The state and perspectives of the women's movement


14. february 2008

In the last 20 years the women's movement experienced a dramatic decline. It lost its character as a movement to a large extent. Active self-organisation and collective struggle against sexism in economy, state and daily life decreased. Former feminist activists got hold of jobs in the ruling system, mainly at Universities and state institutions. The few feminist structures still existing have little connection with the broad mass of working class women. How could this happen?

The emergence of the New Women's Movement was an expression of the general protest movement in the sixties and seventies on the one hand, and a reaction to the predominant sexism and the ignorance about patriarchal structures and role models inside the left and the worker's movement on the other. This also explains why autonomous organizing of women had such a big role in the struggle for women's liberation. In many cases it was impossible to fight this struggle together with male comrades. But as a result of this fact the radical feminist parts of the movement theorised that the interests of women and men are contradictory in principle. They said that even the most progressive man cannot have "real" interest in the liberation of women. Therefore they rejected both the common organisation together with men and even male support.

Development of the New Women's Movement

Regardless of the national peculiarities, the New Women's Movement was an important factor in society which contributed to the improvement of the living conditions of the mass of women. It made aware the open and less open sexism in society, contributed to erosion of traditional patriarchal role models, accomplished the installation of women's refuges and - together with the workers movement - it led to achievements like the liberalisation of the abortion laws and more modern family laws.

In the eighties, against the background of the weakening of the left and the workers movement, the women's movement also declined. With the shift of its activities away from the streets and into the universities and different state institutions its radical head was cut off, and its bigger parts were integrated into the capitalist system. This systematic adaptation is evident for example with the development at the universities. Initially the feminist academics took office with political claims targeted on overcoming the capitalist and patriarchal academic routines. But this anti-capitalism was more and more sacrificed in order to gain recognition of the academic establishment. This was done with the argument that it was necessary to be heard. This process of adaption was reflected not only in respect of theory but also led to a separation of academic work and political organising.

The institutionalisation of the women's movement is predominantly reactionary in the sense that since the eighties it was accompanied by a social-political rollback, which affected women especially. Individual women climbed the social ladder and represented an institutionalized feminism, at the same time the living conditions for the mass of women became increasingly worse. The negative main tendency of the women's movement has to be seen alongside positive elements like the extension of women's refuges and the promotion of women's studies which have challenged established historical female role models.

Living condition of women today

Paradoxically at first sight it seems as if the demands of the women's movement of the sixties and seventies are to a certain extent fulfilled with the neoliberal developments of the last 20 years. The employment of women has increased drastically, men and women are forced to sell their work in free and flexible global labour markets, traditional role models and family structures break up and so on. In reality this seeming enforcement of women's rights demanded for decades, covers up the fact that the economic situation of the broad majority of women became worse. The increase of women's employment to a large part applies to precarious jobs (part time, temporary employment, contractors) which have little legal and contractual protection, provide poor pay and do not give a decent living. This led to a real impoverishment of many women and in contradiction to an enhancement of women (because of economic independence) their role as earners of only supplementary wages in the family is cemented. Moreover women carry the main burden of the cuts in the health and education system, because as housewives and mothers they have to make up for the former public benefits in the family.

Against this trend affecting the majority of women a few women succeed in climbing up the career ladder. Although they are a minority, these women are in the spotlight and promote their professional advancement as feminism. In reality this fact reflects the general tenor in society which is putting the individual and its capability in the centre of the analysis. Following the idea that the liberation of individuals is the basis for the liberation of all women the organized combative women's movement is replaced by an individualization of the fight for liberation.

De facto there is less redistribution between the sexes, but rather between women. In the last decades a small layer of women emerged who can partially overcome their socially stamped role as women because of their social position in the society - by employing the work of childminders, cleaning women etc. The precondition for this exit out of traditional role models is the existence of a broad layer of women forced to take these low paid jobs with little prestige. A classical example is the Austrian middle class family receiving outside help from an Eastern European female home care worker.

Now apart from this economic worsening, democratic rights like the right to abortion, won by women with difficulty, are being questioned again. There are cynical voices which complain, in the light of these economic problems, of the alienation of women from their "true being", who say that the employment of masses of women would limit their abilities as mothers and endanger the future of the children. The fact that such things are debated again shows not only the steadiness of reactionary ideologies but also the absence of a fighting women's movement which can exert pressure in the whole of society.

Sexism and capital

Women's oppression and sexism did not come into existence with capitalism but was successfully integrated into the capitalist system by the ruling class. Theoretically the capitalist system could cope also without the existence of these specific mechanisms of oppression. The functioning of economic exploitation rests upon the existence of classes; the division of society into the owners of means of production and the workers who own nothing but their labour power and therefore are forced to sell it. In this way the class relations create the preconditions for the possibility that capitalists can exploit surplus work from the labourers. On an abstract level the sex of the exploited workers makes no difference for the capitalist. He/she can use the factor sex, just as other factors, to press more surplus value out of the work force but the central relation of exploitation is not changed.

But concretely and historically women's oppression and sexism became a firmly integrated part of capitalism. This is connected with the fact that capitalism never is an economic exploitation system alone but always a political regime too. Social oppression according to sex and nation is a crucial instrument for the ruling class in order to split the working class. Only with this racist, sexist politics of division it is possible to avert a united working class conscious of its own strength. Therefore in reality a capitalism free of politics and ideology can never exist.

Of course many men of the working class benefit from sexism and women's oppression and refuse to give up these privileges. With this they not only become oppressors themselves but also stabilize the system (by accepting the division of the working class along the lines of gender). The main profiteers of the predominant gender regime, and therefore the main enemy in the struggle against women's oppression are the capitalists. Female workers are super-exploited, work for less money, accept worse working conditions and do unpaid care and housework. This has the advantage for our rulers of dividing the working class along gender lines - no male capitalist, and no female capitalist, would give up this advantage voluntarily. Also a section of women benefit from the prevailing class and gender order and are interested in its continuation.

Because of the intertwined nature of capitalism and women's oppression we have to draw the conclusions that the struggle against sexism and women's oppression can only have the chance of substantial success if it is directed also against the capitalist system. This task can only be accomplished in connection with the class struggles of the workers, especially with strikes, trade union and finally, most importantly, with a revolutionary communist party, in which women and men struggle against capitalist exploitation and women's oppression side by side.

Revolutionary March 8th

The 8th March as a symbol of the struggle for women's liberation historically stands in the tradition of this common struggle of women and men in the workers movement against women's oppression. We think that the struggle against sexism has to be waged not only by women but also by politically conscious women and men together. Therefore women only demonstrations on the 8th March express a fundamentally wrong orientation. We are in favour of mobilisations of women and men under the slogan "Against Sexism and Capital! For Women's Liberation and Class Struggle!"

Maria Pachinger