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Huge changes have not brought women’s equality

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
In the first of our series Elane Heffernan looks at women’s oppression in the modern world
Issue 1924

Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels argued that women’s oppression was as old as class society. It arose from the structures of the privatised family which pushed women out of the economic centre of society.

The entry of women into paid work under capitalism didn’t abolish oppression, but rather reshaped and intensified it.

Women’s role in the family meant that they entered the workforce with one hand tied behind them.

Nevertheless, Engels insisted that work offered women a path to freedom from sexual domination.

And women in Britain have come a long way thanks to the struggles of the Match Girls, the Suffragettes, Ford machinists, Grunwicks workers and others.

We have, on paper at least, formal equality in access to education, jobs, political life and pay, combined with greater freedom to divorce, to have sex outside of marriage, and access to contraception and abortion.

A tiny minority has done very well from the women’s movement. Some 25 percent of top managers are now women.

But the majority of us remain laughably far from equality, let alone liberation. We work in routine service industry jobs structured by low pay with shift patterns dictated by childcare.

The tiny number of women in parliament and in the judiciary remains a scandal. Abortion rights remain insecure. Today we are, if anything, more deeply trapped by the notion that our bodies are our main asset. And we are still battered and raped in frightening numbers.

Globally the situation of women is even worse. A new industrial revolution has viciously ripped apart traditional lives in Asia, Africa and Latin America – dragging women rapidly into the heart of the working class.

In some Pakistani industries women are now 60 percent of the workforce. We rarely hear of the women factory workers in Ghana or Sierra Leone, but they are there nonetheless

Increasingly migrant workers also wear a women’s face, servicing hospitals, schools and offices, or working as maids or prostitutes, sending money back home.

As Engels argued, women’s mass entry into the workforce has not automatically ended inequality or sexual oppression.

Women are more open to exploitation precisely because their role within the family disadvantages those forced off the land and into the cities. And because they are less likely to earn enough to support the family, girls get a smaller share of squeezed resources in poor families – less education, less healthcare and less access to clean water than boys.

Nor does their new role as cheap workers free women from the old sexism. In the clothing and electronics factories of the Third World, pregnant women face the sack. Examples abound of women being sexually harassed, bullied and humiliated.

In 1999 women’s wages averaged around 50 percent of men’s in Pakistan, 52 percent in South Korea and 44 percent in Japan.

Just like the women Engels described during our industrial revolution, these women also cope with violence, shanty housing, receiving little or no welfare provision – all of which they share with their sisters in the First World.

But there is not only suffering. There is also, as Engels predicted, resistance. Time and again women workers demand a new respect as they bring home the money – often refusing traditional roles within the extended family, or staying away as a means of escaping unhappy marriages.

Women in South Korea – many living in shanty towns – were central to founding the democratic trade unions. Massive strikes saw women gain a monthly day off for menstruation and compulsory creches in workplaces larger than 500 – achievements not yet won in Britain.

In Ghana women in the car plants have fought for better pay and against being forced onto the night shift. In India women have been central to the struggles of the landless and against the dams. Migrant women have led the fight to unionise the cleaners of the Canary Wharf complex in London.

And young women everywhere have personned the front lines of the anti-war movement. We hear little of these struggles from “Blair’s Babes”, who thought feminism was about the right to share in the spoils of capitalism. But in this integration into the working class and anti-capitalist movement lies the path to a real liberation.

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