International Women’s Day: Is “affirmative action” the answer to discrimination against women?

The idea of guaranteed quotas for women on trade union and party committees has become fashionable. But there are no shortcut solutions to this problem. Inequality exists because of capitalism and will continue to exist as long as capitalism exists. This inequality can only be fought by a united struggle of the whole labour movement. Only when capitalism is abolished and a system of democratic planning introduced will we be able to create the material basis for all inequality and prejudice to whither away once and for all.

The British Columbia New Democratic Party in Canada recently voted at its November convention to introduce a new affirmative action policy for candidate nominations. The new rules stipulate that women candidates must be nominated in at least 30% of constituencies where seats are not currently held by the NDP, while at least 5 candidates must come from "under-represented groups such as visible minorities, youth or the disabled" (Vancouver Sun, Nov 17, 2007). They also stipulate that any seat vacated by a retiring MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) must be filled by a woman.

At first glance, many progressive people are drawn to this kind of legislated parity, as they recognize the gross lack of women and visible minorities in their mass organizations and honestly seek a solution without necessarily understanding the roots of the problem. If we want to do away with inequality in society however, we do need to have a clear understanding of where it comes from and why it exists. There are no shortcuts or band-aid solutions to the numerous and often overwhelming problems of this capitalist world. As is generally the case, this bureaucratic attempt to impose an artificial solution will do more harm than good.

Let's say we all agree that inequality exists. Without offering some explanation for how it came to be (because it has not always existed), then one inevitably falls back on old-fashioned notions of women's inherent psychological and emotional "difference" from men - our weakness and vulnerability. This is the implication every time mention is made of "creating a women-friendly environment", "giving women a hand up", etc. How different is this from "let's keep it down and watch our language; there are women in the room"? Most feminists and women activists today would tell this last speaker where to go - loudly and perhaps using many four-letter words.

While ignoring the very real systemic and economic barriers that working class women face in participating, and the fact that working class women can and DO enter the scene en masse when it's worth their while, the so-called feminists of the NDP seem stuck in old-school liberal feminist rhetoric. They appeal to the old-fashioned and long disproven argument that women aren't participating because we are somehow intimidated. We are not naturally inclined to participate, or we need a little extra push and a helping hand to be successful. Maybe the men need to lower their expectations a bit, make some allowance for the new woman candidate. In this case, we need to suspend our democratic process. What does this say for the woman who seeks nomination? It says that she is not capable of running a campaign and winning on the basis of her ideas, earned respect and perspectives for the party. These are implications I'm sure we want to avoid; yet, they are the implications made by the BC NDP's new policy and its party spokespeople.

"It's giving an air of permission for women to step up and be part of the process", said MLA Sue Hammell about the new policy; "I don't think they felt as included before". Well let me tell you, I've never met a woman activist who waited for permission to step up or worried about "feeling included". These notions of women as passive, intellectually weak and in need of "a helping hand" are notions that working class women and genuine left activists must challenge head-on.

And unfortunately, this policy is likely to be used to exclude rather than include. Who chooses the women who will replace MLAs as they retire? Which 30% of constituencies will be the ones that must elect women candidates? Considering the track record of the thick bureaucratic crust that has formed at party office, we can be quite sure it will be used in an attempt to quell dissent. When one of my Marxist male comrades runs for nomination, I sincerely hope the party brass will prove me wrong and allow the membership to democratically decide who best represents them, regardless of Y-chromosome possession or skin colour.

Most importantly, we must understand the actual reasons why women are not as involved as men and target our efforts to solving the problem of inequality once and for all. Women's inequality is all about unpaid work. Since the advent of class society, when the development of agriculture allowed for the division of society into haves and have-nots, women have carried out what are arguably society's most important tasks - domestic work and the bearing and rearing of children. And they have done all of this without playing any direct role in the production and exchange of wealth, i.e. without earning a cent for the services that they provide.

While the wealthy owners and employers become richer, they have a material vested interest in keeping things this way. Imagine if an employer was required to pay a wage not only to the employee, but also to the caregiver of the employee's children? As long as there has been a ruling class, this has not been in their interest, and the capitalist ruling class is certainly no exception. Their survival depends on paying the minimum possible for the most profitable output, and if they spare anything extra, they will be out-competed by somebody who has not. So, every institution of the ruling class - education, religion, the media - enforces this role of women as unpaid caregivers as though it were natural and biological, as though it always has been and will always be.

Even prejudice itself is beneficial and profitable to the ruling class. As long as women are thought to be inferior and people of different backgrounds and ethnicities are feared, the ruling class can take advantage of these prejudices to further exploit women and so-called minority groups. The example most familiar in North America is that of the hugely exploited subclass of Latino and Filipino workers who clean toilets and offices and care for the children of the wealthy. The other side of this coin is that prejudice itself is fueled by a system of inequality, where ordinary working people feel they must fight and compete to survive. If there was no want and no need to struggle for survival, there would be no reason to hate the black man across the street "for steeling your job" or the ill and addicted for "leeching off your tax dollars".

Now that women are essentially forced to work outside the home as well as take care of our homes and children, this system means that we work twice as much as men do and are unpaid for half of our work. The pressure on women to care for their immediate as well as extended families is extreme and we will choose carefully for what exploits we will find or make spare time. This is why, in revolutionary situations, when it becomes a matter of putting food on the table, when there is nothing left to lose, women do participate in politics - en masse and with great organization. This has been the case in every revolution or mass strike that has taken place for as long as such things have been recorded. It was the women of Russia marching for bread on International Women's Day that sparked the February Revolution, and it was the women of Cumberland, BC that beat off the police with umbrellas during the big strike in 1912.

Until domestic work and child rearing are paid and socialized, working class women will not be participating in their trade unions or political parties to the extent that men are. And domestic work and child rearing will never be paid work under capitalism; not because capitalists are evil, but because the system simply does not allow it. Inequality will only truly disappear when capitalism has been abolished and its cause and necessity eliminated. Have the leaders of the BC NDP forgotten what the founders of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (which became the NDP) had to say about this?

"No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth (Regina Manifesto, 1933)."

And here we come to the most important argument against the kind of affirmative action policy that the BC NDP has just passed. To really take all of society's inequality head-on, the NDP will need to have a strong and concrete program that reaches beyond the limits of capitalism - one that includes paid and socialized domestic work, free healthcare, education and transportation (that is planned and genuinely public rather than publicly-funded and capitalist run). The ruling class leeches enough money out of the working class to make all of this easily affordable, as well as full employment, the construction of decent homes for the homeless, and a reduced working week with no loss of pay. According to the Vanier Institute of the Family's annual report on the state of Canadian Family Finances, the average net worth of Canadian families in 2005 was $364,300 ( This means effectively that if wealth was distributed evenly among Canadian households, we would all be worth $364,300. This is wealth that is produced by ordinary people who are paid a wage to create and sell goods or provide a service. But somehow in this ridiculously unfair system, this wealth goes into the pockets of a small number of people who create nothing themselves but happen to own the companies that employ us.

If capitalism is to be abolished and if the NDP is ever to be successful in appealing to the working class and poor majority, they are going to need to have such an unapologetic socialist program. This requires that there be educated, outspoken and respected working class socialists in the all levels of the party. These individuals must be elected on the basis of what they have to say and not on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, skin colour, ability, etc. What kind of woman has the time to participate in and run for election on behalf of a political party? It is not the working class woman who comes home from work each day to face her other equally challenging job - taking care of her children and home. There will always be a handful of notable exceptions (outspoken working class militant women activists), but in general it will be a middle class woman who can pay somebody else to look after her children and home, or perhaps a political science student with bureaucratic aspirations. Do these women represent me better than my male Marxist comrades simply because like them, I have a uterus? Obviously not! The best people must be elected on the basis of having the best ideas and the best political perspectives for the party. I don't care whether they are male, female, disabled, black, white or purple. We do not pave the way for women's equality by watering down the party program or by-passing our internal democracy. We do not pave the way for women to participate equally by "creating women-friendly environments" or by "giving an air of permission", but by removing the economic barriers that prevent them from doing so.

In the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin spoke and wrote frequently about the fact that legal equality for women (which was instituted almost immediately following the revolution) was not enough:

"Wherever there are landowners, capitalists and merchants, women cannot be the equal of men even before the law.
Where there are no landowners, capitalists or merchants, and where the government of the working people is building a new life without these exploiters, men and women are equal before the law.
But that is not enough.
Equality before the law is not necessarily equality in fact.
We want the working woman to be the equal of the working man not only before the law but in actual fact." (Pravda No. 40, 1920)

While we know many of the gains of the Russian revolution were set back by Stalinism, the improvements women experienced because of the planned economy are undeniable. Trotsky explains:

"The October Revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to women [...] The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work" (Revolution Betrayed, 1936)

The Communist Party went about implementing laws and creating programs that would free women up to be educated, participate in politics and the running of society, and lay the basis for genuine equality. Their 1919 program declared:

"Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc."

In addition, women were no longer required by law to live with their husbands; they were allowed equal rights to be head of the household; maternity laws were introduced including paid leave at childbirth, family allowances and child-care centres (Grant, Russia, from revolution to counter-revolution). Divorce was simplified and civil marriage introduced. Free school meals were provided to children, as well as milk and food and cloth allowances if necessary. Pregnancy consultation centres and other facilities were opened. For example, by 1971 there were five million places for children in pre-school care. The retirement age for women was lowered to 55. The incredible results of these concrete changes to material conditions are clear, as Ted Grant explains:

"The number of women in higher education as a percentage of total rose from 28% in 1927, to 43% in 1960, to 49% in 1970. The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40% of the total in higher education were Finland, France, and the United States."

Most astonishing are the statistics around mortality. Because of the superiority of planned socialized healthcare, general improvements in living standards, and the introduction of proper maternity care, the life expectancy for women more than doubled, rising from 30 to 74 years and the child mortality rate dropped by 90%.

Today, since the reintroduction of capitalism in Russia, 79% of unemployed workers are women and women are the first to be laid off, to avoid payment of any benefits. Despair and alcoholism are through the roof and with that comes domestic violence. "In 1993, 14,000 Russian women were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends - a figure 20 times higher than in the USA". Statistics like these are numerous.

By all means, encourage women and people of minority ethnicities to participate in their union and in the labour party. And adamantly oppose any sexism, racism or other prejudice in the party ranks. But do not be fooled by proposed band-aid solutions to inequality. We must continually explain that inequality exists because of capitalism and will continue to exist as long as capitalism exists. Only when capitalism is abolished and a system of democratic planning introduced will we be able to create the material basis for all inequality and prejudice to whither away once and for all.

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