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CLR James, “On the Woman Question: An Orientation”

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“On the Woman Question: An Orientation”

CLR James

Source: An SWP discussion held on 3rd September 1951, opened by CLR James. [Link]

A new stage has been reached. We are finished with endless discussions on male chauvinism. We have no more time for individual attacks against individual men who are backward or against individual women who do not want to be “emancipated.” These people will reorient themselves and will be drawn into their own struggles.

Now for the first time we know where we are going. We did not develop accidentally. The ideas explicit in this document are the concrete manifestations of the movement of capitalism and the reaction of the masses of women today. It is this reaction that we shall attempt to concretize in this document.

Bebel and the other historians on the woman question have analysed women in other ages, other struggles, other cultures. But it is we who must express women in 1951, what they feel about their lives, what they want and how they plan to get it.

We counterpose this to any external plan of the bourgeoisie, put forth by social workers, magazine writers, psychoanalysts, and any section of women who place themselves not within the struggle of women but above it, and therefore in opposition to it.

The Woman in the Home

We start from the position of women in the home for that is where the majority of women are, that is where the problem of women begins and that is the place to which all working women must return daily.

Capitalism has socialized production. It has brought thousands of people together in the factory and involved them in new social relationships. The home stands in contrast to all other capitalist institutions as the last stronghold of pre-capitalist isolation. Here, existing in the home outside the mainstream of society – the factory – the woman prepares her husband for a social labor process which is denied to her.

The repetitious, monotonous, lonely, unceasing and incomplete work of women in this society is opposed to women as human beings. Working for individuals whom she knows and loves does not compensate for the fragmented and meaningless labor she is forced to perform. Even her imaginative enterprises in the home are limited to certain spheres and are always individual. Contrast the glamorizing of women’s work by women’s magazines and radio soap operas to what the wife of one worker said in generalizing the position of women under capitalism “What I gotta do for the check!”

Women want the technological advances of modern society in their own surroundings. But a new Bendix washing machine or a GE garbage disposal will no more satisfy the most pressing social needs of women than a new Ford will substitute to the worker for new social relations in production. The modern machine divorces woman from her work but ties her to the monotony of it.

Even those middle class women for whom servants and machines do the physical labor in the home are involved in hollow relationships with their families and society, So little is demanded of all women; less is demanded of the woman who is divorced from physical labor.

The evolution of women from production and men from the home creates a barrier between them and neither is capable of understanding the life of the other.

“I’ve been working for about two months now and I really like it. I was getting sick and tired of staying home all the time. Housework gets so monotonous – the same thing day in, day out – no one to talk to but your neighbor, then pretty soon your neighbor begins to get on your nerves. No kidding, I think I would have been ready for a sanitarium if I stayed home another month. I was getting to the point where I couldn’t stand it. You do the same thing, you see the same people, everything is the same. Down here, there is something different to do every minute. Talking to people and getting acquainted. Now when I get home I really enjoy doing my housework. The funny thing about it is that I have much more to talk to my husband about, too. I didn’t used to have a thing to say at the supper table, but now when my husband talks about things that are happening at work, I tell him what I’ve been doing too. We seem to have a lot more fun together.”

The most obvious oppression that weighs heavily on most woman is their dependence on their husbands for food and shelter and for whatever money they are to spend as they wish. One housewife placed all her old clothing on a clothes line strung across the living room of her home and put a “used clothing” sign outside. She explained to her neighbor that she was giving away most of the clothing, but she added: “I just have to have same money of my own.”

The man makes all final decisions. Even in those homes where the woman plans and organizes the household affairs, he has the last word.

When a man goes out to work it is generally understood that he is earning a living for himself and his family. He brings home the pay check and among us (I mean the Mexicans) as a rule, this check is turned over to the wife who is supposed to see that this money is used to pay the bills, buy the groceries end so on. It’s the money of the family. Even if he hands it to me, I never quite feel that it’s mine. I still have to ask him how it should be spent. And what I don’t see is, if my husband needs money, he just gets it, no explanations. He gets his hair cut, cigarettes or what have you. He needs more money? He gets some more. Me, on the other hand, I see a dress I like, I have to think twice before I get it. Usually, I end up by telling him about it, Even if he suggests I get the dress, half the fun of getting the dress is gone. I had to let him know I was getting it. I never had the feeling of the money belonging to me to do with as I please. Who is the boss in this house? He is, though this he will never admit. But nothing can be done without his consent. If, on occasion, as it has happened, I let the children go, he gets angry with me for not having them ask his permission. When he orders something to be done around the yard or house (and I said orders!) he expects it done, no excuses accepted. What am I supposed to be doing around here but to see that he is obeyed. About fifteen minutes before he gets home, we are rustling around trying to get things done so there won’t be any complaints.

When we were buying furniture, we needed a refrigerator, so we got it. We got everything we really needed, but I wanted an ironer. He didn’t think it was important enough to buy. So I went to work and bought it. Even if it wasn’t a necessity, I wanted it. My reason for going to work is so that I can get what I want without asking him first or letting him know about it. If I have my money, I go get what I want. I don’t ask him.

The antagonisms between men and women express themselves in the most delicate phase of their life together – in their sexual relationship. (Very often sex becomes a weapon in the hands of the woman but this weapon is turned against her.) Without a solution to the social problems of society there can be no solution to the sexual problem.

The separation between the lives of men and women expresses itself in many different ways. Men and women enjoy their children neither together nor separately. Society has placed the woman in the isolation of the home and as a result has made her incapable of producing a social being. The woman tries to control her children for her whole life generally revolves around them. The child senses and resents this and says: “Mommy, I can’t love you, because you love me too much.” The woman is ruthless in crushing all signs of independence in the child, since independence means loss of control. Most women prefer babies because the baby cannot successfully rebel and is completely dependent upon the mother.

As the child develops, the mother stands as a policeman defending the home from the child. All the child’s activities are seen in terms of the work it will bring her. She in turn tries to pass off her work on the child who instinctively rebels. One pregnant woman was told by her neighbor: “If you have a, girl, she will help you with the dishes; if you have a boy, he will help your husband in the yard, so you better pray for a girl.”

The woman’s most creative work turns against her. She has devoted her life to her child but at each point of his development, be has been further alienated from her, and in the final analysis, the only social relationship that has been built up between them is based on pity and obligation. Today’s children develop in conflict with their parents.

The Woman in the Factory

Support of the modern family is no longer completely the man’s burden. Today a woman marries knowing that the man will need her financial help.

It used to be that when you got married, you had a home all ready and you stayed home and took care of it. But nowadays a girl gets married and goes right on working. A man just can’t manage all by himself.

The isolation in the home also drives many working class women to seek a socialized existence in the factory. She wants to be with other men and women.

“At home all I do is to sit end mend and watch the budget and wash the same old kitchen sink day in and day out. Almost anyone would rather work than do that all the time. There’s always something happening at work, sort of an excitement to it. When you get home, it makes housework seem like a pretty quiet routine business.”

Women show their desire to be independent of their husbands by going to work. The whole family relationship is changed when the woman faces the man as an equal partner.

“Since I’ve been working my husband says I am too damn independent and I suppose it’s true. Be says I never have time for him any more and that I always want my own way and I can see it. Working every day I get used to doing what I please; then I go home I keep on doing it.

“Nowadays women are independent, so that they know if they can’t get along with a man, they can get along without him and that makes a big difference.”

For whatever reasons women work, the responsibility of the home is theirs even while they are working. “Full-time wage earner and part-time housewife” describes the dilemma of the working woman. The woman is compelled to organize her housework. The husband and children must participate in caring for the home.

“Nowadays, I have to plan my housework down to the last minute. I usually sit here at work and plan what I have to do for the next few days ahead. If I didn’t do it that way, I never would get anything done. When I was home I used to do things more or less as I went along, but now I have to stick to some sort of schedule.

Before I began working my husband hardly came into the kitchen. When he came home from work he sat down and read the paper. He didn’t give housework a thought. But before I began to work, my husband and I decided that he would have to help out, so now both he and the children work a lot more around the home. They help me with the dishes and the washing and the ironing. I guess if my husband didn’t help me out I wouldn’t be working too long.

Yes, I run my home differently. I learned to cut a lot of corners and now I just do the things that I have to do, like washing and ironing. Before I began to work, I liked to cook fancy dishes and do a lot of baking, but now my family says that they haven’t tasted a cake or pie of mine for months. And it’s true, I just don’t have time to bake or do things like that.”

Managing a home while working is difficult, but caring for the children is the major concern of most working women. Although they are willing and sometimes glad to cut corners on household work, it is with great feelings of resentment and guilt that the working mother leaves her children.

Working means that children must be cared for by others or left to their own devices and the latter alternative in the minds of many working women, particularly those belonging to minority groups, means juvenile delinquency.

“I think it’s hard for a woman to work and look after her children the way she would like to. I know with myself I leave the house at seven in the morning and I don’t get home until six o’clock and I have no way of knowing what they are doing; they are by themselves all day long. I tell them what to do. I tell them to be good but when I’m gone I can’t really see what they are doing and it’s easy for boys that age to get into trouble.”

Working mothers also wish that they weren’t so abrupt and irritable with their families after a day’s work, with cooking, cleaning and ironing yet to be done when they get home. As more and more women enter the factory, the home seems to become a place in which to eat and sleep while recreational activities occur outside the home. To many single women, the home no longer exists as the real center for family activity and marriage does not seem to offer to these women the personal fulfillment it once represented.

“My girl who is working is 26 years old but I don’t know if that girl is going to marry. She doesn’t want to very much. She says she has a good job and no worries why should she take a chance on marriage. Girls these days aren’t like they were – not nearly so anxious to get married. Nowadays they earn their own money and don’t need a man to support them.”

Although the woman is involved in new social relationships in the factory, she finds her work there hard and exhausting.

“It’s a long grind, working eight hours on this machine. People say, ‘All you’re doing is putting stock into the machine.’ But it is hard, you know you’ve been working and then you go home to begin on the dishes and all the housework. It seems as if some folks never get a break. I could work from now until doomsday and never get anything done – and heaven knows a lot of women do.”

The Negro woman, oppressed as a woman, as a worker and as a Negro, bears the heaviest burden of all workers today. One Negro woman says:

“‘Domestic’ has long been a term associated with Negro….Women in general, doing the same labor as a man, receive less in pay solely because they are a woman. The Negro woman receives even less because she is not only a woman, but a Negro woman. The problem magnifies because the Negro man is also underpaid and the combined wages of husband and wife is equal to about the same wage of one partner of another race.”

The Negro woman must build a relationship with a husband who does the dirtiest jobs capitalism can create. Her struggles in the home and in the factory are the sharpest of any group of women. The Negro woman struggles the most, and from her oppressed position in American society today, the Negro woman will lead the vanguard struggle for a human existence for women and all workers. She is the closest to the solution implicit in the problems of all working people.

Like the woman’s life in the home, woman’s work in the factory is opposed to her as a human being and as a woman. The insoluble dilemma of the woman under capitalism is expressed by this factory worker:

“I really wish that I knew how to do something. I mean, something I like. Nursing maybe. I don’t want to work in a factory on a machine all my life. You know it’s funny I really couldn’t stand staying home, I know that. I would get tired of it. Just staying in the house all day isn’t any life for women. You have to have something that holds your interest. I guess I’d almost have to work or I would go nuts.”

Factory women recognize clearly the degrading kind of work they are forced to do in the factory. Yet this work, because it is part of a social existence and provides a social arena for struggle, is still preferable to woman’s life in the home. As always, capitalism is creating it’s own grave-digger. For, as the needs of capitalist society force the women into the factory, she finds herself united with the man against bourgeoise society. Woman’s struggle against the individual man in the home is transcended by the class struggle against the domination of the machine, against capitalism. The advanced stage that the struggle enters today is a progression from the individual to the social struggle – from the individual to the social solution.

Today’s Children

The child expresses the new society and is the concrete embodiment of the inevitability of socialism. In the creative energies which children display, in the free relationships which they attempt to establish between themselves and adults, in the manner in which they organize themselves at every opportunity, children help us to understand the potentialities of all workers.

Children’s play is work – work which constantly challenges the child as an individual and as a social being. It is the new mode of labor – cooperative, creative, planned by the children themselves, developing a natural and spontaneous leadership, and obliterating all division between manual and mental labor. Children express in play what the worker is denied in production. Free and spontaneous play makes it possible for the child to organize himself, to associate and work with other children in his own way. The activity of a child shows us not only what he wants but what we all want.

Yet children live on the fringe of society, developing deep feelings of hostility and aggression toward the adult world. Lacking integration into the heart of capitalist society – production – the child feels that he is an appendage to society, not a dynamic part of it. His mother and father and teacher embody for him the tyranny of an alien world, the tyranny of a bureaucratic plan; yet the adults are tyrannized in turn by the same oppressive forces which do not allow the child to develop naturally.

Children in a socialist society must not be made to feel necessary (as the bourgeoises, progressive educators attempt to do); they must be necessary. There will be a pleasure and a satisfaction in living and working with a developing human being in a socialist society which every adult will need in order for him to completely mature.

As the child develops into a youth, he seeks to further integrate himself into adult society. He wants to play a role in production. As a child he knew that he was not complete (all human beings knows this) and in his play he expressed his incompleteness and his development. For the youth, his play – his sports and hobbies – must be transformed into productive and creative work in society.

The bourgeoisie are acutely aware of the struggle of the children and the youth against capitalist society. They try to satisfy these groups by attempting to force them to live in the future, to contain their energies and their desires until the day when they become adults – when they go to work for capitalism, either in the home or in the factory.

The progressive educators among the bourgeoisie try to soften the blow. The teacher is asked to arrange a cooperative attitude among the children, just as the industrial relations manager tries to manipulate the workers in the factory. Progressive education creates an artificial world for the child. It’s insoluble dilemma is it’s attempt to make …

Progressive education is the plan of the bureaucracy to plan away the child’s oppression by isolating the child in a world of children, where he has little opportunity to challenge himself and the adults, who matter a great deal to him, for it is only through a constant and changing relationship, not only with other children but with adults, that the child develops. It is only in a socialist society that the child will have the opportunity to establish what is needed – a new relationship with adults, a relationship into which both will enter as freely associated individuals not competing with each other, not hostile to each other, but complementing each other.


We have shown that woman’s place in the home is merely an extension of man’s place in the factory. It is clear that woman’s life in the home is totally opposed to her as a human being and as a woman.

Today women know they can no longer stay in the home as it is now constituted; nor can they allow men to leave the home as freely as they have in the past. Women do not want to leave the home entirely but have men enter it for the first time. Women do not want to he free of their children but for the first time free with them.

Women are striving to unite what has been so long divided – the home and the factory. They want not to be as oppressed as men, but free with them. The unity of home and factory is in reality the unification of men and women, the plan of freely associated men and women as opposed to the more systematic exploitation of woman and the exclusion of men from the home.

The lack of socialization in the home has prevented women from forming the concrete organizations found among the workers and other exploited sections. Nevertheless, the solution will come from woman for the universality of the individual experience in the home has at this stage forced the problems of women and the solution implicit in these problems into the consciousness of the working class.

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