‘We hold these truths to be self evident. All men are created equal.’ So declares the American Declaration of Independence. Half the world replies yes, but what about women? Formal equality was part of the ideology of early capitalism. More importantly, the birth of the modern socialist movement made women’s equality a feature of all progressive thought.
As with racism, so with sexism-all manner of unfounded conservative ideas have been used to justify women’s subordination to men. All come down to the stupid argument that differences inside our underwear mean women should get less. There is a whole history of legal discrimination against women. Women were the property of their fathers and husbands, along with any goods and chattels. In Britain adult women only gained the vote in 1928. In the 1930s, my mother, a civil service typist, had to leave her job when she married.
In the 1960s my partner wanted to buy a moped, and had to find a man to sign the hire purchase papers even though she was paying. As late as the 1980s she had to get my written permission to put our children on her passport. There was no matching requirement for me. Today, in advanced capitalist states, most legal barriers to women’s equality have been removed. But this has not made women genuinely equal.
Women still earn significantly less on average than men. Even though family organisation is changing, women still do more housework than men. Above all, women still have primary responsibility for bringing up children. Yet, more perhaps than any other sphere, women’s history shows the very possibility of change. Till the last century women were tied to the wheel of child-bearing. Lacking effective contraception, they bore large numbers of children and died younger than men. Modern birth control has cut family size and helped lengthen women’s lives and immensely enlarged both the reality and possibility of women’s freedom.
Two generations ago most working class women stopped working for wages when they married. Being a ‘happy housewife’ was the best they could expect. World wars, and capitalism’s inexhaustible demand for labour, changed that. Today, most married women go out to work.
Those two changes underpinned the wave of reforms won by the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Capitalism’s brute realities, however, prevented more victories. The main economic burden of having and bringing up children, something which benefits the whole of society, falls heavily on women.
A friend described how, in the 1970s, she was forced to return to full time work six weeks after the birth of her child.
When the system was reformed and it became possible to work part time, she did. Now, her pension is pitifully small because she ‘did not contribute enough’. She faces poverty in old age. Like millions of women workers, she faced the choice between a rock and a hard place. Then, as now, there were far too few affordable nursery places. Then, as now, pension laws discriminated against women. Women undoubtedly gain from the possibility of going out to work. The full time housewife’s life was stultifying.
But the jobs women can get are generally worse paid, and often the least fulfilling. Both women and men with young children find their employers at best pay lip service to their needs as parents. Relations between men and women have altered massively over the past two generations. Fifty years ago, few men cooked, shopped, cleaned or looked after children. Today, most do.
The advances in equality for women have slowed down in the past 20 years. The pressure of increasing working hours, reductions in free contraception, the lack of nursery provision and cuts in pensions are critical. Sex advice in schools is under threat. There has been no breakthrough in proper maternity pay.
The limits of capitalism now provide the principal barrier to major advances. There are no great profits to be made from nursery expansion, equal pay and opportunity, or the celebration of women’s powers and talents.
Yet many young women today would reckon themselves to be equal. They underestimate the difficulties to come, when they start families. In a wonderful song, Nina Simone declares, ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.’ What would it mean today? In large parts of the world, the old battles for legal equality and women’s education have still to be fought.
In advanced capitalism, real equality of pay and opportunity are still far off. Women still walk in fear-of insecurity, and of physical attack. We still have to transcend the view that women’s worth depends on their physical characteristics. Feelings of worthlessness, revealed in high levels of depression, suggest how millions of women still need a real sense of their own empowerment. The enrichment of women’s lives is not something they can only win at men’s expense.
Enlarging women’s freedom and equality can only enrich men’s lives too, as my generation partially discovered through the women’s movement. History shows that nothing about relations between men and women is fixed. Women, and men, can look forward to a day when completely new answers will be found to the question of freedom and equality for all.
We’ve come a long way, but the best is yet to come. New generations will look back at our world with horrified amazement, from a vantage point where genuine women’s equality will be so obvious that our age will seem as barbarous as indeed it is.
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