Class and Identity

Part Two: Strategies for Change

4. Class and Identity

What role will women play in the struggle for socialism today? Socialists and Marxists believe that the working class is the only force capable of leading the struggle to fundamentally change society. This is not because of some kind of ‘romantic’ historical attachment to the idea of the working class but because of the role which it plays in the production process under capitalism. Capitalism is a system based on competition and production for profit. The surplus from which profit comes is derived from the unpaid labour of the working class through exploitation.

A constant battle is being waged between the owners of the means of production, the capitalist class, and the producers, the working-class, over this surplus, which is reflected in struggles in the workplaces over wages, working hours, speed-ups and working conditions, as well as those to extend and defend public services. Workers, therefore, have a collective interest in fighting against and ending the economic exploitation which they face under capitalism.

Other classes and groups such as small business owners and peasants also suffer from the economic injustices of the capitalist system and could be involved in the struggle to change society. However, their economic and social position and outlook is not the same as that of the working class. Through collectively withdrawing their labour, workers potentially have the power to bring the whole economy to a halt. It is because of the potential collective strength which they possess within the workplace and the potential impact of this more generally in society that they have the main role to play in overthrowing capitalism and building a new society.

Working-class unity

Of course, capitalism will constantly attempt to divide workers, on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., and therefore undermine their ability to unite to change their immediate circumstances and society as a whole. The capitalists, for example, have attempted to use lower-paid women workers to undermine the wages and conditions of all workers. At times, male workers have themselves fallen into the ‘divide and rule’ trap, attempting to exclude women rather than organising to ensure that all workers have the same wages and conditions. We see the same thing happening with immigrant workers today in many countries.

Socialists and Marxists, therefore, campaign for the maximum unity of the working class in industrial and social struggles and for the building of independent workers’ organisations, including political parties, which can aid the collective struggle of workers and raise their confidence and understanding of the role that they can play in changing society.

While we do not believe that women can achieve liberation or that the problems facing working-class people in general can be solved through gradually reforming capitalism, it is through the day-to-day struggles to improve their conditions and defend previous gains that workers can become more confident and conscious of the need to generalise those struggles and to transform the system as a whole.

A victory, in a campaign against cuts to a local women’s refuge for example, could give confidence to those involved and to others that collective action can achieve results. Even if the campaign were defeated, involvement in struggle could raise questions about why a facility that was so important to women experiencing domestic violence was being cut back and about the priorities of a system which puts profit before women’s health and safety.

However, for struggles to develop into a successful transformation of society as a whole, a party is needed with a programme which can link the immediate needs of workers to the broader struggle for revolutionary change as the Bolsheviks were able to do in Russia.

Working-class women

As women now constitute around half of the workforce in many developed industrialised countries (and a majority in some), they are likely to play a crucial role in the struggle to change society. Even when they were in a small minority in the workplace, working-class women waged heroic struggles to defend and extend their rights as workers. Often the issues which spurred them into action were those which also affected working-class men: low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, etc. But inevitably, working-class women have also taken up issues of specific concern to them as women as well as workers, both in the workplace and more broadly in society.

Although the struggle by women for the vote in the 19th century in Britain, for example, was initiated by middle and upper-class women, it also involved women workers who for many years remained ‘hidden from history’. Very little was published about the female textile workers who petitioned and campaigned in the mills of the north of England to obtain mass support for the vote. Textile workers like Selina Cooper enthusiastically took the question of women’s suffrage into their own working-class organisations. Local cotton trade unions agreed to ballot their members on the issue being made “a trade union question in the same way that Labour representation has been made a trade union question”.1

Similarly, working-class women have waged determined campaigns for issues such as abortion and reproductive rights, sexual harassment, domestic violence and pornography to be taken up by workers’ organisations.

Domestic violence

Sometimes, at first glance, it may not be clear how these issues relate to the workplace. Domestic violence, for example, as its name implies, has for many years been viewed as a private matter which takes place behind closed doors in the home. Nevertheless, female and male trade unionists involved in the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, which was initiated by Socialist Party (then Militant Labour) members in Britain at the beginning of the 1990s, campaigned for several years for domestic violence to be considered a workplace and trade union issue. Campaigning on this issue, which affects so many women, eventually resulted in every major trade union in Britain adopting a national policy on domestic violence.

Campaigners explained how women who are subject to violence and abuse will often have poor sick rates. After a beating they might take time off work for the bruising and swelling to disappear. But when they phone work they are unlikely to give the real reason for their absence, saying instead that they have ‘the flu’ or a ‘stomach upset’. With more and more workplaces implementing draconian ‘sickness monitoring’ regimes, women experiencing domestic violence can face victimisation, including losing their jobs. Women workers may also need to be relocated in order to escape their abuser.

The training of workplace representatives in an understanding of domestic violence could encourage women workers to go to them for help. Campaigners explained that the trade unions, who still organise around seven million members in Britain, also had an important broader role to play in campaigning to raise awareness of domestic violence, to secure legal change and to fight for reforms such as more refuges, a decent minimum wage and childcare, which would increase the economic independence of women and their ability to leave a violent relationship.

‘Cross-class’ alliances

Because socialists and Marxists consider women’s oppression a class issue, we have often been accused of ignoring the fact that all women are oppressed and not just women workers. This is a distortion of our analysis. When we refer to women’s oppression as a ‘class issue’ we mean that it is rooted in and perpetuated by class-based societies and that a united struggle by the working class against capitalism is needed to lay the basis for its eradication.

Clearly, all women, regardless of class, are affected by issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women and sexism in general. For that reason, historically women have often come together across classes and in autonomous organisations to struggle against their shared oppression.

Some academic ‘post-feminist’ critiques associated with post-modernism have argued that, today, the differences between women are so great, that women have so many different identities based on class, race, sexual orientation, age, ability, lifestyle, etc., that it is no longer possible to talk of ‘women’ as a collective, social category and that, therefore, collective struggles by women are no longer relevant.

It is certainly the case that one of the weaknesses of many radical feminist theories, in addition to taking an ‘ahistorical’ view of women’s oppression, has been the way in which they have treated both ‘women’ and ‘men’ as an undifferentiated group, ignoring or considering unimportant divisions based on class, ethnic group, etc.

Economic and social class can make a huge difference to how women experience oppression. Domestic violence, for example, takes place in every social class. The reasons why women stay in violent relationships are quite complex, involving physical, emotional, psychological and economic factors. However, if funding for refuges is not made available or if councils privatise social housing, it will be normally be working-class women who do not have the economic resources to live independently who will be particularly disadvantaged, perhaps being forced to remain in a violent relationship against their will.

Similarly, when abortion rights are restricted, wealthy women are usually able to travel to secure an abortion elsewhere, while poor women either have to carry on with an unwanted pregnancy or resort to illegal and often dangerous terminations.

Nevertheless, despite the existence of these very real and important differences, campaigns and struggles which involve women from all class backgrounds are likely to emerge as long as women’s oppression continues to exist.

Where such campaigns and struggles have developed, however, they have experienced tensions and disagreements over ideology and what strategies should be employed to take the movement forward. The methods and aims of the female textile workers involved in the struggle for the vote, for example, contrasted with the middle-class leadership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) with their emphasis on ‘sex equality’ and discreet parliamentary lobbying. Women “do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men”, explained Selina Cooper; “they want to use it for the same purpose as men, to get better conditions”.2

As Sylvia Pankhurst outlined in The Suffragette Movement, the women from the East End of London who she was involved with wanted to end low pay and sweated labour; they were concerned with the plight of unmarried women, prostitutes and the welfare of mothers and babies; they saw the vote as a means of securing economic and social change which could transform their lives.

The danger of separitism

Historically, when working-class women have moved into struggle they have generally considered men of their class as their potential allies in the fight to defend their rights as workers and as women. And where movements develop today involving women from different classes and backgrounds, we would seek to orientate those movements towards the organisations of the working class, explaining the role that these organisations can play in taking individual struggles forward collectively, as well as in transforming society and ending the oppression faced by all women.

Radical feminists, however, have often drawn the conclusion that women’s movements should remain separate from all organisations involving men. In the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, for example, there were sharp disagreements between those who wanted to orientate the campaign towards the trade union movement and those who opposed such an orientation on the basis that the trade unions are dominated by men, and men are responsible for abusing women. The latter also argued against the presence of male trade unionists on demonstrations. If this separatist approach had gained a majority it would have seriously weakened and undermined the effectiveness of the campaign in the workplaces and more broadly.

It is not inevitable, however, that workers’ organisations will understand the importance of campaigning on issues of specific concern to women and of adopting a programme and a strategy which reflects their needs. Often, working-class women have had to battle long and hard to break down prejudices and convince male workers (and even at times female workers) that the issues of specific concern to them are not ‘secondary’ or a ‘diversion’ from more important questions and that it is in the interests of all workers to take these issues seriously.

Where the workers’ organisations fail to respond, there is a danger that separatist ideas can hold sway. This happened in the struggle for the vote in Britain. The militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), more commonly known as the Suffragettes, originated as a pressure group within the Independent Labour Party and initially orientated towards the labour movement.

Between 1910 and 1914 the Liberal government was under siege from a wave of industrial unrest amongst miners, rail workers and dockers, which spread to other sections of workers, including unorganised women workers in the sweated industries. Civil war was looming in Ireland over Home Rule.

The movement for women’s suffrage added fuel to a social ferment which potentially threatened not just the Liberal government but the capitalist system itself. In the words of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, “a shadow of revolution” was hanging over Britain. But gradually, partly as a consequence of the outlook of its middle-class leadership but also in response to the Labour Party’s refusal to endorse women’s suffrage, the WSPU gradually evolved away from the labour movement, just as the social crisis was intensifying.

Individual ‘militancy’ such as stone throwing and later arson and bombing became the principal forms of protest – a substitute for, rather than an auxiliary to, a genuine mass movement to enfranchise women. Eventually the WSPU moved in a separatist direction with one of its leaders, Christabel Pankhurst (sister of Sylvia), claiming that 75-80% of men were infected with gonorrhoea, and adopting the slogan ‘votes for women and chastity for men’.

The women’s movement

The ‘second wave’ women’s movement which arose in Europe and the USA in the late 1960s and 1970s also developed against the backdrop of a radicalisation in society involving anti-Vietnam War protests, the struggle of blacks for civil rights, student movements, working-class struggles and revolutions in the colonial world.

The nature and scope of the women’s movement varied from country to country. Active participation was greater in the USA than in Britain, for example, but because of the greater strength of labour movement organisations in Britain, including the existence of a workers’ party, the Labour Party (albeit capitalist dominated at the top), there was a much closer convergence between the workers’ and women’s movement. As early as 1968, women sewing machinists at the Ford motor plant in Dagenham, East London, took strike action to secure equal pay grading with male skilled workers, sparking off a wave of struggles for equal pay. Battles such as these inspired other sections of women and, in turn, many working class women were influenced by the demands of the women’s movement. The result was a big change in attitudes by women themselves and more broadly in society, and important legal changes such as the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act.

In Italy, the women’s movement was closely linked to the radical Left. There it became a mass force, arising out of, and dovetailing with, an almost insurrectionary movement of the working class. Women consequently made big gains such as the right to abortion. Even where the women’s movement was smaller in terms of the number of activists involved, its ideas, particularly concerning the family, violence against women, and the right for women to have control over their own bodies, had a much wider influence in society.

Nevertheless, serious divisions emerged, resulting in the domination of radical feminism and a fragmentation of the movement at the end of the 1970s. Radical feminism was unable to provide a strategy which could develop a way forward for the majority of women. For some, the ‘personal’ ceased being ‘political’ with ‘cultural feminists’ emphasising the importance of feminine values, ‘lifestyle choices’ and separate women’s ‘cultural spheres’. Changing oneself became more important than changing society.

While a small minority of women may have been attracted to the idea of ‘separate spheres’, it was clearly not a viable way forward for the vast majority. Other radical feminists took jobs in the ‘women’s industry’ in local and national government or in women’s centres. While the work carried on in these areas was extremely important, especially in women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, for example, the day-to-day struggle for incremental reforms and, increasingly, to defend what had been gained against counter-reforms, became separated from any broader struggle to change society.

In other words, by effectively accepting the limits of the capitalist system, radical feminism represented yet another strand of ‘liberal feminism’. However, even though radical feminism has manifestly failed to offer a lasting solution to the problems that the majority of women face, this does not mean that these ideas will not be revived in the future. Given the male dominance that still exists at every level of society, the continuation of discrimination and sexism, and in particular the high incidence of violence and abuse against women by male perpetrators, the idea that men are to blame for women’s oppression and that the main struggle is against men and the ‘patriarchy’ can still gain a certain echo, particularly if the workers’ organisations fail to offer a viable alternative.


1 Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us, Virago, 1978

2 Jill Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel, Virago, 1984