Conservatives in the United States have declared war on women. The onslaught is so heavy, I could probably fill this whole blog just listing out all of the ways in which women have been targeted by legislation, media, and violence in the last year or so. Just this week, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin was bombed. Every day, it seems, another story appears where women are compared to livestock. Virginia, Texas and Iowa all passed a law requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds before a woman could receive an abortion—an unnecessary violation of women’s bodies that amounts to state-mandated rape. Texas is the latest to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. A similar measure was attempted in North Carolina but vetoed by Bev Perdue. And while Rush Limbaugh may have been singled out for his degrading and piggish remarks toward law student Sandra Fluke over her testimony in favor of providing contraception to women free of cost, he was hardly alone in the sexist sentiments that held together his vile remarks. Presidential candidates—people who could potentially run the country—tried to distance themselves from Limbaugh without disagreeing with what he actually said. Mitt Romney, for instance, shrugged and said that slut and prostitute “aren’t the words I would have used.” And this is just the shortest of lists—one that doesn’t include the non-legislative attacks: a cop in New York cleared of rape because he wore a condom, for example. The Supreme Court’s denial of class status to women in their fight against Walmart.
But it would be wrong to characterize the war on women as solely the product of the far right or religious conservatives—or as a recent phenomenon. In 1991, journalist Susan Faludi published the first edition of Backlash, which documented rightwing attacks on women, and since the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the Democrats have been partners in attacking the rights of women and rolling back our hard-fought (and let’s be honest, despite their importance, very modest) gains. Sometimes, it’s an overt attack, such as when the Democrats led the charge on welfare “reforms” that targeted poor women and women of color. Politicians often try to pass welfare off as a budgeting issue—or a “waste” issue, but as welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon explained, “Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women. And that is why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women’s Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it’s a matter of survival… But when the politicians talk about the “welfare cancer eating at our vitals,” they’re not talking about the aged, blind, and disabled. Nobody minds them. They’re the “deserving poor.” Politicians are talking about us¾the women who head up 99 percent of the A.F.D.C. families¾and our kids. We’re the “cancer,” the “undeserving poor.” Mothers and children.”
In other words, in an attempt to gain non-existant political ground against a Republican party that was running to the right, the Democrats tried to cast themselves as “fiscally responsible” by attacking working and poor women—and particularly women of color and immigrant women.
The reality that many feminist groups never acknowledged was that welfare issues—while targeted against women who had been historically excluded from the feminist movement, was not only a way of unleashing an assault against some of the most marginalized people in American society, but helped open the door to the bigger battle we find ourselves in today. Suffice it to say that this is precisely why socialists say that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Fighting welfare attacks is not just about morally doing the right thing. It’s also about clearly understanding the political ramifications, the social ramifications, of letting such an attack go unchallenged. The welfare “reforms” of the nineties laid out a blueprint for the austerity measures we see today directed against programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, and the rhetoric being used to push them through is almost exactly the same. People abuse the system. They get rich on your hard-earned dollar. Or, the one I saw yesterday, look at the person on social security with a 1.2 million dollar home. As anyone who’s used any of these programs—or any welfare assistance programs—can tell you, those myths are just that—myths. And they’re complete and utter bullshit.
Attacks on welfare rights from the Democrats (and the Republicans) haven’t abated, but in recent years, there’s been a shift in how the attacks are made. The focus of legislation from the late 1980s through the nineties was focused explicitly on the poor—people who were disproportionately women and disproportionately women of color. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 gave the rightwing the confidence to broaden the assault—and shift the rhetoric from one about spending and government handouts to one about women’s bodies. Instead of taking the backdoor to cut off access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion and contraception, (and not to mention things like employment, housing, education) they’ve stepped right through the front door, with people like Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh as their leads.
The attacks are becoming so common, it’s hard to believe that only five years ago, it would have been considered ludicrous to challenge the right of women to access contraceptives. And it’s wrong to think that such a shift to the right has taken place because of Obama’s supposedly “left-wing” policies. If anything, it’s the right that is setting the terms of the debate—as looking at any news program will tell you, which continues a trend from the 1970s and the fight to maintain the Roe v. Wade ruling. The results of this process have been horrifying. When the Republicans come out with a vicious attack on women—like cutting abortion access by imposing week limits, wait periods, what have you—the response of the Democrats is not “abortion without apology” but rather a mish-mash of non-committal pandering to the mythical mass of conservative leaning independent voters that usually includes lines about “well, we don’t want anyone to get abortions either” or “it’s not costing you any money” that serves a few purposes. First, it completely removes women—and women’s liberation—from the equation. Second, it inevitably results in a “compromise” that liberals paint as a victory against the right, which is then used to channel the efforts of women’s advocacy groups, national organizations, and even grassroots activists into the project of re-electing Democrats, who are supposedly our “last line of defense” against GOP attacks. Admittedly, the GOP attacks are horrendous, but if the only thing women have to protect them is the Democratic party, we are, my friends, in some serious trouble.
Reproductive health access tends to be the most talked about battlefield—partially because it’s incredibly important—but also because our sexist society is obsessed with women having sex. Enter here the non-ending dichotomy that women face on a day to day basis. Be sexy, but don’t be a slut. Don’t take birth control, but be arousing to me, etc. When it’s not using women’s sexuality as a commodity, our society is obsessed with controlling and shaping women’s sexuality. The ideal woman is one who is sexy but not sexual. This is where we get the seemingly mixed messages of thongs for pre-teens, women’s bodies selling everything you can imagine, and the other side—frantic attempts to control virginity and limit reproductive health services. I don’t really have time to go into the many facets of this phenomenon, which attempts to string women and girls in between raunch culture, where misogyny is entertainment, and the purity myth which founds itself on a cult-like focus on virginity as the source of women’s value. If you’re interested in learning more about these cultural phenomenon, I’d recommend reading Jessica Valenti’s—the editor of Feministing—new book The Purity Myth: How the Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women and Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs which discusses women and the rise of raunch culture. With that last book, I’d also recommend listening to Rachel Cohen’s talk “Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” on wearemany dot org.
What I’d really like to focus on is not just the attacks, not just the contemporary social constructs that justify them, because if you’re like me, listening to—or reading—only about what exists now is incredibly depressing. It makes me want to scream on a daily basis. Sometimes it makes me want to hide in a tree and never come out. I want to probe deeper, ask the deeper question. Why are women oppressed at all? With that question comes a second—how do we end it? But let’s consider the first—because as Sharon Smith notes, “Unless we determine the source of women’s oppression, we don’t know who or what needs changing.”
Socialists have a very different perspective than male chauvinists, which I hope would be fairly obvious, but we also have a very different perspective from most feminists—often because male chauvinists and feminists use different versions of the same argument that, however they’re painted, have disturbing arguments about human nature at their core.
From Simone de Beauvoir on, most feminist arguments, with notable exceptions, have explained the oppression of women as deriving from male biology or male psychology. If you want to change the world, if you want to end sexism forever, if you want to be emancipated or see women emancipated—that’s a pretty depressing place to be. After all, how can we live in an equal society if men will always oppress women simply because they can? Where men oppress women as retribution for their ability to bear children?
Most people have probably run across the concept of “biology is not destiny.” Material analysis of history, and materialist studies of anthropology show that the social position of women varies across cultures. Eleanor Burke-Leacock catalogued these variances in Myths of Male Dominance. Some societies were relatively egalitarian. Others were matriarchal. This evidence severely undermines the notion that it is natural for men to oppress women. If that is true, how do we explain the oppression of women as it exists today—where women across the world are oppressed in a ways that vary little, if at all, in substance and only in covering?
As socialists, we argue that women’s oppression is inextricably linked to capitalism. Much in the way that racism predated capitalism but was fundamental to the creation and survival of capitalism, capitalist society was not the first to oppress women but it relied on the restructuring of family relations and property relations—both of which inevitably and by design rely on the oppression of women for its continuation.
The emancipation of women, therefore, is not something that has been added on to Marxist theory, but rather, has been fundamental to Marxism from its inception. In the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Marx and Engels wrote, “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that, under communism, the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”
Here, we see presented the dialectical relationship of women’s liberation to the class struggle. To win a strike, or demands in a movement, to succeed in radically altering the structure of a society without the emancipation of women, without their active participation and leadership is unthinkable—has always been unthinkable. The question becomes not one merely of adequate representation or legally referenced equality, but a real question of power. Socialist thinking has, at this point, fully diverged from feminist conceptions of liberation, which can essentially be divided into two parts: reformist and revolutionary.
Of the first, Alexandra Kollontai, the Russian revolutionary, said “feminists seek equality in the framework of existing class society. In no way do they attack the basis of that society…while the feminist goal to achieve equal rights with men in the framework of contemporary capitalism represents a sufficiently concrete end in itself,” but this would not be enough to fully emancipate women, who would still be oppressed and exploited under capitalism—if not on the basis of gender, then on the basis of their position as a worker. Such a reformist perspective also ignores the fundamental relationship between the nuclear family, reproduction, and capitalism, which Engels outlined in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, but it was alluded to in writings published by Marx and Engels decades earlier. In The German Ideology, Marx noted that “the need for the abolition of the family was self-evident” in the struggle for a classless, egalitarian society because it was in the institution of the family, which removed all of the work typically assigned to women—childcare, housework, cooking—from the realm of paid labor and it placed on workers the responsibility for raising the next generation of workers. I don’t have time to go into the origins of the modern family here, but I hope we can talk about it more in discussion, because the evolution of the family really underlies our conception of women’s oppression.
The other problem with reformist feminism is its historical pattern of failure to achieve emancipation. As Kollontai said, reformist feminism does not attack the underlying structure, but rather makes alterations within the structure. This is akin to having cancer and taking pain medication. Sure, you feel better, but you haven’t gotten rid of the disease which made you sick in the first place, and eventually the medication will wear off. Reforms, once won, must be defended or they will be taken away, as we see now, when women are arguably far worse off as a group than we were in the 1970s. In addition, reforms don’t apply equally to all women. Working women were left behind in the women’s movement—as were women of color, immigrant women, women in the LGBTQ community, disabled women, all of whom disproportionately are working or poor women. Legal rights and equality are meaningless if you don’t have the power to exercise them because you are poor. At the end of the day, despite all the pain medication of reforms, women still earn far less than white men—and if you’re a woman of color, you can expect to make even less. As we can clearly see from the chastity balls where women pledge their virginity to their fathers until marriage, we can see that despite liberatory rhetoric about our mythical “post-feminist” world, women are still viewed as property. Women do seventy five percent of the world’s work, grow eighty percent of the food, and only own one percent of the world’s collective assets. The cancer is still there.
The revolutionary feminists, on the other hand, present a different set of problems. On what basis is society to be reconstructed? Most feminist models rely on either a female-centric power base (which restructures gendered power relations rather than abolishing them) or on a horizontalist astructural form which eschews power. Both are implausible and fundamentally utopian. To the first, how do women unite as a group to overthrow the existing system when some women have a vested stake in its maintenance? The second ignores the need for organization and accountability.
Christy Hefner, the CEO of Playboy since 1988, makes millions of dollars each year off of the exploitation of women. Condoleeza Rice ascended to a high position in government—at the expense of other women’s lives and livelihoods. Bourgeois and ruling class women have fundamentally different interests. Failure to recognize this derailed the women’s movement of the 1970s. The movement, which demanded the right to work for women, ignored the reality that women have always worked, and that many working women and women of color, had different demands: the right to paid maternity leave, for one. Welfare rights are another example. When things came to a head in the late 1970s, national women’s organizations refused to stand with working women in their demand for paid maternity leave, and in fact, actively opposed it.
This is not to say, however, that women as a group never unite around an issue, rather it is merely to suggest that organizing around the basis of female solidarity has its limits. Marxists and feminists share the goal of women’s equality and have fought together for reforms for more than a century, but we have different theoretical foundations. Condoleeza Rice is not going to join us in an antiwar protest (and, as a side note, neither will the heap of discredited feminist organizations that sounded the war cry for Afghanistan claiming imperial intervention would emancipate the women of Afghanistan). Hillary Clinton won’t be on street with us demanding that women be paid a living wage for doing housework.
I would argue that to fight for women’s emancipation, we need to fight for socialism. The two are dialectically related. We cannot stop the Republican war on women by electing Democrats—then in a year you’ll be here again, at another meeting titled “The Democrat’s War on Women and the Republicans who Cheer them on.” No, we need a fundamentally different society that does not rely on the oppression of women—a socialist society. Women’s liberation is fundamental to the fight for socialism and impossible without it.
So how do we get there?
Marxist perspectives on liberation eschew the identity politics that became so popular in the last forty years. There is a difference between not personally suffering from racism, sexism, homophobia, and objectively benefiting from it. As a whole, the working class suffers—both because of its own exploitation and the oppression of special groups within it. Oppression of women, people of color, and immigrants serve to lower living standards for all workers and also to undermine the ability of workers to fight back as a class against their exploitation. It therefore has an objective interest in ending all forms of oppression. Oppression both serves to prop the capitalist system up in a material way, but it also provides the ruling class with ideological fodder to divide workers. As Frederick Douglass said, “They divide both to conquer each.”
We must ask ourselves then, who benefits? If all men do not benefit from the oppression of women, if all white workers do not benefit from the oppression of Black workers, who does? While almost all women are unequal to the men in their families, the only people who objectively benefit from her unpaid labor and sequestration inside the home are the ruling class—who reap the wages of her labor in the form of increased profits and decreased expenditures. After all, people must eat, and if women refuse to cook, someone else has to. Although many households are run by women—and have women as their sole provider, the model of the nuclear family also gives men an objective interest in fighting women’s oppression—because the cost of reproduction and household labor in such a model falls entirely on them—and not the members of the ruling class who reap the benefits.
This isn’t to say that many men don’t hold sexist ideas—clearly they do. But so do many women. Similarly, many men have joined the fight for abortion rights, the ERA. They marched by our sides at Slutwalks around the world, demanding that women’s choices be respected and that rape culture be dismantled. These variances provide evidence that sexism is not derived from a system of male power. Sexist ideas in the working class, however, are part of what Marx called “false consciousness”—holding an idea that goes against your material interest.
What are the prospects for women’s liberation in a socialist revolution? We have some historical clues.
In September 1917, on the doorstep of a revolution that would, for a time, tear down the inequality between men and women, the Bolshevik leader Lenin wrote, “Unless women take an independent part not only in political life generally, but also in daily and universal public service, it is no use talking about full and stable democracy, let alone socialism.” Lenin’s theoretical assertions on the absolute necessity of women’s place in the revolution were firmly grounded in historical experience. It was, after all, the working women of Paris who, alongside a soldiers’ mutiny, revolted in 1871, and secured power for the Paris working class. While this experience was a more dramatic example of the power working women have, it was hardly the only one.
It was a series of women’s labor struggles in the United States that led to the first International Working Women’s Day in 1911. Women in the United States inspired women around the world to take to the streets. As Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai noted: “Its success exceeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere–in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women…Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament.”
Even within the long and varied history of struggle against women’s oppression, the Russian revolution presents a very special case of what is possible. Just as the American women had inspired women around the world less than a decade before, Russia women were the catalysts behind the 1917 Russian Revolution. On International Women’s Day 1917, working women who had gathered for a series of political meetings, encouraged by the waves of political strike action, took to the streets, calling out to men working in the factories as they went. More than 50,000 joined the strike when called down by the women. Gordienko, a Bolshevik worker at the Nobel Machine Construction Factory, recalled the following scene:
On the morning of February 23 one could hear women’s voices in the lane which the windows of our department overlooked: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!” Myself and several comrades were at the windows in a flash…. The gates of No. 1 Bol’shaya Sampsion’evskaya Manufaktura were wide open. Masses of women workers filled the lane, and their mood was militant. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting: “Come out! Quit work!” Snowballs flew through the window. We decided to join the demonstration…. A brief meeting took place outside the main office near the gates, and we poured out into the street…. The comrades in front were seized by the arm amidst shouts of “Hurray!”, and we set off with them down Bol’shoi Sampsion’evsky Prospekt.
Women continued to play a central role in the revolution for through October, and as Elizabeth Schulte notes, “Women workers took the lead in the struggle, as did their demands, and after the October Revolution, Russian revolutionaries put into effect reforms that could have a real effect on the lives of women workers, such as equal pay for equal work, freedom to divorce, paid maternity leave and taking laws off the books that criminalized homosexuality. And they attempted as best as they could, considering the shortage of resources in Russian society, to create the conditions in which liberation could begin to blossom. This meant in large part freeing women from the double burden they bear in the home–by building communal restaurants, child care centers and laundries.” The Bolsheviks also passed a declaration on women’s health that provided—for the first time in history—free abortion on demand. Abortion had been illegal before the revolution, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. After legalization, the mortality rate from abortions in the Soviet Union dropped from 4% to 0.28%.
As we know, of course, the Russian revolution was not to last and the same times other workplace, social, and democratic gains were being rolled back by the Stalinist state capitalist bureaucracy, women were stripped of their rights.
From labor battles to the struggle to abolish slavery, women were critical to every success, and they self-organized when men denied them participatory roles. During these fights, women battled, much like we are now, vicious attack from the ruling class and their conservative ideologues. Increasingly—and due to hard fought struggles—women were attaining greater levels of legal equality. This did not, however, do much to advance the social or economic equality of women because legal remedies only provided a window dressing that covered the real problem—women performed massive amounts of unpaid labor in the home and their labor elsewhere was devalued. This means that today, even though women do seventy percent of the world’s work and grow eighty percent of the world’s food, we only own one percent of the world’s assets. The women’s movement of the 1970s was ravaged by identity politics, racism, and class antagonism—culminating in a series of divisions in the women’s movement, mostly along class lines. The rightwing used this opportunity to go on the offensive, taking back hard fought gains and attempting to go even further in a thirty year period of reaction.
The 2011 happened. From Cairo to Madison, Karala India to Nigeria, working people around the world have taken a stand. Egypt, the second country to topple a long-term dictator in what has become known as the Arab Spring, is still fighting for its revolution. As Elizabeth Schulte noted: “in Egypt, Syria, Greece and other recent sites of revolt and rebellion, women and men mobilized and organized together in unprecedented ways. During struggles on this scale, workers’ ideas change–men’s ideas about women, and women’s ideas about men and also about themselves. In the process of confronting their shared and powerful enemy, such as the state and its police, men and women workers come to see their potential power as a united force.
Ideas like sexism are exposed for what they are–useless and destructive–not only because they are wrong, like misconceptions about what women are capable of, but because they divide the working class. They are exposed for their real purpose–to keep those at the top in power by dividing the masses below.”
Revolutionary Egyptian leader Asmaa Mahfouz recounted Tahrir Square. “This is the first time in my life…I was not sexually harassed in a public square. The thousands of men in that square treated me like a human being.” Here, in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind of activity, women tasted the liberation they had been seeking.
In addition to their full participation in the revolutionary movement, women in Egypt also self-organized. After a woman protester was assaulted by police, women organized an emergency protest and succeeded in turning out a hundred thousand strong march of women.
Asmaa Mahfouz’s call to action, issued in January before the occupation of Tahrir Square, reflected the women in the streets of Russia nearly a century earlier: “Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th… Go down to the street. Come with us. Bring five people or 10 people…Never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears only when you say there’s none. So long as you come down with us, there will be hope. Don’t be afraid of the government. Fear none but God. God says He will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. Don’t think you can be safe anymore. None of us are. Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights. I am going down on January 25th, and I will say no to corruption, no to this regime.”
In Egypt, we don’t know how things are going to turn out, but we do know that a continued commitment to the participation of women in the revolution will be central to any success it may achieve. Without the liberation of the oppressed within a society, there can be no chance of a revolution succeeding, and that is why anyone who considers themselves a revolutionary must take up the fight against sexism, the fight against racism, against homophobia and transphobia, and all other forms of oppression.
For the first time in many of our lives, there is once again, a fighting grassroots women’s movement. The situation is one full of possibility. Standing together we are strong—in the streets, on the shop floor, on the campuses—and we can do what may have seemed impossible in the past—what might have seemed impossible last week. More true than ever are the words of Assata Shakur: “A woman’s place is in the struggle.”
Books to read:
Women and Socialism, by Sharon Smith
Myths of Male Dominance, by Eleanor Burke Leacock
The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, by Frederick Engels
Public Vows, by Nancy Cott