by Christine Thomas, 2019

As the age of austerity arising from the great crash of 2007-08 enters its second decade, a new movement of women struggling against their oppression is taking shape. But mistaken ideas on how oppression can be ended have resurfaced too. The ideas of socialist feminism are ever more relevant.

2018 #TotalShutdown march in Tshwane

Feminism is back. All over the globe women have been taking to the streets and speaking out about gender oppression. Mass protests against violence against women have erupted in response to horrific rapes and murders of women in India and Argentina. On 14 November, more than 1.5 million students answered the strike call of the Sindicato de Estudiantes and Libres y Combativas, the socialist feminist platform of SE and Izquierda Revolucionaria against sexism in schools and in the legal system of the Spanish state. In Ireland, Poland and Argentina women have organised to defeat new and existing reactionary constraints on their reproductive rights, challenging the stranglehold of the Catholic church over social issues.

#MeToo has spread around the world raising awareness of the scourge of sexual harassment, while the elections of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have provoked massive movements against the sexism of both presidents and in defence of hard-won rights for women against anticipated attacks. In Scotland over 8,000 low-paid women working for Glasgow city council have taken historic strike action to demand equal pay.

Although these are mainly disparate movements, and not all countries have been affected in the same way, it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that a third feminist wave is on the move. This follows in the wake of the 19th century first wave, and the second which mainly spanned the late 1960s and 1970s. Each has been marked by its own characteristics, shaped by prevailing economic and social conditions. However, it is also possible to trace recurrent strands of thought and practice running through them which socialist feminists need to address.

The 19th century women’s rights movement emerged in the US from the struggle for the abolition of slavery. If black people had the right to equality then so did women. The leadership of the first wave internationally rested overwhelmingly with middle-class women who principally emphasised their rights to legal and political equality with men of their own class. This included the right to vote but also equal access to the public spheres of higher education, professional employment and politics which were considered male preserves in contradistinction to the female domestic sphere. In many countries, however, the late 19th century was also marked by a growing confidence among industrial workers, explosive struggles by sections of super-exploited workers, including many women, and the consequent rise of new forms of trade union organisation, and the development of socialist and Marxist organisations.

Increased access to higher education and work outside the home spurred a questioning of wider gender inequality by women involved in the second wave. The women’s liberation movement, although never numerically large in an organised form, succeeded in bringing questions concerning sexuality, gender violence and women’s control of their own bodies into popular consciousness. It developed against the backdrop of social radicalisation and mass movements: international protests against the Vietnam war, the powerful US civil rights movement, the fight for national liberation in the colonial countries. Widespread strikes and industrial struggles were also breaking out in many countries, at times assuming a revolutionary potential.

In the US, the relationship with the workers’ movement was quite weak. In Italy, on the other hand, it emerged directly from the mass workers’ struggles and they were closely linked. In other countries such as Britain, the workers’ movement also exercised an important influence on the feminist movement. This was a time when the potential of the organised working class as a viable agency for fundamental social change was evident. Yet those struggles and strikes show how, even at times of mass struggle, the relationship between the working class, revolutionary political leadership and system change needs to be consciously drawn out. This was highlighted by the events in France in 1968, when the working class was prevented from overthrowing capitalism by the lack of leadership by the powerful Communist Party.

The new wave

The current wave of protest has developed in the context of the biggest post-war economic crisis and the devastating consequences of a decade of austerity in many countries. On the one side, the severity of the crisis has had a radicalising effect on consciousness, resulting in a growing rejection of many of the institutions and instruments which capitalism has relied upon historically, such as the media, church and, most dramatically, the traditional political parties. As the movements of women testify, this changing consciousness is also giving rise to a challenging of the sexist and divisive ideology capitalism has used to back up its economic and social control.

At the same time, however, consciousness is still being shaped by the legacy of the pre-crisis period, when workers’ organisations were weakened by neoliberal attacks and an acceptance of the dominant capitalist ideology following the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Although there have been some important workers’ struggles, particularly in Greece, Portugal and some other European countries immediately after the crisis, collective struggle has been at a historically low level in many of the more developed capitalist countries. The inability or unwillingness of leaders to fight back against neoliberalism, austerity and the effects of globalisation have often led to a rejection of all political parties and a scepticism about the ability of the working class to act as a collective force for change.

The present global movement of women combines elements of a new consciousness with vestiges of the old. The fact that women, and other oppressed groups, are combining to struggle against their shared oppression is a very positive development, especially when contrasted with the previous two decades when the emphasis was on individual rather than collective struggle. ‘Post-feminist’ ideas reached their peak in the 1990s and the turn of the century. One of the main messages relayed through the media, popular culture and politicians was that, by transforming their own attitudes, shaking off victimhood and adopting sufficient determination, many of the existing obstacles to gender equality could be overcome. As a consequence, issues such as sexual harassment came to be increasingly viewed as individual problems.

Today, collective struggles involving a new generation of young women are once again raising awareness of gender violence, sexism and inequality. Although #MeToo developed initially as a mainly social media ‘movement’ dominated by highly-paid women in the entertainment industry, it has found a huge echo, lifting the lid on widespread sexual harassment and abuse by men in positions of power and control. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a supreme court judge in the US the movement took to the streets. Its impact beyond the realms of entertainment and politics could clearly be seen when McDonald’s workers went on strike in ten US cities in September to protest against workplace sexual harassment and in the global walkout by thousands of Google workers.

Just like the previous waves, the new movement is a contradictory one, with competing ideas and strategies. These throw up theoretical and strategical challenges for socialist feminists. During the first feminist wave, the major debate for Marxist and socialist feminists revolved around how to relate to the ‘bourgeois’ women’s movement, as it became known, especially when demands for the right to vote and legal equality with men were gaining an echo among working-class women.

Many socialists, male and female, felt it was not possible to campaign around issues of specific concern to women related to their gender without this leading to the division of male and female workers. There were fears that engaging with the bourgeois women’s movement and its demand for legal changes within the existing system would result in those ideas being absorbed by the workers’ organisations, undermining the struggle for fundamental economic and social change for the benefit of the whole working class. These ideas were successfully resisted by women such as Alexandra Kollontai in Russia and Sylvia Pankhurst in Britain.

Radical feminisms

The dangers of adaptation are present in any movement in which different ideological trends emerge. The main strands of thought competing in the second wave were bourgeois, or liberal feminism, radical feminism and socialist feminism. It would be more correct to speak of radical ‘feminisms’ as there were differing ideas over the basis of male dominance. For some it was located in men’s control over women’s sexuality. For others it was rooted in male violence.

However, unlike liberal feminists, for whom women’s inequality is caused by discrimination and prejudice, radical feminism attempted to elaborate a social structure theory of women’s oppression. This located gender inequality in a patriarchal system in which men as a group dominate women as a group. For most radical feminists, patriarchy was considered a social system separate from capitalism and other systems of economic and social inequality.

This theory of ‘the patriarchy’ has been opposed by Marxist and socialist feminists. Basing ourselves in particular on Friedrich Engels’ work, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State,* we have argued that institutionalised male dominance is not universal, that societies have existed in which egalitarian social relations have prevailed. Women’s oppression is rooted in the emergence of societies based on class divisions. It is so intrinsically intertwined with class society – including today’s dominant form, capitalism – that it cannot be analysed separately or ended without eliminating class society itself.

It is not always easy to stay ideologically firm in the face of a new radicalised and enthusiastic movement. Some socialist organisations, even some who defined themselves as ‘Marxist’, allowed themselves to be swept away by the second wave, adapting to the movement and accepting its ideas and strategy uncritically. Even the use of terminology is very important as it reflects underlying ideas. A loose use of the term patriarchy, for example, adopted uncritically from the radical feminists, would have given credence not just to the idea of two separate systems, but also to the erroneous strategy flowing from this – a struggle against patriarchy separate from the struggle against capitalism.

The second women’s movement contributed to achieving important gains in many countries, including the right to divorce, access to abortion and contraception, and legislation outlawing unequal pay and discrimination. The more extreme separatism of radical feminism, however, failed to provide a viable strategy for ending women’s oppression, and its influence has since waned.

In fact, another positive characteristic of the current movements has been precisely the openness of a new generation of women to involving men in their struggle, as well as forming alliances with other oppressed groups. The idea that different oppressions ‘intersect’ is in some ways a step forward from the cruder strands of radical feminist ideas which tended to see women as an undifferentiated social category, ignoring or downplaying differences based on race, class, etc. ‘Intersectionality’, however, tends to see class as just one form of oppression among many, without understanding how all oppressions are rooted in the structure of class society.

The effects of austerity

The economic crisis has led to a certain undermining of the liberal feminist notion of securing gender equality through gradual improvements within the capitalist system. Even before the crisis, the much vaunted economic gains and career advancements for women were mainly confined to the middle classes, and the inequality gap between women widened. Nevertheless, the idea that continual progress was possible gained a certain currency even among many working-class women. The crisis and its effects have destroyed many of those expectations, strangling at birth the hopes and aspirations of a younger generation of women.

While there has been no conscious master plan to turn back the clock and force women out of the workforce and into the home, private sector job cuts, and particularly the austerity axe wielded by governments on the public sector, have destroyed many women’s jobs and increased the precariousness of those which remain. At the same time, through the slashing of public services such as nurseries and elder and respite care, working-class families in particular are often left with no choice but to shoulder the extra burden themselves. Most of this, and the harmful consequences it can wreak on finances, health and personal relations, falls to women.

With women still predominantly responsible for the care of children within the family, especially at pre-school age, lack of affordable childcare is often the main reason so many working-class women are still confined to low-paid, female-dominated and part-time jobs, and a major factor contributing to the gender pay and pension gap. Low pay means that working-class women and families are unable to pay privately for childcare from their own wages while the structural economic crisis means that state spending on public childcare or financial subsidies to cover the cost of private care is strongly resisted or cut back.

Inherent, therefore, in the huge movements of women is not only the rejection of certain capitalist institutions and sexist ideology but also the potential for the maturing of a broader anti-capitalist and socialist outlook. However, this will not be an automatic process. The inability of capitalism to deliver the material interests of working-class women – jobs, pay, benefits, pensions, etc – can be seen clearly during a crisis. The link between class society and other aspects of gender oppression, such as violence, sexual harassment and sexism, is less clear.

In the recent movements there is often a tendency to consider these problems as deriving from the behaviour or misogyny of individual men, or of a vague ‘culture’ which encourages rape or sexism, without seeing how attitudes, behaviour and culture are shaped by the capitalist society we live in and the ideology carried over from previous class societies. The emphasis has therefore been on raising awareness, educating men and changing attitudes and behaviour without any of this being linked to broader economic and structural change – much in the way that liberal feminists have argued in past movements.

Class-based society

Socialist feminists believe that all of these things are important. Violent and sexist behaviour carried out by individual men should be challenged wherever it occurs. We have always severely criticised those who have tried to ignore or minimise such behaviour in the name of ‘unity’ between working-class women and men. We have initiated broad campaigns which have raised awareness about domestic violence (in Britain) and sexism in schools (Sweden). Both of these campaigns had an effect in changing attitudes and behaviour and, in the case of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, in securing changes in the law. But because of the nature of capitalist society, legal reform, awareness raising, changing individual men’s behaviour or changing ourselves can only go so far.

Violence against women, sexual harassment, restrictions on women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy, sexism and gender stereotyping are all rooted in unequal relations of power and control. As part of the process of the formation of the first class societies based on private property relations, women became the property of individual men within the family unit – a social institution which organised and controlled both production and reproduction in the interests of the dominant economic class. Men within the family, fathers or husbands, controlled women’s bodies with regards to their sexuality and reproduction, often with the socially sanctioned or encouraged use of violence. Women’s inferior status and social role became enshrined in the legal system, backed by the church and other institutions of class rule. Rape was considered a crime against the male of the family whose property had been defiled.

Thousands of years later we face a contradictory situation. Capitalism inherited the gender ideology of previous societies as well as the institution of the family which it then fashioned to suit its own economic interests. As economic and social conditions have changed, however, the family and social attitudes have undergone a sea-change in the more developed capitalist countries, particularly over the past few decades. Rigid gender norms and the idea of the traditional family unit have been undermined in many countries by the influx of women into the workforce, the increase in single-parent households, recognition of same-sex marriage and the growing acceptance of transgender people. The victory of the movement for legal abortion in Ireland, and the near victory in Argentina, has shown how it is possible to defeat the reactionary ideas still promoted by the Catholic church regarding women’s reproductive rights.

Nonetheless, backward attitudes and behaviour can continue to flourish long after the initial material basis for those ideas has disappeared. The capitalist system, for example, no longer directly promotes violence against women in most advanced capitalist countries. On the contrary, important laws have been passed around this issue and it is generally viewed as a social problem which should not be tolerated.

However, capitalism is based on unequal economic and social relations in the workplace, the family and in wider society. The segregation of women in low paying sectors of the economy and the transfer of the burden of public services to the family make it more difficult for women to leave violent relationships. Moreover, they sustain the inequality and inferior status from which gender violence derives.

Norms of gender roles, behaviour, dress and imagery are perpetuated and shaped from cradle to grave, reinforced by capitalist institutions like the media, the education system, the judiciary, etc, as well as the beauty, leisure and fashion industries. Capitalism is a system in which commodities are sold on the market to make a profit. That commodification is extended to the bodies of women, both directly through the sex ‘industry’ and indirectly through images and text. The internet and social media have merely expanded the instruments through which sexist gender norms can be diffused. Bringing an end to rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexism and gender discrimination cannot, therefore, be achieved without fundamental structural change – eradicating the capitalist system and the network of unequal economic and power relations on which it is based.

The role of the working class

One of the challenges for socialist feminists is to explain the centrality of the working class in the process of changing society – because of its role in the capitalist production process and its potential collective consciousness – and to orient the new generation of female fighters towards the working-class movement. One of the strengths of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, which was launched in the early 1990s and rapidly became a broad-based campaign, was its ability to orient towards the working class.

For the first time, it established domestic violence as a workplace and trade union issue. It explained how the violence experienced by women in the home also impacts on their working life and the role that unions could play in securing economic and social change to enable women to leave violent relationships and lead independent lives. This was achieved despite the fact that the link between domestic violence and the workplace was not immediately clear and despite the opposition of radical feminists who were opposed to any link with ‘male-dominated’ trade unions.

At a time of low level workplace and industrial struggle, explaining the central role of the working class is not necessarily a straightforward issue. A positive aspect of the current international movement, however, has been its adoption of the strike as a weapon of struggle (on 8 March, International Women’s Day, for instance) and the turning to male workers for solidarity. The two-day strike of Glasgow council workers was extremely significant. Thousands of women workers stopped work to battle for equal pay, while male refuse workers and others took illegal secondary action and refused to cross picket lines to support them. The McDonald’s and Google strikes against sexual harassment and unequal pay were also vivid examples of the potential of forging unity between female and male workers around an aspect of gender oppression, in this case in predominantly unorganised sections of the working class.

Challenging right-wing populism

The other challenge is the need to create and build the political instruments which system change requires. On the one hand, capitalism’s economic and political crisis has fuelled a rejection of capitalist institutions and ideology. On the other, the bankruptcy of the traditional parties of the working class and the absence of viable anti-capitalist political alternatives have resulted in the anti-establishment mood being electorally channelled towards right-wing populism in a number of countries.

Trump, Bolsonaro, and Matteo Salvini and the Lega in Italy, have openly expressed sexist opinions or behaviour and espoused socially reactionary ideas. Even though these ideas are not necessarily supported by the majority of the population, or even a majority of those who voted for them, they pose a real danger to the social rights of women and other oppressed groups. Trump, in particular, has been able to create a social base among a layer of white men who feel alienated and undermined by economic crisis and social change, and are receptive to prejudice and backward ideas about women and other social groups.

In the US, the ground is being prepared for a further undermining of abortion rights and attacks on transgender rights. In Poland, an offensive has been launched against women’s already very limited abortion rights. In Italy, the government is discussing a law in the name of ‘parental equality’ which would actually make divorce more difficult for women with children and increase domestic violence. The mass demonstrations on Trump’s inauguration day, and the outpouring of women onto the streets in the #NotHim protests against Bolsonaro before and after his election, give an indication of the scale of resistance that future attacks could unleash.

In Italy, Non Una di Meno, which was inspired by the movement in Argentina, has become one of the most organised and influential women’s groups internationally, capable of mobilising tens of thousands of women and men. Victories can be won, as we have seen in several countries, but those gains will always be vulnerable to further attacks, as the renewed offensive in Poland has demonstrated, unless a political alternative is created to challenge the root causes of the problems women face.

With all their contradictions, the new women’s movements represent the first stirrings of a potentially broader working-class and anti-capitalist struggle. A new generation of young women fighters are being radicalised and mobilised, and could be won to the fight for socialist change. There will be attempts to orient these movements towards existing capitalist political parties – towards the Democrats in the US, for example – or to remain completely independent from all political parties, regardless of their orientation, as with Non Una di Meno. The challenge for socialist feminists is to participate in the movements, engage with the ideas and strategies which emerge, while maintaining ideological clarity. To explain how the struggle to end gender oppression in all its forms is only possible in the framework of a broader struggle by the working class against the capitalist system itself.

* Although some of the facts on which Engels based his ideas have been refuted by subsequent scientific and anthropological developments, the general theory of the interconnectedness of class and gender oppression retains all its validity (see: Engels and Women’s Liberation, Socialism Today 181, September 2014).