Workers' Liberty #58


Women, capitalism and socialism

The history of women under capitalism is rich with brave struggle, with victories and defeats. Janine Booth and Rosie Woods examine some of the events of the last century and a half of women's battles and highlight the lessons for socialists.

The capitalist system re-arranged the way production was organised, and completely changed women's lives. Previously, the household had been the centre of production: goods were made in and around the home. Now, goods would be produced in factories, and in far greater quantities. Large-scale industrialisation took over the manufacture of goods. But another essential part of the production process was left at home. Just as machines had to be cleaned, maintained and re-fuelled, so did workers. And just as worn-out machines needed to be replaced, so did worn-out workers. Housework and child-rearing continued in the home. Of course, we feed and clothe ourselves for our own benefit, as well as for the bosses. And although bringing up children is hard work, it is a labour of love. So we get on with it, and employers do not even have to pay for these services women provide for them by renewing the workforce from day to day and from one generation to the next.

Capitalism had not invented housework, but something significant had changed. Housework was no longer tied to the production process. It was now a distinct sphere, private and isolated. Building on prejudices that already existed, and taking advantage of women's biological role in childbirth, the new system allocated domestic work to women. The idea of "'breadwinners" (men) and "housewives" (women) came into being. But working class women could not survive on the work they did at home; many sought employment either in domestic service or in factories.

Financial necessity drove the working class woman towards waged work, from the earliest days of capitalism. The waged work available to women was the lowest paid, lowest in status, drudgery. Conditions of working and living were terrible, as the cities were overcrowded, filthy and without sanitation. Most female factory workers were unskilled or semi-skilled; in Germany, employers considered them "willig und billig", submissive and cheap.

Joesephine Butler argues that although simple sexist prejudice made some bosses exclude women, the over-riding factor in women's employment was the potential for exploitation: "Women, refused admission to [haberdashers'] shops on the pretext that they are not strong enough to lift bales of goods, have been afterwards traced to the occupations of dock porter and coal-heavers. In practice, the employments of women are not determined by their lightness, but by their low pay" (The Education and Employment of Women).

Reacting to the miserable existence of women workers, Ferdinand Lassalle, leader of the General German Workers' Association, argued that women should be barred from working in the factories. He put forward the wage fund theory, or iron law of wages. This theory held that there was only a certain, fixed amount of money to be paid out in wages: therefore there was no point in struggles for higher wages; and female labour would only lead to a cut in male workers' pay. Lassalle and his followers demanded that women be paid to work at home, and urged men to take strike action to keep women out of the workplace. The Lassalleans - or "proletarian anti-feminists" - added what we would now consider thoroughly sexist prejudices to their theories, claiming that "the rightful work of women and mothers is in the home and family... the woman and mother should stand for the cosiness and poetry of domestic life".

In the 1850s and '60s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined the debate on women's work in industry explaining why Lassalle's "iron law of wages" was wrong, and opposing his arguments against women working. They accused the proletarian anti-feminists of looking back to the old patriarchal household, instead of looking forward to social progress.

Marx and Engels argued that women's work was both an historical necessity and a pre-condition for achieving women's liberation. With the private and public spheres sharply separated, women had to break out from the private prison and find a place in the public sphere alongside men. However poor her conditions, a woman at work was not entirely dependent on one man. If a woman went out of the house and to work, she would come into contact with other working-class women and men; and she could take part in workplace struggles.

Engels argued that "to emancipate woman and make her the equal of man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labour and restricted to private domestic labour. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when women can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time" (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State).

However emancipation for women had to mean more than the right to be exploited in the factories as well as at home! Working class women were in a contradictory situation: they needed to earn money, but sexism stood in their way, and their conditions at work were appalling. This contradiction - and the opportunity to organise collectively - brought women into struggle.

On 23 June 1888, the newspaper The Link published an article - entitled 'White Slavery in London' - reporting the working conditions at Bryant and May's match factory in London's East End. Written by Fabian socialist Annie Besant, the article described the long hours of the women and girl workers, their poverty wages, the punitive system of fines that pared their meagre wages down yet further, violence from the foremen and the tedious, exhausting and downright dangerous nature of the work. Bryant and May threatened to sue for libel, and drafted a statement renouncing the article's claims which they instructed the matchgirls to sign. The girls refused and the alleged ringleader was sacked. The women in the department, and then in the whole factory, walked out on strike. Annie Besant helped to organise the strike: there were mass meetings, collection and distribution of strike money, and widespread support from the young trade union movement. On 18 July, Bryant and May conceded all the girls' demands. On 27 July, the women set up the Union of Women Matchmakers.

The matchmakers' success was a turning point for the workers' movement. Until then, many socialists (including Annie Besant) had thought that it was not worthwhile organising unskilled workers. Trade unionism had been based around protecting the privileges of particular crafts and skilled trades. Now it would be different. Yvonne Kapp, biographer of Eleanor Marx, wrote that "the Bryant and May strike... was the small spark that ignited the blaze of revolt and the wildfire spread of trade unionism among the unskilled". Many people date "New Unionism" from the "Dockers' Tanner" strike of 1889. This understates the role that working women played in shaping the British labour movement.

The German socialist women's movement

In the last decade of the 19th century, socialist women in Germany began to organise. Although Germany had repealed its Anti-Socialist Law in 1890, there were still Association Laws banning women from many forms of political activity alongside men. To get round these legal impediments socialist women ran education clubs for working class women and girls. They set up "agitation commissions", and then, when these were banned, they elected a network of socialist women organisers (Vertrauenspersonen). They held public meetings, and recruited women to the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

One of the SPD's leaders, Clara Zetkin, edited a socialist women's newspaper, Die Gleichheit. The paper was designed to be more than just a good read: it provided education and ammunition for women activists. There were notices of upcoming meetings and events in a column called the Working Women's Movement; there were descriptions of the conditions that women endured at work; and there were also articles explaining Marxist theory. Die Gleichheit was immensely popular, attaining a circulation of 124,000 by 1911.

The German socialist women firmly identified themselves as a movement for working class women, distinguishing themselves sharply from the numerous "bourgeois feminists" of the time. One particular issue - "protective legislation" - demonstrated the different views of the two movements. The socialists demanded that laws be introduced to protect women at work: for example, banning work at night and around the time of childbirth. Bourgeois feminists believed such laws would undermine their claims for formal equality for women.

Clara Zetkin firmly believed a cross-class women's movement was not possible. She argued that women of the capitalist class and women of the working class were engaged in entirely different struggles, for a different kind of liberation. Bourgeois women sought to win the right to compete with men of their own class on a "level playing field". Working class women had to struggle alongside men of their own class to abolish class society and liberate all humanity. Of course not all working class, or even socialist, men treated women as comrades! The women often complained of patronising and sexist treatment within their own party.

When the Association Law was repealed in 1908, the SPD's leadership took the opportunity to disband the women's organisation. The women's congress was cancelled, and all special structures for women closed down. This was not simply an attack by men on women; it was part of the offensive by a newly developed right wing in the SPD which wanted to "make peace with capitalism" against the left, with which the women's section was politically aligned. The SPD leaders gutted Die Gleichheit of its political content: they even forced it to include a fashion supplement!

The women objected to the party leadership's actions. Although the Association Law had forced them to organise separately at first, the women had come to value their autonomy, and campaigned to maintain it even after the repeal of the law. Experience had shown that a socialist movement needs to have a specific strategy to mobilise women, and the driving force would be the women's own activity.

The fight for universal suffrage

The German SPD campaigned for universal suffrage: votes for all adult men and women. Socialist parties in other European countries, such as Austria, campaigned for votes only for all men. Some feminists, too, stopped short of full political rights, and were prepared to accept "votes for ladies": that is, the right for property-owning women to vote. Clara Zetkin insisted on votes for all women and men. She argued that "votes for ladies" was not a "first step" to enfranchising all women, but a "final step" to enfranchising the whole of the capitalist class and thus would strengthen the power of the exploiting class over the exploited.

In Britain, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) - the most famous of the suffragette organisations - was also willing to support "votes for ladies". A cartoon in the WSPU's paper Votes for Women in 1912 compared the denial of votes to women with being forced to travel second class when one had a first class ticket: definitely a well-to-do lady's point of view! Sylvia Pankhurst, on the other hand, would settle for nothing less than universal suffrage, and turned her attention to organising the East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS). Christabel later forced Sylvia out of the WSPU for sharing public platforms with socialist men such as George Lansbury and James Connolly and for championing the rights of working class women.

Sylvia's East End suffragettes organised speakers' classes for working class women, indoor and outdoor public meetings, door-to-door canvassing and frequent, huge marches through East London and to Westminster. They sold thousands of copies of their weekly newspaper Woman's Dreadnought.

Christabel thought that working-class women were no use in the fight for the franchise. Sylvia responded: "Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working-women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that, comparatively, the leisured, comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working women a multitude. Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history."

It is tempting to look back and imagine a crusade for something so obviously right that no-one could disagree. But the suffragettes were fiercely attacked, physically, verbally, and with the full force of the law. Denied access to democratic channels, the suffragettes took up militant action, breaking windows, heckling Cabinet ministers and hunger striking. Some accused the women of harming their own prospects of success. Passing sentence on two window-breakers, a judge stated that "but for the mistaken action of a section of the women's franchise movement... a reasonable extension of the franchise to women would have been secured". It is much more likely that without militant action, politicians would have continued to ignore women's demands. Today, people still advise campaigners to moderate our behaviour so as not to damage our own cause: the suffragettes proved that this approach is mistaken.

By mid-1913, more than 2,000 suffragettes had spent time in prison. Many women prisoners took up a hunger and thirst strike, and prison officers brutally forced food and drink down their throats. The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913 provided for hunger strikers to be released until they regained a little strength, only to then be arrested and imprisoned again. The suffragettes called it the Cat and Mouse Act. Police attacks on the East End marches were so regular and so severe that campaigners held drill training and set up a "People's Army" to defend themselves. Women (and socialists) have fought for liberation in far harsher conditions than we face today!

Direct action was vital in winning votes for women, but the real difference between radicalism and conservatism was demonstrated by the different political directions taken by the leaders of the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst wanted only "votes for ladies", and she went on to support Britain's imperialist slaughter in the First World War, and joined the Conservative Party. Christabel urged the Tories to support votes for women in order to prevent the women's movement becoming too left wing. Sylvia however became a working-class champion and a communist.

What the Welfare State meant for women

The 1930s were years of bitter suffering for working class people in Britain and abroad. The Depression blighted lives with mass unemployment, slum housing and crushing poverty. In 1933, the Women's Health Committee surveyed 1250 working class mothers in Britain, and found anaemia, rheumatism, breast abscesses, varicose veins, constipation, phlebitis, bad teeth, neuralgia, backaches and gynaecological ailments. Women's death in childbirth was increasing, and 500 women died each year as a result of (illegal) abortions.

In 1945, when Hitler had been beaten, people were not prepared to return to the degradation and poverty of the years before the War. They elected a Labour government, which set up the Welfare State, nationalised important industries and pursued a policy of full employment.

The Welfare State - perhaps especially the National Health Service, set up in 1948 - made a big difference to women's lives. A friend's father remembers that before the NHS, a "doctor's pot" stood on the mantelpiece alongside the "rent pot". Spare money would be put in it when possible, for doctors' fees. The pot was for serious illnesses: his mother would usually take him to the pharmacist rather than the doctor, discuss his symptoms and buy a treatment.

The new Welfare State made parts of women's domestic role public concerns. The NHS provided care for the sick; state schools were free for the first time, and provided milk, meals and medical inspections; benefits stopped people falling into absolute poverty. Women's burden eased.

But the Welfare State was flawed. Benefits were set at a lower level than originally planned. Although women had worked in factories and fields during the war, the government's "full employment" meant full male employment. The benefits system treated women not as individuals but as men's dependants. Beveridge - the Liberal whose report had led to the creation of the Welfare State - believed that married women should not get benefits, and that divorced women should qualify only if the break-up was not their fault. Despite these things, the welfare state was an enormous victory for working class women and men.

Today the gains of the Welfare State which made such a great difference to women in Britain are under constant attack. Everything that was won is being clawed back for the benefit of the ruling class, to save money and make the workers pay. We can never be complacent about any victories, under capitalism - what you win one day, you have to fight to keep the next.

The modern women's movement

In the '50s and '60s, women's lives changed again. Washing machines, central heating, fridges and laundrettes arrived, making housework a little easier. More women worked for wages and more women went to college. Traditional moral restrictions relaxed, and advances in contraception meant women were no longer completely enslaved to their bodies.

But there are two sides to this story. Not everyone could afford a washing machine or a fridge. While more women worked, their jobs usually had low pay and were low status; work outside the home was regarded as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, housework. Working class women continued to be forced into backstreet abortions, as abortion remained illegal in Britain until 1967. Women with money could buy semi-legal, safe abortions.

Just as in the 19th century, the tensions, contradictions and double standards in women's lives propelled a new women's movement into life.

The new women's movement in Europe and the USA was encouraged by the growth of other radical movements: student protests in Europe, rebellions in Portuguese colonies in Africa, the French general strike of May '68, the movement against America's war in Vietnam. Feminism in the USA drew its inspiration and momentum from the struggles of black people, as it had in the previous century. On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Park, tired and laden with shopping, sat down on a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person. She defied the racist laws, and started the first bus boycott. Her single act of courage sparked a powerful black civil rights movement.

In the summer of 1968, women sewing machinists at Ford's in Dagenham, east London, went on strike for equal pay. The women, who made the upholstery of car seats, challenged Ford's sexist grading structure and demanded to be defined as skilled workers. They won a significant pay rise, but did not win the right to be graded as skilled workers. The Ford's strike prompted working women to set up the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights. It was an important event in the rebirth of feminism, which - at least in Britain, and at least initially - had strong involvement of working class women.

A conference of 600 women at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970 launched the women's liberation movement. The conference became an annual event, and the second, in 1971, agreed the four original demands of women's liberation: equal pay; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries under community control. The women's liberation movement inspired many thousands of women to speak up for their rights. It forced a big change in popular attitudes (or at least lip-service) to women and our role in society; it piled on the pressure for important legal advances, such as the 1975 Equal Pay Act. Women organised, met, marched, discussed and protested in numbers we have not seen since. But by the end of the decade, the women's movement had slowed to a halt and broken into fragments.

The movement had lost its focus on winning tangible, material gains for women. The emphasis had shifted to more personal matters. In the early days, the slogan, "the personal is political" proclaimed that issues which may seem personal, such as childcare, contraception, housework and domestic violence, were in fact political issues demanding political answers. But by the end of the 1970s, the slogan meant something completely different - that a feminist could only have an opinion on issues she had personally experienced, and that her personal life was open to political scrutiny. The 1978 women's liberation conference decided that "the right of every woman to a self-defined sexuality" should be made a preamble to all the other demands (which by then already included "an end to discrimination against lesbians"). A vague statement of principle, which placed no specific demand on government or any other institution, was promoted over and above demands that would have transformed the material conditions of millions of women's lives. This move, which many women at the conference opposed, caused such division amongst feminists that there were no more women's liberation conferences after 1978.

Radical feminism versus socialist feminism

The politics of "radical feminism" had come to dominate the women's movement. The radical feminists' view was that the basic divide in society was a gender divide; the problem was "patriarchy", a whole system of male power over women. They saw feminism as a struggle of all women against all men. The radical feminists conceded a fundamental point to the sexists: that men and women are naturally different, that there are unchangeable male and female natures. Their analysis reduced women's oppression to a matter of biology. They played down the idea that humans are social beings, shaped by our experiences; and that if we can change the conditions that shape people, then we can change both men and women. Radical feminism was essentially pessimistic about the prospects for women's liberation.

Radical feminism stressed "consciousness raising", and held that a woman's personal experience determined the validity of her opinions. Feminists became used to hearing speeches begin with "As a lesbian/black woman/survivor...". Susan Ardill and Sue O'Sullivan, writing in Feminist Review, described this as "a matter of rank determining righteousness"; the radical feminists were setting up hierarchies of oppression.

The women's movement became increasingly middle class in composition and outlook. It was less welcoming to working-class women. The radical feminists would not have anything to do with trade unions because they were male-dominated. They cut the women's movement off from the organisations which many working women looked to for protection at work (and in doing so, refused to help these women tackle the male domination).

Other women argued for a "cultural feminism", asserting "women's culture" against "male values", and talking about a "special world of women". They echoed the sexist stereotypes at the heart of women's subordination, and capitulated to reactionary ideas.

Radical and cultural feminism failed the women's movement because its "men versus women" outlook could not explain the range of oppression and conflict that exists. Neither could it provide strategies that inspired, involved - or even seemed relevant to - the big majority of women.

Socialist feminism, on the other hand, could have done both. Socialist feminists realised that women's liberation is impossible while society remains divided into classes, and that women are ourselves divided by class. They wanted women to fight not in isolation, but as part of a movement for a radically different world, free from sexual oppression and from class exploitation. An emphasis on the needs and demands of working class women - and on practical campaigning rather than navel-gazing - would bring in millions of those women, to swell the ranks and make a mighty movement. However "socialist feminism" as an independent political current was not strong enough to undertake this task. And not all socialist groups were willing to rise to the challenge.

Some socialist groups refused to identify as feminist or to get involved in the women's movement. Organisations such as the Militant (now the Socialist Party) and the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers' Party) argued that women's self-organisation was diversionary and caused unnecessary division between men and women. Other, smaller factions behaved in a sectarian, heavy-handed way towards the women's movement. As class is the basic driving force of oppression, men and women should fight in unity and not separately. They ignored the fact that the labour movement and the socialist movement have often been hostile to women's rights and that sexism is deep-rooted. Women need to organise independently to fight for their liberation especially when the labour movement does not prioritise these issues or take them seriously. The proper attitude for socialists is to relate seriously to these women's movements, champion their struggles and argue that they orientate to class politics. Unfortunately left groups tended to lecture the women's movement from the outside, telling activists they were doing it all wrong, rather than being involved and offering their ideas in a constructive way.

The International Marxist Group (IMG) did get involved in the women's movement. Along with others - including Workers' Liberty's forerunners - it was involved in the Working Women's Charter Campaign. But the IMG adopted a strategy of mobilising for single-issue campaigns such as that for abortion rights a campaign which eventually dissipated.

These experiences left many feminists - including many socialist feminists - hostile to socialist organisations. The left made similar mistakes with the general radicalisation that had taken place since the '60s. A generation of activists had become militant against capitalism, but were unimpressed by socialism. It was a tragic waste.

Women and the labour movement

Meanwhile, in 1976/77, the labour movement was learning an important lesson about women. Many people still believed that working class struggle meant strikes by white, male workers in industries with a tradition of militancy and strong trade union organisation. They believed that women only worked to supplement the breadwinners' wages and that black workers undercut white workers' wages; neither were interested in unions or strikes. The Grunwick strike crushed these myths.

Grunwick was a film processing plant in north London, whose workers were mainly women and mainly Asian. They worked in terrible conditions for poverty wages under a whip-cracking bully manager without the protection of a union. In the long, hot summer of 1976, the workload and the factory became unbearable. A few workers walked out, others joined them and so began a year-long strike for better conditions and union recognition.

When the women organised mass pickets, the police dispensed with "traditional values" of chivalry towards women. Grunwick's bosses could count on the police to brutalise the strikers, the media to demonise them, and the right wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF) to organise Grunwick's legal and political campaign. The strikers had their own mountainous courage and active solidarity from thousands of other workers. They found, however, that they could not rely on the leadership of the trade union movement, who let them down. Their strike was defeated.

We can learn lessons from our defeats as well as from our victories. We need to build a movement capable of organising independently of the leadership of the unions where necessary, and on the basis of such a movement we need to challenge for the leadership, to make our organisations fight for us.

Women Against Pit Closures and against Thatcher

A towering example of the predominance of the class divide over the notion of "sisterhood" was the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain's first woman Prime Minister in 1979. She pursued a political programme which was the precise opposite of everything feminists had demanded. Her Tory government closed hospitals, cut nursery provision, reduced benefits and pared social services to the bare minimum. It sold public industries to the private sector at bargain-basement prices. A generation of young people had little to look forward to other than unemployment or cheap labour schemes masquerading as "training".

Thatcher savagely proved that not all women can be relied on to stand up for all women! Thatcher governed without shame on behalf of the ruling class, deliberately increasing the burden and suffering of working class women. Under her rule, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And to stop the working class fighting back, the Tory government chained up the unions with a series of laws that made effective trade unionism illegal. Thatcher felt no sisterhood: she knew that class is decisive.

Unfortunately, the working class did not have leaders who fought as resolutely for the interests of our class as Thatcher did for hers.

The miners' strike of 1984/85 was an all-out battle between workers and the Thatcher government. And it was a battle which women fought from the front line. First, women provided essential practical services to the strikes, distributing food, setting up soup kitchens and looking after kids. Before long, the women were organising demonstrations, rallies and collections, and insisting on taking their place on the picket line alongside men. They burst out of the confines of the traditional "women's role" in strikes and became much more than a support group. Placards reminded people to "Never Underestimate Miners' Wives". Women took the strikers' message beyond the coalfields, travelling around Britain and overseas, speaking in public often for the first time.

The miners' strike was defeated after 12 months of hard-fought struggle. It is certain that the miners could not have fought so well or for so long without the strength of the women. Their courage made the leaders of the Labour Party and the other trade unions - who failed to deliver the solidarity that could have brought victory - look like the small, weak people that they are.

The miners' strike changed the men and women involved. Sylvia Jackson of the Keresley (Coventry) Miners' Wives Committee explained: "The coal mining industry is swamped in tradition, and the tradition is that it is a man's job and it's no place for a woman. But the attitudes have changed very much during the strike." The women changed too. One woman from South Yorkshire described it like this: "It was as though women had been asleep for hundreds of years. We awoke to a new awareness, a realisation of what we as women could do. It is only comparable to the suffragettes. I believe we are part of history being made."

After the strike, Women Against Pit Closures applied for associate member status in the men's union, the NUM. The men, defeated and demoralised, began to retreat to their old chauvinist ways. The application was rejected; women's placards outside the meeting remarked "Don't you have short memories?". It is remarkable how attitudes can change and prejudices drop through working class struggle. But the new, enlightened attitude is much more likely to stick if the struggle is successful. In defeat, reactionary ideas and old divisions reassert themselves as capitalism re-establishes its grip. Only the defeat of capitalism can bring about the beginning of the end for sexism.

The backlash and the future

Just when you thought that feminism was getting somewhere, that some of is ideas had been accepted, the backlash came. In 1986, a Harvard-Yale survey claimed that college-educated women over the age of 29 had less than a 20% chance of getting married (and assumed, naturally, that this was a bad thing). Although this survey has since been well and truly discredited, it started an avalanche. The media loved it, and "experts" added other, similar claims: for example, that women working full-time were lonely, unhappy and infertile. The backlash blamed feminism for everything from heart disease to hair loss. Its message was that equality and independence makes you miserable, feminism is bad for you, and that really you should get back to the home. Yet the reality of women's everyday lives means that this is not an option. The struggle for liberation will continue.

This whistle-stop tour of women's struggles under capitalism reveals a rich history. Women's lives have changed greatly, even in the last half-century. When our grandmothers brought up four children with no fridge, no TV, no disposable nappies and no access to a washing machine, their's was a typical woman's lot. Although, disgracefully, a few women in Britain still want for these things, most women's lives are much better.

Some feminists would have you believe that women have suffered oppression in exactly the same way throughout history. They suggest that nothing has changed and nothing ever will. They are mistaken. We cannot understand either women's position in society or the current issues in feminism without knowing something of how we got to where we are today. History casts women not just in the role of victims of oppression but as fighters against it. Women's movements have been motivated and affected by other movements against oppression too. Black people's struggles, for example, have inspired and been inspired by, given ideas to and taken ideas from, women's struggles.

Large movements of working class women have usually identified themselves firmly as part of the workers' movement, often distinct from, even opposed to, bourgeois feminist movements. And defeats for the workers' movement have brought defeats for women - whether inflicted by Tories, Stalinists, fascists or religious fundamentalists. The fate of feminism is so closely tied to the fate of the labour movement that you could not separate them if you tried (and plenty of people have tried).

Perhaps the loudest lesson from history is the importance of politics. Every decision, every rebellion, every strategy, every disagreement, every policy, every demand made by women has been a political matter. Much of our history is about struggle over politics and ideology, not just over economic demands. The choice of one political direction over another has made the difference between victory or defeat. And rejecting politics - as unpleasant, unnecessary or "male" - has merely allnwed others to take control, dominate and defeat us. There is another history, not covered here, of women's involvement in right wing movements. Women have mobilised as fascists, anti-abortionists, Thatcherites; women have supported imperialist wars and have organised strike-breaking. It is not just struggle that is important: it is politics.

Women have had to struggle against oppression which we should never have been made to suffer in the first place. We have not been able to choose the conditions in which we have struggled. Nevertheless, history has been pushed forward by the deliberate actions of women. We face the same choices today: to fight oppression or to accept it; to organise with others or to stand alone; to learn from history or to repeat its mistakes; to try to determine the future or to just let it happen to you.

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