“Mother privilege”

I am delighted to be able to post this examination by three radical feminists, Delilah Smith, Penelope Riley and Jai Kalidasi.  As the authors point out, most women in the world are mothers, and so feminists’ clarity on the conditions of motherhood could not be more vital. This analysis has been much needed, and hopefully will encourage further discussion on this prescribed state for women.

“Mother Privilege” is a theory formulated and defended with great energy by a few self-identified Radical Feminists.  In short, they claim that mothers are rewarded with social and economic benefits for obeying patriarchy’s motherhood mandate.  Mothers, in their view, are granted an unfair advantage in the competition for scarce resources—resources denied to non-mothers specifically because they are not mothers.

Because the notion of mother-privilege has engendered a virulent form of horizontal hostility within radical feminism, we address it here to lay this argument to rest.  The work of liberating women and Earth from patriarchy is daunting enough without furious infighting that divides us when we so deeply need unity.  Since a number of blog entries are posted around the internet promoting mother privilege theory, we have created this response as a blog-post as well.  We hope it will save women the time and potential trauma of repeatedly explaining how mothers, contrary to being privileged, instead contend with forms of oppression specific to motherhood on top of their general oppression as females under patriarchy.

Here, we’ll provide a realistic view of the oppression faced by mothers.  We’ll share working definitions of privilege and oppression, as well as discussing motherhood as a choice for women.  We’ll unpack some of the assumptions made by proponents of mythological Mother Privilege, providing links to information about global mothering in a context of class analysis.  We’ll show that the real issues of motherhood under patriarchy are about oppression, not about what some perceive–based on their personal observations– as individual benefits awarded only to mothers, at the expense of non-mothers.  Finally, we’ll address how motherhood can be as much a feminist undertaking as anything women do, for themselves, their children and our societies.

What is privilege?

Privilege is a sociological concept that describes the way certain groups, or classes, of people benefit from the structural and material oppression of other groups or classes identified within a culture.  To say privilege and oppression are ‘structural’ refers to the fact that they are built into a culture’s laws and economics as well as its social customs and norms.  ‘Material oppression’ means that oppressed groups face structural obstacles to gaining the same access as the privileged to such things as education, wealth, health care, housing and sufficiently well-paid work as well as social status, personal independence and freedom from violence.  Further, to grant privilege to some groups always entails the oppression of others.  This is due, in essence, to giving the privileged more than a fair share of available social, legal and economic resources while actively denying quite a bit less than a fair share of those same resources to the oppressed.  Men have male privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of women. White people have white privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of people of colour; these are just two primary examples among several other common privileged/oppressed class pairs under patriarchy.

But it’s important to remember that the foundation of patriarchy is that men as a class oppress women as a class, and this cuts across race, social class, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and all other kinds of groups.  While some individual womyn may achieve as much as any man, all women must contend with some elements of oppression by a male-dominated culture.  The wealthiest female CEO still has no access to truly safe, freely available birth control, for instance; she must still face health risks of birth control within a culture that expects women to bear those risks while allowing men to avoid birth control risks.  She is still subject both to laws constraining her choices as a woman (abortion access, e.g.) and policies of the same sort (company policies prohibiting work-linked health insurance from paying for birth control).  That is all about women’s oppression and the male privilege that can be received *only through women’s oppression.  Becoming a mother does not change a women’s oppressed status under patriarchy; no amount of compliance with patriarchy’s institutions and expectations changes that.

So, to understand the privilege and oppression referred to in this discussion, we need to see first that concept of “mother privilege” is based on the notion that mothers—members of the single most oppressed class worldwide—benefit from the oppression of childless women.  It’s based on a belief that patriarchal structures of law, economics and social custom—structures designed to oppress all women—actually provide benefits granted specifically to mothers themselves (somehow separately from their children), and only do so by denying the same benefits to non-mothers.  Let’s examine this claim.

Is motherhood a choice? Implicit in the claim that motherhood confers privilege upon mothers is the idea that pregnancy, childbirth, and the rearing of children are endeavours freely embarked upon by women who seek to enjoy the supposed social and material benefits of motherhood. But is motherhood truly a choice?  We need to examine this from two different yet intertwined perspectives: female biology and radical feminism.

Biologically speaking, women generally experience a powerful drive to bear children.  While as humans we are capable of a degree of foresight and choice that most animals don’t apparently possess, we are still creatures with bodies having particular biological needs, drives, desires.  And while we can’t compare the drive to have children with basic survival drives like breathing and eating—for which we would do anything, in order to go on living—still, we can’t underestimate the potency of women’s biological drive to have children.  Women seem to know in our bones—even against much evidence of our own lives and all around us—that having a child makes possible forms of emotional bonding, pleasure and creative satisfaction as well as social belonging that are unique to mothering.  All humans are biologically created to seek greatest pleasure and least pain; as a social species our pleasures and pain are only naturally (biologically, biochemically) linked greatly to social feedback as much as to personal experience.

Thus, if mothering was simply a rational choice without a fierce element of biological imperative that expresses in us physically, psychologically and socially, then it scarcely seems possible that human population would be now so vast.   There would be fewer failures of birth control—whether those be ‘operator errors’ (“I forgot to take my pill/renew my patch”) or of method failures (getting pregnant while on The Pill or patch as directed, or even years following a successful tubal ligation).  But even while it is possible for individual women to successfully choose against having children, in fact women generally do experience a powerful drive toward mothering that is at least as biologically as culturally engendered.  To claim for any reason that mothering is strictly a rational choice for women is to deny a central aspect of our reality as female animals—not just socially constructed beings existing in the intellectual, rational realm.

Secondly, it is those of our own sex that we are fighting for.  It is our very biology as females, our reproductive capacity, on which men’s oppression of women rests— this defines our struggle as no other single issue does.   And from the class analysis we call radical feminism, we know that the sociological and political concept of “choice” is a slippery beast, often used to rationalize the exploitation of women in porn and prostitution.  It’s used as well to claim that personal choices in matters of sex and performance of femininity trump structural analysis of the ways in which women are coerced to conform to gendered expectations. Our socialization as girls and women under patriarchy makes problematic any claim of personal agency, failing to place women’s choices into the context of our structural oppression. In many communities, child marriage is still common, with young girls denied any opportunity for education or independence and forced into marriages with much older men. In war zones, rape is often deployed as a tool of domination, where men seek to demoralize other men, and rupture people’s sense of themselves as members of a distinct culture, through the violent abuse and impregnation of women by outsiders. Women who live in countries where they have less access to education and economic independence are more likely to have a greater number of children, and to have them at younger ages.  Yet even among more affluent and well-educated women around the world, women face tremendous social pressure to have at least one child regardless of a heartfelt desire to do so; it’s what women do to ‘fulfill their female destiny’, to provide heirs to their husbands and grandchildren to their parents.

In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, one in four callers reported that they had experienced reproductive coercion, defined as threats or acts of violence by a male partner, including rape, pressure to become pregnant, and interference with birth control. This form of male violence in intimate relationships is rarely discussed, but can often lead to unplanned pregnancy for victims of male violence in the home. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40% of abused women reported that their pregnancy was unintended compared to 8% of non-abused women.

Further complicating this matter of choice, mothers are economically disadvantaged, with single mothers being the most disadvantaged, receiving 60 percent of the male wage. Men are not disadvantaged economically for being fathers.

lone parent households below nat poverty line

We can see that solo mothers are significantly disadvantaged compared to solo fathers as well as non-mothers.  Mothers face interruption to employment caused by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, as well as often caring for infants and toddlers. This, coupled with the already existing gender pay gap and other forms of work discrimination faced by mothers, means that both men and non-mothers are far likelier than mothers to earn enough to live, and likelier to receive promotions, pay raises and other work-related benefits than are mothers.

It is clear that for many women around the world, motherhood is not a choice. Even for those women who are not forced or coerced into pregnancy, the effects of female socialization problematize any claim that women who choose to become pregnant do so freely and with full agency. Cultural pressure, heteronormativity, and other factors may lead to the desirability or even inevitability of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood for many women. And women who desire children are generally unaware of and unprepared for the extreme disadvantages they will face as mothers, from economic instability and employment discrimination to state scrutiny and abusive legal and family court systems.  In the context of patriarchy, it hardly matters whether or not most womyn *would choose to have children, as part of their natural creative and emotional birthright.  The freest possible of choices to bear a child are still burdened with patriarchal mandates, taboos and institutional biases.  The fact is that even apart from our biological urge to bear children, no woman is truly free to make fully rational and independent choices about children, under patriarchy.
Most women in the world are mothers

The fact is that most women are mothers. Not all women choose to become mothers, and even if they did choose to become mothers, they did not choose the oppression that comes with unpaid labour/drudgery in the home, greater risk of male violence, and little or no legal rights to the child that the woman gestated/birthed/breastfed and nurtured, and tried to protect from harm. Mothers did not choose to be paid less and to miss out on employment opportunities. Mothers did not choose to contend with legally mandated constraints upon their birthing choices, nor to experience birth trauma via obstetrical violence.

Taking all this into account, we see that while certain mothers may enjoy a veneer of respectability and/or cultural approval under patriarchal rule, such crumbs are tenuous and easily lost, or may not exist at all for some women (for example, depending upon geographical and cultural location, through gynaecological fistula resulting from childbirth, the birth of children who are disabled and/or female, rape, divorce, adultery, loss of familial socioeconomic status, etc.). Mothers who have children under circumstances that fall outside of culturally-defined acceptability—unwed mothers, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, etc.—may never enjoy these crumbs at all.

Some Western feminists seem myopic when it comes to understanding compulsory or coerced motherhood under patriarchy. The UN World Fertility Report 2012 lists stats on fertility rates (number of children per mother). Page six of the report states: “A number of high-fertility countries in the earlier period maintained very high levels of fertility (5.1 children per woman or more) through the 2000s and almost all were in Africa, including Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.”

These countries are also some of the most economically disadvantaged in the world. Clearly being a mother does not have any inherent privilege.  The reality is quite the opposite in fact, as we will expand upon in the next section.

In terms of the relative number of childfree women in the world, the statistics range from low levels such as 1.8% in Angola to relatively higher levels of women who remain childfree in their mid- to late-forties (14.4% in Australia, 16% in Ireland, and around 20% in the US). Most of the world’s women, however, live in countries where more than 90% of women are mothers by this age. [1]

In spite of the harsh realities of motherhood worldwide, mother-privilege theorists describe 90% or more of the world’s women as privileged by their motherhood, while denying women’s collective stories of oppression across all realms of their lives. They are also falling into the patriarchal trap of mother-blaming. In fact it is men who are to blame for women’s lack of resources (whether they are mothers or not), it is male rule that constrains our rights and freedoms.  It is patriarchy which constructs femininity as an inferior but highly enforced role, and makes motherhood a compulsory part of femininity.  But because father rule is so entrenched and supported by our judicial system and associated organisations, women are essentially powerless to oppose this; some instead blame the easy victim, the mother.  If we were living in a matriarchy, we wouldn’t be arguing over whether mothers are privileged over childfree women.  All women would be valued, and supported in their choices regarding motherhood.  But currently we live in patriarchy, where women do not enjoy privilege based upon our reproductive status—where no woman is privileged by her sex, mother or not.

The fact that men, and the women who support male rule, entice women into a subordinate role with lies, and by shaming those who don’t comply, belies the idea that there is any real status conferred upon the women essentially held captive to motherhood. This is a pattern across society, as evidenced by the institution of marriage, with the sexual slavery industry being on the other end of the spectrum.  But even sexual slavery is glamourised through porn culture, cast as a necessary class of women who help maintain the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and prevent the possibility of women as fully realised, independent human beings.

Men must control female reproduction in order for patriarchy to continue. In order to be able to have any power, women must be given control over our reproductive rights, and that includes our rights as mothers.

The Big Picture

Below is a table showing statistics on fertility and violence against women in nine countries. The countries were selected for completeness of data available on a national level. It is important to note that violence against women is often underreported, and though all statistics were compiled by the UN, they came from different sources, including the WHO, the CDC, the DHS, and national statistics and surveys, making direct comparisons difficult. We are looking for general trends.

country Percentage of childless women age 45-49* Percentage of women with three or more children, age 45-49* Lifetime physical or sexual violence (IPV**) Lifetime physical or sexual violence (any perpetrator)
Australia 14.4 35.8 27.0 57.0
Bangladesh 3.4 84.9 53.3 59.2
India 3.3 76.0 37.2 35.4
Samoa 5.2 82.2 46.1 75.8
Switzerland 15.6 21.9 10.0 39.0
Uganda 3.2 91.7 59.1 70.4
USA 18.8 29.4 24.8 55
Zimbabwe 2.2 84.8 38.2 46.7

*Stats for USA are for ages 40-44, as stats for ages 45-49 were unavailable

**IPV = intimate partner violence

Sources: all stats compiled by UN

The graph below compares lifetime incidence of IPV among women with the percentage of childfree women in these nine countries. Note the trend line: the fewer childless women in a given country, the greater the likelihood that a woman will be the victim of intimate partner violence.

IPV and fertility graph

One of the most important ways that control is maintained over women under patriarchy is through the control of women’s reproductive capacity. Child marriage and forced marriage, rape, abusive reproductive coercion, and prevention of access to contraception and abortion are all methods men use to control women’s reproduction, and so, our lives. Maternal mortality is one of the largest killers of women worldwide: each year, half a million women die as a result of a pregnancy, and another 50 million women will suffer long-term disability or illness as a direct result of pregnancy or childbirth (Seager 2009). As Shulamith Firestone pointed out in The Dialectic of Sex, the basic facts of human reproduction leave women dependent upon males for survival, and the reproductive differences between the sexes are the basis of male exploitation of women as a class. As such, the claim that women who acquiesce to male demands for children, whether through “choice” or through coercion or force, gain privilege from this acquiescence can be compared to a claim that wage laborers gain privilege through capitulation to the oppressive control of capitalists. In other words, it’s patently absurd. Women with children face discrimination in employment, economic hardship, a greater risk of male violence, a greater risk of scrutiny and criminalization by the state, abusive legal and family court systems, loss of personhood and essential human rights during pregnancy, and many other barriers and hardships that are specific to mothers under the patriarchy.

This makes it clear that the lip service paid to motherhood in patriarchal culture is akin to the glorification of rugged individualism under neoliberalism; it is a simply a trick designed to elicit complacence from oppressed groups and obscure the source of oppression. Rather than lifting impoverished people up, the myth of meritocracy ensures the continuation of their exploitation, and similarly, the glorification of the idea of motherhood does not benefit mothers but rather lulls them into complacence and acceptance of their oppression. The rhetorical value given to motherhood is belied by the lack of material value awarded for the unpaid work of motherhood, without which the entire system would collapse. The occasional Hallmark card or adulatory fluff piece awarded to mothers is nothing more than a sleight of hand, intended to distract our attention from the oppressive reality under which mothers live and labour.

Motherhood as Capitulation?

Finally, some mother-privilege theorists claim that choosing motherhood is capitulation to patriarchy, a surrender of feminist values.  A ‘real feminist’, the theory goes, will forgo motherhood—in resistance to patriarchy, and to have more energy available for other women and for the work of dismantling patriarchy.

First, this notion overlooks the fact that patriarchy underlies the entirety of our lives—our work, telecommunications, hospitals, industries, education… it all springs from patriarchy and is built to support its continuance.  Resisting patriarchy by forgoing motherhood is not more or less significant than withdrawing from other aspects of patriarchal life, in resistance; none of the possibilities, however, have much political significance. There is certainly some value in acts of personal resistance; refusal to perform mandated femininity (potentially including childfree status) is the walking of our talk that reaches others, potentially inspiring consciousness-raising in people around us.  Still—it is only by people acting in concert that political energy is generated and can lead to the political power necessary to make structural changes.

Second, it presumes we can resist patriarchy by denying one of the fundamental elements of our female existence— and should do so in martyrdom to the feminist cause—which are propositions rather more anti-woman than anti-patriarchy.  Doubtless, motherhood was appropriated by patriarchy and re-constructed as form of slavery, but our female capacity to create life exists outside of patriarchy.  We feminists needn’t deny ourselves the creative female work and love of mothering.  We can resist patriarchy through our mothering, the same as feminists involved in all other ordinary aspects of patriarchy resist through their work, play, communication/relationships, etc.  Feminist mothers bring the same consciousness to being mothers, and raising children, as any feminist brings to her chosen endeavors and relationships within the overall context of patriarchy.  Indeed, feminist mothers are in a unique position to help change culture by passing on feminist consciousness to our children.  We definitely don’t claim that mothers are powerful enough to counteract the entirety of patriarchy—the ‘village’ has enormous influence on children—but still, our feminist consciousness does help shape our children’s awareness and future lives.  To suggest otherwise is to come dangerously close to affirming the patriarchal notion that motherhood renders women too emotional to think straight or maintain her integrity and values without guidance from outside authorities.  Is this what the mother-theorists would have us believe—and that they are the authorities women should obey?

We think not.  We have shown here the mistaken assumptions made by mother-privilege theorists, with the evidence of the special oppression faced by women once they become mothers.  The small acts of approval shown to new mothers—baby showers!—are not the same thing as privilege because they don’t come at the expense of non-mothers and they don’t appreciably improve mothers’ lives on the whole.  The social programs available to mothers are provided (in decreasing amount all the time now) on behalf of children, not for the mothers themselves—who, if they lost their children by natural or legal causes, would be no more eligible than non-mothers for those programs though they be mothers still.  We have demonstrated that it’s not motherhood itself that earns even the small signifiers of approval from patriarchy, those go only to those mothers who meet the requirements of age, race, socio-economic and marital status—and only so long as those mothers go on meeting those requirements, which is rarely within mothers’ control.  As radical feminism has known for quite some time now—which the mother-privilege theorists seem to have forgotten—motherhood is not a privileged position under patriarchy; it is the very foundation of women’s oppression.


[1]  United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Fertility Report 2012 (United Nations publication).


Prostitution: pop culture vs historical reality

‘Prostitution from the female viewpoint’?

By Virginia Brown

TV entertainment that focuses on the lives of prostitutes has not, until recently, been an evening viewing option, in Australia or many other countries. When first shown in the UK, the half-hour per episode drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl was an audience-booster for commercial channel ITV2 and it has since been picked up by TV networks in at least 14 countries, including Australia’s Nine Network, which has screened it recently in a late-evening timeslot.

Based on the Belle de Jour blog by a former “high-class call girl”, the professed aim of Secret Diary is the portrayal of a “cosmopolitan” prostitute who chose her work “freely” and likes it. Producer Chrissy Skins says the show, with its writers all being women, is “prostitution from the female viewpoint”.

Lead actor Billie Piper and series creator Lucy Prebble have countered allegations that the show glamorises prostitution, suggesting that such criticisms stem from prudishness. “There is so much sexual liberation, but the minute a woman lies on her back and takes cash for it, that changes everything”, Piper complained in a British Guardian interview. Prebble claims that the existence of a “sliver [of women who don’t feel oppressed] at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation” is justification enough for the show. Prebble told UK writer and filmmaker Andy Conway that she is answering those women’s requests not to “portray us as victims”, adding: “And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.”

Prebble, Skins and Piper are quick to acknowledge in interviews that the reality of life for most prostitutes is different from that of Secret Diary’s protagonist Belle/Hannah, and seem adamant that they wouldn’t want young women viewers to be persuaded by the show to take up prostitution. Given these protestations, you might expect that the show would allude in some way to unhappy women in prostitution, and other unsavoury aspects of the industry.

It does not. It begins with Piper’s character’s voice-over that she loves London and is “very high class, which means I charge by the hour and I charge a lot”. The show’s first season is full of scenes in expensive London hotels and clients who Hannah looks forward to seeing. The show reflects producer Skins’ view that she doesn’t have “a particular moral stance on prostitution, unless of course it’s against someone’s will. It’s always going to be there …”

Secret Diary gives no inkling that female murder victims are disproportionately prostituted women, nor that women in brothel, escort and street-based work all experience a higher rate of violence than the overall female population. Hannah’s main problem seems to be the difficulties created by keeping her occupation secret from her friends and family — a real concern for many prostitutes. In Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia, published last year by the federal government’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Dr Antonia Quadara points out the negative consequences to prostitutes of the social stigma of their work — with “family relationships, custody of their children, relations with police, ‘straight’ job applications, and credit card or loan applications” all being affected.

Public contempt for those engaged in prostitution (as well as laws criminalising their activities) is known to make them less likely to speak out when sexually assaulted, leaving perpetrators of such assaults free to continue offending. Violence towards prostitutes is not simplistically the consequence of misogynistic clients, however, but stems from more broadly-held attitudes by men towards prostitutes and all women.

Quadara notes that where the views of clients have been studied (which is very limited), they have not been found to “support violence against sex workers … or accept rape myths more than the general male population”. A Sydney study of brothel workers found that they were more likely to be attacked outside of work than the other studied groups, women students and health workers. (Research shows that this does not mean that women’s workplaces are safe, whether in prostitution or not, particularly not when working in an isolated way with clients.)

Other studies have confirmed similar findings. As with other victims of sexual assault, the brothel workers were most likely to be attacked by non-clients they knew. Other perpetrators of sexual assault against brothel workers included police, taxi drivers and “strangers who may specifically target sex workers”. This reality is a far cry from the deliberately aimed-at Sex And The City vibe attempted by Secret Diary’s creators.

Satisfaction, the Showtime Pay TV drama about workers in a Melbourne brothel, is another profitable show depicting prostitutes who mostly enjoy their work. Not surprisingly, the actors in the show do not view prostitution as inherently oppressive. “I see it as a valid profession that provides a service to people who need it”, Bojana Novakovic, portrayer of youngest brothel worker Tippi, told the January 31 Australian.

The Secret Diary and Satisfaction writers’ understanding of social oppression is marked by individual subjectivity: if someone doesn’t feel personally oppressed, then they aren’t. By contrast, a scientific, i.e., Marxist, understanding of social oppression is that it is an objective social relation of inequality in which social group — one social class, gender, race, nation, etc — enjoys material conditions of life that are systematically denied to the members of a different class, gender race, nation, etc. The root source of all forms of social oppression is the division of society into different social classes — large groups of people occupying different places in a historically evolved system of social production in which one such group is able, because of its ownership of the decisive means of production of life’s necessities, to exploit (live off) the labour of the direct producers.

Prostitution is not about liberated female sexual activity, but about women seeking to “make a living” by renting their bodies to men with money for these men’s sexual pleasure. The gender gap in the average pay packets of men and women, and the sexist imposition of many social/domestic welfare tasks onto women (both being problems for women but profit-enhancing for capitalists), increase the likelihood that women will enter prostitution for higher pay and more flexible hours than they would otherwise have access to.

The recent increase in those claiming that seeing prostitution as “just another form of work” that is neither specifically oppressive of women, nor a consequence of the systematic social inequality between women and men ignores the fundamental dynamics of prostitution. Prostitution is only possible in a society in which there is a general disparity between the wealth and incomes of men and women, and in which women’s bodies are treated as commodities (articles for sale). Prostitution as an industry is based on women’s bodies being available for hire by men. The existence of male prostitutes and a few female clients does not change this basis of the industry.

The idea that “prostitution has always existed” (as Skins maintains) hides the fact that it owes its origin and survival to the division of human societies into different social classes, rather than being a timeless constant. Of the 150,000 years in which modern humans have existed, class-divided societies have only existed for at most 6000 years. Archaeological evidence indicates that prostitution arose only after pre-class, gender-egalitarian society organised around women-controlled hoe agriculture and male-controlled herding was superseded by male-controlled animal-drawn plough agriculture. Where this occurred, societies fragmented into separate family units, with individual women becoming economically dependent upon individual male property-owning (land, animals, tools) “bread-winners” — their father and then their husband. This also entailed women’s sexuality being subordinate to the need of individual male property holders to establish “legitimate” male heirs to their private property.

Marx’s life-long political partner Fredrick Engels, in his groundbreaking 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, demonstrated that prostitution arose as a result of the inequality of property between men and women in class-divided societies, such as slave-based ancient Greece and Rome: “With the rise of the inequality of property … waged labour appears sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of female slaves.”

Prostitution, Engels explained arose as the “shadow” of monogamous marriage: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of larger wealth in the hands of a single individual — a man — and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other. For this purpose the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy of the man … In the modern world, monogamy and prostitution are indeed opposites, but inseparable opposites, poles of the same order of society.”

Based on a version first published in Direct Action Issue 10: April 2009

Copyright © Virginia Brown November 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article  URL: https://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/prostitution-pop-culture-vs-historical-reality/ is included.

Reclaim the Night confronts CHOGM

Virginia Brown
Reclaim the Night Collective*, Perth

We’re expecting a great, egalitarian festival-forum of nations headed by a woman in Perth in October, so this must mean women have equality, right?

The official publicity about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gives no hint of the violent anti-women dynamics of the nations of the so-called Commonwealth. This alliance bills itself as a mutually-beneficial partnership of democracies. And CHOGM, the Australian government assures us, “will provide an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to meet in Australia to discuss world issues relevant to building a strong and secure future for all”.

The question is, given the track record of these leaders – why should we abandon women’s rights to them? And what are the facts of how this British-Empire-descended alliance works for women?

Although 40% of the global workforce, women receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property. The Sept 18 Wall Street Journal noted that this is despite women accounting “for more than half the world’s university students, and 60 countries have more young women than men in universities”. Globally, one in three women has been sexually assaulted or beaten.

These problems are also part of the Commonwealth; major disparities exist between levels of gender equality and measures of absolute rights for women in its nations.

New Vision reported in 2007 that: “In real terms, women in the richest [Commonwealth] member state earn 70 times more than women in the poorest member state. An average Australian woman can expect to earn about $25,000 (sh42.5m) a year. In comparison, her counterpart in Sierra Leone has an average income of only $353 (sh600,000) and in Mozambique $482 (sh820,000).”

In the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index rankings (assessing countries’ equality between men and women in various measures, with first place representing the highest overall equality), South Africa scored at 10th place, in comparison with the much lower rankings of Mozambique (22nd), Australia (23rd) and Singapore (56th). These rankings reflect the poor participation of richer countries on some measures of gender equality. For instance, in Kenya and Mozambique, women earn an average of four-fifths of men’s income, lower in absolute terms than the average income of women in Australia and New Zealand, but a higher percentage of men’s earnings.

In Australia, 93% of perpetrators of sexual assault are male (National Crime and Safety Survey, 2002). More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls. However, a 2004 Victorian report found that prosecution results from only 1 in 6 reports to police of rape, and less than 1 in 7 reports of incest or sexual penetration of a child.

The United Kingdom, at least the symbolic leader of the Commonwealth, has one of the worst records for repression of women. In May this year, its Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke sparked calls for his resignation with his claims that not all rapes are “serious”. In a nation where the conviction rate for reported rape is 6.5% despite false rape reports being very rare, and an estimated 95% of rapes are unreported, this reinforces the message that women should not bother reporting rape. The UK is increasingly upping the ante by jailing some women whose reported rapes did not result in a conviction.

Slashing anti-violence services

With a combined gross domestic product of US$10.6 trillion (three-quarters of this spread between its wealthiest nations; India, the UK, Canada and Australia), the Commonwealth members spend a tiny percentage on anti-misogynist violence services, and treat that as too much.

In Australia, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey released in June found that women still comprise 62% of clients accessing government-funded homelessness services, with domestic violence being a particularly strong reason for this. Despite it also finding that that increasing numbers of Victorian women are sleeping in their cars and accessing other homelessness services, the Federal government has scrapped funding for a successful personal alarm system in Victoria.

Federal funding cuts in this year’s budget to anti-misogynist violence services have meant the reduction in operating hours and services of the Women’s Legal Service (Qld) as of October, and the slashing by 12.1 million over 5 years of funding for anti-domestic violence services in regional, remote and rural communities.

In New Zealand, government ‘reprioritisation’ of funding (a cut of $800,000) has meant “an effective cut for services such as Women’s Refuge, Te Rito Family Violence Coordinators, and advocacy services for children who witness family violence”, according to the Green Party, despite the Feb 22 earthquake having exacerbated the demands for these services. 2010 had already seen an 11% increase in crisis calls made to the Women’s Refuge, and more than double the number of calls made by the Refuge to family violence victims seen by police than in 2007.

Clearly, the violent repression of women extends also to government attacks on anti-violence services.

These figures are stark, but when do we ever hear about these cosy meetings and collaborations between Commonwealth governments being guided by concerns about the women’s rights violations endemic to them all?

The ‘Commonwealth’ arose on the colonisation and oppression of millions, indigenous women in particular, who have faced mass rape as a tool of colonialism. The brutalities of the British Empire have morphed into the brutalities of the Commonwealth’s late capitalism. In Canada, where First Nations women comprise less than 4% of the population, the figure of about 600 murdered and gone missing over the last three decades has seen little official resourcing into these killings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada found more than two-thirds of those to be murder cases, and believes that due to the absence of a national database of missing persons and inconsistent police records, the real numbers could be much higher. These women have not only been victims of misogynist and sexual violence, but also of a racist system which sees this disproportionate victimisation as unworthy of attention. Nearly half the homicides of First Nations women are unsolved, in contrast to the overall homicide clearance rate of 84%. The British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry – finally initiated last year but criticised for being unwilling to meet with the women’s families or those who have had “close calls” – was told that police in that area stop cars to investigate illegal fishing, but not missing Aboriginal women.

Australia’s legacy of European colonisation and dispossession is no less stark for Indigenous women. The 2007 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators report found that: “In 2004-05, in [Qld, WA, SA and the NT], Indigenous females were 44 times as likely to be hospitalised for assault as non-Indigenous females.” A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Jenny Mouzos in 1999 found that the homicide rate for non-Indigenous women was 1.1 per 100 000, whereas the rate for Indigenous women was 11.7 per 100 000.

Attempts to buy feminists off

In an attempt to distract attention from these issues and promote the Commonwealth as a positive agent of change, the CHOGM website is advertising an Empowering Women to Lead dinner with “limited places” for the day before CHOGM, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce and other government and business leaders.

These sorts of meetings distract attention from the systemic nature of women’s oppression by suggesting that women ‘leading’ within the parameters of the system (and whose political activity has not improved women’s rights) can substitute for systemic change, and function to coopt opposition amongst women. But there is resistance to being bought off this way. Earlier this year Denise Marshall, head of a leading UK women’s service, returned the OBE she received in 2007 for services to disadvantaged women, publicly stating that the government’s cuts to organisations such as hers, which assists women trafficked into prostitution or victims of violence, will leave many unable to function. And more significantly, although women’s rights struggles in the Commonwealth are mainly at a much lower point than they were several decades ago, opposition to misogynist violence and victim-blaming continues to be one of several issues mobilising supporters of women’s rights, whether via ‘Slutwalks’ or Reclaim the Night.

This year, Reclaim the Night (RTN), an annual march by women on the last Friday in October to assert women’s right go freely without fear of rape or violence, will coincide with the opening day of CHOGM, October 28.

Given the promotional circus around CHOGM that is designed to disarm activist groups and disguise the Commonwealth’s support of powerful elites at the expense of the oppressed, Perth’s RTN Organising Collective is making opposition to CHOGM one of its central points this year. The Collective is also supporting the United March on CHOGM to take place at 10am on that morning and initiated cross-promotion of the two events, to broaden the support for the two important protests’ issues.

The RTN Collective made a conscious decision to continue educating ourselves about CHOGM’s role in the lead-up to Oct 28, and this has been very useful in developing our collective understanding of how the Commonwealth fits into current imperialism.

Today, its powerful elite reinforce vast inequalities between the rich and poor around the world, using women’s oppression, racism and warmongering to pursue their aims. The riches achieved by directly oppressing the former colonies are now used to continue extracting wealth via other means, including by empowering conservative, anti-women governments that are willing allies to imperialist nations wanting to increase their dominance of markets and resources or defeat progressive movements that post a threat to their interests.

The oppressive relations which trample over women’s rights for the benefit of big business receive support from the governmental heads attending CHOGM. In the cases of the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, this support is imperialist, acting in the interests of a handful of powerful families and corporations around the globe to wage brutal war and occupation on Iraq and Afghanistan to attain oil and profits, elevating misogynist sectors and assaulting women’s freedoms and living standards in those countries, as deemed useful. The ‘family code’ of the current Afghanistan regime sanctions spousal rape and child marriage.

It is for all these reasons that it is crucial to build events specific to women’s rights, as well as promote solidarity between groups campaigning around other sorts of oppression.

What does it mean when the vast inequalities of global wealth distribution mean women hold 1% of the world’s wealth, but even detailed critiques by activists targetting these powerful elites make no mention of this? Activism on the fronts of climate justice, opposition to war, racism and homelessness is disproportionately necessary to women. But action on these fronts alone does not address the many specific forms of oppression women face, nor advance consciousness about women’s oppression. Nor does it combat the sexism that has resulted from decades of demobilised feminist activism. It is common for feminists to be treated as though their activism is motivated by wanting women to be the oppressors. Feminists encounter sexist bullying from people who think their activism is bigoted and have no notion of the scope of women’s oppression.

Winning women’s rights requires the building of a conscious movement aimed at liberating women.

Reclaim the Night Perth: Oct 28, 5pm Cultural Centre, Northbridge. Bands, protest and march to the CBD. Supportive men encouraged to line the march route and assist with publicity.

* The Reclaim the Night Collective has members with different political ideas and approaches – this article was written by just one of us, although benefitting from the ideas of all. We unite in opposing the forces represented by the ‘Commonwealth’ and in demanding:

End violence against women!
No to rape and sexual harassment!
No to CHOGM:
Cease funding war and exploitation
stop the cuts to women’s refuges,
increase funding to women’s refuges and rape crisis services!

Additional useful reference on violence towards women in Australia:
Mouzos, J., and Makkai, T. Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Published by Australian Institute of Criminology. http://www.aic.gov.au/documents/5/8/D/%7B58D8592E-CEF7-4005-AB11-B7A8B4842399%7DRPP56.pdf

Copyright © Virginia Brown October 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article URL: https://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/reclaim-the-night-confronts-chogm/ is included.