A scientific program for women’s liberation

For the liberation of women

The oppression of women is integral to capitalist society, as it has been to all class societies since the break-up of the primitive commune.The oppression of women is institutionalised in the family system. In class society, the family is the only institution to which most people can turn for the satisfaction of some basic human needs, including love and companionship. However poorly the family may meet these needs for many, there is no real alternative as long as class society exists.Nevertheless, the main purpose of the family is not to provide such basic needs. The family is not simply a group of adults voluntarily living in a common household, along with their children. It is the primary socio-economic unit of class society, the basic mechanism through which the exploiter classes abrogate social responsibility for the economic well-being of those whose labour they exploit.As an economic unit, each family is responsible for the economic needs of its members. Under the family system there is no concept that society as a whole should provide all of its members with a secure and comfortable standard of living. As a result, people are compelled to stay together in individual households.The family system imposes a social division of labour based on the subjugation of women and their economic dependence on an individual man, their father or husband. Upon this material foundation, an all-pervasive sexist ideology is fostered by the exploiter classes. This portrays women as physically and mentally inferior to men, and biologically unfit for roles other than procreation and domestic labour. The low status of women in class society becomes the source of anti-woman violence — rape, wife-bashing and female infanticide.While some aspects of this oppressive system have been challenged in recent years, and some individuals have been able to reduce the degree of their oppression, the system as a whole still remains effectively intact.There is no other institution in class society whose true role is as hidden by prejudice and mystification as that of the family. Bourgeois moralists claim that the family is the basis for the natural and moral unity of society. Bourgeois anthropologists perpetrate the myth that the family unit has always existed. They deny the fact that the family originated with and flowed from the development of private property, class society and the state. They obscure the fact that in pre-class society the basic social unit was the clan and that within each clan wealth was shared in common.

However, with the development of a permanent economic surplus and the appropriation of this surplus by private individuals, pairing couples began to separate themselves from the clan and set up separate households. Women became isolated from communal activity, and monogamy for married women was strictly enforced to assure the paternity of heirs.

The family and the subjugation of women thus came into existence along with the other institutions of emerging class society in order to buttress nascent class divisions and perpetuate the private accumulation of wealth. The state, with its armies and police, laws and courts, enforced this relationship.

The origin of the family system in private property is reflected in the Latin origins of the word family: famulus, which means household slave, and familia, the totality of slaves belonging to one man.

Over millennia, the structure and functions of the family institution have of course varied between different societies and between different classes within the same society. But the essential function has always remained the same. Like the state, the family is a repressive institution designed to perpetuate the unequal distribution of wealth and the division of society into exploiter and exploited classes.

It is absurd to speak of abolishing the family. Socialists seeks to remove the economic and social compulsion that drives the vast majority into the family system at the present time, and to give individuals a far wider and freer range of choices as to how they live. Nevertheless, the socialist revolution will inherit many of the institutions of the old society, including the family. The role of the family as an economic unit will only wither away as society as a whole takes increasing responsibility for people’s material needs.

Just as the family system is indispensable to class society, so the oppression of women is indispensable to the maintenance of the family system. With the rise of the family system, married women ceased to have a direct role in social production. They were confined to domestic work within the individual family unit, being economically dependent upon their husband. This economic dependence determined the second-class social status of women, on which the cohesiveness and continuity of the family system has always depended.

Capitalism has refined and modified the oppression of women to suit its own needs. For capitalism, the oppression of women has a number of vital economic benefits:

  • Through the family system, most women are cast in the role of unpaid domestic workers charged with caring for other family members, thus saving the capitalist class the expense of paying for the upbringing of the next generation of workers and for part of the maintenance of the current generation.
  • Sexism is one of the main ideological tools by which the capitalist class keeps the working class divided, weakening its ability to take united action in defence of its class interests.
  • Widespread acceptance of the sexist idea that women’s place is in the home enables the capitalists to justify the superexploitation of their labour, to depress the price of labour power by maintaining a large reserve of unused labour-power, and to reduce the social costs and consequences of maintaining a large section of the population only periodically drawn into social production.

At the same time, capitalism undermines the family system within the working class. Among workers, the family unit ceases to be the unit of production that it was in pre-capitalist society, though it remains the basic unit through which consumption and the reproduction of labour power are organised. Each member of the family sells his or her labour power individually on the labour market. Capitalism dissolves the main economic bond that previously held the family of the labouring classes together — the fact that that they had to work together as a family unit in order to survive. Before capitalist industrialisation, women had few rights and almost no identity or life outside their functions within the family. The rise of industrial capitalism began to end this domestic isolation by giving women an independent productive role outside the home. Brutal and exploitative as this work was, large numbers of women began to achieve some degree of economic independence for the first time since the rise of class society.

The involvement of large numbers of women in industry generates a contradiction between the increasing economic independence of women and their domestic subjugation within the family unit, propelling women to fight against their oppression and the ideology that props it up.

The oppression of women as a sex constitutes the objective basis for the mobilisation of women in struggle through their own organisations. The party supports the construction of a mass women’s liberation movement organised and led by women, and whose first priority is the fight to win and defend women’s rights. Such a movement must refuse to subordinate the struggle for women’s rights to any other interests, and must be willing to carry through the struggle by whatever means and with whatever forces may prove necessary.

Like all other progressive movements, such an independent women’s liberation movement will not be able to win its struggle alone. Only by fusing the objectives and demands of the women’s liberation movement with the struggle of the working class and other progressive movements will the necessary forces be assembled to achieve the liberation of women.

While all women are oppressed as a sex, the effects of this oppression are different for women of different social classes. Women workers experience sexist oppression in its most acute forms and, unlike women of the propertied classes, have no objective interest in the maintenance of the ultimate source of that oppression — the private-property system. If the women’s liberation movement is to carry through its struggle with the necessary resolution, it must take up the demands of working-class women and involve them in the leadership of the movement.

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 the 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 build socialism.

The party seeks to convince the working class of the centrality of the struggle for women’s rights to its own struggle for social liberation. The party seeks to give clear and concrete answers to the questions raised by capitalism’s oppression of women, and to help the women’s liberation movement to establish clear political goals.

The party raises demands directed towards eliminating the specific oppression of women and against the capitalist class and its social and political institutions, which are responsible for the economic and social conditions in which the oppression of women is based. These demands can be summarised under the following broad headings:

1. The right of women to control their own bodies. It must be the sole right of each woman to decide whether or not to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. All anti-abortion laws should be repealed. Abortion should be available on demand and the cost should be fully covered by the health-care system. Safe, reliable contraceptives for both women and men should be freely available to anyone wanting them. State-financed birth control and sex education centres should be set up in schools, neighbourhoods, hospitals and large workplaces. The right to reproductive freedom includes the right of a woman to bear children if she chooses. Sterilisation without a woman’s consent, or the use of pressure to obtain her consent, should be outlawed.

2. The right of women to economic independence and equality. This includes the right to full-time employment, equal pay, access to non-traditional occupations, and the raising of wages in traditional female occupations to make them comparable with those of traditional male occupations requiring similar levels of skill. Part-time workers should be guaranteed the same hourly wages and benefits as full-time workers. The party also supports paid parental leave, continuity of job seniority during parental leave, equal access to unemployment benefits regardless of marital status, and an end to discrimination against women in training and retraining programs. Beneficial protective legislation providing special working conditions to women should be extended to men in order to improve working conditions for all workers and to prevent such measures providing a pretext for discrimination against women.

Affirmative-action programs, with legally enforced quotas, are essential to redress the effects of decades of systematic discrimination in hiring, training and promotion. To overcome existing imbalances, preferential treatment must be accorded to women in hiring, training, job upgrading and seniority adjustments.

Cheap and conveniently available childcare services are essential to enable women to participate equally in the workforce. A program is urgently needed to create a network of free, government-financed, childcare centres in every neighborhood and at large workplaces. Such centres should be open around the clock and be able to cater for all children from infancy to early adolescence. The rearing, welfare, and education of children should be the joint responsibility of society, rather than solely the burden of individual parents. Laws granting parents property rights and total control over children should be abolished.

Women will not be able to enjoy genuine economic equality with men as long as they are forced to bear the main burden of domestic work. This is a socially created problem that demands a social solution. This would include the socialisation of domestic services through the creation of a network of easily accessible, low-cost, high-quality public laundries, cafeterias and restaurants, house-cleaning services organised on an industrial basis, etc.

3. The right of women to equal educational opportunities. The present education system discriminates against women at all levels from preschool to postgraduate. There must be an end to sex stereotyping in educational textbooks, an end to channelling of students into supposedly male and female subjects, and to all forms of pressure on female students to prepare themselves for so-called women’s work (homemaking, nursing, teaching and secretarial work).

Special preferential admissions programs should be introduced to encourage women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields of study and employment.

4. The right of women to freedom from sexual violence and exploitation. Sexist violence is a daily reality that all women experience in some form. Even when this does not take the extreme form of rape, beatings and murder, there is the ever-present threat of sexual assault implicit in the widespread circulation of sexist literature and in gratuitous sexual comments and gestures in the streets and on the job. The capitalist mass media and capitalist advertising create a social climate that fosters sexual violence and harassment by portraying women as sex objects.

A massive education campaign is needed to counter this debased view of women. Such a campaign should be promoted by the government in collaboration with the women’s movement. Laws against sexual harassment of women should be strengthened and strictly enforced.

Increasing incidences of rape, wife-bashing and sexual assault on children reveal the need for a massive increase in the provision of facilities for the victims of such abuse. Such facilities must be independent of the courts and the police, both of which see their role as to enforce the status quo.

All laws that require corroboration of sexual assault or evidence of physical injury, or which imply blame on the part of female rape victims, should be repealed. Questioning of sexual assault victims about their past sexual activity should be prohibited.

Prostitutes should not be treated as criminals. All laws victimising prostitutes should be repealed.

Excerpt from the Program of the Revolutionary Socialist Party


3 thoughts on “A scientific program for women’s liberation

  1. Hello and thanks for this blog! Very clear and comprehensive statement. This contains so many truths. The four points for ending oppression would go a very long way.

    A couple of thoughts: I thought that abolishing the family and private property were basic goals. I see here that the family is seen as a necessity that will be one of the last things to wither away. I wonder if it is possible to reach the four goals here while still having this institution, which segregates women into a private sphere. Until the private sphere is done away with I can’t see how women will be fully incorporated into culture.

    Also, regarding women’s economic independence: to re-gain that is crucial as you say. But private property is the appropriation by men of land and resources to force women into dependence and keep them dependent. Your second goal contains many great specifics for helping working women, but I don’t see it as being enough to re-distribute private property equitably. So long as there is still a system in which means of production are still held privately, won’t men will continue to invent all kinds of ways to keep women from having such ownership? Without that ownership, even if working women have much improved working conditions, won’t they will still be dependent on men as a class?

    I haven’t understood before the difference between classical Marxism and modern socialism. Are these the two big differences?

    • So sorry vliet, I hadn’t intended to ignore you, and thanks for commenting. This section had been part of the ‘program’ of my old party, and of course I hadn’t intended just to leave it here as though my ideas weren’t changing … and also, programs are meaningless if not collectively derived. So thank you so much for thinking about this! Hope to be able to consider this a bit more soon.

  2. Pingback: A scientific program for women’s liberation – wolfwomanofthenorth

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