Are women still oppressed? If so why, and what can we do about it? Over the past few years women have been deluged with popular books the mass media and government ideology telling us what we want and how we can get it: what our problems are and how we can solve them.
The trouble is that most of this advice is conflicting and contradictory, and the ‘solutions’ nothing of the sort. As a result most women remain confused with none of their questions answered.
The Socialist Party has written extensively about the situation facing women in general and working class women in particular. This selection of articles brings together some of those writings. It offers a socialist explanation and analysis of women’s oppression and most importantly, a strategy for ending it. It shows why the idea that women can achieve liberation under capitalism is an illusion and why only a socialist society can lay the basis for real liberation.
Section 1: Women Today – The Real Situation
In 1993 US feminist, Naomi Wolf, wrote about a ‘genderquake’ taking place in society (See ‘Has There Been a Genderquake?’). She and other ‘post feminist’ writers popularized the idea that equality for women is just around the corner. The legal barriers to women’s liberation have been removed, they argued.
More women are in positions of power and authority. What’s needed now is for women to stop seeing themselves as victims and reach out to grasp the opportunities which exist for them. With a bit of effort, determination and the right attitude, we can have it all; this message has been reinforced through popular culture and the ‘girl power’ phenomenon.
For a minority of right wing reactionaries things have in fact gone ‘too far’ (See ‘The Trouble With Men?’). Women and feminism are to blame for divorce, family breakdown and the declining status of men within the family and society generally. Men are now becoming the victims of a strengthening ‘matriarchy’, they argue. The only solution to this growing crisis is to ‘turn back the clock’ to the old social order when male and female roles were clearly defined and obeyed.
‘Old’ and ‘New’ Feminism
‘Old’ feminist Germaine Greer views any changes in women’s position in society and in the relation between men and women as marginal or superficial (See ‘New Feminism Versus Old’). Nothing has really changed, she argues, in response to the post-feminists. Men still have all the power and women remain victims of the patriarchy. The struggle is still one of women against men.
Feminists Ros Coward and Susan Faludi however, question and reject a ‘simplistic’ analysis of changing gender relations (See ‘The Trouble With Men?’) The situation, they argue, is much more complex. Some men have less power than others. There is a crisis of masculinity for which wider society is to blame rather than women. Somehow or other women and men need to work together for a more ‘human’ society.
Journalist Natasha Walter wants to see a ‘new’ feminism, which embraces anyone who wants equality (See ‘New Britain, New Feminism’). The personal and the political should be separated, she writes. Together we can achieve equality within the prevailing system. For other ‘post feminists’ however, the differences between women are so great that collective struggle is no longer on the political agenda (See ‘Tomorrow’s Women?’).
New Labour ideology has echoed and reinforced the notion that for women the struggle is now one of individual self Improvement. By emphasizing ‘rights and responsibilities’ the blame for social problems is deflected away from the structural inequalities of capitalist society towards the family and the individual. (See ‘New Labour’s Family Values’). The market can solve the problems women face, they argue, but only if women themselves take responsibility for their own situation.
The articles grouped together in Part 1 take up all of these arguments and look at the real situation facing women in capitalist society today. They acknowledge that some positive changes have taken place in the economic and social position of some women over the past few years. But they also show why capitalism places limitations on how far those changes can go and why a struggle for a socialist society is absolutely necessary.
Section 2: Why Are Women Oppressed
Marxism and the Liberation of Women
There have undoubtedly been significant changes in the attitude and position of women in society over the last few decades. However, we don’t have to look too far to realize that inequality, discrimination and oppression continue to exist.
At work women earn on average 20% less than men, are concentrated in low paid service sector jobs and are under-represented at higher levels of the workplace. In most homes women bear the main responsibility for childcare and household tasks regardless of the number of hours they work. Many women experience violence and abuse in and outside the family. A culture of oppression still exists generally in society.
Explanations as to why women continue to experience inequality and oppression are many and varied. Different explanations lead inevitably to different strategies and solutions. For some (discussed in the previous Section A: Women today – the real situation) it is primary a question of equal opportunity. Emphasis is placed on changing the law, education and attitudes in order to ‘level the playing field’ to allow women to become equal with men. Such equality, it is argued, can be achieved within the existing economic and social system.
Biology has been used to both justify and explain women’s oppression. Early scientific explanations, which portray women’s inferior position as ‘natural’, focused on the size of women’s brains or their physical weaknesses. Today such arguments can appear ridiculous. Yet quite recently socio-biology and evolutionary psychology have tried to present a genetic explanation for universal male behavior including not doing the ironing, promiscuity and rape. ‘Why are women oppressed?’ looks at some of these arguments. It also addresses the idea held by some radical feminists that women’s reproductive role holds the key to understanding why they are oppressed.
Many theories of women’s oppression stress the need for a fundamental change in the way that society is structured and organized. However, there is not necessarily agreement on what kind of change in needed nor how it can be achieved. Debates have centered on what is ‘primary’, class society or male power and dominance (patriarchy), and the relationship between class and gender inequality.
‘Why are women oppressed?’ looks at all of these issues. It presents a Marxist analysis of the origins of women’s oppression, which is rooted in the development of private property, class society and the family as an economic and social institution. It also gives a glimpse of how socialism could transform the lives of women, economically socially and culturally.
Section 3: The Struggle for Liberation
Women Fighting Back
Throughout history women have fought back against inequality, discrimination, injustice and oppression in all its forms. Too often however, their participation in struggle has been hidden or disregarded. While this has been the case for women generally the voices and actions of working class women have been especially ignored and forgotten.
Working class women have surmounted enormous obstacles to take their place historic struggles for change. Burdened down with family and household responsibilities, super-exploited in difficult working conditions, they have, in the words of one working class suffragist, had to fight with ‘one hand tied behind’ them.
They have also had to contend with an ideology which has traditionally assigned them specific roles and behavior within class society. At times these ideas have been echoed by leaders of their own class organizations such as trade unions and political parties. Nevertheless, working class women have demonstrated time after time that they are not backward and can become organized. Once mobilized they have been amongst the most determined fighters for change. Through struggle they have challenged backward attitudes in society and transformed their own lives.
Working class women have moved into struggle in many different ways, mobilizing around issues, which affect them both as workers and as women. In doing so they have forged alliances with working class men and with women of different classes.
‘Women, Rebellion and Revolution’ looks at the struggle by women for the vote. It covers many themes which run like a thread through the history of women’s struggles, These include differences over ideology and methods of struggle which can emerge in cross class alliances, including the relationship between women s movements and working class organizations involving men.
A New Society
The Russian revolution was one of the most important events in history. Capitalism and feudal relations were ended, and men and women set about building a new society, which would lay the basis for eradicating inequalities of power and wealth. ‘Women and the Family After the Wall’ looks at the aims of the revolution as they related specifically to women, and explains why these were betrayed. It shows what effect the restoration of capitalism has had on women in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and explains why only a new, democratic, socialist revolution can solve the problems women now face.
Section 4: Women Fighters and Revolutionaries
This section highlights the life, times and ideas of Rosa Luxemburg , Eleanor Marx and Alexandra Kollantai, women who have played a significant role in the struggle by working class people to change society.