Sexism is a product of structures and institutions that benefit the rich and powerful, writes Jordi Pardoel, and to get rid of sexism we have to get rid of capitalism
Women’s lives today are different in many ways from the lives of our grandmothers and even our mothers. But sexism is not going away.
There have been improvements in women’s lives, through the right to abortion, much greater work opportunities, and the right to divorce, all won through class struggle and rebellion from below. But many of those gains have come under attack, and women are still sexualised, degraded, paid less, and more likely to experience violence in the home and the workplace.
The sexual assault scandal around Brittany Higgins and the Liberals’ inability to even say the right things hit a nerve, because it reflected the experience of so many women across Australia.
Marxism offers us an explanation of why sexism is still so persistent and why we still have women’s oppression.
But it doesn’t just explain oppression. It also tells us how to fight back against it and asserts that we can get rid of sexism completely.
Sexism hasn’t always existed, contrary to widespread popular belief. Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A brief history of humankind for instance asserts that there has been women’s oppression in almost all societies.
He offers no reason why and writes himself that this is one of the great mysteries of humanity.
But sexism isn’t an inevitable part of society.
Marxists look at the way that production is organised in societies, how reproduction takes place, and the material conditions of life to understand why sexism exists. These have changed through human history.
The nuclear family is the central institution in our society that the system continues to rely on to raise children and care for people who cannot sell their labour, either because of disability, age or illness.
The bulk of the unpaid labour that’s done in the home is carried out by women.
This is unlike the situation in pre-class societies based on hunting and foraging, where sexism and women’s oppression did not exist.
Even though there was a gender division of labour in these societies, the labour carried out by men and women was equally valued, and because of that women had equal power in decision-making.
This is the way of life that all humans shared from our emergence as a species until the development of agriculture.
When this emerged from 10,000 years ago, it allowed the accumulation of private property, meaning the rich became concerned with inheritance and controlling women’s reproduction.
With the beginning of industrial capitalism in the 1850s, Marx and Engels thought that the working class family might fall apart.
Women were drawn into work in the factories and were having babies on factory floors and trying to raise their children while in appalling working conditions. This was not sustainable because it meant children were dying young amid shocking health problems.
The nuclear family was promoted as a way that the next generation of workers could be raised and given care so that there would continue to be workers to run the factories.
The family is still indispensable to capitalism today.
During the pandemic, with schools doing online learning and childcare centres shut, the family absorbed all of the extra care work.
The bulk of this fell on women. Surveys and research show that in Australia women’s unpaid work in the home went up by two hours extra. The situation was the same across many different countries.
During the last few decades of neo-liberalism, the ruling class have worked to cut back spending on social services and public health systems, and privatised aged care and childcare.
British Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”.
The predominant response to the sexual assault crisis in parliament and society more widely was to see the solution as education and consent classes. The idea is that teaching young boys to respect women is enough to change people’s sexist ideas.
But this focus on education is completely disorienting.
Sexist ideas don’t just exist in our heads and aren’t something that we can simply educate away but are structured into the system.
The sexist structures of society promote those ideas.
Childcare is expensive, and because women are paid less men, it very often makes more sense in a family for the woman to stay home and look after the children for a period of time after babies are born.
The gender roles that children observe in the family from birth, where women take on more of the caring and men spend more time in paid work, have a deep effect.
The focus on consent and education is understandable. But federal and state education ministers, including the federal Liberal government, have now agreed to make consent classes mandatory in schools.
The fact that this has been embraced by a Liberal Party that has locked up refugee women who have been raped in offshore detention on Nauru, and has cut welfare payments and presided over the worsening of women’s lives should ring alarm bells. A focus on legislating consent classes lets them off the hook.
On university campuses university management have also been happy to implement compulsory consent modules for students, but are savagely cutting jobs, casualising the workforce and holding down people’s wages. This creates precarious working conditions that encourage sexual harassment and assault, with workers not feeling secure enough to speak up against it.
Similarly, the popular idea of privilege theory, which implies that men benefit from sexism, sees the only thing that men can do is to check their privilege and unlearn their sexism.
Marxism sees the issue of sexism as being rooted in capitalism.
Working class men
Far from working class men benefiting from sexism they are key allies in the fight against it.
Working class men have a stake in fighting against sexism and would also benefit from free universal childcare, better funding for the health care system, aged care, and disability system. All of these things would loosen the burden put onto individual women, and would also benefit the working class, women and men, as a whole.
The fight for equal pay in Australia boosted the confidence of workers across the board and pushed everyone’s wages up.
When workers went on strike at Chemist Warehouse’s distribution centres in Victoria in 2019, men and women workers fought together against sexual harassment of women working as casuals by managers. They also won more permanent jobs in a victory against casualisation.
This too shows that when men and women fight together, it can improve all workers’ lives.
Class gives us agency and the power to win change in a way that other forms of oppression do not. As Argentinian socialist Martha E. Giménez has written, “while racism and sexism have no redeeming feature, class relations are dialectically a unity of opposites, both a site of exploitation and objectively a site where the potential agents of social change are forged.”
Capitalism is a system that relies on the exploitation of workers, but it also creates its own gravediggers. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, millions of Russian workers rose up against the Tsar and showed how workers have the power to break capitalism.
There were many gains women won as a result of the revolution such as the right to divorce, free abortion, and equal pay, some of which we are still fighting for today 100 years later.
The Bolsheviks also realised that they had to attack the material basis of women’s oppression. So care work and work in the home was socialised. There were communal canteens and childcare centres and a massive drive to go out and educate all of the women in Russia, so that women could be freed from the barriers from participating fully in society.
Women workers actually kicked off the revolution, when textile workers went on strike in February 1917.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky showed in his History of the Russian Revolution how the February Revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance even of revolutionary organisations like the Bolshevik Party.
He wrote that it took place due to, “the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat—the women textile workers”.
It was a product of workers deciding that they could not take their oppression anymore. The process of feeling their own power and realising that the world can be changed was a transformative process for the millions of women workers in Russia.
This has occurred at many other points in history too where there have been mass upheavals where people began to take control of their lives and to see that society can be run in a different way.
In the Egyptian revolution in 2011, women took leading roles and the usually common sexual harassment and discrimination disappeared during the common struggle against the regime in the occupation of Tahrir square.
The lessons are clear—we are strongest when we fight together as a class against the bosses, the government and the system.
In recent months we have seen nurses, teachers, bus drivers, and NTEU staff, all going out on strike and saying they’re not going to stop until they get pay rises and better working conditions, for instance nurse to patient ratios in hospitals.
Many of these workers are women in casualised working conditions who have had to bear the brunt not only of the buckling health system and online learning through the pandemic, but also the extra responsibility of unpaid work in the home.
This is the kind of action that can win real changes for women.