Socialist Worker

Does the blame for sexism lie with men?

In the first part of our new series Estelle Cooch looks at the roots of women’s oppression

Issue No. 2171

After a particularly messy break up, a close friend phoned me to gleefully request I buy her the “All men are bastards” knife block, which she had discovered when typing the phrase into Google.

It is never difficult to find a huddle of female friends in a bar or cafe engaging in this popular mantra – it is a response to the fact that women’s oppression still exists.

A recent report by the Guardian found that women still earn on average 22 percent less than men.

Meanwhile, a report by the Metropolitan Police discovered “a culture of scepticism” when investigating rape cases. In Britain only 5.9 percent of reported rapes lead to a conviction.

It is clear that women are far from “having it all”.

But is it true that men benefit from this oppression? Are men to blame?

Or is it symptomatic of the same system that exploits working class men – capitalism?

Feminists find the cause of gender inequality in patriarchy – an inherent division between the oppressing male and the oppressed female.

It is true that individual men are the ones who carry out some of the most obvious forms of oppression against women – rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, for example.

It is not society that commits these acts.

But are the majority of men doing this most of the time? Of course not.

Feminists suggest that working class men should be delighting in their position above women. But they are far from doing that.

This year the National Institute for Mental Health revealed a “silent epidemic” of suicide among young men.

There is increasing pressure on men – not only to live up to the “traditional” male role of breadwinner, but also to conform to an “ideal” image. This has led to a situation where nose reductions among men are the fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery.

Capitalist ideology encourages working class men to feel that they benefit from women’s oppression, as a way of countering their feelings of alienation and frustration.

But sexism has negative consequences that also affect working class men.

To take low pay, for example, it is not the case that men benefit from women being paid less.

It simply means that in the majority of working class families, where both men and women work, the overall income will be less. Paying women less only benefits the bosses, who gain in profit.

Women’s oppression is not a “supra-historical factor” – that is to say, one that is age-old and exists independently of class society. In fact for most of human history class division, domination and oppression did not exist.

Anthropologists such as Eleanor Leacock have provided extensive evidence of pre-class societies that displayed no notions of male authority or European family structures. And Richard Lee found evidence of societies in south west Africa that were untouched by gender hierarchy as late as 1960.

Rooting gender inequality in the onset of class society has two important consequences.

It leads us to conclude that if sexism has not always existed, the struggle for women’s liberation is not a simple question of an inherent division between men and women.

There is no male conspiracy to oppress women. The real cause of that oppression – class division – works against working class men as well.

Secondly, by looking at gender oppression through the prism of class, we are forced to confront the effect of gender stereotypes on working class people.

Even if 50 percent of MPs and 50 percent of corporation board members were female, as long as capitalism remains, the vast majority of women would still be left with the burden of childcare and struggling to feed their families.

Ultimately it is impossible for working class people, men and women, to find liberation under a system that objectifies their bodies for profit.

In 1909, the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai wrote, “The feminists seek equality in the framework of the existing class society; in no way do they attack the basis of this society.”

Amid a global recession, where the gains that women have made are coming under increasing attack, it is up to us to attack the basis of this society now more than ever.


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