Are We Liberated?

Women are more visible than they have ever been in history. They perform much of the paid labour of the world and the majority of the unpaid labour. Women work the majority of total hours in the world, but work much less than men do for pay–and when they are paid they receive less wages.1 Women’s role in working outside the home raises their profile in all sorts of ways: they work in factories, in offices, driving buses and taxis. They socialise outside their home and family. They travel on public transport. They join unions and go on strike. And where there is protest there are likely to be women. In Britain the number of young women taking part strikes everyone who has been on the huge anti-war and anti-capitalist demonstrations. Women wearing the Muslim hijab mingle with those in miniskirts and fcuk tops. Picket lines of nursery nurses and council workers, but also of firefighters and post office workers, have strong representations of women. British Airways workers at Heathrow who went on strike showed that workers can wear uniforms and make-up and still be militant. School students who struck against the war in Iraq were usually led by women who showed themselves to be the most articulate and intelligent of the new generation. The new movements that we are witnessing are also movements of women. They stand in strong contrast to many of the older women who purport to represent them. The female cabinet ministers like Patricia Hewitt, the women executives and professionals who claim to represent the advance of feminism, have nothing to offer these women and are usually totally hostile to their aspirations and political views.

But women’s public profile has not led to equality or an end to oppression. More freedom about sex has all too often meant exploitation rather than liberation. The obsession with the body which dominates society leads to women starving themselves and then binging on food, or paying large sums of money to enlarge breasts, straighten noses and temporarily banish wrinkles. Lapdancing clubs and lad magazines have become the new symbols of male chauvinism. The awareness of rape fostered by the women’s movement in the 1970s created at least some understanding that ‘whatever we say, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no’. Now we are again confronted with the view that women’s behaviour means that they ‘asked for it’ in some appalling rape cases. While far more women report rape now than in the late 1970s, the rate of conviction has fallen from 32 percent to 10 percent.2 Women are constantly told that they can’t have it all, but they are expected to do it all: be successful career women, devoted mothers, gourmet cooks, intelligent conversationalists and fantastic lovers. Financial independence remains an illusion when women earn at least a fifth less than men for the same jobs. Political equality is distant: women were very much at the heart of leading the anti-war movement in Britain, but in many campaigns men are over-represented. Platforms at events such as the European Social Forum are still heavily dominated by older white men. And while society may look equal in some areas, the closer you get to the powerful capitalist institutions like parliament or the City of London, the more male dominated they are.

Women in Britain are no longer expected to be sexually docile. They are encouraged by advertising and by a series of glamorous and high-profile images of women to make their sex lives exotic and adventurous. They are expected to have children at some point in their lives, but are not usually frowned upon if they do not. They are more likely than not to experience sexual relations before marriage, and are also likely to divorce. They marry later and have fewer children than their grandparents or great-grandparents. Girls are encouraged to prepare themselves for a career on the same basis as boys. But they carry their oppression into these changed sexual and social relations. Men are still on top metaphorically if not physically. Greater sexual freedom is a huge step forward for many women but it is still very far from genuine freedom and equality.

We have reached a stage in women’s social development which would have been unthinkable only 50 years ago. Yet liberation is as far away as ever in the sense that it was developed as a theory and a strategy more than 30 years ago. That early movement was not mainly or even at all concerned with establishing more women managers or even female MPs. Instead it aimed to bring a greater sexual equality linked with what was widely recognised as the necessity of social change which could allow the development of women’s liberation.

The women’s movement began in the US and grew out of the great movements for social justice which dominated the 1960s there. Women had been involved in the civil rights movement, in the movement against the Vietnam War, in the ‘new left’ and in the student movement. They could not help but analyse their own oppression in similar terms to these other movements. The ‘women’s liberation workshop’ which met in June 1967 articulated women’s position as ‘a colonial relationship to men’, drawing an analogy with the Vietnamese or blacks in Africa, and concluding that therefore they had to fight for their independence: ‘Only the independent woman can be truly effective in the larger revolutionary struggle’.3 The women’s movement was seen as part of bringing wider social change.

This was even more true in Britain. Who now remembers that women’s liberation in Britain was very closely linked to the working class movement and to strikes? The dispute of Ford women workers for equal pay and that of the London night cleaners became well known, and celebrated as signs of women taking action to achieve equality. There were many other strikes at the time involving women: the teachers in 1969, the post office telephonists in 1971, and the Leeds clothing workers in 1970. It was the time of a growing and militant working class movement, and although the really big battles of that movement mainly involved men such as the miners and dockers, women’s newfound militancy could not be ignored.4

The women’s movement in Britain, unlike its much larger counterpart in the US, was influenced by this level of class struggle and by the working class movement. The input of socialists and trade unionists was much more apparent and more dominant in the movement as a whole than in the US. The movement also had as its backdrop the substantial legislative changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the legalisation of abortion, the easing of divorce, the decriminalisation of gay sex between consenting adults, and the laws introduced to implement equal pay and an end to sex discrimination.

Why has the early promise of liberation not been fulfilled, as many expected it would be? Women’s entry into the workforce and their achievement of greater sexual freedom were rightly seen as striking great blows against women’s oppression. But within capitalism the conditions under which these changes were achieved and the wider society in which they have developed tell us everything about why they fell far short of liberation. There has been a huge change in women’s work worldwide: in countries such as China, Thailand and Indonesia rapid industrialisation has turned women into workers in factories and sweatshops in a modern parallel of the industrial revolution which transformed Britain 200 years ago. But many women from the poorer countries have to travel much further than from the country to the city. As well as making up a high proportion of the working class in their native countries, they all too often have to travel across the world in order to make a living. Migrant labour, much of it female, has brought women to work cleaning the houses of, caring for the children of or servicing sexually the Western middle classes. In the richest countries, women have been pulled into clerical work and retail work on an unprecedented scale, reflecting the growth of service industries in these countries over the past half-century.5 All of these situations may have led to higher incomes or more independence (although this is by no means always the case) but they have all too often increased pressures on women, making their lives in some ways closer to men’s, with all the stresses that entails.

A woman’s work

Women’s work has changed forever in the past 30 years and there seems to be no turning back. Women can no longer be seen as a peripheral part of the workforce. During the 1970s and early 1980s it was commonly claimed that women had been brought into the workforce in a time of boom and that when recession hit these workers would be the first to be made redundant. Women, it was said, were disposable workers in a way that men were not, and would be pushed back into the home. Their role in domestic labour and the part time nature of women’s work would ensure that they were used as a reserve army of labour, content to stay outside the labour market in times of recession. So Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell could write in 1982 that ‘the great post-war boom in female employment has been abruptly halted and thrown into reverse’. Women, they argued, ‘still represent a “reserve army of labour”, to be called up and disbanded again, according to the vagaries of the economic and political climate’. To Coote and Campbell, ‘Men are designated “real” workers. Women are not. Not only is their “right” to work illusory, but their foothold in the labour market is far more tenuous than they have supposed’.

While this analysis has proved to be wrong, women have become a workforce characterised by low pay. And the working conditions of men and women, part time and full time, have noticeably worsened during the 1990s. The labour market has proved to be sex blind in the sense that women continued to be drawn into the workforce at an increasing rate while the bulk of job losses fell in areas which were heavily male dominated. The reasons for this were twofold: the structural changes in British employment led to a decline in manufacturing employment and a growth in various forms of service industry. Because of the occupational segregation of work in Britain, new jobs were increasingly likely to go to women. The second reason, however, was that the employers saw women as a pliant and flexible workforce.

By the beginning of the 21st century 70 percent of British women were in paid jobs, the largest proportion ever. This amounted to 12.5 million, an increase of nearly a million on ten years previously.7 This increase in women working has only been made possible by more and more mothers going back to paid work rather than staying at home to look after their children. So a majority of women with children under five now work outside the home, and 65 percent of all women with dependent children do so. Nearly half of all single mothers are in work and almost a third of single mothers with children under five have some sort of paid work.8 Of those women born in the first decade of the 20th century, only 30 percent who had children were working at the age of 30. Of those born between 1960 and 1963, 54 percent of those with children were. Sixty seven percent of all women aged 30 worked in 1993 (compared to 48 percent in 1963).9

While historically the biggest constraint on women continuing to work throughout their lives was motherhood, this is less and less the case. The maintenance of full time work patterns for large numbers of mothers is one of the biggest changes that has taken place: ‘The number of women who work during pregnancy and return to work within nine to 11 months of the birth of their child has increased dramatically in recent years’.10 Women with children are also working longer hours than previously, and the rate of increase for those with dependent children has grown faster than for those without children, with mothers of children under five increasing their average weekly work by four hours between 1984 and 1994.11 There is no single reason why this change–which shows absolutely no sign of reversing–came about. The greater availability and acceptance by employers of maternity leave, women’s desire or need for continuous employment especially in certain competitive work, and the desire to return for personal and social reasons are some. However, the main reason that mothers go out to work is economic. The importance of women’s earnings to family income increased markedly in the post-war boom.12 This increasing dependence on the female wage at least in part explains the increase in full time working for mothers.

Women in lower income groups have gone out to work to compensate for the low and sometimes falling wages of many working class men. Whereas before the 1980s the wives of higher-income men saw their employment increase most rapidly, from the 1980s onwards it was those wives of lower-income men who increased their employment fastest. The share of family income contributed by women grew fastest among families where men had low or median earnings. Without women’s pay, the rate of poverty among married or cohabiting couples in the early 1990s would have been more than 50 percent higher than it actually was.

The 1980s and 1990s marked an increase in the rate of exploitation for very large numbers of working people. Conditions worsened dramatically in some areas: people worked longer hours or were forced to accept split shifts which took up a great deal of what should have been leisure time in the working day. The introduction of greater ‘flexibility’ in the workplace led to the abolition of certain rights such as tea breaks. In some industries wages were actually cut–for example as a result of privatisation, where public sector jobs were reassigned at lower rates of pay, or in industries such as printing and journalism where the union-busting operations of Rupert Murdoch and Eddie Shah led to a general lowering of wages and worsening of conditions across the whole sector. Women were moving into work at precisely the time when unions were being weakened and established conditions and agreements were being torn up. The prospect of universal and affordable childcare, of decent conditions and of real improvements in women’s lives appeared even more remote than it had done one or two decades previously. Now women were being told that they had to work, that childcare while they worked was their responsibility, and that it was also their responsibility to equip themselves to enter the labour market. On top of that they still had their family responsibility. The term ‘double burden’ doesn’t begin to describe this situation.

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