Oppressed on Many Fronts: Women’s labour, disablism and the working class

Social Care is Work Photo: Steve Eason

This is an edited version of Susan Pashkoff’s contribution to the ACR meeting on the Working class and Oppressions. Susan’s introduction was followed by one from Nina Fortune. Both women spent some time looking at factors common to different forms of oppression but then Susan focused particularly on disablism and misogyny whereas Nina focused on homophobia, transphobia and racism.

These oppressions derive from within the specific needs of the capitalist system itself; those that live with these oppressions also suffer the exploitation that exists for all working class people. More often than not the extent of the impact of oppression not only makes political and social inequalities worse; but additionally those facing oppression also wind up in economic situations which are based in more undervalued and often highly exploitative employments and hence face difficulties even accessing parts of what are considered the workers’ consumption of others that are not facing these oppressions.

Being one more rung on the ladder has been a very effective tool for divide and rule in the societies that we live. That means that we must be fighting against the impact of racism, sexism and misogyny, disablism, homophobia and transphobia. As well as having a specific material basis in the capitalist system, some of these are also affected by the impact of cultural norms and religion (which often serve the role of ensuring the continuance of these norms).

Of course there are class differences among the oppressed; the demands for equality in that context must be supported as oppression affects access to housing, employment, and the basic rights that others who are not oppressed have access to. So the Jim Crow laws did not prevent white working class people from voting, from accessing decent housing, from attending schools even if the quality of provision for the working class was not of good quality; but they were afforded access and power which were denied to black Americans.

Look at the struggle for universal suffrage, i.e., the extension of the franchise to women and the removal of property qualifications. It was certainly progressive; so why did some people on the left argue it was a deviation from the class struggle? It’s true there were parts of the women’s suffrage movement that supported enfranchisement for women of property first and only then for working class women and in the US that refused to support the demands of Black Americans for a true extension of the franchise. But there were different organisations in both Britain and the US that supported a true extension of the franchise and recognised that the fortunes of Black Americans and women were linked.

Even if we do not think that much can be gained by voting in the context of capitalism due to the limits of the system, to argue that this was not important work for the left would be ultra-left. Even if it doesn’t destroy the power of the ruling class because of the nature of the state, it enables participation and makes it easier to fight for reforms which do benefit the working class (we can do class politics even if limited). Participation in bourgeois electoral politics provides a platform for the advocacy of transitional demands and moreover, as a result of the nature of the state, it also demonstrates the limits of what can be gained. We should never leave the electoral arena in the hands of the ruling class.

So we need to support demands that challenge oppression and at the same time recognise that there are class differences within these movements. That means that we must champion the voices of working class people within those movements.

Reproductive rights

Another example which relates to intersecting oppressions and deals with reproductive rights and women’s bodily autonomy is the question of sterilisation. During the struggle for changing sterilisation laws in the US, these different histories and experiences led to different demands. For wealthier white women, choosing to be voluntarily sterilised required the permission of their husbands. But for women with impairments, poor women, black women and women of colour and indigenous women eugenic sterilisation was (and is still for those with impairments) legal under US Federal law. The Supreme Court ruling in Buck versus Bell (1927) allowed for the compulsory sterilisation of “feeble and unfit” people under the excuse of eugenics of improving the “genetic stock of humanity” and” the protection and health of the state”. This not only impacted women with impairments but also poor white women, and while it has been made illegal at state level it has not been overturned at the Federal level. Indigenous women were forcibly sterilised when they went into give birth in a deliberate policy of genocide. Women of colour often faced the same and there were attempts to control their reproduction through linking benefits to birth control or sterilisation (this was later ruled illegal[SP1] ).[1] When legislation concerning changes in sterilisation laws in the late 1970s was introduced into the NY state legislature [SP2] differences emerged. Wealthier white women wanted sterilisation to be done on request; for women of colour whose right to have children was threatened by forced sterilisation the issue was very different. In 1978, a group of Black women formed the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and they demanded a guaranteed waiting period and informed consent so that when women went to give birth they could not be sterilised as part of the procedure. Neither Planned Parenthood[2] or NARAL supported these demands feeling that they restricted white middle class women’s accesses voluntary sterilisation.

Since we recognise the significant impact of oppression on the oppressed, we must support the autonomous organising of the oppressed as well as incorporating the struggles against oppression as an essential part of our solidarity. To not do so means the abandonment of solidarity within the working class and between working class people and those facing oppression. I might not be outraged if a wealthy black American woman cannot go into an exclusive haute couture studio; but I will recognise that white wealthy women would not be denied and that this is due to racism.

I want to address the material foundations of oppression and how they amplify the political, social and economic inequalities that already exist under capitalism.


I will begin by discussing disablism and the oppression of those with impairments. In Bob Findlay’s book More than a Left Foot, he refers to the shift towards the medicalisation of disablism and explains this in the context of the need for workers in the system.

When I read that, it took me back to Jeremy Bentham’s discussion on the Poor Law, which resonates for me as a historian of economic and political thought who has researched these issues extensively. Bentham’s opposition to Pitt’s reforms of 1795-7 formed the basis (along with Malthus’s discussion on population) of the transformation in the rights of the poor; representing a shift away from recognising the capitalist system itself was responsible for poverty towards blaming poverty on the workers themselves (this is where Malthus excelled). Bentham’s thesis was predicated on his argument that the role of workers in the capitalist system was to work; that is their contribution to the system. His criticism of the 1795-7 (which I will call Pitt’s Reform) related to several specific points, one of which was the cow money clause which offered money for those that had access to land to purchase a cow; this would require access to a Commons – a shrinking number given the given the Enclosure Acts. Apart from noting this contradiction Bentham’s main objection was that this was providing wealth to those that had none which would prevent them from fulfilling their contribution to society by working: if everyone had access to wealth who would do the labour – someone had to labour or the system won’t work.

Viewing work as an unpleasant thing in itself and that people would shirk from it to avoid it, Bentham then raises the problem of the fact that able-bodied people could get Poor Law support under Pitt’s law (it was designed for seasonal workers) and hence would not have to work for their income. He viewed able-bodied people that don’t work as a drain on the system. This is the context in which he discusses the creation of modern work houses for the “work shy” who he argues are “voluntarily unemployed”. His criterion for accessing support (i.e., in modern terms as “benefits”) is that what is received should be lower than those that are working outside the workhouse; this principle of less(er) eligibility was one of the central reforms of the ConDem government towards benefits.

Bentham then creates a whole chart of who would be eligible for relief and those who must work, and proceeds to categorise people in relation to whether they could fulfil their responsibility to society and therefore must work; while those who couldn’t would be granted poor relief. Even though I had read this discussion several times before, I did not realise that this was the beginning of seeing people with impairments as “burdens on society” because they could not contribute in the manner that the working class must: by provision of their labour. All eligibility based models of social policy have tried to address this problem; under Universal Credit, people have to prove that they are disabled enough in order to be eligible for benefits rather than be forced to work. This ideology was not only was the foundation of the 1834 Poor Law reform which separated men and women who entered the workhouse and separated children from their parents, but still pervades modern discussions of social policy around benefits.

Turning to the question of women’s oppression; what is the issue? If we are members of the working class they need our labour in the system so we face exploitation in the capitalist system just like men.

Social reproduction

But, there is another key issue: our role in social reproduction. Due to women’s physical role in bearing children, women bear the primary responsibility for social reproduction. For upper class women this is about passing on inheritance and making sure children are prepared for their future roles; they have lots of paid help in this but it is still their ‘job’. Working class women not only physically reproduce the future working class but they also socialise them into their future role as workers.

 Then we have additional responsibilities beyond physical reproduction.

In the capitalist system labour power itself becomes a commodity; which means like all commodities that it must be produced and reproduced. This relates to Marx’s notion of socially necessary labour time; that is the part of social production in which the subsistence and reproduction of the working class (and hence the reproduction of the system as this also includes other goods that were used up in the previous production process) is carried out.

Social care

Part of socially necessary labour time is produced in the capitalist production process itself; for example the goods and services that enter into the workers’ consumption bundle. However, part of the production of socially necessary labour time occurs in the homes of the working class and is predominately done by women.

This include the maintenance and care of the family home, making certain that those that are working have time to rest and recover (that should apply to women as well if they are working) for the next day of work, there are certain tasks that are involved in this labour in the home; caring for our families and extended families that either cannot work or can no longer work (children, those with impairments, elderly members of the family), socialisation and education of children, nursing, cooking, cleaning of the family abode and its members, and nursing those that are sick.

All of the work done in the home predominantly by women is unpaid. Essentially women are responsible for a portion of the production of socially necessary labour time and they are not paid for it. Our unpaid labour saves the capitalist class a nice bit of money; if they had to pay for this labour that would mean a larger portion of the working day (or the social production process) would need to be devoted to it and less would be available for the production of surplus value; i.e. their profits when goods and services are sold.

While this work is experienced as an individual responsibility to the women confronting it, it is part of socially necessary labour time. Even in advanced capitalist countries where parts of social reproduction like education have been socialised, parts of this work are still done at home. This is often referred to as traditional women’s labour – and it is seen as “natural” that women do this unpaid labour.

But there are tensions because women’s labour is also needed in the capitalist production process so where this is particularly the case more domestic labour has been socialised. Education for example serves many purposes; it trains the future working class in the skills that may be useful for the capitalist class and frees up women’s labour at home and gets them into paid employment where the capitalist can use their labour power. Numerous inventions have been created to reduce the time required for women to do tasks at home: hoovers, cookers, irons, the microwave, and ready-cooked meals – but also services in the social welfare state like care work, care homes, crèches and healthcare.

Returning to production in the context of capitalism; in the early days, textiles were produced in the home. Raw materials were provided by the boss, children carded the wool, women spun it on spinning wheels and men wove on handlooms. The first part of textile production to enter the factories was spinning. The Spinning Jenny was introduced but required steam power – and therefore factories. Its invention was prioritised because there was a backlog in this bit of the production process. So it was women that entered the factories first – but they still had the same responsibilities at home.

Surplus value

The work done at home does not produce surpluses or surplus value, which only happens in the context of capitalist production, where the subsequent sale of these goods is what creates profits). The labour is consumed in the process of its use and this forms part of socially necessary labour time – food is cooked and eaten, children are cared for, elderly members of the family are assisted, those with impairments get support and assistance, the labour used in caring is simply done – there is no surplus as this is not part of the capitalist production process itself.

It is often the case that when women enter the capitalist labour market for the first time they enter it doing those tasks that they did in the home; this traditional women’s labour of caring for children in all its forms (education, socialisation, provision of emotional support and love), caring for the impaired and elderly, washing and cleaning, making clothing and keeping it in repair through sewing, and nursing are the employments that women do – because this is done in the home and is unpaid there, it is assumed that these multitude of skills and tasks are abundant and require little or no skills.

The skills associated with this labour are not viewed by the ruling class as skills for another reason: these employments which produce services are not ones which naturally produce surplus value. If they didn’t produce surplus value either these services would not exist if there was no public sector or they would be relegated to the public sector – in many countries the provision of these services simply does not exist. So in the global south perhaps primary education would be provided but not much more. Accessing healthcare and social care for the elderly and those with impairments from the private sector put it out of the reach of the vast majority. It was the demands by workers to access these services that led to the creation of the public sector, since previously access to these services (through private sector provision) was exclusive to those with higher incomes and wealth. This situation exists even in advanced capitalist countries with healthcare like in the US. Since these services were demanded by the majority and since much of this could not be done profitably this type of service production like health, education and social welfare was left to the public sector. As such, due to the insistence of capitalists and the nature of the system itself, this form of women’s traditional labour is often undervalued and underpaid and this derives from the laws of motion of the system and the importance of accumulation and profitability itself.

Women often are forced into doing part-time work due to their care responsibilities and may be holding down several part-time jobs organised around their care responsibilities. These are often poorly paid so women’s wages are lower and they are more dependent upon benefits. Whenever benefits are cut or frozen, this impacts upon women especially single mums disproportionately. Since our incomes are lower, our savings are lower (so we accumulate less wealth over our lifetimes; women still predominantly inherit their wealth from their parents or their male partners – this affects black women significantly as the wages of black men are lower than their white counterparts). With lower savings we are not able to weather shocks to the system well. Finally, since our incomes are lower, our pension contributions are lower and our pensions are lower. This means that since we live longer; we live longer in poverty.

Many women who themselves have impairments are caring for members of their families. If their family member is deemed eligible for support and assistance they can get carer’s benefit. Additional support and assistance is provided either by the state (there is still carer’s benefit) or through the private sector hired by the state.

If a good or service is not in sufficient demand by those that want or need it and as such cannot be sold at a profit, it will not be produced for sale in the capitalist system; if the costs of producing something and selling it in the market are higher than the expected return on investment (aka as profits) it will not be produced in the system. So how come we have seen the privatisation of so much of the care sector? So why take on the care sector at all and if it is privatised how do the capitalists in this sector make profits?

Support and assistance are provided to those who qualify in three different ways. The local council provides services directly; through residential or domiciliary support. This sector is shrinking so sometimes local councils hire private agencies that employ and provide care workers in both parts of the sector. The agencies make their profit by driving workers wages down further and controlling their working conditions e.g., they are only paid for their time when they are providing care rather than for travelling between jobs. Limits are placed on the amount of work they can do as they have only a specific amount of time with each person they assist.

The extremely difficult conditions of work in the private sector and the insufficient number of hours to actually provide assistance impacts not only on care workers (who actually are unable to do the job that they want to do given the limits on the time they can work), but also on those that receive care and assistance as the quality and quantity of support is insufficient to cover their needs. This is a sub-optimal situation for everyone involved in the private care sector. It is alienating for workers and it is insufficient for those receiving support and assistance.

Finally, the additional way to access support and assistance (if you are deemed eligible for the monetary benefit) is for you to organise it directly; that is you get the direct payment and you take responsibility for hiring assistants directly. This requires you to be responsible for ensuring national insurance contributions, arranging employer liability insurance, organising holidays, pay for the worker and the work itself – not everyone is capable of doing this or wants to become an employer.


One of the biggest problems for those working in the care sector is the lack of control over the conditions of work and payments for the service if provided through the private sector; workers are often not unionised and work in atomistic individual situations where they rarely meet. Moreover, something that is an essential part of work at home has become a part of the skill set of these workers; their emotional labour is an essential skill for workers in this industry.

An additional issue in terms of the difficulty of organising these workers into trade unions (and I need to thank Ali Treacher for her discussion of emotional labour and how care workers view their work) is that many people do these jobs because they enjoy caring for others; they believe that to be their contribution to society and their wages and conditions of work are less important considerations as their role is to care for others. What we have is an extension of your work in the home to the workplace; for many of these workers (and for many women workers) our work in paid employment is often the same work as we do at home. Moreover, because we do this work for pay (think of nannies for wealthy children) we are unable to offer our own children the care and attention that they need and that then falls on other members of extended families to provide that for your own children.

What we need to note is who does this work of domestic labour (cooking, cleaning) and caring for children of those that are wealthier or have the income to hire others to do some of this work? Overwhelmingly, it is black women and indigenous women (in Latin America) who have entered the workforce sometimes through private contracts and agreements with their employers as part of the informal sector. In many countries, migrant women do this work for others and in all these cases they are doing a portion of the social reproduction work of other women; that is why this is a social issue and not a private one.

Let’s discuss a situation where instead of a fixed amount of money offered by the council, a service is provided by the private sector directly – something like a crèche. The demand for spots in a crèche is always high; in this context, private provision can keep this exclusive by keeping spaces low in number if they want directly or they can charge a high rate for this service which puts it out of reach for large numbers of people to use.

Unskilled labour?

One of the things that the coronavirus pandemic has done is to lay bare the contradictions of the perception of traditional women’s work as unskilled labour. While the provision of crèches for the working class has always been an issue, the vast majority of those advocating for more crèches do so on the basis of their enabling women to go into paid employment (this is the case for the right and the left). Rarely, if ever, do we hear support for crèches allowing women to have some rest and relaxation (yet that is an important part of women’s care in the home for men), to further their education, to actually perhaps go to a political meeting or even a book club.

One of the funniest discussions I heard about forcing women to work until 65 occurred in Italy; the right-wing realised that if they forced women to actually work that long that grandmothers would not be available to care for their grandchildren and they would need to provide more childcare (and remember the family orientation of the right) and they might actually have to create a more developed welfare state (the hysteria of right-wing politicians in Italy during this debate was wonderful).

But let’s put that aside … what has become evident in the coronavirus crisis is the essential importance of women’s traditional labour in keeping our societies going; this is not only labour in the home (and how much has Donald Trump been complaining that schools need to be open so women can go back to work?) but our jobs as carers of all forms – nurses, cleaners, domestic labour, and cooks – our work in the garment industry producing PPE, and our work in retail suddenly demonstrated that these employments were not unskilled, but rather they are essential and fundamental as, while the virus was ravaging the country, we (along with doctors) were keeping everything going. Moreover, we were working in those sectors which left us at risk of getting the virus itself.

What can we do to address the oppression of women now that it has become obvious to those that can no longer pretend that this is not the case? How can we support those women that want to be released from this form of work? What about women that enjoy women’s traditional labour at home and want to continue doing it – should we use the carer’s allowance as a template (and by the way as an aside, that should be treated as a job and paid a living wage) and pay women for this work at home like wages for housework?

Can we take something that is actually a social issue (that of social reproduction) but treated as an individual responsibility and put it in the hands of the society? There is no reason why this work cannot be done by men and there are many men that would enjoy this work; there is nothing “natural” in that women do this work; it is a social creation. Can we instead try to socialise this work? It can be funded nationally through taxation and organised locally and communally or cooperatively; we can point out the obvious: that the work is actually a societal issue and we can share the responsibility to ensure it gets done. This is what lies behind the demand for socialisation of caring and purple job creation.

[1] Puerto Rican women were the guinea pigs for various versions of the pill and faced serious dangers to their health, both physical and psychological.

[2] See this working paper written for a discussion at a feminist meeting at the time: https://www.cwluherstory.org/health/sterlization-abuse-a-task-for-the-womens-movement

 [SP1]Puerto Rican women were the guinea pigs for various versions of the pill and faced serious dangers to their health, both physical and psychological. Should this be in this discussion?

 [SP2]here is an article discussing the situation and the victory by women of colour which is why they always asks women that are getting sterilised if they know what is happening: https://mississippiappendectomy.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/committee-to-end-sterilization-abuse/ and https://www.cwluherstory.org/health/sterlization-abuse-a-task-for-the-womens-movement

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