Fighting for women's liberation today

The Activist - Volume 13, Number 1, January 2003

By Kerryn Williams, National Executive

[The following report was adopted unanimously by the 20th Congress of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

This report aims to further our attempts to relocate the question of women’s oppression and how to best fight it back to a materialist framework.

At the October NC meeting we opened up an ongoing discussion on this question with the report "fighting for women’s liberation today" (hereafter referred to simply as the October NC report, The Activists, Volume 12, Number 14). This report began a critical reassessment of our analysis of the state and nature of women’s oppression today, and how we can best advance the struggle for women’s liberation in the current context.

This discussion does not represent a departure from feminism, a retreat from our commitment to fighting for women’s liberation, or a downplaying of the reality of women’s oppression today. Rather, we are seeking to break through any drifts and distortions on this question, to draw it back to a Marxist framework, and better focus our resources and efforts to fight for women’s liberation today.

While the NC report marked the beginning of this process, this discussion does not represent the end. There are many contradictions in the situation facing women under capitalism today, and in the balance of forces and dynamics of the conditions for struggle. We can’t just come up with magic solutions or quick fixes to these. But we can seek to further deepen and clarify our analysis of the actual material basis and the class delineation of women’s oppression today, and continue to look for openings and initiatives where we can move the struggle forward in a real way - in a way that can actually win.

Re-examining the backlash theory

The October NC discussion identified the deficiencies and holes in the "backlash" theory. While the term "backlash" originates from the 1991 best-selling book by US journalist Susan Faludi, the term tends to be used now as a broad description of the current character of women’s oppression, and it is this more generalised theory of the "backlash" we are critiquing, not simply Faludi’s book.

The basic theoretical framework of the "backlash" is the assertion that between periods of upsurge in the struggle for women’s rights, there are periods of ideological backlash. The current backlash, this theory suggests, is the most severe of all, and is characterised by a concerted ideological campaign by the ruling class to drive women back into the home and reverse gains won by women in the past.

We have identified the two key weaknesses in this theory as being:

a) The extreme underestimation of the substantial gains of the second wave of feminism; and

b) The manner in which this analysis warps our approach to fighting for women’s liberation today.

The distorted direction in which this backlash theory has evolved reflects the general trend in feminism towards an elevation of culture, symbolism and ideology over the actual material conditions faced by women today. Our starting point is the opposite - we seek to understand the real material basis of women’s oppression in order to explain how that impacts on questions of culture and consciousness, and most importantly to determine how we can fight to achieve change.

How far have we come?

A key aspect of giving an accurate picture of the current situation is acknowledging the real steps forward for women that were achieved through the second wave of feminism.

We’ve summarised this as essentially the attainment of formal equality for women in the imperialist countries (laws in various areas that grant equal status for men and women, and so on). This doesn’t quite tell the whole story however, as many of the gains won in the second wave went beyond formal rights and did improve the real day to day living conditions of women. But what the second wave did not achieve for women was full social and economic equality.

The gains of the second wave weren’t exclusively restricted to the imperialist countries either, but were spread globally in a very limited and extremely uneven way. Class and levels of economic development were the most important factors in mediating this.

The October NC report identified two very significant advancements of the second wave in addition to the achievement of formal equality, advances that would be very difficult to drive back today. Firstly, the generalised acceptance in the imperialist countries of the concept of gender equality, and the idea that men do not have some natural right to their privileged position. And secondly, the mobilisation of large numbers of women, and involvement of women in struggle including in the leadership of a variety of political movements.

This brings us to the heart of this discussion. In order to best chart a way forward for fighting for women’s liberation today, it is entirely insufficient to focus on the current ideological attacks on women and the manifestations of sexism in culture, in isolation from the broader social, economic and political factors.

So a more balanced analysis of our starting point for the struggle to end women’s oppression must take into account:

1. What we have already won. This includes the victories of the second wave in achieving formal equality; the significant ideological ground which has been won and held; the integration of women into progressive struggles; and the slow but steady increase in women’s participation in the workforce and educational and other institutions over recent decades.

2. What we haven’t yet won. That is, real social and economic equality, due to capitalism’s avoidance of all the costs associated with social reproduction (including the replenishment of labour, plus the material and social development of the next generation).

3. The broader framework that encompasses the current attacks on women. The cuts to the funding and attacks on childcare, education, health, women’s services, aged and disability care and so on, and attacks on wages and conditions, are all part of the overall neoliberal offensive that marks the current drive by the ruling class to further shift wealth from the poor to the rich.

4. The increasing class differentiation in the impact of women’s oppression. While a very small layer of women have become leaders of the capitalist class, and a layer beyond that fully identify with the capitalist system, the overwhelming majority of women are bearing the brunt of the massive attacks on the working class as a whole. The intensifying class divisions provide the backdrop for deepening inequality in wages, the enormous impact of welfare cuts on working class women and so on. The class character of women’s oppression is even starker today.

5. The global divide of women’s oppression. Imperialism is furthering the gap between women in the First and Third worlds. Not only is the neoliberal drive worsening economic conditions for women in the poorest countries, but it is also reinforcing and strengthening the feudal subjugation of women. The majority of women globally are actually being pushed further and further away from formal equality, let alone social and economic equality.

6. What this means for advancing the struggle. These factors all inform our starting point for struggling for women’s liberation today, and necessitate that we cut through the distortions of cultural and identity politics that have come to dominate feminist thinking, and to "proletarianise" our outlook on fighting to end women’s oppression.

In the October NC report we noted that the current objective conditions make the fight for women’s rights much more likely to be part of mixed struggles than a stand-alone movement. Advancing women’s liberation cannot be separated from the range of fronts on which neoliberalism is being resisted.

Fighting to rebuild militant trade unions will be essential to winning greater wage equality for women. Opposition to privatisation is key to defending public funding of welfare and services that lift some of the burden from women’s shoulders. Opposing imperialism’s new war is a critical part of defending the rights of women in the least developed countries.

But we can’t abandon one schema to simply replace it with another. There are no quick or easy answer to the problems of women’s liberation today.

There are deep contradictions in how capitalism utilises and maintains the oppression of women. This is exemplified by the ideological drive to reinforce women’s responsibility in the home (to free the state from having to pay for social maintenance) on the one hand, and the permanent position of women in the workforce on the other.

The ruling class have no interest in driving women en masse from the workforce - women provide a super-exploitable pool of labour to help keep down the wages and conditions of the working class as a whole, and most working class families rely on two sources of income in order to survive, without which there would be a likely dramatic escalation in class struggle which the capitalists naturally wish to avoid. However women must be convinced that our primary role is in the home, and so carry the double burden of domestic labour and paid employment.

A case study - paid maternity leave

The inherent contradictions facing the ruling class in their ideological drive can be seen by the recent discussions and debates around the issue of paid maternity leave.

Paid maternity leave is a basic working condition that workers in Australia have far less access to than in most advanced capitalist countries. (In fact the US and Australia are the only two countries in the West that don’t have general paid maternity leave. New Zealand introduced it in the last 12 months). Less than a third of women currently in the paid workforce have access to paid maternity leave, and only 24% of women workers in the private sector.

A number of unions have taken up this demand as part of their enterprise agreements and awards. For example, the Victorian branch of the Australian Nurses Federation won six weeks paid leave in their 2000 Enterprise Bargaining Agreement; the standard in the Australian Public Service is 12 weeks paid maternity leave with several agencies gaining 14 weeks in their Certified Agreements; the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) achieved six weeks paid maternity leave in the major automotive companies; in the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) latest round of negotiations they are extending the claim for paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, with a further 38 weeks leave at 60% pay.

After months of debate around her April "Options" paper, and a study conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward released the final proposal for across-the-board paid maternity leave on December 12. The paper, titled "A Time to Value: Proposal for a national scheme of paid maternity leave" calls for 14 weeks of government funded paid maternity leave for women workers, to be included in the 2003 federal budget.

The briefing paper acknowledges the structural disadvantage of women workers:

It is not difficult to see how workplace disadvantage builds from child bearing; women are almost always the primary carer of dependent children and so frequently begin by leaving paid work entirely, or changing to a job of lesser pay but with better hours for the family, moving from full time to part time or casual work and by no longer being able to enjoy the mobility that leads to career or job advancement. Job disadvantage contributes to loss of economic security as measured by female/male earnings disparities, wealth holdings and later, to superannuation entitlements and financial security in old age.

The issue of parental leave as opposed to maternity leave is very much obscured in this debate. Goward argues that the paid leave should only be offered to women due to their biological role in giving birth, in breastfeeding (if that’s what they choose to do) and so on. Any concession to the father’s desire to be more involved in the upbringing of the child is left entirely out of the picture. And the automatic assumption that it is the woman who necessarily has to be the primary care giver in every case, is reinforced.

The HREOC scheme proposes that women who have been in paid work for 40 out of the 52 weeks prior to giving birth will be eligible. This includes women working in full-time, part-time and casual jobs as well as contractors, self-employed and small business women. But the proposed scheme will be entirely funded by the government, and employers will not be forced to contribute, but will be "encouraged to top up the benefits".

Any onus on business to cough up has been largely excluded from the whole public debate. In her speech on releasing the paper, Goward claimed that "no one wanted employers alone to be made to pay" and explained that her proposal took the pressure off employers, who’s submissions to the debate reflected that "paid maternity leave, if offered as an industrial entitlement, would lead to further industrial pressure for full-wage maternity leave to be included in awards".

So there’s nothing for the capitalists to fear from this proposal. There is no compulsion for them to fork out a cent for maternity leave, except where they are forced to provide top ups when workers win this through the bargaining process. (But in most industries where workers are in a very weak position, increased maternity leave is less likely to be high on the priority list of conditions to be fought for in an agreement.) So in effect this represents yet another subsidy of government to business, who are excused from taking on the costs of reproducing labour, but are still able to retain their skilled women workers.

In the ACT Labor MLA Wayne Berry has drafted his own proposal for a paid maternity leave scheme based on a more progressive concept. His model involves provision of paid maternity leave for all women regardless of working status, to be funded through a levy on employers. The levy would be per employee regardless of sex, so the temptation for gender discrimination in hiring on the basis of the levy would be removed. But Berry’s scheme is unlikely to gain ruling class support, and in fact highly unlikely to gain support even from his own party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Goward claimed in her December 11 speech launching the HREOC proposal that the scheme would mean 100% earnings replacement for casual and part-time workers, and that it would represent a replacement of two-thirds of the earnings for between 62 and 73 per cent of all women in paid work. Payment will be up to the Federal Minimum Wage, or the woman’s previous earnings for all jobs, whichever adds up to the lesser amount. So women currently in casual or part-time jobs will only be eligible for an amount equaling their current earnings, and women employed for less than 40 weeks in the year prior to the birth of their child will not be eligible at all. For unemployed women, financial difficulty from having to leave their job is obviously not a disincentive to childbirth, so it is seen as unnecessary to extend the scheme to these women.

The crisis of the family

The proposal also alludes to an acknowledgment of the growing pressure on the family unit. Capitalism is faced with the unresolvable contradiction of needing to maintain the family institution for free provision of welfare, but forcing the family into an increasingly unworkable reality. At the same time as reinforcing the family, the dynamic of capitalism’s development is to undermine the family by always placing on it the massive burden of social reproduction.

The proposal for paid maternity leave reflects some attempt to deal with this contradiction. To quote from the briefing notes on Goward’s proposal again:

Encouraging and providing assistance for parents to raise their children benefits all of us. Paid maternity leave is a mechanism which provides assistance to families so that they may better combine work and family responsibilities, to the benefit of the children, the workplace and the community. It may also have flow-on benefits for the fertility rate, community life and social cohesion.

In addition to unions and others calling for paid maternity leave as a basic right of workers, the right-wing has also jumped on the bandwagon of this debate, as a response to the hysteria surrounding falling fertility rates. In Australia the fertility rate has now declined to 1.7 children per woman, which is well below the replacement rate. This has become a key focus of the right’s ideological drive to reinforce the role and responsibility of women in the home and as mothers. Even former feminists have weighed in to blame the gains of the women’s liberation movement in the 60s and 70s for giving women more options, and thereby denying us our so-called "natural role as mothers". So for many on the right paid maternity leave is seen as a means to re-emphasise women’s place in the home and to preserve the family unit, the model of which today less and less represents the traditional nuclear family.

But it’s impossible to simply convince women that it’s better for their children’s upbringing and for maintaining the family’s inherent place in the fabric of society if they stay at home rather than engaging in paid work. Aside from capitalism’s need and desire to keep women as a lasting component of the workforce, the ideological gains of the women’s liberation movement remain too entrenched for this to be possible. In addition, it is a totally unviable option for most women. Many low-income earning women who don’t have access to paid maternity leave are back to work within six weeks of the birth of their child, due to financial compulsion.

Part of the dynamic of the battle to win equal pay for work of equal value was to help lay the basis for real attacks on wages that made two incomes a necessity for most families. For most of the last century the family wage system accorded only a percentage of the male rate to women workers, irrespective of their individual situation (that is whether they were the main bread winner in the family). This was broken down with the mass infusion of women into the workforce during the First and Second World Wars, laying the basis for the struggles for equal pay. But the phasing in of equal pay for work of equal value between 1972 and 1975 was a factor in allowing real attacks on wages after 1975. This continued to be one of the arguments used to justify wage restraint through the Prices and Incomes Accord in the 1980’s. For most families these attacks made two incomes essential in order to make ends meet.

In this sense formal equality actually reinforces individualism and individual responsibility. By removing the legal necessity for a family wage system, the onus is on the individual to cope. So if you fail to cope, then it’s seen as your own fault or weakness. This reinforces the notion of natural difference and completely disregards the real reason many cannot cope - the structural factors that place enormous pressure on women and the family unit.

The whole discussion around paid maternity leave reflects the accepted and permanent place of women in the workforce. Goward’s proposal acknowledges the dominant position of women in this society as one where we have dual careers - as both workers and mothers. The push for paid maternity leave is part of the pressure to reconcile or balance this.

But the contradictions go beyond just the current debate on paid maternity leave. At the same time, more women are being pushed into part-time and casual work, child care is in crisis, and the federal government is pushing for further changes to welfare payments that will increase pressure on single parents and other recipients of social security benefits. The federal departments of Family and Community Services and Employment and Workplace Relations have begun a "consultation" process to review income support for working age people, with all the usual rhetoric that indicates more attacks are on the way. In the name of "participation" and "self-reliance" further pressure will be placed on single parents and people with disabilities to meet stricter requirements in exchange for their pittance of a payment.

So while the demand for paid maternity leave may be one which can be won (albeit within a limited framework if we consider Goward’s model) and is widely acceptable in the current context because of the unresolvable strain on the family unit, at the same time the neoliberal austerity drive is only heightening and deepening these pressures.

The existing ideological terrain

In the October NC report we noted that the right wing are still on the defensive when it comes to the basic question of gender equality, and that the framework within which they put forward their ideological attacks against feminism is one of accepting the idea of equal status for women and men. This is not to say that there aren’t divisions on this question - the religious fundamentalists (for example Reverend Fred Nile) are one faction of the right that this obviously doesn’t apply to. To be more specific, it is the dominant neoliberal section of the right which remains on the defensive.

This is not to claim that there is not sexism in the media (quite the contrary - it’s full of it). Nor is it to say that there isn’t steady propaganda aimed at discrediting feminism, and an ideological campaign to justify the impact of the neoliberal offensive on women and the working class in general.

But we are attempting to identify the real terrain on which the current ideological battles are taking place, including what hasn’t been pushed back, and what factors we can utilise in our favour to further the struggle. This means acknowledging the real and lasting gains of the second wave of feminism (and of the deep-seated radicalisation of all the progressive movements of the 60s and 70s).

In her useful Pre-Congress Discussion contribution Various comments on our women’s liberation work and the October NC Women’s Lib report (The Activist, Volume 12, Number 21) Comrade Virginia B questioned the extent to which the right are still on the defensive in regards to the ideological fight. But her example, that right-wing ideologues often "explicitly claim they are fighting for equal rights, which are denied to men" illustrates precisely the point which the NC report was attempting to make. The ideological attacks are not framed in terms that claim women are inferior to men, women deserve fewer opportunities than men, women are second class citizens or the like. There is a basic underlying assumption of gender equality that must be related to, so the attacks have to be based on new distortions, along the lines, for example, of "feminism’s gone too far and now boys are suffering in the education system whilst girls excel". This actually gives us a better position to begin from, as we have the widespread acceptance of the basic concept of gender equality to tap into in order to take the next steps forward.

Claims of a blanket ideological backlash also don’t recognise the contradictions in the contestation of ideas around women’s rights, and the way in which sexism manifests itself in various facets of the bourgeois propaganda machine.

Just to take a couple of examples that show some of these contradictions, the January 2003 so-called "health and fitness" edition of Vogue Australia magazine featured an article describing weight loss techniques of super-models. It quoted a personal trainer from the US who explained how when models need to lose weight quickly he sends them on "45-minute runs every morning with nothing but sugar-sweetened coffee and an over-the-counter fat-burning pill in their stomachs". The article was little more than a shameless promotion of eating disorders. But on December 5 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article in which they interviewed a range of health and social workers who condemned the information in the Vogue feature as irresponsible and dangerous in encouraging women to harm their own health.

Similarly this year when Brisbane comrades organised a picket outside the "Miss university beauty pageant" the media coverage they received was positive and sympathetic, reflecting awareness on the part of the bourgeois media that such a crude and offensive event would engender widespread popular disgust given the basic advances in general consciousness from the second wave.

Misogyny in youth culture

To take another example of the contradictions, the Oxford dictionary is about to complete its regular update of words and definitions in line with the general social evolution of the English language. One such update will be to extend the definition of "wife-beater" to not only describe someone who beats up his wife, but also as a slang term for the now apparently fashionable ribbed Bonds-style singlets. The use of this phrase is particularly widespread in the US. A web-site established in the US to sell these shirts features a joking offer of a discount to convicted domestic violence offenders. (In response a woman has established a site that sells "wife-beater-beater" shirts with a picture of a woman beating a man.)

The use of this word has obviously been criticised for it’s offensive nature and the way in which using such a term to describe a trendy item of clothing actually glorifies the act of domestic violence. But the other side of it is that the singlets weren’t fashionable and weren’t worn by famous pop stars when the phrase was probably first coined. It’s more likely that the term originates from anti-working class sentiments of petty bourgeois women, as the singlet is traditionally worn by blue-collar workers. The implication is that working class men are wife beaters, which is not only anti-working class but also hides the fact that plenty of men who wear expensive suits beat their wives too, not to mention the bigger issues of violence in society and the causes of it. This example gives an indication of how the right-wing drift in feminism can obscure the class nature of women’s oppression.

This term and indeed the fashion item is particularly popular in the hip-hop scene. If anyone’s completely out of touch with popular music I suggest you turn on the television for a few minutes before your Saturday morning GLW sales spot and watch one of the music video shows to get an instant insight into the misogynist and reactionary nature of youth culture today.

This presents a major trap for young people - the massive pressure to conform to this insidious culture and to not challenge or criticise it in the slightest (or risk the worst possible fate of being "uncool"). But many features of this culture are so intensely reactionary and sexist that it places young people in shackles. This is part of the challenge we face, and certainly part of the urgency of extending Resistance’s reach and influence and ability to revive the rebelliousness of youth in a more generalised way. There is a massive gap that is crying out to be filled in critiquing and challenging the reactionary aspects of today’s popular culture. In the latter section this report will propose a concrete step of preparing a pamphlet that can make such a critique and expose and explain the real nature of popular culture today. This will require significant research, study and discussion, because this like other questions is full of contradictions, and the reality we are faced with is mixed.

What the second wave was and wasn’t

We have already stated that rethinking our analysis of the backlash theory and the exact state of women’s oppression today is for the purpose of trying to establish the best way forward for the struggle. These are not simply abstract questions for interesting discussion and debate, but key questions from which to base our tactics and strategy for fighting for women’s liberation today.

We identified some key weakness in our perspectives on the women’s liberation movement in the last period, which stemmed from a certain drift away from a materialist outlook on feminism. These weaknesses were essentially that we had fallen into a routinistic approach towards what we deemed to be feminist activity or the embryonic next wave of the women’s liberation movement, and that many of our formulas were based on a nostalgic elevation of the character of the second wave of feminism and the desire to revive it.

The second wave of feminism in the late 60s and the 70s came out of the left and grew into a very significant movement until the early 70s when a wide range of reforms for women were implemented under the Gough Whitlam Labor government. From the mid to late 70s the movement began its decline, furthered during the 80s through the ALP’s co-option policies.

The second wave of feminism was very much a part of the more generalised upsurge at that time of the working class and oppressed, including the mass anti-war movement. The second wave’s left origins meant that political questions were on the agenda from its inception, and the struggles were interwoven with the worker and progressive struggles of the time - against racism, against colonialism and so on. It was out of the left and left struggles that the consciousness raising groups emerged.

In the DSP document Feminism and Socialism we noted:

Although the women’s liberation movement began among students and professional women, the demands it raised, combined with the growing contradictions within the capitalist system, began to mobilise much broader layers. It began to affect the consciousness, expectations and actions of significant sections of the working class, male and female.

This new radicalisation of women has been unprecedented in the depth of the economic, social, ideological and political ferment it expresses and its implications for the struggle against capitalist oppression and exploitation.

In the 1970s working women’s centres were established and working women’s conferences held. Large numbers of women joined trade unions to challenge the sexist ideas within them and to force them to take on the struggle for the rights of working women. The Women’s Abortion Action Campaign was formed in Sydney in 1972. Women’s health centres and refuges were established, along with feminist journals and women’s studies courses at universities.

In 1970 a National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Melbourne and by 1971 every major town in the country had its own women’s liberation group. While International Women’s Day (IWD) first took place in Australia in 1928, the first really large mobilisations happened in 1972, in the midst of this widespread radicalisation.

The key demands raised in the second wave were around equal pay, equal opportunity in employment and in education, access to decent and affordable childcare, abortion rights and access, and an end to sexist attitudes and stereotyping.

In those days the phrase "the personal is political" had a very overt and immediate meaning. Not every aspect of the oppression of women was challenged from the beginning of the movement, but as one thing began to be challenged, eyes were opened up to other areas of life and society where women where discriminated against. The unfolding expression of anger and desire for justice is not hard to imagine when considering that it wasn’t until 1968 that women gained the right to permanent jobs in the public sector. Equal pay for work of equal value wasn’t won until 1972, and phased in during the following three years. (Of course equal pay in a real sense is still yet to be won.) In the early 60s any child born out of wedlock still had the word "bastard" stamped on their birth certificate. It was still taken for granted that men should at anytime have automatic sexual access to their wives regardless of consent, simply for the fact that they were married. What began to take place was a sweeping and fundamental challenge to discrimination against women at all levels, the legacy of which remains today.

The political evolution of the movement also has ramifications for today’s struggle. While the movement was very heterogeneous politically from the beginning, with socialists playing a significant role, the dominant political direction that the movement came to adopt was radical feminist. The movement began to narrow its focus to domestic violence and establishing refuges for women, to the point of theorising the question of separation. This political shift was made possible by the treatment of this movement by the left, both the distortions of the Stalinists in their reification of the family and the distortions of the New Left in their anti-Stalinism.

Comrade Virginia B pointed out in her Pre-Congress Discussion contribution some of the other aspects of organisational forms during the second wave that aren’t desirable to attempt to reproduce, including some of the problems which arose in many of the consciousness raising groups, of lack of democracy, counterposing narrow discussions to actions and so forth. This is one example of why the party doesn’t make a principal or a virtue out of women-only forms of organising, and there certainly aren’t guarantees that this is the best way to develop women as political leaders.

The question of political leadership

This report will only briefly touch on the question of developing women leaders in the party, as the focus of this report is how we can advance the overall struggle for women’s liberation. The question of women leaders is part of the problem of leadership development in the party as a whole. We don’t have any separate framework for training women to be political leaders, or any special standards or different categories of leadership. That’s why this question will be taken up more in the report on our party building tasks, in the context of how we meet the massive challenge of expanding the leadership of the party as a whole so we can confront the new opportunities that are before us today.

A lot of the discussion around this question has focused on the issue of leadership style (for example how "loud" or "talkative" one may be), and on the internal culture, informal discussions of the party and so on. But the problem of political leadership cannot be resolved through the internal life of the party. This can only be addressed in a real way through the needs of the struggle. We must confront the issue of leadership development in terms of what is required of political leadership in the movements. This is crucial for the process of forging real political leadership in the working class. In the discussion around our campaigning work Comrade Margarita W made some very useful points about how we seek to develop rounded leaders through the key struggles of the day.

To summarise briefly the approach the party has continued to adopt on this question:

Firstly, our starting point is that we have a collective approach to leadership, which seeks to develop all comrades as leaders, and which sees a major feature of leadership being training other comrades to lead.

Secondly, we recognise that comrades from certain backgrounds (women, migrants, working class with less access to formal education than others for example) face additional barriers to developing leadership skills, and we seek to collectively overcome these barriers, primarily through the conscious approach of seeking to develop the leadership capacity of all comrades. It is not true however, as comrade Virginia B claims, that "men are encouraged to see themselves as political leaders, and qualified to talk politics…" While it is true that the sexist nature of socialisation under capitalism promotes some men’s confidence at the expense of women’s, and this can manifest itself in terms of confidence in public speaking and so on, it is not true to say that men in general are socialised to be political leaders. The working class as a whole are not socialised to be political leaders (and perhaps our tasks would be much easier if a section of the working class was in fact brought up with the in-built ability to take on political leadership roles), but to be submissive workers.

Thirdly we acknowledge that no comrade is immune to the prejudices and discriminatory attitudes of bourgeois society, and that these will be reflected within our own organisation and within the movements. We do seek to challenge such attitudes and behaviour as they arise, but in a political way that will aide our overall project of developing our cadre and advancing the struggle. And in the final sense, engaging collectively in the struggle to bring an end to the material conditions that give rise to such prejudices is the most effective way to really counter bourgeois influences. What is counterproductive is to attempt to address such questions through guilt-tripping, but this does not mean we don’t take up sexist behaviour in a political way as it arises, or that we attempt to silence dissent to such actions or attitudes.

And fourthly, there is no escaping the objective reality that despite the best efforts of the party to collectively and consciously provide the optimum conditions for all comrades to become leaders of the revolutionary movement, there is still a choice for women comrades to make, in terms of the commitment of each person. At the end of the day, this is a voluntary organisation and the party can’t force any of us to do anything. Nor is membership a passive activity. All comrades, in all areas of our work have a choice to make about whether or to what extent we are prepared to adopt the necessary fighting spirit to make the maximum contribution that we can, and to refuse to give in to the many barriers capitalism throws in our way. There’s nothing new about this reality and it isn’t possible to avoid. That doesn’t mean it’s the central feature of our approach to developing women as leaders, because the only thing that enables us to make such a choice is the collective framework of the party and the revolutionary movement as a whole.

Where to next?

So to get down to the immediate questions of how to progress the fight for women’s liberation today:

The underlying basis of this rethinking process is to halt the drift in our thinking away from the material basis of women’s oppression, and to re-ground ourselves in a Marxist framework. This means, as the report stated earlier, to "proletarianise" our outlook on women’s liberation. This means acknowledging and relating to the fact that the future for the overwhelming majority of women in this society is as workers, both paid and unpaid.

Earlier this year there were mass struggles by the Queensland nurses, overwhelmingly women, for better pay. This was seen as a union struggle, and we related to it as such. But this campaign was very much a part of the struggle for women’s liberation too, and actually concretely confronted the question of pay discrimination against women. It certainly mobilised huge numbers of women. We have to be able to draw out this dynamic in our coverage of such struggles in GLW and in how we orient to them in the future. This is what we mean in practice when we say the fight for women’s liberation is being advanced through resistance to neoliberalism in its various forms. This also is an actual antidote to some of our previous lamenting about the total lack of a "feminist movement".

It should be emphasised that "proletarianising" this area of work does not in any way equate to a Stalinist turn whereby the only fight for women’s liberation that is recognised is the fight of women in the workforce. It is simply a recognition of the complexities that formal equality generates in feminism in this period.

Part of adopting a more integrated and less compartmentalised approach to fighting to end women’s oppression, will be to draw the links with the struggle for women’s rights within our key movement priorities and take up the specific attacks on women within the framework of these campaigns. This will also be key to winning radicalising women to our ranks and to a socialist perspective from these campaigns.

The perspectives adopted in the session around our campaigning work sets the overall framework for this, and for the following specific proposals.

SA initiatives

There is particular scope to put up specific initiatives to the SA (SA) around women’s liberation, which could also make a significant contribution to the Alliance’s recruitment campaign, given the need to solve the problem of attracting women, and young women in particular, to SA (which has undoubtedly been a gap since the formation of the Alliance).

This report is proposing that we draft a resolution on women’s liberation, which focuses on what we should be doing today to advance the fight for women’s rights. The resolution could be discussed in the local SA branches in the lead up to the May conference and be adopted there, after which it could be printed up for public distribution as a part of SA’s propaganda arsenal. Such a resolution would need to be written in accessible language that is inclusive of the various forces in SA (and which doesn’t, for example, seek to delineate ourselves theoretically from others such as the International Socialist Organisation by polemics over the word "feminism’, but rather which seeks to find common ground based on our mutual analysis of the class basis of women’s oppression and which looks for concrete projects which we can work on).

Later in the year, we should try to put together a SA-initiated working women’s conference in Melbourne. We’ll need to put some more thinking into this, as well as negotiating with the relevant trade union forces in Victoria. Is this something we should approach Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard about early on to gage support for? Although the AMWU didn’t vote to fund such a conference when comrades put up the concept at a recent meeting, this didn’t necessarily reflect opposition to the idea, and there were unionists who were interested. Such a conference could also look at possible action proposals to come out of it (possibly campaign initiatives around child care, wage equity and so on).

There are other possibilities for what we could propose to SA to initiate, and what is and isn’t viable needs to be determined on a city by city basis. Local SA film screenings of feminist films would be relatively simple to organise and would aide the process of establishing real life and activity around the SA branches, to draw in and involve new activists and maintain a periphery around the Alliance. Comrades in Rockhampton have organised a number of successful film nights along this theme, where someone prepares a short introduction to the film to provide some political background, and then after the film people are encouraged to stay for discussion. This would also assist in increasing the level of political content and discussion at alliance events.

In some cities it may also be possible to organise seminars on fighting for women’s liberation, where we could have a range of speakers. In addition to engaging the other tendencies in the discussion, this would also help to attract women to the Alliance.

A discussion both locally and nationally about how SA should relate to IWD next year would provide a constructive and concrete focus for taking this discussion into the alliance. Regardless of what form IWD takes in different cities, there are two basic things that we could consider.

Firstly is to organise SA "red" contingents at the marches and secondly is given that post-rally social functions don’t tend to be organised by the collectives any more, there is a wide open space for us to initiate SA evening events, perhaps with dinner, drinks, entertainment and some short speeches, to highlight IWD’s working class and socialist roots. This would give us something to draw people to after the rally.

Orienting to the traditional events

As the October NC report pointed out, rethinking our approach to this area of work does not mean proposing that we simply abandon some of the previous activities we were engaged in which suffer from many of the problems and contradictions we have begun to identify. On the contrary, some of these events will require us to step up our efforts in order to seek to break out of the old schemas and set them on a new footing that can actually move the struggle forward.

For example the discussion at the October NC raised a number of factors to consider in attempting to break IWD out of its narrow formulaic routine. These were that we need to make a branch by branch assessment of what openings may exist and what potential allies we could pursue in order to mobilise the broadest possible forces and link in with existing struggles.

In some cities there have already been initial steps taken towards some type of "women against war and racism" marches. In Sydney there had been a positive response to this so far.

However the problem we are faced with is that even getting up IWD marches around the basic politics of no war and racism still doesn’t solve the problem of how to mobilise broader forces. There simply isn’t a quick fix here. We can’t simply replace our old disproven formula with a new formula that will suddenly establish a working class connection for IWD and take a dramatic step forward in the weight and impact of the IWD events.

But perhaps in a couple of cities where the balance of forces on the trade union front are more favourable we could see how far we can push things for next year. For example, in Melbourne can we go directly to Hubbard and try to get support for a common march among the left unions around some key basic demands like maternity leave, child care, and equal pay, with of course the room to draw in the other major questions such as war. If we could pull this off then it would start to break out of the trap of the small marches around less focused platforms.

As the report mentioned earlier, the NTEU has included the demand for paid maternity leave in its latest enterprise bargaining round. Could we approach them in certain cities to come behind the marches with this issue as a key uniting focus to draw in broader layers?

Reclaim the Night (RTN) this year was varied around the country, and apart from Brisbane where 1000 people mobilised, the marches were mostly very small. In a lot of cities the events were focused around the usual theme of sexual and domestic violence, largely involving women around the service sector. But in a few places (in particular where we had more involvement and influence such as Rockhampton, Darwin and Wollongong) there were broader questions of violence addressed with anti-war, refugee rights or solidarity speakers and demands.

Although the pressure of other movement priorities can make it difficult to find the resources to intervene too heavily in these events when they are narrow and lacking in a useful focus, in most places the RTN marches still attract young women who are open to broader political ideas and activity than those expressed through the old radical feminist circles. Even where it is not possible for us to work in the collectives and to take on the project of making the events viable and actually linked to real struggle, we don’t want to abstain from the rallies. Comrade Bronwyn P was one of few comrades who went to the Sydney RTN march this year, and managed to get some good political chants going on the march. This attracted other young women who enthusiastically joined in until one of the old guard stepped in to shut them up!

A big project for next year will be the Network of Women Students Australia conference, which is being organised at Macquarie University in Sydney. There is a real opportunity this year with a healthy organising collective and the conference taking place in a major city to make this a really lively and politicised conference.

Our approach to the conference will be taken up more in the youth and campus work report, but we want to project that we take on really building this nationally from O’week, regardless of when the official publicity is produced, and start collecting names and e-mails of women who want to go along in each campus contingent.

This also gives a project to use to test out women’s collectives on campus in the early part of the year and see what networks we can build up.

Education, propaganda and publishing projects

The NC projected a number of publications relating to the question of women’s liberation. This includes producing our own versions with introductions of Engels on The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks on women’s liberation. We also projected a new pamphlet on "Patriarchy, identity and class" that would replace the old Patriarchy and Class booklet that is out of print.

As mentioned earlier, an additional proposal is that we put together a pamphlet that makes a comprehensive critique and assessment of popular culture in Australia today and the role it plays.

Another proposal is to convert the main content of the NC report on women’s liberation into a more popular presentation on the question of problems of women’s liberation today and print it up as a pamphlet.

In addition, this report is proposing we produce a short pamphlet on feminism to be used particularly as a Resistance recruiting tool.

There are also a range of other useful articles or pamphlets that we could write or solicit that take up some key questions that need to be grappled with today. One very useful project would be to try to get a woman leader of the Indian Communist Party Marxist-Leninist CPI-ML or the Labour Party of Pakistan to write a piece for Links Magazine around the impact of religious fundamentalism on women in the Third World.

The NC report also put forward the specific assignment of greater resources to GLW to work on more comprehensive copy related to women’s liberation, which comrades Nat Z and Karen F in Melbourne will work on this next year.

This report also proposes that from the first issue of GLW in 2003 we change the name of the "and ain’t I a woman" column, which is not only obscure, but which also feeds into an identity politics approach to feminism. This expression has historical relevance in addressing the intersection of race and gender, referring to the fight for black women to be recognised as women. But today to most people it is utterly obscure. Two possible alternatives are "we have a world to win" or "women in struggle".

A major international working women’s conference

We should keep working on the possibility of a big international conference here in the next couple of years, around a theme like "women, workers and the fight for global justice". This could potentially be a fantastic way to gather activists from all over the country and the region to discuss the real problems of women’s liberation today, and to hear from real struggles taking place by women. It would be an excellent antidote to the academic petty-bourgeois identity politics model of feminist thought that currently pervades most feminist circles in this country.

We could try to get out some women leaders of struggles in the region (such as a peasant leader from the CPI-ML, a comrade from the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggles etc. Could we try to get Francis Curran from the Scottish Socialist Party to come out, who is likely to become a Scottish MP after the May election?) Could such a conference be hosted by SA? These are some of the questions we need to thrash out.

A world to win

This remains an open-ended discussion, and many of the questions that we have begun to raise cannot be answered without further thought, discussion, testing out and developments in the struggle more generally.

But by seeking to relocate this question back to its material base we can begin to refocus our forces and efforts on much more effectively developing the struggle to achieve far deeper and lasting change for women than has ever been seen before.

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