Fighting for women’s liberation today

Issue: 126

Siân Ruddick

Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman(Zero Books),£7.99

Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman is an important contribution to the latest string of books on feminism and women’s liberation, most importantly Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy and Sexism and the System by Judith Orr.

Power takes on a huge variety of questions concerning women’s position in society today under advanced capitalism and looks for symptoms of oppression to illustrate the deeper workings of a system so often taken at face value. These include women’s position in the workplace and in the home, how advertising seeks to portray women as models of consumption, and academic debates about the left and feminism. On this level, Power does what Levy does not. She looks beyond surface observations and tries to draw a more developed conclusion.

The book contains well placed railing against the madness and inequality of the system we live in—and the failure of new, “positive” feminism to address these problems. And Power is rightfully annoyed. It seems that this new feminism, the feminism that relates to, instead of challenging, the current obsession with commodities, is doing no good. Celebrations of consumerism presented as feminism only serve to join in the applause metered out by glossy magazines and glossy shampoo adverts. This new feminism is also incredibly patronising, as if cheering on conspicuous consumption is the only way to communicate with a new audience about women’s liberation.

Looking at the movements that have spanned the past decade, it is clear that younger women do not need to be “tricked” into seeing themselves as feminists or activists. The struggle for equality and against oppression has led many young women to march against war and racism, to defend abortion rights and join trade unions in higher numbers than ever before. This activity has radicalised both men and women, and may make them Marxists and hopefully revolutionary socialists.

There is no doubt that Power is on the left, a radical. But as a totality, the book does not manage a coherent direction or approach. Marx is used to open a chapter on the “Feminisation of Labour” but towards the end of the book he, and Marxism as a whole is almost totally forgotten. One of the final chapters is entitled “Socialism Must Not Exclude Human Sensual Pleasure from its Programme”. The chapter laments the decline of different types of living—of communes and “radical Kibbutzim, co-housing groups, revolutionary cells” and with them of different sexual relationships.

Power asks, “What if every fuck was a kind of communism, egalitarian, joyful and for the good of all? This would precisely not be communalism, a kind of withdrawn fellowship, but a re-establishment of the link between sex and politics.” But how can such personal solutions generate the collective power needed to change society at large?

While Power is in no doubt that there needs to be radical change in society for things to improve for women, men and our lives at work, home and in bed, she identifies no agent of change. She rightly observes when considering the role of the media and fashion trends that “only rich women can afford to follow them all”, but that is not really enough. Rich women do not exploit the women they employ by being better dressed than them, but by owning the means by which their workers make a living.

Power thankfully has little time for the “sisterhood of oppression” and does recognise that rich and poor women have different interests. But her keenness to immerse the reader in academia is distinctly offputting. I have read more Alain Badiou than I ever cared to or planned. One Dimensional Woman is littered with quotes from the French philosopher, who has moved away from Marxism but remains interested in revolutionary change in society. The inclusion of such insights added little to the overall argument. If anything, the quotes create hurdles for the reader to jump over.

This is not about “dumbing down” work on women’s oppression or debates about feminism. As Judith Orr’s book shows, a contemporary account with a clear theoretical basis can take on some of the most challenging questions facing liberation today in a concise way.

The discussion of pornography and its historical role and form is something I have not read elsewhere. But Power’s nostalgia for the pornography of the 1950s is misplaced. She looks to it as more realist in some way, portraying erectile dysfunction, and argues that “vintage pornography abounds in sweet expressions and moments of shared affection”. But what purpose did this pornography serve that stands it apart from the stuff of today? Power drops in that “we should remember that this is one of the only industries in which men are paid less than women”. Is this to be rejoiced in? Does it illustrate an upper hand that women have over men these days?

The fight for liberation today does not rest on the abstract notion on equality, as that always begs the question: equality with whom? Equal pay has been a long fought for goal, one we still have not achieved. Women are still paid on average over 17 percent less than men and most working class men barely earn enough to sustain themselves, let alone their families.

The nature of the family under capitalism is of constant debate, and while it no longer serves as a productive unit, the economic and ideological roles of the family remain central to the running of the system and the maintenance of women’s subordinate economic and social position. From Tory legislation planning tax gaps for married couples to the existing pressure that it is the only “proper” way to live, women continued to be encouraged by the state to lead a monogamous life in a “for better or worse” relationship.

The family has a strong economic role. To the benefit of capitalism, the family saves the state a hell of a lot of money. Women continue to carry the vast burden of domestic work—of educating children, feeding and caring for them and instilling in them the values that will help them to get a job and “succeed”. The remit of the family and the propaganda of governments do not only affect those who have succumbed to the “charms” of marriage, but affect the lives of all in society.

Power writes, “Any general social responsibility for motherhood, or move towards the equal sharing of childcare responsibilities is immediately blocked off—this individual woman has betrayed the economy!” The lack of free childcare and the poor mental health of older men who live outside of the family all serve as daily reminders of the centrality of the family.

The ideological assault on lone parents, the vast majority of whom are women, shows the double barriers that working class women face—of exploitation at work and oppression everywhere. Towards the end of the book Power reprints an interview with the novelist Toni Morrison that appeared in Time magazine. She says, “I don’t think anyone cares about unwed mothers unless they’re black or poor. The question is not morality. The question is money.”

The centrality of class—of poverty and the exploitation of working class men and women—remains crucial to understanding the struggle today. The working class must fight together and organise in workplaces in order to bring liberation and socialism about. There is no doubt that Power wants a different kind of society, but her method of getting there needs more elaboration.