Women’s Work Study Group, “Loom, Broom and Womb: Producers, Maintainers and Reproducers”
“Loom, Broom and Womb: Producers, Maintainers and Reproducers”
Women’s Work Study Group
Radical America Volume 10, Number 2 [March-April 1976]
HISTORY: WOMEN’S WORK AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM
Women’s work and the development of American capitalism can
be examined in three historical phases: the pre-capitalist phase
prior to 1820; the phase of competitive capitalism between 1820
and 1890; and the monopoly capitalist phase from 1890 to the present.
In this section each period is briefly described in terms of the
organization of production and the implications of the organization
of production for the lives of women.
THE PRE-CAPITALIST PHASE
The pre-capitalist period in North America is dominated by agricultural
production: in the northern colonies by small-scale
family farming, and in the southern colonies by large-scale plan-
tation production. In small-scale agriculture, the family household
was the unit of production. It was engaged in producing simple
commodities for both home consumption and sale (the extent of
which depended upon access to markets), but can be characterized
as generally self-sufficient. While there was a sexual division of
labor, with men predominating in agriculture and women in domestic
manufacture, flexibility existed. Women took charge of vegetable
gardens and dairies and assisted in the harvest, while men assumed
responsibility for the manufacture of heavier farm tools.
When a household began to produce a particular item for the purpose
of exchange, the husband usually took over, becoming the
master craftsperson, while the wife continued to produce articles
immediately consumed by the family. The wife would often, however,
expand her responsibilities to include selling the product the
family produced. On her husband’s death, the wife would often assume
the pOSition of master craftsperson. Thus, while there was
a general division of labor, sexual hierarchy was not pronounced.
Instead, society was stratified according to wealth. Women who
owned land (usually widows of wealthy men) could and did participate
in prestigious occupations, exercise power in the community,
In contrast to small-scale family farming was the plantation unit
based on slave labor. Like women on the family farm, slave women
both reproduced and maintained labor power for the plantation
economy. Slave women, however, also had their labor expropriated
for agricultural production on the plantation. Slave women were
exploited as labor in the fields along with male slaves. Additionally,
female slaves had their reproductive capacities expropriated
to the extent that women were urged to reproduce a new generation
of slave laborers which could be worked or sold at will by plantation
owners. The exploitation of the productive and reproductive
power of slave women is one distinguishing feature of the plantation
system. It prefigures the double exploitation of all women
(as wage laborers and household workers) with the development of
capitalism in a later period.
THE COMPETITIVE CAPITALIST PHASE, 1820-1920
For women, the most important change which occurred with the
transition to a capitalist organization of production was the separation
of home and workplace. It is important to note that this separation
had already occurred for slave women in the context of the
plantation. In the pre-capitalist era, production was carried on
either in the home or on land surrounding the home. With the advent
of factory manufacture, the production of commodities began
to shift outside the home. One of the most important aspects of the
growth of manufacturing is the creation of a class of people who
sold their labor power.
In North America, the first group of people to sell their labor
power for industrial production was single women. Prior to textile
manufacture, a significant way in which single women contributed
to the welfare of their families was by spinning thread and weaving
the thread into cloth. As manufactured cloth became cheaper and
factory jobs became available, young single women took work outside
the home. These women constituted a cheap, available supply
of laborers working for a third to a quarter of the wages of men.
From the 1830’s onward, large waves of European immigrants
came to the U,S. to fill the need for more cheap labor. At first,
immigrant women worked in their homes, taking in boarders and
washing. Sometimes, they worked outside the home as domestics.
Gradually, these women began to take up jobs in factories and
formed the base of women working for wages. Although they were
an important part of the development of militant labor struggles,
women were only around 17% of the wage-labor force in 1890.
It is during this period that an ideology to disguise the reality of
women’s position in the productive system developed. It did this
by defining the household and reproductive work performed by
women in the family as economically unimportant. Although this
reflected the fact that important productive functi.ons no longer
took place in the family, even necessary reproduction of the labor
force which took place there was no longer valued. Additionally,
the role of women was being defined as properly limited to the
family, although women were serving as a source of cheap labor
for the capitalists. This is the origin of a doubly oppressive ideology
for proletarian women. Initially, it obscured the role women
play in reproducing and maintaining the labor force. Over time it
also came to obscure their role as wage laborers.
While wealth was becoming more concentrated in a growing capitalist
class, ideology and practice developed which obscured class
differences. Ideology stressed the equality of all white men. The
vote was extended to men regardless of their wealth at the same
time that state after state passed laws prohibiting women, regardless
of their wealth, from voting. By 1837 women could no longer
vote in any state. Working-class men were encouraged to feel that
they had more in common with bourgeois men than they did with
the women of their own class.
THE MONOPOLY CAPITALIST PHASE, 1890 TO THE PRESENT
Monopoly capitalism differs in the logic of its development from
competiti ve capitalism. Many more decisions about the production
and sale of commodities are under the monopolists’ control, e.g.
control of prices, type, and quality of products, etc. In addition,
profit rates are higher With monopolies. These two facts create
one of the contradictions of monopoly capitalism: the need to
maintain high profits by selling more products at a higher price,
while simultaneously cutting production costs by keeping wages
low and thereby curtailing the workers’ capacity to consume what
Monopolists have attempted to suspend this contradiction in two
ways which have had the effect of pushing more women into the
work force. First, monopolists have reorganized their corporations,
developing huge new departments to promote and facilitate
the sale of their products. This has meant a rapid growth in clerical,
sales, transportation, and communications jobs. These jobs
required educated workers who would work for low wages. Women
were an ideal source for this type of labor.
Second is the advertising thrust designed to build expectations
and the desire for more material goods. At the same time, the
socially necessary reproduction costs of workers rose faster than
wages. This meant that families needed an additional wage earner.
Many of the goods which corporations produced were home appliances,
“labor-saving” devices for the home. Although the time required
to care for a house was not decreased by these appliances,
because standards for housework were rising, housewives were
made to feel that their chores could now be done in their spare
time, on weekendS, and in the evenings. Consequently, women were
“freed” to become the second family wage earner.
Labor-force participation-rate figures give an indication of the
importance of these developments in transforming married women,
in particular, into wage laborers. In [890. only 4.5% of all
married women worked for wages. By [970, 40.8% of all married
women were employed. In spite of these changes in women’s participation
in the labor force, women continued to be ideologically
defined in terms of our roles as mothers and housewives. This
ideology helps capital to control the rapidly growing female wagelabor
force, by slowing the development of women’s consciousness
of ourselves as workers.
Describing the contradictory nature of the demands which the
capitalist system places on the household requires an examination
of three characteristics of domestic labor. First, the labor performed
within the family is essential for maintaining the laborer’s
capacity to work. Secondly, the social relations in the household
are different from those in a capitalist workplace. Thirdly, to
understand the specific work done in the home, we must see that
it is related to the capitalist sector.
HOUSEWORK IS VALUABLE AND IMPORTANT
In America today there is a tendency to demean the work women
do in the home. Women feel this lack of status and respond in various
ways. One woman wrote to Abigail Van Buren:
My career is my home and my family, and I’m proud
of it. But for some strange reason, when a housewife is
asked what she does, she very apologetically says, “I’m
ONLY a housewife.” This irritates me no end.
When I am asked what I do, I proudly say, uI’m an
oikologist. .. The word comes from the Greek words
“oikos,” which means house, and “ologist,” which means
one who studies or is an expert in.
Please pass this on for other housewives. Perhaps they
will feel more important as they use it too.
Abby responded in her characteristically sisterly fashion:
I wouldn’t recommend springing that on the average Joe
without defining it. The “oikologist” might be mistaken for
an expert on pigs.
What strange reasons would cause a woman to say, “I’m ONLY
a housewife”? Several characteristics of housework make it frustrating
and unrewarding. (1) There is a large proportion of routine
tasks. (2) The short period which elapses between much of the production
and consumption which follows tends to detract from the
worker’s satisfaction. She feels her labor results in nothing permanent.
For example, a meal is immediately eaten after it is
cooked, although it may have taken all day to make it. (3) The
products of the housewife’s labor don’t go on the market; they receive
no monetary valuation. Since her contribution cannot be
measured quantitatively, she and society as a whole fail to appreciate
the contribution to people’s well-being she actually makes.
(4) Since the housewife earns no money for housework, she is dependent
upon her husband – or the state, in the case of welfare
mothers – for her food, clothing, shelter, and money. (5) While
it is conSidered a “privilege” to live in a single-family ,household,
full-time housewives who spend their time alone or in the company
of small children often feel isolated and lonely.
Other characteristics of housework make it less alienating than
many other jobs. (1) The worker is her own taskmistress and can
rest at desired intervals. She has some control over her work.
(2) The tasks are undertaken to meet the needs of the worker and
her family. (3) The woman is free to exercise her initiative and
judgment and to experiment and seek out the best conditions of
work. (4) Housework is unspecialized and therefore new, and varied
problems are continually being presented.
On balance, the tendency is for society to demean the housewife
and to undervalue her contribution to people’s welfare and to the
reproduction of the capitalist system.
In the capitalist sector, workers are paid a wage sufficient to
cover the costs of maintaining and reproducing their labor power.
This wage must be converted into food, clothing, and shelter, the
use values which allow the worker to go on living and working.
Household work is the essential activity which translates the wage
into these useful goods. We can imagine more direct ways of
transla,ting the wage into useful goods than via domestic labor.
For example, a worker can go to a restaurant and buy a prepared
meal instead of buying raw meats, vegetables, and grains, using
a kitchen, and preparing the food. Housework is obviously not the
only way to reproduce and maintain the labor force under capitalism,
but today much of the reproduction and maintenance work is
in fact done in the household by women.
Household labor differs from wage labor in the following ways:
(1) In housework, no one exercises authority and control over
the woman during the work process. The woman herself decides
which tasks must be done in any given day and sets her own standards
of speed and thoroughness. She is, however, subject to demands
from other people, such as her children and her husband.
But these limitations on the housewife’s control over the work
process are of a very different nature from those faced by a wage
laborer. The wage laborer contracts with the capitalist to spend
a certain number of hours per day at the work place in exchange
for a wage. Historically, the capitalist has taken more and more
control over the work process out of the hands of the workers.
By contrast, housework has not been subjected to these forces.
(2) Housewives are not separated from their means of production
to the extent to which wage laborers are. In a patriarchal
family, legal ownership of the home, care, and other goods may
belong to the husband. But we are interested in economic control,
by which we mean access to the means of production. Housewives
do have control since they can use the family stove to prepare
meals for themselves and their families. The same is not true for
wage laborers. In the capitalist sphere, production is undertaken
only if the capitalist thinks he can make a profit. If he thinks he
cannot make a profit, he will not use his machines, nor will he
allow anyone else to use them, even though people are willing to
work and even though people need the goods which those machines
can help produce.
(3) The housewife works in order to meet her needs and those
of her family. It may appear as if the wife exchanges her household
labor for a share of her husband’s wage, but this is false
since the wife’s standard of living does not depend on how hard she
works. Working harder at housework does not reSUlt in a larger
share of the wage for the housewife. Rather, her standard of living
depends upon her husband’s income and the status of his occupation.
In the capitalist sphere, although whatever is produced must fill
some human need if the capitalist expects to be able to sell it,
the purpose of producing is not to fill human needs but rather to
make profit. For example, capitalist cattle ranchers periodically
destroy thousands of calves. This happens despite record numbers
of people starving, because those ranchers cannot make a profit
in raising the animals. Capitalism is increasingly controlling
household labor by influencing consumption patterns, setting standards
for housework through high-pressure advertising, and psychologizing
about child care.
HOUSEHOLD WORK CAN ONLY BE UNDERSTOOD BY ITS RELATION TO THE CAPITALIST SPHERE
In order to isolate contradictions (sources of change),we must
now examine the interrelationship of the household and capitalist
spheres. We have already described how the development of the
capitalist sector results in a larger and larger proportion of women
who do both housework and wage labor. In analyzing further
interrelationships, we found it helpful to think about the ways in
which the international capitalist system relates to pre-capitalist
economies in colonized countries.
The pre-capitalist colonized economies are comparable to the
household economy in some important respects. (1) In the traditiona
I sectors of colonized economies, control over the work process
is not in the hands of the capitalists. (2) People control their
own means of production. (3) Production in the traditional sectors
is oriented mainly toward the creation of use values, not exchange
The subordination and interdependence of pre-capitalist colonized
economies on imperialism is parallel to the subordination and
interdependence of the household on the capitalist system in this
country. The household economy, however, also differs in many
ways from both traditional pre-capitalist and colonized economies.
Ip. contrast to many colonized economies, the household is completely
dependent for its reproduction upon the wage which comes
from the capitalist sector. The comparison shows the nature of
capitalism as a dominant force, creating dependent relationships
between itself and other spheres of production.
Where traditional, pre-capitalist economies have some contact
with the capitalist sphere, as in a colonial situation, much of the
reproduction of labor power for the capitalist sector takes place.
In addition, the traditional sector acts as a buffer, absorbing and
caring for those whose labor is temporarily or permanently rejected
by the capitalist sphere. These people are sick, laid off, or
too old to work for wages. This also includes people who are working
in traditional subsistence jobs. Meanwhile subsistence workers
are forced into the wage-labor force, as they need cash to pay for
taxes and to consume goods.
Groups within the pre-capitalist economy may, for some time.
maintain an independent course of subsistence. For example. traditional
agriculture allows the people to continue living despite the
lower-than-subsistence wages paid by capitalists. But this independent
source of subsistence is gradually eroded as both land and
necessary labor are appropriated by the capitalists.
CapItalism conveniently continues to highlight traditional ideologies
and differences between groups of people (differences of
culture or race) to divide the growing proletariat along false lines
which obscure the class baSis of imperialism. This leads various
traditional groups to come into conflict in their competition for
jobs and to ignore the commonality of their plight of subservience
to capitalism. In sum. capitalism. in its relation with the colonized
pre-capitalist world. gradually becomes the dominant mode of
production and forces colonized peoples into economic. cultural.
and ideological dependence on it.
Understanding the interrelationships between imperialism and
colonized societies brings into focus the relationship between the
household and capitalist spheres under advanced capitalism. It is
a necessity for capitalism to create dependency and erode precapitalist
sectors of production.
The household sphere reproduces daily and generationally the
labor needed by the capitalist system. Household labor translates
wages into needed goods and services for the workers’ families.
This unpaid household labor stretches the wage paid to workers.
thus allowing capitalists to pay lower wages than would be required
for the reproduction and maintenance of the worker and
his/her family if housework were taken over by capitalism.
The household plays an important storage role for the capitalist
sphere. It absorbs and maintains those unemployed members of
society. the children. the aged, the sick, and the temporarily unemployed.
This relieves the capitalists of the responsibility for
their care. Reserve labor power. especially women’s labor power,
is stored in the household and may be drawn upon when needed by
the capitalist system. This happens, for example, during war time,
when many male workers are drafted, or during Christmas rush
or seasonal food processing, when additional – but temporary –
labor power is required. The household is expected to reabsorb
these women’s time and energy when they are not needed in the
Most of the consumption of capitalist goods takes place in the
household unit. Today the household produces fewer and fewer of
its necessities, turning instead to the processed foods, clothes,
and labor-saving devices produced by capitalism. Advertising is
aimed at creating an ever – expanding variety of personal and
household needs. All adult members of many families must secure
wage-paying jobs to provide the household with the money to buy
socially necessary goods.
We can now isolate some of the contradictions inherent in the
relationship between the two spheres of production. These contradictions
help us identify stress points of the capitalist sphere and
are the points around which we can organize and develop strategies
for our struggle against capitalism and sexism.
In capitalist ideology, the household is portrayed as “woman’s
place,” and as the location for domestic bliss, separate from the
grind of the outside world, the capitalist sphere. In fact the household
of today does not and cannot exist as a separate entity. Not
only is the wage derived from the sale of labor power essential for
the maintenance and reproduction of the family, but in turn household
consumption and reproduction serve vital needs of capitalism.
Capitalism manipulates the household by shunting individuals, particularly
women, back and forth between the two spheres. Through
advertising, patterns of consumption are determined by the profit
ne.eds of capitalist production. The notion of the separate household
only disguises the extent of the household’s dependence on and
penetration by capitalism.
The more the household consumes of the processed food, goods,
and labor-saving devices manufactured by the capitalist sphere,
the higher are the costs of family maintenance and reproduction.
Women are forced into the wage-labor sector in an attempt to
maintain their family’s standard of living. As a result, the household
is becoming a less effective storage unit for temporarily unused
labor, since women are becoming permanent members of the
Although women look for jobs in order to help maintain the
household. when they participate in wage labor they become more
independent by having control of a wage. More and more women
are challenging their husbands’ traditional authority and control in
the household. As increasing numbers of women are partiCipating
in wage labor today, the traditional power relations within the
household unit show tendencies to break down.
On the job, male and female wage laborers experience the common
oppression of being employees rather than employers, wage
earners rather than owners of their means of production. The surplus
value they create is appropriated by the capitalists; what they
produce is determined by the profit needs of the capitalist mode of
production rather than by real needs of people. Yet capitalism uses
ideologies derived from traditional family relationships to divide
workers along sex lines. Women receive lower wages than do men
and are concentrated in service and clerical jobs.
While capitalism erodes the family with its demands for increaSing
consumption which force women to work for wages,
it also manipulates the concept of family and familial ties to its
own advantage. For example, advertising is used to reinforce the
domestic unit when capitalists need women to return to their
homes to make room for men in the labor force. This manipulation
occurred at the end of World War II, and today we find the media
stressing the ideal of the traditional family in a period of high unemployment.
WOMEN AND WAGE LABOR
Women have served as a reserve army of labor in the past because
they could be returned to the home when not needed by the
capitalists. At the same time, the growth in the size of corporations
with its attendant need for more clerical workers has brought
many women into the wage-labor force on a permanent basis. This
greater participation of women in the wage-labor force on a permanent
basiS undermines the willingness of women to serve as a
reserve army of temporary labor.
This contradiction highlights two specific theoretical problems
that need to be discussed due to their relevance to women’s work
for wages. First is an analysis of productive and unproductive labor
and their relationship to women’s wage work. Second is the
relationship between the reserve army of labor and women in the
Marxists generally consider “productive” work to be wage work
which involves the direct production of goods whose sale brings
profits to the capitalist. “Unproductive” work is defined as a necessary
part of the overall production process which assists in the
circulation or sale of goods but does not add directly to the profit
made on a product. According to this definition most of women’s
wage work in clerical, sales, and service jobs would be considered
unproductive. The important political point which many people
draw from this distinction is that only productive workers have
revolutionary potential, since they are the ones directly involved
in producing the goods which bring in profits.
We reject both the labeling of clerical, sales, and service jobs
as “unproductive” and the conclusion that workers in those occupations
are not worth organizing.
First, it is certainly possible to think of a task which is purely
“unproductive” in Marx’s sense of the word. Checking out groceries
in a food store would be one such job. It merely accomplishes
the transfer of ownership of goods from the capitalists to the consumers.
However there are few workers whose only task is checking
out groceries. Most cashiers also restock the shelves and
transport groceries, and these tasks are “productive” because they
are part of the realization process of capitalist production. We
would argue that most clerical, sales, and service workers in fact
do both “productive” and “‘unproductive” tasks. Even if revolutionary
potential – a function of the productive/unproductive distinction,
then we would argue that clerical, sales, and service
workers do some productive tasks and therefore have revolutionary
However we would like to make a stronger argument and say
that revolutionary potential is not related to the productive/unproductive
distinction. Marx emphasized the integrated and increasingly
social character of the labor process as one of the underlying,
self-destructive features of capitalist production. It is the
collective nature of capitalist production which creates the potential
for revolutionary action and consciousness among workers.
At the time Marx was writing, “productive” labor had the most
highly developed social character. But monopoly capitalism has
brought an increasingly social character to clerical, sales, and
service jobs, too. Private secretaries are becoming increasingly
rare. A larger and larger proportion of clerical work is done in
typing pools. With the increasing social nature of this work comes
the potential for class consciousness.
As women’s employment becomes more and more permanent,
it becomes more appropriate to consider their work in relation to
what is known as the floating sector of the reserve army of labor.
This sector is made up of workers attracted and repelled by capitalism,
pushed out of jobs by technical advance or reorganization
somewhere and made available for expansion and new jobs somewhere
else. Because of the fluctuating and unstable nature of jobs
in clerical and service work, this labor is frequently performed
by the floating reserve army. Since the 1940’s, however, clerical
work has been stabilizing. Women’s permanent employment has
‘steadily risen; job turnover, although high, is usually within the
same sector and at the same skill level.
It is often asserted that women are taking away men’s jobs. It is
true that since the 1950′ s the percentage growth rate of employed
operatives (largely male) has fallen while the percentage growth
rate of employed women – until the current economic crisisrose
markedly. There is not, however, an immediate link between
these two trends. To begin with, the actual number of men employed
did not drop. In addition, operatives not finding jobs or being
forced out of old ones were males, while workers finding jobs
in the clerical sector were females. Clearly there is not a one-toone
correspondence between those losing jobs in operative work
and the growth of new jobs in the clerical sector. One possible
hypothesis is that capitalism is counting on marriage or the
household as a bonding mechanism within the floating sector of the
reserve labor army. In this way, workers forced out of one sector
can be supported through marriage by other workers drawn into
another sector. It is indeed the case that the percentage of the female
labor force which is married has risen markedly since
World War II.
WOMEN AS CHEAP AND SEASONAL LABORERS
Women have served as a source of low-wage labor from the beginning
of capitalist production in the United States. During the
early industrialization period of the 1820’s women accounted for
from 75 to 90% of the factory labor force in New England. Their
wages were one-fourth to one-half the level, of men’ s. As more
men were forced to work for wages – no longer able to support
themselves as farmers and craftsmen or because they were newly
arrived from Europe – women’s proportionate contribution to the
wage-labor force fell. But by 1900 women still accounted for about
17% of the wage-labor force. Most of the women who worked for
wages in 1900 were black or immigrants or daughters of immigrants
and single and young.
One of the clearest indications of the use of women for seasonal
or irregular labor needs was during World War II. In response to
the needs of war production and the absence from the work force
of millions of men in the military, “Rosie the Riveter” urged
women to enter the work force as their patriotic duty. The percentage
of women over 16 who were employed lumped from 28.9%
in 1940 to 38.1% in 1945. By 1947, however, this figure had fallen
back to 30.9%. Corporations gave strong ideological and material
support to women joining the work force during the war, for example,
through the establishment of corporation-sponsored daycare
centers. Corporations were equally careful, however, to make
none of these benefits permanent. After the war, government and
industry cooperated in a campaign to put women back in the home,
and to turn the home into a unit of consumption for the pent-up demand
productive potential of the U.S, economy. With the subsequent
layoffs of millions of women, the media played up family “togetherness.”
The resulting “feminine mystique” attempted to convince
women that their place was in the home, and that household drudgery
and raising children were the sole source of women’s fulfillment
In addition to the exceptional use of women as wage laborers
that developed during the war, women continue on a yearly basis
to participate in such seasonal work as pre-Christmas sales and
food processing. Women constitute an ideal reserve army, since
they continue to perform vital economic functions in their homes
when they are not in the wage-labor force. This reserve-army aspect
of women’s participation is also evident in the fact that only
42% of women workers currently work full-time, year-round.
LONG-TERM INCREASE IN WOMEN’S LABOR-FORCE PARTICIPATION
The other Side of the picture is the long-term trend of women’s
increaSing labor-force participation. Particularly since the turn of
the century, a growing percentage of people work for wages. As a
result, the working class has grown relative to the capitalist class.
In 1940, for example, 75% of all people in the labor force worked
for wages. By 1970 that figure had jumped to approximately 90%0
Secondly, with the exception of the rapid rise and decline of
women’s participation in the labor force during World War II,
there has been a steady growth of women’s employment through
the Twentieth Century. While around 1890 18% of all women worked,
by 1940 that figure had climbed to 27.9% (of women over the age of
16 working for wages). By 1970, 42% of women worked for wages.
Almost 50% of women between the ages of 16 and 65 work for
wages at the present time.
At the turn of the century most of the women who entered the
labor force were young and unmarried. Most were black. immigrant,
or daughters of immigrants. During the Second World War
the bulk of women who entered the labor force were married and
had school-age children. Most were in their 30’s. Since World War
II, there has been an increasing tendency for women with preschool
and school-age children to participate in the labor force.
This growing tendency to participate during all stages of the life
cycle highlights the growing permanency of women’ s role in the
Finally, the rapid growth of the clerical, sales, and service sectors
of the economy accounts for much of the increase of women’ s
labor-force participation. Between 1940 and 1970 the Single category
of work with the highest growth rate was clerical work. which
grew from 9.6% of all jobs in 1940 to 16.6% in 1970. The largest
number of women workers is in the clerical sector, which by 1970
employed over one-third of all working women.
WAGE LABOR POST WORLD WAR II
After World War II it was easy for American corporations to
earn high profits. American workers had built up large savings
during the war years. Many workers had worked full shifts plus
overtime, yet because factories were producing military supplies
and food was rationed, their wages could not all be spent. When
capitalists began converting their factories to the production of
consumer goods after the war, they found a large and ready market
for their products. In addition to this domestic demand, U.S.
corporations found good markets in Europe. Since European factories
had been destroyed in the war, American capitalists could
sell their products and their technology there at prices well above
production costs. Finally, American capitalists could further boost
profits by investing directly in Europe, since European workers’
wages were low.
What did this mean for women’s lives? Opportunities for such
high profits meant that capitalists found it worthwhile to hire many
workers. The unemployment rate fell from a post-war high of 5.5%
in 1949 to 2.5% in 1953. This increasing demand for workers tended
to push up wages. In an effort to keep down wages, capitalists encouraged
the participation of women in the labor force. Additionally,
the fact that capital was being concentrated in the post-war
period meant that single firms were growing larger and more bureaucratic,
implying a growth of jobs in the clerical sector, a sector
which employed mainly women.
The cumulative effect of these forces pushing women out of the
home and pulling them into the wage-labor force was a substantial
rise in the labor-force participation rate of women. The female
rate rose from its post-war slump of 30.8% in 1947 to 35.5% in
1957. The increased participation was even more dramatic for
married women living with their husbands. In 1947 20.0% of married
women, husband present, worked for wages. By 1957 the rate
was 29.6%, an increase of almost 50% in just ten years!
These women, for the most part, were employed in the so-called
white-collar occupations. White-collar jobs suggest, in the dominant
ideology, jobs which are clean, require a fair amount of education
and judgment. are interesting, and receive decent wages.
This characterization of white-collar jobs was accurate around the
beginning of the Twentieth Century, but over the course of the
Twentieth Century white-collar jobs have become routinized, boring,
and poorly paid. Clerical workers employed in 1900 by railroads
and manufacturing establishments earned $1.011 as an average
yearly wage. Production workers in these industries earned
an average of $435 and $548 in manufacturing and railroads respectively.
Today, however, the median wage for clerical work is
lower than that for every type of blue-collar work.
Clerical work was more like a craft around the turn of the century.
The occupation required mastery of bookkeeping, timekeeping,
payroll, quality control, commercial traveling, drafting, copying
duplicates by hand, al1d preparing accounts. Rationalization of
office routines has reduced the scope for worker control over the
work process, reduced the number of activities in which an individual
worker is engaged, and, in short, made it virtually identical
with factory labor.
Thus, although the jobs in which women were employed after
World War II were considered nice, pleasant. middle-class occupations,
they are in fact proletarian, and are becoming more proletarianized
LATE 1950’S TO 1970’S
By the late 1950 ‘s it was becoming more difficult for capitalists
to earn high rates of profit. The post-war domestic demand had
been spent, and Europe was catching up technologically and in
management techniques, making European goods more competiti-
tive with American goods. American capitalist6 could no longer
charge such high prices (relative to production costS) as they had
in the early 1950’s. In addition, direct investment in Europe was
no longer as profitable as it had once been because class struggle
by European workers won them higher wages. What did this more
difficult profit-making climate mean for our lives? Again, a major
implication was more work for women.
In an effort to maintain their domestic sales in the face of decreasing
demand for their products, corporations in the late 1950’s
and early 1960’s began pushing “easy credit terms” for purchasing
their products. Since many families had grown used to regular increases
in income, and also because credit terms were made to
appear much more favorable than they in fact were. many families
got into debt. But reduced profit-making opportunities for corporations
made conditions for the class struggle in America less
favorable. In the early to mid-1960’s the rate of increase of wages
began to slow. Families did not receive the income increases which
they had grown to expect, yet debts still had to be paid off. This
situation forced many wives to seek employment outside the borne.
The labor-force participation rate of women increased. In 1970,
42.6% of all women and 40.8% of married women living with their
husbands participated in the labor force.
During the mid to late 1960’s women’s consciousness of our oppression
as women began to rise. This development was due in part
to the fact that so many women were both regular participants in
the wage-labor force and yet still responsible for all of the housework.
Yet the ideology continued to define us solely in terms of
our role in our families. The women’s liberation movement which
grew out of this increased consciousness of oppression had some
revolutionary aspects. It challenged the ideology that wealth and
status can be achieved by anyone who is willing to work for it by
showing how women were systematically excluded from powerful
and enjoyable jobs. The movement also gave women experience in
organizing and demonstrated how collective action can improve
However the movement with its present objectives does not
serve the needs of ill. women. By concentrating its attention on
gaining access for women into desirable professional occupations,
it supports the myth that anyone who is willing to work hard can
enjoy the benefits of capitalism. Bourgeois men, bourgeois women,
and those few proletarian women and men who make extraordinary
sacrifices and enjoy good luck can reap the rewards. But if ill
proletarian women and men worked harder, then they would merely
receive the same low wages but be required to do more work. The
capitalist organization of production does not permit all workers
to have good jobs with good pay. A women’s movement which does
not challenge the capitalist organization of production, therefore,
cannot bring liberation to all women.
Demands for equal participation of women and men in the wagelabor
force will only mean that working-class women will be
doubly oppressed. Jobs in the wage-labor force which are open to
working-class women are routinized, boring. and poorly paid. In
addition, working-class women are unable to afford the quality
day-care services and household help which make it pOSSible for
bourgeois women to manage both household and labor-force responsibilities.
Working-class women will be liberated only when
the entire organization of production is reorganized. This will become
clear as we examine the effects of the current economic crisis
on women’s lives.
THE 1970’S – THE CURRENT CRISIS
By the 1970’s the ability of U,S, corporations to earn profits had
declined even further. Europe had caught· up technologically and
organizationally, and in many industries was able to outsell U,S,
corporations. Wages in the most “advanced” European countries
rose when trade unions were able to exclude Southern European
“guest workers” from employment in industry. Therefore, it became
less attractive for American corporations to make direct
investments in Europe.
Resources and labor were still cheap in the Third World, but
growing nationalism – both in the form of national liberation
struggles and in the form of stronger national bourgeoiSies -limited
the volume of direct U.S. investments. Third World countries
couldn’t be made to serve as good markets for U,S. products, either,
because the people are so poor.
The position of U.S, capital was further weakened because the
high profits which corporations had been earning in the ’50’s and
’60’S, plus the extension of credit which began in the late ’50’S,
had produced general overinvestment in plant and equipment. Now
corporations have the ability to produce more goods than they can
possibly sell at high and profitable prices. To maintain profitable
prices they must close some plants and layoff workers.
What does this crisis mean for women? A major effect is that
we are being forced to make most of the sacrifices. With price
increases which exceed wage increases and with so much unemployment
among men, it has become even more imperative for
women to find jobs outside the home. Yet just at the time when it
has become even more necessary to work, the institutions and
structures which had made it possible for women to combine domestic
and household responsibilities are becoming less supportive.
It is very difficult for women to find jobs. Although male unemployment
rates are high, women’s rates are 50 to 100% higher.
Efforts to improve child-care facilities were weakened as soon as
it became clear that the economy was headed for a crisis. Affirmative-
action programs and programs to eliminate sex discrimina-
tion in employment are stopping. Finally, the ideology that married
women who work do so only to buy luxuries or because they
are bored seems to have taken on new vigor.
Meanwhile, women are being forced to work harder at. home
also. Last year Gerald Ford asked Americans to help fight inflation
by adopting his money-saving tactics. His suggestions all meant
extra work for women. For example, he urged housewives to shop
around at many stores, searching for the lowest-cost item. He
also suggested that women lower the hems on last year’s dresses
instead of buying new ones, spend more time preparing meals
which are nutritious and tasty but which cost less, and go through
the house turning off lights in empty rooms. Most women already
do these things; they all require a lot of time and energy. More
importantly, these suggestions are an attempt to make us feel personally
responsible for the fact that our grocery bills are rising.
These suggestions are an attempt to divert women’s attention from
the real source of the problem; that the economic system under
which we live is a system for the purpose of making profits, and
not a system for meeting human needs.
The WOMEN’S WORK STUDY GROUP represents a range of
different perspectives within the socialist and feminist movements,
but shares a common commitment to the methodology of dialectical
and historical materialism. AU members of the group have participated
in collective discusswn, research, analysis and writtng. No one
person is individually responsible for a specific idea or written
portion. A list of the group’s members follows:
AMY BURCE is a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford
University and a participant in the West Coast Union of Marxist
Social Scientists; she is currently doing research on wage w.bor in
Papua New Guinea. SUSAN CARTER is a graduate student at
Stanford University and is active in Unwn for Radical Political
Economics. HELEN CHA UNCEY teaches part-Ume at San Jose City
CoUege and is active in the women’s and Marxist-Leninist party
building movement. She is also doing work on Communist Party
organizing in pre-1949 China. LORI HELMBOLD teaches part-time at
San Jose State University and is active in the women’s and anti-imperiALlist
movements tn San Jose. SHERRY KEITH is an itinerant
university teacher. She is active in the women’s movement and in
Third World liberation struggles. VERA SCHWARCZ teaches at
Wesleyan University and is active in the women’s movement.
NANCY STONE is one of the founders of the Sojourner Truth Child
Center in Palo Alto, California. She is active in the women’s
movement. BARBARA WATERMAN teaches at the University of
Vermont. She is active in the women’s and health care movements.
In addition, the group wishes to express its thanks for the criticisms
and feed-back from the many friends and comrades who have gone
over the paper with them.