In late 2022, comrades from across Britain attended the first ever Young Communist League Women’s Conference in Ruskin House.
Communists have long fought for women’s liberation, as some of the historical and global contributions made at the Women’s Conference highlighted. Each speaker brought light to a different facet of women’s oppression and together we exposed the darkest aspects of how capitalism both sustains and is sustained by that oppression. Together, women comrades stripped bare the nature of capitalism’s oppression of women, enabling us to push forward and fight back without mercy against this predatory system of exploitation.
Women in The International Movement
In the opening address to conference, comrade Aymee Diaz Negrin from the Cuban Embassy joined us to give a fascinating account of women’s liberation in Cuba. She explored the recent progressive reforms to the Cuban Family Code and the active steps the socialist state is taking to tackle machismo in Latin American culture.
The New Family Code is a landmark achievement won by a popular democratic mandate. It advances children’s rights and rewards the labour of family life, of child-rearing and caring for the sick and disabled. It was enacted by Mariela Castro Espin, daughter of first-generation Cuban revolutionaries Raul Castro and Vilma Espin. Shaped by more than 80,000 public consultations, it is the common creation of the Cuban people. The Cuban Revolution continues to advance socialism and inspire communists around the world.
The Casualisation of Commercial Sexual Exploitation
A core dimension of neoliberalism is that it is market fundamentalist: an economic logic that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It upholds the dictatorship of finance capital, accelerating capitalism’s tendency towards monopoly and in doing so, shattering its own illusion that the market is in any way ‘free’.
Neoliberalism is legitimised by unbridled individualism in society, which functions to divert working class youth from grasping the material realities of capitalist oppression. It masks the system’s inherent contradictions to divert us from class consciousness and collective action.
Individualism in the form of identity politics for example, is rife at the neoliberal university, where many students lack an understanding of trade unionism and the impact of scabbing. Individualism obscures the reality of our common struggle. It breeds ignorance of the fact that university boards would rather women sell our bodies to fund our studies and living costs, than give us a decent bursary or cancel crippling fees.
Neoliberalism enables ruthless commodification in capitalism’s death drive to pursue limitless private profit on a finite planet. It is facilitated by mass consumerism, which helps maintain capitalist super-exploitation of women by stripping us of our humanity and contorting us into machinery ourselves. We are the gears which propel the economy. Capitalism was built upon women’s oppression.
Unconsciousness of ourselves, the power of our labour and the labour movement more broadly, helps proliferate all form of women’s oppression under capitalism. The predatory casualisation of prostitution to a form of work is a prime example of the social damage wreaked by neoliberalism, which targets our very bodies for wealth extraction.
ii. Social Media
The dangers of social media for young women should not be underestimated. The market dictates what it means to be a liberated woman: this is evident in the notion that being sexually exploited is a progressive form of work. White middle class women who are completely disconnected from the labour movement peddle the myth that participation in prostitution and the wider sex industry is uplifting. This is normalised by social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and OnlyFans.
Social media also functions as a currency. It is a highly addictive form of validation that many of our youth cling to in order to feel a modicum of acceptance. Neoliberalism manipulates how we as young women feel and present ourselves. We become individuals in competition with one another, commercialised and sold on a marketplace.
iii. Ownership of the Female Body
Kollontai asserts that bourgeois egoism has created a sex crisis. This has resulted from “the idea of possessing the married partner, coupled with the belief that the two sexes are unequal, that they are unequal of worth in every way, in every sphere, including the sexual sphere”.
Despite delusions that the sex industry is liberatory for young women, it relies on us being viewed as objects and enforces unequal power dynamics. It is no surprise that the most searched words on Pornhub are “teen” or “schoolgirl”, and that women are subjected to infantilised characterisations on these sites.
The sex industry preys on vulnerability: most of its victims are the most deprived women in our society. This also speaks to how women are super-exploited on productive and reproductive levels. Capitalism creates and perpetuates our lack of control over how we are treated and depicted.
Consent is implicit in casualisation. This recklessly endangers young women who become trapped in an industry which blurs the lines between the consensual and the transactional. The reality is that a woman who is selling herself for sex would much rather receive the money without having sex. This process is thus non-consensual but transactional. If women and sex is just another object and service you can buy, is rape no more serious than theft?
iv. Superstructural Reinforcement of Women’s Oppression
Police brutalisation of women in Britain can be traced back to the Infectious Diseases Act of 1864. Proposed as an inquisition into the high STD rate amongst soldiers, it quickly became an opportunity for police to arrest and invasively search and examine women prostitutes in army towns. It ratified the policing of women’s bodies, reinforcing in the superstructure the unequal power dynamic at the base of capitalist society on which the sex industry is built. That women have been criminalised for their victimhood in this process, while the male aggressor faces no consequences, exposes the police force’s primary function: protecting private property.
Around a century after the Infectious Diseases Act, Glasgow’s law enforcement had learned nothing and displayed a complete negligence to the commercial sexual exploitation of young women, continuing to police them instead of pimps or punters. Following the murders of 5 women between the 1990s and 2000s, public outrage and the intervention of charity organisations forced the broad political recognition of prostitution as a form of violence towards women.
But this understanding of commercial sexual exploitation is at risk due to lobbying groups around the Scottish Government. The liberal campaign for decriminalisation is a real threat, one which is even gaining traction in the trade unions and that we as communists must fervently resist.
v. The Threat, and Our Solution
Casualisation of the sex industry not only has disastrous consequences physically and psychologically: it threatens trade unions’ connection to working class and vulnerable women.
The brutal reality is that if you accept porn, you accept rape. If you accept strip clubs, you accept sex trafficking. If you accept sex worker toolkits at universities, you accept prostitution of all ages. You cannot advocate for one aspect of the sex industry and reject another. They are innately interconnected and interdependent.
Although sex and class-based oppression may be vivid to us as Marxist feminists, it blends into the background of capitalism, making it invisible to the unconscious worker. The sex industry is toxic and deliberate, designed so that the producers and reproducers of generations of workers can make oppressing easier for our masters.
We should respond to the sex industry as an attack on young women’s bodies, with resistance cemented in class struggle, to bring about the emancipation of half the human race. As Marx put it, “Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval”.
How the Environmental Crisis Affects Women
The climate crisis is ever worsening; we are already seeing the devastating global impact of flooding, droughts and displacement. People in the developing world are first to be majorly impacted. With capitalism’s ‘cost of living crisis’, many working class people in the UK now can’t afford heating and food. Under severe strain, women bear the brunt. It is us who are already likely to be responsible for handling household finances, domestic duties and struggling to gain adequate housing before capitalist crises hit. Our struggle to survive supersedes the bigger ecological picture and it is killing the planet.
Women and the whole working class must apply pressure to corporations and major global conglomerates producing high levels of pollution and greenhouse gasses. Only our class power can dislodge capitalism’s existential threat to humanity and secure a greener future for all.
Women in the Trade Union Movement
In the Women and Trade Unions panel, we heard from Micaela Tracey-Ramos, co-chair of UNISON young members; and Helen O’Connor, NHS nurse and trade union organiser. The panel was chaired by NEU rep Sarah Green.
Conference heard of Helen’s first-hand experience organising campaigns in the NHS and as a trade union organiser. She offered a woman’s perspective of organising in the trade union movement and winning campaigns in the workplace against poor terms and conditions. Helen’s determination and never give up attitude in organising workers against their bosses was keenly felt.
Micaela spoke about work in UNISON – a public sector union overwhelmingly made up of women – and the campaigns that have been won in her region in the NHS. These gains are won by low paid women. She emphasised that the emancipation of women can only come with the emancipation of the working class, urging women to fight alongside their male workers in the struggle against capitalism.
Women represent the majority of the public sector and half of the workforce, yet are in professions that due to historical decisions are still deemed ‘women’s work’. Now, with teachers, nurses, care workers and cleaners leading industrial disputes, it is essential that women take a central role in organising their workplaces. We may hold up half the sky but our boots are on the ground and our contribution to the workforce, our terms and conditions and social security won’t be compromised without a fight.
The Commercialisation of Femininity and The Mental Health Crisis
Cultural feminisms tell us that women are kind, caring people by nature. We know that this is a result of our oppression. Women are “naturally better parents” because we have been raised to be. Over millions of years men have developed skills better suited to hunting and women better suited to domestic work.
We are more submissive as we have been downtrodden by the class system for so long. We deserve our place in the workforce, away from domestic drudgery, as much as any man. More importantly we deserve security and a balanced responsibility to provide childcare. More than that, we need socialism – in order to escape this relentless burden of childrearing, housekeeping and the constant threat of sex-based violence.
Women are paying the costs of femininity. We personate capitalist ideals of womanhood through medical procedures, fashionable clothes and cosmetics. In 2020, the average British woman spent £400 on cosmetics alone. Not only does this put us in an even worse economic state, but it eats up our time, spending – in some cases – hours longer in the morning trying to make ourselves into a perfect image.
This is so beneficial to a capitalist class who wants to alienate working class people. In a system where women purchase 80% of all products, it pays to have suffocating control over the female population. Capitalism has created a branch of bodily capital in which the richest women progress the most, economically and socially. Women who meet artificial beauty standards are more likely to receive a promotion. We are seen as toys by our employers and the prettiest of us will always be picked to shut up and do their bidding. But gender roles oppress us all – this must be firmly understood. Men also perform masculinity, which often degenerates into sex-based violence.
To the capitalist class, we are mere placentas to raise the workforce upon. For women to control our bodies, the capitalism system itself must fall. We can’t recede into a radical feminist ideology that blames men solely for our oppression and ignores the class issue in sex-based violence. We must clearly recognise gender roles as being enforced by the class system to generate maximum profits for the capitalists. We must also acknowledge that promotion on the basis of attraction is an abuse of power. Our trade unions have a responsibility to help lift female workers out of super-exploitation.
We envision a society where women are worth more than our flesh and bone. Where working class women have real influence over laws that affect us, not a system where our rights are constantly at threat of being rolled back.
We fight for real women’s liberation and will not settle for the UN’s bourgeois standards of petition-signing. Capitalism relies on the violent oppression of women by our husbands, fathers and the family structure as a whole, but this cannot stop us lifting up working women and protecting them from violence wherever possible. We cannot sit back and wait for a revolution to help these women out of abuse and sexual exploitation. This is our duty as a united class force, for women everywhere. We will no longer buy femininity from rich men: the rich will be made to pay by militant, Marxist feminism.
Sex-Based Violence Against Women and Girls
The workshop on sex-based violence against women and girls made a vital intervention in the discourse around these issues. It argued for a class conscious perspective on women’s oppression as opposed to liberal and radical feminisms, or any reactionary postmodern false analyses. Comrades set out the definition of sex-based violence as the perpetuation of a spectrum of violence and abuse committed primarily by men against women: one in three women across the world experience sex-based violence in their lifetime.
We discussed what we mean by ‘women and girls’ and determined the difference between sex and gender. Sex is a biologically determined characteristic, dependent on the chromosomal make up of an individual, whereas gender is a social construct defined by various signs and symbols attributed to sex. The two are closely related, and comrades discussed the ways in which displays of femininity irrespective of sex can receive reactions of misogyny.
For the purposes of this topic, however, the unique material position of women in class society and how this is maintained by sex-based violence was our focus. There is a dialectically interdependent relationship between patriarchy and capitalism: the double oppression of women both in the home and in the workplace is a consequence of class society, and a prerequisite for capitalism’s existence.
Comrades examined, from a local and global perspective, the multiple experiences of violence that women and girls face in their every-day lives. Sex-based violence has been a weapon of war and social control throughout history and across the modern world. Both commercial sexual exploitation and the feminisation of poverty are expressions of violence against women in its physical and economic forms.
In times of war, rape is often used as a weapon to effect political or strategic motivations on a perceived enemy. These are: to terrorise the population, to break up families, destroy communities, and even to irreversibly alter the ethnic make-up of future generations. This can be achieved by deliberately infecting women with HIV, rendering women infertile through violence, or by impregnating them through rape.
To liberate women we must fight capitalism on all fronts, protecting and extending the ability of women to access refuge services and to self-organise as women. We must also battle for our reproductive rights by forcing proper public funding of sexual health services across all communities, as well as real sex education that equips women and men with an understanding of the impact of capitalist culture on sex-based violence.
Feminisation of the Cost of Living Crisis
What we call the ‘cost of living crisis’ is the increasing rate of exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. Working class women shoulder the burden of capitalism’s crisis tendency due to our position as a super-exploited group. Lower wages, precarious, gendered work, unpaid caring responsibilities and reproductive labour obligations all serve to uphold the capitalist system.
We are not victims: our position at the forefront of the crisis grants us the role of should be leaders of working class resistance. We celebrate International Women’s Day because of the thousands of women who demanded bread and sparked the February revolution. The Glasgow Rent strikes of 1915 were, as Helen Crawford said – a woman’s fight, rigorously organised and orchestrated by housewives and tenants, as were those in Kilmuir and countless uprisings dismissed as ‘spontaneous’ by academia.
Organising in our homes and our communities is not an appendage to the labour movement, it is essential and at the centre of a coordinated working class fight back against bosses, landlords, and energy companies. No one is better placed to understand that the fight doesn’t end when you clock out of work at the end of the day than women.
However, if women are to be the vanguard of the vanguard then we must create the conditions for this in our organising praxis and recognise the conditions currently faced by women comrades. We must take seriously community organising, recognising that exploitation in the workplace is predicated upon exploitation in our homes and communities. We must move beyond the model of meeting in the evening after a 9-5 work day and we must consider: day time meetings – while the kids are in school or between the split shift – house meetings, and we must accept no excuses for failing to provide childcare at our activities.
A woman’s place is with our class and the ruling class relies upon us being unable to find the time and energy to fight back. There is no other way to win for the working class if confronting the super-exploitation of women is not front and centre of our movement.
A Woman’s Place is in The Revolution!
To liberate women we must be active in our trade unions, fighting for the abolitionist line on prostitution, targeting the men profiting at the top of the sex industry in order to protect the women producing the profit on the front lines. We must also fight for equal pay, for full access to free childcare and for absence policies that reflect the bodily needs of the female sex.
We must connect with our international sisters in the fight for peace, because where there is war, there is rape. We must develop our praxis continuously to build a universality of Marxist feminism for cultures and experiences across the world.
When we are united, we are stronger and a united, global proletarian feminist movement could dismantle capitalist oppression forever. Women, united, will never be defeated – victory to the working class!
YCL National Women’s Commission