Struggle for Women's Emancipation

marxism poster women 1 Image public domainA growing feeling of alienation, injustice and oppression is feeding a general movement of rebellion among women against the existing state of affairs. The awakening of millions of women, especially the younger generation who feel a burning indignation about the discrimination, oppression and humiliation to which they are subjected under an unjust system is a profoundly progressive and revolutionary phenomenon that we should celebrate and support with the utmost enthusiasm.

It goes without saying that Marxists stand one hundred percent in favour of the complete emancipation of women. There cannot be the slightest hesitation, ambiguity or doubt about this. We must fight against the oppression of women at all levels, not just in words but in deeds. Under no circumstances can we allow the impression that this is somehow a secondary issue that can be subsumed under the general category of the class struggle. It would be fatal for the cause of Marxism if women believed that Marxists are prepared to postpone the struggle for their rights until after the victory of socialism. That is entirely false and a vicious caricature of revolutionary Marxism.

While it is true that the complete emancipation of women (and men) can only be achieved in a classless society, it is equally true that such a society can only be achieved through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Women cannot be expected to put to one side their immediate, pressing demands and await the arrival of socialism. The victory of the Socialist revolution is unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism.

– From Marxism vs Identity Politics

"Still waiting after all these years" - these words (with apologies to Paul Simon) could easily apply to the search for equal pay for women.

While middle class feminists regard the oppression of women as an inherent biological trait of men, Marxism explains that the root of women's oppression lies not in biology, but in social conditions. Marxism sees the liberation of working class women as a part of the struggle for the liberation of the working class as a whole. While feminists set women against men, the socialist movement attempts to forge solidarity between male and female workers in a common struggle against capitalist exploitation.

For Marxists, the root cause of all forms of oppression consists in the division of society into classes. But oppression can take many forms. Alongside class oppression we find the oppression of one nation over another, racial oppression, and the oppression of women.

This month in our Women's section we are publishing an article on the history of the struggle of women to win the right to vote. Barbara Humphries looks at this history and how it relates to the development of the class struggle.

Women have traditionally been regarded as a backward layer of society and a bulwark of the Church and reaction. This "backward" character, however, is not something innate to women, as the bourgeoisie would like us to believe. The explanation for this is not to be found in any biological differences, but in the double exploitation that women suffer under capitalism. As Bebel succinctly put it, "The female sex suffers doubly: on the one hand suffering under the social dependence on men... and on the other hand, through the economic dependence to which they are all subject, as women in general, and as proletarian women in particular; in the same way as proletarian men." (A. Bebel, Women

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In his book Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World, Gorbachev claims that women in the Soviet Union have "the same right to work as men, equal pay…every opportunity to get an education, to have a career and to participate in social and political activities." The reality, however, is different. Seventy years after the revolution, despite legal equality, the Soviet Union still cannot justifiably claim the liberation of women.

The life of Sylvia Pankhurst is rich in experience for all activists in the labour movement. The names of the Pankhurst family are synonymous with the struggle to win the vote for women, but what distinguished Sylvia Pankhurst's approach from that of her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel were class issues. It resulted in the 1920s, after nearly twenty years of struggle, with Emmeline standing as Tory Parliamentary candidate and Sylvia becoming a founder member of the British Communist Party. The seeds of such a divide were there from the early days of the suffragette organisation.

"The revolutionary power gave women the right to abortion, which in conditions of want and family distress, whatever may be said upon this subject by the eunuchs and old maids of both sexes, is one of her most important civil, political and cultural rights"

"If one understands by “family” a compulsory union based on marriage contract, the blessing of the church, property rights, and the single passport, then Bolshevism has destroyed this policed family from the roots up."

"But the spell is broken. In the book of life
We will write the story of your victory.
March boldly, woman worker. Let your path
Be light with the torch of liberty."

We are publishing a short work of Clara Zetkin which she wrote on the basis of her conversations with Lenin on the women's question. It was first published in 1925. Zetkin explains that Comrade Lenin frequently spoke to her about the women's question. Social equality for women was, of course, a principle needing no discussion for communists. It was in Lenin's large study in the Kremlin in the autumn of 1920 that she had her first long conversation with Lenin on the subject.

"In the most communist of circles a need has arisen to oppose old practices by new forms, new symbols, not merely in the domain of state life, where this has largely been done, but in the domain of the family."

"As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme."

"We must remember that different parts of the human consciousness do not change and develop simultaneously and on parallel lines. There is a certain economy in the process. Human psychology is very conservative by nature, and the change due to the demands and the push of life affects in the first place those parts of the mind which are directly concerned in the case."

“Where there’s a will there’s a way. We have the will to world revolution, therefore we must find the way to reach the masses of the exploited and the enslaved women, whether the historical conditions make it easy or difficult.”