Has there been a 'genderquake'?
"Is the future female?" This was the question posed In an edition
of Panorama, which looked at developments in the
educational achievements of girls and boys. Girls, it
outperform boys at GCSE, A level and university, to the extent
that women graduates are now more likely to find a job than men
graduates. The disparity is becoming so great that some teachers
are demanding that boys be given special attention, to close the
Demos, an 'alternative think tank', says that we are in the
middle of an historic change in relations between men and women. A
'genderquake' is taking place, fundamentally shifting power from
men to women in the 'post equality' generation. In similar vein
Labour's Social Justice Commission (a 'think tank' set up to look
at the future of the welfare state) refers to a 'revolution' in
women's life chances.
In her latest book, Fire with Fire, US feminist Naomi
Wolf urges women to use capitalism for the next stage of their
empowerment. "Men are seeing their empire crumble", she
writes. "Their world is indeed dying. We (must) understand
that we are in the final throes of civil war of gender fairness,
in which conditions have shifted to put much of the attainment of
equality in women's own grasp." Are they right? After
centuries of discrimination and oppression, after years of being
treated as second class citizens, are women on the verge of
gaining real equality?
The 'genderquake' idea is based mainly on the fact that most
new jobs are going to women, who now make up half the work-force.
This isn't because women are taking men's jobs, but because of the
changes in the economy with a shift from manufacturing to service
industries. In 1979, 34% of workers were employed in manufacturing
industry; by 1993 only 20% were. In the same period the proportion
in service sector jobs rose from 58% to 67%. Because of years of
discrimination, manufacturing jobs have been the preserve of men.
They have been the car workers, aerospace workers and engineers.
Women on the other hand have been and still are the secretaries,
clerical workers, shop assistants, cleaners and caters. It is
precisely in these areas of 'women's work' that a growth in jobs
has been taking place.
Women going out to work is not a new phenomenon, but the
proportion of women in work is greater than at any time in the
history of capitalism and has an enormous effects on their
attitudes. A Herriot Watt University survey of women currently not
in work found that 75% disagreed that 'men should be the family
wage-earner while women tend the hearth'. Three quarters also said
they would work if child-care facilities were better. The same
survey found that women who stay at home are more prone to
illnesses such as anxiety, depression, stomach aches, influenza
and insomnia. Psychologists who carried out the survey said that
the consequences of staying at home can be so detrimental to
health and well-being that they are akin to 'institutionalised
For most women, breaking out of the isolation of the home has
been a positive experience - and not just in terms of physical and
mental health. Capitalism has been organised around the idea that
women and children are economically dependent on a male
breadwinner within the family. Even today the social security
system assumes that if a woman is not working then she must be
being kept financially by her partner and therefore not eligible
for benefit in her own right. The Child Support Act goes further,
to force single parents who are not in work to be economically
dependent on men.
Going out to work has allowed women a degree of economic
independence, which in turn has given them confidence to challenge
traditional ideas about their role in society. One woman explained
on a TV talk show about marital rape, how for years her husband
had consistently raped her. It was not until she got a part-time
job, working alongside other women, that she realised she did not
have to put up with the sexual abuse and could do something about
In the late 1960s and early 1970s women workers collectively
fought to win important milestones in the struggle for women's
rights and equality such as the Equal Pay Act. As these struggles
were being waged, researcher Sue Sharpe carried out a
survey of girIs aged 14-15, asking them for their views and
expectations about women's rights.
In 1991 she decided to update he
findings. Most young girls now take for granted their right to the
basic levels of equality and independence that women were
struggling for in the 1970s. They were more assertive and
convinced that they were as capable as boys in every respect.
they looked to the future, work and a career were central to their
aspirations and they expected to be financially independent of
men. However she concludes that while girls and their aspirations
have significantly changed, the unequal conditions of women's work
and family life have not.
"It is ironic" she
writes," that many of the advances that have been gradually
forged are being eroded at exactly the same time as women's
equality appears to exist in the eyes of girls growing up".
Women have become more confident but expectations come into
conflict with economic reality.
The economic conditions of the 1990s are very different from
the 1970s, with the capitalists attacking jobs, wages and
conditions in the workplace and slashing public services that
working class women, in particular, have benefited from.
example, attitudes towards domestic violence have changed, so much
so that even the House of Lords had to catch up by ruling that
rape within marriage is illegal. Yet as domestic violence is being
taken more seriously, cuts in public spending mean that funding
for refuges is under threat and council houses are not being
built, making it more difficult for women to leave violent
Going out to work has clearly made women more confident and
less tolerant of discrimination, but this has not in self brought
equality. For some better off women the "genderquake" has
meant opportunities to break into higher skilled, higher paid jobs
previously dominated by men. Women in their early 30's now earn
90% of the wages of men of the same age, although once they start
to have children the gap begins to widen again. However, for the
vast majority of working class women equality is not,
unfortunately, just around the corner.
Of the million women who will enter the workforce by the year
2000, most will be married with children, and the overwhelming
majority employed in part-time jobs. Half of women work part-time
and 90% of part-timers are women.
The restructuring of British
capitalism has not only entailed a shift from manufacturing to
Service industries but also from full-time to part-time jobs. The
capitalists portray this trend as a mutually beneficial one, giving
women the flexibility to combine work and domestic
responsibilities, and bosses the flexibility of employing labour to
suit the changing needs of the market. Women prefer to work
part-time they argue, allowing them economic independence and the
opportunity to increase family income.
It is true that because they have the main responsibility for
looking after children and doing the housework, most women prefer
part-time work. The 'new man' who shares equal responsibility
within the home has turned out to be more myth than reality. Most
working class men would accept that women have the right to work.
Most would also accept that they should do their fair share about
However what men think they should do and what the
actually do are two different things. According to a recent.
Social Attitudes Survey. 54% of men thought preparing the evening
meal should be shared. Unfortunately only 20% actually took
their turn in doing the cooking. Although men are now spending
more time with their children, women still have the main
responsibility for looking after children, even when they and
their partners both work full-time.
So the flexibility of working part-time can seem to be a
solution. However it is almost all in the bosses' favour, with
part-timers often asked to work longer than usual hours for no
extra pay, or with hours or work suddenly changed with very little
notice. In Gateway supermarkets zero hour contracts have been
introduced. Workers have to be on constant standby ready to be
called in at any time. This 'flexibility' might suit the bosses'
needs, but how do you organise childcare and shopping and all the
other hundred and one domestic tasks when you don't know what
hours you will be working from one day to the next?
The bosses are taking advantage of women's 'double burden' or
'double shift' as textile workers used to call it. And this does
not just mean looking after children but sometimes sick or elderly
relatives, living in their homes as part of 'care in the
community' polices but, due to council cuts, with no meals on
wheels or other support services.
However, lack of adequate affordable child-care is still the
main problem facing working class women when it comes to finding
work or improving job prospects. Where local authority nurseries
still exist, often only children on the 'at risk' register are
able to get a place.
During the 1980s boom women's lives were to be transformed,
through the introduction of workplace nurseries. Few actually
materialised. Those that did were in the public sector, most
charging prices well out of the reach of lower paid women. The
private sector employers attitude has been: Why pay for workplace
nurseries when you can exploit part-time women workers much more
Women part-timers in manual jobs earn 73% of the hourly rate of
equivalent full-time women workers. It is mainly because women are
segregated in low paid part-time jobs that they still only earn on
average 72% of men's wages, £100 a week less in money terms. That
is why a decent national minimum wage is so important, if the gap
between women's and men's wages is to close and working class
women and men are to become more equal in the workplace.
But is our aim merely to achieve equality between working class
women and working class men? What do we mean by equality? Equality
means different things to different people. For Naomi Wolf
equality means women like Anita Roddick of Body shop, Princess Di
and of course herself earning lots of money getting into positions
to help less fortunate women who have not been able to use
capitalism for their own 'empowerment'. For others, equality is
posed as a kind of race, with working class women struggling to
catch up and the prize being equality with working class men.
A common struggle
Yet working class men aren't doing so well under capitalism
either. As 'womens' jobs have increased 'mens' jobs have
contracted. Whereas in 1979 7 million workers were employed in
manufacturing industry, today there are just 4.5 million.
Professionals have become concerned about how unemployment Is
affecting the physical and psychological health of men.
obvious financial worries there are also problems of low self
esteem and loss of identity. While capitalism has traditionally
defined women's role as that of nurtures and carers within the
home, men have been portrayed as the breadwinner. The Child
Support Act reinforces the idea of men's responsibility for their
children as a purely financial one. No matter that after paying
huge increases in maintenance they have no money left for visiting
For men who have been accustomed to identifying 'masculinity'
with providing economically for the family through productive work
outside the home, losing their jobs or never having the prospect
getting one can be emotionally and psychologically devastating.
Many experts believe their is a strong link between unemployment
and the 60% increase in suicides amongst young men. Whereas
millions of working class women have been able to take advantage
of economic changes to positively challenge backward ideas about
the role in society, many men have seen their traditional role
undermine with no positive alternative on offer under capitalism.
As socialists we do not see equality as the right of women to
share in the oppression of working class men under capitalism.
Of course that doesn't mean that we don't fight for ever
improvement that we can under the current system. We are some of
the hardest fighters in the workplaces and communities,
campaigning for full-time rights for part-time workers, for a
decent minimum wage and for equal pay, to keep nurseries open and
defend services under attack. But we are also fighting for real
equality, to the ability of both working class women and men to
fulfil their potential in a way that is impossible under
For example, having exploited women workers the bosses are now
trying to force men into part-time working. If current trend
continue over the next ten years the number of part-timers will
rise from 28% of the workforce to 48%, with 29% of men working
part time compared to less than 10% today.
Given that men work
such long hours, part-time working ought to be a positive
development. Instead, because part-time jobs are mostly low status
and low paid, men are reluctant to take them on, especially if they
have been used to relatively high paid skilled jobs in
Under a planned economy, using even already
existing technology in the interests of the majority rather than
the minority who currently own and control the economy, everyone
could work part-time hours and have decent standard of living.
Both men and women would then have more time for relationships and
children as well as education and leisure.
capitalism part-time working means poverty insecurity and
increasingly the stress of taking on multiple jobs to maintain an
adequate income, It is therefore in the interests a working class
men to join with women not only to struggle for reforms under the
current system but to fight to change the system itself.
Collectively provided services
Labour's Social Justice commission also talks about men, and in
particular, women reaching their full potential. It explains how
the majority of single parents have not been able to take
advantage of the jobs genderquake because of the way that the
benefits system works and the lack of affordable childcare.
then set a target of nursery education for 85% of three-year olds
and 95% of four-year olds by the year 2000. If achieved this would
improve women's economic prospects as well as allowing children the
start in life that top rate nursery education can bring.
the Commission says that it will take several years for universal
provision to be introduced and suggests that funding should come
from making higher education students pay for tuition fees and
replacing the maintenance grants with loans.
Such a policy would
deter working class students from going to university and in
particular it would penalise thousands of mature women students,
many of them single parents, whose have tried to improve their job
prospects through getting university qualifications.
Yet, if women are to reach their full potential, nursery
education for three and four-year olds will not be enough. Women
need continuous childcare from the birth of a baby onwards,
including before and after-school care and holiday schemes.
the Commission proclaims that "it is simply not feasible...to
aim to provide all childcare facilities free at the point of
use". But this is exactly what is needed if women are to
improve their economic and social position. On the basis of the
economic policies put forward by the Commission, free and flexible
universal childcare may well be impossible.
That is because they
base themselves on the market economy and a crisis-ridden
capitalist system. More and more women are drawing the conclusion
that if they are to see the 'revolution' in their life chances
that the Social Justice Commission refers to, then a revolution is
exactly what is needed.
An economic and social revolution which
takes economic control out of the hands of the capitalist class
and places it in the hands of working class people, preparing the
way for a plan of production and the democratic collective
allocation of resources according to need.
Despite the propaganda of the ruling class about their being no
'such thing as society', only individuals, most working class
people agree that services such as health care and education
should be free and collectively provided,
Under a socialist
system, childcare would not just be the responsibility of
individuals but of society has a whole. This would allow women and
men the opportunity not only to work but to fully participate in
the running of society on an equal footing. In the same way basic
necessities of life such as food, fuel, housing and transport
could be collectively provided free of charge.
Many working class
women spend hours shopping and preparing and cooking food.
Collectively run quality restaurants would relieve women of much
of this burden, if that was what they wanted. Socialism is about
allowing people maximum choice in their lives whether it be caring
for children, eating food or where they live.
housing, where it is available, is geared, albeit inadequately,
toward. nuclear families or people with children. Through the
collective provision of housing socialism would allow people a
choice of what kind of household they wanted to live in.
Women becoming radicalised
Are we seeing an organised backlash against those gains that
women have made? There has already been press article declaring
that equal rights have gone too far, urging men to reassert their
authority within the family and society. Women's economic
independence is blamed for the breakdown in the family which in
turn is blamed for every social problem.
Undoubtedly there are men
who, faced with unemployment, feeling that their role in society
is under threat, might be susceptible to propaganda blaming women
for their situation. The ruling class have consistently uses
whatever means they can to divide men and women and therefore
maintain their economic and political control. Such propaganda, in
particular attacks on single parents, has also been useful in
preparing the ground for public spending cuts.
However putting it into practice is another question. Public
opinion has already forced the Tories to back away from some
recent proposals such as forcing young single mothers into
hostels. In the USA although the Republicans control both the
Congress and the Senate and are espousing Charles Murray's ideas
about stopping welfare payments for single parents and putting
their children into state orphanages, the party is divided about
actually forcing through these proposals for fear of provoking a
The ruling class also don't always mean what they say. Although
Tory ministers might make speeches about a woman's place being
with her family, they are not embarking on a concerted campaign to
push women out of the workforce and back into the home.
They wouldn't succeed even if they wanted to, since the process
of women going out to work has gone too far. But they don't want to
anyway because it is not in their interests. They benefit
economically from the work women do unpaid in the home, but the
capitalists also benefit from exploiting women as cheap and
flexible labour in the workforce.
If women lose their jobs it will be as part of a general
offensive against all workers, not as part of a policy to turn
back the clock and keep women in the home. Instead the ruling
class will attempt to increase women's double burden through
attacking wages and conditions and cutting back on public
It is precisely because of the contradiction that exists
between women's increased expectations and economic reality that
women are becoming radicalised.
Social Attitudes Surveys consistently show young women under 35
to be the most radical section of society on social issues. In
campaigns to stop hospital closures and defend local services, it
is usually working class women who are the most active.
In public sector workplaces, especially the health service and
local government, women have been prepared to take action,
although union leaders have done their best to hold them back.
In the private sector women at Timex, Burnsalls and Middlebrook
Mushrooms have show their determination to fight to the end to
defend jobs and conditions. In the course of these struggles women
are increasingly seeing the need to fight alongside men for a
wider change in the way that society itself is organised.
The question that needs to be answered therefore is not 'is the
future female' but 'is the future capitalist or socialist?'
If it is capitalist, then working class women and men can look
for ward to a future of increasing exploitation in the workplace
and in the home. A socialist future however would allow women and
men real equality of opportunity and maximum choice in every
aspect of their lives.