Women’s movement in Australia

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Women’s movement in Australia

Today, women are faced with what seems to be a contradiction. The first
women’s liberation leaflet in Australia was distributed at a
demonstration against the Vietnam war in 1969. In October that year
Zelda D’Aprano and two other women chained themselves to the entrance to
the Arbitration Court in Melbourne. For the first time that Court found
in favour of equal pay for identical work. And in 1972 the Court ruled
in favour of one pay rate for workers under an award to prevent
employers continuing their evasion of equal pay by classifying jobs
women did as different from men’s.

Yet, thirty-two years later, Australian women working full time still
earn on average 85% of male earnings. And when all women are compared
with all men, the percentage is still only 66% because 70% of women work
part time. And the gap is increasing again. In the year May 1999 to May
2000, male earnings for full time ordinary time increased 5.1%, but
women’s only by 4%.

We have a plethora of anti-discrimination laws and equal employment
opportunity (EEO) is enshrined in legislation. Yet women remain
concentrated in the low paid, often part time jobs with few career
prospects. In the late nineties, in the Department of Education,
Employment and Training, 50% of employees were women. In the two lowest
levels, they made up 75%, but only 12% of management. A review of staff
at Griffith University in Brisbane revealed the same inequalities. In
1999, women were 52% of all staff, 35% of academic staff and 62% of
general staff. Yet women were over-represented in the lower
classifications in both the academic and general areas. Women made up
86% of general staff level one, 73% in level three, but only 45% of
level ten and 29% above level ten. They made up 55% of academic level A
positions, 38% of level B, 33% of level C, 20% of level D, and only 14%
of level E. When faculties were compared, the gender differences were
striking. Women academics made up 94% of staff in the school of Nursing,
but only 9% in Engineering, 23% in Science, 29% in International
Business and Politics. And this is a university that claims its
Affirmative Action program is working!

Thirty years after the sexual liberation movement burst onto the scene,
media commentators such as Bettina Arndt regularly campaign against the
right for single women to have children, single women are denied IVF in
some states, older women who choose to use IVF are vilified. Lesbian
women are still marginalised, portrayals of sex in popular culture
remain male centred and ignorant of women’s sexual pleasures. And the
Catholic Church continues to discriminate against lesbians and gay men
with impunity. Internationally, abortion rights remain tenuous with a
new campaign to defend women’s rights against the Bush administration in
the US, and in other countries it remains illegal. Women are still
openly treated as if they’re sex objects in advertising, in popular
culture and in a massively expanding sex industry.

Women’s right to work is widely accepted today – for instance there has
been no concerted campaign against married women’s right to work during
a decade and a half of mass unemployment. But it isn’t that simple. The
Howard government slashed funding to community childcare centres,
virtually making work for many low-income women an impossible option as
child care can eat up such a large percentage of their income it is not
worth it.

So was the women’s liberation movement worth the time and energy? In
spite of it all the answer should be a resounding «yes!». It was worth
every minute spent protesting, marching, writing leaflets, attending
meetings and raising hell. In the sixties, pregnant women were simply
expected to leave work with no access to maternity leave or pay.
Contraception was primitive and unreliable, and illegal, backyard
abortions were a nightmare waiting to happen, making sex a source of
anxiety and guilt. In 1961 women were only 25% of the workforce. Only
17% of married women between the ages of 25 and 34 and 21% of married
women 35 to 44 were in the paid workforce. In 1966 the participation
rate in the paid workforce by women was 36% compared with 84% of men. By
1994 women were 43% of the workforce and 53% of women aged 16–54 were in
paid work compared with 73% of men. However, the dramatic change was for
married women with 63% of married women aged 25–34 in paid work and 71%
aged 35 to 44. As late as the early sixties women were not able to serve
on juries, could not get a bank loan in their own right, and there was
no supporting parent’s benefit for women (or men for that matter) if a
partnership broke up until 1974. Divorce was a long drawn out, expensive
affair and there were no refuges where women could escape a violent
relationship until the 1980s.

So on the one hand, we have won significant gains, on the other women
remain oppressed. Like all social movements, it took militant, bold and
determined political actions to force reforms from the system. Without
the movement, women’s rights would be even fewer.

Even though we can win reforms, while capitalism continues to exist,
there will continue to be women’s oppression. Capitalism is a dynamic,
changing society and is able to absorb all manner of protests. Many of
the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement fitted with the needs of
the developed world fairly easily, as employers and governments drew in
millions of women to cope with labour shortages caused by the massive
boom. However, the fundamentals of the system did not change. Social
relations still rested on exploitation and oppression. The driving force
of society remained competition for profits for the minority who make up
the capitalist class, rather than human need. So while women’s increased
participation in the paid workforce was actually encouraged, it had to
be on the terms of capitalism. Employers and governments are not
interested in ensuring women work in an environment that fits with their
need to breast feed their child, or of families struggling to find the
time for long hours on the job and still carry the responsibilities in
the home. On the other hand, women’s oppression plays a vital role in
maintaining the system and the power of those who rule. So this minority
have a very real material interest in the perpetuation of sexism. That
is why ultimately we will need a revolution to completely overthrow
capitalism and build a new society in order to end women’s oppression.
In a society based on collective and democratic control of all wealth so
that human need can be the basis for social decisions, it would be
possible to organise work and the socialisation and care of children on
the basis of people’s needs. There would not be any social group who
could benefit from women’s oppression. Then women’s liberation will be

These are the themes of this pamphlet.

Why are women oppressed?

Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator of Karl Marx, showed that
women have been oppressed ever since the beginning of class society.
Using copious notes Marx had made throughout his lifetime trying to
understand why women were oppressed, in his path-breaking book The
Family, Private Property and the State, published in the 1880s, Engels
gave the first materialist explanation of women’s oppression. He argued
that with the rise of classes, the ruling class found it necessary to
control, for the first time in human history, women’s sexuality in order
to determine their heirs for the inheritance of property. The need to
control women of the upper classes led ultimately to ideas and laws
which, to be effective, had to apply to all women, and so established
the oppression of one half of humanity. So sexism and the kind of
discrimination against women we see everywhere today is deeply embedded
in social and cultural traditions which stretch back many centuries
before capitalism. However for the sake of brevity, this pamphlet will
only look at how women’s oppression is perpetuated under capitalism.

One of the main institutions of capitalism is the nuclear family – two
heterosexual people living with their children. In some cultures the
extended family continues, but it plays a similar role as the nuclear
family in perpetuating the gender stereotypes which are central to
women’s oppression. The stereotypes of man the protector, the provider,
and woman the caring, loving wife and mother dependent on the man and
devoted to her children underpin the treatment of women as sex objects,
the idea that women are by nature more passive and nurturing than men,
and provide a rationale for lower wages and fewer job opportunities.
From these stereotypes follows the oppression of lesbians and gay men,
but also the sexual oppression of heterosexual women. The emphasis on
monogamy and women’s role as child bearers lays the basis for the denial
of women’s sexual needs, and the idea that women are mere sex objects
for men’s pleasure.

The family promises a haven from the pressures of work, a refuge where
love is the driving force rather than competition and exploitation.
Unfortunately, the reality is nothing like the promise. Because the
family is not separate from and insulated from society. Men tend to earn
more, have more job opportunities, and their role in the paid workforce
is valued more highly than work done in the home. Therefore, the
relationship on which the family is based is from the very start
unequal. For the vast majority of families, the gender roles are
impossible to escape. Even if they would like the man to take time off
from paid work to play more of a role doing child care and housework,
most families cannot afford to sacrifice the wage of the higher earner.
In spite of the fact that more women work outside the home, and that
they are now 54% of university students in a country like Australia, the
gender stereotypes are being reinforced, not broken down. Even the
conservative Institute of Family Affairs has commented that with women
concentrated in part time work and men increasingly working longer
hours, even with the best of intentions, individual families find it
virtually impossible to challenge the stereotype of the woman taking
major responsibility for children.

This very real inequality in the family, caused by inequalities in the
workplace, is backed up by the derogatory way women are treated in
advertising, popular film, and literature. Men are encouraged to see
women as at best, passive objects of their desires, at worst, not worthy
of any respect or control over their bodies. They are also encouraged to
see their «masculinity» as strong, aggressive, domineering, stoic,
dismissive of sensitivity. Combine all of this with the tendency for
capitalism to turn everything into a commodity, sex is something for
sale, ie. prostitution, and so is something that can be taken by the
strong from the weak. So instead of a haven of love and rest, the family
is actually one of the most violent places for women to be. Most sexual
violence against women is by men they know in the family.

The reality of the workplace backs up the inequalities and violence in
the family. Women’s low pay makes it difficult to leave a loveless home,
making them dependent and emphasising men’s authority in the family. The
concentration of women in the lowest paid jobs means a lack of women who
exercise authority, reinforcing men’s sexist attitudes and reinforcing
women’s lack of confidence in their own worth. This affects every area
of our lives from the most public to the most intimate. Women who are
public figures are subjected to endless discussion by the media of their
dress sense and their appearance. Women who are aggressive and confident
are ridiculed or treated as threatening and domineering for the same
behaviour that is praised as «ambition» or «strength of character» in
men. In personal relationships, most women find it difficult to assert
their own desires. Research into women’s sexual activity found that a
majority of women in heterosexual relationships rarely experience
orgasm, not because they are «frigid» as the myth makers would have us
believe, but because they cannot bring themselves to tell their lovers
what they enjoy and need. The reason women gave for denying their own
pleasure is very revealing. Most instinctively knew that the man assumed
his role to be the initiator in all things sexual. To take away his
control would be to undermine his confidence, and threaten the whole
basis of their relationship.

The inequalities between women and men, while based in the social
situation of how capitalism organises work, are reflected in the way
women and men are socialised from birth. Studies have found that mothers
smile more at their male children when they’re active, such as using
building blocks, moving around, but smile more at their daughters when
they are quiet and passive. Parents tend to interrupt their daughters
more readily than their sons in conversation. Other studies show that
adults respond in radically different ways to a child in the same
circumstances, depending on whether they think they are male or female.
The gender stereotypes so central to women’s oppression are so much part
of the way we are socialised from the earliest age, discriminatory
behaviour towards women goes largely unnoticed. Research into the way
people communicate revealed that men initiate most topics of discussion,
interrupt others vastly more than women, and generally dominate social
situations. These learned responses begin with our earliest
communications with other human beings and are often treated as if they
are purely psychological, or even accepted as representative of women
and men’s different «natures». But they cannot be understood outside the
social circumstances that produce the inequalities between women and

These studies, while important in understanding how our socialisation
into the stereotypes works, and how women and men come to view
themselves and others in gendered ways, do not explain why women’s
oppression cannot be rooted out under capitalism. One way to understand
why is to look at who benefits from this state of affairs.

Who gains from women’s oppression?

Some feminists agree with Marxists that women’s oppression is centred in
the family. However, we disagree about who benefits from the family.
Heidi Hartmann, still widely read in universities, popularised the idea
that the family was the result of co-operation between ruling class and
working class men to force women to service men in the family:

It seems selfevident that men are the beneficiaries of women’s
oppression – that’s why it’s such a popular idea. The unequal
relationships between women and men in the family, the discrimination
against women in the workforce, plus prostitution, and sexism in
general, mean that men can buy sex, can coerce their wives, lord it over
the family, abrogate their responsibilities to their children, and yet
be praised for their masculinity. Women who build a career, or simply
take time away from the family are much more likely to be accused of
«neglecting the children».

However, capitalism is a society fundamentally divided by class, with a
tiny minority in power over the vast majority through their ownership
and control of the means of producing society’s wealth. It follows that
the ideas that dominate society are ideas propagated by that ruling
class and their supporters. You only have to think of who owns and
controls the mass media, who owns the publishing houses, who sets the
curricula in schools and universities. But fundamentally, it is those
who have the power over the right to work, wages and conditions, and the
provision of social services (or not) who create the material basis on
which the ideas flourish. It is employers, not «men» in general, who
fight to keep wages as low as possible. One way they do this is target
groups which can be paid less, or employed with fewer rights, such as
women (or migrants for example). It is employers and their managers who
hire and fire in a way that keeps women at the bottom of the ranks, who
deny maternity and paternity leave, who demand that men work long hours
of overtime to reduce their outlays on extra staff. It is governments
who refuse to provide quality child care for working class communities.
It has been government policies of both Labor in the eighties and early
nineties and the Coalition since 1996, combined with employers’ attacks
on working conditions that have made low paid, part time or casualised
work the norm for so many women. So it is those in power, both men and
women, who have created the circumstances that entrench the gender
stereotypes in the family.

The family is clearly not maintained and argued for in order to service
men. Since World War II, it has suited capitalists to employ married
women in ever increasing numbers. Did they ever consult working class
men about how that would affect the «services» to them? The whole
history of the family under capitalism shows that it was considered by
capitalists to be the best institution to feed, clothe and socialise
working class children at the lowest possible cost. The unpaid labour of
women (and to a lesser extent of men too) in the family saves the
capitalist state billions of dollars every year. That is why it is
governments, and not «men» in general who appeal to «family
responsibilities» to justify education fees, denial of a living wage to
unemployed youth, cuts to health care and appalling facilities for the
aged. While the system was booming, the welfare state could take over
some of the family’s responsibilities. Now that boom is long past, the
family can be called upon to fill the gaps left by cut backs to social
services. Of course, in many less developed countries, welfare has never
taken the burden from the family, which is why women take the brunt of
poverty in the third world.

However, while the central role of the family is to rear children and
provide a healthy workforce hopefully socialised into appropriate,
submissive behaviour, the family does provide a place where adult
workers aspire to rest, love, and recuperate from the dreariness of
work. It is to a large extent this dream that ensures the continuing
popularity of the ideal of the family even though increasing numbers of
marriages end in divorce and many homes are anything but restful and
loving. But it is the case that when it suits the needs of capitalism,
men can be torn from the family with no regard for their needs, unlike
children. For much of the early history of white Australia, men did
itinerant work separated from their wives and children. Men are sent off
to fight in wars, or in the Great Depression forced to roam the country
looking for work. Their need to be «serviced» did not entitle them to
remain in the family. Theories which argue as Hartmann did that all men
conspired to gain the services of women in the family cannot explain why
working class men accepted this treatment. If they could influence the
establishment of the family, surely they could insist they remain in it.

In the process of invasion and creation of a new capitalist state in
Australia, the middle and upper class people who argued for the family
recognised not just crude economic benefits in the family, but also its
importance as an institution that could help stabilise the colonies.
Some of them explicitly understood the important role it would play in
establishing ideologies and social behaviour that would be the bulwark
of their exploitative system. Caroline Chisholm was quite explicit about
it when she began her campaign to establish the working class family in
Australia in 1847:

Chisholm played a much more significant role than any working class man
in pushing women and men into the constraints of the nuclear family.
Leading feminists at the turn of the twentieth century «eulogised
motherhood». Feminist writers themselves such as Marilyn Lake have
documented how in fact, working class men resisted attempts to force
them to live the settled life of monogamous marriage.

It is still the case today that some middle class women play a more
important role in perpetuating women’s oppression than most men. Women
who lead the Right to Life, campaign against women’s right to abortion.
In the late nineties it was middle class women such as Leslie Cannold
and Drusilla Modjewska who led a campaign attacking pro-choice activists
for not considering the «moral» dilemmas involved in abortion, implying
they were wrong to support free safe abortion on demand, but should
support state controls over women’s right to choose. Pru Goward,
appointed as Sex Discrimination Commissioner in mid2001, well known
friend and supporter of John Howard, influential newspaper columnist,
and defender of big business, can hardly be expected to fight for the
rights and conditions that working class women need to combat their
oppression. Jocelyn Newman, Amanda Vanstone and Bronwyn Bishop preside
over areas such as social services, the legal system and aged care that
affect women’s lives. These women and others like them such as Labor
Party women parliamentarians who have supported economic rationalist
policies, have vastly more power over policies affecting women, than any
working class man. Bettina Arndt is well known for her attacks on single
mothers and support for the gender stereotypes, receiving wide publicity
in the media.

It can be shown that the sexism that permeates all of our lives creates
direct benefits to the capitalist class. They get cheaper labour to help
prop up profits than they would otherwise get, by paying women less and
subjecting them to generally worse conditions than if women’s rights
were recognised. Even ruling class women benefit from the oppression of
working class women as they too live off profits and employ cheap labour
to do their housework and child care. The family frees them of
responsibility to pay for the hours of work needed to rear children
ready to be a compliant workforce in the factories and offices which
generate the profits on which these ruling class women live.

However, there is another very important advantage which flows from the
sexism engendered by the family and inequalities at work. That is the
deep divisions it causes among workers. For workers to improve their
conditions, to win reforms, they need collective organisation and
struggle. Sexism (along with racism and homophobia) makes it more
difficult to build such struggles than it would otherwise be. If men
think women belong at home, they miss an opportunity to involve women in
the struggle where they are needed. If they are so used to telling
sexist jokes and denigrating women they make women feel unwelcome at a
strike meeting, on a picket or at a demonstration, they harm no one but
themselves and the women they offend. Because they make it much easier
for their bosses to win. If women feel less confident of their rights
they are less likely to join a union, or to join a picket. It does not
benefit working class men to have women workers, who could be fighters
in the unions, unorganised and under confident. It benefits their

So there are massive and obvious reasons why sexist ideas are
regenerated and propagated, no matter what reforms women may win. Those
who own and control the wealth of society also control the dominant

But if sexism is not in working class men’s interests, why do they
accept sexist ideas? The vast majority of us have little or no control
over the work we do, over what is produced, over who will be able to buy
what we produce, or how our workplace is organised. This lack of control
over a central part of our lives lays the basis for the idea that our
bosses are born to rule, or at the very least, that we are powerless to
do anything about their authority over us. And in the everyday run of
events this is to all intents and purposes true. The only way we can
challenge their rule is by banding together with others, a point we will
end with below.

Once the central idea justifying the exploitation by a minority of the
majority is established, rejecting any of the ideas that go along with
that is very difficult. The idea that women are weaker physically, that
they are naturally more caring and passive than men, rests on a certain
reality. The family demands that women play that role, their
conditioning ensures that most women are physically less strong than
men. Just as the dispossession of Indigenous people condemns them to
terrible living conditions and alienation, which breeds substance abuse,
which in turn seems to justify the racist stereotypes about them, so the
actual situation of women backs up the sexism.

It may be the case as some sociologists and psychologists argue that
denigrating those more oppressed gives the oppressed a sense of power. A
man who comes home from a dreadful, boring, dangerous job, tired and
frustrated with his lack of power may get some satisfaction from taking
it out on the woman with whom he lives, knowing it will be mostly
accepted as his right. But this behaviour does not actually give him any
real power. It simply reflects his powerlessness. That it is lack of
power, and not power itself that leads to sexism and ultimately sexual
abuse among ordinary people is reflected in the statistics of sexual
violence. It is well known that levels of sexual violence towards women
are high in Indigenous communities in Australia. Why? Precisely because
of the racist oppression of their communities, the loss of culture and
alienation, lack of jobs, discrimination by police and authorities which
increase the sense of powerlessness.

This is not to say that all sexual abuse of women stems from
powerlessness. Vast numbers of cases result from the power relationships
created by our class based, exploitative society. The power the churches
had over Indigenous children stolen from their families, or of
pastoralists over Indigenous women condemned to domestic labour and
sexual slavery on their properties until only a little over two decades
ago led to some of the most horrendous abuse recorded. In churches, the
hierarchy of clergy over their charges gives them the power to abuse
those in their care. The regular exposure of such violence emphasises
how integral sexual oppression is to capitalism. Sexual abuse by screws
is part of everyday life in jails. The power of employers and managers
in the workplace gives them particular licence to abuse women. In a
society in which those in authority can use their position with impunity
to use women and children as sex objects it is little wonder that those
who want to lash out against their own powerlessness and alienation
mimic the behaviour of those in power and accept the ideas that justify

The story so far is a sorry tale of oppression and division. And yet,
socialists are confident we can fight women’s oppression. Contrary to
the caricature of us promoted by many of our critics, we do not think we
have to wait around until after a revolution to make improvements in
women’s lives. It was socialists who were central to the Women’s
Liberation Movement of the 1970s. According to Ann Curthoys, a
participant in those heady days, «ideologically, at first, the socialist
tradition was dominant».

Because Socialist Alternative recognises the way sexism diminishes
women’s lives and the divisive role sexist ideas play in the working
class, it is imperative that we take a stand against it wherever we
experience sexism. We argue for men to take down sexist pictures of
women, we object to sexist jokes, we discourage those we work or live
with from using sexist language. We discuss the problems of sexism, and
how it affects even the left. We take steps to encourage women to play
leading roles in campaigns and organisations and defend their right to
defy the gender stereotypes. We encourage male activists and socialists
to gain an understanding of women’s oppression, how the gender divisions
disadvantage women and how to stand up to sexism. These are necessary
steps in order to ensure we are conscious of the effects of sexism in
everyday life and the way it can constrain women’s involvement in

But we know that it is out of the struggles for reforms that it is most
likely that masses of people can begin to challenge the horrible ideas
of capitalism and build the necessary organisation to make the
revolution. So we support efforts by women to redress their inequalities
in whatever way they can. We actively support and sometimes initiate
campaigns against right wing attacks on women such as Right to Life
marches, or John Howard and others’ attempts to deny single women access
to IVF.

As with all the effects of capitalism, it is in the fight for reforms
that a revolutionary movement will be built. And if in those struggles,
workers don’t overcome the divisions caused by sexism, racism and
homophobia there will be no successful socialist revolution. But how can
that happen, if the ideas of capitalism are so dominant, and so well

The most fundamental factor is the contradictions between the promises
of capitalism and the actual experience of ordinary people. On the one
hand there is the myth of equality before the law, the romantic idea of
everlasting love in monogamous marriage, the emphasis on our
«individuality» to name just a few. However the class divisions in
society and the fact that exploitation and oppression demean people
means these myths make a mockery of most people’s lives. There is a
popular idea that people will only fight back when their lives become
unbearable as a result of falling living standards. But the process by
which people resist is much more complex. Lack of power breeds lack of
confidence. But in the long post-war boom, rising living standards
actually raised levels of confidence. The fact of the boom moved people
to expect more from life than previous generations. But of course,
bosses and governments shared no such aspirations. But also, it
increasingly became evident that in spite of the boom, racism, and other
forms of oppression would not be wiped out without a fight. One of the
first signs of this recognition was the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
This in turn highlighted the need to struggle to others. For instance,
it was the US Civil Rights Movement that inspired mostly white, and one
black university student, Charles Perkins, to organise a «Freedom Ride»
from Sydney University around the outback NSW towns where antiAboriginal
racism was rife. This led to increased anti-racist activity. Again, the
Women’s Liberation Movement arose from the contradictions highlighted by
the boom. As women were pulled into the workforce in growing numbers, as
contraception became available, and more women entered tertiary
education, especially as teachers (pulled in by a shortage of teachers
in an expanding education system), the idea that they should be content
to be housewives and mothers began to come unstuck. It is not
insignificant that it was working class women, many of whom had been
influenced by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), that hit the
headlines in 1969 protesting over equal pay. Working alongside men,
catching public transport where they paid the same fares, but being paid
less, facing the problems of childcare while experiencing discrimination
at work drove an at first tiny minority to take a stand.

The boom led to workers expecting higher living standards, but facing
huge fines for their union every time they took industrial action
because of the anti-union laws of the right wing Menzies government. It
was no accident that in the same year women chained themselves to
buildings to demand equal pay, a million workers had taken action
earlier that year and successfully smashed the Penal Powers as the
anti-union laws were known. When one group shows that gains can be made,
and solidarity is possible, it gives others increased confidence. This
can be especially important in helping oppressed groups make their first
move. Out of this growing level of confidence and struggle in the late
sixties, the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), after many years of
struggle to unionise their industry and win safer working conditions,
took the lead in urban environmental campaigns to save historic working
class areas and parks around Sydney. Their campaign in turn inspired
environmentalists who took up their phrase «green bans» and applied it
to their movement. This all-male workforce became famous for their
support for women’s struggles, in particular, for the right of women to
work in the building industry. They inspired activists with their bans
at Macquarie University in defence of a gay student victimised because
of his sexuality. None of this was simply accidental or merely episodic.
It is the nature of class struggle to encourage ideas of solidarity.
Because workers find that on their own they come up against the power of
governments and bosses. Once solidarity has been won, the issues of new
supporters gain a new hearing and so on.

But it is not simply that issues link up in a linear way. Qualitative
changes become possible once the normality of everyday life and its
subservience is broken. In the turmoil of struggle, ideas which seem
settled and undisputed come up for grabs. Because once workers begin to
take some control over their lives, the sense of powerlessness is
weakened. This then provides the basis to examine long held beliefs.
There is nothing so encouraging than to win an argument with workers
organising a picket that women should participate against their doubts.
And it is not only men who accept sexist ideas about the role of women.
Well, perhaps more inspiring is to witness women (or any workers for
that matter) feeling their own power. One of my earliest political
experiences was a strike by textile workers at the Kortex factory in
Melbourne. Their joy when they turned back a truck from entering the
plant is something embedded in my memory that helps me keep going in the
lowest points of struggle.

There is no formula for how struggles will begin. The radical movements
of the sixties and seventies were underpinned by the contrast between
expectations fuelled by the economic boom and the reality of capitalism.
Sometimes it is because of bitterness stored up because of oppression,
or attacks on living standards by bosses and governments, which is the
driving force for the world wide new movement against corporatisation.

So socialists are on the lookout for opportunities to win people to the
idea that they can win reforms by fighting, rather than relying on
politicians or the benevolence of employers or the supposed neutrality
of the courts. In that sense, socialists don’t accept that to fight for
women’s liberation we always and everywhere have to be involved in
so-called «women’s issues». Strikes over wages, or the right to have a
union, can very easily lead to gains in consciousness which lessen the
sexism women have to endure. Activists who participated in the many
picket lines during the late eighties in Melbourne to defend the BLF,
who were facing deregistration by the Labor government, were struck by
the heightened awareness of and opposition to sexism among these
overwhelmingly male workers. Their years of militant industrial struggle
had led to political discussion, contact with the left and a
consciousness of oppression. Many young women activists who had not
experienced an industrial struggle were similarly surprised at the MUA
(Maritime Union of Australia) mass pickets in 1988 when thousands
mobilised to defend their union. At pickets where the overwhelming
majority were at times male, women commented that they did not feel
threatened. Sexist ideas such as expecting women not to be capable of
maintaining the picket lines in the event of a police attack were openly
argued against. Again, this was a combination of the immediate struggle
and its experience and a long history by waterside workers in political
and industrial campaigns which had created a layer of activists with an
understanding of the role of sexism and other oppressive ideas in
society, and how to fight them.

So struggle is central to building a movement that can unite women and
men in the fight against sexism. But socialists do not assume this is
automatic. Sexist ideas are strong and many varied. So being organised
as socialists, developing an understanding of sexism, where it stems
from, how to fight it is part and parcel of building on the
opportunities that emerge when struggles break out. The intervention of
activists to explicitly argue against sexism is still often needed. The
difference is, we can get a hearing that in «normal» times might seem
impossible. Because the need for solidarity can be stronger than the
commitment to the horrible ideas of capitalism.

There are those who argue that women need to be organised
«autonomously», otherwise their «issues» won’t be taken seriously, or
they won’t be able to participate as equals in the struggles. But this
ignores the very real class and therefore political divisions which
necessarily divide women. Unlike the divisions among workers caused by
sexism, these divisions cannot be overcome in any permanent way. Take
past women’s struggles. In the campaigns for women’s suffrage it was
common for middle and upper class women to only support property based
voting rights (which denied the vote to working class women and men) to
give them equal rights with men of their own class. It was only ever the
working class movement that consistently supported universal suffrage.
It might seem that all women can unite for abortion rights. However,
leaving aside the religious views of many women who will never support
that right, even women who want abortion rights don’t have the same
needs. So abortion campaigns have always been divided between more
middle class women who simply want legalised abortion and working class
women who need free, safe abortions on demand. And when it comes down to
it, ruling class women don’t need the right to work or equal pay, as
they live off profits as do the men of their class. So inevitably, all
women’s movements, including the Women’s Liberation Movement, while it
could raise slogans such as «women united will never be defeated» in its
first flush, were in the end torn apart by class differences which were
reflected in different political trends from the commitment to working
class struggle and unity of socialism to radical feminism which argued
that all men oppress all women, and therefore all women could unite, but
could not expect solidarity from men. The first signs of the shifts
occurring was the disappearance of «Liberation» from the name of the
movement. Janey Stone, a revolutionary socialist at the time and an
activist in the Women’s Liberation Movement, predicted where things were

Just as the radicalism of the early movement had been related to the
rising tide of radicalism and industrial action, so the increasing
dominance of the more right wing ideas of feminism accompanied the
retreats of the working class and other movements. These questions
matter, not because of some abstract shibboleth devised by socialists.
When activists embark on a program of struggle based on unachievable
goals – in this case, the hope that all women could unite – the
ultimate, predictable failure, leads many activists to demoralisation.
The disillusionment of many women committed to women’s rights is
palpable in student publications. In the Melbourne University women’s
student magazine, Judy’s Punch in 1995, one woman wrote that a march
against fees, organised from NOWSA (the national conference of women
students) was great until the cops attacked it. Then solidarity
collapsed. She expressed her disillusionment thus:

Yet we are expected to take the ideas of feminism seriously! Another
woman wrote that she had hoped that NOWSA would «pull feminism apart»,
analysing why the movement was in disarray. But she was disappointed
that it didn’t. It is important we learn the lessons from the last
Women’s Liberation Movement and the developments over the last decade
and a half, so that if the possibility of mass struggles for women’s
rights accompany the new anti-capitalist movement we may avoid some of
the pitfalls.

Out of the turmoil of debates in the last decade there are those who
agree that all women (ruling class and working class) cannot unite.
However, they argue that all left wing women should organise
«autonomously». However women with fundamental political differences
will come up against the same differences of principle that keep them in
different organisations. And they will find more in common on these
matters of principle with men with whom they agree. This argument, while
acknowledging class differences is still a concession to the idea that
our identity forms our politics, rather than experience and theory. If
any group of women has fundamental political agreement, they will be
most effective if they are organised together with men with the same
politics. The idea that women need a separate organisation is a
concession to the idea that men naturally and always will dominate, and
that women are incapable of playing a leading role in their own right in
organisations. Take for example the disagreements that have come up over
whether to oppose Right to Life Clubs on campus. Not all left wing women
agree on the tactics of demonstrating at their stalls and meetings. So
those who do, have a much stronger presence and ability to defeat the
pro-life clubs if they entail the solidarity of men who agree.

The socialist answer to the question «how can we win women’s liberation»
is to look to the traditions of collective struggle of the working
class. Not that other groups in society do not take up their own demands
and lead campaigns. The point is to see that linking these to those of
the working class is the way to build a movement capable of uniting
millions, and of forcing change. Marxists do not put this emphasis on
the working class because we think workers are somehow more virtuous,
good, or more deserving than others. It is because as a class united in
struggle, they have the power to defeat those in power, and ultimately,
to bring capitalism crashing down and to build a new society based on
collectivity out of the ruins. The dynamic in the workers’ movement is
in the opposite direction to what we have seen in the women’s movement.
At first, the old divisions can seem insuperable at times. But if
workers’ confidence continues and they continue to want to fight their
rulers, they have to begin to overcome ideas such as sexism, bringing
the oppressed into the struggle by raising their demands. In any case,
women are half the working class, whether they’re in paid work or not.
It is necessary to remind us of that because there is, even after the
unprecedented entry of women into the paid workforce, a stereotype of
the «worker» as male and blue collar. This caricature of the working
class lies behind the fear that the «working class» won’t fight for
«women’s issues». The working class today includes increasing numbers of
white collar workers, often university educated, who might think of
themselves as middle class, but nevertheless find themselves organising
unions like any other workers. Bank and finance workers are a good
example, leading militant struggles in countries such as South Korea in
the last decade.

There is nothing inevitable about the specific demands of women being
part of working class struggle, especially if it involves at first
mostly male workers. However, the need for unity, for involving as wide
a layer of workers as possible to gain the strength to defeat
governments and employers opens the way for old prejudices to be
smashed. That is one important reason for socialists to be organised,
and to have ideas about how to win the necessary arguments. Because it
is often the intervention of socialists into spontaneous struggles that
encourages these steps to be taken. If they are not taken, nine times
out of ten the struggle will fail because of its own divisions.

It is not accidental that surveys have shown that skilled male workers
often have the most progressive ideas about women’s rights – even than
most women. Because they are the section of the working class often with
the highest levels of unionisation, they learn the lessons of unity.

So the socialist answer to sexism is struggle. And fundamentally, to end
capitalism, struggle led by the working class who have the power to stop
production and therefore the capitalist system. In the first two years
of the twenty first century, the anti-capitalist movement has taken off
around the world marked by mass mobilisations against bodies such as the
World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank, or gatherings of
heads of governments. This movement has its own features and dynamic.
The tens of thousands who turn out to the mass mobilisations obviously
take heart from the fact that lots of different struggles come together
at them, that all kinds of issues can be raised, discussed and protested
about. Anger over sweatshop conditions has raised a pertinent women’s
issue. In this climate, the defensiveness of «autonomous» women’s
organisations is completely out of step with events. The mass protests
should be the focus of everyone who wants to fight sexism, and for
women’s liberation. In Porto Alegre at a mass mobilisation against the
World Economic Forum, unity between the 15–20,000 who protested on the
streets illustrated the potential for this new movement. The issues
raised included (apart from economic demands to deal with poverty)
opposition to US backing for corrupt military dictators in Latin
America, support for abortion rights, and a drag queen led a contingent
calling for Lesbian and Gay rights. At the May 1 protest in Melbourne in
2001, socialists were able to involve marchers in chanting slogans about
issues from Third World debt, to union rights, to Queer liberation. Tens
of thousands of women join with equal numbers of men at each and every
one of these mass protests, laying the basis for a movement which can
fundamentally challenge the very basis of women’s oppression. And that
is the existence of class society itself. For that, we need a movement
centred on the working class.

For only with the end to the underlying class divisions which make
sexism necessary and useful to the system will women’s liberation be

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