Socialist Alternative

What type of women’s movement do we need?

Women are fighting back against sexism, violence and poverty across the world. When we consider the position that women find themselves in, it’s hardly a surprise. Globally each day, 137 women are killed by a family member. 72% of all trafficking victims are women and girls. One third of women internationally have experienced some kind of sexual violence.

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Waves of protest explode when provoked by specific events. It could be attacks on abortion rights, revelations of systemic sexual abuse or rape cultue, or a brutal murder of a woman such as Sarah Everard in London. However, the reason that these specific events lead to mass protests which may last weeks or months is the deep seated rage that exists. Rage against a system which leads to attacks on women at the same time as blaming us for those attacks. Rage that we experience this every day and seemingly nothing is changing; in fact, it is getting worse. 

 This is reflected in the popularity of feminist ideas, particularly amongst young people. It is also reflected in the reestablishing of International Women’s Day (8th March) as a day of struggle. In recent years there have been regular strikes and protests in countries such as the Spanish state, Russia and Brazil. It highlights that whilst actions might be sporadic, appearing in different countries at different times, that they are all part of a general process taking place: a developing international movement of women. 

More than this, it impacts on the role that women play in other struggles i.e. movements not specifically on issues that affect women. In Myanmar, India, Thailand and Belarus to name just a few examples, women are at the forefront of revolutionary movements. They are participating in general strikes as workers and trade unionists, but demands against gender violence and sexism are brought to the fore of these movements by them. A woman activist in India was quoted by Al-Jazeera saying: “Today we are finding ourselves under attack at all fronts. As women, as peasants, as workers, as youth and students. We are opposed to the laws that have been passed in favour of corporations.”

Global women’s movement a response to crisis

In other words, the global women’s movement is not something developing in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of a general radicalisation of the working class and poor internationally who are moving into struggle against the impact of the economic, social and political crises of capitalism. 13 years after the global crash in the economy and faced with a deepening of the recession, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, workers are drawing the conclusion that they need to defend themselves and resist governments forcing them to pay with their jobs and their lives. 

It’s not an accident that women are at the front. It’s usually the case that the most oppressed will be the first to move into struggle. Coronavirus has revealed the precarious position that women face in capitalist society. Women as the majority of key workers have been on the frontline of dealing with the virus but are also more at risk of losing their jobs now because we dominate in industries such as retail or because we are more likely to give up work to stay at home to care for children or unwell relatives. Black women are even more likely to lose their jobs – twice as likely as white men in the US, for example. Domestic abuse has increased in every country during lockdowns at the same time as more women were being forced back into the home, juggling childcare, home working and other tasks. There is the very real prospect that women’s liberation, as much as it ever existed, could be pushed back decades. That is spurring on the movement. 

Alongside this, the pandemic is being used as an excuse to attack democratic rights and increase repression in many countries. In Britain, the Tories’ policing bill has already been greeted with the Kill the Bill protests, being linked by those on them to the ability to struggle against gendered violence. Around the world, women are coming up against the forces of the state and their violence. Significantly, this is not scaring people away and instead is having the effect of hardening their resolve and forcing them to question who the police are really there to protect. 

‘Post-feminism’ smashed – we need socialist feminism 

The experience of the last decade of austerity has not only meant a worsening of the economic position of women but also a smashing of the neo-liberal idea of ‘post-feminism’. The idea that women had achieved legal equality and sexual liberation has been shown to be the lie that it was, and the response has been movements such as #MeToo. Something which started online as a mass outpouring of the horrific experiences women have faced of sexual assault and rape is now a big feature of the mass protests and strikes since 2019. The post-feminist idea of individualism – that changes should be made by changing your own life or attitude – has been turned into its opposite as we see the trend towards mass collective action, including workers and young people of all genders. 

All of this points to the type of movement that we need. We need a feminist movement that is also socialist. This means a movement which has militant struggle at its core including huge protests and strike action, linking up with the workers and trade union struggles to build mass united action. It means analysing the role of the capitalist state, including the police and the justice system, and stating clearly that we cannot rely on them to keep us safe or to provide justice. It means learning our history, that all gains we have won from the right to vote, access to contraception and equal pay, have been won through struggle. It means linking the battle for safety and against gender violence, with the battle to defend our jobs and for funding to the services we need. It means a movement which is inclusive of women who face other kinds of oppression such as racism, homophobia and transphobia, developing a programme which tackles prejudice in all its forms. 

A socialist society is one where the working class is democratically in control of what happens. Through nationalising big business and the banks we would be able to use the wealth which exists in society (wealth which is created by the working class) to benefit the majority. We could massively increase wages and decrease working hours so that everyone has a decent standard of living. Economic liberation for women would mean that there wouldn’t need to be a choice between having children and being able to work and there would be the freedom to leave a relationship if it was unhappy or violent. Fully funding public services would mean access to the healthcare that women need, including free abortion and contraception at the point of need, as well as other services to ensure that we are safe. The Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a ‘socialisation’ of the burden which is put on women today in the home. Over 100 years later and with advances in technology this could go even further. 

This is just one side of it. By changing the economic system we could also fundamentally change attitudes towards women, which have their roots in class society. The systemic oppression of women under capitalism – a system based on inequality and the power of a few over the majority – is most brutally shown in sexual violence against women. It is not a question of sex, but a question of power. It’s why the majority of sexual violence happens against women and gender non-conforming people and is why it is prevalent in war and counter-revolution. This can not be ‘educated’ away, no matter how much former feminist waves have revolutionised attitudes. It will always be a feature of capitalism and any gains that are made are temporary. This applies to economic gains (the NHS is a good example of a victory which changed the lives of working class people but has since been decimated and privatised) but also to changes in attitudes. Sexual freedom has been sold back to us in the sex industry, making massive profits whilst perpetuating damaging ideas of female sexuality and toxic masculinity. 

The need for mass and collective struggle

The movements are already developing in the direction of being youthful, working class and internationalist, which is something socialist feminists would support. The ideas of the second wave of feminism, that the ‘personal is political’, are a necessary feature in this new wave of feminism also. Individual experiences of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are being generalised into a mass anger against the system which causes them. The role of capitalism in sexual violence has recently been brought to the fore in the feminist anthem originating in Chile – a rapist in your path. This song puts the blame squarely on the police, courts and the system as a whole and highlights why we need a fundamental change in society if we are going to end gendered violence. But how do we get there? 

Socialist feminism offers  a vision of the transformed society we need. But it can also help us in building the type of movement that’s necessary to achieve this in a concrete way. We raise the need for a united, working-class struggle because it is the working class which has the power to change society. Workers’ position – as wealth creators – means that when they go on strike, it has the power to bring the whole of the country (or the world) to a standstill. More than that, the working class are the people who are actually needed to make society run and have a vital role to play in the building of a new, socialist society. The working class coming to power is the key idea behind socialism. 

In order to be able to achieve this, we need a united movement. Socialists would say that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the divisions between men and women, white and Black people, straight and gay people and so on. These divisions are fostered by the capitalist system to allow them to super exploit sections of the working class whilst we blame each other, rather than the bosses. This doesn’t mean that racist and sexist attitudes don’t exist within the working class, but it points towards how we can challenge them. Through collective struggle, attitudes change when it is revealed that we have more in common with each other than we do with people of the same gender, race, sexuality or nationality in the ruling class. United struggle also reveals how much stronger we are when we come together than when we fight alone. 

Unity of the organised working class

The young people of all genders who are taking on the streets shouldn’t just wait for the trade union leaders to act. However, by making appeals to the rank and file workers in the trade unions to join the protests and discuss collectively the demands of the movement, these protests can be strengthened further. In Poland, the abortion rights protests have been supported by industrial workers and there was support for a general strike, but this was never something seriously organised by the leadership for the movement. If it had been, it would have shown that the women fighting for their right to abortion could find solidarity in workers who are also fighting to defend their jobs and pay, and vice versa. Any government would fear such a united movement.

The last decade has shown that to limit our aims to getting more women into politics or business is a complete blind-alley. Afterall, the Kill the Bill protests are opposing a policy that has been spearheaded by a woman of colour, Priti Patel, who despite this is responsible for a law which will limit protests and allow the police to target women and people of colour more than anyone. She is nonetheless pursuing this draconian policy because she is representing her  class and their interests. Meanwhile, many of the people on the protests were supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – an old, white, straight man – because of what he stood for. Our movement does need to pay special attention to the triple and quadruple oppressions experienced by working class women who are also Black and/or gay and/or trans. We need to fight for a movement that is representative of everyone and where everyone can participate. But we need to look to what unites us rather than what makes us different – our position as part of the working class. 

This type of movement can only be built democratically with the mass involvement of all of those who are oppressed participating in not just action, but also in discussions about what the movement is fighting for. Mass assemblies and meetings are a good way of hearing from as many people as possible and making decisions in a democratic way. These assemblies could also look at how best to build solidarity and links with other workers in struggle. Far from this meaning that issues related to women’s oppression would be sidelined, it will elevate them and mean that the mass of the organised working class were united in fighting for them. It is on this basis we can see how we can win not just our immediate demands but a new type of society free from oppression, inequality and violence: a socialist society.