Are women still oppressed? If so why, and what can we do about
it? Over the past few years women have been deluged with popular
books the mass media and government ideology telling us what we want
and how we can get it: what our problems are and how we can solve
The trouble is that most of this advice is conflicting and
contradictory, and the 'solutions' nothing of the sort. As a result
most women remain confused with none of their questions
The Socialist Party has written extensively about the situation
facing women in general and working class women in particular. This
selection of articles brings together some of those writings. It
offers a socialist explanation and analysis of women's oppression
and most importantly, a strategy for ending it. It shows why the
idea that women can achieve liberation under capitalism is an
illusion and why only a socialist society can lay the basis for real
In 1993 US feminist, Naomi Wolf, wrote about a 'genderquake'
taking place in society (See 'Has there been a
genderquake?'). She and other 'post feminist' writers
popularised the idea that equality for women is just around the
corner. The legal barriers to women's liberation have been removed,
More women are in positions of power and authority. What's needed
now is for women to stop seeing themselves as victims and reach out
to grasp the opportunities which exist for them. With a bit of
effort, determination and the right attitude, we can have it all;
this message has been reinforced through popular culture and the
'girl power' phenomenon.
For a minority of right wing reactionaries things have in fact
gone 'too far' (See 'The trouble with men?').
Women and feminism are to blame for divorce, family breakdown and
the declining status of men within the family and society generally.
Men are now becoming the victims of a strengthening 'matriarchy',
they argue. The only solution to this growing crisis is to 'turn
back the clock' to the old social order when male and female roles
were clearly defined and obeyed.
'Old' and 'new' feminism
'OId' feminist Germaine Greer views any changes in women's
position in society and in the relation between men and women as
marginal or superficial (See 'New feminism versus
old'). Nothing has really changed, she argues, in response to
the post-feminists. Men still have all the power and women remain
victims of the patriarchy. The struggle is still one of women
Feminists Ros Coward and Susan Faludi however, question and
reject a 'simplistic' analysis of changing gender relations (See 'The
trouble with men?) The situation, they argue, is much more
complex. Some men have less power than others. There is a crisis of
masculinity for which wider society is to blame rather than women.
Somehow or other women and men need to work together for a more
Journalist Natasha Walter wants to see a 'new' feminism, which
embraces anyone who wants equality (See 'New
Britain, new feminism'). The personal and the political should
be separated, she writes. Together we can achieve equality within
the prevailing system. For other 'post feminists' however, the
differences between women are so great that collective struggle is
no longer on the political agenda (See 'Tomorrow's
New Labour ideology has echoed and reinforced the notion that for
women the struggle is now one of individual self Improvement. By
emphasising 'rights and responsibilities' the blame for social
problems is deflected away from the structural inequalities of
capitalist society towards the family and the individual. (See 'New
Labour's family values'). The market can solve the problems
women face, they argue, but only if women themselves take
responsibility for their own situation.
The articles grouped together in Part 1 take up all of these
arguments and look at the real situation facing women in capitalist
society today. They acknowledge that some positive changes have
taken place in the economic and social position of some women over
the past few years. But they also show why capitalism places
limitations on how far those changes can go and why a struggle for a
socialist society is absolutely necessary.
Marxism and the liberation of women
There have undoubtedly been significant changes in the
attitude and position of women in society over the last few decades.
However, we don't have to look too far to realise that inequality,
discrimination and oppression continue to exist.
At work women earn on average 20% less than men, are concentrated
in low paid service sector jobs and are under-represented at higher
levels of the workplace. In most homes women bear the main
responsibility for childcare and household tasks regardless of the
number of hours they work. Many women experience violence and abuse
in and outside the family. A culture of oppression still exists
generally in society.
Explanations as to why women continue to experience inequality
and oppression are many and varied. Different explanations lead
inevitably to different strategies and solutions. For some
(discussed in the previous Section A: Women today
- the real situation) it is primary a question of equal
opportunity. Emphasis is placed on changing the law, education and
attitudes in order to 'level the playing field' to allow women to
become equal with men. Such equality, it is argued, can be achieved
within the existing economic and social system.
Biology has been used to both justify and explain women's
oppression. Early scientific explanations, which portray women's
inferior position as 'natural', focused on the size of women's
brains or their physical weaknesses. Today such arguments can appear
ridiculous. Yet quite recently socio-biology and evolutionary
psychology have tried to present a genetic explanation for universal
male behaviour including not doing the ironing, promiscuity and
rape. Why are women oppressed? looks at some
of these arguments. It also addresses the idea held by some radical
feminists that women's reproductive role holds the key to
understanding why they are oppressed.
Many theories of women's oppression stress the need for a
fundamental change in the way that society is structured and
organised. However, there is not necessarily agreement on what kind
of change in needed nor how it can be achieved. Debates have centred
on what is 'primary', class society or male power and dominance
(patriarchy), and the relationship between class and gender
Why are women oppressed? looks at all of
these issues. It presents a Marxist analysis of the origins of
women's oppression, which is rooted in the development of private
property, class society and the family as an economic and social
institution. It also gives a glimpse of how socialism could
transform the lives of women, economically socially and culturally.
Women fighting back
Throughout history women have fought back against inequality,
discrimination, injustice and oppression in all its forms. Too often
however, their participation in struggle has been hidden or
disregarded. While this has been the case for women generally the
voices and actions of working class women have been especially
ignored and forgotten.
Working class women have surmounted enormous obstacles to take
their place historic struggles for change. Burdened down with family
and household responsibilities, super-exploited in difficult working
conditions, they have, in the words of one working class suffragist,
had to fight with 'one hand tied behind' them.
They have also had to contend with an ideology which has
traditionally assigned them specific roles and behaviour within
class society. At times these ideas have been echoed by leaders of
their own class organisations such as trade unions and political
parties. Nevertheless, working class women have demonstrated time
after time that they are not backward and can become organised. Once
mobilised they have been amongst the most determined fighters for
change. Through struggle they have challenged backward attitudes in
society and transformed their own lives.
Working class women have moved into struggle in many different
ways, mobilising around issues, which affect them both as workers
and as women. In doing so they have forged alliances with working
class men and with women of different classes.
'Women, rebellion and revolution' looks at the struggle by women
for the vote. It covers many themes which run like a thread through
the history of women's struggles, These include differences over
ideology and methods of struggle which can emerge in cross class
alliances, including the relationship between women s movements and
working class organisations involving men.
A new society
The Russian revolution was one of the most important events in
history. Capitalism and feudal relations were ended, and men and
women set about building a new society, which would lay the basis
for eradicating inequalities of power and wealth. 'Women and the
family after the Wall' looks at the aims of the revolution as they
related specifically to women, and explains why these were betrayed.
It shows what effect the restoration of capitalism has had on women
in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and explains why only
a new, democratic, socialist revolution can solve the problems women
This section highlights the life, times and ideas of women who
have played a significant role in the struggle by working class
people to change society.