It Doesn't Have To Be Like This: Women and the Struggle for Socialism

It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This: Women and the Struggle for Socialism   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Extract from ‘It doesn’t have to be like this: women and the struggle for socialism’ by Christine Thomas

Under capitalism the stereotypical representations of women which abound in the media, advertising and general culture have their roots in the rise of class society.

The same is true of violence against women. Worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from violence at the hands of men than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined.

Even in the developed industrialised countries a quarter of women at some time in their lives will suffer from domestic violence.

Stop Victim Blaming - slut walk London September 2012, photo Paul Mattsson

Stop Victim Blaming – slut walk London September 2012, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Many reasons have been advanced in an effort to explain why this abuse still continues today at such a high level.

Some people blame economic problems such as unemployment and bad working conditions. But such a crude ‘economic reductionist’ explanation is completely inadequate.

Domestic violence takes place across all social classes and is not just confined to the poor and the working class. Alcohol is also often cited as a cause.

However, while some perpetrators are abusive after drinking alcohol others are violent while completely sober.

Alcohol, like unemployment, long working hours and the general pressures and strains of life in capitalist society can contribute to and trigger domestic abuse but they are not the underlying cause.

Women also suffer from stress. In fact, it could be argued that, as working class women usually have to juggle work and assume most of the responsibility of looking after children and the home, their lives are even more stressful than those of men.

Sometimes women will themselves resort to violence within relationships but the overwhelming majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women.

So why is it that men feel justified in using violence in situations where women normally do not? Male abusers often seek to justify their behaviour by blaming the women themselves; they provoked them by “nagging”, by not getting a meal on the table in time, not keeping the house clean, or the children quiet.

As a consequence, many women who experience domestic violence, especially if the abuse continues over a period of years, come to believe incorrectly that the violence is their own fault.

They may then try to modify their behaviour, to avoid anything which might ‘provoke’ the abuser, but the violence and abuse does not stop; in fact in many cases it escalates.

‘In their place’

From the ‘excuses’ given by male perpetrators it is clear that traditional beliefs about the need for women to be loyal and obedient to their husbands, and men having the right to use fear and coercion to keep them ‘in their place’, still influence behaviour and attitudes today

The hierarchical, patriarchal family based on male authority and control served the economic and social needs of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times.

And the family has continued as a social institution central to all class societies, although its form, of course, has not remained the same.

In the feudal societies of medieval Europe, for example, the family of the landowning aristocracy was organised differently to that of the peasant/serf household which was an economic unit at the centre of production of goods consumed by themselves and the Lord of the Manor.

Feudal society was hierarchical with God at the top and the peasants/serfs at the bottom of the pile.

Everyone knew their place in a rigid order based on obedience to authority and unequal rights and responsibilities.


The patriarchal peasant family, with male authority sanctioned by the legal system and legitimised by God and King, both reflected and reinforced the hierarchy of society in general and functioned as a means of social control.

The double oppression peasant women suffered was clearly reflected in the Lord’s right to bed a bride on her wedding night.

For centuries men have been legally and morally obliged to control the behaviour of their wives. It was perfectly legitimate, in fact expected, that a husband would use physical coercion against a ‘nagging’ wife or one who failed to fulfil her ‘wifely obligations’.

Laws that did exist were mainly concerned with setting limits on how far they could go. For example, the English saying “rule of thumb” is thought to stem from the fact that it used to be stipulated that the thickness of the stick used by a man to beat his wife could not be greater than his thumb.

In Britain in 1736, a dictum from Sir Matthew Hale, the head of the judiciary, stated that rape in marriage could not take place because “by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract”.

Such ideas became deeply embedded in society over centuries. It was only in the early 1990s in Britain that the Law Commission declared marital rape illegal.

Prior to that, the idea that women’s bodies became the property of men on marriage still prevailed in law.

Although there has been a big shift in social attitudes in relation to domestic violence and rape over the last few decades, backward ideas still hold sway.

There is still reluctance, for example, on the part of the criminal justice system to prosecute in cases of marital rape, and the courts often view it as less serious than rape by a stranger.

Capitalism itself is a hierarchical system, based on inequality and exploitation by a minority in society.

The ruling capitalist class will resort to violence if necessary to maintain its rule – by the use of the police against striking workers and protesters, for example, or the armed forces in wars for profit and prestige.

The capitalist system of inequality, dominance and control, in which the family plays a crucial role, permeates the whole of society including personal relations, resting on and perpetuating backward ideas which originated in the early class societies thousands of years ago.

The Socialist Party’s demands:

  • An end to victim blaming! Decent education in schools, workplaces and trade unions about the myths and facts of rape
  • Decent support – including legal, emotional and where necessary practical – for survivors of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence
  • No to closure of domestic violence support services! Increase and improve the services to help those women affected by domestic violence
  • A mass building programme of decent, affordable social housing to make sure women have somewhere to go should they choose to leave a violent relationship
  • No cuts to legal aid. Increase threshold for legal aid so that all women can access it for divorce cases. No to enforced mediation
  • The right for all women to have full control over when and whether they have children. Protect and improve abortion services
  • A united mass campaign against all the cuts, including a 24-hour general strike
  • A socialist alternative to class and sex inequality. Join the Socialist Party!

A brief history of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence

Heather Rawling

The Socialist Party and its predecessor, Militant, have a proud record of campaigning against domestic violence.

It was Militant supporters who launched the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in 1991.

Before this, very few victims knew about women’s refuges or would speak up about abuse. We took what had been viewed as a personal, private matter, onto the political stage and into the trade unions.

We followed in the footsteps of our grandmothers who had done the same with the campaign for free, safe and legal contraception.

CADV put domestic violence into the public domain. We raised it in our trade unions, organised conferences on it, wrote to newspapers, organised a national demonstration and then simultaneous protests outside prisons around the country to raise awareness on the need for legal change. The campaign received a lot of publicity and press attention.

Sara Thornton

CADV was begun in response to the plight of Sara Thornton. Sara was jailed for life in 1990. She had killed her violent, alcoholic husband.

Eighteen months after beginning her jail sentence, Sara’s appeal was turned down. On the same day, a man walked free, having killed his alcoholic wife.

Sara began a hunger strike. Women were angry at the double standards meted out by the legal system. The CADV reflected their anger. The campaign’s aims were:

  • To increase awareness of domestic violence
  • To improve facilities and services for women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence
  • To campaign for legal change
  • The recognition of domestic violence as a workplace issue

The campaign was largely successful. CADV forged links with Women’s Aid and other women’s groups. We did not want to cut across the sterling work done by Women’s Aid in providing a safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence. Rather we saw our role as political campaigners to win reforms.

In the course of the campaign we were able to discuss the role of capitalism in the oppression of women and explain the need to fight for socialism to transform the lives of women.

We also linked this to immediate changes that were (and still are) necessary such as equal pay and a living wage.

In general, the police did not take domestic violence seriously. When a Civil and Public Services Association member (CPSA, now PCS) in Leicester phoned the police for help to protect her against her estranged partner, they did not even bother to attend.

She was found murdered later that day. While there is still a huge mountain to climb, police response to domestic abuse cases in some areas has improved.

Legal change

We campaigned to change the law. Helena Kennedy QC in her book ‘Eve was Framed’ shows how UK laws have been framed by men over the centuries.

The legal definitions of murder and manslaughter were written from a male perspective that does not recognise that men and women can respond to violence differently.

We worked with leading lawyers such as Helena Kennedy to change the law on provocation, which can be used to determine a verdict of murder or manslaughter.

Murder convictions carry a statutory life sentence, and manslaughter does not. Prior to the campaign long-term abuse was not considered provocation.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia came to international attention after burning her husband to death in 1989 in response to ten years of the most appalling physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including having a hot iron held on her face.

After initially being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, Kiranjit’s conviction was later overturned on grounds of inadequate counsel and replaced with manslaughter.

Kate Keaveney stabbed and killed her husband after suffering seven years of domestic violence and was sent to prison for life.

The cases of Sara Thornton, Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Kate Keaveny, helped by the CADV and others, changed the definition of the word ‘provocation’ in cases of abused women.

Trade unions

We took the campaign into the trade union movement. A Militant supporter in Leicester spoke at the CPSA conference.

She spoke of her personal experience of Militant supporters giving her practical support (a room in a house) and advice that enabled her to escape her violent partner.

It was particularly poignant as a member of her trade union branch had been murdered by an estranged partner. The conference passed the resolution supporting the CADV.

With support from the CPSA and other unions the CADV was able to publish excellent material to take into the workplace and negotiate policies in relation to domestic violence that would look sympathetically on sick leave and requests for transfer, for example. Many employers and councils adopted these policies.

Reporting of domestic abuse went up. More women than ever were going out to work. Women in the workplace feel less isolated and have an independent income that makes them less dependent on a partner. Victims of abuse found strength from their workmates and became survivors of abuse.

Now, the reforms we won and the broad aims we achieved are under threat. Women’s Aid has had its funding cut and more than 200 women seeking refuge are turned away each night.

Women are bearing the brunt of job losses in the current recession, particularly because they make up the majority of public sector workers.

The bedroom tax, changes in disability benefits and other cuts will hit women hard and increase the amount of unpaid care work they come under pressure to do.

As socialists we must campaign to reverse all the cuts and ensure domestic violence remains a political, trade union and workplace issue.

A recent study by the World Health Organisation revealed that more than one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. 38% of women who are murdered are killed by their partner.

Shocking figures like these, combined with a series of high profile cases and allegations of abuse, have meant that more people are questioning why violence against women exists and what can be done about it. Some of these issues are explored in the articles here.

Recommended reading from Socialist Books

  • It doesn’t have to be like this: women and the struggle for socialism, by Christine Thomas. What consequences will the economic crisis and its aftermath have for women? Will the important changes for women that have taken place unwind? Are inequality, discrimination and oppression inevitable in our lives? £5.99
  • Women: fighting austerity, fighting for equality, a collection of articles from the Socialist, covering issues including women and the cuts, abortion rights, the Slutwalk protests and the beauty industry. £1
  • The origin of the family, private property and the state, by Frederick Engels. Engels demonstrates that the family, private property and the state are all products of specific economic and social conditions. £12
  • Rebel girls: their fight for the right to vote, by Jill Liddington. “An utterly original history of suffrage”. £14.99

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