We Need a Working Class Women’s Movement!
At a time of increasing political instability and tension that has produced Donald Trump, it’s reassuring to see one old tradition reasserting itself against a global lurch to the right. With the call for strike action on International Women’s Day another major festival is returning to its working class and socialist roots in textile and garment workers’ strikes at the turn of the 20th century. Today many thousands of women across the United States are on strike to raise highlight the pay gap, exploitation and harassment that women workers face on a daily basis.
Donald Trump’s shameless sexism and his threats to women’s rights (to repeal Roe v Wade); to make a bonfire of protective legislation; to repeal Obamacare, to sack hundreds of thousands of public employees; all of these attacks will hit working women especially hard. So too will his plans to deport millions of “illegals” and their families. It is no surprise, therefore, that women have taken the lead in the resistance to Trump, Pence and the Republican religious bigots in Congress.
Women and men, Black and white, Latinx and Native Americans, citizens and immigrants, need to get behind this great movement and carry it on to May Day, the day of the international working class. Let’s make it a day of judgment for the tiny elite of oppressors and exploiters.
Conditions under capitalism for women have improved at a glacial pace – when they are improved at all. In the 50+ years since the second wave of feminism brought the social and economic inequities of being female to mainstream attention, the “wage gap” between women and men is still roughly the same as it was.
Women still face a higher risk of assault and murder than their male counterparts. Their lives and bodies are still subject to more legal restrictions than men and, with the assault on hard won reproductive rights, the clock is being turned back. A woman’s employment is still more precarious and temporary with fewer benefits than men and still subject to unacceptable levels of workplace sexual harassment. Health insurance under capitalism is more expensive and harder to get. And women still do most of the domestic work in society and don’t receive a cent in return for it.
Yet this harsh and unequal treatment of half of the population of the world still has not been addressed in any effective way by the capitalist system. Yes in most countries women have got the vote and formal equality before the law. Women and the labor movement have made social gains for women. But Trump’s sexist agenda shows that all of these gains are impermanent and constantly undermined.
Looking for a Solution
The reason for the lack of a fundamental and permanent solution to the exploitation and oppression of women under capitalism is straightforward. The capitalist political and economic system is organized primarily to create profits and wealth for the bosses, not to satisfy the needs of the people.
Attempts to challenge the oppression of women which is hard-wired into our society face a brick wall of vested interests who accept individual women becoming bosses, but refuse to contemplate the possibility of all women throwing off the shackles of domestic and economic subjugation.
To take just one example. In the few cases where equal pay laws are enforced it is almost always by bosses trying to reduce the wages of men to match underpaid women. This aims to divide men from women and weaken working class solidarity. Where equal pay has in some measure been approached it is usually because of the action of trade unions, where the collective strength of organized labor has imposed it on hostile employers.
The economic challenge to capitalism involved in a “strike” action is a good first step, above all when it is generalized across all sectors of workers and draws in the unemployed and marginalized too. And it must continue to force the issue into the wider economy with more and more militant strikes, more boycotts, and occupations of workplaces and public spaces.
But trade unionism by itself doesn’t solve the question. Not only are the numbers of union members of both sexes at less than 10%, numbers are actually declining and will continue to decline as labor leaders fail to organize serious resistance to the attacks on the right to form a trade union, the right to effective collective bargaining agreements, etc. The example of migrant workers sacked for taking strike action during the 20 February ‘One Day Without Us’ solidarity protests, shows that low levels of trade union organization mean such forms of action are too risky for millions of workers.
Finally, trade unionism by its nature only addresses the economic inequality of those women in the workplace. It is limited in what it can do to address, let alone overcome, the fundamental roots of women’s oppression which lie in condemnation to performing the great bulk of unpaid labor in the home; bringing up children, cooking and cleaning, caring for the sick and the elderly. Reinforcing this is an ideology of sexism, which “justifies’ women’s second place in all spheres of public life including in politics and trade unionism.
To tackle the myriad ways in which women’s lives are limited and controlled by sexism within society we need to create a movement that can champion meaningful alternatives; rather than the “lean-in” feminism of the 1 per cent, we need a socialist solution for the majority. Instead of telling women to be more aggressive in the board room, we need to organize women to fight for 24 hour childcare, workplace committees to challenge sexist behavior by bosses and coworkers, a militant defense and extension of reproductive rights and access to proper education and services for young women and girls.
But to permanently break the chains of discrimination inequality and exploitation we need to break the power of the ruling elite, whose armies of politicians, police and religious moralists and media propagandists work together to ensure that society’s wealth travels up the pyramid, not down. But we also need to challenge the sexist ideas within our own communities and families; these ideas are learned in school, rehearsed in the workplace and taught to our children. They are the last and strongest bastion that exists in defence of the current order of division and inequality. The cancer of sexism and racism in our society needs to be met by a sufficiently powerful antidote – something that strikes right at the source.
For us, that solution is socialism – a society where the banks and factories, all the means of producing homes, health care and education, are owned and run in common, by the working people. Common ownership and democratic control is the only way to ensure society’s wealth is managed in the interests of ordinary people. To struggle for a radical alternative to capitalism, we need a political organization with a clear program and strategy, capable of uniting the mass of working, unemployed and young people who recognize that this system only works for the rich, not the poor. This means building a workers’ party that unites working class men, women and the oppressed in a common resistance to the attacks on human and economic rights by Trump and his billionaire lackeys in government. March 8 and May Day show that the struggle of US workers has always been a common struggle with workers of all countries. This year will see some of the largest International Women’s Day protests in recent memory; the antidote to Trump’s racist American nationalism is socialist internationalism, solidarity across borders, and between peoples of all nations.