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How close are we to winning equality for women today?

This article is over 20 years, 5 months old
Socialist Worker interviews Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review, about her article 'Women's Liberation Today'
Issue 1880

The anti-war and anti-capitalist movements have been compared with the upsurge of the 1960s. What is the impact of the radicalisation on women?

The anti-war movement in Britain simply wouldn’t exist without the strong involvement of women, including large numbers of Muslim women.

The leadership of the Stop the War Coalition and CND, both locally and nationally, has a very high proportion of women.

This reflects two things. There is a gender gap over opposition to the war. All the polls show a markedly higher proportion of women opposing the war.

It is also part of the change in women’s lives.

They play a more public role than they did a generation ago. They regard it as much more normal to be involved in these things.

How much have women’s lives changed?

The main changes are best understood if you look historically over the 20th century.

There were two huge changes in the first half of the century. Those were the two world wars.

The First World War saw the end of domestic service as the main employer of women.

It allowed a number of working class and middle class women to play a more public role, moving into areas of employment that had been male-only – working as bus conductors, in munitions factories, and so on.

That had a radicalising effect. Even though they tended not to stay in the men’s jobs after the war, from the 1920s onwards you see the beginnings of modern women’s employment in the ‘new industries’ – the electrical industry, aircraft production and light engineering.

The Second World War brought a more dramatic change. There was effectively conscription of women between the ages of 18 and 59 into industry for much of the war.

This led to a big change in attitudes, from clothing and cultural norms to sexuality.

From then on you had a period where the expansion of women’s permanent employment was very dramatic.

The change in attitudes took root in the 1960s with the various movements.

There was the women’s movement itself. But that came out of women’s involvement in the US civil rights movement, the student movement, the struggle against the Vietnam War, and so on.

You had the coming together of women’s economic independence, going into higher education in greater numbers, and the ideological and political challenges to the idea that women were inferior.

Since then we have had further rapid developments. Thirty years ago most mothers worked part time or didn’t work. There are now 12 million women working in Britain.

The biggest increase in the last decade has been of working mothers – single women, as well as those in couples.

That has had a big impact on the family, childcare and housework.

Your article challenges the idea that what women have gained men have lost. What do you mean by saying working class men and women have been ‘drawn together’ at the same time as women face continued oppression?

Exploitation has made the situation of working men and working women more similar.

There is not the rigid division of labour between the woman in the home (always an idealised picture) and the man earning money.

There is still a lot of job segregation and unequal pay. But there is much more of a shared experience. Both working men and women face increasing disadvantage.

A lot of traditional male jobs have become more insecure and low paid.

A hundred years ago clerical work was mainly done by a small number of middle class men. Now it is a mass low paid employer, largely of women.

So we see the abandonment of what privileges there were to being a white collar worker. Now the experience in these jobs is closer to traditional male manual workers.

We saw with the Heathrow women the discipline of clocking in and being pushed every minute of the day.

Public or socialised childcare has not developed alongside this. The burden still falls very heavily on the individual family, and within the individual family largely on the woman.

So there is a worsening of conditions for both men and women, and within that women still have what used to be called the ‘double burden’.

What is the impact of these changes on attitudes to sexism and women?

On one level there’s much more openness about sex, and about women’s sexuality. That’s partly shown in the phenomenon of the ‘ladettes’.

We should remember, however, that in lots of ways this is not very different from the way women have always been at work.

The women from the Lancashire mills who went to Blackpool for their holidays were exactly like the young women who go to Ibiza today. They are going for a good time, getting off with different blokes, and so on.

Today there is safer and better access to contraception, and more acceptance in society.

But anyone who’s ever worked in a largely female factory will tell you that you’ve no idea of the kind of language and jokes that goes on. In a way all we are seeing is that experience spread to the majority of society.

It’s a very good thing that women do not feel as constrained in how they express themselves.

The very high level of divorce in Britain shows women are generally not prepared to stay with a partner who treats them badly or who they simply don’t want to be with anymore.

All those things are a step forward. But at the same time some of the ideas of liberation that people looked to 30 years ago have been rejected by precisely the women who now have this kind of lifestyle.

So you have this idea that everything’s all right because women can sleep with who they want, like men can.

But it amounts to saying that as long as you accept sexism then it ceases to be a problem, that if you accept being ogled at or men making sexist comments, then it’s OK.

It’s not OK. The fact remains that most of the time women are not judged on their intellect or capacities, but on how they look, what they wear.

It’s even worse in one way today. It used to be that you were either regarded as a good mother (and therefore didn’t look too gorgeous) or you looked gorgeous (and therefore were purely a sex object).

Now you are expected to be both those things and cook like Nigella Lawson. It puts fantastic pressure on any woman whose reality is the 18-hour day, getting the kids up and to childcare, maybe with the father, maybe not.

And for a quarter of all couples with children, one or the other parent works shifts.

It is a world of increased exploitation alongside the continuing oppression of women, rather than a life of leisure and liberation.

For a minority of women their lifestyles, incomes and freedom are beyond the imagination of even middle class women a generation ago.

But at the other end women with small children are forced to go out to work for low pay.

How have feminists responded?

There are different strands. There are some socialist feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham in Britain and Barbara Ehrenreich in the US who hold essentially the same kind of ideas as when they wrote in the 1970s.

The problem is that they don’t have much strategy of how the ideas of liberation can be relevant to young women.

As far as young women are concerned the battles that were highlighted 30 years ago over legal equality have been won (not totally, but there have been big strides forward).

These questions don’t seem relevant to people who might care about political issues, how they are treated at work, childcare and other issues.

Other writers, like Katie Roiphe or Naomi Wolf, attack old-style feminism. They argue it’s down to women competing with men in the market economy.

In recent years there’s been an exciting rejection of all that.

You have got Naomi Klein, author of No Logo. A younger generation has seen the limitations of just caring about whether there are more women professors when half the world lacks the basics for sustainable life.

There is still a gap between the involvement of women in the movement and their representation in it. How can that be bridged?

When you have a big social movement people begin to challenge all sorts of things about society. Our movement in Britain, particularly the anti-war movement, has done something really remarkable.

It’s no accident that women, Asians and black people are so heavily involved. It is because it’s a genuinely grassroots movement.

One movement can only take that so far. You have to challenge political power. You can do that in all sorts of ways, including in elections.

But oppression and exploitation are so structured in society that you have to talk about fundamental social change.

That raises the question of whether you can achieve liberation without socialising the means of production, without the people who produce the wealth controlling the wealth.

If we did that, we would put the resources that now go into weapons and wars into childcare and finding ways to avoid spending hours tied to housework.

It’s an old 1960s saying that there can be no liberation without socialism and no socialism without liberation. I think that’s a slogan we should resurrect.

Lindsey German is the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. Her new article is the lead article in International Socialism 101 (£4). » Women’s Liberation Today

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