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International Socialist Review, Summer 1962


Melba Baker

Women Who Work


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.3, Summer 1962, pp.80-83, 90.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Discrimination against women in the US is profitable for some but costly for others. What is the extent of this problem and what is the prospect for its solution?

* * *

THE material conditions for the complete emancipation of woman have long existed. But it has been only in the last few decades that woman’s strategic position, her assimilation in industry, has so altered as to make that emancipation an urgent necessity.

For many centuries, the separate, private labor of the woman was essential to the well-being of the family unit. She rendered fat, dipped candles, made the soap, prepared the food, wove cloth and made clothing. Her labor was socially necessary. But her productive activity was largely restricted to the household and was remunerated only through her husband’s pay. Man’s labor developed in the broader arena of society. He bargained for his pay. His economic and political dominance was fixed by law.

Modern industry, however, made much of woman’s labor not only unnecessary but uneconomical as well. A wire brings in the light. A simple touch of the switch turns it off or on. Bread is baked in great continuous-mix factories. The arduous and most unpleasant part of food preparation is performed by truck gardeners and food processing plants. It is pre-measured and pre-cooked. Giant machines, operated by relatively few men and women, can make, launder, clean, press and mend the clothes of hundreds of families.

This simplification of the labor of the household, its potential elimination, has destroyed the challenge and creativity it once offered. It has left housework empty, dull and monotonous, almost an insult to the intelligence and ingenuity of the modern woman.

Child care is a challenge to an individual who has specialized in the well-being and development of children. But it is not that to the vast majority. For most mothers, trapped alone in the house all day with small children, child care is a prison sentence in which association is restricted to her social and intellectual inferiors, the children, relieved only by the more sensible collective education of the child in the public school.

Ashley Montague, in the book The Natural Superiority of Women, expresses the view that “the mother alone with kids all day becomes a non-social, often anti-social being, and therefore, a bad parent. Housework claims her time, more than the child’s needs. And the latter in today’s complex world demands extensive professional training to understand.”

It is the quality of mothering that counts and not the quantity. If a mother looks forward to going to work and to coming home to her children, she will be a happier person and contribute more to the happiness of her family – so said Dr. Edith S. Taylor, psychiatric director of the Jewish Social Agency’s nonsectarian Child Guidance Clinic, in a recent interview.

Motherhood is not the glorious end-all for a woman. It is one aspect of her life, just as fatherhood is for the man and the kind of mother she is depends upon the kind of person she is. It happens to demand more biologically from the woman than from the man, but the pleasures and the problems of each new generation are the responsibility of both sexes.

The growth of capitalism, the development of industry, has reduced the necessity for woman’s labor in the home. And the decline of capitalism, World War II and the continuous war economy since, has forced open the door to the social employment of women on a mass scale. Women have replied to the old reactionary formula that “a woman’s place is in the home,” by walking through that door to escape the household tedium and win at least a measure of economic independence and freedom. The US Department of Labor survey in 1960 found that one out of every three workers in the United States was a woman.

Under capitalism, however, social progress is not rational, the result of a plan. Profit is the motor force. Progress is only a by-product, appearing, when it does, in uneven stages, often raising new problems and imposing new burdens before the old ones are eliminated. Women are still under pressure to maintain the primary responsibility of the household and at the same time, their labor is demanded in industry. Her burden therefore is increased.

Frederick Engels wrote in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, “The emancipation of women will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large scale and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And not only has that become possible through modern large scale industry which does not merely permit of the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends toward ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.”

ALTHOUGH modern industry has made possible the complete abolition of the duties of the housewife, as we now know them, the majority of women still perform many traditional tasks and maintain their traditional role. They have not yet realized the benefits of modern industry.

Women find themselves in a dual position. With one foot they are stepping into the future while the other foot is trapped in the past. For most women, ours is a period of transition, filled with doubts and misgivings. Is she an unnatural mother? Is she failing in her duty as a housekeeper and wife? She feels damned if she does and is damned if she doesn’t.

This partial freeing of women from domestic labor has brought a large section of them into the working class and in addition has freed another large section to participate in politics and community projects of one kind or another. The very participation of women in many of these areas is a recent historical development. Women who work may also participate in a number of community organizations of one kind or another as well as in politics and to a more limited extent in labor organizations. Their political activity is generally limited to the lower echelons, as is their participation in fund raising, community efforts, church activities, etc. The bulk of the “Jimmy Higgins” work is done by women.

Many of these activities were denied to the great majority of women not so very long ago. Today virtually every woman is in some activity that takes her out of the home for varying periods of time. The woman going to work and going into public life has found a new self. She is becoming a new personality. She is becoming a socially conscious individual, more aware of the economic and cultural realities of life and developing a new interest and new confidence in herself.

Twenty-three million women are today at work in the United States on a full-time basis. Another six million work part-time, making for a total work force of twenty-nine million women. One-half of these working women are married. Of the single women in the United States, from 20-64 years of age, about 75 per cent are working. The work pattern of the single working woman is generally the same as the working man’s. The married woman may lose time for child birth and the care of small children.

These women are involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the class struggle which goes on all the time in one form or another. During the last 20 years, when the class struggle has been relatively muted, the only section of workers who built a new union were the telephone workers. They built their union from a company union. In the best traditions of union militants, they withstood attacks by firemen with high pressure hoses, police clubs, company intimidation and trips to the local jails. In the process they developed new methods of fighting, peculiar to their industry.

This union was brought into existence by that section of society that has always been considered impossible to organize. These workers were primarily young women who, it was said, were only interested in “getting married and settling down with some man to support them.” Many of these young women still lived at home and were not under compulsion to provide themselves with the necessities of life. In fact they were supposed to have it pretty good. But they just didn’t like “Ma Bell” and her low wages.

WOMEN constitute about one quarter of all manufacturing employees. This number includes the women working in the factory offices as well as the production workers. In the lighter manufacturing industries, such as textiles and apparel, more than nine-tenths of the workers are women. The largest employment of women in the durable goods industries is in the electrical machinery industries.

Two-thirds of the women who work are engaged in the distribution of goods and services, with the greatest concentration of women in business services. Ninety-four per cent of all stenographers, typists and secretaries are women. The next largest section of women workers are bookkeepers and telephone operators. About half of the women workers are concentrated in twenty-eight occupational groups. In twelve occupations, women supply nine-tenths of the labor power.

The women who go to work are reaching out toward the future. They find an identity with their fellow workers along class lines. Having gone to work, the problems of women are recognized as basically social problems. This makes it easier to seek a means to solve them in common.

Of course, the woman who goes to work is not on easy street. In fact, she takes on a new load that is, for the most part, added to her old burden of kitchen and cradle. Some in despair, turn back to the protection and shelter of four walls and a husband. To them, the struggle for emancipation is too difficult; they will settle for the status quo. Others lack the physical energy necessary or the emotional stability to form consistent work habits or the ability to work in an organized unit with other people. Some, of course, play the same part as the “Uncle Tom’s” play in the movement of the Negro people. Some are so demoralized as to be content with social parasitism. And others are pushed out of a labor force that is put to use only when profits are high.

The first thing a woman discovers when she enters the market place with her labor power, is its value. Even though she comes with a skill, such as typing or bookkeeping, her labor power is valued lower than that of a male worker, and many times this is in relation to a male worker without a skill.

In general, labor unions have concentrated on organizing men, and usually the more skilled men. This concentration resulted in a higher general wage scale for men as against women.

With the large influx of women into industry in the last two decades, the unions have defaulted in relation to women. Although one-third of the present labor force is composed of women, only 15 per cent of them are organized into unions. A good number of unions make little or no attempt to organize the white collar workers, who are predominantly women.

This callous disregard of the needs of the women workers is a direct concession to management by the union bureaucrats. They go one step further and add insult to injury by using the bosses’ age-old argument that women are only working for “pin money.” This was the fiction invented to excuse the low wages paid to women and children by factory owners at the dawn of the manufacturing period. It still is a good excuse for employers eager to make more profit, but a very bad reason to be accepted by a union.

In a number of industries that are primarily composed of women workers there is often a union settlement of the contract on the basis of outright sex discrimination. The practice of settling for ten cents an hour more for men and three cents an hour more for women is very common. The result is that over the years the spread becomes greater and greater. Needless to say, the employer with 100 women and ten men in his work force is very glad to make a deal of this nature – after a little shadow boxing of course.

THERE is a very accurate measure of the value of discrimination and prejudice to the employer that is apparent at a glance in the wage scale of different sections of the population.

Wage and Salary Income
of White and Nonwhite Men
and Women for the Year 1958














These figures from the US Department of Commerce give the dollar value of discrimination and prejudice. The nonwhite male is somewhat better off than the white female, but the nonwhite female worker pays the highest price for her color and sex. Her yearly income is at the bare point of existence.

In relation to family “head” (it is automatically assumed, of course, in our equalitarian paradise, that it is the man) the figures are equally unpleasant. Families with males at the head received a median yearly income in 1958 of $5,292.00. One-tenth of the families in the United States have females at the head and they had a median yearly income in 1958 of $2,741.00. Thus the family headed by a woman has just half as much food, clothing, shelter, recreation, health benefits, etc., as the one headed by a man.

When the union officials speak of vast sums of money to organize the unorganized they rarely mention the women workers. It is almost as if this group of workers did not exist.

And their silence is not difficult to understand. To organize women workers would present the union officials with a problem they do not want. It would upset the status quo to bring this great section of exploited workers into the general stream of organized labor. To equalize the wage scale would require battles of major proportions. In addition the unions would find themselves grappling with much broader problems than just economic ones. There would of necessity arise renewed and greater pressure from the ranks for independent political action to meet the general social problems of child care, peace, slums, etc.

The low pay of women is linked with the low pay of national and racial minorities. Certain classifications of work are commonly done by women or by men and women of these minorities.

Discrimination is rampant in job classification as well as in rates of pay. Of the twenty-eight occupation groups for women in the United States, a good number are virtually closed to women of the minorities who find their job openings primarily in the lowest-paid categories.

Forty-five per cent of the nonwhite women work outside the home and constitute one out of every eight women working. They work generally in three fields: private household workers, other service workers and operatives in factories, laundries and other work places. Economic necessity is greater in this group and undoubtedly accounts for 45 per cent of the nonwhite women working as against 35 per cent of the white women.

In twenty states there are laws demanding equal pay for equal work, but most of these states insert two exceptions: for domestic labor and for agricultural labor. These are areas where the greatest exploitation and also the most miserable working conditions exist.

Twenty-three states and Puerto Rico have minimum wage laws. Here again, exceptions are made with regard to agricultural labor and domestic labor.

Forty states have laws that regulate hours of employment and days of rest, meals, rest periods, night work, etc. Twenty states have a maximum of a six-day working week to protect the health of women workers. However, these laws all are strangely blind to the plight of agricultural workers.

While many of these laws look good on paper, they have no real significance unless there is a union organization to enforce them. If each woman, as an individual, is compelled to demand the enforcement of the legal provisions that are supposed to protect her, they will not and cannot be enforced. In most cases, the woman does not even know about protective laws. The bosses have legal staffs to advise them. Small businessmen generally belong to trade associations that provide legal service or information. But what working class family has access to this general information outside of the trade union movement?

ONE of the largest unions of women workers in this country is the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. This bureaucratically run union still allows the piece work system. Each woman is forced to work to the limit of her strength for the bare necessities. Many of the food processing unions allow the operation of the same principle, or permit a quota system that introduces speed-up. The unions generally have permitted speed of the belt system in mass production to be determined by the boss. (In the 1930s the workers fought to have their say in the tempo of their labor.)

Women are also blocked in their hope of advancement to higher pay categories of labor. This problem is another reason the male-dominated unions are reluctant to organize women. They would also have to make at least a token effort to fight for their advancement. This would mean many women would reach higher-level job categories than men and those men who are reluctant to give up their illusion of superiority would resent this. A male “B” mechanic in a crew under a female “A” mechanic would find his ego a bit bruised. Union officials are undoubtedly uncomfortable in the presence of skilled women workers who won’t be treated with the old arrogant and condescending paternalism.

Nation’s Business for September, 1961, gives some interesting figures on women’s place in the business world. In 1940 four per cent of the executives in the United States were women. In 1950 this figure rose to five per cent. It was still at this level when the 1960 census was taken and is believed to be only slightly higher at the present time. This must be compared to a 1960 work force of 23.5 million women – estimated as close to 25 million in 1961.

Nation’s Business goes on to say,

“Most firms feel women are too much of a risk to put into administrative jobs. Many companies shy away from giving women top jobs because they fear the effect this will have on other employees – particularly men. Of the nation’s approximately seven million managers, officials and proprietors only 1.1 million are women and about half that number are self employed.”

This means that about half of the 1.1 million women executives are owners of beauty shops, restaurants, child care centers, boarding houses, nursing homes, etc.

Women are also excluded from top posts in fields of work that are traditionally theirs. For example, in the library field women fill a very large proportion of the staff positions but a very small proportion of the administrative positions.

Likewise, in the field of education, there are relatively few women in the administrative staffs of the schools. In elementary schools nine-tenths of the teachers and half the principals are women. In secondary schools where women fill about half the teaching posts, they represent about nine per cent of the principals. Women constitute over one-quarter of the administrative staffs in colleges and universities, but they are concentrated in women’s colleges. Less than one-tenth of all college board members in coeducational colleges are women.

The 20,000 women teachers in colleges and universities comprised about one-fifth of the college faculty in 1959-60. Of the college instructors, about one-third were women, and of full professors, about one-tenth were women.

The discrepancy between men and women in administrative bodies of unions appears to be even greater than in the business or professional world. Material available in the Seattle Public Library failed to reveal any woman in any policy making body of any union.

THE universal discrimination against women tends to unite them in the struggle for equality. But even more of a unifying factor is the problem of child care which all women share, actually or potentially. The extent of the problem in its actuality can be seen in the fact that one out of every seven mothers in this country is in the labor force. One out of every two mothers in the labor force has a child or children under 12 years of age.

Apart from the public school, there is no general provision for the care of children of working mothers. The public school is the only area in which society intervenes in any organized fashion in the welfare and development of the child. Today, seven million women are attempting to solve the same problem of child care, each in her own individual way. Needless to say, this is not the best way for the emotional and physical development of the child or for the peace of mind of the mother.

The task of finding a baby sitter is an arduous one, not to speak of the expense. An individual mother must read newspaper ads, solicit friends, relatives, neighbors and fellow workers.

In general the women who are available for baby sitting and housework are those who for one reason or another are excluded from industrial work. Most often this is due to discrimination in relation to age, health, color or nationality. These women are forced into this occupation. It is not a vocation which they freely selected and for which they have been specially trained.

But all too often, the baby sitter is an emotionally unstable woman. A scandalously high percentage of damage is done to children by emotionally sick individuals. Only a most fortunate few working mothers can afford the luxury of trained baby sitters and housekeepers to relieve them of these tasks and worries.

The United States Children’s Bureau regards the most fortunate child of all is the child of the working mother who has the good fortune to attend a good group child care center. But this is the privilege of only one out of every four children of working mothers. The majority of children are cared for by neighbors, relatives and friends. About one child in every thirteen is expected to look out for himself.

This problem, again, is the most severe at the lower income level of working women. This is the bracket of nonwhite working mothers. When we add job discrimination to their extremely low wage scale, and the fact that she may also head a family, the magnitude of the problems she faces in this society is one of truly staggering proportions.

Technically all of these problems can be solved. Social labor is productive enough to be able to provide child care centers staffed by full-time professionals. And there is no reason why the housework that remains to be done, cannot be done by a section of the working class sufficiently equipped and trained to do it in the most economical time – as office buildings are now scrubbed, dusted and put in order for the next day’s work.

Ashley Montague proposes the four-hour working day for those who are married – so that both parents can be equally parents and wage earners to the advantage of all. He goes on to say,

“Women’s going to work has forced the father back into the family, and this is good, for his ‘responsibility’ to his children is no less great than his wife’s. When men abandon the upbringing of their children to their wives, a loss is suffered by everyone.”

In whatever specific way women will solve their problems, the first essential, if one is not naive, is to win a society that poses all questions for rational solution. That means, above all, the elimination of capitalism where profit alone is the determinant – even when it means the waste of human labor power of millions of human beings and billions of working hours.

WOMEN can, and will, play a key role in this general historical task. They cannot expect to solve their problems without a struggle. Freedom will not be given them as a gift. It must be fought for and won as a human right.

The super exploitation of the women workers adds fuel to the fires of revolutionary struggles everywhere. These women, new to the direct clash of social forces, will supply militants and leaders to the working class in its struggle for freedom. They will give impetus to independent political action. The labor movement will find itself greatly reinforced, not only with the working women but with other sections of the female population who will be in sympathy or will feel the need for the demands of the women workers.

Men and women who have already begun to learn to work together, will also learn how to fight together for the complete emancipation of all. This is the inevitable historical trend. And in the struggle itself the confusion, the doubts that plague women in this transition period will dissolve in the new-found hope for the future.

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