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Material Girls: women, men and work

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Marnie Holborow reviews a vital new book about the continuing oppression of women
Issue 2058
Women have played a vital role in recent disputes, such as at Famous Grouse in Scotland in 2004 (Pic: Duncan Brown)
Women have played a vital role in recent disputes, such as at Famous Grouse in Scotland in 2004 (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Today, women are working in unprecedented numbers, have broken their chains to the home, thrown out the traditional “feminine” roles, and have choices that our grandmothers couldn’t have imagined.

But society’s view of women has continued along a narrow track.

The prevalence of lap dancing, cosmetic surgery, the sex industry, and the search to be ever more attractive underline how society only cares about how a woman looks.

Capitalism has turned women into a marketable commodity, sex objects who can be bought and sold on the internet. It has also made use of women’s low wages to garner superprofits.

The expectation was that as more women worked, as battles over abortion and other rights were won, women’s liberation would be secured. Why didn’t it happen?

This is the question that the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition Lindsey German takes up in her new book, Material Girls: women, men and work. She argues that the hope for women’s liberation has stalled. A few women in the top professions and business have made it. For everyone else, women’s liberation has hit the buffers.

Lindsey’s book takes up the threads of the classical Marxist tradition. Frederick Engels, writing in the 19th century, argued that the position of women in society stemmed from how production was organised. The family was where a woman’s social role was defined and this had changed enormously throughout history.

When Engels was writing, the family was in disarray. Industrialisation was breaking down old family structures and Engels concluded, wrongly, that the working class family would disappear. His understanding, however, of how class shaped the family and the position of women has relevance for today.

Although sex roles are often presented as unchanging, in fact they spring from the needs of production.

In a very interesting chapter about women’s lives in 19th and early 20th century Britain, Lindsey shows how factory owners needed more discipline for their production lines and freer attitudes to sex became taboo.

Sexual conservatism became the oppressive norm in Britain right up to the Second World War. Discipline in the factories was boosted in the private sphere by sexual regulation through the promotion of family values and the idea of “home sweet home”.


Women bore the brunt of this. There was the threat of isolation, punishment and even asylums for those who strayed. It took other social upheavals to shake these strict sex codes.

During the Second World War, Britain required thousands of women to work in the war industries. This changed lives in many ways and women glimpsed a freedom they had never before seen.

This was restricted again during the post-war economic boom when the family became the bolster against social change and women were sent back to the home. “It begins when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink,” as a feminist T-shirt put it.

In the 1960s, women found that access to more jobs and higher education brought them up against sexist attitudes and political discrimination and they began to fight back. Like today, women were gaining freedom only to find that social stereotypes about women remained.

The origins of the new sexism can be traced, Lindsey argues, through the social upheavals of neoliberal capitalism and how this has affected women’s and men’s lives.

With more people living outside the traditional model of the family it has become further removed from its popular image. The family has become a unit of consumption like no other and is the target of relentless advertising.

It is where the strongest female stereotypes are branded – the super-attractive wife, having the idyllic wedding day, becoming the ideal home-maker, the super-mother.

But as Lindsey points out, the glossy image is miles away from the reality of ever longer working hours to pay the debts and the pressures that this puts on relationships and families.

Lindsey quotes Charles Fourier, an early French socialist, who remarked that the general level of emancipation in society could be measured by how women were treated.

Today, we could add children to that. Britain has the highest childcare costs in Europe and Lindsey shows that funding falls overwhelmingly onto the individual family.

Despite the fact that the increase in female employment has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades.

The Economist magazine last year published figures showing that women going out to work in the last two decades have contributed more to the world economy than either the development of new technology or the rise of the new industrial giants of India and China.

Mainstream politicians talk of the need for family focus and a “work-life balance”, as do trade unions, but very few people are arguing for a state-funded childcare programme free at the point of delivery.

Feminism, Lindsey points out, became the voice of women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

She quotes novelist Rebecca West who said that people called her a feminist whenever she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from a doormat.

In the social revolution of the 1960s, feminists marched alongside anti-war activists and socialists. For a while everybody seemed to be fighting for the same thing.

Then as the defeats of the workers’ movements and the advent of neoliberal globalisation set in, the limits of feminism became clear.

The book tackles the theoretical and practical issues around seeing women’s position in society in feminist or individual terms. Those on the left writing about women today often absorb uncritically the idea that sexism has nothing to do with the economic structure of society.


More commonly, writers in the media write about women and their role in society in purely individual terms with individual solutions.

Lindsey shows how these interpretations lead to a dead-end. Self improvement – from confidence building to cosmetic surgery – far from addressing women’s real fears, have made them worse. They have also become an exploitative multi-billion pound business.

But self-improvement is only an effective way out for a few women and a thin mask for class privilege. Many former feminists have swallowed wholesale this new abrasive individualism.

Those, such as Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, climbed comfortably into top positions in business and the professions.

Lindsey writes, “Feminism was a limited political programme which was able to express the discontent which millions of women felt, but it was unable to develop and map out a path to equality for all women.”

It became a race for equality at the top. The women of Gordon Brown’s new cabinet – such as Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears – talk of the need for a women-friendly approach.

Yet their policies mean that welfare and childcare reform, which would make such a difference to the vast majority of women, are criminally underfunded.

Lindsey also shows that defining women in reference to men doesn’t work. Sexism is a social – and not necessarily a male – attitude. Sexist structures cannot be put down to male motives.

The family, as Lindsey shows, can only be understood in its overall social context. It has been defended by many working class people as a means of staving off the worst aspects of capitalism.

It did so at the cost of pushing women back into the home, but the alternative seemed worse. Its role continues to be contradictory.

Lindsey deals with the tensions behind society’s view of men – from the breadwinner and provider to the pathetic sexism of lad culture today.

Theory is never just about explaining. It always leads to political practice.

Individualism has blinded many of those who write about women today to the emergence of the social and political conditions for a new movement for women’s liberation.

It is not coincidental that Lindsey’s close involvement in the anti-war movement has enabled her to see first hand the potential unleashed by political activism against war.

Her account of the way in which the anti-war movement has challenged imperialist stereotypes of Muslim women draws the obvious parallel of opposition to the Vietnam war. It too gave birth to a new movement for social, racial and sexual liberation.

Lindsey argues that the time has come to forge a new movement for women’s rights, and against neoliberalism and war. It suggests a series of demands around which such a movement can be built.

Marnie Holborow is an academic at Dublin City University and the author of The Politics of English

Material Girls: women, men and work by Lindsey German (£12.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop »

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