The 'Women's Question'
F. W. Stella Browne
The Communist, March 11 1922
During the recent war, the women of Great Britain became of recognised value to the Government. So eager was that Government to obtain women to replace in industry and the Civil Service the men it flung to the shambles that it actually went the length, in some branches and departments, of paying them a decent living wage. More than that, the rights of the mother and child were (grudgingly and inadequately, it is true), also recognised, but other matters were recognised as well. The waste of infant life through the "Bastardy" laws as well as housing conditions, the inroads of venereal disease, the infamous absurdities of the English law of Separation and Divorce - all these things were investigated and talked about, and the hope was encouraged that when the war was over, in some New Jerusalem for heroes, they would be dealt with and altered.
To say "I told you so" is not a proud or pleasant task, but even during the high tide of war hysteria and before the war some of us had steadily pointed out that no fair and tolerable conditions for women and the future generations are possible under competitive industrialism and the obsolescent debris of a patriarchal family system which is breaking before our eyes under sheer economic stress.
I do not propose to touch on the position of the professional or industrial woman as a wage earner except to point out that the women who were gushed at as "splendid" and "savours of the country" in war time are now realising that it is once more economically a crime to be a woman. But there is another point which should be carefully considered by any "live" and intelligent woman who is reaching Communism - as many now are - through awakened sex solidarity and sex ideals. Only persons who have watched the working of Government Departments from the inside, since the Armistice, can realise how the economic position of women workers has been injured, and sex antagonism embittered, by the deliberate policy of the Government in playing off the temporary women clerks and the ex-servicemen against one another. This characteristic policy has been already responsible for infinite misery, brutalization and retarding of united effort, and has by no means reached its climax yet.
Now, what are the ideals in regard to the special work and special nature of women that are unrealisable under Capitalism, but integral to Communism?
Firstly: Freedom to do any work for which she is fitted, to prove her fitness, to receive instruction, to be given responsibility and initiative in any industrial or administrative or professional capacity - as in Soviet Russia. The ideal that nineteenth century bourgeois suffragists worked for piecemeal in England and America and that Russia (starving, fighting, obscenely calumniated) has realised.
Secondly: Adequate special protection of the child and the child-bearing mother, by the
community - as in Soviet Russia. And as the indispensable "other side of the shield" - the entire
individual responsibility of women in regard to the acceptance or refusal of motherhood, the
fundamental human right of the mother to bear life gladly and proudly or not at all and of the
unborn to be wanted and welcomed. This human right of refusal, as I pointed out in 1915 and
again in 1917 is a crucial point of Socialist ethics. Soviet Russia has honoured and recognised
that right, with the resources of science and Communist charity. Capitalist "morality" prefers
baby farming, infanticide, and the systematic blackmail, the moral and physical septicaemia of
widespread clandestine abortions, performed under conditions of ignorance and filth.
Thirdly: The freedom of sexual relationships from legal or economic coercion. Marriage in Soviet Russia is a private contract between two persons as nearly free and as nearly equal as nature permits.
Divorce is a private transaction, perfectly compatible with due regard to the interests of the children, and carried out under conditions of humane expeditions and decent privacy. In this happy land, in spite of recommendations of Majority and Minority Commissions, the Law and the Church continue to do their utmost to make Divorce either an economic impossibility, or a public exposure.
With the humanising and civilising of marriage laws, and the equal economic opportunity for women, has gone an enormous decrease in prostitution. English feminists of the "orthodox" type have, in the past, devoted much eloquence and indignation - and even some real research! to the problem of abolishing prostitution. But, so far as I know Mrs H.M. Swanwick is the only leader among them who has made a (very brief) public reference to the conditions in Russia. As for the conditions under Capitalism, they are so painfully and glaringly obvious that I will not dilate upon them. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?
I call upon all women who can work, who can think, who want a better world for their children, who want the full dignity and power and beauty of human love and of human life, to join us in the fight for the Communist Commonwealth.