On Saturday 12 September around 60 people (nearly all female) attended the student feminist group Mind The Gap’s “activist day” at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. It was a day of contradictions.
The speech given by Judith Orr of the Socialist Workers Party — attacking the “glass ceiling” — set the tone for the open debate.
Orr began by identifying capitalism as the overarching reason for much of the inequality in our society; she said that the glass ceiling that women face in high-level business is “the work of capitalist bosses”… “the higher you go [in business] the less women there are”. But she failed to draw out the flip side of this reality, the one which surely concerns socialist feminists: the fact that women are hugely over-represented in part-time work, low-paid jobs, particularly in the services industry, and unpaid work in the home.
When NUS Women’s Officer Liv Bailey called for a round of applause for the few female university vice-chancellors in the UK, I challenged her.
She had identified the capitalist system as the main culprit in making women’s social inequality endemic, and yet she wanted to hold up as heroes women in the very highest paid jobs, at the head of institutions like Cambridge University, which remain playgrounds for the rich, and reinforce divisive class structures every step of the way!
Bailey said that although she agreed with my sentiment, she felt that women should be fighting for whatever equality they could get in the existing system, separately from engaging in a socialist fight for equality in society as whole.
Later, Orr agreed with Bailey’s analysis, arguing for the separation of feminist work and labour movement and working class activism. This did not stop her from using socialist diction to enliven her speech.
She undermined herself in other ways: she spent a lot of her speech discussing sex work, and in particular pole-dancing and strip clubs, and the objectification of women.
She equated pole-dancing clubs near rugby clubs with student pole-dancing classes, thereby missing an important part of the debate.
She failed to identify the difference between the economic dependency of professional women in the sex-work industry and young women becoming involved in what Orr considers to be a degrading and objectifying pastime.
She argued that female students had the right to protest against pole-dancing clubs on or near their campuses because these are degrading to women; she did not say that most of the employees of such establishments are women, that there are reasons why women are in these jobs, and that they should have the same industrial rights as workers in other jobs.
Despite decrying capitalism as the root of these ills and identifying the need for socialism to respond to them, there was nothing socialist in her feminist analysis. She sided entirely with the pricked moral sensibilities of female students and, in effect, against working-class women in the sex industries.
When pressed, every member of the opening panel identified themselves as holding socialist or otherwise revolutionary views. All of the speeches made some reference, usually coded, to capitalism as the major oppressive structure in our society.
The desire for radical social change was there, however, it has yet to be channelled into a coherent movement. Orr’s example won’t help.
There was nothing in Orr’s speech, for example, to suggest that the single-issue campaigns (Rape Crisis, Abortion Rights, etc.) that the afternoon’s workshops were given over to would not be sufficient in providing an anti-capitalist feminist solution to gender inequality.
Rebecca Galbraith, of Feminist Fightback, speaking in another panel discussion, shared my opinion that the event suffered from an absence of political focus.
She said: “The other people who spoke on my panel [on cross-campaigning] were absolutely right; we do need a black feminism, and a feminism that’s aware of trans-gender issues, but we need to fight against the idea that these can be considered single-issues in the way that groups like Abortion Rights tell us they are”.
Rebecca spoke about her involvement with the Campaign Against Immigration Controls, and the way that the insecurity of migrant workers is yet another factor that exacerbates the conditions in which many women are working.
She provided a clear explanation of how a politics of solidarity works, explaining that the exploitation of women is not something separate from the exploitation of migrant workers, black people or the working class; these struggles have all been generated by the divide-and rule attitude of the capitalist system, and by linking up these struggles rather than isolating them we can generate a real force for change.
The seeds of something better are there within Mind The Gap. But in order to become really useful in contemporary feminist politics it must work to extend its reach beyond its current nucleus at SOAS, and subject its politics to a systematic appraisal.
If it anti-capitalist sentiments are earnest, then the way forward is to link up with campaigns like Feminist Fightback as well as other anti-capitalist, socialist struggles, and join the fight in action as well as words.