The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
25 Years After the Women's Liberation Movement

Aug 17, 1996

It is now a quarter century since the modern women's liberation movement burst on the political scene in this country. The modern women's movement often dates itself from August 26, 1970, the date of the Women's Strike for Equality. Of course, women had already been active in the years before 1970, but the movement really seemed to take off after the Women's Strike for Equality. This was a series of national demonstration, marches, teach-ins and picketing called for by women's organization to demand equal employment, educational opportunities, abortion rights, and child care. The response was much greater than either the media or the organizers had anticipated. Many thousands of women took part including housewives, secretaries, mothers, grandmothers, and students. In its wake thousands of women poured into feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). This development came amidst the social movements that were shaking the country, the black movement and the struggles against the war in Vietnam. Further, what made these ideas particularly gripping to millions of women was that they corresponded to their changed situation, which resulted from developments in capitalist society that had been going on for decades.

The Ideology of Subordination and the Reality of Life for Women

The women's liberation movement was a reaction against the situation women faced in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1950s the dominant ideas in U.S. society with respect to women were that they belonged in the home, as full-time housewives, responsible for the raising of children and maintaining a comfortable shelter for their husbands. A woman who worked was said to put her own selfish interests before those of her family. Women were to be subordinated to their husbands; they were reminded that their marriage vow was to obey. Divorce was something to be ashamed of and avoided if at all possible. Topics like birth control and abortion were taboo. The media, the schools and the churches all put forth these ideas as if this were the naturally determined, eternal position of women.

This ideology had flourished for centuries, but it was refurbished for particular reasons in the 1950s. During World War II, eight million men had been drafted and sent overseas to fight. Women were needed in massive numbers in the work force, including in heavy industry. A particular pro-work propaganda flourished to get women into production, symbolized by Rosie the Riveter, who built ships or airplanes. But with victory, women were often forced to leave heavy industry to make room for all the men who returned from overseas. Hence the development of a propaganda designed to get women to accept the return to home.

From the Home to the Job

Already in the 1950s this ideological campaign was running counter to long term trends in society. The most important development changing the lives of women had been their movement into paid work outside the home. The proportion of women working for wages had risen decade by decade since the 1870s. The capitalists had a need to expand the work force, and women were especially desirable workers. Given the position of women in society, the capitalists could pay them less than men, lowering labor costs, especially because women's lower wages can exert pressure to lower the wages of men. Not even the Great Depression diminished the employment of women, as hunger forced them to take office and service jobs that were hit less hard than the jobs their husbands lost in industry. This trend to these new emerging sectors continued, even as women were pushed out of heavy industry at the end of World War II.

By 1950 36% of all women were working, a higher percent than a decade before. By 1960 it was 42%. For women of all social classes, this movement into paid work changed their social circumstances in numerous ways. On the one hand, it opened up new possibilities. In the previous decades, women of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie might have joined their husband in the shop or business, but now they were often college- educated and increasingly pursuing independent careers as professionals or clerical workers. Many working-class women were working either part or full-time in a job that gave them an income in addition to that their husbands provided, and which provided them with a world of associations outside the family circle.

On the other hand, working for pay created new problems that they had to deal with. At work they faced a type of discrimination they didn't meet at home. In the family, there might be an affective tie to the husband, despite the domination by their husband that women often endured. The mother could be surrounded by children who looked up to her. At work, women had to deal with a boss who wasn't a relative, and with various situations with male workers, who often treated them as sexual objects. Women received less pay than men did, even for the same work, and had few possibilities to move into better jobs. While as a full time housewife, rearing children was one of her many responsibilities, the woman worker now had the problem of having part of child care provided by others. Housework didn't go away, but became a second shift of unpaid labor to perform after a hard day on the job. This reality of woman's life in the work world clashed with the ideology of the 1950s that a woman's place was in the home.

The Second Shift

For both the full-time housewife and the working woman who was a housewife on her second shift, life in the 1950s was considerably changed from that of her grandmother and mother before her. Her grandmother most likely had prepared food from raw products. The introduction of prepared foods, first canning and eventually freezing, simplified women's work. At the beginning of the century, most clothes had been completely made by the housewife. Over the decades, working-class families increasingly bought ready-made clothes. Not too many decades ago, women had cooked over a wood or coal stove, bringing in water in pails from outdoors. The introduction of gas and electric stoves, refrigerators and hot and cold running water, greatly lessened the burden of housework. By the 1950s, appliances like washers and dryers and vacuum cleaners spread to working-class families.

All of this meant that women were freer to go to work – despite the propaganda – and in turn, the fact that women worked gave a spur to more developments of machines to aid household work.

The movement of women into paid work, and the increased independence that came with the added income and with being outside the family among other people, had strengthened their ability to stand up to an oppressive situation at home, or even to leave it. In the decades before women worked for wages, there had been almost no escape for the woman who found her marriage intolerable. Almost all the family income had come from the wages of the husband. In the event of divorce, women had limited possibilities of supporting themselves or their children. But the more that women entered the work force, the more divorce became an issue. In fact, divorce gradually became easier to obtain, even if it was ordinarily necessary to prove some kind of grounds for the divorce, and to go through a long waiting period.

All of this reinforced the tendency of a lowered birth rate. Even if the average number of children per married woman increased to three during the '50s, nonetheless, overall family size was down. By the 1950s birth control was widely used, as women wanted to control the number and spacing of their children. Nonetheless, there were still laws on the books restricting it in various states. And the methods remained somewhat unreliable until the development of the pill in 1960 and effective spermicides right after.

On the eve of the modern women's movement, abortion laws were already liberalized in some states to permit hospital abortions to safeguard the mental health of the mother. Nevertheless, the generalized absence of safe, legal abortion was a very serious problem affecting women. Since the second half of the 19th century, abortion had been illegal outside hospitals, which were mainly used by the middle and upper class. Therapeutic abortions in hospitals were legal but ordinarily only to save the life of the woman. Since about one child birth in a hundred ended with the death of the mother, and women had many children, the chance of dying or being injured for life was quite real. Nonetheless, abortion for most women meant engaging in an illegal act, as well as one that might also mean their death, severe injury, or involuntary sterilization. In the 1950s and 60s the pharmaceutical industry developed antibiotics which brought a very sharp reduction in maternal deaths. But this carried its negative side also, in that therapeutic abortions in hospitals, which doctors had performed and justified in terms of saving the life of the mother, now became more difficult to get.

The Women's Movement of the 1970s

The social movements of the 1960s provided the new ideas and experiences that were the immediate spur to the women's movement. First the black movement and then the movement against the war in Viet Nam involved millions of people in the streets. The movements extended from black urban uprisings to prisoners' rebellions, to resistance in the armed forces, and the organization of seemingly unorganizable people such as farm workers. Changes that had been resisted for decades were suddenly enacted: the elimination of Jim Crow, the extension of the minimum wage to many more workers, Medicare and the modern welfare system. It seemed possible to change society, since very rapidly, backward institutions that had been built up over decades were being swept away.

Some of the initial women's movement activists were direct participants in these movements. Women were more involved in the movements of the 1960s than had been the case in the 1930s. The rise of mass college education for women as well as men gave them the freedom to take part, especially in the anti-war and student movements. Some of the women began to apply the ideas of the black movement to their own situation as women. They saw that they too suffered systematic discrimination. They saw that there was nothing in the nature of women that made them fit only to be full-time housewives. Women needed control over their bodies, and needed the right to take a full part in every aspect of society. Many women felt that the idea of the black power movement that black people needed to run their own organizations and to develop their own self-confidence and pride applied to them.

In the early 1970s the ideas of women's liberation were very widely discussed through the society. There were rallies, demonstrations, and various protests. The media gave considerable coverage to the issues. Given the general social climate, and the impact of the various movements, ideas changed quickly. It was reflected even in the language. Up to that point women of all ages were frequently called girls. Now there was a demand for the word "women" to indicate that they were adults and not children. The words sexism and Ms quickly entered the vocabulary. As a result of the various struggles carried out by the activist women, tens of millions of women began to see themselves in a new way. Many working-class women would say, "I'm no women's libber, but ..." , and many millions of men came up against these changed expectations.

Victories of the Women's Movement

Perhaps the one issue that the most women organized around was the right to abortion. Even with the development of the pill and modern contraceptives, women continued to have unwanted pregnancies. Those women who did not feel able to have the child had either to be wealthy and connected enough to get a legal hospital abortion, or they had to turn to illegal abortions. The women's liberationists demanded control over their own bodies, over the choice whether or not to have a child. Campaigns began around the country to make abortion fully legal, to remove all government restrictions on it. The struggle involved considerable numbers of women, and it continued for several years, with massive demonstrations, and wide ranging activities. It was under this pressure that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1973 Roe V. Wade decision legalizing abortion, a major victory for the rights of women.

The women's movement demanded a number of laws to eliminate discrimination in the law and society. The politicians in the Congress responded to the new movement by passing a whole series of bills, most of which had been introduced decades before with no action. As New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug said in 1972, "We put sex discrimination provisions into everything. There was no opposition. Who'd be against equal rights for women? So we just kept passing women's rights legislation." When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the conservatives had inserted protection for women against discrimination in an attempt to stop the bill from passing. The new women's movement began to use appeals to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to protest discrimination against women. Many corporations thought they could just continue business in the same old manner, but under the pressure of demonstrations and suits by women, the government intervened to impose on the capitalists what it saw as in their long term interests. Consent decrees were agreed to by large employers like AT&T, which changed the employment practices affecting tens of thousands of women. At that time the social movements of the 1960s were reaping their rewards after earlier years of resistance and even repression. The political climate made the changes women's liberation demanded seem to come easily, as can be seen in the 1972 political conventions of both parties, which adopted planks calling for anti-discrimination legislation, the end of tax inequalities, the extension of the Equal Pay Act and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The women's liberation movement had big victories in terms of the law. Even so, the tide was turning. For decades the feminist movement had submitted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. It read, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States nor by any State on the account of sex". The new movement of the 1970s quickly forced the Congress to pass it and send it on to the states. Even while the women's movement made ratification a major priority, various social movements were beginning to disperse. By 1982, when there was no longer the same level of mobilization and struggle, the Amendment failed three states short. The defeat of the ERA meant that a simple statement of equality of rights for women could not be ratified. It was a testimony to the continued hold of reactionary ideas in this society.

The victories obtained by the women's movement benefitted all women. Working class and poor women benefited from the legalization of abortion even more than middle class and rich women, who after all could afford safe abortions previously. The opening of all kinds of jobs that had traditionally been closed to women benefited those women who were willing to be the pioneers in new fields, whether middle class women moving into professions such as medicine and law, or working-class women entering construction and other skilled trades jobs.

A Middle Class Movement

While the women's movement benefited women of all classes, it was nevertheless the case that most of the activists who took part in the women's liberation movement were middle class, and that their goals were definitely middle class. This included the students who were prominent in its ranks, but also professional women and housewives from the middle class. Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, an early manifesto of the movement, was quite self-consciously middle class, and called for women servants to relieve the labor of the middle-class housewife who would be freed to enter public life.

The middle-class character of the movement can be seen clearly in the case of protective legislation. In the U.S., as in all the industrial counties, the labor and socialist movements had fought for legislation to protect women and children from the new industrialization. For example, women's hours of work were restricted, as well as night work. Breaks were required as well as sanitary washrooms. When women demanded equality with men, bourgeois politicians and the courts used this to repeal protective legislation.

The professional and managerial women in organizations like NOW had a special hatred for protective legislation, because it blocked their progress up the corporate ladder. The male executives at the top of the corporations in which they hoped to improve their positions demanded that their managers and professionals work at a salary without overtime pay. Since such work by women would be in violation of protective legislation laws, women were effectively denied access to the upper management positions. Therefore, the petty-bourgeois activists in NOW and other feminist organizations actually campaigned vigorously to repeal protective legislation. They had the nerve to speak for all women, saying that this protective legislation kept women out of heavy work. They had no idea of what it meant to take the seat out from the woman on the assembly line instead of requiring a seat for the male worker next to her, or requiring proletarian women to lift heavy weights, rather than extending mechanical assistance to all workers required to do this type of work.

Obviously, the demand to end protective legislation was one the bourgeoisie was ready to grant.

The program of the women's movement was rapidly passed, both because it was stripping away dead institutions that stood in the way of social changes that had been developing for decades, and because it didn't challenge the capitalist order. Full legal equality for women is simply the consistent fulfillment of the promise of bourgeois democratic rights. But it leaves in existence social inequality. The oppression of women still exists in this society, since it is built into the structure of capitalist society.

Women Still Socially Unequal

There has been an explosion of women hired into the labor force in the two and half decades since the emergence of the modern women's movement: since 1970, 28 million women were hired out of the 47 million new employees added, or 60% of all new hires. This trend had already been underway, but it speeded up. Women make up 46% of all employed workers, and most of them are part of the working class. Three-quarters of all working women work full time hours, but the capitalists have found particular use for the other quarter of working women who work part time. Women make up two-thirds of all part-time workers. Today 58% of women with children under age three work.

The capitalists had a particular reason for wanting to rapidly expand the number of women workers. The years right after the emergence of the women's movement were those of recession and the beginning of the economic slowdown that has lasted until today. One response of the capitalists to the crisis was to use lower- cost female labor. Real wages of men declined from 1973 to 1991 by $1.49 per hour or 11.7%. In order to prop up their families' income, married women were drawn into the workforce. Their real wages in those years actually went up by 51 cents or 6.2%. Nonetheless, overall, hourly wages of non-supervisory workers declined by $1.23 an hour or 10.2%, so the capitalists found the increase of lower-paid women's labor highly profitable.

The benefits from the entry of millions of women into the work force were felt differently by women, depending on which was their social class. Petty-bourgeois and bourgeois women gained the most from the opening up of jobs where there had previously been few or no women. Of course the general position of the petty bourgeoisie and especially the bourgeoisie has improved, while the condition of the working class has deteriorated over these years. Petty-bourgeois women thus enjoyed the increased prosperity of their classes. Higher education has been opened up to them, with women making up 53% of the graduates with a Bachelor's degree. Women are now 49% of managers and 53% of professionals. They are 33% of graduating doctors, 26% of dentists and 40% of lawyers. Increasingly petty-bourgeois women have been elected to public office at the local, state and national levels. Some filled the positions left by their husbands, but others were elected on their own right. Of course, discrimination, even against petty-bourgeois women, has not ended. These women speak of the "glass ceiling" that keeps them out of higher jobs.

Working-class women have seen a much smaller change in their employment position, even if many more are working. Most work today in sex-segregated, low paying jobs. Today half the women are in 57 occupations which are 87% female and employ only 6.7% of all men. Women are 99% of the secretaries, 79% of cashiers, 92% of the bookkeepers and accounting clerks, 93% of the registered nurses, 89% of the nurses' aides, and 82% of the waiters and waitresses. At the other extreme, 60% of all males are in 130 occupations that are on average 88% male and employ only 9% of all women. In general, very few women work in situations where they work side by side with men, or in positions over men. This segregation of work maintains a subordinate position for women, along with lower wages.

The Double Oppression

On the job, women still face open discrimination because of their sex in terms of pay, job security and access to promotions. There is the further problem of sexual harassment. The law may make all this discrimination formally illegal, but it exists. The woman worker continues to have a double oppression: she is exploited just like male workers, and has the added burden of the discrimination she faces as a woman.

Since 1970 there have been important changes in the hours worked by women and men. A study by Juliet Schor of Harvard showed that from 1969 to 1987, the average woman with a full-time job worked an additional 305 hours on the job but cut back by 145 hours on housework, so her net increase was 160 hours a year. Men's hours increased the same amount, with 60% of the additional hours spent on the job and 40% taken up by housework not done by their wives. The result was that the husband and wife each put in an entire month's worth of additional work to stay the same place they were a decade and a half before. The feminist idea that women should expand their hours of paid labor as a way to their liberation wound up in capitalist society meaning a substantial increase in the hours of both women and men with no increase in their standard of living.

The ideas of the women's movement no doubt made it easier for women to demand that their husbands share in housework, and women's involvement in paid work made it an increasing necessity. Nevertheless, women continue to do most of the labor in the home. The women's movement raised the demand for comprehensive child care, which remains a very big problem, especially for women who work full time. This was one of the demands of the women's movement that couldn't be met simply by passing a law or issuing a Supreme Court decision. Someone would have to pay for it, and the question was who. In recent years the capitalists have demanded from the state that it cut back on social expenditures, and not initiate new ones. The result is that women are still responsible for most of the child care done in the home or for relatives, while a considerable portion of women's earnings goes to pay someone else to care for their children. The capitalists continue to rely mainly on women to raise the next generation of workers. At a time when more and more women are working for wages, they have less time to help raise children, with all the attendant social problems that result from the unmet needs of the children.

The decades since the rise of the women's movement have seen the increase in a specially oppressed group of women, those who head families with children, who now make up 18% of all families. The median income in 1993 of families with a full-time housewife was $30,218, of families where the woman worked $51,204, and of female-headed families $17,433, so the latter remain far behind their married counterparts. Of the seven million women raising children alone, 63% received welfare in 1992. Now with the end of "welfare as we've known it", these women will be flung deeper into poverty. Of those not receiving welfare, many are without health or pension coverage. A third of all female-headed families live under the poverty level. Female-headed families face a special form of discrimination. A 1980 survey showed that 25% of all landlords barred them from apartments, and 40% had partial restrictions on the number and age of their children. Some women suffer sexual harassment from landlords in order to obtain an apartment.

The Full Liberation of Women Requires the Liberation from Capitalism

The social changes brought about by capitalism have moved substantial numbers of working-class women into paid work, but this in itself doesn't lead to their full liberation. The capitalists secure a substantial surplus profit from the oppression of women workers, and the lower wages of women have enabled them to lower the wages of men workers, and their labor costs overall. Further the capitalists rely on the unpaid labor of women in the home to help raise the next generation of workers. All this means that the full fight for the liberation of women comes up squarely against the interests of the capitalists.

For women to be truly free, there have to be drastic changes in the raising of children and doing housework, and this in turn will contribute to changing the relations between men and women. All this will require a profound social upheaval, in which the female half of the working class will play a major role. A hint of some of the possibilities that now exist which could help free up women from their burdens can be seen from developments within capitalist society itself. With the millions of women who went to work there came an explosion of fast-food and other restaurants. Already between a third and a half of all meals are eaten out of the house. Families could have the option to eat quality meals together with other people, with the food prepared by socialized labor, or to cook for themselves if they wish. In some countries there are systems of day care connected with where people live or work. The bourgeoisie and a part of the petty bourgeoisie already have their houses cleaned and laundry done by paid labor, with capitalist businesses such as Merry Maids replacing individual servants. Much of the burden of housework could be run in a socialized function, leaving parents leisure to spend with their children that isn't mixed with drudgery.

The last period of social movements, coming on top of decades of change in women's position in society, gave rise to a women's liberation movement that opened up for the whole society the question of the subordination of women. The combativity of the movement has subsided, but the idea of women's liberation has not gone away. The rise of the next social movements, particularly involving the working class, will again put on the agenda the complete liberation of women. A complete social transformation and the end of capitalism are needed for their full emancipation.