What took you so long? That’s a fair enough question about a book which has been seven years in the writing. I first made time to sit in libraries back in the beginning of the new millennium. It seemed that a great deal had happened to women in the decade since I finished Sex, Class and Socialism, and I wanted to write a new book which took into account those changes. It seems incredible now that in the seven years from starting to finishing the book so much has changed again in women’s lives.
That’s not the main reason it took so long, of course. That was down to the “war on terror”, which George Bush and Tony Blair launched after the events of 11 September 2001, when around 3,000 people died in the US as a result of terrorist attacks. I helped to found the Stop the War Coalition and found myself at the head of the biggest mass movement ever seen in Britain, organising two million people who marched in London on 15 February 2003.
The successive wars and the movement against them, which counted women as an important and significant part, have in themselves changed attitudes to women. The war against Afghanistan was waged in part in the name of women’s liberation, with Laura Bush and Cherie Blair employing feminist language to support the warmongers. The Islamophobia exacerbated by the wars plays strongly on an image of Islam as a repressive, anti-women religion, and of Muslim women as passive and oppressed.
Some socialists and feminists have failed to defend Muslim women in these circumstances, preferring to reinforce these false stereotypes. The chapter on war in Material Girls attempts to redress the balance and to show the important role that women are playing in the movement, including Muslim women. It is a bizarre kind of feminism or socialism that is threatened by a group of people who suffer racism as well as sexism, and who struggle to be treated as equals in our society.
However, the changes have not just been caused by the war. The system of neoliberalism which now dominates the globe has wrought extreme alterations in the ways in which people live and work throughout the world. It is now expected in many parts of the world that women have to leave home and family to enter paid work. It is expected that children will be cared for by people who are not their natural parents. It is expected that marriages will break up and that women will have lives outside the home.
A race to the bottom
Such changes in lives also change attitudes, and here we have seen a spectacular reversal of many accepted truths over the past half century. Whole debates have opened up. Today these tend not to be about whether women should have sex before marriage or whether they should dress in a certain way, because many of those arguments have become less important, at least in the West.
Now the assumption is that women have gone too far in their quest for liberation. Today the debates are around whether women can have everything and whether it has all gone too far. More than two decades on from Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement that, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families,” it is perhaps hardly surprising that social solutions to women’s oppression are spurned in favour of the views that stress the importance of personal change. These suggest that women need to be more assertive to win equality, or simply just assert that it is men who are the problem.
The right to work for women has become the right to be exploited on the same basis as men. Free sexuality is reduced to sexual images dominating most areas of life – and making a big profit for a few. Neoliberalism has heralded a race to the bottom as workers’ rights come under attack and inequality grows. Recent figures published by the Economist show the gap between men’s and women’s earnings at its highest among the poorest 10 percent.
The cumulative effect of the different changes on women’s lives means that this is a completely new book. Even issues covered in Sex, Class and Socialism are looked at from a different angle. It is strange the way that issues which are essentially the same, and which you haven’t changed your mind about, tend to look quite different from the distance of ten or 15 years. Some widespread assumptions no longer hold, and sometimes events have rendered the original assessment or discussion less relevant.
The book deals with the present situation of women but constantly dips back into history. Sometimes that means the 18th or 19th centuries where previous upheaval in women’s lives had such an impact and needs to be integrated into an analysis; sometimes it means much more modern history. We live in a society where history is all too often ignored and where only the immediate is deemed to matter. But we can’t understand any of the changes in the world without looking at history and at how in the past women and men have grappled with many problems similar to those we face today.
The feminists and the socialists of the late 19th and early 20th century had to deal with issues of equality and class, just as we had to in the 1960s and 1970s. The battles over suffrage which took place 100 years ago saw repeated divisions on grounds of class and politics. Successive generations have tried to deal with wrongs and inequalities. We can learn from their stories and struggles about how to organise today. The history of women has long been a hidden one, only rediscovered as part of the development of ideas around the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The history of working class women, along with that of the working class as a whole, has been particularly hidden.
Many of the changes I write about I have lived through. I came from the baby boom generation born after the Second World War. So while I didn’t live through the war I grew up in a family and a city profoundly affected by the war. When my mother talked about her experiences as a wages clerk in the AEC munitions factory in Southall that experience was as close to her in time as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the first Gulf War or even Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 are to us now. I knew that women were conscripted into work or the armed services long before I read about it. Her experience of the war was double edged, with hardship, loss and danger an everyday fact. It was also an exciting time for a young woman, dancing with GIs at the Hammersmith Palais and queuing for shoes in Oxford Street. In many ways I think it was the best time of her life.
I experienced women going out to work, first part time, then full time. The changing marriage patterns were those of my friends and family, as was the growing divorce rate. The 1967 Abortion Act had a real impact for my generation. Changes in work and the widening of women’s horizons were real events. The movements of the 1960s politicised me and women’s liberation expressed the aspirations of a generation of women who demanded equal treatment. The sense of hope that came out of the 1960s came from a generation brought up by those who lived through the war and who hoped for a better world. Equality and liberation, whether national, racial or sexual, were the guiding principles of millions of young people around the world, and their ideas and actions had a powerful impact on politics, which has not been destroyed today after decades of attacks.
That view of history is, of course, subjective and partial, but I try to interweave it with an analysis of how changes occur in class society, and of how those changes – women working, the decline of marriage structures, much more open sexuality – interact on the dominant ideas and thus change them as well. It’s also important to recognise the limits of change. All the advances have left women still very far from equal, still the primary childcarers, still subject to sexist attitudes and assumptions. The answer to the question why this still happens in the 21st century is the key to understanding the way to liberation.
Capitalism breeds and encourages inequality, dividing and ruling along lines of gender, race and nation. The longest oppression has been that of women. Despite the advances for women, advances in work, family, education or sexual freedom all come up against the limits of class society. Women are able to change their lives, but only up to a point. When their rights threaten the ability to make profits – for example by granting equal pay or by creating full time free nursery provision – then they come under attack or are denied altogether.
Socialists argue that we have to change the world for the better on a number of grounds: poverty, war, hunger, the destruction of the planet, are all pressing reasons to fight for a world based on cooperation, not competition, which can end the profit system. The ending of oppression, the systematic discrimination against particular groups, must also be a major reason. Women’s oppression not only makes the lives of women much harder, but also denies women, men and children the possibility of genuine free relationships based on equality. The ending of the class system of exploitation, and with it the various forms of oppression, has to be the end goal for anyone who wants to achieve liberation. Socialism and women’s liberation are therefore intertwined.
Every movement of women has come out of the radicalisation of society as a whole. This was true of the English and French revolutions, of the women’s movement around suffrage, of the period following the Russian Revolution and the First World War, and of the 1960s and 1970s. The renewed interest today presages women’s movements and struggles ahead.
Material Girls is published by Bookmarks, £12.99. It is reviewed in this issue.
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