Father Knows Best?
A recent article in Spare Rib (May 1984) commented on the relationship between the women’s peace movement and women’s liberation:
“Some fear it’s a diversion, that the women’s liberation movement has been taken over by the women’s peace movement. Their argument is that we must go direct to the cause of war—patriarchy—and that we’d all do better to tackle the ‘man next door’.”
Patriarchy is the concept that links only movements for sectional goals whether they be “liberation” or a ban on the use of nuclear weapons. The arguments of the women’s liberation movement (WLM) are that the subjugation of women exists due to men. During the 1960s the WLM gained in popularity, developing its arguments around the bondage of marriage, the economic and emotional poverty of housework and the use of females as a reserve army of labour.
What is patriarchy and how does it relate to the struggle of socialism? It is a word used by the sociologist Max Weber, to describe a particular household organisation incorporating an extended kinship network in which the father dominated and controlled the economic production of the household. Feminist writings assign two meanings to the concept — the domination of women by men and the rule of the father. The concept of patriarchy has led some sections of WLM to dissociate themselves from men and attempt to develop a particular female consciousness such as that of political lesbianism, which argues against the institution of male domination by claiming that heterosexuality is central to women’s oppression.
Radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone have argued against men’s control of women’s fertility and reject women’s biological role entirely. Some feminist writers such as Kate Millett argue that patriarchy is the fundamental political division in society and is therefore independent of any mode of production. Patriarchy is seen as not only pre-dating capitalism, but continuing after capitalism has been replaced by socialism. Therefore, socialism is regarded as irrelevant to some radical feminists who believe that it will merely succeed in replacing one group of men by another.
Does socialism have to be a male-dominated society or should the struggle for socialism be postponed until patriarchal ideas have been overcome? Is patriarchy the cause of women’s oppression and are women’s political movements therefore correct to exclude men?
Capitalism’s private property relationships and class division are the cause of the oppression of both men and women. As is becoming clear to those who imagined otherwise, for women to demand equality with men in the labour market changes nothing. The majority of women remain members of the working class and are therefore dependent on the sale of labour power in order to buy food, clothing, housing — the things we need to live. Many women are now realising that the exchange of one oppressive situation for another is not liberation and have abandoned the assumption that male wage slaves had something worth striving for.
Women’s present position in society means that they are often excluded, used as cheap labour and required to fall in with sexual expectations. Given the future prospects mapped out for young girls at school where they learn to cook, clean, mother and type (always a handy skill for part-time work) it is hardly surprising that more and more women are rejecting the role assigned to them from childhood. What is frustrating is the divisive political conclusions of women-only political movements that patriarchy is to blame for the world’s problems.
The political aims of the various sections of the WLM are divisive and reformist, preferring to put immediate aims before a revolutionary change in society. Under capitalism it is not only women who are oppressed. All human beings who depend on a wage or salary in order to live are oppressed and even if many men misconceive their role in society and their relationship with women it does not alter the basic fact that men are degraded too.
If capitalism is to be overthrown women and men have to work together for socialism in the knowledge that the oppression of both sexes results from private property relationships and class divisions. In a world of common ownership there will be no husbands and wives because marriage derives from private property relationships. That is not to say that monogamous relationships will not exist in a socialist society, if people want them to.
Common ownership will foster new kinds of relationships between human beings. Women and men will at last be free to live life as they choose, to cooperate with each other in building a future in which we will no longer be exploited sexually or for profit. The prerequisite for this new society is socialist understanding and the desire to cooperate — with men as well as women.