Women’s liberation and socialism

July 14, 2011

Elizabeth Schulte argues that the discrimination and oppression suffered by women lie in capitalism--and that socialism offers the hope of a new world of freedom.

THE MOST accurate way to judge a society, wrote Leon Trotsky, a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, is to look at the position of women.

The day-to-day realities for the majority of working women in the U.S. today--lower wages, dwindling reproductive freedom, and discrimination and harassment on the job--reveal a society that doesn't measure up at all to that standard.

A recent class-action suit against retail giant Wal-Mart--in which 1.5 million past and present women workers came forward to say they were passed over for promotions and pay raises on the basis of their sex--provides a snapshot of workplaces across the U.S. One female employee with five years experience at Wal-Mart said that when she asked why her pay was less than that of a recently hired 17-year-old boy, a manager said, "You don't have the right equipment. You aren't male, so you can't expect to be paid the same."

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court decided to dismiss the class-action lawsuit--leaving employees to file their own individual suits against a multibillion-dollar corporation, a costly and near-impossible process.


Thus, thanks to complicit Supreme Court, Corporate America is able to maintain the status quo--even in the face of demonstrable examples of discrimination--by isolating workers and break them apart.

In fact, the ruling has an effect not just on the women who work for Wal-Mart, but on every single worker--because when the wages of women are kept low, so too are the wages of men. So it's little surprise that Wal-Mart leads the way not only in sexual discrimination, but also in low wages for all workers, men and women. An average Wal-Mart sales associate makes $8.81 an hour, according to the independent market research group IBISWorld, which comes to $15,576 a year, well below the poverty line for a family of four.

The divide-and-conquer strategy had worked out nicely for Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke, who made $18.7 million last year--a year he also cut 13,000 jobs.

While Wal-Mart is an obvious offender, a similar pattern is repeated in workplaces around the country. So for example, men and women workers in occupations traditionally dominated by women are paid less than other occupations. And all this is backed up by a set of ideas--spoken or unspoken--that say women's work is less valuable than men's.

THE SYSTEM we live in, capitalism, is based on both exploitation and oppression. Every worker who is forced to sell his or her labor power in order to survive is oppressed. Working-class women and men alike are subjected to inferior schools, housing and hospitals. They are subjected to a set of ideas that affirm their place in society--that they are incapable of ruling on their own, and the "experts" know best.

So all workers are oppressed. But on top of this, working-class women face special oppression because they are women. This includes not only the economic state of women, but a set of ideas that reinforces women's second-class status.

While sometimes it can seem as if individual people's bad ideas are the source of women's inferior status, the roots of women's oppression go much deeper than the actions of one corporation, boss, politician or coworker.

So for instance, today, there's a concerted effort on the part of Corporate America and its representatives in Congress and the White House to roll back the rights of all workers. The vilification of public-sector workers for getting supposedly generous wages and pensions is just one example.

The specific attack on working-class women's quality of life--for instance, the assault on reproductive right by defunding Planned Parenthood--has to be seen as one of the sharp edges in the war on all workers.

In the case of Wal-Mart, Corporate America bet on the fact that isolating workers makes them weaker. But recent events have provided us with many examples of how the opposite is true--standing together we are strong, and can do what may have seemed impossible in the past.

So in Egypt, Syria, Greece and other recent sites of revolt and rebellion, women and men mobilized and organized together in unprecedented ways. During struggles on this scale, workers' ideas change--men's ideas about women, and women's ideas about men and also about themselves. In the process of confronting their shared and powerful enemy, such as the state and its police, men and women workers come to see their potential power as a united force.

Ideas like sexism are exposed for what they are--useless and destructive--not only because they are wrong, like misconceptions about what women are capable of, but because they divide the working class. They are exposed for their real purpose--to keep those at the top in power by dividing the masses below.

The entire working class has an interest in women's liberation. And only a united working class struggle that upends the current system of exploitation and oppression can bring about true liberation.

Alexandra Kollontai, a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party, described the relationship between struggle and men and women workers' shared interest in overthrowing capitalism. As she wrote in a 1909 pamphlet The Social Basis of the Woman Question:

The woman and her male comrade are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life.

It is true that several specific aspects of the contemporary system lie with double weight upon women, as it is also true that the conditions of hired labor sometimes turn working women into competitors and rivals to men. But in these unfavorable situations, the working class knows who is guilty...

The woman worker, no less than her brother in misfortune, hates that insatiable monster with its gilded maw which, concerned only to drain all the sap from its victims and to grow at the expense of millions of human lives, throws itself with equal greed at man, woman and child. Thousands of threads bring the working man close.

Kollontai argued that it was united working-class struggle that had the most to offer women. It's during great social and political upheavals that new ways of organizing and thinking about fellow workers, inspired by the need for solidarity not division, are thrown up. The old ideas about women's roles or men's roles are put into question.

ELIZABETH GURLEY Flynn of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped lead several militant strikes, including Lawrence textile strike of 1912. When the IWW was accused of putting women in the front lines of struggle as a shield, she countered, "The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front; the truth is: the IWW does not keep them at the back--and they go to the front."

This has repeated throughout history when women have stood up and fought. For example, during the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris took over the running of the city for a brief time in the first workers' government in history, women were part of the battle when the forces of the government tried to retake the city. They created a Women's Union, which helped supply arms, set up schools to educate young girls, and created day care centers near women's factories.

Naturally, some were appalled by the women's role in the Commune. The French writer Maxime du Camp, said:

The weaker sex drew attention to itself during those deplorable days...Those who gave themselves to the Commune--and there were many--had but a single ambition: to raise themselves above the level of man by exaggerating his vices...They were all there, agitating and squawking...the gentleman's seamstresses; the gentleman's shirt-makers; the teachers of grown-up schoolboys; the maids-of-all-work...

What was profoundly comic was that these welfare-clinic escapees unfailingly invoked Joan of Arc, and were not above comparing themselves to her...During the final days, all of these bellicose viragos held out longer than the men did behind the barricades.

Prostitutes played important roles in the struggle for the Commune, even though their involvement was condemned by some bourgeois women. They proved to be some of the fiercest fighters. Louise Michel, a leading Communard, argued: "Who had more of a right than they, the saddest victims of the old world, to give their life for the new one?"

When the Commune was crushed, women paid the price alongside the men, with more than a thousand called up on charges, and many put to death.

Likewise, though the history of the U.S. labor movement is sometimes considered a "white men's struggle," this couldn't be further from the truth. Women are part of the U.S. working class and a part of the history of its struggle.

One of the bitterest battles in U.S. working-class history was the "Rising of the 20,000" in 1909--a struggle of women textile workers which showed their eagerness and determination to fight for better conditions.

The uprising also exposed bourgeois women's capacity to betray other women, as they refused to fight alongside their working-class sisters, when the struggle threatened their class interests. In other words, during the course of struggle, workers came to understand who their allies were--and who were not.

The fight came in 1909, when women textile workers in New York's garment district--most of them young and immigrants--organized a 13-day general strike for better pay and working conditions. Despite union leaders warning that they should not strike, women took the advice of their budding rank-and-file leaders--among them, the Ukraine-born 19-year-old Clara Lemlich--and almost unanimously voted to walk out. At the time of the strike, Lemlich was already a veteran militant, having been arrested 17 times.

In the beginning, the women workers received the support of middle-class and even wealthy women. Women with high-society and robber-baron family names lent their support in the hopes that they could "uplift" working women.

But when the striking women voted down a compromise agreement with the garment bosses and vowed to continue their strike, the middle-class women became fed up with the workers, accused them of being under the influence of radicals and turned their back on the struggle.

By the end of the fierce strike, workers won modest pay increases, a shorter workweek, among other demands--and the garment workers union had signed contracts with 354 firms.

Unfortunately, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, an epicenter of the struggle, wasn't one of them. Without union recognition, workers didn't have the shop floor organization necessary to enforce safety laws. It would be the site of a catastrophic fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers.

However, the 1909 strike marked an important development in the self-organization of women workers. And during the course of the struggle, true class allegiances come to the fore. Kollontai, who took part in heated debates with middle-class feminists in Russia, had this to say about the relationship between middle-class and working-class women:

The women's world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question.

Thus although both camps follow the general slogan of the "liberation of women," their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class coloring to the targets and tasks it sets itself...

However apparently radical the demands of the feminists, one must not lose sight of the fact that the feminists cannot, on account of their class position, fight for that fundamental transformation of the contemporary economic and social structure of society without which the liberation of women cannot be complete. If in certain circumstances the short-term tasks of women of all classes coincide, the final aims of the two camps, which in the long term determine the direction of the movement and the tactics to be used, differ sharply.

This helps to explain why Hillary Clinton, despite being a woman, has done nothing to further the cause of women. In fact, she has used her power and influence as a ruling-class woman to make the lives of working-class women worse--whether the women living in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the women workers of Wal-Mart, whose board of directors Clinton sat on for six years. Clinton is simply furthering the interests of the class she belongs to and enthusiastically represents.

NO ONE, woman or man, is immune from the influence of society's dominant ideas about the roles of men and women.

Sexist ideas do exist among working-class men. And no matter what alternative education is provided, it's impossible to escape at least some of the effects of a society that's based on class inequality, in which the prevailing ideology is designed to divide the working class, men against women.

But during struggle, many of the old sexist ideas are rejected by necessity, because people discover that without women, the struggle won't win.

During the Flint sit-down strikes of 1936-37, General Motors made a point to instill suspicion of union activity among the wives of striking autoworkers. And the male workers themselves didn't automatically view the picket line as a place for women. This division between men and women could have spelled defeat had it not been for the work of socialists and other radicals, who pulled women into the fight by forming a women's auxiliary.

They helped with meals and other support, but many of them also fought bravely on the picket line, earning the trust and admiration of the men. As socialist Genora Johnson writes about an important skirmish in Striking Flint:

The men wanted to get me out of the way. You know that old "protect the women and children" business. I told them, "Get away from me. I've got as many weapons as you have."

Lights went on in my head. I thought, "I've never used a loudspeaker to address a large crowd of people, but I've got to tell them that there are women down here." So I asked him, "Victor, can I take the loudspeaker?" He said, "We've got nothing to lose."

The first thing I did was attack the police. I called to them, "Cowards! Cowards! Shooting into the bellies of unarmed men and firing at the mothers of children." Then everything became quiet. There was silence on both sides of the line. I thought, "The women can break this up." So I appealed to the women in the crowd, "Break through those police lines and come down here and stand beside your husbands and your brothers and your uncles and your sweethearts."

In the dusk, I could barely see one woman struggling to come forward. A cop had grabbed her by the back of her coat. She just pulled out of that coat and started walking down to the battle zone. As soon as that happened there were other women and men who followed. The police wouldn't shoot people in the back as they were coming down, so that was the end of the battle. When those spectators came into the center of the battle and the police retreated, there was a big roar of victory.

WHILE ALL women may suffer the effects of oppression under capitalism, though to varying extents, the working class, made up of men and women, is the only force capable of winning an end to that oppression. The working class has the power to bring capitalist production to a halt, upend the old society and build a new one with all workers' interests at its heart.

During that process, workers shed backward ideas that divide and cripple them, like sexism. But struggle alone doesn't guarantee women's liberation. Struggles can ebb and flow. A totally different society has to be fought for, one where the material conditions for a world free of oppression can flourish.

This means locating the roots of women's oppression. A key is the family, an institution that depends largely on women's unpaid labor in order to survive, and that allows capitalism to get for free what a saner system would have to provide.

In a society based on profit, where every penny is squeezed from the working class, the nuclear family makes complete sense, even though it creates a double burden on women that includes unpaid labor in the home. But under socialism, a society in which the priority is providing for human need, the privatized family makes no sense at all.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution--which began with an uprising of women workers in February 1917--revolutionaries put a priority on creating material conditions in which women could be liberated from the chains of the family.

The new workers' government shocked the world by instituting de facto or voluntary marriage. Rules pertaining to divorce were changed so that if a couple wanted to separate, they could do so immediately. Abortion, which under conditions of illegality was a dangerous and sometimes deadly procedure, was legalized. A study of contraception was initiated.

A priority was placed on the health and safety of pregnant women and the care of children. On the job, women workers could expect a shortened eight-hour day, better safety conditions and paid maternity leave of eight weeks before and eight to 12 weeks after she gave birth.

Kollontai envisioned relationships between men and women based on their desire to be with one another, not on any economic necessity. Collective living was the key. She argued, "The separation of the kitchen from marriage is a great reform, no less important than the separation of church and state."

To fulfill this dream, communal maternity homes, nurseries, laundries and mending centers had to be made available to workers. The workers' state attempted to free women of these stultifying household tasks so they could take part in politics and the running of a new society.

The Zhenotdel, or women's department, paid special attention to the needs of women. The aim was not to separate women from the struggle at large, but to include working-class and peasant women and their concerns in the workers' struggle as a whole. The department taught literacy, and representatives toured rural areas in an effort to convince all women that they had a stake in the new society.

But while Russia offers an example of the kind of great liberation that is possible, it is also provides an example of how dependant liberation is on actual concrete conditions.

It's impossible to sustain islands of liberation in one country. Though Russia's revolutionaries desperately tried to hold on to their achievements long enough for other revolutions to come to the aid of the new workers state, none did--and the hopes of liberation came crashing down. Conditions of scarcity--a country crippled by war and famine in which the most advanced workers had been killed fighting off the counterrevolution--made fulfilling the dreams of socialism impossible in isolation.

So in 1921, with introduction of New Economic Policy, a partial reintroduction of the free market into Russia, revolutionary gains began to fall by the wayside. For example, prostitution came back to Russia during the NEP period, as women were forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

No amount of propaganda about revered soviet motherhood could hide the fact that the successful counterrevolution under Stalinism represented a complete reversal of the actual gains for women during the revolution. Conservative ideas of motherhood and sexual relations returned. The defeat of the revolution turned the dreams of socialism from below, and the emancipation of women, on their head.

This is the image of "socialism" that we are taught in history books. But the legacy of the Russian Revolution is a workers' government striving to meet human beings' potential for genuine emancipation--where the world's vast resources are used to meet the population's needs, and no human being is subjugated to another.

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