What is the situation of women in today's society?
Some, paraphrasing former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, might argue that, in Britain at least, women have never had it so good. To be sure, there have never been so many laws, rules and regulations designed to protect women from sexual discrimination and harassment. Never, not even in Victorian days, have the codes of conduct of so many organisations been so comprehensive in protecting women's ears and eyes against the potential hazard of offensive language. Never either have the numbers of women making it to the very top of the social ladder been so large - not really quite to the very top, admittedly, but close enough to claim to have made it. For the best part of eleven years, Thatcher paraded on the news as Britain's first woman prime minister. Anita Roddick, of Body Shop fame, showed that the select world of business tycoons was no longer closed to women. And lately, the case of £1m a year Nicola Horlick, proved that even a mother of five, who took great care to be pictured in the papers pushing a pram in the street, could build up enough power in the City to destabilise one of the most respectable international banking groups.
But so what? Where does this leave the overwhelming majority of women in this country, those who are never in the media floodlight, except when they are gang-raped in some obscure back street of derelict Britain, or when they are accused by a Social Security minister of making themselves pregnant in order to get single-mother's benefit? Only then is this vocally non-sexist society interested in the least in the lives of ordinary women - and even then only for the duration of a TV spot!
Admittedly, even in the poorest sections of the population, the lives of women are no longer the horrendous slavery that they used to be only a century ago. And yet recent developments, over the past decade of capitalist crisis, are showing how fragile these improvements may turn out to be. For those working class women who have been, or are being pushed out of the welfare safety net, and forced to live on casual part-time low-paid jobs, there can be no real financial independence - except in total poverty. For them, the crisis has turned the clock back several decades, to a situation closer to what it was in the inter-war period.
The right to free abortion is becoming a test case of women's social status, not just in Britain, but throughout the industrialised world. The legal right to an abortion is not under threat here, not yet in any case. There are no mobs of hysterical pro-lifers surrounding abortion clinics and shooting doctors and nurses on sight, as has been the case time and again in the past few years in the USA. But recent statistics showed that, for instance, in Birmingham, although certainly not one of the most affluent areas in the country, three-quarters of all abortions were performed outside the NHS. Earlier this month, a survey of the Abortion Reform Association exposed the fact that an increasing number of regional health authorities had drafted new guidelines ensuring that the law would be given a more restrictive interpretation by doctors.
Legal gains are worth only what they are worth. Contrary to a common illusion, the 1967 Abortion Act did not institute free abortion on demand. It only legalised abortion and made it free in cases where the health of the mother or the child might be at risk. Its subsequent implementation was generally far more liberal. But this time is over. As the capitalist class seeks to cut back on all state expenditure which is not channelled one way or another into their coffers, abortion rights are among their first targets, as much as is the share of the national income earned by working people.
Indeed there can be no more lasting changes for the vast majority of women under capitalism than there can be for the working class as a whole. Short of a far-reaching social reorganisation of society, which would necessarily involve the eradication of the profit motive and the setting up of a communist social organisation, the survival of any such so-called "gains" always remains a matter of balance of forces, and a permanent target in the class war waged by the capitalists for its own profit against all other social layers.
Facing a reactionary backlash
Nothing was more significant regarding the real progress of the cause of women than the first UN World Women's conference organised at the end of 1995 in Beijing. Right from the outset, out of the 181 states represented in this conference, no fewer than 40 refused to recognise the right of women to control their own sexual lives. As a result any mention of "sexual rights" disappeared from the "fundamental freedoms" recognised to women in the conference's closing statement.
That all the world's Islamic states would be among these forty countries was to be expected. But next to Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and almost all the Gulf states, were a host of South American countries lined up behind the Vatican, together with Ireland and Poland.
And yes, it is the case that in the last years of the 20th century, religions based on the prejudices generated by social relations which existed some two thousand years ago are still the main figleafs behind which states hide when determining their attitude towards women's rights.
The past few decades have seen a dramatic resurgence of religious obscurantism across the Third World. From Khomeini's so-called "revolution" in Iran to the present civil war in Algeria and the partial seizure of power by the Taliban militias in Afghanistan, whole sections of the Third World population have been or are being pushed back centuries into the past. And everywhere, women have been the first targets of the reactionary backlash.
This reactionary trend has nothing to do with ideas as such, of course. In an era of growing impoverishment across the world, like the present one, using women as scapegoats is an expedient means of channelling the desperation of the poor away from the parasitism of the privileged.
Nor is this limited to any religion in particular. It so happens that Islam is the most common religion in the parts of the world which are most dramatically affected by the world crisis. But as was shown by the "Saffron reaction" engineered in India by the Hindu fundamentalists, this reactionary backlash is not limited to Islam.
Nor is this limited to the Third World either. In the rich countries too, particularly in the USA, and now increasingly in Europe, the Christian religion has been the cover of a comparable, if less prominent so far, reactionary backlash scapegoating women. The demagogic overbidding currently taking place in Britain between Labour and Tory politicians over the need to return to so-called "Christian family values", shows only too clearly how religion, any religion, could be used, once again, by the ruling class, like in many periods in the past, as an instrument of social control over the exploited classes. And one common feature of all main religions, Christian, Islamic, Jewish and others, is their social debasement of women.
In this respect, no-one in Britain should indulge in complacency. After all, among the states of the industrialised countries, the British state is the only one which still retains an official religion and imposes on every child in its schools a compulsory religious brainwashing! Despite its present liberal cloak, the grip of the Anglican Church needs to be fought against as much as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Britain's Asian neighbourhoods. To dismiss the threat of state religion on the grounds that it is "part of the traditional British landscape" would be as irresponsible as to allow, in the name of liberalism, young Asian women in Britain to be subjected to so-called "cultural", but primarily degrading, practices, such as that of the Islamic veil.
Not only is the social condition of women still inferior both worldwide and in Britain today, but it is actually coming under attack in the conditions of the present crisis. And possibly more than ever before in history, the issue of women's rights is appearing increasingly interwined with the general issue of social organisation, that of the class society.
The material roots of women's oppression
While some men ingratiate their egos with dreams of page-three girls, as many women spend hours every week trying to look like one. Both may be only attempting to make up for the same poverty and dullness in their social existence and reflecting the same prejudices, but the consequences for them are different. These men seek more or less consciously the master's role while these women are throwing themselves blindly into a particular kind of bondage.
The huge paid circulation of the tabloids in this country shows that this kind of pre-historic machoism is still rife today among large layers of people. Nor is it confined to the least educated sections of the population. The better-off "macho" has a wide choice between a growing number of glossy up-market magazines with nothing other than page-threes. When they bother to look for a rationale, which is not often, those holding this line of prejudice cling more or less explicitly to the alleged "fact" that biological differences account for the unequal status of women in society. Such a myth is not different from the use of IQs by so-called "theoreticians" of racism, or from the recurrent scare about the existence of a "murderer's gene". Any nonsense can be dressed up in pseudo-scientific rags, as long as these are not put under scrutiny. The only established fact, however, which has been known for a long time, is that the central mechanism of intelligence - the nervous system - has the same unspecialised abilities at birth, regardless of sex.
Of course, a sophisticated society can also produce sophisticated prejudices, at least in terms of packaging, because their content is no less crude. "Political correctness" says that women should be shielded against everything. So, for instance, any hint at women's past inferior social status is meant to be eradicated in common language as well as in official forms and publications. Positive discrimination in favour of women must be systematically enforced . Above all, women should be guaranteed representation at the top of all institutions, political or otherwise, by means of reserved seats and similar devices. The assumption, therefore, is that women are not quite up to it, since they need the helping hand of a male-dominated system in order to propel themselves up the career ladder - against male competition. Of course, as there are no reserved seats for men at the kitchen sink or to change nappies, "political correctness" leaves the overwhelming majority of women, who cannot afford the luxury of house servants, to their own devices, forced to stand up for themselves, and often for the household as a whole, if they can.
At the end of the day, there is not much difference between the patronising hypocrisy of "political correctness" and the brutal and stupid brainlessness of the machos. Both deny women the capacity to play a social role in their own right, not just as women speaking for women, but as full members of human society taking responsibility for the interests of all its members.
Such is more or less the substance of today's sexist prejudices. Blaming the social oppression of women on such prejudices is a very old idea, but one which credits the male minority of society with much more power and consciousness than it deserves. In any case, this is putting the cart before the horse. Social prejudices always target those layers of society which are least likely to retaliate. Chauvinist prejudices are no exception. While reinforcing women's oppression, they are first and foremost a reflection of this oppression. Underlying both sexist prejudices and oppression are much more powerful forces, which are rooted deep in the material organisation of society itself.
The relationship between men and women has changed considerably through human history, together with the structure of the family. These changes have reflected transformations in the social division of labour between men and women, which itself was one constituent part, among others, of the overall division of labour within society - in other words its divisions into social classes. For a long time, mostly due to the weight of religion, the history of these changes has been totally ignored. Long after historians had began to provide detailed accounts of the past, they still maintained that the godly family had an unchangeable and absolute value. Yet, if the relationship between men and women has a history, it means that it also has a future which can and should be built consciously.
It took until the mid-19th century and the birth of a socialist movement basing itself on the emerging industrial proletariat, for the fight against women's oppression to be put into a proper historical perspective, that of the development of society as a whole. For the first time an effective analysis and criticism of women's oppression and its social expression, the bourgeois family, was formulated by some of the most prominent figures of that movement - in particular by the German socialists, Friedrich Engels and August Bebel. Using the discoveries of contemporary anthropologists, they showed that for a long time primitive societies must have been free of any kind of oppression, sexual or otherwise. But, as society had become richer and more skilled, private property had emerged, dissolving slowly the old communal organisation and producing both the modern family structure and the division of society into classes.
As Bebel noted, In the new division of labour thus created, «woman was the first human being that tasted bondage.» And this oppression, far from being subsequently weakened by economic progress, was further reinforced as the social oppression imposed by the dominant classes grew stronger and more sophisticated. Generalising from this statement of facts, Marx reformulated the issue of women's oppression in the following terms: «The changes in a historical epoch may always be inferred from the comparative freedom of women in one part of it or another, for in an improvement in the relations between women and men, we see most clearly the victory of human nature over the nature of the brute. The degree of emancipation of women is a natural standard of the general emancipation... The debasement of the female sex is an essential character trait of civilisation no less than of barbarism, with this difference that under civilisation all the vices that barbarism practices in a simple and straightforward way, are now preserved in a complicated, ambiguous and hypocritical semblance... When woman is kept enslaved, man suffers from this even more than woman herself.»
Behind the relative laxity of medieval times...
It took many thousands of years before the egalitarian features of the old primitive societies were eventually totally eradicated.
Back in Roman times, the most famous ancient Briton is claimed to have been Queen Boadicea, who was for a while a major thorn in the side of the Roman invader. By that time the social development of the Briton tribes was broadly comparable to that of their contemporaries of Northern Europe, far behind that of Rome. But it was precisely for that reason that mother right had survived, allowing Boadicea to lead the ancient Briton in the fight against the Roman armies.
Among the Celts, tribal customs survived in marital relations despite successive invasions almost up to the modern period. According to the Domesday Book written in the 11th century, Welsh laws allowed marriages to be dissolved for up to 7 years. Either partner could separate and the property was divided up evenly. Apparently the husband was expected to observe a high level of hygiene: bad breath was a sufficient ground for divorce. In modified form these rules appear to have survived in Wales until the 17th century, and in Ireland somewhat longer. And in Scotland, the old rights and duties of the Scottish clans only gave way to English-imposed law after the clearance of the highlands in the 18th century.
The evidence from Anglo-Saxon England of the role of royal and noble women reflects the more developed state of society. Poems from the 7th century depict great ladies as the ideal of civilized behaviour in a violent age. Some enjoyed great independence. Chronicles record several queens who ruled one or other of the English kingdoms during the 8th and 9th centuries. Bamburgh, Wolverhampton and Tolpuddle were all named after local women. Even peasant women might be remembered. Audley, Aveley and Kimberley were villages named after women and probably acknowledged their outstanding role in clearing woodlands for cultivation.
After the Normans, led by William, overthrew the Anglo-Saxon monarchy in 1066, noblewomen in England lost their independent status. However women in general continued to benefit from the old tribal customs and liberties which survived into the customs and Common Law of the Middle Ages.
Of course the mutual obligations which were supposed to bind lord and peasant were always heavily tilted in favour of the master. Peasant women were exposed to the lord's bullying, as were the men. Rape was the norm in a society in which there was no clear difference between knights and highway robbers.
But in a predominantly agrarian society, women were legally entitled to own their own land. Daughters might be given land by their fathers and not necessarily only in anticipation of a dowry. Women who worked for several years as labourers or dairy maids could save money and purchase their own land or use their savings to become bakers or brewsters. Once married, women's lives were not necessarily restricted by gender. Husbands and wives often worked as a team, ploughing together, for instance. Land was held jointly so that if the husband died, the wife could continue to farm in her own name.
One route for women who wanted to escape from the village was into the towns. They might enter legally as servants to the merchant class or illegally as traders. Either way they ran a risk. Only in and around London women were recruited to apprenticeships, particularly in the silk trade. Some were driven into prostitution.
The career of Margery Kemp of Lynn has been recorded because she dictated her autobiography in 1438. She was probably an exception, but by no means a unique case in a society where the merchant bourgeoisie was already growing. She became a well-to-do businesswoman until her brewery went downhill owing to a series of misfortunes. In the end though she was able to pay off not only all her own debts but also those of her husband.
... To the Church's brutal attack against women's rights
The most powerful force to come down against women's rights in medieval times, just as it did against the rights of the male labourer, was the Church.
In a time when political and economic power was atomised according to the changing boundaries of family fiefdoms, the Church often supplemented the weaknesses of political power and proved usually more far-sighted and consistent in protecting the interests of the ruling feudals than the lords themselves.
The strength of the Christian religion was that it had emerged as the religion of the slaves, and as such, it was capable of expanding beyond the social elite and embracing all layers in society. By proclaiming that all were equal in front of God, Christianity could get away with preaching total submission to the established social and political order and to the growing injustice of medieval society.
The early feudal system was much too loose to enforce strictly and consistently the subjection of women which would have been required to enable the propertied classes to increase their wealth through tight inheritance rules. This was where the Church stepped in to provide the new social order with an ideological rationale and a bureaucratic machine geared to enforce the subjection of women.
Christianity took the mysogynist slant of its forerunners from around the Mediterranean - particularly that of the Jewish religion - to new heights. Not only did Christian scriptures turn woman into a mere appendix of man (made out of one of Adam's ribs) but also into the living symbol of sin. As Quintus Tertullian wrote in the 3rd century: «Woman! thou oughtest always to walk in mournings and rags, thine eyes filled with tears of repentance, to make men forget that thou has been the destruction of the race. Woman! thou art the gate of Hell! » A hundred years later, John Chrysostom, who was to become Archbishop of Constantinople, warned: «Women's beauty is confined to their skin. Should men be able to see beneath their skin, they would feel sick! » And one of his contemporaries added: «All women should be shamed to death at the mere thought of being women! »
As medieval society was becoming more stable and richer, the Church sought to consolidate its control, so as not to be dependent on the unreliable goodwill of the nobility. The Church took over as the guardian of marriage. And, given its outspoken contempt - if not hatred - for women, it soon turned this relatively loose institution into a social straightjacket, at the expense of women.
Under the yoke of the emerging bourgeoisie
During the Renaissance period, the early days of the emergence of the new urban bourgeoisie was accompanied by a cultural explosion and a fury of activity, aimed at discovering new horizons over the seas and breaking new ground in the fledgling field of science. Overall the whole of society benefited from a sudden increase in resources, but some benefited more than others. It was not just the poor who lost out, women did too, as the competition for wealth increased.
This period produced great thinkers and prominent pedagogues who concentrated on the task of educating the new generations. Schools and universities were set up. But women were banned from attending: such institutions existed solely to train the future cadres of the state machineries and the Church. Thus, while a new path to social promotion was offered to young men, outside the profession of war, women were left out, including those belonging to the richest classes.
Increasingly women were banned from social life. In the towns, the sudden population growth resulted in fiercer competition among artisans. This produced a backlash against crafstwomen who were progressively pushed out of all trades, including those which they had traditionally dominated - as barbers and surgeons in particular. In many parts of Europe new legislation tightened their dependence on their husbands, fathers or brothers.
The Church, which had lost temporarily some ground in this intellectual and economic explosion, had a considerable role in stepping up the subjugation of women. For fear of losing their main instrument of social control - marriage - the Church tightened it even further. It is significant that it was precisely in these days of relative intellectual, political and economic freedom, that the Church waged what can only be described as a terrorist campaign against the poor in the countryside, in the name of fighting witchcraft. As most of those accused of being witches were women, this drive reduced their social status and rights even further.
In any case, the new bourgeoisie had no objection to the tightening up of the old family structure - on the contrary. Feudal society had been mildly obsessed with the purity of blood and lineage - and this had left a limited space for women's choice. But the bourgeoisie was only concerned with profitability. It saw marriage as an investment and women as commodities. As women could not be easily locked up in a safe just as any other valuable, they were locked up in their homes, to produce what they had been bought for - an heir for the master's wealth - while waiting for the agreed share of their own fathers' inheritance.
The bourgeois family implodes
Bourgeois marriage was nothing but compulsory legal prostitution imposed on women with the hypocritical help of a "virtuous" clergy. But in more than one way it contained the seeds of its own self-destruction.
Marx stressed how, in the first place, the bourgeoisie's own social behaviour tended towards the destruction of the bourgeois family: «A bourgeois who is of a lecherous disposition disregards the sanctity of marriage and becomes a secret adulterer; the merchant ignores the sanctity of property, inasmuch as he deprives others of their property by speculation, bankruptcy, etc.; the young bourgeois makes himself independent of his family whenever he can, and thus in practice breaks up the family. But, in theory, marriage, property and the family remain sacrosanct, because in practice they are the foundations on which the bourgeoisie has established its dominion, because in their bourgeois form they are the conditions which makes the bourgeois a bourgeois.»
But if the women of the bourgeoisie lost most of their independence, those of the working classes lost even more by the time the bourgeoisie reached the stage of industrialisation. Everywhere factories and machinery displaced handicraft industries. The 19th century migration to the cities dwarfed previous inflows. As industrialisation gathered speed, new jobs were being created at a phenomenal rate. But it was women and children rather than men who found employment - their lack of skills and confidence made them easier prey for the capitalists. Conditions and wages were comparable to slavery. Whole families were packed into single rooms. Beds were slept in, in rotation. On low wages and cut off from the land, people could not feed themselves properly. Malnutrition and disease followed. Even the slaves of ancient times were treated better - at least it was in the interests of their owners to keep them in proper health. Not so for the capitalists. With 14-hour days, or even longer, and the horrendous housing situation, any form of family life collapsed for the new working class. Soon, the chronic production crises of the capitalist system were to force hundreds of thousands of workers onto the roads, looking for a job across the country, tearing apart working class families.
However, Marx found grounds for optimism. The bourgeois system could only corrupt anything that it touched. But at the same time it was creating the basis for a new society of a higher level.
The development of the bourgeoisie had initiated the systematic enslavement of the overwhelming masses of the population in its factories. By the same token it had created the proletariat, a new class which produced all wealth in society and, at the same time, had no stake in retaining private property. Likewise for the bourgeois family in the social conditions created by the development of the bourgeoisie. As Marx explained: «However terrible, however repulsive, the break-up of the old family system within the organism of capitalist society may seem; nonetheless, by assigning to women and to young persons and children of both sexes, a decisive role in the socially organised process of production, and a role which has to be fulfilled outside the home, large-scale industry is building the new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes.»
This, in Marx's reasoning, was of course a long-term trend. Because this process was not dictated by a conscious drive to build up the future, but only by the short-term needs of capitalist profit, it suffered numerous setbacks. In the second half of the 19th century, the development of new heavy industries and the gradual reduction of the textile industries pushed working class women back into their homes, forcing them to rely on the odd precarious and low-paid job to make up the family income. Then began an era of double exploitation for working class women - a day's work outside, for very little money, followed with another day's work at home, catering for the needs of their much better-paid husbands and the rest of the family.
In this respect, at least, not much has changed since the late 19th century, for the vast majority of working class women in this country. The double shift remains their unwanted privilege. The difference, however, is that, once again, the economic crisis has resulted in many more women being drawn into active life, away from the narrow horizon of their homes, and, increasingly often as the sole bread-winner in the house. Once again, no matter how hard politicians of all sides may preach a return to basic "Christian values", it is the bourgeois society itself which is shredding the old bourgeois family to pieces. And, in this process, women are bound to take an increasingly high profile in the fight to change the social order of which they are the first victims.
Women in the French revolution
Ever since the masses erupted onto the political scene, women have played their part in social and political struggles. But significantly, their role has always been more prominent in the most radical among these struggles, particularly in revolutionary periods. The French bourgeois revolution, in the late 18th century, was such a period. In its first phase, the banner of the Revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man which, it was claimed, was to become the "universal" standard of the new society. But it was only "universal" as far as the interests of the members of the propertied classes were concerned - and exclusively those of white, male property owners. It was to take three more years of revolutionary upheavals for the poor (male) masses to gain citizenship. And for slavery to be abolished in the French colonies, in 1794, it took a full-scale uprising in the Caribbean.
As to the total absence of the rights of women in the original Declaration, it was respectfully challenged by some of the educated women who supported the Revolution. Thus, on the basis that «the law must express the general will, all female and male citizens must contribute...», Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women. But to no avail. As far as the Republican deputies were concerned, the new citizenship was to remain a privilege confined to men only - all the more so as this citizenship included the right to carry arms and they were definitely terrified by the unruly crowds of Paris' streetwise women.
Indeed, very early on, in the major towns, women were at the forefront of the revolutionary mobilisation. In October 1789, a new stage was reached in the revolution when some 7,000 women marched on Versailles where the National Assembly was sitting doing nothing, next to the royal palace, while bread was running scarce in Paris. Out of their initiative grew a demonstration of over 40,000 armed citizens who imposed on the National Assembly the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the cancellation of the so-called "feudal rights", which weighed so heavily on the countryside. Then the royals and the Assembly deputies were marched back into Paris under the watchful eyes of the women. The deputies were so terrified that three days later they declared a martial law banning all popular gatherings. However, the Paris women had won a tremendous victory and an unbending confidence.
In July 1791 the most radical phase of the revolution was sparked off by the shooting of dozens of demonstrators during a massive rally against the monarchy. The following three years saw the popular mobilisation reach its highest level. Again women were at the forefront. It was their protests, for instance, which prompted the revolutionary power to review the issue of soldiers who had been sentenced to the galleys for mutinying against their officers. Eventually the government brought the soldiers back from the galleys to Paris for an official welcome. Armed "women citizens" were officially included in the plans for the march past.
The most politicised women took part in the mushrooming of political clubs which took place in that period. Among them, Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe founded a "Revolutionary Women's Republican Club" on a political programme which was close to that of the most radical wing of the revolution and to the aspirations of the radicalised crowds. In March 1792 Pauline Leon presented a petition to the legislative assembly demanding that women be allowed to carry arms in self-defence. Given the precarious state of the revolution, this was a perfectly legitimate demand. However the reply of the assembly was significant of the dominant views: women's hands, said the politicians, were «too delicate» for «brandishing homicidal pikes». Not that they were in a position to prevent women having access to arms at this stage. Shortly afterwards an engraving was published of a woman in militant pose, which was entitled "women who have become free". The woman is holding a pike inscribed "liberty or death".
On 20 June armed women were once again out in force along with tens of thousands of mainly craftsmen and labourers who marched through the royal gardens and palace in Paris demanding that the king's veto on the government's radical decrees should be ignored. The women's growing radicalisation was soon too much for the revolutionary government. When, in the autumn of 1793, the "Revolutionary Women's Republican Club" began to agitate for the systematic application of terror against hoarders and speculators, the government quickly moved to exploit the fears of the small traders. All women's clubs were banned while republican leaders made moralising comments, saying that it was «against all the laws of nature for a woman to want to make herself a man».
Even then, the revolutionary women had succeeded in a number of ways. For the first time sisters and brothers were now equals as far as inheritance was concerned; marriage had ceased to be a religious act and the new divorce law gave men and women equal rights to end a marriage by mutual consent.
Among the Chartists
The French Revolution had enormous repercussions in England. But as no mass movement was developing at that point, the new radical ideas remained mostly confined to the educated petty bourgeoisie.
Mary Wollstonecroft's name was indissolubly linked with this current of opinion. The daughter of a silk weaver, she was, amongst other things, a seamstress before she became admitted to London literary circles after publishing a book on women's education. Wollstonecroft's moderate, Christian-inspired views were entirely acceptable to liberals at the time. But not for long! Drawn over to France by the revolutionary events, she abandoned her religion and in the "Vindication of the Rights of Man" expressed her enthusiastic support for a new era of freedom and democracy. Then in her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" she demanded a new, and equal, form of education for boys and girls. Subsequently she was to expose the appalling exploitation of serving girls.
In England, however, a period of social unrest began after the end of the wars against Napoleon. Four years after the battle of Waterloo, workers from all over Lancashire including many women converged on St Peter's Fields in Manchester demanding political reform and an end to unemployment. The orderly march was attacked by mounted yeomanry who left 11 dead and 400 wounded, in what was to become known as the "Peterloo Massacre".
In fact it was in the generation after 1815 that women in their tens of thousands poured into the Lancashire cotton industry. By 1841 nearly half of all mill operatives were women. They were to play an important role in the first mass movement of the industrial working class - the Chartist Movement. The movement was preceded by two events which underlined the anti-working class nature of the new era of "free" market capitalism. In 1832 the first reform bill had been passed. The fact that the vote was only extended to the middle class despite the massive mobilisation of workers on the streets of big industrial towns left them feeling robbed. The first action of the regime were tough measures against trades unions in the courts and the creation of a new Poor Law. This authorised the construction of workhouses, known popularly as "Bastilles" to house the unfortunate poor. It involved the separation of husbands from their wives and children and the imposition of a strict regime of stone breaking and other hard physical labour. The poor, and especially women, were being punished for being poor. To escape the workhouse, people would accept virtually any job, however low paid.
Not surprisingly women were in the forefront of the protests against the new law. Armed with stones they were very often the shock troops who confronted the overseer and the police outside the "Bastilles".
As the Chartist movement grew, a new development was the participation of women in meetings by including them in votes taken. In fact it was a man, Samuel Bamford, who claimed credit for its first introduction at Lydgate in Saddleworth, Lancashire. None of the men objected. Ever after women voted alongside the men at meetings.
Despite this, votes for women was not inscribed on the Charter. William Lovett, one of the Chartist leaders, said he wanted to but was overruled by the London Workingmen's Association because others thought its adoption would delay the suffrage of men. As the vote was at that stage only allowed to men of property, it was feared that the Chartist demand for votes for women could be used as an excuse to extend the vote just to middle-class women. However the struggle for votes for women was intended to begin as soon as the working man was enfranchised. This appears to have been the view of Chartist women at the time who organised the Female Associations which raised money but also organised educational work thereby «instilling principles of Chartism into their children». They addressed women's meetings, helped gather millions of signatures for the mass petitions, sold the Northern Star and other Chartist literature illegally on the streets and were involved in numerous acts of confrontation with the authorities during a decade and more of agitation.
Of course, implementation of the Charter had to wait a further half century. Votes for women, even longer. Nonetheless, the movement made lasting gains. In fact, arguably, it was women who were its most direct beneficiaries. The Factory Act of 1844 which banned night work for women and limited shifts to 12 hours and the act of 1847 which reduced maximum hours for women to ten were milestones. It had the effect of reducing men's working hours too in the long economic boom beginning about 1850.
In the new American unions
In the USA during the same period there was no equivalent of the Chartist movement for the simple reason that working men, at least white men, had already largely acquired the vote. However there was a parallel development in the cotton industry with women streaming into the factories. Conditions were every bit as bad as in Britain with women regularly working 14-hour shifts.
As early as 1831, the tailoresses formed their own union and went on strike for their own list of wages. They received much sympathy but little money from the all-male unions.
In 1834 a thousand women shoebinders met in Lynn, Massachusetts where they formed a "Female Society for the Protection of Female Labour". Shortly afterwards they struck for two months. Their strike was backed by the men's cordwainers' union and helped the shoebinders win an improved wage scale. In general, though, men's unions were reluctant to help women workers in a period when men's skilled jobs were disappearing fast and being replaced by machines and often by women on lower wages. But as many women were sole breadwinners who had to work, it was a problem which would not go away. As a "Working Woman" wrote in the Mechanics' Free Press, Philadelphia: «You advocate rights of Working Men... Know ye not that a large proportion of the females of our country come under the denomination of Working Women - that they are oppressed and injured as deeply as are the men?»
The following decade saw the rise of the first industrial women's unions. It also brought to the fore three outstanding working-class women - Sarah Bagley, Huldah Stone and Mehitabel Eastman. Apart from pursuing workers' wage demands, they also participated in the struggle for the 10-hour day, the abolition of slavery, the ending of capital punishment and the temperance movement. Their militancy and hard work won them universal respect from men and women alike. They were also involved with the setting up of working women's journals such as the "Voice of Industry" and the "Factory Girls' Garland", which were smuggled into the factories and passed around.
In 1845 the three set up the Female Labor Reform Association which spread through the New England mill towns. When the New England Workingmen's Association was set up, Bagley was elected vice-president and Stone and Eastman were also elected office-holders. Subsequently a series of strikes were attempted by the millworkers for the 10-hour day. But although the 5,000 women of West Pennsylvania won a notable victory, elsewhere the employers proved too strong. It was not until much later, in 1874, that the 10-hour Day Act was passed. By then the American Civil War had led to far greater numbers of women joining the workforce permanently as a result of the shortage of men.
1866 saw two significant developments: the first strike by black washerwomen in Jackson (Miss) and the pledge by the National Union of Labor to support all working women. In 1868 the attention of Karl Marx was aroused by the decision of the congress of the National Union of Labor to support equal pay for equal work. He wrote about this as a "great progress" and added: «Anybody knows, if he knows anything about history, that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment.»
The Knights of Labor succeeded the National Union of Labor. Initial reluctance to allow women to join was overcome when women shoeworkers struck in Philadelphia alongside male members. By organising in the South, the Knights attracted black working women into the organisation. This included a number of integrated branches in what still remained an overwhelmingly segregated part of the country. The Knights of Labour, with its slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all", reached the height of its influence in the 1880s, a decade of stormy strikes in the USA as American workers fought for the 8-hour working day. Women workers were often in the forefront. In 1886, for instance, Lizzie Swank, a union organiser in Chicago, led about 350 women from textile factory to textile factory during the height of the 8-hour agitation. One after another the factories closed down. The local bourgeoisie were outraged. The women were branded the «Shouting Amazons» in the local press which also reported one woman saying «We'll never give in. We want 8 hours with 10 hours pay.»"
Out of this tumultuous period came a generation of women union activists, who were to shape the American trade union and socialist movement well into the 20th century. Among them, probably the most prominent was Mary Jones, better known as "Mother Jones", who was instrumental in organising the Virginia coal miners - all of them hard and tough men - in setting up the American Socialist Labour party with Daniel De Leon and the Industrial Workers' of the World (IWW), a militant revolutionary syndicalist movement.
The fight for women's suffrage in Britain
In England in the 1880s there were also strikes in which women played a decisive role. A first attempt at organising a union among women workers in the clothing industry, made by Emma Paterson, resulted in the new union being admitted to the TUC - not without ruffling the feathers of some union leaders like Henry Broadhurst who thought that women «should stay in their proper sphere at home». But it was the match-girls strike of 1888 which really turned a new leaf for women in the unions. Aided by the Women's Trade Union Provident League, which provided financial support and rushed in to organise a union, the women won all their demands for abolishing fines, a wage increase and union recognition within a fortnight! The strikers' success was infectious. In the same year women blanket weavers in Heckmondike, cigar makers in Nottingham, tin box makers in London, and cotton and jute workers in Dundee, all took strike action. The strike wave continued in 1889. Most prominent was the strike of the London gas workers which was supported by Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx. During the strike she formed the first women's branch of the gas workers union and subsequently the union adopted an equal pay for equal work policy.
Where women's rights came to most prominence in that period, however, was on the issue of women's suffrage. It had been raised at the time of the second Reform Bill in 1867. But when J.S.Mill, the author of the "Subjection of Women", proposed to substitute "person" for "man" in the bill, it was defeated. When the 3rd Reform Bill was introduced in 1884 which enfranchised all working men who paid rates, Gladstone threatened to drop the whole bill if the women's amendment was not withdrawn.
Women's suffrage societies existed throughout this period in the large cities, thereby keeping the issue alive. But though a bill for women's suffrage was debated 18 times in the 40 years after 1867 and often received the initial consent of MPs, it always somehow managed to get lost in Commons business.
Suffragettes had pinned their hopes mainly on the Liberals. New possibilities seemed to be opened up by the drive towards what was to become the Labour Party. Of course the emerging movement could only stand to gain from universal adult suffrage in its battle with the Liberal party. That, however, seemed a long way away in 1900 and was not something Labour politicians, unlike the socialist parties of Europe, were prepared to take on board. But even a franchise limited to ratepayers of both sexes was advantageous. So at any rate thought Keir Hardie and other members of the Independent Labour Party. As a result of an ILP survey covering 40 branches and nearly 60,000 potential women voters, Hardie stated that over four-fifths claimed to be working class. Working women started joining the previously middle-class suffrage societies, while, in 1900, 29,000 women from Lancashire factories signed a petition demanding the vote because they felt discriminated against both at home and at work.
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, who was close to the ILP, formed the Women's Social and Political Union. Initially their campaigning was as respectable as that of all the other suffrage societies. Their tactics changed, however, after yet another bill had been dropped for lack of parliamentary time. In October 1905, Emmeline Pankhurst's daughter, Christabel, asked Sir Edward Grey, a senior Liberal MP, what his party intended to do about votes for women at a meeting in Manchester. When he ignored the question, Annie Kenny, a working-class woman from Oldham and political ally of the Pankhursts, repeated it. Still getting no response, the two women stood on their chairs and unfurled home-made banners inscribed "Votes for Women". They were arrested and later fined. Refusing to pay their fines, they were thrown in jail for a few days.
The protests might have ended there if Labour had not refused to include women's suffrage in its election programme. The reasons were opportunistic. It did not want to enfranchise middle-class women who would not vote Labour, nor did it want to go against the prejudices of the trade unions' predominantly male membership. In fact it did not in any way want to appear controversial.
The Pankhursts' organisation embarked on a campaign designed to cause maximum embarrassment to the government and ministers in particular. With suffragettes regularly being thrown out of political meetings and jailed, the violence began to escalate. Windows of well-known anti-feminist politicians were smashed, churches where clergy preached against the suffragettes were burnt down, "votes for women" was carved into the golf courses of political opponents. In jail, suffragettes went on hunger strike and were force-fed. When the public protested, what became known as the "Cat and Mouse" Act was passed. This enabled the government to release hunger strikers and rearrest them as soon as they had recovered.
The policy of escalating violence was primarily the policy of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. It reflected understandable frustration with the male politicians of the day and was an attempt to bludgeon them into making concessions. It also reflected a political choice. Despite the sympathy and support of tens if not hundreds of thousands of working women, no attempt was made to win their active participation. Of course they were invited and came in great numbers to the massive and well-organised demonstrations in London, Manchester and elsewhere. But for Christabel, whose ideas predominated, they were strictly ancillaries. She insisted that it was middle and upper-class women who should form the real heart of the movement. Their position, she said, gave them much more influence with MPs and the government. Given that such educated women invariably had softer treatment from the law, there was no shortage of volunteers. But they had their own reasons for getting involved which had nothing to do with social change.
By contrast, Christabel's sister, Sylvia, followed a different road. Although she supported her mother and sister for many years, her first loyalty increasingly went to the working class and, in particular, the women and men of the East End of London where she made her home. For a start, what could the vote in itself achieve? Most working men had had the vote for decades but this had not in and of itself produced any marked change in their lives. In order to do this, it was necessary to build a militant organisation of the working class which could rely on its own resources to address the evils of hunger, low wages, poor living conditions etc. That Sylvia had real support was proved by the way crowds blocked the approach to her whenever the police moved in to arrest her.
These different social choices were reflected by the different attitudes taken by the three Pankhursts when Britain entered World War I. Christabel and her mother urged all out support for the war effort and Emmeline ended up joining the Conservatives. Sylvia, on the other hand, took a pacifist stand during the war, repudiated her mother's and sister's "chauvinism" and subsequently became an enthusiatic supporter of the Russian Revolution and a founding member of the country's first Communist Party.
From the Paris Commune...
Women took an equally active role in the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871. It was mostly women who, on the first day, surrounded the troops who had been sent by the French government to retrieve the cannon belonging to the National Guard, eventually convincing them to arrest their own general. The market women of Les Halles built a 65-foot long barricade in half a day. Other women joined revolutionary clubs and formed their own. A laundress, Madame Andre, was secretary of the "Proletarians' Club". In April, Elisabeth Dimitrieff, a Russian-born member of Marx's First International, formed the "Women's Union for the Defence of Paris and Care of the Wounded", which affiliated to the International. Many of its 128 members were working women. Among them was Nathalie Lemel, a bookbinder and another member of the International, who had achieved great fame in the Parisian working class by running a workers' restaurant during the siege of Paris, in the run up to the uprising.
After the entry of the government's troops into the city, women fought side by side with the men throughout the week it took to quell the workers' resistance. Thousands were killed and more than a thousand were arrested and tried in the reprisals which followed. The most unusual commanding officer among the last surviving insurgents, unusual in any case by the standards of the time, was Louise Michel. A schoolteacher by profession, and a dedicated anarchist, she emerged as one of the leaders of the Commune and subsequently fought alongside during its closing days. Committed to both socialism and to the fight for women's rights, she believed that the former would ensure the latter. «When the Revolution comes», she wrote 15 years later after exile in New Caledonia, «you and I and all humanity will be transformed..... Beyond our tormented epoch will come the time when men and women will move through life together as good companions, and they will no more argue about which sex is superior than races will argue about which race is foremost.»
... To the Russian revolution
After the defeat of the Paris Commune, and the period of reaction that followed, the centre of gravity of revolutionary activity shifted eastwards to Russia. Under the brutal Tsarist autocracy talk of women's emancipation was academic, if not irrelevant, in a country where all but the aristocracy and rich bourgeois had minimal freedom. Against such a background of backwardness and repression, hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people from privileged backgrounds made bold and often desperate attempts to arouse the Russian peasantry and politicise the small but growing working class. Amongst them were many women who foreswore the easy life and endured severe hardships for their beliefs.
Elizaveta Kovalskaya, for example, took a year to recover from being beaten up by the police for distributing literature to factory workers in 1878. But then she resumed her revolutionary activities. Sophia Perovskaya was one of those (Lenin's brother was another) who was publicly hanged for assassinating the Tsar. Of 43 revolutionaries sentenced to hard labour for life between 1880 and 1890, 21 were women. The Social-Democratic Labour Party - Lenin's organisation before forming the Bolshevik party in 1903, as a fraction within its ranks - had fewer women members, probably because it had a larger proportion of working class members than the rest of the revolutionary movement of the time. But some of its leading figures, like Alexandra Kollontai, Vera Zasulich and Krupskaya, were women too. Meanwhile, in Poland, then a Russian colony, another woman, Rosa Luxemburg, was a founder of the Polish Social Democratic party before moving to Berlin where she became a leading revolutionary figure in German Social Democracy and subsequently one of the main leaders of the German revolution, in the winter of 1918.
In Russia, by February 1917, the war had caused massive suffering both on the home front and in the army. Conditions were ripe for revolution. But on the day when events started to unfold, no particular disturbances and strikes were anticipated. What made the difference were the women from various textile mills who spontaneously went on strike in the capital, Petrograd. It was February 23 and the occasion was International Women's Day. Having struck themselves, the women sent delegations to neighbouring engineering works. Reluctantly at first, the metal workers agreed to follow. Eventually the numbers of strikers rose to 90,000. Women led the marches with banners demanding an end to war and the overthrow of the Tsar. Within three days the strikers had grown to a quarter of a million and the army was beginning to mutiny, within a week the government was overthrown.
Under the Provisional government women were elected to the soviets and maintained the political pressure for bread, an end to the war and the vote. It was in response to this pressure that all women over the age of 20 were given the vote in July 1917.
The new Soviet government legislated to transform women's lives. In 1918 a new law made marriage a civil ceremony and introduced simple divorce laws for women as well as men. The stigmatisation of women with children born out of wedlock was removed and the commissar for public welfare, Alexandra Kollontai, issued a decree giving state protection to mothers and children. Hospital maternity care was made free. In 1920 abortion became legal for the first time in modern Europe. Another first time event was the series of decisions made in 1917 by the All-Russian Congress of Muslim people: not only was equality between Muslim men and women proclaimed; polygamy was also banned, together with the forced marriage of young girls and the obligation for women to wear the Islamic veil; and compulsory schooling was extended to girls as well.
During the civil war Lenin often addressed conferences of women. He came back time and again to the question of housework. «Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, nerve-racking drudgery.» he said in 1919. The answer could only be complete equality with men through socialising the economy. Housework had to be transformed by setting up collective restaurants, nurseries, day-care centres, laundries, etc..
Women must be actively involved at all levels in the political process itself, he reiterated. The creation of Zhenodtel, the Bolshevik Party's women's bureau, was designed to facilitate that and brought peasant and working women into positions of responsibility. The purpose was not to encourage women to go their own way, something which Lenin strenuously opposed, but to bring as many women as possible to get involved in the running of society. Unlike in even the most advanced capitalist countries where a special training afforded to only a few women was necessary for involvement in politics, the doors for women in the Soviet Union should be wide open, old habits should be rooted out and, as he said, «every cook must learn to rule the state».
Of course the civil war set back the Bolsheviks' ambitious plans. Within a few years after its end, Stalinist reaction set in, depriving the working class of political power. In the ensuing period much of the earlier progress was reversed and the rebaking of traditional values was set in train, for instance the official banning of abortion in 1936 - although this ban was eventually repealed in 1955, due to an explosion of backstreet abortions. But not everything was reversed by far. The roots of the revolution had sunk too deep and the needs of the growing industrial state demanded a development of many of the social gains of 1917. Thus in the areas of nurseries, education, healthcare, canteen provision and jobs, Soviet women had, for a long time, possibilities which most Western working class women could only dream of.
The fight for free abortion and contraception
Changes this century have continued to advance the role played by women in society, at least in the industrialised societies. However while on paper it may be argued that practically all formal obstacles to women's advancement have been removed and that therefore women have at last achieved full equality, this is pure illusion. In fact most of the supposed progress made by women turns out to be broadly in the interests of the changing and developing needs of capital. Except in the isolated case of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the gains for women have been largely incidental.
For instance, the dramatic increase of women in the labour force has always been very conditional and often temporary. WW1 saw women occupying all manner of jobs in factories and offices for the first time. This was essential for the war machines of Britain, Germany and France. But come the peace and the return of the troops, most women were quickly despatched back into the home. In Britain restrictions on unemployment benefits forced women back into low-paid domestic and cleaning jobs. In many jobs women were sacked if they got married. There was a further tightening of the screw in the 30s. Ten years later with WW2 underway, there was a dramatic turn about once more, but which again ended as peace returned.
The post-war boom created two decades of relative prosperity, though mainly for the middle class. But by the time the feminist movement was really underway in the late 60's, the dole queues were already beginning to grow again. Subsequently, against a background of high unemployment, legislation in favour of women, for instance the setting up in 1975 of the Equal Opportunities Commission, rang mostly hollow.
Over this period, the main focus of the fight for women' rights was over the right to free abortion and contraception. The possibility of cheap, effective contraception has been around since the end of the last century. But rather than facilitate its availability, most states for a long time joined forces with religion to limit its supply. Behind all the talk about licensing promiscuity, there was a thick mixture of contempt for women's demands, social prejudices, indifference to the plight of working women, as well as the concern not to risk limiting the flow of labour into the factories and the army. It was the low birth-rate in France which worried the French state planners in the first half of the 20th century, not the appalling numbers of back-street abortions.
The initial response in Europe was to try and encourage motherhood by providing a sweetener in the form of maternity benefits. When Marie Stopes opened her first birth control clinic in London, mainly for working-class women, she was less concerned by the rights of women than by reactionary motives. Her aim was to reduce population growth among the poor. Nevertheless, she was deluged with inquiries. But attempts to distribute information in the East End were stopped on the grounds of obscenity! It was not until 1931 and the very height of the Depression that the Church of England decided that married couples might, under certain circumstances, be permitted to use contraception! Even then, it took until the 1960's before contraceptives were widely available all over Britain.
The fight for legal abortion became a big issue for the feminist movement in the 70s, although in Britain a Labour government had legalised abortion up to 28 weeks in 1967. But in France, Italy and Spain highly publicised abortion trials, mass demonstrations and long drawn-out campaigns were necessary to secure a similar law.
Even if women are in control of the reproductive side of their lives - and there are many countries where this is not the case, aside from the obstacles still placed in the way of women in countries like Britain - this has turned out to be not such a decisive change after all. At least not for working women living through a never-ending recession which is likely to turn any kind of planning upside down. Of course for those better-off layers who are fortunate enough to have a comfortable, secure existence it is another story. But they are a small minority.
The latter part of the 70's and the early 80's saw a rapid growth of a radical feminist movement all over Europe and North America. The successful campaigns over abortion were followed up by a movement to "reclaim the night", i.e. make the streets safe for women after dark. The movement was increasingly pulled in different directions resulting in a more or less permanent splits.
Some middle-class women saw men rather than capitalism as the main enemy and took refuge in lesbianism and women's cooperatives. This was largely behind eco-feminism and women's peace camps like that at Greenham Common. Wars and the destruction of the environment were held to be the result of male domination.
Others, who stayed attached to the Left, nonetheless argued that male-dominated politics should make special concessions to women. Many organisations on the Left were happy to oblige and to this day arrange that a space should be found on every committee or platform for at least one woman. But this apparent concern for equality is at best tokenistic and often masks a patronising attitude towards women. After all, if you believe that women have an equal role to play in society but that capitalism prevents this, only its revolutionary overthrow will provide a solution. Women need to be attracted to the movement on the strength of the ideas and the hope it holds out for the future, not just for women but for society as a whole.
Women and the revolutionary struggle
Although a few women continue to make inroads into domains which were previously all-male strongholds, this is irrelevant compared to the massive casualisation of labour where women find themselves in the firing line. In 1996, 5.2m women worked part-time in Britain as compared to 1.2m men. But 40% did so because they could not find a permanent job. Overall only 38% of women have full-time jobs as opposed to 71% of men.
But of course, it is not just women who are at the receiving end of the system. The working class as a whole has been forced into a retreat. More than ever the fight for women's emancipation can only be seen as an integral part of the fight for social emancipation.
For women to rely on scientific and technological progress for the improvement of their lot would be ignoring the fact that social progress does not automatically flow from the advance of knowledge. The convoluted history of contraception, the generalised use of which was delayed for over half a century, was a graphic example of this. And the formal survival, and even attempted reinforcement these days, of a family structure which is nearly a thousand years old, despite its de facto collapse across society, is ample proof of the fact that women should not expect progress to fall inon their laps ready-made - not any more than the working class can expect exploitation to be reduced automatically by technological progress.
In 1919, Lenin could say that apart from Soviet Russia, there was not a country in the world where women had obtained full equality under the law. The fact that it took a revolution to achieve this and that, at the same time, there had to be a wholesale sorting out of all the problems inherited from the past by working women and men, should give a clear signal to those many women who feel socially oppressed today.
There is no alternative to a revolution sweeping away capitalist society. In this fight women have a full role to play, not just in the defence of their own rights, but in the defence of the interests of society as a whole. Like Rosa Luxemburg yesterday, today's women should stand up proudly in full view of their class, submitting their abilities and determination to the judgment of working class women and men alike. They must play their part in building the revolutionary party which will be necessary to achieve any decisive change in this society - that is in building a leadership of the working class capable of leading it to the seizure of power. This leadership will owe its influence to the credit it will have built among the ranks of the working class - without any particular concessions on grounds of sex. Today's revolutionary women should have the bold ambition to win recognition and authority amongst the working class as a whole, including its male section. In doing so, women, even more than men themselves, have a world to win.