Female Labor

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Female Labor


the participation of women in social production. The character of their participation is determined by the socioeconomic structure of the society. In an exploitative class society, private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social inequality for women, including job discrimination. The liberation of women and their full equality with men are possible only with the establishment of public ownership of the means of production and the abolition of the exploitation of one man by another.

With the rise of private ownership during the first stages of the development of class society, female labor became focused on the household and lost the social significance that it had had in the primitive communal system. Women were deprived of their former predominant position in the family, and their lives were restricted to the home. They became slaves to their husbands, on whom they were economically dependent. As the productive forces of society, the cities, and the market exchange system continued to develop, the significance of female labor gradually changed. Women began to participate in the production of material goods. Their labor, however, remained primarily private, solitary, and domestic for many centuries.

During the age of capitalism women actively entered into social production, and their labor acquired great social significance. The large-scale employment of female workers characterized the capitalist structure and the era of machine production. Indeed, it was the use of machines that made it possible to employ female labor extensively. Capitalists found that female workers were essential to fill the need for a labor force and profitable as the source of additional profits resulting from discrimination against them in wages. Low wages for women also led to a wage cut for male workers.

During the age of imperialism the use of female labor continued to increase, and the employment of women in social production rose. In the 20th century women became extensively involved in social production. At the beginning of the 20th century 20 percent of the working population consisted of women engaged in production. By the mid-1960’s, this figure had reached 30-35 percent in many capitalist countries.

The particularly rapid increase in the employment of female workers after World War I (1914-18) was influenced by economic, political, social, and demographic factors. However, the growth of the female labor force under capitalist conditions was caused primarily by the economic necessity for women to earn money for themselves and their families. In exploitative societies the scientific and technological revolution has sharply intensified conflicts involved in bringing the female labor force into production. Female labor is either sought or displaced, depending on the labor market. The general tendency, however, is toward an increase in the number of working women. (Women make up one-third of the world’s labor force and approximately one-half of its potential labor resources. In many countries the latter figure is even higher.)

Female labor is used to different extents in various coun-tries. According to the International Labor Bureau, in 1970 the percentage of women in the economically active population was 29.1 in Europe, 26.6 in North America, 23.4 in Asia, 23.8 in Africa, and 12.2 in Latin America.

In a number of capitalist countries the scientific and technological revolution led to a decrease in the percentage of women in the employed labor force. In France the percentage decreased from 33.5 to 31.9 between 1958 and 1967. Between 1957 and 1966 the percentage decreased from 36.8 to 35.9 in the Federal Republic of Germany and from 41.4 to 39.8 in Japan.

In developing countries female labor is still under the influence of vestiges of the colonial period. In the majority of African countries it is difficult for women to find work, and the proportion of women workers does not exceed 5-7 per-cent of the employed labor force. Of the employed female population, two-thirds are engaged in small-scale retail trade. However, the use of female labor is expanding as the rate of industrial development increases. In such nations as Egypt, Algeria, and the Republic of Guinea the percentage of women in the labor force has increased several times in a short period of time. According to the UN, between 1975 and 1980 the rate of increase of the labor force will be twice as high for men and three times as high for women in developing coun-tries than for men and women in developed countries.

As the use of female labor increased, its structure and the level of qualifications for women changed. According to the International Organization of Labor, the second half of the 20th century will be characterized by decreasing female employment in agriculture and increasing female employment in industry, trade, and services. The employment of women in new branches of production (electronics, electrical engineering, machine building, metallurgy, chemistry, and broadcasting) has expanded, and a shift of the female labor force from the textile to the metalworking and machine-building branches of industry is apparent. However, as a rule, the majority of working women hold jobs that require few qualifications. For example, in the USA about 90 percent of the working women have jobs that do not require a high level of education or lengthy professional training.

In developing countries female workers are employed primarily in the cottage industry and in handicrafts. In a number of African countries 15-25 percent of the workers in the manufacturing industries and 40-70 percent of the workers in the service industries are women. In Latin America the greatest number of women are employed in trade and service industry, and the second greatest number are in manufacturing (textiles, clothing, food, tobacco, and footwear). Quite a few women are nurses and teachers at primary and secondary schools. The number of women employed in the government, in banking, and in various social and cultural institutions has increased. In the Latin American countries, where up to 50 percent of the employed population is in agriculture, the number of employed female agricultural laborers is small. The labor contract is often made with the male head of the household, and the whole family works on the plantations.

Although the principle of equal employment rights for men and women has been confirmed by law in all capitalist coun-tries, in practice the laws on equality for men and women in employment, wages, education, and social security are grossly broken. In these countries it is common for women doing the same work as men to be paid less. Despite the adoption of the International Organization of Labor’s Convention No. 1 On the Equal Compensation for Work Performed by Men and Women With Equal Qualifications (1951) and similar legislation passed in many countries under the pressure of the struggle of the working class struggle, the disparity between men’s and women’s wages has increased. In the USA only 5 percent of all working women received the salary of the “average American” in the 1960’s. In 1965 the salary for women was 64 percent of the average salary for men and the corresponding figure for 1970 was only 58 per-cent. For black female workers the gap between male and female pay for the same work is 20 percent higher than for white females. An act on equal pay (1963) affected only 61 percent of wage laborers. Capitalist enterprises usually employ female workers without observing standards for the protection of labor. The norms established by the International Organization of Labor’s Convention No. 103 On the Protection of Maternity (1952) have not been put into practice in capitalist countries, although many of them have passed similar legislation.

The programs of the Communist and workers’ parties, progressive trade unions, and women’s unions of capitalist countries include demands for the establishment of regulated working conditions and protection of female labor and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against working women.

Marx and Engels always emphasized that the participation of women in social production is progressive, inasmuch as it removes them from the restrictive circle of family interests, makes them economically independent of the family, introduces them to sociopolitical life, and awakens their class consciousness. They spoke out resolutely against various theories (including ecclesiastical ones) that claimed that woman’s lot is only to worry about her children and her home. Marx and Engels also exposed the exploitation of women workers under capitalism. Lenin considered housekeeping “the most unproductive, the most barbarous, and the most arduous work a woman can do. It is exceptionally petty and does not include anything that would in any way promote the development of the woman”(Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 202).


In the USSR The Great October Socialist Revolution liberated working women from all forms of discrimination by destroying private ownership of the means of production. The Soviet government completely solved the women’s question, including the problem of women’s labor in social production. The problem of female labor became one of the most important issues in the socialist organization and legal regulation of labor. Female labor increased significantly in quantity and quality, inasmuch as the involvement of women in production was accompanied by a rise in their level of qualifications and by the extensive organization of a system for the protection of pregnant women and infants. The percentage of educated female workers is almost the same as the percentage of educated male workers.

According to the 1970 census of the USSR, 654 of every 1,000 employed men and 651 of every 1,000 employed women have higher or secondary educations (complete or incomplete). Women are granted certain pension privileges, such as the right to a pension at age 55 and eligibility for a pension after 20 years of work. (Men have the right to a pension at age 60 and are eligible for one after 25 years of work.) Additional privileges have been established for women working in certain branches of industry and for mothers with large families.

The number of women laborers and office workers increased from 2.8 million in 1928 to 45.8 million in 1970. More than half of the workers in the Soviet national economy are women (51 percent of the country’s laborers and office employees and 54 percent of the kolkhoz workers). Women make up 58 percent of the nation’s specialists, 47 percent of its scientists, 48 percent of the industrial workers (40 percent of the workers in machine building and metal working), 29 percent of construction workers, 61 percent of managerial workers, and 72 percent of the workers in educational and cultural institutions.

Scientific and technological progress in socialist production significantly promoted fundamental changes in the types of female labor as well as its expanded use in the economy. Women began to work in machine building, electrical engineering, the chemicals industry, the manufacture of instruments, and other new branches of industry. The number of female intellectuals has increased significantly. The continuing increase in the quality of positions open to women is also apparent in other socialist countries (for example, 42.5 per-cent of the specialists in Bulgaria are women).

In addition to actively encouraging the employment of women in production and helping to raise their qualifications, socialist governments are constantly concerned about im-proving the conditions under which women live and work. The 1961 Program of the CPSU provides for comparatively easy but sufficiently well-paying jobs for women and the elimination of vestiges associated with their unequal position in family life. Socialist countries also have a complex of governmental measures aimed at improving the protection of female workers.

In regulating female labor, Soviet labor and kolkhoz legislation takes into consideration the physiological characteristics of women and the necessity for the protection of maternity and children. Special guarantees provide for the protection of female workers through the establishment of various labor privileges. For example, women are forbidden to work at jobs requiring hard labor or entailing hazardous conditions. (Such jobs are on a special list.)

In most underground jobs the transportation of heavy loads by women is restricted. Preferential terms of work are provided for women tractor drivers, women operating agricultural machines, and women truck drivers. Supplemental protective guarantees have been instituted for pregnant women and mothers of infants, who may not be hired to do overtime or night work. Paid breaks are provided so that mothers may feed their infants, and women are granted paid leaves-of-absence for pregnancy and childbirth.

The principle of equal rights for men and women was legally strengthened by Article 118 of the Constitution of the USSR of 1936, which defined the right to work as the right to guaranteed work with pay depending on the quantity and quality of the labor performed. The economic guarantees of women’s right to work include an extensive network of children’s institutions (day nurseries, kindergartens, and extended day school groups), which gives women the opportunity to combine labor in social production with raising a family. The problem of converting consumer services into a huge mechanized branch of the national economy and of attaining the maximum development of all forms of services is being solved in the USSR to further expand the participation of women in production.

Speaking on the main task of the working women’s movement, Lenin pointed out that the “chief thing is to get women to take part in socially productive labor, to liberate them from ‘domestic slavery,’ to free them from their stupefying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and the nursery. This struggle will be a long one, and it demands a radical reconstruction both of social technique and of morals. But it will end in the complete triumph of communism”(ibid., vol. 40, p. 193).


Marx, K. Kapitai, vol. 1. Moscow, 1967.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 162.
Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 202; vol. 40, p. 193.
Strana Sovetov za 50 let: Sbornik statisticheskikh materialov. Moscow, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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