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Katherine Connelly looks at the struggle against women's oppression in this extract from Marxism and Women's Liberation

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Marxism and Women's Liberation, Katherine Connelly, Elaine Graham-Leigh, Feyzi Ismail and Lindsey German, Counterfire 2016

Struggles against women’s oppression have typically emerged at times when mass movements have threatened the power of the ruling elites and dreamed of organising society anew.

When the English Revolution ‘turned the world upside down’, and executed the king for treason against the people, women joined in the ferment of radical ideas, challenging the old restrictions by speaking in public, preaching at meetings, while those who aligned with the most democratic revolutionaries, the Levellers, partook in petitioning and demonstrations.

The French Revolution that began in 1789, in which crowds of ordinary women played a hugely important role, inspired Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft compared the useless, ornamental role which was socially expected of upper-class women to the illegitimate power of the aristocracy and called for women to be educated according to the revolutionary ideals of equality and reason. The revolutionary assault on tyranny provided Wollstonecraft with a language for resistance.

Likewise, the abolitionist movement against slavery informed the campaigners for women’s suffrage in America and Britain, whilst the militant suffragette movement coincided with campaigns for provision for the unemployed, for working-class representation and Irish self-determination.

In the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement named itself accordingly in reference to the influence of the proliferation of national liberation struggles against imperialism, from which it derived inspiration along with the civil rights movement in the United States and, particularly in Britain, the trade union movement.

Understanding the advances made for women’s rights in context enables us to see the systemic nature of women’s oppression; when the old order, with its old certainties and prejudices, are under attack and a different kind of society is being fought for, it is easier to imagine that we might be able to create a society without oppression. Conversely, at times when the status quo appears all-powerful, it is harder to imagine a different world, and oppression seems an inevitable, depressing and unchanging feature of society.

One of the important contributions that Marx and Engels made in their work on oppression, culminating in Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, was to provide a history of women’s oppression. By examining the ways that women’s oppression, and the role of the family, had changed over time and place according to the structure of society and the interests of its ruling elite, they demonstrated that oppression was not inevitable but was instead socially produced.

The nature of women’s oppression has even changed considerably according to the changing shape of capitalism. In the first half of the twentieth-century women were expected to give up work after getting married, pregnancy outside of marriage was widely stigmatised as morally shameful (for the woman), contraceptive methods unreliable and abortion illegal. By the end of the century, women were expected to work after marriage and, while the range of jobs that women were working has vastly increased from those of the mid-twentieth-century, women now disproportionately find themselves in low-wage jobs, at a time when neoliberal capitalism has made work far more insecure and trampled over hard-won workers’ rights. Today, attitudes to marriage and sex have changed enormously, allowing women greater freedom, but while in the past women’s sexuality was denied or castigated as shameful women today are subject to sexualised objectification which through entertainment, the media, the leisure activities targeted at women, and the “sell yourself ” jobs market seems to pervade and distort all aspects of women’s lives.

Oppression therefore plays a particular, systemic role in capitalism. Capitalism is a system that works in the interests of a small minority, by exploiting the many. Under capitalism most people have to sell their ability to work in exchange for a wage in order to live. However, the worker does not receive in payment the value of that work – manifestly not: some of the most valuable jobs (childcare, care for the elderly and sick, cleaning) are among the worst paid. The worker does not receive the value of what they produce because before the wage appears in the bank, the profit from it has been taken by the employer (the person who has not done the work). To maintain such gross inequality requires divisions to be imposed within the majority to prevent that majority from turning collectively on the power of the elite. One means of doing this is by forcing the majority to compete against each other for jobs. Oppression is another means.

Marx examined the way that oppression divided workers and diverted them from uniting against the class that was exploiting them when he wrote on the racist oppression of Irish people in nineteenth-century Britain:

“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

Marx explained that the propagation of anti-Irish racism not only enabled the exploiting class to intensify the exploitation of Irish workers by paying them less and treating them poorly, it also increased their power over English workers who blamed Irish workers for their lowered standard of living rather than the capitalist class.

Therefore, although oppression targets groups that cross class boundaries (women, black people, LGBT people, disabled people, etc.) and is often experienced individually, understanding that it is maintained by a system that relies and functions on inequality, on a society divided by exploiters and exploited, provides us with an insight into how to fight against oppression.

It means, for example, that although of course it is a consequence of racism and sexism that the top of society is dominated by rich, white men, getting individual women or black people to ‘lean in’ at the top, to manage the IMF, the EU or global corporations, is not going to solve the problem for the rest of us or indeed get rid of oppression. It is an ineffective kind of feminism that cares only who sits around the boardroom table but does not notice those who clean the boardroom and that they are likely to be low paid women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

However, it is precisely because oppression is experienced across the boundaries of social class, that movements against oppression are often divided between a focus on breaking down barriers at the top of society and challenging the oppressive structures of society itself. The militant suffragette movement at the beginning of the twentieth-century is a useful example of the implications of this division.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903, rapidly distanced itself from its radical origins as its leadership increasingly argued that women, no matter what their social position, had more in common with each other than with men of the same class. It was, however, impossible to remove class interests from a campaign waged in a bitterly class-divided society, and in practice it justified the rejection of all demands for wider social change, since these were primarily of interest to working women, and resulted in the marginalisation of working women from the campaign under the pretext that they could be (better) represented by their richer ‘sisters’.

The interests that dominated the campaign were starkly revealed with the outbreak of the First World War, when the leadership of the WSPU suspended their campaign for votes for women and instead pledged women’s support for the war effort, prioritising defence of the British Empire over women’s rights.

A thoroughly different approach was adopted by Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel’s younger sister and fellow militant suffragette. Far from marginalising working-class women, Sylvia Pankhurst organised primarily amongst working women in order to ensure that the struggle for the vote would translate into a struggle for the transformation of the vast majority of women’s lives, that winning the vote should not be an acceptance of women into the status quo but ought instead to represent an assault on poverty, low wages, dangerous working conditions, extortionate rents, poor housing and the discrimination that women faced every day.

She therefore also linked the struggle for votes for women with the huge contemporary movement termed the ‘Great Unrest’, in which workers across the country organised and struck to demand better pay, conditions and treatment at work. Indeed, Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled from the WSPU after she stood on a platform with, and pledged the solidarity of the suffragette movement to, victimised Irish trade unionists, Irish republicans and representatives of British labour organisations in 1913. Sylvia Pankhurst saw not only that these movements faced opposition and violence from the same government, but that working people, precisely because they did all the work in society, had the power to collectively bring the country to a standstill and that they had a shared interest in overcoming the divisions of racism, nationalism and sexism in order that this power could be realised and a fundamental transformation of society achieved.

As with the suffragette movement, the lesson of every struggle against oppression has been that relying upon an elite few to obtain powerful positions has never won fundamental change for the vast majority of people. The significant social changes, the triumphs over oppression, have been achieved when ordinary people have united to challenge that elite and the divisive system that they rely upon.

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Katherine Connelly

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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