Workers' Liberty #53  


Two worlds of women

By Cath Fletcher

Baroness Jay is New Labour's Minister for Women. She doesn't like to be associated with the word "feminism". "Feminism is seen as negative, complaining about things," she says.

More and more frequently these days we hear the cries of so-called post-feminists: women are no longer oppressed, men are the victims now.

Old-fashioned feminists are a bunch of whingers - don't we know, women have never had it so good. Last week, Channel Four showed a documentary about domestic violence - against men. The problem in education is not gender stereotyping, but boys' underachievement.

The post-feminists point to the new super women of the bourgeoisie. A cover of Newsweek proclaimed last year, "It's a woman's world. Forget the men in suits." Inside was a series of features on wealthy women entrepreneurs, leading the way for a new generation of women capitalists - exploitation with "feminine values".

For most women, the reality is very different. In Britain, full-time women workers earn on average just 80% of their male counterparts' wages (that's the Government figure - other surveys put it as low as 60%). Only one group of women earn more than their male counterparts: that is professional women under 24 with no childcare responsibilities. The gender gap is biggest for working class women. Women remain responsible for a clear majority of household work like cooking, shopping, and childcare. Only a third of part-time women workers have their own pension compared to over three-quarters of full-time male workers.

More and more women are going into paid employment - while the number of men in permanent full-time work has fallen. As traditional manufacturing industry declines and new service industries expand, we are seeing a significant change in employment patterns.

In 1979 just 24% of women returned to work within 11 months of having a baby. In 1996 that figure was 67% - 24% full time and 42% part time. The women most likely to return to work are the high-earning managers and professionals. Lower paid women, especially those employed in the private sector, often find that lack of childcare, inflexible working hours and the poverty trap created by the benefits system effectively prevent them going back to work. Those who do return still find themselves doing two jobs.

The "women's world" of Newsweek and New Labour is the world of a tiny, privileged minority of women. For the rest, feminism - the fight for women's liberation - is not only still relevant, it is essential. That is not to say that feminists should ignore the very real changes that are taking place in women's lives - particularly our working lives. Men are still more likely than women to belong to a trade union: hardly surprising given that the big expansion of women's employment has been in new, often non-unionised service industries. Organising women into trade unions to fight for decent wages, flexible working patterns and free childcare is vital.

The central demands of the 1970s women's movement were encapsulated in Working Women's Charters. These called not only for equal pay and an end to discrimination, but also raised wider demands like free contraception and abortion on request, not immediately related to work, but essential demands in the struggle for liberation.

That twenty-five years on women in Britain still do not have access to abortion on request demonstrates just how much feminists still have to fight for. We need to organise the millions of unorganised women workers, convince the trade unions to take our fight seriously. As more and more women of all ages are to be found in the workplace, is it time for a new Working Women's Charter?

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