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Women and oppression in class society – A socialist approach

Committee for a Workers' International World Congress Document

The following document is an amended version of a draft document on women, which was discussed at the January 2016 World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The very successful week-long meeting was attended by CWI comrades from 34 countries, with delegates and visitors from east and west Europe and Russia, Africa, all parts of Asia, North and Latin America, Australia and the Middle East.

This statement draws out some general points on the situation facing women, the perspectives for struggle, and our programme and approach. However, the enormous variation between different countries means that perspectives, and approach to struggle, will also vary considerably across the globe.

Movements against different aspects of women’s oppression have been a feature in a number of countries in recent years. They include the mass demonstrations against rape in India and Turkey, the movement on abortion rights in Ireland, and the million men and women back in 2011 who marched in Italy against the sexism of the then President Berlusconi.

As so many times before in history, we have seen working women start uprisings, with the Mahalla textile district base for the Arab Spring being a case in point. The female brigades in defence of Rojova have, during the last years of counter revolution, constituted an important contrast to their direct enemies in ISIS, whose state is conducting massive trade in sex slaves.

The control of women’s sexuality has been at the core of women’s oppression since it first emerged. Today we there is an increase in the struggle for women’s right to their own bodies. In the US a student-based movement has arisen against rape. In Latin America a number of movements have taken place. The continuing women’s and workers’ movements have also produced progress, such as increased access to contraception in Africa and growing questioning of female genital mutilation. The halving of the rate of maternal deaths in the last 25 years, and the shrinking of the gender gap of children entering education in many ‘developing countries’ also constitute a basis upon which more struggle for equality can develop.

Struggle against the old order also tends to act to boost LGBT struggles, as we have seen globally. Fifteen years ago the Netherlands became the first country every to allow same-sex marriage. Today it is legal in thirteen European countries – although accompanies by growing polarisation and backlashes, particularly in Eastern Europe. Often a growing feminist awakening emerges with a growing LGBT consciousness, and these movements tend to intersect and mutually reinforce one another. In recent years, transgendered persons have raised their voices to a larger extent than before in some countries.

All of these struggles reflect an increased confidence to fight against oppression among broad sections of, particularly younger, women. In many countries capitalist propaganda suggests that women have a right to expect equality. However, this is contradicted by reality. Women have won greater rights in parts of the world in recent decades. Nonetheless, the oppression of women continues to exist in every country.

The family and capitalism

The oppression of women developed alongside and intertwined with the development of class society, linked to the development of the family which has, in different forms, acted as an important agent of social control for all class societies. As Engels correctly explained in the nineteenth century the bourgeois institution of the family had the weakest hold over the working class and oppressed. Nonetheless even today, while many peoples own experience of family is positive, often the people closest to them in the world, the hierarchical nature of society is echoed in the structure of the traditional family with the man as head of the household and women and children obedient to him. This puts the primary responsibility on individual families to bring up the next generation of workers. It acts to oppress women but also puts an enormous burden on men to materially provide for their family.

However, while the family remains a vital institution for capitalism, at the same time the capitalist system itself tends to undermine it. As women are drawn into the paid workforce in large numbers their increased confidence and financial independence mean that they are less willing to accept being treated badly in the home and in personal relationships, and have more possibilities to leave. Nonetheless, the idea remains deeply ingrained that women are possessions of men who need to be loyal and obedient to their partners. The whole of society is permeated with propaganda endlessly re-emphasising the ‘proper’ role of women – as home-makers, mothers, sexual objects, peacemakers and so on.

Women and the workforce

The situation facing women varies considerably in different countries worldwide. In some European countries women now make up more than half of the workforce (although a much greater percentage of women than men work part-time). Globally 50% of women of working age are working, a small fall of around 2% since 1995. The fall is accounted for by the huge increase in unemployment among young people of all genders, particularly in Europe. But it also reflects a fall in women’s participation in the labour force in China and India where, between 1995 and 2013, it declined from 72 to 64% and from 35 to 27% respectively. The UN puts the change in China as a result of “significantly fewer government-sponsored childcare facilities” with the “proportion of more affordable state-owned and community-based childcare centres decreasing from 86% in 1997 to 34% in 2009”. This is a graphic illustration of the negative consequences of the destruction of vestiges of the planned economy!

Even where women make up a smaller percentage of the workforce they have often still played a central role in class struggle, just as it was women textile workers who began the February revolution in Russia 1917. In Bangladesh in 2013 there were massive strikes in the overwhelmingly female garment industry. In Nigeria, where just under half of working age women work, women have been at the forefront of successive general strikes. While the double oppression that women face can be a major extra obstacle to becoming actively involved, when struggles erupt women workers are often the most militant and determined.

The gender pay gap remains global. Even where there is a high level of participation in the workforce by women only a tiny number at the top have closed the pay gap. In some developed economies the pay gap has narrowed, but this is partially caused by the fall in real terms of the pay of working class men as a result of the destruction of manufacturing industry rather than by an increase in women’s pay. In 2011, the World Bank reported that women globally still earn between 10% and 30% less than men, and the gap is no smaller in richer countries than in poor ones. Women remain concentrated in the service sector. In Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Eastern and Southern Europe, more than 70% of employed women work in the service sector. This work – often related to the domestic tasks of ‘cooking, cleaning, caring and catering’ – is almost always low paid.

Nonetheless, overall, where women have been drawn into the labour force in increasing numbers there have also been improvements in the general situation of women in society. Even then sexism remains ingrained into the fabric of capitalism. It is now less socially acceptable in many countries to openly state that women are the possessions of men. But this idea – and that it is acceptable to enforce it with violence or the threat of violence – remains deeply embedded and was enshrined in law until relatively recently. Marital rape only became illegal in Britain in 1991, Spain in 1992, and Germany in 1997. While no longer legal, or openly acceptable, marital rape is still widespread and rarely punished. The same applies to rape in general. It is estimated that in Britain only 15% of all rapes are reported to the police, and only 7% of those result in conviction. According to the UN, of all the women killed globally in 2012 almost half were killed by their partners or family members. In contrast, only 6% of killings with male victims were committed by intimate partners or family members.

Domestic labour

In many neo-colonial countries, the oppression of women is more brutal and severe than in the economically developed countries. There has been a wave of propaganda in Europe and the US attempting to link the brutal treatment of women to Islam, particularly using the horrendous treatment of women by ISIS. However, while there is no question about the barbaric practices carried out by ISIS in the name of Islam, it is wrong to link the degradation of women to Islam in particular. Historically, practices such as honour killings or FGM have been carried out by all religions. Even today these horrendous practices and others – like enforced suicides of widows and dowries for brides – are carried out under the banner of different religions. There are many factors, including the degree of religious influence in society or in government, and the level of class struggle, which affect the degree of women’s oppression in particular countries but in general it is the predominance of semi-feudal economic relations rather than any particular religion which is central.

In all countries women continue to bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities, despite increasingly also going out to work. In many cases women are still, as Trotsky put it, the ‘slaves of slaves’. In countries where the working class and poor cannot afford the labour-saving devices of modern capitalism – washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and so on – and often do not have an electricity supply to power them, the domestic burden on women is back-breaking. In the economically developed countries, the combination of labour-saving devices and an improvement in social attitudes means that there has been some lessening in the domestic burden on women. In Britain, for example, most studies show men accepting that they should do an equal amount of domestic chores as women, although there is still a considerable gap between intentions and reality. One survey about Britain showed that on average women did 17 hours a week of domestic chores (excluding childcare) whereas men did less than six.

The uneven division of domestic work contributes to women generally having lower wages, less leisure time and worse health than men, but the main gain is for the capitalists. By putting the main burden of domestic life, the bringing up of the next generation, and caring for the sick and elderly on women, they are removed from the responsibility of society as a whole.

While historically the development of capitalism has generally led to progress for women in comparison to previous class societies, is now largely being exhausted. Twenty-first century capitalism, far from taking steps towards lessening the domestic burden on women, is heading in the opposite direction. The relentless cuts in public services taking place across the economically developed countries are destroying the childcare, care for the elderly and other social services which previously partially relieved the burden on working class people, particularly women. Women are also more likely to work in the public sector and therefore to lose their jobs as a result of cuts. Rising housing costs and the closure of refuges in many countries make it more difficult for women to leave violent partners.

At the same time the fall in real wages and cuts to social benefits means that there is no prospect for most working class and many middle class women of choosing to leave the workforce to concentrate on domestic tasks. To bring a family up on the basis of one breadwinner is increasingly becoming impossible. On the contrary, both parents often have to work in more than one job each. This is creating the basis for huge social explosions over cuts to public services, housing and pay. Women will be at the forefront of these, as they have been with the $15 an hour movement in the US.

Women’s liberation and class struggle

We also have to be prepared for further mass movements relating to the specific oppression of women. In general the capitalist class is divided on how to deal with the question. A section would support a major offensive against women’s rights, linked to propaganda about the importance of the family, women’s role in the home and so on. However, there is a realisation from others that this would jar too sharply with social attitudes and would provoke mass movements. This was the case with the huge demonstrations in Spain against attempts to severely curtail the right to abortion, which successfully defeated the proposed law. In fact the increased confidence of woman globally means that we can also see offensive movements, such as in Ireland, to improve women’s rights. The demonstrations against rape in India are also an indication of the kind of struggles that can develop in the neo-colonial world.

The struggle for women’s liberation is, at root, part of the class struggle, in which the struggles by women against their own specific oppression dovetail with those of the working class in general for a fundamental restructuring of society to end all inequality and oppression. We disagree with bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feminism because it does not take a class approach to the struggle for women’s liberation. This does not mean, of course, that only working-class women are oppressed. Working-class women are ‘doubly-oppressed’, both for their class and gender but women from all sections of society suffer oppression as a result of their sex, including domestic violence and sexual harassment.

However, at root, to win real sexual equality for women, including women from the elite of society, a complete overturn of the existing order is necessary in every sphere: economic, social, family and domestic. The necessary starting point for such an overturn is ending capitalism. The working class is the only force capable of leading a successful struggle to overthrow capitalism and therefore the struggle to end women’s oppression and the class struggle are intrinsically linked.

To say this is not to suggest that we take a dismissive attitude towards a new generation of women who enter struggle initially around their rights as women and who do not, as yet, have a class approach. Recognising that you are oppressed, and that you can fight against your oppression through a common struggle with others who share the same oppression, is an important step forward. In that sense what can broadly be described as identity politics are an inevitable part of the political awakening of many members of oppressed groups within society. However, the history of struggle against oppression shows that, on the basis of experience, those participating tend to go beyond identity politics as they recognise the root cause of their oppression lies in the structure of society.

Our role has to be to intervene skilfully, in a transitional way, to link the struggle against women’s oppression to the struggle for socialism. This includes being prepared, where necessary, to clearly oppose the ideas of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feminism, not least the idea held by many feminists that blame for the oppression of women lies in the innate character of men rather than the structure of society.

Of course, that does not mean we do not combat sexist behaviour in this society, not least within the workers’ movement. In arguing that the working class is the only force capable of fundamentally changing society, we are not in any way blind to the prejudices, including racism, sexism and homophobia, which exist among all classes including the working class, and which we have a proud record of combating.

Violence against women

If workers’ organisations in general and above all revolutionary parties are to succeed in unifying the working class in the struggle to change society it is vital that they champion the rights of women and all oppressed groups. We do not take the crude position that has historically been adopted by some revolutionary organisations; for example the IST. When the CWI in England and Wales initiated the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, the IST (SWP) initially reacted by arguing that raising male violence against women in the trade unions was divisive. This flowed from their mistaken theoretical position on how the workers’ movement should deal with women’s oppression.

In his book ‘Class struggle and Women’s Liberation’, Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, argued that the women’s liberation movement was wrong to focus “consistently on areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the important struggles in which women are more likely to win the support of men: strikes, opposition to welfare cuts, equal pay, unionisation, abortion”. We countered this narrow approach. Of course it is vital for the workers’ movement to take up economic issues such as opposition to welfare cuts and equal pay. In fact these issues are also central to a campaign against domestic violence. The CADV campaigned, as the Socialist Party and other CWI sections do today, in opposition to all cuts in sexual and domestic violence services, for a huge expansion in the number of women’s refuges, and for a mass council house building programme in order to make it possible for women to live independently.

However, we fight for the maximum unity of the working class, not by trying to brush issues relating to the specific oppression of women under the carpet, but by campaigning to convince the whole workers’ movement that it is necessary to take these issues seriously. The CADV played a vital role in convincing every major trade union in Britain to adopt a national policy against domestic violence. This demonstrates, contrary to Cliff’s views that the big majority of working class men can be won to a position of opposition to domestic violence.

Workers’ organisations exist within capitalism. They are not the model for a new society, but tools to aid the struggle to create one. This is not an excuse for avoiding dealing firmly with all cases of sexual harassment and abuse, but rather a recognition that such cases will sometimes occur. It is utopian to imagine it is possible to create a model of a socialist society within capitalism. Even the most thinking class-conscious elements of the working class are products of capitalism, with all of the distortions of the human personality which that creates. We cannot expect that our members – especially new members – come into the party fully-formed with a complete understanding of every issue, including of sexism. The aim of socialists in the workers’ movement should be to raise understanding of all issues over time, including the oppression of women and taking a position of confronting any instances of sexual harassment and abuse.

The struggle for greater participation by women

We also have to fight for greater participation by women in both the CWI and the workers’ movement as a whole. First and foremost this is a political issue. It is by adopting and fighting for a programme that is in the interests of working class women that the workers’ movement will attract more women to its ranks. We need to ensure that our discussions on perspectives and programme include a socialist gender perspective. This does not mean that a correct programme will – in and of itself – overcome the problem.

In every country the double oppression that women face means that they have extra obstacles to overcome in order to be active, especially in periods where there is not an upsurge in struggle. If this is true for the workers’ movement as a whole it is even more the case when it comes to women joining the CWI while we are still a relatively small revolutionary minority in society. Particularly in societies where the oppression of women is most brutal it is a major achievement to build a female cadre in the organisation, even if they are – at this stage – a small minority of the party.

It can sometimes be necessary to hold separate party meetings for women, particularly new members, but of course these should always be a transitional measure with the aim of building branches that involve both men and women. We should strive towards half – or even a majority as with the current Executive Committee in England and Wales – of our leading bodies at local, national and international level being made up of women. We also have to fight for women comrades to play a role as public representatives for the CWI where they can often be extremely effective, as we can see in the US and Ireland. However, these goals cannot be achieved artificially, but have to be on the basis of developing a female cadre over time. It is crucial that we put extra effort into developing the political understanding and particularly the political confidence of female comrades. CWI sections should regularly assess and discuss what measures can be taken to involve more women in the section and in the leadership.

Women’s self-organisation within left parties and the workers’ movement is very important for combatting the idea that women’s oppression is natural and to strengthen the contribution of women to the class struggle and assist them to reach their full potential. The can be done through organising women’s commissions or caucuses where women can meet to discuss and formulate policies – specific as well as general points from a women’s perspective. This creates an environment for women to feel more comfortable and strengthen their ability to intervene elsewhere. These commissions are not decision-making bodies. (It is the branches, aggregates, committees and congresses which make the decisions.) Women are half the working class but are under-represented, especially on the leading bodies of parties and trade unions. We do not believe we will solve this problem or overcome discrimination against women by these measures alone, but they can be of great assistance in fully involving women in the struggle.

While our scarce resources mean it will not always be possible to do everything required; we have to strive to take practical measures to make it easier for women to be active such as the provision of childcare, safe accessible venues and so on. At the same time we have to fight for the workers’ movement to do the same.

Quotas

In some countries the workers’ movement has adopted quotas or reserved seats as a means to ensure women are represented within the leadership. Such measures do not, on their own, overcome the obstacles that the mass of women face in becoming active in the workers’ movement and can even act as a hindrance. In some trade unions in Britain, for example, token measures have been taken which increased the number of women in their leadership bodies but are also used by the right wing of the union to strengthen their grip on the leadership. As a result of the unions’ woeful failure to fight, the mass of women are undoubtedly less likely to become active in the union, despite having women in the leadership.

Nonetheless, because of the perception that they can act as a tool to increase women’s participation in the movement, we usually do not oppose quotas, especially where they have already been introduced. In some instances, CWI sections have supported the introduction of quotas in workers’ and left organisations, for example in PSOL in Brazil, where today the leadership is made up of 50% women, and it has played some role in increasing women’s involvement. However, there can be occasions when we do oppose particularly token measures. In all cases we have to make clear that quotas will not solve the problem and that a fighting programme in the interests of working class women, and practical measures to aid women’s involvement such as childcare, are central.

The CWI has a proud record of campaigning on issues relating to the specific oppression of women and also of developing women into the leadership of the CWI. However, what we have achieved so far is only a small beginning. By intervening energetically, and with a clear programme, into the struggles that will erupt, including those that relate to the specific oppression of women, we will be able to win many thousands of working class women fighters to our ranks.