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How does class affect sexism?

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Sexism is built into the system and hits women from all classes. But it’s working class women who feel the sharpest edge, explains Sarah Bates
Issue 2803
Women standing up against sexism in Clapham Common

Vigil for Sarah Everard that was attacked by police in south London in March 2021 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Parliament is a putrid cesspit of sexism.  It’s never been clearer than last week, when an unnamed Tory MP directed a barrage of sexist abuse at Labour MP Angela Rayner. Quoted in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, he accused her of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions. This prompted a slew of revelations about the toxic atmosphere of Westminster. One Tory MP had watched porn on his phone, while sat near women in the Commons. Despite being reported to the whip, no action has yet been taken.

And it’s not just the Tories. One shadow cabinet member told a Labour MP she was a “secret weapon” because “women want to be her friend and men want to **** her”. It’s not hard to imagine what the atmosphere for other women working in parliament, such as catering staff, cleaners and secretaries, must feel like. It’s a good sign that people have rushed to condemn the filth thrown at Rayner. Decades of campaigning over women’s rights in the workplace has created a public atmosphere that makes it harder to defend such abuse.

Also, it shows how no woman, no matter how important her job, is able to completely escape sexist vitriol. Even in the highest echelons of British society sexism cannot be escaped. In fact, where the ruling class roams is where it is most rampant. Sexism in parliament is also served up with a side dish of class snobbery. Women are still a minority in the voting chamber, representing only 34 percent. And while some MPs come from a working class ­background, parliament is disproportionately drawn from the elite. A survey in 2019 revealed that 29 percent of MPs went to private school—compared to just 7 percent across Britain as a whole. 

But it also shows how every instance of women’s oppression is experienced through the prism of class. Women higher up in society have access to resources that they wouldn’t as part of the working class. And those with a huge public profile, while more likely to be targeted, are given a degree of protection and power. Quite rightly, Rayner has been able to sit on the This Morning sofa and defend ­herself. It’s good she’s coming out swinging and blasted the Mail for even printing the story. But that’s not an opportunity afforded the 30 percent of women who say they’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. 

When faced with the ­sharpest end of oppression, rich women have options to shape their experience in a way that ­working class women simply don’t. They can take taxis instead of a night bus, leave jobs where they’re being harassed or afford to escape an abusive relationship. Day to day, if women have money, they are able to soften the daily blows of a sexist society. It makes a huge difference if women can afford nannies, cleaners or cooks to take on domestic burdens. Oppression creates very real pain and suffering for individuals. To understand the differences between the lives of working class and ruling class women doesn’t diminish the very real horrors that even the richest women experience. 

And as well as pinpointing these differences, revolutionary socialists approach this question as one of unflinching ­opposition to every instance of women’s oppression. Sometimes that means ­defending our class enemies. We fight for everybody, even those we politically disagree with on every other question, to live in a world free from all oppression. That’s why Socialist Worker wouldn’t print headlines calling Margaret Thatcher a sexist slur, or why we didn’t focus on what clothes Theresa May wore. Being a ­socialist is about more than fighting on issues around exploitation, such as ­workers battling for better pay or improved conditions at work. 

It’s also about challenging racism, sexism, homophobia and all oppression that is built into the system and causes misery on such a large scale. Challenging oppression has been a feature of every major explosion of working class action. For revolutionaries, this isn’t accidental. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that the model for revolutionaries “should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects”.

Alongside this principled opposition to women’s oppression, fighting divisive ideas actually strengthens the ­working class as a whole.  Oppression is driven from the top of society and pushed down relentlessly into the working class. That’s one reason why parliament, the place where our rulers congregate and organise, is riddled with physical manifestations of oppression. Sexism under capitalism doesn’t benefit working class men any more than working class women. If women are paid less than men in a ­workplace, neither group of workers gets the extra cash—it’s the bosses who pocket it. It’s of no benefit to working class men when abortion rights are cut or funding for women’s ­healthcare is threatened.

But it’s helpful to politicians metering out Tory austerity or relentlessly pushing the ideals of “family values”. They do this because the bosses’ system relies so heavily on the unpaid labour of working class women. Family values are an expression of the importance of the reproductive unit of the nuclear family to the ruling class. By looking at the division between classes, it’s possible to point to how sexism is of a material benefit to everyone in the ruling class—men and women. Although individuals within that class, such as Thatcher or May, are subject to sexism, they directly benefit from the class system affording them their position within society. 

And there are countless examples of right wing women using their position to attack working class women. Top Tory Amber Rudd was home secretary when her department slashed funding for domestic violence survivors. Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries has spent her political career attacking Muslim women, attempting to slash abortion rights and bring in legislation that promotes abstinence-based sex education. Some go even further. In 2021, Metropolitan Police boss Cressida Dick and home secretary Priti Patel colluded to smash a vigil for Sarah Everard, murdered by cop Wayne Couzens.  

Class interests overpowered any sort of kinship Patel or Dick might have felt with those campaigning against violence against women. So, it’s not simply that women experience oppression differently under capitalism. Looking below the surface level, some of them have a class interest in maintaining that society. Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai wrote extensively about how ­understanding class was fundamental to challenging women’s oppression. She argued that “class ­interests” was the critical thing that separated working class women from their ruling class sisters. “The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps,” she said.

“The interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the women question. Although both camps follow the general slogan of the ‘liberation of women’, their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class colouring to the targets and tasks it sets itself.”

It’s as true today as it was a hundred years ago that working class women live a wildly different experience to their rich counterparts, despite both being oppressed. Most women are not hitting their heads against the “glass ceiling” that stops them ascending to the top of social, cultural and political life. Instead, they are trapped on the “sticky floor” of low paid work and domestic drudgery. Sticky floor or glass ceiling, never has it felt more urgent to throw ourselves into the common fight against sexism. But it’s when uniting as a class for a new kind of society that the rotten system ­endlessly spewing oppression can be done away with.


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