Women and the Fate of Society
There is a struggle breaking out, and women are on its front lines. This struggle is a response to extreme polarities of wealth and poverty and to aggravated divisions based on “race” and “gender,” realities world capitalism has wrought. Women are suffering in the context of a growing equality of poverty worldwide. Women make up two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people. 60% of the chronically hungry are women and girls. Women in sub-Saharan Africa who spend about 40 billion hours per year collecting water are being joined in a survival battle for water in Detroit. Women and female-headed families are the fastest growing sections of the U.S. homeless. As recent “Sayhername” protests have documented, poor women increasingly face police violence alongside domestic violence, and are jailed for the same crimes against property as men. This is a social struggle that can only be resolved by a political struggle – a struggle over class power.
Women’s emancipation has been on society’s agenda since the creation of classes and the overturning of “mother-right,” i.e. the equality of women that existed through tens of thousands of years of human history. The majority of women today are at the center of a global new class, a structurally forced out of the economy by labor replacing electronic production. Today women make up more than half of the paid workforce and more than half of this new class. This class is revolutionary because it is outside of, and hostile to, the wages system. This new class cannot simply fight individual employers – it must fight the State and the property relations the State protects.
For the first time in history women are fully integrated into the class structure of society. This marks a major turning point in the fight for women’s emancipation. It places women as equals with their male counterparts in the class struggle. As electronic production destroys the old industrial economy and polarizes society, this equality is becoming an equality of poverty. This is not the equality for which women have historically fought. It has, however, placed women in a position to achieve the power necessary to achieve real equality for the first time in human history.
Women and the Equality of Poverty in the U.S.
Women’s inequality was built into the historical development of capitalism. It has been determined by two aspects of capitalist exploitation – in the production process on the one hand, and on the other, in the reproduction of labor-power itself, the reproduction of human life. In the production process women’s historic economic dependency results in their unequal position in the competition for jobs so central to capitalism as a system. Meanwhile, under capitalism the reproduction of labor power has taken place largely outside of the wages system. In the personal, domestic sphere, dependent economic relations with individual men have been the dominant expression of women’s exploitation.
In the U.S., women are, and historically have been, disproportionately represented in the lowest paid sections of the working class and have dominated the contingent workforce. The fight over women’s legal and political rights rests on this basis, and has been inseparably connected to the fight against chattel slavery and for women’s equal position under wage-slavery. Political concepts of dependence and independence, exploited by pro-slavery forces, had deep roots in women’s economic and legal dependence on men. A law of U.S. slavery going back as far as 1662 Virginia was that children were born slave or free according to the condition of the mother only. The ugliness and complexity of the fight for the abolition of slavery and for women’s and African-American suffrage has been indelibly etched into the evolution of the class struggle in this country. The fight for women’s voting rights was impossible in the U.S. until the fight against slavery was won.
In the transition from small family farming to industrialization, what has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” including childrearing, housekeeping and care-giving, became separated from other work and remained outside of the social production process. As the market economy developed, the idea of the “family wage,” and an ideology of “separate spheres” of men and women’s work developed. A myth more than a reality for most working-class families, these ideas reflected industrial working-class aspirations, and became central to the social contract between capital and labor. Women, often forced to leave employment once married, were barred from public, economic and political participation based on this reality.
The Great Depression of the 1930s forced more married women to enter the public labor-force. Systemic inequality in the workforce, however, worked against working class unity. Black men and women faced the most temporary, degrading work as agricultural laborers or domestic servants. Both of these occupations were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Act and National Industrial Recovery Act, and therefore Blacks did not share in the benefits of America’s New Deal.
As U.S. capital expanded after World War II, workers fought to crawl out of poverty and to get a “piece of the pie.” Access to birth control and the application of technology to women’s domestic work allowed many more women to enter the paid workforce, which they did in record numbers. The “Women’s Movement” of this time reflected the interests of women able to leave poverty behind. But it also reflected the aspirations of all women for emancipation from economic dependence on men, expressed most visibly in the fight for equal pay, against domestic violence and for reproductive rights. All became political questions as women’s labor became central to wage-labor.
Globalization was built on contingent labor. The main advantage for employers of part-time and temporary work is its “just-in-time” nature, it’s lack of benefits, health insurance and pensions. Since wage work became possible, women have been disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid sections of the working class. They have dominated the contingent workforce as part-time, temporary workers, working at or below minimum wage. In times of peak labor demand the U.S. government encouraged temporary, seasonal work. Women from Mexico and elsewhere have worked alongside men in the U.S. as seasonal farm laborers. Filipina nurses and teachers were allowed into the country to alleviate labor shortages, temporarily. In 1996, U.S. welfare recipients were forced in droves into the contingent labor-force with the “end of welfare as we know it.” As they increasingly joined male workers as part of a globalized workforce, the majority of women workers carried these realities of contingent labor and inequality with them.
Women and the Fight for a New Society
With the development of laborless production, the expansion of the market for workers’ labor power is ending. One-third of all workers today are part-time, contingent or unemployed. Technology is increasingly permanently replacing workers of all genders and colors. Women’s inequality continues, but in a historically new context, and is central to the development of a new class.
The last hired were first fired as technology began replacing human labor. Unskilled male workers bore the brunt of the first job replacement. Marriage rates fell, resulting in the rise of women-headed households. By the end of the 1970s two out of three people in poverty in the U.S. were female, the “feminization of poverty.”
The objective basis for working class unity began to coalesce among women equal in poverty. “Welfare Rights” was originally fought out based on the recognition that women were part of the reserve army of workers. White women were always the numerical majority of welfare recipients, but the welfare rights movement has also been led by working class women of color, who understood the movement as essential to the right for poor women and poor communities to survive.
Headlines screech, “Male workers an endangered species.” Over the last 30 years U.S. male workers have experienced lower skills acquisition, lower employment rates, lower educational attainment, and lower real wage levels. Women’s status is not improving; men’s status is going down. “Equal pay for equal work” no longer means advancement for the vast majority of women today.
As workers are replaced in production, their families increasingly bear the brunt of the reproduction of humanity. The socialization of “women’s work” into the public health and educational systems of large-scale production under industrialization continues. But it does so within the context of commodification and privatization, resulting in an attack on all workers who cannot pay for the necessities of life.
Women’s class inequality and oppression is not new. What is new is that for the first time in history the fight for women’s emancipation is central to the fight against the oppression and exploitation of all of society. Women’s integration into the center of the new class means that the fight for the emancipation of women is now inextricably entwined with the fight for political class independence and for a cooperative society. Laborless production places “women’s work,” the birth, maintenance and caring that go into the reproduction of life, into antagonism with capitalism and indeed, any private property system. Women’s leadership on the basis of the political program of the new class is both possible and more necessary than ever today.
The Role of Revolutionaries
Race and sex inequality are key ways Americans have experienced the class relationships that rule their lives. A-class concepts of identity, based in women’s domestic segregation in the period of industrial capital are anachronistic. A politics of “difference” that proposes that women’s emancipation lies in fighting for the equality of women within the limits of capitalism and private property is a dead end street. Today the majority of the world’s population is outside the production process and the wages system. Women’s leadership in developing new concepts of work and life is key to the vision of a new society.
Ruling class parties use so-called moral issues that center on the changing role of the family, and how humanity reproduces and maintains itself, in order to corral working-class women into one or another bid for corporate women’s power. This obscures the reality that the revolutionary power of women lies in political independence, in a society that guarantees control over our lives, that meets the needs of all members of the human race and guarantees our stewardship of Mother Earth.
Revolutionaries rely on the program of the most oppressed and exploited to politicize for class power, against all forms of slavery, and for a society that guarantees that human needs are met. Women stand to gain the most from this fight. Revolutionaries must unleash this power.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011