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Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

Women under siege in the age of austerity

As the Con-Dem coalition’s cuts savage the public sector and economic slowdown bites, working-class women are being hit disproportionately hard. Not only are they at the sharp end of the attacks, however, women are also in the frontline of the fight-back, SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE reports.

AT THE DAWN of the 21st century many predicted that this would be a ‘women’s century’, such was the sense, including among feminist writers, that full equality for women was within our grasp. Even in June 2008, as the economic crisis was unfolding, a Daily Mail front page read, "Women to be more equal than men". It related to belated and token action by the then Labour government to close the pay gap, which now threatens to widen.

Suicide rates peaked for women in Britain in the early 1990s, declining until 2008 but recently rising again. According to the Demos think-tank, the recession may well be to blame. And, while it is still early days, only a year and a half into the coalition government, a number of surveys have found that government cuts are having a disproportionately negative effect on women’s lives. However, this is largely down to the fact that women were already poorer and suffered discrimination.

Huge gains have been made over the last century in terms of women’s rights in Britain. But, while it has been illegal to pay women less than men for equal work for 40 years, a gendered pay gap persists. It would be socially unacceptable today to say that a ‘woman’s place is in the home’, but the majority of the responsibility for children and those in need of care is borne by women. It would be laughable to claim that childbearing capabilities prove that women’s brains are smaller and weaker than men’s, yet we live in a society that puts huge emphasis on women’s bodies and looks, often at the expense of considering what they do, say and think.

There are many nominees for the anti-accolade of being ‘the hardest hit’ by government austerity. Newspaper headlines have specified young, black and Asian, disabled or single people, families with babies, the poor and women. The truth is that ‘we’, working-class and middle-class people, are all in it together. The labour movement must acknowledge that different sections are hit in different ways and bring the struggles together to defeat the government and all the cuts. Women make up over two-thirds of public-sector workers and, proportionately, will be on strike in greater numbers than men on the planned one-day public-sector general strike on 30 November.

Disproportionate effects of cuts

WITH UNEMPLOYMENT AMONG women at Thatcher-era levels there is no question that women are suffering. The government has claimed that it is ‘impossible’ to assess how cuts impact differently on men and women. But in September a leaked document revealed the Tories’ concern that they were losing support among women. It acknowledged that there were "areas where we have made bold statements or promises but haven’t delivered enough including, for example, our overarching claim that we would be ‘the most family-friendly government ever’."

The Fawcett Society has worked with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and predicts that, considering all tax and benefit reforms to be introduced between 2010 and 2015, while all single parents will suffer, single mothers can expect to lose more than a month’s income each year by 2015. The Women’s Budget Group concludes that the cuts announced in June and October 2010 "represent an immense reduction in the standard of living and financial independence of millions of women, and a reversal in progress made towards gender equality".

More than a third of people planning to retire in Britain this year will do so with incomes below the poverty line, according to 2011 research from Prudential. Women are far less likely to save for their retirement, with 41% saying they do not have a pension, compared with 29% of men. Prudential’s research also found that a quarter of women will retire this year with less than £10,000 a year to live on, compared with 12% of men.

A 2009 YouGov study found that, while less than a third of respondents agreed that childcare "is the primary responsibility of the mother", three-quarters of mothers state that in day-to-day life they do have that responsibility. With around 18 million families and over three million women carers in the UK, a lot of women are affected by the cuts relating to children’s care.

The coalition has planned £18 billion of cuts to welfare. The Fawcett Society reports that "on average, one-fifth of women’s income is made up of welfare payments and tax credits compared to one-tenth for men". It has also been found that children will suffer disproportionately. The government cut the health in pregnancy benefit and has frozen child benefit levels. It has reduced the maximum income at which a household can get some tax credits, from £50,000 a year before tax to £40,000 from April 2011, and down to £30,000 by 2012.

April also saw the limiting of the Sure Start maternity grant of £500 to the first child only. The ‘baby element’ of child tax credits, which was an additional payment worth about £10 a week for a year, has also been abolished. Plans to extend free school meals to working families on low incomes have been dropped. Single women are the main recipients of housing benefit. Fawcett points out that caps to local housing allowance will force many single parents (90% of whom are women) – a group for whom local networks are particularly vital – to be priced out of their locality.

Political establishment hypocrisy

IN 2009, DAVID Cameron told his party’s conference: "We’re committed to the NHS, and to the principle of a healthcare system that is free at the point of use, based on need and not the ability to pay". But the NHS is being obliterated. Hospitals are closing, £20 billion ‘efficiency savings’ are being gouged out – even during the so-called pause. Maternity units have shut their doors in twelve hospitals since the crisis began and the Royal College of Midwives said there is a 4,700-shortfall in midwife numbers. Given that it is estimated that one in five women suffers post-natal depression, combined with brutal cuts in mental health services, new mothers are specifically vulnerable to the cuts.

Polling by Demos found that overall happiness of young women aged 16 to 19 has declined since 2009, particularly among the working class. Half as many working-class young women reported feeling "very happy". This is unsurprising as they have been both demonised as ‘feckless’ and denied access to financial help for education and support services. The removal of education maintenance allowance (EMA) will push further education out of the reach of many young people.

According to Demos, half of females not in education, employment or training are looking after a family, usually as a result of teen pregnancy, compared with 3% of males. In 2010, the Tories’ perception of the "problem of teenage pregnancy in the most deprived areas" was revealed when they reported that 54% of under-18s were getting pregnant. The correct figure was 5.4%, still one of the highest internationally.

One of those to condemn Cameron for his mistake then was the Liberal Democrat MP, Danny Alexander – who subsequently joined him in a government which has decimated advice services for young people. The chief executive of the Family Planning Association has warned that scrapping the £280 million ten-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy is "a significant cause for concern".

In 2011, Tory MP Nadine Dorries proposed teaching abstinence as a solution to the ‘problem’ of teenage pregnancy. This method has been tested and found seriously wanting in the US. It usually stresses young women’s responsibility to prevent sex. Of course, the main ‘problem’ for young women who become pregnant is poverty and lack of support.

Office for National Statistics research showed that workers with degrees earned an average of £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade. But fees of up to £9,000 a year, or a likely average debt of over £50,000, will deter many from even attempting to get to university. Given the persistent pay gap of around 15%, this debt will be a burden for women for longer.

Three hundred thousand women are sacked every year for becoming pregnant. Former adviser to the Labour government, Alan Sugar, said: "If someone comes into an interview and you think to yourself ‘there is a possibility that this woman might have a child and therefore take time off’ it is a bit of a psychologically negative thought… If they are applying for a position which is very important, then I should imagine that some employers might think ‘this is a bit risky’."

In 2008, when Dorries attempted her last major onslaught on abortion rights – pushing for the time limit to be reduced to 20 weeks – Labour leader Gordon Brown argued that this vital, life-and-death question was a ‘moral’ issue and Labour MPs could vote as they wished. This year, we have seen a ‘grand coalition’ against women’s rights to choose when and whether to have children, with Labour MP Frank Field teaming up with Dorries in a campaign – temporarily defeated in parliament – for so-called independent counselling for women, potentially delaying access to abortion and opening the way to anti-abortion groups to push their propaganda.

Hitting the most vulnerable hardest

CUTS ARE HITTING women at their most vulnerable and when support is most required. The British Crime Survey reports that one in five women is likely to suffer rape and sexual attack during their lifetime. Every week, two women in England and Wales are killed by a former or current partner and domestic violence is a persistent problem, with 16-19 year-olds at greatest risk.

Through freedom of information requests, the False Economy campaign found that across the country domestic violence projects, specialist support for ethnic minority women fleeing violence, and counselling services for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, are seeing their funding cut. From an analysis of the False Economy findings, cuts to domestic violence and rape services average at over 40%. Northamptonshire Women’s Aid, for example, has not closed refuges but has made redundancies, reducing the service. Its funding is uncertain.

In February, the TUC’s Touchstone blog reported that Liverpool council announced 100% funding cuts to Rape Crisis. Liverpool Rape Crisis helped 522 women last year with a meagre £60,000 funding from the council. In 2010, Humberside police force planned to replace five constables specialising in rape and child sex abuse cases with civilians as part of its scheme to save £2 million by 2013. The volunteers have five weeks training instead of the two years the police undergo.

In March 2011, a Women’s Aid survey found that 60% of refuge services and 72% of outreach services had no funding agreed from 1 April. In Coventry, the number of specialist domestic abuse officers has already been cut from eight to two. Such spending cuts will leave vulnerable women in dangerous situations.

The Tories’ election manifesto promised to make supporting victims of sex trafficking a ‘key priority’. In April 2011, however, the Poppy Project, the main charity to support trafficked women including campaigning against their detention and deportation to dangerous conditions, had its government funding stopped. National coordinator Abigail Stepnitz told the Guardian that letters from government officials concede that, while the rape experienced by victims of sex trafficking is "unfortunate", it does not qualify them for government help.

Under the Tories, it appears that some families have enjoyed the hand of friendship a little more than others. It has been suggested that the family insurance business of Jonathan Djanogly, a Tory minister involved in proposals to cut legal aid, may make a profit as a result of the measure. Meanwhile, legal aid cuts will have a devastating effect on those who need the service. Of the applications for civil legal aid, 62.2% are made by women, with higher percentages in areas like education and family law. Women in violent relationships will be particularly vulnerable.

Rising unemployment

HOWEVER, IT IS in the area of work and unemployment that women seem to be seeing the most dramatic changes to their conditions. For example, most Birmingham constituencies have seen more than a 20% year-on-year increase in female unemployment. TUC analysis published in February shows that in the south-west, the unemployment rate among 18-24 year-old women has risen from 5% to 14% since early 2008. It has almost doubled in the north-west, Yorkshire, West Midlands, the south-east and Scotland.

Between April and June of this year, 110,000 jobs in the public sector were ‘deleted’. With women making up at least two-thirds of the public sector it is unsurprising that the number of unemployed women has shot up by 13% since August 2009, in this joyless, job-loss ‘recovery’. High-street chains have bewailed the lack of demand, with the blame being laid variously on weather, riots and so on. Retail workers, 62% of whom are women, have suffered cuts in pay and hours as well as jobs. Around one in eight women working part-time do so because they cannot find full-time work.

A recent study found that 32,000 women opted "to look after their children instead of doing paid employment", with rising childcare costs being a key factor in their decision.

Of course, all of this is in the context of the persistent pay gap. The Chartered Management Institute found that female managers are now paid an average £31,895 a year, over £10,000 less than men doing the same job. Across the board it is about 15%, higher among part-time workers, those in the private sector, and teenagers. The Tories’ leaked document suggested that to maintain women’s support they could "consider radically different options on equal pay – for instance, encouraging a third party to set up a pay-sharing website". For most women, the most favoured option would be equal pay.

Women are concentrated in the lowest paying sectors of the economy, sometimes known as the ‘four Cs’: caring, cleaning, catering and cash register. The first three are areas considered to be extensions of what is seen as women’s (unpaid) role in the home and have a low status.

Capitalist family values

NONE OF THESE appear to be the policies and actions of the "most family-friendly government ever". That is because, for the Tories and the ruling class, the family is also a vital social and economic institution. It is a way that the rich can pass on and amalgamate wealth and property. They also use it to reinforce their ideas and ‘values’.

In a profit motivated system, the economic role the family plays is crucial. It is seen as a way of keeping costs to a minimum. Workers’ wages are held down. But so too is investment in the ‘social wage’, the taxes to pay for education, housing and other necessary services. When Margaret Thatcher said there was "no such thing as society, just individuals and families", she was referring to who should carry the cost of these things. For the Tories and their ilk, the family is key. When cuts are made in Sure Start, libraries and other services, women are expected to take up the slack, fulfilling their ‘maternal duty’.

For the capitalists, the family is also a useful means of reinforcing the hierarchy of society. In a 2009 speech in Glasgow, Cameron echoed this: "In the end, the state cannot do it all. In the end, the best regulation is self-regulation, not state regulation. That’s why the family comes first. That’s where we can really turn things around and start to repair our broken society".

Responsibility for the ‘moral’ health of society is borne by the family, according to the Tories. In the aftermath of August’s riots, the government pointed the finger at "120,000 dysfunctional families", ignoring the conditions of unemployment, poverty, racist police harassment, etc, that led to the explosions of anger. They have also threatened collective punishment of families, urging cuts in the benefits of parents whose children truant and evicting the families of those convicted for rioting.

The Tories put an emphasis on the need for children to have two parents, proposing, for example, tax breaks for married couples. Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice has argued that "family breakdown" is one of the "pathways to poverty". This can contribute to stress and alienation among single parents and a sense that they bear responsibility for the privations they and their children often endure. Single parent families often do face horrific poverty. But that is the result of government policies. Duncan Smith, as minister for work and pensions, is the author of many of these policies.

But it was Labour that initiated the assault on lone parents, driving down the age of the child at which parents must go on to Jobseeker’s Allowance. As of this October, single parents whose youngest child is five years old must be available for work or face cuts in their benefits. Labour was also the architect of a huge jobs cull in the civil service.

Care for the family on the part of the Tories is pure hypocrisy. The Tory council in Basildon has shown no concern for family life in its plans to evict Traveller families. The continued forced separation and detention of families facing deportation is an ongoing attack on the right to family life. In fact, the Tories’ response has been to attack human rights legislation, which protects the right to family life, often invoked by those challenging these brutal measures.

Changing conditions changing attitudes

DO THE CUTS represent the start of a full-scale undermining of women’s gains and a return to the idea of a woman’s place being in the home? This is unlikely. Certainly, the cuts are forcing thousands of women out of work. But, for one thing, big business will refuse to pay a ‘family wage’ to men as sole breadwinners. In 1988, two salaries brought in only 6% more than one salary in 1973, adjusted for inflation (Suzanne Franks, Having None of It). In two parent families, women’s income now makes up a significant proportion of the family income, over half in 21% of families.

To an extent, women workers, responsible often for their children’s wellbeing, have been seen by bosses in the past as more ‘flexible’. But with the strike on 30 November likely to involve at least two million women, the last vestiges of that image will certainly be consigned to the history books. Women make up half the workforce, although concentrated in low-paid sectors. In August, the Daily Mail reported: "Almost a third of mothers with children worked full-time. That compared to less than one in four mothers who went to work every day 15 years ago".

But it is not the case that such trends continue in a straight line automatically. Changes in economic conditions can have a devastating impact on women’s conditions. A graphic example is the effect that capitalist restoration in Russia had in undermining women’s conditions and standing in society. Following the collapse of Stalinism, women suffered huge increases in unemployment. Women bore a disproportionate share of the cost of market ‘reform’. Working women were thrown out of work and into dependency on male wage earners.

Rupert Wingfield Hayes reported in the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme: "In a darkened room, a group of young women in very short skirts were being taught how to pole-dance and improve their sex techniques… When I asked them why they needed such a class, I was given a coldly practical answer. There are very few rich men in Russia, they said, and the competition is intense… There are many things both wonderful and terrifying about Russia but, for millions of Russians, communism has not yet been replaced by something better".

A Unicef report found that women lost seven million jobs in Russia between 1990 and 1995, compared to two million lost by men. An emphasis on women’s nurturing role in the family was used to justify their ejection from the workforce into the home.

Of course, Stalinism was not a socialist system and, while equality was legally enshrined, Stalin had undermined the aims of the Russian revolution of 1917 to liberate women from their second-class status. And the period we are in now in Britain is utterly different to that of the early 1990s. Heroic struggles of workers were fought in Russia and other former Soviet states but capitalist triumphalism was largely unchallenged. Today, on the other hand, capitalism is largely discredited following the banking collapse and all that has come in its wake.

As millions of workers and young people move into struggle, all sorts of ideas and prejudices will be challenged. This will have a big impact on women and how they see their role, as well as on society in general. Issues that have appeared unsolvable will be unpicked.

Moving into struggle

IT WAS THE student movement at the end of 2010 that initially gave mass expression to opposition to the cuts. Thousands of school, college and university students poured onto the streets up and down the country, challenging the idea that austerity was the only option. The usual portrayal of young women in the press as pretty and passive, pouting or puking, was supplanted, at least for a while. Pictures and stories of students articulating their anger and organising themselves in a powerful movement were printed. Right-wing tabloids and politicians were incensed. A Daily Mail headline read: ‘Rage of the Girl Rioters’.

That this year’s Slutwalk movement came within months of the students’ protests is not surprising. The Slutwalks were triggered after a police officer in faraway Toronto told a group of students that they could defend themselves from rape by ‘not dressing like a slut’. Banners held aloft by young women, often in their teens, had slogans like, ‘Feminism: back by popular demand’, expressing how women, moving into struggle, were searching for ideas that could help them to convey their frustrations and aspirations.

As the trade unions came under attack in the run-up to the 30 June strike – which involved three-quarters of a million teachers, lecturers and civil servants – The Sun called the women leaders of the teaching unions ‘Scargirls’, after Arthur Scargill, leader of the miners’ union during the heroic strikes of the 1980s. But this was another movement that provided antidotes to the usual images of women – women as workers, trade unionists and strikers, being political. As millions more participate in the planned strike action there will be debates about women’s experiences and roles, and about what is required to change and improve these things.

The book by education minister David Willetts blamed middle-class women for blocking access to university for working-class men. It is cuts to university places, the trebling of university fees and other education cuts that block young people from having access to a decent future. Willetts’ attack was so crude that most people would not fall for it. However, there are and will be subtler attempts to divide men and women as there always has been to undermine the massive potential power of united working-class struggle.

Challenging sexism and the system

THE EXPERIENCE OF united struggle will play an important role in challenging such attempts. But impeding the development of these movements and debates is the absence of a political party that could give voice to the suffering but also to solutions to the problems women face. A mass workers’ party would have to debate its programme, including on women’s rights. This would be an important step forward in highlighting these issues. A new vehicle for working-class political representation would also have to fight for women’s rights to ensure their support and participation.

It would have to adopt a socialist programme to do this effectively. Capitalism, far from offering women a gradual path to equality, means greater misery. Across the world, women are suffering the impact of government austerity, with an emphasis on public-sector cuts and pre-existing higher rates of poverty.

It is estimated that 70% of those living on less than a dollar a day are women. A recent report warned that breast and cervical cancer could outpace pregnancy as the main cause of women’s deaths – but pregnancy is not a life threatening illness and deaths in pregnancy are deaths of poverty, absolutely avoidable in most circumstances. In Pakistan, it was women who were abandoned to drown and starve when the country was devastated by floods.

One family that has not done to too badly out of this government is that of Philip Green, retail boss, tax dodger and adviser to the government on ‘efficiency’. Green runs the UK’s largest "privately family-owned clothing retailer Arcadia Group". One of his chains, Topshop, was recently forced by mass outrage, expressed on Twitter and Facebook, to withdraw two t-shirts. One of them said: "I’m so sorry, but…" followed by a list of male excuses, such as "you provoked me" and "I was drunk". Domestic abuse charity Tender said the t-shirt "appeared to be making light of the excuses made for domestic abuse".

To challenge sexism fundamentally requires that the private ownership of wealth and production is challenged. A socialist society would see those crucial resources owned and controlled collectively through a planned economy. Resources could be used to provide free and good-quality childcare, housing, education, but also cheap or free restaurants, laundries and so on, thereby socialising the unpaid labour currently contained in the family.

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