In plain language, both in law and in popular morality, the wife is still the inferior in the family to the husband. She is first without economic independence, and the law therefore gives the man, whether he be good or bad, a terrible power over her. Partly for this reason, and partly because all sorts of old half-civilized beliefs still cling to the flimsy skirts of our civilization, the beginning and end of the working woman’s life and duty is still regarded by many as the care of the household, the satisfaction of man’s desires, and the bearing of children. We do not say that this is the case in every working-class home, or that there are not hundreds of husbands who take a higher view of married life and practise it. What we do say is that these views are widely held, often unconsciously, and are taken advantage of by hundreds of men who are neither good men nor good husbands and that even where there is no deliberate
evil or viciousness, these views are responsible for the overwork and physical suffering among women and for that excessive childbearing, of which more will be said later.
The author of this remarkable passage, written seventy years ago, was Margaret Llewelyn Davies, general secretary of the Women’s Co-operative Guild in England and one of the most effective organizers either feminism or socialism has known. Here she sketched out both the main arena of mass sexual politics, the working-class household, and some of its major issues: economic dependence, ideological subordination and the physical consequences of oppression.
The inequalities in such a setting are clear enough, and therefore the inert opposition of interests between women and men. In terms of income, authority, leisure time, prestige, access to organizations and public life generally, working-class husbands had privileges to defend. Though some of the details have changed, in broad terms they still do. This has never gone without challenge, as is clear from the vivid autobiographies of women in the co-operative movement collected by Davies and published in Maternity and Life As We Have Known It. The articulation of this challenge is the political practice I will call working-class feminism.
Power and inequality within the family are the objects of a widespread, active, often vehement face-to-face politics. Most of it leaves no record except in the memories of the participants. It therefore goes undocumented, except for novels like Glen Tomaset – ti’s Thoroughly Decent People and academic family research of the scientifically disreputable kind that actually listens to people talking about themselves. From one such study comes the following example. The setting is the working-class Australian suburb in which the Princes (chapter 1) also live.
Mrs Markham is very much the central person in her family, the hub of discussions and decisions, and emotionally the source of strength for others. She has been conscious of prejudice against women for a long time. She recalls being ‘bitterly disappointed’ when forced to leave school early, and thus miss out on her ambition to become a journalist, because her mother could see no point in education for women. Mrs Markham is determined that her girls will not repeat her frustration, and has pushed them hard at school.
Elaine Markham, the oldest daughter, has taken over this pro-
ject, internalized it, and become highly competitive at school. With success: she is in the ‘A’ class and indeed one of its academic stars. Like her mother she is contemptuous of ‘the little housewife’ and of her schoolmates who are growing up in that image. Though she will not go as far as ‘Women’s Libbists’ burning bras and demonstrating in the street, she firmly supports ‘the overall idea of women being equal’. But all this has not come easily. She sometimes comes home from school in tears from tension and frustration. She talks of the school as a ‘dead’ place. She is thinking about leaving early despite her academic success.
The corollary of Mrs Markham’s strength is Mr Markham’s marginality. He is a storeman, earning below average wages. He came from a poor family, left school at 15, has held a range of jobs. He gets pushed around a good deal at work. While antagonistic to unions he is also angry at his bosses for not giving him recognition and a better wage. He finds their pressure for profit erodes the service his unit can give, and offends his pride in workmanship. The work situation, in short, constantly erodes his self-esteem. He tried to assert patiarchal rights in the family, for instance refusing to take on a share of housework when his wife took a job. But the main result was that he became increasingly marginal in the household. The women have concluded that he has failed as a husband and father. He too, rather wistfully, now accepts that opinion of himself.
This is only the barest outline of an intricate situation; even so it is of interest. In the last few years a whole series of problems about gender relations have been at issue inside the Markham family: ideas about the proper place of women in the world, access to new resources for girls, the division of labour in the household, the authority of men, the character of masculinity.
These issues are not exactly light-years away from the concerns of organized feminism. But the Markhams have no contact with that movement. Their only knowledge of it is the media stereotype of ‘Women’s Libbists’, with whom neither Elaine nor her mother care to identify. Their sexual politics is developed out of their own experience.
A politics mostly generated in the family and mostly conducted in the family is unlikely to make an issue of the family. The low level of women’s wages, and the lack of collective provision for childcare, make it extremely difficult for women who do not have the capital to buy a house nor qualifications that would guarantee
a good job – but who usually do have children to be supported – to survive without a husband and a husband’s wage. In working – class life, accordingly, the family as an institution is not very much contested. The questions at issue are the terms on which family relationships work.
Mrs Markham has a job in a factory, Elaine goes to school; both places have their own gender regimes and surrounding politics. The workplace is the second main site of working-class feminism, with the inequalities of wages, power and conditions already discussed. The assembly-line workers in the plant studied by Ruth Cavendish respond to these inequalities in a way which I suspect is very general. They are basically disillusioned with men, and are familiar with feminist arguments about men’s unjustified privileges. In the daily struggles about work and conditions in the factory they systematically support each other against the men who are their supervisors and managers. Since most of them have a household to run also, with a sharp sexual division of labour and little help from their husbands, they are chronically tired and have no leisure. Both facts make it difficult to organize. Men control the union, which did little for them in ordinary times and undermined them when they did go on strike. The union, as in the Melbourne factories where the Centre for Urban Research and Action interviewed immigrant women in the study But I Wouldn’t Want my Wife to Work Here, tends to be seen as part of management.
The general picture is a consciousness of sex inequality developing in an extremely constricting situation which prevents much expression beyond a practice of face-to-face solidarity. Within those limits the consciousness of oppression is vivid and the response active. Other studies have found comparable responses; Judy Wajcman’s study of a group of women in Britain who took over their failing factory is particularly interesting. Not all women workers have such a consciousness. Yet there is enough evidence to say that this is an important form of articulation of women’s interests in industrial settings.
There is no platform that lists the demands of working-class feminism. It is nevertheless possible to formulate in outline the issues around which these family and industrial politics revolve and the direction of movement implied.
(1) In relation to the division of labour and gender structuring ofproduction.
In the family: control of the household budget; the search for an independent wage for women and the right to spend it; sometimes, more equal sharing of housework. In the workplace: more equal wages between men and women; ending practices that keep women out of better-paid or easier jobs.
(2) In relation to the structure of power. In the family: control over decisions about the children, such as schooling and apprenticeship; personal independence, notably freedom from put-downs and violence by husbands or de facto husbands. In the workplace: freedom from arbitrary authority, such as rough treatment by bosses or headmasters; being heard by the unions that are supposed to represent women workers.
(3) In relation to cathexis and sexuality. In the family: adequate contraception, including the right to abortion; control of one’s own sexuality. (For teenagers, the right to be a sexual being and to be active in initiating and controlling sexual adventures; for married women, the right to set terms with husbands or leave unsatisfying marriages.) In the workplace: freedom from sexual harassmemt.
Cavendish argues that the concerns of her factory workers are very distant from those of middle-class feminism, and this is a reasonably common view of the issue. I suspect the difference would have seemed less if she had been able to study the same women in equal detail in their families. Overall there seems no obvious reason why this kind of politics should not be called ‘feminist’. It articulates women’s interests and involves an extensive critique of the power of men. Its forms and priorities are certainly different from those of ‘movement’ feminism, especially cultural feminism. It is also happening on a larger scale.
That is, perhaps, the central paradox of working-class feminism. There is every reason to think it is very widespread. The same kinds of struggle bubble up in factories and families in different industries, different countries, and at different times. But in both families and factories the structures that generate this politics also localize it. The result is a vast spectrum of small-scale political processes, each disconnected from the others. They are known about, through folklore, tradition and conversation; but they do not easily feed into each other.
There have been attempts to mobilize working-class women in
a more collective and public politics. Their high point was in the early twentieth century, with movements like the Social Democratic women’s organizations in Germany, the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Britain, and women’s organizations connected with the Socialist Party in the United States. More recently there are events like the Working Women’s Charter campaign and Women Against Pit Closures in Britain; the involvement of working-class women in refuges and the radicalization of Labor Women’s conferences in Australia. Most of these mobilizations have been connected with organizations constructed and dominated by men – parties, unions, cooperatives – and have therefore involved a politics of representation and access from a structurally weak position. The Labor Women’s conferences, for instance, have no formal power at all; as was shown in NSW in 1986 when the dominant right – wing faction in the party, which could not control the women’s conference, simply abolished it. At the national level 76 per cent of the delegates to the 1984 Labor Party federal conference were men, and among the major power-brokers there were no women at all.
To recognize the weakness of mobilizations is not to imply that working-class feminism has been ineffective. Reading the British accounts of family life in Round About a Pound a Week, Life As We Have Known It, and Working-class Wives creates a strong impression of the distance travelled during the twentieth century. Patriarchal authority has been rolled back some way. Working-class women have won more space and more resources. There is a cumulation, however modest each step in it has been.