Feminism is a double-edged sword for those fighting for women’s liberation, argues Lindsey German
I have mixed feelings about International Women’s Day, which falls this Thursday, March 8th. I love the fact that it was first established by socialist women at an international conference in 1910. They were inspired by a recent strike of New York garment workers led by the amazing Clara Lemlich, a young Yiddish speaking migrant worker. It was just seven years later that Russian women, demonstrating on IWD, sparked off the revolution which overthrew the Tsar. Today it is the occasion of demonstrations, strikes – including this year the UCU strike over pensions - and meetings. It helps raise awareness of issues concerning women’s oppression. All good.
But there is also the other side of this celebration of women’s rights and that is the sense in which it is adopted by those who don’t want to seriously challenge the status quo, but rather want more rights for a minority of women within the existing system. On this reading, IWD becomes about pampering and celebrating, rather than challenging, about climbing up the career ladder rather than fighting in solidarity with the vast majority of women. It therefore becomes the perfect vehicle for the women prime ministers and political leaders who are helping to worsen conditions for millions of women, or for the women managers, directors and vice-chancellors who are happy to trample on the conditions of those they employ.
Just as with the celebrations of women gaining the vote which we saw in January, the general message is that most of what women have fought for has now been achieved, and that we are working gradually to iron out the existing problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sexual harassment at work and elsewhere in society remains a major issue; women’s pay is consistently lower than men’s; the lowest paid occupations are all female dominated. In many ways the situation for women has got worse: far from having it all, they are expected to do it all in terms of both paid and unpaid work.
There was an old sexist saying that behind every successful man there is a woman. Today, behind every ‘successful’ woman there is another woman doing the work. Whenever I read an interview with a female politician or businesswoman, I look in vain for the question about whether they do their own cleaning, cooking, childcare, washing, ironing, shopping. Maybe the interviewers don’t think it worth asking, because they assume that an array of workers (usually women) are making these things happen.
These women certainly don’t embrace a sisterhood of all women – instead, they argue that it is possible to achieve if you work hard enough. If hard work were the criterion for success, then the cleaners and chid-carers would be millionaires, not the bankers.
The celebration of International Women’s Day was revived as a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s. Its articulation then was in terms of solidarity with strikers for equal pay, with women fighting for national liberation, with women rejecting stereotypes of marriage and motherhood. How has a strand of that movement transmuted into the kind of feminism which tells us to ‘lean in’ to deal with oppression, or that women’s rights can be guaranteed by military intervention?
The answer to that is the way in which our oppression is linked to the class system of exploitation which sees women’s paid and unpaid labour as central to its continuation. Second Wave feminism helped open the door for a minority of women to be junior partners in organising this exploitation, and a certain feminist ideology has been important in justifying this. But women’s liberation has come up against the structures of class society, and the only way that the majority can gain full equality is by challenging those structures and seeing the fight for liberation as part of the wider fight to overthrow them.
It doesn’t pay to be a woman
One of the growing scandals of the next month looks like being the disclosure of gender pay gap figures for big companies, due by April. So far there have been some embarrassing and shocking figures – likely to be reinforced when the vast majority of companies with over 250 employees publish. Most of them haven’t done so yet – the reason most likely being that their figures aren’t good so they would rather wait until the last minute and hope they won’t get noticed.
The nature of the work women do is a lot of the problem. Take the case of supermarket giant Tesco, which is threatened with legal action because it pays its, mainly male, warehouse staff more than its, mainly female, supermarket workers. The report of its gender pay gap figures overall shows a median gap of 8.7 per cent between hourly earnings of men and women. Tesco’s reason for this is fascinating: it’s because there are more men in senior management and because more men choose to work nights and weekend shifts.
All of this misses out two facts. The first is that the higher up society you go the more you encounter white men in positions of power. So it is accepted in the echelons of the civil service, big business and academia that the vast majority of those women beavering away on lower grades aren’t going to make it up the ladder. The substantial gender pay gap in banks like Barclays and RBS is partly down to the bonuses paid to male bankers. The second is that women overall work more hours a week than men, but they tend to work less paid hours, and more unpaid ones. This used to be called the double burden – that women’s work outside of paid employment is still a major feature of their lives.
Childcare and other caring responsibilities account for a lot of the reason why women are less likely to work nights or weekends (although of course many of them do). In addition, the majority of men and women work in employment which is mostly with other members of the same sex. So the gender pay gap for EasyJet is huge, and largely accounted for by the fact that nearly all its pilots are men and nearly all its cabin crew are women. The male-dominated occupations tend to be better paid. So there’s a structural problem here which is not being addressed – indeed, it may be worsened by restructuring and public sector cuts.
There’s a lot of evidence that the pay gap really kicks in when women have children (reaffirming the view that women’s oppression cannot be divorced from their biology). Which only underlines that the real solution to the problems facing women in employment has to be much more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen so far.
No Saudi prince on this of all days
The state visit of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia should really not be happening. This is a country with no democracy or human rights, with completely totalitarian monarchical rule, which treats women as inferior and which refuses to allow them to participate in public life. It is one of the biggest military spending states in the world, and a threat to peace in the Middle East. It is engaged in a murderous war in Yemen. None of this bothers the government of Theresa May or the royal family a jot, however, since British arms exports are dependent on the Saudis, and there are huge levels of Saudi investment in London. We will be demonstrating against bin Salman on Wednesday in London. His apologists claim he is a reformer who must be listened to. It might be worth asking which tactical genius decided that he should visit on International Women’s Day, given the denial of women’s political, social and economic rights in his country?
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Can Johnson gain politically from this crisis? – weekly briefing
- Straight talking honest politics - As It Happened book extract
- Tory arrogance is threatening our lives - weekly briefing
- World War 2: we weren’t all in it together
- Coronavirus, the market and who controls society? – weekly briefing
- Afghanistan is a prime example of why 'humanitarian intervention' is a lie
- Trouble at the top – weekly briefing