ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 1986


Ann Rogers

The forgotten majority: women at work


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 32, Summer 1986, pp. 80–100.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Libraries could be filled with the writings of the feminist movement over the past two decades. But it would take a very long and patient search through these libraries to locate many books which deal with the most profound change to women’s lives. Very few feminists have asked the question: ‘Over 60 per cent of women in Britain now work. What has this meant for the lives of ordinary women?’ [1] Forty per cent of the workforce is female. [2] Women are to be found in the workplace in unprecedented numbers and this has reverberations in the kitchen and the nursery.

The reality of most women’s lives today is far more complex than the stereotyped feminist image of women carrying a ‘dual burden’; that is doing all the housework as well as doing a job. While it is still true that women do more housework than men, how much they do is determined by whether or not they work. Full-time women workers are far less likely to do all the housework than women who do not work.

Given this sea-change, it is surprising that the effect of work on women’s lives has been either misinterpreted or underestimated by feminism. Right from the beginnings of the modern women’s liberation movement the attention paid to women’s working lives has been woefully inadequate. The role of work in women’s lives has generally been mentioned, if at all, to show that it is not a central component in structuring women’s oppression.

Thus one of the seminal theorists of the movement, Kate Millett, could say ‘women do not participate directly in technology or production. What they customarily produce (domestic and personal services) has no market value and is, as it were pre-capitalist. Nor where they do participate in production of commodities through employment do they own or control or even comprehend the process in which they participate.’ [3]

On the one hand Millett excludes any experience of work from women’s lives (putting primacy upon their role in the home) and on the other she robs that experience of any particular character when the participants are women (for of course most men do not ‘own control or even comprehend’ the process in which they participate as Marx pointed out more than 100 years before Millett). Though this is not to say that the male and female experience of work are the same.

Robin Morgan, one of the main organisational forces behind the American women’s liberation movement, summed up the movement as being ‘where women talk about their personal lives’. Thus literature, psychoanalysis, the miseries of marriage, the female orgasm, rape and wolf-whistling all got talked about. What it was like going to work generally didn’t unless it impinged on one or other of these areas.

The reason for this was not accidental, for almost all early feminists assumed that women’s domestic role structured and shaped their whole lives. Whatever role women play in the workforce, at home we are all suffering under the same burden, says the feminist analysis.

But this is not true. I shall argue that it is impossible to understand women’s oppression unless the inter-relation between domestic life and work is seen as a totality. The failure of nearly all feminists to get to grips with the question stems from their failure to analyse this inter-relation.

Even most socialist feminists suffer from two misconceptions: the notion that women’s oppression is in one way or another autonomous from class and some sort of belief in prefigurative politics. The theory of patriarchy gave explanatory priority to an analysis of women’s role in the family. The notion that ‘the personal is political’ downgraded the importance of women as workers and often precluded a discussion of the inter-relation between home and work. Thus most of the work produced by socialist feminists on women in the workforce focused around the changing structure of British capitalism and the failure of the trade union bureaucracy to take account of it and stopped there. In short the analysis of women at home and the analysis of women at work proceeded along parallel lines – going off into infinity and destined never to meet.

That this happened is astounding in view of the fact that women’s increasing participation in the workforce was having massive ramifications throughout their whole lives. But the reason for it was not deliberate lying, stupidity or wilful ignorance on the part of the feminists. It was a direct result of the theoretical basis of feminism.

Because the first flowerings of modern feminism were unambiguously middle class they quite naturally prioritised women’s personal experience. Thus Betty Friedan writing in 1963 talked about groups of housewives sitting over morning coffee discussing ‘the problem that had no name’. [4] In this suburban world the option of collective organisation did not even exist, so it’s hardly surprising that it didn’t get talked about.

By the late 1960s feminism had become a good deal more theoretically sophisticated and in the highly politicised atmosphere activity to change the world did seem possible. But still the small group around the coffee table talking about their personal lives was seen as the heart-beat of the movement. And a whole welter of writing grew up to justify this practice.

But this was not the only thing going on. Feminism was largely an outgrowth of student radicalism and many feminists quite naturally gravitated towards critiques of the academic establishment.

The theories of feminism were trumpeted as exciting and new. Feminists claimed to be breaking with academic tradition in order to put women at the centre of the stage. In fact what they did, as the 1970s wore on, was to take over much of the fashionable intellectual baggage of the time and adapt it to their own ends. The analysis of patriarchy as power relations takes much from Michel Foucault. The concentration upon the transmission of the belief structures of oppression took much from Levi-Strauss. The obsession with language as the source of oppression (and more specifically with the process of naming) reflected the dominance of analyses of language in both the Anglo-Saxon and the European traditions of philosophy at the time. Almost every feminist analysis, apart from extreme radical feminism, owes much to Althusser for the category of the semi-autonomous and the idea that there is such a thing as an ideological struggle as separate from that class struggle.

This journal has argued at length that such an intellectual tradition is not one that can serve the working class. [5] And certainly the adoption of such notions made the possibility of the development of a class analysis of women’s oppression unlikely.

But along with this tradition came what in other circumstances would have been a healthy distrust of the way the academic establishment had treated research on women. Feminists looked at the dearth of any serious research into any aspect of women’s lives and began to say that they needed new forms of knowledge and new ways of doing research and quantifying their findings in order to properly grasp the reality of women’s lives. Because of the idea that personal experience was central this took the form of an obsession with allowing women to voice their own experiences without being forced into a pre-cast model.

Thus long subjective accounts of women’s experience were far more common than large-scale surveys or analysis of facts. For example, one study which was a seminal influence on women who were to become feminists, The Captive Wife by Hannah Gavron, was based on interviews with only 96 women – this might have been a necessity for Gavron, who is said to have faced considerable hostility from the sociological establishment because she wanted to study women. But the technique of interviewing very few women at great length and avoiding directing or questioning their answers became elevated into a virtue. The upshot was that myths flourished despite very little evidence.

Any analysis of the inter-relation between oppression, the family and employment stood very little chance in this atmosphere.

Instead the notion that ‘the personal is political’ became an excuse to generalise from a very limited (and often middle-class) base to all women. Because what women said was seen as always important there was no systematic emphasis on how ideas change in struggle. All women’s experience, whether it was the experience of a suburban housewife stuck at home, a clerical or factory worker or a lawyer or a doctor, was seen as equally important. Class became submerged under the belief that all women suffered the same oppression.

The importance of class struggle in fighting women’s oppression was seen as one of many options. And if the community group or the consciousness-raising session are equal in importance to a political struggle in the workplace then whether women are workers or housewives does not really matter. Indeed women’s increasing participation in paid work can then be seen as much as a source of weakness (carrying a dual burden, overworked, perhaps sexually harassed in the workplace) as it can of strength.

Just how closely women’s willingness to struggle is tied to a general level of class struggle (that is one determined as much by men as by women) is also lost. This is hardly surprising within an ideology which views the division between men and women as equally important as the division into classes, but it means that any real analysis of when women will struggle gets put onto the back burner.

This mistake actually leads in two directions – either to voluntarism or to pessimism. On the one hand women are portrayed as constantly straining at the leash to struggle. Because of the pluralist ideology of feminism the tactics or even class nature of a particular movement are not analysed. An equal pay strike, a women’s literature group, miners’ wives, Greenham Common, the fight to get more women into parliament, and so on, all become just different flowerings from the tree of feminism. [6] All are equally worthwhile because all show women’s creativity and strength. But of course the cost of this pluralism is a lack of any real strategy for winning. This means that those influenced by feminism who want to see working-class women fighting back have no analysis of why it isn’t happening at the moment. And this means that when a battle is lost demoralisation and pessimism quickly follow.

A few years ago these two trends took the form of unfounded assertions that the election of Thatcher would lead to women being forced back into the home. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen the ideas became more diffuse – Marxism Today, for example, claimed in January 1983 that the job-splitting (a government scheme to pay employers to introduce job-sharing) the Tories were then talking of introducing would be a major factor in worsening women’s lives. In fact job-splitting was dropped in the face of employers’ resistance. What they had failed to perceive was the extent to which women’s employment patterns already fitted the needs of capitalism.

Lynne Segal in an article about Tory family policy claims ‘all capital expenditure on nursery provision’ has been cut. This is untrue as we shall see later. She adds, ‘Husbands of working wives do almost as little housework as husbands of full-time housewives.’ This is also untrue. Segal has missed the key point that women’s employment has begun to undermine the traditional domestic roles in the home. Therefore she is unable to understand how this can be a potential threat to capitalism.

In Segal we see the two major delusions of socialist feminism coming together. Firstly the belief that the Tories can ride like a panzer division through the various services the state provides in order that the employers can exploit women as a cheap labour force. Secondly that the pulling of women into the workforce has made no substantial difference to patterns of home life.

But such assertions have become part of the mythology of feminism. They fit well with the assumption that women, because they are oppressed, must automatically suffer more from the crisis than men. They also fit in with the notion that work is separate and secondary in most married women’s lives.

Feminists such as Anna Coote and Beatrice Campbell began to talk about redistributing income, housework and work hours between men and women rather than fighting for more resources. [7] Both called themselves socialist feminists. But the drift to the right meant that the contradiction inherent in trying to hold a class analysis plus a gender analysis on the question of women became more marked.

The basic problem was that socialist feminists believed that the structure of women’s work has benefitted not only capitalism but also the husbands of women workers. [8]

The real pattern is far more complex. The government does not want to upset business by forcing one of its cheapest and more pliant workforces back into the home. But it does want to cut public spending – the tension between these two aims has led to something rather different than a straight stripping away of services used by working women, as we shall see.

One outcome of this over-simplification was that the effect of working on women’s attitudes to housework has been left largely unexplored by the feminists. Housework has usually been seen as an immutable barrier to women’s liberation – after all if washing machines and vacuum cleaners can’t decrease it, if going to work just means you have to do the same amount when you come home, then surely housework must be something which is as inevitable as the weather. Any talk of abolishing it must, therefore, be Utopian nonsense.

Because housework was seen in this way it was a short step to arguing that what was needed was to re-distribute it rather than to abolish the system which produced and privatised it.

Given this intellectual baggage it is hardly surprising that the myth grew up that whatever trends there were towards women working, their domestic lives remained largely unchanged.

It was often argued, most famously by Anne Oakley in her book Housewife, that despite the many labour-saving devices now at the disposal of women, they did as much housework now as in the past. Oakley claims that ‘Employment does not itself alter the status (or reduce the work) of being a housewife ... The amount of housework shows no tendency to decrease with the increasing availability of domestic appliances or with the expansion of women’s opportunities outside of the home.’ [9] An assertion which we will later see is contradicted by some studies on housework.

Oakley also dismissed women’s increasing participation in labour by saying that it is merely an extension of their domestic role: ‘the bulk of women’s work has been, and still is concentrated in the domestic sector. Teaching, nursing, factory work producing domestic goods ... are the occupations of most employed women.’ [10]

Yet Oakley’s book is largely based on interviews with just 40 women, out of which she selects four for more detailed research, stating that they are representative of the whole. Yet of the four, one has three children at the age of 28, one is the wife of a television producer, who has material benefits undreamed of by most working-class women, the last (the only one to be fully satisfied with being a housewife) has paid domestic help for two days every week!

More importantly, only one is engaged in paid work, yet working women are a majority, and all are living with their husbands, even though more and more women are now single parents. [11]

Similar ideas can be found in the work of Anne Phillips, one of the main exponents of an alternative economic strategy based around the needs of women, who argues, ‘Sometimes housewives seem an archaic throwback to days before capitalism. In fact full-time housewives are an invention of capitalism, but the kind of work they do seems out of place. As some feminists have said, women working in the home look more like slaves in ancient society than wage workers in modern capitalism. They work for a particular individual (the husband) and depend on his goodwill for their keep.’ [12]

What a confused morass of ideas! Women, housewives or otherwise, look nothing at all like slaves in ancient societies. For a start the nuclear family didn’t exist in most ancient societies. The notion that women work for a particular individual is also a nonsense. In her desperation to argue that men benefit from women’s domestic role Phillips writes children out of the picture altogether. What about that ever growing group of women (who spend more time on house care than married women) the single parents? Who are they working for? Certainly not a man, as there is no man living with them. Yet they still have to carry the domestic burden.

The position of lone mothers in present-day society undermines the Phillips thesis. They are less likely to work than married women. Yet Phillips would have us believe that women [13] stay at home to service men. How then does she explain the fact that women with children are more likely to stay at home when there is no man to service?

Of course there are very good reasons why single mothers are less likely to work. But they have nothing to do with the relation of women to men and everything to do with the relation of the family to capitalism.

In the first place women’s earnings are so abysmally low that it is often not worth a single mother working, as she is no better off than on social security. [14] Secondly if she can find work then she cannot take it unless she can find child-care.

These facts go some way to showing the real dynamic which underlies the structure of family life under present-day capitalism.

If men benefitted from their wife’s domestic labour then, by all logic, single mothers should be less oppressed than married women. After all they are free of the role of acting as unpaid servant to a husband. In fact they are clearly more oppressed – worse paid, more tied to domestic labour and child-care etc.

But these types of mistakes can easily arise if housework is seen as a means of servicing individual men rather than as a part of the process of reproducing the next generation of labour.

Many socialist feminists have even talked about housework as being somehow outside of capitalism. Some argued that the role of women as housewife pre-dated capitalism. This, of course, fitted very well with the idea that a class analysis of society was insufficient to explain women’s oppression. More and more socialist feminists began to adopt a schizophrenic position; presenting a class analysis of women at work and a gender analysis of women in the home.

The failure to resolve this contradiction had already led to a long and sterile debate about whether women in the home were exploited (what became known as the domestic labour debate). Instead of attempting a Marxist analysis of women’s working lives and home lives as an integrated whole, women’s domestic lives were split off from the rest of class society and then feminists performed ever more complicated high jumps, usually in the form of new definitions of surplus-value, in order to try to force domestic labour into a Marxist category. But of course in splitting domestic labour off into its own little area in the first place they had foregone the possibility of extending the Marxist analysis of women’s oppression. They had defined the ground so that Marxism did not fit and then tried to re-jig Marxism to make it fit again.

Because many feminists were anxious to argue that housework is an inescapable burden on women, they fell into the trap of likening it to waged work. But it is not like waged work, and consequently cannot be analysed in the same way.

One of the main differences between work for a wage outside of the home and housework is the patterns which each fall into. Work is clearly defined, it has regular hours and there is an obvious distinction between work and leisure. The situation is not nearly so clear with domestic chores. But the difficulty in quantifying housework needs to be overcome. For an analysis of the sexual division of domestic chores is essential if we are to find out whether women working has made a substantial difference to the relation between men and women in the home.

The amount of time housework takes is not easily quantifiable, that is part of its nature. Where there are young children in the household it has been argued that the parents are working 24 hours a day, as one or other has to respond immediately to the demands of that child at any hour of the day or night.

Then there is the ideological pressure upon women to live up to an ideal standard of housework – this goes some way to explaining why housewives spend nearly 80 per cent longer doing housework than women workers. [15] There is also a grey area where domestic work merges into leisure activities. Almost everyone would agree, for example, that unblocking drains (a task, incidentally, almost always done by men) or ironing (almost always done by women) comes into the ‘domestic chores’ category rather than the leisure category. But cooking a nice meal, or some sorts of shopping, or playing with the children are sorts of activities which are essential to the well-being of the family and may also be pleasurable.

In most households the wife does most of the housework. [16] But the difference between the sharing of housework in homes where the wife does not work compared to homes where she works fulltime is huge.

In married couples it has become increasingly common to spread the waged work/domestic labour burden between both partners (although this process is nowhere near complete).

Fully 44 per cent of women full-time workers say they share domestic chores equally with their husbands. [17] The trend towards equally sharing child-care is even more marked; 67 per cent of full-time women workers say their husbands do half the child-care. [18]

So sharing of domestic chores is far more common when the wife is working. In other words, when women work the domestic burden is far more likely to be spread between both men and women.

Of course the load is not spread equally. But the fact that it is spread at all explodes many of the myths of feminism. For it shows that it is untrue that men never do housework. (If the feminist analysis that women do housework to service men is correct, then the fact that men do housework, and the fact that the amount of housework done by men is almost wholly determined by the hours their wives work are totally inexplicable.) Such facts just do not fit with the notion that women’s oppression is autonomous or semi- autonomous from class.

But there is nothing inherently good about men doing domestic chores on top of working forty or more hours a week. The burden of domestic chores may have shifted, but it has not fundamentally altered. Workers are still expected to reproduce themselves and the next generation of labour in the nuclear family. Although a shift in this burden so men take more of it might be good in terms of breaking down sexism, it does not substantially alter the fact that living in the nuclear family puts tremendous pressures on workers and frees the ruling class from a massive amount of expenditure.

The changing patterns of women’s employment has seen a massive shift from the traditional picture of a woman carrying all the domestic burden while a man worked for a family wage. Now the division is not so marked, with women contributing more to the family income and men doing more domestic chores.

Certainly this change has benefitted women. But in and of itself it is no challenge to capitalism. The nuclear family has survived it intact.

We have seen that women going out to work does change the proportion of domestic work done by men and women. We have also seen that although the change appears to be accelerating, we are nowhere near a situation where domestic work is equally shared, even where the woman works full-time.

Yet we cannot automatically assume that while women are catching up on the housework men are out enjoying themselves. Men do have more free time than women, but not nearly so much more as many people suspect.

There are several reasons for this. Men who work full-time spend on average nearly five hours longer working or travelling every week than full-time women workers. [19]

For male manual workers overtime is still a common feature of work. The average manual worker works 5.1 overtime hours a week, [20] but nearly 18 per cent work more than 50 hours a week. [21] Non-manual male workers also work three times as much overtime as their female counterparts, although it is much less than manual workers. (But many male white-collar workers say they are expected to work late on a regular basis even though they do not get paid for it. In these cases it doesn’t enter the statistics.)

So when we look at the amount of free time men and women have, rather than the amount of time each spends on housework or child-care the situation becomes clearer. We can see the burden of bringing up a family eats into the free time of both men and women. But it does so in different ways.

The tendency over the last couple of years has been for the number of hours men work to rise. There is some evidence to show that men with very young children tend to work the most overtime – probably because their wives are out of paid employment and the extra income from overtime working is desperately needed. Fourteen per cent of the average male manual wage is made up of overtime pay, but only four per cent of the average female manual wage is for overtime. [22]

These factors mean that male full-time workers have only half an hour more free time per working day than female full-time workers. The difference between full-time male workers and part-time female workers is slightly more at about three quarters of an hour. At weekends men had an hour and a half a day more free time than women. [23]

So men have more free time than women, but not significantly more. Certainly the difference is too narrow to do the massive job required of it by many feminists, who have argued that men’s extra free time enables them to engage in union activities, form male peer groups in the pub and generally bolster a sexist culture – a lot to take on in that half an hour or so a day which they have which women don’t.

It certainly makes nonsense of claims like those of Beatrice Campbell, who says ‘It is men’s dependence on women’s domestic work and their passivity as parents that enables them to put a premium on working most of their time and playing the rest of it.

And it is those same conditions that make possible the double-time worked by most trade union activists. The life of the labour movement lives off women’s unpaid domestic labour.’ [24]

What is also striking is that women who work do not have that much less leisure time than full-time housewives. This is partly because many full-time housewives have young children and therefore more domestic chores. But there is also a marked tendency for housework to increase to fill the space allocated to it. More time seems to mean more housework.

The jobs women do and the sort of domestic life they lead are inextricably bound up with each other. Women do most of the domestic chores in the home, and this affects the jobs they do outside. But the hours women are working and the pay they are getting then feeds back into their domestic lives.

The vast bulk of the expansion in women’s employment has been in those industries which offer specific hours.

Forty-four per cent of working women work part time. [25] This is not through choice – the hours women work are almost wholly determined by their children. Part-time work apparently holds little attraction for women without children, only six per cent of childless women are doing this sort of work, and under one per cent of men. Yet only 26 per cent of women with children under school age who are working have full-time jobs. [26]

Even the hours worked are chosen to fit in with the needs of the children. Evening work, for example, shoots up once children have gone to school and husbands or other relatives are available to act as unpaid child-minders. [27]

A significant change which has paralleled the growth of the numbers of women working is the declining birth rate. (Total live births have fallen from 811,000 in 1961 to 637,000 in 1984.) The decline in the number of women having large families is particularly noticeable. Women are also having children later (in the last decade the average age for the first birth has gone up by more than a year).

But even though women have fewer children, the problems they face looking after them still have repercussions through every area of family life.

The number of under-fives in some sort of state nursery school has rocketed over the last 20 years (rising from 15 per cent to 45 per cent of all three and four year olds). [28] But this is not the good news it appears to be on the surface. State provision cannot fulfill working mothers’ child-care needs (as can be seen from the tiny number of women who say that state nursery provision is the only form of child-care they use).

So the number of children who get some sort of nursery education seems to be in contradiction to the number of women who say they rely on nursery provision for their children when they are at work. The contradiction is explicable because what provision women need and what they get are very different things. Even the ‘full-time’ nursery schools are only open until three o’clock in the afternoon. (This is a marked contrast to the war when state nurseries actually opened for the hours women worked. Now even those nurseries called full-time only fit in with part-time working hours.)

But this is not the only problem working women face. The number of women in full-time work actually declines when their children go to school. The reason for this is simple. It is harder to find someone to pick children up after school than it is to find facilities to look after a child for the whole day (what this means in practice is that the women whose work forms the safety net – childminders – do not find it worth their while to look after school-aged children for a couple of hours plus school holidays when they can get babies and toddlers who need full-time care). Like state nurseries, state schools are not open long enough to enable a mother to do a full-time job unless she can find another source of child-care.

There has actually been a decline in the sort of state provision which could have enabled women with children to continue fulltime working. It’s no surprise then that nearly half the women who have pre-school children and work full-time, pay for child-care.

Little research has been done to flesh out simple statistics such as the huge rise in ‘registered nurseries and playgroups’. But it seems unlikely that more than a tiny minority of these provide the sort of length of care which would enable a woman to work full-time without making other arrangements. Certainly some playgroups work on the principle of pooled child-care by parents rather than a service to allow mothers to work.

Nursery provision seems to be designed on the assumption that if women work at all they work part-time – an assumption which of course becomes self-reinforcing as the only jobs women can take in the absence of more nursery facilities are part-time. But even part-time hours have to be juggled around the needs of children.

The concentration of women in part-time jobs traps them within certain sorts of work. Over 60 per cent of female manual workers are employed in hairdressing, cleaning, catering and other ‘personal services’. Of women in non-manual trades 64 per cent are clerical workers or sales workers. [29]

The jobs in which women are concentrated are characterised by extremely low pay. (Even with equal pay legislation women have never earned more than 75 per cent of the male wage.) [30]

But at the same time women have tended to be shielded from the worst effects of the recession. As full-time jobs have disappeared, part-time jobs have increased. This is a trend which is expected to continue for the next decade at least. The Institute of Employment Research, for example, has argued that while the numbers in fulltime employment will increase by just one per cent up to 1990, the numbers in part-time employment will increase by 7 per cent.

The areas they project for growth also suggest a continued swing towards the sort of jobs which employ women. The areas which drew women out of the home and immigrants into Britain (such as the service industries and public administration) are expected to grow, while most manufacturing industry, especially heavy industry, continues to decline. It is likely that women will continue to fill this still growing market for part-time jobs – there is no sign that part-time male employment is rising. [31]

Today, women’s working life is divided into distinct phases, governed by child-bearing (and to a much lesser extent by the need to look after aged parents).

Young women leaving school are now more likely than young men to get full-time jobs, according to the government’s own publication, the Employment Gazette. Up until they have children, women are just as likely as men to be working – in other words marriage by itself has no effect on whether or not a woman works. It is children which draw her out of the workforce and into the home, not husbands.

The birth of children marks the end of full-time employment for many women. But a decreasing number of these women drop out of employment altogether. More and more they transfer, after an increasingly short break, to part-time jobs. As children get older, more and more women move into some sort of employment, and the numbers working full-time then begin to go up again. [32]

Thus the structure of women’s employment not only benefits the state in that many women fit in employment with child-care and make few demands on state services. It is also keeping capitalism supplied with a low-paid and flexible workforce.

The price working-class families have to pay for this is huge, as we can see from the domestic arrangements which working mothers are forced to make for their children. But women pay another price for having children – the twilight shift, evening work or early morning starts all have attractions for the mother trying to fit work in with child-care. Women’s working hours are governed by the demands of children.

One thing which characterises working women with children is the spread of hours which they do. Whereas 82 per cent of women under 30 and without any children who work full-time work ordinary daytime hours, only 53 per cent of women full-timers with pre-school age children work these hours. Sixty-nine per cent of part-time nightworkers are mothers of dependent children, as are 78 per cent of part-time evening workers. [33]

One major factor in determining the hours worked is the availability of the husband. Ninety per cent of evening workers relied on their husbands to look after the children.

Husbands are way out in front of other relatives as the people who look after the child when its mother is not there. (Fifty per cent of women who work part-time say their husband looks after the children when they cannot. The next most popular source of childcare is other relatives, particularly grandmothers and older siblings.) [34]

Once children have gone to school the family’s role becomes even more important. Sixty-three per cent of part-time workers with school-age children rely on their husbands to aid them with child-care.

The lack of state facilities for child-care means that the numbers who pay for child-care are extremely high. Thirty per cent of all working women pay someone to look after their pre-school children.

All in all, the arrangements mothers make for their children reveal a lack of the sort of state provision that would fully cover their working hours. Although children might go to nursery or playgroup, husbands or grandmothers are still essential to fill in the times when formal provision and women’s working hours do not coincide. The part-day playgroup or the nursery which only opens in school term times forces the family to step forward and provide child-care.

So although women go out to work, it is still the family that provides the back-up care for children. But this back-up care does not fit the picture painted by most feminists of the whole burden being taken by women, or even being shifted to other female relatives. The pattern is far more diffuse than this, with husbands and older siblings playing a key role. [35]

Thus not only does the family suffer from the birth of children by taking a large drop in income, it also suffers from loss of time as its various members strive to fill in the gaps the state leaves. This loss of time affects mothers most, but its impact on husbands, grandparents and older siblings should not be underestimated.

The pattern of a woman going out on an evening shift while her husband, returning from full-time day work, looks after the children, or of the full-time worker who relies on her mother to pick up the children from school after her mother has finished her part-time job, is more common in Britain today than the traditional picture of a housewife doing all the housework and relying on her husband’s wage. The change has certainly benefitted women by giving them independence, but it has its negative aspects as well. Couples who never see each other because their shifts clash, and husbands coming home from full-time work to act as unpaid babysitters so their wives can do evening work is certainly no picture of a socialist Utopia.

So the problems faced by families trying to bring up children are massive. The pressure comes from the inter-relation of both working and trying to bring up children. The way it hits men and women is different, but it is a difference of relative balance rather than of type. Men and women are no longer engaged in totally separate activities (one at home, the other at work) if indeed they ever were. Instead men do more waged work and less house-care, while women do more house-care and less waged work.

Another equally important area which was neglected or under-analysed was the reasons why women had been pulled into paid work and the different experiences of working women from different classes.

We have seen that the type of jobs into which women have been pulled are characterised by low rates of pay. In clerical work in particular the increasing employment of women has gone alongside decreasing rates of pay.

Many feminists have argued that clerical workers’ pay has decreased because women were drawn into this form of work. But this misses out the key point that the explosion of jobs in the clerical sector did not just create jobs, it also fundamentally altered the nature of the work.

From the highly skilled, often semi-managerial functions of the 19th century, the very nature of clerical work changed. The increased employment of women went along with proletarianisation. As early as the 1920s there was a trend to the rapid routinisation of clerical tasks and increasing specialisation of individual tasks. The expansions of the post-war period, with increasing use of electronic equipment, further decreased the little element of craft skill left. This shift, from the highly-skilled semi-managerial functions of the 19th century meant that the work increasingly became routinised semi-skilled or unskilled work often suited to part-time hours – in short, the sort of work which women and especially women with children could do. [36]

But this process did not affect all working women. Those who got into the semi-managerial or managerial sectors did very well.

The other area which saw women workers being pulled in on a large scale was the so-called service sector. There has been a tendency to use the term ‘service sector’ to cover a multitude of sins. It tends to disguise more than it reveals. Particularly, it hides the process of expansion in just a few areas (such as transport and health services) which pulled in not only women but immigrants as well in the post-war period. It also hides the process of deskilling which we shall see is a central feature of women’s working lives after they have children.

The expansion of part-time work, a major growth area for women’s jobs even after the recession had begun to bite into full-time employment, was largely in the service sector. The reasons for this are obvious. Much service work, for example shop work, is most profitably organised around peaks and troughs of consumer demand. Maximising profits relies upon flexible working hours from employees. Part-time workers fill this need perfectly. Almost all part-time workers are women. The majority of them take such jobs because they are relatively easy to combine with child-care. But part-time work also has the worse conditions of any employment. Levels of trade unionism are lower, job security is less and rates of pay are bad. [37]

Women now have fewer children than ever before and spend less time at home looking after them. But the fact that they do have children reverberates through their whole working lives. Although at most five years is spent in full-time child-care, these five years overshadow every aspect of women’s working lives from the time of their first birth onwards.

Women, far more than men, experience downward mobility in the labour market. Most women who do not have a professional qualification can expect to reach their highest earning potential before they have children. It is comparatively rare for women, even after their children have grown up, to equal their earnings when they were childless. And for the years when their children are under ten their earning potential drops massively as they are forced into part-time jobs which often do not use the skills that they gained as full-time workers.

For example 19 per cent of women teachers returned to less skilled, less well-paid jobs after the birth of their first child. And teachers are lucky compared to other groups – 43 per cent of nurses were forced to take less skilled jobs, as were 42 per cent of ‘skilled’ workers. [38]

Most of these women are taking less skilled jobs because they are being forced into part-time work. After child-birth, 56 per cent of former teachers take part-time jobs, as do 71 per cent of nurses and 94 per cent of ‘unskilled’ workers. [39]

For professional women the story is very different. Ninety per cent return to a professional job after having children. Unlike working-class women, many have the option of taking up their careers again on a part-time basis. Eighty-two per cent of this category of women work part-time while their children are young.

This reflects the far greater flexibility of working hours amongst professionals. The system of flexible working which allows, say, male barristers to pursue a parallel career in parliament also allows female barristers to combine a career with bringing up children.

For workers the story is different. Male workers are stuck on the production line for forty hours a week plus overtime. Their wives are pushed out of reasonably well-paid skilled jobs into lower grade work which has only one advantage – it can be combined with child-care.

The difference between professional women’s experience at work and working-class women’s experiences is almost certain to widen in the future.

There is already considerable evidence that large corporations are worried about the number of professional women they lose because they leave to have children. From the companies’ point of view it is not cost-effective to train women to enter the managerial strata only to find that they never get beyond the very lowest rungs of the ladder because they leave to raise a family.

So companies such as Boots and Midland Bank are introducing schemes which allow certain ‘career’ women to take a long (up to five years) leave of absence to have children.

Other companies, such as Littlewoods, are dropping their requirement that managers should be willing to move all over the country, in order to keep women managers with children. Marks and Spencers have gone a step further by introducing enhanced maternity leave for senior managers. As Incomes Data Services (who carried out a survey into this area) [40] said: ‘In several of the companies we looked at, the number of women in [junior] management positions has been going up for many years, but many had left – to bring up a family – before they had broken into senior management. The companies have adopted new policies to reduce what was also a problem for them: losing able employees who had considerable training and experience which had not yet been fully utilised.’

The reason behind the actions of these companies has nothing to do with a commitment to sex equality or a feeling of philanthropy towards its senior managers. It is purely a device to ensure the maximum return on training costs of this group.

But it certainly does benefit the individual women who find themselves in this position. Its objective effect is to further widen the gap between working-class and professional women’s experience of combining work with child-rearing.

Amongst this layer of privileged women doing managerial jobs, long periods of well-paid maternity leave are becoming more and more common. At the same time the notion that having a child means a complete break from the previous type of employment (the deskilling process we have seen hitting working-class women) is disappearing. Many large companies ask these women managers to undertake training programmes or special projects for the company while they are on maternity leave. Boots even allows its women managers to keep their company cars while on maternity leave.

Needless to say, the women in this situation are an elite and privileged minority. For most working women the fact that they leave work to have children is used to ensure a steady supply of labour to do routine, low-paid work. This is especially true in the white-collar sector. Employers of large numbers of women still rely on the fact that they are unlikely to have continuous service with a company to keep them in the lowest-paid jobs.

In areas where progress up a job hierarchy is regarded as normal for male employees, such as banks or insurance companies, the fact that women’s work patterns are disturbed by child-rearing is used to ensure that the pool of low-paid workers at the bottom of the hierarchy is kept topped up. [41]

Job hierarchies have several important functions for employers. They do not exist just to select and train senior managers. They also play a very important role as a mechanism for controlling workers.

Very few workers on the steps up the hierarchy have any real power over other workers or even their own work. (One study estimates that 71 per cent of those described as on managerial grades actually wield no managerial power.) But the very existence of such hierarchies buys ‘loyalty’ to the company, as promotion is seen as the main way of improving wages and conditions. Hierarchies also act as a means to fill routine clerical posts in a way which can minimise the likelihood of the workers engaging in class struggle. For in many institutions routine jobs are seen as a starting point to something better, not as an end in themselves. Banks are probably the best example of this. It has been traditional for all bank employees to start on basic clerical grades. Workers are then expected to proceed up the job hierarchy. How fast they do so is, of course, dependent upon management discretion. Thus management gains a means of controlling the workforce.

It also gains the advantage of keeping experienced workers in the organisation. It is at this point that gender becomes important. Because women break off from work to have children they are robbed of the chance to climb this hierarchy. Therefore they are far more likely to remain stuck at the lowest levels of clerical work. Many employ young women in the expectation that they will leave to have children. (The bank in Compton’s study, for example, only employs 5 per cent of women over 40 – mostly on secretarial grades.) Those organisations that do employ women who are returning to work after having children again do so to fill routine clerical positions. Indeed, in many organisations these women are favoured as employees, as they are seen as steady and reliable and likely to stay with the company.

The fact that there is this pool of low-paid routine clerical workers enables many organisations to sustain at least some promotion for male employees – the existence of women in the workforce enables the bosses to create the sort of hierarchy which can lessen the chances of industrial struggle amongst the male workforce. In short, because women get stuck in the routine tasks men can be convinced that the best way to gain advancement is through promotion rather than through workplace organisation.

Studies of large white-collar workplaces show that only half as many women even expect to get promoted as men (somewhat fewer than this actually achieve promotion). Young women who do want a career find themselves being forced to choose between staying in a company and therefore keeping on the ladder, or leaving to have children. Not surprisingly, then, far fewer married women in their 20s express interest in promotion than do unmarried teenagers.

The life pattern of women’s employment provides numerous benefits for the organisations in which they work. Women are both a source of cheap labour and an important factor in lessening the likelihood of workplace organisation amongst men.

However there are some signs that this pattern is being undermined. For in many areas of white-collar work, banking, insurance and accountancy in particular, formal examinations have come to play a much more important role in guaranteeing promotion. This means that young women can make a rational decision to delay having children until they have qualifications and then return to work at a later date, without having to slip back down to the lowest grade jobs.

Whether or not this is the case, we can safely say that there is no sign that the recession is forcing women back into the home, although there are some signs that the number of full-time skilled jobs is falling.

Certainly we will see some shifts and changes in the pattern of women’s employment, but these should not obscure the fact that deep structural change in the advanced industrial economies has wrought a permanent change to working-class women’s lives in terms of their opportunities for employment.

At the root of this structural change has been the shift away from heavy manufacturing industry to light manufacturing and such things as banking, insurance and sales.

Capitalism used women as a cheap, readily-available source of labour to fill these jobs. Many were well adapted to part-time hours, which had the added advantage for capitalism that it could exploit women without having to provide an expensive infrastructure to care for their children.

As women became a permanent part of the workforce, ideas which they and their husbands had held when women were full-time housewives no longer fitted the reality of their lives.

All the evidence shows that women’s attitudes are substantially altered by whether or not they work. The housewife is far more likely to believe that a woman’s place is in the home than a woman worker. Women workers are less likely to accept that in times of economic crisis women should give up their jobs. They are more likely to believe that housework should be shared.

But men are also less likely to hold reactionary attitudes about a woman’s place when their wives work. Many old ideas have been undermined because they no longer fit the reality of working people’s lives.

Capitalism pulled women into the workforce for its own ends. But in doing so it has begun a trend which undermined social structures and ideologies which have long been used to divide and weaken the working class. A more perfect illustration of Marx’s old adage ‘capitalism creates its own gravedigger’ could hardly be found.

* * *


1. Equal Opportunities Commission, Annual Report, HMSO, London 1985.

2. Ibid..

3. K. Millett, Sexual Politics, London 1972, p. 41.

4. B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Harmondsworth 1965.

5. See, for example, C. Harman, Philosophy and Revolution, International Socialism 21, Autumn 1983, pp. 58ff.

6. Any edition of Marxism Today will illustrate the point perfectly.

7. B. Campbell and A. Coote, Sweet Freedom, London 1982.

8. See, for example, Tricia Davies, Marxism Today, 1983, who says, ‘A radical and immediate way for women to cut through the tensions created by their two roles was for men to take their share ... of responsibility for domestic labour.’

9. A. Oakley, Housewife, Harmondworth 1975, p. 65.

10. Ibid., p. 73.

11. The number of one-parent families has doubled in the last 20 years (see Social Trends, London 1985, p. 35).

12. A. Phillips, Hidden Hands, Pluto 1983.

13. Rimmer and Popay, Employment Gazette, June 1982.

14. 49% of lone mothers receive supplementary benefit (J. Martin and C. Roberts, Women and Employment: A Lifetime Perspective, Department of Employment Office of Population Densities and Surveys, 1984). Martin and Roberts’ study is the most extensive carried out on women and employment in the last 20 years. It has the advantage of a large (5,588) number of women interviewed – in contrast to much feminist research. It also attempts to take account of the changes in women’s employment prospects at different stages of their lives. In this it is a marked advance over many previous government surveys which tend to treat women’s employment as fitting into similar patterns as male employment.

15. Housewives say they spend 76.6 hours a week on ‘essential activities’, defined as ‘essential domestic and personal care including cooking, essential shopping, childcare, eating meals, washing and getting up and going to bed.’ By contrast full-time women workers spend only 45.1 hours a week on such activities (Social Trends, 1985, Table 10.1, p. 159).

16. The task most equally shared is shopping. 39% of married couples say they share this equally (Social Trends, 1985, Table 2.12, p. 36).

17. C. Martin and J. Roberts, Table 8.7, p. 101.

18. Ibid., Table 8.9, p. 102.

19. Social Trends, 1985, Table 10.1, p. 159.

20. Ibid., Table 4.15, p. 69.

21. Ibid., Table 4.15, p. 69.

22. Ibid., Table 5.4, p. 79.

23. Ibid., Table 10.1, p. 159.

24. B. Campbell, Wigan Pier Revisited, London 1984, p. 137.

25. Equal Opportunities Commission, Annual Report, 1985.

26. B. Martin and J. Roberts, Table 2.5, p. 13.

27. 38% of women with a child under four who work part-time do evening work. But only 7% of part-time workers who have no children under 16 do evening work (C. Martin and J. Roberts, Table 4.8, p. 37).

28. Compared with 1966, maintained day nursery places have nearly doubled. But the number of places in registered nurseries and playgroups has risen nearly five-fold. The rise in places with registered child-minders is even higher (Social Trends, 1985, Table 3.1, p. 45).

29. Equal Opportunities Commission, Annual Report.

30. Ibid.

31. The proportion of women in paid work has remained stable since 1979.

32. C. Martin and J. Roberts, Figure 9.4, p. 122.

33. Ibid., Figure 4.8, p. 37.

34. Martin and Roberts’ research shows that ‘informal’ arrangements – other family members, friends, neighbours, etc – are used even more for school-age children than for pre-school children.

35. 57% of all working women rely on their husbands for help with childcare. 10% rely on older siblings, 9% on friends and neighbours. Only 9% mention council-run facilities, and only 2% employer-run facilities (C. Martin and J. Roberts, Table 4.10, p. 39).

36. Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism, New York 1974, pp. 299ff.

37. Female non-manual full-time workers earn on average 30p more an hour than their part-time counterparts. For female manual workers, the difference is 20p (C. Martin and J. Roberts, Table 5.4, p. 44).

38. Employment Gazette figures.

39. Ibid..

40. Incomes Data Services Study 340, June 1985.

41. See Rosemary Compton, The White-Collar Proletariat.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 19 May 2020