Claims of ‘women’s power’ ring hollow under capitalism

Mar 16, 2010

The shortage of male workers during World War II led to women performing work traditionally reserved for men, shattering the myth that women were any less qualified than their male counterparts.

The following is an adapted version of a speech given on March 5 at public forum held by the Los Angeles branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

In November 2009, the first lady of California and the Center for American Progress published “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” The main point of this 400-plus-page study is that for the first time in the history of the United States, 50 percent of U.S. workers are women, and this fact on its own “changes everything.” As a matter of fact, the study expects that due to its findings, business and policy makers should adapt to the new situation of female power.

According to Maria Shriver, “It’s a transformational moment in our history—much as the opening of the West, industrialization, the great 1960s civil rights campaigns, and the flowering of the Internet age have all irrevocably altered the fabric of American life. … We hope this report will help us all come to speed and begin a national conversation about how our institutions need to adapt to the unfolding of A Woman’s Nation.”

“The Shriver Report,” like any other product of ruling-class ideology, spreads the myth that class struggle is not needed to achieve progress. It suggests that the capitalist system by its own dynamics will some day—and someday soon—somehow achieve full equality for women. Furthermore, it suggests that women’s economic power will compel private and public institutions to put women “at the head of the table.”

Women at work

As we know, the immediate cause of workforce parity is not women’s advancement, but a long history of working-class struggle with specific demands regarding women’s needs and massive job losses for men during the recent recession. Moreover, living conditions for working people, in “A Woman’s Nation,” are today worse than 30 years ago. There are more women wage earners, but within this so-called “Woman’s Nation,” labor exploitation and all different forms of oppression remain as the main force to extract profits for the ruling class.

Marx pointed out that the introduction of women and children into the workforce is an inevitable development given the nature of capitalism to hold sectors of our class in reserve when labor is plentiful to exploit during times of labor shortage.

It was long thought “unnatural” for women to operate heavy machinery, but during World War II, women’s labor was required to fill the gap created by the shortage of male laborers. As the war ended, however, new propaganda encouraged women to resume their “rightful place in the home,” and measures were taken to ensure women stayed home.

Thus, the capitalist class has historically moved women in and out of work, using appropriate legislation, propaganda, financial incentives or training, and other measures depending on their needs at a given moment.

Women, on the other hand, join the workforce out of pure economic necessity and due to the subjugation we experience in class society. Women are forced to accept less pay and worse working conditions than their male counterparts. Despite these severe inequalities, it is precisely the incorporation of women into the wage workforce that creates the objective and subjective conditions for women as part of the working class to achieve their real emancipation. Only as an integrated part of the working class can women empower themselves with the theory and practice of class struggle and become agents of social change.

Marx differentiated between a working class “in itself” that holds objective revolutionary potential, and a working class “for itself” that consciously acts in its own interest. The difference is between the objective potential and the subjective organization needed to realize that potential. An essential part of this process is the development of class consciousness among workers, regardless of their gender, and the construction of a working-class organization that can lead the struggle for revolutionary change.

In short, the real emancipation of women is possible because of their economic condition as workers and not because of any biological determinant as women.

The special oppression facing women

Women are part of the working class as a whole, but have needs and demands of their own due to their specific form of oppression. In fact, the special oppression faced by women as well as all other forms of oppressions serves the ruling class to lower the living standards of the entire working class and to weaken the workers’ capacity to fight back.

Liberal feminism uses the term “women’s power” as a bourgeois abstraction without any precise class content. For the first time in U.S. history, they tell us, we had two women running for president and vice-president and currently many women hold positions of “power” within the private and public spheres of society. What they do not tell us is that that “power” in itself is coercion used by one social class to suppress another. These powerful women who hold significant positions of power use it to advance the needs of the ruling capitalist class to which they also belong. Not all women are oppressed equally, and having a woman in a powerful position does not in itself constitute a victory for the oppressed. It all depends on which social class a woman belongs to, and whose class interest she advances.

The underlying ideology of liberal feminism is the belief that progressive reforms can lead to real equality for women without the need of revolutionary change. They argue that by changing the ways in which people are socialized within the family, schools and other institutions, and by eliminating discriminatory practices through legislation, gender equality will be achieved. Reforms in the legal, political and cultural spheres, they claim, will make it unnecessary to change the existing property relations and economic structures.

Pro-imperialist ‘feminism’

Capitalism and imperialism will not liberate women. They will, however, use women’s oppression to manipulate public opinion and advance their economic and political agendas. In 2001, during the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration gained the support of far too many feminists and women in general. According to Bush, the war would bring freedom to Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule.

At that time, the Feminist Majority even circulated a petition thanking the Bush administration for its commitment to restoring the rights of women in Afghanistan. It apparently never occurred to them that a right-wing bigot, representing the interests of the most inhumane imperialist power, could not have a genuine interest in advancing women’s rights at home or aboard.

These feminists’ endorsement for the war on Afghanistan helped the U.S. ruling class create the illusion that the war was aimed to “liberate” Afghan women. It helped the government gain support for the invasion and occupation among liberals and even some “anti-war” voices.

A women’s movement tied to the power of the working class

Only the working class holds the potential to lead a victorious struggle against exploitation and oppression. Exploitation is the method through which the ruling class robs the workers of the products of their labor, while all forms of special oppression—gender, sexual, national, and so on—play a significant role in maintaining the rule of capital over labor. Both exploitation and oppression are rooted in class society.

Only a movement organized on the basis of working-class solidarity can bring an end to capitalism and class society. Building that type of unity is the job of a working-class party, which understands the special needs and demands of groups of people who experience specific forms of oppression.

In the years of building a communist organization before the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik Party learned how to build a movement for working-class power that incorporated the special demands and needs of women and other specially oppressed sectors of the population.

Alexandra Kollontai joined the Bolshevik Party in 1915. She played a prominent leadership role throughout 1917. As commissar of social welfare, Kollontai spearheaded the Bolshevik Party’s approach to what was then called the “woman question” and developed key elements on the relationship between women’s liberation and the general working-class struggle. Kollontai’s approach to organizing women was based upon class as well as gender. She concluded that a revolutionary party needed to make special efforts and develop new methods of reaching out to female workers in order to involve them in the struggle for a new society.

One of these special efforts was the creation of the newspaperWomen Worker. Women Worker published seven issues before the czarist police forced it out of production; although its success was limited, it helped to develop a link between socialist organizers and small groups of women workers.

In February 1917, to celebrate International Women’s Day, women textile workers in Petrograd organized a demonstration in opposition to the war, against high prices and the situation of women workers. This demonstration resulted in a massive strike movement that overthrew the czar. This was the first stage of the Russian Revolution.

In March 1917, the Bolsheviks re-established the Women Worker, with a circulation of 50,000. The party also launched a working women’s school to train women workers as professional organizers. Bolshevik organizers joined women workers on the picket lines, arguing for the need for working-class power.

Women were greatly involved in the socialist October Revolution, which embraced a full program for women’s liberation. After the triumph of the revolution, the revolutionary government enacted decrees that established full social and political equality for women. In addition, the revolution made great strides forward in combating sexual discrimination. Homosexuality was decriminalized.

In 1919, the party created the Women’s Department, Zhenotdel, with two main goals. First, to help organize communal kitchens, nurseries and laundries that could begin to free women of the burdens of housework and second, to help women gain self-confidence and experience to venture out of their traditional roles and to take part in the political life of the new socialist state.

Zhenotel was not a separate organization for women’s liberation, but an arm of the Bolshevik Party. The revolution’s success with regards to women’s liberation challenges the bourgeois liberal feminist notion that sexism can be defeated with a women’s movement independent of and disconnected from the class struggle.

Many rights won by women in the Russian Revolution have yet to be won in the most advanced industrial societies. This was only possible because the Russian Revolution destroyed capitalism, a system based on exploitation that requires discrimination and special oppression to divide the working class and maximize profit.

The lessons are clear: We don’t need “A Woman’s Nation”—we need a socialist revolution.

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