Less glass ceilings and more grassroots is the key to reviving the role of women’s liberation in our struggle, argues Lindsey German
One of the most cheering sights of the last week for me was the Glasgow equal pay strike, where 8000 public sector workers - employed in schools and in caring capacities across the city - stopped work for two days, picketed out male workers who then joined them in stopping work, and were last seen singing along and dancing to Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’.
The strike got a lot of publicity and support in the media. Good. But I surely can’t be the only person who feels incredulous that more than 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act and 50 years from the Ford Dagenham women machinists' strike, the position of women is so inferior in terms of pay. These are women in Glasgow who have been underpaid by successive councils - Labour then SNP - that see their work as valued less than refuse workers and street cleaners.
This is not unique. The publication of gender pay gaps in major enterprises earlier this year showed a systematic undervaluing of women’s work. This is true of supposedly liberal institutions such as the BBC and the universities - all of them committed to ideals of equality - who are happy to consistently pay women less. It’s at the top where we see the headlines of women celebrities denied equality. But this is an injustice which goes throughout the working class, and is a real cause of poverty and hardship for millions of women.
Why is there so little outrage about this injury? Because it is factored into capitalism and has been the tacit assumption underpinning the drawing of women into the workforce over the past few decades. These women have contributed hugely to the growth of neoliberal capitalism through their labour, but have been systematically denied equal pay.
So we have the ideology of equality - and then we have the reality. The other high profile story on women last week was, of course, the naming of Philip Green as the businessman who had used super-injunctions to stop public allegations of sexual abuse and racism. He apparently has been prepared to agree 7 figure settlements (i.e. over £1 million) with individuals over such claims. It is clear that the man who left BHS workers high and dry while maintaining his billionaire lifestyle is also prepared to behave in this despicable way.
Why is there such a gap between ideology and reality here? Partly because feminism has increasingly been interpreted as simply a question of individual identity rather than about mass collective change. This has written class out of the equation and has led to a rejection of any connection between women’s liberation and socialism. Partly also, is that women have increasingly divided on class lines. There are feminists who identify with neoliberal economics, who support wars and who are perfectly content to see the exploitation of their working class sisters. Their wealth allows them to employ others to carry out their domestic duties. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women struggle with exploitation at work and long hours of unpaid childcare and housework at home.
While class is included in discussions of intersectionality, it is usually consigned to an also-ran alongside gender and race, whereas it is the central factor influencing work, family and society. Neoliberal feminism was described by one socialist feminist as a solvent that helps to dissolve family traditions and ties, and has therefore encouraged many women in the developing world into work. They now find themselves part of a huge army of working class women internationally.
Their situation is one that the Dagenham women would recognise. Neoliberal capitalism has freed women to go into paid employment but what has it meant? They can’t earn a living wage in many cases, and still are stuck in ‘feminised’ low paid work, especially in the jobs which deal with caring for human beings, rather than machines. They still have to carry out huge amounts of unpaid labour in and around the family. Women still can’t wear what they want and they can’t be free of harassment. There’s one glaring truth: capitalism can break down many family structures but it can’t liberate women. That’s why it’s not just about gender but about social class.
What more will it take to stop selling the Saudis arms?
The Khashoggi killing is proving a major embarrassment for the Saudi kingdom. Official explanations for his disappearance have clearly been lies, and the more that is exposed, the more the evidence of guilt points to the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Demands that the British government should stop arms sales to Saudi have fallen on deaf ears. Tories queue up to tell us that we must continue these sales in order to retain influence with this barbaric regime. Similarly, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau have all reaffirmed that no serious sanction will be enforced against the Saudis - Macron has even said that calls to end arms sales are ‘populist demands’.
The Saudis are extremely well served by western governments and arms companies, and the country is now among the top military powers in the world. It plays a key strategic role in the Middle East especially in its opposition to Iran, which makes it an ally of the US and UK. It is waging brutal war in Yemen, aided by British military advisers, and is helping to exacerbate conditions of famine as a result of blockades and bombing.
One only has to think of the response to the Khashoggi killing if it were carried out in the consulate of a power less closely allied to the west. If this had happened in a Russian or Iranian consulate there would have been UN emergency resolutions, sanctions, and possibly even military intervention by now.
None of this is going to happen. Last March, Mohammed bin Salman visited London and we were told that he was a modern, reforming crown prince. He paid for a massive advertising campaign which featured his face grinning down on Londoners from posters all the way from Heathrow into central London. The message was subtly underlined by much of the British media and by the government. One of its slogans was ‘United kingdoms’. There may be red faces over this but it will take a mass movement to shift the huge vested interests which allow Saudi Arabia to act like it does. That has to start with a campaign to stop arms sales to Saudi, to end the war in Yemen and to isolate this regime.
The hate preachers behind far right terrorism
With the recent far right terrorist attacks in the US, sending pipe bombs to opponents of Trump and killing Jewish worshippers at a synagogue, isn’t it time that the authorities and the media woke up to the threat of fascist and extreme right terrorism? While for nearly two decades Islamic terrorism has been the main focus, the far right variety has resulted in many attacks, including attacks on the left, such as the murder of MP Jo Cox and the attack on a Norwegian socialist summer school by Anders Brevik.
That would, of course, mean targeting the preachers of hate. Step forward Donald Trump, who now has the cheek to complain about hate in US politics. Also Tommy Robinson, UKIP's Gerard Batten, Beatrix von Storch from the German AfD, Marine Le Pen, and Jair Bolsonaro who has just won the election in Brazil. The demonising of the left, of ethnic minorities and migrants, has reached epic proportions and is creating a climate where these acts can flourish. Another reason to march on the Unity demonstration against fascism and racism on 17 November.
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
- Starmer might look good next to Truss, but he has no answers to the crisis – weekly briefing
- This fight will take everything we’ve got – weekly briefing
- In the long run, the class struggle is king - weekly briefing
- The throne behind the power – weekly briefing
- Barbara Ehrenreich: a class act - obituary
- Ten reasons to prepare for a class war autumn – weekly briefing
- The stakes are at their highest for 40 years – weekly briefing