For all intents and purposes, feminism and the whole issue of women’s liberation appear to have quietly but conspicuously slipped off the political agenda in these difficult times. Even within “radical” left circles, opposition to women’s subjugation now amounts to little more than a few tokenistic murmurings about the need for abortion rights and equal pay. Years of supposed progress and struggle for equality, it seems, have actually done precious little to improve women’s lot. To quote one well worn statistic, women put in two-thirds of the world’s working hours; receive 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.“Women are consumed by men who treat them as sex objects; they are consumed by their children (whom they have produced!) when they buy the role of super mother; they are consumed by authoritarian husbands who expect them to be willing servants; and they are consumed by bosses who bring them in and out of the labour force and who extract a maximum of labour for a minimum of pay….They are consumed by men who buy their bodies on the street. They are consumed by church and state, who expect them to produce the next generation for the glory of god and country.”Carol Ehrlich: Socialism, Anarchism and Feminism
So what is to be done?A socialist awareness of the primacy of capitalism as the source of economic oppression, combined with an anarchist focus on transforming all power-based relationships, still holds our best and only hope for liberation. Simply, anything less than a direct attack upon all the conditions of our lives is not enough.
Across the world, in developing and advanced industrialised nations alike, women continue to be oppressed, exploited and abused en masse. In every case, the common denominator at play is an abuse of power – whether that be social, economic or interpersonal. We could quote horrifying statistics galore about honour killings, genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, low pay, sexual trafficking and so on. But perhaps it would be more helpful to look at the roots of our oppression – roots which are so often overlooked by the party hacks and liberal apologists who, for all their fanciful rhetoric, have achieved precious little in real terms of advancing our cause.
the gruesome twosomePatriarchy – the domination of women by men – as any revolutionary worth their salt will tell you, predates capitalism. Closely tied to patriarchy is the stifling ignorance and unquestioning bigotry of established religion. For aeons this gruesome twosome has denied women’s basic right to sexual freedom and reduced them to possessions of their (dominant) menfolk. The emergence of industrial capitalism only saw women’s domestic oppression continue, shackled by economic dependence to the male breadwinner.
Throughout their lives, the socialisation process imbues women with behavioural attributes befitting the roles they are required to undertake in class society. The feminist Ann Oakley made the useful distinction between sex and gender roles. The sex role is a biological one – only women can give birth, for example. The gender role, however, is socially ascribed and parallels closely with the respective tasks that women and men fulfil to keep the economy ticking over. Oakley noted how cross-cultural studies revealed wide variations between both male and female behavioural patterns, but observed how these were commonly presented as being caused by biological rather than social factors. Notably, authoritarian societies place vastly greater value on masculine traits like aggressiveness, competitiveness and domination.
working for freeOne obvious role that women’s socialisation prepares them for is that of housewife. The duties that women undertake as housewives in the daily grind of the modern nuclear family is not only central to the reproduction of the human race, but also the capitalist economy. By giving birth and nurturing present and future workers, women directly contribute to the profits of capital. But while the worker receives a fraction of the wealth they create, the housewife gets nothing. She works for free.
At times when capitalism requires them to do so, women are needed not only to carry out their traditional domestic roles, but also to bolster the workforce. Typically women’s socialisation sees them “succeed” in caring, casual and unskilled professions. The Equal Pay Unit found that even in 2007, women are paid 17% less than men. But this figure does not factor in part time and casual jobs – the ones which are usually first to go in a recession – meaning that the actual disparity is far higher. When women do succeed in the macho world of business, they do so only by being as cutthroat, aggressive and competitive as their male counterparts – thus making a mockery of the genetic determinists’ argument.
But women are not just manipulated to enable their exploitation as workers and housewives. They are actively targeted by capitalist advertising as consumers of fashion, beauty and vanity products. As women, we are assiduously subjected to impossible images: images of artificially airbrushed “perfection” that consumer capitalism wants us to aspire to at all costs. Under capitalism women have also become objects and commodities for mens’ consumption – as sex workers, soft-porn models or scantily clad appendages to sell male orientated products from lads mags to motorbikes. Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from low self-esteem?
For all the talk of “liberation”, decades of struggle and universal suffrage have done little for most working class women, save a few minor concessions in employment and reproductive rights. As women, our disempowerment is lasting testament to our continued oppression by capitalism, patriarchy, church and state. The media savvy feminists of the 1960s and 70s who
claimed to advocate on our behalf, became nothing more than mouthpieces for the establishment. Likewise, those women who have climbed the ladders of power have proved invaluable to the ruling class in perpetuating our subjugation.