Writing last week about David Cameron’s plans to incentivise marriage in the tax system if elected in May, commenter Mellie Agon rightly pointed out that I had failed to mention why this is of of such importance to the Tory base. As s/he argued, the promotion of marriage as an institution has been used historically to maintain the subjugation of women in society.
It was with this in mind that I tuned in to ‘The British Family: Marriage’ last Tuesday night on BBC2. Kirsty Young presented an interesting if fairly conventional account of marriage and family from 1945 to the early 1960s.
The programme began by studying the impact of the Second World War on the family. Millions of men were sent to war, and wives were separated from their husbands for years at a time. This brought increased infidelity by both men and women, and when the war concluded, ‘the British family was in crisis.’ In 1946 the divorce rate was five times as great as 1938.
The programme does its best to chronicle the creation of the National Marriage Guidance Council in 1946, the stablilisation of divorce rates by the early 1950s and the apparent return of domestic stability until the early 1960s when it broke down all over again and divorce rates skyrocketed.
In so far as it goes, this is all decent stuff and worthy of TV documentary. In fact, there is a serious lack of engaging social history being commissioned at the moment and hopefully decent viewing figures for this series will tempt BBC bosses to give the green light to more like it. But there is a serious flaw in its analysis of marriage, which is its failure to recognise the social function of marriage as a tool for the oppression of women.
The first person to write in detail on women’s oppression and the family from a Marxist perspective was of course Frederick Engels. It is worth reminding ourselves of this passage from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
The legal inequality of the [husband and wife] bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman … With the patriarchal family and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production … The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.
On moves to afford legal equality between the husband and wife in the family (for example, through provision for divorce), Engels was clear that this did not end the actual inequality but rather expose it more sharply:
In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat. In the industrial world, the specific character of the economic oppression burdening the proletariat is visible in all its sharpness only when all special legal privileges of the capitalist class have been abolished and complete legal equality of both classes established. The democratic republic does not do away with the opposition of the two classes: on the contrary, it provides the clear field on which the fight can be fought out. And in the same way, the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry and that this in turn demands that the characteristic of the monogomous family as the economic unit of society be abolished.
This is the framework in which the post-war turbulence in familial relations must be understood.
The programme gives no mention whatsoever to the widespread reintroduction of women into the workforce during the war and the consequent boost to their material status. When men returned from the war, Kirsty Young would have us believe that the ensuing rise in divorces was down solely to husband and wife having grown apart over five years or more of separation. Whilst this was undoubtedly a real pressure, the self-sufficiency acquired by women was more important. The majority of soldiers returned to a Britain literally very different than the one they had known before the war. At the behest of the state, women had proven themselves entirely capable of skilled and manual work, puncturing a key myth in labour discrimination towards women.
In this light, the government campaign waged in the late 1940s to push down the divorce rate was in fact a rearguard action against the gains women had made during the war. A monumental effort was mounted – not just by the state but by the media and the fast-emerging advertising industry – to persuade women to return to the home, give up independent income and become reliant on men once more.
By the early 1950s, British society had shifted decisively to support this cultural imperative. Homemaking and cookery classes, radio shows, magazines and competitions, all solely for women, were established. The ‘cult of the housewife’ was carefully crafted to encourage women to abandon hopes they might have held of intellectual or productive fulfillment. Their life, they were told, was to be spent being a success in the domestic sphere.
“That’s what we wanted in those days,” says an elderly woman, a little ruefully, when Kirsty raises the point with her. “Home and family.”
To be fair, the documentary does expose the fake academic consensus that emerged in the 1950s to put women back in their supposed place. I was already familiar with the work of John Bowlby, the psychologist who made it his mission to frighten women into giving up work by implying that they would be ruining their children’s futures, but it is still useful to be reminded of the context of his publications.
The latter part of the programme looked at sex and pregnancy. There were few surprises here. Women – and men – when first married were usually hopelessly uneducated about sex. Women who enjoyed sex outside marriage were condemned and if unfortunate enough to become pregnant were often ostracised from their communities. The 1950s was the decade of escalating backroom abortions, homes for unmarried mothers and forced adoptions.
By the 1960s, increased economic prosperity brought greater opportunities for the individual. In turn, a new wave of feminist action for women’s rights was launched and the establishment were concerned enough to attempt crackdowns. What they could no longer do was keep the divorce rate stable, and between 1960 and 1969 it doubled as women gained the financial independence to walk out of loveless, deceitful or violent marriages. The 1969 Divorce Reform Act cemented the trend, as the law made vital concessions so that divorce was a much easier path for women to take. As Kirsty tells us as credits begin to roll, Britain has had the highest divorce rates in Europe since.
Conservatives still see a high divorce rate as damaging to the fabric of society. The desire to return as if by magic to a situation where less divorces occur means in practice removing the power won by women to decide their own futures. That is what David Cameron means at present when he calls for a return to ‘stable, family environments’. His interest is not for the wellbeing of working class children, for sure; if it was his first move would certainly be to maintain investment levels in the public sector services on which those children depend. Instead he promises severe cuts.
The wisest words of ‘The British Family: Marriage’ were voiced by interviewee Clare Raynor, of all people.
“People used to say, isn’t the divorce rate terrible? But the truth is, people were miserable and stuck with it and now they can do something about it.”
The main beneficiaries of those changes in the second half of the twentieth century were British women. As Engels predicted, making more equal the legal landscape did not do away with inequality but rather made the real imbalances in societal power clear for all to see, as women left their husbands in droves.
Fighting the erosion of those gains through the reintroduction of David Cameron’s ‘family values’ will be a key task for progressives over the next decade.