Lindsey German Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Sheila Rowbotham & Lindsey German

Debate: Which way to liberation?

(November 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 125, November 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With new attacks on abortion rights working their way through parliament the question of women’s liberation is again in the public eye. Here we reproduce a debate on the subject between Sheila Rowbotham, co-author of Beyond the Fragments, and Lindsey German, editor of SWR and author of a new book, Sex, Class and Socialism.

Sheila Rowbotham

I WANT to start by describing some of the social changes which gave rise to the modern women’s liberation movement which developed in the late 1960s.

It’s important to understand the background to new movements to make sense of the form they take today.

There were changes going on in the class structure in Western capitalist countries which affected women. Many of the young women attracted to the women’s movement were neither manual workers nor employers. They were part of a strata educated through the welfare state, whose jobs took them into the greatly expanded clerical, administrative and welfare fields.

When these young women had children, they were thrown into the isolation of die home after being told they were completely equal to their male peers. The sense of being cheated, the anger that comes from an expectation that isn’t realised, is in the early women’s movement writings.

There were also a lot of contradictory ideas about freedom and sexuality around at the time. Although there was evidence about the dangers of the pill, there was an optimism that it could transform relationships.

While aspects of the new sexual freedom were liberatory for young women, the weakening of old paternalistic controls hurled young women into a world that was quite unlike their mothers’. They found themselves stranded in terms of values, neither accepting the old morality nor able to assert their own alternative. This led to a questioning of what became known in die 1960s as permissiveness. The aim was not to introduce a new form of puritanism, but to question the male defined terms of sexual freedom.

For most working class women circumstances were somewhat different. There had been a slow and steady improvement in very basic living conditions, although they were far from ideal. Pay was still low and inequality was marked in terms of different types of jobs and different pay.

Trade union women in the late 1960s were talking about equal rights at work. They were trying to combine paid work with child care. They had different grievances from the young women attracted to women’s liberation. But the ideas of equality were in the air.

Capitalism was offering equality while holding back the actual means for women to live as equals.

The political ideas around in die 1960s had an enormous influence on the emergence of the women’s movement. Probably the most important was the civil rights movement in the US, where the consciousness raising groups were started. A new political language emerged from the struggle of black people in the US. People talked about space in terms of power, about identity and how they were regarded in society. This was not the language and politics of the European Marxist left.

The radicalism of the American student movement contributed concepts like “the personal is political”, and “prefigurative change”.

The borderline between asserting the capacity to change in the here and now and the freezing of alternatives into a Utopia is narrow. But a politics which is incapable of talking about moral responsibility and individual action becomes deterministic and removed. Also a purely oppositional politics gives little sense of how life could be lived differently.

So during the 1970s and 1980s the social movements like feminism have raised important questions for socialists.

Socialism isn’t something fixed on tablets of stone. It is a living historical creation.

Feminists pointed to the inadequacy of only looking at the polarisation between the manual working class and employers. That is an important contradiction in society, but there are other forms of conflict.

Another argument was how should we approach welfare and the state? Marxists had been opposed to coercive aspects of the state but the approach to the welfare state had not been suspicious enough. Marxists had said it was important to get more for workers out of the capitalist state, which was fine, but the women’s movement raised the question of relationships of power.

There is a struggle against unequal power relations even within the benign aspects of the state.

The feminists have also contested the over simple assumption that women’s emancipation is just about going out to work. For there were, and still are, inequalities between men and women within the workforce. Women in segregated positions were not necessarily able to organise and resist.

Within the trade union movement there are also inequalities. People are not able to play an equal part because of forms of discrimination which aren’t just to do with class.

The focus within modern socialism on work neglected the wider problem of how to reorganise everyday life.

The women’s movement has been pushing towards much wider ideas about material circumstances.

These are not simply to do with production or even simply to do with something called the economy, but are a lot broader. They are about the time it takes to take children to a nursery and then get to work, about how a supermarket is designed and located, about the availability of public transport. These material everyday issues haven’t been taken up very well in the revolutionary movement or the Labour Party.

The women’s movement has also raised a whole lot of questions about organisation. Ten years ago Lynne Segal, Hilary Wainwright and I wrote Beyond the Fragments.

We wanted to look at what could be learned from the women’s movement about how to organise differently. We weren’t actually saying – although some people thought we were – that the women’s movement had some ideal alternative to the traditions of Leninism.

What we were saying is that every social experience throws up problems about the relationship of different groups and how their agency can combine. This isn’t a completely new problem. In the 19th century radicals were arguing about whether race had priority over gender in the anti-slavery movement.

We said in Beyond the Fragments that to prioritise class raises problems for the other groups. We wanted a politics which took on all the forms of inequality equally.

We also argued Leninist groups reproduce the inequalities which exist in society, they are not some sort of ideal exempt from relations outside.

Ten years on I think we have to examine not only the problems for socialists raised by the women’s movement but the problems which have been raised within the women’s movement itself by some of the implicit approaches to politics inherited from the new left. The innovations have proved double edged.

For example, the slogan “The personal is political” had a very important effect in raising hidden aspects of equality into politics. It used to be said creches were Utopian concerns. But women insisted that child care was not a personal matter. Unless this need was included within politics you can’t have any sense of equal participation and involvement.

But the slogan created all sorts of problems as people tried to live out feelings about how they ought to be. The politicisation of personal life by an effort of will left psychological casualties.

Class politics based on a subjective sense of identity contains snags. It was important to talk about feelings of identity and differences in oppression. However, it led to fragmentation into smaller and smaller categories of oppression which did not solve the underlying issue. Inequalities arose in the social movements as much as in the Leninist parties.

For example black women pointed out that the priorities of the movement were defined by white middle class feminists, regardless of whether they were socialist feminists or radical feminists.

Another problem which faced the women’s movement in the 1980s arose from its success. The long march through the institutions created women’s studies and feminist publishing.

The hard won institutional niches increased the pressure to concentrate simply on women’s conditions. The focus on gender was structured by the relative ascendancy of these fields as the grass roots movement dwindled and divided.

Moreover, from the late 1970s the working class movement hit difficulties and society became more conservative. The assertion of the interests of a particular group and the focus on gender became much more appealing. It seemed more clear cut than the socialist feminism which argued, “Well, there’s all these different kinds of subordination and oppression and it takes a long time, and there are contradictions.”

If somebody can just say, “Men are rapists”, “Pornography is a form of rape”, then there seems to be a clear enemy.

The cost of separatist clarity was the closing up of discussion around areas which didn’t fit into a simple idea of male/female conflict. Some black women have been particularly critical of these politics, for they face a situation where while conflicts exist between men and women, there is also the need to act together.

Reconciling conflicts between groups and working together has been a painful and destructive struggle for the women’s movement.

There have been two tensions. One has been this pull towards gender, collapsing all other forms of oppression into it.

However, there has also been a contradictory impulse, beyond gender. The peace movement saw groups of women getting involved with an issue which necessarily connects up to other aspects of politics, not simply women’s needs as women.

There was also the eruption in 1984–5 of Women Against Pit Closures which has had a continuing impact on the labour movement because it showed how a strike could be sustained by women organising. The women’s action demonstrated that women’s identities and interests are tied up with their families and communities. An autonomous individual freedom has to be realisable in relation with others.

They raised too the right to control your own community, looking at the way resources are used and allocated. That’s one of the ways that WAPC has linked up with other groups, such as Anti-Apartheid and CND.

I think it is important now for feminists to be aware and critical of the limits in our political assumptions. There have been gains like women’s studies. It is true that gender needs asserting. But this is not all that has to be done. There is still the enormous question of how to change capitalist society. Without such a fundamental transformation only a minority of women will secure improvements.

This means looking outward and recognising that women’s needs and grievances are not static. We need to be continually involved in expanding and redefining feminism because, just like socialism, the women’s movement itself has to change with the movement of women.

Lindsey German

I AGREE with Sheila’s analysis of the early women’s movement. It emerged, as she says, from the social movements of the 1960s and from the objective changes in capitalist society.

By the 1960s, unlike the period before the Second World War there were millions of women working outside the home. An important layer of women went into higher education for the first time. Their aspirations grew, but were in turn frustrated by society.

There were other changes of various sorts, particularly the abortion reform of the late 1960s, the divorce laws and most importantly contraception which gave women an at least limited control over their bodies which wasn’t open to women of previous generations.

Both those factors created the women’s movement of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Both also colour the movement.

You have the potential for subversion, the anti-capitalist nature of the women’s movement, the fact that it involves very large numbers of socialists and people who want to change the system.

But it’s clear with the benefit of hindsight that there is also the potential for accommodation. We can see the way in which a section of the women’s movement can fit quite nicely within the existing system.

Nonetheless I think it’s important for us to realise that the early women’s movement was heavily influenced by socialist ideas. It was essentially a movement for social change. Women’s liberation and social change were seen as very much part and parcel of the same thing.

However, there was always a tension between the question of class emphasised by socialists and the question of gender.

Although most people in the women’s movement wanted social change, there was never really a clear idea about how this could be achieved.

The movement did have an initial impact which couldn’t be denied by anyone who lived through it. For me as a teenager books like The Female Eunuch had a fantastic impact in terms of very subversive ideas.

But the movement could have that impact without necessarily leading anywhere. By the mid 1970s the first burst of enthusiasm had begun to go. Even as late as 1976 there was still the Trico strike and a number of other equal pay strikes. But by the mid 1970s and even more so by the late 1970s you began to see a decline in the level of strikes and a downturn in the general confidence in the working class movement. There was a crisis of the revolutionary left and therefore also a crisis of the women’s movement.

This took its deepest form in Italy, which had the largest revolutionary left in Europe – with three daily papers and large organisations. But by 1976–7 there was a massive crisis about where the left and the working class was going. There was also a huge revolt by women.

A splintering resulted from the coincidence of this decline of the revolutionary left and the simultaneous growth of feminism. There was an increased level of separatism, a fragmentation of the left and a fragmentation of the women’s movement.

In Britain by the late 1970s you had the emergence inside the women’s movement of demands which were central in shifting it to the right. The first was the way in which male violence was seen increasingly as the major reason for women’s oppression.

Essentially the movement’s early demands were about equal pay, organisation, nurseries and so on. By the late 1970s there was a shift towards blaming individual men for the problems of women’s oppression and therefore the increased importance given to violence against women.

The second area was the development of the theory of patriarchy. This theory has been going as long as people have been writing about women’s oppression. But it was developed to become all embracing. It became accepted that women’s oppression couldn’t be explained in terms of class society.

The acceptance of these ideas represented a defeat for socialist feminism. Socialist, collective and class ideas retreated and became isolated in terms of the women’s movement as a whole.

The women’s movement became increasingly anti-men. Heidi Hartmann wrote in the late 1970s about male workers being in an alliance with capitalism in order to exclude women from certain jobs.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Bea Campbell popularised the idea that somehow male trade unions are the oppressors, no longer just individual men. In other words the people who most feminists had been working with just a few years before now became the key problem. This was just at the time of Thatcher’s election and the attack on the trade unions.

So, by the late 1970s and early 1980s the women’s movement was on the retreat in all sorts of ways.

Although the authors of Beyond the Fragments never intended to encourage people to join the Labour Party, that is what the book actually did. It was attempting to find new ways of organising, but essentially it was concerned with attacking Leninist organisation, and people saw this as a justification for seeing the Labour Party as a vehicle for change.

The move into the Labour Party meant socialist feminism was increasingly defined in terms of the Labour Party and reformism.

Today I would identify three strands of feminism. The first is bourgeois feminism, which has always been around, even in the 1960s with the National Organisation of Women in the US and so on.

Particularly in the US, there are many business women who in a sense are in quite liberated positions where they can compete on equal terms with men and have no notion of social change at all. For example, Dianne Feinstein in San Francisco opposed maternity leave because she thought it gave women an unfair advantage on the labour market!

Even in Britain, where the process has developed less, something like a fifth of the banking investment managers in the City of London today are women. Airlines are apparently worried that their business classes aren’t oriented enough towards women.

This might help a few individual women, but is irrelevant to most women who are still very much at the bottom of the pile.

There is also the continuation of separatist feminism, which has gone increasingly in cultural directions. The increased readership of books containing these ideas doesn’t mobilise any particular audience, but does succeed in popularising the theories about rape and pornography.

The third strand is socialist feminism, which is what we’re most concerned with. The problem today is that the majority of people who define themselves as socialist feminists don’t really think of socialism in the same sense as Sheila or I.

They are not really interested in the self-activity of the working class or indeed of groups of the oppressed. They are much more interested in achieving reform through the Labour Party, through women’s committees or by getting a few more women MPs than in real change from below.

Sheila and others with similar ideas are very much a minority even among socialist feminists.

Therefore, in talking about a strategy for women’s liberation, we need to be clear about the limitations of not just the women’s movement, but also of socialist feminism.

Socialism has always had things to say about the personal aspects of people’s lives. Marx talked in Capital about child labour in the factories, infant mortality, how people live and the environment. Engels talked about housing and the adulteration of food in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Certainly the initial impact of women’s liberation on socialism was big. But we also have to say that there’s a negative side.

A lot of feminist ideas actually pull away from socialism. The denial of class struggle as the key to changing society is widespread among many socialist feminists.

The idea that trade unionism is male dominated, that it has nothing to offer women – regardless of the fact that women are joining trade unions in all sorts of industries – is also very dominant among feminists.

Feminist ideas can blur the differences between right and left, certainly in the Labour Party. A few years ago people like Ann Pettifor were saying the key questions were not those between left and right – such as the witch hunt of the Militant which was dismissed as macho politics – but those that concerned gender.

Feminism hasn’t always had a very positive impact on socialism. Nor has it a great deal to contribute organisationally.

Take the question of autonomous organisation. Most people in the women’s movement say the key thing is that women have the right to organise separately.

The basis of autonomism is that all women have something in common. I agree that all women are oppressed, but the way you are oppressed is very different depending on which class you come from.

If you are rich enough to avoid suffering in the same way as the exploited classes, then you can find all sorts of ways of mediating your oppression.

The cross class agenda of autonomous organisation doesn’t really take this into account.

It’s no accident that there is no longer one women’s movement. Fragmentation has resulted from being unable to square the contradictions in the politics, to say there is one thing we believe in and are going to fight for.

The diversity that now exists can be very harmful when it comes to real struggle over things like abortion rights.

The fight for women’s liberation needs socialist organisation. We need to start from a recognition of what causes oppression – that it is not patriarchy, but something inseparable from class society.

The reproduction of labour power is the crucial reason for the existence of the family. It is a product of class society and of capitalism in particular. Therefore it’s only with the overthrow of class society that you can talk about ending that oppression.

Sheila talked about the need for a combination of Utopia and strategy and to be able to link the two: a vision of the future and an idea of how we get there.

I think that’s absolutely right. But without wanting to gloss over the failings and inadequacies of revolutionary organisations, the record of the last ten to 20 years shows it is only a revolutionary organisation which has really been able to combine the vision of the future and the understanding of how we need to organise now on the immediate issues.

It’s a Leninist revolutionary organisation, rooted in the working class, which holds the key to women’s liberation.

Far from women workers being excluded from that kind of organisation or being on the outside of the working class there are now about nine million women working in this country. They are increasingly central to key areas of work.

More of these women workers will begin to organise in unions and begin to fight for their own liberation. But unless there is a revolutionary organisation which is capable of relating to and leading those struggles then I believe women’s liberation will remain Utopian, instead of the absolute necessity which it has to be.

Lindsey German Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12.8.2013