By Joy Macready
Women’s oppression long predates capitalism. Indeed it goes back to the origins of class society. But each succeeding mode of production and exploitation altered the family unit of women’s oppression and exploitation.
Industrial capitalism revolutionised the nature of production, taking it out of the family home. Although the household stopped being the basic unit of production, with commodities now produced in a factory, the family structure persisted and with it the oppression of women. The family became the means by which the new class of proletarians reproduced themselves and their labour power for free – something that is of great value to the capitalists.
Although the capitalist mode of production draws an ever-increasing number of women into the labour force, giving them thereby greater economic independence, the family unit keeps them in domestic bondage, limiting that freedom. As the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, said: “Capitalism has placed a crushing burden on woman’s shoulders: it has made her a wage-worker without having reduced her cares as housekeeper or mother. Woman staggers beneath the weight of this triple load.” Even in the “liberated” West, where women make up close to 50 per cent of the workforce, they still do the vast majority of the housework and childcare.
The status quo, and the ideology of sexism, persists because men gain material benefits from women’s oppression; they have, on average, higher wages than women, their skills have greater value, they don’t have to do much housework, and don’t face problems of sexual harassment and assault.
This is the material root of the strength and persistence of sexism within the working class. But, at the same time, this sexism weakens the struggle against the employers and their state. Just like racism or national chauvinism, it divides and weakens us. In all major working-class struggles, therefore, those with a broader class viewpoint, men as well as women, try to overcome this division by combating the relegation of women to an inferior position.
If all women are oppressed, they are not all equally oppressed and not all women have the same degree of power to end their oppression. Women, like men, are divided into classes. The women of the ruling class offload most of their oppression onto their working-class “sisters” and their privileges vis-à-vis working-class men, as well as women, will always tie them to defending their class before their sex.
Women of the lower middle class and the professions suffer more oppression than those of the ruling class and have a long history of struggle, the history of feminism. Many of the issues feminists raise are very important; violence against women; sexist ideology in culture and education; the hypocrisies of male chauvinism and religious morality. But their solution, an all-class women’s movement and the tendency to seek solutions that leave capitalism intact, mean that they cannot get to the roots of the problem: the bourgeois family and the capitalist mode of production, on which this family unit rests and for which it reproduces the workers’ capacity to work while bringing up a new generation of workers.
Working-class women, especially those drawn into social production and socialised services, thereby partly escape from the atomisation and isolation of the individual family home. They are impelled by conditions of the workplace, by exploitation, to seek collective self-defence via the trade unions, a gateway to social and political life in general. Of course the burdens of the family or of domestic labour still weigh heavily on them and hold them back. Of course, too, even in the unions they encounter sexism and discrimination.
It is for this reason that Marxists set as their goal the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare both as reforms to win in the here and now and as demands transitional to a socialist society. Thus workplace crèches or council-run nurseries, especially if they are controlled by the users and those who work in them, can enable women to play a much fuller role in social and political life. Their limited nature (where they exist) plus the repeated attempts by governments to cut or privatise them however point the way to a bigger question. How can the rearing of children and home life in general be organised so that society as a whole takes the responsibility and reaps the rewards?
To fully and completely socialise child care and domestic labour will require a whole different method of organising production itself. An economy planned democratically by everyone can radically adjust the one to the other, fitting labour time to the needs of childcare, deploying resources for childcare at work, ensuring men play an equal role in both spheres and involving the young themselves as a part of their education. Only thus can a real social equality be planned for and achieved.
Working class movement
To fight for this perspective, is why we need not only a revolutionary party and trade unions but, vitally today, a socialist working-class women’s movement. It would take up the whole spectrum of women’s oppression: domestic violence, rape and femicide; discrimination at work and inequalities in pay; and the lack of, or cuts to, childcare and healthcare. It would also combat the sexist culture of capitalist society.
Another vital weapon in the struggle against sexism is the right of women to organise amongst themselves in the workplaces, the unions and the parties, to raise all issues of sexist culture and harassment. This right to caucus should be guaranteed by all bodies. It is not, as some argue, an instrument of division but of unity at a higher level, unity against sexism, unity in the struggle against capitalism.
A socialist women’s movement must set out to draw in women in the unions, on the housing estates, in the schools and the colleges, uniting them into a common struggle. They must have democracy and autonomy, with the right to elect their own leaders, not subject to dictation by any party or union. However, a genuine revolutionary party would openly and frankly organise its own members within such a mass organisation, as it would in the unions, and would have to win the right to lead by persuading the majority its course of action was right and its members the best fighters. By this means, more and more women could be won to the party.
This common goal of socialism and women’s liberation indicates why the latter is a struggle for men as well as women, why all those who share this goal must unite their efforts in common trade unions and political parties. But, as long as women remain oppressed, they have the right and the duty to organise themselves. Socialists cannot say to women that their liberation must “wait for socialism” or will be only a by-product of the economic and political class struggle. It is a vital and integral part of it.
As James Connolly the great Irish revolutionary, murdered by British imperialism in 1916 once wrote “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter.”