Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 24, September 27, 1976.
Feminist Polemic — In Defence of Women's Liberation
In Defence of Women's Liberation
I would like to take issue with Lindy Cassidy and Leonie Morris on the ideas they express in their article (Salient 21, Sept. 6) and letter (Salient 23, Sept, 20) regarding the feminist movement. The position they put forward has been at the basis of a number of debates on campus this year, notably the difference over the Women's Commission, so I think it is about time it was examined fully to see how valid it is.
Leonie and Lindy criticise the women's rights movement as "middle-class" in composition and outlook. They say women should be "changing society" instead, and that their oppression will be removed in the course of the wider struggle. Arguing against the present focus of women's right to abortion they say that working class women are only concerned with abortion at the moment when they need one, whereas their main demand is for "better working conditions and higher pay."
Their vague and confused mutterings about "contradictions" do not obscure the fact that their arguments have no basis in reality. Where L & L fall down is in their attempt to impose a dogmatic schema of "how the working class revolution must be made" to the real life struggles of women in New Zealand. The assumptions they make and the conclusions they draw are therefore quite erroneous.
Firstly, to insist that the women's movement declare itself for socialism and that women should not launch an all-out fight for their rights unless it is consciously part of the struggle for socialism, is ignoring the way that most people become involved in political action. It is not only middle class people who have absorbed the ideology of capitalist society and the sexism and prejudice of all sorts which goes with it. Were New Zealand working people as class conscious as L & L like to think, we would have had a revolutionary upheaval before now.
Everyone in this society has been infused with myths and illusions which keep them believing in the system, and very few people discard these ideas overnight and suddenly realise the need for revolutionary change. In most cases it takes experience in coming up against injustice and realising that society cannot provide for basic human rights and needs, for people to come to such a conclusion.
Every struggle against the oppressive conditions under capitalism helps the struggle for socialism, whether the participants are fully conscious of this or not, in that it challenges the status quo and ultimately brings more people to the realisation that the system needs to be scrapped. The movement for women's rights is doing just that.
Not only are Lindy and Leonie confused on how women come to be conscious of their oppression, but they don't realise how that oppression is instituted and maintained. The family is not a protective haven for working class women, it is the primary institution which keeps women in their place. Certainly in a society which provides for little personal contact and relief from alienation and loneliness, the family may fulfil this function, and certainly it provides a certain amount of 'security' for women and dependants, where there is no alternative means of surviving.
The situation is perhaps analagous to jobs. Socialists seek to remove the present system of 'wage slavery' whereby everyone who works is exploited by an employer, and receives less than the true value of their work. However, as most people need to work in order to live in this society, we support the right of everyone to a job. Similarly, the position of women is connected to their primary role in the family, but instead of calling for the abolition of the family (as L & L assert) which is not a meaningful slogan, the Socialist Action League and Young Socialists advocate the provision of alternative facilities for the functions that the family fulfils. The key to freeing women is not in getting men to share some of the household drudgery but in making such work a social responsibility and organising laundry facilities, childcare centres, house-cleaning and restaurant services, alternative ways of caring for the old, the young, the sick - all the tasks which have been loaded on each individual family to cope with, and have ultimately been the responsibility of women.
The women's movement has brought forward the demand for such alternative facilities to give women freedom from domestic slavery. Inasmuch as these demands cannot be met without a total restructuring of society they are anti-capitalist demands. Socialists should be putting forward such alternatives, not telling women about the joys of the family, which they are just beginning to recognise as being rather a fraud.
Because they ignore the role of the family and don't have a realistic conception of how the majority of people come to accept socialist ideas, Lindy's and Leonie's suggestion for what women should be doing are quite misplaced and out of tune with the real situation. They pretend to know what working class women want. I would like to know where they got the information that the main demand of working class women is for "better working conditions and higher pay" when working class women, as a group, have not yet made clear their demands. The newly-formed Working Women's Council may give some basis for making such statements when it gets going, and I support it wholeheartedly as a way of reaching out to more women and bringing them into political activity.
It makes sense that Working class women relate not only to bread and butter demands but to all the forms of oppression they suffer. Working class women suffer oppression as women even more than other women. They have the lowest paying, most demeaning jobs, and then come home to the work of caring for the children and keeping the house. They are often subjected to physical brutality from their husbands. They rarely have any free time away from their children or job. They have less access to birth control information and cannot afford an abortion to prevent unwanted children.
Because large numbers of lower income working class women couldn't come to a meeting in the Town Hall to demonstrate their opposition to Gill's Bill doesn't mean they are any less concerned. Obviously it will take a very large, outreaching campaign to begin to involve those women who have the least time for political activity. This is what the women's movement and in particular the campaign to repeal the abortion laws is trying to do - with little help from people like Lindy and Leonie. Instead they criticise the focus on abortion and say that it "should be seen within the total context of the fight for a decent standard of living, day-care and a women's right to work". This is meaningless if meant to be a prescription for action.
Certainly women fighting for the right to abortion see that they face obstacles in many areas - in fact being actively involved in such a struggle makes many women realise just how much they a are up against. But you cannot fight a concerted battle on many fronts at once. Linking the contraception, abortion and sterilisation demands makes logical sense to most people; but to raise the demand for child care, job opportunities and everything else within the same action campaign narrows that campaign to those people who can agree on every demand and tends to dissipate its striking force. For example the committees which were set up to oppose the Gill Bill recently were able to get wide-ranging support from people of all different political beliefs and persuasions. They were able to unite on that one thing, and successfully frightened off MPs from passing the Bill. The parliamentarians were made to back down in the face of public pressure organised by women.
Lindy and Leonie are concerned that [unclear: th] the women's movement take "working class demands" instead of supposedly "middle class demands" like the fight to abortion. The points of emphasis they suggest are jobs for women, daycare and equality within the family.
Although L & L prefer to shy away from abortion, the feminist movement can't ignore the fact that it is the issue or which women are facing the greatest attack by the reactionaries. The issue is simply there, in the public eye and many, many women are concerned about it. Opinion polls showing a clear majority in favour of the availability of abortion cannot possibly be reflecting only "Middleclass views" when the overwhelming majority of people are working class!
To fail to take up this issue would be to miss an opportunity to mobilise women in a real fight against the government and the status quo. Certainly it is a reform which can be accommodated within the capitalist system (so is "equality within the family" which doesn't even challenge the government or the capitalists to do anything!). But fighting for reforms can give women a deeper consciousness of their position in society and inspire them with confidence in their abilities to take political action. This must be distinguished from operating in a reformist way, which involves fostering illusions among women that the government will solve all their problems if they only ask nicely, and stifling any actions which threaten to 'go too far" in terms of asking for things the politicians are not prepared to give.
"Only those who cannot think straight or have no knowledge of Marxism will conclude: so there is no point....in freedom of divorce, no point in democracy. But Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression. It only makes the class struggle more direct, wider, more open and pronounced, and that is what we need. The fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their "domestic slavery" is capitalism, not lack of rights. The more democratic the system of government, the clearer will the workers see that the root evil is capitalism, not lack of rights....
"All 'democracy' consists in the proclamation and realisation of 'rights' which under capitalism are realisable only to a very small degree and only relatively. But without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of this struggle, socialism is impossible." (From "A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism," written August-October 1916. In Lenin's collected works. Vol 23, pp. 72-74).
L & L conclude their article with a quote from Lenin. Where it is taken from they don't say, but the context is obviously very important and in this case very misleading. When the Communist party condemned 'feminism' in the early part of the century they were in fact referring to a section of the women's movement which believed that liberation could be achieved by reforming capitalism. This is what Lenin was concerned to distinguish the Communists' policy from. The quote in fact validates what I have said; that women's oppression is part and parcel of class society, and that the struggle against oppression is bound to work against that society. It is not necessary nor is it realistic to demand that the whole women's liberation movement at this stage must have a conscious policy of working for socialist revolution.
The views put forward by Lindy and Leonie represent the political outlook of Maoism. The attacks they make on the women's liberation movement are simply another proof of the bankruptcy of approach. That they can ignore and disparage one of the deepest expressions ever seen, of outrage and indignation against oppression, surely brings into question the claim of Maoism to be a revolutionary doctrine.
Maoism has nothing practical to offer N.Z. women who are coming to grips with the injustices they face.