Chapter 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 industrialization and the rise of capitalism.

In pre-industrial society, individual families that did not form part of the ruling economic class were mostly centers of economic production, organized through the male head-of-household. Whether domestic production was geared toward manufacture or agriculture, the work of women, although extremely arduous, was central. Even though the division of labor 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 industrialization, 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 key laborers 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 labor 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.

Women and Early Capitalism

Capitalist methods of production in the U.S. developed first in New England in the 1800s before extending to other parts of the country. In New England, tens of thousands of women, especially young women, were drawn into the textile industry. Many women fled rural life for the promise of better living standards from mill work. They were confronted with long hours and harsh working conditions. These women got organized in unions and community groups like the Lowell (Massachusetts) Female Labor Reform Association around demands like reducing the workday to ten hours.

Historian Thomas Dublin notes “The experiences of mill women demonstrate that factory employment not only brought women’s work out of the home but also provided women a collective experience that supported their participation in the world of broader social reform. Lowell women became involved in anti-slavery, moral reform, peace, labor reform, prison reform, and women’s rights campaigns” (Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1981).

Once women became wage laborers 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 organized 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 in describing conditions in England in the early 19th century: “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 prevail, and now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labor 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” (Origin of the Family).

Nevertheless, despite the enormous economic and social upheavals that industrialization 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 mold 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 capitalist 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. To this day, women of all classes are expected to carry out disproportionate unpaid “emotional labor” in relationships while men are conditioned to hide emotions from their male peers. Bourgeois women’s other role centered around reproduction – bearing and rearing the future ruling class.

The situation was very different for the working class. When industrialization first began in Britain 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 factories. In mill towns and cities across the U.S., child labor was rampant. Even by 1900, over 18% of the workforce was under the age of 16. With unpaid household labor falling on women, caring for overworked children became an increased burden. It was only during the working-class uprisings of the 1930s that child labor was finally abolished.

It was impossible for women to care adequately for children in such terrible conditions. 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.”

Of course, the experience of female slaves in the antebellum South was even more brutal. Their owners were determined to extract every possible bit of labor from every able-bodied slave and were not only indifferent to the needs of slave families but were actively hostile to the family unit as a potential basis of resistance. As Angela Davis points out, “the economic conditions of slavery contradicted … hierarchical sexual roles” (Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class, 1981).

Concerned only with short-term profits, individual capitalists brutally resisted working-class struggles to improve their working and daily lives. But as capitalism stabilized, a section of the capitalist class took a longer-term view. Realizing 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. An early example in the U.S. was the development of public education. By 1870, every state had free elementary schools. At the same time, it became clear that the family, which seemed to be disintegrating among 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

As an economic system of production, capitalism relies on two mutually-dependent spheres of labor: productive labor and reproductive labor. Productive labor is waged labor that creates goods and services the private owner sells at a profit. Reproductive labor is unwaged labor whose product is workers and the working class as a whole, ready and able to sell labor power to the capitalist. Capital doesn’t need any particular individual laborer to be reproduced from one day to the next, but it does need the class as a whole to be reproduced from one generation to the next.

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 rather than having to set up systems to do it themselves. This included feeding, clothing, and caring for all “unproductive” members of society – all those whose labor power could not be exploited in the workplace – such as young children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed – with no help from the capitalists or their government.

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. This defense of the “traditional” family was linked to homophobic laws as well.

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 as well as 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 among the working class. But in reality only a section of skilled, and mostly white, 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, took in lodgers, or did 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 for the working-class family, reality fell far 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 fulfills 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.

Social Reform

In the 19th century, poverty wages and insecure employment meant that it was impossible for most 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.

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 organizations such as trade unions, friendly societies, and cooperatives. But at the same time they fought for the government 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.

Labor uprisings, beginning in the 1880s in the U.S., were often led by anti-capitalists and, in challenging the bosses, won many gains that benefited the whole working class. These movements, especially in the 1930s and in the immediate post World War II period won significant increases in labor rights, wages, unionization rates, and benefits. In pro-capitalist history books, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are often presented as the ideas of “benevolent leaders” like FDR and Lyndon Johnson. Instead, they were concessions granted in the face of a powerful labor movement.

In many European countries, the labor movement and mass workers’ parties were able to win significant reforms, especially after World War II. Although still far short of what was needed to provide a decent standard of living, state pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits, as well as 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.

The lack of a mass workers’ party in the U.S. meant that the gains made through legislation were far more limited. The most glaring difference between the U.S. is in terms of universal health care provision which exists to differing degrees in most European countries, the most extensive example being the National Health Service in Britain. But it is also incredible that to this day there is no national system of paid parental leave in the U.S. Unions in the U.S. made more significant gains in terms of health benefits and pensions for workers at individual corporations, but these gains have also been far more vulnerable to reversal than many of the gains made by European workers.

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. For example, Social Security benefits were designed to reward families where the woman was a stay-at-home wife. If a woman’s credit as a member of the labor force exceeded the amount she was guaranteed under her husband’s Social Security benefits – then whatever benefits she got under her husband’s name were forfeited. In other words, the program incentivized families to send the husband off to work while the wife stayed home, dependent on her husband’s paycheck (Alice Kessler-Harris, U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays).

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 does everything in their power to sow divisions among working-class people along the lines of gender, 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 labor to boost their profits. But capitalist ideology has varied, depending on the ruling classes’ economic and social needs at any particular time.

In World War I and World War II, for example, the capitalist class needed women to work in war supply factories in Britain and the U.S. and to do the jobs, including “skilled” jobs left vacant by the men who had been mobilized for military service. They encouraged and sometimes compelled women, including married women with children, to go into the labor 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. In the U.S., “Rosie the Riveter” became an iconic symbol during World War II.

When the wars were over, women were driven out of these jobs and told to get back into the “domestic sphere.” But these experiences had a profound impact on the consciousness of millions of women, exposing the hypocrisy and false claims of capitalist ideology, and helped to lay the basis for huge struggles by working-class women in a later period.