Today is the anniversary of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States in 1920. While revolutionary socialist feminists see the suffrage movement as a “reform” within the capitalist structure, even we can’t help feeling the surge of sisterhood as we hit the streets today to celebrate this essential “reform.” The continued and growing gender gap in voting shows that women realize and continue to use this reform to our political advantage. And the outpouring of women in the streets in the past two years brings a renewed visibility and welcome energy to the grassroots fight for the complete liberation of women. And yet…
Why didn’t we fight back sooner? We have to question why this new swell in the women’s movement has occurred only after the attacks against established women’s rights have been so successful. We have to question why we allowed these attacks on our rights and did not challenge the increasing invisibility of women since the height of the women’s movement in the mid 1970s.
The underlying systemic cause of women’s exploitation:
I will argue that there are underlying objective biological conditions (of which we are all aware) that led to the oppression and exploitation of women: and, further, that we have too frequently ignored these underlying systemic and objective causes because they appear to be too overwhelming to address.
First and foremost, women, are still the biological producers of the next generation of the workers who produce society’s wealth. Ever since men first discovered that their sperm had something to do with procreation, men in all societies have been trying to dominate and control the reproductive functions of women in an effort to control society’s wealth.
Second, in the current capitalist society in which we live, there is a need for the capitalist to keep the cost of reproducing the next generation of labor out of the market system because it makes it impossible to get the profits necessary to keep the capitalist owners in riches and the capitalist system going.
These systemic economic conditions of women as exploited, unpaid reproductive labor are never discussed in the current feminist and progressive responses to specific assaults on women’s rights such as the debates over “legitimate” rape or whether the rights of the zygote supercede the rights of full grown human women in the fight over abortion.
Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels analyzes the origin of the family as the institution in which males systemically dominate and control the reproduction of the next generation of workers. Women are the “property,” owned by men, through which this reproduction could occur.
Under the feudal/patriarchal economic system, the reproduction of workers was incorporated into the economic system of the Manor since the feudal lord had to give the workers sufficient land to make their own food, clothing and shelter so the workers were healthy enough to work for the Lord. But much as the Lord ultimately “owned” the sheep on the feudal land, the Lord also “owned” the workers and any wealth they produced. In regard to female workers, this was exemplified and codified into common law by the custom of First Night Rights in which the Lord (or his surrogate the Priest) had the right to sleep with the serf/worker’s wife before the worker could, to show the Lord’s ownership of the females and any subsequent children they produced. The same held true under slavery where the plantation owners could appropriate slave women at will for sex and reproduction. Women in general were property and had no legal or economic agency of our own.
Male workers ostensibly broke free of their lords with the breakdown of the feudal mode of production and the development of a market economy outside of the Manor. But, since they owned little except their labor, workers were still forced to sell their labor to the new capitalist owner of the means of production to gain access to basic goods to survive (food, clothing, shelter). The female serfs/slaves were also freed from their lords both economically and sexually. There were no more official first night rights (though the Strauss-Kahn rape case makes one wonder how much the rights of the ruling class have really changed in practice regarding the appropriation of women’s bodies).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the capitalist market — female workers were still subsumed under the newly freed male workers/serfs/slaves as the property of the individual male wage worker. This proved a boon to the individual male worker (who now had his own patriarchal ownership of a female worker and her off spring). In its thirst for increase profits and the accumulation of wealth, the ruling class of the Capitalist system allowed the worker to keep his personal property (in the form of women and children) so that the capitalist would not have to pick up the cost of reproducing workers but put that cost directly on the backs of the workers themselves. This also did much to buy off the male worker’s alignment with his class interests and encouraged him to identify with the male capitalist ruling class. The main point, however, is that it was in the economic interest of the capitalist class to keep this vestige of the Patriarchal feudal form of production in the reduced form of the nuclear family with the male worker acting as the Lord.
The importance of this idea was reinforced in an essay by Alexandra Kollantai, the most well known woman socialist thinker in the Russian revolution, in the early 1900s. She again noted that until the State/Government/Community figured out how to socialize the role of reproduction in society, women could never be truly liberated:
“Among the numerous problems raised by contemporary reality there is probably none more important for mankind, none more vital and urgent than the problem of motherhood created by the large-scale capitalist economic system…..Side by side with the problem of sex and marriage, enveloped in the poetical language of the psychological suffering, insoluble difficulties and unsatisfied needs of noble souls, there is always to be found the majestic and tragic figure of motherhood wearily carrying her heavy burden…. The prosperity of national industry and the development of the national economy depend upon a constant supply of fresh labour… the principle of state maternity insurance [is] a principle in sharp contradiction with the present social structure as [it] undermines the basis of marriage and violates the fundamental concepts of private-family rights and relationships…. “(Society and Motherhood 1915).
The cost of reproduction of the working class to the capitalist system. It is difficult to determine the exact cost of reproducing the working class to the capitalist system, but one unpublished grassroots study from the 1970s women’s movement noted that if all costs of reproduction of the next generation were taken into account, it would take approximately 1/5th of the GDP in the United States. Even if this statistic cannot be verified, we do know:
1) a 2007 study from the US Department of Agriculture estimated that the cost of raising each child in a typical nuclear family was $235,000 in 2006 which has in all likelihood increased substantially since then.
2) If we were to provide just preschool childcare for all children in the United
States the Federal budget for childcare would have to increase from $15 Billion to
$85 Billion per year.
3) Citizens in countries such as France that have provided full childcare and maternity leave and many other social benefits for their citizens, pay 75% percent in income in taxes.
4) Women in East Germany, where the Soviet Union had socialized most costs of
reproducing workers, suffered severe economic deprivation with the loss of social
support services after the Soviet Union fell and full scale capitalist relations of production were re-introduced (i.e., women’s full-time employment in the labor market fell from 91% to 62%. and poverty has greatly increased in all families, particularly among single parents).
Whatever you think of the Soviet Union or France or stay-at-home mothers vs. working mothers or abortion vs zygotes, the sheer cost of socializing reproduction of the next generation of workers is so great that the possibility of trying to address this issue might require such a restructuring of our society that we might — well, we might have to have a revolution. And so we rationalize, play with reforms, change the paradigm for women’s freedom, change the terms of the discussion of women’s freedom, continue to ignore the elephant in the room and what it will take to end women’s oppression.
The systemic struggle is just too hard.There are at least two significant ways in which we have rationalized away our oppression (or tried individually to avoid the worst forms of oppression for ourselves at the expense of women as a group).
1) The single issue reformist approach: Since it is too hard to deal with the whole system, we focus on a single issue to win (i.e., the vote for white women in the first wave of feminism, abortion and contraception in the Second Wave, and sexual harassment and rape in the Third Wave). Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with making reforms so long as we don’t forget the underlying systemic cause of women’s oppression as biological reproducers of society’s laborers.
For example, the question of abortion and contraception, as a single issue, addresses the problem of women’s biological reproduction very nicely — allowing women control over their own bodies as to when and how they have children. The problem is that it addresses the issue of women as individuals and, also, in the negative. It enables us not to have children, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to have children in a non-exploitive situation. True, it may, for the individual middle class bourgeoisie woman provide a solution — she just has to wait until she has a sufficiently well-paying career or rich husband to hire an au pair to raise her children (usually another woman from a third world country at less than minimum wage for a 24 hour a day live-in job).
Last week, Romney got on the air and discussed the abortion question mentioning the rights of the zygote and religious rights, but never once mentioned women. This invisibility of women that occurs when we limit the question of women’s oppression to a single issue is increasingly common, not only on the right, but the left as well. Angela Davis, in a speech before the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, was giving a laundry list of oppressed groups and failed to mention women. She did include the LGBT movement (and perhaps she felt that the transition from sex to gender included women in this way) or perhaps she just forgot the category of women, but either way, this increased invisibility of women as an oppressed group is disturbing.
Another area where the single issue approach has limited the deeper awareness is the issue of rape. Rape is simple discussed as a power struggle between men and women. There is no discussion of the fact that, historically, rape was not about women’s loss of agency, but about the damage or loss of one man’s property (women) to another man. This is why the right wing often argues that there can be no rape in marriage. This concept can also be seen in the custom of men in a conquering army raping the women in the conquered community as their right to booty. Or in the 1848 law in Massachusetts where if a wife is raped, the husband can cast her off as used goods. Or why there should be no exception in abortion laws for rape or incest since the being of value in such cases is the potential future wealth which will be created by the potential future worker, not the value of the woman carrying the zygote who is simply a vessel or tool of her male “owner.” While we have clearly come some distance from legal property ownership of women, these issues still color the underlying debate.
2) The conflation of sexist exploitation as gender issues. The shift to the use of gender (a culturally determined concept)instead of sexism as the dominant paradigm for dealing with female exploitation began in the 80s as a less biologically determinist definition by academics. Academic Feminists in the 80s compared sexism to racism. Racism, however, has no functional biological differences that rationally require the original distinction. The gender paradigm, however, fails to deal with the biological/material roots of sex distinctions in reproduction (actually having babies), how thoroughly they have been institutionalized in all world cultures and how difficult they will be to uproot even when we have the technology to do so.
In the 1970′s four of the five major dictionaries included the term sexism and defined it as prejudice or discrimination against women. Only one dictionary (American Heritage) included “any arbitrary stereotyping of men and women on the basis of gender.” Since gender is a socially created category it does not admit a biological basis for discrimination. By the 1980′s the gender definition was almost exclusively used by academic feminists and in recent years has become the accepted definition of discrimination against women. I am not refuting the critical importance of gender (the women’s movement was the first to highlight the importance of gender as separate from biology in overcoming the biology is destiny argument). I am simply saying it is necessary but not sufficient.
The gender concept was further complicated in the LBGT movement when the issue of transgendered people came to the for front in the early 1990s since the transgender analysis stands the biology argument on its head. On one hand, transgender says biology doesn’t matter, it is mutable and on the other it is saying that biology is everything (we are born this way). While this certainly doesn’t question basic transgender civil rights, it does highlight the confusion in the discussion of biology vs. environment in the LBGT and women’s movement.
It is also worth noting here that the gender approach, as it currently is being practiced in the LBGT movement, reflects the gay male culture (and liberal heterosexual culture) of the freedom to do your own thing. This is the assimilationist or civil libertarian approach where we all have the right to our own identities as we define them. The lesbian feminist culture in Second Wave feminism questioned this approach as reformist since it did not challenge the categories of dominance and submission in marriage, the nuclear family or the gay male community and society at large as inconsistent with a movement that was seeking equality. The male identified approach to gay rights has, in fact, won the day and is the current approach promoted by most progressive movements, just as the secondary concept of “gender” has replaced sexism in regard to women’s liberation.
The wholistic rather than the piecemeal approach. This point of this discussion is not to pit one group or approach against, but to recognize that in only fighting the battle piecemeal without looking at the underlying systemic causes of female/sex/gender oppression, or denying objective realities such as the systemic institutionalization of biological differences, we may be in danger of losing the war.