This background document for the AWL 2007 AGM includes a restatement of the immediate history of the modern women’s movement and our own history.
Much of this has been said more comprehensively elsewhere (The case for Socialist Feminism, Comrades and Sisters). Some of it is individual opinion, raising points for discussion. It also summarises our recent debates (abortion rights, hijab).
It is an attempt to refamiliarise ourselves with the political ideas and point up areas for further discussion, to help us restart our work in this area.
There are gaps. There is nothing here about the basic Marxist analysis of women’s oppression, nothing about the Marxist tradition. We should make texts on these things available, and do some basic education. There is nothing here about the equal pay battles in local government; no separate section on how New Labour’s cuts and “reforms” have affected the lives of women. There is nothing detailed about “queer theory”. Comrades may like to think about writing articles for the paper on these and other relevant issues.
Authors of different sections are listed below. Everything else was either written, pieced together from other articles including a few direct steals from other people’s work by me (thanks Janine).
Part one. Looking back: the politics and priorities of the women’s movement
A. Modern Feminism
A conference of 600 women at Ruskin College Oxford in 1970 “officially” launched a women’s liberation movement in the UK, although the movement had emerged some years earlier. The conference became an annual event, and the second in 1971, agreed the four demands of women’s liberation: equal pay; equal education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand; and free 24-hour nurseries under community control.
The women’s liberation movement inspired many thousands of women to speak up for their rights and get involved in many, often mass, protests. It forced a big change in popular attitudes to women and our role in society; it piled on the pressure for important legal advances, such as the 1975 Equal Pay Act. It did not eradicate the economic structures and inequalities which underpin women’s oppression.
The modern women’s movement was underpinned by social change affecting all women, including working class women. After the end of the Second World War, gradually more and more women began to work for wages in America, Europe and other parts of the world.
More women were economically independent; women came out of the isolated world centred on family and private relationships. Moral restrictions on women’s (and men’s) lives relaxed. All of this combined to change women’s social consciousness. And women began to recognise central aspects of their oppression.
The women’s movement stood for legal change and reform. It also stood for enlightenment, for changing attitudes, for forging a new way of looking at the injustices in the world.
In the UK specific struggles added a class dimension to the women’s movement (this was less the case in the US). A fight in 1968 by fishermens’ wives to improve the safety on trawlers showed working class women campaigning publicly. It was only the latest, modern example of working class women fighting for jobs and their communities, in solidarity with men.
In the summer of 1968, women sewing machinists at Ford’s in Dagenham, east London, went on strike for equal pay. The women, who made the upholstery of car seats, challenged Ford’s sexist grading structure and demanded to be defined as skilled workers. They won a significant pay rise, but did not win the right to be graded as skilled. The Ford’s strike prompted working women to set up the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights.
The new women’s movement (in the US and Europe) was encouraged by and influenced by other radical movements: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), student protests in Europe, rebellions in Portuguese colonies in Africa, the French general strike of May 68, the movement against America’s war in Vietnam; the US civil rights movement. Feminism in the USA drew inspiration and momentum from the struggles of black people, as it had in the previous century.
The new women’s movement was anti-capitalist and involved many socialist women who had a radical critique of capitalism and bourgeois existence. They wanted to put the oppression of women under capitalism centre-stage. They were rediscovering and reassessing the rich literature of the early Marxist movement on the “Woman Question” (See Comrades and Sisters and The case for socialist feminism for useful summaries). They also attempted to go beyond it. The socialist feminist current wanted to combine class and sex in order to constructe a better and better integrated revolutionary theory.
But by the end of the 1970s/early 1980s the women’s movement had slowed to a halt and broken into fragments. Radical, cultural and career feminism were now the dominant ideological strands. Later on socialist feminist debate became more convoluted and separated from a living, practical movement.
What kind of lessons, both negative and positive, might we draw from the modern women’s movement? What tasks are implied for us today?
1. The need to focus on the tangible economic and social reforms that working-class women need to improve their lives.
By the end of the 1970s the women’s movement began to focus exclusively on “personal issues”. The slogan “the personal is political” was meant to insist (rightly) that issues such as childcare, contraception, housework and domestic violence were political issues, demanding political answers. Now “personal” began to mean something completely different. A feminist could only have an opinion on issues she had personally experienced, and that her personal life was open to political scrutiny. In other words many in the movement became focussed on “identity politics”.
2. We need to analyse and debate what is wrong with identity politics.
Identity politics is alive today especially in relation to religious and national-ethnic identity. It can often be seen as part of debates about globalisation.
Identity politics is about accepting an essentialist concept of identity.
Radical/cultural feminist theory claimed that a female essence existed, one which was diametrically opposed to the masculine. The female essence was morally superior. The female essence was also a replica of all the old stereotypes feminism was supposed to be about demolishing.
Some things wrong with essentialism:
• Human beings have a complex identity, made up of many factors in their background — family, class, gender, nationality, religion etc. Making a political choice to adopt a single identity contradicts a complex reality — it is not a rational choice. That is not to say that a woman who involves herself in a “single issue campaign” for women’s rights is making an irrational choice. It is not the same thing as choosing to organise all of your politics or most of your life around a single identity.
• Essentialism tends to replicate stereotypes and try to turn reactionary ideas into good things. The idea that women are innately peace-loving is a ruling class idea. Historically it is linked to women’s role a primary home makers and child rearers). Yet essentialist feminism glorified so-called female non-violence. This was both suspect history and reinforced a reactionary stereotype.
• Making a virtue out of unpleasant reality was a way of dealing with defeat and frustrated ambition. If all we had to do was go off and be goddess-like with other goddesses, we didn’t have to carry on actively fighting in the world to eradicate sexism and discrimination.
• Socialists have to see class as more important than more fluid identities. For sure female oppression is more intrinsic and central to class society and capitalism than national oppressions, but it is still less basic than class and exploitation. Working class struggle has the potential to unite people across competing and conflicting identities.
3. Eessentialism’s twin is cultural relativism.
If, as essentialism would have it, only black women can understand the “authentic” black female identity, then only black women can speak for black women. White women “have no right to lecture” (i.e have an opinion about) things like affect black women. This proposition is developed a stage further, with cultural relativism. If you criticise the social practices in societies of non-white, non-European people e.g. the female circumcision of Arab and African girls, you are taking a “white”, “Eurocentric point of view. To the cultural relativists black women who campaign against such oppression are, of course, invisible!
4. Feminism of this type was able to easily transform into being both “career feminism” i.e. modern bourgeois feminism and “academic feminism”, cut off from campaigning and struggle (see B. Third Wave Feminism).
5. We need to critically re-examine the ideology and ideological influences of socialist feminism.
Many of the debates and work of the socialist feminists— about domestic labour, reserve army of labour, critical examination of the concept of patriarchy, about family structure, on the history of working class women — were productive. While it lasted the socialist feminist current in the women's movement was a genuine attempt to rediscover and rethink a socialist past.
What is the role of the family under capitalism? Did women's labour in the family constitute productive labour? What could we learn from the experience of the Russian Revolution? Can we socialise housework and childcare? What will the family look like under socialism?
There were various attempts to “extend” Marxist theory to encompass and analyse female oppression some of these were more successful than others. Some feminists, such as Juliet Mitchell and Lynne Segal, used new disciplines – in their case a psychoanalytical framework — as a source of intellectual ideas for socialist feminism.
The attempts to “extend” Marxism prompted some to reject the integration of Marxism and feminism completely (e.g. Heidi Hartmann’s The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism).
But what was the socialist feminist’s understanding of Marxism? It might not have been a good basis on which to start.
The American socialist feminists were influenced by Stalinism, Maoism and the Marxism of academic sociology. European socialist feminists could be influenced by the quasi-Stalinism and Maoism of post-Trotsky Trotskyism and groups such as Big Flame.
Some dodgy reasoning was made about Marxism. Marxism was “sex blind”, Marxist political economy had no language to describe female oppression because it was economically determinist. Yet the Marxist approach to understanding things like women’s oppression was to look at it history and across different societies — exactly as Engels did in the Origins of the Family — it was subtle, comprehensive, materialistic and many-sided.
6. We should not repeat the sectarianism of some of the Trotskyist left.
Some socialist groups worked constructively in the women's movement, but others were over-anxious not to identify as feminist, preferred to dismiss all feminism as “bourgeois”, or to get involved. Organisations such as Militant and the hid behind a desire to promote working-class unity, all women's self-organisation was “separatism” etc.
IS was initially positive towards the women’s movement. Later on they set up a women’s organisation, Women’s Voice, but closed it when it showed signs of initiative and independence. Other, smaller factions behaved in a sectarian, heavy-handed way towards the women’s movement. Some left groups tended to lecture the movement from the outside, telling activists they were doing it all wrong, rather than being involved and offering their ideas constructively. The IMG were involved from the start. [See section on the Working Women’s Charter below].
7. There was nothing inevitable about the retreat of the left or socialist feminism.
When the women from mining communities started to organise themselves in 1984 as a powerful battalion in the strike the left in the Labour Party, and many from the women’s movement, the peace movement etc, rallied round. It was a fantastic example of working class women organising and could have given socialist feminism and the whole women’s movement a reason for existence for many years to come. Except the miners were defeated…
8. The women’s movement was an international phenomena; women’s right has to be fought for internationally
Wherever women have begun to move into waged work and education – from Egypt, to South America and all round the world – feminist ideas have taken at least some hold. Women in different parts of the world had different concerns. In many parts of the world millions of women continue to live without very basic rights: reproductive rights, the right to an education, to work, the right to divorce, the right to live free from violence.
9. A central focus of all the socialist feminist debates was the family — socialist feminism here can help us make sense of today’s society.
Socialist feminism had an alternative vision for society. A society where social chaos, inequality and violence could be replaced by rational, humane and equal relationships; where partnerships and “family” relationships could be freely chosen. In today’s capitalist society family relationships are visibly disintegrating; but there are no credible alternative social institutions to replace them. This is a recipe for increased poverty and misery. Is it time to think once more about alternatives to bourgeois hetrosexual marriage. How can we resist the various moral panics of the right and argue for a society based on realising human potential and social solidarity. The women’s movement of the recent past has a lot to offer us.
B. Third wave feminism — what does it mean and how does it relate to socialist feminism?
The term “Third Wave” feminism began to be used in the late 1980s and early 90s by a range of activists and theorists seeking to identify themselves with a new style of feminism which drew on, but also progressed from, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. In practice, the Third Wave banner incorporates a wide range of political perspectives, from liberal feminists focusing on glass ceiling issues to anarcho-feminists discussing the interrelations of class, sex and race. Because third wave covers a multiplicity of feminisms it is not a particularly useful term, except in denoting a generational or chronological shift in feminism. It also raises the question of whether current feminist activity can be considered significant enough to constitute a “wave” similar to that of the 1970s or late nineteenth-century.
However, Third Wave feminism, or rather feminist activism and theory post-1980s have included some distinctive developments which it is important for socialist feminism to get to grips with.
Third Wave feminists tend to be highly critical of essentialist definitions of gender and sexuality. In practice this has resulted in an enthusiastic reception of transgender people into women’s organisations and a placing of queer politics at the centre of feminist understandings of power structures and oppression. It has also tended towards a positive response to sex workers’ right to organise and a rejection of what is seen as the puritanical and proscriptive attitude to sex offered by radical feminism in the 1970s. The feminism of the last 20 years has also been highly critical of what is perceived as the second wave’s assumption of a universalising “female” experience and interest, which was in fact confined to white middle-class women. In particular, the inclusion of black women’s voices and perspective is an important element of Third Wave feminism. Finally, Third Wave feminism re-emphasises the importance the second wave placed on personal experience in both raising consciousness and informing political action.
To some extent, Third Wave feminists misrepresent the second wave movement and ignore the fact that many of the criticisms they put forward were already being made by socialist feminists in the 1970s. The failure of the organised left to relate to the women’s liberation movement and to fully acknowledge gender as a crucial structure of oppression should be acknowledged and learnt from. Yet many socialist feminists active in the women’s liberation movement were the first to critique the anti-sex, essentialist bias of the mainstream of the movement. They also called for a feminist politics orientated towards the interests of working-class and black women, rather than simply focusing on the career prospects of educated middle-class women.
However, socialist feminism can benefit from engaging with some of the ideas emerging under the banner of Third Wave feminism in the last 20 years. To do so is crucial to our ability to move on from the collapse of second wave feminism. Below are the key areas I think that we need to look at.
Firstly, we should take seriously the continued feminist emphasis on the importance of the personal to the political. It would be incorrect and politically questionable to maintain that second wave feminism failed because of a too great an emphasis on the ‘personal’. The women’s liberation movement did not collapse because it took seriously, for example, the ways in which gender oppression is enacted in women’s relationships with their fathers, husbands, lovers and male comrades. It did not fail because it emphasised the importance of sexual liberation to the wider transformation of society. And it did not fail because it addressed the ways in which women were marginalized on the Left in such simple ways as being relegated to secretarial tasks rather than the more important ‘ideological’ work. Rather, second wave feminism failed to become a permanent mass movement because the agenda of the ruling class came to dominate its politics, developing an individualistic conception of women’s rights which would have alienated the majority of working-class women (if they were aware of what was going on inside the women’s movement). It was therefore the politics of the movement that were at fault, not the fact that these politics acknowledged the importance of the personal. If feminism has become increasingly concerned with lifestyle issues since the decline of the second wave this is a reflection of the lack of a mass political movement, not an indictment of the belief that ‘the personal is political’.
We in the AWL can benefit from reminding ourselves of the ways in which the personal interacts with the political. At a very basic level this means looking again at different ways of structuring public meetings, forums and internal events. Panel discussions (in which the more confident male comrades invariably dominate, being better conditioned to perform according to the adversarial style of debate they encourage) should NOT be the only kinds of discussion events we have. Day schools have successfully used different structures for discussion and we should look to expand these into our other public events. Male comrades should make the effort to be self-aware of how they conduct themselves at forums and in discussions, and recognise that their own confidence/ vocality etc has an impact on other comrades ability/ willingness to participate. Male comrades should also recognise that women’s liberation is a central part of the group’s politics and activity and make the effort to attend forums on these questions. We should try not to repeat the case of the forum last year on pornography, which far fewer male comrades than normal attended. All the considerations listed here have already been acknowledged and discussed within the group- we simply need to remind ourselves of them and make them routine.
Secondly, as socialist feminists we should explicitly acknowledge that all forms of gender and sexuality are a social construct. Our tradition has always recognised that individuals are shaped by social conditions rather than their biological destiny. This assumption continues to positively inform the group’s feminist politics but needs to be stated more clearly. We should be clear that polarised, binary and essentialist understandings of gender and sexuality are part of the ideology of the ruling bourgeois class.
Thirdly, the AWL should have a discussion about the interaction between class, race and gender oppression, in order to refine our understanding of this and re-educate ourselves. We need to be able to engage with the “best sort” of anarchist politics (particularly popular within the student movement) which takes class oppression seriously but sees it as on a par with race and gender oppression. The AWL needs to find effective ways of explaining that although we reject the notion that class oppression (exploitation) is intrinsically worse than other forms of oppression, we focus on it because of our conception of how best to cut the roots of all oppression and organise to challenge exploitation and oppression. We should also recognise that the cultural imperialism we continually condemn has arisen in part in response to a lack of understanding of the ways in which the category of race was ignored within both feminist and socialist theory. Our criticism of cultural imperialism should be developed within the context of our understanding of the interrelations of class, race and gender. We should include a discussion of this any update of our “Comrades and sisters” pamphlet.
Finally, the AWL needs to assess the distinctive contribution that socialist feminism can make to re-building the women’s movement. It is not only our ideas and focus on the majority of working-class women that are valuable, it is also our conception of how to organise a mass movement. We need to discuss how best to engage with the disparate feminist groups that have recently sprung up around university campuses and autonomous social centres in order to convince them of the importance of a united and coordinated movement rooted in the labour movement. We need to develop a new set of demands and slogans applicable to the current situation and relevant to women as workers but also as beings with desires, aspirations and imaginations which can inform our wider struggle.
C. What’s changed and not changed for women since the end of “second wave” feminism - a summary
1. The workforce has been “feminised” in the advanced capitalist countries. Over a four or five decades the proportion of women entering waged work has increased. 47% of the waged workforce are now women. A very high proportion of adult women before retirement age are waged. Higher proportions of women in “developing countries” also work (where they can find work; it may be e.g. sweatshop work).
2. In the advanced capitalist countries there is more or less complete formal legal equality for women. This is unprecedented. There is now a great deal of inequality, in terms of civil/human rights, between women in advanced capitalist countries and other parts of the world e.g. the Middle East.
3. Women are now two fifths of the trade union membership. There has been a increase in the numbers of regional and national officials who are women (a good thing?). Women’s membership of unions is increasing faster than male membership.
4. Girls do systematically better than boys in school education.
5. In some parts there has been a feminisation of radical politics. Not of the revolutionary socialist left, but of the “anti-capitalist” movement.
6. The pay and income gaps between men and women are still very substantial.
7. Although the treatment of women by the police and criminal justice system on issues such as sexual and domestic violence has improved dramatically, these problems continue to blight women’s lives to a frightening degree and in many ways seem intractable (e.g. conviction rates for rape and sexual assault).
Part two: trends, debates and controversies today
A. Facts and figures
58 million people live in the UK. There are more boys than girls, slightly more women aged 16-64 and many more women than men aged over 65. There are 7 million families with dependent children. 5.2 million families are headed by couples, 1.6 million by a lone mother and 180,000 by a lone father.
Girls now do better than boys at school. 59.3% of girls and 49.2% of boys achieve 5 or more GCSEs/equivalent at grades A*-C. Girls do better than boys at A levels as well. However studies suggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, that girls find exams and schooling more stressful than boys.
There is still a great deal of gender segregation by subject at all levels of education, including vocational education such as apprenticeships. In higher education the smallest percentage of women are found in engineering subjects, the smallest percentage of men are found in education. But more women than men are now studying medicine/dentistry.
Women now make up 47% of the workforce. 74% of women aged 25-44 and 63% of women aged 45-64 are in employment. 80% of men of working age work – a decline over 30 years (from 90%). Eomen are much more likely to work part-time (42%). More men also work part-time (9%) than 30 years ago. More people, both men and women, have some flexible arrangement in their work (57% for women and 23% for men). This flexibility of course suits the bosses far more than either male or female workers.
Young men (24 and under) are slightly more likely to be unemployed (high for both genders). Young women are slightly more likely to be in education.
Non-white women and men are more likely to be unemployed. The highest single unemployment rate of any sector of the population (according to ILO counts which include all people who are actively seeking work) is found among women of Pakistani background (21.7%). The lowest employment rates are among women (and men) of Bangladeshi origin. Black Caribbean, Black African and Chinese women have very high full-time employment rates but also much above the average unemployment rates for all women. After Pakistani women the highest unemployment rates were among Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean, Black African and Chinese men.
Overall women’s unemployment rate is lower than men’s but women actively seeking work may be undercounted.
Demands on women as carers – mostly of children but also of sick and disabled adult relatives/spouses – remains the biggest single structuring factor behind patterns of female employment across all ethnic. Being a parent barely has an effect on male employment rates, but a dramatic effect on female employment rates. Overall female employment rates drop to 55% for women with children under 5. They rise again dramatically when children go to school but many more women than average are working part time (61%) until children go to secondary school. This pattern of employment – years of part-time employment – ensure that women who have children are very much poorer, as individuals, than men. And as this pattern of employment affects pensions it can mean life-long individual poverty. Although female poverty may be hidden by women sharing a partner’s income, it becomes relevant when women separate and divorce their partners and when they grow old.
The amount of improvement in pay differentials since the Equal Pay Act of 1975 are not great. In 2005 average hourly earnings for women working full-time were £11.67 and for men were £14.08 – a full-time gender pay gap of 17.1%. Since 1975 the full-time gender pay gap has decreased by 12 percentage points from 29.4%. But in part-time rates the pay differentials remain huge. Part-time women earned just £8.68 on average. Comparing this figure with male full-time earnings gives a part-time gender pay gap of 38.4%. In 1975 that gap was 41.6%. The part time gender pay gap has decreased by just three percentage points in over 30 years. It all adds up.
Comparing all women (workers, students, pensioners) to all men the mean total income for men was £408 a week. For women it was £227. That is a staggering income gap of 44%. The gap is widest in retirement where women’s mean weekly income is 47% less than men. Unequal pay – the stubborn persistence of low pay in certain areas of employment - has been perpetuated by the fragmentation of pay bargaining, contracting out/privatisation of public services and so on.
Part-time work and low paid work continues to coincide with occupational segregation. Male skilled “trades” are better paid than the (skilled) administrative and secretarial jobs where the largest group of women are to be found. With the exception of sports centres and food processing, much greater percentages of women are found in lower-paid jobs: receptionists, school assistants, shop workers, cleaners, supermarket cashiers, catering assistants, waitressing and bar work.
Some childcare facts
In 2004 the government introduced one of their 10 Year Plans, in this case for childcare. Before and since their stated aim was to:
Provide free part-time education for 3 year olds. (This is helpful to some parents as is it is effectively a part-subsidy).
Raise levels of provision in deprived areas
Provide childcare subsidies to working parents through the Tax Credit scheme.
The government’s plan is to get people into (low paid work), keeping them there and “prodding the market” into providing a sufficient number of childcare places to keep them there. Their target of getting 70% of lone parents into work (by cutting their benefits if necessary) is part of this plan.
Since 1999 the proportion of families using childcare has remained stable; but more children are in childcare for longer periods of time. The increase in childcare use has been greater for couples with children. More lone parents use childcare but the increase has been less than that for couples.
There has been an increase in childcare provision, in some types, greater increases than in others. Between 1997 and 2004 there has been a 134% increase in out of school/holiday scheme places; a 90% increase in private sector day nursery places; a 22% decrease in playgroups and a 24% decrease in childminder places.
Informal childcare (grannies, friends, unregistered childminders) is still incredibly important to many parents. One recent survey showed that 70% of working mothers use informal care, sometimes paying for it, sometimes in conjunction with formal care. There has been a rise in the number of nannies (now 100,000) who are not required to be registered.
Nannies on the other hand tend to be better paid then most other childcare workers (an average of £6.40 an hour).
There is according to the Day Care Trust a low awareness of Tax Credits. In any case parents who claim Child Credits tend to be claiming quite small amounts. (Because the more work you do the less credit you get, there is a disincentive to work longer hours etc; Tax Credits are creating something of a poverty trap for some working families).
Childcare is very expensive. According to the Day Care Trust:
In 2006 typical cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £152 a week in England, that's over £7900 a year; a rise of 6 per cent on 2005.
In some parts of the country, particularly London and the South East, the cost of a nursery place is much higher - typically £205 a week in inner London or £180 a week in the South East.
Typical costs for a full-time nursery place for a child under two in Scotland is £146 and £131 in Wales.
The typical cost of a full-time place with a childminder for a child under two in England and Scotland is £141 a week, over £7,300 a year. The typical cost in Wales is 135 a week.
The typical cost for an after school club is £38 for 15 hours a week in England and Scotland, and £34 in Wales.
Two thirds of Children’s Information Services in England responded that parents have reported a lack of affordable childcare in their area.
The typical weekly cost of a place for a child in a summer play scheme in 2006 was £77.34 a week.
The current average award through the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit is £49.80 a week. There is no extra help for parents with three or more children.
The typical family who uses childcare are a white couple family, or Afro-Caribbean (couple or single mum working full-time) living in an urban area, working quite a bit above the minimum wage and with children who are 2-4 years old.
The Plan is not working. It isn’t working for parents and it isn’t working for children (toddlers especially enjoy and learn a lot from good quality education/play in a group setting). It can’t work because childcare is very expensive, too expensive for people in low paid work even with tax credits (a maximum of 80% of cost is provided) patchy, and reliant on “the market”.
Above all childcare is too expensive. A 2005 survey showed that one third of parents think childcare is not affordable. Lone parents working for 16 hours or thereabouts on the minimum wage will be better off by just £34 a week – an amount soon lost by work-related costs.
The one thing the government will not do is create and/or massively expand free statutory childcare provision where the workers are paid decent wages (council nurseries, local authority regulated childminding networks, creches, playgroups, special needs provision etc etc etc).
Martin Thomas adds:
The quality of childcare provision is effected by the kind of provision available. A decline of public provision in the UK means a decline in standards.
Some knotty issues are raised by what’s happened in Australia.
There, successive governments, starting with Hawke-Keating 1983-96 but continuing with the Libs-Nats coalitions, have introduced an elaborate system of childcare subsidies for wage-working mothers. Result: a huge boom in nurseries (vast numbers of new ones built, [way beyond the expansion in the UK]) and a big increase in wage-working mothers.
However, an academic study showed very varying responses to all this.
Better off (upper working-class) women very much welcomed the subsidies. Worse-off (lower working-class) women detested them. Presumably they found it hard to get jobs that paid wages “worth the trouble” even with the subsidies. In any case, their stated view is that they wanted lower taxes and no subsidies, with the desired outcome that their husbands could take home enough pay for the women to stay at tome with their young kids.
What do we think of workplace creches? I think we shouldn’t favour them (too much like tied cottages). But for a part-time working parent, delivering the childrent to point A (public nursery), then getting to point B (work) then back to B and back to A again, may be just too hard.
B. What’s going on? – the “revived” young feminist movement
First of all it is not really a movement – rather a fragmented network of websites, small publications (such as Subtext and the e-zine F-Word) and little groups (such as East Midlands Fems and the London Feminist Network [Socialist Action]). The biggest annual event is FEM0(6-7 etc). This is not politically open, and the politics such as they are, are a weird blend of bourgeois-liberal and radical feminism.
There are next to no class politics (except through organisations such as the International Union of Sex Workers which are European anarchist influenced). Yet it is clear that there are many young women, not all in higher education, who want to fight sexism and are open to ideas.
The NUS Women’s Campaign follows the bourgeois-radical feminist trend. It has taken up the anti-lads mags campaign, banning them from University shops. The precise political orientation is unclear. Are they anti-sex? Some of them may be. They also reject the decriminalisation of sex work and the unionisation of sex workers. This campaigning is autonomous and incidental to NUS and student unions structures. It is also small.
Yet the success of Feminist Fightback and the ENS organised abortion demo shows there is a great potential to organise student and young women.
C. The labour movement
Women workers want and need:
• Better pay. Women are still concentrated in low-paid work, a combination of occupational segregation, recent attacks on pay and conditions (privatisation, contracting out) and part-time pay rates.
• Genuine “family-friendly” hours/rights, rather than the tokenistic, unpaid, at-the-discretion-of-your-employer crap which has been encouraged by New Labour.
• An end to sexual harrassment / discrimination at work
• Better maternity rights and better paternity rights for their partners too
But working-class women are also service users affected by attacks on the NHS and social services. Such attacks shift burden of caring back onto women. A big feature of New Labour social policy has been the demonisation of working-class families and mothers in particular who are responsible for “anti-social” youth etc. New welfare reforms contain a further attack on single mothers as well as the sick and disabled (as irresponsible/useless members of society).
We need to emphasise class divide on these social issues eg. Ruth Kelly can pay for her special-needs kid to go to a private school; most working-class mums can't
What will the unions do about these issues? What do the unions do about women?
As far as women’s representation in the unions goes, there is a spectrum with two bad ends. On the one hand, with a union like RMT, there are no women officers ever, only ever two women on National Executive; until recently, it was common to have men-only annual conferences. On the other hand, the elaborate structural guarantees of women’s representation in a union like Unison, mask the fact that there is little effective militant action, or even basic relevance, to the issues affecting women workers. Should we oppose these structural guarantees, advocate different ways of involving women in the union? We need to debate these issues.
The TUC is also heavily bureaucratised. There are lots of resolutions and very little action.
The unions chime in too much with what employers say about equality. It's almost as though they think they should form a united front with employers against backward workers. Even unions which claim to be against “partnership” are often in favour of “partnership” when it comes to equalities. We should explicitly call for unions to distinguish themselves from employers’ hypocritical bullshit on equality.
One of the AWL’s priorities should be to bring student/young women and labour movement/older women together. Women worker contacts would be impressed by the young women in our organisation; young/student women contacts would be impressed by the labour movement work we do, so we should put them in touch with each other! Such an approach would help ease the transition for student comrades into industrial work post-graduation.
We should have more coverage of workplace / labour movement issues in Women's Fightback; should get our trade union women speaking at student events, and our student women speaking at union branches; should ensure that educational events eg. socialist feminist dayschool are aimed at both student and worker contacts; etc.
D. Sex work: the approach of The International Union of Sex Workers
The IUSW was set up a few years ago by Ana Lopes and is recognised by the GMB. It has a number of demands including an end to all child labour, sexual abuse, rape and violence in the industry, a safe place to work, legal and health-care rights, and re-training for women wishing to leave the sex industry. Perhaps more controversially they also demand the decriminalisation of all sex work involving consenting adults, the right for migrants to work wherever they are (basically an end to immigration controls), and access to training in specialised skills required for sex work.
The AWL has worked closely with the IUSW in the past and, as well as supporting the right of all workers to unionised, also supports the basic demands listed above. This is in contrast with many radical feminists, almost all NGO working on women’s rights and sex industry issues, and other socialist organisations such as the Scottish Socialist Party and the LCR and LO in France.
By their own admission the IUSW still exists as an activist group rather than a mass union. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of its members work in the better off end of the industry (not on the streets), are educated, speak English and are often experienced activists. Currently their recruitment programme is unknown, although they are beginning English lessons for migrant sex workers with the long term aim of extended unionisation.
The IUSW attitude to trafficking is distinctive from other organisations working on this issue. They are that trafficked [defined as forced or indentured labour] women in the UK only account for a very small minority of sex workers, and, while strongly condemning its practice, also identify a degree of moral panic and ‘white slave’ mentality surrounding the press and the government’s attitude to the issue. They campaign for ‘trafficking’ to be treated as an issue of migrant labour and immigrants rights and condemn police deportations of sex workers and NGOs which work with the police.
The IUSW calls for decriminalisation rather than legalisation, on the grounds that the former will allow the police and the state to subject sex workers to further forms of state control of which there has been an unpleasant history (eg enforced sexual health checks under the Contagious Diseases Acts in the UK, state-run brothels etc). They believe existing laws are adequate to prosecute violent and exploitative pimps and that specific anti-pimping laws are unnecessary.
The IUSW maintains that fundamentally sex work is no different from any other form of work, and that under the right conditions and for the right person it can be a fulfilling job. In part this derives from its identity as a union (eg would Unison want to emphasise the degrading nature of, say, cleaning toilets, or champion the rights of the cleaners it organised to work with dignity?) However, the above statement also implies attitudes to sexuality which we might be more critical of.
The IUSW rightly condemns the idea that sex is something to be ashamed of or that any sexual practice or preference should be determined as better or worse (or less feminist) than another. Yet it is totally uncritical of all forms of (adult consenting) pornography, arguing that it can reduce sex crime, and it also maintains that sex work is to be praised for providing men with a “service” not provided in their relationships. Such comments implicitly endorse the notion of sex as a commodity, and of the male sex drive as “uncontrollable”, in need of constant servicing, and at the root of sex crime. A feminist critique of the pressure on women to be permanently sexually attractive and available, and of the ways in which the current sex industry endorses such a view, are not part of their programme.
E. Pornography and censorship
The discussion over whether or not to censor or ban different kinds of adult pornography remains a controversial discussion in feminist forums. It is also an important political issue. The government propose making the viewing and possession of violent pornography a criminal offence. In the AWL we have had some debate on these issues. There are some established areas of broad (if not 100%) agreement.
1. In principle we are for sexual freedom and the free availability and distribution of sexually explicit material by, for and of consenting adults.
2. We are against the state censorship of adult pornography. Even if we think some, most, or all available adult pornography is extremely sexist and objectionable (as many of us probably do) we do not support a ban as a means of countering the sexism.
3. We do not trust the state. It could use its banning powers to attack all sexually explicit material.
4. We do not support “censorship campaigns” aimed at removing from view mainstream pornography from bookshops and newsagents. We think these campaigns are counter-productive. On the other hand we are generally in favour of campaigns to remove porn (and other sexist material) from workplace walls as this is often a form of workplace bullying and can create an atmosphere in which sexual harassment is condoned or licensed.
5. We defend people who fall foul of censorship laws such as S&M networks.
6. We support the self-organisation of workers in the porn industry to improve their conditions. We are in favour of laws to protect the health and well-being of workers in this industry.
7. There remain a number or open questions and disagreements. Some of those issues are:
1. What is our critique of mainstream hestrosexual pornography? Are the representations necessarily more sexist than others in the media or even in literature and art? If they are more potently sexist, in what way is this expressed? If they promote a restrictive or stereotypical view of adult sexuality does it deserve our political condemnation.
2. What do we think about the fact that women enjoy/purchase/use pornography? Dupes or sexually liberated?
3. While there is no conclusive evidence that adults (adult men) who look at porn are more prone to sexual violence, does the debate end there? If there are provable links between violent fantasy and violent crime in some individuals are these significant enough to generalise from? What is the exact link (or lack of link) between fantasy and reality? Are all adults immune to the effects of violent images? Or are some adults (and adolescents) vulnerable to “suggestion”.
4. Is porn central or marginal to creating a culture of sexism? How sexist is our culture?
5. Is porn, or the growth of the pornographic industry in any way historically progressive? Do we defend porn against an anti-sex backlash. Or do we instead work for/talk about better sexually explicit material?
F. Abortion Rights
As right wing/religious politics have taken increasing hold, abortion rights (always limited, patchy and vulnerable to erosion) have come under attack around the world. UK anti-abortionists tend to take their lead from America. There some Christian fundamentalist/right wing bigots have had success. In South Dakota the state legislature banned all abortion rights, but were headed off by the hard work of pro-choice campaigners who managed to get a referendum and successful vote to keep abortion rights — at least on paper.
In the UK anti-abortionists attack time limits. The existing time limit of 24 weeks is now very vulnerable to attack. If they succeed in reducing the limit it will not just be an attack on the small number or women who need (and manage to get) a late abortion each year. It will probably further limit the general availability of NHS abortions and be a staging post to future attacks on limits.
The difficulty for the pro-choice campaign is that there is a good deal of confusion, ambiguity and ignorance about time limits, viability and the context for late abortions – even in the labour movement. This is not helped by news reports (some of it backed by so-called “experts”) about abortion being used as a means of contraception; the inferences being that too many young women are “slappers” who need to have their sexuality curbed and that having an abortion is a dirty, squalid business.
The AWL has always been involved in the campaign for abortion rights and in the recent past we have sought to take some initiative on the issue largely through the student movement. Our focus – as distinct from other groups – has to be on direct action (as opposed to polite lobbying) and building the campaign in the labour movement and fighting for better resources. We need to decide how to take our campaign forward.
In 2005-6 we had some discussion on the issue of whether or not we were in favour of some time limits as it had arisen informally among some comrades. After some discussion (see DB254) we agreed that as none of us were in favour of a cut in existing time limits and therefore the discussion had no immediate bearing on our campaigning activity. We should not have a “vote out” of the issue but continue a written discussion. In January 2006 the NC passed a policy on campaigning which is printed in full below.
Abortion rights motion on campaigning
Although the government has ruled out a review of UK abortion law for the time being, there is a lot of ferment over existing time limits. Medical practitioners, MPs and others
have suggested lowering the time limits to 20 weeks or lower.
This would be a disaster for the few thousand women who every year, for a number of different reasons, need a late abortion.
1. We are for the right to legal, safe abortions. We are for women’s rights to control over their own bodies.
2. We defend and fight to extend existing abortion provision.
In Britain today, our chief campaigning planks should be:
a) Against the winding-back of the existing abortion law;
b) For abortion on request;
c) For adequate UK-wide NHS provision to allow prompt attention to women requesting abortions. For the immediate extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland.
3. Alongside this campaign we fight for better social provision and economic equality:
a) More and better services for children and parents,
b) Better sexual education and availability of contraception,
c) Better support for women facing specific problems: e.g. threat of domestic violence, confronting strict family backgrounds.
4. We will publicise attacks on abortion rights, and resistance to them, across the world, particularly in the UK, Ireland and the US.
5. We will explain why some women need late abortions. We defend their right to obtain those abortions (which are already limited by lack of NHS provision, obstructive doctors, and the inability to pay for an abortion).
6. We will support affiliation etc to the Abortion Rights Campaign.
7. We should agitate within the broader abortion rights movement for a positive campaign for wider practical access to abortion, particularly for working-class women. This should include activities such as lobbies of local Primary Care Trusts and Health Authorities demanding an increase in facilities.
8. We should fight to get the labour movement to take up and lead the fight to defend abortion rights, as part of a wider campaign for reproductive health and women's equality.
9. In the student movement we will organise meetings and, where possible, lobbies of local MPs.
G. The hijbab
At the beginning of 2004 the AWL National Committee discussed and passed policy about the banning of the hijab in French high schools. That policy was subsequently agreed by an AWL AGM:
1. We oppose the hijab as a social mechanism of female subordination, and we oppose pressure on girls to wear the hijab. Our priority is to help and support secularists and leftists in the mainly-Muslim communities who fight that pressure.
2. We are for universal secular education. We should seek to launch a counter-campaign in Britain against faith schools, the intrusion of religion in ordinary state schools, and the toleration, in the name of multi-culturalism, of Muslim girls being excluded by parental pressure from parts of education.
3. We do not support the new French law. It will probably be counter-productive. It fails to allow the necessary space for dealing sensitively and respectfully with teenagers’ desires to experiment in dealing with the world around them.
The alternative AGM motion, discussion and background information is in DB242 downloadable from our website.
At our 2006 AGM a motion raising the issue again and arguing that it “was wrong for Marxists to oppose the ban on the veil in schools, which had in effect, been in place in French state schools” was debated. This motion was defeated and our 2004 policy re-confirmed.
A vote on policy was never going to be the end to political discussion on this issue. Social and political developments in UK society since 2004 mean there is a lot for us to discuss…
• Pressures on Muslim communities have intensified, especially since the London bombing of July 2005.
• Jack Straw’s comments on the niqab demonstrate indicate that Labour is (along with the Tories) taking a different tack on “multiculturalism”. What will this mean for Muslim women. What do we think about the niqab in schools (for students and teachers).
• We see an increased separating out along religious lines in the UK. The effects are not confined to Muslim communities, but here the differentiation has been most dramatic. The reasons are many: the decline of secular, left-wing “anti-racism”' encouragement by the government of faith schools and other forms of religious privilege (e.g. the religious hate law); the growth of all kinds of religious belief world-wide (Islam is only the fastest growing religion); the increasing popularity of “Muslim identity”, especially among young people; a rise to some prominence of political Islam in the UK — particularly the “mainstream”/”soft” political Islamism of the MCB leadership.
This then is the background and context for increasing pressure – no doubt a good deal of it self-directed — on Muslim girls and women to wear the hijab.
We need to think about and broaden out our knowledge about what the hijab – as simultaneously a form of social control and a politico-religious expression — means for Muslim women in the UK and Europe.
We should make available the work of Arab feminists (e.g. Nawal El Saadawi) who have analysed how female (and male) sexuality was historically regulated in Muslim societies.
Above all we should look for opportunities to positively champion women and women’s groups fighting for their rights here in the UK and in Muslim countries e.g. Iranian women struggles. There is a case for reviving a general campaign against all forms of religious fundamentalism and for women’s rights against fundamentalism. Can we play a role here?
Part 3. Our history
The Working Women’s Charter Campaign
The Working Women’s Charter was drawn up by the sub-committee of the London Trades Council in March 1974. At its height it had 27 groups in towns and cities across the UK and was supported by 12 national unions, 55 trade union branches, 37 trade councils and 85 other organizations; it also published a monthly newspaper. The driving force behind the WWCC was the International Marxist Group (British section of the Fourth International). The other organisations involved in the campaign were ourselves (then the International Communist League), Workers Power and the Communist Party (who wanted the WWCC groups to be sub-committees of the Trades Councils). The International Socialists (SWP) were totally disinterested.
The campaign attempted throughout the 1970s to support women in trade union disputes, most notably at TRICO (equal pay). It worked jointly with the London-based national nurseries campaign over the extension of nursery facilities and against cuts in local authority nurseries. The WWCC emphasised the importance of women pursuing their claims through direct action rather than by taking cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act - the preferred option by the trade union bureaucracy (Ford Dagenham).
The women (and some men) active around the Charter in the main regarded themselves as socialist feminists and saw the Charter as a way of taking feminist ideas into the trade union and labour movement.
Although the WWCC had the support of most of the large trade unions, this was on the whole mainly tokenistic. There were attempts made to build WWCC caucuses in the trade unions but the campaign failed to achieve this aim and the support for the Charter remained largely paper support. This was reinforced by those in the campaign, most notably the IMG, who had an orientation towards the leadership of the major unions and failed to see the importance of focusing on building up strong groups that could build links with local trade unionists and orientate towards the needs of working class women. As the local groups increasingly floundered and failed to find a focus for their activity, they fell into passive propagandising of the Charter’s demands.
There was also a split between the national committee of the Charter and the local groups who believed that those on the National Committee (dominated by the left organisations) were uninterested in the local groups and more interested in fighting among themselves and pushing their own particular perspectives on the future of the campaign. This was partly due to the fact that there was some in the campaign who had a somewhat anarchistic attitude towards organisation and were hostile to the left whatever they did. There was also criticism from many that the left had an obsession with employed women and did not take up issues that involved women in the community.
The high point of the campaign was a mass rally that was organized at Alexander Palace, North London ‘One Year On from the SDA – A Rally for Women’s Rights’. The rally failed to resolve the internal and external challenges facing the campaign, to work out how to integrate the local groups more into the national campaign, develop campaigns, both at work and in the community, how to involve working class women and build links with trade unionists (the ICL did argue for this). After the rally the national body instead concentrated on the need to amend the Charter and on the structure of the campaign. This resulted in yet more acrimony and suspicion and by about 1976(?) most of the local groups had dissolved.
Many of the Charter demands have become a reality, but the majority still have yet to be achieved and, of course, will not be achieved without a massive fight. For example, aim no 6 of the Charter fights for “improved provision of local authority day nurseries, free of charge, with extended hours to suit working mothers” – the privatisation of childcare has made this demand even less of a reality than it was in 1974. Many of the demands expressed in No 10 of the Charter (women and trade unions) have been taken up by trade unions, however in the context of a hollowed out movement, with low participation, these have mostly ended up benefited careerist elements in the trade union movement.
After the WWCC collapsed, the SWP launched Women’s Voice – but that’s another sorry story.
A working-class women’s movement
We developed this policy for the women’s movement of the 1970s. But we did not see this autonomous women’s movement as being a unique or one-off event under capitalism. We need to reaquaint ourselves with the policy! This is briefly how it goes…
As long as capitalism continues, as long as women’s specific oppression continues to be maintained and intrinsic to capitalist organisation, autonomous womens’ movements will emerge again and again.
We want such a movement to emerge because they will be a necessary part of the liberation of women. We cannot however will them into existence nor can we predict when they will emerge or precisely what they will look like.
When a mass or sizeable autonomous women’s movement emerges we should intervene constructively to build it, learn from it and orient it to the working class. There can be no effective women’s movement without connections into and leverage in the women’s movement. (Equally there can be no revitalised working class movement without women organising and asserting their rights).
We try to orient the women’s movement by arguing for a mass working-class based women’s movement.
This is how we described the policy in 1976:
“The focus on working class women expressed in ‘mass working-class-based women’s movement’ while being non-ultimatistic politically [it does not call for a “communist women’s movement, reference to a contemporary argument], does however contain our essential concerns and implicitly our central idea that the liberation of women and the class struggle of the proletariat are organically linked and inseparable. Agitation for such a movement will be possible and will bear fruit with wide layers of women who, while not accepting our basic conception, do recognise that working class women are the most oppressed and will recognise that a real women’s movement must reach the masses of women who happen to be also the most oppressed.”
We saw the slogan/policy as a transitional demand. And as a starting point for us argue for the organic link between women’s liberation and proletarian liberation. Indeed combining socialist propaganda with the demand (and organising as a women’s fraction) was an essential part of how the policy was argued for.
Started out in 1979 as women and working-class activists were pondering the lessons of the miserable 1974-9 Labour government and looking at how to fight the Thatcher government. Socialist Organiser, the forerunner of Workers’ Liberty/Solidarity, made an initiative to try to get a united front of labour movement and women’s groups against the Tory attacks on maternity pay rights.
The first conference of WF, sponsored by a wide range of labour and women’s organisations drew 500 women. The focus broadened out from maternity rights.
Women’s Fightback went on to produce a monthly newspaper, a Labour Party women’s newsletter, hold successful conferences, organise in the miners’ strike.
Women’s Fightback came at a time when many feminists were looking for longer-term strategies. The labour movement was a visible alternative focus — anti-cuts campaigns, strikes, rank and file revolt in the Labour Party. The decline of the Labour left after 1982 and the defeat of the miner’s strike sapped and narrowed WF. By the late 1980s it had become a much smaller campaign.
A resolution on AWL Women’s Work
1. We will undertake a programme of education in the group around the history, theory and politics of socialism and feminism/socialism-feminism over the next year. This will begin with the Socialist Feminist dayschool on 21 April. We will collate and make available on our website reading and background material related to our own history, record and programme on these issues.
2. We will propose and build other campaigning activity on abortion rights. This might be: some direct action, a dayschool (especially explaining the importance of the availability of late abortions), publicity material/downloadable leaflets etc.
3. We will help organise another Feminist Fightback conference later in 2007.
4. We will look for and keep under review other areas of work we could be involved in as a group – e.g. No Sweat work, international solidarity work.
We will continue to produce a Women’s Fightback supplement (approximately every two months) and use this to develop our theoretical and political knowledge and organise women interested in socialist-feminist ideas and the politics of the AWL.