In the current campaign to receive the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Hillary Clinton has tried to portray herself as a defender of women’s rights, appealing to “sisterhood” and the possibility of becoming the first female president in order to galvanize support. While there is certainly a layer who views her as the most progressive candidate because of her gender, many young women and men in the U.S. can see right through the smoke and mirrors, and recognize Clinton as a member of the increasingly hated establishment.
This recognition has been bolstered by recent blunders made by high profile Clinton supporters, such as Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright. Steinem who is recognized as a leader and spokeswoman for the “second-wave” feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 70s, sparked outrage when she suggested that young women were supporting Bernie Sanders for male attention. She has since apologized for her sexist remarks, but the damage has been done and the hypocrisy of liberal feminism has been exposed. During the same week at another Clinton rally, Madeleine Albright, a former U.S. secretary of state, remarked that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. This resulted in many questioning if there was a special place in hell for a woman who has served the cause of US imperialism for most of her professional life and previously maintained that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of US sanctions was "worth it". Once again, the hypocrisy of Clinton portraying herself as a champion of women was glaringly clear.
The reality is that Hillary Clinton is a representative of U.S. capitalism and imperialism, and throughout her more than 20 years in positions of power, she has enthusiastically supported policies and wars that subject hundreds of millions of women around the world to conditions of abject misery and poverty. Her allegiance with Wall Street is very clear from her campaign’s donor list of tycoons, bankers and lobbyists. Clinton has also come under scrutiny for a series of closed-door talks she provided to Wall Street banks and investment firms like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank between 2013 to 2015. Clinton received a total of $4.1 million in speaking fees according to the Wall Street Journal. As the saying goes, you cannot serve two masters. Being funded by and therefore beholden to the ruling capitalist class means that Clinton cannot serve the interests of the majority of working class women. As president, she would implement austerity and attacks on workers that would disproportionately harm women and other marginalized layers of the working class.
Many young women who identify with intersectional feminism have correctly observed that we can’t view all of those who belong to a category such as “women” as homogeneous and have highlighted that despite being a woman, Hillary Clinton’s class interests and politics are not in the interest of a majority of women. However, while intersectionality rightfully points out that people experience multiple layers of interconnected oppression, it approaches oppression from the individual subjective level, suggesting that those who belong to a particular oppressed group have the most accurate view of the nature of that form of oppression and are most capable of fighting it. If we follow this approach to its logical conclusion, Clinton would be the most qualified to combat the oppression of women. Many young people recognize that this isn’t the case and have mobilized around Bernie Sanders, because his ideas speak to the growing anti-establishment and pro-socialist sentiment of American society. While intersectionality views all forms of oppression as equally fundamental, Clinton’s attempt to use her gender to gain support is showing in practice that class cuts across all other forms of oppression. To understand this means, it is necessary to consider how the oppression of women arose from the split of society into classes and how capitalism today requires the continued oppression of women.
Origins of women's oppression
Women have not always been subjugated to men. In fact, for the majority of human existence, a sexual division of labour did not result in social and economic inequality. In hunter-gatherer societies, everyone’s labour was equally important to the survival of the group and members of a band would share equally in the fruits of the collective labour. When humans shifted to agricultural production about 10,000 years ago, a surplus (more that could be immediately consumed) was made possible for the first time. Overtime, some accumulated enough surplus that they no longer had to work and used their surplus to compensate others (or at least keep them alive) in order to work for them or to trade for other specialized goods - this represents the split of society into classes of exploiter and exploited. The origins of the oppression of women lay in this historical shift in the way we produced and exchanged. Due to the fact that the labour generating the wealth was largely dominated by men, women’s work lost its public character. The institution of marriage arose to control women’s reproductive capacity and ensure the paternity of children so men could pass down their wealth to their offspring. With the development of private property, women were confined to the domestic realm as the property of their husbands for thousands of years, until the development of capitalism.
Capitalism drew women back into the public realm which in some ways represented a step forward. Being part of the working class meant that women could organize and demand more freedom and rights relative to past epochs. Of course, this varies from country to country based on the stage of development and the impacts of colonialism and imperialism. But under capitalism, women are doubly oppressed as unpaid labourers in the home and exploited as wage-labourers in the workplace. Capitalism requires women’s free labour in the domestic sphere in order to reproduce the next generation of workers to be exploited. Furthermore, pay differentials between men and women drive down everyone’s wages and results in more profits for the bosses. The ruling class relies on the division of the working class on gender, race and other lines to maintain their system of exploitation and they use their monopoly of the media and other cultural institutions to perpetuate discriminatory and divisive attitudes. When it suits their interests they provide artificial concessions to layers of the working class to garner their support and pit them against other sections of the workers. This is precisely what they did with Barack Obama, presenting him as a champion for black Americans and it’s what they’re doing with Hillary Clinton, championing her as an advocate for all women and children.
When Marxists say that class cuts across all other forms of oppression we do not mean that it is the worst form of oppression in terms of suffering, or that the working class is superior in any way to other oppressed groups. We mean that as long as we live in a society where a small minority exploits the majority, no one oppressed group can ever be genuinely emancipated, there will always be systemic inequality. Any representative of the minority ruling class, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, will ultimately serve their class interests. Under capitalism, the primary form of oppression is the exploitation of wage-labour because paying the workers less than the value of their labour is the basis of profits accumulated by the capitalists. This means that the working class, who make up a majority of most countries, are in a unique position because of their role in capitalist production to bring the system to a halt.
The fight for reforms
Does all of this mean that Marxists suggest that nothing can be done regarding the oppression of women until there is a socialist revolution? Certainly not. Marxists stand firmly against sexism, gender-based violence and discriminatory treatment of women – which along with racism and other forms of discrimination, only serve to divide the working class and prevent us from uniting against our common oppressor, and therefore have no place in the movement. We support collective action from below to prevent and respond to sexism in our streets, workplaces and campuses, including walk-outs with both male and female students and workers, and the formation of democratically accountable bodies to guarantee the security of our communities. These initiatives must be led by the organizations of the working class, such as the student and trade unions. Marxists also support any reforms that would alleviate the barriers women face, such as universal child care, access to sexual health services and pay equity. We call on the organizations of the working class to consolidate a united class struggle to fight for these demands and against all cuts and attacks directed towards the workers, which disproportionately hurt women. While doing so, we highlight the temporary nature of reforms under capitalism. Capitalism is in a period of decline and demands cuts and austerity when in crisis. We must fight for reforms while always linking them to the need to struggle for socialism.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracies of the working class organizations are often responsible for holding the struggle back, by compromising with management or the state in order to avoid open conflict and protect their privileged positions. This is one reason why bureaucratic policies such as gender-parity are not an effective tool for advancing the position of women. It mostly means that a minority of women achieve advantageous positions while little is done to fight for better conditions for the majority of workers, half of which are women. While more participation of underrepresented groups is a positive development, our representatives must be elected based on their politics and capacity to lead a genuine struggle. It’s important to understand that women and other oppressed groups are not oppressed because they are underrepresented; they are underrepresented because of systemic oppression in society. Similarly, sexist cultural views about women are a reflection of the economic and social role they occupy under capitalism, so targeting societal views without changing the material conditions of society cannot on its own eliminate sexism. The focus must be on transforming the organizations of the working class into militant bodies that fight for the overthrow of capitalism, for the conditions that can genuinely emancipate women and all exploited and oppressed people.
What are these conditions? First, we have to remove the burden of domestic labour from women’s shoulders. This can be achieved through socializing domestic work and providing public cleaning, laundry and meal services, establishing extensive paid leave for both parents to raise their children, and providing universal child care. Additionally, we must put an end to the scarcity of capitalist austerity, which breeds discriminatory attitudes. Everyone must be guaranteed well-paid employment, access to fully funded post-secondary education, housing, comprehensive health care and so on. These are the conditions that can place men and women on an equal material footing and allow women to be more involved in public life and the administration of society. Finally, social ownership and democratic control of the media, arts and cultural facilities, and the education system would provide cultural content that challenges negative attitudes about women.
These policies directly contradict the profit motive of capitalism and can only be achieved by nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy and democratically deciding how to use the vast wealth in existence to benefit the majority. There are more than enough resources in society for everyone to have a high standard of living, but electing a female president or prime minister on the basis of capitalism can never achieve this - it must come from below, through a united class struggle for socialism. It is through united struggle that prejudice and discriminatory attitudes will breakdown as people come to realize their common interests. The great majority of us are exploited and oppressed by capitalism. It is in all of our interests to not only unite and fight against the oppression of women, but also against all forms of oppression. Only on this basis can the genuine emancipation of women and the elimination of all forms of exploitation be achieved once and for all.