Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Norah Carlin

Oppression: Divided we fall

(April 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 108, April 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONE OF the most depressing spectacles on the left in the 1980s is the debate on “who is the most oppressed”. This has broken out many times in the women’s movement and has surfaced again in the campaign for lesbian and gay rights.

Are lesbians more oppressed than straight women, or than gay men? Surely such questions are unanswerable. Oppression cannot be quantified even in the way that exploitation at least theoretically can, being a matter of hours, wages, profits, and so on. So why are they being asked?

The immediate political reason for these debates would seem to be the issue of organisational autonomy. If all men are oppressors of women, straights of gays, gay men of lesbians and so on, then, it is argued, they cannot unite in a single organisation.

One result is increasing fragmentation and confusion, at a time of major attacks on working class living standards and individual liberties. The Tory government certainly sees its own efforts as one struggle even if its victims don’t.

Another result is that the “oppressors within” – men in a socialist organisation, straight women “collaborators” in a feminist one, and so on – come to be treated as more bitter enemies than any on the other side, simply because they are more available.

Class struggle is a unifying force. It is the one thing that all workers have in common, whatever their country, their industry, their gender, colour or sectional interests. Oppression, on the other hand, divides by its very nature.

But there is one institution of capitalist society which plays a specially important part in dividing the oppressed from one another. This is the family, which seems to have a special capacity for creating conflicts and antagonism both inside and outside its actual circle.

There is no doubt, for example, that marriage is a very oppressive institution for women, perhaps it could be said that in a male dominated society almost all sexual relations with men are oppressive for women in some way. Yet lesbian women do not benefit from

being “free” of the specific oppressions, such as economic dependence and treatment as sex objects, that heterosexual women experience in these relationships.

Because the family role is the model for women in our society, lesbian’s jobs and pay are no different from other women’s and they suffer the additional humiliation of hostility towards their sexuality – a hostility which many heterosexual women, as well as men, express.

For these two kinds of women to fight over who is worse off, to call each other oppressors or collaborators and to demand organisational separation from each other, is both ludicrous and tragic.

Similar problems exist in the relationship between gay men and lesbians. Until the growth of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, the experience of the two was almost worlds apart.

The biggest practical difference in most of the Western world was the criminalisation of male homosexuality. In modern times women have not had to suffer the degradation of imprisonment for simply following their own sexuality.

On the other hand, many gay men in the past (and some in the present also) have shown an extreme form of the misogyny which pervades any male-dominated society. Gay men and women have found it difficult to sympathise and identify with each other.

At the same time, many gay couples, male and female, have paired off in relationships modelled on marriage and the family – though perhaps the model for gay men was related more closely to the adultery endemic in bourgeois marriage than to the husband-wife relationship.

That is, gay men tend to have stable partnerships but many additional sexual relationships, whereas for lesbians the tendency has been more towards monogamy. These images of “male” and “female” sexuality – the one predatory and adventurous, the other affectionate and domesticated – are reflected from marriage and the family.

Why is the influence of the family so all-pervasive? It is not because the family is the natural way of life for the majority of human beings, as is often supposed.

As things are, family life is all but compulsory. Everything from housing to holidays, taxation to teapots, is family-sized or else oriented towards the heterosexual couple.

Young women and men who are drawn to members of their own sex are bullied and intimidated out of it, or led to believe that marriage “will solve their problem” or at least conceal it.

The current hysteria about the “promotion of homosexuality” surely suggests that those who have power in our society feel basically unsure of the family’s supposedly universal appeal.

They seem to fear that if young people were only to get a whiff of the idea that homosexuality is not sinful, that they might actually be happier with a partner of their own sex than with a husband or wife, the family would collapse as an institution.

If only it was as simple as that! But the collapse of the family cannot be brought about just by spreading the good news that there are alternatives.

Our capitalist society needs the family to reproduce the labour force and the capitalist way of life and ideology. It will continue to be privileged, defended and even enforced by capitalist ruling classes for as long as they have power. That is, until they are overthrown by a working-class revolution.

Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12.8.2013