First Published: The Guardian, June 27, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following is the slightly condensed text of the speech by Mary Lou Greenberg of the Revolutionary Union given at the recent Guardian forum on “Women and the Class Struggle.” The forum was held May 25 in New York City.
Everyone here tonight is familiar with the situation of women in the U.S. today. Conditions have never been good for working people and poor people in bourgeois society. Women, in addition, have had to put up with job discrimination, unequal pay for equal work, the burdens of day-in, day-out household drudgery–and for many, a full-time job outside the home, plus the day-to-day housework. Women and men are taught that women are supposed to be first and foremost wives and mothers; and degrading images of women hit us every day from the media and all areas of culture–women as sex objects with little brain, little brawn and no blemishes.
And with the present deepening economic crisis that means fewer jobs and increasing unemployment, women are hardest hit. Women make up approximately 39 percent of the labor force but 50 percent of the unemployed are women. This is the time of budget cutbacks that knock out childcare along with other welfare measures; which would force the most oppressed women, those on welfare, many of whom are Black, Latin and Asian, to work at slave wages for their measly welfare check.
And, of course, at the same time, poor and working class women are subjected to the same deteriorating living and working conditions generally as poor and working class men.
We all live with these conditions all the time. Now, the question is how do we go about changing things, including getting rid of the oppression and exploitation of women?
The women’s liberation movement in the late 60s and 1970-71 came up with a lot of ideas about how to achieve women’s liberation–so many ideas, representing a number of very different political outlooks, that it’s hard to include them all into something called “the women’s movement,” a term which implies more unity man there ever really was.
Thousands of women across the country became active at this time around the question of women’s rights and the problems women face. This movement of women was based among the same sections of the population as the white anti-imperialist youth and student movement generally, arising out of the general antiwar movement and drawing inspiration from the struggle of Black people in the U.S. These women saw that within the antiwar, anti-imperialist movement, women were treated pretty much as they were in bourgeois society generally and they got pretty damned mad. Many small women’s groups sprang up, women’s centers and journals were begun all across the country.
Generally, there emerged two main trends in this.
The first of these reflects in an extreme form the general tendency of the petty bourgeoisie to seek individual solutions. The petty bourgeoisie as a class is a dying class. It is being squeezed out of existence economically by the monopoly capitalist class. Therefore, the petty bourgeoisie doesn’t like the monopoly capitalists but at the same time, the petty bourgeoisie doesn’t want to be forced down into the working class.
And it fears the working class because historically the working class has represented socialism and revolution. So it vacillates between the capitalist class and the working class. The petty bourgeoisie sees no class solution to its problems, so it turns to individual solutions.
This tendency in the women’s movement has carried the petty bourgeois tendencies of individualism, self-indulgence and the search for so-called personal freedom and self-expression to their decadent conclusion. It has taken the form of “radical lesbianism” and “sexual freedom.”
This tendency elevated “consciousness-raising” to a principle. And while “consciousness-raising”– discussions among small groups of women–was somewhat useful in helping women realize their own oppression and how it was connected to the overall conditions of society, unless “consciousness-raising” moves into active struggle, it becomes the opposite: it prevents struggle, encourages a retreat into self and discourages the unity of the working class and other sections of the people.
There was a much larger section of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970-71 that by and large rejected the extreme individualistic, self-seeking tendency represented by the “radical lesbians,” and that generally saw itself as part of the overall anti-imperialist movement. These women realized that getting rid of imperialism was necessary to eliminate the oppression and exploitation of women. But at the same time, a number of incorrect ideas and tendencies were put forward.
Many weren’t convinced that Marxism-Leninism and socialist revolution are necessary to achieve real liberation for women. Some said that the women’s movement needed its “own” ideology. Behind these ideas lay the metaphysical notion that “sisterhood,” some mystical bond between all women, transcends differences of class and nationality. A parallel was drawn between the women’s movement and the struggles of Black people against national discrimination and oppression.
But Black people, through their development as a nation in the U.S., with a common history of resistance against the most vicious forms of oppression and discrimination, are bound together because of this in a way that women as women–from different classes and nationalities–could never be.
Today across the country there are very few women’s centers still in existence, very few anti-imperialist women’s groups. One of the reasons for this is that a good number of the anti-imperialist women began to realize from their own mass work with women outside the white petty bourgeois youth and student community that ideas such as “sisterhood” just didn’t hold up when put to the test of practice.
Increasing numbers of anti-imperialist women turned toward Marxism-Leninism, recognizing that only by overthrowing the capitalist system and building a new socialist society can women be emancipated–and that organizing women must be part of the overall struggle for socialist revolution and not apart from it. We are firmly convinced that this is the wave of the future.
But we have to recognize that at this time the proletarian forces have not paid enough attention to this vital question. The proletarian forces are relatively weak around this question today and haven’t reached as many anti-imperialist women as they could and must. And the result is what we’re seeing now in society–what happens and can continue to happen if these women who are deeply concerned about women’s liberation do not move toward proletarian ideology.
What is happening is that many of these women from the anti-imperialist movement are being drawn into petty bourgeois reformism, currently led by forces such as the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, etc. The base of these organizations generally is white, petty bourgeois women. But these organizations and the entire reformist trend is solidly backed by the bourgeoisie–the monopoly capitalist ruling class.
In addition, some are coming under the influence of the Trotskyites and revisionists: some, because they have been misled into believing these organizations are really revolutionary; and a few because they have chosen them as a way out–a way for them to appear to be revolutionary while they’re really not. And, of course, these organizations promote reformism in much the same way and with the same bourgeois backing as the openly reformist women’s groups.
At this time, the bourgeoisie is really pouring out phony concern over sexual discrimination. That’s why we think the so-called Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, is an important issue right now–because it helps make very clear what we mean by the necessity of seeing the woman question as a class question.
First, we need to understand why the bourgeoisie is coming on strong around women’s rights at this time. First, it is an attempt by the bourgeoisie to direct women’s energies and growing concern over sex discrimination into reformist channels and away from the realization of who the main enemy is–themselves, the bourgeoisie.
Second, and most important, the bourgeoisie is using the issue of women’s rights in the form of the ERA as part of the current attack on the working class.
We want to make clear that the RU supports fighting for democratic rights for all women; there should be no discrimination in any area of society on account of sex– just as there should be none based on race or nationality. But the key questions are, for anything like the ERA or any struggle over reforms: What class interests does it represent? How will it affect the masses of people? Will it promote the unity of the working class and therefore advance the revolutionary struggle?
We firmly believe that the answers to these are that the ERA is in the interests of the bourgeoisie and it will not do any of the latter things.
The ERA is a direct blow at the working class by stripping away protective labor laws for women–laws which have not only benefitted women but male workers, too.
There’s no uncertainty that this may or may not happen. It already has, with employers using Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to get rid of hours limitations, weight lifting restrictions, etc. If the ERA is passed, it will require states to change their laws and will be a blanket go-ahead to the corporation owners to try to crush the workers down even more.
For example, after California, which has about the most and strongest protective labor laws in the country, passed the ERA, the Bank of America and telephone company stopped paying taxi fares to and from work for women who worked nights, something they had been required to do by law before. The companies cited the ERA as the reason.
Certainly, protective laws have been used as excuses to discriminate against women and to keep women out of certain jobs. But the solution is not to get rid of these laws but to fight to open jobs up to women and extend protective laws to men.
In Red Papers 2, which the RU published in 1969, in the “United Front Against Imperialism” article, we talk about the importance of fighting for democratic rights for women. We quote Lenin, who said that communists must fight for these rights, “depending on the existing conditions, and naturally always in association with the general interest of the proletariat.”
But what about the argument that the ERA will advance working class unity by opening up jobs in production and in key sectors of the economy, for women? First of all, the bourgeoisie doesn’t need the ERA to bring women into industry. Proof of this are World Wars 1 and 2 when women were needed to fill jobs in heavy industry.
Women can never fully be brought into production under capitalism; there can never be full employment so long as there’s need for a surplus army of labor to keep working conditions depressed. So the question is: Where are all these jobs going to come from? The current economic crisis has boosted the unemployment rate higher and higher–for men as well as women. So how in the world are women going to be brought into industry when more and more workers are losing their jobs?
And the effect it will have on women is that it will now be easier to fire them, as has already happened in plants around the country. A woman can be ordered to do a job requiring a lot of muscle. If the job is too heavy for her and she cannot do it, then she can be fired or laid off.
In addition, third world women workers are likely to be hardest hit by the ERA. They are often concentrated in the least organized areas of work; and where there are no union-won and guaranteed protections, state protective laws are often the only protections–however inadequate–these women have.
I want to make it clear again that the RU supports the fight to get women into jobs and to break down job discrimination. But so long as the bourgeoisie has the initiative–initiates such a measure which can then be used for an attack on the working class as a whole, as is the case with the ERA–we cannot support such a law.
I’d just like to mention here a little ”of the history of protective laws. They were won primarily through the fierce struggles of the working class at the turn of the century and first part of the 20th century. While a few reactionary labor hacks may have seen them as ways to restrict women’s participation in the labor force, workers fought for them because they needed them! Cooperating with and supporting the workers in their struggles, a number of petty bourgeois women’s organizations lobbied for such laws and organized support among wealthier women both for strikes that involved large numbers of working women and for protective laws for women and children.
This kind of unity in struggle between petty bourgeois and working class women in the interests of the broad masses of women is an example of the kind of unity around specific issues we should strive to build today. As a part of the united front against imperialism we must raise concrete demands and build mass struggle around issues of particular concern to women–issues such as job inequality and the need for free, parent-controlled childcare centers.
Through waging these struggles and fighting in all the other anti-imperialist and working class struggles, working class women, along with working class men, will become real leaders of the united front against imperialism and the struggle for socialism.
And as a part of all these struggles, we must wage comradely struggle against the backward ideas about women that exist in the working class and among revolutionary forces: like the idea that women are inferior to men and less capable of becoming proletarian fighters and leaders; that women’s place is in the home.