The Family Under Capitalism

Part One: A History of Women’s Oppression

3. The Family Under Capitalism

One of the most significant changes to the family as an institution, which in turn had an important effect on the position of women in society generally, came about as a consequence of industrialisation and the rise of capitalism.

In pre-industrial society, individual families that did not form part of the ruling economic class were mostly centres of economic production, organised through the male head of household. Whether domestic production was geared towards manufacture or agriculture, the work of women, although extremely arduous, was central. Although the division of labour between men and women was clearly unequal, no distinction was made between the value of tasks which women performed, such as spinning, childcare, cleaning or agricultural work – all were carried out in and around the home and all were considered productive and necessary work. But with industrialisation, goods previously produced in the home such as food, drink and clothing were now socially produced in the factories and mills – although ownership of the means of production was in private hands.

This had a big effect on the family and on personal relations. In the early stages of factory production women and children were the main labourers sought by the capitalists. This created a clear division between the paid work that women carried out in the workplace, where they were brutally exploited in barbaric conditions, and the unpaid work of cleaning, cooking, caring for children, etc., which women continued to perform in the home as they had traditionally done.

In an economic system in which wage labour predominated, this unwaged domestic work was devalued and in turn impacted on women in the workplace, where they were devalued as workers, paid lower wages than men and suffered inferior working conditions. Even when working-class women toiled in the workplace, their main function in society was still considered to be that of wife, mother and homemaker.

Wage labour

Once women became wage labourers in the factories they secured a degree of economic independence which to a certain extent undermined male authority within the family. In fact, with economic production organised in the factory under the control of the capitalists, it appeared that the material basis for patriarchal control in the working-class family no longer existed.

As Engels explained: “Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence there is no incentive to make male supremacy prevailÉ and now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labour market and into the factory, and made her often the breadwinner of the family, the last remnants of male supremacy in the proletarian household are deprived of all foundation, except, perhaps, for a leftover piece of the brutality towards women that has become deep-rooted since the introduction of monogamy.”1

Nevertheless, despite the enormous economic and social upheavals that industrialisation unleashed, the patriarchal family not only survived but became strengthened as the newly-emerged capitalist class attempted to use its economic, legal and ideological control to mould it in the interests of its own class rule.

In the course of the 19th century it became increasingly a sign of the growing wealth of the capitalist class that their wives did not work outside the home but were economically dependent on a male breadwinner. One of the bourgeois woman’s main roles was to tend to the emotional needs of her husband – the so-called ‘angel in the house’ – leaving men free to engage in industry, finance, politics, etc. in the public sphere. Women’s other role centred around reproduction – bearing and rearing the future ruling class. It was a sign of respectability for the capitalist class, marking it off from the ‘dissolute’ aristocracy and the ‘feckless’ working class.

The situation was very different for the working class itself. When industrialisation first began it was far from clear that capitalism – unstable and crisis ridden – would last as an economic system. Women and very young children were in many cases literally worked to death in the ‘dark, satanic mills’ as the capitalists squeezed every last drop of profit from their labour. Brutalised, toiling for unbearably long hours in dangerous conditions in exchange for wages barely enough to stave off starvation, they returned exhausted to disease infested, overcrowded slums.

It was impossible for women to care adequately for children in such terrible conditions. Babies and small children were often left with other siblings and given gin and opium to silence their cries. Levels of infant mortality were extremely high and family life virtually non-existent. “It is quite common for women to be working in the evening and for the child to be delivered the following morning and it is no means uncommon for babies to be born in the factory itself among the machinery,” wrote Engels in the Condition of the Working Class in England. “It is often only two or three days after confinement that a woman returns to the factory, and of course, she cannot take the baby with her.”

Concerned only with short-term profits, individual capitalists brutally resisted working-class struggles to improve their working and daily lives. But as capitalism stabilised, the more farsighted sections of the capitalist class took a longer-term view. Realising that the system as a whole would benefit from having a healthier and more educated workforce, they were prepared to grant some concessions to the working class. Amongst the earliest reforms were protective laws enacted in the 1830s which restricted the hours and labour of women and children in the factories. At the same time, it became clear that the family, which seemed to be disintegrating amongst the working class, had an important role to play in maintaining existing workers and nurturing the next generation of workers to produce profits for the capitalist class.

Economic and ideological role

The capitalist system could reap the benefits of a healthier and more educated working-class but the capitalists wanted to achieve this with as little cost to themselves as possible. It suited their interests for individual working-class families to take on this responsibility, and to feed, clothe and care for all ‘unproductive’ members – all those whose labour power could not be exploited in the workplace – such as young children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed – with no recourse to the state.

The capitalists also required a workforce that was disciplined, obedient and deferential to authority. The patriarchal family, in which men had control over women and children, including through the use of physical violence, was a useful institution for instilling these values and for promoting appropriate gender roles. The family was also a means of disciplining working-class men themselves. It was an enormous burden for men to assume responsibility for providing economically for all dependent family members. The capitalists exploited this responsibility during strikes, for example, in an attempt to force strikers back to work.

Through their control of the legal system, religion, education and ideas in general the ruling classes of the main capitalist countries promoted the bourgeois family – with women responsible for the home and nurturing children, and economically dependent on the male head of household – as natural, eternal and the model to which all classes in society should aspire. ‘Family values’ propaganda and periodic ‘moral panics’ focused on the supposed crisis in working-class families.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Britain, the world’s dominant capitalist power by the end of the 19th Century. The ruling class required healthy and fit working-class men to serve as cannon fodder for the British Empire. The poor health of potential recruits and poverty in general was blamed on ‘inadequate’ and ‘feckless’ working-class mothers who failed in their nurturing and mothering duties – a convenient scapegoat for an unequal economic system that was incapable of meeting the most basic needs of working-class people.

The physical and moral health of the nation and the British Empire were equated with the health of the family. But the only family considered morally healthy was the heterosexual bourgeois family, and the state encouraged intolerance and repression of anything that seem to challenge or undermine it. Women who gave birth to illegitimate children, for example, were punished with the workhouse. In 1885 homosexuality was criminalised for the first time and in 1895 the playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for ‘gross indecency’.

There was no corresponding legislation against lesbianism. It was not considered to exist as women were not thought to have sexual desires and urges. Sexuality in general was meant to be repressed in the interests of reproduction, wealth creation and capital accumulation. The infamous Contagious Diseases Acts viciously repressed women who were deemed responsible for the spread of venereal disease. Any working-class woman could be identified as a “common prostitute” and forced to undergo internal examinations and locked up in hospital if found to be suffering from gonorrhoea or syphilis.

The ‘ideal’ family

By the end of the 19th century, the ruling class had become relatively successful in ideologically establishing the bourgeois family as the ideal family form. Part of this success was due to the fact that the bourgeois family model appeared to coincide with the material interests of working-class people themselves. They wanted to change the desperate conditions which they were forced to work and live in. The reasoning went that if married women did not have to work long hours outside the home it would be better for them, and they would have more time for domestic tasks and for caring for children and other family members – consequently improving all of their lives.

The idea of a ‘family wage’, which would be paid to a male head of household and would be sufficient to meet the needs of the whole family, gained support amongst the working class. But in reality only a section of skilled working-class men managed to achieve it. In many households, wages were so low that all family members were compelled to work in order to survive. Women who were widowed, deserted or on their own for whatever reason had no choice but to work, although a single female wage was often barely enough to prevent starvation.

Married women continued to work outside the home, did piecework at home or took in lodgers or other people’s laundry. But at the same time, they were expected to clean, prepare meals and cater for all the physical and emotional needs of other family members, without of course the maids and servants which ruling-class and many middle-class families had. This ‘double burden’, together with numerous pregnancies and births, took an enormous toll on working-class women’s health and lives.

So in fact, for the working class family reality fell way short of the supposed ideal. Nevertheless, ideologically the bourgeois family has permeated the whole of capitalist society, shaping legislation and attitudes. Its durability is due to the dual role which the family plays. On the one hand, it is an economic and social institution which fulfils a vital economic and ideological function for the capitalist class. But at the same time it is a site of personal relations that are central to most people’s lives. Although the family is often a place of inequality, violence and abuse, it also meets people’s needs for love, companionship and emotional support, as well as economic support. But under capitalism these two roles constantly come into conflict, causing tensions and contradictions that capitalism is incapable of resolving.

Welfare responsibility

Poverty wages and insecure employment meant that it was impossible for individual working-class families to meet even the most basic needs of all of their members. They lived in desperate fear of being struck down by unemployment, sickness or disability. Children were malnourished and child mortality rates extremely high. Women suffered countless pregnancies which ruined their health and they often died in childbirth. Prostitution flourished and old age could mean total destitution. In England at the end of the 19th century social investigators like Charles Booth lifted the lid on the terrible poverty of the working-class. His report on the East End of London found that 35% were ‘poor’ and a third of those were suffering from acute ‘distress’. When mobilisation took place for the Boer War the ruling class became acutely aware of the how the physical condition of working-class men had been undermined by years of poverty and neglect. As many as 40% of men called up were deemed physically unfit to fight.2

In an attempt to survive and to provide some kind of protection against the disasters and problems of everyday life, sections of the working class united together in organisations such as trade unions, friendly societies and cooperatives. But at the same time they fought for the state to assume collective responsibility for education, health and the welfare of all those who were unable to provide for themselves, rather than the responsibility falling on individual families who did not have the resources to cope.

It was against the backdrop of growing class struggles and/or the fear of revolution that the ruling class in some countries moved to introduce the beginnings of a welfare state. So in Britain, for example, the Liberal government of Lloyd George initiated national insurance and other reforms in 1911 at a time of heightened class struggle. The National Health Service itself, which was implemented by a Labour government in 1948, came about because the ruling class faced an angry and militant post-war working class which was not prepared to return to the miseries of the past and was demanding a better future.

Although often far short of what was needed to provide a decent standard of living, state pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit, child and maternity benefits all relieved some of the insecurities and financial burdens placed on individual working-class families. The provision of public housing, health care, nurseries, facilities for elderly people and the disabled made an enormous difference to the lives of working-class people, especially women.

However, although the state began to carry out some of the tasks that had previously been carried out by the family, the idea of the traditional nuclear family, with a male breadwinner and economically dependent wife, continued to underpin most welfare policy. In Britain, for example, women did not have an individual right to some state benefits, the assumption being that they would be provided for by their husbands, thus reinforcing the patriarchal family. The welfare state also differentiated between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, with widows receiving higher benefits than divorcees, for example.

Nevertheless, the existence of the welfare state transformed the lives of many women. It lifted some of their domestic burden, allowing them to work outside the home. In fact, the welfare state itself became a major employer of female labour, with women making up the overwhelming majority of teachers, nurses, carers, etc. In those countries where public housing and minimal benefits have existed, women have been able to leave unhappy relationships and have some form of economic independence, however inadequate.

At the same time, as a consequence of struggles by women and the working class in general, and changing public attitudes, women in many countries have gained easier access to divorce, as well as free contraception and abortion rights. Having some control over when and whether to have children has given women more freedom of choice, allowing them more independence and greater access to education and to work outside the home.

Women in the workplace

In the Origin of the Family, Engels wrote that the first condition for the liberation of women is to bring the “whole female sex” back into public industry. Paid work outside the home weakens the economic and financial dependency of women on individual men within the family and gives them the confidence to challenge traditional ideas about their role in society. When women are isolated in the home caring for children, consumed by the monotony of housework, it is easy to feel that all the problems of daily life are personal and individual and to blame themselves for everything that is happening to them. Breaking down that isolation, working alongside others in the workplace broadens women’s horizons and it becomes easier to view these as social rather than individual problems. Although the capitalist class do everything in their power to sow divisions amongst working-class people along the lines of sex, race, sexuality, etc., it is in the workplace that the potential for collective struggle for change is clearest.

Since the industrial revolution working-class women have always worked outside the home. But that work was considered secondary to their main domestic role within the family. This enabled the capitalist class to justify paying women lower wages in order to exploit them as cheap labour to boost their profits. But capitalist ideology has varied, depending on the ruling classes’ economic and social needs at any particular time. So in the First and Second World Wars, for example, the capitalist class needed women to labour in the munitions factories and to do the jobs left vacant by the men who had been mobilised to fight at the front. They encouraged and sometimes compelled women, including married women with children, to go into the labour market and to take on work from which they had been previously excluded; and these women proved in practice that they were just as capable as male workers. State propaganda informed women that it was their ‘patriotic duty’ to work outside the home. “Men trenches; women benches”, declared one slogan in Britain during the First World War.3 During that war, nearly one and a half million women flooded into the workplaces and over two million during the Second World War, many of them married women with children.

Inevitably, in most cases women were paid a lower rate for the job than men. Male workers, especially in the engineering industry, organised against what became known as ‘dilution’ – women workers undermining the skills and pay of men. But there were also joint struggles for equal pay as female union membership increased by over 150%. The demand for female labour forced the state to step in and alleviate some of the domestic tasks of women with children. Government grants helped pay for the setting up of local authority day nurseries and there were big improvements in maternity care. But when war was over the propaganda changed again. With millions of men returning home after 1918, it was now women’s ‘patriotic duty’ to give up their jobs to unemployed men. A stable family life was deemed necessary to increase the birth rate and rebuild the country after the devastation of war. The day nurseries closed down and tens of thousands of women found themselves back in the isolation of the home and economically dependent on their husbands.

Over a million women also lost their jobs when the Second World War came to a close, although it was now considered acceptable for married women to work part-time. This suited the need of the capitalist class for cheap labour in the post-war economic upswing and a ‘reserve army’ of labour which could be dispensed with when necessary in periods of economic crisis. And although married women’s wages were disparagingly referred to as ‘pin money’ (and therefore the capitalists felt justified in continuing to pay women a lower rate than men) these wages became essential in maintaining and improving the living standards of working-class families during the boom.


The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State

2 An imperialist war waged by Britain against what later became South Africa

3 Sarah Boston, Women Workers and the Trade Unions, Lawrence and Wishart, 1987