13. Women’s Oppression

Women’s oppression is as old as class society. Indeed, oppression of women can be found in all class societies without exception. Prior to the division of society into classes, whilst there is evidence of division of labour between the sexes, this was not antagonistic. It was at the point at which human beings could create a surplus above that required for their survival that both classes and the relationships of domination and subordination between the sexes appeared.

For this reason, a proper analysis of women’s oppression must begin at the level of relations of production, which changed decisively with the development of a surplus. In terms of relations of production, there is an economic basis for oppression.

Marxist feminists have coined the term ‘double burden’ – the way in which women suffer doubly under capitalism, both in the workplace and at home. As Connolly said, “If the worker is the slave of capitalist society, then the female worker is the slave of that slave”. Capitalism depends on, and is ultimately upheld, by unpaid, domestic labour; a task predominantly carried out by women. Without this unpaid labour, capitalism would cease to function.

At the same time, women hold a subordinate position within the labour market. They tend to be forced into the lowest paid occupations with the worst conditions and, even when carrying out the same work as their male counterparts, have historically been paid less. This super-exploitation is key to understanding the role of oppression in class society.

In the eternal drive to increase profits under capitalism through increasing the rate of exploitation, the super-exploitation of working class women, and other groups, has an important function both in providing a source of low-paid labour directly and in forcing down the wages and conditions of other workers. This is not, however, to suggest that women are a peripheral section of the workforce. To do this would be to completely misunderstand the operation of capitalism. In spite of their overwhelming responsibility for domestic labour, women are, and have always been, a core part of the workforce under capitalism.

Marxist feminists also talk about the double meaning of the theory of reproduction. Reproduction consists of two key, and distinct processes, the first being the daily maintenance of the ability to uphold the labour power of the family members who contribute to the labour market. Put simply, this means that the responsibility of making sure the workers (both male and female) are fed, clothed, and rested is incumbent primarily on women.

The second key process of reproduction involves the very biology of sex. Women are the ones who physically bring new life, and therefore a new generation of workers, into the world. Reproduction doesn’t simply stop there – capitalism gives parents (primarily women) the additional job of socialising their children, to ensure they are the right ‘fit’ for going into the world of work.

Women not only face oppression through the production and reproduction process. Working women bear the brunt of repressive social and economic measures, such as Tory austerity – from the tampon tax, to overpriced childcare, to the social murder of single mothers suffering under the cruelty of universal credit.

Marxist feminists such as Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya have written about the path to women’s liberation, and their works focus on the traditional, or ‘nuclear’, family; specifically, on the abolition of such a concept. Kollontai believed the way forward for women – besides of course, full economic and systemic change to communism – was through the destruction of this traditional family unit. She saw the nuclear family as a further tool of the capitalist classes with which to oppress women. She wrote, “Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of women a crushing burden… it makes her a wage worker without having lessened her duties and cares as a housekeeper and a mother.”

In order to sustain super-exploitation, unpaid labour and women’s role in social reproduction, women’s oppression operates through the ideology of sexism, one of a number of oppressive ideologies. These ideologies of oppression are crucial to maintaining and reproducing capitalist relations of production.

Firstly, they facilitate the super-exploitation of the oppressed section of the working class, which has been essential to the existence of capitalism since its formation and to other class societies before it.

Secondly, these ideologies provide the main non-coercive mechanisms for dividing the working class. A divided working class can never successfully challenge capitalism and, therefore, this division is important to the maintenance of capitalist society.     

However, oppression does not just affect the working class of the oppressed groups. In order for an ideology to be successful, it must represent the ideas of the ruling class as those of society as a whole. In the process of their operation, therefore, successful ideologies become universalised and their impact cuts across class boundaries.

Obviously they will affect different classes differently – while women of the ruling class will have certain restrictions and limitations on their rights and are not equal in status to men of the same class, women of the working class have far fewer rights by comparison and are super-exploited in the workplace – but the point is that they affect all members of the oppressed group.

This has several effects. Firstly it means that an ‘economist’ solution to oppression which focuses only on ending super-exploitation through the ending of exploitation and ignores the ideological component of oppression, becomes meaningless. In practice, this is any ‘solution’ which downgrades the importance of women’s oppression as a key component of class society and subordinates it to the class question – “oppression of women will end under socialism so there is no need for a separate women’s movement under capitalism”. The point is that oppression is integral to class society and therefore challenging class society involves challenging oppression. Oppression and exploitation, in a Marxist sense, are distinct yet interconnected. They have a complex yet specific relationship.

Another, less positive, effect of this universalisation of oppressive ideologies, is that the women’s movement has historically struggled with giving primacy to the demands of ruling class and/or middle class women – those sections of the oppressed group which are not super-exploited. This has meant engaging a constant battle to ensure that the women’s movement reflects the needs of the greatest number of women, and those women whose class position leads them to revolutionary demands, women of the working class.        

An understanding of oppression is useless if it does not lead us to concrete conclusions as to how to fight against that oppression. From the analysis above, it is clear that a comprehensive challenge to oppression must be combined with a challenge to exploitation, to the very basis of class society. This means that it is essential to build a strong united labour movement which rejects all oppressive ideologies and campaigns for an end to oppression.

However, equally important is a strong women’s movement, led by working class women, particularly those who play a leading role in the labour movement, but drawing together all women in its struggle. As communists, both women and men, working to build these movements must be our challenge.

As Angela Davis said, “The only significant steps towards ending domestic slavery have been taken in the existing socialist countries. Working women therefore have a special, vital, and vested interest in the struggle for socialism.”