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Women’s struggle and class struggle – Part One

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One hundred years ago today, 99 women from 17 different countries attended the Socialist Women's Conference held in Copenhagen in the House of the People. In this first part, we look at the origins of Women's Day, the origin of women's oppression in class society, how capitalism lays the material foundations upon which the question of women's emancipation can be tackled as part of the struggle of the working class for the emancipation of the whole of humanity from class oppression.

“Class struggle is the women’s struggle! Women's struggle is class struggle!” That was the slogan in the 1970s, especially of the Danish “Red-Stockings” feminist movement. Today, many smile a bit when hearing this slogan, but unfortunately there is not much to smile about. Women are still oppressed both in Denmark and the rest of the world.

On the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 8th March as International Women's Day, it is appropriate to take up the women's question for detailed discussion in the entire labour movement and among all young people and workers who seek a just society.

Many on the Left have rejected the ideas of class struggle. But as Marxists we believe that the oppression of women is inextricably linked to class society. The capitalists are using any divisions within the working class to attack the conditions of the workers. The fight against women's oppression is a struggle for the entire working class, regardless of gender; the only strength of the working class is in unity and cohesion.

We believe that the linking of women's liberation and the class struggle is crucial if we want to fight for gender equality and not least for the liberation of the whole of humanity. And yet women’s oppression still exists here in Denmark. A closer look at Denmark as an example, can inform us through the experience of the women’s struggle and the class struggle so that we can investigate the reason why, despite equality before the law, in access to education and work inequality still exists.

International Working Women's Day

Clara Zetkin in 1897Clara Zetkin in 1897 In August 1910 the socialist women's conference adopted a proposal to hold a day of action for working women annually. In the first year, the day of action was held on a Sunday in March, but has since been established as the 8th of March.

The German Socialist Clara Zetkin, leader of the International Socialist Women’s Secretariat, convened the conference and proposed the establishment of International Women's Day. 99 women from 17 different countries attended the conference held in Copenhagen in the House of the People in Jagtvej 69 (later known as Ungdomshuset).

One of the conference's main issues was the struggle for women's suffrage, that only very few countries had introduced. The Danish women won the right to vote for city councils in 1908 but only received the right to vote for parliamentary elections in 1915.

The resolution from Clara Zetkin states:

"In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in each country, the socialist women in all countries shall organise a Women's Day every year. First of all, the Women’s Day shall have the aim of achieving universal suffrage for women. This claim shall be in line with the socialist understanding of the entire women's rights issue. The Women’s Day shall be international in its nature and must be prepared meticulously. ”1

The Conference decided that the demands for the day of struggle should be

  • The struggle for women's suffrage
  • The fight against the threat of war
  • The fight for care for mother and child
  • The fight against price rises2

The first International Socialist Women's Conference had been held in Stuttgart in 1907 as a prelude to the Second International Congress. In 1889 the second International was founded under the auspices of Engels. The German Social Democrats, who played a central role in the International, had established already in the 1890s a women's secretariat headed by Clara Zetkin.

Until then there had been a relatively free flow between the labour movement and the women's movement, which considered itself to be trans-political, but in particular was filled with petty bourgeois women. However, in 1907 the labour movement decided to put the issue of women’s suffrage at the top of the agenda and also to stop cooperation with the "bourgeois" women's organisations and instead conduct its own campaign.

Now it was made clear that it was working class women for whom the Socialists fought and that the women's issue could not be separated from the class issue and the fight against all oppression and for a socialist society.

Petty bourgeois women did not see the women’s question as a class issue, but believed that all women had the same interests across classes. For them it was about the right to vote, to education and, for example, the possibility of becoming lawyers and doctors. Marxists also struggle for full equality before the law and in education, etc., but we also explain that although equality before the law may be established this does not mean that oppression will disappear, as we have already seen. For middle-class women, it means they can have an education, become doctors, etc., but it does not solve the problems of the vast majority of women. Marxists are fighting, therefore, against this kind of petty bourgeois feminism, which does not see class antagonisms and capital as the enemy, but instead sees it as a common struggle for all women against male-dominated society.

Marxists are fighting for full women's emancipation, but are against feminism, because it is a petty bourgeois school of thought that ignores class antagonisms. At the same time, we recognise that many good socialists consider themselves to be feminists, and we want to struggle together with anyone who will fight for women's emancipation through socialism.

In Denmark, the trade unions and the Social Democrats took the same position as the International and in 1908 adopted the following:

  • There is only one labour movement. It deals with the education of the members and the socialist voters.

  • There is no room for separate women's associations in the party. There is only room for women's unions in trades without men and subordinate to the central organisation.

  • Women's access to the party must be facilitated. They are to pay half the subs.

  • The women's movement and women's parties [independent of the party] are superfluous.

In 1914 the First World War broke out, and it also fractured the international socialist movement into two wings between the reformist and revolutionary, a split that was further deepened by the Russian revolution.

German revolutionaries Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg (1910).German revolutionaries Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg (1910). The reformists believed that you could reform your way to a just society by, for example achieving suffrage for all, fighting for higher wages, etc. They defended the capitalist society and merely wanted to change it gradually. On the other side stood the revolutionaries, among others Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, who explained that you couldn’t simply change society gradually. Any concession from the capitalists is a struggle and liberation cannot be achieved without changing society fundamentally. It was primarily the revolutionary wing, that after the Russian Revolution founded the Third Communist International, which maintained the celebration of the 8th March as International Women's Day.

Women's Oppression

Seventy percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor are women and girls3. Approximately 25 percent of men in developing countries suffer from anaemia due to iron deficiency, while this is true for some 45 percent of women. Iron deficiency means that 300 women die during childbirth every day4.

In developing countries barbaric conditions exist for women in many places. Women are sold as wives while they are still children. In Pakistan there are many examples of women disfigured by acid or even killed if they have violated the man and his family's honour and it takes five female witnesses in a trial to cancel out one man's testimony.

The French utopian socialist and philosopher Charles Fourier said "human progress can be measured in the woman's progress towards freedom". The conditions for women have fortunately become much better in the advanced capitalist countries. This is mainly due to the fact that economic development has advanced much further here, thus the conditions have improved and the culture has thus been raised to a higher level. But even though conditions have improved and although there is equality in law, there is still oppression of women and gender inequality. The case of Denmark is a good example of this and deserves a more in-depth analysis.

The Equal Pay Act was adopted in 1976 and since then the wage differential between men and women stagnated at between 12-19% depending on the profession5. It is probably a part of the explanation as to why men in both 1987 and 2001 spent more time on their jobs than women, and women spend an average of one hour more per day on household work than men (housework, taking the children to nursery, etc.). One would imagine that society has been moving forward and that the development of technology would mean more free time. Instead working hours in the home and in the workplace has increased for both men and women.

The search for more profit and increased competition on a world scale has led to the intensification of the exploitation of the working class, increased rhythms and productivity levels on the one hand, but has also led to the extension of working hours on the other. This is a world phenomenon deeply connected to the mechanism of capitalist production. At the same time the erosion of the conquests of the workers over the last three decades, the privatisations of social services and budget cuts to welfare have thrown upon the shoulders of the working class a bigger burden in guaranteeing care for their children and the elderly.

The men's time spent on work in the home has increased by an hour since 1987, women’s by half an hour6.

Legally the woman is no longer dependent on men, but everyone knows that being a single mother is very difficult, both financially and not least in everyday life with work, the bringing up of the children and all the other practical tasks. So while the legal dependence has been abolished, there are still a thousand strings that bind the woman to the man and the home.

Traditionally, more women are unemployed than men and women have been used as a reserve army of labour, and during crises it is they who have been hardest hit. The current crisis is the first crisis in which we see that there are more men than women unemployed in Europe, and also in Denmark. But this will change. The crisis hit hard in private manufacturing industry, where it is primarily men who are employed. In the coming period we will see harsh attacks on welfare, that is, the public sector where many women work. When there are plenty of unemployed workers, employers will begin to hire men. (Who would hire a woman of childbearing age?) And many women will think that they may as well have some children instead of trying to get a job they can’t get anyway.

The women's question is more than the measurable difference in salary, and who does what at home. The women's question is more generally about the conditions of women and also an ideological and cultural question. There still exists a myriad of prejudices and bigotry against women. With the general decay of capitalism, there is also a brutalisation of culture, not least in the representation of women.

Oppression of women takes many forms around the world, because of the different economic stages and different levels of cultural development in the different countries. But women's oppression, whatever its form has the same origin and hence the same solution.

The origin of Inequality

Marxists are historical materialists. This means that we understand the evolution of humankind's material conditions as fundamental. Engels explains in "The Origin of the Family, private property and the State” how women's oppression is inextricably linked to class society. In early human history, humans could only produce just enough for themselves to survive with no extra surplus, and hence inequality could not exist at that time.

If a division of labour existed it was a division of labour between the sexes based on the biological fact that women for part of the time were tied to the "home" because of childbirth, breastfeeding, etc. The exact nature of the division of labour between men and women in early primitive society is not clear, but in line with the first development of the productive forces a division between the sexes emerged. The women's task was, in addition to childcare, to gather roots, berries, etc. and especially to cook. The men's task was to hunt, defend their territory in war, etc. Many studies indicate that the women's role was crucial to survival and the women enjoyed great respect and the children were, for example, counted through the mother's line (since the mother was the only parent one could be certain of7).

It is important to remember that that society in no way resembled the society we know today. While patriarchy is a society where women are oppressed, there is nothing to indicate that women oppressed men before patriarchy but rather that there was mutual respect. There was no family as we know it today with a mother and a father; instead families lived in clans or gens and the bringing up of the children was a joint task for all members of society.

Over time humans began to develop the way they provided for their basic needs. They began cultivating the land, fencing and raising animals. Humans began for the first time to produce a surplus beyond the needs of basic survival. It was a giant step forward. But it also meant that for the first time inequality began to emerge. Some began to have more than others, and with it arose class society. Besides the division of society into classes it also meant inequality between men and women. The work that had traditionally belonged to the man was what could create a surplus, and it gave the man a superior position. It also meant that the man now wanted to leave his property to his offspring. Thus the family line had now to go through the male, which also demanded monogamy from the woman.

“The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private property and the State).

The oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society, and thus the struggle for women's emancipation is inseparable from the struggle against class society. The changes in the mode of production also led to the rise of the state, and with it ideas and forms of oppression also changed.

The foundation for the emancipation of women

Engels explains in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State how it was in the world historic defeat of the female sex that women's work lost its public character. At the same time he explains how capitalism for the first time changes this. Under capitalism the entire family is drawn into production, and while on the one hand it presents a double burden for women in both paid work and housework, so it is also lays the basis for women's liberation. Through work woman becomes part of the working class and hence the class struggle.

“As regards the legal equality of husband and wife in marriage, the position is no better. The legal inequality of the two partners, bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.

“In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat. In the industrial world, the specific character of the economic oppression burdening the proletariat is visible in all its sharpness only when all special legal privileges of the capitalist class have been abolished and complete legal equality of both classes established. The democratic republic does not do away with the opposition of the two classes; on the contrary, it provides the clear field on which the fight can be fought out. And in the same way, the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, the Private Property and the State, our emphasis)

In Denmark, the women's share of the labour force has increased from the late 1960s until today. After the Second World War there was a long recovery of capitalism, with an enormous development of production, expansion of the world market, etc., which allowed an expansion of welfare. The general relief from housework and the improved opportunities for childcare, care of the elderly, etc., made it possible for women to do paid work (Denmark has the highest ratio in relation to childcare in the world). At the same time it created a large public sector where many women were employed8.

The female employment rate in Denmark, i.e. the proportion of women of working age who work, rose sharply. In 1960 it was at 33.9%, whereas men’s was 83.6%9, but by 1981 it had increased to 70.8 per cent, while men's participation rate was 86.8 percent. In 1998 the male employment rate dropped to 81.6 percent, while female employment had increased to 73.2 percent.

In 1967, women accounted for 800,000 in the workforce. The corresponding figure for 1998 is 1.3 million. The total workforce has in the same period increased from 2.3 million to 2.9 million10.

In comparison, the corresponding figures for the UK and the USA were:

1971 in UK: women 42.4%, men 80.6%11
1973 in the US: women 42 %, men 75.5%.
1990 in UK: women 50.3%, men 70.5%
1990 in the US: women 54.3%, men 72%
2008 in UK: women 56.2%, men 68.5%

And in Sweden the percentage of women in the work force was: 1975: 42%, 1980: 45%, 1985: 47%, 1990: 48%, 2008: 47%.12

Women’s participation in the workforce has laid the foundation for women's emancipation, but only the foundation. The post-war recovery was an historical exception, and the crisis broke out in the early 1970s. Expansion of welfare more or less stagnated; the conditions of public employees were attacked year after year. Conditions deteriorated for children, the sick and the elderly, which has put enormous pressure on women in particular. Capitalism is not creating prosperity for working women or the majority of the world population. Only through a socialist society can we create the foundation for full emancipation.

Women's struggle and socialism

Under capitalism the potential for the elimination of women's oppression has been created and likewise the foundation for the abolition of all oppression has been laid. Capitalism was initially a progressive system, which developed the means of production to unprecedented heights. We can now produce enough that no one needs to suffer hardship, and inequality could be eliminated by considerably raising the standard of living for the vast majority. However, under capitalism things are produced for profit not human need. Under capitalism millions are thrown into unemployment, while the other millions are worn down; new technology is introduced to get people to work faster and sack the rest.

With a planned economy, we would immediately be able to increase production, and use the technology for the benefit of the majority. Working hours would immediately be lowered, which is a crucial step towards women's emancipation. At the same time we would be able introduce a host of other things that could bring us closer to the emancipation of women.

Firstly, we would use the resources that are available to enhance public welfare, so workers and their children, the elderly and the sick get decent conditions. Additionally, we could use technology to remove more or less most of the housework. Robotic vacuum cleaners, washing machines for everyone, public laundries, civic restaurants, good, healthy and affordable food for all, meals in all nurseries, schools and all workplaces, renovated housing, public window cleaning, cleaning helps, and so on, would be just the beginning in the task of liberating humanity. Our present outlook is limited by our current situation; it will be up to our children and grandchildren to develop all those things that are useful for human emancipation.

But all this will not come automatically. It requires the expropriation of the capitalists, of the elimination of their private ownership of the means of production, i.e. the working class must take over the largest companies, and thus take over control of the key sectors of the economy. Today a small minority, the capitalists, owns the means of production, i.e. the factories, the machines etc. It is they who decide what and when to produce, depending on what they can earn a profit from. But in reality the wealth is created by the great majority, i.e. the working class who, every day have to go to work for the capitalists. The working class must take over the most important sections of the economy - which means in Denmark for example the 200 largest companies – so that it is the majority who will democratically decide what to produce, so a plan can be drawn up to take advantage as much as possible of the available technology and production, so that production can be raised and working hours lowered. Only thus can we remove everything that enslaves women and men to domestic work and many hours of work for others. Through a socialist plan of the economy, the real human potential of culture, science, creativity, etc., can for the first time be fully revealed.

After the Russian Revolution the new power, the Bolsheviks, took the question of women's issues very seriously. The October Revolution for the first time allowed the broad masses to participate in politics.

“In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman. Ever since private property in land and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman’s position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man. The power of the working people is necessary for a change to be wrought in this situation, for then the main tasks of politics will consist of matters directly affecting the fate of the working people themselves.” (Lenin, The Tasks Of The Working Women’s Movement In The Soviet Republic, Speech Delivered At The Fourth Moscow City Conference Of Non-Party Working Women, September 23, 1919)

The first thing the Bolsheviks did when they came to power was to establish full gender equality before the law. They introduced the right to divorce and abortion and civil marriages outside the Church among other things. But as Lenin explained, gender equality in law is far from enough. The development of production must then be used to create nurseries, schools, public kitchens, and invent machines to facilitate housework. Many of these things exist today, but firstly they are not available to alle and the quality of these services is under constant attack. As explained above, domestic work and work outside the home is increasing for both men and women, while opening hours and the quality of childcare are going down.

Our vision is not one of sharing housework and wage labour, but of the elimination of all drudgery.

“No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.

“This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. But none of the bourgeois republics, including the most democratic, has dared to take even this first step. The reason is awe of 'sacrosanct private property'.

“The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards a complete and actual emancipation of woman, her liberation from 'household bondage' through transition from petty individual housekeeping to large-scale socialized domestic services.

“This transition is a difficult one, because it involves the remoulding of the most deep-rooted, inveterate, hidebound and rigid 'order' (indecency and barbarity would be nearer the truth). But the transition has been started, the thing has been set in motion, we have taken the new path.” (Lenin, International Working Women’s Day, 1921)

But the Soviet economy was not developed enough to eliminate housework and the family - the family cannot be eliminated but must be replaced by something else. It was the backwardness and isolation of Soviet Russia, which created the basis for the taking of power in the Soviet Union by the bureaucracy with Stalin at its head, and it was on this basis that the Soviet Union failed to develop a new family type, and instead went back to the norms of capitalist bourgeois society. Instead of fighting inequality and oppression, the bureaucracy under Stalin needed to consolidate its power. With the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union there was a dramatic reduction in the freedom of Soviet citizens in general, and particularly of women. The right to abortion and free divorce was abolished, and working and peasant women remained chained to housework. Soviet Russia also had the most developed approach towards homosexuality, which was likewise reversed completely by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Planned economy is not viable without democracy, and the Soviet economy eventually collapsed, as Trotsky had predicted.

However, the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union is not a reason for rejecting socialism. What we saw develop in the Soviet Union was not socialism, but what was achieved in the first years of the revolution demonstrated that the revolution is an imperative first step that lays the whole basis of the emancipation of women and humankind.

“The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.” (Trotsky, From the old Family to the New, 1923)

This of course does not suggest that one has to eat in a civic restaurant, and that you are never allowed to cook, and public children's upbringing does not mean that children are not going to be brought up by their families. What it means is that all coercion is removed. You don’t have to shop for food, cook, wash up, clean and prepare packed lunches each day; but you do these things only if you want to. There will be nurseries, schools and leisure centres, hospitals, care for the elderly, etc., with trained staff who have time to do their work properly and continuously develop professionally while working hours will immediately be lowered.

We have obviously moved on further today with technological innovations, for instance, with washing machines, dishwashers, microwave ovens, etc. The aims of the Bolsheviks, compared to contemporary developments, were amazingly visionary. Just imagine what could be achieved today, given the current level of technology.

But how do we then fight for women's emancipation? In order to answer that, we have to go deeper into the discussion on how inequality between men and women arose.

Part two »

 

Notes

1 8 March: International Women's Day, by Anette Eklund Hansen, Labor Movement Library and Archives 2001. Our translation from Danish

2 ”90-årsdagen – ‘ikke det samme som sidste år, James’” by Lene Kjeldsen, www.kvinfo.dk

3 The Danish Foreign Minister webpage: www.kvinder.um.dk

4 See world food programmes webpage: www.wfp.dk

5 www.lige.dk

6 Ibid

7 Also an argument against those who claim that women by nature are monogamous while men are not able to be monogamous.

8 In regions and municipalities women account for approximately 75 percent of the workforce, while men account for approximately 66 percent of the private sector workforce. In the State men account for 58 percent. But there are far more employed in the regions and municipalities than the state. www.lige.dk.

9 Arbejdernes historie i Danmark 1800-2000

10 ibid

11 The figures for the UK are all from the Office for National Statistics and all figures from the US are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

12 Source: SCB

History & Theory » Topics » Women & Marxism