Teachers on strike at NEU demonstration. Photo: Paul Mattsson
Teachers on strike at NEU demonstration. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Amy Sage, Bristol North Socialist Party

A report published this year by the United Nations predicted that it could take another 286 years to close the global gender gaps in legal protections for women and girls. We have recently seen significant victories for women, such as the mass movements in Latin America, which forced governments to legalise or relax restrictions on abortion. But at the same time, the rights of women have been rolled back in many countries around the globe, leading people to ask: ‘How far can this backlash against the rights of women go?’

In order to answer this question, we must first consider how far the attacks on the rights of women have already gone.

Internationally, particularly since the start of Covid, there has been an acute rolling back of the rights and legal protections for women. In July 2022, the Supreme Court in the United States overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised the constitutional right to an abortion. This represented the biggest attack on women’s rights in the US for the last 50 years.

Around 22 million women of reproductive age now live in a state that has banned abortion, representing about a third of the total childbearing population in the USA. Of these 22 million women, it will be working-class women and those who do not have the resources to travel hundreds of miles to states where an abortion is still possible, who will be suffering the most.

The USA is not the only country where abortion rights have recently come under attack. In Poland in 2021, the right-wing Polish Law and Justice government introduced a near-total ban on abortion, it being allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

The law is applied so strictly that Polish officials have even taken to raiding the homes of women under suspicion of facilitating illegal abortions, and a technique has been developed to test for the presence of abortion pills in women’s blood. Since 2020, at least six women have died in Poland after doctors performed a medically necessary abortion either too late or not at all, with the doctor citing fear of legal consequences.

Abortion is still totally illegal in 24 countries around the globe, and in 37 it is only available if the woman’s life is in danger.

However, it is not just the right to abortion that is under attack globally. In China, recent censorship policies have included banning the use of feminist terms and content they see as “inciting conflict between the genders”. In South Korea, the conservative People Power Party has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have banned women and teenage girls from taking part in most aspects of daily life, while in other conflict zones, such as Sudanor Nigeria, there is escalating violence against women and girls.

Economic attacks

In Britain we have not yet seen the same level of attacks on women’s rights as in other countries. There was the case of Carla Foster who was sentenced to 28 months in prison for terminating a pregnancy during the Covid lockdown, highlighting that even 56 years after the 1967 Abortion Act there is still not a legal right to abortion in Britain. And, in fact, since last year, there has been an acceleration in prosecutions being brought against women who have had abortions after the 24-week limit.

However, we have so far not seen the attacks on abortion rights that have taken place in the US and in other countries where right-populist governments have been in power. This is because of a general understanding within the Tories that there is overwhelming support for the right to abortion in Britain, and that any attack could provoke a backlash, adding to the crumbling of their electoral base.

However, that is not to say that women in Britain haven’t suffered attacks in recent years  – rather, the attacks women face here are more material than ideological in nature.

One of the effects of the Covid pandemic was to shine a spotlight on and exacerbate existing gender inequality in capitalist society. And because of the double disadvantage that working-class women face in capitalist society, they have also been placed at the sharp end of the post-pandemic economic devastation. More dependent upon the welfare state than men, and more likely to work in and rely on the public sector, they have been hit hardest by cuts to benefits and services.

Cuts to domestic violence services mean that many victims of domestic violence are unable to flee their abusive partners. Cuts to street lighting, to bus routes, the sacking of guards on the trains, as well as all the cuts to other vital services we need, have exacerbated the undermining of women’s safety. And, of course, the cost-of-living crisis has only intensified these issues as women have had to bear the brunt of low pay and spiralling prices

None of this, of course, is to deny that working-class men have also suffered attacks. Working-class people of all genders worldwide are facing the biggest onslaught on working-class living standards for 40 years. However, because of their economic position within capitalism, women have historically faced unique forms of oppression and inequality.

Roots of the backlash

When asking how far the backlash against women’s rights can go, we also need to consider where it’s coming from. Firstly, it’s important to stress that these recent attacks are not the result of some global conspiracy of men pushing back against the gains made by women, nor has there necessarily been an overall societal rise in sexism and misogyny. Recent movements globally have raised awareness of gender inequality and oppression, and that has given some women more confidence to report harassment and abuse.

Also, the increased use of sexist and misogynistic rhetoric, particularly by public figures, does not necessarily reflect social attitudes more widely. But where figures such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson have been allowed to build a platform on social media, this has emboldened some men to be outspoken and express destructive views towards women.

It is important to recognise, however, that these figures have been able to take advantage of a very real set of issues facing some, mainly young and economically disadvantaged men.

Exploiting the hangover of sexist ideas that go back thousands of years – to when class societies and private property first arose, and women became the property of men within the family under their authority and control – they have managed to convince some of these men that the cause of all their problems is not capitalism but women: effectively, a zero-sum game whereby any gains for women mean losses for men.

The recent attacks on the rights of women are not the result of a societal rise in sexism, but are instead reflective of global processes, particularly since the 2007-08 ‘Great Recession’. These have been contradictory. On the one side there has been a drastic erosion in confidence in capitalist institutions, ideology, and the establishment political parties that uphold them. The widening gulf between the rich elite and the poor and ‘left behind’, the uncertainty and fear for the future that the economic crisis engendered, have provoked a searching for an alternative, more radical form of politics, with many, especially young people, looking to the left.

This was especially reflected in the massive initial support for Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Many of the movements initiated by women internationally over the past few years – for the legalisation of abortion, against violence towards women, to protest sexual harassment and sexism generally – have flowed from this radicalised mood, with anger at economic inequality spilling over into challenging all forms of inequality and injustice.

But at the same time, in some countries, right-wing populist forces have become the electoral beneficiaries of the anti-establishment wave, aided by former mass workers’ parties becoming part of the capitalist establishment, and by new radical left forces failing to translate their support into an organised political alternative capable of overthrowing capitalism.

The ‘anti-feminism’ and misogynistic rhetoric of Bolsonaro and Trump is not reflective of social attitudes generally, and their elections as president unleashed mass protests in both countries by women fearful of the severe attacks on their hard-won rights to come.

Nevertheless, Trump and Bolsonaro were able to mobilise religious groups, especially evangelical Christians, around a socially conservative programme that promised restrictions on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and tapped into the fears of a minority section of society looking for a return to old certainties in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

More recently, we have seen the election of the far-right libertarian candidate Javier Milei in Argentina, whose surge in popularity represents a cry of desperation from the masses who are faced with a collapse of living standards and accelerating levels of poverty and violence in society.

Milei, who has threatened savage economic attacks on the working class, as well as threatening the recently won legal right to abortion, offers no hope to resolve the crisis, and has already provoked protests and resistance to the economic and social measures he is proposing.

Fighting back

How far back women’s rights will be rolled depends on the level of resistance waged, critically from the working class. Recent global movements on the issue of abortion have shown that legal rights can be won through grassroots and mass campaigns.

But legal change is not enough. Even when women in the US had a constitutional right to an abortion, it was never free. They were paying as much as $500 for a termination, excluding travel and childcare costs, and loss of wages for taking time off work.

Fighting for the legal right to abortion must be combined with demands for free healthcare for all that covers the full cost of abortion, and for accessible local clinics. ‘Pro-choice’ should also mean the right to give birth to and raise children free from poverty and social constraints.

So, the movement for the right to abortion should be combined with campaigning for free and flexible networks of quality, publicly funded, and democratically controlled childcare; real jobs for all on at least a decent minimum wage; the right to flexible working and adequately paid maternity and parental leave; quality public housing and transport, etc.

Movements for women’s rights need to make links with other movements for social justice, especially struggles by workers in the workplaces against low pay and exploitation. But, as we have seen in the case of Argentina, unless we have a political alternative to defend our hard-won gains, they will always be under threat of being rolled back. The crucial task in Argentina is the building of a movement of workers of all genders to struggle against Milei’s reactionary anti-working class and anti-women and LGBTQ+ rights policies.

Crucial to the struggle in Argentina and elsewhere is the building of mass workers’ parties capable of fighting now to protect the rights of women and the whole of the working class, capable of drawing together workers’ struggles with women’s and other social movements, and one which is capable of offering a socialist alternative to the crisis of capitalism.

We live in an unequal, crisis-ridden society, where a small minority owns the wealth; where exploiting women in low-paid, precarious jobs generates enormous profits for the capitalists; where the unpaid work that women do in the home saves capitalism billions of pounds every year.

Private companies which dominate and control the media, beauty, fashion, leisure and other industries continue to reflect and promote traditional expectations and norms about how women and men should look and behave, often turning women’s bodies into commodities to make a profit.

Because capitalism is based on inequality and competition, the capitalists and the politicians who represent them are prepared to resort to the use of power, force and violence to defend their interests and control, and this is reflected more broadly in society.

As long as the capitalist system remains in place, exploitation, discrimination, sexism and abuse will continue. While fighting to resist all attacks on women’s rights, this must be linked to the struggle for a different economic system with alternative values, based on equality, cooperation and solidarity, in which the major companies are publicly owned, including the media and social media, and where society is democratically planned in the interests of the majority.