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

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.

Marxism has always been at the forefront of the cause of women's emancipation. The 8th of March (International Women's Day) is a red letter day for us as it symbolises the struggle of working class women against capitalism, oppression and discrimination throughout the world. In this article, we outline the first steps given by Marxism to fight for women's rights, what the first successful revolution meant for the emancipation of women, conditions of women under capitalism both in advanced and Third World countries and pose the question of how to eliminate inequality between men and women for good.

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.”

"The only difference between Russia and other countries in this respect is that our laws do not sanctify hypocrisy and the debasement of the woman and her child, but openly and in the name of the government declare systematic war on all hypocrisy and all debasement."

"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."

"Not a single bourgeois state, not even the most progressive, republican democratic state, has brought about complete equality of rights. But the Soviet Republic of Russia promptly wiped out, without any exception, every trace of inequality in the legal status of women, and secured her complete equality in its laws."

"The proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom, unless it achieves complete freedom for women."

"A congress is not a parlor where women display their charm, as we read in novels. A congress is a battlefield in which we fight for the knowledge we need for revolutionary action."

"Soviet Russia puts our demands for women in a new light. Under the proletarian dictatorship those demands are not objects of struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. They are part of the structure of communist society. That indicates to women in other countries the decisive importance of the winning of power by the proletariat."

"Down with the liars who are talking of freedom and equality for all, while there is an oppressed sex, while there are oppressor classes, while there is private ownership of capital, of shares, while there are the well-fed with their surplus of bread who keep the hungry in bondage. Not freedom for all, not equality for all, but a fight against the oppressors and exploiters"

"She was the sword, she was the fire, of the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg will remain one of the greatest figures in the history of international Socialism."

"The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins."

"For the first time in history, our law has removed everything that denied women rights. But the important thing is not the law. In the cities and industrial areas this law on complete freedom of marriage is doing all right, but in the countryside it all too frequently remains a dead letter."

"No matter how democratic the state may be, the woman remains a "domestic slave" under capitalism, a slave of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen."

"One must take into account the objective fact that otherwise they will snatch the appropriate passages from your pamphlet, interpret them in their own way, make your pamphlet into water pouring on their mill, distort your ideas in the workers’ eyes, “confuse” the workers""

"The recent dispute in Dublin also brought out in a very striking manner the terrible nature of the conditions under which women and girls labour in the capital city, the shocking insanitary conditions of the workshops, the grinding tyranny of those in charge, and the alarmingly low vitality which resulted from the inability to procure proper food and clothes with the meagre wages paid. Consideration of such facts inevitably leads to reflection on the whole position of women in modern Ireland, and their probable attitude towards any such change as that we are forecasting."

"The thing is not what you subjectively “mean” by this. The thing is the objective logic of class relations in affairs of love."

"We stand together in sisterly sympathy for all those who are suffering from these events, and with an unshaken determination to fulfil faithfully our duty as socialists, and not to be led astray when the international enemies of the peoples seek to deceive us, nor to be alarmed by the thrat of danger and persecution."

"We Socialist women hear the voices which in this time of blood and iron still speak softly, painfully, and yet consolingly, of the future. Let us be their interpreters to our children. Let us preserve them from the harsh brazen sound of the ideas which fill the streets today."

"Together with our husbands, sons and brothers we stand for peace and for fratetnity between the workers of all countries. Together with them we fight against Capitalism and for Socialism."

"Acrobats in the field of philanthropy and police defenders of this system which makes mockery of poverty and need gather “to struggle against prostitution”, which is supported precisely by the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie...."

"A display of proletarian women’s poverty and indigence will bring a different benefit: it will help wage-slaves, both men and women, to understand their condition, look back over their “life”, ponder the conditions for emancipation from this perpetual yoke of want, poverty, prostitution and every kind of outrage against the have-nots."

"The 'Labour Woman' will give a loud and unfalsified voice to all the miseries and injustices capitalist exploitation and political rightlessness bestow on the working-class women"

"The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in different ways; what has yet to be done is to change the world."

"Adult Suffrage could be realised in England, if – what a pity there is an “if” still! – if all the Socialist and trade unionist forces would unite their efforts and their action about this reform."

"The proletariat, in its entirety, without distinction of sex, shall be able to call out to the capitalist order of society: “You rest on us, you oppress us, and, see, now the building which you have erected is tottering to the ground.”"

“Peace on earth! Fraternity between the nations! War against war!”

"The slaves of our days have numbered themselves and they will no longer be slaves. By the May demonstration they show that they have recognised clearly their own true interests, that are in irreconcilable antagonism with the capitalist interests."