Gender, class and liberation

Issue: 118

Sue Sparks

Lindsey German, Material Girls: Women, Men and Work (Bookmarks, 2007), £12.99

This is a very timely book. Abortion rights are once again under attack. The conviction rate for rape is at a historic low. The use of women’s bodies to sell commodities is more widespread than ever. Women are encouraged to conform to models of physical perfection, whether by constant dieting or cosmetic surgery.

At the same time, more women than ever are going to university and gaining entry to traditionally male occupations. We are told that men and masculinity are in crisis in the face of female educational and professional success, and women’s increasing sexual assertiveness. We are told that we live in “post-feminist” times, where there is no longer any need for a movement to secure equality for women.

Women like me, whose formative years coincided with the growth of the women’s liberation movement and the wider challenges to the existing order in the 1960s and 1970s, have witnessed and tried to make sense of these apparently contradictory trends. We believed that the crudest forms of sexism lay in the past, but have been dismayed by their continued power, even while we recognise that many men are taking on a much greater role in bringing up their children than their fathers did.

In her book Lindsey tackles these questions and more by placing the current situation for women firmly in the context of history and material developments in capitalism. She explains how the family has changed from a unit of production to its current role as a unit of consumption.

In the early days of factory production the working class family seemed to be dissolving altogether through industry’s rapacious appetite for male, female and child labour. Laws that reduced working hours and restricted female and child labour resurrected the family as an apparent refuge from capitalism. In the absence of labour saving technology in the home, and in the face of horrific infant mortality, this offered benefits to both capital and the working class, though at great cost to women’s independence.

Lindsey shows that this nuclear family structure—woman in the home looking after the housework and the children, man as “breadwinner”—was a very temporary phenomenon of the late 19th to mid-20th century, and even then, neither a complete nor uninterrupted one (the world wars notably brought women into employment and even military service in massive numbers, at least in the UK and the US).

However, she also shows how this model of the family retains an ideological power, with reactionary politicians and commentators harking back to it as the cure for all social ills, even though capitalism has destroyed its foundations. Capitalism needs women in the workforce, governments demonise single mothers on benefits and families need women’s incomes. But, at the same time, women’s employment is held to be responsible for everything from childhood obesity to educational underachievement and anti-social behaviour. This is part of shifting the blame onto working class parents, and especially mothers, for problems caused by capitalism itself. The message to women is always, “It is up to you to solve the conflicts between ever lengthening working hours and workplace pressures, and providing a warm, loving, comfortable and secure home for your children, and (increasingly) caring for elderly relatives. If you fail, it’s your individual fault.”

Lindsey also argues convincingly against the notion that male dominated trade unions have always sought to put the interests of male workers first. The historical picture of unions organising women workers and fighting for equal rights is much more complex than that, and these days women are more likely to be union members than men. While women are under-represented in the leadership of unions, they are very often at the forefront of struggles over pay and conditions.

For me, the three chapters “Men: How Mr Right became Mr Wrong”, “War: Liberation, Like it or Not” and “Feminism: the Limits of Liberation” were the parts of the book that really helped explain the contradictory picture described at the start of this review, for example, how higher female educational achievement and greater workplace involvement sit alongside the increased commodification of the female body. Lindsey deals with the phenomena of lad’s magazines and the pretence that their sexism is somehow “ironic” or “post-feminist”:

“The lad magazines are full of old sexism, racism, nationalism and homophobia masquerading as playful, witty and ironic…Now women are outside the home and the level of openness about sexuality is much greater, the message of the magazines is that men can still celebrate their domination in the face of the threat of liberated women—and who can dare to complain? The dichotomy between the image of the submissive, domesticated housewife and that of the sexually aggressive whore is matched by the contrast between the touchy feely new dad and the aggressive and sexist New Lad.”

In the chapter dealing with war, Lindsey’s experience in the anti-war movement really illuminates her discussions of Islamophobia and imperialism, and how they relate to women here and in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. She shows how hollow is the rhetoric of the likes of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair about “liberating” Afghani women from the Taliban. Not only did Western governments create the conditions for them to flourish, but also the current Afghan government contains people every bit as hostile to women’s rights as the Taliban.

Lindsey also shows that the invasion of Iraq has actually worsened women’s rights in that country and quotes an Iranian woman activist as saying that the women’s movement in Iran “grows daily: something only a war could stop”. In other words, it is imperialism that is the greatest threat to women’s rights in these countries. Wars and invasions not only cause immeasurable suffering to women, but also tend to strengthen those very forces that the “West” claims it wishes to weaken.

She also considers attitudes towards Muslim women more generally: “It would be particularly hard to understand women’s oppression among ethnic minorities in Britain without taking racism into account as a major feature of their lives and one which distorts moves towards integration and multiculturalism… It goes side by side with Islamophobia, surely the last respectable racism in Europe, which finds its expression in racist abuse, physical attacks and murders, but also in the constant portrayal of Muslims as ‘outsiders’, ‘fanatical’ or ‘backward’.”

She provides a searing critique of Western politicians and some feminist columnists, who absurdly claim to be “made uncomfortable”, “offended” and “threatened” by women wearing the hijab or niqab on their local high streets, asking if they are equally “offended” by the sight of Orthodox Jewish women wearing wigs or Christian nuns covered from head to foot. She argues that while some Muslim women do cover themselves because their husbands or fathers tell them to do so, or because they believe they should signify submission, others, especially younger women, are choosing to wear such clothing, when their mothers did not, as a sign of political defiance.

She goes on to argue that women have the right to decide themselves what they wish to wear: “We should oppose the forced covering of women in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is not the business of state or religion to make women wear particular clothes. We should also oppose the prejudice and discrimination that are demanding that women take off their veils or scarves. Women themselves have the right to choose what to wear and when to wear it.”

In giving a global dimension to women’s struggles, Lindsey is counteracting the tendency to measure women’s progress solely in terms of what has happened to middle class white women in wealthier countries. So she discusses the plight of migrant women workers and shows that the conditions suffered by working class women in the mills of 19th century England, who saw their babies die as a direct result of the demands of their work, are paralleled today in countries like the Philippines, where women leave their babies inadequately cared for by their older children (who they cannot afford to send to school), while they spend long hours sewing jackets for the likes of Nike.

In the chapter on “Socialism: the Rising of the Women”, Lindsey gives us a rapid recapitulation of the contribution of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and of the huge advances for women brought by the Russian Revolution, such as abortion, divorce and free childcare (some of which are still unavailable to many women today), which were lost in the isolation of the revolution and the victory of Stalinism.

Lindsey sums up the process of a widening gap between the classes in the period of neoliberal globalisation as “the race to the top and the race to the bottom”, and argues that this has “highlighted the limits of liberation within a society based on class exploitation and private property”. She ends the book with a practical manifesto of ten demands, a “working women’s charter”, and with the call to connect the many different campaigns and struggles in which women and men are engaged to “a vision of a socialist society, based on production for need, not profit”.

Much of the history and theory in this book was familiar to me, but it will be revelatory to many people. If anything, the book tries to pack too much into a small space, and also doesn’t really examine the position of women in Western countries other than the US and UK. It would have been interesting to look at women’s experiences in Sweden’s “welfare capitalism”, for example, though they are hardly typical. But these are minor quibbles.

The book performs the enormously valuable task of recovering for a new audience what many of us learned 30 years ago: that there is a fundamental connection between the gains made by women and the overall advance or retreat of the working class movement. So while there have undoubtedly been gains for a minority of women, the retreat of the overall movement for fundamental social change after the 1970s has seen women and men as a whole suffering intensified work, the increasing commodification of home and sex lives, continued violence and rape against women and attacks on our abortion rights.

Even the women who “make it” do so at a huge cost. Sexism is rife at the highest levels of places like the City of London, while the media subject female celebrities and politicians to intense scrutiny of their bodies, hairstyles and fashion sense. In so far as there is greater “equality” on this score, it is coming at a cost to men, who are increasingly also under pressure to perfect their looks through physical fitness regimes and diets, surgery and purchasing cosmetics.

The lesson of that connection between overall social and political advance by the working class and the position of women was lost on many in the feminist movement, partly, it is true, through failures on the left, especially in the US. Often it seemed to them that socialists were arguing that women’s concerns had to wait until “after the revolution”, even though any movement that failed to take women seriously could never hope to achieve a revolution at all.

Feminists sought to develop an explanation of women’s position under capitalism in a dual theory of class and patriarchy. This tended to focus attention on men as the problem, rather than the sexual division of labour which capitalism favours as a means of maintaining the profitable exploitation of both male and female workers.

Lindsey’s book should be very widely read, partly for its recovery of lost history and arguments, but mainly for the way in which it brings the threads of class and women’s liberation back together in the context of the struggle against neoliberalism and imperialism which faces us today.