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A new book by Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith on...
Women's liberation and the fight for socialism.

May 20, 2005 | Page 8

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reviews a new collection of essays from Haymarket Books that provides a much-needed socialist analysis of women's oppression.

WOMEN'S OPPRESSION is alive and well. Access to safe, legal abortion is being carved away procedure by procedure, restriction by restriction, and state by state. Women's wages average just 75 cents to every dollar a man makes.

Despite these cold, hard facts, conservative pundits have succeeded in furthering the idea that we've entered a stage of "post-feminism," where any talk of women's liberation is outdated and outlandish.

In Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation, Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith takes on these lies, getting to the heart of what happened to feminism, and offering a Marxist understanding of oppression and how to win genuine women's liberation.

In a time when daring to complain about sexist beer ads gets you labeled as "oversensitive," this book offers a clarity that's sorely needed. Yes, sexism and inequality still exist--and they still should be challenged.

Moreover, this book offers an explanation of how we got to this point. Women and Socialism begins with the conservative backlash of 1980s and '90s, in which conservatives and the Christian Right tried to turn back the clock on the social reforms of the 1960s and '70s. From civil rights to women's right to abortion, they went on the attack against every reform won in the struggles of a few decades earlier.

The right wing's attack alone, however, doesn't fully explanation why we are in the position of fighting many of the same fights over again. Also at fault are liberal organizations and their inability--and seeming unwillingness--to wage a struggle to defend these rights.

If liberals are losing the war on abortion rights, for instance, it's because they haven't fought. This is covered in an excellent chapter in Women and Socialism, which documents the insistence of groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) on supporting the Democratic Party at all costs--even when that meant watering down their pro-choice stance to appeal to the "middle."

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THE CHAPTER "What Ever Happened to Feminism?" traces how feminists themselves have downplayed issues of women's oppression.

One of the starkest examples is Naomi Wolf, who wrote the 1994 book Fire With Fire and put forward the idea of "power feminism." Wolf proposes "power feminism" as an antidote to what she calls "victim feminism"--or "old habits left over from the revolutionary left of the 1960s," quotes Smith. "Women are held back today, Wolf argues, not primarily because of discrimination within society," Smith writes, "but by themselves...Women are no longer hampered by economic or political obstacles in the way of equality, but quite simply by their own psychological negativity."

Clearly, Wolf is directing her arguments to a tiny section of women who have enough money and power to set aside "petty complaints" of unequal pay or sexual harassment on the job that might make them appear like "victims."

This orientation around the interests of solely middle-class women is hardly a new one for the women's movement. As Smith points out, NOW, formed in the 1960s, consistently avoided taking up issues critical to working-class women. In fact, NOW took the side of employers instead of women workers in a 1986 case of a bank worker who took off six weeks--without pay--for maternity leave.

For middle-class feminists, the point is to further the interests of a small section of women who are already in the position to change their individual situations and climb the ladder of success. "For working-class women, there are no individual situations to being overworked and underpaid...That's why socialists have traditionally argued that feminism, as a solution to women's oppression, offers nothing to working-class women," argues Smith.

The roots of women's oppression lie in the way capitalism itself is organized--where the responsibility for raising children falls on individual working-class families. And within those families, the burden of the child-rearing and household upkeep falls overwhelmingly on working-class women.

In one chapter, "The Origin of Women's Oppression," Smith provides a thorough explanation of the Marxist understanding of the rise of the family in class society, and how women's inequality arose as a part of that development.

This chapter takes on the feminist critics of Marxism who claim that women's oppression has existed as long as human beings themselves. Here, the point is made again--that individual solutions ultimately won't get rid of women's oppression.

"Given the relationship of the working-class family to the capitalist system, the answer is therefore not, as some feminists have suggested, convincing men to take on a greater share of housework," writes Smith. "While socialists are in favor of men sharing housework, we hold none of the feminist illusions that this is a solution to women's oppression, for reproduction would continue to be privatized. This solution is effectively one which would only affect working-class families. It would have virtually no effect on any family with the means to hire domestic labor. It would mean, however, that working-class men would share the burden for the reproduction of labor power along with working-class women--to the continued benefit of the capitalist class. Both working-class women and men deserve more, not less, leisure time--particularly today, when U.S. workers on average are working a month longer per year than they did 30 years ago."

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THE WAY to end women's oppression in the home is by creating the material conditions necessary for true liberation. This means taking the burden off the family and making it the responsibility of society at large. It means providing communal kitchens, child care and other services.

The final chapter of Smith's book, "Women and Socialism," looks at the example of the 1917 workers' revolution in Russia--which, for a time, strived to create the conditions for women's burden in the household to be lifted. Tragically, the seeds of liberation were destroyed in the counterrevolution, as the dwindling resources of the revolutionary government were used instead to fight the forces of reaction.

Smith quotes the Russian revolutionary Lenin, who argued in 1919: "Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labor on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins...Public catering establishments, nurseries, kindergartens--here we have examples of these shoots, here we have the simple, everyday means, involving nothing pompous, grandiloquent or ceremonial, which can really emancipate women, really lessen and abolish their inequality with men as regards their role in social production and public life."

This book provides useful and seldom-heard arguments from a Marxist point of view about the current questions of the day and a broader picture of society. This includes an important chapter on "Women and Islam," which provides an alternative to a knee-jerk opposition to Islam by taking up questions of imperialism and anti-Muslim racism, but also by offering a method for understanding the role of religion in capitalism generally.

The arguments in this book are invaluable for anyone who envisions a truly equal and liberated society.

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