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The Left and the Fight for Women's Liberation

By Aileen O Carroll - Circa 1993.

This is a talk given to WSM meetings. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to start discussion. Also it maybe in a note form and has not been edited. Still I hope you find it useful. Other talks are here

(Draft 1 Europe C17th-1920)


The struggle for women's liberation has generally been bound up with other, wider social and economic changes. The first written evidence of equality with men being put seriously on the agenda was during the reformation starting in the sixteenth century. This questioning of established religion also bought the questioning of other long held beliefs.

Many women were involved with radical sects like the anabaptists and puritans. In 1547 a proclamation was issued in the city of London forbidding women to;

"meet together to babble and talk"

and instructing husbands to

"keep their wives in their houses"

The seventeenth century saw the publication of feminist tracts like;

"The women's sharpe revenge"
(by "Mary Tattle well and Joan Hit Him Home")

However the protestant religion quickly became established and the radical sects were wiped out and forced into emigration or obscurity. Protestantism was the ideology which informed the early development of capitalism.

The family became a tight-knit and less extended unit then it had been in medieval times. The father was absolutely dominant within the family group. Women were gradually closed off from those areas of business and trade were they had been active. Nobody nowadays has ever heard of a brewster or female brewer, they also lost their traditional role in medicine which became professional and totally male dominated. Other trades like midwifery and textiles which retained women were greatly downgraded.

A pattern was established which was to hold good throughout most of the development of capitalism. Richer women became used to a life of enforced leisure and isolation within the home-working women led lives of absolute drudgery in the factory and at home.

In some countries like France the rise of capitalism brought with it new ideas. These enlightenment ideas-as they were called basically revolved around equality for all men. Most of their philosophers, however, were viciously anti-women; lord Chesterfield describing them as;

"children of a larger growth"

Some upper and middleclass women were beginning to question their lack of education and the apparent uselessness of their lives.


The French revolution saw an outpouring of pamphlets calling for voting rights, divorce legislation, political rights and equal education-mostly addressed to the new parliament.

On the ground working women made their appearance in food riots. Indeed, these were to be virtually their only appearance on the history books for the next hundred or so years. As one historian (quoted by Tony Cliff) put it ;

"A bread riot without a woman is an inherent contradiction"

In 1793 they won price fixing from the republican government. Both working and middleclass women were heavily involved in The Revolutionary Republican Society. This was an organisation of the poorest sections of society- the unemployed, artisans, labourers and small traders. The working class in the sense of a large organised proletariat did not exist at that stage. The revolutionary republicans generally tried to drive things leftwards though without a clear idea of what exactly they were aiming for.

The revolutionary republicans soon found themselves repressed by the new government. Price controls were abandoned and further riots put down by force. Women were forced back into the home at the point of a gun and several years of famine followed.

The major theoretical development to come out of all this was Mary Wollstonecraft's ; "Vindication of the rights of women". This was the first systematic feminist analysis of women's oppression. The books main premise was if all men are equal why not all women?

It was the first book to argue for women as a group rather then on behalf of the individual writer; "I plead for my sex not myself" as she puts it. Though she identified and documented a history of oppression the book offers no real solutions besides a demand for more education. She even ends up hoping that men might become more generous;

"Would but men generously snap our chains and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience."


Socialism as a worked out set of ideas was now beginning to put in an appearance. The early Utopian socialists like Godwin (who considered himself an anarchist), Shelly, Blake, Robert Owen and others accepted the idea, at least, of women's equality. Within the early communes and co-operatives they tried to provide for full equality between the sexes.

William Thompson, the Irish Co-operativist and revolutionary published the first socialist analysis of women's oppression. This had the weighty title;

"An appeal of one half of the human race; women against the pretensions of the other half; men to retain them in civil and domestic slavery."

This was a reply to John Mills who opposed political rights for women.

Thompson argued that men couldn't look after women's interests for them. Child bearing and childrearing was the basis for women's oppression and that within marriage they had no legal or economic rights. He poured scorn in general on the idea of the happy family;

" the eternal prision house of the wife; the husband paints it as an abode of calm bliss, but takes care to find outside of doors, for his own use, a species of bliss, not quite so calm, but of a more varied and stimulating description."

He also believed that existing radicals had little to offer women;

" Where in all their schemes of liberty or despotism is the freedom of action for you"

It was the first time that women's liberation had been incorporated into a philosophy of social change which sought to liberate all.

Other utopian socialists fought for women's liberation including Fourier, anf Flora Tristan in France who was to conclud, just before her death, in 1848;

"I have nearly the whole world against me, men because I demand the emancipation of women, the owners because I demand the emancipation of wage earners."

Marx and Engels made an explicate connection between the orgins of class society and the oppression of women within the family, which I think we all know so I won't go into it any further. However they tended to see women's liberation in a very abstract way. Women were seen as a bench mark for society's progress in general. They had little specific role for women in their conception of revolution. There was no strategy to mobilise women in the fight for their own liberation.

Many in the first international were explicitly sexist and wished to exclude women. Prodhoun's followers were very vocal in this regard (Prodhoun himself was viciously anti-women). Though women could take part on theory in the international there was little attempt to encourage them and they were a tiny minority. Even the name "International Working Men's Association" speaks volumes.

The only specific women's issue raised was a brief debate on working conditions for women and children. The German social democrat refused to acknowledge women's rights in their 1875 Gotha programme. Marx did not even mention this in his attack on it.

The working women of Paris were heavily involved in the 1871 commune They were mobilised in the Women's Union for the Defence of Paris and For Aid to the Wounded".

As in many similar revolutionary situations the idea of women's work was not seriously challenged. So they spent time making soup, tending the wounded etc.

The men in the commune did little to reciprocate the revolutionary beliefs and efforts of the women. For example the elections to the commune were based on existing male, propertied suffrage. Marx claimed in the civil war that there was universal suffrage-in fact there certainly was not.

As Edith Thomas puts it "'Women incendiaries-quoted by Tony Cliff);

"The goals of the commune, set forth in a declaration to the French people, took no account of women's existence. The men of the commune did not foresee for a single moment that that women might have civil rights, any more then did their great forbears of 1789 and 1793 or the revolutionaries of 1848"

Thousands were massacred on the barricades including many women. One woman replied to the accusation of having killed 2 soldiers;

"may God forgive me for not having killed more."


Meanwhile the left remained good on theory-weak in practice. 'Women and Socialism" was written by August Bebel, the German Social Democrat, in 1879. Bebel had argued passionately for the inclusion of equal rights for women in the Gotha programme but they were not to be included in any programme until 1891.

In the book he connects women's oppression with;

"The whole social question"

as he terms it. He went beyond what many socialists held with at the time. He believed that women's oppression pre-dated capitalism and that there would have to be a long struggle towards equality after the revolution. He believed that women couldn't look to men to liberate them;

"women have as little to hope from men as the workman from the middleclass'

This is probably a good analogy; under Capitalism the middle class benefit from the exploitation of the working class without being directly responsible for it. He also recognised problems among his peers;

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