The 20th century did see a big increase in women demanding to be treated as equals in society. In nearly every country they achieved the franchise to vote in elections. In many they won - on paper at least - the right to equal pay for doing the same job as men but in most they still receive at least 20% less pay on average than men.
In many countries women receive less than half the pay of men and in some countries they labour in the fields and in domestic industry for almost nothing. Legal rights to abortion, contraception and divorce have been established in many countries through long and bitter struggles but are still denied the majority of the world’s women.
Compared with the 19th century, women in most countries became much more aware of their rights in the 20th century and more determined to fight for them. They won recognition for their abilities and some rose to considerable heights in a number of spheres of public, academic and corporate life.
Many women were able to break free from economic dependence on men and from domestic drudgery. This was vastly assisted by the harnessing of electricity and gas, and the invention of numerous domestic appliances, to dramatically reduce the time spent on cleaning, cooking, washing and looking after children.
But unfortunately, the benefits of many of these advances were available only to those who could afford them. This left out the vast majority of women in colonial and newly ex-colonial countries and millions of working women of town and country even in the most industrialised countries. In general, it is still the minority - usually from the middle and ruling classes - who have benefited.
The contraceptive pill and the condom, as well as pain-killers and fertility drugs, provided the basis of more freedom of choice for women in relation to child-bearing. In most countries there has been a huge increase in the assertiveness and confidence of especially young women.
There is also a wider acceptance amongst men of the need to share in household tasks and in the up-bringing of children. But it is a fact that working women and their daughters still carry out far more of the household chores than men and boys in so-called advanced countries. In the countries where the idea of hierarchy and men’s superiority and of the domination of one (minority) class over another is enforced by religion and ’tradition’, there is no pretence at equality!
On a global scale, ’progress’ towards diminishing the double oppression of women has proved extremely slow and limited. Will things be any different in the new century? It has opened up to a fanfare of assertions that the ’New Economy’, based on an explosion of computer technology, will revolutionise our lives. Unfortunately, unless a break is made with capitalism in some part of the world or another and unless the task is begun of developing the world’s resources for need and not for profit, still only a minority of women will experience any tangible benefit from the advances being made in science and technology.
Technology for whom?
A handful of giant companies controls production and distribution world-wide of goods and services. If there is no profit for them, they will not produce. Microsoft’s owner, Bill Gates - the richest man in the richest country in the world, the USA - is not interested in making computers to make life easier for ordinary people. Nor, for that matter is Azim Premji, with $12 billion worth of ‘Infotech’ shares and the richest man in India - the country with the world’s largest number of poor. If the ’New Economy’ does little or nothing for working class women in the ’advanced’ industrialised countries in terms of easing the burdens of everyday life, it will do nothing for the mass of toiling women in the underdeveloped ‘Third World’.
The ILO (International Labour Organisation) in a recent report on ’IT and jobs in the media and entertainment’ confirms that employment is being created for "geographically mobile, well-educated, multi-skilled and adaptable people"... "But, more and more jobs are likely to be unstable, temporary assignments without fringe benefits or social security coverage and some job losses or down-grading are inevitable". What has been won over decades through struggle, is being undermined along with attacks on the power of the unions to fight back.
Some of the new jobs created will be in ’Third World’ countries, and many of them will be for young women. But, since they do not make a major contribution to the actual production of real commodities, developments in information technology, however revolutionary in themselves, are not going to overcome the crises caused by the anarchic workings of capitalism. Fabulous fortunes have been made through the rocketing of prices quoted on the Stock Exchanges of the world for high tech companies. But so ’unreal’ have they become that it is only a matter of time before the bubble bursts. Many companies will go to the wall and thousands of jobs will disappear.
Forty per cent of the world economy has not been brought out of recession and slow growth in Europe and America has been maintained through attacking the social and working conditions of large sections of the working class. Through neo-liberal policies adopted world-wide, workers’ rights have been under constant attack. Working class women have suffered most from the deterioration in levels of secure employment and of pay and from drastic cut-backs in social provisions - education, health, subsidies and benefits. The deterioration in their living standards has been accompanied by a massive increase in sexual exploitation of women and attempts to turn back the clock in relation to women’s role in society.
Poverty, wars, disasters
In the countries where economic and social development has been stymied by colonial and neo-colonial exploitation, new technology will not touch the lives of the vast majority of women. They have barely entered the 20th century, let alone the 21st! The weak and corrupt capitalist classes in their countries, subservient to world financial institutions and multinationals, are incapable of dealing with the multiple crises of chronic indebtedness, currency collapses, falling commodity prices, totally inadequate infrastructure, education, health and welfare provision.
For women in these poorest countries, January 1st, 2000 will have held no special significance - partly because most do not reckon according to the Christian calendar but mainly because, when life consists of an un-ending round of toil, each day is indistinguishable from the one before and the one to follow.
At least 70% per cent of the world’s poor are women. In the last decade of the 20th century, the number of people scraping an existence on less than a dollar a day rose from 1.3 billion to 1.5 billion. Around half the world’s people have never used a telephone, owned a cooker, fridge, washing machine or TV set, let alone got wired up to the internet! Two-thirds of the world’s women cannot read or write their own language, let alone type in English - the language of the biggest imperialist power and of the world-wide web.
The majority of the world’s homeless and refugees are women and children and they suffer most from wars, civil wars and natural disasters.
The comments of Nelson Mandela, the first president of apartheid-free South Africa, about closing the century with most people still languishing in poverty, subjected to hunger, preventable disease, illiteracy and insufficient shelter are therefore particularly poignant for the female half of the world’s population.
Yet what he did not add is that all these horrors are the result of the continued existence of capitalism. The situation in his own country is a clear illustration of how impossible it is to eliminate homelessness, joblessness and poverty without tackling the root cause - the capitalist system.
The black majority in South Africa had enormous faith that having a black president would bring them jobs, shelter and freedom from oppression and exploitation. But not only did Mandela, like so many other third world leaders, espouse market capitalism; some of his closest comrades in the mass struggle to end white capitalist rule went one step further and became owners of industry themselves. They live a life of luxury while the hopes and aspirations of the masses who put them in power have been dashed.
Mandela himself recently spoke in a jocular manner of the bruises his mother got as a result of his father’s regular beatings. But such treatment is no joke for the millions of women in South Africa who are the victims of one of the highest levels of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence in the world. In addition, more than 30% of the country’s population - men, women and children - are infected with HIV and could be dead from AIDS within a few years from now. Insufficient money has been invested in preventative health programmes and multinational drug companies obstruct access for pregnant women to a drug known as AZT which can prevent the passing on of HIV to the next generation.
Women as victims
AIDS is a threatening catastrophe throughout Africa - an impoverished continent in which so many women’s lives are plagued too by the horrors of wars and civil wars. The atrocities perpetrated during wars like that of Rwanda, Sierra Leone etc. have been mirrored in the gruesome events of the past twelve months in Kosova, East Timor and Chechnya - massacres, ethnic cleansing, torture and systematic rape. Hundreds of thousands of women and children have been the principal victims of civil wars around the globe and, as a result, constitute the bulk of the world’s asylum seekers.
Women who have fled nightmares of violence, death and destruction in their own countries have often found themselves in refugee camps which are anything but a safe haven. Already scared and traumatised, they face yet more intimidation, sexual assault and even forced deportation by thugs who gain the upper hand in many of these camps.
Hundreds of Kosovar women seeking refuge in Albania, for example, have become easy prey to the gangs of young men who deliver human cargo to brothels in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Like thousands of other women from Eastern Europe and Asia, they are lured by the promise of a secure job in western Europe or the USA, and enslaved as sex workers until they have paid vast sums to ’traffickers’ and made big profits for the ’houses’ in which they are forced to work. One brothel in Atlanta was discovered recently to have grossed one and a half million dollars over a two and a half year period from such ’trade’.
Tens of thousands of women living in poverty in countries like the Philippines or Sri Lanka are similarly lured into ’domestic service’ in the Gulf States and elsewhere that can mean virtual imprisonment and super-exploitation. Denied the right to refuse any demands made on them by their ’employers’, many resort to suicide as the only escape. Newspapers in their home countries frequently carry reports of the ’defenestration’ of maids in the Middle East - driven to jumping from the windows of apartments in which they are trapped, often to certain death.
The alternative to working abroad for tens of thousands of young women in underdeveloped countries who cannot find jobs in their home area, is to move to the notorious ’Free’ or ’Export’ Trade Zones (FTZs or ETZs). There, typically, trade unions are illegal, 10 hours work a day is ’normal’, conditions in the dormitories are primitive and if women either become pregnant or begin to fight for their rights, the employers immediately try to find a way of forcing them out of the factory.
Women as class fighters
But, as one young female worker from the Bigayama FTZ, Sri Lanka, commented recently to CWI members: "At least here you can get together and fight to change things; there (in the Middle East as a house-maid) you’re on your own and there’s no way out if you get into difficulties!" She was among a hundred or so young women using a precious public holiday to discuss strike action to extract from their Korean employer the wages he had been owing them for months.
Women in sweated industries around the world, as well as in the more organised and advanced, have made many valiant attempts to organise and to make their demands heard. Gains have been won through struggle in Mexico in the highly exploitative Maquiladora zone on the border with the United States.
Recently, further South in Chile, hundreds of women workers at Johnson’s textile factory, Santiago, (where CWI member Vilma Alvarez is union president), showed how determined collective action can get results. They were on strike for just five days and not only won the minimum wage and premium payments they were demanding; they also won full pay for the time of the strike and a promise of no victimisation of any activist after the strike was over.
Their action included using chains and padlocks to imprison the management inside the factory, along with a Supreme Court judge who had come to visit them! The strikers announced they would arm themselves if the riot police were sent against them and also threatened to occupy a luxury shopping mall frequented by the rich. This illustrates admirably the flare and fighting spirit that can bring about real change for working class women wherever they are.
It takes courage, self-sacrifice and determination to build a movement - qualities which women have always demonstrated in abundance once they engage in struggle. Many pioneers and martyrs have paved the way for the gains women have made.
March 8th was the day in 1857 on which a demonstration of women workers from the textile mills of North America came under police attack. They were protesting about child labour and poverty wages - features of industrial capitalism that still persist in many countries. Only in the first decade of the following century did March 8th become the international day of working women’s solidarity.
But in Petrograd, Russia, exactly sixty years after the first New York demonstration, (actually in February according to the calendar in use at the time) striking women factory workers led a walk-out against hunger and food shortages which became, within hours, a full-scale revolution. Csarist rule was overthrown. The process was set in train which led rapidly, through the skilful intervention of the Bolshevik Party, to the establishment by the end of October 1917 of the first-ever workers’ and peasants’ government. The struggle for international socialism was under way.
It has become fashionable again, since the collapse of the bureaucratically-run planned economies of the USSR and Eastern Europe, to say that socialism is not only a ’dictatorial’ system but totally ’unviable’. Those who do so either understand nothing or they deliberately and dishonestly try to confuse and obfuscate the issues. They make no effort to explain the origins of the Russian revolution or the reasons for its degeneration. It had proved impossible to end Russia’s participation in the slaughter of the First World War or to feed the vast population of the Russian Empire on the basis of capitalism, weighed down as it was by the incubus of feudal land-ownership. The only way to tackle the problems, as in many underdeveloped countries still today, was to eliminate the rule of private capital. Isolation and exhaustion led to the principles of socialism being trampled underfoot as Stalin and his cronies established a totalitarian dictatorship.
The detractors of socialism, including many within the feminist movement, also choose to ignore the dramatic improvements in workers’ rights and freedoms introduced immediately by the socialist government under Lenin and Trotsky. Particularly impressive were some of the earliest decrees of the democratically elected Congress of workers’ and peasants’ delegates which began to transform the lives of women. They introduced civil marriage, the right of women to divorce, to have abortions and to get jobs on an equal footing with men and with equal pay for work of equal value. The task was begun of freeing women from domestic drudgery with the setting up of nurseries, communal kitchens, laundries etc. Literacy campaigns were aimed particularly at women in order to bring them into the modern world.
Stalinism then capitalism
Without the spread of the socialist revolution to countries where advanced techniques in industry were more widely used and where the peasantry had a smaller weight in society, the economic base in the Soviet Union was not sufficiently developed to sustain a full programme of such radical reforms in the lives of working class and peasant women. Under Stalin all these gains were reversed and the family was used as a transmission mechanism for imposing the order and discipline associated with authoritarian, military police regimes.
But if life was hard for women under Stalinist rule, the situation has hardly turned out for the better since the restoration of capitalism in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. A Unicef report 10 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall - ’Women in Transition’ - finds that women’s total work-load in the region is 70 hours a week compared with 55 in western Europe. In Hungary, one third of jobs for women have vanished. In Russia women lost 7 million jobs in the first half of the 1990s while men lost between 1 and 2 million.
Women’s health in the 27 "transition countries" under examination is deteriorating. Sexually transmitted diseases in particular and maternal mortality are on the increase. So is the resort to abortion, already high, as a form of birth control. In Russia now, since the collapse of the economy by 50% (as a direct result of the ’transition’ to market capitalism), the cuts in state spending and the sometimes total absence of wages coming into the house-hold, the ratio of abortions to live births has reached two to one!
Violence against women, the same report states, is prevalent and worsening. Without change, it concludes, the alternative is bleak. By ’change’ they mean women participating more in decision-making but particularly in implementing economic ’reform’ - i.e. pushing ahead with privatisation programmes that have wrought so much havoc already. Socialists see the only way to reverse these horrible trends is to step up the struggle of workers and youth - men and women - to build a party capable of convincing the mass of workers of the need to take the commanding heights of the economy back into public ownership.
We argue for genuine ’participatory’ democratic control over a state-owned, planned economy, and over the running of society generally, by elected committees of workers’ representatives who can decide on the development and allocation of resources. Women would be encouraged to play a full role in this process. Such measures would contrast starkly with the artificial allocation under Stalinism of seats in ’representative’ bodies to female party hacks and bureaucrats. It would also be a huge advance on today’s situation in Russia, for example, where under ’capitalist’ democracy and in spite of the existence of a Women’s Party, the number of women in local and regional councils has plummeted to a tiny handful.
Capitalism has proved to be a disaster for the whole of the ex-Soviet Union. One of its former republics - Georgia - produces just one quarter of what it managed to do 10 years ago. Another - Ukraine - manages no more than one third. Russia itself is running at 47% of its 1989 production level. It will take the sweeping away of the oligarchy - the ’cleptocracy’ who gobbled up the state’s assets to make fat profits for themselves - to even begin to rebuild these economies and restore some health to every sphere of what were highly prized public services.
Without a fight-back, under capitalism women in the ex-Stalinist countries will be forced to shoulder a yet greater share of what should be collectively-borne responsibilities and suffer yet further indignities and degradations at the hands of the media and of a layer of brutalised men who try to bully them into subservience - either at work or in the home.
In other parts of the globe capitalism has proved no more capable of improving the prospects of working and poor women - be it in Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Middle East. Capitalist writers try to comfort themselves with news that economic recovery is well on its way in East Asia. But, for the millions of families thrown into absolute poverty by the ’Asian Crisis’ which started in 1997, there is little sign of improvement. The continuing recession in Japan means big job losses in store, both in Japan itself and in the whole region. With little or no state provision in the under-developed world for the unemployed, the sick or the elderly, again it is women who feel hardest the additional burden put on the family by the crises which are not of their making. Even in the so-called advanced capitalist countries, women have borne the brunt of cuts in public spending. And now a down-turn in the whole world economy is imminent.
The Fight-Back has begun
Sooner or later, new revolts will develop on a par with the general strikes of South Korea or France in the mid-1990s or, more recently, Peru, Colombia, Zimbabwe and Ecuador. They may take the form of revolutionary upheavals on the scale of Indonesia, 1998. Others may take the form of radical nationalism and attempts to buck the trend of compliance with the wishes of the strongest imperialist powers. Precisely because they are among the worst affected by economic and social catastrophe, women from working class and poor back-grounds will take their place in these struggles.
Women, especially young women, will continue to be involved in, and in many cases lead, movements of protest at what they see as attacks on their basic rights and those of the whole of humanity. Recently in Europe and elsewhere, they have been actively involved in campaigns against cuts in education and health funding, against harassment and violence, racism, attacks on abortion and fertility rights, against wars and national oppression. In many countries they have been amongst the most determined of strikers and involved in committees to support the struggles of a particular work-force against closures and redundancies. Undoubtedly the women who are prepared to fight against the injustices of the capitalist system and even to confront the forces of the state in these battles will be open to and attracted by the ideas of revolutionary socialism.
Half of the world’s population is female. Two-thirds of all the world’s toil is done by women and yet they receive just one-tenth of the world’s income. Women own less than one hundredth of the world’s wealth!
A huge dissatisfaction, resentment and even outright hostility towards global corporate capitalism has built up in many quarters of the world. It was expressed on the streets of Seattle last November with the coming together in the mass protests of trade unionists, environmentalists and many other representatives of the most discontented of the world. Their 50,000 strong demonstrations shook the confidence of the big powers and multinationals represented at the meeting of the once-mighty World Trade Organisation. Traditionally at such meetings in the past, the rulers of the rich nations of the world have been able to stitch things up and lord it unchallenged over the poorer ones. Not any more! It is now perceived, as one newspaper put it, as a "self-selected global junta of the rich" doing deals "between multinational capital and big government plutocrats, with US interests coming first" (Observer 5/12/99) Capitalism has ’globalised’ itself; so has the movement against it!
As yet, of course, opposition is limited to trying to block the process of globalisation and the worst effects of capitalism’s drive for markets. Few protesters see the need to rid society of capitalism itself. They are not sure there is an alternative. It is up to convinced socialists to join every such protest and argue energetically the case against a system where production is geared only to the making of vast fortunes for the few. Our task is to point to a socialist alternative:- a system of production geared through democratic planning and control to fulfilling the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet.
For that, concrete class action by workers and poor peasants is necessary. Marches can play an important role in preparing for strikes, boycotts and other forms of resistance. They are an expression of anger and can convey to all participants as well as observers, a feeling of the potential power of a mass movement that says "No!" to the rulers. This stems from seeing the enemy begin to take fright - signs like the use of the National Guard or riot police, the postponement of any major decisions etc.
Every success of an anti-capitalist protest anywhere in the world, encourages bolder and more decisive action in other places. But the anger and resentment that has accumulated against capitalism needs to be channelled into a struggle for socialism. This can only be done by parties that base themselves on action by important layers of the working class and have a revolutionary perspective and a strategy for victory.
Of particular significance, in the view of the CWI and its sections around the world, was the presence on the streets of Seattle of tens of thousands of American trade unionists. These representatives of the world’s potentially most powerful working class took their place alongside workers’ representatives from Korea and the Philippines, poor farmers’ lobbies from India, environmentalists and peace campaigners of all kinds. Real change can only be effected by hitting the big companies that dominate the world economy where it hurts - in their profit accounts. A new feeling is abroad that these forces are not invincible!
Marches and class action
A ’World March of Women’ is planned for October 17th this year, along the lines of one held in 1995, but bigger and better and emulating the success of Seattle. Many of the numerous demands drawn up by the organisers - trade unions, Non Government Organisations, feminist groups etc. - to right the wrongs against womankind are highly commendable. No-one could disagree with the main sentiments of wanting to ’end poverty’ and ’end violence against women’. The point is to tackle their root causes and mobilise the forces that can extract real concessions from bosses and their ’kept’ governments. The only way women can free themselves from these twin scourges - of poverty and violence - is through collective class action.
Fighting poverty starts in the workplace in a struggle to get better wages for the hours worked. It means mobilising working women and men against the employers - private and public - who pay subsistence wages. It means building fighting organs of class struggle and pushing trade unions and other workers’ organisations to campaign for decent minimum wages.
In Britain, CWI members in the biggest trade union, UNISON - 75% of whose 1.3 million members are female - pushed the leadership to organise a national protest march in pursuit of a minimum wage of £5 an hour. In Ireland, the CWI section - the Socialist Party - has been ’naming and shaming’ low wage bosses and getting real increases for women and young people working in shops and cafes. This is the role that should be played by trade union organisations but with very few exceptions, they are falling down on this basic task.
They are neglecting their basic responsibilities also to women workers on issues that cause great pain and suffering. Ending discrimination, harassment and violence against them - at work, in society and at home - must be taken up by all labour movement organisations. Winning spectacular sums of as much as $250,000 in financial compensation for discrimination, harassment or even violence through court battles gets publicity and helps the individual women concerned. What it does not do is overcome the problems caused by the original offence. Only the removal of the offenders from the workplace or the home can begin to create a secure environment for the injured party.
Court actions can only be taken by women with access to funds or to some body that can take up their cause. They by no means guarantee all working women the basic right to work and live without fear of any form of oppression against them. For that, collective action and constant vigilance is required and, essentially, a socialist struggle to do away with the class oppression of all workers by capitalism.
Success has been achieved by women of the CWI in the US, Britain and elsewhere in increasing awareness of these problems and of the need for concrete action to overcome them. Particularly successful in getting trade unions and political organisations to take up the issues has been the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in Britain. It has also organised effective protests against long jail terms being handed out to women who have killed violent partners. In most cases these women have been subjected to beatings, mental torment and insults over a period of years, even decades, from the men they have lived with, and see no other way out of a living hell. Those bigots who say domestic violence is a private matter are accepting that obedience at all costs is the norm to which women must adhere.
A meeting was held last year of government representatives from around the world to draw up statutes of international laws supposedly to protect women’s rights. The objections of the representatives of eleven Arab League countries to certain crimes showed how ineffective such efforts are in the present world. These apparently respectable gentlemen maintained that "crimes of sexual violence, ’imprisonment’ and persecution committed within the family, as a matter of religion and cultural norms, do not qualify as crimes against humanity!"
The only way to counter such reactionary ideology is to make the right of all women to protection from domestic violence a trade union and a political matter. Demands for safe shelter from abuse and for the removal of the abuser from a family home should be inscribed on the banner of every workers’ organisation that is serious about defending women’s and children’s basic rights, let alone struggling for a better, socialist, society.
Also included in their programme must be demands for things which would radically improve working class women’s independence - a decent minimum wage, child benefit sufficient to cover the cost of bringing up children, better, cheaper housing and a shorter working week for all without loss in pay to enable women and men to have ’quality time’ with their children as well as participate in the social and political life of their community.
Campaigns to save schools, hospitals and nurseries from cuts in spending attract women who are most affected. Members of the CWI have often initiated such campaigns and recruited new women members to their ranks. Working class women actively participated in and, in many cases, organised the historic 18 million-strong non-payment campaign of 1989-90 that defeated Thatcher’s hated poll tax in Britain. Campaigns initiated by CWI sections in Ireland and Scotland against water charges also mobilised large layers of working class women as have campaigns on low pay, for a minimum wage etc..
Young women in the CWI have been at the head of many campaigns amongst school and university students against racism and sexism and also to stop the charging of tuition fees and for the restitution of student grants. In India, our young women comrades have been involved in the battle against the horrors of child labour, dowry killings and the abandonment of widows by their families.
Our International - the CWI - aims to expose and fight to eradicate some of the worst abuses of women in present day society. But, like the general oppression of workers and poor peasants and the oppression of specific nationalities and minorities, the oppression of women is endemic in the domination of one class over another. Victories can be scored, gains can be made, but to see a real transformation in the lives of working class women, the struggle for socialism is indispensable.
The involvement of women themselves in that struggle is vital. All prejudice and practical obstacles in their way must be combated. Good child-care at all major trade union and labour movement activities is an essential part of the programme of socialists. Demands for an end to sexism and discrimination against women and against sexual minorities must rank alongside those for an end to racism and the oppression of national minorities.
We as socialists do more than just declare our opposition to poverty and violence. We work without stint to build the fighting capacity of working people, poor peasants and youth to end the rule of private monopolies and to harness through public ownership, the productive resources of the world for the eradication of poverty, homelessness, disease and hunger.
Capitalism cannot exist without super-exploitation - of workers and the poor of town and country and the demeaning of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. Collective action on the basis of socialist demands is the only way to combat this rotten system. New parties of labour must be built to fill the vacuum left by the former workers’ parties that have gone totally over to the camp of market capitalism.
The unions must be re-transformed into the force for socialist change that they once were. In many countries women in the sections of the CWI are to the fore in union struggles - be it amongst teachers, nurses, civil servants, local authority workers or in the private sector. Their fighting ideas for dealing with attacks on pay and conditions and their principled stance on issues like democracy and accountability within the movement are in marked contrast to the behaviour of the right-wing leaders of the workers’ organisations. The latter tend to pay more attention to maintaining their privileged life-style and peace with the employers than in pursuing justice for the working people they ‘represent’.
This role has been neglected by trade union leaders who have accepted capitalism as the only way to run society. Shadowing this approach, the organisers of the World March of Women declare their opposition to neo-liberal policies but not to capitalism as a system of exploitation in and of itself. In fact it builds illusions that there can be a humane, pleasant kind of capitalism. This is a mistake. Neo-liberalism - deregulation, casualisation, privatisation and cuts in public expenditure - constitute just one strategy of capitalism for maintaining the domination by the owners of the banks, land and industry over the lives of the overwhelming majority in society. There are plenty of others.
It is completely utopian and flying in the face of reality to imagine, as the programme for the march demands, that the "seven richest countries" will agree to re-distribute their wealth fairly throughout the world! Nor will the United Nations, which they dominate, "end all forms of intervention, aggression and military occupation, assure the right of refugees everywhere etc..." It has patently failed in the past year alone to protect Chechens, Kurds or even Kosovars let alone the peoples of countries further afield than Europe.
The World March organisers also call for "A non-monolithic world political organisation with authority over the economy and egalitarian and democratic representation of all countries on earth...and equal representation of women and men"! This is just pie in the sky as long as nation states and the private ownership of the world’s banks and monopolies remain in tact.
The subjection of women
It is also idealistic to imagine that where the subjection of women to men is institutionalised and reinforced by religion or simply by official or media propaganda, governments will suddenly be converted to the idea of equality for women in the eyes of the law and in social mores and practice! Fundamentalists of all hues - be they Moslem, Hindu, Christian or whatever - would have women remain in a totally submissive and obedient role in society and in the home. Based on a survey of violence against women in 78 countries, a World Organisation against Torture report finds that, even where slapping, punching, kicking and beating women is considered a crime, police often regard complaints as a private matter and ignore them. It points out that the Nigerian penal code, for example, like that of the 11 Arab states mentioned above, allows "reasonable chastisement" of a wife when a husband considers she has erred.
At a synod of Catholic bishops in Rome in October ’99, the sad fact, as one journalist put it, was revealed that the women of that church are enthusiastic proponents of Vatican policies which are most repressive to their gender. Consultant to the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for the family - a woman by the name of Mercedes Arzu Wilson - made a "bizarre" condemnation of family planning as "the cancer of today’s world"!
All this reactionary rubbish has to be combated by political campaigns and social action to expose the injustice of such views and the criminal offence of denying women the freedom of speech, assembly and struggle which are the basic democratic rights of every human being.
"Pro-family" propaganda is being pushed in most ’advanced’ countries at the present time, including attempts at reinstating the institution of marriage. They prey on people’s genuine fears about the future of their off-spring, using loaded references to an ‘underclass’ and putting the blame on parents for the degeneration and break-down in capitalist society. This veritable campaign also exploits the basic need of human beings - and especially of children - for a secure and loving environment. It is aimed at diverting attention from the real causes of unhappiness and insecurity in the home.
Worries about such things as redundancy, poor housing, cuts in services, casualisation, low pay, denial of benefits drive people towards taking things out on themselves and each other - drug and alcohol abuse, violence, suicide. You cannot legislate for harmonious relations; worsening conditions wreck human relations.
As socialists, we aim to establish a society which replaces hierarchical power relations with ones based on equality of opportunity, mutual respect and cooperation. These principles cannot be established except by eliminating the use of private property as a weapon to dominate the lives of others. As a cynical Wall Street Journal editorial comments, no amount of "glitzy international confabs" organised by the UN to discover rights that cannot be had without the massive expansion of government services will change the world. (8/7/99).
Those who hold women in subjection are acting in the interests of one ruling class or another. Without the emancipation of women from oppression, the whole of humanity will never be able to count itself free and humane in all its social and personal relations. Their own personal lives will be crabbed and tainted by the very prejudices and hypocrisy to which class society and its inherent inhumanity give rise.
Feminism, Reserved Places...
A recent study published by the American Psychological Association is one of a number which have concluded recently that three decades of active feminism in America have brought little for women in terms of pay and promotion levels, of opportunities in education and employment or of control over their over their circumstances. They were found to feel miserable and unappreciated. "The grinding burden of being a woman is a desperate cycle of boring responsibilities and low social powers" says one of the authors.
The National Organisation for Women (NOW) set up in America in 1966 has recently produced a cartoon to combat the image of women in the country’s media - successful lawyers in mini-skirts etc. It has produced a cartoon showing a man slumped in an armchair with a newspaper head-lining the first woman commander of a space shuttle and the triumph of the US women’s soccer team. "’You’ve come a long way, baby!’ he says to his wife who stands before him with an infant on her back, a bawling child in one hand and the dinner in the other". "One of our major concerns" says the vice-president of NOW, "is the conglomerates - seven major conglomerates now control the media in this country".
There will be little change in the portrayal of women in the media as long as advertising, sales and profit remain the over-riding considerations. The question of its ownership by big business can only be tackled by demanding its nationalisation under workers’ control.
The president of Nike owns $4.5 billion in assets and has a salary of $1 million a year. 75% of the 75,000 employees of Nike around the world are women. Most of them are aged between 17 and 21 years. An Indonesian woman working for Nike and earning $360 per year would have to work for 15 centuries to have the same salary as the president of the company!
Women achieving high office in American politics will also do as little for American working class women as the rule of Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Ghandi, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Golda Meir and so on have done to advance the interests of working class women in their respective countries. In most of these cases, life actually got worse for all working and poor people - especially women. The newly-elected woman president of Finland, showed how ridiculous the artificial feminisation of politics can when she said in the run up to her election, "Never mind my programme. Even if you’re against it, vote for me because I’m a woman!"
In Russia, where women have had their ’own’ Women’s Party in parliament since the early ’90s, nothing in its policies has distinguished it from all the other pro-market parties. They simply try to give the drastic cuts in public spending carried through in the name of ‘reform’ a humane face. Something which is impossible whatever kind of packaging and presentation they are given. Systems of reserved places or quotas for women in parliamentary and local government in countries like France and India may redress the imbalance of gender representation. But without a policy to redress the inequalities of the distribution of wealth - i.e. a socialist programme the ordinary working woman will suffer every set-back inflicted on her class.
There are many NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) who, together with openly feminist groupings and such things as ’Gender Centres’ around the world, will participate in international protests which condemn the treatment of women and demand a better deal. But, like the Unicef officials who drew up the report on Eastern Europe mentioned earlier, they use words like ’empowerment’ and ’confidence-building’ and advocate women setting up small businesses.
This is alright for the middle class woman who wants to make a career in politics or to prosper out of private ’enterprise’. There may also be the exceptional woman from a poor background who can get a big enough loan to start up some kind of enterprise. (Sericulture - silk farming - is highly recommended in India and is supposed somehow to help deal with an alcoholic husband or widow-hood etc.!) But the vast majority of the world’s working and poor women own nothing, can borrow nothing and need radical measures that will lift their whole class out of poverty and want.
Poor women who constitute the majority of farmers in Africa, who operate street stalls and cottage industries world-wide, hardly furnish a picture of prosperity (or domestic bliss!). On the contrary, like their male counter-parts, they are usually dangerously in hock to the money-lenders for the necessities of carrying on their business. On top of crippling rates of interest comes the iron vice in which the big companies want to squeeze the small operator in the form of patents and monopolies over seeds, deals with the money-lenders and landowners over pesticides, fertilisers etc. Probably, as they set about privatising life forms, they will patent the very mulberry bushes without which the silk-worm cannot survive, let alone spin its thread!
"The days of direct colonisation are over; the days of indirect colonisation are not!" Indian biotechnologist, Professor Pushpa Bhatrgava is quoted as saying in an article about the desperation of the ruined small farmers of his country, a number of whom have resorted to killing themselves and sometimes their whole families. Under capitalism and the feudal land relations which persist in some countries, further impoverishment is inevitable.
Karl Marx, writing one and a half centuries ago, was just as right over the process of pauperisation as he was over the concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands and the inevitability of crises due to the blind play of capitalist economic forces. Only the nationalisation of all big monopolies, the land and all finance providers under the democratic control of workers’ and small peasants’ elected representatives will get the vast millions of rural poor out of the spiral of debt and uncertainty.
Ultimately, the only way to end all forms of oppression is to end the oppression of one class by another. The only lasting solution to the problems is to do away with capitalism and replace it with genuine socialism. Only then will the working day be slashed in all countries of the world, jobs be found for all, resources developed to enable massive investment to take place in hospitals, schools, house-building etc. Only then could a non profit-making system be put into operation with full participation and control by elected bodies including women for providing decent round the clock child care and nursery facilities, good quality communal laundries and neighbourhood eating places etc..
Working class women would begin to leave behind them the drudgery of household chores and develop their talents. Only in a socialist world would every child in every country be free from labour and servitude and given the opportunity and necessary encouragement to excel in any spheres of knowledge, creativity, skill, recreation or sport he or she might choose. Life would be something to be enjoyed to the full and not a mere struggle for survival - full of rivalry, envy, fear of retribution and anxiety over the future.
Join the coming demonstrations on women’s issues, join the world-wide protests against capitalism and, most important of all, join the party nearest you that is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International and help us fight for a socialist future.
Working and young women unite! Join forces with your toiling brothers! For a victorious struggle to win socialism world-wide!.