Womens' oppression and exploitation

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Women’s oppression and exploitation

Susan Pashkoff

July 2015

How do we understand the oppression of women? Is it something that can be easily solved with reforms within the system (e.g., unequal pay, equality under the law, access to education and work)? Or does our oppression derive from the nature of class societies, property ownership, and our role in social reproduction? For socialist feminists, it is the latter and that is why we do not think that reforms are sufficient, but they certainly can be done and must be done, if only to address inequality. These reforms may not affect our oppression much (which will require the overthrow of class societies based upon property), but they will make our lives easier and they will also get allies to understand the nature of our oppression. We cannot wait until the revolution for women’s oppression to be understood and inequality to be addressed. We are raised in the context of our societies and if we do not address this before we transform society, then, I am certain that those raised in these societies will never understand the need for change (or it will always be put off as there are other more immediate things that need to be addressed, as usual).

The Oppression of Women

For socialist feminists, women’s oppression is caused by the existence of property relations and so long as private property (in the sense of private ownership of capital and land) exists, women will never be equal. However, the types of inequality that women face are not ones that all women bear equally and in the same way.

Moreover, depending on the nature of the societies in which we live, the way in which things are produced and distributed, it means that women’s oppression differs in different societies and that depends on how those societies and economic systems reproduce themselves.

The issue is not that women are the weaker sex, that we are oppressed because we are the ones that have children and that raise children, or that we are unable to do the same work as men due to physical difference in that there is a biological reason for women’s oppression that has led to the historic oppression of women. It is not even that men across classes benefit (directly or indirectly) from the oppression of women; it is not simply an issue of patriarchy refusing to go into that dark night.

Instead, socialist feminists argue that it was the creation of private property and its reproduction and inheritance that has led to women’s oppression. That is, that it is a combination of relations and their linkage to the economic system of production and reproduction that underlie women’s oppression. Some socialist feminists have argued an important point, that it was women’s labour in agriculture and horticulture (rather than that of men in hunting) that itself produced a surplus product beyond immediate consumption and controlling that labour and what it produced was important and that led to controlling women themselves.

This is where the issue of patriarchy and patriarchal ideology enter the discussion. Patriarchy is not an economic system itself; it is an ideological perspective … often used to justify both a current political situation for all, we see it quite clearly in the attempt by Filmer to justify the divine right of kings in the Patriarcha: God gave dominion of the earth onto Adam, this is replicated in the relationship between King to male subject, and men over women and children (his property).

However, its purpose to serve a general maintenance of the status quo also leads to control over women in the most fundamental ways. While labouring men may have no power or property themselves, their wives and children were argued to be their property and dominion. However, one thing that the Enlightenment did bring was the idea of property in one’s own person; did that only apply to men? Or would capitalism bring democratic rights to women as well?

Given the existence of private property, an obvious point arises and that brings us back to control over material conditions; once you have obtained that property how do you know that it is going to your children rather than the children of someone else? Enforcement of monogamy and control over women becomes enshrined in society and then in religions to maintain control over that labour which produces that surplus and control over that property.

Our oppression begins with the creation of the surplus produce and private property; it is maintained in the family (where men control our labour) and our secondary status is enshrined in religions and also maintained by the State, whose purpose is to preserve the societies and economies in which we live.

Social Reproduction

Social reproduction is not only physical reproduction of giving birth to children; even those who have not done so understand that the physical birth is just the beginning of the process. It includes education and socialisation, nursing and loving care of the child, ensuring they are clothed, fed, clean, and able to develop as individuals irrespective of what potential role they have in our societies. Social reproduction involves a whole series of activities to ensure that children can survive in the societies in which we live. Moreover, social reproduction includes caring, nursing and support for the elderly (just as they cared for you, you do the same), for the sick (children and extended family), and for those with infirmities (the vast majority of caring is done by family members). In the vast majority of cases, this is done by mothers, by daughters, by wives and partners.

This work is predominately undertaken by women; usually mothers of the children and in cultures which have a strong extended family, then sisters, aunts and grandmothers share this responsibility. Moreover, this work (which involves a wide variety of tasks and skills: cooking, cleaning, sewing, teaching, nursing, caring, socialisation – think what would happen if children are not toilet trained for example or that children do not know that fire can be dangerous, or that they do not understand the terms “safe” or “dangerous”) is not seen to be work, but falls under the name of social responsibility and there is no financial compensation for this work, it is essentially unpaid labour.

Social reproduction in the context of a modern nuclear family is a task primarily done by women at home. Moreover, this preserves the absurd idea that women’s paid labour is only “pin money” as it is men that are the primary “bread-winners.” Women are viewed (incorrectly) as only working to supplement income, but not as supporting the household. This is absurd in many senses, the stagnation (and lowering) of incomes throughout the advanced capitalist world requires both parents to work (if there is a couple) to cover needs (our incomes are not dispensable), single mothers’ earnings are the main support for her family, and hey, guess what, sometimes women actually have the larger income … so a reality check is in order. We are not living in the past and we need to understand, yes, that women actually work. Moreover, most of us actually want to work outside the home.

In different societies, with the existence of private property, women’s roles in society were determined by their class. The role of women of the upper classes in physically producing the next generation of the ruling class was predominant; this also meant controlling their reproduction and limiting their unfettered access to the real world (think of foot-binding in China, purdah in Islamic areas, and the seclusion of royal women) to avoid children born on the wrong side of the sheet for example. Their wealth, inherited from their fathers (or their husband if they survived them) was part of dowries that added to the power and prestige of their husbands and not under their control. They may have controlled the running of the households they lived in, they may have even controlled spending and household finances, but their political and economic power derived from the power of their husbands and families.

On the other hand, non-propertied women (the vast majority) worked and created the next generation of those to labour in the field, factories, etc. In the US south before the civil war, female slaves worked the fields next to men; there was no gender segregation for the slaves (the mammy or the child-care provider was a highly ranked position among slaves).

The labour of women was part of the labour of the extended family, we may have had different tasks, but it was not less essential (and it is still essential). In some countries, (not in all), peasant women worked the fields alongside their husbands. Moreover, they also produced subsistence goods for home consumption; they produced clothing, bedding, and food and also raised the children, and took care of the family and the elderly.

For socialist feminists, women’s oppression under capitalism is two-fold. On the one hand, like all members of the working class, women are exploited under the capitalist economic system. They are exploited as what they receive as wages differs from the value of what they produce as workers; so we only receive a portion of what we produce as wages. The rest of the value of the goods and services they produce is taken by employers. On the other hand, women face an additional oppression and that relates to the process of social reproduction. Women not only produce the next generation of workers, they are also responsible for socialisation and raising their children, they are responsible for maintaining home and household and they are responsible for the care of the infirm and elderly members of the family that are unable to work in the labour market. Moreover, their labour in the home is unpaid; they do it with no recompense.

What is important to understand is that this work in the home is necessary; it is extremely important (it is downright essential) and in its absence, society cannot be reproduced (and we are not only talking about the labour force here). As such, it is socially necessary labour (labour that is required to reproduce the society and for that matter, the working class). However, it is a form of work where there are serious limits to profits that can be obtained if the labour is done in the market (that means that it is not “productive” of a surplus product; everything is consumed and there is not extra produced; as such, it is not “productive” labour where more than is needed to reproduce things exactly is needed; you can think of this as producing subsistence if the term unproductive is distressing). Sometimes it is a luxury good affordable to the wealthy only (i.e., nannies), but most often it is considered low skilled labour done by women. Think about sweated labour in the garment trades doing sewing, while tailoring was considered a skilled job.

If you think about how an economic system reproduces itself; it is not only the capital goods as inputs that need to be replaced; it is the labour that is used in production which must also be reproduced as well. That labour itself needs to be physically reproduced, it also needs to be educated, trained and able to participate in its role as workers when old enough to join the work force.

Exchange value and use value of labour power

One important issue that we need to understand is that, like commodities, the labour power of human beings which is sold in the market has two components: its use value and its exchange value. The use value relates to whether a skill or a type of labour actually produces something that satisfies human and societal needs. The exchange value relates to whether this labour produces goods and services that enable capitalists to obtain a product (or its value) over and above costs (a surplus or surplus value) which (when the product produced is sold) can be realised as profits. In the absence of the latter, the labour is not hired by employers as their sole interests are current and future profitability. One thing we need to understand about social reproduction and whether it will be taken up by the private sector depends upon its potential profitability. This means that if we want to ensure that social reproduction is to be done outside of the family itself, it is not to the private sector that we should turn.

This is two-fold: 1) Profit maximising criteria under capitalism means that cost cutting is essential and that will fall inevitably on workers; so wages will remain low; 2) We are talking about our children, our elderly and infirm family members; we want them to have the best possible experience to have support and care. That means that we must control what is offered and not have it determined by what is profitable for private providers.

The fact that women do work in the labour market for wages (and they have always done so in the capitalist economic system), but are still overwhelmingly responsible for social reproduction at home has impacted women seriously and we can see this today.

Women entered the workforce in areas that were seen as extensions of traditional women’s work (cleaning, teaching, sewing, nursing). These jobs are underpaid relative to what they produce as the work is often seen as unskilled. Moreover, there is the issue of low profitability for some of these jobs as they are often still done at home at no cost to capitalists.

As this traditional women’s labour is deemed “women’s work,” if it is done for payment, invariably, skills and importance to society are underrated and wages are low. There is still significant gender job segregation both in terms of type of employment and whether it is full-time or part-time. It is assumed that anyone can do it, that skills are low level, and hence there is a surfeit of people that can do this labour. Add to that the fact that the majority of this work is unpaid labour done at home, then why should they hire people to do it?

There is significant job segregation even today with women relegated to what are viewed as low-paid unskilled jobs; irrespective of equal pay acts, women still receive less pay than men and moreover, even when the same skill sets are used, women earn less due to job segregation … the issue of equal pay for equal work has less meaning in a situation where women cannot get on the same job ladder. We need to discuss the issue of comparative worth, an argument which appeared during the second wave of feminism where skill sets are the criteria for wages and equality of wages between jobs;

Women often are unable to work full-time due to responsibilities for home and family; leading also to discontinuous working lives as they take off time to have children and care for them which impacts on earning power and moving up the job ladder.

This means that low incomes and low pensions keep women dependent upon male members of the family financially;

Perhaps the most ridiculous, women’s labour (irrespective of how much the additional income is needed due to declining incomes throughout the advanced capitalist world today) is still treated as “pin money”, that it is not viewed as necessary or part and parcel of total family income but rather seen as money for extras or luxuries.

We can think about it in another way; the work that women do in the home is necessary for the continuation of the society and the system. Without it, society and the economic system itself cannot continue. However, that work is consumed immediately (food is eaten, clothes are worn, houses are clean, children are socialised), it produces use values, things (both goods and services) that we need, but there is no extra produced beyond the needs of subsistence, there is no surplus product over and above what is needed to be sold in the marketplace.

In the context of the capitalist economic system, the production of use values for the home does not impact directly upon profitability; it is part of necessary labour, labour required to reproduce the situation as is.

On the other hand, if these use values were produced for the market, then what would be produced would be dependent upon the profitability that they could secure for capitalists in exchange. That means that things that were not profitable would not be produced. The production of goods and services under the capitalist economic system only occurs if it produces a profit for the capitalist.

There was a reason that so much of women’s labour was socialised and done by the state sector and provision provided after World War II. Why should capitalists pay for labour that is provided for free at home? Given the need for women’s labour for the capitalist system, it means that some provision for coverage of child care was needed. However, that was not seen as extremely profitable compared to other sectors and areas where profits could be had, e.g., in industry and manufacturing. So, since women’s labour was needed, coverage for the sick, coverage for the elderly (beyond pensions) and childcare began to be provided by the state. However, a generalised socialised form of this labour was never done; the state sector and the social welfare state never provided complete coverage and this means that women still face a two-fold exploitation and oppression.

How to address the oppression and exploitation of women?

There are a couple of answers which seems obvious to us today to address the dual oppression of women even in the context of capitalism.

We could argue that since women’s labour at home is unpaid, that they receive wages for housework (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wages_for_housework) which was advocated by Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici who founded the international wages for housework campaign. This will provide an income for stay-at-home moms. However, that will only cover those that want to stay home and take care of family and homes.

Some have argued in favour of wages for housework. That is, women’s work in the home should be remunerated by the state and treated as part of gross domestic product. However, that pulls women out of the workforce and traps them into housework and childcare.

Not all women want to do this … The possibility of education and transforming themselves from simply providing that role is something that we must as socialists offer. A socialist feminist answer would be (and this has been demanded for quite some time) is the socialisation of work done in the home. Rather than women working for free at home, people can be hired to perform this labour instead. This argument has been around for a while, we see argued in the work of Kollantai (in “Communism and the Family,” 1920 for example), we see it again in Angela Davis (in “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective”; 1981) and you may have noticed, it is in the employment policies of Left Unity. The point of this is not to take children away from their mothers after birth, rather it is to provide crèches, schools, community care for the sick and elderly and personal assistants for people with disabilities.

What could it do? It could free women from unpaid home labour to get education, better and continuous jobs, and moreover, since it is decently paid, men will start doing it and this will impact on job segregation of men and women. If we do it from the state sector with decent wages and working conditions, we can break the division between use-value (what is produced that fulfils needs) and exchange value (what something sells for to ensure profitability for the ruling class).

“Sweden has introduced 24 hour childcare; hopefully, we can learn positive lessons and avoid the negative ones (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21784716) from their experiences. With a maternal working rate of 76.8% (2012) and a female labour force participation rate of 71.8%, and flexible working arrangements, Sweden has tried to coherently address the issue of ensuring women’s participation in the workforce while not sacrificing motherhood in the process (http://europa.eu/epic/countries/sweden/index_en.htm).”

While many have addressed this question relating to flexible work hours and women’s ability to do paid labour outside the home, there are additional issues that are relevant that we must take into consideration. But let’s start with the ability to do paid employment if one needs it and also wants it. These are two separate things, one needs to work to have a higher level of income (beyond what you could receive as benefits) to keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food in your bellies. In a society in which those are not given for free, paid employment is required to get them. Social Welfare benefits only afford a low level of these (and everyone wants the best for themselves and family) and your ability to obtain these is dependent upon politics (as those facing austerity have discovered to their misery). Some women do not need to work (independent wealth, sufficient income provided by partners), but do it for the satisfaction, contribution to society and financial freedom.

Women are over-represented as part-time workers and that is in large part due to their family responsibilities. Also, given working hours and the fact that there are different shifts; we need to be able to know that are children are covered. So if we need to be at work at 7, that means that we need to be able to leave our children at childcare earlier. Those working second and third shift, need to know that their kids have a safe place to go to or to be watched at home safely and with care.

However, there is more to the story. Women also want to have leisure time, they may want to get additional education (one friend mentioned learning a language), they may want to go to groups (e.g., political, sports, dance, reading) to participate, they may want to travel; they also need support (this is especially the case of those that care for elderly, sick and infirm members of society -- that is also part of social reproduction). Those that think caring for children, the elderly, the infirm and the sick is easy have clearly never done it. It is hard work, it requires patience and support and it should not be the responsibility of women to do it on their own without support and assistance. Even the most loving, selfless and generous person needs a break; that is really not too much to ask.

Let’s also talk about socialisation. A nuclear family in which gender roles are strictly defined reproduces women’s role in society and that is where children are raised and where they learn about these gender roles. A different form of child rearing and socialisation where gender roles are not reproduced (as this can be done by men as well as women) can lead to a different perception of gender roles in society and how people fit into society. We can teach cooperation and community solidarity and support rather than individualism and competition. Things can change, the issue is how do we want to change things and how do we want society to be?

How can it be done?

There are women that do want to stay home, and look after home and children, and that is a valid life choice. There are women that are forced into employment as they need the money and would rather stay home and care for their families. Then there are women that want to work and also want to be certain that their children and home are clean, safe, secure, loved and appreciated (useful data on maternal working rates in Europe: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/documents/140502_gender_equality_workforce_ssr2_en.pdf). The way in which the system functions is that women are often forced to be one or the other as to choose to be a mom means that you are unable to do other things (working full-time, getting an education), while those that decide to pursue careers often have to give up being a mother; in some countries these are mutually exclusive choices (http://www.oecd.org/general/workingmothersinjapanirelandandaustrianeedahandsayoecdresearchers.htm).

Child-care exists and is expensive if privately run which means that you are often working to cover its costs; if provided by employers and the state, it does not cover those times where you are not working day shift.

What about those that want to work, go to university, go to a movie, or go out with friends, or on a date? What about those that need assistance and support with caring responsibilities? How can we cover them? This is where the idea of 24 hour childcare (and for that matter, socialisation of caring comes in to the picture). The scheme is non-compulsory, so you do not have to take it up if you do not want to. Nobody is forcing you to work, put your children into child-care, or forcing you to get education and training. The idea is that it exists for those that want it. That is simple. You do not have to take it; you do not have to give up your home and family. If you want it, you can access it.

It cannot be done by the private sector that prioritises profitability over human needs; it will instead be done in communities, in Crèches, it can be done in your homes (if that is preferred); with the funding provided by the government and with trained professionals if they are wanted by women in the different communities.

It will not be an institutionalisation of caring for children; no one wants to take your child away from you, no one wants the horror of the “orphanages” of Romania under Ceaușescu caused by inaccessibility of birth control and abortion (I am sure that I am not the only person shivering in horror at the thought). What we want and need is a supportive and caring environment of childcare to fulfil the needs of parents and children. We want women and children to have the best of all possible worlds. This does not mean putting your child into 24 hour childcare and abandoning them; instead it is the opposite.

Throughout this talk, I have been raising socialisation of caring. I want to go into a bit of detail on this as it is a generalisation of 24 hour childcare in many senses. Women’s role in social reproduction means that they bear primary responsibility for caring for the young, the sick, the infirm and the elderly. They are unpaid; in those cases where social assistance is available to carers it is a small amount of money. Moreover, as the news over in Britain keeps reporting, we are entering a situation where people are living longer; families cannot provide the care that is required for their elderly members and we need to ensure that the elderly can live full and contented lives (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27136608). This is a situation that is not going to go away. Not all elderly people need care and support, but those of advanced age probably do. Insufficient savings to provide for old age means that if/when the family cannot care for them, they are either alone or dependent upon charities.

In terms of those caring for family members with disabilities, that is an issue that needs to be discussed seriously. What is happening in Britain is that carers received money if those they cared for obtained Disability Living Allowance (which is meant to help those with infirmities to cover the extra needs caused by their disabilities). The assessment tests of whether you are eligible for DLA has caused people to lose their DLA and that means that their carers have lost the income as well. They are still caring for the individual, but they are no longer able to access benefits. So those with disabilities have lost the income that they need and those that care for them lost their income as well. In both cases, the situation of the disabled individual has not changed; but the private company doing assessments has decided that they are not disabled enough … whatever that means …

The idea of socialisation of caring is an old one; it appears in Kollantai’s work (see e.g., Society and Motherhood, 1915 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1915/mother.htm) , it appears in Angela Davis’s work (The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework; 1981; https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/davis-angela/housework.htm).

If instead of the majority of caring being done by female relatives that are not being paid, what about we actually bring this job into paid employment? How about we actually pay people by their contribution to fulfilling the needs of society (that is, their use value) instead of how much profit can be made off their labour? Even more so, would taking this out of unpaid labour in the home and instead making it paid employment break down the gender stereotyping of traditional women’s work? If the cost is covered by the state, we do not have to worry about profitability. People that want to do this work (men and women) would have decent wages that could be negotiated through trade unions with good working conditions. Moreover, we can reduce unemployment, gender segregation in jobs and break down the use value and exchange value inequality in pay. The idea behind purple job creation is to socialise traditional women’s labour so that it is not done by women at home (for no pay) on top of the paid unemployment that they are already doing or being unable to do additional things beyond taking care of home and family; this is childcare, cleaning, cooking, care for the sick, infirm and elderly. This should not only be the role of women, it is a necessary and important job and it is about time that it is treated as such.

Caring should be a collective responsibility, a social responsibility where members of society take care and help each other, where the responsibility and the pleasure of caring is shared amongst all members of society.