To commemorate International Women’s Day (8 March) we are publishing an article written for Solidarität, the newspaper of the German section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).
‘Woman, life, freedom’, ‘Black lives matter’, ‘#Metoo’, ‘Ni una menos’ – protests against shared oppression have been a salient feature of the post-2008 ‘Great Recession’ world. Women in the US, Poland, Ireland and Latin America have risen up to defend and extend abortion rights. Protests against gender violence have swept countries from India to Mexico. Low-paid women workers in Scotland have taken strike action and won an important struggle for equal pay. All of these movements have thrown up different theories and strategies about how women’s oppression can be successfully fought.
One of those ideas is intersectionality. Like many theories of oppression, it is open to different interpretations, but is generally understood as a recognition that individuals and groups can experience multiple oppressions – gender, race, class, sexuality, ability etc – and that those oppressions ‘intersect’ and impact each other.
Intersectionality is not new. It emerged in the women’s movement in the US in the 1970s, which initially tended to view ‘women’ as an undifferentiated group. In particular, black women felt that their experiences were not being taken into account. In today’s movements, it has mainly been a desire for unity in struggle that has attracted protesters to the idea of intersectionality, and this has the potential to be a generally positive development.
The ‘second wave’ women’s movement took place in a period of radicalisation, with growing workers’ struggles in many countries; the civil rights movement in the US; mass protests against the war in Vietnam; and national liberation movements against imperialism. The decades which accompanied its decline, from the end of the 1970s, were those of the rise of neoliberalism, the collapse of the Stalinist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and a low level of collective struggle as the leaders of the trade unions and traditional workers’ parties embraced the capitalist market.
It was against this background that ‘post-feminist’ ideas and ‘identity politics’ took root in the universities and in popular culture in the more developed capitalist countries, stressing an individual route to equality and liberation. Women just needed to stop seeing themselves as victims. With the right attitude equality was in their grasp. They should concentrate on changing themselves rather than changing society. If we could just get better representation of women, it was argued, more women in positions of power and influence, then things would change for the better.
They didn’t. And the 2007-2008 global financial crisis unleashed a period of vicious austerity. This particularly hurt women, who are more likely to rely on public services and benefits and work in the public sector. With a political vacuum on the left – and the new left forces which emerged failing to offer a viable alternative – in some countries right-wing populists have gained electoral support. Arguing that women’s rights have ‘gone too far’, they have set about exploiting the divisive ideas that a minority in society still hold to gain an electoral base, attacking, in particular, abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
This new period of crisis and growing inequality has given an impetus to the beginnings of an upturn in collective struggle, further fuelled by the Covid pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis – both of which have disproportionately affected women in many ways. Within the social movements that have taken to the streets, the idea of unity has been quite strong – looking to overcome some of the divisions that the ruling classes have historically fomented to weaken our struggles.
Although there are still minorities who want to exclude men from women’s protests, or white people from the fight against racism and police brutality, or who fall into the trap of seeing the rights of women and trans people as conflicting, this has not been the dominant trend in recent movements. There has been a growing recognition, especially amongst young people, that oppressions are interconnected, and that if oppressed and exploited groups come together their struggles are strengthened.
Campaigning and protesting in the last few years has raised awareness about women’s oppression, and achieved some important legal changes, especially with regards to abortion rights and violence against women. But this needs to be combined with an understanding of how all oppressions are rooted in and reinforced by capitalist society – which most theories of intersectionality don’t do. Without that understanding, and a strategy to end capitalism, any gains made are constantly under threat. Despite having the legal right to abortion, women in several countries have not been able to access a termination because they don’t have the economic resources, or the facilities to do so simply don’t exist. Without funding for refuges and public housing, women are unable to take advantage of laws in relation to domestic abuse. Cuts to public services contribute to low conviction rates for harassment and rape. And the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US has graphically shown how reforms fought for and won can be taken away again.
Origins of oppression
It is true that the origins of different oppressions are not necessarily the same – on this intersectionality and Marxism would be generally in agreement. Unlike racism, for example, women’s oppression did not originate with capitalism, but with the first class societies that arose thousands of years ago. The patriarchal family, and women’s role within it as the reproducers of legitimate male heirs – their reproduction, sexuality and behaviour under the control and authority of fathers and husbands – came into existence as part of the same processes that led to private ownership and control of production and wealth, and the exploitation of one class over another. With the development of more complex states, women’s oppression became legitimised and reinforced throughout society by religion, ideology, the legal system etc.
The capitalist profit system inherited the patriarchal family and patriarchal ideology from previous class-based societies, and then adapted them to suit the economic needs of the ruling capitalist class. Of course, there have been huge changes in social attitudes regarding traditional gender roles – as a result of campaigning, and structural changes in capitalism drawing women in increasing numbers into the workforce. Yet women still overwhelmingly have the main responsibility for caring for children and dependent family members. Alongside residual discrimination in the workplace and gender stereotyping, this impacts the kinds of jobs women can do, the wages they can earn, and the conditions they can work in. And with capitalism in a profound systemic crisis, the political representatives of the capitalists are not prepared to put the resources into publicly funding the quality, flexible childcare that women need, or the other public services and benefits they rely on – not least because this would entail eating into the capitalists’ profits through increased taxation.
All of this reinforces gender inequality and the backward, sexist and misogynist ideas that still cling on in society. They are further perpetuated by capitalist-controlled companies exploiting existing gender norms and turning everything into a commodity to sell for a profit. So despite the positive changes in attitudes that have taken place, women continue to be objectified, while stereotypical binary ideas about masculinity and femininity, about men and women’s social roles and how they should look and behave are still promoted. It is at its most extreme with the porn industry and on social media, but it is also fostered in the beauty, fashion, music industries, etc.
Gender inequality and capitalism are so inextricably intertwined, It is impossible to successfully fight against ‘the patriarchy’ unless that struggle is linked to an overall strategy for ending capitalist society. So while campaigning to challenge patriarchal, sexist and misogynist attitudes and behaviour is important, there is a limit to how far they can be changed in a capitalist system in crisis, and whose motor force is the maximisation of profit.
A growing minority of those involved in social struggles today, conscious of global inequality, oppression, injustice and climate destruction, would consider themselves ‘anti-capitalist’ – including some advocates of intersectionality. But even in those instances that intersectionality could be described as ‘anti-capitalist’ it doesn’t offer a strategy for how the capitalist system can be overturned. For Marxists, the organised working class, of all genders, has the central role to play in the struggle to end capitalism – and therefore lay the basis for ending exploitation and oppression in all its forms. Intersectionality, on the other hand, while recognising class oppression, considers it as just one in a series of oppressions, and workers merely one ‘agency’ or ‘ally’ amongst many in the struggles against them.
There’s no doubt that the millions of workers organised in trade unions are, if mobilised, potentially a mighty ally to have on side in any campaign or movement, whether it be fighting against oppression and injustice, to defend previously won gains in the face of attacks, or to win legal change and material reforms. But workers are much more than an ally or another oppressed group. Because of their exploitation in the workplace, as the source of capitalist profits, and because their conflict with the capitalists pushes them towards a collective consciousness and action, they have both the material interest and the power to bring capitalism to its knees. And, by taking control of the major capitalist companies, doing away with the profit motive, and instituting democratic socialist planning of the economy, the ability to begin the task of building a more just and equal society.
That collective power of the organised working class, its potential to unite all those fighting to end exploitation, oppression and injustice, is becoming increasingly clear as workers in Britain, France and a number of other countries have been rising up and taking strike action to defend their living standards and conditions in the face of economic crisis, and attacks from the bosses and capitalist governments. Large numbers of women workers have been on the picket lines and on the protests and demonstrations during these strikes. And it has been courageous young women who ignited and led the mass protests in Iran. There, demonstrations against the brutal killing of Masha Amini and the forced wearing of the veil rapidly spilled over into an uprising against the whole Iranian regime. However, as heroic as these uprisings and mass movements have been – in Iran, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Chile and elsewhere – they clearly show that courage and determination in the face of oppression and repression are not enough. Transforming society needs political organisation, structure and a programme for revolutionary change.
International Women’s Day originated as a day of struggle, initiated by socialist women who understood the link between women’s liberation and the socialist transformation of society: that socialism is not just a nice idea but absolutely essential if women, and all oppressed groups, are to end inequality, discrimination and abuse. As far as women are concerned, a democratically planned economy would release the resources to allow them to have real choice about the kind of jobs they do, with the hours they want, and with decent wages and conditions. Fully funded, high quality, democratically controlled public services would relieve the caring and household burdens on women and lay the basis for ending gender inequality in the workplace, in the family and more broadly in society. Public ownership of the major companies would end the commodification and objectification of women, and the perpetuation of rigid gender norms and stereotypes.
Clearly, attitudes would not change overnight merely by replacing capitalism with a socialist system. But with an economy based on cooperation, solidarity and equality, without classes and hierarchies, those values would permeate society as a whole, laying the foundations for eradicating violence, harassment, abuse, discrimination, inequality and all oppression.