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'Women and Socialism' Meetings

In June 1986 the Socialist Party published a new pamphlet, Women and Socialism, in which we discuss the question of women's oppression, how it relates to class oppression in capitalist society and how socialism offers women real liberation. At annual conference it was decided that a series of meetings should be organised in order to publicise the new pamphlet and so throughout September, October and November branches and groups up and down the country held meetings on the subject of "Women and Socialism".

The tour began with a meeting at Head Office organised by South West London branch. In the same week I spoke at meetings in Bolton, Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, nearly all of which were well-attended and led to useful discussion on a wide range of topics. The following week took me to Dundee and Glasgow while Pat Deutz spoke in Leeds. (For those of you who were wondering how I could speak in Glasgow and Leeds on the same evening, no, not a socialist miracle, simply a socialist cock-up remedied by socialist cooperation!) September ended on home ground with a meeting in Bristol and October began with a visit to Luton where I spoke at a well-attended meeting which must have been encouraging to the member who has recently moved into that area and is working hard to establish a new group. The following week took me to a girls' school in Barnet to talk to a group of sixth formers which produced some lively discussion on the subject of what women can do to change society and on the same day I spoke at an Islington Branch meeting. Later in the month I travelled to Swansea and then back to London for a meeting organised jointly by Hammersmith and West London branches in Chiswick. November took me up north again to Newcastle and Edinburgh and finally, in December, to Kent, where the efforts of a member of Bournemouth branch have led to the establishment of another new group in Canterbury.

It would be impossible to sum up the enormous range of subjects covered in discussion during this series of meetings. Each meeting was different in terms of the points raised and questions asked. Nearly all were well-attended by both members and visitors. The only disappointment was that, as is so often the case, men outnumbered the women at just about all the meetings. For this reason I think it is worth mentioning what was probably the most useful discussion of all, resulting from a point raised at the meeting in Newcastle. The question was  asked - how can we encourage more women to come along to Socialist Party meetings and become actively involved in the work for socialism? In the course of discussion on this important question the following points emerged.

Women workers are in general less active politically than men for four main reasons. Firstly, there are practical problems that prevent women from attending political meetings. Most meetings are held in the evening and many women have young children so going out to a meeting is likely to mean finding a baby sitter, which is not always easy and often expensive. Socialist Party members should recognise this and wherever possible offer practical help (such as babysitting) to women with children who are prevented from attending Socialist Party meetings because of their child-care responsibilities.

Secondly many women are, understandably, nervous about going out alone after dark. They may very well be put off going out to a meeting at night if they know they will have to go home afterwards. Again Socialist Party members should be prepared to help out by organising lifts home after meetings if members have cars, or by offering to walk with women who are scared.

Thirdly, many women have been taught from an early age that politics is part of the man's world outside the home, is nothing to do with them and has nothing to offer them. They may very well feel that their first concern is with their domestic responsibilities - the welfare of their children and the problems of trying to fit paid work around the needs of their families. So how can we persuade women workers that socialist politics is as much to do with them as it is with men? Firstly, we need to convince women that socialism will not just change the "public" sphere of things that go on outside the home but it will also affect the "private" sphere of family and child care in important ways as well. Socialism, unlike capitalism, will offer women workers not just a choice between paid drudgery outside the home and unpaid drudgery inside the home, but the possibility of doing whatever work or combination of work they themselves find fulfilling. Their role as mothers (if that is what they choose) will not be under-valued but will be recognised and respected. But fathers, and indeed other adults in the community, will also recognise that they have a responsibility for the welfare of children. So caring for children will no longer be seen as a burden, the responsibility of just one or two tired adults but as a joy to be shared in by everyone, male and female. So in very practical ways socialism has a lot to offer women. We must therefore stress to women workers that while they are absolutely right to say that capitalist political parties have little to offer them, the Socialist Party offers them not only the chance to work together, as equals, with other like-minded workers in order to build a new socialist society, but also the possibility of a full and creative life in that new society. As socialists, we are not concerned with just one area of life - the male-dominated world of politics and politicians. All the conflicts and contradictions of capitalist society affect all of our lives.

Some women may be reluctant to become politically active because traditional sex-roles and conditioning into those roles has convinced them that to be assertive and to speak up for yourself is "unfeminine" and that women are "no good at that sort of thing". As a result many women lack confidence in their own abilities and are terrified at the prospect of even asking a question at a public meeting. Party members should be aware of this problem (and of course many men may also be nervous) and take practical steps to give women support and to encourage them to take an active part in socialist activities. Some men still believe that so-called "women's issues" are trivial or marginal. They are not, and should not be treated as such. Issues to do with the family, child-care and sexuality are as important as those to do with waged work and affect us all in important ways. The Socialist Party does not make distinctions between men's interests and women's interests. Whether we are talking about child-care or factories these are issues that affect all workers, men and women.

It is vital that we get more women along to our meetings. Socialism is not just for and in the interests of men, and men certainly can't get socialism without women. I hope that the new pamphlet and the series of meetings will have succeeded in persuading at least some women that The Socialist Party takes them seriously and persuaded at least some men to think about how they treat women.

Visiting so many groups and branches throughout the country in such a short space of time was an immensely encouraging exercise. I am very grateful to all the members who, through their kind hospitality, helped to turn what might have been an exhausting three months into an enjoyable and stimulating experience. There is an incredible amount of enthusiasm around in the party at the moment; there are plenty of new ideas and approaches to propaganda; new groups are being set up in many areas; and more established groups are becoming branches. So the message is that the Socialist Party is alive, well, and, most important, growing. Let's hope that 1987 sees an even faster expansion in the movement for socialism!

Janie Percy-Smith