Relations between men and women today

Interview with Dr Bridget Fowler


Yassamine Mather: Let us start with the issue of inequality. How would you describe "inequality in the relations between men and women" how would you classify this?

Bridget Fowler: As oppression rather than inequality, especially not as Christine Delphy 's Feminist Materialism defines it, as a class inequality with women as the proletariat, and men as capital. Women have not yet become fully "bourgeois individuals", in families: they are not yet seen as equal heads of households with men, in marriage, they do not have the right to remain childless.  In fact I think the new reproductive technology may make this more problematic. If there is any difficulty at all about women's reproductive capacity, they are now being pushed much more into having in vitro fertilisation or other measures taken to make sure that they have children; I would like to see very much more decision-making on a free choice basis, rather than a pressurised form of coercion.

In personal relations I think that women are still seen as "slags" or "whores" if they choose to have more than one partner, even in cases of statutory rape where girls are the objects of underage sexual interaction, defence lawyers can, and habitually do, ruin girls' characters in the legal process of questioning their conduct So we find then that in order to defend the defendant, the lawyers will raise questions about the woman having seduced him in various ways even though she is by definition under-aged, that is, under 16.

So the assumptions about what a woman deserves in terms of her assumed purity are still in place, and we can still quite easily tap into a type of patriarchal collective consciousness, where this has serious implications for people's actions. It was only a few years ago that the Yorkshire Ripper killed many women, beginning with prostitutes, and we can see that police inactivity on that did seem to relate to the fact that they were of a lower value because they had chosen prostitution.

So women's assumed purity still becomes important in advanced capitalism. I have no doubt that at certain critical junctures in private relations between men and women allegations of "whore" still continue where women have not been totally faithful. I think most women, particularly when they are young find this very damaging, very upsetting. In my view, classifications of that sort can still have an enormous power.

The commodification of women's bodies in capitalism makes some forms of oppression more marked in our period than in earlier periods. We now have a greater regulation through body image than occurred in pre-capitalist societies. Yes, it is applicable to young men in increasing numbers as well, but, given that women are more often socialised to be highly-sensitive to public opinion, I think it is more damaging for them.

I see anorexia nervosa as a response to this form of cultural discipline, these modes of regulation and oppression working particularly via the "beauty myth", made more intense by the individuation of modern western society, that is the decline of communal meals and meal times, which makes it easier for people to disguise the initial stages of anorexia. So I think we are seeing new controls of women through images of desire in magazines and advertising and indeed it has been suggested by Naomi Wolf that perhaps two thirds of young women in colleges and universities in the United States of America are suffering from some form of depleted energy or depression - slight or major - as a result of the regulation by "beauty image", in other words as a result of dieting.

We can also see distinctive new patterns of control emerging in late capitalism which may well at this stage be impacting more strongly on girls than on boys. I am thinking here of the demands for success in schools and exam success in particular, also the prolongation of school and college existence into adulthood. What has been called the "school sickness" is that state in which an individual's lack of educational merit is assumed to be the cause of one's poor fate in the labour market, rather than social position, and it induces further attempts to improve on qualifications.

In my opinion this does make an important change in the nature of youth in our society: increasingly, youth is prolonged a very long time and we are now seeing people trying to juggle work and study at the same time. This is problematic, perhaps particularly for young women. As I said before they have been socialised to be more sensitive to other peoples demands than young men and I think it is particularly difficult for them to express their sexuality, to control their fertility and to repress themselves for the sake of exams. This applies perhaps more to young women in the lower middle class and middle class than in the working class. Also, we are now seeing very large numbers of young immigrant women to whom these kinds of new discipline are applied.


Q: Given that "personal rights" and civil rights are born in capitalist societies, given that labour becomes a commodity and therefore should be divorced from gender, religion, race and nationality one could have expected an end to legal, formal inequality between men and women. Today, even in the most advanced capitalist societies, can one claim that this has materialised?


A: With the end of the "marriage bar" which I grew up with - many of my teachers at school had to leave when they became married - indeed I have experienced it myself in this university, which had a policy of demoting women, even if they were senior lecturers, when they became married. With that change and women's entitlement to half the house on divorce, which is very important, many legal disabilities of women in the West have been removed. I think we are in a structure of feeling in which the ideal is perceived clearly as removing all existing legal inequalities.

So I would agree with you that this is the main area of progress in the west. But I would still like to say there are significant areas where inequality or women's oppression does still emerge. For example it is still not illegal for a woman to lose her job on becoming pregnant if she has been in it less than a year, rather than being given maternity leave. Women have their children removed from their custody in divorce cases if they can be shown to have had an affair. I think here we should move more towards a more equitable treatment of both genders, we should move much more towards split custody for a man and a woman. But nevertheless, if there are still significant exceptions, the trend is certainly in the direction of formal equivalence.


Q -If we ignore the legal rights, just for a moment, what are the factors that stop equality of men and women in the labour market? Because as you know, even in academia, the Downey report claims that female lecturers face discrimination. Or many lawyers, professional women are asked at interview if they have children under five, the assumption by most employers being that a women with a young child is an unreliable employee. In those terms what would the most important aspect of capitalism that has maintained this inequality in jobs. Is it for example housework, is it cultural? is it both?


A- I believe it does relate particularly to the continuing of a gender division of labour over family responsibilities. It will be particularly difficult to uproot. This can impact on the "new man" just as it impacts on women with children under five. It does cut both ways. However my feeling is that the discrimination is of a complex nature, it has simple elements, we know that for example female professors are paid less than male professors. That may simply be due to a big organisation like a university knowing that it can get away with offering women less pay for the same job.

So they are deliberately trying a strategy of cheapening their outgoings in that fashion, as numerous finance officers in this university have told me.  What we are witnessing at the moment is a feminisation of the academic profession, because there are more economic pressure on governments in relation to large numbers of academic staff in universities. So we have to be wary of the fact that what appears to be increasing gender equality may actually be from the other side of the coin a feminisation.

There is a culture of essential biological differences, a culture which inaugurates right from the point of a girl's birth a difference in her education, a separation of the spheres in which she moves, and inequality in assumptions about her capabilities and her duties. I would see that as being fundamentally dislodged at the moment, and I think it is much more accepted now that the differences between men and women have very little in the way of a genetic base, and are much more importantly acquired through socialisation.

Little facts have come out which indicate, for example, that when the 11 plus was a widespread national institution, educationally more girls passed it than boys. But they were kept back because of the 50% quota reserved for boys. The change in this belief in a biologically-based sexual difference has to be seen as linked with the movement for legal equality, which is well established, as we have said. But the actual relations between men and women change much slower.

Women find themselves facing that contrast particularly when they have their first child, down at the "material base”, so to speak. Men seem to remain more at the level of culture. I felt this very strongly when I had my first baby; it was as though I and other women were having to wrestle with the interminable, irrevocable forces of dirt. I sometimes think that dirt, and its recurrence, is the source of our idea of "original sin" in religion. So that there are these waves of chaos which can very easily swamp the household that women in particularly are brought up to be responsible for, and that they have to control.

I see it in that relationship in which men are often privileged to be able to sit and read a newspaper or maybe even mark essays  - they can do more work at home - while women have to absorb themselves with what is often very menial, very repetitive work. To get a joint division of labour in that respect is quite difficult. It does require a voluntaristic concern on the part of the man as well as the woman; and the pressures which he is under can very easily destroy his good will in that area. The rigidity and expense of much socialised child care, and here I am talking of nurseries and crèches, make it very difficult to eradicate the material inequality between the genders in this respect. It makes it unfeasible for women to be high flyers when their children are young.

They are expected very much to adhere to rigid hours of picking up their children at 12.00 or whatever and this is not conducive to the more demanding intellectual tasks. Moreover, private nurseries, which are now blooming, are extremely expensive, so that they are restricted to young professional or young businesswomen particularly.

More importantly, drawing on what I have just said, there is a major class divide in women's experiences in advanced capitalism. Johanna Brenner has put it very well when she describes it as: "The best of times and the worst of times for women." I think for working class women in some respects it must be the worst of times. For middle class women, particularly those in very well paid careers; it is the best of times. The working class married woman's double burden is particularly acute. It has eradicated large tracts of what previously was a leisure existence for them. In fact you could say that capitalism has now achieved what 19th century industrialists wanted in the first place which was the proletarianisation of the whole family.

They had to give up that ambition to have men and women in the factory in the mid 19th century because of the pressure of predominantly male trade unions. The experience in work of many women doing deskilled and monotonous labour is that they would undoubtedly prefer in some respects to have at least a period of time off when their children are young. Yet this for many of them is now totally unfeasible. To survive they must go back to work very soon after having their children. Work has become a burdensome necessity for many working class women and indeed many of them in areas of high male unemployment are the breadwinners for the whole family.

Their often low paid jobs are supporting their unemployed men, and indeed young men too. Having said this I am still not with Pakistani men when they demonstrate against young women being able to have jobs in factories. I think that the control over women in the home can be very oppressive and women are expected to put themselves second, to be powerless, to be subservient. I don't think that their interest are served by listening to their men folk telling them to stay at home.

In the 19th century in Britain things were more complex. I am prepared to accept the argument then that for the sake of a level of civilisation, for the working class as a class, it was perhaps important during that early industrial immersion of both sexes into the factory to change. And for women then to be at home and look after the whole family. It is understandable that women in the mid nineteenth century did withdraw from labour in marriage and looked after their children, given the much lower level of labour saving devices, the much lower level of socialised child care and indeed given the terrible fear that people had of the workhouse, and especially of what the parish guardians might set up in the way of social care. They probably did ensure that there was a level of refinement and individuation for their children that wouldn't have been achieved otherwise.

But I do see that period of early capitalism of being perhaps the most restrictive separation of spheres between the genders of any in human history. That was a particularly debilitating period for women. It is interesting that even feminist socialists in the mid 19th century like Flora Tristan in France could not imagine married women choosing to work. We had a period, a very brief period in the French Revolution, where women were emancipated as citizens, there were crèches set up and they were entitled to divorce and abortion rights.  Almost as soon as the Jacobeans came to power, there were pressures to end these rights. By 1804 the Napoleonic code had put in place a whole series of restrictions on women working and then it became unimaginable for large numbers of people to think of those earlier rights. You can see the situation in Britain where the most influential early feminist book is Mary Wolstoncroft's "Vindication of the rights of women" which really doesn't discuss the need for women to work at all.

We have seen, an interesting debate about sex and class in the 19th century, and in my view what happened was that the working class, in order to advance itself vis a vis capital, and achieve a modicum of civilisation, had to do so, tragically, by subordinating women and restricting them to the home. But I don't believe that this is the choice that now faces women in developing countries and I think that they have to heroically insist on their right to labour.


Q-You have actually covered some of the questions I was going to ask later, but as you have talked about the various stages of the development of capitalism, can I stress that for us this is of great interest because in a country like Iran development of capitalism is speeded up. We are dealing with rural population that has moved to the urban areas as the new working class or inhabitants of shantytowns, doing part time jobs and women have got short term, unskilled work. Some are becoming part of urban proletariat others are not.

My next question is therefore: if we accept that capitalism has not succeeded in eliminating inequality between men and women, even in the most advanced societies. First how can we describe and list the most important and general aspects of this inequality? Second, how do we explain it: in the inherent needs of capitalism and structural elements? In the capacity to reproduce pre-capitalist relations? In the transitional requirements and necessities of specific stages of capitalist development? ... Essentially in your opinion is it possible to achieve private and social equality between men and women within the framework of capitalist relations?


A- In answer to your specific question about transition to capitalism in modernising societies, I think this leads to quite difficult choices for women, because alternatives of child care and domestic labour are available even less than in the West and this produces the emergence of two groups each of which rationalises their situation very strongly and develops a perspective based on their choice either to work or not to work.

This creates very bitter divisions between groups of women: we have seen that fragmentation in societies like Germany in a period from about 1880 – 1930, and you can see it in the past in our own society in Britain. I am sure that it is very strong in Iran. This is because the morality of women does relate so much to their structural situation. In pre-capitalist society, for example, peasant society, it is relatively easy to accommodate another child. You don't have to change the whole pattern of your way of life and your labour in order to have care for another, so you can see why taboos on abortion might resonate with women in that situation. Indeed we can see in the South of United States that it is particularly rural women that tend to have this ethic of non abortion. So the mode of production does, in my opinion, throw up differences in the perspective that people have.

In urban conditions where women's labour is increasingly commodified, clearly the number of children that they have to look after can become crucial so that the ethic relating to abortion and contraception changes with it. I do think that in the West there have been important gains. The decline of religion and its enchantment of the sexual difference is an important development in this respect. All world religions have been highly patriarchal. But ultimately I cannot see capitalism providing the infrastructure in which every single woman can realise herself, in particular in terms of provision of nurseries or carers for the old and the sick. 

This is now a possibility for businesswomen and higher professionals in the West, but on a privatised, commodified basis. Keynesianism never provided the economic base for both partners to have a career. To go back to a point I was going to make earlier on, what developed out of the movement for liberation in the 1960s which flowered into the women's liberation in the 1970s in a second wave, was a concern to reform the nature of the two sexes and the emergence of this ideal of a "new man". I see the "new man ideal” fitting very badly with the nature of capitalist competition. When the market place struggle becomes intense, as we have seen in this country, the number of hours that people spent at work lengthen; the primacy of work over all other concerns becomes more and more intense, so these cannot fit with a leisurely response to your family's needs.

Increasingly pressure is put upon men to act in an egoistic, ambitious fashion, for the sake of the material survival of their companies, if not for their own advancement. This totally impedes the reform of domestic relations that we have been talking about, yet, until men do it, how can women be free? In particular, there has been a very scanty provision of state nurseries, largely for working class single mothers in the past. They have not been providing care of the sort that most people would regard as adequate for themselves, in terms of stimulation. It has to be said it is largely middle class women who have been able to afford any other alternative.

Sadly this is not seen in terms of class at all. I gather from work that feminists such as Beverley Skeggs have been doing amongst Yorkshire working class women (Formations of Class and Gender), that they do not now call themselves working class. The class affiliation is now thought to be stigmatising so they call themselves something else. They are therefore removing one of the weapons that might allow them to improve their situation.

To sum up, there is still a real crisis or a clash between the broad social and cultural needs of the family and work imperatives. This of course emerges mainly at the level of strain put on relationships and marriage breakdown. In answer to your question, Juliet Mitchell once proposed that there would have to be a dual revolution, a revolution in terms of material relations of production and a revolution in terms of gender relations. I must say that, although I may be biologic- chopping here, I can only see one continuous revolution that has its effects throughout all the spheres of a society's totality.


Q- Let us deal with "culture". How do you see the influence and level of influence of culture in reproducing inequality between men and women? To what extent do terms such as "modernity", "modernism”, "cultural development" or "cultural differences" prepare the conditions for explaining the specific conditions of women in different societies?


A- Women's emancipation has been associated historically with bourgeois society and with early revolutionary socialist societies, but I think that this is in the context of women's sexual segregation being more onerous in early capitalism than it was in pre capitalist societies. I am thinking here of the case of Algeria, an Islamic society before colonisation, where although masculine domination was very strong, gender divisions were less onerous in the sense that women did engage in an active productive life, as well as men and women having an active communal life, to some extent, together.

So women's emancipation has been linked with bourgeois society. Capitalism has had this dual aspect. It has been liberating in the sphere of consumption while it has also been constraining in the sphere of production. I think that the emergence of cafes, the emergence of cheap convenience foods are historic achievements of capitalism. That levelling of the public sphere and the removal of feudal status inequalities so as to open up to everyone, on a democratic basis, certain spaces (the cafe, the cabaret, the concert hall...) these are the achievements of the bourgeoisie, there is no doubt about it, and women's independence has been linked to those.

On the other hand one could also say that in movements like that of literary modernism, in many respects the great modernist writers defined themselves against women. They saw themselves as more rational, more educated. So the traditional communal forms of story telling, for example, in which women had often been experts, were down- graded as merely popular forms. In particular the extension of education into certain high cultural areas meant that women suddenly discovered themselves to be the victims of a whole new series of oppressions.


Q--Regarding the women's' movement, at what level, and to what extent can feminist movements play a role in improving the conditions of women and reducing existing inequalities? Can women's movements become independent from capitalism?


A- To be brief, I see the women's movement now as profoundly split between liberal feminism and socialist feminism. The movements of women earlier were often split between the image of women as child bearers and home nurturers and the needs of working women. That occurred in the German movement. I think now our most significant split is probably between liberal feminism and socialist feminism.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s there has been a decline of socialist feminism. I think liberal feminism has persisted and indeed flourished but it has swallowed up a lot of socialist feminism. If I can just elaborate a little bit, the feminist movement should not be seeking to make women in the image of men. That is not least because I think men 's character has had to be distorted in order to be the career- minded, egoistic, instrumentally- concentrated beings that the world of even professional middle class work in capitalism requires.

If women were just simply to take on the form of men, we would see the loss of the very important achievements of women for civilisation, for example the questioning of militarism. The hostility towards militarism I see as the one clear achievement of women's culture, although the questioning of egoistic, instrumental rationality in the name of careerism has also been a significant contribution on our part. But I am not in favour of what has sometimes been called "difference feminism" either.

I am deeply suspicious of some French feminists who perceive women as having a privileged access to a pre- symbolic form of communication. They emphasise the non- verbal forms of communication, stress the pre- oedipal babble of the child and see women as privileged to communicate with this. So women in my view should avoid being valued for their fluidity, their viscosity and the other traits that French post structuralists like Irigaray, Cisoux have seen as being distinctive to them. I am even very dubious about privileging women's intuitiveness. I think this is a largely magical belief and, to the degree that it has emerged, it has actually impeded them in developing rationality. So women's movements are analytically independent of capitalism, but materially they are profoundly affected by it.

What we have seen is the way in which, on the field of power, elements of feminism which have been best suited to the reproduction of the dominant class have been chosen, selected out. I will say more about this in a minute. But it seems to me that we should be capable of the flexibility of thinking in which we might in principle be in favour of women's emancipation but might also see it as a very dubious phenomenon in some respects: as it has been actually implemented on the ground. Perhaps I need to justify that, because people might think I am being treacherous. I think women's' emancipation ought to be seen now perhaps as something of a Trojan horse, in that it has broken down various buffers against the market, communal and family buffers for example, which had previously provided people with some protection from the austerity of the market.

The dominant class has used feminism, has used its privileged women's' labour power to increase its overall capitals, its economic capital, its cultural capital and its social capital. I think we have seen the use also of commercialised forms of popular literature and television, which women consume in large numbers, to break down an autonomous anti capitalist high culture.There was an elitist high culture which was very critical of aspects of capitalism, and I think the turn to privileging women's form of expression, like the romance, may have quite often removed that critical edge culturally. Because these were forms that adjusted themselves to the market and didn't question it. Didn't take issue with the commercialisation of life in general.

I believe there is a danger now of a simplistic, populist aesthetic and a return to a view that things that sell best are better: a return to a mistaken common sense. Now I don't want to say that there are not valuable elements of popular women's' literature. I think they have distinctive, moral and political understanding of how people should live their lives which is important. That is a cultural achievement. We were right to say at a certain stage that it is not just high culture that should be preserved. There are elements from popular culture that are important and need saving. But we are in danger of shifting into a market based aesthetic which is a populist one.

This is dangerous and is antagonistic to the older idea of the autonomous writer and the autonomous artist. This relates perhaps to how I see sociology and art. I see sociology as being valuable in that it does allow us to break with common sense. That could be various forms of common sense. It can be educated common sense as well as traditional common sense. It provides a rupture with that and in that sense, it has a view of societies as constructivist which is crucial. It repudiates the biological essentialisms of race and class etc. That is important. I think art does the same. Indeed, we had the actual term of constructivist art taken up in the Russian Revolution.

You once used the term "the needs of capitalism”, and I have a slight anxiety about that phrase. There are general antagonism of class interest in capitalism and to that extent I would agree with you. Capital has needs which workers do not have, nevertheless the ways in which these are instituted how reification actually works, is different in the different capitalist societies. Essentialist ideas about class can very easily become mechanistic determinist accounts or historicist accounts (to use Popper's term). So I think we need to distinguish between the more deep rooted structural necessities from the contingent relationships.

Yes I think in a deep rooted way Capital has a consistent, enduring need for sources of cheap labour. That is an underlying imperative in whatever market society you live, but there are contingent solutions to that problem. The cheap labour may be that immigrants or it may be women and historically these are conditioned by the nature of struggles that take place. The workers' culture enormously effects the outcome of typical conflicts and struggles over life chances. I find it difficult to think of a model an essentialist development of capitalism.

To that extent you could say as I got older I have more doubts about how inevitable is the transition to socialism. I have hopes that we will make that transition. I see it as being civilizationally necessary, but I think that it is more problematic as to how this occurs than perhaps earlier generations imagined. In other words it is difficult to read off the future from past trends. Especially given that the greater intensity of the neo globalising aspects have integrated world society more, immediately to the detriment of the western working class and to workers and peasants in the South and countries like Iran.

Of course this is an equalisation via the law of value, and it is a long delayed one. Imperialism delayed it. At present we can see in late capitalist society the real benefits of increased material levels for many of the working class, it has to be said because of dual wage earning. Although I am not entirely against people like Marcuse when they talk about false needs, I think, for example ,we buy too many clothes, but at the same time people don't have sufficient demands for space, good housing space and green space in cities.

Working class ambitions need to get stronger in that respect rather than more reduced.  In the West the improved consumption levels have been used to buy off discontent about deskilling and increased labour discipline. What is emerging now as a result of globalisation is de industrialisation and unemployment particularly for males in the West. Some groups, like the second-generation immigrants, are much more likely to experience this than others. It seems to me that the quality of unemployment now is perhaps psychologically worse than it has ever been before.

Materially, maybe the unemployed are not suffering from the absolute bare hunger that led people in the thirties to go out into the country and eat hawthorn berries. However, psychologically, in a society much more based on the cash nexus, where all relationships, except the immediate family, have become commodified relationships, the unemployed experience much more sharply a sense of loss of dignity in their loss of their work. It will be difficult to know what will be the outcome of all this. Will we just learn to stomach 11% or more of our workforces being unemployed over a long period? It is very difficult to anticipate quite what will be the logic of this shift to de-industrialisation in the West.

Who would have thought in the thirties that the crisis of capitalism then, with its huge numbers of unemployed throughout the world, would lead to the form of class compromise of Keynesianism with its relatively benevolent face in the 1960s? I am somewhat pessimistic about the time which it will take to develop a better allocation mechanism than capitalism. I think we can do it. I think humans are clever enough to do it. But nations used to have a little bit of space within which they could reform their own economy. Now it can only be done on a Europe- wide basis or globally. So it is going to need a lot more rationality of international planning than was ever necessary before.

This may take, I am afraid, some time before we can develop new alternatives as a means of supplanting the allocation of labour to different areas that the market provides. At present I see a renewed "racism" of class too and this is extremely worrying. The haute bourgeoisie (old money) seem to me to have become more dignified in its self- presentation, especially as it has acquired more education over the last couple of generations: capitalist rule seems to be more secure because of this. There has been, it has to be admitted, a decline of the Left.

These changes have perhaps been accomplished parallel to some real improvements in bourgeois women's situation. And a limited amount of improvement in working class women's situation: their refusal to be slaves to men any longer, for example. The full weight of the double burden now rests with working class women. But instead of understanding the situation that provokes ordinary men, in the face of the removal of craft skills and traditional security, to hang to the last relics of their honour and power as males, there is a danger of their simplistic dismissal, a dismissal which treats them as bestial or barbarous.

February 2000


Dr Bridget Fowler is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Glasgow University. She is on editorial board of Critique. Her recent publications include:

Fowler, B. (1991). The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century, Harvester Wheatsheaf;

Fowler, B. (1997). Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations, Sage, London;

Fowler, B, (1996). An Introduction to Pierre Bourdieu's "Understanding", Theory, Culture and Society, Vol 13, no 2, May

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