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Fighting for Women  -  Rights and Socialism

Women Today

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 seems, consistently 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 widening gap.

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 low-grade torture'.

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 it.

Contradictory processes

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. 

When 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. 

So, for 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 relationships.

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 the house. 

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 cheaply?

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. 

Apart from 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 their kids!

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 capitalism.

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 manufacturing. 

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. 

Instead, under 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. 

It 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. 

However, 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. 

Yet 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. 

Under capitalism 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 huge backlash.

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 services.

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.

 

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