Socialist Worker

Why women still face oppression

Issue No. 1681

Unequal pay, sexist images

Why women still face oppression

By Hazel Croft

HAVE WOMEN won equality with men? Certainly the government's Office for National Statistics gave the impression this week that women have. It dubbed the past 100 years "the women's century". It listed gains like voting rights, legal status and education opportunities. This echoes many TV and radio talk shows and women's magazine articles which talk about women "having it all". We are told women's oppression is a thing of the past. Yet the reality of life for the majority of women today tells a different story. Women in paid work still receive less pay than men. On average, women earn 79p for every �1 earned by male workers.

There is a chronic lack of decent and affordable childcare, which means that women are often stuck in low paid, unrewarding jobs. A survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission last year found that traditional stereotypes still shaped what kind of jobs many young women did. The researchers said the prevailing view seemed to be to "send a lad for the yard and a nice young thing for reception". On top of this women are still bombarded with images of how they should behave and look. Big capitalist firms use women's bodies to try and sell more of their products. Supposedly trendy "New Lad" publications like Loaded or FHM present women as sex objects to be ogled at. Their degrading pin-ups of women would not be out of place in soft porn mags like Playboy.

This reality makes a mockery of the argument that we live in a "post-feminist" society where the battle for women's liberation has been won. SO WHY are women's lives still dogged by the double burden of work and home? Why are sexist ideas still with us? Some women who realise that liberation has not been achieved are looking to feminist ideas to try to explain women's oppression. Many feminists argue that the problem is men have always been able to control every aspect of women's lives-whether it's the type of jobs women do, or their fertility and sexuality.

This theory of male domination is often called "patriarchy" theory. Patriarchy literally means "rule of the father". It was a term used to describe households, for example in feudal times, which were ruled over by a man who controlled the rest of the family's lives. But many feminists have used the term to mean an all-encompassing "male power" in society. They present a picture of male domination which hasn't changed throughout history. But this can often end up mirroring right wing commentators who argue that men's genes make them naturally aggressive and dominant, while women are naturally more caring and nurturing. Above all, this view sees women's oppression as something separate from class society. It leads to the idea that we can get rid of sexist ideas without changing wider society.

But the root of women's oppression does not lie in individual men's behaviour or sexist attitudes. It comes from a class divided society, and in particular from the role women are expected to play in the family, bringing up the next generation. The form and structure of the family has gone through tremendous changes through history as class society itself has developed and changed. So the type of family most of us grow up in today bears little resemblance to the family in feudal times, when every family member lived and worked on the land together. But the family has persisted because it provides an essential task for the ruling class. It places the major responsibility for childcare on individuals in the family unit, mainly women, instead of being the collective responsibility of the whole of society.

This is reinforced in all aspects of capitalist society-work, schools, housing, healthcare, public services. So women's main role in society is seen as being a wife, or partner, and mother. The sexist images we see in adverts and the media reinforce this idea. They encourage women to look attractive to get a man, and for men to judge women on that basis. That is why women's role in the family shapes every aspect of their lives, whether they are married, living with a partner, gay or straight, a single parent or childless.

MANY FEMINISTS argue that all men have something to gain by denying women equality. The American feminist Heidi Hartmann, for example, has argued that men benefit from "not having to do the housework, from having their wives and daughters serve them and from having the better places in the labour market". Her conclusion is that male workers have colluded with their male bosses to keep women out of certain jobs, earning low pay and being responsible for child rearing. The conclusion is that all men, whether it's Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin Trains, or one of his company's train drivers, have something to gain from keeping women in worse jobs. But this picture does not fit the lives of the vast majority of men and women. Inequality puts immense pressure on working class women, but also on working class men.

A male worker on the Ford production line, for example, doesn't gain if his female partner has to work an evening shift at the local supermarket or call centre for �4 an hour. In fact the whole family is worse off. Neither does he gain if there is no affordable childcare. His partner may be forced into a low paid, part time job so they can juggle looking after the children. Equal pay, access to birth control and abortion, better maternity leave, and free and reliable childcare are all gains which would massively improve the lives of all workers, men as well as women. There have been enormous changes in the lives of women and men over the last decades of the 20th century.

Most women work outside the home. Even of those with pre-school children nearly 8 percent of them work full time and a further 33 percent work part time. This has heralded a huge change in women's expectations about their lives. They want a degree of equality with their partners or male work colleagues. They want to be able to choose when, and if, they have children. But although capitalism has held out the promise of equality between men and women, it cannot deliver it for the vast bulk of ordinary women. Only a tiny minority of fabulously wealthy women can escape the harshest aspects of oppression. Rich women still face sexual oppression and inequality with men of their class-the so called "glass ceiling". This means that only 5 percent of judges are women and 3 percent of company executives are women, for example.

But the lives rich women lead have nothing in common with working class women. They can afford to employ nannies (usually working class women) to look after their children, or they can pack their children off to private boarding schools. They can afford maids, cleaners and professional cooks. They can buy private abortions if they need to. They don't worry about juggling the bills or finding the time and energy for "quality" time with their children. The women who make it to the top, like Britain's richest woman, Hilary Cropper, head of the FI Group, do so on the backs of working class women. Feminist ideas which argue that all women share the same interests always come up against what one commentator called the "class ceiling". What class you are completely shapes your experience of oppression.

New Labour talks about creating equality between men and women, and "family friendly" policies to ease the pressures on women. Yet the government pushes privatisation and flexible working which increase the burdens on working class women. A survey in Prima magazine last year found an amazing 89 percent of women claimed that their lives are harder now than ever before. Nine out of ten complained about increasing demands on their time. Rulers and governments will not provide the childcare facilities and other social provisions which could lay the basis for real equality between men and women. That means the fight for women's liberation cannot succeed if it is a battle of individual women against individual men. We need a collective fight of working class women and men which takes on the system we live in that perpetuates women's oppression and ruins the lives of all of us.


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Thu 27 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1681
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