In a statement today, the strikers at Shanganagh Waste Water Treatment Plant, announced that 2 wo
Special report: Socialist forum on Sexism
“The queen of the parlour has nothing in common with the maid in the kitchen; the wife of the department store owner shows no sisterly concern for the 17 year old girl who finds prostitution the only door open to a $5 a week wage. The sisterhood of woman, like the brotherhood of man, is a hollow sham to labour. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality are the sinister outlines of class war.”
Elizabeth Garley-Flynn, socialist and union activist, 1920s New York.
Special report on the recent socialist forum on sexism.
Part 1: The Rising Tide of Irish Feminism, the Commodification of Women, ‘Sisterhood’ and Class Division among Women.
The SWP Forum on Sex, Sexism and Women’s Liberation took place in Cassidys Hotel on 11 August. Sinead Kennedy, activist in pro-choice and wider women’s politics, lecturer at NUI Maynooth and SWP member, presented the meeting.
The issues discussed primarily dealt with both in session one were on sex, sexuality and women’s liberation today, and secondly a Marxist explanation for the origins of women’s oppression and actions to combat and challenge capitalism in a way that leads to real empowerment for women.
The meeting took place amid a backdrop of increasing involvement once again of growing numbers of young women in the resurgent feminist movement in Ireland today.
This upsurge in feminist issues and action was highlighted in a fantastically young and angry protest against the disgraceful Youth Defense posters, the culmination of a lot of things happening in Ireland over the last year of so.
“Successful feminist societies and events are emerging in colleges around the country. The Feminist Open Forum have been attracting large meetings and the Irish Feminist Network, a group of young women angry at how women are being represented in popular culture are doing fantastic work on different issues and recently held a conference,” according to Sinead Kennedy.
“For this reason, we need to talk about where we are today and argue, that as a socialist, we need to understand this in the context of capitalism.”
In recent years we are increasingly being told that we live in a ‘post-feminist’ society, that women’s oppression belonged to a ‘bygone era’ and that ideas of genuine feminism and women’s liberation are ‘outdated’.
There was no longer a place for such ideas in our ‘sophisticated culture’ of so-called equality.
As Sinead points out, these notions are now “expressed though ideas of ‘self-empowerment and improvement’, where if you wanted something as a women all you have to do was to go out and get it and do anything you want. You could have it all: great job, relationship, kids and consumer goods to enhance and express you femininity.”
However, the darker side of all this is that if a woman fails to live up to all this expectation, that there was something wrong with you. The ideas that ‘having and doing it all’, including the massive responsibility that falls mainly on women to take care of families, children and the elderly should be done with a smile, but ultimately without payment.
The enormous achievements gained by the women’s liberation movement transformed the lives of women over the last 40 years, increasing expectations today of equality, even if this doesn’t truly manifest itself. Where we seem to live in a society that celebrates women’s ‘empowerment’, massive inequalities such as lack of equal pay and the absence of abortion rights in Ireland continue to exist.
However, as Sinead explains, “increasingly, the proud history and language of women’s struggle to assert and define themselves as something other than decorative has been commodified by capitalism.”
“Sex, sexuality, women’s bodies and even the language of women’s liberation are used to sell you things.”
Another idea prevalent in our culture is that the only way that women can be powerful, assertive and in control is to be sexual and sexually attractive, every minute of the day.
We are constantly bombarded with images of women in magazines who fit in to the ideal, promoted by the fashion industry, of what it is to be beautiful, albeit airbrushed and/or surgically altered.
According to Sinead, “ the vast majority of people who don’t look like that are constantly told your deficient in some way but don’t worry, we have the product for fix you and have this great life.”
“Capitalism manufactures all these inadequacies women are supposed to feel for enormous profit (the diet industry in the US makes profits of $290 billion annually), to ensure women don’t feel happy, confident and empowered.”
Of course the notion that feminism is about individuals and self-empowerment is a complete rejection of the origins of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, which put forward a revolutionary vision of the transformation of the entire society: an equal society for both men and women.
Many mainstream conventional feminists, basing their ideas on seeing the few women rising to positions of power, or ‘breaking through the glass ceiling’, have accommodated with capitalism.
In reality, in the last 20 years, the vast majority of women have fallen into the basement, into very low-paid, part-time flexible work hardest hit by the economic crisis.
As Sinead points out, “a major problem with all this and talk of a ‘sisterhood’, is it fails to acknowledge the class differences between women.”
“One reason, constantly ignored, for the celebrated success of women from mainly wealthy backgrounds is often that they have working class women taking care of their children and cleaning their houses.”
“But what happens to the children of these working class women?
The achievement of one woman based on the exploitation of another is one of the challenges mainstream feminism has never really overcome.”
The preaching of ‘sisterhood’ while ignoring blatant class differences among women is best summed up with the sight of Joan Burton, who refers to herself as a ‘feminist wishing to empower women’, pushing through welfare cuts on lone parents and community schemes, attacking working class women in the process.
“For Marxists, the question of class is essential, and that the idea of divisions among women themselves are important not just for understanding the roots of oppression, but for shaping a strategy about how to fight it,” explains Sinead.
There then followed a very lively debate, with ideas and comments exchanged from the floor. They ranged from the role of religion in women’s oppression, 'slut walk' marches opening a new front in feminist activism, trade unions as a means of getting organised and fighting back for both men and women.
The recent and disturbing use of the language of women’s liberation as a justification for NATO’s brutal occupation of Afghanistan was also debated, as was various forms of exploitation and violence towards women.
Another theme to emerge in the discussion was that women’s oppression didn’t begin with the dawn of capitalism, but with the rise of class society.
Part 2: The Origins of Women’s Oppression: The Marxist Explanation.
Session 2 focused mainly on the roots of women’s oppression, a Marxist analysis and tactics and strategy to overcome capitalism.
As socialists, we tend to have a slightly different explanation of women’s oppression. Some versions of feminism give patriarchy (a system of male power) as a kind of explanation for women’s oppression.
The major problem with patriarchy is that the term is often used to transcend history, class and society.
Why does this idea seem to hold such sway today?
According to Sinead Kennedy, pro-choice feminist and SWP member, “ideas of patriarchy appear to fit reality. How we experience oppression tends to be personal, often presented as individual men behaving badly or in sexist ways, or women themselves feeling that its their faults, rather than something imposed by an ‘abstract’ system.”
Theories of patriarchy see sexism as a problem separate from capitalism, an ‘eternal truth or ‘part of human nature’, i.e.: the biological urge of men to oppress and dominate women.
In much the same way, capitalists talk about markets as being ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’, so equality and oppression are presented as naturalistic, cultural, psychological and biological.
The Marxist explanation is very different.
Friedrich Engels’ famous work, ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’, offers a materialist explanation of women’s oppression.
Central to the ideas of Marx and Engels is that there’s a connection between the materialist base of society and ideas in society; that there’s always a close and intimate relationship between ideas and economics.
As Sinead Kennedy notes, “Engels argued that women’s oppression is neither natural or external (outside of ourselves). It is historic and rooted in class society and manifests itself in a particular way under capitalism.”
As a large part of human history pre-dates capitalism, Engels, using antropological evidence, begins with hunter-gatherer society, which was based on formal equality between men and women.
In order to survive, small groups of up to 40 or 50 people required a high level of co-operation. The division of labour was not based on hierarchy, but material circumstances.
“This close co-operation formed the basis for equality between all members of the community and found a counterpoint in the lack of any formal family structures, restrictive regulation between the sexes or any real hierarchical ideas about gender.”
Looking after children was the responsibility of the entire group, while labour performed by men and women were of equal value.
According to Engels however, the development of agricultural techniques (such as the development of the heavy plough that gave men exclusive control over the productive process), created a surplus over and above what was needed to survive. This in turn lead to what Engels calls the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’.
Although this surplus was an important material advance for human society, it only benefited a small minority of people whose position in the productive process helped gain control over this surplus.
Over time, they crystallised into the exploiting class, who had a vested interest in maintaining their control over, and continued production of the surplus involving the exploitation of the small minority over the majority.
According to Sinead, “at this point in the emergence of class society, women became increasingly relegated to the private, domestic sphere, whose main role was as reproducer of the next generation of labour (child-bearing). Women were increasingly seen as the property of ruling class men and the family became separated from society.”
The man who controlled the surplus wanted his own family to benefit and hand it on to his children- this lead to the emergence of monogamy for women, though not usually for men.
The institution of the private family as a structure separated from wider society, slowly emerged over hundreds of years, enshrining the subordination of women to men.
Over time, all this was generalised and enforced by a centralised state, rules, laws, customs and ideas.
As Sinead points out, “it was not that men suddenly decided that women were inferior, but that the economic process at the core of this transition led to a series of ideas that justified that separation.”
The subordination of women, beginning with class society, developed in a particular way under capitalism.
At first capitalism was seen as dominant and dynamic, requiring huge amounts of labour to thrive with the family as a central building block for the new system in the 19th Century.
Early on, men, women and children were pressed into the appalling and dangerous world of the factory system, giving birth to new oppressions.
Under pressure from reformers and increasingly organised labour, laws such as the ‘family wage act’ mercifully took women and children from the factory, but the effect was contradictory.
These measures also took women out of the public, the collective actions and organisation, and into the private realm of the home. Many ideas of the modern family structure began to emerge towards the end of the 19th Century.
Engels makes the point that women’s oppression is not just rooted in capitalism but helps contribute to it.
Even today, families perform a very important role within capital; an example is the relationship of women to the labour market, which, over time changes to accommodate to the needs of capitalism. Twenty years ago, most women in Ireland worked in the home, yet today over 70% work outside the home.
The highly successful meeting concluded with an important message: The elevation of ruling class women such as Thatcher, Hillary Clinton to power, etc does nothing to alter the capitalist system in any way whatsoever.
The likes of racism, homophobia and the oppression of women breeds division and weakness among the working class, a development welcomed by the ruling class.
Working class men, therefore, have a powerful reason for supporting the emancipation of working class women.
Without it our class is divided and cannot win without unity, essential to defeating capitalism: the exploiter and oppressor of the whole working class.
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