In my work as a service provider for women experiencing domestic violence, I see every day the devastating consequences for women and children of living in a society based on gender inequality.
Violence against women is everywhere, but most of it still occurs in the domestic sphere by people known or related to the abused woman. Most rapes are also committed by people known to the women, and the full extent of rape within relationships is still unknown because it is generally not reported.
Based on the few statistics that are collected, about one in three women in Australia experience a sexual assault or domestic violence in their lives.
How can such widespread, institutionalised violence against women simply continue as though it is normal? Why is there not a massive public uproar about this?
Violence against women is not an anomaly, but is in fact totally embedded in one of the main building blocks of modern capitalist society — the institution of the family. What does this mean for our battle to free all women from all forms of violence and eradicate the systemic inequality that allows misogyny to flourish?
The family as an institution
The family unit is a central pillar of the economic and social relations of capitalism. Without it capitalism simply could not have developed and could not survive today.
The family serves several functions that are indispensable to a society divided into classes.
It privatises most of the work and cost of reproducing (on a day-to-day basis and from one generation to the next) the population — the people who do the productive work and generate the wealth in society.
This privatised work is done for free, largely by women, who have been made responsible for the care of all family members.
The gender division of labour that defines women’s primary responsibilities as being within the family and home enables women to be super-exploited in their “secondary” role as waged workers. They are, as Marx described it, a “reserve army of labour” for the capitalists.
It socialises the population to accept authority — the authority of the father as the head of the household, and in turn, all those with more economic and social power in society.
Through family inheritance, it safeguards privately owned wealth within the ruling class.
This is not saying that women’s oppression is simply reducible to economic exploitation. Women’s oppression begins in the family as a vital economic unit for class society, but it is reinforced and perpetuated through all of the institutions and social relations of capitalism: the laws and courts, the marketplace, the mass media, religious institutions and beliefs.
The dominant ideas about how women should be — how they should look, act, think and so on — are often the immediate way in which women experience their oppression on a daily basis, at least in the advanced capitalist countries.
But it is an understanding the economic basis of those dominant ideas that is the key to answering the question of how women can free themselves from every aspect of their second-class status, as sexual objects, as super-exploited workers, as the victims of violence.
That is, gender inequality begins with an institution that developed to serve the ruling class’ economic interests, but that inequality flows well beyond this economic basis into all spheres of social, cultural, psychological and sexual life.
It’s in this context that all the ideological impositions associated with the family in our society — such as the idea that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexuality, that monogamy within relationships is important, the pressure on women to have children, and so on — make sense. They window-dress and bolster an institution that is essential for the whole economic system to continue.
Of course, the fact that in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism the family is at the same time a “haven in a heartless world”, one of the few spheres within which people can receive some emotional support and fulfillment, is a huge contradiction in that institution.
More than formal equality
It’s only when we understand the fundamental economic role that the subordination of women through the family plays in keeping the wheels of capitalism turning that you can understand why — in such technologically advanced and wealthy countries as Australia, and after massive movements for women’s rights that won formal equality for women and created very high and persistent expectations in society that women be treated as equals — women still do not have full equality and are still not free from violence.
There is no question that the first and second waves of feminism — at the turn of last century and then in the late 1960s to early 1980s — won significant ground for women’s rights.
As a result of those huge battles for change, women have the legal right to vote, to be elected to parliament, to receive equal pay to men and to not be bashed and raped..
And, crucially for feminists today, the second wave achieved a general acceptance, in the advanced capitalist countries at least, of the idea of gender equality. This resulted in the slow but steady increase in women’s participation in the workforce and educational and other institutions.
But those mass movements have not achieved full social and economic equality for women.
In Australia today, for example, the average pay gap between women and men is actually growing wider, there are no indications that violence against women is any less, anorexia and self-harm among young women is endemic, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s life expectancy, already 20 years less than non-Indigenous women, is declining further in relation to other women and men.
Impact of neoliberalism on women
The problem is that while those massive movements for women’s rights achieved vital reforms to the existing order and certainly challenged some of capitalism’s key institutions and ideologies, they did not develop to the extent of actually dismantling capitalist relations.
Despite the huge advances made by the movements, capitalism as a system persists, along with its special institution for gender division and oppression which is the individualised family unit — albeit in slightly modified forms: de facto marriages are now socially accepted and legally recognised; “blended families” are the norm, as a result of the high divorce/separation rates.
The consequence of not dismantling the foundation of women’s oppression is that the hard-won reforms achieved by feminism can only be temporary. The capitalist class will always try to take them back. Whether to defend women’s right to control their reproduction, or to maintain pay parity, we constantly have to resist the conservatives’ efforts to remove our rights.
When capitalism experiences economic crises, it goes on an offensive to take back the gains of the feminist and other progressive movements that have cost the ruling class.
So, over the last few decades, we have seen the capitalist class working overtime to bolster their economic system, including trying to push as much responsibility for people’s welfare back onto the private family by ensuring that their governments cut as much as possible from public spending on childcare, education, health, women’s services, aged and disability care.
At the same time more money is diverted to subsidising big business, reducing company tax rates, privatising everything that can make a profit, weakening trade unions so it is easier for companies to force cuts to wages and increase productivity, and so on.
Inevitably, this brutal drive to shift even more wealth from the working class to the capitalist class has a disproportionate impact on women, and working-class women especially.
As the attacks increase, the differentiation of women becomes clearer. There are the minority who are born into wealth or have managed to take advantage of the opportunities that the earlier women's movement opened up to make successful careers for themselves. They can free themselves from the “double shift” imposed on women by the institution of the family by employing cleaners, nannies or private carers. They are the majority of women, whose plight is worsening.
This class-based differentiation of the impacts of neoliberalism on women is magnified when you look at the situation worldwide. Economic conditions for women in the poorest countries are worsening, both compared to men and compared to women in the North.
Globally, the majority of women are actually being pushed further and further away from formal equality, let alone real social and economic equality.
There are, however, deep contradictions in how capitalism utilises and maintains the oppression of women. This is clear in the neoliberal drive to reinforce the family’s (rather than society’s) responsibility for providing childcare, aged care and health care while at the same time, women, the main deliverer of these services in the family, are now permanently implanted in the waged workforce.
Women’s labour force participation has never been higher and the capitalist class has no interest in driving women en masse out of the workforce: women’s cheaper labour helps keep down the wages and conditions of the working class as a whole, and most working-class families rely on two sources of income to survive, without which there would probably be a dramatic escalation in class conflict and instability.
The resulting pressures on the family unit, as capitalism forces the family into an increasingly unworkable reality, are a case of capitalism digging its own grave.
This Marxist understanding of women’s oppression as being, not just an unfair consequence, but a foundation stone, of an indispensable pillar of capitalist society, leads to certain conclusions about what is needed for gender inequality to be eradicated.
In a nutshell, it requires a revolutionary transformation of society.
For revolutionary feminists, the dismantling of capitalist economic and social relations and their replacement by socialism is necessary to achieve full women’s liberation. As long as capitalism and its institution of the family linger on, the gendered division of labour that underlies the oppression of women as a sex in all spheres of life cannot completely disappear.
But equally it means the struggle for women’s liberation is an essential component of the struggle for socialism, for the liberation of all humanity from oppression.