International Women's Day

The People
March 11, 1995
Vol. 104 No. 11

ON WOMEN AND WORK

It is not a widely known fact that International Women's Day originates with the socialist movement. Nonetheless, it was the International Socialist Congress held at Copenhagen in 1910 that set March 8 aside to focus on women's oppression under capitalism. By doing so, Socialists obviously acknowledged that the oppression and exploitation of women within class-divided society has many distinctive features apart from those that affect working-class men. Unlike today's "women's movement," however, Socialists then, as now, recognized that women and men come in two denominations that have nothing to do with gender -- those who belong to the ruling class and those who belong to the ruled class.

International Women's Day was never intended to separate women from men in the class struggle, but to alert working-class women to the ultimate source of their oppression -- the capitalist system.

The Socialist Labor Party was among the organizations represented at the Copenhagen Congress. Its delegation included several women, one of whom was Olive M. Johnson. Johnson joined the SLP during the 1890s and was active in the movement for most of her life. She was elected editor of the WEEKLY PEOPLE in 1918, and held the post until 1938. However, she was a regular contributor to the SLP press for many years before her election.

The following article is from that earlier period and predates the Copenhagen Congress by several years. It appeared in the WEEKLY PEOPLE of Oct. 26, 1907. Despite the many changes that have occurred in society since then, Johnson's analysis of the role of women in the labor force under capitalism retains much of its validity. Certainly, the proportion of women working outside the home has increased dramatically since 1907. But women still receive, on average, lower wages than men for comparable work and are still in need of a classconscious organization to advance their interests.

Johnson remained a dedicated and loyal member of the SLP until drawing her last breath in June 1954, at the age of 82. -- Editor.

BY OLIVE M. JOHNSON

Upon the question of woman's position in society there has been a great deal of discussion in our time and age, and people have arrayed themselves in several opposite groups. The old-fashioned people have declared and resolved that woman's place is in the home and that she has no business outside it; that shop, factory, store, office, science, art and literature are beyond the boundaries of woman's activity.

On the other hand, the "woman's rights" people have resolved long and loud that under the aforesaid conditions woman is an economic dependent on man, a slave in a free society -- a slave of the slave, some folk add of the worker's wife. They further resolve that for woman to be free all pursuits must be open to her. They BELIEVE her place is anywhere man is.

The Socialists, however, BELIEVE neither the one thing or the other. As students of economic science they deal with facts only and deduct the inevitable conclusions.

Only one or two generations backward the economic relations that surrounded the women were so different from the present that a perfect revolution has taken place in their life and activity. For the sake of securing a contrast let us look back as far as revolutionary times.

The home then was the unit of social activity. It was the family workshop where food and raiment were manufactured. The sheep were raised on the hillock. The wool was carded and spun at home, the cloth was woven and dyed, and the clothes finally sewed at home and by hand. Animals were raised and slaughtered at home, and the meat cured and prepared. Grain was raised on the farm, and the ale brewed and the bread baked in the home kitchen.

In a house of that age the swift-working and well-managing housewife certainly was an important economic factor, and as these family units made up the nation she was a factor in the nation, too. No wonder, then, that the tradition of the industrious home-keeping woman is a sweet one to the old- fashioned statesman, economist, poet and novelist.

The Industrial System

But she is truly a tradition only. That the manners and customs of a people depend upon their economic conditions is a fundamental fact in economic science. In the last century, economically speaking, a perfect revolution has taken place in society.

The present system has properly been termed an industrial system. The economic unit is the industry. Every pursuit is industrial. Not only so with mining, railroading, shipping and the like, which properly concern the world at large, but also all those branches of work that formerly were distinctly home pursuits and womanly occupations. What is now done in the home for the production of necessities of life are remnants of bygone days only, that have no effect upon economic laws.

The factory laws knocked the economic pedestal from under the woman in the home. Useless, therefore, becomes all resolutions about her or beliefs in her. She is gone from the world's stage as surely as are the spinning wheel, the hand loom and the knitting needle.

With the development of the industrial factory system commences a new national life. The independent owner and small producer has gradually disappeared. Society has become divided into two distinct classes -- the capitalist class, the class that owns all the modern gigantic means of production, and the working class, the class that owns no means of production but lives on wages or, scientifically speaking, by the sale of their labor power.

As the capitalist system developed the competition for jobs became ever greater among the wage workers. Every new machine threw men into the army of the unemployed. Often the search for a job was fruitless for weeks and months. Often the wage earner had to continue the search from town to town.

When wages do not come in regularly the wage worker's larder soon becomes empty. When starvation enters the home, the beatitudes of it, as set forth in song, poetry and resolution are soon vanished. Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters will leave it and go to work. The women become wage earners.

Women in the Labor Market

This, it is true, generally remedies the immediate evil -- present starvation; but it does not cure the evil at large. On the contrary, it aggravates it. More wage earners means keener competition. Keener competition means in turn lower wages and longer periods of unemployment. It means a large "standing army" of unemployed.

Marx in his scientific works on wages demonstrated that a man's wages in a given society are what it takes to support himself from day to day and to raise a family of future wage earners to take his place, when he is used up. This, however, has somewhat stretched with developed capitalism. It is now a well-known fact that it takes on an average the combined earnings of the FAMILY to keep the family alive and rear a future generation of wage slaves.

Woman as a wage earner has now become a recognized institution. Not only does she today follow the industries that have developed out of the former home occupations. She has entered practically all industry. Machinery has simplified the process of production. The division of labor has greatly done away with the need of skill and consequently the long periods of apprenticeship. The need of actual bodily strength is also lessened.

What is demanded of the modern wage earner is plodding, patience, endurance, keenness, nimbleness of finger and silent application to monotonous work. Hence female wage workers in many branches are preferred to male wage workers. But the chief virtue of a wage worker to capitalism is cheapness. A capitalist must have profits and enough of them to exist in competition with other capitalists.

That women are cheaper than men there is no denying. Often girls live at home and their wages are only used for their own dress and pin money, or to eke out the scant earnings of the family. In all cases, however, the employer will grind down wages whenever grinding is possible, and grinding is particularly possible where the power of resistance is small. The almost total absence of organization among women has aided the capitalists to hold their wages down.

Future Society

Consequently, whether we like it or not, woman today as a body is a wage earner, an economic factor in society, and as such she must be reckoned with. We Socialists take no time to lament our virtuous and industrious grandmothers. At best, poetry and romance to the contrary, they were household drudges and oftenest coarse and ignorant ones at that.

Nor do we fly to the other extreme and hail with joy the emancipated factory girl. We know too well that she is forced into work that has unfitted her for life, sexually, socially and intellectually. We know that we working women as well as the working men are mere wage slaves. But we do see in the development of society and its effect upon woman that she is passing through a status of evolution that will gradually fit her for a new place and a new life in a future society.

The future socialist society is shaping its industrial framework within present society. In this industrial structure woman is falling into place. While emancipation from home drudgery in this society means wage slavery, for the future it means economic freedom and independence.

It is the duty therefore of every woman wage worker to educate herself and help to educate her sister wage workers upon the great question of socialism -- the question that today is agitating society to its very foundation.