The 20th century is often called the American century because of the US’s advance during that time to become the single greatest power in the world - economically, industrially and militarily. The century’s story covers its rise and the beginning of its long slow and brutal decline. However, the 20th century could also be called the women’s century: the time when women came out of the doll’s house so brilliantly portrayed by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and into the public world.
Hester Eisenstein’s book portrays and comments on quite a lot of what women did in that century and on what they are doing now. She is very well placed to do so, being a US ‘professional feminist’ and academic. She was ‘poised to take advantage of the new feminist wave’ of the 1960s, coming from a middle class New York Jewish family. Born in 1940s, she describes how in the McCarthy period of the 1950s her family would not use the term ‘red’ or ‘communist’ even in the privacy of their own home.
She went to a women’s liberation meeting in 1969 and the ideas just ‘clicked’. She became an activist especially around women’s studies. A move to Australia in the 1980s saw her becoming a ‘femocrat’ in the state government of New South Wales. It was there that she first encountered the idea that feminists were being co-opted by national and local governments wanting to put a liberal veneer on cuts and neoliberal policies. Had they adapted to capitalism and what did that mean for women’s liberation?
The book is a return to this question and gives a fairly definitive answer: yes, but that means the ideas of feminism have to return to some of their roots, and have especially to integrate class and race if they are going to mean something more than a number of middle and upper class (mainly western) women gaining access to ‘power’ on the same basis as men. Eisenstein documents what globalisation means: growing inequality, attacks on welfare, weakening of trade unions, tax breaks for the rich and corporations, privatization and deregulation. So we have seen the emergence of huge attacks on the working class and the poor, on a world scale, while personal wealth rises and company profits roll in. She talks about growing financialisation and looks at its advance compared with traditional manufacturing industry.
Women’s increased labour outside the home, and the essential difference between the last few decades and previously is the big increase in married women working, which has gone hand in hand with a number of these changes. This means that women have entered the labour market at an even greater disadvantage than they might have done previously. Women have entered work when there has been a weakening of the unions, where pay and conditions have been under pressure, and where the ‘race to the bottom’ means international competition forcing work practices such as longer hours with less breaks and more shift work, constantly subject to assessment through targets and electronic monitoring.
Many ‘women’s jobs’ in services (and some historically in manufacturing such as making light electrical goods) fill a demand itself created by women going out to work or working longer and unsocial hours: childcare, restaurants, personal services, shop work and house cleaning. This in turn is a feature of the market replacing jobs or functions previously carried out within the family. So ‘caring’ and cleaning jobs are less likely to be unpaid labour and more likely themselves to be part of the process of commodification under capitalism. So women work for low wages in order to afford electrical appliances or takeaway food. Women from countries such as the Philippines or Sri Lanka leave their own children to move thousands of miles to look after other people’s children.
The increase in the number of servants in countries such as Britain and the US is a reflection of the way in which a minority of women have done very well out of globalisation and neoliberalism, part of what Eisenstein calls the ‘mainstreaming of feminism.’ She distinguishes between ‘labor feminism‘ which she dates as 1940-1960, and ‘mainstream feminism’ from the 60s onwards. Working class married women entered the labour force earlier, continuing from the war (where despite losing jobs in war industries women were rapidly re-employed often in services), whereas middle class married women entered later. These working class women campaigned over issues such as maternity leave, equal pay and childcare.
According to Eisenstein, ‘Activism among union women in the 1940s was one of the founding streams of the revived feminist movement that emerged in the 1960s, although the red scare buried these voices.’ But mainstream feminism buried this radicalism, accepting modern capitalism and only wanting to get women an entry into its decision making - a ‘bourgeois revolution for women’. Women entering work had the consequence of holding wages down, one of the traditional roles of a reserve army of labour according to Marx. Eisenstein argues that this served the interests of capital. Well, partly that is true, but it was also a major advance for women to be able to work. While she does not defend women’s dependence on men or the family wage, she argues that its effective abolition because of women working cannot be seen as a good thing because it results in an increase in exploitation for the whole working class.
In 21st century capitalism, as I wrote in Material Girls (2007), all members of the family including older children, students and pensioners are forced onto the labour market. But this also gives them an identity and a power as workers in order to organise and fight back. The fact that such resistance has not happened in places like Britain on a scale which we would like, does not alter this potential. The family wage was not a patriarchal conspiracy but rather a support mechanism for the whole working class family in periods where there seemed no viable alternative to women staying at home to care for the children, a point made variously by Jane Humphries and Johanna Brenner, and endorsed by Eisenstein. I have always agreed with this view but if the family wage has gone (and the truth is probably only a minority of the working class in Britain actually received a family wage) then we are going to have to fight all over again for a decent wage for all.
There are many other issues Eisenstein raises which are impossible to cover: the role of the sex industry in many of the developing countries, where she makes some very important points, the role of NGOs and the whole question of ‘development’. Her chapter on Islamophobia and the Global War on Terror contains some fine polemics against the new imperialists and their liberal and feminist apologists, who have done so much to justify this new imperialist war in a way that sees it as a civilizing mission against the supposedly backward Muslim world. She goes so far as to say that ‘I propose to add feminism to the constituent elements of the war on terror’ and that ‘mainstream feminism is essential to this war’. This is I think a little one sided: only a minority of feminists, it seems to me, are enthusiasts for this war and many left wing feminists are bitterly opposed to it. However, with the French parliament voting to ban the burqa in public, and proposing to fine women who contravene this ban, we can see how far feminism is being used to justify laws and prejudices which can only be racist and oppressive in their outcome.
Hester Eisenstein has written a genuinely thought provoking and interesting book. Her aim is to place class at the centre of her feminist analysis. That and her commitment to anti imperialism and anti racism means a wholesale rejection of the women managers, ministers and millionaires in favour of an identification with workers, the poor and oppressed. Which is a pretty good place to start when talking about feminism and women’s liberation for a new century.
Lindsey German is co-founder of A Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, which is available here. If you would like to form a local group or hold a meeting on this issue, please contact Elly on 07581418837.
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