Sunday, 9 December 2007

From UNITY magazine: women and revolution in the 21st century

Women and revolution in the 21st century


It would be nice to think that the battle for gender equality had been more or less won, but unfortunately all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. The media and the police blame women for being raped. Many western governments have taken a paternalist attitude to (mainly young) Muslim women, seeking to dictate their dress and their identity under the guise of liberating them. We are all expected to feel grateful that we have the “equality” of earning not-as-much-less than the same shitty wage earnt by working class men, and that we can join the army and go off and kill or be killed in another imperialist war. And we’re expected to think that something significant has changed because the person that pays those low wages, starts that war or denies access to abortions may well be a woman.
That’s not to say that we haven’t come a long way. There are few places in the world where women have a life expectancy of 26, as was the case for women working in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massacheutsetts before the ‘Bread and Roses’ strike of 1912. Queer women, single mothers, mothers in paid work, and other women who don’t conform to traditional gender roles are far more accepted, both legally and socially than they were fifty years ago. Most western countries have introduced equal pay legislation, and though it certainly hasn’t solved the pay discrepancy between men and women, let alone the issue of low pay generally,
But the most important thing about all these achievements is not that they don’t go far enough, or that they have to some degree been assimilated into the capitalist system, but that they were achieved by groups of women (and often men) working together against the system, against the bosses and against the government. The oppression of women is not a phenomenon that exists alongside the capitalist system, or even an unfortunate side effect, but an inherent part of it. And therefore any fight for women’s liberation has to challenge that system.
The German socialist Frederich Engels described the oppression of women as emerging with the start of class society. The emergence of private property resulted in a patrilineal society – that is one in which the male line of decent, along which property was inherited, took primacy. Women became largely excluded from the ownership of property and the concept of monogamy, and thus the nuclear family, was reinforced as, in theory, it allowed the the father of a child to be determined.
It is that nuclear family which both helps prop up the capitalist system and is also a central part of the oppression of women. The structure of the nuclear family is inherently hierarchical. Though this is not always the case in practice, the idea of a man as head of the household is quite pervasive. What began as a direct comparison between the king as head of the country and the man as head of the household became a general metaphor for obedience to authority, reinforced by the frequent economic dependence of women on their husbands.
Secondly, the idea of the family as an independent unit reduces ideas of social responsibility. Rather than the state, or society as a whole, assuming responsibility for those who cannot care for themselves – children and the elderly, for example, that burden falls within the family. And from looking to a small group for support, it’s a natural step to seeing problems on an individual level. Those problems are seen as being moral ones, based solely on the choices made by, or the failings of, individuals rather than society as a whole. Women who don’t work outside the home in particular often remain isolated, with few to share their experiences with, let alone join together and fight. And lastly, as a unit for child rearing, the nuclear family provides free care for the next generation of workers.
Of course, family life is not all bad. Many people do find loving, caring relationships, but it is often in spite of the constant pressures of work, and financial pressure. And whilst for men the family and home is an inadequate haven from their worklife, for most women, still expected to assume primary resposibility for the home, it is no relief at all.
A media image has grown up of the“golden age” of the nuclear family. According to myth, there was once a time, always a couple of generations before the current one, when there was no crime and everyone knew their place, and gender roles were strictly defined - particularly that a woman’s place is performing unpaid housework and childcare.
However, the idea that women did not work outside the home is something of a myth. Although many middle and upper class women did not, for many working class women it has always been a matter of economic necessity. What is true is that “women’s work” is and has been disproportionately under paid, insecure and under valued. Not only do bosses get away with paying lower wages (and despite equal pay legislation women in New Zealand still earn around 15% less than men) as a result of this devaluing of the work women do, they encourage rivalry between men and women, giving some men a sense of superiority and having something to gain from capitalism. On the flip side, it has led some women to believe that working class men are the problem.
The subject of this article is a vast one, on which much has already been written. I could go on, for example, to explore reproductive rights and the commercialisation of sex and the position of queer women. But hopefully the points I’ve outlined give an indication of how and why women are oppressed under capitalism.
But this is only half the picture. As women are oppressed under capitalism, they also fight back against it. They have fought, and continue to fight, as trade unionists, both alongside men and independently. They have spoken up for abortion rights and against violence. And they have made their voices heard amongst the millions who protested the invasion of Iraq. And to many it is clearer than ever that women cannot be liberated within the confines of the capitalist system. As we look forward to “21st Century Socialism”, what can women expect?
There is no blueprint for the role of women within a socialist society. The details of that society will be determined by the revolution that makes it. But it can be assumed that women (and men) will be free to interact as human beings without being restricted by economic necessity. The upbringing of children will be the responsibility of society, not left to the individual. What precise form relationships will take is unimportant and unpredictable. As Engels put it; the people of a future socialist society “will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual - and that’s the end of it.” And, as life under capitalism has been particularly harsh for women, the basic rights to a life free from violence, hunger and poverty, are all the more important.

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