A tale of two feminisms – the fight against women’s oppression today

CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews two recent books by authors coming from different feminist perspectives and asks: what strategy is needed in the struggle to end violence against women, sexism and oppression in the new era?

Daring to Hope, by Sheila Rowbotham

Published by Verso, 2021, £20

Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation, by Julie Bindel

Published by Constable, 2021, £16-99

One effect of the Covid pandemic has been to shine a spotlight on gender inequality in capitalist society and on violence towards women in particular, one of the most extreme manifestations of women’s oppression today. Unfortunately, it is one that many women will face at some time in their lives. One in four will experience domestic abuse and one in seven will be raped. On average, two women a week are killed by a current or ex-partner. Most women don’t feel safe from violence, abuse or sexual harassment whether at home, at work or in public spaces, including on social media. A staggering 97% of women report that they have experienced sexual harassment. It is therefore no surprise that violence against women has been the catalyst for a whole number of movements recently; in Britain most notably following the murder of Sarah Everard in South London in 2021.

There were many factors that combined together to generate the outpouring of outrage when Sarah was killed: the fact that her murderer was a serving police officer; that she was killed following a Covid lockdown which had seen a significant increase in domestic killings of women and calls to police and helplines – exposing just how prevalent domestic abuse is in society and how escape routes have been undermined by austerity; and the fears of young women that they are unsafe, and that society doesn’t  take their safety seriously, even blaming the way they look or behave for the violence and harassment they experience.

But Sarah’s murder should also be seen in the context of the mass protests by women that have erupted over the last few years in a whole number of countries, often with the issue of violence towards women, or attacks and restrictions on reproductive rights – themselves a form of abuse – at their core. These have been a salient feature of the instability of the post-2007-08 ‘Great Recession’ period, which has shaken confidence in the institutions and ideology of capitalist society, and given rise to a burning anger against inequality and injustice in all its forms; an anger that is being reinforced by the economic, political and social consequences of the Covid pandemic. These movements have inevitably led to a questioning of what is needed to be done to end violence against women and gender oppression more generally. Daring to Hope and Feminism for Women give two very different but useful insights into the kind of movement that will be necessary.

‘Rebellion all around us’

Sheila Rowbotham’s memoirs cover the period of the 1970s, as the extended post-war boom was drawing to a close. A self-declared ‘socialist feminist’, she was a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), attending its first conference at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1970, and was actively involved in the activities of local groups in east London. This was against the background of a generalised radicalisation in society and a heightened level of collective struggle in the workplaces. “Rebellion”, she writes, “was all around us”.

In the mid-1970s, two-thirds of people thought that there was “a class struggle going on”. The strike by women sewing machinists against unequal grading at the Dagenham car factory in 1968 had already had an important influence on the emerging women’s liberation movement. Over the 1970s there was a considerable increase in recorded strikes, in the number of workers taking action, and in the number of days lost compared to the previous ten years. This included the first national miners’ strike since 1926, action by dockers, building workers and the occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipyard. These struggles mainly involved male workers but increased female participation in the workforce (up from 42.6% in 1971 to 60% by 1979) was matched by growing militancy and unionisation (an overall increase of 73% throughout the decade). Leeds clothing workers in 1970 organised flying pickets in their strike for higher pay. Two years later the first all-female occupation took place at a shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk. Strikes by night cleaners in London spread throughout the country.

With inflation averaging 13% from 1975-78, and women’s wages becoming increasingly important to maintaining working-class living standards, action over low pay was a key feature of struggles by women workers in particular, culminating in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79. Sections of workers who had not been involved in struggle before, including women from ethnic minorities, were moving into action for the first time. Many struggles, like that carried out in 1976 by women at the Trico windscreen-wiper factory in Brentford, Middlesex, revolved around forcing employers to actually implement the Equal Pay Act. Passed in 1970 it only came into force after a five-year delay, which allowed the bosses to use all kinds of subterfuge and manoeuvres to get around it in practice. 

Though the leadership of the WLM was mostly middle class, it could not but be affected by this mounting class struggle. As well as ‘consciousness raising’ and direct action, Rowbotham explains how her local group supported the miners, and marched on demonstrations against the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Bill and its proposed curbs on union power. They were actively involved in the unionisation drive of the night cleaners and supported other women workers taking strike action, such as nursery workers, as well as community campaigns for the establishment of nurseries, playgroups, women’s refuges and, together with the Claimants Union, to defend and extend state benefits.

It would be wrong to exaggerate the WLM forces. Its activist layer was never big, and the number of working-class women who considered themselves members was quite limited. But just as the increased workplace militancy had its impact on the movement, the issues that the WLM were raising awareness and fighting on – gender stereotyping and discrimination, gender inequality in the family, violence against women, contraception and abortion rights etc – had a broader resonance affecting many aspects of society, including the trade unions, the Labour Party and other socialist and left-wing organisations at that time. Working-class women were involved in the class struggle, not ‘feminist strikes’, even when these were all female, but clearly the discrimination they faced as women impacted that struggle.

Working-class women fought for issues affecting them specifically as women to be taken up by the trade union movement as a whole. This was not a straightforward process as Rowbotham outlines. Even on a ‘bread and butter’ class issue like low pay, women strikers often had to fight not just against the employer but the sexism of union leaders who downgraded or refused to support their action because they were striking for ‘pin money’. Women were considered difficult to organise and, of course, the nature of their jobs and their caring responsibilities they undertook could be an obstacle, although not an unsurmountable one. Often the attitudes of the trade union leaders and the bureaucratisation of the unions were greater obstacles, although it was not a uniform experience.

To convince the unions to mobilise on the broader issues of gender oppression that WLM activists were highlighting, and which were not directly related to the workplaces, involved a big battle. But the coming together of the women’s movement and the trade union and labour movement was probably greatest in defence of the 1967 Abortion Act, which came under attack on three occasions – in 1974/75 with James White’s Abortion Amendment Bill (supported by 86 Labour MPs); the Benyon Bill in 1977; and the Corrie Bill in 1979. Involvement by the trade unions grew with each attack, with 80,000 marching against the Corrie Bill – the first time, as Rowbotham points out, that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had ever backed a demonstration on such an issue.

However, as has historically been the case with cross-class movements, the WLM was to become racked by divisions and tensions: over the relationship between class and gender, patriarchy and capitalism, ‘sisterhood’ and identity, debates which Rowbotham only touches on briefly in these memoirs although she develops them further in her earlier writings. Even the socialist feminists involved in the WLM had different ideas, especially about how the movement should relate to existing political organisations on the left: whether they were from the Labour Party, which at the time was still considered by the big majority of the working class as a party which potentially could represent their collective interests, in groups outside the Labour Party, or, like Rowbotham, ‘unaligned’. She wanted to see fundamental structural change but thought this could somehow be achieved through the grassroots, horizontal methods of the new social movements, without the need for an organised revolutionary party with a programme for socialist change, despite the experience of the Russian revolution and the negative experience of failed revolutionary movements since.

By 1978 the WLM had held its last conference and, as both Bindel and Rowbotham write, the movement fractured, with some taking their feminism as individuals into the Labour Party and the trade unions, others putting their energies into running refuges, rape crisis centres etc, others falling into inactivity and introspection. Over the following decades this fragmentation ran parallel with the embracing of the logic of the free market by trade union leaders, and the transformation of the Labour Party from a workers’ party at base with a capitalist leadership to an openly capitalist party, and the subsequent affects those processes had on working-class struggle which are still being felt today.

A retreat from socialist feminism

The negative imprint of those effects can clearly be seen in Feminism for Women by Julie Bindel, which reflects some of the strands of thought which have emerged in the recent movements about why women still experience widescale violence and oppression and what can be done about it. Bindel is probably best known for her controversial views about trans rights, but has also campaigned for many years around the issue of violence towards women. In the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV), a broad campaign initiated in the early 1990s by Militant Labour, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, we often debated with her and her supporters in the feminist organisation Justice for Women about these issues.

For Bindel, “male violence is central to the ways and means in which men maintain control over and continue to oppress women”. Violence and oppression are caused by patriarchy, she writes, and feminism must be a quest to liberate women from it. The problem is that at no time does she explain exactly what patriarchy is. The nearest she comes to a definition is when she argues that women are a sex class oppressed by men as a sex class and that the difference between men and women is power: it is that power, she says, that results in domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, control over women’s sexuality and reproduction, pornography, prostitution etc. 

Bindel’s ideas about male power can have a certain resonance given the continued prevalence of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of oppression carried out by men against women, and also the response of institutions such as the police and legal system. These seem not just to abjectly fail to deal with the problems women face, as evidenced by the extremely low conviction rate of reported rapes, but to actually perpetuate abuse, as shown by the high incidence of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by police in the Met. However, because Bindel doesn’t give any theoretical analysis of where male power/patriarchy derives from, or how it is maintained, she is totally unable to offer the ‘route to liberation’ that the title of her book promises.

She rightly rejects the view held by some of the early radical feminists that violence is innate to men, a consequence of their biology. This is an analysis which inevitably led either to total pessimism that anything could change, or down a separatist path: creating spaces in which women would cut men out of their lives – what Bindel calls ‘women’s land’ – a strategy that clearly could only appeal to a very small minority of women. But she presents no alternative explanation. Has patriarchy always existed? She doesn’t say. She does state that oppression under patriarchy takes many forms. But have those forms changed over time and if so how?  These are not abstract questions but have a direct bearing on the concrete and burning issue of how to end violence and oppression today.

Male power over women has not always existed but dates back thousands of years to the first societies divided by class. As societies moved from communal egalitarian kinship groups to those based on private ownership of wealth, controlling the sexuality and reproduction of females of the ruling classes became essential for ensuring paternity and inheritance. Absolute authority became invested in male heads of households over the women in their family (and other household members). (See Engels and Women’s Liberation, in Socialism Today No.181, September 2014, for more details on this historical process and why it was men of the ruling classes who came to have economic control). 

The behaviour of women of the ruling class became tightly regulated, and transgressions of established gender norms related to their sexual and reproductive roles such as monogamy, chastity, or procuring an abortion or going unveiled in public could be severely punished, and even result in death. The rape of women of the ruling class was considered a crime against male property, and prostitution became established as the flipside of monogamous (for the woman) marriage. Outside of the ‘patriarchal’ family, women’s public and political rights were curtailed or non-existent. As more complex societies and state apparatuses developed, male authority and the subordination of women became codified in law and institutionalised, permeating the ideas and practices of society as a whole.

Clearly, the original material base for women’s oppression – maintaining, consolidating and extending private wealth and property and passing it on through the patriarchal family to legitimate male heirs – has long disappeared for most of society, in the advanced capitalist countries at least, but the oppression has not. It has changed its form, of course, although Bindel largely ignores this. It is no longer enshrined in law that men should beat their wives to keep them in order; on the contrary, important laws have been passed criminalising not just physical abuse but also ‘coercive control’, and yet ‘wife beating’ continues.

Ideas about women’s second-class status, and double standards and stereotypes regarding female and male behaviour and roles, have been deeply embedded in society for thousands of years. This has meant that despite significant social changes that have taken place, especially over the last few decades, leading to positive improvements in social attitudes, expectations and the general situation of women, sexist ideas and behaviours have survived. Positive social changes are constrained by a capitalist economic system mired in crisis; a system that historically incorporated into its fabric the gender inequality of the patriarchal family and the second-class status of women inherited from previous class societies, adapting and shaping them to suit its economic interests. And it continues to do so, which is why the struggle to end violence and oppression and the struggle against capitalism are intimately intertwined.

A limited vision

Bindel, however, writes only about the struggle by women to liberate themselves from patriarchy. How will that be achieved? She is scathing of what she calls “equality feminism” which merely limits itself to achieving equal rights with men: “Feminism should not be seeking an equal place at the table but rather to smash the table to smithereens”. But, in reality, what she proposes that feminism should actually be doing in practice is not that much different from equality or ‘liberal’ feminism, which does not seek to overturn existing social structures but to secure improvements for women within them.

Feminism should, Bindel says, expose and raise awareness of violence against women and demand that it be taken seriously. And there’s no doubt that campaigning can, and has had, an effect in raising awareness and achieving significant legal gains. As a consequence, many women feel more confident to speak out about sexual harassment or are more aware that they don’t have to put up with domestic abuse: although raised awareness and confidence have to also be considered an outcome of longer-term socio-economic changes, especially women’s increased access to higher education and workforce participation.

However, awareness raising and legal changes themselves come up against the limits of a crisis-ridden capitalist system. The material resources have to be available for women to take full advantage of legislation. There are many emotional and psychological factors, for example, that make it difficult for women to leave an abusive relationship, not least the fact that it is often when they take that decision that they are most at risk, and these factors can affect all women, whatever their background. But there is no doubt that working-class and minority ethnic women can face particular pressures. Of course, it’s a positive development if women are aware that they are not to blame for what is happening to them and that they do not have to suffer in silence, but that is undermined by the cuts and underfunding to refuge provision, especially over the last decade, which mean that 60% of women are turned away, and the severe lack of affordable permanent housing. Low pay, precarious and part-time working, cuts to benefits and unaffordable or unavailable childcare, can all have a serious impact on a woman’s ability to secure the economic independence necessary to escape abuse.

Similarly, campaigns against misogyny or public harassment of women cannot be divorced, for example, from the need to campaign for better street lighting and a well-funded public transport system that can improve the safety of women when they are travelling, especially at night. Sexual harassment of female students in universities is rife but the marketisation of higher education has resulted in less resources for combating it or for supporting women victims, while fighting sexual harassment at work is made much more difficult if you are in a low-paid, precarious, unorganised workplace where anti-harassment policies are not enforced – if they exist in the first place – and speaking up could mean losing your job. Cuts and austerity also impact negatively on the police response to domestic violence and abuse and the Crown Prosecution Service’s willingness to prosecute rape allegations. Of course, the police and judicial system also reflect the class and gender relations in society, as well as racism and other prejudices, which is why the demand for democratic working-class and community control and oversight of both is important, as well as fighting against austerity.

The CADV did not just limit itself to raising awareness, fighting for legal change and for the rights of women who had killed abusive partners, but also campaigned for the economic resources needed to enable women to have a safe exit strategy from abusive relationships. It argued for the trade unions to mobilise their millions of members to be involved in that struggle, as well as (successfully) adopting policies on domestic violence, and taking up the issue in the workplaces – where a woman can still be at risk from her abuser, and where abuse can affect her sickness record, work performance etc, placing her prospects and even her job itself in jeopardy.

This was not the approach of Justice for Women and those who shared Julie Bindel’s outlook. They argued that men were responsible for violence against women, that the trade unions were male-dominated, and that therefore an orientation towards them was not the right strategy. Bindel does write that feminism must not just be for privileged women and that working-class women should make their voices heard, but she has nothing to say about the relationship between violence, sexism, oppression and economic exploitation and material resources.

The main strategy Bindel puts forward for ending violence and other forms of oppression is for feminists to “challenge the power and privilege of men not just in the public sphere, but in their most intimate relationships and in their sexual attitudes towards women”.  Sexist attitudes and behaviour should certainly be challenged wherever they occur, but how that is done is important. Explaining why such behaviour is unacceptable is more useful than merely ‘calling it out’, for example. All allegations of harassment and abuse should be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated and, where the perpetrator is found guilty, appropriate action taken, whether it be in a workplace, school, university, public institution, public space or indeed in a trade union or workers’ organisation, which are themselves not hermetically sealed off from the attitudes prevalent in general society. Education in schools around consent, gender stereotypes, prejudice etc can also have a certain effect although what is being taught and by whom should be democratically controlled, with the involvement of teaching and student unions.

Oppression is not, however, just a hangover of backward ideas from earlier societies that can be eradicated simply through educating and challenging male attitudes, changing the ‘culture’ in society or even ‘dismantling the patriarchy’. Inequalities of both wealth and power are woven into and reinforced by the structures, institutions and ideology of capitalist society. The main beneficiaries of women’s continued second-class status are not ‘men as a sex class’ but the capitalist class. The fact that men still dominate the boardrooms of the major corporations or positions of political power is itself a reflection of how capitalist society perpetuates gender inequality. More female CEOs will not change the fact that their priority is the creation of profit that comes from exploiting workers of all genders, in the same way that female pro-capitalist politicians ultimately wield political power on behalf of those same economic interests.

Gender inequality embedded in capitalism

The emerging capitalists of the nineteenth century were able to take advantage of women’s inferior social position inherited from previous class societies, and their association with the home and caring responsibilities, to employ them on lower wages and worse conditions than men. This created divisions between male and female workers that could be exploited to weaken the struggle of all workers to improve their workplace and social conditions, and against the capitalist system as a whole.

Similarly today employers benefit economically from the fact that women are still the main childrearers and carers of family members, through their employment in ‘flexible’, part-time working in sectors with poor wages and conditions which themselves derive from historic gender roles and workplace segregation. And the unpaid work carried out by women in the family, in most cases in addition to paid work outside or, increasingly since Covid, inside the home, saves the capitalist system as a whole billions which would otherwise need to be spent on public services such as expanded childcare, social care of the elderly and disabled, or on increased wages so that those services could be bought privately in the market.

This is not necessarily a conscious strategy: although, obviously, in some countries right-wing populists do opportunistically use attacks on feminism and women’s rights in an attempt to exploit sexist and misogynist attitudes to build a social base amongst a layer who have suffered economically and feel politically alienated from establishment politics. However, there is no ‘patriarchal conspiracy’, where men meet to impose the “rules of femininity” as Bindel and many other feminists imply. The capitalist class, which is itself divided into different interests, merely exploits existing structural inequalities and ideology for its own economic and political advantage, and that itself can lead to tensions and contradictory processes. However, in a situation where capitalist profits are continually undermined by the contradictions and crisis of their own economic system, the pressure by the capitalists for lower taxes, more cuts in public spending, and privatisation will get stronger, exacerbating the gender inequality that is at the root of violence and abuse, but also creating the conditions for radicalisation and resistance. 

All aspects of capitalist society both reflect and shape existing social norms regarding the way that men and women should look and behave. By the age of four children already have firm ideas about what those gender expectations are. Big business controls most of the media and advertising. The beauty, leisure and fashion industries promote an unrealisable goal of what we should look like in order to sell their products for ‘self-improvement’, strengthening the idea that our external aspect is the most important thing about us. Heavily gendered toys still line the aisles of shops. Women’s increased ‘sexual liberation’ is commodified and sold back to us as sexual availability. At its most extreme, the porn industry normalises the violent objectification of women. Fighting against a ‘culture’ that devalues, objectifies and commodifies women in this way cannot be separated from the struggle to end capitalist ownership and control of the major companies that dominate the economy and the profit system as a whole.

Because Bindel’s ahistorical understanding of women’s oppression – one still shared by many feminists today – locates it in ‘patriarchy’, divorced from the class structures and interests of capitalist society, she sees no real place for men in the struggle to end it. She does play lip-service to male “allies”, but that is negated by statements such as “why would we need men in a movement with the primary aim of taking away their patriarchal power” and “we have learnt that men are never going to act in our best interests”.

Workers’ unity to win system change

Autonomous movements of women historically have had, and can still have, an important effect in changing attitudes and the law, but on their own cannot fundamentally challenge the capitalist structures that underpin and bolster gender inequality and oppression. Even the day-to-day struggles against harassment, for changes to the law and material improvements in the situation of women, are massively strengthened if they can mobilise the united power of workers of all genders organised in the trade unions and working-class community organisations and social movements, and it is through struggles such as these that awareness can grow about the need for broader systemic change. But the fight to overthrow capitalism, and therefore lay the economic and social basis for eliminating women’s and all other forms of oppression, can only be achieved if at the centre of that struggle is the class that has a material interest in ending capitalist exploitation for profit – the working class.

That means that any campaign to fight oppression should not just have an orientation towards the trade unions and workplaces but raise demands that can unify female and male workers and reject those that create division. While, for example, references to ‘male privilege’ or ‘male violence’, or promoting women into positions of power and leadership irrespective of their political programme, may seem innocuous or even progressive, they in fact incorrectly place the emphasis on gender alone, diverting attention from structural inequalities and the policies and strategy necessary for ending them.  What’s more, they can amplify gender divisions and undermine the very working-class unity that is necessary to achieve systemic change.

One of the features of recent movements in Britain and internationally around gender oppression has, in fact, been the openness of young women in particular to the participation of men in the protests, demonstrations and organising meetings, and an attempt at drawing together the different threads of gender, race and class inequality, and broader injustice such as state repression. Bindel sees this as a mostly negative development which “dilutes” feminism and “bends over backwards to accommodate the rights and feelings of men”. “Feminism”, she writes, “is the only social justice movement on the planet that is supposed to prioritise every other issue before pursuing its own objective: women’s liberation”. In reality, collective social struggles, and the instinctive desire for unity and a widening of those struggles that many protesters have shown, are positive steps forward. This is especially so in the light of the ‘post-feminist’ ideas, with their emphasis on individual self-improvement and advancement that dominated from the late 1980s to the first years of the new century, coinciding with the dominance of neo-liberal economic ideas that also permeated the trade unions and the Labour Party, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism in the eastern bloc countries from 1989 onwards.

In the new post-Great Recession and now Covid-crisis era the potential for those involved in social struggles to develop a broader anti-capitalist understanding has grown, although this is not an inevitable process. For many working-class women who have taken to the streets, their ‘intersectionalist’ approach stems from their double oppression as women and as workers, and an understanding of the link between race and class was especially evident in the very working-class Black Lives Matter protests which erupted in Britain following the death of George Floyd in the US. But the theories of ‘intersectionality’ that dominate the universities, and which have also emerged in this new wave of social movements, view class as just one in a long list of oppressions, and workers as just one possible ‘agent’ for change, with no understanding of how class society is at the root of all oppressions, and the pivotal role that the working class has in fighting for their eradication. The main way that awareness is raised and attitudes changed is through the process of struggle itself, something that Bindel has no concept of, but changes in consciousness can be speeded up and steered in the right direction by the intervention of political organisations with a programme that makes the link between struggles around specific issues and the wider struggle to end capitalism, and explains how that can be achieved. 

New era, new movements

In a situation where for many years collective working-class struggle has been at an historically low level, it is understandable that its central role in ending oppression is not readily grasped by many of the young women and men who have been mobilised recently around issues of specific oppression. Collective struggle is clearly not at the level of the 1970s as recalled in Rowbotham’s book, when the trade unions had been strengthened by the never-to-be-repeated economic conditions of the post-war boom. However, the growing and often bitter workplace militancy that has taken place during the pandemic, combined with the election of union leaders like Sharon Graham in Unite – voted in because she is seen as a class fighter not because of her gender – have given a glimpse of the potential power of the trade unions, how they can be strengthened and rebuilt as combative organisations, and also how a new collective political voice for the working class can be built. And in the instability, crisis and turmoil of the post-pandemic period, that militancy is likely to increase further.

At the same time, given the ongoing oppression of women, issues such as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment etc will continue as potential ‘flashpoints’ around which movements can erupt. These may be single issue protests that spring up and then fade away again or they could broaden out, become more organised, structured and longer-lasting. Whatever form they take, as workplace struggle increases, and with women workers – half the workforce and a majority of the trade unions – playing an even bigger part than they did in the 1970s, the relationship between movements and concerns around oppression and the workers’ organisations will be strengthened, and the centrality of the working class in the fight to end gender violence and all oppression by replacing capitalism with a socialist society will become much clearer.