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.