End the system that fosters misogyny

May 20, 2017
Women in Queensland marching for the legal right to abortion.

For millennia, women have had to contend with the ideology that because of their biology, women’s second class status is part of some “natural order”. This has been perpetuated by the state, the church, the family, and reflected in laws and through education.

But this is bullshit. Throughout many millennia of human history, women occupied a status at least equal to men’s. The problem is that you won’t hear about this reality in school, you won’t see it reflected in the media or in film.

Misogyny, once defined as a “hatred of women”, now has an additional definition since Julia Gillard's famous misogyny speech in 2012 as “entrenched prejudice against women”. This is more accurate because it points to institutional discrimination, rather than just to an individual's attitude towards a woman or women's essential role in society.

The sexist framing of women in public and working life has been a constant of the capitalist media, and reflects deeply ingrained attitudes within our society.

Women who publicly speak out about almost anything, or challenge the status quo, or rise to positions of influence are often targets of misogynistic attacks and threats on social media and in the mainstream media.

Well-worn stereotypes are trotted out by journalists, as they focus on psychologising women in public life or obsessively concentrate on their body parts or appearance.

Woe betide the woman who dares to challenge injustice or call out sexual harassment. She’s labelled a “mad fucking witch” or accused of “destroying the joint”.

The view that women are second-class citizens and sexual objects — and can be treated as such — remains strong especially among those with the means to shape public opinion.

The social and economic factors that maintain the sexist double standard are entrenched under capitalism — the system that prioritises profit-making over meeting human needs and in which women carry out the lion's share of unpaid labour in the home and in the community.

The prevalence of sexism in the media reflects the material and ideological backlash against the gains of the women’s movement. Gains made material difference to women’s lives but also resulted in improvements in media codes about the use of non-sexist language and stereotyping.

The idea that “women have gone too far” in campaigning for equality has spawned a war on feminism that became the war on “political correctness” as described by former Prime Minister John Howard after his election in 1996.

It was no surprise that one of the first policy decisions of the new Howard government was to slash funding to the Office of the Status of Women. Under Howard the gender wage gap actually widened and we witnessed attacks on single mothers, on welfare, on Aboriginal rights and representation.

Women at work

Thirty-two years after landmark anti-discrimination laws introduced in Australia, we still have one of the most sex-segregated workforces in the industrialised world.

Today, the gender wage gap in Australia sits at 17-18% — women earn about 82 cents to the male dollar. The gap is significantly wider — up to 29% — in some sectors, including technical, trades, community and personal care work.

One in two women experience discrimination in the workplace because of pregnancy, parental leave or on their return to work. The lack of access to childcare, with huge waiting lists, impacts mostly on women.

But women (and some men) have fought back against discrimination and sexism. One such struggle which you won’t read about in history, and which is not taught in universities, is the Jobs for Women campaign in the 1980s.

This campaign was the test case for the newly introduced sex discrimination laws in Australia, as 34 mostly migrant women took on BHP to fight for jobs at its Port Kembla steelworks and won.

They faced off against a company with the financial resources to fight a long legal battle while they had to fight for access to Legal Aid to put their case. They fought so-called “protective legislation” that set 16 kilograms as the safe lifting limit for women (but set no safe lifting limit for men) and convinced the ACTU to set 16 kilograms as the safe lifting limit for both women and men, knocking that argument out of court.

Nine years after beginning their campaign they won their case, leading to hundreds of women gaining employment at the steelworks and later to compensation for direct and indirect discrimination.

They won the support of the union, and provided an example of how the fight for women’s right to work can build solidarity across a male-dominated workforce.

Women’s double burden

Today, women occupy 65% of the paid workforce, but still perform 66% of the unpaid caring work in Australia. Despite these victories, there is something fundamentally wrong with this system. Capitalism can live with women in the workforce just as long as we know our place and continue to accept the double standard and the double burden.

Women spend, on average eight and a half hours a day caring for children under 14, compared with four hours for men.

Sexual harassment is a crime, but remains a big workplace problem, with a quarter of women indicating they experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

The idea of professional boundaries at work —and in the pub afterwards — is pretty simple. But it does involve having real respect for women, and that involves seeing women as equals, not inferiors.

Violence against women

While many still think that violence against women refers only to physical violence, the reality is that violence against women includes a wide range of behaviours designed to control and intimidate women such as emotional, psychological, social and financial forms of abuse and control.

One in five women over 15 year’s old has experienced sexual violence. Domestic and family violence is the leading cause of death, disability and illness for women aged 15-44 years.

Malcolm Turnbull’s addresses to the White Ribbon events, where he said “not all disrespecting women leads to violence against women, but believe me — that's where all violence against women begins” might lead you to believe that the Australian government is serious about sex discrimination and violence. But Turnbull’s sentiments blur the reality that exists within the parliamentary and other power structures in Australia today.

Getting rid of misogyny

If we are to rid society of misogyny we have to get rid of the system that entrenches and perpetuates it. It is not just a matter of changing attitudes or adopting platitudes: it involves challenging the social and economic factors that shape those attitudes and beliefs.

The misogyny of politicians, including US President Donald Trump, has generated a huge reaction and a lot of discussion around sexism. Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment and his subsequent election as US President, has sparked a movement of resistance, involving tens of thousands of people in protests in the US and here.

If we are in the midst of the “Third Wave” of the women’s movement, it looks a lot different to the first or second waves. Social media campaigning, spontaneous protests, flash mobs and culture jamming are aspects of the new wave of anti-sexist organising and consciousness raising.

The March for Women in the US and the well-attended protests it sparked here, should make us optimistic about the potential for women to organise and fight back.

But the struggles of today and tomorrow to defend and extend the gains of the women’s movements and against the attacks on our rights, need to be part of a bigger struggle for the liberation of all humanity, if we are to see lasting change.

Imagine if quality child-care was free, there was free health, dental and hospital care for all, community restaurants provided cheap and nutritious meals, education was free and domestic chores were paid for by the state. Life for families, and especially women, would be very different. But this sort of arrangement would mean that a proportion of the profits currently pocketed by the ruling class would have to be spent on providing such services.

Neoliberalism is moving society in the exact opposite direction to this vision. We are seeing attacks on welfare, the dismantling of universal health and free education. This is putting huge strain on families and, by extension, on women. We cannot take the gains that working women have won for granted. But they are limited and temporary — just look at the attacks on penalty rates, on the right to organise in a union, the fight for equal pay.

Alexandra Kollontai wrote in her The Social Basis of the Woman Question in 1909: “Women can become truly free and equal in a world organised along new social and productive lines.” But she goes on to say “each right that woman wins brings her nearer the defined goal of full emancipation”.

Given the entrenched nature of sexism, it is going to take all kinds of anti-sexist campaigns and movements, to ensure future generations have a fighting chance of building a society where women, men and people who identify beyond the gender binary can live lives that are truly liberated and fulfilling.

[Susan Price is a national convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]

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