Women's liberation -- a Socialist view (1973)


Women's liberation -- a Socialist view
Reprinted from the WEEKLY PEOPLE
Saturday May 12, 1973 and Saturday May 19, 1973


May 12, 1973

Women's liberation -- a Socialist view

By Frances Taylor

Joining the ever swelling chorus of voices dissatisfied with present-day society are those of the many women active in what has come to be known as the "Women's Liberation Movement."

Actually, "Women's Lib" is an umbrella term covering a wide spectrum of opinion and programs and including many divergent groups. These range from the conservative National Organization of Women (NOW) once headed by Betty Freiden, whose book "The Feminine Mystique" is credited with having "raised the consciousness of women," and Women's Political Caucus, in which Congresswoman Bella Abzug and writer Gloria Steinem are prominent, to more "radical," bra-burning, men-hating groups like "Gold Flower" and WITCH.

These groups reflect to a greater or lesser degree what one sociologist has called "the growing rage within women." "Women's Lib" advocates are demanding an end to sexual discrimination in all walks of life -- equal pay for equal work, more women in political office, free daycare centers for working mothers, and the like. In other words, reform measures within tne capitalist system!

When I was a candidate for City Commissioner in Philadelphia, I was questioned by a "Women's Lib" group as to my program for women's rights. I had to answer that the Socialist Labor Party, which I represented, had no program for women's rights, per se, but that it did have the only program which would truly liberate women, along with all other oppressed groups within society.

Since its inception, the Socialist Labor Party has been concerned with identifying the cause of society's evils, and with developing and presenting a program suited not only to eliminating that cause, but also to rearing in its place a viable and equitable society. Based on Marxian science, this program recognizes that the social relationships between people and the institutions they establish are basically determined by economic relationships.

If we examine the position of women throughout history and the factors that have determined the roles they have had to play, we will see the logic of the Socialist Labor Party's analysis and of its program.

The historic role of women in ancient times is fully described in the work "Ancient Society" by anthropoligist Lewis Henry Morgan, and in Frederick Engels's "Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State."

Early women, contrary to popular belief, were not the slaves of men. In ancient society, where primitive communism was the form of social oragnization, the position of women was not only free and equal, but highly honorable as well. Group marriage and shared responsibility for child-care prevailed.

Household management, entrusted to women, was public in character and was considered to be as socially necessary as the procuring of food by men. Side by side with group marriage went the institution of "mother-right," which meant that descent was reckoned in the female line.

This was a powerful right in women's favor. In "Origin of the Family," Engels quotes Rev. Ashur Wright's description of the significance of this right:

" 'As to their family system, when occupying the old longhouses [communistic households comprising several families], it is probable that some one clan [gens] predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from other clans [gentes]; ... Usually, the female portion ruled the house, ... The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and ... he must retreat to his own clan; or, as was often done, go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other. The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when the occasion required, "to knock off the horns," as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors ....'" *

Women participated in day-to-day affairs as well as in all the important decisions affecting their lives and the life of the tribe. Women's equality was a natural condition of clan life. Government was an administration of things, rather than of people over people. Property was communal, but because of its scarcity, both men and women had to work long and hard to eke out a living.

With the development of agriculture, the domestication of animals and particularly with the invention of the iron tool, new sources of productive wealth were created. These, in turn, led to new social relationships.

The iron tool required the greater physical strength possessed by the males so that much of this new wealth accrued to them. Women began to lose their equal standing with the men and the first real class division in history began to take shape. (Women, it might be said, were the first victims of social progress, but this was not solely on the basis of sex. The weaker males suffered the same fate because they also lacked the necessary strength to wield the iron tool.)

It now became possible to accumulate wealth. Private property slowly came into being and paternity, rather than maternity, became the important factor in reckoning descent. The ancient custom of "mother-right" was gradually overthrown in what Engels called "The world historical defeat of the female sex."

The patriarchal family replaced group marriage. And, with that, women literally became their husbands' slaves or, at best, head servants in the household. This was the arrangement during ancient Greek and Roman times. In fact, the word "family" is derived from a Roman word meaning "domestic slave." In addition, as a result of warfare and conquest, thousands of hitherto free barbarian men and women were fed into the Roman economy as slave labor. Slave labor, it should be noted, enabled the ruling classes, freed from arduous toil, to develop art, music, science and literature. A small portion of society, at least, was lifted above the level of the barbarian.

Under the feudal system, the master-slave relationship continued in a new form, but the position of women remained largely unchanged. Marriage was monogomous, though in form only. A one-sided fidelity was imposed. Household and child-care were still the responsibility of women, but these lost their public character and became instead the private services of the wealth-holding males. Women were cut off from all social production, and their lot became a lonely one. The wife of a serf was the "slave of a slave." The lord, on the other hand, had undisputed power over all of the females in his domain.

With the further development of the tools of production, and with the expansion of trade, a new class, the bourgeois or mercantile class, gradually arose. The bourgeoisie, with the help of the oppressed mases, eventually overthrew feudalism, and a new social system, capitalism, arose.

Society began to polarise more and more into two antagonistic classes, the capitalist class and the working class, still master and slave in character. By reason of its ownership of the means of, wealth production, the capitalist classi was able to impose a condition of economic dependency upon the propertyless working class.

Wage labor succeeded serfdom, as serfdom had succeeded chattel slavery. The working class evolved into a vast majority forced to sell its labor power in order to gain access to the necessities of life. This they do for wages, which represent but a small portion of the wealth they alone produce, and services they alone perform. The very nature of manufacturing, with machines now doing much of the heavy work has enabled women to once more take part in the productive process. This is the social and economic organization that now prevails throughout most of the civilized world.

(To be concluded.)



May 19, 1973

Women's liberation -- a Socialist view

(Continued from last week.)

The central feature of each social system since the first class division developed has been the organized oppression and exploitation of the many -- men and women alike -- by a few who owned forms of property on which society's life depended. The secondary enslavement of women by men has stemmed from the same social condition that has forced the majority of men to submit to exploitation by a property-owning minority. This historic truth has been demonstrated by two developments that have altered the nature of female servitude in present-day society, particularly in America.

The first development was that great amounts of wealth came into the possession of upper-class American women, largely through inheritance. Women who acquire considerable wealth are no longer economically dependent on men. Since their wealth consists largely of holdings in capitalist corporations, they are active members of the class that rules America and participates in capitalist exploitation of the worker majority. Therefore, whatever sexual disadvantages these affluent women still may have to put up with, they can hardly be considered oppressed.

The second development that has altered the nature of female servitude is the large-scale entrance of married as well as single women into the ranks of the employed working class. The experience of women who obtain employment contrasts sharply with that of women who inherit wealth. While finding a job might enable a single woman to avoid putting herself at the beck and call of a husband, or enable a married woman to quit a husband who is making her life miserable, neither thereby gains real independence. Women who seek to escape dependence on a spouse simply become dependent on an employer instead.

Furthermore, working women quickly learn that capitalist employers are ready to take unscrupulous advantage of their historical social inferiority, just as they have taken advantage of the historic social inferiority of the blacks and other ethnic or racial groups. Women looking for employment are often relegated to menial, low-paying jobs, or are paid less than male workers receive for the identical tasks. And among those women who manage to get a higher education, many find themselves barred from professions they are qualified to take up, or are obliged to be content with lower-echelon positions in those professions.

The position of woman under capitalism is such that, as a member of the working class, she is exploited. As the wife of a working man she is again, like the serf's wife of old, "the slave of a slave." More than likely, in this day of runaway inflation, she is both wife and working woman. In addition to household drudgery and child-rearing, working-class women stand side by side with the men of the working class in doing all of the useful work of society. We teach in the schools, help staff the hospitals, carry on manufacturing, communication, transportation, etc.

Side by side also with the complete socialized production of capitalism, and in direct contradiction to it, stands the anachronism of private property with its attendant cruelty of distribution. For the vast majority of Americans affluence is only a vague promise held out by the development of technology under capitalism. The instinctive knowledge that this affluence is possible for all, and the liberating effect it could have, is the motivating force behind the cry for change, not only on the part of women, but on that of blacks, disenchanted youth and all other dissatisfied elements within our society.

The facts I have related are of cardinal importance in women's struggle to gain full social and economic freedom. They indicate the fundamental policy the Women's Liberation movement should adopt to ensure that its efforts are crowned with complete and lasting success instead of failure. That policy should be shaped by the recognition that we women have a class war to wage, not a sea; war. Our primary goal must be to overthrow the economic system that permits the capitalist class of both sexes to exploit the working class of both sexes. That goal can only be achieved by political and economic unity along cZoss lines rather than sex lines.

The program of the Socialist Labor Party calls for such unity. On the political field, the working class must express its revolutionary will, via the ballot, to put an end to the private ownership of the means of wealth production and to make them the collective property of all of society to be democratically administered in its own behalf. We further advocate the formation of an economic organization of the working class in all the industries and services whose purpose it will be to take, hold and operate the industries in the interest of all of society. Socialism can thus be achieved.

Production will then be carried on for use, rather than for profit. Exploitation will no longer be possible, for we, the useful producers, will retain the full social value of our labor. Class divisior and class rule will come to an end. Government will again be an administration of "things," rather than of people over people. The day-to-day decisions affecting our lives, and the power to carry out those decisions, will once more be put into the hands of all of the people-the only safe place for such power to reside. Men and women will once again be free and equal because the solid economic base for their equality will have been established.

Since woman's role in society has been determined largely by economic factors, it is only with a change in our economic structure that her role can be changed. The demands made by Women's Liberation, as valid and as long overdue as they are, can scarcely serve to truly "liberate" women. But they can help prolong and perpetuate the very conditions which have led to their oppression under class-divided society. The reforms sought after by Women's Lib distract women workers from the class nature of their oppression. Passing laws cannot end discrimination. Free day-care centers can serve only to throw more women into the already glutted labor market and, thus, force the wages of all workers down. Legalized abortion is now the law of the land, and it is a welcome "out" for the capitalist class annoyed with huge welfare rolls and rising unemployment.

The real effect of Women's Lib demands, should they all be met, will be the further proletarianization of women, equal only to her fellow male wage slaves, and subject to all of his pressures and insecurities. Meanwhile, the criminal and inhuman capitalist system will continue on its destructive way with its wars, racism, crime, poverty and oppression.

We in the Socialist Labor Party do not believe that this is what the advocates of Women's Liberation really want. We believe that what they want, what we all really want, is a world of peace and plenty for all, and a world In which cooperation, respect and affection between the sexes is retored. This can come about only through the establishment of genuine Socialism.