Before I was a socialist, I was a feminist. As for many women, the discrimination in favour of men was the most obvious and immediate. I gradually came to realize that this fitted into a far larger picture of racism, class oppression, ecological destruction. “third world” poverty, torture, starvation, colonialism, etc.
“From each according to his ability to each according to his need”, wrote Marx and, although calling women “he” raises another issue, this formula offers an answer to women’s problems.
As things are, all around the world, women and women’s work are undervalued—by men, other women and themselves. This is serious, not just because of the damage inflicted on that particular half of the adult population, but also because it threatens the wellbeing of the whole human race.
In her book The War Against Women, Marilyn French writes:
Women’s gigantic task reproducing the human race, supporting and maintaining it, is specifically excluded from both Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP) statistics. Women are not counted as part of the labour force because they are not paid for their work, or because men take their wages or because their work is not considered work.
My own experience was one of near incredulity when after the birth of my first child, I found myself on duty 7 days a week, 24 hours a day and yet not in receipt of an independent income, or the limited sense of autonomy that comes with it.
A housewife in the West is running the equivalent of a small business—managing finance, meeting deadlines, maintaining good relations among those in her care, preparing regular meals, undertaking cleaning and maintenance work . . . She carries a large responsibility. Yet she will habitually be described as “not working”.
Another of women’s needs is the need to feel safe. Many people in the world do not feel safe. The specific problem for women is of being under threat from attack by men, most often in the context of their personal relationships. Both battering and rape occur most frequently with men with whom women are intimate or at least “friendly”. Such experience leaves women with a sense of “no safe place to go”:
Half the married men in Bangkok, Thailand, regularly beat their wives; in Quito Ecuador. 80 percent of all women report having been physically beaten; in Nicaragua, 44 percent of men admit they beat their wives and girlfriends . . . In the United States, a man beats a woman every 12 seconds, and every day four of these beatings reach their final consummation, the death of the woman.
There is more . . .
As regards rape, Marilyn French points out:
It is especially difficult to counter men’s sense that rape is legitimate, that it is their right. Both sexes are raised in a culture that, until recently, implicitly reinforced this idea. Rape within marriage or on a date was considered impossible; rape by a stranger was the victim’s fault: she was out alone . . . she was wearing the wrong clothes or shoes, she had a drink.
What to do?
From boyhood, writes Marilyn French,
males are bombarded with the message that ‘‘real” men dominate women, which means they control women’s behaviour . . . So powerful and pervasive is this formula for the appearance of manhood that a man with an equal, mutual, relationship with a woman may adopt a posture of dominance towards her when other men are around.
Why does ail of this happen? What can be done about it?
Marilyn French’s answer is caressed in the concluding sentence of her book: “After millenia of male war against them, women are fighting back on every front”.
But is it in fact the case that the vast majority of one half of the human race feels compelled to dominate the other half? If so, why? What does socialism have to offer women, that feminism does not?
|Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
Socialism involves a complete change in the way the whole of humanity organizes, itself, so that we have a system which provides goods and services because people need them and not because of money. There is no money and there is no property. Land is owned and controlled by the whole of humanity. There are no national boundaries. It must be highly organized, but in a genuinely democratic way. so that all people are involved in making decisions that affect their lives. There are no hierarchies. no distinctions of class, race or sex.
Such a system seems like the impossible dream, but the potential for it is there. Even in capitalism, men and women can be fair and compassionate and co-operate with each other. People derive pleasure from working for themselves and others without monetary reward. What it will take is for the majority of people in the world to decide that this is how they want to live, and to set about organizing it.
Clearly the resistance to this from certain quarters may be great. The capitalists will not like it, initially at least—and if one half of the worlds population does feel compelled to dominate the other half, such an attitude will have to be challenged or socialism can not be achieved.
Men not the enemy
I became disenchanted with the feminism which holds patriarchy to be the world’s primary problem, because I did not like the logical conclusion to which this kind of thinking would lead. If men are simply women’s worst enemies, what should we women do? Shoot men down in the street? Or simply withdraw’? What of hopes for shared childcare and housework? Many women, men and children would like men to be more, not less involved in their families.
It is true, many women are in severely oppressive situations at home and at work. Women get more than their fair share of the work, less than their fair share of the cake and less freedom than the men they share their lives with. Women are subordinate to men. Knowingly and unknowingly, men abuse the power they have over women—but not all men and not all the time.
Men also love and care for women, and work to support women and children. Some men have been women’s best friends at crucial times in their lives—and some men are subordinate to some women: a wealthy woman may hand out orders to a male wage-slave.
The problem of sexism is complex and linked to a larger problem; that of the way the whole world is organized.The majority of women and men in the world feel and are powerless in the face of the minority powers-that-be. Part of the problem of sexism is simply a “kicking the cat” syndrome. a white employed man, oppressed by his employer (or depressed by the dole queue) comes home and puts his wife in her place, for much the same reason that the pair of them will insult their black neighbours. It is an ignoble and inadequate solution to one’s own lack of self-esteem and autonomy, to undermine someone else’s. but without self-respect it is hard to respect others. A feeling of self-respect in our present system is for most people constantly under threat.
It is surely preferable for women to work with women and men to change the whole system than against men in the hope of changing just one aspect of it. Some men are sometimes women’s enemies—but so are some women. Many men and women are women’s potential friends and allies.
I hope we can one day realize our potential for mutual respect and co-operation and create world socialism. Part and parcel of this process must be the shifting of patriarchy.