Monday, 25 February 2008

The Fabians and the Women's Question

Beatrice Webb made little mention of the women’s movement in her diaries before 1900. This is surprising because women formed between a third and a half of the total membership, sat on the Executive and played a full part in the political life of the Society. However, the Fabianism of Beatrice Webb was dry and passionless, the product of reason. The Woman Question aroused passions not always amenable to reason because it opened up the vexed questions of marriage, the family and ‘sex-relations’. The early Fabians refused to think politically about sexual difference, which is why some women found it necessary to form the Fabian Women’s Group.

The Fabian Women’s Group first met in the drawing room of Maud Pember Reeves, wife of a New Zealand diplomat in early 1908 after a winter of suffrage activity of increasing violence. Women had not made themselves, or their cause felt sufficiently within the Society, they believed. At their first meeting they resolved first to further the principles of equal citizenship within and without the Society, and second, to ‘study women’s economic independence in relation to socialism’. They wanted to forge links between the two most vital movements of their time: socialism and women’s emancipation. They saw the Women’s Question as a problem of ‘economic liberty’ and this represents an important development in thinking through the connections past and present between this problem and socialism[1].

It was, however, the ‘sex-relation’ that was more difficult to reconcile with socialism in thought or practice. The early Fabians were silent on the issue. It was the growing momentum of the women’s movement and its militancy in the early twentieth century that meant that the issue could no longer be ignored. Women joined trade unions in large numbers and their independent voice was being heard through the National Federation of Women Workers (1906-21) while the Women’s Co-operative Guild (formed in 1883) spoke for the working class housewife and mother. Fabian women belonged to these organisations and were often among their leadership. Fabian women recognised class difference among women and made it central to their analysis of women’s economic condition. They argued that economic changes in the nineteenth century had reduced wealthy women to economic ‘parasites’ within the family and confined working class women to sweated industries and starvation wages. Differences between women might vary but their ultimate interests were the same. Fabian women identified the following:

  1. The parasitic status of women of property obliged them to expose and reform the poverty in which the majority of women lived and died.
  2. What united women (apart from not having the vote) was their economic dependence and their ‘sex-function’.
  3. What Fabian women wanted to do was to separate them. A woman’s economic liberty depended on her either receiving the rate for the job in industry -- irrespective of sex-- or a state pension if she were a mother.

Fabian analysis went on to argue that the artificial exaggeration of sex differences was historical, patriarchal and that its effects spread adversely through domestic and industrial production. Women’s economic dependence, Fabian women argued, was twofold: within the family they were subordinate to father, husband and sons; while in wages work they were seen as unskilled and cheap labour. Both positions were historical and had a single cause: the custom of marriage by capture or purchase and the exclusive focus on a woman’s sex which a man’s wish for legitimate heirs imposed on his wife. Men defined women through their sex rather than their common humanity. Motherhood united women but motherhood was a ‘stigma’ when it should have been recognised as ‘a valuable act of citizenship’ and rewarded with state pensions and co-operative households.

The Fabian women found the sexual division of labour wherever they looked. Women were domestic servants, unskilled and sweated workers. Unskilled women were, according to Beatrice Webb in her Women and the Factory Acts (1897), their own worst enemies. She pointed to their partial subsistence from within the family, their lack of training and skills and their low standard of living. Women made poor trade unionists, a failing that perpetuated their economic role and from which they could raise themselves up if only they organised and refused to accept wages below subsistence level. Fabian women’s analysis of women’s economic plight was as thorough in its details as it was circumspect in its demands.

Many contemporaries considered Fabian women to be ‘serious-minded ladies’. Certainly Beatrice Webb (Potter as she was then) thought, in the late 1880s, that intellectual work was an antidote to sexual desire: “I have not despised the simple happiness of a woman’s life; it has despised me and I have been humbled as far down as women can be humbled”. The first generation of Fabian women supported each other, helped each other to learn and spurred each other on with reminders of women’s underdeveloped civic sense, lack of mental discipline or the habits of trade unions. Education was the path to collective as well as individual self-improvement as it was for so many working class men. Beatrice Webb commented towards the end of her life on the middle class respectability of the first Fabians despite the open sexuality of many Fabian men and some Fabian women. Yet, this remained the most volatile element of the delicate relationship between the movements for women’s emancipation and socialism. There was to be no resolution of this tension in the short term.

In essence, Fabian women saw the Woman’s Question in economic not political terms. A woman could achieve economic liberty as long as the laws of the market were tempered in waged work by judicious legislation and responsible trade unionism and in the home by state pensions and co-operative households. But the sex-relation could not be compressed into economic relations. Fabian women ducked the question of what sort of relations should exist between men and women by urging women wage earners to become more like men and the state to take responsibility for maintaining children. The search for an identity independent of men and children and self-fulfillment was hard to reconcile with the collective socialist will.

It is difficult to evaluate the degree to which Fabian women enabled emancipation to occur. Certainly, their critique of women as wage earner raised awareness of the low-skill, low-wage problem and their collectivist ideas led to the question of state support for women and their children. It is, however, difficult to see what direct impact Fabian women had on political emancipation in the years before 1914 and the relationship between them and women’s suffrage movements is far from clear. Fabian women may have been aware of the problem but they did not essentially provide a solution that address the sex-question.


[1] Clementina Black Married Women’s Work Being the Report of an Enquiry undertaken by the Women’s Industrial Council, 1915 is a report on rural work and charwomen. Maud Pember Reeves Round About a Pound a Week, 1913, Virago, 1979 is a survey carried out by Fabian Society’s Women’s Group of families living on an income of 18-26 shillings a week in Lambeth, south London are two examples of the research the Fabians did. In addition, Beatrice Webb examined women’s low pay; Barbara Hutchin uncovered the different economic needs of women at different phases of their lives; Barbara Drake studied women and trade unionism; and Alice Clark examined working class women in the seventeenth century. They still form a vital part of feminist thought.

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