FELICITY DOWLING explains how the oppression of women is central to capitalism
Across the globe, women are organising for their rights, for justice and a better life. Some campaigns are enormous, some smaller but still important. These campaigns are in every continent and culture. The trade union women of Pakistan and the protesting feminists of Chile, the revolutionary women of Sudan and the Kurdish women fighters are part of a worldwide struggle. In every continent, women are challenged and damaged by twenty first century capitalism, but are resisting. These women’s revolts will eventually affect even those most passive and exploited women who may now support the capitalist system.
The different experiences of women in different countries are linked. My work is in the UK and Europe, but the struggle is worldwide.
Patriarchy, the rule of men, predates capitalism, but it is deeply embedded in the system of capitalism. Women are discriminated against and abused from before birth; in the denial of access to health care and education, in the double-work burden, in low pay and poor conditions in paid work, in the unpaid work done in social reproduction, in the denial of rights and in their experience of gender-based violence.
Capitalism is now taking a different form. Gone is the post war consensus; now we live in a time of globalisation, of obscene inequality, of speculation, of mass migration, of failed states, of war, and of millions living in dire poverty.
Once again, we face hyper-exploitation from the regimes of Trump, Orban, Duarte, Pinera, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin and others. As in early capitalism, as at the start of the 20th century, the exploitation of women is again deployed to provide riches for the already very rich.
A decent life for every person on the planet would be possible if all our resources were to be directed to that aim. There is wealth enough to ensure adequate food for every child, education, housing health care, family life (in whatever shape we choose), culture and decent work for all. The planet, the climate, the environment is despoiled, but not yet beyond hope of repair.
Changing this world racked with oppression, despoliation and wasted human talent will be extremely difficult, but there is no hope of changing the world, no hope of creating a better world, unless women organise. Women’s struggles must not be dismissed or subsumed into any other struggle. We will not be a secondary issue in the struggle for a better world.
The risks to women are widespread, interlinked and specific to this era, to the 2020s. Neo-liberalism has damaged the lives of women over more than twenty years, especially in the era of austerity. This damage has been economic, social, environmental and sexual. It is economic through damage to women’s earnings, worsening conditions of employment and worsening conditions of retirement. It has been social through worsening childcare and reduced support for children, through unaffordable housing and the rise of rough sleeping, and through cuts in social services and the burdens of care being forced back into the home. It is environmental through the climate crisis, through environmental pollution and the loss of access to green spaces. It is sexual in the rise in sexual assaults, gender-based violence and the absence of justice in this area.
The rise of the far right in government further intensifies the attacks on women, LGBT people, people of colour, the working class and the poor. It brings back old oppressions, damages gains in human rights, feeds the growth of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, and supercharges the assault on women’s rights, on people with disabilities, on our elders and on children. The rise of the right also redoubles the exploitation of natural and community resources.
Women are oppressed by the rise of rape culture and the violence of pornography (both in its making and in the distortion it produces in the minds of men and boys). The commercialisation and marketization of the sex trade and the trafficking of women and girls is also part of the rule of the very rich. The UN reported that one in three women experience physical sexual abuse. This will be a hard struggle, but a new generation is rising to challenge the rapists.
Across the world this Chilean anthem is being sung and performed: “Patriarchy is a judge who judges us for being born/The oppressive state is a macho rapist.”
Women at the Forefront
The oppression of women is intertwined in many of the crises facing humanity, and where there is resistance, there are women involved.
Hunger, too, is a major oppression. 821 million people are now hungry, and over 150 million children, stunted according to the WHO in 2018 (https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/11-09-2018-global-hunger-continues-to-rise—new-un-report-says).
Globally, women produce more than half of all the foodgrown. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produceup to 80% of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, they provide 50-90% of the labour for rice cultivation. http://www.fao.org/3/x0262e/x0262e16.htm
Women are oppressed by femicide, the killing of women, the economic and social pressures to abort female foetuses, and the early deaths of baby girls.
The figure for girls not in school was estimated in 2017 at 130 million. https://theirworld.org/news/13-reasons-why-girls-are-not-in-school
There is growing female resistance to rape and rape culture, to violence, to poverty and exploitation at work, against attempts to enforce male or state control over our fertility, against the robbing of the commons, over austerity and right-wing repression, and against the damage done to our environment and climate.
Women are organising against violence against women, against rape. This is not just calling for legal action against the rapist, but challenging the societal structure that supports rape. In the UK more rapes are being reported, few prosecuted and few convictions achieved. “#Ibelieveher” comes from our lived experiences.
Once the rapist gained impunity, assured silence by the shame imposed on his victim. Rage is now replacing that shame: “They hunt in packs, we protect in legions”. These campaigns ring around the world in the streets, in the squares.
On International Women’s Day, March 8th 2019, there were demonstrations, strikes and gathering in cities in Europe, Latin America, parts of Africa and North America. Millions of women in Spain staged the #womenstrike against violence against women. When the Wolf Pack scandal, when men accused of raping a woman were found not guilty of rape, when there was video evidence of the rape, the women of Spain and decent men were outraged. This was not the only such case. Young women especially raged against the rapists. The strikes in Spain in 2019 used the slogan #womenstrike, and involved not just striking from paid work but striking for all the unpaid work that women do: the childcare, the elderly care, the cooking, the cleaning, the planning of family life. The male allies of the women on strike took over those roles that day in solidarity There are plans to repeat it each International Women’s Day.
Domestic violence is overwhelmingly male violence against wives, daughters, mothers and small boys. The United Nations even keeps a league table as to the most vicious anti-women countries, based on their level of domestic violence. (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1052041).
A decent society would focus on the happiness and health of children. To the system though, they are just potential future workers – some of whom they might need and some who are superfluous – so what does it matter if their growth is stunted from lack of food, if they are uneducated or work in grossly dangerous situations? Globally, 150 million have their growth stunted by poverty. Child poverty is now rife in countries in Europe affected by austerity
The responsibility for child-raising is pushed on to the mothers. Child care is mostly inadequate and underfunded, yet mothers are still expected to work in the labour market, where they are under-paid. Children have but one childhood, and damage done in childhood can continue to cause pain throughout life.
Austerity attacks on women’s wages directly affect children, as more of women’s wages go directly to children in comparison to men’s.
The campaigns include those for the right to control our fertility, against the rise of the right who seek to re-impose abortion restrictions, against governmental and societal population controls that encourage abortion of female foetuses, and even the killing of baby girls.
In the UK, the class war waged by the rich against the working class through austerity policies and the cuts has especially targeted women and harnessed sexism to assist this project. In 2014, UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo said there was “a more visible presence of sexist portrayals of women and girls” and a “marketisation of women’s and girls’ bodies” in the UK, which was more pervasive than elsewhere.The UN rapporteur on poverty in the UK in 2018 called the welfare system cruel and misogynistic. 80% of the harm of austerity has been carried by women.
Women’s rights need to be considered on a global level, not just for moral or solidarity reasons but also for strategic reasons. If we are to sweep away capitalism and its attendant poverty and oppression, we need to understand the global connections. The systemic inequalities in 21st century global capitalism are crucial to all our many faceted oppressions.The brilliant Pakistani homebased workers’ trade union and the Chilean anti-patriarchy dancers each build the struggle There are oppressions common to all women across the world. There are no solutions to the oppression of women under this economic and social system, though, through struggle, some gains can be made. Women as women, and women as workers in the paid workforce, need system change In the present nascent waves of struggles. The rights of women will not be subsumed.
The power of the organised working class was shown recently in the strikes and protests in France and in the enormous Indian general strike. Women play great roles in both. Women are fighting for their rights in paid employment. There can be no trade unionism, no workplace organisation without women. In the UK more women are members of trade unions than men.
Women are in the midst of the massive migration happening in recent years. The right to free movement of peoples is essential in any free society but has not yet been achieved. Humans should be able to choose where they live, who they love, where they work and where they study. People who migrate to a country where they have full rights to settle, to vote, to be in trade unions, clearly have a different experience to those who are denied these rights.
The global economy requires or causes migration in all its forms. It is integral to this stage of capitalism. Women as migrants face huge challenges. Where the cultivated hatred of migrants allows migrant women to be mistreated, this is both a moral wrong and a risk to the rights of all women. In England, migrant charges were introduced for NHS treatment. Maternity charges were and are very high, especially if the delivery is complicated. Charges were deliberately fixed at cost plus 50%. Figures as high as £12,000 are reported. Not surprisingly, some of the women feared to go for treatment, and three have died. Maternity Action, Rayah Feldman and others are campaigning against NHS migrant charges.
The stunning numbers of people on the move around the world in 2019-20, though, is not fuelled by people exercising the right of free movement. This movement is driven by war, environmental crisis, economic problems and oppression. Free Movement of People is a necessary slogan for people who support the rights of women and children. It is essential to women who move as family members and are therefore not covered by Free Movement of Workers systems. Migration rules are cruel and hostile in the UK, and many people have no rights even in the country of their birth if their paperwork is not in order. The cost of putting them into order is a barrier to many. The Windrush scandal is still rolling on in the UK, with people still unable to prove their rights to live in the county of their birth, or where they settled years previously. The 2019 general election result is not likely to change this. Indeed, many people who have settled in the UK from the EU may also be caught up in it.
Migrant women workers are not passive victims but are often well-qualified, powerful, hardworking people. We challenge the economic policies like those of the Philippines that pressure women into migration, both by government policy and by economic pressure, and then use their remittances to keep their currencies strong. Moldova is one European example where the scale of migration of mothers leaving children behind is causing a social and emotional crisis. One in three Moldovan people are migrants, mostly women, and few of them are children, so the pressures on Moldovan children are great. “Home Alone” takes on a new depth of meaning. Moldovan grandparents – really grandmothers – carry much of the burden of childcare, but life expectancy is 71.6 years, so this is a limited resource.
We challenge also the economic and political policies of countries like Singapore that depend on large-scale migration of workers, male building workers and female domestic workers. These are not given any rights – not the vote, nor trade union rights – and can be deported at will.
The Exploitation of Women is Essential to Capitalism
Rosa Luxemburg wrote of how capitalism required colonies in order to function. The formal structure of colonies might have largely disappeared, but the use of force to procure resources from the global south and from indigenous people is rampant. Governments who attempt to stop this are subjected to destabilisation and coups. “Failed or “fragile” states are often in areas of rich mineral wealth and often areas where the great powers compete. Where government has ceased to function, there is no security for women. “Bring back our girls”, we cried, but few were returned. Minority sections of women based on race or sexual orientation, disability or trans status, are open to intensified oppression. Sexual violence is weaponised in modern war.
We are organising for the right to live in peace in Syria, Yemen, Palestine and more. Women lead the calls for peace and for the end of sexual assault as a weapon of war.
Deep in the structures of capitalism is the need for women to work unpaid for their role in social reproduction. Just as capitalism requires colonies or pseudo-colonies to rob those resources, so it requires the unpaid work of women bearing children, caring for the community as a whole, including its physical environment. The human race cannot thrive without love and affection, without the structure of society, without community, without the physical environment. Communities and families exist in time. All traditional societies recognise the responsibility to and rights from the ancestors, to the children of the present time and future children, to the care of the elders and the whole community. Communities can be wrecked by capitalism and war, but can be rebuilt by conscious human effort. They are rebuilt in the struggle.
Globalisation required the mobilisation of women’s work across the globe, including in the development of China (and other parts of Asia) as industrial hubs. The wonderful smartphone today is built with cobalt mined by children.
The society we live in, despite its huge wealth, leaves many women in dire and increasing poverty and super-exploitation. The resistance that women demonstrate affects humanity as a whole. Traditionally, women are the links of the community. Their role in childbearing and in caring for other adults’ agriculture, food and water procurement, including knowledge of curing sickness, has made them central to the life of the community. In order to destroy or fundamentally change the community, capitalism had to deal with the women, especially the thinkers, the organisers, the outspoken. Here the “witch hunts” of early capitalism sought to discipline, silence and change women’s attitudes by brutal torture and murder. As current globalisation develops, the witch hunt has returned: real-life hunting of women blamed for some misdeed and whose assets are taken, and whose fate is used to discipline other women. Patterns of oppression are often warped versions of tradition, re-imposed to suit the double exploitation of women and children, in a modern age.
Some women facilitate the oppression of other women by siding with right-wing and oppressive governments or employers. Others have deeply held views of their role as women which keep them under male rule.
There are huge forces operating against women organising, from repressive regimes, from huge conglomerates that oppose unionisation, from local patriarchal structures and from that ancient shackle of the mind – the idea that “There is nothing you can do about it anyway”.But the seeds of resistance are sprouting.
There is no continent where women have not in the past fought for their rights: some with guns and war, some with political and social campaigns and some through the unions. In South Africa, the site of one of humanity’s greatest liberation struggles, the situation of women today is a disgrace. Nomakhosazana Xaba, in her late 20s, says this violence now resembles a country at war against its women. “Enough it’s enough. A lot has been said, but still, there is no change,” she said. “It’s been years. We are brutally victimized each and every day, every second. Am I next? It’s fearing to live.” (https://www.voanews.com/africa/south-africa-declares-femicide-national-crisis)
However heroic the women’s struggles were, nowhere were the promised benefits to women realised. Instead, growth was achieved through the double burden on women of unpaid (and unrecorded) work in the home and in the community and work in the labour market.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND LINKED DISASTERS PLACE ADDITIONAL BURDENS ON WOMEN
“We are the granddaughters of the witches they forgot to burn”. Our current situation reflects early capitalism, with expropriation and hyper-exploitation of women coupled with complex ideological control mechanisms. Home-based workers in Pakistan organise trade unionism in truly difficult conditions, inspiring women across the world. The young women of Chile face right-wing governments with grand and beautiful defiance, and in turn, inspire the world.
(Sources from Sylvia Federici, Maria Mies, Rosa Luxemburg, Marianna Muravyeva)