The Family and Women’s Oppression Today

Part One: A History of Women’s Oppression

4. The Family and Women’s Oppression Today

Today women work in unprecedented numbers outside of the home. In fact, in some of the developed capitalist countries they make up half or even a majority of the workforce. And this ‘feminisation’ of the labour market has been an international phenomenon affecting the neo-colonial countries as well.

In some of the developed countries, the rise of women in the workforce coincided with a decline in male employment – provoking some commentators to suggest that a ‘genderquake’ had taken place, and that equality was within women’s grasp.1 Others bemoaned a shift in gender relations that was ‘going too far’, undermining men’s traditional role as economic providers and leading to conflict between the sexes.

Claims that women have taken ‘men’s jobs’ are, however, unfounded. A restructuring of capitalism has taken place resulting in a decline in manufacturing industry in many developed countries – a sector historically employing mainly male workers – and a substantial increase in employment in the service sector, in what have traditionally been considered ‘women’s jobs’.

Of course, in the pursuit of cheap labour, some of that manufacturing industry has been relocated to Eastern Europe and neo-colonial countries where women workers have often been involved in the manufacturing process, particularly in light industry. Multinational companies have been given financial incentives to set up in ‘special economic zones’ where they can flout basic health and safety and environmental regulations and super-exploit their workforce, with young women considered particularly docile and malleable.

The drawing of women into these industries has certainly had a positive effect on their consciousness and attitudes, just as it has in countries such as Europe and the United States. But the terrible working conditions that they are forced to endure, reminiscent of those of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, show clearly that working outside the home, in and of itself, in no way constitutes liberation.

In the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries it is undoubtedly the case that a section of better educated, and often middle-class women, have succeeded in securing relatively highly-paid jobs and have made inroads into some professions previously dominated by men such as medicine and law. But deeply ingrained discrimination means that even these women hit their heads against the ‘glass ceiling’, with the top jobs and pay still going overwhelmingly to men.

For most working-class women, however, they would just like to get off the ‘sticky floor’. Not only has the gap between rich and poor widened in most countries over the last few years but there has also been a polarisation amongst women themselves. Working-class women continue to be overwhelmingly segregated in what have become known as the 3 ‘Cs’ – cleaning, catering and caring. Most of these jobs are an extension of the work which they perform unpaid in the home, and as a consequence are low status and low paid. This is one of the main reasons why in many countries, decades after women fought for and won equal pay legislation, their average wages still fall well short of those of male workers. It also leads to a lifetime of poverty and inequality, especially in old age.

Neo-liberal offensive

At the end of the 1970s, in a response to the end of the 1950-73/75 post-war boom and a general economic crisis, including falling profits, the capitalist class began to unleash a neo-liberal offensive which involved vicious attacks on the wages and conditions of the working class. The capitalists have particularly exploited women’s caring role in the family as part of their neo-liberal agenda. ‘Flexible’ working has been promoted as ‘family friendly’ allowing women to combine paid work with looking after children and the home.

Most working-class women (and men) would welcome flexible working if it meant that they could earn a decent wage, have a secure life and spend quality time with their children. But part-time working and poverty wages mostly go hand in hand. Short-term contracts, temporary work, agency labour, zero hour working are all ‘boss friendly’ – resulting in super-exploitation and insecurity which places enormous strains on working-class people, affecting personal relationships and family life. And these are often the first jobs to go in an economic recession, sometimes without even the limited safety net of social benefits for those becoming unemployed.

The capitalist class, through their political representatives, have also waged war on the idea of collectively-provided public services, pursuing a brutal agenda of privatisation and cuts. A decent public health service, education system and welfare system are considered vital elements of a decent life by most working-class and middle-class people. As a result of the ‘post-war settlement’, when governments responded to the demands of a strengthened working class by introducing reforms, public services were paid for by taxing both workers and capitalists. In a situation of high economic growth and increasing profits the capitalists were prepared to go along with this situation in order to buy social peace.

But as profitability declined they demanded cuts in public spending in order that their tax burden could be reduced. At the same time, privatisation opened up new markets for profit-hungry companies to exploit, while, they hoped, weakening the power and organising strength of the trade unions.

Where publicly funded services are cut workers either have to pay for those services privately – which in most cases they cannot afford to do as the capitalists resist raising wages or in some cases cut existing wages – or they are forced to make do as best they can without. Once again working-class families are forced to fall back on their own inadequate resources in order to care for the young, the sick, the elderly and disabled as publicly financed and provided services are run down and slashed.

This can be seen most graphically in a country like Italy where, despite huge and almost revolutionary struggles by the working class in the 1970s, which led to important gains in the workplace and more broadly in society, welfare provision, particularly unemployment benefits, remains extremely inadequate. Young people in low-paid and ‘precarious’ jobs or without work are forced to remain dependent on their families, with young men in particular often staying at home until well into their thirties. Without the ‘cushion’ of the family in Italy tens of thousands of young people would be literally destitute.

It is women in particular who bear the brunt of public-sector cuts and privatisation. The high level of women working in the public sector means that it is often their jobs and conditions that are under threat, while cuts in public services add to their burden in the home. If nurseries close down, women are expected to somehow juggle childcare and work. They are expected to look after elderly relatives if affordable residential care is no longer available or to care for disabled family members when state-funded facilities cease to exist.

Divide and rule

Of course, in many households men now shoulder some of the burden. In most countries there have been positive changes in men’s attitudes towards the traditional division of labour between men and women. The average amount of housework that men carry out has increased and they are more likely to be involved in looking after their children than in the past. However, opinion polls show a sharp divergence between what men think they should be doing and what they actually do in practice. While men might help out a bit more around the home the vast bulk of housework and childcare is still carried out by women. Even when men and women both work full-time, women still spend more hours looking after children, cleaning, shopping, cooking and carrying out other household chores.

Some feminists have argued that individual men have been the main beneficiaries of this division of labour between the sexes. Clearly, some men have derived some gains such as more leisure time, for example. But being able to spend a few more hours in the gym or the pub pales into insignificance compared to the enormous economic benefits for the capitalist class.

Because services such as childcare, preparing a meal, cleaning, etc. can be bought in the ‘market’, there have been several attempts to calculate how much the unpaid labour carried out by women in the family actually saves capitalism every year. The figures run into billions – larger even than the entire gross domestic products of the countries surveyed.

The problems that working-class men face under capitalism in general far outweigh any advantages that they might gain in the home. In fact, while the neo-liberal offensive has meant an increase in part-time working for some workers, mainly women, there have also been attacks on the shorter working weeks that other sections of workers have won in the past. Many male workers work intolerably long hours in the workplace, leaving them little time to spend with their families. At the same time other male workers are seeing their jobs ‘feminised’.

Throughout history working-class women have struggled to achieve equality in the workplace. The capitalists say they are also in favour of ‘equality’ between men and women workers. However, their idea of equality is not to bring women’s wages and conditions up to those of men but to ‘equalise down’, pushing working-class men into low-paid, part-time, flexible working in order to boost their profits. In the same way, they use migrant workers, agency workers, subcontractors, etc. to try and force down the wages and conditions of all workers.

In the public sector, male workers are sometimes encouraged to accept cuts in wages and worse conditions in return for promised improvements for low-paid women workers. These divide and rule tactics and attempts at ‘sharing out the misery’ should be vigorously opposed through a united struggle in the workplace.

In the 1970s, when there were far fewer women in the workforce than today, some women fought for the unpaid tasks of women in the home to be recognised as ‘work’ and raised the demand of ‘wages for housework’. It’s certainly important that the value of housework and childcare to capitalism is recognised but ‘wages for housework’ is in reality a retrograde demand, reinforcing the private nature of household tasks and, at the same time, strengthening backward and stereotypical ideas about women’s role in the family and in society generally.

Socialists and Marxists campaign instead for a decent minimum income for carers as well as for pensioners, students and all those unable to work. At the same time, we support the ‘socialisation’ of many of the tasks currently carried out by individual women in the home. While Engels considered bringing women into “public industry” the first condition for their liberation he crucially added that “this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”. “Private housekeeping,” he wrote, “is transformed into a social industry.”2

‘Domestic and personal services’ have, in fact, become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy in recent years. If the better off can pay for cleaners, gardeners and eat out in fancy restaurants, why should these services not be publicly funded and collectively provided for the benefit of everyone in society, just as health, education and other services have been?3 However, that would require a fundamental change in the way that society is organised. Because of the structural economic crisis of capitalism the ruling class will continue to attack the economic and social gains that working-class people have won through past struggles. And they will continue to rely on the unpaid labour of women in the family.

Capitalist contradictions

It is one of the contradictions of capitalism that it developed historically as a system that relied on the institution of the family, and therefore sought to strengthen it, but at the same time processes within the capitalist system are simultaneously undermining it. Of course, for all their talk of the importance and sanctity of the family, the ruling class throughout the history of capitalism have readily resorted to policies which damage families if it is deemed to be in capitalism’s wider interests. So, for example, in Britain the vicious Poor Law of the early 19th century, which was designed to facilitate a flow of cheap labour into the factories in the cities, ripped apart destitute families as they were thrown into the dreaded Poor House. Today’s immigration laws cause terrible pain and suffering for many families. Harsher sentencing by the courts also means that more women are imprisoned for ‘economic’ crimes such as theft, and separated from their children.

However, for the most part, the changes which have undermined the family as an institution have come about as a consequence of other economic and social changes rather than because of conscious policies. The capitalists’ demand for cheap labour and the huge influx of women into the workforce, including women with young children, means that the ‘traditional’ family of stay-at-home mother and sole male breadwinner now comprises a minority of households in most developed countries. Although processes vary from country to country, in general, divorce and lone parenthood have increased, more couples than ever before are living together rather than getting married and ‘reconstituted’ families (where people set up new households after divorce or splitting up) are becoming more common.

There are many reasons why relationships break down. Often it is simply because people change or drift apart and need to move on. But there’s no doubt that the economic and psychological pressures which capitalism places on the family are an important factor. Long hours and stressful working conditions, money worries, poor housing, the strains of juggling work and family responsibilities all take their toll on personal relationships. Women’s economic independence and changing attitudes have also had an effect. In many countries a majority of divorces are initiated by women, a sign that their expectations have changed and that they are less prepared to stay in relationships where they feel unhappy or unfulfilled.

Right reaction

There have been divisions and tensions within the ruling class over how to respond to these changes in the family – often resulting in contradictory policies. In the 1980s, the ideas of the New Right, inspired by the writings of sociologists like Charles Murray, came to prominence in the US and Britain in particular. ‘New Right’ is a catch-all term incorporating different strands of opinion and groups including free-marketeers and the Christian Right. However, in general they consider that social problems such as crime, truancy and drug abuse are caused by moral decline which is intimately bound up with the decline and disintegration of the patriarchal family.

This is very similar to the ‘family values’ propaganda of the late 19th century. So, for the New Right, increases in divorce, lone parenthood, ‘illegitimacy’, etc. are viewed as a crisis which can only be solved by recreating the heterosexual, patriarchal family where women stay at home and perform the role to which they are biologically suited – bearing and raising children – and men are the economic providers and discipliners of dependent wives and children. The New Right advocates policies which strengthen the traditional nuclear family and undermine alternative social arrangements. So, they argue, divorce should be made more difficult so that couples stay together, the tax and benefit system should actively promote marriage while undermining lone parenthood, abortion should be restricted so that women have less control over their sexuality and homosexuality should be totally discouraged.

The ideas of the New Right have had a certain influence over government policy in Britain and the US. Some capitalist political representatives clearly believe that it is possible to legislate and use social policy to alter people’s personal behaviour and ‘glue the family back together again’.

However, most understand that because of changing social attitudes any attempt to ‘turn back the clock’ would face enormous resistance and would be almost impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, from an ideological point of view family-values propaganda has played an important role. When governments blame working-class parents for truancy and crime committed by young people, for example, this can gain a certain echo. Most parents feel responsible for their families and want to do the best for their children. In a situation where no mainstream parties are putting forward a collective solution to social problems or pointing the finger of blame where it really lies – with a system which places profit first and offers no future to working-class youth – parents can blame themselves and other families when things go wrong.

By scapegoating families in this way the ruling class is able to divert attention away from the crisis of their own system while at the same time sowing divisions and undermining collective struggle for change. In this sense the capitalist class continues to rely on the family as a means of social control.

While they also rely on the family from an economic point of view, governments have not in general actively embarked on a concerted campaign to force women out of the workforce and into the home. On the contrary, the capitalist class’s demands for flexible, cheap labour and cuts in welfare have often resulted in policies aimed at getting more and more economically inactive women into the workforce. In a situation of economic crisis and recession, of course, many women will lose those jobs, especially where the service sector is hit particularly hard. But because women’s work is central to the capitalist economy, and because women now see themselves as a permanent part of the workforce, when job losses occur they are normally as a result of a generalised attack on jobs and services rather than one specifically targeted at women workers themselves.

Because getting lone parents off of benefits and into work fits in with the need to cut back on public spending, governments in Britain and the US in particular have aimed policies at lone parents who have been less likely to be in work. Many lone parents would welcome the opportunity to be able to work outside the home but only if they are earning sufficient wages to allow them and their children to have a decent standard of living, and if they know that their children are being well looked after. However, most lone parents have been pushed into low-paid, insecure jobs, working for wages not that much higher than benefit level. Childcare, where it exists, is overwhelmingly concentrated in the private sector where the drive for profit takes precedence over quality care. Those lone parents who are unable to work because of health or other problems (or because jobs simply don’t exist where they live) are left to survive as best they can on totally inadequate or in some cases non-existent benefits.

While there have been some ‘carrots’ in the form of tax credits to top up low wages and help with childcare, governments have also wielded a ‘big stick’, threatening, and in some cases going ahead with, cuts in benefits in order to force lone parents to take up work. ‘Family values’ propaganda – holding up marriage and two-parent families as the best and most stable way of bringing up children – has played an important role in ‘softening up’ public opinion prior to cuts in benefits and public services. However, this has not been a straightforward process. When the New Labour government first came to power in Britain in 1997 and launched an attack on lone-parent benefits they were forced to retreat in the face of a wave of fierce opposition.

Changing social attitudes

The shift in social attitudes that has occurred in many countries means that there is generally now a more tolerant attitude towards alternative social arrangements which do not correspond to the ‘traditional’ family form. To a certain extent capitalist ideology has adapted to incorporate these changes. Realising that there are few votes to be gained in overtly bashing lone parents, and that it can be counterproductive, all of the mainstream parties in Britain softened their tone, insisting that they did not want to stigmatise lone parents, who, they patronisingly declare, do an excellent job in difficult conditions. Attacks are instead repackaged as ‘helping lone parents to help themselves’.

Several governments have legalised same-sex marriages and civil partnerships and granted more rights to same-sex couples with regards to adoption. If capitalism were about to experience an unprecedented economic upswing, much greater even than that after the Second World War, then theoretically it might be possible to organise society in such a way that it no longer needed the family as an economic and ideological prop. It would then be possible to accommodate social changes affecting the family and personal relations without these being seen as a crisis which needs to be ‘solved’.

But that is clearly not the perspective facing capitalism – on the contrary the system is in a severe crisis with the general curve of capitalist development going downwards. Of course, within that general downswing there will be periodic economic upturns, some of which can even last several years. But the underlying crisis of profitability means growth is likely to be weak and fragile. This, together with the enormous ‘debt overhang’ of both consumers and governments, means that the capitalist class will intensify their vicious attacks on the ‘social wage’ – the very benefits and public services which working-class people have fought so hard for in order to ease some of the stresses and insecurities which dominate their lives, and which women in particular have benefited from.

The family will therefore continue to play an extremely important role for capitalism, both economically and ideologically. This will inevitably result in constant tensions and conflict between the role of the family as a capitalist institution and as a site of people’s personal relations – leading to contradictions and zigzags in policy and ideology.

Those contradictions can be seen with regard to domestic violence. The ‘New Right’ idea that men should have more control and authority over women within the family clearly conflicts with changing social attitudes. In the past, domestic violence was either sanctioned and legitimised by the state or, at the very least, viewed as a ‘private issue’ in which the state should not interfere. As a result of campaigns by women and the wider labour movement domestic violence is now considered in most countries to be a social problem and a crime which should not be tolerated.

However, while governments have changed laws and pledged to tackle domestic violence their economic agenda of cuts in benefits and services has actually made the situation more difficult. It is a positive step forward if women are aware that the violence is not their fault and that they do not have to put up with it. But if funding for refuges is being slashed, if public housing is no longer available, if benefits are being cut to the bone, where do you go and how do you survive?

In Britain, in the early 1990’s, there were attempts to cut public spending by deducting money from the benefits of lone parents who were receiving child support from ex-partners. In other words, in order to save money, the state attempted to recreate the traditional economic dependency of women on men, even when they were no longer in a relationship. This had serious consequences for women, with some men using child support as a means of reasserting control over their former partners, including through the use of violence.

The limits of reaction

As economic crisis deepens, these contradictions become more acute. Right-wing governments can come to power, with a programme that includes reactionary policies against women’s rights. The high level of abstentionism in elections due to the alienation of large sections of the electorate, in particular the working class – which in most countries now has no mass political voice – means that it is possible for parties to come to power with a relatively narrow social base. A layer of working-class men who have lost their jobs in manufacturing industry and have been unable to find an alternative or are stuck in low-paid, low-status jobs could be especially susceptible to reactionary ideology regarding women.

While many working-class women have been able to take advantage of economic and social changes to positively challenge backward ideas about their role in society, many men have seen their traditional role as ‘economic provider’ undermined, with no alternative role on offer. This can be emotionally and psychologically devastating for men who have been accustomed to identify ‘masculinity’ in this way – providing a fertile ground for prejudice if no unifying alternative exists.

Because sexism and discrimination have become deeply rooted in society over thousands of years, a minority reservoir of support continues to exist for more backward ideas. This can be exploited by political parties to win an electoral base and can be drawn on by the ruling class in a time of crisis to sow divisions amongst the working class.

However, it is one thing to be elected on a reactionary programme – putting that programme into practice is another question. The Christian Right in the US played a major role in getting George W. Bush elected twice to the White House where they expected him to vigorously pursue a moral ‘counter-revolution’ in return. His election certainly created an environment in which the anti-abortionists in particular felt more confident to push for further restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. States attempted to introduce and sometimes succeeded in passing legislation placing yet more obstacles in the path of women seeking an abortion. As is always the case where reproductive rights come under attack, women who can afford to pay have no problem in terminating a pregnancy while poor, working-class women suffer the trauma and hardship of unwanted pregnancies or are even forced to resort to the backstreet butchers.

But despite this ‘drip-drip’ erosion of abortion rights and a shift to the reactionary right in the US Supreme Court, the Christian Right were disappointed with Bush’s presidency. One wing of the Republicans understood that if the party went too far in pushing the moral agenda of the conservative Right they would risk a political backlash, especially amongst women. A majority of people in the US still believe that abortion should remain legal. In April 2004 one of the biggest demonstrations in US history took place in Washington DC when over one million people took to the streets against the undermining of abortion rights.

Any attempt at a full-frontal assault on Roe versus Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling which granted women a constitutional right to abortion, would potentially ignite mass protests. Movements around social issues can in turn act as a catalyst for much wider protests in which all the economic and social grievances of the working class coalesce, threatening the capitalists’ economic agenda and even their class rule.

How far the ruling class can actually go in rolling back the economic and social gains which women have secured in the workplace, the home and society generally will crucially depend on the level of resistance by women and the working class as a whole. An essential component of this resistance will be a united working-class independent political alternative which as well as organising collective struggle around economic and social issues, exposes and challenges the ideological attacks, including those related to the family.


1 See in particular Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire, Chatto and Windus, 1993

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

3 See also Part Two, Chapter 2, Socialism