Women & coming working-class fightback


This article is based on a portion of the resolution on the oppression of women, written by the author, that was approved by the 2012 Socialist Action convention.

“Such demands [from the women’s liberation movement] go to the very heart of the specific oppression of women exercised through the family and strike at the pillars of class society. They indicate the degree to which the struggle for women’s liberation is a fight to transform all human social relations and place them on a new and higher plane.” — Resolution of the 11th World Congress of the Fourth International, 1979

In our last pre-convention discussion [in 2011], we noted that the ruling-class effort to recoup its rate of profit led them almost everywhere to try to severely reduce the social wage and to reassert the individual working-class family’s crushing responsibility for child care, senior care, education, and health care. As has been the case throughout history, the main burden of this care will fall on women.

We also noted that structural adjustment measures and the increasing drive for privatization, including even social functions like the procurement of water, inevitably increased the double burden of working women. We noted the degree to which the Chinese miracle was dependent on the super-exploitation of young female rural migrant workers. We can now chart a parallel process occurring in the European nations undergoing the deepest austerity drives.

Logically flowing from these changes is the increased vulnerability of women; their increased availability for the most contingent and irregular work. Thus, their use as temporary, part-time, and contract labor force creates wedges that further divide and weaken the class as a whole.

We have been able to watch this process escalate on both a world and a national level. At the same time, we have seen ideological campaigns mount against women on many fronts—abortion and contraception; projects to indict Black women for genocide and South Asian-American women for femicide; Malthusian prescriptions for climate control; propaganda about motherhood and work, i.e. “the new mommy wars;” and the notion that single motherhood is the cause of poverty. These ideological campaigns against all the advances of the Second Wave feminist struggle steadily gain momentum and fury.

It has become clear that this economic crisis, like all other major capitalist economic crises and structural shifts historically, is going to be accompanied by major efforts by the ruling class to use sexism and gender inequality as weapons in their drive to prevent the kind of working-class fightback capable of ending their rule.

One factor that must considered when assessing the degree to which the ruling class is prepared to use romantic and religious notions of the role of women and the family to retard the working-class struggle is the startling new ratio of employment to population size in the United States.

In May 2012, a number of commentators on the financial blogs noted that the percentage of the U.S. population that is working is now just about what it was around 1970. That is, the percentage of the population lucky enough to have jobs today is about the same percentage that had jobs just before the ruling class created the conditions that pushed a massive wave of women to go into the workforce. At that time, although many women worked, the number of women who did not work was sufficient to bolster the ideological notions that women worked for “pin money” or that women belonged in the home, preventing teen delinquency and saving civilization through the nurturing of children.

This ideology made it easier for the bosses to super-exploit women on the job, to deepen divisions in the working class, and to use this division to drive down wages as a whole.

Non-working women remaining in the home constituted a massive reserve army of labor. Maintaining this setup required constant reinforcement of all the myths of patriarchal societies, including the most fundamental, that women must be either mothers or whores.

Today, women make up over half of the U.S. workforce. But the mainstreaming of all the old propaganda about the dangers of reproductive choice/justice and the dangers of alternatives to the nuclear family suggest that the ruling class sees driving some percentage of women out of the workforce as part of the solution for their current crisis.

Moreover, the government-sponsored or protected social services that partially supplant the traditional family—including public education, after school programs, school meal programs, social security, pensions, public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid—have been on the chopping block. The big investors holding government bonds are demanding that the funds that could go to these services be directed exclusively to their own financial health and maintenance.

In addition, private educators demand that less money go to public schools. Insurance companies fight public health care. In other historical periods of retrenchment, all these factors have resulted in the ruling class trying to convince the working class that women belong in the home.

However, the nuclear family that the capitalists fundamentally rely upon to hold down wages and supplant society-wide services has been put under incredible stress due to the attempt by the ruling class to use women to directly boost surplus value. Forty percent of children in the U.S. are being raised by a single parent.

It is this contradictory situation that is fueling what seems on the surface to be an irrational war against women in the United States. Of course, all sectors of the ruling class may not be in complete agreement on exactly what measures must be taken to maximize the exploitation of women and utilize their continued subordination for maximum economic effect.

The virulence of the Republican Party-sponsored measures to restrict reproductive choice and deny any claims for reproductive justice represents one approach. The softball approach of the Democratic Party, which propagandistically defends women’s rights with token measures like the Lily Ledbetter Act or Health Reform clauses that would “allow” state funds to cover some abortions, is another.

What is certain is that there is unanimity on the need to use the “woman” card as part of the ruling parties’ efforts to make the system sufficiently profitable once again. And this offensive is occurring at a moment when due to unequal wages, employment discrimination, and other tools of economic marginalization, adult women are about 30% more likely to be officially “poor” than adult men.

This political offensive provides the context and tools for the most reactionary cultural shifts and the revisiting of some of the oldest ideological obsessions associated with the oppression of women. Thus, young working women are being forced to grapple with maturation in a culture that condemns reproductive choice, blames mothers for the psychologically damaged youth raised in the culture of austerity, shames the victims of rape, and simultaneously demands that they look and perform like the ubiquitous corporate porn stars whose success is determined by their ability to fake sexual pleasure.

Women in the labor movement

Women are half of the labor force but continue to earn 76 cents on the dollar earned by men. Women remain underrepresented in highly skilled blue-collar jobs in industry and transportation, i.e., jobs where the class is most able to exert decisive economic power. If domestic work is counted as part of the workweek, most working-class women still work nearly double the hours put in by men.

This double burden continues to limit the ability of many women to struggle successfully for political leadership in their workplace organizations. The unions that organize the service industries in which women predominate are as top-down, staff-driven, undemocratic, and paternalistic as any out there. The AFL and SEIU leaderships ignored the effort of the national nurses union to call a political demonstration (to tax the rich) at the NATO summit last June in Chicago.

The labor movement of today, shackled by its Democratic Party leadership, still refuses to campaign for national health care, affirmative action, or reproductive choice, to say nothing of the demand for 24-7 child care, which was seen as the immediate order of the day when the Second Wave began. It is difficult to believe that the rebuilding of the labor movement into a militant and effective one will occur without a conscious political effort to truly champion the fundamental needs of the half of the ranks who desperately need the relief codified in these historic demands.

The fight to win all working-class organizations to understand the centrality of breaking down the divisions in our class between women and men is one of the many key questions that must be taken on by those who want to build a successful fightback of the entire working class. This requires an embrace of gender equality and an agreement to fight against their economic subordination to men, and for the social alternatives to women’s double burden (working on the job and at home).

To fundamentally change the position of women, we are going to have do away with the entire profit system that is dependent on their second-class status and dependent on withholding from society as a whole the simple means to satisfy the basic human needs for sustenance, shelter, human warmth and nurturing. To accomplish this will require a massive movement of working people, led by a wing of militants that understands that women’s historic demands for child care, for full reproductive freedom, for reproductive justice, for equal wages, and for affirmative action, are all central to any program for workers power.

Women must be at the center of the fight for this kind of movement, where working people can use their power at the controls of the transportation system, at the point of manufacturing and energy production, at the point of where profits are made, to force this rotten ruling elite out of the picture.

Conversely, any movement of working people that does not place in the foreground the demands of the female half of the workforce and does not create the culture that will foster their seizure of leadership will fail dismally. At every great moment of crisis of the capitalist system, the right wing has grown on the basis of the most reactionary but dramatically successful appeals for the dignity of women and the sanctity of the family, motherhood, and the child.

The longstanding demands of women for child care and social services cannot but be the demands of the whole working class in its fight for a sane and humane social order that takes care of all its members and that is the opposite of the patriarchal nightmare proposed by the far right. The fight for full democratic rights for LGBTQI workers and for gender equality are necessary corollaries that limit the ability of the ruling class to use the nuclear family as an ideological tool to attack the working class as a whole.

An effective working-class program for jobs and social services must include the appropriate demands for child care, for reproductive freedom and reproductive justice, for full female and child health care, for adequate maternal and paternal leave for childbirth, child rearing, and elder care, for a full and rich education for all children, and for affirmative action to achieve gender equality in all trades and professions that we are fighting to maintain.

These demands, and others like them, could not only heal one of the most dangerous divides in the ranks of the working class, but could make crystal clear the nature of the society that will benefit all working people. It would be a system in which society as a whole, not the individual household unit, takes responsibility for the basic human needs of its members.

It would be a society in which those who produce the wealth have the power to channel resources into social projects that enrich the youth and comfort the elderly, and afford 100% of the population the time and means to develop as full and productive beings, free to use their talents and creativity to shape a better world.

Currently, there is no sizeable movement for women’s rights in the streets. Nevertheless, the small mobilizations, conferences, and discussions occurring among young feminists, at Occupy gatherings, and in the labor movement are part of the broad political process by which an effective class-struggle movement and revolutionary organization will be built in the next period.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action



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