for the child to go to school, the mother will resume her other occupation.
Under the capitalist system the children of the workers are taken from their mothers at four or five years to be educated by the state. The probability is that this time will be lessened, as the tendency is towards Montessori methods and nursery schools. This, of course, does not mean that the children will be separated from the mother: but for a certain period - four or five hours a day - the children will be with other children playing, and the mother will be working, perhaps in the nursery schools, perhaps at housework, perhaps as an architect.
So revolution will mean ‘the breaking up of the home’, but not in the sense that the users of that phrase imply. All social customs are a reflex of the economic system, and under communism the possessive impulse which is largely responsible for our present social customs will be restricted,
These are the developments which I think are bound to occur, but we ought to consider them, talk of them and prepare for them. Men are not revolutionists because they accept certain principles, but because they see that those principles, applied to society, would secure better conditions for them and their fellows. It is essential that women, whose interests are so largely confined to the home, should see that those principles have a direct reaction on the conditions in which they live their lives.
Helen Crawfurd Anderson (November 9 1877-April 18 1954) was a Glasgow-born suffragette, rent strike organiser and communist.↩︎
See S Bruley Leninism, Stalinism and the women’s movement in Britain, 1920-39 London 2013.↩︎