Hannah Sell, CWI International Secretariat
When the twenty first century dawned young women in the US and much of Europe were being told that equality was within their grasp. They didn’t need feminism because capitalism was offering a glittering future based on growing prosperity and gender equality.
Today that illusion lies in ruins. Worldwide the myth of capitalist progress – of young people having greater opportunities than their parents – has been shattered by the world economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. Young people from working and middle class backgrounds are facing a world that does not meet their expectations – dominated by mass unemployment, low paid and insecure work, cuts to public services, and unaffordable housing. War and conflict are on the rise, leading to millions risking their lives as they are forced to flee their homes. For women this is combined with the sexual discrimination which remains embedded in the fabric of society and means that, in a world of low pay, globally women still earn on average 10 to 30% less than men.
In the neo-colonial world, where most wages are pitifully low, women are super-exploited. They work sometimes 12 hours or more a day on the land, in the markets, in textile and shoe factories. In many places, women and their children work as modern-day slaves.
Far from there being an automatic gradual dying out of sexual discrimination, in a number of countries governments are acting to exacerbate it. In Russia, for instance, where it is estimated a women dies of domestic abuse every forty minutes, domestic violence has been partially decriminalised. Austerity has impacted directly on the amount of violence and harassment women face, and their ability to fight back. In Britain, for example, more than 30 refuges for women fleeing violence have closed due to lack of funds, with many of the rest facing closure or, at best, severe cuts. At the same time the complete absence of affordable housing leaves women with nowhere at all to go if they flee violent partners. Or look at the 9 out of 10 workers in Britain who work in bars, restaurants and hotels who report having faced sexual abuse from employers, managers or the public but who are told that ‘it is part of the job’ which they should put up with because they are lucky to have work. Today, no less than in the past, improvements in women’s rights will not happen automatically but only as a result of mass struggle.
IWD more important than ever
That is why International Women’s Day, over a century after it was first initiated in the US, is more important than ever. Attempts to transform it into little more than a sales opportunity for the big corporations – with campaigns to buy the women in your life 8 March gifts – lie increasingly forgotten as 8 March becomes an important event in the burgeoning global struggle against women’s oppression. This year the young women of the Spanish state will be leading the way when, on 8 March, millions of young women and men will be taking part in strike action called by Sindicato de Estudiantes (students union) in which Izquierda Revolucionaria (the section of the CWI in the Spanish state) plays a leading role.
The final death knell to the fairy story of seamless progress towards equality was the election of the blatant misogynist Donald Trump as US President. From day one, however, his presence in the White House has acted as a recruiting sergeant for struggle against racism and every form of oppression; not least the fight for women’s rights. Following the women’s marches last year – the biggest demonstrations on one day in US history, and the biggest globally since 2003 – the 2018 marches were attended by up to 2.5 million in towns and cities across the US. Nor are the US and Spain alone. In many countries around the world new women’s movements have developed, or are developing.
Some of these are in response to the oppression that women have long suffered – like the continuing movement against rape in India and the ‘Ni una menos’ (not one less) movement against gender-based violence that has mobilised hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Argentina and other countries. Others are to stop new attacks on the rights of women – like the partially successful movement that developed in Poland in 2016 against a government attempt to completely ban abortion. Others, however, are going beyond trying to stop things getting worse and fighting for an improvement in their rights. This is also true in Poland – where protests took place at the start of this year for the introduction of abortion on demand up until twelve weeks.
In Southern Ireland, the state – intertwined with the Catholic Church – has since its inception taken an extremely reactionary attitude to the rights of women to control their own bodies, including a complete ban on abortion. Following the appalling death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, after she was refused an abortion, there has been a groundswell for change. The Socialist Party in Ireland has played a central role in mobilising and organising that groundswell, alongside the socialist feminist campaign initiated by Socialist Party members – ROSA. Now the capitalist politicians in Ireland have been partly forced to change their tune under the impact of the movement. A parliamentary committee has recommended unrestricted access to abortion up until 12 weeks of pregnancy, and a referendum on repealing the existing ban will take place on 25 May this year.
2017 was also the year of #MeToo. What began in Hollywood – with actors speaking out against the sexual assault and harassment they suffered at the hands of film mogul Harvey Weinstein and others – has spread around the world. Virtually every capitalist institution from the media, to the major corporations, to parliaments, to charities has been damaged by an avalanche of accusations. This outpouring, largely via social media, is an indication both of the continued all-pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault and an increased confidence to fight it.
We give no ground to those who try to say that this phenomenon has ‘exaggerated’ the extent of sexual harassment and abuse. On the contrary, it has revealed only a little of the day-to-day reality for countless women, above all the most oppressed including the lowest paid, those without job security, and women workers from ethnic minorities. That does not, of course, mean that every single accusation made via #metoo can be taken as proven; all individuals should have the right to a fair hearing before being judged guilty. Regardless of the guilt or innocence of particular individuals, however, #metoo has clearly revealed the guilt of the capitalist system which allows millions to suffer sexist abuse.
It is no surprise that so many of the accusations being made are against men in positions of power over their victims. Capitalism is based on a tiny minority of society – above all the capitalist class, the billionaires who own the major corporations and banks – having enormous power to exploit the majority. We live in a world where the richest eight people own as much as half the world’s population. Inevitably in such a society among those with power will be people who habitually try to use their status to sexually abuse or harass women and men with less power than them, not least their employees. But this does not, of course, mean that working class men are exempt from such behaviour. Sexism is woven into the fabric of capitalism and affects every strata of society.
Without doubt 2018 will see the development of further movements to defend and extend women’s rights. This is the inevitable result of women’s expectations and the propaganda of equality from a section of the capitalist class, butting up against the sexist reality of capitalism.
Male dominance linked to class society
Sexual oppression is deeply ingrained, but it is not innate or unchangeable: for the majority of human history it did not exist. Male dominance (patriarchy), both in its origin and in its current form, is intrinsically linked to the structures and inequalities of class society, which came into existence around 10,000 years ago. The rise of male dominance was linked to the development of the family as an institution for maintaining class and property divisions as well as discipline. While, today and in the past, individuals families were often made up of the people with whom they were closest and felt safest with, the institution of the family nonetheless, in different forms, acted as an important agent of social control for all class societies. The hierarchical nature of society was echoed in the structure of the traditional family with the man as head of the household and women and children obedient to him.
While today more than ever the capitalist institution of the family has its weakest hold on working class people, millions of women around the world remain ‘the slaves of slaves’ and the idea is still deeply ingrained that women are possessions of men who need to be loyal and obedient to their partners. The whole of society is permeated with propaganda endlessly re-emphasising the ‘proper’ role of women – as home-makers, mothers, sexual objects, and so on.
Burden on family
For capitalism one important role of the family is to carry the central burden of bringing up the next generation and caring for the sick and elderly. In the second half of the twentieth century, at least in some European countries, this was partly alleviated by the gains won by the working class such as free or cheap healthcare, nurseries, elderly care and so on. Today in every country those gains are under threat, leaving families, particularly women, carrying a horrendous load, often at the same time as working full-time or more in low-paid insecure work, desperately struggling to make ends meet. Socialist feminism fights for equality between the sexes. Our role, however, is not to accept the impossible burdens that capitalism places on families – only arguing about who carries the greater share – but instead to wage a determined struggle for properly-funded universal public services, and well paid jobs with a short working week, in order to lift the load of tasks laid on working class families and give people the chance to enjoy life; including spending time with their loved ones.
This struggle is connected to the struggle for reproductive rights, because only on this basis is it possible for women to win a real right to choose when and whether to have children. Socialists fight for women to have control over their own bodies – so they can decide if and when they want children – but also for women to have affordable high quality homes, free childcare, a decent income and everything else that is necessary to be able to freely to choose to have children.
The struggle for women’s liberation is at root part of the class struggle, in which the struggles by women against their own specific oppression dovetail with those of the working class in general for a fundamental restructuring of society to end all inequality and oppression.
Capitalist feminism no answer
We disagree with capitalist feminism because it does not take a class approach to the struggle for women’s liberation. To put it simply, working-class women have more in common with working-class men than they do with Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May in Britain, Hillary Clinton in the US, or Sheikh Hasina Wazed in Bangladesh. This does not of course mean that only working class women are oppressed. Women from all sections of society suffer oppression as a result of their gender, including domestic violence and sexual harassment. However, at root, to win real sexual equality for women, including for women from the elite of society, a complete overturn of the existing order is necessary in every sphere: economic, social, family and domestic. The necessary starting point for such an overturn is ending the system which Thatcher, May, Clinton et al defend – capitalism – and bringing the major companies into public ownership in order to allow the development of a democratic socialist plan of production. The working class, the majority in many countries, is the force in society capable of carrying out such an overturn. This does not preclude, of course, individual women from the elite of society – even daughters of the capitalist class – deciding that the only way to end the sexism they suffer is to break with their class and to join the fight for socialism.
Role of workers’ movement
Socialists in no way suggest that the struggle against sexism be postponed, as something only to be dealt with after the end of capitalism. On the contrary, it is vital that every aspect of women’s oppression is fought now, including sexual harassment and abuse. The most effective means to do this is via a united struggle of the workers’ movement. Recently in London ferry workers took militant strike action against a bullying management, including the systematic sexual harassment of one female secretary. The workforce – overwhelmingly male – won a victory. For the countless millions of people facing sexual harassment in their workplace worldwide, the single thing that would most empower them to fight back would be to be part of a collective organisation involving a majority of their workmates – a fighting trade union – prepared to back them up when they took a stand. On a broader scale the working class needs mass parties, politically armed with a socialist programme, which put fighting for gender equality central.
Of course, the workers’ movement is not immune from sexist behaviour, and it is vital that socialists fight for all such instances to be dealt with as part of a campaign for a working-class struggle for women’s equality. The working class has the potential power to bring this rotten, sexist capitalist system to an end, but this will only be possible on the basis of a united struggle of working class women and men. This cannot be achieved by ignoring or downplaying sexism but only by consciously combatting it.
One hundred and one years ago in Russia, on International Women’s Day, a strike and demonstration of working women set off the mighty revolutionary events that led, in October, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, to the working class taking power into its hands for the first time in history. The later Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union included, along with the crushing of workers’ democracy an unwinding of many of the gains won by women after the revolution. Nonetheless, what was begun in 1917, in an isolated poor country, gives a glimpse of what socialism could mean for women today, when all the enormous wealth, science and technique created by capitalism could be harnessed for the good of humanity. Legal equality for women – including the right to vote, and to freely marry and divorce, was introduced long before they were in the capitalist world along with abolition of all laws discriminating against homosexuality. The right to abortion was introduced in Russia after the 1917 revolution. Free nurseries, laundries and restaurants began to be created.
A century later and the growing movement for women’s rights will once again be intertwined with the struggle for a socialist world.
We fight for:
- No to all discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, disability, sexuality, age, and all other forms of prejudice.
- For a mass campaign, spearheaded by the workers’ movement, against sexual harassment, violence and all forms of sexual discrimination.
- For fighting trade unions, democratically controlled by their members.
- For mass parties of the working class with socialist programmes, including the fight for gender equality.
- A mass struggle for equal pay, as part of the fight for a living wage for all linked to a shorter working week with no loss of pay.
- No to ALL cuts. Decent jobs, pay, and housing for all. For massive expansion of public services.
- For maternity and child benefits that reflect the real cost of bringing up a child.
- The right to paid parental leave.
- The provision of free high-quality flexible public childcare facilities available to every child.
- For a woman’s right to choose. Freely available free high-quality contraception and fertility treatment for all who want it. For the right to abortion on demand.
- Public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry.
- Bring the major corporations and banks into public ownership under democratic workers control and management, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
- A democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, implemented in a way that safeguards the environment and lays the basis for establishing genuine equality for all in a world without class division and war.