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Women’s movement in Australia

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Women’s movement in Australia

Today, women are faced with what seems to be a contradiction. The first women’s liberation leaflet in Australia was distributed at a demonstration against the Vietnam war in 1969. In October that year Zelda D’Aprano and two other women chained themselves to the entrance to the Arbitration Court in Melbourne. For the first time that Court found in favour of equal pay for identical work. And in 1972 the Court ruled in favour of one pay rate for workers under an award to prevent employers continuing their evasion of equal pay by classifying jobs women did as different from men’s.

Yet, thirty-two years later, Australian women working full time still earn on average 85% of male earnings. And when all women are compared with all men, the percentage is still only 66% because 70% of women work part time. And the gap is increasing again. In the year May 1999 to May 2000, male earnings for full time ordinary time increased 5.1%, but women’s only by 4%.

We have a plethora of anti-discrimination laws and equal employment opportunity (EEO) is enshrined in legislation. Yet women remain concentrated in the low paid, often part time jobs with few career prospects. In the late nineties, in the Department of Education, Employment and Training, 50% of employees were women. In the two lowest levels, they made up 75%, but only 12% of management. A review of staff at Griffith University in Brisbane revealed the same inequalities. In 1999, women were 52% of all staff, 35% of academic staff and 62% of general staff. Yet women were over-represented in the lower classifications in both the academic and general areas. Women made up 86% of general staff level one, 73% in level three, but only 45% of level ten and 29% above level ten. They made up 55% of academic level A positions, 38% of level B, 33% of level C, 20% of level D, and only 14% of level E. When faculties were compared, the gender differences were striking. Women academics made up 94% of staff in the school of Nursing, but only 9% in Engineering, 23% in Science, 29% in International Business and Politics. And this is a university that claims its Affirmative Action program is working!

Thirty years after the sexual liberation movement burst onto the scene, media commentators such as Bettina Arndt regularly campaign against the right for single women to have children, single women are denied IVF in some states, older women who choose to use IVF are vilified. Lesbian women are still marginalised, portrayals of sex in popular culture remain male centred and ignorant of women’s sexual pleasures. And the Catholic Church continues to discriminate against lesbians and gay men with impunity. Internationally, abortion rights remain tenuous with a new campaign to defend women’s rights against the Bush administration in the US, and in other countries it remains illegal. Women are still openly treated as if they’re sex objects in advertising, in popular culture and in a massively expanding sex industry.

Women’s right to work is widely accepted today – for instance there has been no concerted campaign against married women’s right to work during a decade and a half of mass unemployment. But it isn’t that simple. The Howard government slashed funding to community childcare centres, virtually making work for many low-income women an impossible option as child care can eat up such a large percentage of their income it is not worth it.

So was the women’s liberation movement worth the time and energy? In spite of it all the answer should be a resounding «yes!». It was worth every minute spent protesting, marching, writing leaflets, attending meetings and raising hell. In the sixties, pregnant women were simply expected to leave work with no access to maternity leave or pay. Contraception was primitive and unreliable, and illegal, backyard abortions were a nightmare waiting to happen, making sex a source of anxiety and guilt. In 1961 women were only 25% of the workforce. Only 17% of married women between the ages of 25 and 34 and 21% of married women 35 to 44 were in the paid workforce. In 1966 the participation rate in the paid workforce by women was 36% compared with 84% of men. By 1994 women were 43% of the workforce and 53% of women aged 16–54 were in paid work compared with 73% of men. However, the dramatic change was for married women with 63% of married women aged 25–34 in paid work and 71% aged 35 to 44. As late as the early sixties women were not able to serve on juries, could not get a bank loan in their own right, and there was no supporting parent’s benefit for women (or men for that matter) if a partnership broke up until 1974. Divorce was a long drawn out, expensive affair and there were no refuges where women could escape a violent relationship until the 1980s.

So on the one hand, we have won significant gains, on the other women remain oppressed. Like all social movements, it took militant, bold and determined political actions to force reforms from the system. Without the movement, women’s rights would be even fewer.

Even though we can win reforms, while capitalism continues to exist, there will continue to be women’s oppression. Capitalism is a dynamic, changing society and is able to absorb all manner of protests. Many of the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement fitted with the needs of the developed world fairly easily, as employers and governments drew in millions of women to cope with labour shortages caused by the massive boom. However, the fundamentals of the system did not change. Social relations still rested on exploitation and oppression. The driving force of society remained competition for profits for the minority who make up the capitalist class, rather than human need. So while women’s increased participation in the paid workforce was actually encouraged, it had to be on the terms of capitalism. Employers and governments are not interested in ensuring women work in an environment that fits with their need to breast feed their child, or of families struggling to find the time for long hours on the job and still carry the responsibilities in the home. On the other hand, women’s oppression plays a vital role in maintaining the system and the power of those who rule. So this minority have a very real material interest in the perpetuation of sexism. That is why ultimately we will need a revolution to completely overthrow capitalism and build a new society in order to end women’s oppression. In a society based on collective and democratic control of all wealth so that human need can be the basis for social decisions, it would be possible to organise work and the socialisation and care of children on the basis of people’s needs. There would not be any social group who could benefit from women’s oppression. Then women’s liberation will be possible.

These are the themes of this pamphlet.

Why are women oppressed?

Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator of Karl Marx, showed that women have been oppressed ever since the beginning of class society. Using copious notes Marx had made throughout his lifetime trying to understand why women were oppressed, in his path-breaking book The Family, Private Property and the State, published in the 1880s, Engels gave the first materialist explanation of women’s oppression. He argued that with the rise of classes, the ruling class found it necessary to control, for the first time in human history, women’s sexuality in order to determine their heirs for the inheritance of property. The need to control women of the upper classes led ultimately to ideas and laws which, to be effective, had to apply to all women, and so established the oppression of one half of humanity. So sexism and the kind of discrimination against women we see everywhere today is deeply embedded in social and cultural traditions which stretch back many centuries before capitalism. However for the sake of brevity, this pamphlet will only look at how women’s oppression is perpetuated under capitalism.

One of the main institutions of capitalism is the nuclear family – two heterosexual people living with their children. In some cultures the extended family continues, but it plays a similar role as the nuclear family in perpetuating the gender stereotypes which are central to women’s oppression. The stereotypes of man the protector, the provider, and woman the caring, loving wife and mother dependent on the man and devoted to her children underpin the treatment of women as sex objects, the idea that women are by nature more passive and nurturing than men, and provide a rationale for lower wages and fewer job opportunities. From these stereotypes follows the oppression of lesbians and gay men, but also the sexual oppression of heterosexual women. The emphasis on monogamy and women’s role as child bearers lays the basis for the denial of women’s sexual needs, and the idea that women are mere sex objects for men’s pleasure.

The family promises a haven from the pressures of work, a refuge where love is the driving force rather than competition and exploitation. Unfortunately, the reality is nothing like the promise. Because the family is not separate from and insulated from society. Men tend to earn more, have more job opportunities, and their role in the paid workforce is valued more highly than work done in the home. Therefore, the relationship on which the family is based is from the very start unequal. For the vast majority of families, the gender roles are impossible to escape. Even if they would like the man to take time off from paid work to play more of a role doing child care and housework, most families cannot afford to sacrifice the wage of the higher earner. In spite of the fact that more women work outside the home, and that they are now 54% of university students in a country like Australia, the gender stereotypes are being reinforced, not broken down. Even the conservative Institute of Family Affairs has commented that with women concentrated in part time work and men increasingly working longer hours, even with the best of intentions, individual families find it virtually impossible to challenge the stereotype of the woman taking major responsibility for children.

This very real inequality in the family, caused by inequalities in the workplace, is backed up by the derogatory way women are treated in advertising, popular film, and literature. Men are encouraged to see women as at best, passive objects of their desires, at worst, not worthy of any respect or control over their bodies. They are also encouraged to see their «masculinity» as strong, aggressive, domineering, stoic, dismissive of sensitivity. Combine all of this with the tendency for capitalism to turn everything into a commodity, sex is something for sale, ie. prostitution, and so is something that can be taken by the strong from the weak. So instead of a haven of love and rest, the family is actually one of the most violent places for women to be. Most sexual violence against women is by men they know in the family.

The reality of the workplace backs up the inequalities and violence in the family. Women’s low pay makes it difficult to leave a loveless home, making them dependent and emphasising men’s authority in the family. The concentration of women in the lowest paid jobs means a lack of women who exercise authority, reinforcing men’s sexist attitudes and reinforcing women’s lack of confidence in their own worth. This affects every area of our lives from the most public to the most intimate. Women who are public figures are subjected to endless discussion by the media of their dress sense and their appearance. Women who are aggressive and confident are ridiculed or treated as threatening and domineering for the same behaviour that is praised as «ambition» or «strength of character» in men. In personal relationships, most women find it difficult to assert their own desires. Research into women’s sexual activity found that a majority of women in heterosexual relationships rarely experience orgasm, not because they are «frigid» as the myth makers would have us believe, but because they cannot bring themselves to tell their lovers what they enjoy and need. The reason women gave for denying their own pleasure is very revealing. Most instinctively knew that the man assumed his role to be the initiator in all things sexual. To take away his control would be to undermine his confidence, and threaten the whole basis of their relationship.

The inequalities between women and men, while based in the social situation of how capitalism organises work, are reflected in the way women and men are socialised from birth. Studies have found that mothers smile more at their male children when they’re active, such as using building blocks, moving around, but smile more at their daughters when they are quiet and passive. Parents tend to interrupt their daughters more readily than their sons in conversation. Other studies show that adults respond in radically different ways to a child in the same circumstances, depending on whether they think they are male or female. The gender stereotypes so central to women’s oppression are so much part of the way we are socialised from the earliest age, discriminatory behaviour towards women goes largely unnoticed. Research into the way people communicate revealed that men initiate most topics of discussion, interrupt others vastly more than women, and generally dominate social situations. These learned responses begin with our earliest communications with other human beings and are often treated as if they are purely psychological, or even accepted as representative of women and men’s different «natures». But they cannot be understood outside the social circumstances that produce the inequalities between women and men.

These studies, while important in understanding how our socialisation into the stereotypes works, and how women and men come to view themselves and others in gendered ways, do not explain why women’s oppression cannot be rooted out under capitalism. One way to understand why is to look at who benefits from this state of affairs.

Who gains from women’s oppression?

Some feminists agree with Marxists that women’s oppression is centred in the family. However, we disagree about who benefits from the family. Heidi Hartmann, still widely read in universities, popularised the idea that the family was the result of co-operation between ruling class and working class men to force women to service men in the family:

It seems self evident that men are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression – that’s why it’s such a popular idea. The unequal relationships between women and men in the family, the discrimination against women in the workforce, plus prostitution, and sexism in general, mean that men can buy sex, can coerce their wives, lord it over the family, abrogate their responsibilities to their children, and yet be praised for their masculinity. Women who build a career, or simply take time away from the family are much more likely to be accused of «neglecting the children».

However, capitalism is a society fundamentally divided by class, with a tiny minority in power over the vast majority through their ownership and control of the means of producing society’s wealth. It follows that the ideas that dominate society are ideas propagated by that ruling class and their supporters. You only have to think of who owns and controls the mass media, who owns the publishing houses, who sets the curricula in schools and universities. But fundamentally, it is those who have the power over the right to work, wages and conditions, and the provision of social services (or not) who create the material basis on which the ideas flourish. It is employers, not «men» in general, who fight to keep wages as low as possible. One way they do this is target groups which can be paid less, or employed with fewer rights, such as women (or migrants for example). It is employers and their managers who hire and fire in a way that keeps women at the bottom of the ranks, who deny maternity and paternity leave, who demand that men work long hours of overtime to reduce their outlays on extra staff. It is governments who refuse to provide quality child care for working class communities. It has been government policies of both Labor in the eighties and early nineties and the Coalition since 1996, combined with employers’ attacks on working conditions that have made low paid, part time or casualised work the norm for so many women. So it is those in power, both men and women, who have created the circumstances that entrench the gender stereotypes in the family.

The family is clearly not maintained and argued for in order to service men. Since World War II, it has suited capitalists to employ married women in ever increasing numbers. Did they ever consult working class men about how that would affect the «services» to them? The whole history of the family under capitalism shows that it was considered by capitalists to be the best institution to feed, clothe and socialise working class children at the lowest possible cost. The unpaid labour of women (and to a lesser extent of men too) in the family saves the capitalist state billions of dollars every year. That is why it is governments, and not «men» in general who appeal to «family responsibilities» to justify education fees, denial of a living wage to unemployed youth, cuts to health care and appalling facilities for the aged. While the system was booming, the welfare state could take over some of the family’s responsibilities. Now that boom is long past, the family can be called upon to fill the gaps left by cut backs to social services. Of course, in many less developed countries, welfare has never taken the burden from the family, which is why women take the brunt of poverty in the third world.

However, while the central role of the family is to rear children and provide a healthy workforce hopefully socialised into appropriate, submissive behaviour, the family does provide a place where adult workers aspire to rest, love, and recuperate from the dreariness of work. It is to a large extent this dream that ensures the continuing popularity of the ideal of the family even though increasing numbers of marriages end in divorce and many homes are anything but restful and loving. But it is the case that when it suits the needs of capitalism, men can be torn from the family with no regard for their needs, unlike children. For much of the early history of white Australia, men did itinerant work separated from their wives and children. Men are sent off to fight in wars, or in the Great Depression forced to roam the country looking for work. Their need to be «serviced» did not entitle them to remain in the family. Theories which argue as Hartmann did that all men conspired to gain the services of women in the family cannot explain why working class men accepted this treatment. If they could influence the establishment of the family, surely they could insist they remain in it.

In the process of invasion and creation of a new capitalist state in Australia, the middle and upper class people who argued for the family recognised not just crude economic benefits in the family, but also its importance as an institution that could help stabilise the colonies. Some of them explicitly understood the important role it would play in establishing ideologies and social behaviour that would be the bulwark of their exploitative system. Caroline Chisholm was quite explicit about it when she began her campaign to establish the working class family in Australia in 1847:

Chisholm played a much more significant role than any working class man in pushing women and men into the constraints of the nuclear family. Leading feminists at the turn of the twentieth century «eulogised motherhood». Feminist writers themselves such as Marilyn Lake have documented how in fact, working class men resisted attempts to force them to live the settled life of monogamous marriage.

It is still the case today that some middle class women play a more important role in perpetuating women’s oppression than most men. Women who lead the Right to Life, campaign against women’s right to abortion. In the late nineties it was middle class women such as Leslie Cannold and Drusilla Modjewska who led a campaign attacking pro-choice activists for not considering the «moral» dilemmas involved in abortion, implying they were wrong to support free safe abortion on demand, but should support state controls over women’s right to choose. Pru Goward, appointed as Sex Discrimination Commissioner in mid 2001, well known friend and supporter of John Howard, influential newspaper columnist, and defender of big business, can hardly be expected to fight for the rights and conditions that working class women need to combat their oppression. Jocelyn Newman, Amanda Vanstone and Bronwyn Bishop preside over areas such as social services, the legal system and aged care that affect women’s lives. These women and others like them such as Labor Party women parliamentarians who have supported economic rationalist policies, have vastly more power over policies affecting women, than any working class man. Bettina Arndt is well known for her attacks on single mothers and support for the gender stereotypes, receiving wide publicity in the media.

It can be shown that the sexism that permeates all of our lives creates direct benefits to the capitalist class. They get cheaper labour to help prop up profits than they would otherwise get, by paying women less and subjecting them to generally worse conditions than if women’s rights were recognised. Even ruling class women benefit from the oppression of working class women as they too live off profits and employ cheap labour to do their housework and child care. The family frees them of responsibility to pay for the hours of work needed to rear children ready to be a compliant workforce in the factories and offices which generate the profits on which these ruling class women live.

However, there is another very important advantage which flows from the sexism engendered by the family and inequalities at work. That is the deep divisions it causes among workers. For workers to improve their conditions, to win reforms, they need collective organisation and struggle. Sexism (along with racism and homophobia) makes it more difficult to build such struggles than it would otherwise be. If men think women belong at home, they miss an opportunity to involve women in the struggle where they are needed. If they are so used to telling sexist jokes and denigrating women they make women feel unwelcome at a strike meeting, on a picket or at a demonstration, they harm no one but themselves and the women they offend. Because they make it much easier for their bosses to win. If women feel less confident of their rights they are less likely to join a union, or to join a picket. It does not benefit working class men to have women workers, who could be fighters in the unions, unorganised and under confident. It benefits their bosses.

So there are massive and obvious reasons why sexist ideas are regenerated and propagated, no matter what reforms women may win. Those who own and control the wealth of society also control the dominant ideas.

But if sexism is not in working class men’s interests, why do they accept sexist ideas? The vast majority of us have little or no control over the work we do, over what is produced, over who will be able to buy what we produce, or how our workplace is organised. This lack of control over a central part of our lives lays the basis for the idea that our bosses are born to rule, or at the very least, that we are powerless to do anything about their authority over us. And in the everyday run of events this is to all intents and purposes true. The only way we can challenge their rule is by banding together with others, a point we will end with below.

Once the central idea justifying the exploitation by a minority of the majority is established, rejecting any of the ideas that go along with that is very difficult. The idea that women are weaker physically, that they are naturally more caring and passive than men, rests on a certain reality. The family demands that women play that role, their conditioning ensures that most women are physically less strong than men. Just as the dispossession of Indigenous people condemns them to terrible living conditions and alienation, which breeds substance abuse, which in turn seems to justify the racist stereotypes about them, so the actual situation of women backs up the sexism.

It may be the case as some sociologists and psychologists argue that denigrating those more oppressed gives the oppressed a sense of power. A man who comes home from a dreadful, boring, dangerous job, tired and frustrated with his lack of power may get some satisfaction from taking it out on the woman with whom he lives, knowing it will be mostly accepted as his right. But this behaviour does not actually give him any real power. It simply reflects his powerlessness. That it is lack of power, and not power itself that leads to sexism and ultimately sexual abuse among ordinary people is reflected in the statistics of sexual violence. It is well known that levels of sexual violence towards women are high in Indigenous communities in Australia. Why? Precisely because of the racist oppression of their communities, the loss of culture and alienation, lack of jobs, discrimination by police and authorities which increase the sense of powerlessness.

This is not to say that all sexual abuse of women stems from powerlessness. Vast numbers of cases result from the power relationships created by our class based, exploitative society. The power the churches had over Indigenous children stolen from their families, or of pastoralists over Indigenous women condemned to domestic labour and sexual slavery on their properties until only a little over two decades ago led to some of the most horrendous abuse recorded. In churches, the hierarchy of clergy over their charges gives them the power to abuse those in their care. The regular exposure of such violence emphasises how integral sexual oppression is to capitalism. Sexual abuse by screws is part of everyday life in jails. The power of employers and managers in the workplace gives them particular licence to abuse women. In a society in which those in authority can use their position with impunity to use women and children as sex objects it is little wonder that those who want to lash out against their own powerlessness and alienation mimic the behaviour of those in power and accept the ideas that justify it.

The story so far is a sorry tale of oppression and division. And yet, socialists are confident we can fight women’s oppression. Contrary to the caricature of us promoted by many of our critics, we do not think we have to wait around until after a revolution to make improvements in women’s lives. It was socialists who were central to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. According to Ann Curthoys, a participant in those heady days, «ideologically, at first, the socialist tradition was dominant».

Because Socialist Alternative recognises the way sexism diminishes women’s lives and the divisive role sexist ideas play in the working class, it is imperative that we take a stand against it wherever we experience sexism. We argue for men to take down sexist pictures of women, we object to sexist jokes, we discourage those we work or live with from using sexist language. We discuss the problems of sexism, and how it affects even the left. We take steps to encourage women to play leading roles in campaigns and organisations and defend their right to defy the gender stereotypes. We encourage male activists and socialists to gain an understanding of women’s oppression, how the gender divisions disadvantage women and how to stand up to sexism. These are necessary steps in order to ensure we are conscious of the effects of sexism in everyday life and the way it can constrain women’s involvement in politics.

But we know that it is out of the struggles for reforms that it is most likely that masses of people can begin to challenge the horrible ideas of capitalism and build the necessary organisation to make the revolution. So we support efforts by women to redress their inequalities in whatever way they can. We actively support and sometimes initiate campaigns against right wing attacks on women such as Right to Life marches, or John Howard and others’ attempts to deny single women access to IVF.

As with all the effects of capitalism, it is in the fight for reforms that a revolutionary movement will be built. And if in those struggles, workers don’t overcome the divisions caused by sexism, racism and homophobia there will be no successful socialist revolution. But how can that happen, if the ideas of capitalism are so dominant, and so well grounded?

The most fundamental factor is the contradictions between the promises of capitalism and the actual experience of ordinary people. On the one hand there is the myth of equality before the law, the romantic idea of everlasting love in monogamous marriage, the emphasis on our «individuality» to name just a few. However the class divisions in society and the fact that exploitation and oppression demean people means these myths make a mockery of most people’s lives. There is a popular idea that people will only fight back when their lives become unbearable as a result of falling living standards. But the process by which people resist is much more complex. Lack of power breeds lack of confidence. But in the long post-war boom, rising living standards actually raised levels of confidence. The fact of the boom moved people to expect more from life than previous generations. But of course, bosses and governments shared no such aspirations. But also, it increasingly became evident that in spite of the boom, racism, and other forms of oppression would not be wiped out without a fight. One of the first signs of this recognition was the Civil Rights Movement in the US. This in turn highlighted the need to struggle to others. For instance, it was the US Civil Rights Movement that inspired mostly white, and one black university student, Charles Perkins, to organise a «Freedom Ride» from Sydney University around the outback NSW towns where anti Aboriginal racism was rife. This led to increased anti-racist activity. Again, the Women’s Liberation Movement arose from the contradictions highlighted by the boom. As women were pulled into the workforce in growing numbers, as contraception became available, and more women entered tertiary education, especially as teachers (pulled in by a shortage of teachers in an expanding education system), the idea that they should be content to be housewives and mothers began to come unstuck. It is not insignificant that it was working class women, many of whom had been influenced by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), that hit the headlines in 1969 protesting over equal pay. Working alongside men, catching public transport where they paid the same fares, but being paid less, facing the problems of childcare while experiencing discrimination at work drove an at first tiny minority to take a stand.

The boom led to workers expecting higher living standards, but facing huge fines for their union every time they took industrial action because of the anti-union laws of the right wing Menzies government. It was no accident that in the same year women chained themselves to buildings to demand equal pay, a million workers had taken action earlier that year and successfully smashed the Penal Powers as the anti-union laws were known. When one group shows that gains can be made, and solidarity is possible, it gives others increased confidence. This can be especially important in helping oppressed groups make their first move. Out of this growing level of confidence and struggle in the late sixties, the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), after many years of struggle to unionise their industry and win safer working conditions, took the lead in urban environmental campaigns to save historic working class areas and parks around Sydney. Their campaign in turn inspired environmentalists who took up their phrase «green bans» and applied it to their movement. This all-male workforce became famous for their support for women’s struggles, in particular, for the right of women to work in the building industry. They inspired activists with their bans at Macquarie University in defence of a gay student victimised because of his sexuality. None of this was simply accidental or merely episodic. It is the nature of class struggle to encourage ideas of solidarity. Because workers find that on their own they come up against the power of governments and bosses. Once solidarity has been won, the issues of new supporters gain a new hearing and so on.

But it is not simply that issues link up in a linear way. Qualitative changes become possible once the normality of everyday life and its subservience is broken. In the turmoil of struggle, ideas which seem settled and undisputed come up for grabs. Because once workers begin to take some control over their lives, the sense of powerlessness is weakened. This then provides the basis to examine long held beliefs. There is nothing so encouraging than to win an argument with workers organising a picket that women should participate against their doubts. And it is not only men who accept sexist ideas about the role of women. Well, perhaps more inspiring is to witness women (or any workers for that matter) feeling their own power. One of my earliest political experiences was a strike by textile workers at the Kortex factory in Melbourne. Their joy when they turned back a truck from entering the plant is something embedded in my memory that helps me keep going in the lowest points of struggle.

There is no formula for how struggles will begin. The radical movements of the sixties and seventies were underpinned by the contrast between expectations fuelled by the economic boom and the reality of capitalism. Sometimes it is because of bitterness stored up because of oppression, or attacks on living standards by bosses and governments, which is the driving force for the world wide new movement against corporatisation.

So socialists are on the lookout for opportunities to win people to the idea that they can win reforms by fighting, rather than relying on politicians or the benevolence of employers or the supposed neutrality of the courts. In that sense, socialists don’t accept that to fight for women’s liberation we always and everywhere have to be involved in so-called «women’s issues». Strikes over wages, or the right to have a union, can very easily lead to gains in consciousness which lessen the sexism women have to endure. Activists who participated in the many picket lines during the late eighties in Melbourne to defend the BLF, who were facing deregistration by the Labor government, were struck by the heightened awareness of and opposition to sexism among these overwhelmingly male workers. Their years of militant industrial struggle had led to political discussion, contact with the left and a consciousness of oppression. Many young women activists who had not experienced an industrial struggle were similarly surprised at the MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) mass pickets in 1988 when thousands mobilised to defend their union. At pickets where the overwhelming majority were at times male, women commented that they did not feel threatened. Sexist ideas such as expecting women not to be capable of maintaining the picket lines in the event of a police attack were openly argued against. Again, this was a combination of the immediate struggle and its experience and a long history by waterside workers in political and industrial campaigns which had created a layer of activists with an understanding of the role of sexism and other oppressive ideas in society, and how to fight them.

So struggle is central to building a movement that can unite women and men in the fight against sexism. But socialists do not assume this is automatic. Sexist ideas are strong and many varied. So being organised as socialists, developing an understanding of sexism, where it stems from, how to fight it is part and parcel of building on the opportunities that emerge when struggles break out. The intervention of activists to explicitly argue against sexism is still often needed. The difference is, we can get a hearing that in «normal» times might seem impossible. Because the need for solidarity can be stronger than the commitment to the horrible ideas of capitalism.

There are those who argue that women need to be organised «autonomously», otherwise their «issues» won’t be taken seriously, or they won’t be able to participate as equals in the struggles. But this ignores the very real class and therefore political divisions which necessarily divide women. Unlike the divisions among workers caused by sexism, these divisions cannot be overcome in any permanent way. Take past women’s struggles. In the campaigns for women’s suffrage it was common for middle and upper class women to only support property based voting rights (which denied the vote to working class women and men) to give them equal rights with men of their own class. It was only ever the working class movement that consistently supported universal suffrage. It might seem that all women can unite for abortion rights. However, leaving aside the religious views of many women who will never support that right, even women who want abortion rights don’t have the same needs. So abortion campaigns have always been divided between more middle class women who simply want legalised abortion and working class women who need free, safe abortions on demand. And when it comes down to it, ruling class women don’t need the right to work or equal pay, as they live off profits as do the men of their class. So inevitably, all women’s movements, including the Women’s Liberation Movement, while it could raise slogans such as «women united will never be defeated» in its first flush, were in the end torn apart by class differences which were reflected in different political trends from the commitment to working class struggle and unity of socialism to radical feminism which argued that all men oppress all women, and therefore all women could unite, but could not expect solidarity from men. The first signs of the shifts occurring was the disappearance of «Liberation» from the name of the movement. Janey Stone, a revolutionary socialist at the time and an activist in the Women’s Liberation Movement, predicted where things were heading.

Just as the radicalism of the early movement had been related to the rising tide of radicalism and industrial action, so the increasing dominance of the more right wing ideas of feminism accompanied the retreats of the working class and other movements. These questions matter, not because of some abstract shibboleth devised by socialists. When activists embark on a program of struggle based on unachievable goals – in this case, the hope that all women could unite – the ultimate, predictable failure, leads many activists to demoralisation. The disillusionment of many women committed to women’s rights is palpable in student publications. In the Melbourne University women’s student magazine, Judy’s Punch in 1995, one woman wrote that a march against fees, organised from NOWSA (the national conference of women students) was great until the cops attacked it. Then solidarity collapsed. She expressed her disillusionment thus:

Yet we are expected to take the ideas of feminism seriously! Another woman wrote that she had hoped that NOWSA would «pull feminism apart», analysing why the movement was in disarray. But she was disappointed that it didn’t. It is important we learn the lessons from the last Women’s Liberation Movement and the developments over the last decade and a half, so that if the possibility of mass struggles for women’s rights accompany the new anti-capitalist movement we may avoid some of the pitfalls.

Out of the turmoil of debates in the last decade there are those who agree that all women (ruling class and working class) cannot unite. However, they argue that all left wing women should organise «autonomously». However women with fundamental political differences will come up against the same differences of principle that keep them in different organisations. And they will find more in common on these matters of principle with men with whom they agree. This argument, while acknowledging class differences is still a concession to the idea that our identity forms our politics, rather than experience and theory. If any group of women has fundamental political agreement, they will be most effective if they are organised together with men with the same politics. The idea that women need a separate organisation is a concession to the idea that men naturally and always will dominate, and that women are incapable of playing a leading role in their own right in organisations. Take for example the disagreements that have come up over whether to oppose Right to Life Clubs on campus. Not all left wing women agree on the tactics of demonstrating at their stalls and meetings. So those who do, have a much stronger presence and ability to defeat the pro-life clubs if they entail the solidarity of men who agree.

The socialist answer to the question «how can we win women’s liberation» is to look to the traditions of collective struggle of the working class. Not that other groups in society do not take up their own demands and lead campaigns. The point is to see that linking these to those of the working class is the way to build a movement capable of uniting millions, and of forcing change. Marxists do not put this emphasis on the working class because we think workers are somehow more virtuous, good, or more deserving than others. It is because as a class united in struggle, they have the power to defeat those in power, and ultimately, to bring capitalism crashing down and to build a new society based on collectivity out of the ruins. The dynamic in the workers’ movement is in the opposite direction to what we have seen in the women’s movement. At first, the old divisions can seem insuperable at times. But if workers’ confidence continues and they continue to want to fight their rulers, they have to begin to overcome ideas such as sexism, bringing the oppressed into the struggle by raising their demands. In any case, women are half the working class, whether they’re in paid work or not. It is necessary to remind us of that because there is, even after the unprecedented entry of women into the paid workforce, a stereotype of the «worker» as male and blue collar. This caricature of the working class lies behind the fear that the «working class» won’t fight for «women’s issues». The working class today includes increasing numbers of white collar workers, often university educated, who might think of themselves as middle class, but nevertheless find themselves organising unions like any other workers. Bank and finance workers are a good example, leading militant struggles in countries such as South Korea in the last decade.

There is nothing inevitable about the specific demands of women being part of working class struggle, especially if it involves at first mostly male workers. However, the need for unity, for involving as wide a layer of workers as possible to gain the strength to defeat governments and employers opens the way for old prejudices to be smashed. That is one important reason for socialists to be organised, and to have ideas about how to win the necessary arguments. Because it is often the intervention of socialists into spontaneous struggles that encourages these steps to be taken. If they are not taken, nine times out of ten the struggle will fail because of its own divisions.

It is not accidental that surveys have shown that skilled male workers often have the most progressive ideas about women’s rights – even than most women. Because they are the section of the working class often with the highest levels of unionisation, they learn the lessons of unity.

So the socialist answer to sexism is struggle. And fundamentally, to end capitalism, struggle led by the working class who have the power to stop production and therefore the capitalist system. In the first two years of the twenty first century, the anti-capitalist movement has taken off around the world marked by mass mobilisations against bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank, or gatherings of heads of governments. This movement has its own features and dynamic. The tens of thousands who turn out to the mass mobilisations obviously take heart from the fact that lots of different struggles come together at them, that all kinds of issues can be raised, discussed and protested about. Anger over sweatshop conditions has raised a pertinent women’s issue. In this climate, the defensiveness of «autonomous» women’s organisations is completely out of step with events. The mass protests should be the focus of everyone who wants to fight sexism, and for women’s liberation. In Porto Alegre at a mass mobilisation against the World Economic Forum, unity between the 15–20,000 who protested on the streets illustrated the potential for this new movement. The issues raised included (apart from economic demands to deal with poverty) opposition to US backing for corrupt military dictators in Latin America, support for abortion rights, and a drag queen led a contingent calling for Lesbian and Gay rights. At the May 1 protest in Melbourne in 2001, socialists were able to involve marchers in chanting slogans about issues from Third World debt, to union rights, to Queer liberation. Tens of thousands of women join with equal numbers of men at each and every one of these mass protests, laying the basis for a movement which can fundamentally challenge the very basis of women’s oppression. And that is the existence of class society itself. For that, we need a movement centred on the working class.

For only with the end to the underlying class divisions which make sexism necessary and useful to the system will women’s liberation be possible.

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