Category: Brtish feminism

Pioneering feminist Anna Wheeler and “The Rights of Women” (1830)

Anna Doyle Wheeler 1785-1848

Anna Doyle  was born in Limerick where her father was Protestant archbishop. She was married at the age of 15, to a neighbour, Francis Massey Wheeler,  and had 6 children.  It was not a good marriage,   but Anna did  find time to  pursue her  self-education,  sending off for to London for bundles of  novels  and books on philosophy. She received Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft  in one bundle and it was a  revelation.

In 1812 she left her husband and went to live with her uncle in Guernsey, and then on to France where she became involved with the followers of  Henri Saint Simon, a early proponent of Socialism.  Whilst in France she  also became friendly with  Flora Tristan, an artist,  writer and feminist,  and  Charles Fourier, another early Socialist, whose works she translated into English.

Returning to England she got to know Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen and William Thompson, the Irish  political economist. Moving regularly between England and France , she was an important conduit for ideas between these emerging groups of Socialists, a discussions to which she contributed in her own right.

In 1825 she co-wrote with Thompson  The Appeal of One half of the Human Race, Woman, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men. To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery; In Reply to a Parargraph of Mr. Mill’s Celebrated “Article On Government“.  In his essay the philosopher James Mill  had  justified the exclusion of women from the suffrage.

It begins in rousing fashion:

 Women of England! women, in whatever country ye breathe–wherever ye breathe, degraded–awake! Awake to the contemplation of the happiness that awaits you when all your faculties of mind and body shall be fully cultivated and developed;

The authors go on to state

To obtain equal rights, the basis of equal happiness with men, you must be respected by them; not merely desired, like rare meats, to pamper their selfish appetites. To be respected by them, you must be respectable in your own eyes; you must exert more power, you must be more useful. You must regard yourselves as having equal capabilities of contributing to the general happiness with men, and as therefore equally entitled with them to every enjoyment. You must excercise these capabilites, nor cease to remonstrate till no more than equal duties are exacted from you, till no more than equal punishments are inflicted upon you, till equal enjoyments and equal means of seeking happiness are permitted to you as to men.

They advocate “Mutual Co-operation” as the only remedy for the position of women

This scheme of social arrangements is the only one which will complete and for ever insure the perfect equality and entire reciprocity of happiness between women and men… Large numbers of men and women co-operating together for mutual happiness, all their possessions and means of enjoyment being the equal property of all–individual property and competition for ever excluded…

Anna  became an Owenite lecturer,  speaking on “The Rights of Women” at venues such as  South Place  Chapel, Finsbury. One of  lecture she gave there was published in the British Co-operator in 1830.  She also wrote articles for the Owenite newspaper The Crisis under  the pen-name “Concordia”.  In the 1830s she helped found the French feminist journal, Tribune des Femmes.

William Thompson died on   20 March 1833 in Ireland, while  Anne died on 7 May 1848 in London. Her great-grand-daughter, incidentally, was the suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton.

This  is her speech on “The Rights of Women” as printed in the British Co-operator.

 In conceding to the solicitations of the managers of this Institution, to deliver a Lecture on the : “Social Condition of Women,” I have had to struggle against a two-fold obstacle, that of depressed health, and a mind robbed of much of its energy and elasticity by a deep domestic sorrow. And while I feel the difficulty of employing a moderate language, in speaking  of the degraded position of my sex, I am on the other hand but too well aware, that the remarks I am about to make, will draw upon me the hate of most men, together with that of the greater portion of the very sex whose rights (at the present stage of my existence) I attempt to advocate, with a dis interestedness which finds no rall ing point in Self.  But what appears to me the most cheerless part of my task — I would almost say the “forlorn hope of my enterprise,” is that I am doubtful, whether any material good can be effected by this and similar lectures, seeing as I do, the rottenness of our institutions, and those especially which smell of  rank injustice, in the disabilities set up against half the human race : Woman !  

Nevertheless I shall attempt this task, stimulated by hope, which  some friends entertain, that by so doing I contribute to the support of a truly liberal institution (as I understand this to be) besides,  offering an example, which might produce the most beneficial results, if followed up, on similar principles, and acted upon by a competent  number of Women.  Should I however fail to awaken attention, in that portion of my audience, most immediately interested in my remarks, (if indeed what concerns all can be said to relate particularly to some,) I shall  at least have discharged a debt to society, which its own increasing liberality enables me to pay, by permitting this public appeal !  For myself I confess, that ” to die and make no sign” expressive of my horror, indignation and bitter contempt, for that state of society called civilized, which in fact  nothing more than barbarism masked, playing off its brute absurdities under wisdom’s guise, (through which however the cloven foot never fails to appear, and more particularly so in the destiny it has assigned to women,) would, I feel, complete the measure of my regret for having lived only to serve and suffer, in my capacity of slave and woman ; but the opportunity afforded me now, to leave one parting admonition to Society, will greatly mitigate those regrets which I feel, in common with every good mind, when denied the power of being more actively useful.  

After this introduction to a question, that may indeed be called a Pivot, on which all our social interests turn — it would manifest little respect for the intelligence of my hearers, were I to offer any apology for the remarks I am about to make — Men and Women, must be prepared, to find me laying aside that cheat courtesy, speaking to facts, and holding the mirror up — Not indeed to nature, (for man’s cruel social code has stultified, if not stifled nature in him,) but to some mockery of himself, some distorted image of a goodly nature, warped in all its fair proportions by the evil genius vanity, who condemns him to be his own tormentor, in being the enemy and oppressor of Woman !

 Before I proceed further, it may be necessary to say, that I have no antipathy to men but only to institutions ; no leaning to the interests of one sex above the other ; my object is to deprecate that narrow, stupid policy which divides their interests, and in so doing, makes a pandemonium of our earth, by forcing its inhabitants to be in constant opposition to each other !  Whatever then may be the force of the terms I employ, to decry the monstrous, degraded condition of my sex, I beg to be understood, as speaking, more in sorrow than in anger ; more with regret, for the loss of happiness to both sexes, than to either in particular. It is not in the nature of Woman (when she has strength of character sufficient to preserve original feelings, and reject those which are forced upon her adoption) to wish to mete out undue proportions of good, for one sex above the other — her destiny is to be the mother of both, and nature, whose laws are general and not partial, makes no distinction in a mother’s love !  

When I advocate the Rights of Women then, I do it under the most perfect conviction, that I am also pleading the cause of men by showing the mighty influence Women hold over the happiness or misery of men themselves, according as they are instructed or ignorant, as they are fettered or free, as they act on principles^ not teamed by rote, but acquired through the full development of their own faculties, not put into movement like machines, or led like beasts of burden, at the capricious will of a master, or in  stupid routine, by that many headed despot custom ! So true it is that, “though men make the law, it it women who mould the manners and morals of society ; and according as they are enlightened or ignorant, do they spin the web of human destiny.  It may be difficult for those, who have not studied the complexity of social movement, to conceive how beings, apparently deprived of all power, can possess so much, particularly as all the ingenuity of short sighted cunning legislators, has been exhausted, not only to make, but keep them passive instruments of man’s will ; well knowing, that the most effectual means of perpetuating the ignorance, and consequent slavery of men themselves, was to close the door effectually to all progressive improvement in woman, by assigning to her the lowest position in the scale of being, that which connects itself solely with man’s mere animal wants !  

But how does nature avenge her wrongs, and those of eternal justice, in refusing to cultivate women’s intellectual faculties. Men are caught in their own snares ; and the ignorance, that they would exclusively confine to women, soon becomes general, and works itself into a very solid chain of fallacies and errors, which ultimately leads opinion ; and opinion, whatever be the direction given to it, is always sure to be triumphant !  Woman it is, who by a stupid servile submission to man’s arbitrary will, gives stability to all his selfish propensities, and which encountering no judgment in their passage to her mind, leaves it the recipient of every foul and monstrous error ; thus, like the fabled Pandora, she spreads the contents of the fatal box through all society  

 Oh ! how contagious is error ! Prejudice becomes fixed principle,  omnipotent always, in proportion as its tendency is mischievous. Thus man, by his narrow views of mere personal interest, his jealous monopoly of rights and privileges, his absurd system of  sexual morality (as if indeed this can be a virtue and that a vice, which is not distinctly vice or virtue in everybody) ; his setting up individual as opposed to general interests has plunged him in perpetual warfare with his species ! Hence the results we read of, and witness : vice, crime, and dissocial anarchy abound, misery, privation and suffering, in every degree that our nature is susceptible of; happiness is lost to all, because security is unknown to any.  This alas ! must ever be the case, whilst our social system is based on principles of discord, while unity of action is sacrificed, in all our arrangements, and the most striking  lessons that experience can offer, are neither attended to nor under-stood !  But I must not lose time in vain declamations against the vicious tendency of our institutions which have been termed by hireling advocates, ” the perfection of human reason.”

What a satire this, on human reason ! As well indeed might we discover perfection in the first rude attempts at sculpture, as in that mass of inconsistency and folly which our laws presents, and which is as much the caricature of reason, as the other is of the human face and form.  If reason means anything, it means a generalizing faculty of the human mind, which finds, ’tis true, its source in instinct but its limits only in experience. When left uncultivated we lose all the advantages  which should distinguish the human from the brute animal, and thus, by screwing up human reason to the sticking point perfection, all clue has been lost  to social happiness.  In the abstract we are willing to admit, that nothing can be good which produces permanently evil effects : the social history of man abundantly shows that nothing’ is \\XOXt perfectly imperfect and irrational, than laws and institutions which do not recognise the general interest of all mankind.  But let us examine the grounds of disabilities set up by men, to disfranchise half the human race, Women ; the effects of this treatment on us and on themselves ; and whether indeed there is any essential difference between the sexes, which can authorise the superiority men claim over women ?

What are the causes of, and who are accountable, for the seeming difference which makes the sum of their plea ?  It will,I think appear, that man’s own tyranny has created the distinction which he ungenerously sets up as a just cause for its exercise.  FIRST : Deficiency  of muscular strength has been deemed a sufficient reason for reducing them to vassalage, not to mention the grosser barbarities, which we know to be the daily practice of men towards beings whose happiness is so inseparably linked with their own, and which the law, the written law that stupendous monu- ment of man’s disgrace, not only sanctions but dictates to every known extent, save but the murderous blow, which ends the sufferings of the victim ; and for this show of mercy, man’s own life is forfeited. All experience proves how little reason men have to triumph, in the base possession of an authority which unnatural violence and usurpation first put into their hands, and which has not, as is presumed, found its excuse in the physical or moral organization of Women. As to to the first charge of bodily weak-ness, strange enough.

Monsieur de Chateaubriand, in his book of martyrs (an appropriate place to find a chapter on Women,) brings a host of evidence, from travellers and naturalists, to prove that this deficiency of strength in Woman,  is nothing but a civilized disease, imposed no doubt, on women, to shorten the duration of life, and to provide men with a rapid succession of youthful slaves ; in short a  civil or civilized way of getting rid of a superfluous number; less shocking though not less cruel, than that resorted to, by other nations which cannot boast the high degree of civilization of our own. So that this supposed organic weakness, which condemns women to be slaves, is by no means borne out by fact. Savage tribes acknowledge it not, and men everywhere choosing their occupation compel women to drudgery, while they themselves engage in the most pleasurable and profitable pursuits of life.  

 

 

 

 

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Radical Women : from Women Levellers to Women’s Liberation – part 1.

 

        

 

A  course on the history of  Radical  Women part one

I will be teaching part one of  a course on the history of Radical  Women. The course last 10 weeks,  starting  on 5th February and finishing on  16th April. (There is no class on 12th March).

The venue will be the Working Class Movement  Library, 51 Crescent, Salford,  M5 4WX. The cost of the course will be £60. Places can be booked by emailing: redflagwalks@gmail.com.

I have been researching and writing about the history of  radical women for a number of  years. My published work incudes “Up Then Brave Women”; Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918.

The course will include the following sessions:

 

Women in the English Revolution in the  1640s and 1650s

Women  were active members of the radical group, the   Levellers, marching and taking petitions to Parliament.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the few  women who came to prominence   in the English radical movement of the1 790s. Her treatise, Vindication of the Right of Woman, a follow up to her lesser known work, Vindication   of the Rights of Man, made her a well-known figure in English society, though it did not lead to the creation of a feminist movement.

Women rioters in 1812

Luddism was an organised  workers movement which attacked the machinery taking away their jobs in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire between 1811 and 1813. Whilst women did not generally play a role in the attacks on mills, they did play a prominent role in the food rioting in Manchester in the spring of 1812.

Peterloo

As the radical  movement  grew into a mass movement in the course of 1819, women stepped onto the political stage organising Female Reform Societies which issued addresses to the public. Women were present at Peterloo,  and were among the dead and injured.

Manchester Female Republicans

In the 1820s women were active in the Republican societies  inspired by the ideas and  writing of Richard Carlile.

Owenite Socialism

Organised groups of workers set up co-operative societies from the late 1820s onwards, inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen. Owen also attacked religion and traditional marriage, leading to a number of women, inspired by his ideas,  such as Emma Martin preaching around Britain in public lectures.

Chartism

Chartism was mass worker’s movement at its height between 1839 and 1848 which called for wholesale political reform. Women were not among the leaders, but were active at grassroots level.

Trade unions

Lancashire had the highest number of women workers in England, mostly working in the textile industry as weavers. The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades  Council was set up in 1895 to organise women in lowest paid industries into unions.

Women and Socialism

Women played an active role in the various socialist organisations which came into being in the 1880s and 1890s.

Votes for Women!

The struggle for Votes for Women  lasted from 1866 to 1928. Manchester played an important role in all phases of the movement, both militant and non-militant. This session will include the role of working class women in the suffrage campaign.

 

Documents from British Feminism 2 : The Socialist-Feminist current

A Short History of the Socialist Current Within The British Women’s Liberation Movement,  Scarlet Women, July 1977

Note : we were asked to write this paper at short notice. It is based upon a combination of the papers we have collected over the years plus memories of conferences we attended. Inevitably, therefore, it is by no means a complete history. We do think, however, that the events and conflicts which we outline here do reflect in general, the development of the Socialist-feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The late 60s saw the emergence of the Women’s Movement in Britain. In 1969 in London the Women’s Liberation Workshop established itself, developing consciousness raising groups and attempting to articulate and understand the ways in which women felt themselves to be oppressed and exploited. In the same year, a group of socialist women active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign started producing a journal called “Socialist Woman”, whose aims were both to impress on the left the importance of the “Woman Question” – to publicise the struggles of women in Britain and internationally and to try to develop a socialist analysis of women’s oppression it was to be distributed through the newly formed Socialist Woman Groups.

The first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. It was felt that the movement had already grown sufficiently to need a national structure in order to co-ordinate the increasingly diverse activities of women’s groups around the country. Women in left groups saw this as an opportunity to influence the political development of the Women’s Liberation Movement and managed to dominate the National Committee. This Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee formulated four demands which were adopted by the Women’s Liberation Movement –   equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and 24  hour nurseries for all under 5’s. However the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee degenerated into sectarian squabbling between the different left factions represented and was disbanded by the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference in 1971. It left behind  a great deal of hostility among feminists towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left.  Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciousness-raising group was taken to the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

A series of Women’s Liberation and Socialism Conferences were planned. Four conferences took place: London, September 1973 on Autonomy or Separatism?; Oxford, March 1974 on the four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement; Birmingham, September 1974 on Women in the Family; and London, March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement”. There was also at least one day conference organised – on the Working Women’s Charter, Leeds, November 1974 – and probably others. “Red Flag” a journal for socialist feminist women was also started in 1972.

 

Manchester Socialist Feminist Conference, composited workshop report  Scarlet Women, April 1978

Dear Sisters, hereby enclosed the promised report. On second reading it still seems to have many rough edges, but I thought it preferable to send it as read, rather than to take it on myself to edit and modify. However, do feel free to polish up where you feel it necessary. Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that this report got written under circumstances reflecting all too accurately the “tyranny of structurelessness”. (I didn’t mention because of injunctions against being “negative”). Of the women delegates to report on their workshops most did in fact turn up to the Reporters’ Meeting, but were rapidly driven away by cold, hunger, fatigue and impatience. This left a small nucleus of 6 women, self-selected, not delegated, to discuss the final report, of whom two actually drafted a report, purporting to represent 700 off women! Hopefully it turned out OK and not too skewed by our personal recollections and opinions – but even so the problem of who “takes responsibility” – and why – remain unsolved, as does that of accountability.

Yours in sisterhood, Ruth Butler.

Report on Day 1 , Socialist Feminist Conference, January 28th 1978.

With the proviso that summary report tend to gloss over those very nuances and dynamics of discussion which make or break the experience of participating in a workshop, we hope that the following  will convey some idea of the themes raised and the feelings and ideas expressed.

Composition of the workshop

The encouragingly  large numbers of women who participated in the workshops – about 1000 – represented a broad spectrum of groups and activities, including the following:

Women  from socialist feminist groups, Women’s Aid, NAC, WARF, WWC, Women in Ireland, and various collectives such as Scarlet Women and Newsreel; women from CR groups, Lesbian Left, Women’s Voice, Women’s Action groups; women involved in community politics, trade unions and manual trades;  women new to the movement, women who have been out of touch for a couple of years and women who presently active; women aligned in left groups – CP, IMG, SWP, Big Flame, RCG, ICL, Workers’ Power, CPB (ML).

There was a sprinkling of international representatives, including groups of Latin American and Iranian women.

And probably lots more besides, whom we have unwittingly left out.

Content

We shall try to summarise the discussions held in workshops held in the workshops according to the general headings suggested by the organisers.

  1. Common concerns in socialist feminist action.

Since there is not yet a coherent and cohesive socialist feminist network, many women who identify themselves as socialist feminist and who came to the conference are active in various campaigns and/or left groups. In discussing our participation in such activities several common themes and issues seemed to emerge.

Several women raised problems flowing from conflicts between self-definitions as socialist feminist and the need to work within the system, when, for example, applying for grants. Women’s Aid was cited in this respect, with women expressing the conflict between making clear statements of principle and intent, or playing these down in order to obtain badly needed women’s refuges. In the same context  women discussed the implications of parliamentary lobbying, an issue of especial relevance to NAC women.

Another theme evolved from discussion pertaining to working on campaigns jointly with other groups. There was a feeling that women’s groups could contribute to the development of more varied  and flexible tactics for political action. For example, in several groups women from WARF talked about the need to develop further alternatives to direct physical confrontation both as means of reaching more people and as an expression of wariness of what were seen as male tactics of violence as a major form of expression. However, it seems to have been generally accepted    that in some situations direct confrontations are necessary, and that greater emphasis    on self defence for women would equip us to cope better with such confrontations as Grunwick and Lewisham.

During discussions about the need to develop a socialist feminist strategy for action,  several groups talked about the need to broaden the age, class and race bases of involved women. Particularly emphasis was placed on the potential of working within local community issues such as nurseries, schools, hospitals, tenants’ associations and so on.

From their perspective of working in various campaigns, several women voiced the need to formulate guidelines for actions compatible with a socialist feminist perspective. One knotty example discussed was the rape issue, where a common feminist demand for stiffer sentencing is not an easy one for socialist feminists to support unambiguously. A parallel issue with Women’s Aid was expressed as the need to develop alternatives to the nuclear family rather than merely providing short term solutions for immediate problems. Another issue to emerge from discussion on Rape was the problem of, for example, having Reclaim the Night marches through predominantly black areas. During such discussions it was suggested that socialist feminists could make a creative contribution by conceptualising additional levels of linkage between superficially disparate campaigns.

Finally, many women seemed to suffer from chronic over-extension. Socialist feminists have been defined as women who go to twice as many meetings as anyone else. Whether true or not, all groups seemed to touch on the thorny questions of how and where to channel energy so as to be the most effective as socialist feminists.

Obviously, such a sparse summary cannot but fail to do justice to the depth and texture of the thoughts, doubts and aims that emerged in discussing these issues. However, two general conclusions did emerge. On the level of practice, the vital need for more communication and mutual support among socialist feminists was repeatedly voiced – indeed many women cited this as their main reason for coming to the conference. The lack of such  close communications was felt specifically at a geographical  level   – for example by Scottish women from NAC who felt that their specific needs had been largely ignored  by the national campaign , and by Irish women feeling inadequate solidarity  with them in their struggles. In general, many women felt the need for more contact between socialist feminist women working in different campaigns.  While no resolutions on the matter were suggested, the general desire for a co-ordinating network which, despite, our fears of organisations, would function to provide contact and support for socialist feminists was clear. Some specific suggestions in this direction included the publication of a separate newsletter and/or magazine devoted to the socialist feminist tendency.

Secondly, there were repeated calls for a long-term socialist  strategy  and theory which would provide us with an overall perspective; and a framework with which to organise, initiate and co-ordinated socialist feminist activities. This could help us not only to clarify our ideas and stands, but also to address ourselves in a more forceful  and effective way to immediate issues ranging from Northern Ireland to the Cuts.

 2. Socialist feminist and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The second main topic on the agenda was the relationship of socialist feminists to the WLM. Interestingly enough, this question seemed to have received scant attention in most groups. We discussed the growing need to define ourselves  as an independent tendency within the women’s movements without encouraging sectarianism or splits. While there was some discussion around this issue, the general feeling seemed to be that spits in the movement should be avoided if possible, though not at the expense of glossing over theoretical and tactical differences. It was suggested that maybe the women’s movement as a whole needs to work further on the dilemma of combining different tendencies  while still presenting some kind of united outward front. It was felt to be particularly important for socialist feminists to work on coming over clear and intelligible to other feminists. Thus we should work to bring  an awareness of socialism into the WLM without fostering distrust. At the same time we should not fall into the trap of denying the solid contributions to be made by other groups within the WLM. The problems of overcoming what was felt to be the essentially elitist nature of the WLM was also raised in this context.

Finally, many women reiterated the personal satisfaction they derived from participating in the WLM.

  1. Socialist feminists and the organised left.

In contrast,  most women reported a high level of interest and involvement on our relationship to the Left. Our difficulties in relating to the Left seem to be three-fold. Most women criticized Left groups for their failure to integrate an inadequate understanding of the implications of analysis of patriarchy for developing a revolutionary perspective. Much resentment was expressed at being point 5, or sometimes 6, in most revolutionary programmes. Such an attitude seemed to many women to relegate the theoretical importance of subjects raised by the Women’s Movement  – such as the role of the family in perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist structures – to a mere question of “women’s issues”.

In addition, many women voiced anger at having so often to encounter sexist attitudes and behaviour among men who consider themselves socialists. The analogy was drawn with racism – it is hard to imagine  a man with overtly racist attitudes being tolerated in any Left group, whereas sexist men are.  Thus much of our work within Left groups on the levels of both theory and practice is reduced to a harrowing struggle with fellow members. It was mentioned that men on the Left are at least  “no worse”  than other men; but the expectation that they should rather be considerably better seems most valid. Linked with this problem is our awareness that the power structures against which we struggle as women tend to be replicated within many Left groups.

Finally, women expressed much anger at the often opportunistic attitude of Left groups to feminist issues and campaigns.

There were definite differences in the strength with which different women voiced criticism of this nature, and in the conclusions drawn from them. Some women, mainly those present in the aligned Left, felt that activity meaningful from a socialist feminist  perspective was possible, and indeed occurring, within Left groups. While aware of the need for further development, they were appreciative of the changes already wrought by feminists within the Left. On the other hand, some women felt the attitudes of many members of the aligned Left to be so alienating that they could not work productively within these frameworks. Some criticism of the women members of the aligned Left were also voiced. Some women felt that many of these women tended to internalise what they saw as the false dichotomy of the organised Left between feminism and socialism. Such dichotomy was seen to differentiate between the “real, gut” problems of socialism and the “secondary” ones of socialism. In addition, some women felt that the presence of aligned women with clearly articulated programmes may sometimes stifle attempts to formulate an independent socialist feminist perspective.

While such differences exist and need to be analysed further, most groups resorted a strong tendency to reaffirm the need for socialist feminists to work  on developing  a theoretical perspective  which will reflect our own particular position  with relation  to socialism and feminism. The feeling was that such a perspective must primarily provide common ground where it is both necessary and legitimate to discuss all issues as relevant to socialist feminists. In other word, we socialist feminists must articulate our own identity through a growing and flexible set of ideas rather than a dogmatic “line”. Women seemed to feel that such an analysis should concentrate on the relations between patriarchy and capitalism, together with the relevance of each separately and both together for revolutionary theory and practice.

Secondly, the feminist realisation that the personal is political should be integrated into socialist discussion  of the nature and role of revolutionary consciousness and the forms of political practice.

Finally, the issue of structure was widely discussed. We felt that Left groups are often organised on an over-rigid hierarchical basis which could be  identified with patterns of male dominance. The WLM has always maintained a certain structurelessness as an essential part of its identity. Some women felt that this detrimental to effective work and its own way  can become tyrannical. Must we equate structure with hierarchy? Is it possible to develop  the kind of structure which fill facilitate  organisation with falling into those power and leadership patterns which we as feminists reject in Left groups.

To summarise, out of all this discussion emerged definite strategy and theory which will create and serve a socialist feminist identity in theory practice.

 

This conference was also reported in Spare Rib, 68, March 1978

Miles from Miles End by Ruthie Petrie

 Women still shudder at the last Women and Socialism National Conference  at Mile End, London 1976. So the Socialist Feminist Conference in Manchester loomed up with many of us feeling a mixture of guarded anticipation and anxiety. We knew it wouldn’t be a repeat performance of disunity and domination of left-wing groups, of huge open sessions in which we were engulfed by papers declaring fixed positions with no discussion. But nor did anyone feel certain that the resurgence of socialist- feminism, expressing itself through local action and/or study groups, regional meetings and educational, would allow us a wider optimism.

Overall, the concern seemed to be concerned with questions of structure and organisation at the expense of much that was new in theory and strategy. And there was no Eurekas for a new way forward. So why did most of us come away feeling optimistic and reinforced? Well, there were 1000 women and that was impressive. In Saturday’s conference we talked about what it means to define ourselves socialists and feminists, what our place within the Women’s Liberation Movement, and our relationship to the left as well as whether we wanted a national structure, and if so, what sort. On Sunday, the workshops dealt with more concrete themes and campaigns. Exchanges about hospital closures, rape, Women’s Aid, reproduction, Ireland – and much more – were amicable and constructive. Then, too, a decision was taken to hold a conference next spring, and Scarlet Women will shift away from being a socialist-feminist bulletin to becoming a discussion journal. It’ll have an enlarged contributing network through regional correspondents, a more regular schedule and be circulated through feminist outlets and shops rather than just by subscription.

Concrete activities are emerging from it too. New groups to discuss future strategy, and new socialist-feminist groups  have begun meeting. So it seemed a confirming and consolidating weekend.

 

Socialist Feminism by Anne Torode

Spare Rib, May 1979

When I was asked to write this article about how I saw socialist  feminism  for a discussion on tendencies in the women’s liberation movement (WLM) I  must admit to feeling a bit wary.  One reason why our movement is so vital is because we are talking and thinking about our lives, and our feminist understanding is developing as we struggle  – often painfully – with our personal circumstances. The theory and practice that is emerging that is emerging from this struggle is for real – we have never postured nor adopted ‘positions’ on finer points of theory to bolster our revolutionary self-image. Our movement will continue to grow only if we remain flexible to women’s experience. I think it would be really bad if the labels we give ourselves stop us from identifying against a common female oppression. (The labels, of course, do not refer to class differences with the WLM. As a movement we must be very clear about how class affects women’s experience of their oppression as women.)

I am aware that many sisters identify socialist feminism with traditional left politics, seeing as a liberal tendency, a watering down of feminist consciousness, an attempt by the left to define the terms of our struggle, and that the typical socialist feminist is assumed to be ‘into men’  or at the least  ‘putting her energies into men.’

For me, socialist feminism  is a redefinition  of socialist aspiration; I see it as a synthesis incorporating the feminist perspective into a socialist analysis. Socialist feminism is about the using the Marxist method of analysis to look at the how and why of female oppression, and to see how our oppression relates to class oppression. And from this, how the struggles of women relate to the struggles of the working class and to those all of the oppressed.

I do not think of socialist feminism as a liberal accommodation to male powered – ‘socialist’ is not another word for liberal. The ‘socialist’ bit does not qualify or limit feminism in any way, rather feminism informs and enriches socialism. It is certainly not another way of saying that men are oppressed too! Men are not oppressed as a sex .

The working class is oppressed, yet.  But ‘working class’ and ‘men’ are not interchangeable concepts. Men may be oppressed because they are gas, black and/or working class, but women experience these forms of oppression as well. Men have power over women and though the male sex role (again, not a term  interchangeable with ‘worker’) may distort  and cramp a man’s potential, I would not call this oppression, but merely the price they have to pay for male power.

When I first got involved with feminism in 1968, my husband and other left men used to ask how a white middle class woman who didn’t even have to work (I had two small children at the time!) could say she was oppressed – what about the Vietnamese /blacks/coalminers. But I read feminist publications, in particular the journals of the Boston women’s group, and what they were saying related directly to my experience. They were asking my own questions – why did I feel so lousy considering I was really ‘happy’, why was  my housework overlooked, why were people who produced people so undervalued compared to people  who produced things,  why was sex seen in terms of men’s needs, why did I have so little control over the birth of my baby??  These were non-questions to the left.  The men I know got so indignant at my new-found feminism that I sometimes felt that they were themselves Vietnamese, blacks or coal-miners.  All the weight of socialist authority was behind their anger. These white middle class men were presuming to define what was socialist and what was not!

But I had spent years on the left too and i was heartily sick of its dogmatic approach to revolutionary practice.  The left’s ‘class analysis’  identified the working class as those  men  working at the point of production and the class struggle  as their  struggle for higher wages. Until the Vietnamese was brought masses of people onto the streets in support of a foreign revolution, this limited view of class struggle was taken to be the be-all and end-all of the revolutionary process.

Much of the feminist stuff I read was critical of the traditional left to the extent of rejecting Marxism, but I felt why leave the definition of socialism to these left men. Marxism belongs to the oppressed – to women, the working class, the black movement. We could use it to help us understand the causes of our oppression and the nature of the system we were up against. In this way, Marxism would again become a living theory, a revolutionary guide to action.

I began thinking about oppression.  The black  power movement said that blacks were colonised by whites  in that they had internalised white racism…And weren’t we colonised by men insofar as we internalised their view of us existing to serve their needs. ? Oppressed people are reduced to object status because we are useful to  our oppressors. This was clear  in the case of blacks and the working class, but what about women? It is true that we service men in the home, but why do we  service men in the home – why were we oppressed in the first place?

As a marxist this seem to me to be a key question. I didn’t  think it was enough to describe  how we felt oppressed or even to identify how our oppression served the interests of the capitalist class. Female oppression and class oppression predate the development of the capitalist system. We had been living in a patriarchal class-divided society for thousands of years before the advent of capitalist class rule. If we restricted our analysis to the position of women today we could miss the basic horror of our situation and end up talking about sex roles instead of oppression.

The idea that men and women were both unable to express their potential because of their sex roles always worried me – it was a way of glossing over the problem. It was our job to go beyond the appearance of things, to their essence, as Marx did in analysis of the working of capital. But although he devoted books to explaining how capitalists exploited by paying them less in wages for the use of their labour power than they produced in value-profit for their employers, marxism as a method is more than a description of capitalism. It is historical method which goes right back to uncover the cause of class oppression. This was, and is, often overlooked by marxists and non-marxists alike and there was, and is, a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class oppression to a question of the economic exploitation of workers in capitalism.

I felt that the feminist understanding of oppression tied in with Marx’s conception and that this would enrich the limited perspective of the left. Socialist feminists  could challenge the notion that the system we were fighting was the capitalist production process, by talking about class society. It was only by going back into our history that we could uncover the root cause of our oppression and see how female oppression inter-related  with class oppression over time.

So why were we oppressed? The most illuminating book i read at this time was Briffault’s The Mothers.  According to him, what men needed from women was paternity rights in women’s children. In earliest times women and their children lived in matriarchal clans with their maternal uncles and brothers. They didn’t live in family units headed by husband/father. They were autonomous and their bodies were their own. They came under male authority only when men began to accumulate property. The creation of the father family gave men control over women’s capacity to reproduce and thus ‘legitimate’ heirs to their wealth. It was from this family system, which allowed for the private accumulation of property over generations, that class society developed. When men alienated our reproductive power, they gained control of our lives, our bodies and sexuality and our productivity. I remember fantasising about life in a matriarchal clan, imagining a system where mothers had high status and didn’t have to keep the peace with men  for the sake of the children, a system where our sexuality did not belong to men…

It was clear then that class oppression rests on our oppression and that the family, long ignored by the left as peripheral to the class structure, is in fact the basic institution of the whole system.

However, whereas I think that female oppression underpins class society, I wouldn’t agree with those feminists who explain the functioning  of the system  in terms of male power alone – nor do I think you can talk about dual systems  of oppression with economic class exploitation  running parallel  to sex class exploitation. I know that revolutionary feminists will say that we are oppressed as class, but I find this notion confusing and unnecessary. I prefer the term female oppression because it seems more powerful to me than the idea of sex class.

Female and class oppression are integrated and historically related  – the one developed out of the other for very real material reasons, not because, as I have heard argued on occasions, men developed a taste for power after they had taken control of our lives. Because our oppression is so fundamental to the system, there might be seem to be a case for suggesting that women alone can overthrow existing social relations, that all we need is a feminist revolution. To me that is not just on.

But I think people who counterpose socialism and feminism, and then say all we need is a socialist revolution, are wide off the mark too. I don’t see how socialism and  feminism can be counterposed, because I don’t think you can have a socialism which doesn’t  include the feminist perspective (though naturally, I can see why some feminists reject socialism, given the history of left attitudes to the WLM). The socialist struggle is to the struggle of all oppressed people to take back control of their lives from patriarchal class society.

Feminism is the specific interest of women of women within that struggle – an interest that ought to inform at a very basic level the way all oppressed people organise and the kind of demands they put forward. Ought to…but in practice women have to fight on two fronts – whatever else we’re involved in, we also have battle for our specific interest to be recognised. We’d all agree that the working class can’t free women, hence the autonomous women’s movement – but the class needs the power of women to free itself. We can’t free the class for we couldn’t possibly dismantle the class structure on our own, but we do need the power of the class behind our fight for liberation. Class power is the lynchpin of the revolutionary process, but not its sole element.

To be successful these struggles have to be interdependent. The depth of understanding that would be generated in the course of such a total challenge to the system would mean that we’d bring about a real socialist society where children would no longer be seen as either as the property of their family or as a potential  labour power for the bosses; where women would control their reproductive power (ie capacity to reproduce) , their bodies and their sexuality…Meanwhile back to grim reality. We have responsibility for children but little control over the conditions in which we bring them up or in which they will have to live…Campaigns which challenge male and/or maternal role are central to our struggle.

It may seem strange that anyone could possibly think that control over the conditions in which women live as mothers was a central issue for feminism. Because patriarchal class society defines and contains us as mothers and puts us down for our reproductive function, it’s easy to react by saying we should define ourselves as anything but mothers. I reckon we should say that as a sex we do have the capacity  to reproduce, that it belongs to us, not patriarchy, and we intend to fight over control , whether we as individuals have children or not.

Even thinking about mothers losing their children to men or to the state makes my blood boil. I spent two years fighting over the custody of my boys and now I only have them for the weekend. I live alone and I sometime wonder if I’d be ‘happily’ married if it wasn’t for feminism. What I do know is that I’d be lost without my sisters and the struggle. Which brings me back to the beginning. If we want to feel the power of women coming out for themselves, then our movement must be a’ home’ for women. For our own survival we need a real alternative to all the shit we’re offered now. Sisterhood is more than a revolutionary consciousness, it is our collective strength against the system, our lifeline and that’s why factionalism must never be allowed to tear us apart.