In the run-up to the Women's Assembly, Penny Hicks argues that we need to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the 1970s women's movement
Do women have a voice in the People’s Assembly and so don’t need a separate one, or should separate organisation be built into the Assembly structure?
Inevitably the influence of capitalist society permeates behaviours in movements like the People’s Assembly and ensuring oppressed groups not only have a voice but are also listened to is critical to our success. The question is: what is the best way to achieve this?
When women come together to discuss and debate the issues that impact on our lives, inevitably these can become identified as ‘Women’s Issues'. In reality these are issues impact on women according to our class and our financial and family circumstances. Just one example might be the closure of state nurseries (remember them?) or withdrawal of funding from Sure Start centres.
The ‘option’ of expensive private nurseries partially supported by state funded childcare vouchers (sometimes called benefits!) prevent many women from working at all, or devastate family incomes and create a raft of ideological pressures around women’s role as mothers, carers and generally raising the next generation.
The scale and pain of the impact is not felt equally amongst women; it is determined by class. Kate Middleton may shop at Tesco or Top Shop but in reality is serviced by personal shoppers. She had her baby in Saint Mary’s NHS Trust hospital but had a private room with private consultants and shift rota of one to one childcare. The impact of austerity on her might just be... well I can't think what it could be!
So with this in mind, is too simplistic to say that because the impact of austerity is determined by our social position, we should only tackle it as a class, as men and women together? Whilst I would argue the most effective way to fight is with as many people on our side as possible, we do have to be clear about our purpose, our goals and what we are fighting for.
These ideas and thoughts need discussing, debating and challenging. I would love to see a new women's liberation charter emerge from the Assembly. The demands from the 70s for equal pay, equal job and education opportunities, 24-hour free child care, fee abortion and contraception, while still relevant, are of their time. Today's activists have plenty more to say.
This is where the Women’s Assembly comes in. Surely a new dynamic that can mobilise for real change can emerge by gathering together women who are leading and participating in activism outside the mainstream of politics, for example, in the student protests, the Stop the War Coalition, anti-bedroom tax and Sure Start campaigns, Reclaim the Night events with trade unionists and party political activists.
Women who have no experience of organising and are angry at the injustice of a society organised with women’s oppression at its root will bring new ideas and ways of giving the anti-austerity cause a voice. There lies the key. In a world where women are stereotyped and discriminated against, and where men dominate most aspects of society, we can create our own spaces and mechanisms to ensure barriers to participation can be overcome; being patient, listening, supportive and above all tolerant, in this way we can collectively articulate our common purpose and then move together to act on it.
There is, however, some historical experience that is worth considering. In the search to create the space I have described, a need to internalise and focus on personal and emotional relationships emerged as the dominant priority of the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Women-only groups, formed to examine our feelings and emotions, began to lead to a form of ‘lifestyle politics’ as an answer to dealing with oppression. The notion that sisterhood could override other differences, such as class, created irreconcilable conflict amongst ‘sisters’. The idea of women trying to build lives without men to escape oppression and seeing separatism as the way forward began to take hold. This bore little relevance to, and excluded, many women workers dealing with combining work (often low paid shifts), childcare, domestic violence and overcrowded homes.
Because society and its institutions are dominated by men, the logic went that it was pointless to take the state on, and if we did we would need to make sure it would be run by, or at least dominated by women. As Thatcher wreaked havoc, closing pits, causing mass unemployment and slashing the NHS, it was clear that women of means could protect themselves from these attacks and still focus on how to get into the boardroom.
Mainstream organisation of political parties and trades unions have had women's conferences and reserved seats on committees for many years. While these often marked the influence of feminism, and were a step forward from all-male committees, they are rarely liberating events, and some can be just as bureaucratic and dominated by confident and arrogant characters as mixed gender events.
They do provide a mechanism for women to speak and participate, and any forms of organisation that seek to extend the number of people that can participate should be actively encouraged and supported. But they are not an end in themselves. For example, in Manchester the Reclaim the Night event against violence against women is organised and will be led by women, but the call is clear for all genders to get involved and march together.
The Women’s Assembly needs to gather the largest and most diverse group of women that can identify and give voice to the horrific implications of austerity that are being lived (tragically in some cases not) day in and day out. We then need to go out and demand the biggest possible protests and actions involving all who share our concerns.
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