Women in the Present

The second section of the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet ‘Comrades and Sisters’ looks at women’s situation today.

Domestic work, (badly-)paid work, the vast gulf between working-class and ruling-class women. Women in communities, and women in the welfare state. Religious fundamentalism, the state, New Labour and family values.

How can Marxism explain women’s oppression?

Housework is Horrid

A woman’s work is never done. And despite more women having jobs, housework is still a woman’s work. A 1999 survey (Home-to-Home) reported that 87% of women change the beds, compared with only 4% of men; 67% of women and just 9% of men do the ironing; and only 5% of men do the laundry compared with 65% of women. Housework sucks: a daily and weekly round of cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing and balancing the household books – and as soon as it is done, it has to be done again.

Some domestic work is not all bad. Raising children is a labour of love: it can have great pleasures and rewards, but it is still hard work. And prevailing attitudes still think of children as a private indulgence rather than an asset to the whole community. Moreover, all this hard work earns you no salary. Housework really is a thankless – and a wageless – task. Because it does not produce goods for sale, it is hardly considered real work at all.

Domestic work is isolated work. This makes it even more mind-numbing, but also makes it hopelessly inefficient. If we were not so used to it, we would think it absurd that all this work is carried out in millions of separate, miniature, domestic workshops. Because it is individual, it does not benefit from economies of scale or co-operation. We would not produce newspapers, cars or education like this: so why cooking and laundry?

Lack of affordable childcare stops many women working full-time. Plenty of evidence suggests that nursery care is good for children. Yet working-class mothers (rarely fathers) are castigated as neglectful and selfish if they demand free community or workplace nurseries. (Startling hypocrisy from the ruling class, who have been despatching their offspring to boarding schools for generations.) It suits individual employers not to have to dip into their profits to fund nurseries. So many women conscript grannies, aunts, neighbours and friends to help them juggle the demands of children and work. Or they work part-time when they would rather work full-time (needing full-time wages, rather than wanting the dubious joys of spending extensive hours at work instead of with their kids).

Housework and paid work comprise women’s ‘double burden’. As more women work for wages, there is no evidence that hours spent on housework are falling (and the number of hours in a day remains static at 24). But there is more to it than this. The allocation of housework to women is the foundation on which the many forms of sexism are built. Housework poisons women’s lives even if you don’t have kids, if you don’t live in a traditional family set-up, even if you don’t actually do much housework.

At work, a sexual division of labour sees women predominate in jobs modelled on our domestic role. Women and men are even assigned personal characteristics according to our supposed role in the family. Woman (housewife) is – or ought to be – unambitious, passive, dim, and satisfied (even obsessed) with cleanliness, comfort and a secure relationship. Man (breadwinner) ought to be ambitious, adventurous, tough, skilful, with his place in public life.

The integration of domestic work with gender division in waged work ties women’s oppression firmly into capitalism. The two do not simply coexist independently of each other, any more than a car and its engine coexist independently.

Women at Work

Since the Second World War, women’s employment has increased hugely. By 1995, 71% of women aged 16-59 had or were looking for a job; 48% of all employees were women. Women are concentrated in certain jobs, including teaching, cleaning and nursing, which reflect the unpaid work we do at home, and so have low status and low pay. It is valuable work which is undervalued.

Women’s pay still falls well short of men’s. There are various ways of measuring the ‘pay gap’: by one measure – full-time workers’ weekly wages – women earn 72% of men’s earnings. One reason why equal pay laws have been unable to eliminate this inequality is that women and men do not do the same jobs. Work done by women is rated lower.

Meanwhile, those women who work in ‘men’s jobs’ also suffer from sexist stereotypes. If you don’t like sexist comments or even harassment, then you shouldn’t be doing a bloke’s job; and if you complain about unsafe working conditions, then you are a typical moaning woman and not tough enough for the work.

By Autumn 1995, 44.5% of employed women worked part-time in their main job. These women suffer even greater disadvantage, earning an average 58% of full-time male workers’ hourly pay. The Policy Studies Institute found that in 1996, only 40% of part-time workers got the same rate of pay and benefits as full-time workers doing the same job for the same firm. Women spend an average 38 hours per week in paid work, men 42 hours. Men’s long hours further consolidate women’s domestic burden – he is earning the money, she is looking after the house, he is too tired. It is a bizarre economic system that makes some people work exhausting and anti-social hours whilst leaving others unable to get work at all.

Over the last two decades, employers and governments have fought a bitter offensive against working people, driving down our conditions to increase their profits. Many of their policies have had a particularly harsh effect on women. By 1995, 807,000 women worked in temporary jobs. Women form the majority of temporary workers. Most of these are not jobs which are by their nature temporary (such as fruit picking or shopping centre Santa Claus), but fixed-term contracts which employers deliberately use to avoid giving rights and security to workers.

Privatisation – in its many forms – has had a terrible effect on women workers. Compulsory competitive tendering destroyed 22% of women’s jobs (and 12% of men’s jobs) in local government. Women earn an average 80% of men’s earnings in the public sector, but that figure drops to 67% in the private sector.

Women also lose out from schemes such as Performance-Related Pay, as our domestic responsibilities mean that we often can not put in the extra hours required to win bonuses. Similarly with other additional payments, such as overtime and shift enhancements: men receive an average £48 per week, women £17. Women’s ‘career breaks’ – years spent away from paid work looking after kids or sick relatives – mean that we miss out on the benefits of long service and seniority, on promotion and training. The political move away from universal state pensions to private or occupational pensions is a disaster for women.

The organisation of work does not take account of women’s particular needs, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding or periods. Women do not have the legal right to full pay during Maternity Leave. Fathers, mothers and children all lose out because of the lack of meaningful Paternity Leave. The New Labour Government’s much-lauded new rights to (unpaid) parental leave are useless to workers who can not afford to lose wages. Workplace nurseries are still a rare species.

Glossy magazines ask whether women can have it all. Meaning: can we have kids and a job? Implication: toiling at home and at work is the pinnacle of a woman’s achievement.

(Figures in this section from Women On The Edge, TUC 1996; and Equal Opportunities Commission 1996)

Women’s Work Around the World

Women make up half of the world’s population, perform two thirds of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s income and own less than one hundredth of the world’s property. These are much-quoted figures, reported by the United Nations in 1980 and practically unchanged since.

200 million women work for subcontractors, and have no legal right to support during sickness or injury. Free Trade Zones have set up in over fifty ‘third world’ countries, to encourage multi-national companies to build factories. The factories come because workers are cheap to hire and have no legal rights; trade unions are banned. More than 80% of workers in Free Trade Zones are women.

Bosses often tell workers in Britain that we have to moderate our demands or risk losing our jobs to the ‘tiger economies’ in Asian countries. These economies extract profit from women through intense exploitation. Asian Labour Update described the case of Preda Pholsawad, a typical woman worker in Thailand in 1997. She worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, for $200 a month. She ate and slept in the workshops where she made shirts. Then she would be laid off whenever she was ‘surplus to requirements’. When these economies hit crisis in 1997, women workers suffered the most. Millions have been left without work and without any form of social support. Thousands have turned to prostitution.

Two Worlds of Women

A gulf separates women at the top of the world of work from women at the bottom, and these two poles are moving further apart. In 1985, Ruth Milkman studied trends in women’s employment in the USA, and concluded that

“at one pole is the ‘feminization of poverty’ and at the other, the elite corps of professional and managerial women who, while facing their own version of gender inequality, are still ‘more equal than others’.”

In 1997, Brenda Barnes, president and chief executive of Coca-Cola’s North American operation, gave up her post to concentrate on being a mother. On $2 million per year she could afford to. Or she could afford to hire a nanny or pay for nursery care. Or she could afford to reduce her working hours. She could afford the choice.

Meanwhile, the majority of poor people in the UK are women, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Some women’s pay is so low that it falls below the lower earnings limit for National Insurance contributions; they do not acquire rights to contributory benefits, which include Maternity Allowance and part of the Job Seekers Allowance.

Community Solidarity

For many women, issues in the working-class communities where we live are crucial. Tory, and now New Labour, Governments have tried to consign public housing to history. Many women and families struggle in inadequate housing on dangerous estates with little community support. Many women fear crime and violence. Although over-hyped by the media, this is a genuine fear, as is many mothers’ fear for their children’s future.

Governments and Councils have allowed housing estates to rot, closed down youth clubs and starved schools of funding. Then, when some youngsters get into trouble, politicians have the bare-faced cheek to blame parents – usually meaning mothers. Projects which help to re-integrate truanting children into education have had their public funding cut, but in 2002, a mother who allowed her daughters to bunk off school was sent to prison, presumably at public expense.

The starting point for opposing this hypocrisy and improving our living conditions is community solidarity. In the past, women have led successful tenants’ uprisings against rip-off landlords. Socialists and feminists should take part in community struggles, and we should bring these struggles into the mainstream of the working-class movement.

Women & the Welfare State

Women need the welfare state. Women who can not afford private schools, private health and private pensions need it most. We need it because so many women work in the welfare state; because we need the services it provides; and because when the welfare state is not there, women pick up the pieces.

In 1989, carers – most of whom are women – saved the state between £15 billion and £24 billion per year. The Tories’ ‘Care in the Community’ policy closed down the hateful, repressive ‘lunatic asylums’, but replaced them with nothing: no day care or support facilities, just an assumption that female relatives would care for people with mental health problems. New Labour has threatened charges for seeing your GP: the return of the ‘doctor’s pot’.

The welfare state has its limitations. In some ways, it reinforces the ideology of ‘a woman’s role’ – for example in the way that the benefits system judges men, women and families. The National Health Service treats illnesses but does not tackle the poverty and inequality that causes so much poor health. And, so long as class society remains intact, what the ruling class has conceded, the ruling class can take away.

Nevertheless, the welfare state is a crucial, civilising institution. Writing about a law to restrict working hours in the middle of the last century, Karl Marx advocated the ‘political economy of the working class’. He argued that we should fight for legal and political advances that subordinate the demands of private profit to the needs of people. That is what the welfare state represents: people before profit, need not greed. That is why Workers’ Liberty initiated the Welfare State Network, why we try to build broad, united labour movement campaigns to defend the welfare state.

The welfare state can give practical meaning to abstract rights. Free contraception gives women more freedom and control in our lives. Since 1967, women in Britain have had the legal right to an abortion (albeit subject to restrictions), but whether women can actually exercise this right depends on the availability of NHS abortion in their area. Without the welfare state, the ‘right to choose’ becomes a ‘right to buy’, provided you have the money.

Worldwide, 1,600 women die in pregnancy and childbirth every day; more than a million children lose their mother to pregnancy-related death every year. In Somalia, only 2% of births have a skilled attendant, and one in seven women die in childbirth. UNICEF reckons that basic healthcare, costing only £1.60 per person, could prevent most maternal deaths. Bill Gates’ personal fortune could fund the whole lot.

Religious Fundamentalism

Women die from botched illegal abortions in numbers we can not know exactly. Marie Stopes International puts the 1997 figure at 70,000. Yet whilst safe, legal, free abortion could save women’s lives, Christian fundamentalists in the USA fight to make abortion illegal, putting more women’s lives at risk. Anti-abortion fanatics firebomb clinics and murder gynaecologists and surgeons.

Religious practice and religious societies – Christian, Islamic or other – are not all the same. At different times or in different places, they may be more or less liberal or repressive. But religious fundamentalism is profoundly anti-woman. It is also anti-working class and anti-democratic, and can be anti-semitic.

In Afghanistan, the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban ruled the capital city Kabul since September 1996. The regmie practically imprisoned women in the home, not allowing them to step outside the front door unless accompanied by a close male relative. The Taliban did not allow women to wear make-up, laugh loudly, wear shoes that produce sound, ride bicycles, play sports, wear bright clothes, use public baths, travel on the same bus as a man, be photographed or filmed, listen to music or watch television. Women were banned from work, girls expelled from schools and universities. Women could not receive treatment from male doctors, but women were not allowed to be doctors, so women died.

For five years, the British and US governments chose to ignore the Taliban’s terrible repression of Afghan women. Then, the Islamic fundamentalist Al-Qaeda network carried out barbaric, murderous attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, and the USA – with the support of Britain and others – launched a war of revenge. Although it claimed to be fighting for freedom and democracy, the war actually made Afghan women’s lives even worse.

Both US/British imperialism and Islamic terror are the enemies of working-class people. Workers’ Liberty opposes both, as do other socialist groups such as the Labour Party Pakistan. However, some groups on the left argued that because the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were fighting against imperialism, they were somehow ‘on our side’. Nonsense. the fundamentalists oppose capitalism and imperialism only because they want something even worse. The oppose the good things about modern capitalist society, not the bad things. Whatever rights we have achieved, they want to crush without mercy. They are probably the most reactionary movement on Earth.

Some feminists have argued that it is not our place as ‘Western feminists’ to judge and condemn Islamic societies, because their laws and practices are a matter of culture and we should respect cultural difference. We disagree.

Taslima Nasrin, who has campaigned courageously under the shadow of death threats from Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, explained to Workers’ Liberty in 1994:

“Women continue to be persecuted in the name of tradition. One thing that feminists in Western countries should learn is to be critical about the traditions of Asia and Africa. I have heard Western women saying we should follow our traditions. Well, I like my food and I like my dress. These are the things I will keep. But why should I accept the tradition of oppression too? Why should I accept a society that puts women in veils and allows men to dominate them? In parts of Africa there is the ‘tradition’ of mutilating female genitalia. Is this tradition? Call it by its proper name: it is torture! Freedom is not just for you, it is for me too.”

Fundamentalism has grown when the workers’ movement has been overwhelmed by religious movements (as in Iran) or when the cries of the religious zealots drown out the voice of socialists. When people look around them and see suffering, poverty, inequality and violence, they want answers. Fundamentalists blame democracy and secular society, and urge people to turn to religion. We have to offer alternative answers, explaining how capitalism causes human misery, and urging people to take up the fight for socialism. Human action can make a better future: we do not have to look to a god for consolation.

Where a particular church or creed has become the official religion of a state, it has been able to exert direct legal power. In Ireland and Italy, the Catholic Church has successfully obstructed moves to liberalise divorce and abortion law. In Saudi Arabia, Islamic law forbids women to drive cars. Religious courts administer religious law (Sharia) and state-supported gangs enforce repressive religious codes.

Women and the State

Religion is not the only cause of state violence towards women. Many states torture political opponents. Britain has used the degrading practice of strip-searching. Immigration officials have used such brutality in carrying out deportations that they have injured many women, and have even killed (for example, Joy Gardner).

Britain’s immigration laws are sexist. They can force women to ‘choose’ between staying in a violent relationship or expulsion from the country. They forcibly separate women from friends, partners and children. Laws restricting immigration are by their very nature racist. They also help to maintain racist attitudes and encourage racist violence. Immigration laws give cover to racists whose bigotry is no longer considered acceptable if explicitly directed at black people. The baying hordes at Conservative Party conference cheer Ann Widdecombe when she denounces Jack Straw for being ‘soft’ on immigration: when she says ‘immigrants’, she means – and they hear – ‘blacks’. When Britain set the rules for Hong Kong Chinese eligibility for British citizenship, the criterion was money. If you had more than a certain amount, you were in. There was one law for the rich, another for the poor.

Women, too, meet double standards in the justice system. Judges often excuse rapists if their victim wore a short skirt or walked out alone at night; but they deal harshly with women who kill men who have violently abused them for years. Only a decade ago, husbands who raped their wives were not even committing a crime.

But stiffer sentences for rapists would not solve the problem. This call reduces the issue of violence against women to individual psychopathology. In other words, it implies that there are some men who are incurably evil, and that nothing can be done with them except to lock them up and throw away the key. It blames only individuals, and turns our attention away from the social issues that encourage and support violence. There are many demands that we should make: sack the sexist judges; introduce procedures to make a woman’s testimony in court less of an ordeal. But it is a mistake to advocate more power to the state, which will not deliver justice to women.

Judges are mostly old, white men who went to public school. In court, they preach and practise the values of their class. A single mother who steals from a supermarket to feed her kids is a criminal and will be locked away. The same supermarket paying poverty wages to teenage girls working at its checkouts is committing no offence. In the miners’ and the Grunwick strikes, and previously in the suffragettes’ battles, the police spelt out in blood which class they serve. The police and judiciary are parts of a permanent state machinery which is unaccountable and which works to defend the status quo, to defend the power, privileges and property of the ruling class.

New Labour

One-nation government is nonsense. Britain is not ‘one nation’, it is a country divided by class. The government can not serve employers and serve workers, because bosses and workers have different interests. The government has to choose which class it will serve. New Labour is a party set up by the working class which has chosen to govern for the capitalist class.

While a few wealthy business women may benefit, the large majority of women lose out. New Labour allowed employers to tell them to set the minimum wage at a painfully low level, missing the chance to lift millions of women workers out of poverty. It would sooner take money from struggling single parents than from fat cats’ profits. New Labour has declared its support for the traditional family model. The Government will make teachers tell seven-year-old children that Marriage Is Best, and will punish people who stray from that ‘ideal’.

Family values

Politicians often attack women’s rights in the name of ‘family values’. Nursery care, sex education, homosexuality, divorce, contraception and rights for unmarried couples have all provoked the anger of ‘pro-family’ campaigners. Governments pursue policies that give official approval to one form of family above all others. Those same governments pursue other policies – for example, on immigration, working hours or unemployment – that tear families apart.

For many women, the family does not live up to its PR. It may conceal domestic violence: in the USA, women are beaten at the rate of one every 18 minutes. It may be like a prison, preventing a woman from chasing her dreams and fulfilling her potential. Or it may provide the love, warmth, intimacy, support, companionship and care that are difficult to find elsewhere in an alienating society. Or the family may combine elements of all of this.

But the family set-up is the natural way to live, isn’t it? Actually, people have lived in different ways at different times and in different places, which implies that we could live differently in the future. Feminist writer Juliet Mitchell explains that

“Like woman herself, the family appears as a natural object, but it is actually a cultural creation. There is nothing inevitable about the form or role of the family any more than there is about the character or role of women. It is the function of ideology to present these given social types as aspects of nature itself.”

The family – and women’s work within it – is a social form that plays a social role. The ‘housewife’ is usually portrayed as a consumer, but she is in fact a producer, or, more accurately, a reproducer. Her work reproduces the workforce both day by day, feeding, clothing and refreshing workers (including herself if she also has a paid job); and generation to generation, bearing and raising the workers of the future. A housewife and mother may not produce goods, but she does produce workers who produce goods. The family also helps to reproduce the dominant ideology. The structure of the family teaches children deference to authority, and kids learn through their family how society works and that the way it works is normal.

Of course, we feed and clothe ourselves for our own benefit, as well as for the bosses’! So we get on with it, and employers do not even have to pay out for the service women provide for them, renewing their workforce and keeping their system running and their profits coming in. But housework is not just a service to capitalism, it is also a service to men (and to children). Men – including working-class men – enjoy some benefit from the oppression of women. Working-class men, though, will benefit much more from women’s liberation.

Marxism and Women’s Oppression

Looking at how women fit into the scheme of production under capitalism illuminates our understanding of why and how women are oppressed. Feminist writer Lynne Segal praises one key feature of Marxism, its materialism:

“it seems crucial to insist, against so many varieties of idealism … that all social relations and social practices are connected with the specific material and concrete world in which they occur, and are affected by changes in that world. They are not simply a product of the evil thoughts or tender sentiments of men or of women.”

Marxism also insists that we try to understand oppression by examining how it has developed historically. We can not get an accurate analysis of women’s oppression simply by taking a snapshot of our situation today. What we can see, from both the past and the present, is that capitalism keeps the private and public spheres sharply separated, and assigns women a role which underpins both our economic disadvantage and the range of other ways in which women experience oppression. It is an economic system that will pay huge salaries to company directors but will not pay for maternity services that could save women’s lives. Women work for the capitalist system both at home and in paid employment, but the fruits of our labours are hoarded by the rich rather than used for the common good.

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