Bread and Roses: We want it all!

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 10:50

The Guardian's recent series of articles on the legacy of feminism was very Guardian women's page. Sometimes irritating, middle-classey, kind-of-socialisticy, anti-globalisationy kind of fare. Nonetheless I found myself broadly in agreement with the conclusions - even with those of the dreadful (ex-SDPer) Polly Toynbee.

What is "feminism"? A short definition is - a belief in equality for women with men. But the feminist goal, as Katherine Viner analysed quite well, has come to be associated with the watered-down reformist/capitalist spin on equality, that is "equality of opportunity". Feminism is now about women having the best of capitalism - lots of consumer goods and managerial jobs. If one accepts the status quo and the myth that it is possible for most people, men and women both, to have these things, it becomes easier to talk about how feminism has achieved its goals.

Of course the equality-of-opportunity feminists are now questioning whether women can "have it all". The obnoxious Alison Pearson ("Roma women and their snotty children should be neither seen nor heard begging on the streets of my beautiful Islington") has a book out about it. Female fund manager feels guilty about leaving her children with full-time nanny. (But not guilty about paying her nanny less than the minimum wage.)

Viner looked at how capitalism has hijacked feminism: all industries,
including the porn industry, use once-liberating feminist ideas about sexual freedom and personal autonomy to sell their shoddy goods. Our culture, she says, is dominated by the idea that "buying stuff makes us liberated."

Socialist-feminism has always had a simple answer to all forms of bourgeois feminism. The socialist feminist literature (which is immense) talks about what the majority of women - most of whom do not have "spending power" - need.

For socialist feminists it is not even, as Polly Toynbee argued in her article, a matter of reforms. Toynbee advocated squeezing the rich (men) until their pips squeak - "Men have to start paying the true cost of the services they receive, including the true cost of having their children cared for. That means paying higher taxes to support a universal network of children's centres in every area, with highly paid staff.". Worthwhile as reform is, we have a bigger goal - to end all oppression by ending all exploitation. That goal in my view has never been more relevant.

The necessity of work, as well as the opportunity to work, for women has made a gigantic and a progressive change in women's lives. Even women from the most "traditional" backgrounds, Bengali women for instance, want to work (although Bengali and Pakistani women have the highest unemployment rate for women in Britain - 15%).

However, several inter-related factors make work in general more exploitative for women than it is for men. Women still earn only 82% of men (hourly rate). Women's work is still in large part part-time and concentrated on particular low paid sectors. Women still, in the main, when children are not with other childcarers or in school, take a lioness share of childcare responsibilities.

Organising women and men in the low paid sectors, fighting for a better minimum wage and advocating free, high-quality childcare and parental rights are key strategic goals for the labour movement in the twenty first century. Today, more than ever, the fight against exploitation and the super-exploitation of women go hand in hand.

Women's increased participation in the workforce and in all areas of society has also had a progressive impact. That means we do have to reassess what we mean by feminism. For instance in some areas young women today are simply, without any qualification, doing better than young men. Girls do better in all subjects at school, even in those subjects which far fewer girls take up (IT and physics). What effect does this have on young women's expectations in life?

It must mean that young women are in general more assertive and able to stand up for themselves in personal relationships. And yet... As Libby Brooks pointed out in her Guardian article - a third of young women say they have been coerced into sex. And girls continue to risk pregnancy because they cannot ask their partners to wear a condom.

So what do young women feel about equality? What say the young women who leave school without qualifications, or who do a modern apprenticeship in business administration (but not construction), or who (eventually) get a job stacking shelves alongside equal numbers of men their own age, or (with very few other men) clean offices for a living?

In the next issue of Solidarity we will be asking some young women what they think about equal rights, working for peanuts and being female.

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