Tory Lord Spens graciously explained to the House of Lords recently that it wasn’t’ that he thought ‘married women shouldn’t be occupied, just that they shouldn’t compete in the market for paid jobs’.
In large parts of Britain one man in five will soon be unemployed as basic industries like steel and heavy engineering are dismantled. Small wonder that the Tories are coming out with the simple solution of sending women back into the home.
There are, of course some advantages for the Tories in having women unemployed rather than men: it doesn’t look as bad and it costs rather less. It doesn’t look as bad in that about half of all unemployed women don’t show up in the official figures. If they were to be included, unemployment in July 1980 would have been 2.4 million rather than the 1.9 million announced. Many married women are not registered as unemployed because they don’t get any unemployment pay. Nor are they entitled to supplementary benefit. So it is cheaper in a direct sense fi the unemployed are married women; in addition, there are the savings on nurseries, schools meals, play schemes and so on if the unemployed are mothers.
However, it would be wrong to take the Tory philosophy at face value. The Tories in general aren’t interested in solutions to unemployment; for them it is a strategy, not a problem to be overcome, and they aren’t directly concerned to pick on women rather than men.
The danger in the first instance, ironic as it may seem, comes from the trade union response to the general Tory offensive. Even though the unions deplore the threat to women’s jobs which arise from public expenditure cuts and from the new technology, the trade union movement still tends to see unemployment among women as a lesser evil and men’s jobs as the priority. In the thirties the TUC was anxious to see unemployed women pushed into ‘domestic service’ to prevent them competing with men for decent jobs. Today the process is much less explicitly sexist, but the results are much the same. Part-time jobs are sold off to ‘protect’ full-time workers; in white collar employment ‘natural wastage’ is accepted to ‘protect’ existing workers. In both cases it is jobs done by women that get lost in the trade off.
The result can be seen clearly in engineering and was already apparent under the last Labour government: it was women – particularly part-timers – who first bore the brunt of the crisis. Almost half the part-time jobs in electrical engineering which existed in 1974 had been lost three years later, while men held onto their jobs.
Though not for long. Having let over half the part-time women go and many of the full-time women, men’s jobs in electrical engineering are now disappearing fast as well.
The idea that men need their jobs more than women is still strongly held, even, unfortunately amongst militant women trade unionists. When a group of women at W.D & H.O Wills’ cigarette factory in Glasgow were recently asked, ‘If the factory had to pay off workers should women go first?’ over half said yes. Even though many were the main earners in their families, they still thought that men ought to be the ‘breadwinners’. They reckoned unemployment was worse for men because they would get more depressed than women by being forced to stay at home al day with children! May be that is true, but it isn’t surprising since men are constantly told they ought not to want to stay at home with their children and women are constantly told that they ought not to want anything else.
The myth – and it is a myth – that children suffer enormous damage if they are not looked after by their own mothers 24 hours a day from birth to the age of 3 or 4 is widely publicised at present. Studies which show what we all suspect – that children benefit from good quality nurseries from a young age and that millions of working class housewives stuck at home along with their children are clinically depressed as a result – are much less highlighted by the media. No wonder then that jobs for men and boys are seen to be the priority.
Allowing women to be made unemployed will not save jobs for men. In Nazi Germany there was a massive drive to throw women out of paid work; but it was rearmament, not the mass of housebound women, that eventually reduced unemployment amongst men. Getting rid of women can’t provide men with jobs at a living wage, for the average full-time manual woman’s wage is only £55 before tax, a bare £6 a week more than the short-term social security benefit for a family with two children.
Yet, even though women’s earnings are so low their wages are crucial to maintaining the living standard of every second working class family.
A quarter of the total income of these families comes from married women’s work; without it, one family in three with children would be in poverty. And still there would not be more jobs for men.
The Tories are attacking everybody’s right to paid work; they don’t necessarily want women out of work and men in. Rather they want to undermine women’s confidence in themselves as workers to ensure that women remain a cheap and flexible labour force, grateful for any work they can get.
But the strategy is much the same for men; by increasing men’s unemployment, the Tories want to reduce workers t a disorganised, subservient and immensely exploitable labour force. That task will be all the easier, the more men are forced through savage cuts in unemployment benefit and through that lack of work for married women, to accept large-scale wage cuts in order to get any work at all.
In asserting the right of women to paid work, we are not arguing for equal rights to unemployment but attacking the Tory solution to the economic crisis – unemployment. Women’s unemployment is no more acceptable than men’s.
The Tories task will all be easier the more they succeed in keeping women as an available second class cheap labour force, the more indeed they can set men against women.
Issue 44, pp.12-13