Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World


[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was published in ZMag February 1, 2006.]

The Z Classics series is intended to chronicle the many contributions activsts and scholars have made to current inclusive revolutionary theory, vision, and strategy. Sheila Rowbotham’s book, Woman’s Consiousness, Man’s World, excerpted here, was published in 1973 by Penguin. It was a groundbreaking contribution to a new left politics inclusive of gender, class, and race—and in that respect it was a revolutionary challenge to capitalist structures as well as to the male left of the 1960s and early 1970s. 

T he capitalist mode of production has penetrated farther and deeper than any other form of production. Geographically it has extended its technology in search of markets; politically it has devised the most ingenious methods of control in its own interests; economically it has created means of production, which are wonderful in their pro-ductive capacity and terrifying in their devastation. Its industry has devoured human labor power and human intelligence. In its search for raw materials it has laid waste the land and is beginning to exhaust even the sea. Worse, its version of itself has entered the souls and spirits of millions of men and women, so we no longer know what is our own and what is alienated to capital. 

The antagonisms it generates produce the shifts and fissures that make the growth of new move- ments possible. In quiet times the hope of liberation grows lichen- like on inhospitable rock. In times of upheaval new growths can take root. In order to change capitalism we have to understand how it is made, how it moves, and how it came into being. We have to see how it is different from, or related to, other forms of production, how it is hinged together. It is a foxy old thing, wily at dealing with the opposition it brings into being, whether its opponent is the working class or movements for black or women’s liberation. 

The predicament of being born a woman in capitalism is specific. The social situation of women and the way in which we learn to be feminine is peculiar to us. Men do not share it, consequently we cannot be simply included under the general heading of "mankind." The only claim that this word has to be general comes from the dominance of men in society. As the rulers they presume to define others by their own criteria. 

Women are not the same as other oppressed groups. Unlike the working class which has no need for the capitalist under socialism, the liberation of women does not mean that men will be eliminated. Sex and class are not the same. Similarly people from oppressed races have a memory of a cultural alternative somewhere in the past. Women have only myths made by men. We have to recognize our biological distinctness but this does not mean that we should become involved in an illusory hunt for our lost "nature." 

The oppression of women differs too from class and race because it has not come out of capitalism and imperialism. The sexual division of labor and the possession of women by men predates capitalism. Patriarchal authority is based on male control over the woman’s productive capacity, and over her person. This control existed before the development of capitalist commodity production. It belonged to a society in which the persons of human beings were owned by others. Patriarchy, however, is contradicted by the dominant mode of production in capitalism because in capitalism the owner of capital owns and controls the labor power but not the persons of his laborers.

In order to act effectively we have to try to work out the precise relationship between the patriarchal dominance of men over women, and the property relations which come from this, to class exploitation and racism. In order to understand the traces of patriarchy which have persisted into the present, it is essential to see what part patriarchy played in pre-capitalist society. The dominance of men over women in the past was more clearly a property relation than it is now. When a man married in a society in which production was only marginally beyond subsistence, he married a "yoke-fellow" whose labor was crucial if he were to prosper. Her procreative capacity was important not only because of the high infant mortality rate but also because children meant more hands to labor. 

The family was a collective working group. The father was its head, but for survival the labor of wife and children was necessary. The introduction of individual wages and the end of the ownership of people in serfdom did not dissolve the economic and social control of men over women. The man remained the head of the family unit of production and he retained control over the ownership of property through primogeniture. Both his wife’s capacity to labor and her capacity to bear his children were still part of his stock in the world. Moreover, the notion that this was part of the order of things was firmly embedded in all political, religious, and educational institutions. 

A lthough capitalism temporarily strengthened the control over women by middle- and upper-class men in the nineteenth century by removing them from production, it has tended to whittle away at the economic and ideological basis of patriarchy. As wage labor became general and the idea spread in society that it was unjust to own other people, although the exploitation of their labor power was considered perfectly fair, the position of the daughter and the wife appeared increasingly anomalous. Ironically, middle-class women came to the conviction that their dependence on men and the protection of patriarchal authority were intolerable precisely at a time when the separation of work from home was shattering the economic basis of patriarchy among the working class. The factories meant that the economic hold of men over women in the working-class family was weakened. Machinery meant that tasks formerly done by men could be done by women. The woman’s wage packet gave her some independence. Ideologically, however, men’s hold persisted among workers and was nurtured by the male ruling class. 

Subsequently by continually reducing the scope of production, by developing the separation between home and work, and by reducing the time spent in procreation, a great army of women workers has been "freed" for exploitation in the commodity system. This integration of married women into the labor market has been especially noticeable in the advanced capitalist countries since the Second World War….  The result in terms of women’s consciousness at work is only now beginning to be felt. While the dissolution of the extended kinship networks has produced in the nuclear family a streamlined unit suitable for modern capitalism, it has forced an examination of the relationships of man to woman and parent to child. 

The struggle of the early feminist movement for legal and political equality and the assumptions it has bequeathed to women now, despite the degeneration of its radical impulse, have strained the hold of patriarchy in the capitalist state, though without dislodging it. The power of the working class within capitalism and the growth of new kinds of political movements recently, particularly for black liberation, have touched the consciousness of women and brought many of us to question the domination of men over women. This has taken a political shape, in the new feminism of women’s liberation. 

The development of contraceptive technology in capitalism means that ideas of sexual liberation can begin to be realized. The fact that sexual pleasure now need not necessarily result in procreation means a new dimension of liberation in the relation of men and women is possible. It also removes some of patriarchy’s most important sanctions against rebellion. The right to determine our own sexuality, to control when or if we want to give birth, and to choose who and how we want to love are central in both women’s liberation and in gay liberation. All these are most subversive to patriarchy. 

However, although capitalism has itself eroded patriarchy and has brought into being movements and ideas which are both anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal, it still maintains the subordination of women as a group. Patriarchy has continued in capitalism as an ever present prop in time of need. Although women are not literally the property of men, the continuation of female production in the family means that women have not yet even won the right to be exploited equally. The wage system in capitalism has continued to be structured according to the assumption that women’s labor is worth half that of men on the market. Behind this is the idea that women are somehow owned by men who should support them. Women are thus seen as economic attachments to men, not quite as free laborers. Their wage is still seen as supplementary. If a woman has no man she is seen as a sexual failure and the inference is often that she is a slut as well. She also has to struggle to bring up a family alone, on half a man’s income. This very simple economic fact about the position of women in capitalism acts as a bribe to keep women with men: it has no regard for feeling or suffering and makes a mockery of any notion of choice or control over how we live. It also means that women make up a convenient reserve army which will work at half pay and can be reabsorbed back into the family if there is unemployment.

Equal pay is obviously only the beginning of an answer to this. The inequality of women at work is built into the structure of capitalist production and the division of labor in industry and in the family. The equality of women to men, even the equal exploitation of women in capitalism, would require such fundamental changes in work and at home that it is very hard to imagine how they could be effected while capitalism survives. 

O ur labor in the family goes unrecognized except as an excuse to keep us out of the better jobs in industry and accuse us of absenteeism and unreliability. This separation between home and work, together with the responsibility of women for housework and child care, serves to perpetuate inequality. Women, as a group in the labor force, are badly paid and underprivileged. This is not only economically profitable to capitalism, it has proved a useful political safety valve. It is quite handy for capitalism if wives can be persuaded to oppose their husbands on strike or if men console themselves for their lack of control at work with the right to be master in their own home. 

Because production in the family differs from commodity production we learn to feel that it is not quite work. This undermines our resentment and makes it harder to stress that it should be eliminated as much as possible not only by technology, but by new styles of living, new buildings, and new forms of social care for the young, the sick, and the old. 

In capitalism housework and child care are lumped together. In fact they are completely different. Housework is drudgery, which is best reduced by mechanizing and socializing it, except for cooking, which can be shared. Caring for small children is important and absorbing work, which does not mean that one person should have to do it all the time. But we are taught to think there is something wrong with us if we seek any alternative. The lack of facilities for children and the rigid structuring of work and the division of labor between the sexes again makes choice impossible. 

Propaganda about our feminine role helps to make us accept this state of affairs. Values linger on after the social structures which conceived them. Our ideas of what is "feminine" are a strange bundle of assumptions, some of which belong to the Victorian middle class and others which simply rationalize the form patriarchy assumes in capitalism. Either way the notion of "femininity" is a convenient means of making us believe submission is somehow natural. When we get angry we are called hysterical. 

Thus, although capitalism has eroded the forms of production and property ownership which were the basis of patriarchy, it has still retained the domination of men over women in society. This domination continues to pervade economic, legal, social, and sexual life. 

It is not enough to struggle for particular reforms, important as these are. Unless we understand the relationship of the various elements within the structure of male-dominated capitalism, we will find the improvements we achieve are twisted against us or serve one group at the expense of the rest. For example, the wider dissemination of contraceptive information and the weakening of guilt about our sexuality have meant a major improvement in the lives of many women. However, the removal of fear alone is not enough because relations between the sexes are based on the ownership of property— property consisting not only of the woman’s labor in procreation, but also of her body. Therefore, while class, race, and sex domination remain a constituent element of relations between men and women, women and women, and men and men, these relations will continue to be distorted. Sexual liberation in capitalism can thus continue to be defined by men and also continue to be competitive. The only difference between this and the old set-up is that when patriarchy was secure, men measured their virility by the number of children they produced. Now they can apply more "suitable" means of assessing masculinity in a use-and-throw-away society and simply notch up sexual conquests. 

T here are other examples of feminist reforms being distorted by the structure of capitalist society. We are far from the situation of baby farms and state-controlled breeding, but these are the lines along which pure capitalism, shorn of the remnants of earlier forms of production, would develop. Similarly, one group of women can be bought off at the expense of another, young women against old, middle class against working class. If we are ready to settle for a slightly bigger bite of the existing cake for a privileged section, we will merely create gradations among the underprivileged. We will not change the context in which women are inferior. For instance, in Britain there has been some discussion about giving women better jobs in management and promoting secretaries because they will work harder for less pay. Capitalism is not based on the organization of production for people, but simply on the need to secure maximum profit. It is naive to expect that it will make exceptions of women.

It is impossible now to predict whether capitalism could accommodate itself to the complete elimination of all earlier forms of property and production and specifically to the abolition of patriarchy. But it is certain that the kind of accommodation it could make would provide no real solution for women when we are unable to labor in commodity production because we are pregnant: socially helpless people protected in capitalism are not only treated as parasites who are expected to show gratitude, but are under the direct power of the state. Also class and race cut across sexual oppression. A feminist movement that is confined to the specific oppression of women cannot, in isolation, end exploitation and imperialism. 

W e have to keep struggling to go beyond our own situation. This means recognizing that the emphases that have come out of women’s liberation are important not only to ourselves. The capacity to bring into conscious combination the unorganizable, those who distrust one another, who have been taught to despise themselves, and the connection that comes out of our practice between work and home, personal and political, are of vital significance to other movements in advanced capitalism. Similarly, the comprehension in women’s liberation of the delicate mechanism of communication between the structures of capitalist society and the most hidden part of our secret selves is too important not to become part of the general theory and practice of the Left. Women’s liberation has mounted an attack on precisely those areas where socialists have been slow to resist capitalism: authoritarian social relationships, sexuality and the family. We have to struggle for control not merely over the means of production but over the conditions of reproduction. 

The problem about how a revolutionary theory can come out of a day-to-day practice defined by the existence of capitalism has long bedeviled revolutionary socialism. The concept of the Leninist party as the conscious embodiment of an alternative has become dubious because the party in reality will still express the viewpoint of sections which are the stronger within capitalism, most obviously men, for example. Moreover, the party itself can become absorbed in the immediate problem of surviving within capitalism rather than in the task of exposing contradictions and seeking revolutionary transformation. The mobilization of new groups within capitalism against a specific form of oppression is thus very important, but more important still is the means of translating the experience of one group to another without merely annexing the weaker to the stronger. 

Thus it is not just groups that have a position of power at the point of production in the advanced sectors of the capitalist economy, but the organization of groups whose consciousness spans several dimensions of oppression that becomes crucial in a revolutionary movement. This is not an idealization of weakness. Women as a group are extremely vulnerable within capitalism, but because of our social situation we are forced to find the means of going beyond our own specific oppression. The blocks against us are very real; male domination permeates every organization within capitalism including trade unions and revolutionary groups, and the problem of how to safeguard our autonomy while making a strategy of organizing with men is a persistent dilemma in the women’s movement. 

Nor is this an evasion of the urgent problem of making an offensive organization which is capable of overcoming the tremendous resources of the advanced capitalist state. The substitution of the women’s movement for such an organization would be most evidently absurd. Although we have the capacity to go beyond our own predicament, and although alternatives must be continually drawn out of our day-to-day struggle to defend women against capitalism, neither our structure, nor our politics, are the same as those of a revolutionary organization. We come into women’s liberation out of our specific predicament as women, not as people who necessarily are committed to the creation of socialism. We are, moreover, essentially a partial organization representing a specific group. 

T here are no short-cuts. The making of a revolutionary socialist organization that is capable of taking the offensive without being either absorbed or smashed, which can at once safeguard the interests of the groups within it and not simply reproduce the structures of authority and domination that belong to capitalism, is a gigantic task. Autonomy and cohesive organization in the face of repression go uncomfortably together. The models of the past can help us, but do not fit the special problems of the modern capitalist state. However, the political process of making an effective movement for the liberation of women—which means a movement in which working- class women are in the majority—is an essential part of this task.  


Sheila Rowbotham—an activist in the early UK women’s liberation movement—is the author of numerous articles and books, including Women, Resistance and Revolution, Hidden From History, Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action , and Dignity and Daily Bread (with Swasti Mitter). She has taught at universitities in the U.S., Canada, France, and Holland.