Over the past year, we have seen a huge rise in activity around women’s rights in Australia and other parts of the world.
Attention has turned to a range of horrific individual tragedies as well as broader issues, including sexual assault and violence against women, the disparity in income between men and women, and a debate about misogyny.
Although the idea that feminism is no longer relevant still dominates, women know through experience that sexism is rife. They are learning to organise together and taking to the streets in large numbers to demand change.
The big issues that are motivating young women to take action are violence against women, objectification of women and reproductive rights.
The economic and political system we live under — capitalism — benefits from women occupying a second-class role in society.
Women’s sexuality has been tied to the need to reinforce marriage and the nuclear family, and thus women’s role as unpaid carers in the system.
Capitalist culture creates an acceptance in men and women of the idea that women’s bodies exist for the pleasure of men. This is reinforced through the corporate media, commercial advertising and a flourishing pornography industry.
Many young women are aware of living within a culture that brazenly objectifies their bodies. Often this rampant sexualisation is dressed up as some kind of emancipation — the idea that the more exploited female bodies we see, the closer we edge to women’s sexual liberation — and these lies are becoming obvious to many women.
Not only are these “ideal” depictions of women not created or controlled by us, but they have real impacts on the everyday lives of women too.
The phenomena of “body hatred”, expressed often through eating disorders, has become an epidemic of huge proportions, seriously undermining women’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. A report by the Butterfly Foundation last year found that over 900,000 people in Australia now suffer from an eating disorder.
Media outlet The Conversation reported that: “Dieting is the greatest risk factor for the development of an eating disorder and, disturbingly, it’s thought about 70% of 15-year-old girls are on a diet.”
A study by the American Psychological Association found that after three minutes spent looking at a fashion magazine, 70% of women felt “depressed, guilty, and ashamed”.
It is clear these completely unrealistic ideas of beauty, which are promoted to sell beauty products, hurt women and girls.
Violence against women is also prevalent in our society, with estimates that one in three Australian women have experienced violence in an intimate relationship. Many things contribute to this, including the generally lower economic position women occupy in society, the widespread objectification of women, and the ingrained idea that women’s autonomy does not matter.
Without education on what constitutes rape or sexual assault, or how to form equitable sexual relationships, many young people do not know what constitutes sexual abuse or rape.
By objectifying and commodifying women, capitalist culture belittles women. It works to limit women’s access to positive gender roles and this stifles their development as equal participants in society.
In order to understand the place of women in society, people need to look at the way women’s conditions have been steadily undermined by neoliberalism in the public and private spheres.
Under capitalism, the ruling class gets richer and richer by controlling the economy through pro-capitalist political parties. On behalf of the capitalist class, these parties operate to redistribute wealth from working people to the rich.
They cut wages and working conditions, privatise our public services and sell our essential services back to us in the market at prices that are harder to afford. Since the 1980s, these neoliberal policies have been carried out by Liberal and Labor.
Gathering speed in the Howard years, but continuing today, women have seen essential services like childcare, domestic violence shelters and public housing being stripped back. Meanwhile big business has demanded there be a casual, flexible workforce that has little pay, no protections and no entitlements — and women make up the vast majority of these workers.
Universities are now run by corporate managers who administer cuts to disciplines that don’t have direct ties to million dollar industries, adversely affecting women’s access to education.
Neoliberalism holds that as individuals, our happiness and freedoms are maximised by having choices in the market. But it is clear that in the past 30 years, women’s real choices have been diminishing.
Real choice for women is not about picking between 20 different types of shampoo or toothpaste. It’s about being free to make those fundamental decisions that determine the direction of our lives.
Be it having access to abortion services, the right to employment that doesn’t underpay women purely because they are women, the right to adequate support services, housing for single mothers or women fleeing violent relationships, or access to affordable childcare and health services that can care for sick or elderly family members.
These are the kinds of real choices that are integral to women taking part as equals in our society, that neoliberal capitalism is taking away.
The liberal feminist approach
Why isn’t having a woman as our prime minister enough? Why isn’t it enough that Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, is a woman? Surely if they can make it, we all can?
Liberal feminism argues for the need to break through the glass ceiling and for women to increasingly take part in the world of men. By having incrementally more women generals, politicians and CEOs, the world is assumed to become a better place and women’s second-class status to just vanish over time.
Assuming that a victory for an individual woman is, by its very nature, a victory for all women doesn’t work to actually improve the conditions of all women.
We have a female prime minister who has no qualms with siding with the Coalition to attack single mothers. One of the richest people in the world, Gina Rinehart, steals billions of dollars from the collective wealth of all.
These examples show that aiming for equality between genders within the status quo is insufficient in a social and economic system that has as its core principle, the exploitation of the majority of humanity. We can’t win equality in an inherently unequal world.
Women do not change oppression by simply joining the oppressive system but only by consciously deciding to fight for change.
We need a feminism that is class conscious and materialist — a socialist feminism that pushes the boundaries of systemic oppression under capitalism and fights for true liberation — a feminism of the 21st century.
With a materialist grounding, we gain a clearer vision as to how we move the struggle forward, in a real sense and in a way that we can actually win.
What does a materialist framework mean for feminism? It means a few things.
We need to take into account the broader framework in which attacks on women are occur as part of the neoliberal attacks on all working people. This means that many feminist struggles are already taking place, and will be taking place in future, within the industrial arena.
It means taking into account what we haven’t yet won — that is, real social and economic equality — but also acknowledging what we have won. This includes the victories of the second wave in achieving formal equality.
What kind of feminism should we fight for? We need a feminism that is inclusive — that is open to challenging stereotypes including fixed gender identities. This means welcoming transgender women, intersex people and men who support the movement’s goals.
A feminism that challenges racism. One that includes Aboriginal women and that recognises the struggle for land rights and a treaty as fundamental to the struggle against oppression.
A feminism that teaches women to challenge their own oppression and become their own leaders.
We need a feminism that teaches women to turn the rage we are feeling inside, out into the world. In part this means making the move from blogs and forums, or Facebook, and turning individual rage at the keyboard, into a collective rage that knows its strength through action together with others.
A feminism that is internationalist; this means, for example, standing with the women and their families in Afghanistan against imperialism and war.
We need a feminism that is led by women: only we can liberate ourselves.
A tough feminism without illusions in the system — there is no nice capitalism. We need an activist feminism, with a vision for a system we shape ourselves.
We need a feminism that is collective and unifying — one that goes beyond the individual identity, and is rooted in history and class struggle. This means uniting our struggle with the struggle of other oppressed peoples.
There have been some amazing developments in Australia and globally with women taking to the streets demanding real change. But this is only the beginning. We need to keep fighting, and always bringing new people into the movement.
We need to continue to demand the right for women to fully take part in this society, without the fear of violence. And we need to be unafraid to start demanding some of the big changes — like equal pay.
Resistance and the Socialist Alliance have a long commitment to building the movement for women’s liberation. A socialist framework provides the most holistic understanding of women’s oppression and importantly, shows us the way forward — a real people-powered alternative, where women can struggle together to decide their own fate.