Can sexism be eliminated under capitalism?

Feb 1, 2008

Reproductive rights—a basic right for women—are under constant attack under capitalism. Photo: Bill Hackwell

How can women be liberated from the many bonds of sexism in U.S. society? For well over a century, powerful women leaders and mass movements have struggled to accomplish that challenge.

Yet the situation remains grim. Despite the fanfare of high-profile women candidates during election season, the reality for millions of women is not pretty: threats of violence and harassment, discrimination on the job, and the drudgery of sole responsibility for housework and child care.

Every two minutes in the United States, a woman is sexually assaulted, while every six minutes one is raped. That amounts to about 200,000 women victims every year.

Thirty-one percent of U.S. women have been physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. A woman is battered by an intimate partner every 15 seconds. One-third of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner.

Sexism means more profits for the capitalist class of owners and bosses. On average, a woman in the United States is paid about 75 cents for every dollar that a man earns for the same work.

The lack of maternity leave, child care and health care falls hardest on women workers. For most of the 10 million single mothers in the United States, for example, adequate day care is a huge expense. Average childcare costs range from $4,000 to $10,000 per year. The Census Bureau found that families with less that $14,000 annual income spend more than 25 percent of their income on child care.

While poor and working-class women might feel sexism most severely, it cuts across all income lines. The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation did a study of college-educated women. During college years, women have on average higher grades in every major. Yet one year out of college, women earned 80 percent of what men were earning for the same jobs. Ten years later, the gap had widened, with women were earning 69 percent of what men were earning.

Sexism is reinforced through every media in capitalist society. Women are depicted in the most degrading, humiliating and demeaning manner. For young women, the result can be psychologically and sometimes physically destructive.

Reproductive rights are under constant attack. Even though abortion is still legal, new regulations are being imposed every year. In 2003, close to 90 percent of all U.S. counties had no abortion provider; in non-metropolitan areas, the figure reached 97 percent.

The picture is grim. It would have been far worse without the mass movements for women’s rights—from the suffrage movement at the turn of the 20th century to the mass women’s liberation movement that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. These struggles led to real gains, including winning the right to vote and forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to acknowledge a woman’s right to privacy and to control her body with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, as well as the winning of important reforms in the struggle against gender-based violence. But, as Frederick Douglass noted long ago, there is no progress without fierce and determined struggles.

Rooted in capitalism—not human nature

It is common to hear that sexism and the oppression of women are part of the natural order of things. It has “always been this way,” we are told. Conservative pundits frequently cry out for a return to “traditional” family order. Even some militant supporters of women’s liberation claim that women have always been oppressed throughout the ages.

History tells a different story entirely. Numerous anthropologists like Eleanor Burke Leacock and Karen Sacks have shown that for most of human history, women’s status as second-class citizens did not exist. For the vast majority of history, class society and exploitation did not exist. People lived in a primitive communal or classless society. The family bloodline was traced through the mother’s line, which anthropologists call “mother right.” All material wealth was owned and distributed communally.

Women’s oppression can be traced to the “world historic defeat” of the female sex, in the words of 19th-century German communist Friedrich Engels, when in the transition to class exploitation, women became the property of men.

Since that time, women’s oppression has been a fundamental prop of class exploitation. The form has changed, but the essence has been remarkably universal and similar since the first advent of class society that began in some areas thousands of years ago. In the area that is now the United States, this change occurred dynamically within the last 500 years, coinciding with the large-scale emigration from Europe’s class society and the subsequent genocide against Native society, which had until then largely retained non-class and communal forms.

Under U.S. monopoly capitalism, sexism means the ability to earn super-profits from a lower-paid sector of the workforce. It also divides the working class, pitting men against women and trapping some male workers into identifying with their male boss instead of their women coworkers on the basis of common class interests.

In other words, sexism is in the interest of the U.S. ruling class.

That means that the way to eradicate sexism is to remove the ruling class from power and dismantle its system of exploitation and its right to private profit. The path to true women’s liberation is part and parcel of the fight for socialism.

Socialism and women’s liberation

History’s greatest examples of the emancipation of women as full and equal actors in society and the opportunity to live to their fullest potential have come following socialist revolutions. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, for example, women gained rights that they had not yet won in the most advanced capitalist countries: the right to vote and the right to abortion on demand. Restrictions on divorce were removed. The Bolsheviks abolished laws that enforced gender inequality and threw out anti-gay laws. Women were granted economic and social rights in the constitution. Many of these advances were eviscerated in the 1930s during a period of conservative retrenchment following the revolution. During and following World War II, the political status and social rights of Soviet women made a new round of gains.

After the 1949 Chinese Revolution, women’s associations were formed in rural villages to combat the strict subjugation of women, and a mass campaign targeting women’s illiteracy was launched.

In Cuba, the Federation of Cuban Women was formed a year after the 1959 revolution to address women’s issues. It helped to establish child care, paid maternity leave, free medical care and expanded educational opportunities, and made it possible for women to enter every area of the workforce.

In 1975, the Federation was instrumental in shaping the Family Code in Cuba. This code made it the legal obligation of men to share in the housework and child-rearing responsibilities. There have been countrywide discussions of the Family Code through congresses, educational materials and the mass media. Although a constitutional law on housework does not by itself eliminate sexist patterns, it was an important statement and tool in advancing women’s formal rights.

Today, women in Cuba make up 66.4 percent of all technicians, mid-level professionals and higher-degree professionals. They make up 72 percent of all education workers, 67 percent of health workers, and 43 percent of all science workers. These figures demonstrate women’s independence and contribution to the economic development of the country.

Women’s representation in government positions is one of the highest in the world. Cuban women hold 47 percent of the Supreme Court and 49 percent of judgeships, comprise 60 percent of public prosecutors and hold 36 percent of the seats in Cuba’s National Assembly.

Cuba has over 1,000 child care facilities on the island of 11.4 million. Daycare centers have on-site doctors and nurses. Eye, ear and dental exams are done free at the centers. Women had the right to one year of maternity leave, six months paid and another six months unpaid leave. In 2003, paid parental leave was extended to one full year for mothers or fathers.

The Cuban people have been able to do so much toward the liberation of women only because the working class smashed the capitalist state and began the reconstruction of society on a socialist basis.

Socialist revolution does not liberate women overnight. But the socialist organization of society lays the foundation for liberating women from the economic slavery they are subjected to in class society. In this way only socialism offers the complete road to liberation for women.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...