Mar 15, 2021
In this year of pandemic, millions have suffered all kinds of loss. An estimated five million women left the U.S. work force, a number much higher than the number of men leaving.
Most women work in the public sector, in areas most exposed to the pandemic, like school and health care systems, or in service industries, in restaurants, hotels, bars, and the travel industry.
And in these kinds of jobs, women usually have the lower paid ones. There are more home health aides than doctors, more teachers’ aides than principals, more servers than owners of restaurants.
These jobs also tend to be part-time, without benefits. Fifty years after wage discrimination was supposedly made illegal, women still only make 80 cents to every dollar men make. And half of women working full time today earn $11 an hour or less, a poverty-level wage, making it hard to keep food on the table.
Women face three kinds of exploitation. First, when women work, they are almost always working for lower pay and fewer benefits than men doing similar jobs. Second, women do an enormous amount of the unpaid labor needed to raise children and keep a home going. Women report 30 or more hours per week on cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare, and of course love and support. Men report 20 hours per week on similar tasks.
And finally, in the midst of this pandemic, many women are trying to help their children learn at home, acting as teachers because so many children are unable to accomplish online learning without an adult present.
For centuries women have been treated as inferior to men by class society. Some religious teachings even insist on this inferiority. For centuries laws have been written by men to keep wealth within families by making women and children the property of men, with English common law a well-known example.
Said the famous abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe after the Civil War, “... the position of a married woman ... is similar to that of the Negro slave. She can hold no contract and hold no property ... in English common law a married woman is nothing at all.”
Susan B. Anthony, also famed as a suffragist, staged one of her first protests when she had to find work. She discovered that women teachers were paid half of what male teachers were paid in the state of New York!
It took decades of struggle for women to gain changes in the laws, to keep their own property when married, to control their own wages when they worked. And up to the 1960s, U.S. laws made it almost impossible to obtain a divorce. A woman who divorced risked separation from her children. Men did not have to support their former wives or children until recent decades.
When manufacturing and capitalism developed, first in England, capitalists were pleased to have women workers, in order to pay them less than men workers. The wool and cloth trade was among the first industries to enrich capitalists in England. Men were hired to work the new steam-powered looms by the middle of the 1800s, and women and children were brought in to the factories to do other, lower-paid labor.
The development of capitalism in the U.S. was first based on the wealth gained through slave labor, a system which not only oppressed the slaves, but also kept down the wages of white workers as well. As the U.S. expanded and developed after the Civil War, immigrants flooded in, enabling capitalists to keep down all wages and to keep workers from organizing against their extremely bad working conditions.
The First World War caused the deaths of perhaps ten million soldiers and 20 million more were wounded. The shortage of workers across Europe caused an influx of women into the workplaces. The same occurred following WWII, when women remained in the workforce, in the face of U.S. state propaganda pushing women to stay home and raise children. At that point, a third of women had entered the U.S. work force. In 2020, the figure had reached 55 to 60% of women in the work force.
In the late 19th century, when factories were getting up and running, 76 million were in the U.S. work force, of which one in five, or 20%, were women. For poorer women, it was more than one in three who had to go out to work, at wages usually half those of men.
Socialists had written years earlier that women would not be free until they earned their own wages, so that they could leave abusive situations. August Bebel, a leader of the German socialists, in his 1869 book Woman under Socialism pointed out: “There can be no emancipation of humanity without the social independence of the sexes.”
In this society of dog-eat-dog capitalism, every step forward for social justice has taken decades of struggle. Decades to end slavery, decades to allow all men and women to vote, and more decades of struggle over livable wages and women’s rights to control their own bodies. Every bit of legislation passed in favor of such rights was fought against by those in control, those who obtain their millions (and now billions) off the labor of others, and fought against by those elected, who represent the interests of capitalism while pretending they govern for the benefit of all.
Certainly the exploitation of the majority rests on a foundation of unpaid labor by women to raise the future generations. If this unpaid labor were rewarded, women could play a different role in society. But such changes will happen only when the capitalist system is upended once and for all by the working class and replaced with a communist society.