For working-class women worldwide, 2012 marked a year of vicious attacks. Ongoing austerity and budget cuts mean women are paying for the economic crisis more than ever. There have been a number of slanderous and outrageous accusations from right-wing politicians, pundits, and even a Supreme Court judge that, in legitimate cases of rape, a woman can control her body into not conceiving. Even though there is increased awareness around the issue of domestic violence, it has not slowed the violence that is forced on women every day.
March 8, International Womens Day, is a holiday of struggle founded over 100 years ago by socialists and activists organizing against the oppression of women in the workplace, household, and wider society. The weeks surrounding International Womens Day are a good time to highlight the increased attacks on women worldwide during a time of capitalist crisis. We also need to urgently discuss the next steps for movements and radical solutions to the problems we face.
Effects of Austerity
Austerity policies imposed by the big banks and capitalist governments on a global level have meant increased misery for all working-class and poor people. These global austerity packages of budget cuts, layoffs, and decimation of social programs should not be seen as just a one-time measure. Rooted in a structural crisis of capitalism, they are a deliberate policy of ruling elites globally to make working-class and poor people pay for the deepening crisis.
With these cuts to public services and to the service sector, women are now falling further into poverty. Predominately employed in jobs with high levels of part-time work and in sectors of the economy undervalued by big business such as health care, education, and child care, a large proportion of women workers have been suffering badly.
A New York Times article about Britain reported in early 2012 that Women account for two-thirds of employees in the public sector, where the governments budget monitor says 710,000 jobs are to disappear. They rely more heavily than men on public services and financial assistance and are expected to lose 70 percent of the £18 billion being cut from benefits like housing support and tax credits for the working poor, says the Fawcett Society, a group pushing for greater gender equality (3/6/2012). 74% of the cuts in Britain will be taken from the income of women, and the politicians agreed to a budget with plans to cut another £10 billion from welfare by 2016-2017.
Benefits and service cuts hit women hardest because they rely more on the state to provide for services like rape crisis and domestic violence centers as well as subsidized housing for elderly women and child care. Women are also more heavily employed in public sector jobs that are being slashed. In a town in the northern region of Portugal with 17,000 inhabitants, 6,000 women are now unemployed (Trades Union Congress, Bearing the brunt, leading the response: Women and the global economic crisis, March 2011).
Cuts in services like health care and education result in an increase in the unpaid labor that women perform in the household caring for the sick, cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Capitalism does not want to pay women for this valuable work, even though its necessary to keep society functioning. This increases the burden on women in this time of crisis: Jobs are destroyed, services are decreased, and household responsibilities rise. Socialists call for guaranteed, quality child care and health care to help decrease the roots of womens oppression.
Thankfully, there is an international fight against the devastating policies of austerity. On November 14, a coordinated general strike across Europe marked a sweeping rejection of the austerity measures. Millions protested spending cuts, layoffs, and tax hikes for working people while banks get bailed out. Workers in Spain, Portugal, and Greece shut down society. This shows the potential power of workers and the oppressed to stop these policies and to create a better world.
Also, cuts to jobs, education, and social benefits send the economy further into a downward spiral by decreasing the buying power of workers. These policies dismantle the social safety net that so many rely on. This is why a determined fight-back must continue in Europe and around the world. General strikes can broaden the struggles, hit corporate profits, and increase class consciousness in the working class about who creates the wealth in society and who should control it.
A Sick, Sexist Culture
These sharp cuts in funding for social programs have opened up further attacks on reproductive health and womens control over their own bodies. Right-wing Republicans attack Planned Parenthood and are trying to wipe it out altogether in the U.S. as access to abortion becomes less available. The assault on reproductive rights is just one aspect of a war on women and an attempt by right-wing forces worldwide to turn back the clock on the gains won by women and progressive movements in previous decades.
In Canada, the Slutwalk movement emerged after a Toronto police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, suggested women should avoid rapes by not dressing like sluts. This is one aspect of a culture that treats women as objects and often justifies acts of violence by blaming female victims. Tens of thousands of women in multiple countries moved out into the streets protesting sexual assault. The spread of these protests internationally showed that women are ready to move into struggle.
Unfortunately, in 2012 these movements slowed in pace in the U.S. This was not because these women were satisfied with some sweeping changes. Instead, it was a result of the role of the traditional womens organizations like NOW (National Organization for Women) and NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League), which diverted struggles into lobbying the Democratic Party and supporting the re-election of Barack Obama.
This renewed global fight-back has exposed horrific events in India and Ireland. In early January, protests broke out in India over a gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi. In Ireland, a young woman died in a hospital because doctors refused to abort the unviable fetus. Doctors had told her and her husband at the time that they would not act because they live in a Catholic country. Total disregard for a womens right to be safe from sexual violence and her right to choose what she does with her own body is despicable. Tens of thousands of Irish people gathered to demand immediate action to introduce abortion legislation in Ireland.
Capitalism Creates a Crisis for Women
Women rely on social services so heavily because the work they do in the family and the household is unpaid. The problems faced by women are rooted in the logic of capitalisms fall deeper into crisis. Providing child care and care for the elderly falls almost completely on the shoulders of women. But under capitalism, this work is considered natural and is expected to be performed by women without pay.
This creates serious inequality, as many women must do unpaid labor and work a paying job as well if theyre lucky enough to find a job. Caring for the sick, the elderly, and the vulnerable isn’t as profitable to corporations as speculation, sweatshops, and low-wage retail. The only thing capitalism cares for is profits. Therefore, the necessary work done in a household doesn’t result in job security, a regular income, or a valued place in society.
Under this system, profits are always more important than the needs of working or poor people. Socialists believe that women should be compensated for this work. So many women are unemployed or underemployed. Under capitalism they are cast aside and left isolated and in poverty. Socialists argue that everyone should have living-wage jobs with union rights and benefits or, if unable to work, should have an income allowing them a quality life. Services like child care, quality meals, and socialized laundry could provide for those underemployed or out of work. This would also lessen the burden that is placed on working-class women.
We dont have to accept the budget cuts, the layoffs, the attacks on our rights, and the culture that treats us as objects. It doesn’t have to be like this. Socialists argue that, for women to win equality, it is necessary to end capitalist society altogether. Only through united struggle for democratic socialism can we guarantee good jobs and quality services and fully address the roots of unpaid labor and sexist attitudes.