Gender oppression has historically been extensively studied from diverse points of view. This has made way for debates on the matter that have developed different working hypotheses over time, addressing issues ranging from the origin of said oppression to the role it plays or the interests it serves. These theses have clearly led to various, often opposing, political proposals that attempt to deal with the matter from their point of view.
As a contribution to the history of these debates, last February we had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with Isabel Benitez1, organized by the student movement for the 2020 edition of the “Herri Unibertsitatea” (University of the People). The round table discussion generated a great interest due to its ability to address the complexity and integrity of the matter at hand, which we attempted to tackle from a clear class perspective. The following analysis seeks to summarize the ideas and conclusions that the meeting gave us the opportunity to share and reflect on.
The role of gender oppression in the capitalist domination
It is a vital task to figure out which have been the historical processes that have led certain human societies to having dynamics of domination based on the sexes. Ascertaining the historical process of the transformation of the sexual division of labour in the transition from feudalism to capitalism helps us investigate the functions it currently fulfills. This process, which operates within an even broader course of expropriation of communal goods, in order to create a market comprised of free workers, does not disregard that women’s reproductive capacity is a key factor in such a process. The control over biological reproduction places working class women in a position in which they are deprived of the control over their own bodies, reduced to the field of reproduction. Biological reproduction goes from being a natural function to being a sociocultural process determined by the capital, according to its need for labour power. It provides different mechanisms for this objective, from which we can emphasize the denial of women’s non-reproductive sexuality and pleasure. In other words, the pleasure not subjected to neither a process that is not reproductive nor commercial (prostitution, pornography).
Likewise, the selective integration in the labour market, as a pressure mechanism for a wage drop, with regard to the previously mentioned points, reinforces the fact that wage-earning women are second rate proletariat, trapped between the logic of non-commercial domestic labour and waged labour. The sexual division of labour legitimates that working women are hired in undervalued jobs, and that they receive a lower wage. It is necessary to speak about the concentration of mainly feminine labour force in sectors of non-qualified jobs, such as health services and care, that earn the lowest salaries in the whole range of average wages of occupations. To this we have to add that part-time employment is becoming one of the most generalized characteristics in working women’s labour conditions, its income being 30% less than full-time employment. In the same way the barriers in the labour market and the specific occupational hazards associated to women’s “social position” should be noted: caused by the social composition of gender (harassment at work), the notion of being a sexual commodity (sexual harassment) and also the vision surrounding care (the condition of being a mother as an entry barrier or the professional devaluation due to the projection of “lack of implication”). All of this makes way for the creation of a feminine economic subjectivity, which makes the pact for violence cheaper, therefore increasing absolute surplus value.
All of this has had to go hand in hand with a suitable ideological context to sustain the social inferiority that legitimizes this process of subordination, which, according to the balance of power, has mostly been based on extra-commercial or purely commercial mechanisms: the legal and administrative system’s misogyny, the androcentric bias of our education, the objectifying pressure over women as objects of consumption, or the reproduction of disciplinary mechanisms within the working class, such as the violence against women. These processes have turned the woman into a second rate subject in all areas of society, this being one of the bourgeoisie’s strategic issues, due to it resulting in a significant part of the working class being left without any political capacities; and therefore, drawing out the proletariat’s revolutionary process.
These pillars had a direct political impact on the composition of the international working class, by establishing inner hierarchies and disciplinary mechanisms, as mentioned above. These are oppressive and differentiating processes which have to be united from a single political perspective, or else, they may result in a political void.
Feminism, a moral product for the consumption of the masses or a front of the class struggle? (producto moral)
Regarding feminism, many factors gave a boost to this movement’s beginnings: the development of capitalism in the nineteenth century, the socioeconomic conditions that were being established and the inability (due to its very essence) to accomplish the proclamations “liberty, equality, fraternity” which were put on the table in the French Revolution for men and women. But the essential matter is the transformation that capitalism brought upon women’s objective conditions, that is, their mass integration into wage labour, which meant the beginning of women’s modern form of oppression, creating antagonistic positions amongst them: proletarian women aimed to achieve the capacity to revolutionise the society as a whole, whereas feminism intended to integrate the woman in universal citizenry.
We could say that feminism as an ideology is created with the objective of reaching formal equality in a capitalist setting, using the term “woman” as an abstract concept. Nevertheless, when class antagonism is ignored and we consider the bourgeois woman to be an ally, the enemy becomes indistinct. On the one hand, it hinders working on the issue of working class women, since the interests of those who are in power always overcome those of the subjugated class in all inter-class strategies. On the other hand, the man becomes the political enemy, which divides the class and prevents us from being able to improve our social status.
The proposed strategy fights for partial reforms, with which it obtains the integration of middle class women into the State at best. When treating the gender issue unilaterally with regard to totality, the problem does not go away, it only changes shape: one such example is the fact that some women (those that belong to the middle class) have had the option to get rid of the burden of domestic labour, handing it over to the most proletarianised women, who now carry it out in a commercialised way. Thus, the sexual division of labour perpetuates, while the capital turns a sphere hitherto not commercialised into a relationship based on exchange value, that is, an area based on exploitation.
We cannot deny that feminism has taken several forms over the years. Many currents have been developed around this ideology, which must be examined in depth and with a critical eye, in order to be able to draw political lessons from them. Still, we could say that, especially since the ideological offensive against marxism in the ‘60-70s, the inability to make a real change as a result of the tendency to partialise and single out the fights has become evident, thus creating the opportunity to elude the class conflict, having eliminated the framework of totality.
The proletarian struggle in the issue of the working class woman: strategical and tactical elements
From a Marxist perspective, in order to overcome the problems of oppressed and exploited women, we must have a scientific understanding of the world, which entails learning/acquiring knowledge about the world as a whole, not just about certain/specific parts. In this case, we have had the option to explain the function fulfilled by the subordination of the working class woman in the forming of the bourgeois power, in the capitalist domination in its entirety. Clearly, eliminating such a function requires a strategy that can put an end to the system in its totality and institute a form of social organisation where oppressions would cease to serve any purpose.
All this implies the need to form the class subject in all its dimensions, thereby fighting against all the existing gaps. Thus, it is inevitable for women to join the class conflict and that requires reaching the immediate will of the masses, that is, identifying the daily needs of proletarian women and connecting such immediate necessities with the revolution. In other words, we must improve their current situation and orient those fights towards increasing their class consciousness and encouraging them to join the socialist struggle.
The strategic objective should clearly be the political education of the people we collaborate with, the proletarian masses, the working class women. As stated before, this should be proven by means of political practice: to demonstrate that the changes that socialism implies are beneficial and necessary for the working class. This means that the fights we will formulate will have to be real with regard to the capacities we have each time.
This process will make us able to prove that the union hypothesis is correct, but only if it is linked to a revolutionary process. In other words, reforms are only useful for improving the conditions under which we fight. In effect, we must face the bourgeoisie, its specific figures and the collaboration figures within the working class so that, sometime, that build-up of forces will enable us to fight the bourgeoisie at an increasing level. This is the only way to educate the proletariat so that it will understand that it is essential for it to take power at a national and international level, in order to surpass its subordination.
It is clear that what we have mentioned above requires a specific organisational form which will be able to achieve its goal. That is, the organised proletarian power before the bourgeois power. The communist party must be the tactical unity which will act in a simultaneous and homogeneous way in all fronts. Nevertheless, this needs a strategic unity which will take on the socialist strategy, looking towards an articulation of all fronts. We must identify the real mechanisms able to put an end to the oppression’s specific expressions. It will be essential to create the required tools to work with the working women masses and to make them aware of the need of a developed and improved organisation form, in order to put an end to their oppression.
As for the specific lines of work and the ways of tackling them, these are solutions that we should urgently begin to seek and investigate collectively. What is certain is that they must clearly defend that the revolutionary notion is a valuable one, to prevent us from social liberal or social democratic modalities, which end up being distracting measures. To this effect, it will be essential to fight the inter-class current via the discourse and mostly via the practice, encouraging a comprehensive militancy and using the pedagogy of the example.