On January 21, 2017, over four million people in the U.S. protested Donald Trump’s sexism as he took office. The Women’s March demonstrations across the country became the largest day of national protest in U.S. history, helping to lay the ground for a new women’s movement.
Alongside Trump, the open misogynist, is the Republican Party, which has been carrying out a full-force attack on women’s rights at the federal, state, and local levels. The policies of Trump and the Republican Party will increase the level of poverty for many working-class women and reinforce the various forms of oppression that women face in all aspects of life.
The outcome of the 2016 election did not represent the majority of Americans agreeing with Trump’s overt sexism. In fact, there’s widespread recognition in the U.S. that violence and harassment against women is a serious and deadly problem. Trump, in fact, lost the popular vote but won the election because of an 18th century relic called the Electoral College. At a deeper level his victory, and the Republican sweep of both houses of Congress and the bulk of state houses, reflected the utter failure of the Democratic Party, beholden to corporate interests, to put forward and fight for a platform that speaks to the interests of the working class, including working-class women.
Trump’s victory emboldened the far right to come out of the shadows. The expression of bigotry has been normalized by a president who seeks to divide the population along racial lines and particularly stoke anti-immigrant hatred. Again while most people reject these views, they are now much more openly expressed by a minority of the population.
The Republican attacks on health care and Planned Parenthood in 2017 were an attempt to deny the genuine right to reproductive choice for many women. And alongside this there is the barely concealed desire to punish the poor, 70% of whom are women and children. The Republicans’ ongoing assault on Medicaid, expanded by Obamacare, now includes giving states the option to demand that Medicaid recipients must work. In Kentucky this is leading to thousands of very vulnerable people, many with disabilities, losing their coverage. Now Trump and the Republicans have succeeded in putting a second hardline conservative – predator Brett Kavanaugh – on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s appointment is a direct threat to LGBTQ rights, voting rights, union rights but most especially to women’s reproductive rights. The right now see an historic opportunity to completely overturn Roe v. Wade.
For millions of women, the 2016 election results were a call to action. The hard-fought gains for women’s rights are under attack by this hateful administration. Yet the budding movement we see in the Trump era has been brewing for years. It is linked to the broader fightback against the entire reactionary agenda of the right. The revolt of women is also connected to a broader radicalization of young people, not just in the U.S. but on an international scale. For this new wave of activists, fighting sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia is central.
The massive women’s march in 2017 gave confidence to women who occupied airports to protest Trump’s Muslim ban, and more recently came out to protest the inhumane separation of immigrant children and parents at the border. The women’s movement also played a key role in Democrats’ “blue wave” victory in the 2018 midterm elections. While the Democratic leadership deserve very little credit for this turn of events, the Republicans’ difficulties are encouraging a new confidence that the right and Trump can be defeated. But this also raises serious questions about the strategy necessary to win more decisive victories against the forces who pose a direct threat to women’s rights.
The Post-Feminism Lie
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, women were told that feminism was no longer necessary, and the system as it was would provide us with prosperity and a path to equality. The idea that women had already nearly won equality was reinforced through popular culture; TV show after TV show featured women who made the choice to work instead of being a stay at home mom. Characters who were stay at home moms did so because they also made the choice. Quirky feminist characters like Phoebe Buffay served to remind us that the silly “gender wars” were no longer necessary.
“Post-feminism” rested on the notion that there were no longer formal barriers for women’s equality, so it was up to us as individuals to succeed. Women in political office, CEOs, and otherwise wealthy figures, were brought forward to prove that women had already achieved a large measure of equality and were poised to shatter the “glass ceiling.” But the contradictions in this ideology were exposed as most ordinary women did not experience a fundamental change in our quality of life just because of the progress of a minority of powerful women.
In some important ways, positive change continued after the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By 1982, the majority of college graduates were women and, in a whole range of professional fields traditionally dominated by men, the number of women increased. But the spike in reports of sexual harassment at work in the 1990s gave the lie to the idea that women were anywhere near liberation.
Most well-known was the case of Anita Hill, who in 1991 came forward to accuse U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her boss, of sexual harassment. Her testimony, like that of Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, inspired a mass discussion on sexism. This reflected changed attitudes and the increased expectation that women should not suffer harassment as part of their jobs. It was also proof, unfortunately, that simply having broader sections of women in the workforce or intruding on the “boys club” in various professions did not mean sexism had been overcome.
Alongside the Anita Hill case came the arrival of a “third wave” of feminism in the 1990s. This included, for example, a politicized Riot Grrrl music scene which explicitly challenged sexist gender expectations and mainstream feminist thought. They also took on homophobia and transphobia in the movement. But Riot Grrrl primarily fought against the more social aspects of sexism, including the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s that categorized feminists as unlovable, shrill, and unfeminine. As it popularized and hinged on intersectionality (discussed later in this section), the feminism of this time increasingly focused on individual empowerment rather than the collective struggle necessary to make fundamental gains. Without boldly taking up concrete demands for women’s rights, the third wave was unable to build sustained momentum or expression as a genuine mass movement even if it did have a significant cultural impact.
The Neoliberal Era
In reality, during the past 30 years, working class women, as well as men, have seen their economic position weaken as social inequality explodes. This period has witnessed an intense offensive by the capitalists and the capitalist establishment against the historic gains of working people. This is generally termed the “neoliberal” era.
Neoliberalism is also a specific set of policies adopted to differing degrees by both major parties linked to the effort to restore capitalist profits after the end of the postwar economic boom in the mid ‘70s. Neoliberal policies included privatization of large parts of the public sector, lowering taxes for the wealthy, and trade deals that benefited corporate interests while increasing the exploitation of working people. All of these policies were massively harmful to working-class and poor women.
These attacks began in earnest in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan whose administration was as reactionary as that of Trump, if less chaotic. They continued under Bill Clinton who ramped up mass incarceration, forced through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and also infamously “ended welfare as we know it.” The latter was a massive attack on poor people and poor women especially, under the guise of ending “dependency on government handouts” and using barely concealed racist attacks on “welfare queens.”
George W. Bush’s administration at the beginning of this century certainly represented a turn to the right but he was also able to build on the anti-working class, anti-poor, neo-liberal legacy of Clinton. Bush made common cause with the Christian Right which aimed to completely overturn abortion rights, “affirmative action,” and other gains made by women and black people during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bush perfected the “culture wars” where issues like abortion or gun rights were used to mobilize a section of working-class and middle-class voters to support a party that didn’t even pretend to defend their economic interests. The Republicans were able to get away with this because the Democrats had also abandoned any serious pretense of representing the economic interests of working people.
The Terrible Toll of Mass Inequality
The gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is now so massive that it makes the United States both the richest and most unequal country on the globe – with the top 1% owning more than two times as much as the bottom 90% of the population. Wages for most working-class people have stagnated or declined while the costs of housing and health care have escalated. 40% of adults don’t know how they would pay for a $400 emergency.
According to a new study by the United Way ALICE Project, about 43% of U.S. households don’t earn enough to afford a monthly budget that includes housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, and a cell phone. The enormous difficulty in finding affordable child care particularly inhibits the ability of working-class women to work to support their families. While the cost of living has skyrocketed in the last decade, the gender pay gap has barely budged; women still make a fraction of what men are paid, with women of color experiencing the worst wage inequality.
The desperation of working-class women who can’t afford child care and don’t have family members who are available to help often leads to them making very difficult choices to leave children unsupervised in order to put food on the table. Report after after report appears in the media like the following from Parma Heights, near Cleveland Ohio:
“Police were called to the home about noon Sunday in the 6400 block of Stumph Road. Azia Lindsay was cited with endangering children, according to a police report.
“Officers went to the house after a woman called and said that she thought a child was at the home alone. Lindsay works at the Walgreens across the street from her home.
“The daughter called Lindsay at work because she was scared when someone knocked on the door. The television was turned up loud and no one was answering the door after knocking multiple times, the police report said.
“When police entered the home, Lindsay’s daughter was sitting on the living room floor under a blanket watching television, according to a police report. There was a plate of food next to her on the floor and there was food on the kitchen stove from the night before, the report indicated.
“‘Both bedrooms were full of laundry on the floor and one air mattress in the first bedroom’ the police report said. The report noted the mother and daughter both sleep on the air mattress.
“Lindsay said she was going to come check on her daughter during her lunch break.
“‘She said that during the week she takes her daughter to daycare but they are closed on Sunday and she has nobody to watch her,’ the police report said” (Cleveland.com 2/14/17).
The Obama Years
Women and young people were decisive in Barack Obama’s two presidential election victories. Obama’s first victory in 2008 brought confidence and raised expectations for tens of millions of people, particularly young people, women, and black Americans.
But these raised expectations were not met. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 initiated a wave of brutality against these same groups, with working people made to pay for the crisis of capitalism. While the banks got bailed out, working-class communities were left to pick up the pieces with millions of jobs lost and millions of families losing their homes. The black working class in particular suffered a historic loss of wealth due to the subprime mortgage meltdown.
Single mothers were disproportionately subject to foreclosure due to predatory lending. The subsequent cuts to social services also struck women and children in the fiercest way. For example, there were savage cuts to education across the country which in many areas have not been restored.
But as the economic crisis worsened in 2009 and 2010, the working class and especially young people, people of color, and working-class women were left picking up the pieces, the organizations that should have been fighting for them – unions, women’s organizations, and civil rights groups – put forward no strategy for collective struggle and gave Obama a pass. This opened the door for the right – particularly the Tea Party – to pose as defenders of the people against the banks, while pushing an anti-labor, reactionary agenda.
Then in 2011, a section of young people, facing ever more financial insecurity and a grim future, fought back by launching Occupy Wall Street. This movement put its finger on inequality, calling for the 99% to mobilize against the 1%, while correctly stating that the bankers and politicians – not ordinary people – were to blame for the crisis.
Society’s Shift to the Left
Occupy Wall Street helped radicalize more and more people against the corporate control of politics and our lives. Poll after poll has shown that most Americans support policies like Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, expanding education funding, investing in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and taxing the rich and big corporations to pay for it. For years, polls have also shown that most young people favor socialism over capitalism even if that concept is hazily understood.
Increasingly, as the Obama years unfolded, young women, radicalized by the desire to end racism and sexism, became the sharp end of this shift to the left in big sections of society. A clear example of this was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) revolt against racism.
In 2014, the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City galvanized tens of thousands to take to the streets, blocking highways and in some cases shutting down parts of cities. BLM was originally the initiative of a group of black women activists at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death and it continued to be driven by young women, including a number of queer women of color.
Another expression of this shift to the left was the fast-food workers’ national days of action, beginning in 2012, demanding “$15 an hour and a union.” Many fast-food workers, earning the abysmal federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, or slightly higher state minimum wages, were forced to work multiple jobs and obtain food stamps in order to afford sufficient food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their families. The launch of the heroic Fight for 15 by these super-exploited workers, overwhelmingly female and disproportionately people of color, was an important turning point in the fight against inequality.
In 2014, Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council with over 90,000 votes as an open socialist. Her victory made national news. Her campaign was centered on the demand for a $15 minimum wage, inspired by the fast food workers’ struggle. Six months later, Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to pass a $15 minimum wage, due to Sawant and Socialist Alternative building the grassroots 15 Now campaign against the intense opposition of corporate interests. This victory secured a transfer of wealth of more than $3 billion over the course of the first ten years from the pockets of CEOs to 100,000 of the lowest paid workers in Seattle who are disproportionately women.
The Growing Threat from the Right
But while there was a broad shift to the left, there was also a sharp polarization in society and Republicans made significant gains, especially at the state level, capitalizing on the failure of the Democrats to deliver real change for working people.
It would of course not be true to say that the Obama administration took no initiatives that objectively helped women, black people or other sections of the oppressed. For example, Obama signed the Fair Pay Act in 2009 which made it easier to sue employers over pay discrimination. He later enacted a rule, overturned by Trump, requiring large companies to report how much they pay workers by race and gender. But these were relatively small reforms. Also, one can also not blame Obama for reactionary measures passed by Republican dominated state legislatures. But the fact is that the Democrats did very little to push back the attacks of the right and that these attacks escalated on Obama’s watch.
Long before the 2016 elections, the Republicans were waging a war on women’s rights, first in the Southern states that they’ve controlled for many years but increasingly in the Midwest as well. All this happened with little effective resistance from the Democrats. During Obama’s administration abortion access was radically curtailed in large parts of the country, as over 30 states implemented waiting periods, mandatory counseling, bans at 20 weeks, cuts to health insurance coverage, or brutal restrictions on abortion providing clinics or doctors. From just 2011 to 2013, more abortion restrictions were enacted than the entire previous decade combined.
One particularly horrific example of what the anti-abortion offensive means occurred in Indiana where in 2015, Purvi Patel, became the first woman in the U.S. to be convicted of “feticide.” She was sentenced to 41 years in prison essentially for the “crime” of having induced an abortion. Patel successfully appealed her conviction, and was released in 2016 after serving three years in prison. The case illustrated the reactionary trend in several Republican-dominated states of criminalizing pregnant women.
By 2013, 56% of women lived in a state considered to be hostile to abortion, compared to 31% in 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for reproductive freedom worldwide.
The reactionary assault on abortion rights and women’s rights generally have played a significant role in giving room for the reassertion of sexist ideas in popular culture and legitimizing violence against women. Sexual assault on college campuses remained in the spotlight for years as administrations and police continued to mishandle cases and an estimated 1-in-5 women in college are sexually assaulted. In 2014, the sexist #GamerGate campaign emerged through targeting women, in particular those who spoke out about sexism within the gaming industry, and barraging them with threats of murder and sexual assault alongside publishing their home address and other personal information.
Throughout Obama’s presidency, struggles for women’s rights broke out in response to ongoing, brutal right-wing attacks and pervasive sexism. One such spark that ignited an international response, including in the U.S., was the now-infamous comment by a Toronto police officer suggesting that women avoid rape by “not dressing like sluts.” While this comment only explicitly stated the general approach to sexual assault by the legal establishment, it inspired the Slutwalks movement that captured the widespread anger of many young women around victim-blaming.
Ultimately the Slutwalks failed to connect with larger numbers of women, particularly on the basis of attempting to reclaim the word “slut.” Many women, including women of color and Native American women, took issue with the focus of reclaiming the word and raised concerns that referring to themselves as sluts only validated racist narratives and other sexist stereotypes. Without directly linking victim-blaming to the sea of oppression that women faced, the Slutwalks couldn’t maintain momentum or build a serious challenge to sexism or the system which has created it.
Despite its mistakes, the Slutwalk movement was an important attempt to confront and fight violence against women. This mood to fight back continued to express itself over the following years, as high-profile instances of sexual assault on college campuses were met with spontaneous protests, like the “Carry that Weight” protest at Columbia University in 2014.
The LGBTQ Movement Wins Victories
These years also saw some important gains for oppressed people. In particular, the LGBTQ movement built enough strength to compel a wave of legal changes. Within the span of a few years, marriage equality rights were won in dozens of states along with vital anti-discrimination legislation. The ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual people serving in the military was also lifted in 2011.
Based on grassroots organizing which built mass pressure from below and convinced the majority of Americans to support fundamantal rights for LGBTQ people, the Supreme Court was forced to strike down two anti-gay laws in 2013. The defeat of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 were historic victories that legalized marriage equality and laid the foundation to make further gains.
Yet as soon as these victories were won, they were under attack. The Republican Party continued to openly whip up homophobia and transphobia, and fervently fought for repressive legislation at the federal, state, and local levels. Republicans and other right-wing forces launched the “bathroom bill” campaign in North Carolina which portrayed trans people as a threat to women in public bathrooms. The North Carolina legislation showed how attacking transgender people has become the sharp end of attacking all LGBTQ people in the wake of the victory on marriage equality.
This has continued under Trump, with more transphobic bathroom bills brought forward at state level and the attempt to ban trans people from the military. In October 2018 an internal memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was leaked which shows the intent to redefine gender under Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights law, to exclude trans, non-binary, and intersex people. Under the new definition, gender would be based on a person’s genitals at birth. If adopted, this trans-exclusive definition of gender will affect over 1.4 million people living in the U.S.
Trans people already face tremendous struggles under capitalism with high barriers to inclusive health care, disproportionate rates of homelessness, insufficient protections in the workplace and schools, and police harassment particularly aimed at trans people of color. If trans people are stripped of Title IX protections, they will become open targets of even more intense attacks. If this new definition is also adopted by the Labor Department, trans workers will be unable to defend themselves against discrimination in the workplace.
In reality, the same forces attacking the rights of LGBTQ people have simultaneously waged an unrelenting campaign against the rights of women, in particular on reproductive rights. Many people are attacked from multiple sides, as the Republican party attacks their right to reproductive health care alongside their right to access jobs and housing without discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity. Defeating attacks and winning legal reforms are a central way of building confidence for millions of people who want to fight back but worry that it’s just not possible. Yet this is only a starting point to take on the, endemic oppression faced by many LGBTQ people, especially trans people.
Young women were at the forefront of the explosive support for Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution against the billionaire class in 2016. As Socialist Alternative pointed out at the time, one of the key points of Sanders’ appeal was that he combined demands that spoke to working people with a clear opposition to sexism and racism. This demonstrates the enormous potential appeal of uniting our forces against the ruling class and all of its attacks based on the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
During the entire 2016 election cycle, we were told by the liberal establishment that, as women, it was our duty to vote for Clinton. From Madeleine Albright’s guilting that not supporting Clinton earned you a special place in hell, to Gloria Steinem’s dismissal of women who supported Sanders as “only chasing boys.” Steinem’s statement set off a viral social media pushback where young woman affirmed that they are “not here for the boys.” It’s no coincidence that young women largely supported Bernie Sanders in the primary. It showed that what women want is a program that actually fights for us, not a token. As model and actress Emily Ratajkowski said in her speech at a New Hampshire Bernie Sanders rally, “I want my first female president to be more than a symbol, I want her to have politics that can revolutionize.”
Despite the efforts of the corporate media to dismiss Sanders’ campaign as made up of middle class “Bernie bros” or being unable to connect with people of color, as his message got out it increasingly connected with working-class voters, Latinos, black people, immigrants generally, and a large number of women. Taking no corporate money, Sanders demonstrated that a new independent left political force could be built. Unfortunately, after losing the rigged Democratic primary, he failed to draw the necessary conclusion and continue running to lay the basis for a new party based on the interests of working people and all the oppressed.