Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Sylvia Kimura

Conference Presentation: The Struggle Against Sexism

Prepared and Delivered: June 1979.
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.

A. Introduction: Consistently on the lips of comrades in our movement are the words of Frederick Douglass, “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” As Marxist-Leninists, this formulation helps us to understand that the motive force of our society, the oppressed working class, will free humanity from the bowels of capitalism.

Our movement objectively has fallen short in fully developing this correct analysis. This is most glaring in the failure to grasp the essence of the oppression of national minority women, as workers, as national minorities, and as women. Much lip service has been given to the triple oppression of minority women by both our movement and the feminist movement. Attend a communist meeting on the question of women and you will find a minority woman on the program. She will have been encouraged to speak to some concrete examples of her triple oppression. This process is duplicated among the feminists. However, this moral approach has not led to these fighters taking their rightful place in the front ranks of our movement.

Our failure to grasp the advanced character of national minority women is telling by the lack of theoretical work done on this question. Our moral approach to the question of sexism flows from our failure to grasp the material basis of sexism. The result of this has been to hold back our movement. Today we intend to take up this question and place it in Its proper place in our movement.

In preparation for the Third Congress of the Comintern of 1921, Lenin spoke to Clara Zetkin who was writing the theses on women. He said, “The theses must emphasise strongly that true emancipation of women is not possible except through communism. You must lay stress on the unbreakable connection between woman’s human and social position and the private ownership of the means of production. This will draw a strong, ineradicable line against the bourgeois movement for the ’emancipation of women’. This will also give us a basis for examining the woman question as part of the social, working-class question, and to bind it firmly with the proletarian class struggle and the revolution.”

Within the party building movement, we are faced with two approaches to the woman question: a moral approach or a materialist approach. A moral approach to the woman’s question is not based on an objective analysis of the conditions that woman are faced with in society. It is based on a shallow and narrow perception of women as an oppressed sector of society, who are confronted with sexism and discrimination. Therefore, while we recognize that a moral approach has educated a sector of our movement on the human and social position of women i.e. discrimination at the workplace, lack of social services, and the social and psychological affects of male chauvinism, etc., we also recognize that this approach has also diverted our movement from grasping the essence and material basis of women’s oppression. The essence of the moral approach to the woman question is bourgeois feminist ideology which is based in the historic class character of the women’s movement. The result of the moral approach is a glaring lack of theoretical work which would advance mass work with the goal of winning women to Marxism-Leninism.

B. The material basis of sexism: As Marxist-Leninists, we must approach the question of women’s oppression from its material basis. The day to day experiences of the working class lends clarity to the oppressive and exploitative conditions women are in today. However, the exposure of the hidden basis for this oppression is our task.

First of all, we must recognise that the sexual oppression of women is one of the oldest existing forms of class exploitation. Engels pointed out in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that the introduction of what he called the bourgeois division of labor within the family was historically the first step in the breakdown of primitive communist society and the development of slavery and class society in general.

Women’s social relationship to society stemming from this bourgeois division of labor within the family is an essential aspect of the material basis of sexism in class society generally.

However, the sexual oppression of women under capitalism bears a particular character related to the level of development of class society which capitalism represents. The two most important aspects bearing on the social relationship of women to society under capitalism are: (1) women represent a cheap source of labor and a source of super profits for capitalist production and (2) women are a large part of the reserve army of unemployed. There are many aspects of the material basis of women’s oppression and I will not go into them all here. However, we believe that these two areas represent the most important aspects of the relationship of women to social production under capitalism.

Karl Marx in Volume I of Capital says, “Before the labor of women and children under ten years of age was forbidden in mines, capitalists considered the employment of naked women and girls, often in company with men, so far sanctioned by their moral code, and especially by their ledgers, that it was only after the passing of the Act that they had recourse to machinery. The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it, because the “wretch” (the recognised term in English political economy for an agricultural laborer) who does this work gets paid for such a small portion of his labor that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist. In England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculations.”

Today’s exploitation is less visable than the examples Marx cites. However, women earning on the average of only 58% of what men are paid allows the electronics industry to pay higher dividends to its stockholders. This industry has remained one of the fastest growing industries in the world for two decades, producing a new generation of multi-millionaires.

As a part of the reserve army of unemployed, women, like national minorities, are used by the capitalist class as an anchor on wages and working conditions for employed white males. The ability for the capitalist class to expand into new industries using women avoids creating a shortage in the work force which would allow for employed workers to push for higher wages. This is best illustrated by the growth in manufacturing in such industries as the garment industry in which male tailors used to make one suit per day. Today this has developed into sweat shops where five women make 100 suits per day. The emergence of the electronics industry which employs hundreds of thousands of women is another example of the capitalist class’s expansion. The communication industry, the food processing industry, and the clerical industry – these industries are all characterized by their low wages, poor working conditions and the fact that they developed full blown without having to draw from the male work force and create a shortage.

The other side of this same coin of the reserve army is that, like minority workers, women are used by the capitalist class to maintain divisions in the working class.

Male workers, corrupt with the ideology of the ruling class, often view the struggles of women as a threat to their economic security and as a detriment to the family structure. The result, hostilities that flow from their own oppression, is directed not at its source but at women, driving a wedge that divides the working class even deeper.

Prior to the appearance of capitalism, the family was the basic unit of social production. And as we have stated earlier, women’s social relationship to society stemmed from the position of women within the family unit. Women’s position changed along side of and because of changes in the mode of production within the family, women were and continue to be the bearers of children; this is a biological fact. However, the fact that women have the primary responsibility for feeding, clothing and giving support to the child is a product of the bourgeois division of labor within the family.

Under slavery and feudalism women were considered to be little more than servants or private property in the home. For a brief period, prior to the emergence of capitalism, women acquired a status more equal to that of men of their own class. This paralleled the period of the decline of feudalism in Europe and the rise of an independent peasantry.

In colonial America, women’s labor was valued because the home was the place where production took place. For example, if a person wanted a shirt or dress, they didn’t go to the store and buy it. The whole process in the production of that shirt took place in the home. The women began with the raw wool, cleaned, carded, spun, wove, and sewed it into a finished product. The work of women had respect and value.

However, with the development of modern industry, the family structure was torn apart. The goods produced by women could be purchased at the store. The family became a unit, of consumer consumption. The male had to go out and sail his labor and receive wages for it. With this change in the mode of production, the woman was once again reduced to a servant in her house, with her labor being consumed daily without recognition or compensation. The dishes clothes and house she cleaned became dirty daily and the food she shopped for and cooked became consumed at each meal. Today a woman’s life has become a never ending cycle. Her role has become relegated to the maintenance of the present working class and the production of the future working class.

C. Some history of national minority women in struggle: Today working class minority women find themselves oppressed and exploited by the economic system of capitalism. Robbed daily of the greatest part of the value she produces as a worker, discriminated against on the basis of her race, she is forced into the worst housing conditions with her children attending the worst schools. She comes face to face daily with the institution of the bourgeois state that denies her credit, childcare, the right to abortion and threatens her with forced sterilization. This triple oppression not being enough, minority women are often portrayed culturally as being loose or oversexed, thus objectively justifying their being raped or abused.

Historically, national minority women have been participants and leaders in the struggles of the mass movements. From its very beginnings on, the history of the united States has been a history of the exploitation of working people. Minority people have faced the worst of this exploitation - from the near genocide of the Native American peoples for the land we live on, to the enslavement of Africans and the wage slavery of Latins and Asians. But just as the history of the U.S. is the history of the slave ship and its chains, our history is also one of strong resistance. It Is this resistance that we would like to focus on now, in particular, the role that minority women have played. We believe that to ignore this history of resistance by minority women is to fall to understand the character of minority women today.

Up until recently, when reading about the anti-slavery movement in this country, one would almost get the impression that it was an all-white movement led by people such as William Lloyd Garrison, who travelled from city to city speaking and writing articles against the institution of slavery. However, the impact of the civil rights and Black liberation movements over the past 20-25 years has forced a general recognition of the role of slave rebellions and the self-organization of the free Black communities in bringing about the overturn of the slave regime. The leadership of figures such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Martin R. Delaney end many others in radicalizing and setting the tenor for the entire anti-slavery movement is now recognized fact.

But what is still hidden from us to a large degree – in spite of Harriet Tubman end Sojourner Truth – is the militant and active role played by the broad masses of Afro-American women in the anti-slavery movement. Literally hundreds of Black women acted as couriers, with access to information, during the slave rebellions; participated in the formation of the Underground Rail Road and organised into Black women’s clubs in the North. Black women daily committed acts of sabotage against the slave master. Their resistance to slavery took place on every level.

After slavery, in the South, the Ku Klux Klan and the lynchings of Black men, women and children were used to keep Black people terrorised and subjugated after the brief period of Reconstruction. During this time, Black women, organised Into Black women’s clubs, often took the lead in Initiating anti-lynching campaigns and defiance of acts of Klan terrorism.

This resistance to oppression, born from the brutality of slavery and reinforced by racism, sexism, and class exploitation has become a deeply rooted tradition in the culture and psychology of Afro-American women. Black women have bean involved in and leaders in the struggles of the working class in motion. The civil rights and the entire Black liberation movement is a reflection of that tradition of militance.

The striking workers at Farah Slacks, who were mainly Chicanas, are also a reflection of a long tradition of resistance among national minority women – in particular, the participation of Latin women in the struggle. In the Southwest, these roots go back to the famous Adelitas, women soldiers who fought in the Mexican Revolution by the thousands. In a later immigration, in which nearly 1/10 of Mexico’s population moved to the Southwest United States, the legacy of the Adelitas was also brought North. The Farah strikers are a direct link in a chain which also includes the wives of the predominantly Chicano strikers at the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico in the 1950’s. These women took up the picket lines, and eventually won the strike, after a court injunction was brought against the strikers.

Asian women who came to the United States worked and struggled in the fields and canneries. They also took part in the numerous strikes which crippled the plantations of Hawaii and the fields of California in the long struggle to unionize agricultural workers. Chinese women led a strike in 1938 in Chinatown, San Francisco, to organize a garment shop under the first Chinese local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. During the evacuation end internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II, Japanese American women stepped forward, taking a lead in the resistance by organizing schools and newspapers within the camps.

Today, everywhere we look, national minority women are in the forefront of the mass movements of the class, from Navajo women who took over an electronics plant to Black women who have led tenants strikes in Harlem. In childcare, welfare rights, trade union, and at the workplace, in anti-sterilization abuse, housing, and consumer struggles, the advanced fighters are minority women.

The question for us as Marxist-Leninists becomes, “Why haven’t national minority women, who have proved themselves historically and in the present as leaders engaged daily in the struggles of the working class, why haven’t they become integrated into the party building movement? Why have we not been able to win them to Marxism-Leninism?”

D. The women’s movement and its impact on the communist and progressive movements: The women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s got a great deal of its impetus from the civil rights, Black liberation and other Third World movements end the anti-war movement. The women’s movement raised some important questions and played an important role in raising the consciousness of women, primarily, and of the general American public, secondarily. They took up many of the struggles for the democratic rights of women, i.e. equal pay for equal work, equal access to education, and the legal rights for abortions.

However, the class and racial character of the women’s movement has lent itself to certain errors. It did not address issues that were particular to working class and minority women. The women’s movement also made many racist errors. They attacked the nuclear family as the source of oppression, not recognizing that it was the family, the extended family, that was a vehicle for survival for minority people. Some segments of the women’s movement began telling minority women that it was our men who were the cause of our oppression, ignoring the effects of racism on all of us. These errors prevented the inclusion of minority women in the ranks and leadership of the women’s movement. In addition to the reaction to the objective racism of the women’s movement, national minority women activists were further discouraged from taking part fully in the women’s movement by national minority male activists who argued, incorrectly, that the woman question was inherently a petty bourgeois phenomena and that our struggle was against racism. This will be dealt with more later.

The failure to connect the struggle for democratic rights with the class struggle, however, has been the greatest error of the women’s movement. And now this task rests with the Marxist-Leninist movement. While we recognize the roots of the women’s movement’s consciousness, many of us got our consciousness of the role of women from the national liberation movements. Many of the struggles of minority women in the U.S. had been hidden from us. However, the role of the women in Viet Nam, Cuba, Mozambique, and Angola served as examples for us about the true nature of women’s liberation in the same way that these struggles helped to clarify for us that the science of Marxism-Leninism was not just for the “white folks”. The task of the Marxist-Leninist movement to link up the women’s movement with the class struggle cannot happen without a clear analysis of the particularity of the oppression of minority women also being taken up.

E. Sexism among national minority males: The leading ideology in bourgeois society Is the bourgeois ideology. National minorities have not stood above this ideology. One of the results that hold back our movement is the sexist ideology held by minority males, including many aspiring minority Marxist-Leninists. As I stated earlier, many minority male activists in the democratic struggles liquidated the struggle against sexism. This coin has two sides. One side is a reaction to the racist ideology of the white petty bourgeois women’s movement. The other side is a lack of understanding of the oppression of women. Some sections of the women’s movement put men forward as the enemy and this has created a barrier for oppressed minority males to see the progressive nature of the women’s movement. However, the bourgeois ideology of national minority males more often than not led them to liquidate the struggle against sexism for the “bigger struggle against racism”. Their objective and often overt sexism went unchecked under the banner of the struggle against racism. Further, minority males often characterized the resistance of minority women to sexism as bitching and nagging.

The maintenance of bourgeois ideology by national minority males has been carried over by many of these male activists into the Marxist-Leninist movement. Many of the fighters, consciously or unconsciously, share the bourgeois attitude that the woman’s responsibility is to raise the next generation – in their case, the next generation of proletarian revolutionaries. They never put efforts into organizing child care or take responsibility for child cars at home, thus holding back the participation of advanced minority women. This contradiction is akin to a white aspiring Marxist-Leninist to say that he or she is a revolutionary racist. Think about that, comrades.

The failure to take up the question of sexism in the democratic struggles of national minorities and the objective racism in the Marxist-Leninist movement have kept many minority Marxist-Leninist women out of formal communist organizations. Also because of the racism within the Marxist-Leninist movement, national minority Marxist-Leninists find themselves often operating as independent Marxist-Leninists, working only in mass organizations or in formal organizations of minority Marxist-Leninists only. As a result of this situation, a contradiction – in the context of national-minority Marxist-Leninists only – has come to the fore. We believe that the contradiction in this situation is sexism. We believe that sexism among national minority Marxist-Leninists, given these particular conditions, is the principal contradiction.

F. Rectifying the errors in the struggle against sexism in this party building period: Comrades, I have spoken today about the material basis of sexism, the role that national minority women have played historically and continue to play in the struggle for democratic rights, the role and impact of the women’s movement, and sexist ideology among minority males. Finally, I would like to speak to how we, as the planning committee of this conference, see the errors of our movement around the struggle against sexism and the rectification of these errors in the context of party building.

We have already stated that as Marxist-Leninists, we are faced with two approaches to the women question, the moral or the materialist. The moral approach, as an incorrect approach, has already been addressed. However, we feel that there are other errors that comrades within the Marxist-Leninist movement, both white and minority, have made in the struggle against sexism. We feel that these errors all flow from not gasping the essence of the role of women, in particular minority women, in the class struggle.

The first error is to treat sexism mechanically, as part of a check-off list of things that should not be done. It also means to take up the task of the struggle against sexism in a shallow way. For example, comrades have child care at an event, but the attitude toward having childcare is still reflective of sexist practice, often with the task put off to the last moment or relegated to the women or older children.

Another error is an affirmative action approach. An example is that a woman comrade may be placed on a leadership body, regardless of that comrade’s development or her abilities. But a woman is needed so that the organisation does not look bad and appear sexist. This approach does not help the process and often times has a detrimental effect on the comrade involved.

Finally, paternalism is an error that comrades make. Its effects are numerous and often more subtle. It is usually manifested in a pat on the back: “You did a good job (for a woman)”.

These errors are telling in that there is a complete lack of theoretical work around national minority women, as well as a lack of minority women in leadership and a low level of political and theoretical development of minority women.

Again, we believe that the principal contradiction among national minority Marxist-Leninists in the present period is the contradiction of sexism. In the context of the broader movement, the contradiction is racism. However, racism does not operate in the context of an all*national-minority-Marxist-Leninist formation and among independent Marxist-Leninists doing, mass work in all-minority formations, We believe that our task is party building and we must resolve this contradiction in order to bring some of our best fighters into the party building movement.

While we have spoken specifically to errors of national minority Marxist-Leninists, we believe that these errors are also errors of the Marxist-Leninist movement. We also believe that the rectification of these errors is not on the shoulders of national minority Marxist-Leninists, but that they must be taken up by the entire Marxist-Leninist movement.

Primarily, we feel that among Marxist-Leninists, the question of national minority women’s oppression must be placed as a priority. Related to this is that the theoretical work around national minority women must be taken up. The interrelationship between racism and sexism, as manifested in the particularities of minority women’s oppression and exploitation, is the essence of this theoretical work. Secondly, we feel that the struggle against sexism must be waged by both women and men, but that in particular, men have a special responsibility in the struggle to win other men to the struggle against sexism. This will lay the concrete basis and will be key to the defeat of bourgeois feminism. Thirdly, we believe women’s leadership should always be supported and developed. Part of this is to view the task of theoretical and political development of minority women as a conscious priority of our whole movement. Finally, we view the struggle against sexism as part of the struggle to develop proletarian morality. We stress the importance of developing principled political and personal relationships between all Marxist-Leninists, minority and white, women and men.