THE 21ST Century belongs to women. That’s what many pundits were saying in the run up to the year 2000. Much is made of the fact that there are marginally more women at work now than men, as if this alone is a measure of equality.

TO CELEBRATE International Women’s Day, ELEANOR DONNE looks at the situation facing women in Britain today and what difference socialism would make to their lives. cwi online.

What socialism would mean for women

Yet in the workplace, at home and in society in general it is obvious to many women that they have not achieved equality, let alone liberation. It is true that women are now more than 50% of the workforce, but they make up 75% of the low paid. 30 years after the Equal Pay Act was implemented women only earn 72% of average male earnings.

Work that is done mostly by women brings with it low status and wages. Nursery nurses across Scotland are currently taking industrial action to try to gain a living wage. In a capitalist society caring for and educating young children quite clearly is not as valued as, say, working on the stock exchange or in advertising.

Although women increasingly work outside the home, recent surveys show that they still end up doing most of the housework and childcare in the home. Many more and increasingly younger women are also finding themselves caring for elderly and sick relatives, because of the lack of help available from local authorities.

It would be wrong to say that nothing had changed for the better in the last 25 years, but for a lot of working class women in particular, life is a struggle to find the time and the money to get to the end of the week.

Many young women today have much higher expectations than their mothers and grandmothers had, in terms of higher education, and a career. The most blatant forms of discrimination have been outlawed and of course every large employer has their ’equality and diversity’ policy. But young women, and older women too, face increased pressure and oppression in different ways.

We are bombarded with images in magazines, and adverts of ’perfect’ women, advised how to have ’the appearance of visibly younger looking skin’. The capitalist economy relies on advertising to create a ’need’ (to be thin, to look young ) and creates an ever increasing market for cosmetics, diet regimes etc to ’fulfil’ this.

Cosmetic surgery is no longer the preserve of a few rich Hollywood stars as increasing numbers of ordinary women feel the pressure (and can borrow the money) to conform to the current ’ideal’ body shape.

But many women ask how do we change this? Isn’t it just about men’s attitudes, and won’t it always be like this? Would life be any different in a socialist society?

Can we change things?

It is true, of course, that women’s inequality and oppression did not start with modern capitalism and dates from very early history.

But this does not mean that it is ’natural’ and has always existed. It has its roots in the development of class society and the family as an economic and social unit.

Women’s role became primarily to produce children to inherit newly acquired wealth, and their sexuality was strictly controlled. Capitalism adapted the family to reinforce the role of women in the family as unpaid domestic servants and promoted the idea that their role in the workplace was secondary to that, so justifying low pay and lack of job security.

The government uses ideology about ’family responsibilities’ to absolve itself from blame for the many social problems that are inherent to such an unequal, fragmented society.

Socialism

In a socialist society major industries, banks and financial institutions would be publicly owned, democratically run and accountable.

Employees and consumers and other elected representatives would democratically control what is produced, the wealth and resources this generates and the effect on the environment.

Instead of profits being creamed off for shareholders and billionaires they could be invested in housing, schools, hospitals, nurseries and other much needed facilities.

Equal pay

Our call for an £8 per hour minimum wage and a minimum income of £320 a week, is a step towards what would be possible in a democratic planned economy, in which no-one could ’earn’ the obscene amounts that the captains of industry award themselves and jobs such as cleaning, catering and childcare (traditionally women’s jobs) would have equal pay and status with ’men’s jobs’.

’Work/life balance’

Baggage handlers and check-in staff at British Airways in Heathrow walked out at the end of last year, against the imposition of ’flexi’ working which would have meant the (mostly women) workers doing split shifts and would make sorting out childcare a nightmare.

Women working full time now work on average an extra half day a week, with British men working the longest hours in Europe. As a first measure full time work should be limited to a maximum of 35 hours a week, with no loss of pay. Over time it would be possible to reduce those hours further so that people could have more leisure time or time with their children - (the two things aren’t always the same!)

Childcare

Currently childcare is available for only one in seven children under eight years old and costs more than in any other European country.

Access to help via tax credits is not much help if you cannot get a nursery place!

A key part of a socialist society would be access to a range of flexible, free, child care facilities that kids like and that are not just there so that parents can work, but play as well.

Reproductive rights

Women should have the right to choose when and whether to have a child. Such a choice should include the right to a free termination without the need for a doctor’s permission, and access to fertility treatment on the NHS but also access to decent housing, childcare and a minimum income so that having a child does not lead to poverty and isolation.

These measures would make a big practical difference to the daily lives of working class women and many middle class women but would also raise their status and help to undermine sexism.

Reactionary attitudes to women are very deeply ingrained and unfortunately they are unlikely to disappear overnight in a socialist society.

In the longer term a socialist society - one which is based not on exploitation but co-operation, equality and genuine democracy - would develop a culture and ideology that reflected the values of the new society, including within personal relationships. Only then will women and men be truly liberated.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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