Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 2 December 2015

Women: fight for equality, fight for socialism

Heather Rawling

It's hard to believe that in the 1990s, articles were appearing asking: "Is the future female?" and "Are we witnessing a genderquake?"

Leading bourgeois feminists like Naomi Wolf in her book Fire with Fire argued: "Men are seeing their empire crumble. Their world is indeed dying. We must understand that we are in the final throes of a civil war of gender fairness, in which conditions have shifted to put much of the attainment of equality in women's own grasp."

As a single mother, working full-time in the 1990s, this wasn't a world I recognised. For people like Naomi Wolf, 'gender fairness' meant business women, rich women, were on the brink of achieving equality with men in the boardrooms and in society. But even that has not happened.

And for working class women, the picture was very different. Not that we wanted what working class men had - we had something far better in mind than the exploitation they experienced!

There had been an enormous change in society. For the first time women made up 51% of the workforce. Women were leaving the isolation of the home, gaining a degree of economic independence and often becoming class conscious workers, active in their trade unions.

They also had more control over their own bodies with the development of reliable contraception. A big shift in attitudes followed. Women were not only demanding rights at work but also social changes to improve their lives.

Changes in legislation in the 1960s made divorce easier and abortion legal, under certain circumstances. The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts of 1975, combined with industrial action, meant that women under 30 earned 90% of men's wages, although the gap widened again once women began to have family responsibilities. Rape in marriage was made illegal in 1991.

Domestic violence began to be taken up by the trade unions because of the role of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, led by supporters of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist). Many workplaces adopted policies to support women experiencing and escaping from domestic violence.

Workers' struggles

In fact Militant supporters and other socialists played a vital role in many of the struggles that women were involved in during that period. For example campaigns to save nursery facilities, against attacks on abortion rights, for better pay, against sexual harassment at work, Women Against Pit Closures etc.

Some of the most significant changes were won by women trade unionists taking strike action to further their cause.

The strike by women machinists at Ford Dagenham was instrumental in bringing about the Equal Pay Act and the strike by women workers at Trico's (who made windscreen wipers) was necessary to force employers to implement the Act after it was passed.

Yet women we were still a long way from being liberated. Around 600,000 women a year were victims of domestic violence according to government statistics.

Women were concentrated in the lower paid service and caring industries. They juggled responsibilities in the home, childcare and holding down a job. Under capitalism, this was a golden era for women! Almost the best we could hope for.

Today the position of women in society has in many ways deteriorated. Cuts in the public sector have wiped out many of the gains that were fought for. They have disproportionately affected women as workers and carers.

In 2014, women's pay was just over 19% less than men's. The gap had narrowed slightly - not because women's pay had increased but because men's pay has worsened as a consequence of deindustrialisation and job losses. 62% of workers paid below the living wage are women. In 2011 the World Bank reported that women globally earn 10-30% less than men.

Misogynist attitudes and behaviours are still very much a reality - fed by the capitalist media and economic reality. It is difficult to object to sexual harassment at work when you are on a zero-hour contract.

Domestic violence

Violence against women is endemic. Around the world, 35% of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Nearly half of all women killed in the UK in 2012 were killed by their partners or other family members. At root, part of the problem is a deeply ingrained idea in society that women should be subordinate to men. The marriage certificate in the UK has the names of fathers but not mothers, implying a transaction between men.

The women's movement in the twentieth century actively campaigned for changes to improve the lives of women and sometimes linked up with the labour movement.

However, following the collapse of Stalinism and defeats for the working class such as of the miners' strike, there was an ideological assault on the idea that collective action could change things and that there was an alternative.

The pro-big business policies of right-wing Labour and trade union leaders led to defeats and set-backs. This was reflected in the women's movement by a turning inwards towards individual solutions to oppression.

International Working Women's Day, born out of the struggle of US women textile workers and proposed by German socialists, has been hijacked by bourgeois feminists.

Christine Lagarde, head of the bosses' International Monetary Fund (IMF), spoke to a 'Women of the World' (WOW) gathering in London on International Women's Day 2015. WOW has the Duchess of Cornwall as its president, and is based on women who represent the super-rich 1%.


Some feminists have based their ideas on biological differences - men are aggressive and women are caring.

Others blamed women's oppression on social structures like 'patriarchy'. But whatever they see as the root cause, most feminist theories view male supremacy as universal and having existed for all time, regardless of the economic basis of society.

They therefore focus on changing attitudes rather than removing the economic and cultural restraints that oppress women.

Many women would describe themselves as feminists because they want to end their oppression. As women see past gains under attack, they have quite rightly become angry and looked to feminism for solutions.

However 21st century feminism, especially in the universities, has been heavily influenced by a form of identity politics which tends to discuss the behaviour of individuals rather than challenging the root causes of women's oppression (for more on this see 'Unpacking the rucksack: identity politics and the struggle against oppression' by Hannah Sell in Socialism Today, October 2015).

That's not to say that there have been no significant protest movements beyond this. There have been protests against the anti-abortion laws in Spain, against rape in India, the marriage equality referendum in Ireland etc. Slutwalks around the world highlighted the issue of victim blaming and rape.

It is possible and necessary to win many women who wish to end their oppression and describe themselves as feminists to socialist ideas and the need to be involved in politics more widely. Many women, young and old, have been inspired by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party.

For Marxists, women's oppression is not inevitable, immutable, ordained by God or flowing from the innate nature of men.

Women's oppression is rooted in class society and stems from the role women are expected to play in the family.

Class society

Capitalism shapes but does not determine our outlook from birth. For many, but not all, the family is where we live with the people we are closest to. But under capitalism, the family is also an institution that is intended to pass on the ideology and culture of the ruling class.

It provides the next generation of workers as cheaply as possible by making women, as Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, described: "the slave of slaves."

One survey revealed that on average women did 17 hours a week of domestic chores (excluding childcare) whereas on average men did less than six.

Neither the 'slave' nor the 'slave of the slave' benefit from capitalism. To end the oppression of women will require ending a system based on profit and exploitation. The working class creates all the wealth in society - which gives the working class the enormous potential power to change the system and create a more equal and fair society. Working class men and women together can end their oppressions.

This doesn't mean that we won't have to fight prejudice and change attitudes in the course of struggle. But for lasting and real change we must fight to build a society based on workers owning and democratically planning the economy.

With this kind of society - a socialist one - we could provide for all the needs of humanity and thereby lay the basis to end discrimination and oppression and ease the burdens of the mass of people - women and men.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 made great steps forward for women. Many of the gains were later undermined by Stalinism, but the early days gave a glimpse of what can be achieved by a movement that challenges capitalism.

This is an extract from It Doesn't Have to be Like This: Women and the Struggle for Socialism, by Christine Thomas.

Women's liberation formed a key component of the Bolshevik's programme and the revolution paved the way for radical reforms which went far beyond those achieved by women in the more economically-developed capitalist countries at that time.

Marriage, for example, became a mere civil procedure, while the right to divorce was granted on request by either partner. Legal, free abortions were available to all women who needed them and homosexuality was legalised. The principle of equal pay for equal work was introduced and legislation passed to protect women in the workplace. This included 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, the right for nursing mothers to work no more than four days a week and to have regular time off for breastfeeding...

Day nurseries, kindergartens, public laundries and restaurants were set up and free lunches introduced in schools. In 1920, 90% of Petrograd, the most industrialised city in Russia at that time, were choosing to eat in communal restaurants...

A conscious campaign was needed to change the backward and reactionary attitudes towards women which were deeply ingrained within society.

This included a concerted effort to engage and involve women as active participants in building the new social order. Women had played an important role in carrying out the revolution itself... Now their self-activity was vital for transforming society and achieving their own liberation.

In 1919 a special women's department the Zhenotdel, was established to conduct work amongst women. Women's 'commissions' were set up at every level in order to involve women in the party and in the construction of the new society.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • We must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation


Your message: 


In The Socialist 2 December 2015:

What we think

Don't bomb Syria! War vote reveals two Labour Parties in one

International socialist news and analysis

Greece - general strike against austerity sees mass protests

Eyewitness to the refugee crisis: a visit to 'The Jungle'

Belgium: ruling class can't be trusted with 'security'

Socialist takes third of vote in Hong Kong election

Socialist Party women

Women: fight for equality, fight for socialism

Socialist history

How the Iron Lady was reduced to iron filings

Socialist Party news and analysis

Action needed to save our NHS

Autumn Statement u-turns: austerity can be defeated

Student nurses must pay to work

Paris climate summit falls short in world's hottest year

London ambulances in special measures due to underfunding

Them & Us

Workplace news and analysis

Junior doctors' strike suspended for talks

JCB redundancies mitigated but fight needed

Open Uni strikers prepared to go the distance

Bus drivers fight bully-boy managers

Water workers protest against pension attacks

Workplace news in brief

Socialist readers' comments and reviews

Film review - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

A socialist Christmas gift guide


Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Christmas 'collectathon': 8 to 17 December

Workers snap up the Socialist!

Protesters demand system change not climate change

Demonstration against the war

FBU fights the cuts in Yorkshire


Home   |   The Socialist 2 December 2015   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleBristol North Socialist Party: Socialist feminism

triangleSouth West London Socialist Party: Socialist feminism - the fight for equality for women today

triangleUniversal Credit forces women into 'survival sex': scrap it now!

triangleHuddersfield Socialist Party: Marxist feminism

triangleDerby Socialist Party: Socialist feminism


triangleDoncaster: Vigil condemns violence against women

triangleEast London Socialist Party: End violence against women

triangleLondon protest for Texas abortion rights

triangleSarah Everard trial reveals police abuse of power


triangleObituary - Tony Davison: "I work for Militant, but Laing's pay my wages"

triangleLeeds Socialist Party: Socialism and the fight for black liberation

triangleSouth East London Socialist Party: Food production and the need for socialism


triangleReinstate Gary Evans! Llanelli postal workers strike

triangleUniversity workers ballot for strike action


triangleScunthorpe scaffs strike for pay

Domestic violence:

triangleDomestic Abuse Bill: So much still to fight for


triangleRidley Road: An engaging story of fighting fascism


triangleWest London Socialist Party: Aids, section 28 and equal marriage - lessons for the fight for LGBTQ+ rights today


triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The Chinese revolution 1925-27


triangleTory review won't deliver justice for rape victims

Equal pay:

triangleGlasgow's equal pay battle set to re-erupt


triangleUS Supreme Court refuses to challenge Texas abortion ban


triangleNuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis


triangleRussia, October 1917: When workers took power


triangleUnite young and old to defend the pensions triple lock


triangleYork: Non-binary and trans rights protest


triangleTV Review: It's a Sin


triangleSuperpowers' tensions continue to ratchet up


triangleSchools funding crisis fails vulnerable children


triangleScrap tuition fees - end university marketization


triangleCardiff community fights nursery closure: Council must step in

Violence against women:

triangleSabina Nessa vigil: End violence against women


triangleSocial care funding needed now


triangleNHS marches in Yorkshire and London


triangleFighting evictions in Cornwall


triangleFighting the cuts at the ballot box in Liverpool


triangleInternational Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women


triangleSave Leicester General Hospital

Hannah Sell:

trianglePreparing to build a working-class force for May's local elections


triangleChildcare in crisis: A socialist solution

News and socialist analysis

News and socialist analysis


Analysis and editorials

How to save the planet



People's Budgets - a socialist answer to cruel cuts


Climate change

COP26: Trade unions must fight for a socialist transition to renewables



Fight for a socialist recovery



Tories to blame for GP crisis



Container delay carnage makes the case for socialist planning



Fight to defend homelessness services



Socialist nationalisation not bailouts for the bosses


Climate change

Save the planet from capitalist climate catastrophe



Cynical Johnson government no friend of workers



Workers need a pay rise



Fight for the pay rise we deserve



News in brief



Social care funding needed now


Climate change

Build a mass working-class climate movement with socialist policies

triangleMore News and socialist analysis articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793



Alphabetical listing

October 2021

September 2021

August 2021

July 2021

June 2021

May 2021

April 2021

March 2021

February 2021

January 2021