Since women began to fight for their liberation in modern society, they have in Britain, as in much of the Western world, seen their position in society undergo radical changes. Women have won many victories. Woman's oppression and sexism have been forced to retreat. But they have not gone away. We have the vote and the Equal Pay Act, but women still suffer violence and we suffer discrimination.
In the West, it is now almost a "norm" for women of working age to work. In the UK, 71% of women of working age are employed. Work gives women more freedom and self-respect and a chance to escape the isolation of the home.
HHowever, for many working class women the experience of going to work is utterly miserable. Universally, "women's work" is concentrated in low paid, part-time and low status jobs. Capitalism racks up its profits by paying women the bare minimum - New Labour's minimum wage of £3.60 a week has legitimised waged poverty for three million women.
The lives of many working class women - especially mothers - are a never-ending whirl of juggling work and home life, of coping with inadequate wages and a hundred daily domestic responsibilities. In the UK, according to World Health Organisation figures, women still undertake 72% of housework and 77% of childcare. These are statistics that have barely moved under the impact of the modern women's movement.
In many parts of the world, the situation is much worse still. Women are denied equal rights under the law. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, women cannot go outside the home without a male escort - a woman can scarcely breath without permission from her husband, father or brother. In such countries, women, body and soul, are still virtual chattels, possessed by men. Such was the situation for women in the advanced capitalist world until just over a hundred years ago, when women began their fight for the same rights afforded to men in bourgeois society.
In this issue of Workers' Liberty we look back over the history of that struggle for women's liberation and the issues it raises for socialists today. We need that perspective in order to see what part the struggle for women's rights will play in the socialist movement of the future. We need to assess the relevance or otherwise of that, now much maligned, word, feminism.
The future of feminism is yet to be decided, but it does have a future, we can be sure. Nowhere has the fight for women's liberation been fully successful. While capitalism continues to exist, it will perpetuate and thrive on all forms of oppression. The oppression of women is the oldest oppression in human society. It has very deep roots.
Of course attitudes have changed, women have won formal equality in many countries, many women have more opportunities, women enjoy greater sexual freedom. But while society is run to organise the exploitation of the majority for profit and advantage of the few, the needs of the majority of women - like the needs of the majority of men - will not be met. Throughout the history of class society, women have always been the slaves of the slaves. The statistics on housework and childcare show how much this is still so, despite what women have won.
Much has changed, much remains to be changed. The vast majority of women are working class women. The demands which would have made all the difference to their lives, such as a decent minimum wage, free childcare, the socialisation of housework, have not yet been won.
A continuous problem with the fight for women's rights has been that liberal bourgeois women have dominated the "politics of women's rights". They have been concerned to create equal opportunities for middle class women to compete with men - very often they fought for their rights as middle class women, not for the rights of "women". The needs of their working class sisters were ignored or pushed to one side. Very often such women wanted the right to exploit and oppress the lower classes, including working class women, on an equal basis with the men.
During the fight for the vote, the women's movement divided between those concentrating on the rights of women with property, and those concerned with working class women. Today, women who are primarily concerned with "the glass ceiling", the number of women company directors, continue what might be called an "aristocratic" tradition within the women's movement. Indicative of rampant sexism "the glass ceiling" surely is. But it scarcely impinges on the lives of the majority of women.
If you are a working class woman on low pay with no rights and a boss who denies you time off to care for your children, do you really care if your boss is a man or a woman? The focus of socialists has always been for working class women to gain liberation not alone as individuals - a few of whom may climb up the social ladder, or have more freedom of action high up the ladder where they were born - but as a class.
Capitalism is a system based on a fundamental class division in society. The oppression of women and exploitation of women's unpaid labour is central to this. Women's oppression did not begin with capitalism, but capitalism uses and organises the oppression of women for the benefit of the ruling class. This system uses and perpetuates sexism as it does other forms of oppression as a means of facilitating exploitation.
Understanding that women's oppression is inextricably linked to capitalism leads to one clear political conclusion, the need for a working class women's movement. Such movements, as articles in this Workers' Liberty outline, have been built in the past. Such a movement would not exclude middle class women. It is defined not in a narrow sociological way but by the programme which all its members fight for. It would fight as part of the labour movement for the abolition of all exploitation and all oppression of either women or men, and for the overthrow of capitalism.
The labour movement today scarcely fights for women's rights, even though more and more women are joining unions. That weakness is part of a pattern of passivity in the face of a systematic offensive by the bosses against our class. In the future, if the labour movement is to rebuild, issues that are of primary importance to women workers - low pay, childcare, a decent health service - will be centre-stage.
The history of women under capitalism is rich with brave struggles, with examples victories and defeats, all of which the labour movement of the future must take to heart. It is no less rich with lessons which must be learned today if we are to build a mass working class women's movement of the future.
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