We are living in one of the most turbulent periods in history. The economic crisis, through its sheer scale and reach, is bringing about a wholesale change in the consciousness of working people the world over. The contradictions and weaknesses of this system are becoming plainly evident as capitalism buckles under its own weight. As always, it is the poor, the oppressed, and the workers who must shoulder this weight in order to hold up the privileges of the rich. Working women in particular have borne the brunt of this burden.
The conditions faced by working-class women today clearly illustrate the systemic nature of their exploitation. Despite the mouthpieces of the bosses taking up the cry of women’s rights in the last several decades, the facts show that their words are not reflected by their actions. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 90 percent of workers in sweatshops are women and young girls. U.S. working women earn just $.76 on average for every dollar earned by males.
The corporate media, when it is forced to acknowledge these facts, continually tries to confuse workers by presenting them as a gender versus gender issue. Reuters, in an article on the effects of the slump on women, spends one paragraph talking about the plight of women workers and commits the remainder of its three-page article discussing how many women are CEOs or board members of the largest corporations. The argument made by liberal feminists is that the progress of women can be measured by how many women hold positions of power in the large corporations and in governments.
The feminist NGO, Catalyst, boasts that the percentage of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies went from 8.7 percent in 1995 to 16.4 percent in 2005. However, do facts like this really mean that the majority of women are better off? Did Condoleezza Rice have Iraqi women’s interests at heart when she defended the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Having more women government officials and CEOs has not only failed to improve the lot of working women, pay equity remains and the exploitation of women is as evident as ever.
Capitalism depends on the subjugation of women for its very survival. Sexism, along with racism and every other divisive tool the capitalists possess, are vital wedges needed to drive apart male workers from their female comrades in order to prevent the rise of the one thing that can undo this system: worker’s unity. Rich women, the CEOs and cabinet ministers, have nothing to gain by ending the disproportionate exploitation of women workers. In fact, they have a vested interest in ensuring that this oppression continues. Keeping female workers at a lower wage than their male counterparts has the effect of putting pressure on male workers to accept lower wages in order to compete for the same jobs, thus fostering sexism and pitting worker against worker.
Additionally, women are made to form a reserve army of cheap, mobile labor, which is very profitable for the capitalists. There is a reason why women overwhelmingly fill low-paid service sector jobs and sweatshops. Capitalism also doesn’t count the creation and nurturing of life as real productive work in society and expects it to be done for free, largely by working class women. A woman’s biological role as the child bearer creates a situation where, under capitalism, it is women who are also the ones who have to take up the burden of child rearing.
This leaves women with the double burden of being responsible for the care of her children and home, while also working to help support them. Shouldering this extra weight leaves the woman worker with little free time to become politically active, organize unions, or, in many cases, even work a full-time job. This leads to women being forced into the most exploitative working conditions, often on poverty wages, thus making their situation ever worse, helping to re-enforce their economic dependence on men.
It is the duty of all socialists to fight against sexism within the labor movement. It is a tool used by the bosses to divide and conquer. A common theme shared by both liberal feminists and male chauvinists is that men and women have competing interests. Socialists believe this to be untrue. The bourgeois have an interest in maintaining gender divisions, while workers have an interest in breaking them down. We fight along class lines for socialism not because, as some academics have asserted, “Marxism doesn’t understand the women’s struggle,” but for precisely the opposite reason. Marxism is infused with over 150 years of hard-won experience in the struggle against the exploitation and oppression of women.
It is through continually studying the living history of our movement that we have understood that there is no solution to the women’s struggle within the limits of capitalism. We also understand that despite – or perhaps because of – the social and economic hardships that working class women face on a daily basis, when these women rise up to defend their rights, they do so with an unequalled militancy.
Only under socialism can a genuine, lasting solution be found. Only if there is universal child care, education, housing and health care, the socialization of domestic chores by creating public laundries, kitchens, etc., and the guarantee of equal pay in a system of full and fair employment, can the burdens placed on working women’s social development finally be lifted.
In February of 1917, it was the women of Petrograd who marched from factory to factory, rousing their sons, brothers, and fathers out into the streets in what was the beginning of the Russian Revolution. In February, 2009, two Iranian female workers were sentenced to 100 lashes in public. Their offense wasn’t the flaunting of the Iranian regime’s reactionary “virtue laws.” What they did was far more dangerous to the Iranian state; they were arrested and whipped for attending a May Day rally. Working and poor women have also been at the forefront of the Venezuelan Revolution.
In the U.S., Canada, and around the world, working women will play a leading role in ending capitalism, and with it, the end of the exploitation of women now and forever. We say: “There can be no socialism without the emancipation of women, and there can no emancipation of women while the economic slavery of capitalism persists.”