Socialists of course understand key issues through the prism of class, but is such analysis really thorough or empowering if it isn’t feminist or intersectional? Dawn Fyfe writes about how capitalism disproportionately affects women and outlines how we can campaign with women’s rights at the forefront of what we do…
Why women and socialism? As we know, capitalism affects all working class people, as well as other communities. But women experience multiple oppression under capitalism and some would argue, have more barriers to addressing these issues, meaning solutions are often centred on the experience of men. What’s the impact of this oppression? Women currently feel the brunt of 74% of the austerity cuts in the UK. Women have been more vulnerable to job loses and have found it more difficult to secure new employment than men. Women continue to be underpaid, earning just 79% of the average male salary. Women provide 59% of the caring roles in the Scotland and make up over 90% of lone parent households, with many women caring for grandchildren and parents at the same time as we all live longer.
These statistics do not negate the experience of working class men, but they highlight the exaggerated oppression experienced by women. Furthermore, these experiences reduce women’s control and independence in their lives, leaving them vulnerable to targeting from men who choose to abuse their power over women. One of the feminist movement’s most famous approaches was to highlight the “Personal is Political”. This statement counteracted the message that violence in the home was an individual experience for individual women, instead recognising this was a societal issue based in power structures.
These power structures are based on hegemonic messages about the role of women, women’s perceived responsibilities and how they present themselves. Women who are seen to step outside these dominant messages can experience a variety of judgements as people try to “keep them in their place”. This can range from losing their job to dealing with children to violence and abuse.
In 2016/17 there were 58,810 incidents of domestic violence in Scotland. On top of that there were 10,822 reports of sexual assault. It’s therefore a further challenge for women to be involved in political activism on top of their everyday lives. Furthermore, the messages from campaigns and parties often reflect the experiences of men and therefore struggle to attract women, who can’t relate to these.
But it’s essential we do and that women are included. We must be able to influence and develop our campaigns, not to take over messages but to ensure that everyone’s experience is reflected. Traditionally, for example, socialist campaigns have focused on work change. For women, priorities may be different. Yes, it’s about work, but in order to work childcare is required, and consideration must be given to child sickness and school holidays. Even getting to the childcare in time after work can be a struggle. Campaigning for £10 an hour is good, but how does it resolve the above? Also what does it matter if women still earn only 70% of the average male salary? Being told time and time again you’re not of the same worth can eventually convince you that you aren’t.
Marx recognised this dilemma for women, stating: , "Pitiful as the lot of the worker is, the status of the woman is far worse. In the factory, in the workshop, she works for a capitalist boss, at home for the family.” When the structures of the home reflect the capitalist and in our case, neo-liberal society, how can women find space for analysis and reflection, let alone campaign?
Bell Hooks highlighted the danger of approaches that merely recognise the oppression experienced by communities, without addressing or resolving them:
“… when we state complaint without a constructive focus on resolution, we take away hope. In this way, critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”
It’s essential then that women’s oppression is taken seriously, understood and addressed, even when that challenges our own privilege. For example, being an employed woman in a two income household with one child is very different from being a young black lone parent, struggling in a part time agency social care job. My conditions support my activism in a variety of ways, so do I fully consider the needs of the other woman? I need to actively work at understanding this. Saying we want to include women should mean including all women. Too often the needs of women in a more dominant position are addressed, whilst those experiencing multiple oppressions are not. This may reflect the dominant voice of some communities of women, however it also requires minimum change to the status quo, i.e. patriarchy, the privilege of men.
This has been the approach from the early days of feminism, as illustrated in one of the most famous speeches recorded, albeit possibly embellished, by Sojourner Truth (above) who was captive in slavery in 1851:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?”
This speech was given at a women’s rights convention in 1851 and highlights not only the horrific oppression experienced by communities but also the tendency of the dominant ideology and stereotype overriding the reality, making the oppressed lives invisible, in this case not only to the oppressor but also to the oppressed (as Gramsci highlighted in his theory of hegemony). Giving women safe space to allow this process, without concerns of judgement, is essential, as is the movement being open to alternative ways of campaigning. Listening to women’s experiences and designing campaigns to support their struggles not only would bring more effective results but would also counteract hegemonic messages of sexism and misogyny. Valuing women’s experiences as women is a revolutionary act in itself.
So how do we support women’s activism? Well, women are already active. Many communities benefit from the informal work of women, supporting each other with childcare daily, whilst supporting in times of crisis, sharing information on benefits, schooling and health. All movements need to recognise this activism, not only to avoid overloading women and having expectations that are too high, but also value and develop this activity.
Organising meetings with consideration of the pressures on women, but also that recognise the emotional impact of that oppression is essential. Again, Bell Hooks highlights in relation to racism that people are “psychologically terrorised by the bizarre gap between theory and practice”. If your experience is negated and ignored, how do you analyse and vocalise your political needs, particularly in the face of oppression within meetings? Equal representation of women in structures needs to be backed up by a healthy membership of women. This not only supports decisions to have a gendered analysis but also challenges sexism and misogyny within leadership. If that representation isn’t there, leadership isn’t working and needs supported to change this.
And leadership is essential in all of this, for everyone. Geoff Mulgan highlights that:
“The most compelling accounts of the moral duties of power holders see these roles not as possessions but as like a gift. When people receive a gift they are duty bound to reciprocate. If that is a talent they are obligated to cultivate their gift, and then, through the pursuit of their vocation, to return the results to the community.”
And I would argue, prepare the next person for this gift. This preparation for women can be more complex. Mary Beard says:
“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just leaders.”
It’s therefore the structures that require changing, not women. Fitting women into the capitalist culture does nothing to promote socialism and change. For example, from the 1970s to present day, Women’s Aid in Scotland has adopted a collective approach to activism and service provision in a variety of guises. Since, I would argue, the intervention of the Scottish Government in approximately 2000, the national office of Scottish Women’s Aid has moved to a hierarchy and this has reduced the strength of the collective in local offices, though some, such as Clydebank Women’s Aid have continued to practice in this way.
Pre-2000, Women’s Aid had a 30 year record of building a politically aware service for women and children who were experience violence, without hierarchy and valuing contribution from all, including survivors who then volunteered within their local groups. This is unprecedented in Scotland. Did we all know about this?
Collectivism is essential in any socialist movement. It’s the lifeblood of progress. It’s the support that’s required by oppressed peoples to continue the fight. Not being alone supports your understanding of reality, but allows campaigns to reflect the needs of the most oppressed. So women have made huge contributions to the political community and socialism, but often this is hidden and/or unrecognised. Providing platforms and organising activity around issues important to women, and challenging a political environment that reduces the opportunity for women to contribute, are all essential.
This piece has been adapted from a guide put together here.