Women hold up half the sky

Is there still such a thing as women’s oppression in 21st-century Britain? Where did it originate, and what can we do to finally end it?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The following article is based on a speech given by a central committee member of the CPGB-ML to mark International Women’s Day.

What do we mean when we say that women are oppressed?

Even today, when conditions for women in many parts of the world have dramatically improved compared to what they were a century ago, it is still the case that:

– Wages are generally lower for women doing the same work as men. (See ‘Women still earn £5,000 a year less than men’, tuc.org.uk, 7 November 2013)

– Women are overwhelmingly expected to carry out the lowest-paid and/or unpaid work.

– Women are overwhelmingly expected to organise and undertake domestic labour for their families, whether or not they work outside the home as well.

– Women are overwhelmingly expected to act as carers for their young, old, sick and disabled family members.

– Women are still overwhelmingly judged and valued as much, if not more, for the way they look and present themselves as for their personality, intelligence, understanding, abilities or contribution to society.

– Women, as recent statistics once again sadly demonstrate, are all too often used as punchbags for the frustrations of their husbands or boyfriends. (See ‘Domestic violence experienced by 30 percent of female population, survey shows’, Guardian, 13 February 2014)

– It is still considered ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ that there should be a massive sex industry that relies on selling the bodies of women who have more often than not been physically or economically coerced into this form of sexual slavery, and that men who ‘choose to’, somehow have a ‘natural right’ to access such ‘services’.

As far as our own society in Britain is concerned, women have been presented as ‘inferior’ to men for at least 2,000 years, and for longer elsewhere in the world where civilisation developed first.

– They were told that they were weaker – not just physically, but also mentally; that their brains were smaller and less powerful, making them unable to think in the same complex ways as men, and meaning that they were simply unfit for public life.

– They were told that they were essentially lifelong children, to be guided and controlled by those who knew better. ‘A woman’s place is in the home,’ was the mantra of our ruling class until very recently, and even today that message is a very common one that is regularly articulated throughout the British media.

– They were told that they were meant to be decorative and helpful, rather than socially useful or independently intelligent, and should therefore focus their attentions on household skills and/or looking nice, and on listening to and supporting the work and opinions of their menfolk.

– The law backed up men’s rights over their daughters and wives – the right to beat them, to lock them up, to dispose of the pliant ones in marriage or to relegate the difficult ones to lunatic asylums as they saw fit.

– Essentially, women’s legal position until very recently was as mere chattels – the private property of property-owning men. Their only recognised purposes in life were to carry out unpaid domestic labour for their ‘lords and masters’ and to produce children.

How did this come about? What is the cause of women’s oppression?

Women were not always seen as inferior. Because of their importance as child-bearers, early human societies perceived women as being not just equal to but very often as more important than men.

In primitive communistic (tribal) societies, a natural division of labour existed:

– On the one hand, women were collectively responsible for running the household and gathering food. They cared for children, cooked, made clothes and baskets, gathered wild foods, and they planted and tended small-scale crops (the beginnings of agriculture).

– On the other hand, men were collectively responsible for the heavier work. They went hunting, tended to livestock (once these had been domesticated), built shelters and made tools.

These divisions did not imply any superiority or inferiority. All work was recognised as being socially necessary, and all labour was carried out collectively, for the benefit of all.

Women, whether working in the households or gathering food, were not isolated but working together, and looking after their children was not the sole responsibility of the woman from whose womb each particular child happened to have emerged!

Indeed, much child care was often carried out by older women while younger, fitter ones went out to get food.

Although war was usually mens’ work, decisions about war and peace and the general life of the tribe were made collectively by all adult members.

All this changed when technology developed to the point where societies began to produce a surplus. Once a person’s labour was enough to feed more than just him or herself – the accumulation of property became possible, as did the exploitation of one human being by another.

The first great division of society was the division into slaveholders and slaves.

It was women’s misfortune to find that, when this development occurred, the first property to be accumulated happened to be in the hands of the men, in the form of livestock.

These herds were the first riches known to humanity, and, as some men began to amass personal wealth, they also gained disproportionate power in society. And these new property owners wanted to be able to pass on their property to their children.

The old division of society according to family groups had been matriarchal. Family relationships – along with any inheritance of what few personal possessions there were – was recognised according to relationships down the female line. This meant that a man could pass his few personal possessions to any relation of his mother’s – his brother or sister, say, or his sister’s children, but not to his own son, who had been born a member of his wife’s kinship group, not his own.

Paternity in this system of society was simply not a recognised concept in the legal sense, which also meant that, even after pairing marriages became the norm, there was no social requirement that women should be absolutely ‘faithful’ to their partners and no requirement that couples should stay together if their inclination was to separate.

That all changed when collective property gave way to the private property that was being accumulated in the hands of men. The old kinship groups were destroyed and a new society was built that separated people according to their ownership of property.

At the same time, ‘mother right’ was overthrown and a new requirement arose – that women should be physically controlled in order that the paternity of children could be guaranteed. That meant only one thing: women of property-owning classes had to be locked up inside the home to perform their traditional domestic duties not as social producers but as the private slaves of their fathers and husbands.

And, of course, what is right and proper for the ruling class naturally becomes disseminated via the ruling class’s ideology, via its religious institutions, its media and its culture to all the other classes too. A whole moral justification had to be and was developed to justify the subordination of women.

Prostitution arose alongside this new monogamy (which was always in practice monogamy only for wives or prospective wives) and women’s work was downgraded in several ways.

– First, ruling-class women were seen as chattels for the production of heirs. If their ‘purity’ could be guaranteed and their class connections were desirable to prospective partners, they could fetch a high price or be used to cement profitable alliances. Even when they brought a large dowry to the marriage, they generally had no control of it, or indeed any property of their own, and were totally financially dependent on their husbands.

– Second, in the new class society, domestic labour stopped being a collective and communal act and became a private service performed for the male head of the household – often performed alongside, or as overseer to, the household slaves.

– Meanwhile, although monogamy – absolute fidelity in marriage – was society’s official moral code, this ‘virtue’ was in reality only required of women. The hypocrisy that is still alive and well today was also born at this time, when, alongside enforced monogamy for women, there arose the brand new industry of prostitution – whereby a certain section of the female population was forced into sexual slavery.

– Alongside the hypocrisy of the men arose an antagonism and competition between women, whereby ‘virtuous’ wives were competing with professional concubines for the favour and affection of their husbands, and sexual slaves were in the position of knowing that they would never be considered ‘good enough’ to be the producers of legitimate children.

As a result of these developments, all women were degraded from being full and equal members of a communistic society to being subordinate members of a class society.

This position remained essentially unchanged for millennia. Even after outright slavery gave way to gradually less physical forms of class control – feudalism and then capitalism – the need to control women remained. Indeed, the punishments and social ostracism for ‘misbehaving’ women had to be all the more draconian given that, throughout the era of class society, poor women very often had to work outside the home as well as in it.

This led to a harsh moral code that strictly separated ‘good girls’ from ‘fallen women’ (hence all the literary tragedies about rape, seduction and child-bearing out of wedlock, leading very often to suicide as a preferable option to living as a social outcast and bringing up permanently stigmatised children). That is why, only 100 years ago, James Connolly could still write that “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” (The Re-Conquest of Ireland, 1915)

How is women’s oppression perpetuated? What message does British capitalist society today give women about their ‘place’, their ‘role’ etc?

Even today, despite all the advances that women have made in recent times, and despite the fact that we now have a formal, legal recognition of women’s rights in Britain, the ruling class still projects a very strong ideological message about women from its media and through all its cultural and political fronts.

Social expectations and morality are quite clearly different for women than for men. For example:

– a man who has many sexual partners, who buys the services of prostitutes, frequents lap-dancing clubs etc is a ‘lad’, and is simply following his natural urges;

– a woman who has many sexual partners is a ‘slag’ and is going against nature;

– a man who has many firm opinions is considered to be strong and is looked up to;

– a woman who has many firm opinions is unfeminine and unattractive and is denigrated;

– a man who spends his time looking after children is weak and unmasculine;

– a woman who doesn’t spend her time looking after children is uncaring and unfeminine;

– a man who spends too much time taking care of his appearance is vain and womanish;

– a woman who doesn’t spend ‘enough’ time taking care of her appearance is unattractive and manly

… and so on!

Our children are taught from a very young age that certain behaviours are associated with certain genders and are encouraged to conform to type:

– Boys are expected and encouraged to be strong, to handle themselves physically, to suppress emotions (‘boys don’t cry’), to prepare themselves for a life ‘out in the world’.

– Girls are expected and encouraged to be quiet and avoid rough play, to be pretty (to think about and work on physical appearance), to be decorative (to focus on clothes etc), to ‘make people like them’, to be sensitive to the motivations and needs of others in preparation for a role catering for the needs of others at the centre of a family home.

Meanwhile, women in capitalist society suffer a heavy social penalty when they carry out the social and biological function of producing the next generation.

Capitalism has further broken down the communities that formerly would have taken collective responsibility for raising and caring for our children. Care has become a private matter and the personal responsibility of one or two parents – and what those parents can provide for their children varies wildly depending on their level of income, access to services, access to culture and activities, access to housing, and so on.

There is next-to no financial or physical support (the welfare state brought some, but it’s being removed now) for child rearing or other caring roles; no real recognition of the fact that these are tasks that concern the whole of society. Having children is presented as a private ‘lifestyle choice’, rather than a social need (although human society wouldn’t last very long if there was no new generation to work in it!), and the ruling class propagates the attitude that ‘if you can’t provide for them, don’t have them’.

Many mothers simply are not able to return to work once they have children as the finances and logistics of arranging child care do not work out. Meanwhile, most who do manage to go back to work find that they are discriminated against in various ways, since they have usually lost the desirable level of flexibility that employers look for.

Now they have ‘other priorities’ and often need to work part time, individual employers feel that employing such women is unprofitable and reduces their efficiency. So mothers returning to work find it suddenly much harder to be promoted, or to be considered for the most interesting or well-rewarded work, and are usually expected to be grateful that they are employed on any basis.

This is emphasised even more at a time of crisis like the present, when we are seeing a concerted ideological attack on the rights of working mothers:

– An eminent surgeon, Marian Thomas, wrote in the Daily Mail recently complaining about the ‘expense’ of training and employing women doctors – asserting that it is a waste of public money since they’re going to have children and take leave etc. This is an exact replica (in reverse!) of the debate that led to the introduction of maternity rights for women in the 1970s.

– UKIP leader Nigel Farage recently said that women can climb as high as they like in the City (ie, there’s not really a ‘glass ceiling’ or any discrimination) provided they are prepared to give up on having children (it’s just a lifestyle thing!) Farage may vent his opinions in the headline-catching vernacular of the pub bore, but his opinions are shared throughout all the bourgeois parties.

Meanwhile, the growth of the sex trade and the development of a huge pornography industry has had massive ramifications on our popular culture and has reinforced the commodification of sex generally and the objectification of women in particular, while the routine public display of semi-pornographic female imagery is leading to the sexualisation of childhood in general and of young girls in particular.

Haven’t women won many freedoms now in the West?

It’s true that the position of women took some very big strides forward in Britain in the last century, and especially after WW2. It’s important to understand just what forced the ruling class to make those concessions, however, and how reluctantly and half-heartedly they have been implemented.

One earth-shattering event dominates 20th-century history and has affected almost every aspect of our lives in the last 100 years, and that is the October socialist revolution in Russia.

Britain had a women’s movement before October 1917, but it was October and the building of socialism in the USSR that finally drove a cart and horses through the age-old mythology that justified keeping women as second-class citizens and domestic slaves, and denying them full legal rights.

This mythology about women’s ‘natural capabilities’ (or lack of them) had hardly been modified since the days of primitive slavery, and had the weight of thousands of years of habit behind it, but the role of women in all areas of public life building Soviet socialism simply cut the ground from under its feet.

Rights for women, and formal (ie, legal) recognition of women’s equality in Britain, along with the provision of a few facilities that enabled at least some women to take up education and work opportunities that had previously been closed off to them really came as part of the post-war welfare state – which was basically a whole raft of concessions granted to working people by the British ruling class in order to stop them following the Soviet revolutionary route.

All the rights that were eventually granted to women in Britain came piecemeal and very slowly:

– In Russia in 1917, the October revolution made all discrimination against and male control over women illegal, immediately giving them not only the right to vote, but also equal access to education and jobs, equal pay and promotion to political and managerial positions.

– After the October revolution, priority was given to creating and building up facilities that enabled women to take up the opportunities now open to them by giving them proper maternity rights with full pay, and by setting up free kindergartens, nurseries, crèches and children’s after-school and holiday clubs. There were also subsidised laundries and public dining rooms to lighten the domestic load, as well as free care for the sick and the elderly.

– In Britain, on the other hand, all these rights, though formally ‘won’, are not actually universally implemented even today. A law on equal pay was not finally passed until 1970 (but has never become a reality in fact!) The first sex discrimination act was passed in 1975 (also still not implemented or policed consistently in practise). The first no-fault divorce option was belatedly introduced in 1969.

– At the height of the post-war employment boom in Britain, a few employers set up subsidised crèches and dining facilities, but these were never rolled out to the general population and almost all were long ago closed down.

Moreover, as in so many other spheres of life, capitalism, being capitalism, has found a way to poison and undermine even those advances British women have made in recent decades. For example:

– As it has become gradually more normal for two parents in a family to work, wages have dropped and house prices and rents have risen until what began as a choice has now become a necessity – a family needs to have two full-time incomes if it is going to be able buy or rent a decent home and maintain its members to any reasonable level. Any family that can’t manage this for whatever reason (caring responsibilities or lack of employment, for example) is heavily penalised, both socially and financially. (This is the true meaning of the ‘benefits of the market’ for ordinary people!)

– As British women who might formerly have become destitute were able for a while to rely on either decently-paid work or on the safety net of the benefits system to maintain themselves and their families, the supply of prostitutes was actually beginning to dry up. However, rather than embracing this as an advance, the imperialist ‘solution’ to this ‘shortage’ was simply to start shipping in destitute girls from more impoverished parts of the world.

The collapse of Soviet socialism brought with it a catastrophic drop in incomes and living standards in the former socialist countries, alongside an inevitable rise in unrestrained capitalist gangsterism. The tragic result is that, in the land that sent the first woman into space, and where women first showed the oppressed masses of the world what they were capable of, huge numbers of girls who should have been growing up to fulfilling, cultured, well-educated and socially-useful lives are now being kidnapped or coerced from lives of abject poverty and trafficked to Europe as sex slaves.

– ‘Sexual liberation’, which was supposed to free women from the vice-like grip of the old, one-sided and hypocritically puritanical moral codes, has, in the conditions of capitalism, brought with it not the dignity and freedom that women had looked forward to (and which their counterparts were beginning to enjoy in the socialist countries), but business opportunities to sell sex and the promise of sex and possible sexual fulfilment to women as well as to men.

In this way, the class-society model of sex as a commodity or service to be bought and sold has been reinforced rather than undermined – only with a somewhat enlarged market. Instead of being seen and valued as dignified human beings with intrinsic worth, women are being encouraged not only to continue to embrace the idea that their worth and identity is in their looks, but to apply the same standard to men as well. This is how capitalism understands ‘equality’!

Meanwhile, in 21st-century crisis-hit Britain, the roll-back of the welfare state is disproportionately affecting women and undoing the gains many of us imagined had been won for good:

– Women are once more responsible for taking on private, unpaid caring roles for their extended families as support for the elderly, the disabled, young children etc is being taken away.

– Employers are once more asking openly why they should hire ‘expensive’ women who might go off at any moment to indulge their selfish desires to have children.

– As unemployment rises and public-sector cuts take hold, increased competition for even the lower-paid and part-time jobs that were previously left to women means that it is women who are disproportionately finding themselves being kicked out of the workforce and onto the dole. (See ‘Unemployment among UK women rising to 25-year high, survey finds’, Guardian, 24 April 2013)

Now we can get paternity tests and all that, what cause can the ruling class have to continue oppressing women?

It is true that the need to keep women physically guarded and locked up has been lessened by scientific advances in genetics, but several other factors remain that really impel our rulers to carry on treating women as inferior beings.

First, so long as private property remains, the wish for guaranteed paternity will still exist. Even if this can be tested for and ‘unfit’ wives can be divorced and their children disinherited, the preference for a moral code that promotes the bourgeois ideal of strict monogamy on the part of women still exists, and this is reinforced by custom and by religion.

Then there are the economic reasons mentioned above. When each woman’s role in the workplace is considered individually and on a short-term basis – that is, without taking into account the overall benefit to society of having women’s collective input, or even without taking into account the totality of what a particular woman contributes to society throughout her entire working life – individual employers will continue to resent any compromises they have to make when it comes to employing women of childbearing age at the particular point when they get pregnant and have young children to care for, as well as when they are called upon (as so many are) to provide care for ailing parents.

Any mother or carer whose employer doesn’t act resentfully towards her knows that this is not a right – she cannot expect this human or equal treatment everywhere and as a matter of course, but must constantly thank both her employer and her lucky stars and tell everyone how grateful she is to be allowed to work in a way that fits around her other responsibilities.

When it comes right down to it, business is business, and taking the long view simply isn’t compatible with the need to maximise profits – which is the only real imperative under the capitalist system of production.

And finally, we come to the simple fact that capitalist rule is only maintained by dividing workers; by separating them according to race, gender, age, locality and so on, and by encouraging them to emphasise their differences and forget their essential sameness and community of interests.

We are all human beings, and science has shown that while there are some natural differences between men and women, these are pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Certainly they are not enough to mean that men are incapable of feeling empathy, of caring for children or of doing housework. Nor do our differences mean that women are incapable of managing large enterprises, flying space rockets or engineering bridges.

The socially-engineered divide between men and women is as old as the divide between exploiters and exploited, however. It comes with a huge cultural weight, and the continuation of this divide is of great benefit to the current class of capitalist exploiters in maintaining their parasitic rule. Even more so when we consider that the imperialist ruling class has today shrunk to such a tiny size that the world’s really powerful class of super-exploiters would now fit comfortably into a single double-decker bus! (See ‘Obscene wealth: World’s 85 richest have same wealth as 3.5 billion poorest – Oxfam’, rt.com, 20 January 2014)

No wonder our rulers need such an elaborate system of divide and rule – or that they put so much effort into encouraging us to ghettoise ourselves and identify with smaller and smaller sections of our co-workers.

The plain truth is that, even though it can no longer be denied that women ought to be considered and treated as equals to men, capitalist society will never deliver that equality.

Formal equality for women will continue to be undermined by:

– the class background/economic position of individual women (whether they have the finances to arrange for private help in the home and with caring responsibilities when they go out to work);

– the general economic climate (whether it suits the capitalist class as a whole to have more women working or not);

– the inability of capitalist society to provide for those who are not capable of looking after themselves (whether young or old or disabled in some way);

– the need of the capitalist ruling class to divide workers in order to control them; which leads to

– the constant reinforcing of social prejudices.

What is the answer?

We’ve seen already that the women’s question is a class question. That means that it is not a question of simply educating men (although many do need plenty of educating!), or of somehow getting rid of them or doing without them, but of removing the class divisions and property relations that perpetuate the need for controlling women and treating them as second-class citizens.

That is why we believe that the only lasting answer to the problem is to abolish capitalism – the final incarnation of class-divided society – and to build socialism

– Under socialism, all major property will once again be held in common and work will be organised collectively – including both the vital work of caring for all those members of society who are unable to care for themselves, and the bringing up of society’s children.

– As part of taking collective responsibility for work, and also as a way of emancipating women from the private labour they perform at home, socialist society will provide not only guaranteed maternity rights with full pay, but also public laundries, public dining rooms, high-quality care homes and crèches, nurseries, kindergartens and after-school facilities for all.

– When the profit motive has been abolished, it will be a relatively simple matter for society to allocate the necessary resources to ensure that everyone’s needs are taken care of, and that everyone’s ability to contribute to society and to social life is maximised.

– Under socialism, there will be no need for the barrage of insidious and damaging propaganda that we are currently subjected to, which demeans, patronises, sexualises and objectifies women by turns, and which hugely influences the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to one another.

The truth is that women have much – indeed, everything – to gain from the revolution, but the extra pressures they so often face in getting on with their lives in a capitalist society make it very hard for them to create the space to be involved.

It is our job as communists to help women to want to be part of the revolutionary movement, and to be as facilitating as possible in helping them to achieve it.

This is especially important when we realise what influence our example sets for the next generation. We have to remind ourselves that our children are learning about what matters in life not only from the capitalist media and capitalist school books, but also from watching the example their parents set.

A busy political mother may not be the norm in our society. She will certainly be made to feel guilty at choosing to spend even more time away from her children, but her children will learn that everything does not have to conform to the images they are fed on the TV and in their storybooks.

They will also learn that mothers can have an independent existence and a purpose in life outside the home … and that there are some things that matter more than their individual family unit.

Political mothers beget political and conscious children. Meanwhile, communist men who leave their wives at home to look after the kids while they go to meetings unencumbered are very often surprised to discover that their children become indifferent or even hostile towards revolutionary politics!

Chairman Mao summed up the need for women’s participation when he said that “Women hold up half the sky.” He also pointed out that a movement can only be said to be truly popular when it has produced a culture of its own.

One such popular mass struggle in recent times has been that of the people in the north of Ireland against British imperialism. The following lines from a Derry songwriter highlight the crucial role played by women in all areas of the struggle there:

When men behind the wire echoed up and down the street

You were planning revolution with your children at your feet

When the images of Ireland as a woman have all gone

It’s the women of the movement that keep it moving on.

(I Believe In You by Declan McLaughlin)

Or, as JV Stalin so succinctly put it: “Not a single great movement in the history of the oppressed has been able to do without the participation of working women.”

If we are serious about abolishing capitalism and building socialism in Britain, we must do whatever is necessary to overcome all the barriers to women’s participation in our movement, and inspire and mobilise working-class women so that they want to and do take their vital place and ensure our victory.