Development of the women's movement

The birth of the women's liberation movement reflected major structural changes in the lives of the mass of women. The feminist movement succeeded in revealing the social character of women's situation and gave expression to the revolt of women as a gender. While many changes and greater equality have resulted from this revolt, women continue to suffer discrimination, subordination and oppression. 

Many of the ideas and issues raised by the movement have been accepted by the majority of society, so much so that in the advanced capitalist countries there has been an attempt by the ruling class to convince women that they live in a ``post-feminist'' era, where equality between the sexes has been achieved and there is no longer any need for a women's liberation movement. 

However, despite the obfuscation of the ruling class, the reality is very different: women in the advanced capitalist countries not only continue to be oppressed, the gains they have made over the last few decades have come under increasing attack as the social and economic crisis of late monopoly capitalism has steadily deepened. 

In the advanced capitalist countries, where the movement first emerged, the 1970s was a period when it was possible for the various currents in the movement to unite and engage in mass action in alliance with trade-union and other progressive movements nationally and internationally to win and defend women's rights, such as abortion. To some degree success in winning such reforms slowed down this type of activity. 

During the same period, however, the movement was increasingly affected by the shift to the right of the traditional leaderships of the working-class movement as the latter accommodated to the austerity drive of the bourgeoisie. The labor bureaucracy's acceptance of the need for austerity has led to a weakening of labor struggles and this in turn has weakened the striking power of other social movements. 

Organisational fragmentation in the First World

At the beginning of the 1980s there was a significant decline and a fragmentation of the feminist movement. This has occurred for a variety of reasons: 
  • Many activists have become integrated into governmental institutional and/or social service activities, building careers within these frameworks.
  •  The labor bureaucracies and the managerial structures of companies have increasingly been opened up to women.
  • Many feminists have turned their energies to building movements around social issues such as peace and environmental protection.
In many cases women's organisations continue, although isolated and focused on concrete and/or one-off activities. Today, with a few exceptions like Spain, Canada and the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in the USA, there are no national coordinating structures of women's groups. This signifies a weakness in the movement, a sectoralisation of struggles and demands. 

In Australia, the general women's liberation meetings in each capital city have ceased. At best, women's liberation centres have become venues where different groups can hold meetings. International Women's Day activities remain the only focus for joint activities by feminist groups. Even the big national women's conferences, such as the Women and Labour Conferences where all issues and views were aired, ceased in the early 1980s. 

While there has been a decline of ``organised feminism'' over the last decade, this hasn't meant that women haven't continued to radicalise. Quite the reverse. Broad layers of women have begun to struggle for their rights in quite diverse areas -- cultural struggles against the images of women in the media and in education, religious struggles for equality in the churches, women fighting against domestic violence and incest and for more refuges, struggles for economic independence -- for equal pay, for greater job access and training, for more child care facilities, etc. 

Moreover, women have been actively resisting the attacks on their rights as these have stepped up. New organisations have emerged for the defence of particular issues, or coalitions have developed to coordinate a united fightback for a period of time. These initiatives point to possible organisational developments for the women's movement in the future. 

The question that faces the movement at the beginning of the 1990s is how to draw the new layers of radicalising women into a unified movement. 

The women's liberation movement has always been a heterogeneous movement containing many different political viewpoints and theories about the nature and the origin of women's oppression. The diversity of opinion within the movement reflects the variety of interests and experiences, and the different social realities women encounter based on intersections between class, race, age, ethnicity, etc. These differences inevitably led to a variety of feminist organisations, each giving priority to their particular experience of oppression and inequality, for example, neighborhood groups, student groups, groups organising at workplaces, lesbian-feminist groups, groups of older women, groups based around feminist magazines, action coalitions around specific demands, etc. 

While it is understandable that political consciousness begins to develop out of particular subjective experiences of oppression and then spreads to a more general feminist understanding, this process became somewhat distorted in the women's movement. The heterogeneity of the movement was accompanied by a commitment of each group to organisational autonomy, to independence. 

However, over time, this notion of autonomy became increasingly interpreted as an absolute, with each group asserting its own needs and identity at the expense of the need for united action, not only with other movements for radical social change, but even with other feminist groups. This set up a process of definition, limitation and in some cases exclusiveness that led to competition with other groups about who were the `true' feminists. Fragmentation was, as a consequence, inevitable and was extolled by many as a virtue. 

The elevation of organisational autonomy above all else became the basis for emphasising splits and fragmentation -- it became part of the de facto political strategy of the movement. Ways of building bridges for joint activity, or building alliances in order to win shared objectives, suffered accordingly. Fragmentation as ``affirmation of difference'' replaced the capacity of the movement to plan strategically how to win liberation for all women. Even questions of tactics in ordering immediate priorities for struggle have fallen victim to the ideological shift of ``affirming our differences'' as basic to feminism. Consideration of shared fundamentals of women's oppression has been replaced with ``contextual'' impressions and relativism. 

Yet, at the same time, women's participation in various types of struggles -- in the unions, on the job, in the social movements -- has increased. Although this has not always been translated into an organisational strengthening of the movement, the potential exists for this. 

Networking in the Third World

By contrast, women in the Third World have had a different experience. In many cases the first impact of the feminist movement was on better-educated and more privileged women in the Third World. This led to a similar development to that experienced by the movement in the advanced capitalist countries -- consciousness-raising groups; discussion and activity around questions like housework, violence, sexuality, abortion; and the failure to establish forms of organisation to unify women and build a movement accessible to the majority of women. 

As the international impact of the women's movement led to greater awareness of women's oppression, many of the autonomous feminist groups in the Third World were absorbed into government projects. 

But in the Third World, the 1980s were a period of desperate struggles for survival by the masses of women and men in the face of growing debt crisis and the International Monetary Fund's savage austerity programs. The vast majority of Third World women were, and are, permanently organised around the question of the economic survival of themselves and their families: 

  • Peasant and indigenous women often organise as women to take up problems linked to the need for better conditions for carrying out domestic labor and for the well-being of their families, such as fighting for their own right to land and loans, and the need to have their own income to increase family revenue.
  • They are continually confronted by the need to organise against political repression and for human rights and democracy. In many underdeveloped countries women are the driving force for the committees of relatives of political prisoners and the disappeared.
  • Millions of Third World women have been forced out of the home or the extended peasant family into broader economic, social and political struggles. Civic urban movements fighting for solutions to the problems of housing, social services and high prices involve huge numbers of women. The development of trade union and peasant struggles involve a growing proportion of women as they make up an increasing proportion of both the agricultural work force and many new industries in the Third World which are almost exclusively based on female labor. This entry into public life creates a contradictory dynamic. The majority of women go into public life as wives and mothers, with a growing minority who enter as young women workers. Leaving their homes and neighborhoods, they come up against the centralised force of repressive governments. As a result, they more immediately acquire an understanding of the need for coordinated action and alliances.
A series of working networks have been built at national, regional and even subcontinental level, for example, Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Meetings. Many sectoral conferences have taken place on a regional level as well. And national women's organisations are emerging in a number of Third World countries. 

Theoretical differences

A key factor determining the development of the women's liberation movement, of the issues and demands it campaigns around, and the organisational forms it adopts is the theoretical understanding among feminists of the origins and nature of women's oppression. 

Different ideas on this question invariably lead to the adoption of different strategies and forms of organisation. From the very beginning of the second wave there have been divergent views on the origins and nature of women's oppression within the movement. 

As the movement has developed over the past 20 years, impacting on social attitudes and practices, and as the ruling class shifted its response from an initial attempt to dismiss the movement to an active policy of trying to co-opt it, the confusion of competing theories and strategies within the movement has increased. 

The materialist analysis of the historical origin and economic roots of women's oppression is essential to developing a program and perspective capable of winning women's liberation. To reject this scientific explanation inevitably leads to one of two errors: 

a. One error, made by many who claim to follow the Marxist method, is to deny, or at least down-play, the oppression of women as a sex throughout the entire history of class society. They see the oppression of women purely and simply as an aspect of the exploitation of the working class. This view gives weight and importance to struggles by women only, or mainly, in their capacity as wage workers on the job. It says women will be liberated, in passing, by the socialist revolution, so there is no special need for them to organise as women fighting for their own demands. 

In rejecting the need for women to organise against their oppression, such views only reinforce divisions within the working class, and retard the development of class consciousness among women who begin to rebel against their subordinate status. This viewpoint has suffered major setbacks with the development, growth and experiences of the second wave of the women's movement and with the failure of women to make decisive advances toward their liberation in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. 

b. A symmetrical error is made by those who argue that male domination of women -- ``patriarchy''-existed before class society began to emerge. This was concretised, they hold, through a sexual division of labor. Thus, ``patriarchal'' oppression must be explained by reasons other than the development of private property and class society. They see ``patriarchy'' as a set of repressive relations parallel to but independent of class relations. 

Those who have developed this analysis in a systematic way usually isolate the fact of women's role in reproduction and concentrate on it alone. They largely ignore the primacy of cooperative labor, the essence of human society, and place little weight on women's place in the process of production at each historical stage. 

Some even go so far as to theorise a timeless ``patriarchal'' mode of reproduction with male control over the means of reproduction (women). They often put forward psychoanalytical explanations which readily fall into ahistorical idealism, rooting oppression in biological and/or psychological drives torn out of the materialist framework of social relations. 

This current, sometimes organised as ``radical feminists,'' contains both conscious anti-Marxists and others who consider themselves to be making a ``feminist redefinition of Marxism.'' They are hostile to and reject the need for women and men to organise together to end both class exploitation and sexual oppression. They see little need for alliances in struggle with others who are oppressed and exploited. 

Both of these one-sided approaches deny the revolutionary dynamic of the struggle for women's liberation as a form of the class struggle. Both fail to recognise that the struggle for women's liberation, to be successful, must go beyond the bounds of capitalist property relations. Both reject the implications this fact has for the importance of building alliances within the women's movement and between it and other progressive social forces. 

Justifying fragmentation

The fragmentation of the women's liberation movement in the imperialist countries over the last decade has been accompanied, and to some degree caused, by the proliferation of theories about ``patriarchy.'' A major part of this theorising has been the development of theoretical justifications for the fragmentation of the movement based on redefining the idea of autonomy as separateness and elevating ``difference'' (between men and women, and between different groups of women) into an absolute. 

The basis for this error rests on the view that there is an ``essential'' (i.e., inherent and timeless) difference between the psychological drives and behavioral characteristics of men and women. In some cases, feminists holding this analysis have aligned themselves with traditional bourgeois ideas and reactionary myths about the ``natures'' of men and women, disguised in liberation rhetoric and jargon. 

By the mid-1970s distinct and often opposed tendencies, perhaps latent from the beginning, emerged sharing to some degree an ``essentialist'' framework: socialist feminism, radical feminism, separatism, cultural feminism, and most recently ecofeminism. 

For these feminists, the struggle for women's liberation has ceased to be one aimed at overcoming unequal access to economic, political and cultural life based on a notion of a shared humanity and a passage to equality. Instead, they see feminism as a ``celebration of difference'' based on some fundamental and inherent divide between masculine and feminine identity. In some cases this involves the assertion of essential ``femaleness,'' of motherhood, of the maternal, the caring. In the case of ecofeminism this is linked to the notion of Earth as ``mother,'' the goddess, fruitfulness, or other mythical allusions. In many cases the notion of difference implicitly or explicitly rests on some form of reductionism whether biological or psychological. 

In terms of its social and political implications, difference theory tends to evoke an inversion of the old logic of the ``naturalness'' of male superiority and women's unquestioned inferiority. The inversion is then justified in terms of women's unique and ``morally superior'' capacity to bring new life into the world. By contrast, the inevitable consequence of ``masculinity,'' or the ``essential'' quality of maleness, is violence. This is generalised into the position that all that is evil, bad and destructive is caused by men-not just rape and violence, but also racism, the destruction of the environment, war, exploitation, etc. The biological imperative ``dooms'' man and ``elevates'' women. In such an analysis, woman will transform society by her intrinsic moral superiority. 

This parallels the theorising of 19th century Social Darwinism which buttressed the right of the father or patria potestad but it inverts women to the position of power and action. Proponents of these views either project ``sex war'' as the way forward or they counterpose individual solutions, like lifestylism or individually re-educating men, to social and political action. Or they blame men for their frustration at the pace and degree of change in social institutions, not recognising that the liberation of women involves the radical restructuring of society-a transformation that cannot be achieved through a gradual accumulative process. Frustration leads to cynicism and pessimism about the possibility of changing social relations at all and this leads in turn to disorientation and lack of clarity about where to go next. 

One example of such lack of clarity has taken place around images of women-what to do about pornographic, violent or degrading imagery. One strand of cultural feminism whose main advocates are Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, equate these images with acts of violence and rape from an essentialist analysis of difference. For them a form of censorship, or anti-discriminatory law used in this manner, will remove the image and thus the violent act. However, to achieve the passage of such legislation they have had to work with the most right-wing, anti-feminist layers concerned with any expression of sexuality in image, word or act as representing the growth of immorality and obscenity and threatening the traditional values of the family and religion. 

But an image is very different from an act. Dealing with images of violence is really dealing with the symptoms not the causes of violence. These lie in the structure of social and economic relations of class society. Censorship only drives these images underground, into the black market. It doesn't deal with the social problems at all. Moreover, the question of pornography is even more problematic given that pornography and erotica lie on one continuum. One of the gains of the second wave has been bringing questions of sexuality into the open, not hiding them away as something ``dirty'' to be ashamed of. 

But if some feminists have been confused on this issue, the way that MacKinnon/Dworkin-type legislation has been used provides no ambiguity. In Canada these types of laws have been used to declare lesbian and gay literature as obscene. 

While such an ``essentialist'' analysis has been more or less explicitly upheld by ``radical feminists'' and ``cultural feminists,'' and some variants of ecofeminism, it also underpins the analysis of ``socialist feminism.'' For most of those identifying themselves as ``socialist feminists,'' socialist theory is simply an addition to their ``patriarchy'' theory of women's oppression. While recognising class exploitation, the ``socialist feminist'' current sees it as separate from, or only loosely connected with, the oppression of women. 

As a result, this current is incapable of elaborating a materialist and historical view of the nature and origins of women's oppression that takes into account all aspects of social reality, nor is it able to develop a coherent strategy for women's liberation. Its rejection of Marxist analysis of the interconnection between class exploitation and women's oppression leaves it susceptible to a reformist perspective, i.e., women's liberation (the destruction of ``patriarchy'') can be achieved within class society. Indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that most ``socialist feminists'' have been politically aligned with either Social Democracy or with Eurocommunism. 

Developments in the class struggle

Of course these ideological developments within the women's movement in the imperialist countries haven't taken place in isolation from broader political and social developments. They are a reflection within the women's movement of the relative success of the bourgeoisie's ideological offensive during the 1980s against the socialist movement, and even against the ideas espoused by Keynesian liberalism. 

The latest wave of academic ``death of Marxism'' theories-post-modernism and post-structuralism-deny the very possibility of a general, scientific, theory of society and social evolution, accusing any such theories of being the root cause of totalitarianism. Instead, variations of pragmatism and ``partial'', ``sectoral'', or ``contextual'' theorising are held up as the only possible options. These idealist, anti-historical, anti-scientific and politically reactionary conceptions have had a pervasive influence among left-leaning middle-class intellectuals in the imperialist countries, particularly those with political links to the labor bureaucracy. They have provided a convenient theoretical rationalisation for the latter's role in stifling social resistance to the bourgeoisie's attacks on wages, jobs, and social services. 

The bourgeoisie's austerity drive has sought to dismantle the gains made by the working class in the 1950s and 1960s, which included forcing the capitalist state to provide a range of subsidised social services (health, education, unemployment and social security benefits). A major part of the ruling class attack on these gains has been an effort to convince working people that social (``collectivist'') solutions to social problems do not work, and that society can only prosper through unfettered private enterprise, competitive individ- ualism and the ``free market.'' 

The evident failure of bureaucratic and overcentralised planning in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the failure of the Gorbachev leadership to mobilise Soviet workers to replace it with democratic socialist planning has added a further impetus to the ideological retreat of the left-reformist intellectuals in the imperialist countries. Many leading ``socialist feminists,'' for example, are now questioning that there is any relevance to socialism at all. 

The shifts in the women's movement, both ideological, political and organisational, are part of the developing class struggle. The movement is polarising around just whose interests it should defend. Will it defend the interests of the majority of women? Or will it only defend the interests of the minority of ruling-class and upper middle-class women who occupy privileged positions within capitalist society, and who benefited in a disproportional way from the gains made by the movement over the last two decades? 

This question has come to a head recently in the struggle over the right to abortion in the USA. The 1973 Rowe vs. Wade decision recognising a woman's constitutional right to abortion was won under the pressure of mass mobilisations. But instead of launching a struggle in 1973 to make the legal right to choose a practical option for the greater majority of women in the US through greater access, information, availability and affordability, the relatively privileged women who dominated the National Organisation for Women put their trust in an abstract ``right'' and displayed a lack of concern about the real availability of abortion for other women. Their approach made it easier for reactionary forces to erode the real content of the legal right for the majority of women. Within four years of the Roe vs. Wade decision, the Hyde amendment removed abortion from the limited national health scheme, Medicaid, making abortion an option available only to those women with money and private health insurance. 

Since that defeat, practical access to the right to choose has been further constrained until today the very legal right itself is under challenge. Only now are women mobilising nationally and organising politically to try to turn the tide of reaction on the abortion issue. But by choosing to fight in a united way only now, after years of right-wing victories, the abortion rights struggle is starting from a much weaker position than it was in 1973. 

The process of class differentiation that has occurred within the contemporary women's liberation movement also took place in the first wave of feminism. It reflects the fact that the struggle for women's liberation is not separate from the class struggle, but is an integral part of it and is influenced by its development. 

Submitted by DSPAdmin on Sun, 2006-08-06 05:07. printer-friendly version | Array