Mar 23 2002

International Working Women’s Day – Some thoughts

Category: Issue 01RCN @ 7:50 pm

As communists and progressives around the world celebrate International Working Women’s Day, Linda Gibson argues that, under capitalism, gender roles lead to an artificial division in emotional development.

As International Women’s Day comes around articles will again be written about how women are still not achieving parity with men. And of course that’s true but I want to look at things from a slightly different angle. I don’t want to be equal with men if that means having the right [and being expected] to work full time; if that means developing a male emotional psyche – or even if it means fighting to have a female emotional psyche validated in the workplace. The fight to be equally exploited and dehumanised by the needs of modern capitalist society is the wrong fight. [And, increasingly, we are facing a capitalism that has to squeeze more and more out of us to maintain itself.] Of course we, as communists, should be fighting to abolish all wage slavery; but even within the present system we can and should challenge the notion that what women need is to be equal with men, as men currently are. Because men aren’t brought up to be fully human – neither are women. We are socialised into our respective gender roles, each of which prepares us to operate in our given sphere. Of course this is a massive simplification and generalisation; people are much more complex than that. I also acknowledge the complications and contradictions of the class versus gender debate. However there is still enough of a socialised and internalised division between men and women to be able to use that as a starting point to look at what kind of change we really want to fight for.

Emotional development reflects the needs of capitalism

It might be argued that throughout time men and women have always been allocated different tasks and roles and have had different and differing status based on this. [For example, I quite liked the notion that in the beginning women were revered as goddesses and worshipped because they produced live mini-humans! Then men figured out that they had something to do with it and things haven’t been the same since!!] However, in the last couple of hundred years task or work related divisions have been intricately linked to the emotional. The emotional development of men and of women was to reflect the needs of capitalism. Women were to be at home with the children, being caring and nurturing and men were to be out in the world of work, being strong and rational. Even when contradictions became obvious, such as the need for working class women to ‘work’so that middle class women could be leisured, the middle class bourgeois ideal was upheld as something to aspire to.

Man for the field and woman for the hearth; Man for the sword and for the needle she; Man with the head and woman with the heart; Man to command and woman to obey; All else confusion.

Extract from The Princess by Alfred Lord Tennyson [1847] and 100 years later:

There is no doubt in the minds of the General Council that home is one of the most important spheres for a woman worker and it would be doing a grave injury to the life of the nation if women were persuaded or forced to neglect their domestic duties in order to enter industry, particularly where there are young children to cater for.

Trades Union Council [1947] These two extracts highlight the conditioning of women into separate spheres, even in the working class movement.

More recently bourgeois liberals have been challenging some of these divisions. We’ve seen the rise of the new man more in touch with his emotions and more involved in bringing up his children. Women have the right to a full-time job or career. However, for most women in this position the result has been even more exploitation in the form of double-work. This means being home maker as well as career woman, struggling with the guilt of neglecting their nurturing responsibilities at home and of allowing home life to intrude upon the world of work. Of course a lot of these bourgeois developments don’t touch our class. Many working class women have been doubleworking all along, their income essential to the family’s survival. And millions of working class men have lived with long term unemployment and the devastating effects that has had on a male psyche that has identity and purpose so tied up with work, job or career.

So men and women need to join together to fight for the right not to have to work full time and to fight for the right to develop and express the full range of our emotional being. Just as we work to challenge and change the relations of production, we must challenge the divisions and separations that stunt our emotional development. That isn’t to demand that men are more in touch with their feminine side – we must challenge the separation of certain emotions into masculine and feminine constructs. The left in particular needs to look at emotional development and how much that hinders our class. Of the many obstacles we need to overcome in order to overthrow capitalism the most unacknowledged are our psychological and emotional barriers. Our emotional development is where we internalise our own oppression and yet it’s accepted by many on the left that the emotional isn’t important – that it’s not real politics. For example for women to be real proper politicos they have to subsume the emotional to the rational and purely political [if there ever can be such a thing]. But this is to internalise middle class capitalistic values. For the rise of capitalism it became necessary to suppress and devalue the emotional. In order to exploit and compete in huge scale capitalism owners of production and wealth had to overcome and suppress their capacity to feel for others, to empathise. Hence the rise of the notion of the angel in the house, home as a haven from the harsh outside world of business, commerce and public office. The caring, nurturing, emotional side of humanity was deposited in women – men were to be the aggressive, competitive, unemotional ones. This was necessary for the maintenance and development of the mass exploitation of the working class [even paternalistic landowners were allowed to care about their workers and were seen to have obligations towards them].

Meaningful way of contributing to society’s needs

However, I’m also challenging the notion of what work is and why women are demanding the same as men in this sense – we should be arguing alongside men for a more meaningful way of contributing to what our community and society needs and wants. Even under the present system we can demand that parttime well-paid work becomes the norm for men and for women. This would allow for a more equitable distribution of the pleasures and responsibilities of life. Then the construction of genderroles with its artificial divisions in emotional development would become unnecessary. Men and women have an equal right to experience and express the full range of human emotions – and to express them openly.

Thus I would argue that to challenge capitalism, and within that to fight for gender equality, we need to look at our own emotional conditioning. The women’s movement talked of the personal being political, I’m arguing that the emotional is political, and that to challenge our internalised views of the importance of the emotional is a truly revolutionary thing to do. Emotionally, equality isn’t about men being seen to be crying on the football pitch, or about young women becoming laddettes. It’s about what’s usually dubbed the emotional being given equal consideration with the rational. We need both.

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