A new women’s movement is emerging in the U.S. and internationally in the context of major threats to women’s hard-won gains from vicious reactionary forces. Donald Trump’s election victory drove millions to the streets and has further radicalized a section of society on the basis of fighting sexism. In Brazil, women are playing a crucial role in the #EleNao movement against Jair Bolsonaro, the despicable misogynist who has come to power at a time of devastating economic, social, and political crisis. The democratic rights of women, black Brazilians, the LGBTQ community, indigenous people, and the entire working class are on the line under a Bolsonaro administration.
The #MeToo campaign brought the issues of sexual harassment and assault front and center in society, not only in the U.S. but internationally. On top of this, the Great Recession, as well as the attacks from the right, have detonated a series of explosive struggles in recent years. These have politicized many young and working-class women who have been disproportionately affected by the crisis of capitalism. Young women also played a key role in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign which pointed toward a real challenge to the ruling class which benefits from sexism and racism.
Even before millions protested the Predator in Chief in January 2017, the mood to fight sexism had reached a boiling point. From the Slutwalk protests, to Carry That Weight, to #YesAllWomen, young women in particular made clear that they are ready to fight back against sexism and abuse. Millions of women want to not only fight back against their own Weinsteins and Kavanaughs, but end the endemic sexism which permeates through all of our lives.
There is a vital and urgent need to discuss and debate strategies to rebuild a vibrant women’s movement. History has shown that the program, tactics, and leadership of movements play a decisive role in their ability to harness the power necessary to make real gains.
This short book is intended as a contribution to the debate on the way forward and an educational tool for a new generation of socialist-feminist activists fighting back against Trump and the sexist capitalist system he represents. While the book delves into the historical origins of women’s oppression and how this has evolved under capitalism, we do not pretend in any way that this is a thorough discussion of every aspect of the oppression women face.
Right-wing demagogues justify the gender pay gap and women’s second-class status by saying that women have always been subordinate to men and that sexism is the “natural” way of things. In order to refute these claims and to understand how to dismantle women’s oppression, we need to understand how sexism arose in the first place. As we detail in section one of this book, the majority of human history was free from institutional sexism, and the subjugation of women only arose as class society came about.
While the roots of women’s oppression lie in the origins of class society, this oppression takes a particular form under modern capitalism. Understanding the specific ways in which capitalism perpetuates the subjugation of women is very important. Yet Karl Marx famously stated, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Section two explains why socialists believe that the working class is the only force in modern society capable of leading the struggle to defeat capitalism and thereby lay the basis for a classless society which would bring an end to all forms of oppression. We go on to explain what a socialist society could look like and what lessons we can draw from the Russian Revolution of 1917 in regards to defeating sexism and capitalism.
To wage our struggle today, it is crucial that we learn from the heroic women’s struggles of the past as well as all the struggles against oppression. Section three of this book dives into some of the most crucial of these lessons from the history of the movement in the U.S.
The women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s coincided with an era of massive social upheavals, from the Civil Rights Movement to the movement against the Vietnam War as well as an enormous upsurge of labor struggle. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and workers broadly were emboldened to take their fight against oppression and inequality to higher levels of organization and action.
This period of struggle won hard-fought gains for women’s rights, yet many of the historic tasks of the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s remain to be completed. As we explain, one of the key limitations of the past women’s rights movements was the dominance of a pro-capitalist, middle-class leadership which did not orient first and foremost to working-class women. Liberal feminism, and the organizations led by it, fought for sweeping reforms but ultimately did not oppose the social system that oppresses women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, and all working-class people in various ways. A key lesson for today is the need for a socialist-feminist trend in the women’s movement, rooted in the working class, to prevent liberal, pro-capitalist feminism from holding back movements that have the potential to genuinely challenge the status quo.
Section four grapples with the current state of the new women’s movement, the debates within feminism today, and what strategies are necessary to make real gains in the face of the right-wing offensive. From struggles against workplace sexual harassment to defending Roe v Wade, a mass fighting women’s movement is emerging. Such a movement faces decisive questions: How can we fight the right? Who are we fighting for? How do we build a movement that can both defeat these immediate attacks and go on to win real gains for women? And, ultimately, what kind of world are we fighting for?
For socialists, ending women’s oppression is intrinsically tied to defeating the capitalist system once and for all. We don’t fight for a world where sexism is lessened yet other forms of oppression, like racism, transphobia, xenophobia, and homophobia are still thriving. Capitalism maintains, and depends on, varying forms of oppression which keep working people divided, whipping up prejudice and hatred. Ending this oppression requires a struggle of the working class of all nations, races, and genders that ends the domination of the capitalist class and creates an egalitarian socialist society on a world scale.
This book was the result of the collaborative effort of a number of members of Socialist Alternative. Parts 1 and 2 are heavily based on Christine Thomas’ 2010 book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This, updated and adapted for an American audience. The primary author of part 3 was Erin Brightwell and the primary author of part 4 was Kelly Bellin.