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An all too common notion in mainstream society in the US and elsewhere in the West is that that there is no longer any need for a women’s movement. After all, goes the argument, look at the people in power. Condi Rice, for instance. If women (and Blacks) weren’t equal, how could she be in the position she’s in? Furthermore, it’s not only the far right that holds this opinion. Indeed, many folks of the more liberal persuasion also operate with this in mind. They point to the women in positions of political and economic power and to the large numbers of women in postsecondary education and the military and ask those of us who differ with their assumptions to come up with proof that women aren’t equal.
This is what Sharon Smith does in her recently-released book Women and Socialism. Smith is able to come up with such proof because she uses a methodology that is informed by class analysis and the politics of race in the United States-both of which provide the author and the reader with a basis to get beyond the individual achievements of some (mostly middle and upper class) US women and take a more radical look at the situation of US women in the 21st century.
When I say radical, I mean it first and foremost in it original Greek sense. That is, as in going to the root of something. Secondly, I mean it in the political sense. Of course, the distinction is minimal in this case. Why? Because most issues regarding human survival tend to be the most fundamental issues that women face. As Smith makes clear in her book, it is exactly these issues that today’s feminists ignore.
As Smith also makes clear, it is precisely because the women portrayed as feminist leaders-the Gloria Steinems, Hilary Rodham Clintons and Eleanor Smeals-do not have to concern themselves with issues of survival. The reason they don’t is because they have more than enough income to take care of those issues. Consequently, the women’s issues that these feminists concern themselves with are ones of individual gain and personal well-being.
Meanwhile, the majority of working-class and peasant women in the world must figure out not only how to feed their families, but how to discover and maintain a reason to continue. Until this majority of the world’s women can support their families, taking care of their personal wellbeing is a far off dream.
Smith’s text begins by laying down some fundamentals on the history of sexism and the mistreatment of women. Utilizing Engels’ work The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State as her basic text, Smith modernizes Engels’ theories and comments on where he is right and where he was wrong. She does this by quoting from the works of modern writers like Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson, and Chris Harman. In addition, she utilizes various anthropological works (also used by Engels and his successors), by Lewis Henry Morgan and others to make her point that it women’s oppression as a class does not stem from biology but from the economics of capitalism. In short, women’s roles did not become secondary to men’s until certain technologies made the accumulation of wealth and its consequent product, profit, possible. Once this dynamic began, women’s primary role became reproductive and, as men’s working conditions tailored themselves to the needs of capitalist industrialism, women’s domain became the private sphere and men’s became the public sphere. Before this change, there was considerably less separation between the two realms.
In 2001, George and Laura Bush used the argument that the war on Afghanistan would liberate the women there from the oppression of Islam. Even though many western feminists had focused on the various oppressive practices undertaken by some practitioners of Islam, never before had they used it as justification for war. The attack on Afghanistan changed all that, with some western feminists actually cheering on the war as a means to free the Afghani women from their very real oppression under the Taliban government. What these feminists failed to acknowledge (and still don’t) is that the Bush regime has its own agenda for suppressing the hard won gains made by the women’s movement in the 1970s. Since the war on Afghanistan began, the US has also attacked and occupied Iraq-a country where women were probably granted more rights than any other Arab nation and many Western ones, as well. There has also been an attack by European governments on the practice of wearing hajib, or scarf, that many Islamic women undertake. Nowhere was this battle more public than in France where tens of thousands of Islamic women took to the streets under the slogan “Not our father, not our brothers, We choose to wear the hajib.” Smith addresses the cultural chauvinism inherent in the laws against hajib while at the same time acknowledging the restrictive role women are expected to play in many Islamic communities. Once again, she puts this into context by observing that as capitalism creates more poverty and war in order that the wealthy remain at the top, religions of all kinds will be taken up by more and more of the poor. Marx understood this only too well when he wrote in 1844: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Furthermore, it is not only Islam that utilizes the suppression of women to keep its thrall. Catholicism and other Christianities have their own share of patriarchal assumptions and practices, as does Judaism-and that’s just the monotheistic religions.
Women and Socialism makes some of the same arguments that were made by leftist feminists in the past-most recently during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. It is a commentary on our time that the arguments are just as relevant today. Indeed, in our world of neoliberal capitalism where the population of the entire world really does work for the very few, these arguments are even more pertinent, Condi Rice or no Condi Rice.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org