Women in the Past

This article is the first section of the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet ‘Comrades and Sisters’, about socialism and women’s liberation. It tells the story of women’s struggle for liberation: from the French Revolution and the birth of feminism, through the fight for the vote, up to the 70s women’s movement, Thatcherism and the backlash against feminism.

The Rights of Woman

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The book was a manifesto, the founding text of feminism.

The 1790s were years when change and equality gained many new supporters. The French revolution proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity. It introduced ideas of justice, freedom, citizenship and rights. But the revolution’s slogans did not come down from the banners into women’s lives. Where was equal citizenship for women? Vindication staked women’s claim to the new era of equality and freedom; and the gap between promises and reality kick-started feminism.

Women had suffered subordination for thousands of years; and throughout history, individual women had stood up for themselves and rebelled against their oppression. But a women’s liberation movement – with demands, analysis and organisation – came with capitalism. The idea of ‘women’s rights’ is not timeless. In fact, the concept of ‘rights’ as we now understand it is quite recent: it entered the political stage with capitalism. No-one used the word ‘feminism’ to mean advocating women’s rights until 1895.

‘Vindication’ argued that women’s enslavement to men should end, just as other forms of slavery should:

“Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women be by their very constitution slaves, and not allowed to breathe the invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws in nature …”

Mary’s use of the phrase “languish like exotics” shows that she was referring to the lifestyles of women of the leisured class, not of ordinary women. She believed that “women in the common walks of life are called to fulfil the duties of wives and mothers”, whilst “lamenting that women of a superiour cast” could not “pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence.”

There was an anti-feminist backlash against Mary Wollstonecraft and her book, part of the upper-class panic about by the French revolution. Walpole described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats”; opponents of votes for women would later use the same term to abuse suffragettes. There is nothing new in women being denounced as extremist and unfeminine when we stand up for our rights!

Champions of equality soon began to justify restricting it to a privileged elite. In 1824, James Mill argued that women should not have the vote, because their husbands or fathers could represent them; and that neither should working-class men have the vote, as capitalist men could speak for them. Parliament agreed: the 1832 Reform Act gave votes to men of property.

Seneca Falls

In 1848, democratic revolutions swept Europe, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the ‘Communist Manifesto’. Also in 1848, 300 people met in Seneca Falls, New York State, to discuss the “social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman”.

Like the Vindication, the Convention demanded that as bourgeois revolutions had promised democratic rights, they should deliver them to women. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments modelled its wording on the USA’s Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; …”

The Convention also considered twelve Resolutions. It passed eleven unanimously; the twelfth, calling for votes for women, was passed by a narrow margin.

In the same year, New York State passed the Married Women’s Property Act, enabling women to keep their own property when they married. Until then, husbands had taken ownership of their brides’ money and possessions.

Women’s relation to private property has often disadvantaged us. In many cases, the law has defined women ourselves as the private property of a man. The term ‘femme couverte’ described a woman’s legal identity as being ‘covered’ by her husband. The law used to define rape as a crime not against a woman, but against a man’s property. The traditional Christian marriage ceremony involves the bride’s father ‘giving her away’ to the groom. Nevertheless, issues of property ownership are most directly relevant to women who actually own property! Ernestine Rose was the chief campaigner for the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act: even she admitted that it was “not much … only for the favored few and not for the suffering many.”

Feminism and Anti-Slavery in the USA

In 1840, the World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London; but women delegates were kept out. In response, women set up Female Anti-Slavery Societies in America. Later, these provided the model for Female Labor Reform Associations, an early type of women’s trade union. There was common ground between feminism and anti-slavery (abolitionism): a shared cause of rights and emancipation.

But not everyone saw this link. In 1851, freed slave Sojourner Truth attended a women’s convention in Akron, Ohio. Some of the women present did not want her to speak, because they did not want the feminist movement associated with abolitionism. Today, some people still want women’s campaigning to avoid ‘controversial’ issues or associations in order to appear respectable and inoffensive. If we do this, we risk alienating, even betraying, groups of women.

But Sojourner Truth did speak. Born into slavery in 1797, and freed in 1827 when New York State emancipated its slaves, she had dropped her slave name Isabella and began campaigning at the age of 46. At the Akron Convention, Sojourner challenged the exclusion of black women from feminism:

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

In 1866, the 14th amendment to the US Constitution gave the vote to black men. Although some feminists felt betrayed by the refusal to grant votes to women, others accepted it. They argued that “the black slave’s greater suffering entitled him to prior consideration”. This argument posed the question as black men versus white women. What about black women? What about their great suffering as slaves? The only demand that could unite and do justice to oppressed people was: votes for all!

The Early Socialists

The socialists of the early 19th century did not want the promise of equality restricted to an elite. They developed and radicalised some of the themes of the new bourgeois democracy, including women’s rights. French socialist Charles Fourier argued that

“The degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation.”

Other socialists supporting women’s equality included Saint-Simon, Cabet and, in Britain, Robert Owen.

Owen’s followers argued that ‘the marriage system’ was a central force in women’s oppression. Personal relationships should be based on consent, emotion and desire, not bound by chains of law, religion or property. The Owenites believed that the key to liberating women was to eliminate personal dependence. People should live collectively: everyone should do their turn at housework on a rotational basis, with the ‘most scientific’ equipment available; this would cut down the drudgery and break the isolation of domestic chores.

In 1825, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler wrote Appeal of One-Half of the Human Race, setting out the basics of socialist feminism. They said that a capitalist system based on competitive individualism was incompatible with sexual equality, as childbearing and family responsibilities limited women’s ability to acquire wealth. Only the new type of society proposed by Owen – “mutual co-operation and joint possession” – could provide the material conditions for women’s emancipation.

Owen also saw that sexism was not simply a matter of individual behaviour, but was related to social structures:

“We can only change human nature by changing the circumstances in which man lives, and this change we will make so complete, that man will become a totally different being.”

The only way to end ‘property in women’ was to end private property itself: this was their crucial step forward from the bourgeois democratic radicals. They had a vision of ’emancipation’ that went further, wider and deeper than simple ‘rights’; they wanted a new world.

The Owenites were campaigners. They published newspapers and pamphlets, gave lectures, wrote to the press, and built branches of their organisation. Women were involved and prominent. Emma Martin spoke at big meetings – often to a few thousand listeners – on subjects such as marriage, divorce and the social system. Clergymen ran a venomous campaign against her, attempting to break up meetings, denouncing her as an ‘infidel’, and warning women in particular to steer well clear! Martin’s opponents attacked socialism and feminism together, because both advocated liberty, equality, science, progress, rights, and the possibility of human beings making their own destiny. Established religion recoiled in horror.

The Owenites’ naiveté let them down. They tried to build model societies within the existing, capitalist order. Owen himself (but not all his followers) promoted cross-class collaboration, and feared independent working-class action. By the 1840s, Owenism had collapsed under the weight of its own utopianism.

Women and Industrialisation

The new, capitalist system re-arranged the way that production was organised, and completely changed women’s lives. Previously, the household had been the centre of production: goods were made in and around the home. Now, goods would be produced in factories, and in far greater quantities. Large-scale industrialisation took over the manufacture of goods. But another essential part of the production process was left at home. Just as machines had to be cleaned, maintained and re-fuelled, so did workers. And just as worn-out machines needed to be replaced, so did worn-out workers. Housework and child-rearing continued in the home.

Capitalism had not invented housework, but something significant had changed. Housework was not tied in with the production process as it used to be. It was now a distinct sphere, private and isolated. Building on prejudices that already existed, and taking advantage of women’s biological role in childbirth, the new system allocated the domestic work to women. The idea of ‘breadwinners’ (men) and ‘housewives’ (women) came into being. The value of women’s traditional economic activity dropped, and far fewer women could make their living from the household economy. Women could not survive on work at home any more, so many sought employment either in domestic service or in the factories.

Financial necessity drove the working-class woman towards waged work, but there were many obstacles in her way. Women did not have access to the education and training they needed: in Germany, a woman could not become a metalworker, bricklayer, baker or butcher, since no employer in these trades would offer an apprenticeship to a girl. Women’s wages were awful; conditions of working and living were terrible, as the cities were overcrowded, filthy and without sanitation. Most female factory workers were unskilled or semi-skilled; in Germany, employers considered them ‘willig und billig’, submissive and cheap.

Josephine Butler argued that although simple sexist prejudice made some bosses exclude women, the over-riding factor in women’s employment was the potential for exploitation:

“Women, refused admission to [haberdashers’] shops on the pretext that they are not strong enough to lift bales of goods, have been afterwards traced to the occupations of dock porter and coal-heavers. In practice, the employments of women are not determined by their lightness, but by their low pay.”
(‘The Education and Employment of Women’, 1868)

The Workers’ Movement and Female Labour

Reacting to the miserable existence of women workers, Ferdinand Lassalle, leader of the General German Workers’ Association, argued that women should be barred from working in the factories. He put forward the wage fund theory, or iron law of wages. This theory held that there was only a certain, fixed amount of money to be paid out in wages: therefore there was no point in struggles for higher wages; and female labour would only lead to a cut in male workers’ pay. Lassalle and his followers – the ‘proletarian anti-feminists’ – demanded that women be paid to work at home, and urged men to take strike action to keep women out of the workplace. They added what we would now consider thoroughly sexist prejudices to their theories, claiming that “The rightful work of women and mothers is in the home and family … the woman and mother should stand for the cosiness and poetry of domestic life.”

In England too, some male workers opposed female labour. In the 1840s, a deputation of male spinners from the factory reform movement argued for “the gradual withdrawal of all females from the factories”. They described women’s industrial work as “an inversion of the order of nature and of Providence – a return to the state of barbarism, in which the woman does the work, while the man looks idly on.”

In the 1850s and ’60s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined the debate on women’s work in industry, explaining why Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’ was wrong, and opposing his arguments against women working. They accused the proletarian anti-feminists of looking back to the old patriarchal household, instead of looking forward to social progress.

Marx and Engels argued that women’s work was both an historical necessity and a pre-condition for achieving women’s liberation. With the private and public spheres sharply separated, women had to break out from the private prison and find a place in the public sphere alongside men. However poor her conditions, a woman at work was not entirely dependent on one man. If a woman went out of the house and to work, she would come into contact with other working-class women and men; and she could take part in workplace struggles.

Engels argued that

“to emancipate woman and make her the equal of man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labour and restricted to private domestic labour. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when women can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”
(‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’)

Working-class Women Fight Back

Emancipation for women had to mean more than the right to be exploited in the factories as well as at home! Working-class women were in a contradictory situation: they needed to earn money, but sexism stood in their way, and their conditions at work were appalling. This contradiction – and the opportunity to organise collectively – brought women into struggle.

On 23 June 1888, the newspaper The Link published an article reporting the working conditions at Bryant and May’s match factory in London’s East End. The article, ‘White Slavery in London’, was written by Fabian socialist Annie Besant. It described the long hours that the women and girls worked; their poverty wages; the punitive system of fines that pared their meagre wages down yet further; violence from the foremen; and the tedious, exhausting and downright dangerous nature of the work. Annie Besant asked her readers:

“Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent., and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks?”

Bryant and May threatened to sue for libel, and drafted a statement renouncing the article’s claims, which they instructed the matchgirls to sign. The girls refused; and the alleged ringleader was sacked; The women in the department, and then in the whole factory, walked out on strike. Annie Besant helped to organise the strike: there were mass meetings, collection and distribution of strike money, and widespread support from the young trade union movement. On 18 July, Bryant and May conceded all the girls’ demands. On 27 July, the workers set up the Union of Women Matchmakers.

Right-wing newspapers such as ‘The Times’ defended Bryant and May, attacking the strike as the work of ‘outside socialist agitators”. Socialists who did not work at the factory had indeed played a crucial role in organising this strike; together with the women workers themselves, whose courage and action won the victory.

The matchmakers’ success was a turning point for the workers’ movement. Until then, many socialists (including Annie Besant) had thought it not worthwhile to organise unskilled workers. Trade unionism had been based around protecting the privileges of particular crafts and skilled trades. Now it would be different. Yvonne Kapp, biographer of Eleanor Marx, wrote that

“the Bryant and May strike … was the small spark that ignited the blaze of revolt and the wildfire spread of trade unionism among the unskilled”.

Many people date ‘New Unionism’ from the ‘Dockers’ Tanner’ strike the following year, 1889. This understates the role that women played in shaping the British labour movement.

Two Books

In the 1870s, August Bebel wrote ‘Woman Under Socialism’ whilst he was imprisoned under Germany’s Anti-Socialist Law. The book was divided into three sections. ‘Women in the past’ examined the history of women’s subordination; ‘Women in the present’ outlined women’s position in society at the time. ‘Women in the future’ offered an alternative: how women might live free from oppression in a socialist future.

‘Women and Socialism’ rang like an alarm clock amongst working-class women. Working-class men, too, read the book and woke up to the issue of women’s oppression. Ottilie Baader said that Bebel’s book made her a socialist; she went on to become an important organiser of socialist women. By 1895, 25 editions had been printed in Germany alone. It was the most-read book (by women and men) in the socialist movement’s large network of workers’ libraries.

Friedrich Engels’ ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ was published in 1884. Engels used the recent work of American anthropologist Lewis Morgan to explain how the position of women had developed historically, and how the class structure of society had shaped it. In doing this, he argued against the view that sex divisions were ‘natural’.

‘The Origin’ pointed out that the original meaning of ‘family’ was the set of domestic slaves belonging to a man: “The term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism, whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all”. Engels used strong words to describe the oppression of women within the family. A wife was ‘the head servant’; a family could be likened to class society, with the husband as the ‘bourgeois’ and the wife the ‘proletariat’.

Engels also argued that, looking far back into history, monogamy had developed according to economic demands, rather than for any romantic reason: “It was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property … the sole exclusive aims of monogamous marriage were to make the man supreme in the family, and to propagate, as to the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Engels’ work contained factual inaccuracies and left important questions unanswered. But the book is very significant, for two main reasons: it argues that women’s oppression can be explained through history rather than biology; and it links women’s oppression to class divisions and property relations.

The German Socialist Women’s Movement

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, socialist women in Germany began to organise. Although Germany had repealed its Anti-Socialist Law in 1890, there were still Association Laws that banned women from many forms of political activity alongside men. So the women ran education clubs for working-class women and girls. They set up ‘agitation commissions’, and then, when these were banned, they elected a network of socialist women organisers (Vertrauenspersonen). They held public meetings, and recruited women to the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Clara Zetkin edited the socialist women’s newspaper, ‘Die Gleichheit’. The paper was designed to be more than just a good read: it provided education and ammunition for women activists. There were notices of upcoming meetings and events in a column called ‘the Working Women’s Movement’; and there were descriptions of the conditions that women endured at work. There were also articles explaining Marxist theory – despite the protests of SPD leaders who thought this made the paper ‘too weighty’ for working-class women. ‘Die Gleichheit’ proved immensely popular, attaining a circulation of 124,000 by 1911.

The German socialist women firmly identified themselves as a movement for working-class women, distinct from the ‘bourgeois feminists’ of the time. One particular issue – ‘protective legislation’ – showed the different views of the two movements. The socialists demanded that laws be introduced to protect women at work: for example, banning work at night and around the time of childbirth. Bourgeois feminists believed such laws would undermine their claim for formal equality for women; socialist women’s priority was to improve the miserable and dangerous conditions of working women. This argument would also divide feminists in the USA in the 1920s.

Clara Zetkin believed that a cross-class women’s movement was not possible. She argued that women of the capitalist class and women of the working class were actually engaged in different struggles, for a different kind of liberation. Bourgeois women sought to win the right to compete with men of their own class on a ‘level playing field’. Working-class women, though, were part of a struggle alongside men of their own class to abolish class society and liberate all humanity.

Not that all working-class, or even socialist, men treated women as comrades! The women often complained of patronising and sexist treatment within their own party. Even some leading socialist men discouraged their wives and daughters from getting involved in politics.

When the Association Law was repealed in 1908, the SPD’s leaders took the opportunity to disband the women’s organisation. They cancelled the women’s congress and closed all special structures for women. This was not simply an attack by men on women; it was part of the offensive against the left, with which the women’s section was politically aligned, by a newly-formed right wing in the SPD which wanted to make peace with capitalism. The SPD leaders gutted ‘Die Gleichheit’ of its political content: they even forced it to include a fashion supplement!

The women objected to the party leadership’s actions; they wanted to keep their women’s section. Although the Association Law had forced them to organise separately at first, the women had come to value their autonomy, and campaigned to maintain it even after the law changed. Their experience had shown that a socialist movement needs to have a specific strategy to mobilise women, with its driving force being the women’s own activity.

Votes For Women

The German SPD campaigned for universal suffrage: votes for all adult men and women. However, socialist parties in other European countries, such as Austria, campaigned for votes only for all men. Some feminists, too, stopped short of full political rights, and were prepared to accept ‘votes for ladies’: that is, the right to vote only for women who owned property. This would enfranchise far fewer women than men; and would leave millions of working-class women (and fewer, but still many, millions of working-class men) without the vote.

Clara Zetkin insisted on votes for all women and men. She argued that ‘votes for ladies’ was not a ‘first step’ to enfranchising all women, but a ‘final step’ to enfranchising the whole of the capitalist class. It would strengthen the power of the exploiting class over the exploited.

In Britain, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was willing to support ‘votes for ladies’. A cartoon in the WSPU’s paper ‘Votes for Women’ in 1912 compared the denial of votes to women with being forced to travel second class when one had a first class ticket: definitely a well-to-do lady’s point of view! Sylvia Pankhurst, on the other hand, would settle for nothing less than universal suffrage, and turned her attention to organising the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS). Christabel later forced Sylvia out of the WSPU for sharing public platforms with socialist men such as George Lansbury and James Connolly.

Sylvia’s East End suffragettes organised speakers’ classes, indoor and outdoor public meetings, door-to-door canvassing, pavement chalking and work plan parties in members’ houses. They held frequent, huge marches through East London and to Westminster, and sold thousands of copies of their weekly newspaper Woman’s Dreadnought. The emphasis was on mobilising working women (including working-class housewives and mothers). Christabel thought that working-class women were no use in the fight for the franchise. But Sylvia responded:

“Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working-women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that, comparatively, the leisured, comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude. Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history.”

Men also became involved in campaigning for votes for women. There was a Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage; and working men, most often dockers, frequently physically protected suffragette meetings from disruption and attack.

It is tempting to look back and imagine a crusade for something so obviously right that no-one could disagree. But the suffragettes faced fierce attacks: physical, verbal, and with the full force of the law. Denied access to democratic channels, the suffragettes took up militant action, breaking windows, heckling Cabinet ministers and hunger striking. Some people accused the women of harming their own prospects of success. Passing sentence on two window-breakers, a judge stated that “but for the mistaken action of a section of the women’s franchise movement … a reasonable extension of the franchise to women would have been secured.” It is much more likely that without militant action, politicians would have continued to ignore women’s demands. Today, people still advise campaigners to moderate our behaviour so as not to damage our own cause: the suffragettes proved that this approach is mistaken.

By mid-1913, more than 2,000 suffragettes had spent time in prison. Many women prisoners took up a hunger and thirst strike, and prison officers brutally forced food and drink down their throats. The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913 provided for prisons to release hunger strikers until they regained a little strength, and then to arrest and imprison them again. The suffragettes called it the Cat and Mouse Act. Police attacks on the East End marches were so regular and so severe that campaigners held drill training and set up a ‘People’s Army’ to defend themselves. Women (and socialists) have fought for liberation in far harsher conditions than we face today!

Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst were all active in militant campaigning. Yet Emmeline wanted only ‘votes for ladies’, and went on to support Britain’s imperialist slaughter in the First World War, and later to join the Conservative Party; and Christabel urged the Tories to support votes for women in order to prevent the women’s movement becoming too left-wing. Sylvia, though, became a working-class champion and a communist. Direct action was vital in winning votes for women, but the real difference between radicalism and conservatism lies in politics, not tactics.

International Women’s Day

On 28 February 1909, socialist women in the USA held their first national Women’s Day, staging marches and meetings across America to demand political rights for working women. The next year, Clara Zetkin proposed to the International Congress of Socialist Women that one day each year be marked as a Working Women’s Day. The congress agreed that on this day, socialists in all countries should hold big events, involving men and women in demanding improvements in the lives of working women. In 1911, over a million women and men marched and rallied in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

On 25 March 1911, less than a week after that first International Women’s Day, over 140 workers died in the Triangle Fire in New York. Mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, they burned to death when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory where they worked caught fire. They died because working conditions were terrible and safety measures lacking, because capitalists pocket the profit they make from women’s labour rather than spending it on civilised working conditions. Capitalism killed them.

During these years, more and more women were going to work in the factories and in domestic service. But women were still denied the right to vote. Russian socialist Alexandra Kollontai explained why the early International Women’s Days focused on winning the vote for women:

“in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. ‘Housewives uprisings’ became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany. The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.”

Since socialist women founded International Women’s Day, it has been adopted by non-socialist feminists, governments and even the United Nations. It is now more likely to be marked by an aromatherapy open day than by a march for women’s rights. We should return to the original purpose of the Day: to mobilise support for working-class women’s demands, and to celebrate the contribution that women make to the struggle for human liberation.

War and Revolution

Many women tried to mark International Women’s Day with protests against the First World War. But the governments waging the war suppressed opposition. Socialist leaders in many countries betrayed their internationalist policies and supported their own countries’ governments. As the ruling class sent millions of working-class people to their deaths, the ‘socialist’ leaders helped to repress anti-war campaigning. The International Socialist Women’s Congress of 1915 was the first international gathering of socialists to take a stand against the war.

On Women’s Day 1917, working-class Russian women held a big demonstration in Petrograd. They wanted the war and the food shortage to end: they wanted bread and peace. The Petrograd women started a movement which led to revolution. The Russian Revolution was the only occasion in history when the working class took power and held onto it for a significant period of time.

What did the workers’ state do for women? When the Bolsheviks took power, they scrapped the old, reactionary laws. They legislated for freedom of divorce and abortion, and for full legal and political equality for women – including the vote. They ran education campaigns against the seclusion and veiling of women in the Muslim areas of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik policy was to liberate women from the burden of housework. So they set up communal kitchens, laundries, schools and nurseries. They introduced rights that we have not yet achieved in Britain over eighty years later – two months’ paid maternity leave, and paid ‘nursing breaks’ for mothers at work to breastfeed their babies. Special trains took birth control facilities to remote areas.

But fulfilling this vision was difficult at that time in Russia. The world war had battered the largely peasant economy; invasion and civil war battered it further. The communal laundries, nurseries and facilities were woefully poor in quality. The Russian workers were relying on workers in other countries to make similar revolutions. But unlike the Bolsheviks, the workers’ leaders in those countries were cowards and traitors. The revolutions were betrayed and defeated: the Soviet Union was isolated.

Stalin’s Counter-revolution

Women’s progress was thrown into reverse when Stalin won control of the Communist Party, crushing opposition from Trotsky and others. Stalin overturned the revolution and murdered its leaders.

The new regime glorified motherhood and ‘family values’, just as Hitler’s Nazis were doing in Germany. Stalin wanted the family to play a similar role for his new class system as it did for capitalism, reproducing workers and encouraging deference. Women carried the ‘double burden’: oppressed at home and exploited at work. Abortion became illegal in the Soviet Union in 1933; from 1944, medals (the Order of Maternal Glory) were issued to women who bore many children. The state did not allow women to choose not to become mothers – unless they were members of the bureaucratic ruling class. Contraception was so hard to get and so ineffective that in the 1980s (by which time abortion was legal again), Russian women were having an average eight abortions each, carried out in awful conditions, often with no anaesthetic.

Does Russia’s experience prove that a workers’ revolution will simply lead to renewed oppression of women? No – Stalinism’s victory was a defeat both for women and for the working class. The counter-revolution that crushed women’s rights also destroyed workers’ democracy.

The Welfare State

The 1930s were years of bitter suffering for working-class people in Britain and abroad. The Depression blighted lives with mass unemployment, slum housing and crushing poverty. In Walter Greenwood’s novel, Love on the Dole, women queue at a Salford pawnbrokers’:

“Marriage scored on their faces a kind of pre-occupied, faded, lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by the same problem. As they were. How to get a shilling, and, when obtained, how to make it do the work of two. Though it was not so much a problem as a whole-time occupation to which no salary was attached, not to mention the sideline of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards.”

In 1933, the Women’s Health Committee surveyed 1250 working-class mothers in Britain, and found anaemia, rheumatism, breast abscesses, varicose veins, constipation, phlebitis, bad teeth, neuralgia, backaches and gynaecological ailments. Women’s death in childbirth was increasing, and 500 women died each year as a result of (illegal) abortions.

In 1945, with Hitler beaten, people were not prepared to return to the degradation and poverty of the years before the War. They elected a Labour government, which set up the Welfare State, nationalised important industries and pursued a policy of full employment.

The Welfare State – perhaps especially the National Health Service, set up in 1948 – made a big difference to women’s lives. My father remembers that before the NHS, a ‘doctor’s pot’ stood on the mantelpiece alongside the ‘rent pot’. Spare money would be put in it when possible, because doctors charged a fee. The pot was for serious illnesses: his mother would usually take him to the pharmacist rather than the doctor, discuss his symptoms and buy a treatment. When the NHS came, the ‘doctor’s pot’ was thrown away, and people could go to the doctor without having to pay.

The new Welfare State took parts of women’s domestic role and made them public concerns. The NHS cared for the sick; state schools were free for the first time, and provided milk, meals and medical inspections; benefits stopped people falling into absolute poverty. Women’s burden eased as the state took a little of the weight on its shoulders.

But the Welfare State was flawed. Benefits were set at a lower level than originally planned. Although women had worked in factories and fields during the War, the government’s ‘full employment’ meant full male employment. The benefits system treated women not as individuals but as men’s dependants. Beveridge – the Liberal whose report had led to the creation of the Welfare State – believed that married women should not get benefits, and that divorced women should qualify only if the break-up was not their fault.

After the War

In the fifties and sixties, women’s lives changed again. Washing machines, central heating, fridges and laundrettes arrived, making housework a little easier. More women worked for wages and more women went to college. Traditional moral restrictions relaxed, and advances in contraception meant that women were no longer completely enslaved to their bodies.

But there were two sides to this story. Not everyone could afford a washing machine or a fridge. Whilst more women worked, their jobs usually had low pay and low status; and work outside the home was an addition to – rather than a replacement for – housework. Working-class women suffered in the backstreets as abortion remained illegal in Britain until 1967; but women with money could buy a semi-legal, safe abortion. Just as in the nineteenth century, the tensions, contradictions and double standards in women’s lives propelled a new women’s movement into life.

The new women’s movement was encouraged by the growth of other radical movements: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), student protests in Europe, rebellions in Portuguese colonies in Africa, the French general strike of May 68, the movement against America’s war in Vietnam. Feminism in the USA drew inspiration and momentum from the struggles of black people, as it had in the previous century. On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, tired and laden with shopping, sat down on a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person. She defied the racist laws, and started the bus boycott. Her single act of courage sparked a powerful black civil rights movement.

In the summer of 1968, women sewing machinists at Ford’s in Dagenham, east London, went on strike for equal pay. The women, who made the upholstery of car seats, challenged Ford’s sexist grading structure and demanded to be defined as skilled workers. They won a significant pay rise, but did not win the right to be graded as skilled. The Ford’s strike prompted working women to set up the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights. It was an important event in the rebirth of feminism, which – at least in Britain, and at least initially – had strong involvement of working-class women.

The Rise and Fall of the Women’s Movement

A conference of 600 women at Ruskin College Oxford in 1970 launched the women’s liberation movement. The conference became an annual event, and the second, in 1971, agreed the four original demands of women’s liberation: equal pay; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries under community control.

Over the following years, the women’s liberation movement inspired many thousands of women to speak up for their rights and get involved. It forced a big change in popular attitudes (or at least lip-service) to women and our role in society; it piled on the pressure for important legal advances, such as the 1975 Equal Pay Act. Women organised, met, marched, discussed and protested in numbers we have not seen since. But by the end of the decade, the women’s movement had slowed to a halt and broken into fragments.

The movement had lost its focus on winning tangible gains for women, and shifted its emphasis to more personal matters. In the early days, the slogan ‘the personal is political’ proclaimed that issues such as childcare, contraception, housework and domestic violence were political issues demanding political answers. But by the end of the 1970s, the slogan meant something completely different – that a feminist could only have an opinion on issues she had personally experienced, and that her personal life was open to political scrutiny.

The 1978 women’s liberation conference decided that “the right of every woman to a self-defined sexuality” should be made a preamble to all the other demands (which by then already included “an end to discrimination against lesbians”). A rather vague statement of principle, which placed no specific demand on government or any other institution, was promoted over and above demands that would have transformed the material conditions – and therefore the lives – of millions of women. This decision, which many women at the conference strongly opposed, caused such division amongst feminists that there were no more women’s liberation conferences after 1978.

Radical Feminism

The politics of ‘radical feminism’ had come to dominate the women’s movement. The radical feminists’ view was that the basic divide in society was a gender divide; the problem was ‘patriarchy’, a whole system of male power over women. They saw feminism as a struggle of all women against all men. The radical feminists conceded a fundamental point to the sexists: the idea that women’s oppression exists not because of specific social structures, subject to change, but because of nature and biology. They played down the idea that humans are social beings, shaped by our experiences; and that if we can change the conditions that shape people, then we can change both men and women. Radical feminism was essentially pessimistic about the prospects for women’s liberation.

Radical feminism held that a woman’s personal experience determined the validity of her opinions. Feminists became used to hearing speeches begin with “As a black/lesbian/disabled woman …”. Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan, writing in Feminist Review, described this as “a matter of rank determining righteousness”; the radical feminists were setting up hierarchies of oppression.

Some women developed these ideas into separatism. Campaigning alongside men was collaboration with the enemy – and so was having sex with them! Feminists should refuse to sleep with men and become ‘political lesbians’. This alienated not only heterosexual and bisexual women, but many lesbians too – lesbian sexuality is about desire, relationships and pleasure, not a political instruction. Other women argued for a ‘cultural feminism’, asserting ‘women’s culture’ against ‘male values’, and talking about a ‘special world of women’. They echoed the sexist stereotypes at the heart of women’s subordination, and capitulated to reactionary ideas.

In the later 1980s, and the 1990s, ‘radical’ and ‘cultural’ feminism faded and transmuted into what might be called ‘career feminism’ and ‘academic feminism’. Some better-off women narrowed down feminism to an affair of getting more women ministers, or MPs, or top managers, using egalitarian slogans to help themselves enter the purviews of privilege. It is certainly true that there should be more women MPs and the like, and, where positive discrimination measures can be introduced without corrupting the democratic process and turning into a contest about who can claim more ‘oppression points’, they can play a positive role. But whatever gains this feminism could make in its chosen field, they were greatly outweighed by its role in persuading many men, and young women too, that ‘feminism’ was a scam, or a racket, of no relevance to working-class people. Academic feminism meant a retreat from active politics into writing books, doing historical research, and promoting women’s studies courses. It has produced a lot of very valuable material (alongside, inevitably, some dross). But the world cannot be changed in the seminar room.

Socialist Feminism

Radical and cultural feminism failed the women’s movement because their ‘men versus women’ outlook could not explain the range of oppression and conflict that exists. Neither could they provide strategies that inspired, involved – or even seemed relevant to – the big majority of women.

Socialist feminism could have done both. Socialist feminists realised that women’s liberation is impossible whilst society remains divided into classes, and that women are ourselves divided by class. They wanted women to fight not in isolation, but as part of a movement for a radically different world, free from sexual oppression and from class exploitation.

An emphasis on the needs and demands of working-class women – and on practical campaigning rather than navel-gazing – would bring in millions of those women, to swell the ranks and make a mighty movement. However, socialist feminism as an independent political force was not strong enough to fulfil this task, and not all socialist groups rose to the challenge.

Some socialist groups worked constructively in the women’s movement, but others refused to identify as feminist or to get involved in the movement. Organisations such as Militant (now Socialist Party) and the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers’ Party) argued that because they believed in unity, they could not support women’s self-organisation, and that because they were socialists, they could not be feminists. The IS set up a women’s organisation, Women’s Voice, but closed it when it showed signs of initiative and independence. Other, smaller factions behaved in a sectarian, heavy-handed way towards the women’s movement. Those left groups tended to lecture the movement from the outside, telling activists they were doing it all wrong, rather than being involved and offering their ideas as a constructive way forward.

These experiences left many feminists – even many socialist feminists – hostile to socialist organisations. The left made similar mistakes with the general radicalisation that had taken place since the 1960s. A generation of activists had become militant against capitalism, but were unimpressed by socialism. It was a tragic waste.

The Grunwick Strike

Meanwhile, in 1976/77, the labour movement was learning an important lesson about women. Many people still believed that working-class struggle meant strikes by white, male workers in industries with a tradition of militancy and strong trade union organisation. They believed that women only worked to supplement the breadwinners’ wages and that black workers undercut white workers’ wages; neither were interested in unions or strikes. The Grunwick strike crushed these myths.

Grunwick was a film processing plant in North London, whose workers were mainly women and mainly Asian. They worked in terrible conditions for poverty wages under a whip-cracking bully manager without the protection of a union. In the long, hot summer of 1976, the workload and the factory became unbearable. A few workers walked out, others joined them and so began a year-long strike for better conditions and union recognition.

When the women organised mass pickets, the police dispensed with ‘traditional values’ of chivalry towards women. Grunwick’s bosses could count on the police to brutalise the strikers, the media to demonise them, and the right-wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF) to organise Grunwick’s legal and political campaign. The strikers had their own mountainous courage and active solidarity from thousands of other workers. They found, however, that they could not rely on the leadership of the trade union movement, who let them down. Their strike was defeated.

Revolution and Reaction in Iran

The Shah of Iran ruled a deeply unequal, repressive society until a revolution drove him from power in 1979.

Feminists – and the workers’ movement – were active in the uprising against the Shah. But religious leaders dominated the rebellion politically and ideologically. Ayatollah Khomeini took power, and crushed the aspirations to freedom of many who had fought the Shah.

Many Iranian women fought against the new Islamic regime’s insistence that women wear the veil. Many thousands demonstrated against the regime’s anti-woman policies. At one point, 15,000 women occupied the Palace of Justice, demanding rights. But the mullahs refused to allow women the vote. They stripped the strike committees of their independence. Finally, in 1981, Khomeini solidified his rule through bloody terror against his opponents, arresting and executing workers’ movement activists. Religious rule destroyed trade unions, stifled the right to speak, publish or criticise, and turned back what progress women had made.

Once again, feminism was defeated along with the workers’ movement. Iran warns us to be choosy about who to ally ourselves with, lest they turn on us later. If we concentrate solely on activism, whilst allowing reactionaries to take charge of the politics, then our efforts will end up squandered. The working class needs its own independent political agenda and political organisation.


Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister in 1979. She pursued a political programme which was the precise opposite of everything feminists had demanded. Her Tory Government closed hospitals, cut nursery provision, reduced benefits and pared social services to the bare minimum. It sold public industries to the private sector at bargain-basement prices. A generation of young people had little to look forward to other than unemployment or cheap labour schemes masquerading as ‘training’.

The cutbacks affected women as service users, as carers and as workers. But unemployment and recession did not push women out of the workforce and back into the home, as many socialists and feminists had thought. Instead, they forced working-class women further into a ghetto of insecure, low-status jobs. During the early and mid 1980s, the only new jobs were part-time, low-waged work for women in the service sector.

Thatcher savagely proved that not all women can be relied on to stand up for all women! Thatcher governed without shame on behalf of the ruling class, deliberately increasing the burden and suffering of working-class women. Under her rule, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And to stop the working class fighting back, the Tory Government chained up the unions with a series of laws that made effective trade unionism illegal. Thatcher felt no sisterhood: she knew that class is decisive. She claimed that “the battle for women’s rights has been largely won” and that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

Unfortunately, the working class did not have leaders who fought as resolutely for the interests of our class as Thatcher did for hers.

The Local Government Left

In the late 70s and early 80s, Labour left-wingers won power in several local authorities, including the Greater London Council (GLC). They said that they would take on the Tories, that they would lead a fight against Thatcher’s onslaught against working-class people.

But in 1982, the GLC bottled out. It had introduced the ‘Fares Fair’ policy, cutting ticket prices on London Transport. But when a judge ruled the policy illegal, Ken Livingstone’s GLC gave in. It was only then that it took up the feminist banner. People often look back – whether with fondness or disdain – on the days of the GLC being ‘radical’ in its work on equality issues. But the truth is that this work was an alternative to genuine radicalism. Councils used feminism to keep up their appearances of being left wing, without having to get in trouble with the Government or the courts. Meanwhile, women working in the GLC typing pool still had to raise their hands to ask permission to go to the toilet.

Some of the left Labour councils’ work was worthwhile. But when they cut services at the same time, they provoked a backlash. The tabloid press went to town with Town Hall tales. They dug up – or, mostly, made up – stories of ‘loony left’ local authorities. When councils closed libraries but opened women’s centres, people were prepared to believe even the most outlandish reports. The councils’ policies convinced many working-class people that you can only give to one group by taking away from others; that the demands of feminism took services away from ordinary women and men.

A version of feminism concentrated on committees, policies and grant cheques: a ‘rainbow coalition’, a collection of oppressed groups competing for patronage. Some strands even of ‘socialist feminism’ had transmuted into ‘career feminism’; they had come to mean politics centred on bureaucratic manoeuvring in the Labour Party.

Women Against Pit Closures

The miners’ strike of 1984/85 was an all-out battle between workers and the Tory Government. And it was a battle which women fought from the front line.

At first, women provided essential practical services to the strikers, distributing food, setting up soup kitchens and looking after kids. But before long, the women were organising demonstrations, rallies and collections, and insisting on taking their place on the picket line alongside men. They burst out of the confines of the traditional ‘women’s role’ in strikes and became much more than a support group. Placards reminded people to ‘Never Under-estimate Miners’ Wives’. Women took the strikers’ message beyond the coalfields, travelling around Britain and overseas, speaking in public often for the first time. They met other women in struggle, including women from the Greenham Common peace camp.

The miners’ strike was defeated after twelve months of hard-fought struggle. It is certain that the miners could not have fought so well or for so long without the strength of the women. Their courage and commitment made the leaders of the other trade unions and the Labour Party – who failed to deliver the solidarity that could have brought victory – look like the small, weak people that they are.

The miners’ strike changed the men and women involved. Sylvia Jackson of the Keresley (Coventry) miners’ wives committee explained:

“The coal mining industry is swamped in tradition, and the tradition is that it is a man’s job and it’s no place for a woman. But the attitudes have changed very much during the strike.”

The miners, and the rest of the workers’ movement, had to see women as strong, active, political people.

The women changed too. One woman from South Yorkshire described it like this:

“It was as though women had been asleep for hundreds of years. We awoke to a new awareness, a realisation of what we as women could do. It is only comparable to the suffragettes. Do you know, I believe we are part of history being made.”

After the strike, Women Against Pit Closures applied for associate member status in the men’s union, the NUM. The men, defeated and demoralised, began to retreat to their old chauvinist ways. The application was rejected; women’s placards outside the meeting remarked “Don’t you have short memories?”. It is remarkable how attitudes can change and prejudices drop through working-class struggle. But the new, enlightened attitude is much more likely to stick if the struggle wins. If we want sexist attitudes to die, we need to help the working class to fight and win.

The Backlash

Just when you thought that feminism was getting somewhere, that some of its ideas had been accepted, the backlash came. In 1986, a Harvard-Yale survey claimed that college-educated women over the age of 29 had less than a 20% chance of getting married (and assumed, naturally, that this was a bad thing). Although this survey has since been well and truly discredited, it started an avalanche. The media loved it, and ‘experts’ added other, similar claims: for example, that women working full-time were lonely, unhappy and infertile.

The backlash blamed feminism for everything from heart disease to hair loss. Its message was that equality and independence makes you miserable, feminism is bad for you, and that really you should go home.

History Lessons

This whistle-stop tour of the last 200 years reveals a rich history. Women’s lives have changed greatly, even in the last half-century. When my grandmother brought up four children with no fridge, no TV, no disposable nappies and no access to a washing machine, hers was a typical woman’s lot. Although, disgracefully, a few women in Britain still want for these things, most women’s lives are much better.

Some feminists argue that women have suffered oppression in exactly the same way throughout history. They suggest that because nothing has changed, nothing ever will. They are mistaken. We can not understand either women’s position in society or the current issues in feminism without knowing something of how things have changed, how we got to where we are.

History casts women not just as victims of oppression but as fighters against it. Women’s movements have been motivated and affected by other movements against oppression too. Black people’s struggles, for example, have inspired and been inspired by, given ideas to and taken ideas from, women’s struggles.

Large movements of working-class women have usually identified themselves firmly as part of the workers’ movement, often distinct from, even opposed to, bourgeois feminist movements. And defeats for the workers’ movement have brought defeats for women – whether inflicted by Tories, Stalinists, fascists or religious fundamentalists. The fate of feminism is so closely tied to the fate of the labour movement that you could not separate them if you tried (and plenty of people have tried).

The loudest lesson from history is the importance of politics. Every decision, every rebellion, every strategy, every disagreement, every policy, every demand made by women has been a political matter. Much of our history is about struggle over politics and ideology, not just over economic demands. The choice of one political direction over another has made the difference between victory or defeat. Rejecting politics – as unpleasant, unnecessary or ‘male’ – has merely allowed others to take control, dominate and defeat us.

There is another history, not covered here, of women’s involvement in right-wing movements. Women have mobilised as fascists, anti-abortionists, Thatcherites; women have supported imperialist wars and have organised strike-breaking. It is not just struggle that is important: it is politics.

Women have struggled against oppression which we should never have been made to suffer in the first place. We have not been able to choose the conditions in which we have struggled. Nevertheless, the deliberate actions of women have moved and turned history. They faced choices that we still face today: to fight oppression or to accept it; to organise with others or to stand alone; to learn from history or to repeat its mistakes; to try to determine the future or to just let it happen to you.

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