The final section of the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet ‘Comrades and Sisters’ looks at what socialism can offer women, and what sort of movement we need to win liberation.
Formal Equality and its Limits
Britain has had the Sex Discrimination Act for three decades and the Equal Pay Act for two-and-a-half. But women’s pay is still less than men’s, and women still experience discrimination. The laws have not achieved what they promised. Why?
There has been some progress: fewer employers pay lower rates for a woman doing exactly the same job as a man. But there is a ready-made excuse for women’s lower pay – the sexual division of labour that defines ‘women’s work’ as less valuable. Women find it difficult to prove breaches of the Equal Pay Act because it is difficult to find a male comparator. Women’s pay is lower than men’s because employers can rate cleaners as less valuable than mechanics, nurses less valuable than train drivers.
Women’s legal rights mean little in practice where employers think they can get away with ignoring the law. Where the workforce is weak, where workers are not organised in trade unions, it is difficult to claim rights. In textile industry sweatshops, bosses are likely to ignore the minimum wage (low as it is) or find a way to cheat it. There are pathetically few government inspectors to force them to comply. Self-organisation and struggle are the only effective enforcers of workers’, and women’s, rights.
Similarly, class struggle affects the extent to which we have legal rights at all. Women can initiate workers’ struggles which can force legal advances; but when the capitalists have the upper hand, they can take our rights away. This has happened dramatically over the last two decades in the area of trade union rights; and since 1967, anti-abortion MPs have continually attacked women’s right to safe, legal abortion. Our legal rights are not only inadequate: they are fragile.
Nevertheless, laws such as the Equal Pay Act were a real advance for women. It is right that women pursue claims under these laws, using them as a weapon against employers. We should also fight for better legal rights, always pushing for more, mobilising activists and boosting women’s confidence.
But have no illusions that legislation can bring liberation for women. Employment Tribunals may curb the worst excesses of the worst employers. However, they assume and uphold the basic, exploitative relationship between boss and worker. They take for granted the capitalist system: for example, ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ assumes that people should be paid according to the value of the work they do, rather than according to their needs. Workplace equality laws apply within the limits of the workplace: they do not take into account women’s circumstances outside work. The fact that the big majority of employers provide no childcare is not considered sex discrimination, even though it is a large factor in women’s subordination.
Instead of relying on courts and Tribunals – looking for justice that will often disappoint – we should instead rely on the strength of our own struggles. And rather than settling for unreliable legal reforms, we should set our sights on radical, permanent change. A century ago, some suffragettes believed that if women only had the vote, we would achieve equality. They were wrong. Today, some people believe that getting more women into positions of power – MPs in Parliament, managers in industry – will bring liberation for all women. They too are wrong. A programme for real equality must be a programme for the abolition of classes.
Liberation Under Capitalism?
Women’s liberation should not mean equality in exploitation. It is not possible for women to be freed from oppression whilst society continues to be organised to serve profit rather than need. Women’s oppression is part of capitalism, directly part of the system of exploitation. It is like an essential component of a machine. The component was previously part of an earlier, more primitive machine, but it has now been fitted into the capitalist machine, which can not run without it. And you can not remove the component without breaking up the whole system.
It is impossible to eliminate the burden of housework within the capitalist system. Collective provision of domestic tasks can only go so far, because it is not cost-effective to employers. Why would they pay out from their profits when women will do it for free? We can win some provision from the state, but we keep having to defend it from cuts, privatisation, closures and charges. In any case, we live under an individualistic system, and most people would not like the idea of parts of their private life becoming a social affair. Capital will not liberate women because it would cost money. It would need to direct resources to where they are needed rather than to bosses’ profits – and that is the precise opposite of what capitalism is about.
Women’s position in society has changed through time, which means that it can change some more. Capitalism has been around for only around 500 years, which means that it need not be around forever.
Capitalism provokes people to fight for the equality that it promises but can not deliver. It also creates the working class, which has the power and the interest to replace capitalism with something better – a classless, socialist society.
Irish socialist James Connolly described working-class man as a slave and working-class woman as the slave of that slave. What should we do about slavery? Tinker with it? Adjust it? Improve it? No, we should smash it. We should consign capitalism and women’s oppression to history. We need a revolution.
What Can Socialism Offer?
When the working class takes power, women (and men) will no longer be working for a different class. The exploitation of our work will end. Through democratic economic planning, we could release the world’s rich resources to serve people’s needs. There are certainly enough resources in the world to provide food, housing, education and health care for everyone. The carnage of women in pregnancy and childbirth could stop.
To make best use of these resources, we would reorganise domestic work on a collective basis. The Owenites had the vision of housework organised socially, with scientifically-advanced gadgets to lighten the load. Bolshevik Russia tried it, but lack of technology and economic development limited its success. Now we have the resources and the technology, we need to defeat the class that prefers to keep us enslaved in the home, and to bring to power the class which has the interest in reorganising household labour. Why is that the working class? Because the female half of that class would liberate itself from the kitchen; and because there is no other, lower class that the working class can get to come round and do its housework.
Socialised domestic work would not only remove the burden of housework from women. It would also free personal relationships from economic ties. It would end domestic dependency, and so would reduce women’s vulnerability to abuse. Women’s status would rise, as would respect for children.
Workers’ Liberty’s politics are socialist feminist. We believe that women’s liberation can only come through socialism. We do not counterpose socialism and feminism. We try to persuade feminists to become socialists as a logical conclusion of their feminism, not – as, for example, the Socialist Workers’ Party does – to be socialists instead of being feminists.
Self-organisation Yes, Separatism No
Neither do we argue against the existence of women’s organisations on the spurious grounds that it divides the workers’ movement. Women Against Pit Closures proved that the opposite is true: women’s organisation strengthened workers’ struggle. Women’s self-organisation can help make ‘mixed’ movements more accessible to women, by raising women’s demands, tackling prejudice, and building women’s confidence. It is sexism and chauvinism that divide the workers’ movement, by making unions hostile and irrelevant to women members.
We think that the workers’ movement as a whole should fight women’s oppression. But we are not going to tell women to hold their fire until the workers’ movement wakes up and champions feminism. Women’s own experiences make it inevitable that women will protest, raise demands and form organisations and a movement. This happens – and will continue to happen – regardless of socialists debating whether or not an autonomous women’s movement is a good idea. And when oppressed people form a movement to organise a fightback, it is a matter of grass-roots democracy that they should control their own campaign.
The question that socialists have to address is: when women form a movement, how should the left respond? By denouncing the women activists and telling them that their women’s campaign is divisive? Or by getting involved, helping the fightback to grow, and contributing to political discussions about how it should go forward? Workers’ Liberty tries to do the latter. We are energetic campaigners for women’s rights, not just joining but initiating action for women’s rights; and we defend women’s organisation against attacks by bureaucrats and sexists. We try to stop women’s groups being co-opted into union bureaucracy or becoming a token gesture to women members. And we insist that the union as a whole should fight for women’s rights rather than leaving it to the women’s section. Simply having a women’s group (a women’s conference, a women’s committee, an equal opportunities policy …) is not the end of the story. The point of the women’s group is to involve women, organise action and tackle sexism.
What Sort of Women’s Movement?
We need to revive the women’s movement. A new women’s movement can be free of the old ‘radical feminist’ approaches that failed and alienated many women. It could inspire young women who want to kick back against sexism but wonder if feminism is a relevant label any more.
Such a movement needs to involve women in democratic decision-making and political discussion – always remembering that the point of the talking is to fuel the action. A women’s movement stuck in ivory towers and seminar rooms is not much of a movement at all. We should organise campaigns, marches and protests: women in housing estates, shopping centres, workplaces and colleges should see and feel the presence of a women’s movement.
One Tory woman Prime Minister, and now a hundred New Labour women MPs, have taught us a bitter lesson. We can not rely on the political servants of the ruling class to deliver policies that benefit ordinary women. We can rely only on our activism and the power of the labour movement.
There are many important demands for us to fight for – equal pay; free, state-of-the-art health care that meets women’s needs; safe pregnancy, safe childbirth, safe abortion. With effective campaigning, we can win real victories for women in these and other areas. Take, for example, the demand that every woman should have free access to high-quality maternity care. With our eyes on this goal, we fight for (and we can win) longer maternity leave, more midwives, wider availability of painkillers. But the demand will not be realised in full under the present economic system. Capital will not pay for the nurseries, the doctors, the time off work, the hospital beds, the clinics, the research, technology and medication to give all women in the world real control and real choice. That can only be done under a system that deploys resources to where they are needed rather than to where they can be hoarded. The demand ‘free, high-quality maternity care’ guides us in the immediate demands that we fight for, and also points to the need to change the way that society is organised. It is a transitional demand. It links the demonstration we hold this afternoon with the world we are trying to build in the future. It helps people who become active on one issue to see how that fits into a system of oppression and to reach their own conclusions about how the world needs to change.
The issues that will inspire the greatest number of women are those that are relevant to the greatest number of women. The ‘glass ceiling’ blocks the career progress of some professional women. Lack of nurseries, cuts in healthcare, attacks on abortion rights, education cuts and safety concerns on public transport affect millions of women. Workers’ Liberty believes that a new women’s movement should be based on issues such as these – it should base itself on the needs and involvement of working-class women.
This is not just because working-class women are the most oppressed. It is not an issue of hierarchy, or of setting a sociological qualification for women to join the movement. It is simply that a movement based on working-class women will mobilise the largest number of women, and will stir up the class that has the power to change society. This focus will help prevent a repetition of past slippages into elitism, introspection and irrelevance.
Women capitalists do suffer sexism. But they are able to buy out of many aspects of oppression: free community childcare provision is not so important if you employ a nanny. If you are a woman who owns a big company, the measures that would improve life for your female employees – such as a shorter working week or a workplace nursery – will cost you money and cut your profits. A woman company director has a greater common interest with the man who sits next to her at the boardroom table than with the woman who cleans it.
Time after time, bourgeois feminists faced with a choice between class privilege and sisterhood have plumped for the former and defended the capitalist system against working-class women’s demands. Working-class women, though, have a double interest in women’s liberation through socialism! Our opponents often ask socialist feminists to choose between socialism and feminism. We don’t need to – the two go together. Working-class men do have a tension between gender and class: we would like them to put class solidarity before their marginal male privilege and support the struggles of the female half of their class.
Women and Working-class Struggle
Women change during working-class struggle. During campaigns in the late 1990s, women from groups such as Women Of The Waterfront (supporting the Liverpool dockers), the Hillingdon Hospital strikers and the Magnet Women’s Support Group became formidable public speakers and inspirational campaigners. The ruling class has to send its people to elocution lessons and finishing school to make them fit to perform in public. But our people – women like Doreen McNally, Malkiat Bilku and Shirley Winter – are more than a match for any of them. Working class women have a vast store of talent, ignored and suppressed by capitalism, that bursts out when prompted by the demands of class struggle.
One big reason why working-class men will take up a more enlightened attitude during times of struggle is that women will force them to! If you are a man’s equal on the picket line, you will not settle for being his slave at home. Another reason is that struggle needs solidarity, so it contains a powerful drive towards unity. Many lines of division weaken the workers’ movement – between men and women, but also between black and white, native and immigrant, between workers of different grades or with different skills. Our bosses try to inflame these hostilities because it serves their purpose to keep us divided. When workers are at war with the bosses, then they have to overcome sexism, racism, homophobia, and all forms of sectionalism – otherwise, they are likely to lose.
Working-class struggle also brings up some practical issues about women’s role. As disputes go on, strikers and their supporters begin to organise soup kitchens and rotas for looking after the kids. They do this because they need to maximise their use of available people and resources, and organising domestic tasks collectively is a more efficient way to do things. If that is the case during a strike, then why not for society in general?
In struggle, working people learn lessons beyond the immediate issue in dispute. When police attack your demonstration, you learn something about the role of the state. When the newspapers denounce and demonise your strike, then you start to doubt their words on other issues too. To make a new world, working-class people need to see through the system and question their acceptance of the status quo. They need to break the ideological ties that bind them to their rulers. This includes rethinking all our received wisdoms about women and men, masculinity and femininity.
Overthrowing capitalism will involve not just changing the mode of production, but changing ourselves as human beings. After such a tremendous act of self-education and enlightenment, the working class in power will almost certainly do away with reactionary, sexist laws on matters such as divorce or abortion. But just to make sure, we will keep a women’s movement going, and we will shine a liberating light into any remaining dark corners of sexism!
Socialism and liberation can not be bestowed from on high by a benevolent dictatorship. It has to be created ‘from below’, through grass-roots activism, because people have to go through the experience of making a new world in order to be able to run it. It is a contradiction in terms for socialism – democratic government by the huge majority – to be handed down by a small minority.
The ruling class fights the class struggle too. It exploits us economically, and it rules us politically and ideologically. So we have to fight back on all these three fronts. We fight for a better deal for women at work. We also demand political changes, such as better healthcare for women or laws against sexist discrimination. And we take up the ideological battle, arguing against right-wing theories about women’s role or about private property.
Workers’ Liberty believes that one of our roles is to link these three aspects: the economic, the political and the ideological. Without this, workplace struggles can leave right-wing ideologies unchallenged; or theoretical arguments can lose touch with everyday life; or campaigns can fail to have a political impact. Feminists have often accused socialists of ‘economism’, focusing only on workplace struggles; socialists have countered that feminists ignore economic realities in favour of abstractions. An effective socialist feminism would do neither.
Why the Workers’ Movement?
But the workers’ movement is not about to rise up and make a revolution! The trade union leaders don’t even stick up for their own members, let alone do anything for women’s rights.
Maybe so, but feminists can not ignore the labour movement, because working-class women can not opt out of class struggle. Working women need trade unions as their first line of defence against the boss. And the workers’ movement can go beyond workplace issues. Working people’s interests are not just wages and conditions, but also the inseparable whole of people’s lives – schools, hospitals, care for the elderly and the unemployed, a clean, safe environment. Trade unions have been consistent supporters of abortion rights because it was working-class women who suffered in the backstreets when abortion was illegal. Whatever criticisms we make, it is worth remembering that you will get a much better response raising women’s rights in a trade union meeting than you will in your local Conservative Club.
In any case, women are half the workers’ movement, and we are entitled to demand that it fights for our rights. Being involved in the labour movement can be unpleasant and frustrating (it can also be enjoyable and inspiring), but feminists have to do it. Some feminists may fear that women’s issues will be pushed aside if we entangle ourselves with the labour movement. But by doing so, we can involve many more women as active campaigners for feminist goals. And it is down to us – to socialist feminists, to a group like the Workers’ Liberty – to ensure that the profile of women’s liberation is kept up.
Women workers can find trade unions unwelcoming, even hostile. It can be difficult to get to union meetings because of their timing or venue, and impossible if there is no help with childcare. Even if you make the meeting, you could find them tolerating sexist comments and referring to the workforce as ‘the blokes’.
Male trade unionists often ignore issues important to women – such as sexual harassment or pregnancy – or snigger, or dismiss them as special pleading or ‘PC gone mad’. They frequently write off women’s issues as a minority interest, certainly not a bread-and-butter union concern. But for women workers, these issues are not an optional extra. Our unions should take them up not to prove how ‘right on’ they are, but because women members are entitled to union support.
Men do not do themselves any favours by shrugging off their female colleagues’ concerns. This is not a competition for attention from the union, but a plea for strength through unity. After all, a safer workplace for pregnant workers is a safer workplace for all workers. A nursery can be used by fathers as well as by mothers. Better rights for part-time workers, a higher minimum wage, paid time off for family emergencies … all these things would benefit women especially, but men as well.
The problems in our trade unions are not just problems for women: unions fail not just their female members but their male members too. Several unions – including NUT (teachers) and USDAW (shopworkers) – have a female-dominated membership but a male-dominated leadership. This reflects not just sexism, but bureaucratisation. Union bureaucrats sit on top of the workers’ movement holding it down like a paperweight. Many of them have not taught in a classroom or served in a shop for years. They have comfortable offices, comfortable salaries and comfortable seats at the negotiating table. They are horrified by the thought of losing their privileges or being forced by the members to put up a fight. They invoke appeals to ‘unity’ and ‘loyalty’ to stifle women’s concerns and to crush independent rank-and-file initiative.
Transform the Labour Movement
Our hopes of changing the labour movement lie with its rank-and-file members. We should concentrate our efforts not on winning paper policies and rule changes, but on winning the hearts and minds of working people. Not all working men have sexist attitudes: the general trend (brought on by the increase in women’s employment and by the success of feminist protests) is for men to have a more enlightened attitude than in the past, to treat women more as equals. Workers’ Liberty publishes workplace bulletins, such as Tubeworker and Postalworker: written by and for workers in that particular industry or workplace. These bulletins argue against sexism, and encourage workers to take up the fight against exploitation.
We want ordinary union members to get organised and to break the suffocating grip of the union officials. We do not just want more women in top union jobs, or a gender-balanced bureaucracy! We want members to elect union officers; we want officials to be genuinely representative of and accountable to their members. We do not want well-paid union officers (mis)representing low-paid women workers. We want the unions to champion the fight for women’s liberation. Unions should be recruiting women members and organising active campaigns and militant industrial struggles. But our union leaders are not championing much at all at the moment! They accept crumbs from New Labour and raise hardly a whimper to ask for more.
Take the 1999 Employment Relations Act, originally – and inaccurately – entitled ‘Fairness at Work’. Blair bent over backwards to appease the CBI over new regulations for union recognition. The Act left virtually the entire set-up of Tory anti-trade union laws in place, keeping effective trade unionism illegal. It introduced parental leave which is unpaid and therefore useless to low-paid workers and punitive to others. Yet the union leaders praise the Act at length and add only a whispered postscript that perhaps we could have a little more. When single parents rebelled against benefit cuts and some MPs supported them, the trade union leaders were conspicuous by their silence.
Our big task now is to break the unions from Blairism. That would be one huge step in making them fight for the interests of women workers; in making their gestures to women’s rights mean something in practice not just on paper. Blair’s Government rules on behalf of the capitalists. We need a government that rules on behalf of, and is thoroughly accountable to, working-class women and men: a workers’ government. Such a government would call a halt to the cuts, privatisations and anti-union laws. It would rebuild the NHS, build nurseries and homes, restore public services, bring back student grants, increase the minimum wage and cut working hours. It would sweep away discriminatory laws.
Until then, we need to step up our campaigning for women’s rights; to keep tackling sexism in the unions. We need to change the labour movement and refound the women’s movement, learning from the successes and failures of the past to build better movements for the future. Socialist feminism is needed now as much as ever. Join Workers’ Liberty in fighting for a socialist feminist future.