Sunday, 12 July 2009


Sir Stuart Rose, executive chair of Marks and Spencer proclaimed in the Observer recently that women have got "more equality than you ever can deal with". According to Sir Stuart: "There are really no glass ceilings, despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time".

Eleanor Donne looks at the reality women face in Britain and asks: Have women really 'made it'? Do we now live in a 'post feminist' society and what are the roots of women's oppression?

It is true that there have been significant changes in the lives of women over the last 35-40 years. Most of the direct discrimination has been removed and women have equality with men, in the eyes of the law at least.

Women make up at least half of the workforce and half of university graduates (up from one third in 1970) and girls are outperforming boys in nearly all subjects at school and university. Access to contraception and safe abortion is no longer restricted to wealthy women, as in the past. The dramatic rise in numbers of women in work, albeit mostly in part-time, low-paid work, has been significant in itself in raising women's confidence and expectations. Yet clearly women do continue to suffer discrimination.

Women at work

Rather than having to deal with 'more equality' as Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer suggests, there is evidence that women are already being disproportionately affected by recession - losing full-time jobs at twice the rate of men.

The overall pay gap between men and women increased last year for the first time since the Equal Pay Act came into force in 1975.

Although men and women graduates in their 20s earn about the same, having children (which women are doing later and later) still results in a significant drop in earnings for women in their 30s and 40s, compared to men.

An estimated 30,000 women a year are sacked for being pregnant (although this is of course illegal) and there is an indication that this is increasing on the basis of the recession. The government has now shelved plans to extend paid maternity leave to a year, paternity leave to up to 26 weeks and flexible working to parents of children over six years old because this may be 'burdensome' to business during a recession.

Around 70% of women in Britain now work outside the home, including many with small children. This significant social change has been against the backdrop of rampant, neoliberal capitalism, which has led to increased commercial exploitation of all aspects of life.

Women have been a source of cheap and flexible labour, which was exploited by the capitalist economy in the west and in the developing world.

Traditional gender roles, reinforced under capitalism, are used to excuse low pay and casual work for women because their primary role is defined as bringing up the family and 'keeping house'.

Whilst there are now more women than men qualifying as solicitors, the majority of working-class women are still concentrated in 'the three Cs' - caring, childcare and cleaning, which are seen as an extension of what they do in the home and therefore relatively 'unskilled' and low status jobs.


Women and girls daily are bombarded with images of women from advertisements, magazines and the tabloids, telling them how they need to look to be successful in love and life generally.

The message that women are judged more by how they look than what they do or think is still loud and clear, constantly played on by a multimillion pound 'beauty' industry. No wonder then that only 1% of young women feel 'completely happy' with the shape of their body and more than half of ten to 14-year-olds girls are worried about being fat.

The sex industry has increasingly entered 'mainstream' society, with lap dancing clubs frequented by celebrities - men, and sometimes women keen to show how 'broad minded' they are. The playboy bunny now even adorns children's pencil cases and lunchboxes.

The porn industry has grown, fed by easy access for consumers via the internet and a 'supply' of desperately poor women, particularly from the ex Soviet Union countries. Individual women and men are often directly exploited in the production of pornography. But it also has wider implications for women as a whole, as in the context of a capitalist society with structured inequality for women, it reflects and reinforces stereotypical views of women as sexually available, and reduces them from whole beings to body parts. Commercial exploitation of sex is the opposite of genuine freedom of sexual expression for both men and women.

It is important to challenge sexist images and attitudes, but they are a symptom of women's oppression, not the root cause. This goes back to early history and the development of class society and the family.

The role of the family

The word 'family' to most of us means our relations, parents, partners, and children - people we may have close personal relationships with. However, to governments and the ruling class 'the family' is also a vital social institution. They use it to pass on and consolidate their property and wealth, to reinforce their ideas and 'values'.

Most importantly for a capitalist system, the family is an economic unit. Under a capitalist economy, big business shareholders and their apologists in government want to maximise profits by keeping their costs to a minimum. This applies not only to actual wages but also to what is known as the 'social wage' - the tax cost of feeding, clothing, housing and educating a new generation of workers. They do this by offloading these costs as much as possible onto individual families.

Margaret Thatcher during the recession of the early 1980s said: 'there is no such thing as society, only individual families'. The government used this idea of the family as a provider of services to justify cuts and hospital closures and blamed social problems created by their economic policies on the 'breakdown' of the family.

This process is likely to be repeated in the current recession. The Financial Times reported that councils in England have axed about 10,000 jobs, with 70% expecting further losses due to the recession. Cuts in social and health care services affect women especially, as workers, but also because they will be expected to 'take up the slack' as carers in the home.

The family is also used as a means of reinforcing the hierarchy in society in many ways. This may not seem so obvious now as in Victorian times or under a feudal system when men's authority as 'head of the household' had the full weight of the law and the church behind it.

After all, in Britain we are generally free to choose our partners and to end relationships. Women can no longer be imprisoned for adultery or locked up in mental institutions as degenerates for having 'illegitimate' babies (which happened here as late as the 1960s).

However, it was only less than 20 years ago that law lords finally ruled that marital rape was illegal. The idea of 'conjugal rights' can still give many men a sense of entitlement to sex, as statistics on rape indicate. The legal right of husbands to beat their wives was removed 150 years ago, but domestic violence continued to be viewed as a private matter, generally ignored by the police and useful in keeping women in 'their place'.

Today, home office statistics show that, on average, two women a week are killed by their partner and one in four women will suffer violence from a partner or boyfriend at some point in their lives.

Nature or nurture

It is in the interests of the ruling class in society to promote the idea that their system, the way society is organised, including the family, is a reflection of the 'natural order' of things rather than something that they have imposed. Religion played a key role in this, but an emerging capitalist class also misused science, medicine and psychiatry to 'prove' the inferiority of non-white races, women, the lower classes and 'sexual deviants'. Homosexuality was made a crime in 1885. Women, it was said, were designed only for childbearing, domesticity and looking decorative, and attempts by them to enter politics or public life would result in anything from a withered womb to mental illness.

The ruling class imposed their model of personal relationships, the 'bourgeois family' - with male breadwinner and dependant wife and children, onto society as a whole. This was what the working class should aspire to, even though in reality they rarely had the financial resources to allow a 'stay at home' wife and mother. In most families even the children had to work.

This ideology was challenged, most notably by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's closest collaborator. Anthropologists had found, often to their surprise and sometimes disgust, that women in 'primitive societies' had a degree of status and sexual freedom that was unheard of in the capitalist societies.

Using the best evidence available at that time, Engels explained that the oppression of women, far from being natural and timeless, was very recent in human history. For 90% of our time on the planet men and women lived in groups in what are usually known as hunter/gatherer societies, where resources were shared and children were the responsibility of the whole group.

Men and women often had different roles, but this division of labour did not mean that the tasks women undertook were less valued. Women were as free as men were to pair up and separate and there were no economic implications to this for them or any children they had.

The patriarchal family with the man as ruler of the household, and with it the institutionalised domination of men over women, became a feature of human society about 10,000 years ago, when it was possible through agriculture and later, trade, for some groups to produce more than subsistence levels of food, clothing etc. This type of work was mainly the preserve of men, so the wealth and status generated was closely associated with men, a minority of whom rose above society and became a political elite.

The issue of inheritance became important and therefore, for the first time so did paternity, as men wanted to pass on their wealth and needed to know which children in the group were theirs. Monogamy for women was strictly enforced by new structures of society and women were no longer free to end their marriage.

Whilst women's sexuality became tightly controlled, men were free to take 'mistresses'. This established a double standard between male and female sexuality that still exists, with women judged much more harshly for being sexually 'promiscuous'. This whole process took place over thousands of years, but by the time of early Roman societies the patriarchal family was well established along with slavery.

The development of private ownership, concentration of wealth in the hands of male elites, and the passing of wealth through the male rather than female line, led to a loss of status and freedom for women which Engels called the "world historical defeat of womankind".

Class and gender

Initially the women most affected by the rise of class society were those in the groups who were accumulating wealth and power and rising above the rest. So they benefited materially from the process even though as women they lost freedom and rights.

This contradictory process still applies today, as women of the ruling class and upper middle class experience domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and cultural stereotyping in common with women of other classes.

But to end women's oppression means ending the class system that gave rise to it and this brings about a conflict between the interests of their gender and their class. Some privileged women are drawn into campaigns on specific issues, such as domestic violence and abortion rights.

However, for such campaigns to succeed in the long run it is vital to link these to the overall struggle to change society. This means finding common cause with working class men, as it is only a united working class that is capable of getting rid of the current economic and social system, which is underpinned by and reinforced by women's oppression.

Whilst it could be argued that all men benefit to some extent from patriarchy which gives them power and status within the family, the vast majority of men also lost power and status in society as a whole with the development of class society because they became the slaves, serfs and workers.

Women in struggle

Whether it is Mr 5% cuts or Mr 10% who wins the next election, the scale of public debt means that public services and public sector workers face a massive attack. Women will be in the forefront of the coming fight to defend public sector jobs and against cuts in services.

Past experience shows that, when women workers move into struggle, they become more conscious of their exploitation as women and demand that they be able to play a full role in the fightback.

It is no accident that the biggest movements of women, the early 20th century campaign for the vote and the 1970s women's movement, emerged at a time of heightened class struggle when there was a growing feeling that the working class needs, and can achieve, a fundamental change in society. The ruling class try to divide workers along gender and race lines, to undercut wages and to weaken opposition to their system. The Socialist Party, being Marxist, has always argued for maximum unity of the working class, whilst recognising the importance at times for specially oppressed groups of workers to organise round their specific demands.

If the Tories win the next election it is very likely that abortion rights will come under attack again and the Socialist Party will renew its call for the trade union movement to take up this issue, including mobilising for a national demonstration.

The need for socialism

Ros Coward, active in the women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s, concluded by the late 1990s that 'feminism has achieved its aims'. Liberal feminists were always prepared to limit their demands to those that could be accommodated within capitalism.

Yet it is now clearer than ever as the global economic crisis bites that the struggle for equality, and even more so for the true liberation of women and men, also means a struggle to overthrow the current economic and social system. In the process of such a struggle many of the existing prejudices and assumptions, the ideology that plays a crucial role now in reinforcing and legitimising women's material inequality, will be undermined.

A socialist society, where the economic resources would be owned and controlled collectively through a planned economy, could use these resources to provide services such as decent childcare for parents that want to use it, socialised laundry and ironing services, cheap, but good-quality restaurants. Hours at work could be reduced with no loss of pay so that men and women get to spend time with each other, their children and friends.

Access to affordable housing and a decent income, either through benefits or work, would allow women economic independence and mean that ending a relationship would not lead to poverty and social exclusion as is often the case now.

Such a society would ultimately provide the opportunity to develop personal relationships free from the pressures not just of poverty and overwork, but also from structured gender inequality.

From The Socialist, CWI Britain and Wales


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