Women, class and revolution


A presentation given by Wellington Branch Member, Kassie Hartendorp on October 9th, 2012.

The general view circulating the Western world is that women have it all. Women’s oppression is a relic of the past; we have independence, freedom and lions (see picture) We forged our way out of the kitchen, paved our path up the career ladder and scaled the ivory tower. There’s no doubt that we’ve made tremendous gains, on the shoulders of our courageous forebears, yet something still doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s that glass ceiling that we find ourselves bumping our heads on in the workplace, it could be the harassment we encounter as we walk through our supposedly reclaimed streets, or the double shift we bear when we come home from work just to start our second unpaid job in the home. Maybe, your life seems pretty swell as an identified, independent woman; free of all of these pesky problems – I can’t speak for each of us individually. But I can point to a wider system of oppression, which continues to exist on a structural level despite our gains, our wins, our slow, but significant triumphs.

What does women’s oppression look like?

So what does the oppression of women look like in 2012? How does it manifest itself? Let me give a bit of background into the larger picture.

While women in the Western world are entering higher education in their droves, education is still an issue for a large number of women worldwide. On a global level, women account for two thirds of the world’s 774 million adult illiterates, with this being unchanged over the past two decades. Women have historically been actively barred from education, with major changes only happening within the past half a century. Even among those in higher education, women are still underrepresented in disciplines that offer the highest paying and highest status jobs.

In terms of work, women now make up a large percentage of the paid labour force in most countries. However, they are notably overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs, with men holding the most wealth, status, power and authority in their occupations. Horizontal and vertical job segregation has contributed to a global gender pay gap, which while is closing in some countries, still remains the same if not worse in others.

While women have increased in their participation in the paid workforce, they are still doing twice the amount of unpaid work as men are in all regions in the United Nations; resulting in a double burden of both paid work and family responsibilities.

According to UN gender reports women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of its food and earn a whopping 10% of its income. And they own just 1 percent of the world’s property.

Women still have little official influence and power when it comes to decision-making. In national parliaments, women make up only 17 percent of the total seats; only 7 of 150 elected Heads of State in the world are women, and 11 of the 192 Heads of Government.

In the private sector, women are beginning to make gains, but still, of the 500 largest corporations in the world, only 13 have a female CEO with many experiencing the glass ceiling that acts as a barrier to women wanting to rise through the ranks.

Statistics also indicate that universally, women are still subjected to violence, on a physical, sexual, psychological, and economic level. Many regions of the world still adhere to customs that beat, mutilate and kill women in ways that are dissimilar to how men are treated. Women are subjected to intimate violence in every single region of the world. In Aotearoa, 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence at the hand of a partner in their lifetime, while the Government continues to provide a lack of funding to offer support to survivors. Rape culture is still a rampant force that acts to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator, thus refusing to acknowledge the true issue of sexual violence.

According to the UN, “Poor infrastructure and housing conditions as well as natural hazards disproportionately affect women from the less developed regions in terms of unpaid work, health and survival.” More than half of rural households and about a quarter of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa lack easy access to drinking water, with women taking on this burden. In these cases, as Angela Davis says, clean water is literally a feminist issue.

In less developed regions, poverty is often a burden that affects women and girls the hardest, with women having lower proportions of cash income than men. Existing laws still restrict women’s access to land and other types of property in most countries in Africa and about half the countries in Asia.

While Beyonce’s singing that we all run the world, women have next to no control in terms of economic resources. In fact, we don’t even have control over our own bodies most of the time. Access to quality healthcare, abortion and contraception are still a major issue in many regions of the world. The right to abortion on request only exists in 29 percent of the world’s countries, and even among those, there are still rigid requirements for what a woman chooses to do with her body

This is just a snapshot of women’s status in the world today. This probably isn’t news to most of you here, but when we lay it out like this, we can stop thinking of our problems, however ‘first world’ they may seem, as isolated and individual phenomena, but rather underlying threads of a wider structural issue that permeates the far reaches of the globe, albeit in different ways. 

Patriarchy and the historic development of capitalism

The oppression of women on a global level is not a new phenomenon. Women have been subjected to violence, degradation and discrimination for centuries spanning across different civilisations, countries and cultures. This system has been understood by feminists as a result of the patriarchy; the set of ideas that asserts and maintains the dominance of men over women. It is largely attributed to the disproportionate and sometimes exclusive, passing down of leadership and power to men, creating with it, a complex web of beliefs that form expectations of women, leaving them confined in their choices and opportunities. You might have also heard the term; kyriarchy, which encompasses the wider system of oppression and domination, taking into account the intersectionality of different identities, as well as the class division. This means that, for instance, a black, disabled man is not seen to have the same privilege or tools to exert dominance over woman as a white, able-bodied man. This adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of how power works.

Marxism to an extent accepts the feminist critique that patriarchy or kyriarchy exists as a set of ideas of male domination over women, but takes this further by placing these ideas within a specific historical context and by analysing how capitalism utilises these ideas to enforce the material relations of domination of one class over another. Through this process, socialist feminists show how the fulfilment of the needs of women has become secondary and dependent to the needs of capital to return a profit.

Historically, Engels traced the real ‘defeat of the female sex’ to pre-capitalist societies, when monogamy became the norm, and wealth and property were passed down through the male members of the family.  Although the ideology of patriarchy has existed since pre-capitalist times, the modern form of patriarchy with its capitalist class basis only developed alongside the industrial revolution in Britain in the 18th Century.

The industrial revolution was not only a revolution of economics, but a revolution of social relationships, including how patriarchy became a tool of class domination.  Prior to the revolution, people across the world survived largely as a peasantry cultivating small plots of land and producing other commodities in their home, largely for personal use. A key part of the industrial revolution involved the creation of a working class ready able and ready to work in factories at wages below the level needed for subsistence. This required a process of forced removals from the lands. From 1760 to 1820 the enclosures in England did exactly that, village to village, often through force and bloodshed.

Once removed from the land and the modicum of security that it provided, the newly forming proletariat found itself possessing nothing but it’s ability to labour. Once dispossessed of their own means of production, women and women’s existences became dependent first and foremost on their labour power being immediately able to be turned into a commodity and to produce a profit.

Angela Davis explains that in North America in the early 18th century, colonial women were not known as ‘house keepers’ but rather, qualified workers within a home-based economy. Industrialisation meant that this work started moving from the home to the factory and as this shift took place, women were left without a significant role in the economy. The new goods made in factories were known for their exchange value, meaning that were produced specifically to trade on the market and make a profit – rather than, say, butter made at home to eat at the next meal. As Davis writes, “this difference in production revealed a fundamental structural separation between the domestic home economy and the profit-oriented economy of capitalism. Because housework does not generate a profit, domestic labor was naturally defined as an inferior form of work as compared to capitalist wage labor.”

Domestic Labour

Of course there is no easy solution in creating gender equality on a global level; however, the struggle of women is intrinsically linked to the struggle of the working class in general. Our current system, capitalism, is one based on production for profit rather than social need. I think this here is the crux of the issue. I’m going to use the example of unpaid work to illustrate my point:

Women are currently very active in the paid workforce, this we know. However, they often have the ‘double burden’ of working a full time or part time job, then coming home to shoulder the majority of domestic labour. As Lindsey German writes, under capitalism, women’s work is divided into two parts – domestic role as wives, mothers and carers; and the economic role as wage earners outside the home. These roles are bound up with the expectations of where a woman belongs in society, and have been linked back to the notion that their natural place is in the caregiving, nurturing space of the home.

What many people don’t realise, is that unpaid work makes up the majority of labour in Aotearoa. I’m talking about caregiving, grocery shopping, childcare and what Angela Davis refers to as the “invisible, repetitive, exhausting and uncreative” labour of housework. Over the course of a year, we do over 4.2 billion hours of unpaid work. If this is converted into full-time jobs of 40 hours a week, it equates to over two million jobs. Of the total hours spent on unpaid work, 2.7 billion are done by women and 1.5 billion by men. In NZ, women spend nearly twice the amount of time on unpaid work per day on average as men do, with the majority of women’s productive activities being unpaid. Women have been shown to do the majority of household care, childcare and the purchasing of goods and services. They are also more likely than men to care for others outside their own household with a large percentage of particularly Maori women performing this role. Women also spend more of their time in unpaid work such as formal volunteering. All of this is not just a national phenomenon; across all the countries in the OECD, women are recorded as doing more unpaid work than men.

For all the unwaged labour that women spend time doing, they rarely get acknowledged or valued for it. You don’t get paid to raise your children, rather you pay for it. If you scrub the grime from the shower, you don’t get a raise in your next performance review.  Domestic labour is seen as ‘unproductive’ by capitalism, in that it doesn’t directly make a profit, and is therefore not valued. Of course, workers see this labour as highly productive as we need it to maintain our families’ and our individual lives. Buying our groceries, cooking our meals and raising our children is socially necessary work whether or not it produces a profit for the capitalist class.

As such, the responsibility of this work has been pushed onto individual families, with women bearing the full brunt. Women do not have an eight hour work day, they have 12 hours of work, of which 4 is unpaid. Imagine if every employer had to pay to nurse, raise, cook and clean for every employee. It would bust the economy, hence why it is necessary to outsource these costs and duties to households, family and whanau and sometimes communities, hapu and iwi.

It isn’t just the immediate care of households that gets left to women, but also wider social needs, such as the care of family members who are ageing, have a disability, injury, illness or mental health experience. And anyone who has been a carer in this form knows that it can be a lot harder, sometimes physically and especially emotionally, than your average nine-to-five job. While we want to be able to care for our loved ones, we need to have the support structures in place that allow us to both perform these tasks and not have to worry about taking unpaid leave or having our other duties sacrificed.

Society has the means to be able to create solutions to most of these gaps, but capitalism is actually getting in the way of social progress. At the same time, these solutions are of course, not accessible to everyone. Most families can’t afford proper daycare, let alone maids or support services, or some weeks, even proper groceries. So, it is in fact, the poorest women who bear the full brunt of domestic labour, making this not just a feminist issue, but a class issue.

Under capitalism, advances in technology have already meant that the time we take to perform unpaid work has decreased. We have microwave ovens and convenience meals, express check outs and faster forms of transport. We have daycare centres, house cleaners, nannies and home help services. However, they have only been developed to the point to which they generate a profit.

The UN website talks about the crisis of water in less developed countries. They say it affects women and children the most, because they bear the burden of collecting water. “In some places, women have to walk nearly 10 kilometers to reach a water source. Girls drop out of school either because they have to help fetch water or because there aren’t adequate sanitary facilities in school toilets. Millions of school days are lost as a result.” We hear this all the time on emotionally manipulative UNICEF ads, but whenever I see them, I can’t help but wonder why we have to resort to band-aid fixes rather than deeper solutions. The technology to build the infrastructure to provide sanitary running water to these villages exists, it just is not a priority for capitalists. To this end, the independence, freedom and sometimes mere survival of women is at the behest of capital.

Even if production under capitalism has provided us with the technology to be able to create solutions to problems such as unpaid work, the control of that technology is still outside of the hands of the majority of people. It is not until we can properly control the means of production – our workplaces, our communities, our wider systems – in a democratic way that is for fulfilling social need, that we can fully tackle the gaps in society that are left to women’s responsibility.

So what is the real solution?

In 1896, socialist thinker, Clara Zetkin pointed out:

“Bourgeois society is not fundamentally opposed to the bourgeois women’s movement … the granting of political equality to women does not change the actual balance of power. The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian camp, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp.”

Merely allowing some women the means to control capital as individuals, will not achieve the equality of all women, or all people. Socialist feminists believe that a complete transformation of our society is needed in order to fully address women’s oppression.  This means linking up with other oppressed groups and mobilising to bring about real social change, that isn’t just voting for Labour or National every few years. It means addressing the economic and social relations that maintain women’s lesser status in society.

The feminist movement has played a huge part in changing the roles and expectations of women, but it cannot address the broader material underpinnings. This requires a move away from a programme exclusively focused on the domination of women by men, towards a programme based on the system of the production and fulfilment of social need. History since Otto von Bismark in the 1880s has shown that we cannot incrementally move piece-by-piece towards the fulfilment of the socialist program, but what is required is a complete break with capitalism.

German writes that the great disadvantage working class housewives in particular suffer, is that they are “atomised and cut off from participation in the collective action that can give the confidence to fight back against the system.” I think we need to be moving away from a model that upholds individual change over collective transformation. Women need to be linked up with other social movements to be heading towards the goal of creating a new system built on the basis of the production for the fulfilment of social need. Although this is, of course, easier said than done. Movements such as Occupy have had marginalising and alienating effects on those who do not fit within the majority identity, and there’s no doubt that it is a difficult fight just to be included within a left that often does not grasp many issues affecting minority groups. This means we need to form a strong socialist organisation that can stand with women and the oppressed within these broader struggles and movements, and form a framework to create change that works towards real liberation.


  1. Don Franks says:

    A strong and convincing explanation of why women’s liberation is indissolubly connected to socialist revolution.

    “I think we need to be moving away from a model that upholds individual change over collective transformation. Women need to be linked up with other social movements to be heading towards the goal of creating a new system built on the basis of the production for the fulfilment of social need”

    At the moment that idea is a seed beneath wintery ground.
    May it break through and flourish.

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