Women's liberation

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Educational on women's liberation


Readings :

Histoire des femmes en Occident. I. L’Antiquité edited by Pauline Schmidt Pantel


Excerpts :

p. 607 "The notion of asymmetry or asymmetry between the sexes emphasizes the disparity in power and value attributed to each sex. »

"The expression ‘social relationships between sexes’ emphasizes a fact that should be obvious to all: gender relations are social relations. They are not naturally given, but social constructions. Their study is of the same type as that of other relationships, egalitarian or unequal, between social groups. Seen in this way, "masculine domination" is one expression among others of the inequality of social relations. We can understand its workings and mark its specificities according to historical systems. In addition, it is possible to study the way in which this type of domination is articulated with others. Thus, for the ancient world, the study of the roles assigned to each sex should take place in the study of the social relations specific to the archaic, classical or Hellenistic city, to republican or imperial Rome. This is a prerequisite for a better understanding of their function among the whole of unequal social relations. »

"Third notion: that of gender (‘genre’ in French), the content of which it is perhaps useful to specify as it has been used recently in a misleading way. Let's start with its use as a catch-all. An article may not be published in English without the term "gender" in the title or subtitle. »

p. 608 "(...) However, this term is often used in a general and vague way to refer simply to the fact that there are men and women. In this acceptance, the notion of gender refers to the division of the world between men and women, to a sexual or gendered division. It is a descriptive, neutral and consensual term. (…) »

"But the term gender is used by the American historian Joan Scott with a much more precise meaning, taking up, synthesizing the approach described above. (…) The use of the term gender does indeed mark: - the rejection of biological determinism (implicit in the use of terms such as "sex" and "sexual difference", according to Joan Scott); - the introduction of the relational dimension: men and women need to be defined in reciprocal terms, the term gender thus takes into account the general evolution of recent research; - the emphasis on the fundamentally social nature of gender-based distinctions. 

In this acceptance, gender is a category of analysis that responds to the need for theoretical formulations which emerged after the proliferation of case studies. The problematization of gender makes it possible to ask more general questions such as the function of gender in the whole of social relations, or the contribution of gender studies to historical knowledge. As we can see, the notion of gender takes into account what was contained in the notions of sexual assymetry or "social relations of sex". It is therefore useful, provided that it is always clearly defined in terms of its meaning, and as such is no more or less useful than other notions (familiar to historians), like race or class.

Chapter 10: Bachofen, Matriarchy and the Ancient World

Johan Jacob Bachofen (1815-1887) was Swiss lawyer with a passion for philolog. He wanted to develop a theory on the origins of physical life, the interpretation of myths, the essence of that distant era during which he located the reign of "maternal law", the power (kratos, κρατoς) of women, in short: gynecocracy. The full title of his book translate to: The Right of Mothers. Research on the gynecocracy of the ancient world, according to its religious and legal nature.

(Das Mutterrecht, eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur, New edition by Karl MEULI, in J.J. Bachofen, Gesammelte Werke, vol. II and III, Basel, 1948.)

Bachofen 5J.J.), From the Reign of the Mother to the Patriarchate, selections by Adrien Turel, Paris, 1938. Reprinted, Editions de l'Aire, Lausanne, 1980.

If Egypt served as the foundation for Bachofen's theoretical construction, this was mainly thanks to Plutarch and his treatise on Isis and Osiris, a work of strong Platonic resonance written around 120 AD. Plutarch's illustration of the Egyptian myth, combined with the image of the land of Egypt with the floods and ebbs of the Nile, provided Bachofen with the essential elements of a scenario that he adapted and interpreted according to his own ideological orientations.

p. 593-594

Prominent ideas

- Ethnological evolutionism that believes in a unilinear evolution of human societies, according to a movement that ranges from "savagery" (or "barbarism") to civilization, from the lowest to the highest, from the most simple to the most complex. This theory is associated with a "cyclical model" in Bachofen, as evidenced by the reversal that he believes has hit some societies. - The conception, apparently bearing a strong Hegelian imprint, according to which the passage from one stadium to another is only achieved through the violent confrontation of two opposing principles, in this case the "female principle" and the "male principle". Around these conflictual relationships between men and women is organized a series of antithetical couples: nature/culture, matter/mind, earth (and moon)/sun, darkness/light, East/West, Aphrodite/Apollon, left/right, death/life etc. - The highlighting of religion, considered by the founder of the "matriarchy" as the primary cause of the development of peoples, as the unique and powerful lever of any civilization. However, if at the dawn of humanity, women exercised the greatest influence on the male sex, it is precisely because of their innate inclination for the divine, the supernatural, the wonderful, the irrational. The basis of matriarchy is ultimately religious. Hence the importance of the archetypal image of a Great Mother, a Great Goddess, a Mother Earth, a high symbolic figure of the "maternal kingdom", with which almost all the female divinities of the ancient world identify. - The axiomatic presupposition, repeatedly reiterated by Bachofen and his supporters, that myth functions as history, that mythical tradition constitutes a vast mirror where past realities are faithfully reflected, that it is the most authentic testimony, the most direct, true manifestation of primitive times. - Finally, the certainty, expressed by the supporters of "matriarchy", that matrilineal systems were necessarily the most primitive, a certainty that led to confusion, even identification, between matrilinearity and matrilocality on the one hand and matriarchy on the other.

p. 592 Sometimes ignored, sometimes controversial, approved or borrowed, Bachofen's book on "maternal rights" and "gynecocracy" remains the starting point for the whole history of matriarchy. In addition to the influence it has exerted - and which should be better evaluated - on the psychoanalytical field, it still serves as a reference to a certain Marxist or Marxian strain of thought, a strain which is too faithful to the enthusiastic welcome Engels had given to Mutterrecht, whose publication constituted for him a "total revolution". "The discovery of the primitive matriarchal stage’’, Engels wrote, ‘’as a step preceding the patriarchal stage, has for humanity the same meaning as Darwin's theory of evolution for biology, or for political economy Marx's theory of surplus value.’’

Merits and limitations of Marx and Engels' analysis of the nature of the family and the situation of women. (Based on Frédérique Vintueil's article)

- analysis in the context of "wild capitalism": Capitalism represents a fundamental rupture in the situation of women and in the nature of the family. The logic of the new mode of production will create the objective conditions for emancipation: capitalism undermines the foundations of masculine domination by removing the family's role in transmitting property. This is confirmed in late capitalism (capitalisme du troisième âge). Engels sees the positive role of women's integration in production as a legitimate right to work for women. BUT access to employment is not a sufficient condition for liberation because women are proletarianized as women. Against the utopian socialists who exalt domestic work and the role of women as mothers, Engels writes: the modern married family is based on the admitted or veiled domestic slavery of women. - no theory of the specific oppression of women: The conditions of reproduction are absent, this is explained by the fact that capitalism creates the radical separation between the universe of production and reproduction. Marx saw the women only when they entered the factory. The family is considered as a legacy of the past: transmission of the inheritance to children recognized as legitimate, monogamy, enrichment by the dowry of the woman. Three gaps in Marxist theory: - The differentiated use of the female labour force - The emergence of a bourgeois family adapted to the new mode of production - The nature of gender relations - A strategic conclusion: the importance of an autonomous women's movement.

1. Use of women's labour force. Accumulation of overprofits at the dawn of industrial capitalism: "When capital seized the machine, its cry was: women's labour, child labour! "But this work of docile, dependent, precarious and under-skilled women is a cyclical phenomenon, while the over-exploitation of women's labour has remained a structural element until today in late capitalism. The value of the labour force. Marx: "The value of the labour force is determined by the maintenance costs of the worker and his family". The female wage is reduced by the part that men receive to support their families, in addition to themselves. Society prefers to'assist' millions of women - allowances to widows, single mothers, divorced women - rather than pay women's labour force as much as men's. Women's wages continue to be seen as a supplementary wage, this is a result of the requirements of profit accumulation. Women are therefore over-exploited as employees. This overexploitation derives its legitimacy from the family, a body outside the sphere of production, it is the family that constitutes women as an oppressed group.

2. New bourgeois family. Marx and Engels thought that the bourgeois family would disappear in the near future. "Wild capitalism" had separated the worker (women and men) from the peasant family. The family appeared to be a remnant of pre-capitalist social relations. Marx and Engels took the conjuntural phenomenon of the destruction of the old family during the proletarianization as a structural phenomenon. But capitalism, in its second phase, rebuilt a family: the working class family on the "bourgeois" model was built around the reproductive tasks of the labour force (which could not be socialized) and the ideal of maternity extended to working women. The tasks of reproducing the labour force that capital cannot then socialize, continue to be assumed in the private sphere. The status of women is the result of the link between their reproductive work in the family and their integration into the labour market. Domestic tasks carried out in the private sector are a huge source of capital saving: the male extra salary (the difference with the female salary) never reaches the amount of hours of domestic work. In late capitalism, the reign of commodities extends to large sectors of reproduction: clothing, food, laundries, etc. Women's work in capitalist industry directly increases the production of additional goods and added value. If a part of the goods thus produced is consumed by the workers' families in replacement of the domestic services previously provided free of charge by the hostess, this is all the benefit of capital because it facilitates the realization of the surplus value. The specificity of the current bourgeois family: the division between the private man and the producer/citizen; bourgeois individualism and at the same time a place of minimal emotional solidarity; ensures the socialization of children; we marry for love, the family remains the precious refuge. Women's participation in production for the market, the access to the same levels of education, the bourgeois discourse on formal equality, all this contradics the oppressed status of women in work and the family. A phenomenon that is far from complete and in which the conscious intervention of organized women is a decisive factor.

3. Social relations between the sexes. Some feminists have spoken of the exploitation of women by men through domestic work or of a patriarchal system parallel to the capitalist system. The notion of appropriation of women's labour power for productive and reproductive tasks by men seems to us to be effective for pre-class societies; it is to be discussed, on a case-by-case basis, for class-based, non-capitalist social formations. It does not apply to capitalism. Exploitation implies the taking of surplus value in the context of production for the market and the radical separation between the owner of the Capital and the worker. Nothing like this exists in domestic work. Such work is carried out in a private context, outside the market, outside the criteria of profitability; it is a service provided by the wife to the husband. - The female labour force is over-exploited on the labour market: salaries, status, reserve army and precariousness, career, etc. - Domestic work is free of charge and represents a significant saving on the overall maintenance of the labour force. - This is made possible by the low status of all women at all levels of society, i.e. by the specific oppression as women. The capitalist system has taken over and adapted the ancient oppression of women. Men have been guaranteed a collective status as oppressors, and given crumbs of surplus value (higher wages), social (not doing domestic work) and ideological privileges.

4. Struggles against specific oppression, importance of the independent struggle by women, strategic role of the women's liberation movement for the revolution and for the construction of a socialist society. The relationship between men and women plays a major role in the structuring of individual personality. The origin of the domination of women by men is older than the emergence of class societies, as any anthropological research in pre-class societies has shown us. This domination, which can be called "patriarchal", has persisted, in different specific forms, in all known class societies. Capitalism is the first mode of production that establishes a radical separation between the private and public spheres. As part of its quest for surplus value, this system has integrated the older forms of oppression of women into its production and reproduction system. It is in the family that the crux of women's oppression lies. The capitalism system "takes advantage" of women's free domestic work as well as of women's lower status in society. Women are doubly exploited as employees: specific oppression is expressed in the central role of women in their families and the acceptance of their double exploitation. The autonomous women's movement of the post-1968 years was able to analyse the phenomena of specific oppression through struggles at all levels.

To succeed in freeing oneself from age-old oppression and to give new content to the concept of liberation, it is not enough to wait for socialist revolution. This revolution must involve from the beginning the struggles of women who now form almost half of the wage earners' class. But this struggle for socialism must at the same time integrate the liberation of women as an integral part of the content of the concept of "socialism". Criticism of the family must go further than a criticism of the "bourgeois" aspects, it must also highlight the relations of force so that a real liberation of women is put on the agenda: - demands for equality in practice, and not only formal equality - demands concerning domestic work: its socialization - importance of struggles and demands for "de-commodification": free local public services, under the control of both workers and users The importance of an autonomous women's movement: this is a strategic issue both for the overthrow of capitalist society and for the beginning of the construction of the socialist society we want.

"The communist perspective also demands a radical change in the relationship between men and women: the experience of gender relations is the first experience of otherness, and as long as this relationship of oppression persists, any being who is different in culture, colour or sexual orientation will be the victim of forms of discrimination and domination. » Daniel Bensaïd

Excerpts from Cinzia Aruzza's Dangerous Liasons [1]

Alexandra Kollontai, Communism and the Family