Monday, 25 February 2008

Fabian Women: some sources

Source 1

Beatrice Webb Fabian Tract No. 67: Women and the Factory Acts [February 1896], printed in Sally Alexander (ed.) Women's Fabian Tracts, Routledge, 1989, pp.17-32

The ladies who resist further legal regulation of women's labour usually declare that their objection is to special legislation applying only to women. They regard it as unfair, they say, that women's power to compete in the labour market should be 'hampered' by any regulation from which men are free. Any such restriction, they assert, results in the lowering of women's wages, and in diminishing the aggregate demand for women's work......Mrs Henry Fawcett and Miss Ada Heather-Bigg, for instance, usually speak of legal regulation as something which, whether for men or for women, decreases personal freedom, diminished productive capacity and handicaps the worker in the struggle for existence......It is frequently asserted as self-evident that any special limitation of women's labour must militate against their employment. If employers are not allowed to make their women work overtime, or during the night, they will, it is said, inevitably prefer to have men. Thus it is urged, any extension of Factory legislation to trades at presented unregulated must diminish the demand for women's labour. But this conclusion, which seems so obvious, really rests on a series of assumptions which are not borne out by the facts....The evolution of industry leads inevitably to an increased demand for women's labour. Immediately we substitute the factory with its use of steam power and production on a large scale for the sweater's den or the domestic workshop, we get that division of labour and application of machinery that is directly favourable to the employment of women.....We can now sum up the whole argument. The case for Factory legislation does not rest on harrowing tales of exceptional tyranny, though plenty of these can be furnished in support of it. It is based on the broad facts of the capitalist system and the inevitable results of the Industrial Revolution. A whole century of experience proves that where the conditions of the wage earner's life are left to be settled by 'free competition' and individual bargaining between master and man, the worker's 'freedom' is delusive. Where he bargains, he bargains at a serious disadvantage, and on many of the points most vital to himself and to the community he cannot bargain at all. The common middle-class objection of Factory legislation -- that it interferes with the individual liberty of the operative -- springs from ignorance of the economic position of the wage-earner. Far from diminishing personal freedom, Factory legislation positively increases the individual liberty and economic independence of the workers subject to it....the fear of women's exclusion from industrial employment is wholly unfounded. The uniform effect of Factory legislation in the past has been, by encouraging machinery, division of labour and production on a large scale, to increase the employment of women and largely to raise their status in the labour market. At this moment the neglect to apply the Factory Acts effectively to the domestic workshop is positively restricting the demand for women workers in the clothing trade....The real enemy of the woman worker is not the skilled male operative but the unskilled and half-hearted female 'amateur' who simultaneously blacklegs both the workshop and the home. The legal regulation of women's labour is required to protect the independent professional woman worker against these enemies of her own sex. Without this regulation it is futile to talk to her of the equality of men and women. With this regulation, experience teaches us that women can work their way in certain occupations to a man's skill, a man's wages and a man's sense of personal dignity and independence.

Source 2

B. L. Hutchins Fabian Tract No.157: The Working Life of Women, [June 1911] printed in Sally Alexander (ed.) Women's Fabian Tracts, Routledge, 1989, pp. 164-178

It is still the custom in some quarters to assert that 'the proper sphere for women is the home' and to assume that a decree of Providence or a natural law has marked off and separated the duties of men and women. Man, it is said, is the economic support and protector of the family, woman is its watchful guardian and nurse: whence it follows that the wife must be maintained by her husband in order to give her whole time to home and children....It is not very easy to summarise briefly the facts of woman's life and employment....But there are several points which seem to be of special importance. First, there is the curious fact that women, though physically weaker than men, seem to have a greater stability of nerves, a greater power of resistance to disease and a stronger hold of life altogether....On the other hand there are more female paupers and more female old-age pensioners than male and these facts seem to indicate that women on the whole are handicapped rather by their economic position than by physical disability....Normally working women seem to pass from one plane of social development to another, not once only but in many cases twice or thrice in their lives. We might distinguish these places as status and contract, or value-in-use or value-in-exchange. All children are born into a world of value-in-use; they are not, for some years at all events, valued at what their services will fetch in the market. At an age varying somewhere between eight and eighteen or twenty the working girl, like the boy, starts on an excursion into the world of competition and exchange; she sells her work for what it will fetch. This stage, the stage of the cash nexus, lasts for the majority of girls a few years only. If she marries and leaves work, she returns at once to the world of value-in-use: the work she does for husband, home and children is not paid at so much per unit, but is done for its own sake....Socialists will not fail to realise that the case of the mother of small children forced under a competitive system to do unskilful and ill-remunerated work and neglects the work that is all important for the State, viz., the care and nurture of its future citizens, is only the extreme instance of the anomaly of the whole position of women in an individualist industrial community.....

Source 3

M.A. Fabian Tract No. 175: The Economic Foundations of the Women's Movement [June 1914], printed in Sally Alexander (ed.) Women's Fabian Tracts, Routledge, 1989, pp. 256-282

Purely economic causes are never sufficient to account entirely for any great revolt of the human spirit. Behind every revolution there lies a spiritual striving, a grasping after an ideal felt rather than seen.....It was not until the nineteenth century that the demand of women for political, economic and educational freedom was heard among any considerable mass of the people. This extension of the demand for emancipation was due to economic changes, to those alterations in human control over environment which are associated with the substitution of mechanical power for human energy in the making of commodities.....different classes of women were affected very differently [by the Industrial Revolution]. Among the wealthier people attempts were made to preserve the subordination of women to the family unit, although the economic justification for that dependence had ceased. Among the poor the necessity for the women's contribution to the family income was so strong that they were drafted into the new forms of industrial life without any consideration of their powers or capacities....parasitism became the fate of the middle class women, ruthless exploitation that of the working class the present time there are two main sections in the modern women's movement -- the movement of middle class women who are revolting against their exclusion from human activity and insisting, firstly, on their right to education...secondly, on their right to earn a livelihood for themselves, which is rapidly being won, and thirdly, to their right to share in the control of Government, the point round which the fight is now most fiercely raging. These women are primarily rebelling against the sex-exclusiveness of men, and regard independence and the right to work as the most valuable privilege to be striven for. On the other hand, there are the women of the working classes, who have been faced with a totally different problem, and who naturally react in a different way. Parasitism has never been forced on them...What the woman of the proletariat feels as her grievance is that her work is too long and too monotonous, the burden laid upon her too heavy...The working woman feels her solidarity with the men of her class rather than their antagonism to her. The reforms that she demands are not independence and the right to work, but rather protection against the unending burden of toil which she has laid upon her....these changes in the status of women cannot come about in our present individualistic society...It is only Socialism which can make possible throughout the whole fabric of society for the normal woman to attain her twin demands, independent work and motherhood.

Source 4

Barbara Caine 'Beatrice Webb and the Women's Question', History Workshop Journal, volume xiv, 1982, pp. 23-43

It seems to me that she [Beatrice Webb] is important for the history of feminism precisely because of her unease and hesitancy about the women's movement....[It] did not appear to address either her own deep conflicts as a woman, or the wider social questions with which she was concerned -- first as a social investigator and later as a Fabian socialist. Her diaries and published works show with extraordinary clarity the centrality of the 'woman question' to late nineteenth century thought, while at the same time revealing the narrow but important boundaries which separated feminists from non-feminists in terms of personal attitudes and political choices....She rarely commented on the movement, despite the fact that she was surrounded by both its supporters and its opponents...But it was not until her signing of the 'Appeal Against Female Suffrage', which appeared in The Nineteenth Century in June 1889, that she commented directly on the women's movement in her diaries. This disinterest is not wholly surprising. The entire thrust of the late Victorian women's movement was such as to make it appear irrelevant to someone like Beatrice Webb...enfranchisement was seen as the key to women's emancipation. For Beatrice, now deeply preoccupied with the problems of economic inequality and the need for labour organisation, this perspective seemed very narrow -- especially since it was only single propertied women for whom the vote was demanded. It was one thing, however, to feel critical of the political direction of the women's movement, but quite another to oppose it publicly, as Beatrice did in the anti-suffrage 'Appeal'. The explanation of this episode in My Apprenticeship is scarcely adequate. She referred to her signing the statement as a 'false step' taken in reaction against her father's over-valuing of women, her irritation at the continual discussion of women's rights by suffragists and the fact that she had not personally suffered from her lack of political rights....In 1906 she sent Millicent Fawcett a letter intended for publication in which she explained her reasons for her earlier opposition to the suffrage and for her change of mind. She had no belief in the abstract 'rights' of humanity, she told Fawcett; rather she viewed life as a 'series of obligations'. The exercise of these obligations on women's part might once have been seen as distinct from the exercise of political power, but now the extension of state involvement and legislation into all areas of social life rendered such a distinction invalid. The demand for women's suffrage would now be seen not as a "claim to rights or an abandonment of women's particular obligations, but a desire more effectively to fulfil their functions by sharing the control of state action in these directions"......Beatrice Webb's Fabianism provided a framework whereby her earlier ideas about the role of women and their need to serve and nurture others could be extended and socialised. Through serving their families and through work, women could contribute to the Common Weal. Whether or not such a contribution satisfied them personally was not the question to be asked....

Source 5

Carole Seymour-Jones Beatrice Webb. Woman of Conflict, Pandora, 1992, pp. 268

As the militant suffragette movement attracted criticism in the press after Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney demanded "Votes for Women" and were arrested for spitting, a technical assault, at a political meeting in Manchester, Beatrice contacted Millicent Fawcett to say she had recanted: "As the women suffragists were being battered about rather badly, and coarse-grained men were saying coarse-grained things, I thought I might as well give a friendly pull to get things out of the mud, even at the risk of getting a little spattered myself." Her letter, which was printed in The Times, together with Louisa Creighton's change of heart, spoke of the "personal suffering and masculine ridicule" of women forced to commit a breach of the peace

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