Skip to content
More About Us
Socialism and women's liberation
Feature by Sally Campbell, March 2011
It is 100 years since the first International Women's Day was held in March 1911, yet despite many victories gender inequality still exists today. Sally Campbell argues that only socialism can bring genuine liberation
We live in a time of contradiction. There are more women in positions of power than ever before, yet attitudes to women seem to be going backwards. Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany, a country debating imposing a quota for women in the boardrooms. Yet the head of Deutsche Bank, when asked if he supported the proposal, said yes, of course - women would make boardrooms "more colourful and prettier".
Italy, on the other hand, is run by Silvio Berlusconi - a man whose behaviour is so atrocious that tens of thousands of women demonstrated recently holding placards with slogans such as "Italy is not a brothel". As I write, Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, is being discussed on the radio - not for her political role, but for her opinion on handbags.
Here in Britain, Scottish Tory MSP Bill Aitken revealed once again a traditional view of rape - that it is not so bad if it happens to a woman working as a prostitute, or even just walking alone in an area known for prostitution. Unfortunately surveys show that this view is held much more widely than the Tory right.
Half the workforce in Britain today is female, with more than half of women with children under the age of five being in work, rising to 80 percent of those whose youngest child is aged 11 to 15. Women are having fewer children and studies suggest that many young women, perhaps 20 percent, won't have children at all. Girls do well at school and go on to further and higher education in unprecedented numbers. In many ways women's and men's lives are getting more and more similar. So how can this reality coincide with such backward attitudes?
It's not just men's attitudes that are the problem. Many women have bought the notion that being "sexy" is the height of female empowerment, that pole-dancing and "dancing in stilettos" classes are the fun way to keep fit, and that self-confidence is something to be bought in the form of the right pair of shoes or, worse, the right pair of implants.
The contradiction of a time in which women have legal equality but face such rampant sexism confounds many commentators. It is not sufficient to simply blame the media and easy-access internet pornography for creating sexism and women's oppression. Women see these images and obviously feel pressure to conform to these plucked, plastic forms. But, as Bidisha observed in the Guardian recently, male porn actors are also completely shaved and waxed, but young men don't come away feeling they have to emulate this particular form of self-mutilation. There are deeper structures at work, of which the current "raunch culture" is a symptom, which shape men's and women's behaviour and expectations and their attitudes towards one another.
Mars and Venus
In the last few years there has been a resurgence of the "common sense" view that this behaviour is natural - men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and there's nothing we can do to change the fact. Sometimes this is dressed up in pseudo-science about how our brains work: the evolutionary imperatives for girls liking pink, and so on. These arguments have been debunked very effectively by Deborah Cameron in The Myth of Mars and Venus and Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender. But these ideas retain a hold because they seem to explain the real inequality that still exists.
Despite women's deep and permanent implantation in the workforce, and 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, we still earn on average 18 percent less than men for full-time work. For part-time workers (of whom many are women) the gap rises to around 30 percent. Over her lifetime a woman will earn on average half of what a man will earn, primarily because of the role women still play as primary carers for children - not to mention all the other family members women will often find themselves responsible for. So if we toss out Mars and Venus, what is at work to constantly reinforce women's oppression?
Some would identify this structure as "patriarchy" - rule by men. This is certainly a good description of the world today, where the Angela Merkels and Hillary Clintons are still the exceptions that prove the rule. But where does patriarchy take us in terms of explanation? Why do men rule?
Some feminists would say it is in men's nature to be aggressive and dominant - if women ruled the world there wouldn't be all this war and economic crisis! For me, this is no different from the dominant conservative view - it's Mars and Venus with the polarity reversed. Others see patriarchy as an ideology, going back to the Bible and beyond, which justifies men's rule and which is carried through the institutions of the state and the family to keep women out of public life. This still doesn't explain why patriarchy emerged. In either case, the crucial conclusion drawn is that all men are agents of patriarchy and that all women suffer from it.
Patriarchy theory emerged from the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement had grown not just because of sexism in society, but as a response to sexism in the liberation movements themselves, particularly in the US. Women felt that male activists, who often looked to versions of Marxism, did not take the issue of women's oppression seriously and therefore Marxism failed the test of liberation.
There was certainly a case to answer in terms of sexism in the movement, but was their critique of Marxism valid? Some feminists argued that Marxists say it is the ruling class that oppresses us and that a workers' revolution will liberate us, when actually it is all men who oppress (and benefit from the oppression of) all women, so we can't "wait for the revolution" before we fight for women's liberation.
A genuine Marxist approach would never argue that we have to wait to fight oppression. However, we would start from a class analysis of oppression - both in how it originated and how it is maintained from day to day. Frederick Engels, Marx's lifelong collaborator, wrote the groundbreaking text on this question, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in 1884. With breathtaking theoretical strength - remember this was just 25 years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species - he argued that, for the vast majority of human existence, we lived in small, nomadic, hunter-gatherer communities without hierarchies, exploitation or oppression. Concepts such as "wealth", "ownership" and "property" did not exist, either in our relationship with our environment or with each other. It was settling and developing productive techniques which began to change this.
With the development of agriculture around 6,000 years ago, women who were pregnant or with young children were not able to participate equally and found their importance in society degraded. Farming required more labourers and therefore more children, and this became women's primary role.
The production for the first time of a surplus of goods beyond what was immediately needed meant the rise of classes of priests or "big men" to control the surplus, and an idea of inheritance to pass wealth on from one generation of big men to the next. It became important at this point to know that the mother of your children was monogamous so you could ensure heirs. As Engels wrote, "The overthrow of the mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude."
Class and oppression
It was the rise of class which led to the development of the family and the subjugation of women to men. Class and oppression arose at a specific historical juncture and they are inextricably linked. Of course the ways we produce have changed over centuries, but the vital role of the family as a function of class society and the root of women's oppression remains. This analysis points towards the end of oppression - in the end of class society.
The fight against oppression is a class fight - not because rich women's oppression doesn't matter, but because only a class struggle against the ruling class that benefits from this society can ultimately end oppression.
Women today are in a stronger position than ever to wage this struggle. The "historic defeat" of women was being cut out of the role of producer, but the structural changes in capitalism, particularly since the Second World War, have meant millions of women being sucked into workplaces throughout the world, as an indispensable and permanent part of the working class alongside men. This gives women immense power, as producers, to hit the system where it hurts. As Oscar Wilde might have said, there's only one thing worse than being exploited under capitalism - and that's not being exploited.
The problem with patriarchy theory is that it leads to the conclusion that all women are allies and all men are enemies - it ignores the class divide among women and among men. Of course oppression affects all women, whether a single mother on the minimum wage or Hillary Clinton, but it does not follow that they have the same interests. Women who are members of the ruling class have an interest in legal equality - so they can sue their bank for paying them a smaller six- or seven-figure salary than their male colleagues; they want the right to divorce and to retain their wealth; they have always been able to obtain birth control or abortions, though of course this is easier for them if it is legal.
But the central expression of women's oppression today, which affects women whether they have children themselves or not, is the "double burden" - the fact that women are expected both to work as productive members of society and to be the primary carers for children, the sick and the elderly. The role that women play as carers is crucial to capitalism for replenishing the labour power it needs to make its profits.
It might be nice for a man to come home to his dinner on the table (though this is less likely to happen nowadays as women don't have time, hence the proliferation of microwaves and fast food), but the real beneficiaries of women's unpaid labour are the ruling class. This is why it is so important for them to reinvent the idea of womanhood - that we must be successful, confident women in the workplace as well as being Nigella in the kitchen and Belle de Jour in the bedroom.
The attacks on the welfare state will magnify this "double burden". Thousands of women will not only lose their own public sector jobs, but will lose the services they rely on - from public libraries and swimming pools to maternity services and care homes. Wealthy women do not face this burden, as they are able to hire other women to care for their children, pay for private education and healthcare, and install a swimming pool and their own personal library. Ruling class women have more of an interest in maintaining the status quo - even if it is a sexist one - than in changing it in the interests of the majority and thus expropriating themselves.
The majority of our rulers - businessmen, politicians, generals - are men, but the majority of men are not rulers. And while sexism certainly exists among
working class men, it is in our common struggles that these backward ideas can and must be challenged. The key battles over abortion and equal pay were not won by women fighting alone, but by mass struggles of working class people and their unions. These were struggles about ordinary people gaining more control over their lives.
Every struggle shines a light on the ways in which we relate to each other, and how distorted we all are by living in a society based on exploitation and oppression. In a revolution that light is even starker.
In Egypt in 2008 some 83 percent of women said they had been subject to some form of sexual harassment; in 2006 women made up just 22 percent of the workforce; and until 2000 a woman could not leave the country without her husband's permission. Yet in the revolution - in the course of just 18 days - things changed fundamentally. Women were central to the protests in Tahrir Square. As one activist said, "I've never felt safer in Egypt than when I was in the crowds. People are not just asking the regime to change. People are changing themselves."
This does not mean that sexism has now disappeared in Egypt, but it does show how unity against the regime was powerful enough to override divisions which hold the movement back.
Process of change
Activist and writer Nawal el Saadawi has reported how young men from the Muslim Brotherhood came up to her in the square to offer their respect to her as a principled fighter. A revolution is not one day or two weeks - it is a process of immense change through which the details of everyday life are raised to the level of public, collective debate, and can begin to be dealt with. The questions of women's oppression - whether abusive partners, sexist comments or lack of childcare - are not just for women but for the whole movement to resolve.
We live in a class society that is shaped by the struggles of the past. Because people fought for civil rights we have Barack Obama today; because people fought for women's rights we have Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton; because those struggles hit the barrier of class society and didn't smash through it we still have racism and we still have sexism.
Let's ensure that today's struggles have a clear aim - at those who exploit us and who care so little for humanity that they will deliberately set us upon each other in order to keep their grip on power.
The origins of International Women's Day
International Women's Day is now celebrated by working class women and those of the ruling class alike. Yet it was first called by the revolutionary socialist women of the International Women's Socialist Organisation (IWSO), a body led by German revolutionary Clara Zetkin, in the wake of intense discussions over how socialists should fight for emancipation.
"Socialist parties of all countries have a duty to struggle energetically for the introduction of universal suffrage for women," proclaimed a resolution at the first IWSO conference in 1907. "Socialist women must not ally themselves with the bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with socialist males."
At the following meeting of the IWSO in 1910 in Copenhagen, Zetkin successfully proposed an International Women's Day. It was to be held on 8 March, as it is today, to commemorate the day of demonstrations by working class women in New York for universal suffrage in 1908.
International Women's Day demonstrations were held across Europe every year afterwards until the outbreak of the First World War. The only wartime demonstration carried out was in Russia, 1917 - the spark that began the first Russian Revolution.
Write to us
We welcome letters for publication on all issues raised in Socialist Review.
Please keep contributions to under 200 words if possible.
Access to this website is free - help us keep it that way. Please make a donation.