A socialist perspective on ending women’s oppression

Jul 14, 2014

United, anti-capitalist struggle

The following is based on a talk presented at the Socialist Women’s Conference in New York City on Feb. 11, 2007, hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

The vital question for us today is: How can the liberation of women and of all working people take place in contemporary society?

There are many distinct and competing views on this question. We are presenting here a socialist perspective—a revolutionary and anti-capitalist perspective.

We start from the point of view that, like all oppressed sectors in society, women can make considerable progress through their determined fight for equality and by opposing sexism, racism, gender oppression and other forms of institutional, cultural and individual bigotry and discrimination.

The many gains we have made include the right to vote, the right to reproductive control over our own bodies, the right to public education, the right to divorce and in some cases the right to child care. All of these rights are the consequence of fierce and determined struggles.

Women have also been in the very vanguard of the struggle for civil rights in the African American community. We have been leaders in the Latino, Asian, Arab and Native movements as well.

The mass women’s movement that arose in the 1960s and 1970s led to the U.S. Supreme Court being forced to acknowledge a woman’s right to privacy and to control her body with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

This is important to remember as we face the possibility of further assaults on women’s reproductive rights by the current Supreme Court. We must continue to fight to win and retain our rights.

We do not reject the possibility that progress can be achieved by reforms wrested from the capitalists, from the corporate plutocrats who control this country.

But we also understand that every reform that is achieved under capitalism is under constant threat of being taken back by the capitalists. We see right now that abortion rights and women’s health care rights are under attack. People have to fight tooth and nail to defend these rights, which are being seriously eroded not only in law but in reality as fewer and fewer women have access to health care.

All of us who are women of color know that every reform that we as women have gained is under fierce attack. This is true especially with regard to affirmative action, which is a modest remedy for centuries of discrimination.

Women and the war in Iraq

On top of all this is the criminal and imperialist war in Iraq.

The U.S. government just announced that billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money that were sent to supposedly reconstruct Iraq disappeared. Not just a little money—342 tons of $100 bills, over 800 pallets of cold hard cash. Where did that money go?

It went into the pockets of Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown and Root and other corporate thieves and vultures.

The war in Iraq, in fact, is not just an exercise in colonial domination over an oil-rich Arab country. It is also a perfect example in microcosm of what contemporary capitalism is really all about. It shows the bankruptcy of capitalism, even a capitalism where working people had won significant reforms.

The war has taken over 700,000 Iraqi lives, 650,000 as of several months ago, according to the British medical journal, The Lancet.

Several thousand U.S. soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands have been wounded. The price tag for this war is $8 to $13 billion per month, our tax dollars. If you take the low number, $8 billion, and divide it, it is almost $2 billion per week, or $267 million each and every day.

At the outset of the war against Afghanistan and the war on Iraq, the Bush administration promised that the invasion of the Middle East would bring liberation to the women of these countries. Yet today, Afghani and Iraqi women not only continue to be oppressed, but their status has gotten worse. The women of these countries are in fear of being victims of violence or rape as they walk the streets of their communities by the occupying military forces and anti-women death squads.

And while the U.S. government spends $2 billion a week on this war, social programs that working-class women here depend on greatly have been cut back. George Bush’s 2006 budget proposal, for example, included cuts of $29 billion from Medicare, hitting women the hardest, and another $20 million from domestic violence programs.

This money is not just flushed down the toilet, though. It is being used as a form of subsidy to the biggest corporations in the United States.

Money is not available for housing for low-income families, not available for millions of seniors on meager pensions, not for tuition aid, not for child care to be provided as a universal right, and no money for HIV/AIDS. There is no money for that. Yet they take our tax dollars and finance the biggest corporations to the tune of $8 billion a month.

And who goes and fights these wars? It is overwhelmingly poor people and a growing number of women. They can’t get a job or education, and so with the promise of educational funding and training, they join and end up shipped to Iraq to kill and be killed in this rich man’s war.

In Iraq, there are 16,000 single mothers who, precisely because they could not make ends meet, became so-called weekend warriors, National Guard or Reserves, thinking they would spend a weekend every four weeks. They have been sent one and two times to Iraq or Afghanistan, sometimes three times.

More than 16,000 single mothers have left small children to kill poor people so that corporations that lay off workers in the United States can make superprofits from the land, labor and especially the natural oil resources in Iraq.

Working-class unity for socialism

And they ask working-class people, including women, to back the war “because we are Americans.” They get people to believe—because people are thinking in the capitalist framework, in the framework of patriotism—that we are somehow one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Socialists encourage workers in the factories, offices or barracks, those who are inmates in prison, workers in the fields, restaurants and hotels, to understand that we are first and foremost workers. We know that the capitalists who fire us, who lay us off, who evict us, who charge exorbitant rents, who demolish our pensions, who attack undocumented workers, who start wars, are in fact our fundamental enemy.

Instead of a pledge of allegiance that binds us blindly to the capitalists who are our enemy, we are trying to reorganize society so that it is a society of, by and for the people. This means that the majority of the people today are locked out of economic and political power and function as pawns and wage slaves so that the capitalist billionaires can dominate not only this country but also the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Socialism is attacked and demonized in all the propaganda that we hear. The last thing the ruling class wants for working people, for working-class women especially, is that we understand socialism to be the natural philosophy or ideology serving the interests and needs of working people.

Socialism means that the wealth of society should be used to meet the needs of the people. It is the people, after all, who produce the wealth, the people who go to work every day. It means taking the wealth away from the super-rich so that every woman, man and child has an inalienable and constitutionally protected right to a job.

Socialism means that every person has the right to affordable housing, the absolute legal right to go to a doctor whenever they are ill or even when they are well. In other words, the right to universal health care.

The gains of socialist construction

Socialist revolutions have not happened in rich societies but in the poorest parts of the world. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Russian economy was one-twelfth the size of the U.S. economy. By eliminating the profits for a tiny handful of capitalists, even a poor country like the Soviet Union, managed by the 1930s, to provide every worker with the right to a job and the right to free health care. By 1960, the Soviet Union had emerged as the second-biggest economy in the world.

There was no unemployment and there was a right to housing, to pay no more than 6 percent of your income for rent. Evictions were illegal because there were no landlords. It was your housing.

Women had a right to free child care and one year’s paid maternity leave and they had the right to put their child in childcare facilities at no cost. Women in the Soviet Union had the right to retire at 55 years of age at half pay. And remember, they had free health care, so retirement didn’t mean being plunged into poverty. They had a month’s paid vacation.

It doesn’t mean that there were no problems in the Soviet Union, or that we agree with all the policies of different leaderships. But the Soviet Union proved, just as Cuba proves today, that when you take the wealth out of the hands of the capitalists, it can be used to meet people’s needs.

It also means that the media, instead of being used only for the commercial benefit of the biggest corporations, using women as sex objects for commercial gain, fortifying the humiliating stereotyping of women which young girls are subjected to from their earliest years—can be used to educate people about the great benefits of collectivity, of social support, of eliminating all racist and sexist stereotyping and to promote human values and community rather than pitting one against the other.

For anyone who would diminish the gains made in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, look at the status of women there today. In the 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, murder rates against women went up seven times. Eastern European women and girls are prey to a growing multi-billion dollar sex-trafficking industry.

In socialist Cuba, under an organized and centrally planned economy whose system has eliminated the material basis of women’s oppression, Cuban women are now 45 percent of the workforce. They constitute 66 percent of the country’s middle- and higher-level professionals and technicians. Infant mortality has been reduced to an amazingly low level of 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births, lower than the United States’ infant mortality rate.

Organizing for social change

Women are at the center of all social movements for social change. Too frequently we are not recognized. Women do the organizing and the work and the men often do the talking. But that’s changing, because we’re building a movement with women in the very leadership.

In the next five weeks, we are working to stop this criminal war against the people of Iraq. We will organize all our sisters and brothers and neighbors to march on the Pentagon on March 17. The movement is growing. There is a new radical wind that is beginning to blow from one side of the country to the other.

We want to be a movement that is in the streets because that is where people have the power.

But while we are in the streets and while this movement is building, we don’t see the end being only a successful big demonstration. The demonstration itself is just another step—a means to an end.

And that is how I want to end my talk today. Our greatest hope for ending the plague of women’s oppression is in building a united movement against the U.S. ruling class. Today, the rulers’ most vulnerable point is their criminal war in Iraq.

As socialist women, our organizing for March 17 becomes an opportunity to bring more and more women into the struggle for a better world and to challenge the enemy class in the most united manner possible.

We have to work to build a movement, not just against war, not just against racism, sexism and gender oppression, not just against unemployment—we need to build a movement that understands that all these problems have their origin in the system of capitalism, a system that allows 500 billionaires to have assets equal to the 3 billion poorest people on the planet.

Of course, the starting point is to build the movements against war, against racist police brutality and against women’s oppression. As each of these movements grows stronger and more organized, there is greater opportunity to unite into a colossal force against the ruling class.

When we build a movement as socialist women, we are fighting for a society that guarantees our rights as women and our rights as workers. We are fighting for a society where not only are we free to choose not to have children, but where we are free to choose to have children without worrying about health care, housing, food and day care—where those necessities will not be the responsibilities of the individual, but the foundation of the society.

As women organizers, activists and socialists, let’s show both our enemies and our friendly doubters that we know how to lead. We know the enemy. We know the direction to go. We are fearless and we are determined.

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The colonial roots of Zionism

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The following two-part series of The Socialist Program with Brian Becker delves into the real history of the Israeli state. Both episodes feature Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire—a book for which Liberation School has a study and...