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How will women be liberated?

March 24, 2006 | Page 12

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the burden of discrimination and sexism women bear in a capitalist society--and the potential for creating a society in which oppression is ended.

THE LOS Angeles Times called it "The Return of the Happy Housewife." In the March 5 article, writer Charlotte Allen asserts that women are finding that they're happier at home.

It isn't about whether the husband shares in the household chores, as feminists once thought, says Allen--citing a study that says wives, including working wives, still do more than 70 percent of the housework. It's about a husband "who believes, along with his wife, that marriage is forever."

ABC's Good Morning America called it "The Mommy Wars"--a series of segments in which Diane Sawyer pitted stay-at-home moms against mothers who also worked outside the home.

Add to the mix several recent articles in the New York Times furthering the idea that middle-class professional women regret the decisions they have made to work--or that they solve their personal dilemmas when they decided to "opt out" of the working world.

In September, it was a front-page article about women at the Yale University who told Times reporter Louise Story that they planned to stay at home. Two years earlier, the Times Magazine was reporting on well-to-do women declaring themselves "The Opt-Out Generation."

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FOR CONSERVATIVES, the fake controversies in these articles are proof that the women's movement of the late 1960s and '70s was a failure. For those who'd like to roll back the gains women made decades ago, like the right to choose abortion or not to face discrimination on the job, these anecdotes are evidence that women made their choice--and decided that they really are happier without them.

The phony debate over the new "mom-ism" is part and parcel of an ideological attack on women's role outside the home and putting limits of what our choices are. The claim is that women's rights have gone "too far"--and now not even women know how to cope with the result.

For millions of women in the U.S., these articles have nothing to say about their everyday lives. And they have even less to do with what the hope of actual women's liberation would be like.

The reality for most women is that they work outside the home and at the same time shoulder the burden of caring for their family inside the home. The percentage of women in the U.S. who work outside the home doubled between 1955 and 2002. Yet in the richest country in the world, the government doesn't provide child care.

It doesn't take care of women when they're pregnant, either. According a study of 168 countries by Harvard's Project on Global Working Families, the U.S. was one of only five countries without paid maternity leave.

The only other economically advanced country on that list was Australia, which guarantees women a year of unpaid leave. In the U.S., if a woman is lucky enough to work in a workplace that qualifies, she can request 12 weeks' leave--unpaid.

A third of women in the U.S. work in part-time jobs with little or no benefits. And when women retire, they also come up short. Half of all women with income from a pension in 2002 received less than $5,600 a year--around half of what men received, according to the AFL-CIO. Women over 65 years old are twice as likely to live in poverty than men the same age.

The reality is that society penalizes--not rewards--women for the work they perform in the home. This is why socialists see women's role in the family under capitalism at the root of their oppression.

Since its priority is profits and not fulfilling human needs, capitalism is utterly uninterested in providing for people's needs. Therefore, it depends on the unpaid labor women perform in the home--raising children, cooking and cleaning.

However, at the same time, the reality of modern capitalism is that women play a vital role in the paid workforce outside the home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 59 percent of women were a part in the labor force in 2004.

This is where women are potentially at their most powerful--as workers. Unlike the home, where they are isolated from social contacts, in the workplace, women can be part of a collective group with collective power.

It's also at work where it's possible for the divisions between women and men to be broken down. Working side by side, it's possible for men and women to grow to see through the artificial divisions that capitalism throws up--because sexism isn't something that comes naturally to human beings; it is learned.

Working women's wages hover around 75 cents for every dollar a man makes, but do working-class men benefit from the fact women are paid less? No. In fact, statistics shows that when women's wages stagnate, it's more probable that men's wages will, too.

According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, from 2003 to 2004, women's median annual earnings fell by 1 percent, for the second consecutive year-to-year decline. Yet the gender-wage ratio rose slightly, because men's earnings dropped even more, by 2.3 percent. "Thus, women's apparent progress masks worsening economic conditions for all workers," states a report. "The gender wage ratio is now statistically the same as its all-time high of 76.6, reached in 2002, having just regained the previous year's loss."

Nor do men benefit from the fact that women do the majority of work in the home because the government refuses to subsidize public child care, laundries or food preparation.

However, these truths aren't always obvious in the society we live in, where sexism, like racism, is cultivated and encouraged to divide the majority of the population--the working class--to benefit the few who rule. In this way, workers' anger is diverted toward other workers, instead of those who actually pull the strings.

By the same token, men and women workers who succeed in breaking through these divisions and uniting are the bosses' worst nightmare.

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WHEN MEN and women join together in struggle, they come to recognize how little really divides them, and they find out how powerful they are.

During the sit-down strikes of 1936-37 against General Motors, in Flint, Mich., women organized not just to support the strike with food and child care, but also with muscle on the streets. They created emergency brigades, often arming themselves with clubs, to help out on the picket line.

Through this experience, women not only gained new confidence in themselves, but won the confidence of the men. "Following the strike, the autoworker became a different human being," recalled Genora (Johnson) Dollinger, a socialist who helped organize the strike support. "The women that had participated actively became a different type of woman, a different type from any we had ever known anywhere in the labor movement and certainly not in the city of Flint.

"They carried themselves with a different walk, their heads were high, and they had confidence in themselves. They were not only mentally different, but physically different. If you saw one of those women in the beginning and then saw her just a short period after going through this experience, learning and feeling that she had things she could fit together in her life, it would be an entirely different woman."

In revolutionary periods, workers can create the material conditions in which true liberation can flourish. For example, the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 didn't simply declare women's liberation--they laid the material basis for women's liberation by creating communal kitchens and child care centers, and decreeing the right to abortion on demand and immediate divorce.

"The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins...against this petty housekeeping, or rather, when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins," said Russian revolutionary Lenin in 1919. "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."

In conditions of scarcity, the Russian revolutionaries weren't able to see more than a glimpse of the liberation that's possible for women. But today, we can see the potential for no one to have to do without--and the possibilities for women to win true liberation.

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