The notorious question posed by Freud, ‘What does a women want?’ is not as ridiculous as it seems writes Jane Kelly. Quoted by his biographer Ernest Jones in his 1953 book Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, Freud is supposed to have asked this of Marie Bonaparte, the psychoanalyst whose wealth enabled Freud’s escape from Nazi Germany. Not so ridiculous because for the oppressed and exploited it is sometimes difficult to know what one wants. Marx’s dictum that people make their own history, but not in the circumstances of their own choosing, is an important reminder of this. What you want is circumscribed by what appears possible, rather than an expression of real desires.
In today’s conditions of austerity young working class people are among the worst off with rates of unemployment over 20% for 16-24 year olds. It’s worse for young black men at 26%, while for young black women the figure is 17%. In this situation what a young woman wants will often seem trivial and uninspired.
Listening to Women’s Hour, on the radio recently I was struck by an item created by a small group of young women from the local academy in Peckham, South East London. They had made a recording about the Faculty of Hair and Beauty, their own salon within the School for Vocational Training in hairdressing and beauty.
One of those interviewed (by other girls in the academy) spoke of having known since she was eleven that she wanted to work in a hair and beauty salon. ‘I like doing my own hair, colouring it and here I can learn how to straighten hair. I want to do NVQ level 2 and get a job in a salon and become a junior stylist.’
Despite this apparent lack of aspiration by the school and the young women there was no critique by the Radio 4 interviewer of the rigid gender division of this vocational training. Worse, the Head of Vocational Education, also the hairdressing teacher, spoke of the student’s ‘passion and desire’ and of the possibility of earning ‘good money’. Pushed further he would undoubtedly have pointed out that such work is compatible with the role of wife and mother, to be fitted in between taking the children to school, shopping, picking them up.
There was no suggestion by anyone that perhaps fifteen or sixteen is a bit young to decide your future work. But perhaps this is partly because of precariousness of work for today’s workforce. Young people today enter the workforce on minimum waged, short-term contracts, internships. With or without a degree this is now the norm for the vast majority of school and university leavers. As the recent UNICEF Report pointed out (based on information from 2009-10) the UK is 16 out of 29 of the richest countries for children’s well being. For those aged fifteen to nineteen, the so-called NEETS Britain comes 27th , with only Romania, Spain, Ireland, Italy lower down.
For young women, particularly black women leaving school with NVQs or GCSEs a job in the segregated labour market is all the school aspires to for them. Moreover the aspiration to be a hairdresser or beautician is internalised and linked to the sexism that pervades our society. From toyshops with rigidly divided and gendered toys, to adverts all around us that stress how women should look, to ads offering ‘cosmetic’ surgery to enhance your body, young (and older) women are bombarded with attitudes that are difficult to ignore.
Of course ‘women’s work’ has always been tied to our primary role as caregivers and the labour market is segregated so that women work in a small number of jobs such as teachers, nurses, cleaners. Women have also been used as a reserve army of labour, as have young people, in and out of the workforce depending on the needs of capital, and today’s precarious work applies to young men as well as women, but it is still deeply gendered.
Much of this work is linked to the role of women in the family. While all sorts of family set-ups now exist, only a minority of the population live in what was a typical nuclear family. Instead there are single parents, unmarried couples with or without children, extended families, especially amongst immigrant families, but the family, in all its forms remains the basic unit of society and the site of oppression of women (and children). At work women and men exploited but although all women are oppressed, only working class women have this double oppression of work and family.
Today with 75% of cuts falling on women the debate is continually shifted away from the structural deficit and role of the financial services to individuals and especially the failures of the family (read mothers). This ideological onslaught describes the family as ‘failing’, needing parenting classes, with generations living in a dependency culture, failing to cope.
The family is used by capitalist society to fulfil a variety of roles. It reproduces the future workforce and services the existing workforce, cleaning, cooking, caring for children and the rest of family, including the old and unwell, on the cheap. It reproduces ideology, so its young learn to work hard, grow up heterosexual, etc. Only for the rich it ensures inheritance to the husband’s children. But by using ‘it’ we cover up the fact that is predominantly women who do all this work.
Within the family, whatever its form, large numbers of female children and young women are also carers for another family member – sometimes a sibling, sometimes one or both parents. Of the estimated 700,000 young carers, two thirds are female whose average age is twelve. The impact this has on their development, education and social life can only be imagined. Often bullied at school, or missing out on schooling, all together either because of lack of sleep or responsibilities, they keep the family together at the cost of losing their childhood. While it is true that having a responsibility within the family gives you a sense of function and usefulness, nonetheless they are doing work that is beyond their age, saving the government huge sums of money.
Engels argued that paid work outside the home was a prerequisite for women’s liberation, but he did not recognise that women are employed in a segregated labour market and paid less than men, even in similar jobs. However it is true that paid work outside the home allows women a social life unconnected to the family, allows us to join a trade union, etc. It is also true that in today’s conditions the kind of work available for most working class women is limited, boring and exhausting. And without knowledge of alternatives young women are leaving school to work in a very limited number of jobs.
However the situation is not all gloom and doom. It was very noticeable in the student demos against fees and the removal of the EMA that young women were at the forefront of the action. In several girl’s schools in London (and probably elsewhere) young women walked out to join the demonstration, despite dire warnings not to do so.
Nor does any of this mean we should give up on making demands for reform and defending the rights we have achieved over the last few decades, but in the end without socialism women’s liberation cannot be achieved.