The fight for women’s liberation from capitalism is no joke - Elly Badcock explains why.
A woman walks into a bar…
…and is groped by a stranger whilst ordering a drink.
It’s not funny; not even a bit.
Try these for size. A woman walks into a university and walks out with a grade 12% lower than that of her male classmates because her essays weren't anonymously marked. A woman walks into her front room and is attacked by her violent partner. A woman walks into a job interview and straight back out to the dole queue. A woman walks into a bank and finds her pay is still less than her husband’s. A woman walks into a police station and leaves believing she deserved it. A woman walks into a low-paid precarious cleaning job and stays there for the rest of her life.
That's the reality of women's existence under modern capitalism. And no, it's not funny, or frivolous. It illustrates why, now more than ever, we need to tackle women's oppression head-on.
Today (8th March) is the 101st anniversary of International Women's Day (IWD). Tellingly, IWD was originally called International Working Women's Day - established by socialists to promote suffrage and equal rights for women worldwide. That it no longer includes a reference to the work - paid and unpaid - performed by women across the world is particularly painful given the glaring problems women are facing in a worldwide economic crisis.
Here in the UK, the austerity drive means nothing less than an all-out attack on every aspect of women's lives.
If we don't work we are part of the vile heap of jobless scroungers - popping out children in a never-ending stream to claim benefits barely enough to live on. We're taking money from hard-working, ambitious men and women and using it to finance a lavish life on the dole.
If we do work, of course, we do so in dire circumstances. Taking up the majority of low-paid work in this country, women's labour is thankless, tiresome and precarious. Germaine Greer may not have been right about everything, but she hit the nail on the head when she declared that 'women have always done the shit work; and work done by women in any great number inevitably becomes shit work'. Accordingly, women are paid shit wages for this ‘shit work’ – on average 14.9% less than men.
And even if women were to be paid equally and fairly for the work we do, we could hardly hold up women's current economic status as a cause for celebration. In real terms, working people's wages have remained stagnant over the past four decades. What this means is that a woman and her partner can look forward to earning a conjoined income equivalent to that of a single man's in the 1970s. Only the most hard-nosed capitalists could call that progress; it seems as if all we have achieved is the right to be equally economically exploited.
The tragedy is that women being allowed into the labour market, and receiving equal remuneration for their work, was supposed to usher in a new era where women didn't have to remain in abusive and unsatisfactory relationships for economic reasons. The fact that two people earning an average income - £17,000 a year - will struggle to cover rent, bills and food for a family makes that idea laughable.
It's not just the stark economic reality that hangs ominously over women's heads, either. Our oppression is intricately bound up with our bodies. 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and the vast majority of these assaults will be committed by someone known to the victim. However, women are repeatedly warned of ‘stranger danger’, of the recklessness of wearing 'revealing' clothing. We’re told to walk home with a strong man, to avoid dodgy minicabs, to take self-defence classes. This means creating a culture of fear that stretches from the bedroom to the boardroom down a badly-lit back alley.
But women who wear short skirts are not the only ones under fire from Britain's very own morality police. Women who dare to cover up are equal targets of a society obsessed with skin. Theorist Kelly Oliver penned the phrase 'the right to bare arms'; the idea that sexual emancipation can be defined by the amount of skin you can show. Debates in Britain, and changes to the law in France, mean that women live in a climate of body policing whatever they wear, and wherever they go.
Our skin, our sex, our purses - every aspect of women's lives is seemingly governed and controlled.
The position of women in society speaks volumes about the priorities of a society based on profit rather than need; and it should also give us cause to think closely about the strategy needed to change it. It's clear today, as it has been for centuries, that women's fortunes are inextricably bound up with their class. Although women of all classes do suffer rape and abuse, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who are dismissed or assumed to be inviting it; the sex workers, the illegal immigrants, the young women growing up on inner-city council estates.
It is always those who live life closest to drudgery, alienation and exploitation that sense the need for a better tomorrow. The women who have spent decades not only performing society’s most undervalued paid work, but the labour of care as well, understand the most why we need to reshape society. They understand because it’s impossible to fully comprehend the need to break out of a filthy, stinking cage until you've spent a life locked inside it.
Marx predicted that revolution will happen when the oppressed cannot continue to live under the old conditions. In revolutions across the world, from Russia to Egypt, it has been women who have directed and led, fought and died, precisely because their experience of oppression is so raw and painful that they have no other choice but to forge a new society free of exploitation.
We can’t fight sexism without fighting the class system that keeps us imprisoned; but fighting a class war without women is meaningless.
This International Women's Day, we have a choice. Do we continue to live under conditions of war, sexism, rape, assault, exploitation and bleakness? Or do we join with those who have been made to suffer as we have suffered and imagine a future based on human need? There has never been a better time than now to make that change.