Socialist Worker

The system that keeps women in chains

The workshop on ‘Women and globalisation’ at last week’s European Social Forum saw an important debate. The speakers were Lindsey German, author of Sex, Class and Socialism, French feminist Christine Delphy and Indian activist Meena Menon

Issue No. 1924

Lindsey German

I WAS born in 1951. For someone of my generation, the changes in women’s lives throughout the world have been absolutely astonishing. Perhaps most remarkable is the change from women being centred in the home to working outside the home.

The number of women in the workforce has doubled over the last 20 years in countries such as Ireland, Indonesia and Thailand. This has had a huge impact on the way in which women live and see themselves.

But have these changes meant that women’s lives have improved? Not really. Women’s oppression remains a central feature of the society in which we live.

Many women suffer from the “double burden”. They increasingly work outside the home, but they’re not free of the responsibility of mother, wife, carer.

People who were once cared for by society—old, sick and mentally ill people—are now cared for in the home.

Childcare in Britain is expensive, so people rely on the family to care for children.

There are a minority of women who have done very well out of the last 30 years. They have entered certain professions and managerial grades. They can afford to pay for many of the services they would once have had to provide in the home.

But the mass of women are still oppressed and exploited. And women’s liberation as an ideology has come up against the limits of capitalist society.

In 2004 women have the right to work, but it’s the right to work on the same terms as working class men, which means long hours and exploitation.

There is much more openness about sexuality, but even this comes at a fantastic price. Sexuality has been turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. Pornography is a multi-million pound industry.

The existence of the family also drags down the conditions of women. People go outside the home to work and to be educated socially, but the family remains a privatised institution.

Care work remains one of the worst paid jobs in capitalist society because so many people do this work for free. So when you are paid to do it you’re paid at a lower rate.

Nevertheless, there has been a tremendous development of women’s awareness and public presence in recent years.

Women play a key role in strikes and political campaigns such as the anti-war movement. Globalisation has produced a trend of uniting women from different countries and backgrounds. People realise that their aims and interests coincide.

What does liberation mean for a woman in a call centre in Mumbai, a temp in an office in the north of England, a cleaner in Los Angeles who’s migrated from Mexico? It means the same thing.

And liberation can only come through a collective world struggle to change this exploitative system and bring in a socialist society based on production for need not profit, cooperation not competition.

Christine Delphy

I WOULD like to talk about women’s special exploitation—that which makes them women and not men. As a radical feminist, I believe this division into men and women is mostly a social construction and a hierarchical division.

There have been changes in women’s jobs, especially in industrial societies, which appear to be for the best.

But in the last ten years we have seen globalisation and the worsening of capitalism’s conditions.

We have seen a downward curve—it seems that women have reached the limits of what the capitalist system can offer. But there’s more to it than that.

Women everywhere do housework. This is only part of what I call domestic production—production undertaken within the family, which is not paid for.

Let’s take the case of a farmer. The production unit of small farms is the family. In the family, the man appropriates all the benefits. He may be exploited himself as a seller in a capitalist market, but his family doesn’t get paid one penny.

The real workers are not paid a wage. Farmers’ wives do not divide their work along production lines of housework and farm work—to them it’s one and the same thing.

Their situation can be characterised by two things—exploitation and dependency. This is the basic economic pattern of patriarchy, which is a different thing to capitalism. Capitalism works through wages and surplus value. Patriarchy is the extortion of free labour from members of the family.

In the West we have about 12 percent of the population who are independent workers. These men can exploit the free labour of their wives.

The rest of the population is made up of wage workers who sell their labour, so they cannot incorporate the labour of their wife into a product they can sell.

This accounts for the continued difference between the status of men and women. The double burden is a defining structure of patriarchy. And this exploitation of women is universal. In the West a woman’s working day is almost twice as long as that of a man.

Since the 1950s the number of women who go out to work has been on the rise. Wage work gives women a modicum of independence from working outside the home.

The majority of women are now working, but is that eroding the sex division? No.

Patriarchy operates two divisions—one in the realm of domestic production and one in capitalist production. The two work together. In negotiations within a couple, for instance, one person brings in less cash. This serves as a rationale for the other to say, “You can care for the domestic work.”

Women going out to work did not change the division of work inside the home. Men have only increased their participation in domestic work by one minute per year. It would take 400 years to equalise the time between men and women. This difference is structural.

We have to find ways of fighting globalisation and the worsening of capitalism. But must also find ways to attack patriarchy, which is the dividing force that makes women’s conditions so drastically worse than men’s.

The main speakers were followed by a floor discussion. Some speakers challenged the concept of patriarchy, arguing in favour of class theory to explain women’s oppression. Christine Delphy and Lindsey German then responded to that debate.

Christine Delphy

I’VE HEARD a very strong attack on the concept of patriarchy, which I’m not very happy with. If there’s no patriarchy I don’t see the point of a separate women’s movement. I don’t see the point of the word “feminism”.

If we’re all in this together and there’s only one system of oppression and that’s capitalism, what the hell are we doing having sessions on women?

I believe there is a social division here, like race. Are you going to say we’re all in this together—black, white, cafe au lait and cappucino colours—because this is the way god created us? These colours only become visible to the extent that they serve a social purpose of dominance, hierarchy and exploitation.

The women’s movement built itself against these theories that only capitalism exploited everybody. The women who joined that movement came out from the left parties saying, “We’ve had enough.”

Someone said that women being on the picket lines changes things. But women have been on the picket lines for 150 years and it hasn’t changed anything. Sexism is not an individual attitude. It is the psychological dimension of the structural division.

It is not capitalism that benefits from women’s free work or women having children. The fact that this is done alongside other work is not necessarily capitalist exploitation—it becomes that when women work outside the family.

When they work within the family that’s patriarchal oppression. If we don’t believe in patriarchy we don’t have any reason to be here as women, feminists or friends of women.

We are introducing a dangerous way of thinking—that there is only one system of domination. That will not allow us to see the complexities and tensions. Someone may be an exploiter in one system and exploited in another. We won’t have a coordinated fight against all the systems.

The male unions tried to get women into the home in the 19th century.

They wanted the same privileges as bourgeois men and wanted the free labour of their wives to be dedicated to them.

Are people going to say that women and men are equal in the eyes of capitalism and what we’re dealing with is just sexism, and we have to smash sexism?

Smashing sexism on an individual basis is not possible—it’s like smashing capitalism on an individual basis.

Smashing patriarchy is only possible in a collective struggle. I am sick and tired of this competition, which has been set up by men’s parties and is being reproduced in this meeting by the Socialist Workers Party.

The analysis of capitalism and patriarchy are not in competition. We have different models of exploitation.

If we want the fight against globalisation to succeed we have to tackle these complexities.

If we give only one name to the enemy and say it always looks the same, we will not achieve the fight against globalisation, which is the coordination of multiple systems of domination.

There is no contradiction between capitalism and patriarchy. They work hand in hand, but they are not the same system. Patriarchy was there before capitalism.

Lindsey German

When you look at the question of feminism, socialist feminism and socialism, it’s not true that everyone outside the SWP accepts the idea of patriarchy.

Sheila Rowbotham, a well known socialist feminist, has explicitly rejected the theory of patriarchy. I reject it myself, but not because I disagree with many of the points that Christine has made about the way society operates and about how we live within social constructs.

I think patriarchy is a fantastically static theory. This comes out from the way Christine talks. I don’t agree with the idea that nothing much has changed for women.

If you look at a couple where the man works full time and the woman doesn’t work outside the home, responsibility for housework and childcare has not changed at all.

But when you look at where both partners work full time, there is a big increase in the amount of hours men devote. It’s not equal, but there has been a big change in the division of housework.

The change is international. When you go from the 1950s situation, where women sat at home miserable and oppressed, to the situation we now have, where even most women with children go out to work, it will result in changed conditions and ideas.

Patriarchy doesn’t explain the class differentiation between women. This has grown in the period of globalisation. This schism between women comes from class.

It comes from whether you’re part of the people who exploit or part of the exploited.

That is why you become the women who stop other women having maternity leave, who exploit other women to clean their houses or iron their clothes. This is a class relationship. It’s not a sisterly relationship.

I certainly think women are oppressed. There is inequality between men and women. But where does that oppression come from?

All oppressions have been transformed by capitalism. Global capital is destroying women’s lives, whole countries, communities and very large numbers of people.

How do you deal with a situation where George Bush claims he is bombing Iraq and Afghanistan to bring about women’s liberation? You have to ask what the limits are of a feminist politics that places all women as sisters.

Condoleeza Rice is the epitome of identity politics. You have a black woman who is acting overtly to oppress millions of black and white women and men.

The women’s movement in Britain hasn’t met since 1978. You can’t talk about it existing as a coherent movement. The reason for that is politics.

People say you can’t reduce oppression to class. I don’t see a class analysis as reducing anything. I think it’s a way of broadening out the analysis of oppression that explains it in economic terms—how ideology plays an important role in oppression, and how we begin to confront oppression.

‘Our class must be united’

Meena Menon is an Indian trade union activist with textile workers. She helped organise this year’s World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India, last January. She also spoke at the debate over women and globalisation. Here is an extract of what she said.

GLOBALISATION HAS had an intense impact on women. And you can see that fact more intensely in Asian countries.

Financial institutions interfered in these countries after 1990. For women this meant unemployment. Many of the jobs that were lost were done by women. Women were an important part of the workforce and the trade unions.

I work in the textile industry. Male union leaders signed off the women’s jobs. Income generation became family based. Families took in little jobs, and women would be the main organiser of this work.

When you are part of family labour you don’t become part of a class in terms of consciousness. This has impacted on women’s consciousness—work becomes like part of the housework.

The march of globalisation means the marginalisation of the poor. And globalisation has divided women in a class way. You see a lot of women working in the middle levels of the media. Many of these women do not see any commonality of interest with poorer women.


Most of the women’s movements have failed to address this issue and have reduced into a clique. We used to march as thousands of women. That’s not happening. There’s something wrong there.

We really need to think about what the women’s movement is going to do in the new era of globalisation. We need to make common cause with the poor. How are we going to create a commonality of interests which includes race, class and gender?

Some of us have started to move away from the words and discuss the analysis. Very often we get stuck on the words and we lose the analysis.

In a coal mining area a comrade of mine was working and his wife was doing the union work. She worked very long hours. He would have to do the housework, washing the clothes and hanging them out to dry.

The men were really angry. They found it threatening and complained to the couple. It took more time to talk to the men about these issues than others. These were class conscious workers.

There needs to be an analysis that explains that, and why union officials beat their wives. I wouldn’t say that patriarchy is the overarching analysis, but I would call it patriarchy because it explains something.

Class is still the overarching analysis. We need to see the tiny poles in between if we are to develop a political movement. If we don’t we will lose the unity of the class, because these are divisions within the class. We need to understand that to fight capitalism.

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Sat 23 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1924
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