There are a whole rake of questions thrown up by the issue of womens' liberation, among the mainstream press the big issue is has womens' liberation been achieved, are we in a 'post feminist world'? Beyond these basics there are other questions, why are women oppressed? What are the mechanisms that cause our oppression, what are factors that continue it, how can womens' liberation be achieved. Do all men gain from womens' oppression?
Women can vote, can serve as jurors, judges, TD's or Taoiseach. Equal pay is protected under legislation. We have certain rights to maternity leave. We have equal access to education, we can study honours maths and physics at school, we can become engineers and are encouraged to take FAS courses in electronics. There is EC grant money aimed at women setting up in business. The Civil Service marriage bar was abolished in 1972. Contraception is more readily available. There are radio programmes, feature articles, government ministers and Oireachtas bodies specifically aimed at womens' affairs. Most sport clubs are open to women. We can hold property in our own right, we don't need our husbands permission to get a bank loan, we are allowed into pubs and can drink pints.
In other words, a lot of the institutionalised oppression that women such as my mother would have argued against in the 1960's has disappeared.
Yet it is also obvious that women are still far from equal. For the majority of us, our right to choose the way of life we wish to lead is as limited as it has always been. Rather than being liberated, we are still tied by virtue of our poor wage earning abilities to the home and family. A study recently published in Fortune magazine indicated that the leading occupations for women in 1990 weren't so different from the top jobs for 1940 (see table). The average hourly earnings of woman are still 68% of those of men. In hard cash terms, men earn on average, £1.83 more per hour than women do.
Fortune Magazine Table.
1. Secretary 1. Servant
2. Cashier 2. Secretary
3. Bookkeeper 3. Teacher
4. Nurse 4. Clerical worker
5. Nursing aide 5. Sales worker
6. Teacher 6. Factory worker
7. Waitress 7. Bookkeeper
8. Sales Worker 8. Waitress
9. Child care 9. Housekeeper
10. Cook 10. Nurse
Women workers are concentrated at the lower end of the work scale. Very few women are high court judges, on boards of banks or prime-minister, and when they are it hasn't seemed to make much difference to the rest of this.
Why is this the case. This is the six million dollar question, because the answer to it will influence how you struggle against womens' oppression. The Right either says that womens' oppression doesn't exist which means the status quo should stay the same. Or that women are only lowly paid because they haven't the gumption, drive and get up and go required to make to the top, i.e. women are oppressed because women keep themselves down. Therefore the status quo stays the same and women are encouraged to think positively.
However, for centuries men and women have been struggling for womens' liberation. Liberation meant different things to different people, some wanted the votes for women at the same level for men, some wanted a more fundamental universal suffrage, some wanted to fundamentally change the system.
At the moment there are two main analyses of why women are oppressed, there is the socialist and the feminist. These theories attempt to outline the mechanism through which women are oppressed. Each theory points to different conclusions on what needs to be done to obtain womens' liberation.
Feminist analysis starts from the point womens' oppression evolves from patriarchy. What exactly patriarchy means is difficult to define. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics in 1971 defines a patriarchal government to be an institution whereby half the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male. Marilyn French defines patriarchy as a system in which men installed a system of power through which they rule over women. Patriarchy is also defined as a society that is run in the interests on men, dominated by male values and ideas etc. Secondly therefore as a result of patriarchy all women are a common class separate from men. They are all oppressed by patriarchy and to overcome it must unite together.
The socialist analysis is that women are not oppressed by a class of men but rather it is the existence of class society, whether feudal or capitalist that ensures that women remain oppressed. They are kept in an inferior position by the bosses, whether kings, queens, prime-ministers or industrialists, that maintain that system. Not all women want to get rid of class society as some, for example the British queen, benefit so much that they can buy out off most of the oppression that other women suffer from. Therefore there is no sex class of women united against patriarchy. The only class with the power and the motivation to fundamentally change the system is the working class and therefore women committed to womens' liberation should unite with the working class to fight for socialism.
The key issue that both strands are trying to address is why, why are women oppressed.
Socialist ague that there is a material basis for womens' oppression. That is sexism is not natural, it is not inherent in society however it is fostered and encouraged through the family and through the position of women in the labour market.
I'll briefly explain how the theory goes. When a society is run under capitalism the driving force that influences everything is the need to make a profit. Of the things necessary to do this the most important is workforce. Before the rise of capitalism society was based around a system of slaves/serfs and kings or lords. The problem with slaves or serfs is that the owner must provide food, heath care and pensions, i.e. maintain the slave at a cost for those times when he is not being productive. A much more cost efficient way to keep a workforce is through the nuclear family. In this scenario, it is up to the family to provide itself with food, shelter, healthcare, look after the elderly and young (who will provide the next crop of workers). Within the family unit, for reasons I will soon explain it is normally the women that fulfils the functions of housekeeper, nurse, childminder and cook.
There are two knock on effects of women staying a home minding the family. Firstly they are not financially independent. They do not earn any money and are dependant on income received from their partners. Because nobody gets paid for rearing a family it's status as an occupation is at the bottom of the ladder and because women are dependant financially for money on their husband it means they in the past have had less input into the decisions affecting the family resulting in no input into the decisions affecting society. A woman's place was in the home. A second effect of womens position in the family is that they are often isolated from each other and from society in general. Unlike a worker they have little opportunity of meeting, sharing experiences, they on their own have little power to change the conditions they find themselves in.
The family is a trap for women today as much as for women at the beginning of the industrial revolution. As mentioned above, women are paid on average 2/3 of the wage that men are paid, so within any partnership it obviously makes more sense for the woman to undertake responsibility for care of the children. It is for this reason, common sense rather than sexism, that the vast majority of part time workers are women, juggling two jobs at the same time.
Having said that, why is it that women are among the lower paid in society. Is it necessary for capitalism to exploit women workers. The simple answer to that is sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. The only important difference between a male and female worker is that the female has the potential to get pregnant, that is the potential to want maternity leave and need creche facilities, in other words they are slightly more expensive to employ than men. So when women are asked (illegally) at job interviews if they intend to marry, such discrimination has a material basis. An employer isn't interested in the good of society at large but in obtaining the cheapest most reliable workforce possible. Historically women have been encouraged to work and accommodated when it suited capitalism. When there was either a shortage of male labour due to war as during the 1st and 2nd World Wars or an expansion of industry as in the dawn of the industrial revolution or the sixties. When times are tough, when recession sets in women are encouraged back into the family.
As mentioned above, the conclusion for most socialists is that womens' liberation can only be lastingly obtained with the overthrow of capitalism. This is not to say that reforms should not be fought for at the moment, but to recognise that many gains will be short term ones until capitalism is defeated.
Feminist theory argues on the other hand that sexism is a result of male values of aggression and dominance. Kate Millet would argue that this difference is the result of conditioning and cultural forces. While many would agree that the family is a trap, most reject the idea that the existence of class society is an important factor. This analysis rose out of the experience of women involved in struggle.
The British Survey of Social Attitudes found that the provision of child care was one of the impediments preventing women from working. Their conclusion was that "in they absence of changes in men's attitudes, or working hours outside the home or in their contribution within the family it seems unlikely that even a greater availability of child care outside the home would alter domestic arrangements greatly. Without these changes, it is conceivable that many useful forms of work flexibility that might be offered to women such as job sharing, career breaks special sick leave or term time working might re-inforce rather than mitigate the formidable level of occupational segregation based on gender, to womens' longer-term disadvantage."
The authors of the survey identify that as long as responsibility for childcare rests with the women they will remain trapped in the family. They also point out that concessions in the world of work to women often result in women being pigeonholed into less well paid jobs, this already happens in regard to part time workers who are paid a lower equivalent wage than full time workers. They point out that men have to square up to their responsibility as fathers. The key they emphasise is a change in mens' attitudes. However what was not mentioned however is that no matter how attitudes change, men are as powerless as individuals in regard to their working conditions as women are. With all the good will in the world they cannot change their employer/employee relationship, they cannot adjust their working hours to suit childcare just as women cannot. A more fundamental conclusion would be that society at the moment, capitalism does not want to accommodate any of the problems of childcare rather leaving it up to the individual to make their own arrangements as best as they can.
This brings me on to a problem of feminist analysis in that when it addresses issues such as men and women it ignores the issue of class, assuming that all men have more power over all women. At all levels the conclusion is to argue that what is required to change society is that women participate on an equal basis in society at the moment. Of course we would agree that we should assert our right to liberation, but this in itself is not going to change society.
Ignoring the existence of class leads to very muddled politics. In the sixties women believed they could enter the job market, they strove to compete on an equal basis. Now women are being forced back into the home by the difficulties of trying to work and care for a family. Those who said society would change when there were more women workers, more women managers and politicians are now saying what were we trying to prove, arguing that women are naturally the carers, a large percentage of feminist literature is about womens' role as mothers, about women as being close to nature, why were we trying to be superwomen, why should we feel guilty about wanting to stay at home and mind the family rather than go out to work. The experience has been that it is very difficult to work and have a family. Rather than realising that this is because we are cogs operating within a capitalist system, those feminists have been forced to find some other reason for their failure, falling back I think on ideas that would have been rejected in the sixties as reactionary.
Betty Friedman a bourgeois feminist argued in the sixties that when a women was clever or bright her discoveries were put down to womens' intuition rather that intelligence. Saying that women reached a conclusion through intuition rather through reason implied that women could not be logical and could not reason. Yet today there are feminists who would argue just that, that women are more mythical, more in touch with nature, more sensitive and that science and technology are male concepts.
There are two more issues that are raised by the concept of women as a class, firstly the position of women at the top and secondly the concept of separatism.
For the last 10 years or so, the womens' movement has campaigned on the under-representation of women in the higher levels of society.
It is certainly true that there are very few women managers, however this is just a symptom of the general situation of women as a whole, not a cause. The installation of women at the top of a profession won't change the basic ground rules by which society is run. Those women at the top may suffer sexism from their colleagues, they may be ostracised from the old boys' network and may find it more difficult to succeed. However, they also have an interest in seeing the system continue, after all their high incomes, standard of living and position in society is dependant on them being on the top of the pile. So while they may be progressive on safe issues that affect most women, such as domestic violence, when it comes to issues that question the way society is run and thus threaten their position, sisterhood quickly breaks down. How many of the Irish women TD's, who support abortion information are willing to publicly say so? On the one hand they may be members of the womens' movement while on the other protecting their job is more important. Mary Robinson may be a woman, but she didn't show much sisterhood or solidarity when she signed into law the new social welfare regulations on cohabiting couples. This provision insures that couples receive 80% of the benefit that two single people receive, normally the women is the partner that receives the lower income.
One of the key faults of the concept of a sex-class is that it does argue that more women at top will make a real difference. Sure Mary Robinson is an excellent symbol of what is possible for women, having a woman president counteracts any subjective arguments that a woman is naturally suited to the home only. However in terms of fundamentally changing society it has made little difference. This is because while on one hand women bosses are good examples on the other the back up and bolster the very system that oppresses us.
The second issue that the patriarchy theory brings up is that of separatism. At one extreme separatism means that women should be allowed to organise together, if they so wish, to come together without men to discuss their own oppression. Taken at the other extreme separatism means that women should isolate themselves completely politically, socially, sexually from men . Separatism arose out of the sexism and hostility that women campaigners met in the civil rights movement in the US in the sixties. The most famous example is the remark made in 1964 by one of the leaders of Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, Stokley Carmichael who was later a leader of the Black Panther Party, when he said "the only position for women in the SNCC is prone".
In a society where women are constantly conditioned so that subconsciously they believe that they do not have a right to an opinion, to be politically active, to speak out the first step against this conditioning was to organise separate from men. Partly this was because it was felt that men being more confident and more self assured tended to dominate conversation. Or even more simply women felt that when men were present they were more likely to take a silent role and leave the discussion up to them. Recent studies in American classrooms showed that when girls answered out of turn they were more likely to be told off, while boys were likely to be praised for showing intelligence or initiative. Given this it was not surprising that in later classes girls rarely spoke unless specifically asked a question while boys often spoke out or chatted with the teacher. In these conditions women organising together is an exercise in empowerment, it's a positive response to the conditioning of society.
However problems arise when this is taken further and when women begin to campaign separately. Doing this identifies men as the root of the problem, which they aren't, and it also isolates men from the struggle, when it is obvious that in order to change society they are necessary. Within many Unions and the British Labour party there exist women only conferences. A problem of this is that womens' issues are often referred to these conferences as a way of avoiding the issue and forgetting about it. Rape is a womens' issue refer it to the womens' conference, contraception is a womens' issue refer it to the womens' conference etc. This mean that men are never confronted with these issues, never have to deal with them and are let off the hook. Therefore while I support the right of women to meet separately I also think it vital in any organisation, in any campaign that women present their arguments to the entire body of people and win those arguments and fight as a whole.
Way back at the beginning of the speech I asked the question do men gain from womens' oppression? I hope that I have shown you that this is the wrong question to ask, that its a pretty meaningless question. It's like asking at the turn of the century to the English gain from the oppression of the Irish, sure the Irish were seen as second class, but then wasn't a member of the Irish middle class in a better position than an English factory worker. Opposing men and women doesn't give us a basis for fighting for womens' liberation.
Women will remain as second class citizens as long as they are relegated to an inferior position in the work force. They are now in that position because to the bosses they are an unstable workforce, likely to want pregnancy leave, likely to come in late if a child is sick, likely to require a creche or want to work part time. It is because men in society are seen as the breadwinners that they have more secure, more dependable jobs. It's a vicious circle, because men are in reality better paid, it makes more sense within the family to assign the role of main earner to the male and the role of carer to the female. The only way to permanently get out of the circle is to change the system. In a society run for profit women loose out, in a society run for need, womens' fertility is no longer a limiting factor.
Women can of course win gains at the moment. In Ireland women are no longer forced to stop working upon marriage, though lack of child care can make it impossible to continue. Attitudes have changed considerably in the last thirty years. Most importantly, the position of women is now an issue. Whereas before it was only addressed by the few socialist or womens' groups, now it's taken up by the mainstream media, by chat shows and newspaper articles. However, any of our new freedoms are very much dependant on the economic conditions of the day. So, while in the wealthy sixties American women won limited access to abortion, now in recession those rights are being pushed back inch by inch.
When you come down to basics equal education and job opportunities and equal pay amount to little without free 24 hour nurseries and free contraception and abortion on demand. While a small minority of women can buy control of their own fertility, for the majority, family and child care is still as it has always been the largest problem faced by women workers.