What are the origins of women's oppression? And how do we fight it? These are vital questions to ask in a society where working class women are twice oppressed - both as workers and as women.
How liberated are women today?
It is often said that sexism is a phenomenon of the past – there are more women in work than ever before and they are increasingly sexually liberated. But it is also clear to most people that this is not true at all – in the UK the pay gap between men and women remains at 20%, and women are still expected to carry out the majority of domestic activities such as cleaning and looking after children.
Obviously the past century has seen many strides forward for women as many more have entered into higher education, pursued careers, and rights to abortion and divorce have been gained. However we must also recognise that women remain an exploited group and that the form of this exploitation has changed in tandem with changes in the capitalist system.
If we consider firstly the issue of women at work, from 1881 to 1951 the percentage of women in work in Britain hovered around the 25% mark; by 1965, 54% of women were classed as “economically active”. This can be seen as the result of the changing scope of British capitalism with the opening of new industries and their expansion as a result of the post-war boom.
However, it is also important to note that despite there being a greater number of women in work, a significant pay gap remained – 27-30% – and the majority (70%) were employed in the precarious service sector.
Moving from the 1960s to the 1990s/2000s: throughout the past two decades the percentage of women in work has remained at around 65%. However, it is clear, that despite more women being in work – a positive sign for emancipation – that women’s work continues to be lower paid and in more casual sectors. The continuing pay gap has been referred to above and it is also notable that 92% of women work in services, one of the most precarious sectors of employment, compared to 71% of men.
One must also consider the reasons behind more women being in work: government statistics show that in 2011 only 9% of the British workforce worked in the manufacturing sector. This can be seen as a result of de-industrialisation, which led to the closure of industries such as mining, steel and shipbuilding across the country. The loss of these industries led to the loss of many well paid jobs in working class communities and made two wage packets a necessity for many families.
Here we can see that more women entering into the labour market has been as a result of the changing nature of capitalism and has also allowed for wages to be pushed down as two wages has become the norm. For many women this has been far from an emancipating experience as they have been forced into casual sectors, being paid less than their male counterparts.
It is clear that despite more women entering into the workforce that they continue to be exploited in work and that their working is used to further exploit the working class as a whole. It should also be noted that despite the majority of women now working, they are still expected to carry out the majority of domestic activities – they are effectively working two jobs. This is just one of many examples of oppression of women outside of the workplace.
Sexual liberation over the past century has won many gains for women, such as rights to abortion and divorce. But the modernisation of relationships and attitudes to sex has far from ended oppression of women in this realm; it has simply changed. New expectations have meant that instead of women being pigeon holed as wife and mother, they are now expected to exhibit sexual behaviour or else be labelled a “prude”; but not too much or else be labelled a “slut”. Increasingly strong sexual imagery and sexual expectation have also led to create a culture, as shown in forums such as “Uni Lad”, of women being sexual objects, and sexual violence, including rape, being seen as a joke.
Modernisation under capitalism has far from ended oppression of women, only the nature of this oppression has changed. Ending this oppression will only be possible under socialism where domestic work will be socialised, with a planned economy that dramatically reducing working hours and increases leisure time, and the removal of economic pressures and divide and rule tactics, in order to bring an end to negative attitudes towards women.
What could socialism offer?
With socialism will come the end of all of the many forms of oppression used by the capitalist system, including that faced by women. While capitalism relied upon strict gender roles, socialism would do away with this repressive pigeonholing of individuals. Relationships and families that do not conform to monogamous ideals (required by capitalism for tracking inheritance, reliant more on female monogamy than male monogamy of course) will be as accepted socially as those that do. A socialist society would have no need for the nuclear family, often at the forefront of the exploitation of women, necessary for the passing on of private property and the raising of the next generation of workers for the capitalist.
This will all be achieved through the guarantee of work for all, alongside a general reduction in working hours, giving each worker more free time to spend as they choose, including to care for their family. Employers - i.e. the bosses - would be done away with as part of the end of capitalism, and with this would go any bias in the workplace on the basis of sex. With the guarantee of a job and the socialisation of childcare, women would not have to choose between having children and working. No worker would have to face any form of discrimination or oppression. This, along with equal maternity and paternity leave and an education system emphasising equality (including gender equality), would aid in fighting sexist attitudes on society, such as the expectation of women to be the maternal and caring child raisers and homemakers.
Universal free childcare is a simple solution to alleviating these expectations, allowing parents of all genders to be free to work while their children are safely looked after. In the current economic system, it is women who are saddled with the double burden of shorter working hours and lower wages than their male counterparts, leading to the “logical” conclusion that it is only fair for them to therefore make up this shortfall at home, cleaning, cooking, raising children to name just a few of the societal expectations. Women are also considered to be the natural caregivers, thus relatively expendable in the workplace, at the mercy of the capitalist.
There would also be complete transformation of the many institutions, which currently exist under capitalism to promote and reproduce all forms of oppression - including the discrimination against women. The legal system, with its infamous culture of victim blaming, harsher criminal sentences and such like against women, would become radicalised transformed, operating in the interests of the working class and not the interests of the bosses and those in power. The healthcare system would provide accurate, reliable and respectful care to women, informing them of all their reproductive choices without judgement or misinformation.
We cannot simply wash away the acutely institutionalised oppressive beliefs within society through gender quotas in boardrooms and “real beauty” campaigns from makeup giants. We must refuse to be pandered to by capitalist powers; it is only through a socialist economic system and the reforming of oppressive social views that we can achieve full equality.
The origins of women's oppression
Despite being one of the most obvious questions to ask of any societal phenomenon, the question of the origin of women’s oppression is one which is rarely tackled seriously. It is of the utmost importance that we understand where this oppression comes from, as on this basis the link between class society and oppression of women becomes clear.
Women’s oppression is one of many forms of oppression – including racism, homophobia, and sexism – that is created out of a society based upon the class exploitation of the many for the profits of the few. With this understanding we can also develop ideas of how to fight women’s oppression. Clearly this involves fighting for every reform and raising the question of women’s rights; but the basis of women’s oppression also points to its place in the class struggle for socialism.
As documented in Engels’ Origin of the Family, the oppression and degradation of women is not ever present throughout the history of human beings. It is true that even in the first beginnings of humanity – a period referred to as ‘primitive communism’, as undeveloped conditions meant that tribes had to work together in order to just meet their basic needs, as there was no surplus to profit from – the work of men and women was split according to sex. For biological reasons women were required to look after children and hence their role in food production was based around gathering close to the home while men hunted further afield. However, despite the split in work, women were not viewed as inferior to men and their status was aided by the fact that families were traced through the mother line, since without marriage and fidelity as a social norm it was impossible to be certain of a child’s father.
The Neolithic revolution brought tools and the domesticity of animals which, for the first time in human history, allowed for not just basic needs to be met, but also for the creation of a surplus. The creation of surplus saw the beginnings of class society, as it was now possible for some men to sell their surplus for profit, creating distinctions between rich and poor. As some began to amass wealth they also bought slaves and paid other men to work on their land; here we see the first example of worker/landowner.
This process led to women being seen as inferior to men in society, as it was within the work of men that profit was to be found. The creation of surplus also led to the creation of inheritance. The greater status of men meant that families were now traced through the male line, which necessitated the enforcement of female fidelity. Here we see the origins of marriage.
Female oppression began in the embryo of class society and as it has grown into the system of capitalism so too has the oppression of women become more complex and ingrained. To emancipate women we must overthrow the system that created and exploits our oppression.
Fight for women's liberation! Fight for socialism!
As shown above, capitalism and oppression are intricately linked. Sexism, as well as racism, ableism, homophobia and all other oppressions, derives from class oppression; therefore, in order to tackle any one of these oppressions we must also fight capitalism. This pattern can be traced to its development during the Neolithic revolution, and followed through to its continued existence as we see it in modern society.
Sexism, racism, etc. - all of these are used by the capitalists to divide the workforce in an attempt to prevent them from uniting against their true common enemy: the bosses and the capitalists. Capitalism relies on the oppression of the majority to maintain the power of the minority, and oppression thrives in the economic and social inequalities created in a capitalist system.
We need socialism and a fight for every reform possible; measures that are vital for the immediate protection and emancipation of women. Violence against women, harmful societal attitudes, denial of education and many other forms of brutal gender discrimination must be fought against as rapidly and strongly as possible. However, there is only so much that social reforms can achieve.
Whilst we champion women’s liberation and join in with the struggle to end gender based oppression, the solution does not lie with bourgeois feminism, which simply advocates equality between the sexes at the top of society. Such an ideology does not help the majority of women, primarily through its ignorance of all other forms of oppression, allowing only a select few women to reach the higher echelons of society. Here, as bosses or bourgeois politicians, etc., they in turn can exert their own subjugation of both female and male workers, often without realising it. This is all capitalism can promise in terms of equality: the occasional chance for the oppressed to become the oppressor.
Full equality can only be reached with destruction of the source of oppression: capitalism. Socialism demands the equal treatment of all, whatever their sex, race, nationality, or sexuality. Social reforms must be matched with a planned economy to guarantee a society free of discrimination and subjugation for all, in the workplace, healthcare and the legal system, as well as online, on the streets and at home. Socialism has no need for oppression; if anything it would hinder a socialist economy, which would depend on and ensure the upholding of equal and fair treatment of all citizens.
As an organisation we stand for equality for all and aim to fight every form of oppression as well as its roots in capitalism. We aim to provide a safe place for discussion and are committed to giving accurate Marxist analysis of current issues and offer a socialist solution.