Women, the family and the welfare state

First published: July 1995    

Since the Second World War the position of women in society has progressively advanced. The driving force of this was the mass entry of women into the workforce. But its consequences spread into all spheres of society – the education system, rights to divorce, abortion and contraception, equality legislation, legal, economic and property rights and the massive expansion of social provision via the welfare state. Today women face the first sustained attempt to roll back these gains, not by driving women out of the workforce, but by dismantling the welfare state.

This directly threatens the living standards and freedoms of millions of working class women, and thereby degrades the status of all women in society. That is why the attack on the welfare state is accompanied by a wave of ideological reaction – as with the way ‘single mothers’ have been demonised to justify benefit and housing cuts.

Dismantling the welfare state means transferring as much as possible of the costs of reproducing the labour force from society to individual family units, and within them women. That is why it deepens all class and social divisions among women, and also men – between those who can, and those who cannot replace public provision by individually buying private provision.

This anti-woman attack on the welfare state is being assiduously obscured by attempts to misrepresent what is in the interests of women and subvert the labour movement’s support for universal benefits and the welfare state. Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman have developed a pseudo-feminist discourse which claims that deregulation of the labour market is a ‘modernisation’ of the economy in the interests of women.

Others defended the Child Support Agency on the basis of ‘making men pay’, when its real impact and goal is to replace social provision for the upbringing of children with payments by individuals.

The Social Justice Commission justifies its vicious proposal to remove automatic benefit rights from single mothers with children over five with the argument that women are more financially independent if they work. The Commission proposes to raise women’s retirement age to 65 by arguing that women live longer than men and concedes the principle of taxing Child Benefit on the grounds that this would allow targeting of benefits to those most in need.

Given the attempts to disguise the real impact on women of the destruction of welfare provision, it is even more necessary to grasp the social relations which determine women’s position in society and how they have changed. In this first of two articles we look at how the family is central to the origins of women’s oppression.

The fundamental work explaining the historical lynch–pins of the position of women and its interrelationship with all other developments in society is Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels argues that the social position of women is rooted in the nature of the family as an institution of society.

The theoretical starting point of Engels’ examination is laid out at the beginning of the book: the production and reproduction of life are the determining factors of human history – the conditions under which people live are determined by the stage of development of the forces of production and the social form of the reproduction of human life, the family.

‘According to the materialist conception of history the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a two-fold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other.’

From this premise, Engels attempted a scientific understanding of the development of society by looking at the articulation of its main institutions. While stressing that the driving force of each fundamental change in society was the stage of development of the forces of production and the battle over the distribution of the social surplus, he outlined how each fundamental change in the mode of production brought with it a set of particular changes in the form of the state and of the family.

This begins at the first emergence of human society from ‘primitive communism’ into civilisation, with the first development of a significant social surplus, and the appearance of the first classes as one section of society seized control over the distribution of this social surplus.

Engels starts with the attempt to explain how it was that men, as opposed to women, gained this control, at the point at which class society emerged. ‘The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.’

Smashing the view that the family and the oppression of women were natural, existing from the first primitive development of human society, Engels argues that both the family and the oppression of women developed at a particular stage in the development of human society, the emergence of class society, and hence both could be transcended with the destruction of class society. ‘That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions… Woman occupied not only a free but also a highly respected position.’

While anthropological work has elaborated, refined and in some cases discarded some of the particular mechanisms that Engels considered as leading to this change in the status of women and the emergence of the patrilineal family, his fundamental argument has been reinforced, not weakened by subsequent research and understanding.

Engels argued from anthropological evidence suggesting that early societies were matrilineal and that the units of these societies were not individual families but broader kinship groups. They were not divided into economic classes, all property being held in common.

It was the overthrow of ‘mother right’ societies, alongside the emergence of private property, economic classes and a coercive centralised ‘state’ power in the form of ‘bodies of armed men’, that constituted ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children… This degraded position of women… has gradually been prettified and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form, but in no sense has it been abolished.’

The driving force for this entire development was a huge step forward in the productivity of human labour which produced for the first time a substantial social surplus, allowing a further development of the division of labour beyond the ‘natural’ division of labour.

It was this earliest division of labour – which had once regulated equality – that became itself the mechanism which secured the subordination of women.

The conclusion of Engels’ investigation led him to the unequivocal view that the oppression of women in society as a whole lay in the family system, in particular through their exclusion from social production that it entailed. Against the sanctified images of late 19th century ideological glorification of the family and the mother, Engels said: ‘The modern individual family is based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the woman; and modern society is a mass composed solely of individual families as its molecules… In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat’.

The path from the first emergence of the family to the family of modem capitalist society involved many changes and developments, including in the family’s organic relationship with the other structures of society, changes determined by changes in the mode of production and the development of the forces of production.

Even the word family/familia ‘did not originally signify the ideal of our modem philistine, which is a compound of sentimentality and domestic discord’ but ‘a household slave’ and specifically ‘the totality of slaves belonging to one individual’.

Monogamy became necessary to ensure children of undisputed paternity. This monogamous family – monogamous for the wife only – was the first form of the organisation of human relationships based on economic conditions – with it accordingly arose prostitution and adultery.

For the social position of women, the key historic development was that in this monogamous family domestic work – the upbringing of children, the reproduction of the workforce – became a private function, excluded from social production, with the wife becoming ‘the head female servant’ rather than an equal participant in society.

In feudal society this monogamous, patriarchal family was extended to the whole of society as family property, rights and responsibilities became the form whereby the social surplus itself was distributed. Family estates were the basic economic unit of society, with social and political forms corresponding directly to this form of property.

Similarly, women were therefore the property of the male head of the household. Harm to women was judged in the sense of damage to the property or status of the male head of the household. Laws on rape for instance were concerned with the protection of male property and were bracketed with the theft or harm to other such property.

Until the advent of capitalism, each development in the mode of production had strengthened the family and bonded women more firmly within it. Capitalism however is much more contradictory. The advance to capitalist production and the establishment of capital as the economic unit of society, disassociated the family from its fundamental economic role in society. The function of the family became different for each class.

Capitalist production, in transforming things into commodities, ended relations of obligation and duty, substituting the illusion of free choice and equality as the ideological bonding of society. The family ceased to be the key unit fixing the individual’s relationship to society. Capital, rather than inherited rights, determined social and economic position. For the working class in particular the function of the family was reduced to a defence against the worst ravages of capitalist brutality; with no property to inherit, the function of the family as a permanent element ensuring place and position in society came to an end.

Moreover, the very development of capitalist industry begins to break women out of the confines of the family.

It is in this way that capitalism as well as containing the seeds of its own destruction – like previous modes of production – also contains the seeds of destruction of the oppression of women and of the family as an economic unit of society.

Capitalist industry requires a large and flexible workforce. Capitalism first of all creates this proletariat from men from the peasantry. It is then obliged to draw women and other sources of labour into production. This creates the material basis to challenge the oppression of women. As Engels said: ‘The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree. And this has become possible only as a result of modern large-scale industry which not only permits of the participation of women but actually calls for it’.

By drawing women into paid employment, capitalism therefore begins the process of undermining the dependent and isolated position of women in the family. The entry of women into the workforce is in contradiction with their domestic role in the home.

But since the key role of the family under capitalism is the reproduction of labour power, both the economic function of this and the repressive and socialisation function, capitalism also acts to reinforce the family. Hence for instance the series of laws introduced by British capitalism in the 19th century to reinforce the family and regulate divorce, sexuality, education of children, forms of social welfare relief and to create a particular ideology of private and family life as an ideal.

In this materialist analysis, the family can only be replaced by a superior basis for human relations on the basis of a higher development of the productive forces. As Engels states, full freedom in human relations will only exist ‘when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence’. What will replace this system can only be speculated upon, to be answered by those who have grown up under such conditions who ‘will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it’.

The analysis developed by Engels that the family is an oppressive institution tied to the mode of production is essential to understand what is happening in it today and what needs to be done to fight women’s oppression.

The history of the post-war period is a striking confirmation of the theory advanced by Engels. Capital has dramatically begun the work of destroying the family and liberating women from its confines in the advanced economies, while at the same time proved incapable of delivering any alternative.

The scale of the transformation in women’s lives in the second half of the 20th century has to be grasped. Between 1881 and 1951 the number of women in work remained static at less than 30 per cent. Between 1951 and 1992 the percentage of all women in work rose from 27 per cent to 53 per cent. For women aged 35–44 the figure is 77 per cent.

This precipitated other enormous changes including legal reforms, the expansion of education and training to women, a radical shift in household, marriage and living patterns and has unleashed a range of political struggles by women. To take just one example, the greater economic independence of women was reflected in an enormous increase in divorce, from 80,000 in 1971, the first year under the divorce law reform, to 168,000 in 1990, three-quarters of which were initiated by women.

The post-war expansion of the welfare state was central to the nature of the political and social progress made by women. As a result of the welfare system, women’s involvement in paid work was accompanied by an increase in the degree of responsibility taken by the state and society collectively for what, to a much greater extent hitherto, has been seen as domestic tasks performed unpaid by women in the home. This included social provision for the care of the sick and aged, the education and care of children, and, through the benefits system, a meagre financial contribution to those responsibilities which remained with women.

The attacks on the welfare state by Conservative governments have already begun to reverse this process of socialisation of domestic tasks. The proposals in the report by the Commission for Social Justice to dismantle the welfare state would throw it into reverse. This would be an enormous defeat for women which would work its way through the fabric of women’s lives and status in society, with a huge impact on the working class as a whole.

The Commission for Social Justice’s agenda is to deepen the involvement of women in paid work, but by undermining the welfare state rob them of the safety net that ensured minimum levels of income, employment and social rights.

In the context of dramatic changes in household structures, particularly a huge increase in lone parent families in the last thirty years, this will drive women’s social position downwards, starting in economic terms. Such regressive action is incapable of reversing the historic trend towards the disintegration of the traditional family, but will deepen the class divisions among women and reverse the process of redistribution of wealth organised through the welfare state, from which working class women have benefited.

Those without access to highly paid work and the possibility to pay for services will find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly double workload while forced to work for minimal wages.