The Guardian • Issue #2094

Women and Class Struggle

Perth IWD 2024.

Perth IWD 2024.

Every International Women’s Day, there are discussions about how we empower women, and in almost none of them is the key term that gets us to the heart of the issue: class struggle. You can pick out any person in the media and ask them what economic empowerment looks like, and I can guarantee that they will talk about how women are severely underrepresented in managerial and executive positions, how we’re underrepresented in Parliament, and that we could solve all of the problems that women face in society if we just put enough women into those positions. That seems perfectly logical if you view women’s struggles in a vacuum, isolated from the broader struggles that exist in society. View women’s struggle through a class perspective, however, and suddenly it’s different.

Let’s take a step back. What does women’s liberation, and more specifically women’s economic empowerment, look like if you ignore the broader context of class struggle? As of 2022, there were 1989 large corporate groups representing around about 35,000 companies, each with 8-12 directors, so we can estimate that there are 350,000 directors. That puts us around 175,000 women required to have an even split of men and women directing large companies. Those 175,000 women would then reshape the major economic institutions in our society to bring women to parity with men, because women will want to make Australia a country in which women have equality. The vast majority of paid parental leave is taken by women, so those women will raise paid parental leave. Wages in women-dominated industries will increase because those women will not devalue labour simply because it is typically done by women. Discrimination against and harassment of women at work will end because those women will put a stop to it. What happens when we add the reality of class to this equation?

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels identifies the class nature of women’s oppression. He states, “The first class antagonism appearing in history coincides with the development of the antagonism of man and wife in monogamy, and the first class oppression with that of the female by the male sex,” and as we can see, this first oppression has left its scars through all of the rest of history. Every class system has inherited it from the one that preceded it, including capitalism. Women were not allowed to own, sell, or buy property in their own name, keep their own wages, enter into contracts, or sue or be sued in court in Australia until 100 years after colonisation. It wasn’t until the last century that women’s wages were required to be equal to men’s for the same work. This barred women from being a part of the property-owning class, the capitalist class, for much of Australia’s history and, as I will demonstrate, will continue to bar women from being equally represented in it for as long as capitalism continues.

The analysis is simple. The profit that capitalists make is a cut of the labour done by workers, and when capitalism came from feudalism, a fundamentally patriarchal system, naturally the capitalists were men, who created laws to exclude women from the new system from the first day. No matter how much those laws were changed over capitalism’s history to make capitalist accumulation nominally something that women could do, the world’s wealth had already been accumulated in the hands of capitalist men at the expense of both working women and men. Under capitalism, this wealth will continue not only to transfer from one generation of bourgeois men to the next, it will continue to accumulate, leaving less and less of it available to working women and men for them to have their shot at getting in on skimming profits off of the labour of their fellow workers.

Even if, ignoring the impossibility, women were to become equally represented in the capitalist class, the new capitalist women would not be able to reshape the economic landscape, even if they wanted to. A business’ sole purpose is to generate profit, that is, to maximise the exploitation of labour. Let’s suppose women directing a private hospital saw that the wages and conditions of nurses and midwives needed to be improved, as they are lower than they would be if nursing and midwifery were male-dominated fields. They then improve wages and conditions, reducing their exploitation to what it would be if the industry was male-dominated, and what do they find? Shareholders are suddenly unhappy, the share price drops as expected dividends are reduced and shareholders sell, and the board gets replaced. In reality, this entire situation would never even occur. The new capitalist women would foresee the outcome and never go ahead with that plan in the first place. Class interests always win out.

We can’t enter into the capitalist class. Even if we could, if that ultimately wouldn’t improve the position of women in society by much at all, what options are left to us? Clara Zetkin says:

“The liberation of women is bound up with the overthrow of the capitalist system, for only then can true equality be achieved.”

We must engage in the class struggle. We must create a society in which the working class, which is made up equally of women and men, is the class that rules in the interests of the whole of the working class.

By viewing women’s liberation through class struggle, we can take our fate into our own hands. We can mobilise millions of working class women and men, including the two million union members, by showing them that the capitalists will not and cannot give them dignity. Recently hundreds of thousands of workers in the aged care sector, represented by the Health Services Union and the United Workers Union, were awarded a pay rise of up to 28 per cent because their unions fought to have their wages increased. The Health Services Union is widely known to sell out to the bosses, and even with that, they were able to make strides in bettering the standing of the workers in an industry dominated by women. Imagine what we can do with the full exertion of the power that the working class has, simply through the fact that the capitalists need us to labour in order for them to profit.

The class struggle doesn’t stop at wages and conditions. We need to achieve socialism in order for our class to truly rule, so women’s liberation can only truly occur under socialism. We can look at real examples of the process of empowerment, like in China as well as the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba. In 1918, the year after the October Revolution, the USSR instituted its first family code. This code separated marriage from the church, allowed a couple to choose a surname, gave illegitimate children the same rights as legitimate children, gave rights to maternal entitlements, health and safety protections at work, and provided women with the right to a divorce on extended grounds. In 1920 the Soviet government legalised abortion. In 1922 marital rape was made illegal. Women were given equal rights in regard to insurance in case of illness, eight-week paid maternity-leave, and a minimum wage standard that was set for both men and women. While these might seem standard to us today, in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, these advances were extraordinary, and occurred at a pace faster than in any capitalist country.

In 2022, Cuba instituted a new family code that is the most progressive in the world, reinforcing sexual and reproductive rights, the prevention of gender-based violence, and the promotion of the redistribution of domestic and care work among all family members. Similar accomplishments were made in the German Democratic Republic, and in all three countries domestic violence severely dropped, as divorce rights and rent being tied to only a few per cent of household income, along with women being encouraged to work and a near non-existent gender pay gap, made it much easier for women to leave abusive partners.

This status of women in society was only able to be won through working class rule, and if we are to achieve women’s liberation, we must bring the class struggle and the fight for socialism here to Australia.

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