In 1868 Karl Marx wrote, “Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the female sex.”
This may help us to understand why attacks on welfare services—which hit women the hardest—have been accompanied by an ideological attack on the freedoms that women have fought for and won.
The struggles of the 1960s and 1970s brought many advances for women. But they did not end women’s oppression or sexist ideas.
There is an urgent need to revitalise and renew the struggle for women’s liberation today.
But what is the best way to do this?
Some people encourage the separate organisation of women to focus on “women’s issues” such as abortion, contraception or equal pay.
But there is no such thing as an exclusively “women’s” issue.
The idea that women should organise separately often stems from identity politics.
This is the idea that only the oppressed can properly understand their oppression and therefore fight it effectively.
But while it is true that women experience sexist oppression while men do not, women have different experiences depending on their class.
Proponents of identity politics argue that oppressed people can empower themselves by learning how to better articulate their oppression, often through a process of “consciousness raising”.
But it’s not true that people who don’t directly suffer from oppression can’t play a role in fighting it—or indeed that they don’t have an interest in doing so.
Consciousness raising may challenge the ideas of the individuals involved but changing the ideas of society as a whole must come through mass struggle.
To take abortion as an example—around 80,000 women around the world die every year as a result of unsafe abortion. Millions more are permanently injured.
But women’s experience of abortion is not uniform—it is the poorest women who are forced to endure unsafe abortion.
Abortion rights are clearly a big step forward.
But they are also a victory for those men whose partners would otherwise face a “choice” of undergoing a dangerous, potentially fatal backstreet abortion or bringing an unwanted child into the world.
In Britain, the biggest demonstration for abortion rights was organised by the TUC in 1979. This is because it is in the interests of working class men to fight for women to have control of their own bodies.
When women struggle alongside men, as opposed to separately, they are more likely to succeed, and prove sexist ideas and stereotypes are wrong.
Women can show they are just as capable of organising a picket line or speaking at a meeting as any man is.
In 1981 women workers at the Lee Jeans factory in Scotland occupied their factory to prevent its closure. Support from the wider working class was crucial.
Thousands of male shipyard workers downed their tools in solidarity. The occupation stopped the closure and saved many jobs.
More recently, the occupations at Visteon car parts factories proved how all workers—male and female, black and white—can fight together and win.
The process of struggle helps to break down prejudice and stereotypes far more than abstract meetings based on consciousness raising.
Struggle can also force working class women and men to recognise their shared interests.
When women like Harriet Harman are lambasted in the media, the underlying sexism is disgraceful and should be opposed.
Yet Harman has done more to counter the fight for liberation than contribute to it.
She was responsible for cutting Lone Parent’s Allowance in 1997, an attack that predominantly affected women.
She also agreed to limit abortion rights and deny women in Northern Ireland the right to choose.
In this scenario, working class men will be far more successful at fighting for women’s liberation than ruling class women.
Women’s “liberation” under capitalism allows a minority of women to take part in the exploitation of the majority.
Genuine liberation requires a transformation of society that would end oppression, and the exploitation of men and women too.
The only way to achieve this is for the whole working class—men and women—to fight together for a better world.