Feminism and Socialism: Putting the pieces together


Feminism and Socialism is a resolution adopted by the 14th National Conference of the Democratic Socialist Party held in January 1992. It is the latest of a series of resolutions adopted by the DSP, since its founding in 1972, analysing the nature of women's oppression, and the vital importance of the struggle against this oppression as part of the ongoing fight to achieve a socially just, democratic, and ecologically sustainable future for us all.

The DSP and its associated youth organisation, Resistance, came into existence out of the same struggles that led to the rise of the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s. A firm commitment to women's liberation has been integral to the building of the party over the last 20 years.

The DSP and Resistance have played their part in the struggles and campaigns of the movement-from the first Sydney women's liberation conference in January 1971 and the first big International Women's Day march in Melbourne 1972 to the IWD marches and the campaigns of today.

We have been involved in most of the major campaigns for women's rights over the past two decades-in the fight for women's control over their reproduction and fertility organised by the Women's Abortion Action Campaign; in struggles to get the trade union movement to take up working women's demands through the Working Women's Charter Campaign; and in struggles to break down sex segregation and discrimination in industry-for example, in the Jobs for Women Campaign which forced BHP to employ women in its Port Kembla and Newcastle steelworks and to pay compensation to the for its discriminatory hiring practices. This campaign established the first class action case in Australia.

We have struggled on the job for better wages and conditions for women; in the community against violence and rape, for better services for women; against discriminatory practices on all fronts-in education, jobs and in the community.

We have been part of the social and ideological struggle to free women from the narrow definition of their role as wives and mothers within the family. The ideological struggle has increasingly shifted into the realm of stereotyped images of women peddled by the media and advertising with their destructive impact on women's health, threatening their very lives. In part this fight has been to reassert positive self-definitions and images of women by women, as well as the struggle against censorship so that women can examine and explore their own bodies, their health, their fertility and their sexuality without accusations of obscenity and the consequent acts of repression.

Today the women's liberation movement is under attack as increasingly the media proclaims the end of feminism. Efforts to drive back women's rights, gained over the past twenty five years, gather momentum. Attacks on women's control over their fertility and their bodies, unequal wages, domestic violence and sexual abuse, lack of access to decent jobs and continued discriminatory practices are all part of what has been termed the ``backlash'' against the women's movement.

Feminists themselves are divided about which way to proceed-whether to go on the offensive, or simply defend the gains of the past-or even to sacrifice the needs of the great majority of women in order to preserve gains for a privileged few.

Calls for censorship to ban pornographic images, or for suppression of reproductive technology because it is a ``male plot'' to subvert women's unique creative function, are examples of the accommodation of some feminists to the right-wing ``backlash.'' As a result of these views some feminists have lined up with the reactionary moralistic advocates of women's traditional roles of wife and mother, i.e., with those who have been the major opponents of any liberation for women.

This resolution advocates a very different strategy. It evaluates the state of women's rights and feminism today around the world-in the industrialised Western nations, the Third World, in the former Soviet bloc as well as Cuba and Central America, explaining women's oppression from a Marxist perspective. It outlines a strategy to protect today's gains and to build an inclusive women's liberation movement that can win new ground.

The basic outlook of the document is simple and clear. It explains women's oppression as a product of class society. This oppression will only be ended when we get rid of all the vestiges of class society. The struggle projected is a united one. It is not the struggle of women against men as their oppressors, but a struggle against the oppression and exploitation of class society.

The document asserts that unless feminism develops a strategy of building alliances with other sections of the oppressed and exploited it will not be capable of eradicating the basis of women's oppression.

Pat Brewer,
September 1992

The rise of the second wave of feminism

ince the late 1960s there has been a growing revolt by women against their oppression as a sex. Throughout the world, millions of women, especially young women-students, working women, housewives-have challenged some of the most fundamental features of their centuries-old oppression.

The first country in which this radicalisation of women appeared as a mass phenomenon was the United States. Thousands of women's liberation groups blossomed and tens of thousands of women mobilised on the August 26, 1970 demonstrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the victorious conclusion of the US women's suffrage struggle.

But the new wave of struggles by women in North America was not an exceptional and isolated development, as the emergence of the women's liberation movement throughout the advanced capitalist countries soon demonstrated. By the early 1980s it had become a truly international phenomenon, spreading across Third World countries as well.

In Australia, as in other advanced capitalist countries, the women's liberation movement developed as part of a more general upsurge of the working class and other exploited and oppressed sections of the population. Here the upsurge took many forms-from workers' struggles for the right to strike (as in the 1969 general strike against the jailing of union leader Clarrie O'Shea), to struggles to win equal pay for women and the right of married women to permanent employment, to struggles by Aborigines against racist oppression, to mass demonstrations against Australia's role in the imperialist war in Vietnam.

Although the women's liberation movement began among students and professional women, the demands it raised, combined with the growing contradictions within the capitalist system, began to mobilise much broader layers. It began to affect the consciousness, expectations, and actions of significant sections of the working class, male and female.

But in virtually every case, the women's liberation movement arose outside of, and independent from, the existing mass organisations of the working class, which were then obliged to respond to this new phenomenon. The development of the women's movement thus became an important factor in the political and ideological battle to weaken the hold of the bourgeoisie, and its political agents within the working class.

This new radicalisation of women has been unprecedented in the depth of the economic, social, ideological and political ferment it expresses and its implications for the struggle against capitalist oppression and exploitation.

In country after country, women have taken part in large-scale campaigns against reactionary abortion and contraceptive statutes, oppressive marriage laws, inadequate childcare facilities, and legal restrictions on equality. They have exposed and resisted the myriad ways in which sexism is expressed in all spheres-from politics, employment, and education to the most intimate aspects of daily life, including the weight of domestic drudgery and the violence and intimidation that women are subjected to in the home and on the street.

Women have raised demands that challenge the specific forms their oppression takes under capitalism today, and called into question the deep-rooted traditional division of labor between men and women, from the home to the factory. They have demanded affirmative action programs to open the doors previously closed to women in all arenas, and overcome the legacy of centuries of institutionalised discrimination.

They have insisted upon their right to participate with complete equality in all forms of political, social, economic, and cultural activity-equal education, equal access to jobs, equal pay for equal work.

In order to make this equality possible, women are searching for ways to end their domestic servitude. They have demanded that women's household chores be socialised and no longer organised as ``women's work.'' The most conscious have recognised that society, as opposed to the individual family unit, should take responsibility for the young, the old, and the sick.

At the very centre of the women's liberation movement has been the fight to decriminalise abortion and make it available to all women. The right to control their own bodies, to choose whether to bear children, when, and how many, is recognised by millions of women as an elementary precondition for their liberation.

Such demands go to the very heart of the specific oppression of women exercised through the family system and strike at the pillars of class society. They indicate the degree to which the struggle for women's liberation is a fight to transform all human social relations and place them on a new and higher plain.

Women's oppression has been an essential feature of class society throughout the ages. But the practical tasks of uprooting its causes, as well as combating its effects, could not be posed on a mass scale before the era of the transition from capitalism to democratic socialism.

The struggle for women's liberation poses the problem of the total reorganisation of society from its smallest repressive unit-the family-to its largest-the state. The liberation of women demands a thoroughgoing restructuring of society's productive and reproductive institutions in order to maximise social welfare and establish a truly human existence for all. Without a socialist revolution, women will not be able to establish the material preconditions for their liberation. Without the conscious and equal participation of broad masses of women, the working class will not be able to carry through the socialist revolution and bring into being a classless society.