First Published: The Guardian, June 13, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
The following is the text of the speech by Karen Davidson of the Guardian given at the Guardian forum on “Women and the Class Struggle.” The forum was held May 25 in New York City.
The rise of the women’s movement over the past six years has had a profound effect on the lives of millions of people.
Hundreds of thousands of women have joined together in struggle, stood up against the age-old domination of male supremacy, and brought into being a mass democratic movement whose future course is bound to threaten the rule of capital.
That movement today is at an important turning point.
On one hand, the women’s struggle has brought thousands of people into political activism, advanced the struggle for democracy and as a consequence has made a worthy contribution to developing the united front against imperialism and advancing the political level of the class struggle.
On the other hand, the movement today faces a clear-cut crisis, a crisis that was bound to develop from the spontaneous character of the struggle’s development, from its national and class character, and from the inevitable vacillations and disunifying forces in its alternately reformist and ultra “leftist” leadership.
Why is this crisis of such concern to the new communist movement? What is our view of the “woman question?” How is it related to that which holds the center of our attention–the class struggle?
“Wherever there is oppression,” says Mao Tsetung, “there is resistance.” The material basis of the oppression of women is as old as class society and has been firmly rooted in every form of rule by the exploiting classes.
In the last century the course of the bourgeois revolution and the development of the productive forces into modern industry began the erosion of the traditional form of women’s subjugation in the family. The bourgeoisie’s struggle against the old order for liberty, equality and the “rights of man” raised the question that women, too, should have the same rights as men. The capitalists also, for reasons of their own, brought large numbers of women into social production in the factories.
While the capitalists undermined some traditional aspects of female dependency and male domination in the family by bringing some women into production, they also saw their interest in keeping women in the kitchens. In this way they could relegate women’s work to a “marginal” status, thus preserving the character of women as an industrial reserve and source of superprofits. At the same time the drudgery of the individualized household economy, while not a source of exchange value, saved enormous amounts of surplus value for capital in the reproduction of the labor force. The well-known result is the “double burden” of the working woman. Not only is she super-exploited on the job. She also has a “second shift,” the brunt of the responsibilities of the household and childrearing.
The capitalist class has every interest in maintaining this exploitation and oppression of the masses of women. At the present stage of imperialism, with its general financial crisis, its unemployment and speedup, and overall attack on the livelihood of the working people, this special oppression of women becomes more intense.
But the resistance of the masses of women is bound to grow also.
Women hold up half the sky. Whether they are in the factories or not, they are a tremendous force for revolution. Their struggle for equality, for independence through integration into productive socialized labor and the broadest extension of democratic rights in every sphere of life–if viewed in a fragmented and empirical way–appear only as reforms. But taken as a whole, these reforms run counter to the interests of capital. They can never be met in a full and consistent way by the imperialists.
This is what communists mean when we say that the woman question is a revolutionary question. It is not just a matter of this or that reform. There is an antagonistic contradiction between the masses of women and the bourgeoisie. Their path to emancipation, therefore, is through changing the class that holds state power, through proletarian revolution.
Women have stood up to their oppressors throughout the centuries. But it has only been with the rise of capitalist society and its socialized productive forces that the historical conditions for women’s emancipation have come into being.
Thus it is no accident that the women’s movement should grow in this country on the scale that it has. Here the contradiction between the outmoded forms of domination–keeping the woman tied to the home–and social productive forces stands in particularly sharp relief.
It is also no accident that the women’s struggle should grow in response to upsurges in the class struggle and other general democratic struggles. The people’s struggles support each other and the class and democratic struggles enhance each other. This was the case with the early women’s rights movement and the abolition movement, of which Sojourner Truth was a shining example. The same is true today, where the Afro-American people’s struggle has advanced the fight for equality to a new high tide and has served as a clarion call to many movements, including the women’s movement.
What has been the main thrust of the present-day women’s movement?
In the main, it can be summed up as the struggle for equality and the means to make it possible.
First, women have demanded equality on the job. Equal pay for equal work has been and still is one of the main demands of the women’s movement. Women are fighting for equal job opportunities, breaking down the bourgeoisie’s barriers between men’s work and women’s work and for equal access to higher pay, better treatment and responsibilities. This is why we support the Equal Rights Amendment, even with its possible negative aspects. We believe it can serve as a step forward in bringing more women into the working class and enhancing the class struggle.
Second, the women’s movement has demanded, as a right, free, 24-hour community-controlled childcare. Without gains on this front, both women and children are left with tremendous difficulties. Women are faced with the dilemma of either being unable to work or with the constant worry over expensive, unsafe and inadequate childcare arrangements. Children suffer from the lack of quality care and the much-needed benefit of learning and playing collectively.
Third, women have demanded the right to control their reproductive functions. While children are the great hope and joy of the working class, the means exist for women to plan the number and timing of their children. Rather than leaving childbearing to chance, family planning enables women greater freedom in planning their life in relation to work and social and political activities.
It would be a mistake to see the demands around reproduction as the private property of conservative anti-population growth forces. They are entirely crucial to the needs of the working women. As Lenin put it, “It goes without saying that this neo-Malthusianism does not by any means prevent us from demanding the unconditional annulment of all laws against abortion or against the distribution of medical literature on contraceptive measures, etc. Such laws are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling classes.”
The women’s movement, at the same time, has fought the racist practice and plans for forced sterilization, particularly of women from the oppressed nationalities who have been forced onto the welfare roles.
Fourth, women have: fought for equality in the broad area of social life and in the home. The mass actions, speeches, writings and discussion groups stemming from the women’s movement have sparked a truly mass discussion and interest in the concept that men and women should indeed be equal. The term “male chauvinism” has become a household word, even if sometimes inadequately understood, and women are winning a new respect from men, or at least challenging traditionally degrading practices.
More men are learning that there is nothing degrading in seeing their wives take jobs. “Whatever men can do, women can do too,” goes the mass slogan that is being used in China. But men are also learning that there is nothing wrong with their assuming an equal responsibility in the home and the care of children. In this sense we might also want to put forward the converse of the Chinese slogan and assert, “Whatever women can do, men can do too.”
These four points sum up the main thrust of the mass democratic women’s movement. These are its positive aspects that define it as a fundamentally progressive struggle. Where the various trends in the women’s movement have come together for mass mobilizations, it has generally been in support of these demands, which are–or should be–demands of the proletarian movement as a whole.
This is the principal aspect of the women’s movement that we wholeheartedly support, learn from and work to strengthen.
Despite the fact that the women’s movement has fought for demands that are most in the interests of the working women, the spontaneous character and the primarily middle class and white composition of the present movement have placed fundamental limits on its scope and given rise to negative trends within its ranks.
To draw a parallel with a distinction Chairman Mao makes in his essay, “On the Orientation of the Youth Movement,” the present-day women’s movement has played a vanguard role in raising democratic and anti-imperialist struggles among the masses. Yet at the same time, when all is said and done, this movement is not the main force of the struggle for women’s emancipation.
What is the main force? It is the proletariat, the masses of the working women. It is this force which has the strength, the interest and the potential class consciousness which can go far beyond the earlier vanguard and carry the struggle through to the end.
The present quandary of the women’s movement is this. The initial spontaneous wave has begun to ebb. Its middle class leadership has faltered and shown strong tendencies to reformism in parliamentary activity and ultra-’leftism” in counter-cultural, lesbian and “self-help” panaceas which do not speak to the needs of the working women and whose approach to strategy can only lead to defeat.
This splintering of the women’s movement into a galaxy of petty bourgeois feminist groupings have led some to write the movement off, to look around and say, “Where is it?” This would be an empirical error, one that is unable to detect the objective forces at work and to see the rising trend of the working women’s struggle, even though it is not yet the main trend.
This rising trend, which is not yet fully developed, is distinguished by its working-class composition and the leading role of third world women. Most of these women have not previously participated in the mass women’s movement. They are now waging a sharp struggle for such basic demands as childcare, the right to a job and equality on the job. The daycare struggle has been particularly militant, where the white and third world working women have led demonstrations and sit-ins in cities all around the country.
In reaction to the ebb of the earlier spontaneous wave, others have said, “Good riddance,” have characterized feminism as primarily reactionary and have demagogically invoked the necessity of class struggle. This is a dogmatic error, which sets the class struggle and the democratic movements against each other, narrows the scope of the united front and isolates the worker’s movement.
Both errors are identical in that they tend to liquidate the woman question, thus objectively aiding male supremacy and as a consequence and in reaction, strengthen petty bourgeois feminism.
Between the masses of women and the imperialists stand the institutions, practices and ideology of male supremacy. This means that the main form opportunism will take on the woman question within the worker’s movement will be male chauvinism.
At the same time, since the rising trend of the working women is not yet the main trend in the women’s struggle, the two-line struggle taking place there will be between Marxism-Leninism and right and “left” forms of petty bourgeois feminism.
Who are friends and who are enemies in the women’s struggle? There are two aspects to the oppression of women by male supremacy. The principal aspect is the contradiction between the masses of women and the monopoly capitalists. They are the principal enemy where the main blow must be directed.
The secondary aspect is the contradiction between women and men, which is a contradiction among the people. It is non-antagonistic. Objectively it is resolved in socialist construction through the integration of women into production and the socialization of household tasks. Subjectively it is resolved through winning the working men to take up the women’s struggle as their own and the process of criticism and self-criticism.
To ignore this secondary aspect, to deny that the privileges and domination of the male exists, is to be onesided, dogmatic and wrong. To grasp only this secondary aspect, to pose men as the enemy of women, is to make the feminist error and set one half of humanity against the other half.
The strategic task of communists, then, is to unite the men and women workers on the one hand and to unite the workers movement with the broad democratic women’s movement on the other hand in the united front against imperialism.
In this context, the main internal trend to be defeated is opportunism in the form of male supremacy, while an important ally to be united with and struggled against are the various reformist and feminist forces with a following among the masses.
To sum up, we see three immediate tasks for the Marxist-Leninist forces in relation to the woman question:
One: To raise the woman question and its demands in all areas of mass work.
Two: To strengthen the rising trend of the working women’s struggles through their organization into the battles for daycare, equality on the job and in social and political life, and in defense of their livelihood.
Three: To unite with the broader democratic women’s movement and develop it as a fighting component of the anti-imperialist united front.
Finally we must everywhere uphold the final aim of our struggle, winning the masses to the view that the full emancipation of women is possible only with proletarian revolution. Conversely, we must also point out that the final victory of the proletariat will never be reached until women have won their emancipation.