Feminism, class analysis and the aunties

I first read Sheila Rowbotham’s Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World as a young teenager. It made perfect sense. Women were oppressed and exploited, thanks to their role in reproducing humans. Capitalism had two greedy needs of women: give birth to and rear future workers; take care of existing workers, be they husbands, fathers, brothers, lodgers or complete strangers.

My limited understanding stemmed partly from my two aunts, both named Mary. Bad ‘Bopa Mary’ had me doing housework, while my boy cousin climbed trees. She was ‘training’ me, she claimed – presumably for a life of gender-stereotyped drudgery. She said: “The man is the breadwinner.” Good ‘Auntie Mary Walsh’ was single, child-free, employed, and told me: “A woman’s place is in her union.”

It wasn’t difficult to grasp a classic definition of class, the divisions between those who owned the means of production, and those who sold their labour. I was brought up in a mining valley, where there had been coal masters in big houses, miners down the pits. The big houses had servants, including working class girls and women. The ladies of the manor were serving too, providing heirs, and ensuring home comforts for their menfolk.

In the 1970s there was brief talk of a trade union of housewives, heralding suggestions about wages for housework. Again, this made sense. Far from a labour of love, this work was vital to the economy; it was integral to capitalism. The concept received little but derision in the British media, and I noted for the first time that journalists might have their finger on the pulse – there seemed to be no public thirst for a debate on women’s sex-based oppression.

There were discussions about equal pay, though, with legislation in 1970 triggered by the sewing machinists’ strike at Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1968. That was a catalyst for change in our South Wales community, too. The good Auntie Mary was a union rep at a furniture factory, where the similarities between female machinists and the Ford fighters were irresistible. Equal pay, all round!

Capitalists, or the bourgeoisie as Marxists would say, are wily when it comes to protecting their interests. The Equal Pay Act was followed by hoards of employers offering women only part-time work. Contracts of service often became contracts for services, by the sleight of hand which reminds us that class struggle is invariably down to a conflict of interests. Owners don’t really earn money; they acquire it through the labour of the working class.

In current times, class struggle has become depressingly evident, as our society has managed a double whammy – recognising that keyworkers are the ones in those vital caring roles, whilst at the same time denying them a decent wage. True, there are male victims here too, but historically it’s women who have been treated poorly. After all, if your biological destiny would have you nursing, cleaning, cooking and sewing, then even when that is paid work, it’ll be regarded as less significant.

Sometimes, you need Engels, to help make sense of it all. Feminists – even the Marxist or radical kind – don’t necessarily agree on why the female sex is subjugated. Engels claimed this was based on the transformation of their socially necessary labour into a private service for the husband, and that came about through the separation of the family from the clan.

The nuclear family unit, he reckoned, emerged only with capitalism. It sustains the wealthy in hoarding their wealth, and passing it down to their children. It also has a hierarchy, with the kids submitting to the authority of their parents. (Well, in theory.) It teaches future workers to submit to those on whom they depend for their income.

I think he had a point. But then, I was mentored by the good Auntie Mary.