Women in rail and transport work in a male-dominated industry. The higher grades especially are dominated by men. In the areas with more women, such as catering or cleaning, the low wages reflect that these jobs are devalued as ‘women’s work’. We face sexist comments and sexual harassment, and when we challenge these, we are told we ‘can’t take a joke’. Domestic responsibilities still mainly fall to women, who perform a difficult balancing act between home and work life, getting little sympathy from management.
We live in a sexist world, surrounded by sexist media. We are made to care about how we look but denied confidence in our bodies or our sexuality by cosmetic industry marketing, which thrives on self-hate, or by sexist ‘morals’ that judge women’s sexual behaviour.
From Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, to honour killings, where adultery is punishable by death, women face oppression around the world.
Women’s oppression is not ‘natural’. It emerged as society divided into classes. Today’s capitalist society oppresses women, such as women sweatshop workers. Whether capitalism can be blamed for all aspects of women’s oppression is debatable, but it certainly exploits sexism.
Capitalists find it cheap and convenient to pay rock bottom wages for ‘women’s’ jobs in the cleaning, catering, caring and retail sectors – jobs that are considered ‘women’s work’ because they are modelled on the domestic work that women do for free. 70% of the minimum wage jobs in Britain are done by women. For women to be truly liberated, we need to challenge oppression within society and within capitalism.
Working-class women experience oppression in a different way from the rich. Historical examples tell us that working-class women need to fight our oppression in a different way. The Suffragettes, famously Emmeline Pankhurst, fought for votes for women. But it is less known that in East London Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia, was fighting for votes for working-class women, as part of the working-class movement. She despised her mother’s (and sister Christabel’s) middle-class elitism that only wanted women of property to have the vote.
If working women want freedom, we cannot rely on middle-class feminists to do it for us: we have to liberate ourselves. Some women’s idea of feminism is getting more women into the boardrooms of big business rather than liberating millions of women from the pressures of poverty. Satisfied with the ‘success’ they have won for themselves within capitalism, they have lost sight of the struggle for freedom for all.
Karl Marx said that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves’. This includes working-class women!
There are examples where women have shown courage and taken it into their own hands to fight their exploitation. The Grunwick Strike in 1976 was led by Asian women workers in a photo processing factory, sick of their terrible conditions of work. They struck for union recognition and the labour movement rallied around them. Women Against Pit Closures was formed during the Miners’ Strike of 1984. Determined not to leave the struggle to the men, women took their place on picket lines, to defend their families and communities against attacks designed to defeat the whole working class.
Women can win some advances under capitalism – life is better for most of us than it was for our grandmothers – but they only go so far. We have had equal pay legislation for three decades, but we still don’t have equal pay!
Since class society thrives on women’s oppression, to end that oppression we need to abolish class society. In other words, we need socialism. We do need feminism, but we need socialist feminism - a vision that sees women’s liberation as part and parcel of the labour movement’s fight to overturn capitalist class rule and replace it with a new system based on equality, democracy and collective control of society’s resources.
That is why women’s organisation within our trade unions is important: it makes it easier for women to get involved in the union, and ensures that women workers can raise issues relevant to us and demand action on those issues. If women feel excluded from our unions, then the working class is fighting with one hand tied behind us.
Some union members argue that women’s organising is divisive. But we believe that women’s organisation enables unity rather than weakening it.
Women’s liberation through socialism would mean a better world for all working-class people, women and men.