Socialist Worker

Decades of change but not of liberation

In the last part of our series Sally Campbell explores women’s lives and the family today

Issue No. 2026

I wrote last week about the ideology that surrounds the nuclear family.

At first, for many working class women, the family was simply seen as a better option than working down a coal pit.

Increasingly the notion of housewife - and therefore isolation for women from the “public sphere” - became something glorified and striven for.

But capitalism is an unstable and contradictory system. A home free from the stress of the outside world cannot exist.

The very things we seek to escape - economic pressures, social tensions, inequality and exploitation - all penetrate inside the family.

In the course of the 20th century, the family has had to deal with two world wars during which women entered the workforce on a massive scale, only to be thrown out again when men came back from fighting.

It has also had to endure mass male unemployment, the destruction of industries and women entering the workforce on a permanent basis, especially in the past 30 years.

In Britain more than half of women with children under five work, rising to 80 percent of those whose youngest child is aged 11-15.

And women are having fewer children.

A recent study suggested that 20 percent of young women in Britain today won’t have children at all.

Social changes such as the contraceptive pill have changed expectations.

The women’s liberation movement put women in a much stronger position.

Changes also challenge the concept of the nuclear family and the stereotypes of how women should behave.

Yet the family still stands as a powerful ideal and aspiration.

All of the changes in women’s lives have come at a price. Women entered the workforce at precisely the time when conditions were getting worse for everyone.

“Flexibility” means shift work and temporary contracts.

Men and women are working longer hours than 30 years ago, and men with young children work the longest hours of all.

The role of women as carers is reinforced by the rolling back of the welfare state. The extortionate cost of professional childcare means that only 13 percent of women use it.

Women still tend to take “career breaks” to have children, and there is still an astonishing sexual division of labour in the workforce, with women concentrated in lower paid jobs such as retail, call centres and caring.

All of this adds up to a lifetime income for women which is 51 percent lower than men’s.

The sexual liberalisation fought for in the 1960s and 1970s has become a commodification of everything to do with our sexuality - the “raunch culture” described by Ariel Levy in her recent book, Female Chauvinist Pigs.

Far from being liberating, these images act to reinforce the idea of woman as sex object - only now we must also be successful careerists, full-time mothers and great cooks as well.

Capitalism has created the possibility of taking all those pressures off the shoulders of individual women.

Free social childcare could be provided.

Yet parents currently cover some 93 percent of the cost of raising children.

The family is ideologically buttressed by the state and the media. Women are made to feel like scroungers if they stay at home with the kids, and bad mothers if they work.

Despite massive changes, the roots of women’s oppression remain untouched.

The contradiction between socialised production and privatised reproduction is still in place.

We need to close the profound break that came with the formation of class society.

This is between the mass of producers and their product.

Only then can we rid ourselves of that other break, between production and reproduction, thus between women and men.

On the question of the future the Marxist Frederick Engels said, “That will be settled after a new generation has grown up:

“A generation of men who never have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences.

“Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do.”

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