Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1076/30362
International Women's Day: Fighting sexism and austerity
Young women: "We've been given the destination but no way to get there"
Helen Pattison, London Socialist Party youth organiser
Girls and young women involved in research into sexual harassment say they aren't shocked by its results (The State of Girl's Rights in the UK at plan.uk.org).The research found that as many as two thirds of girls and young women aged between 14 and 21 had experienced sexual harassment in public places. On top of that, as many as 37% had experienced harassment in school, and around one quarter report being touched inappropriately at school.
It's not just girls and young women who face sexual harassment in their day-to-day lives. In London, 55% of all women said they had been sexually harassed on the underground. Closing ticket offices, driver-only operated trains on national rail lines, and other cuts mean fewer staff to deal with incidents.
These statistics might not shock young women, but they are a source of huge anger and frustration.The research looks into lots of different areas, from uniforms to sex education. The frustration of these young women comes across in their quotes. They talk about the huge contradiction between the messages of empowerment and equality in advertising and media, and their actual experiences of sexual harassment and sexist ideas: "We've been given the destination but no way to get there".
And despite the idea that they can 'do anything', students reported still feeling that courses are divided into girls' subjects and boys' subjects. Girls, are more often kept from playing sports in the rain than boys, and girls' uniforms are discussed on the basis of whether they will distract the boys.
Young women's frustration is understandable. Women and working-class people have fought for well over a century against inequality, sexism and poverty. Huge reforms have been won - such as legal equal pay, and other rights and services. The expectations of women have changed over the last few decades. But the harsh realities of sexism - such as two women dying each week at the hands of an abusive current or ex-partner - still exist.
On top of the contradiction between the empowering message and continued sexism, these girls and young women are growing up in a time of cuts and austerity. The research talked about the impact of 61% cuts to local government services, meaning there aren't safe places for girls to spend their evenings, with youth workers they can talk to.
At school, many teachers report feeling unable to deal with incidents of sexual harassment, with only one in five receiving training. And students feel the same - noting that staff don't seem confident about these issues. Securing proper training and support for students and teachers around sexism and sexual harassment, as well as decent sex education, means launching a fight for adequate funding of our schools, and against privatisation of our schooling system.
These changes and reforms only take the fight against sexism, harassment and inequality so far. Today, politicians and the establishment try to give capitalism a feminist veneer. But this has been exposed by huge cuts to vital women's services, growing poverty and inequality. A battle must be launched, involving womens' organisations and trade unions, to defend these services, against austerity and for no-cuts budgets.
But as long as capitalism continues these reforms will only be temporary. For lasting gains and, to put an end to sexism and inequality we have to challenge the system of capitalism which relies on and perpetuates sexism and inequality.
Students and university workers unite against anti-abortionists
Lucy Riglin, Cardiff Socialist Party
Cardiff University has been targeted by anti-abortion (so-called 'pro-life') campaigners from an organisation outside the university - Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK. The group displays large graphics of abortion-related images in an attempt to shock and cause distress.
The university has now been targeted several times by the group since last November, when the Students' Union voted at its AGM to take an official pro-choice position. Students have responded angrily to the anti-abortion protests - many appalled by the apparent need to defend rights which were won half a century ago.
At the same AGM students voted to support the ongoing strike action by the University and College Union (UCU). One of the anti-abortion protests occurred on a UCU strike day last December, which enabled students and staff already communicating because of strike activities, to be alerted to the protest quickly.
Students and other UCU members were promptly dispatched to the protest, where they blocked the graphic images from the public with home-made UCU and Socialist Students placards and banners. This demonstrates some of the advantages of organised networks of students and workers, who can response immediately to defend each other. As with all our campaigning work, we're stronger when we fight together.
The UCU is striking over issues including pay, inequality, insecure work and excessive workloads - all issues which can play a part in a women's decision about whether to have children. It's important that pro-choice campaigns include fighting for decent pay and working conditions, as well as affordable housing and childcare, so that people can decide whether to have children, without worrying about whether or not they can afford to feed and house another person.
The struggle for women's right to choose must also include the right to fertility treatment as part of the right to decide whether to have children. Of course, the 'pro-life' campaigners are not interested in better lives for mothers, but instead campaign to increase women's oppression.
As other universities are also targeted by anti-abortion campaigners, Socialist Students can play an important role in holding open meetings for students to discuss how to organise so that they can mobilise quickly in response to these campaigners. Students should also appeal to the trade unions, including UCU, to support these struggles, as well as supporting union struggles for better conditions. Together, students and workers will be stronger in the fight for equality and against oppression on campus.
Women's Lives Matter
Women's Lives Matter activists
It's council budget setting time. Across the country you will hear the splish-splash sound of Labour councillors' crocodile tears hitting the floor. They will say they don't want to make cuts but they don't have a choice. Is there a gun to their head? Will their children go hungry if they refuse?
These are instances where choice is limited - but not for councillors deciding whether to obediently pass on savage Tory austerity or to actually defend the services and living standards of the people who elected them.
The Women's Lives Matter campaign (WLM) is calling for protests at council budget-setting meetings and online campaigning to say they do have a choice.
WLM was born in Doncaster. In 2017 socialists and others campaigned to save the domestic violence service there. Doncaster Labour council said it had no money due to government cuts. The service cost £30,000 to run. It had millions in reserves. WLM warned that this meant the council would be responsible for damage to women's lives.
It therefore wasn't a surprise, given the vicious cuts in this area, that Don Valley was one of the largest swing votes to the Tories in the general election. Labour had shown in practice that it didn't stand up for working-class people.
Labour councils should refuse to implement one more cut and set emergency budgets based upon what people in their communities need - they should do this using their reserves, their borrowing powers, but most importantly by building a movement of working class people to fight for the money the Tories have stolen from our services.
Liverpool City Council did it in the 1980s, and won £60m back off, the Thatcher government to build council homes, nurseries and more - so we can do it now.
Working-class women know by experience that we have to fight for what we need. But throughout history that has been most effective when uniting with the rest of our class to win the NHS, council housing, equal pay, the right to choose and, more recently, when low-paid mainly women workers in Glasgow went on strike, inspired solidarity from other workers, and won half a billion pounds in money owed to them by the council.
How can we involve more women in the unions?
Katrine Williams, vice-president PCS union DWP group (personal capacity)
Women make up over half of trade union membership in the UK. It is vital that trade unions ensure that their voices are heard and the issues the union takes forward reflect what the members are angry about and want to see challenged.
Workplaces are so pressurised. Both public sector and private employers are trying to drive down costs and increase productivity from a smaller numbers of workers. Austerity has cut to the bone services which used to provide much needed support for all the work that families now have to do themselves - such as caring for children and the older generation.
While attitudes have changed, caring responsibilities still overwhelmingly fall to women who are more likely to be on lower pay. Over 40% of women work part time. The increased intensification in the workplace and home life means that many union members are very limited in how much time they can give to doing extra work. Workers are also very practical about how they use their time, and would want to make sure that there is a good reason to get involved.
We have seen a number of disputes recently where women workers have come to the fore - the equal pay dispute in Glasgow council with strike action of mainly low-paid women workers, and the Birmingham home care workers. Despite huge pressures in the workplace, women members have realised that by sticking together and building collective strike action there is a lot that can be gained.
It is vital that unions campaign on issues relevant to women members to encourage them to get more actively involved.
In my union, PCS, the attacks on pay, pensions, staffing, working hours and the threat of office closures have a major impact on all our members, but especially on women members. PCS represents civil and public servants working for central and devolved governments, as well as private sector workers on government contracts.
Despite having a majority of female members in PCS, there is no level of the union overall where women are a majority of reps, including at local level and branch level.
Increasingly, we are seeing a top-down, bureaucratic approach to addressing equality issues. Recently, we saw praise in my union for the 'step aside brother!' campaign which lays the blame on male 'post blockers' rather than looking at how we can increase the involvement of women workers. I doubt there is any union where we have too many representatives!
There is also a top-down approach to pushing the idea of 50:50 for national executive committee seats, without a plan of how to increase women's involvement at all levels of the union, and how to address the barriers women face.
A consultation on this proposal provoked a great deal of anger among women reps.
A top-down rigid quota would not address the key barriers that can make it difficult for women to get actively involved in the union at national level. These include a lack of paid time-off, and extensive travel and overnight stays for meetings which can be difficult to juggle with caring responsibilities.
There was also a reaction to the danger of this proposal leading to the removal of socialist fighters from positions. Just being a woman is no guarantee that an individual would be the best fighter for women.
The union needs to campaign at local and national level on a fighting programme, as we did against the cuts after the election of the Con-Dem government in 2010. This programme should include:
- An end to low pay and for equal pay
- Fight office closures and service cuts
- Fight job cuts
- Fight for full staffing
- Shorter working week with no loss of pay
- Fight attacks on flexible working and working hours
- Fight attacks on terms and conditions
Women's rights - what's socialism got to do with it?
Below we print extracts from the Socialist Party book 'It doesn't have to be like this - women and the struggle for socialism' by Christine Thomas.
Underpinned by inequality, exploitation and oppression, capitalism is incapable of bringing about the liberation of women. This would require a revolutionary change in the way that society is organised and structured, so that the means of producing wealth could be transferred from the hands of an unelected elite, concerned only with making a profit, to the democratic control of ordinary working people - socialism.
The ending of production for profit and its replacement with democratic collective planning would enable the freeing up of resources to ensure that everybody had a minimum income and a decent standard of living. This would guarantee economic independence for women, bringing an end to poverty and allowing women real choice in personal relationships.
A planned economy would invest in the provision of public services such as childcare, eldercare and facilities for the disabled, relieving many of the burdens which individual families, and women in particular, shoulder today.
Together with a drastic reduction in the number of hours that people work, women and men's lives would be transformed. More free time would be available for relationships, for leisure pursuits and for training and education, allowing women to reach their full potential in a way that is impossible for the majority under capitalism.
It would also enable women to participate in the democratic decision making and running of society, whether in their workplace, local community or on a broader level.
Good quality, publicly provided housing flexibly responsive to the needs of ordinary people would relieve the financial and other stresses which expensive or inadequate housing place on individuals and personal relationships. It would mean that when relationships come to an end, for whatever reason, neither women, children nor men would be disadvantaged.
Under socialism, users would be able to participate democratically in the running of all public services. A democratically planned and integrated transport system, for example, would take into account the needs of all users as well as the environment.
Other services, which are currently in the hands of private businesses and often only accessible to the rich could be publicly provided and available to everyone. High-quality public restaurants would enable everyone to eat out rather than prepare meals at home, if that was what they wanted. Similarly, many household chores could be collectively provided. New technological developments could relieve the monotony and grind of many jobs, not just in the workplace but also in the home.
A real right to choose
A socialist health service would also have sufficient resources to harness scientific and technological developments for the benefit of everyone,
as well as massively increasing investment in preventative care. While this would benefit women's health in general, it would also give real choice over when and whether to have children.
In a socialist society, the companies which produce contraceptives would be taken into public ownership and integrated into the health system. By withdrawing the profit motive it would be possible to carry out research into safer contraception, both in terms of its ability to prevent pregnancy and its effect on women's health.
Similarly, it would be possible to carry out proper research into other issues associated with reproduction, such as menstrual and menopausal problems, and develop safe remedies.
Today, even in countries which have relatively liberal abortion laws on paper, a woman's right to abortion is threatened by economic cuts and by moral objections. In a socialist society, access to abortion as safe and early as possible would be available for any woman who needed it. At the same time, women and men with fertility problems would no longer be denied the right to have children because of insufficient resources or moral objections.
A planned economy would enable resources to be allocated towards developing technology to aid fertility and massively increasing spending on research into environmental and other causes of infertility.
Capitalism is organised around the private ownership of the means of production and motivated by profit and competition. It is a system based on exploitation and inequality. This is in turn reflected in social structures, in the values and culture of society and in personal relations.
Socialism, in contrast, would be based on collective ownership and democratic control of the economy. Exploitation, inequality and hierarchy would be replaced by cooperation and negotiation. This would inevitably impact on how people relate to each other and influence social attitudes.
In a society which did not rest on private property and hierarchies of wealth and power the basis would be laid for the total elimination of violence against women.
When women have real economic independence and the profit motive no longer reigns supreme, women's bodies will cease being reduced to commodities to buy and sell. How we look and how we behave, how we express our sexuality, will no longer be constrained by capitalist double standards and moralising.
But ideas and attitudes which have become deeply embedded can endure long after the material basis for them has been removed. A conscious campaign would therefore have to be waged under socialism, through a democratically controlled education system and media etc, to challenge and change 'hangover' attitudes from capitalist society, such as sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia.
A programme to fight oppression
1. End austerity now
- Build a mass movement against all cuts. No to cuts in jobs, benefits and public services
- Call on Labour councils to reject Tory cuts and set budgets based on need, using their reserves and borrowing powers to fund them
2. Homes, health, education for all
- A mass building and renovation programme of decent, affordable council housing to ensure homes for all and make it easier for women to leave abusive situations. For councils to use their existing powers to introduce rent control now
- Save our NHS. Invest in publicly owned, democratically run, high-quality and free adult, social and children's care
- For a socialist NHS - free at the point of use and under democratic control, providing all necessary services including mental health services. Kick out the privatisers
- End the schools funding crisis. Free, publicly run, good quality education, available to all at any age. Abolish university tuition fees now and introduce a living grant. No to academies
3. Defend living standards
- Trade union struggle to increase the minimum wage to £12 an hour without exemptions as an immediate step towards a real living wage. For an annual increase in the minimum wage linked to average earnings. A maximum 35-hour week with no loss of pay. Scrap zero-hour contracts. For employment rights from day one at work
- Reverse the pension attacks. Increase the state pension by 50% now as a step towards a living pension
- Scrap Universal Credit. Labour councils should use their existing powers to implement payments to make sure no family or individual suffers as a result of this cruel Tory measure. Reverse all benefit cuts
4. Stop sexual harassment
- Build campaigning student unions that challenge sexism. For democratic and accountable elected committees of students and workers to have a say in how incidents are dealt with so decisions are not left in the hands of overpaid and unaccountable university vice-chancellors or boards. Free education would free women from the vulnerability student debt creates
- For trade unions to organise and campaign against sexual harassment including organising strike action to stop sexual harassment in the workplace. Support unions taking action to defend safety measures such as the RMT union's campaign to keep the guards on trains. Scrap zero-hour contracts
- For workers and young people to fight for zero-tolerance to sexism at all levels of society: For quality and informed sex and relationship education which challenges all forms of prejudice, discrimination and harmful gender norms and mass action to expose and challenge state sexism
5. Fight workplace discrimination
- For trade union organisation to stop bosses sacking pregnant women and to ensure that women's pay, and terms and conditions, are not cut on their return to work after maternity leave
- For a trade union campaign to win improved working conditions, including the right to time off work for symptoms of the menopause, and for training of trade union health and safety reps to help enforce this
- End period poverty. For free, quality sanitary products to be provided in schools, workplaces and relevant public services. Period dignity requires an end to austerity
6. Real justice for victims of domestic violence
- Fight for fully funded council-run services specialised to suit the needs of those fleeing domestic violence, with democratic accountability to and by service workers and users
- Increased and improved services to help women affected by domestic violence, rape and abuse, including paid time off from work to access support
- Reinstate access to legal aid. Increase the threshold for legal aid so that all women can access it for divorce cases. No to enforced mediation
- Take the courts out of the hands of the 1%! Campaign for police accountability and the election of judges under democratic control by the working class
8. For the right to choose
- Mass struggle, led by the trade unions, to defend the right to free, safe and legal abortion. End the need for two doctors' signatures.
- Access to free fertility treatment on the NHS for all who need it. Nationalise big Pharma and fund research into safer, more effective contraception and the right to fertility treatment on the NHS - no to rationing of IVF
- End maternal and child poverty. Reinstate pregnancy grants, maternity and child benefit for all and end the government's two-child policy on tax credits and Universal Credit. Raise benefit levels to reflect the real cost of pregnancy, childbirth and bringing up a child. Fight for free, flexible childcare. For the right to paid parental leave
9. Build fighting mass organisations
- For fighting trade unions, democratically controlled by their members. Full-time union officials to be regularly elected and receive no more than a worker's wage. Organise militant trade unionists with the National Shop Stewards Network
- For a mass workers' party - drawing together workers, young people and activists from workplace, community, environmental, anti-racist and anti-cuts campaigns, to provide a fighting, political alternative to the pro-big business parties
10. Fight for socialism
- For a socialist government to take into public ownership the top 150 companies and the banking system that dominate the British economy - run them under democratic working-class control and management. Compensation paid only on the basis of proven need
- A democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, and in a way that safeguards the environment
- For international workers' solidarity. No to the bosses' neoliberal European Union and single market. For a socialist Europe and a socialist world!
In The Socialist 4 March 2020:
International Women's Day 2020
Socialist Party Congress