Women's liberation and the class struggle


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Printed below are excerpts from a report by Mary_Alice Waters that was discussed and adopted by the August 1979 national convention of the Socialist Workers Party. Waters was reporting on the resolution "Socialist Revolution and the Struggle for Women's Liberation," which was also adopted by the convention. Both the report and resolution appear in full in the three_part series entitled Communist Continuity and the Fight for Women's Liberation, published by Pathfinder Press. Mary_Alice Waters is the editor of the Marxist magazine New International. She has written extensively on the fight to end the second_class status of women, the socialist revolution in Cuba, and other topics of interest to working people. These excerpts are reprinted by permission of Pathfinder, copyright c 1992. Subheads are by the Militant.


The struggle for women's liberation is a form of the class struggle. It occupies a vital place in the strategic line of march of the proletariat toward the establishment of a workers government. For the first time in recorded history, such governments, on a world scale, will place power in the hands of a class that has no material interest in oppressing women. As the structure of society is overhauled from top to bottom, vast revolutionary changes in all social relations will unfold, including the eradication of all aspects of sex inequality that are institutional under class domination.

We do not say that the fight for women's liberation is a form of the class struggle only because, or even primarily because the majority of women are today part of the labor market in a few imperialist countries, like the United States. That is something very recent in historical terms. This trend indicates the direction of capitalist economic development. It creates objective conditions more favorable than ever before for the victory of the working class and for women. But the struggle for women's liberation, however episodic and embryonic, was an aspect of the class struggle for millennia prior to the current epoch of capitalism in its death agony.

It is a form of the class struggle because women's oppression itself is a product of class society. It has been an indispensable cornerstone of class society at every stage of its development.

Greater strategic importance

Today, the integration of women into the labor market and, increasingly, into the industrial work force gives the struggle for women's liberation greater strategic importance for the class struggle than ever before. The interrelationship of the struggles of women and those of the organized labor movement is much closer. Understanding that women are both allies of the working class and an increasingly weighty component of the working class is indispensable to mobilizing the allies of the working class; indispensable to unifying the working class and helping to strengthen it politically; indispensable to preparing the working class for the socialist reconstruction of society tomorrow.

Thus, as the resolution explains, labor's strategic line of march must include support for and building of mass women's organizations, fighting for women's demands. This is intertwined with the transformation of the organized labor movement into an instrument of revolutionary struggle and the development of a class_ struggle leadership of women and men. To identify these goals, we must construct a revolutionary party whose proletarian composition includes the necessary component of women and oppressed nationalities.


This fact is important because it helps define the character of the turn we are making on a world scale to build proletarian parties whose big majority are industrial workers. It is not a turn away from the allies of labor with the greatest social weight, such as women, but a turn toward the radicalizing young working_class forces that will provide leadership for the struggles of both women and the labor movement. The resolution on "Socialist Revolution and the Struggle for Women's Liberation" is not an optional extra.

The two most fundamental questions dealt with in the resolution are the origins of women's oppression in the rise of class society with its concomitant family, private property, and state; and the character of this family as an indispensable economic institution of class rule. Those two points are part of the bedrock of Marxism, of a historical_materialist approach to women's oppression _ and to all of human history. If the document failed to deal adequately with the origins of women's oppression and the character of the family system, or if it contained an analysis that was wrong on those two points, the entire political line of the resolution would go wrong. It would open the door to divorcing the struggle for women's liberation from the class struggle.

The origin of women's oppression is not something of interest solely to anthropologists. Nor is it a question that only comrades involved in debates in the women's liberation movement need to be knowledgeable about. Nor is it possible to dismiss it as a historical matter on which we need not take a position. What is at issue involves the most fundamental elements of Marxism, the principles of a materialist conception of history. The resolution says the following on the origins of women's oppression: "The oppression of women is not determined by their biology, as many contend. Its origins are economic and social in character. Throughout the evolution of pre_class and class society, women's childbearing function has always been the same. But their social status has not always been that of a degraded domestic servant, subject to man's control and command.

The family system

"Before the development of class society, during the historical period that Marxists have traditionally referred to as primitive communism (subsistence societies), social production was organized communally and its product shared equally. There was therefore no exploitation or oppression of one group or sex by another because no material basis for such social relations existed.

"The origin of women's oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre_class to class society._ The change in women's status developed along with the growing productivity of human labor_and the development of the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labor of others._"

Closely intertwined with the origins and character of women's oppression is the question of the family. The resolution reaffirms that the family system is an indispensable pillar of class rule. It is the historical mechanism institutionalizing the social inequality that accompanies the rise of private property and perpetuating class divisions from one generation to the next. The family is first and foremost an economic institution that has evolved a great deal as it has adapted to meet the changing ruling classes throughout all stages of class society. Because the family system is indispensable to the structuring of social inequality, the economic dependence of women and their oppression within the family system is likewise indispensable to class rule. The domestic labor of women in the home provides the least expensive and most ideologically acceptable system of reproducing labor power. It minimizes the proportion of the social surplus consumed in raising each new generation, and maximizes the proportion available for private accumulation. Thus, women's oppression is not an inessential or optional feature of class society. On the question of the family _ as with the origin of women's oppression _ the resolution firmly rejects a number of false ideas.

First, we reject the argument that the family system is something that is useful to the ruling class in capitalist society but not necessary. Could capitalism create some other social mechanism to organize the reproduction of labor power and perpetuate class divisions? We say no. It's not possible. Historical materialism precludes that. The family setup, however

modified, is indispensable.

Secondly, we reject the idea that there has been any fundamental change in the function of the family system under capitalism. Today's urban "nuclear family" may look quite different from the extended farm family of the last century, to say nothing of the family under classical slave society. But the fact that the family is less and less a productive unit does not alter its essential function as the transmission belt for dividing society between those who own the major means of production and those who do not, between the exploiters and the exploited.

Under capitalism the state begins to take over general responsibility for some social tasks previously borne almost exclusively by each individual family _ such as education (previously the exclusive privilege of the ruling classes), health care, or social security for the elderly. But such social programs are never designed to replace the family. They reinforce it. There is never a doubt that each family bears ultimate responsibility for its own. This becomes most obvious in any period of economic crisis, when cuts in social services brutally shift a growing burden of responsibility back onto the shoulders of each individual family of working people. Rise of industrial capitalism.

Thirdly, the resolution reiterates the discovery made by Marx and Engels more than a century ago that the family is an alien class institution historically imposed on the working class. With the rise of industrial capitalism, as women and children were incorporated into the work force in massive numbers, often working 12_ and 14_hour days, the family began disintegrating in the working class. The ruling class consciously intervened to reinforce and strengthen the family in the last quarter of the nineteenth century because its disintegration was posing a threat to capitalist domination. The social mechanism for reproducing human beings healthy enough and "socialized" enough to sell their labor power and produce surplus value for a few years was falling apart. For society to take general responsibility for raising and minimally educating children was economically precluded. The costs of such social care could only be taken out of surplus value and thus reduce profits. So the family structure had to be reimposed on the working class.

We reject the position that is advanced by many women in the feminist movement_that it was male workers who benefited from the introduction of protective legislation that kept women out of many industries in the nineteenth century. Likewise, we reject the argument that male workers have a material stake in the oppression of women in the family and thus benefited from reinforcing the family._

Fourthly, the resolution makes it clear that the disintegration of the family system is inevitable as capitalism inexorably draws more and more women into the work force. This is evident in the steadily climbing divorce rates in all of the advanced capitalist countries. The family ceases to be a productive unit in the working class, and then begins to disintegrate as every adult member goes out and sells his or her labor power individually on the capitalist labor market. Despite wage differentials and job discrimination, women thereby gain a qualitatively new degree of economic independence. But there is not and there cannot be any alternative to the family system so long as social relations are based on the existence and maintenance of private property. The disintegration of the family system under capitalism brings great suffering to the masses of working people. In bourgeois society, the contradiction between the romantic mythology surrounding marriage and the reality of personal relations is so acute that _ in addition to all the economic hardship that comes with the disintegration of the family _ it wreaks emotional and psychological havoc on millions of human beings every year. Many never recover. We solidarize with those who face such personal misery. But unlike the Stalinists who tell a double lie _ about what capitalism has in store for us and about what can be done _ we tell the truth. We say there is no way to "save the family." As all institutions of class rule, it will continue to decay and disintegrate because capitalism has outlived its historically progressive role. The relations of production come more and more into conflict with the forces of production.

Private property

But until we eradicate the economic system based on private property and eliminate economic compulsion as the bond that corrodes all social relations and prevents them from having a truly human character, the disintegration of the family with all its attendant misery is just one more catastrophe capitalism has in store for us. It is one more reason to fight to get rid of this rotten system. And one more reason to demand a total social security program that covers every aspect of the economic and social needs of working people.

We reject the notion that communes or any other "alternative life_style" offer a social alternative under capitalism _ even if a few individuals find what they imagine is a tolerable personal solution that way. And insofar as the search for "life_style" alternatives under capitalism becomes a political orientation, it is a road away from the class struggle and a revolutionary working_ class perspective of trying to end the system that is the source of misery for millions.

Fifthly, the resolution stresses the role of the family in molding the character structure, the social and sexual behavior of each new generation. Within the family the attitudes and values that are necessary for survival in class society are inculcated in each individual child _ respect for hierarchy and authority, sexual repression, and so forth. This kind of "education" can only be done within the family from the earliest age. There is no economic possibility for it to be accomplished elsewhere under capitalism. In this sense the family plays an indispensable ideological _ as well as economic _ role. But the "socializing" function is not what fundamentally defines and ultimately shapes the family institution. Sixthly, we reject the idea that the family is basically a sexual relationship, or that any particular kind of sexual behavior represents a threat to the family system. The disintegration of the family is not the result of an evolving "sexual revolution." Changes in sexual mores are the product of greater economic independence of women. It is this growing economic independence that brings about the disintegration of the family and the consequent cultural changes. The monogamous norm has always been for women only. Only in the last century, with the ideological buttressing of the family institution in order to reimpose it on the working class, has the myth been propagated that most sexual relations take place within the family between husband and wife. Throughout recorded history the opposite has been the case. In the ruling class, sexual relations between husband and wife were for procreation, and most sexual activity, especially for men, was outside of the family._ The realization that women's oppression is above all an economic question and that everything else is derivative is the essence of a materialist understanding of that oppression. Without that as your starting point, you will lose your bearings in understanding class society and the class struggle as a whole. Failure to grasp this fact is at the root of the erroneous positions held by many feminists on the question of whose interests are served by women's oppression._


Affirmative Action


What is our political strategy for raising the class consciousness of male and female workers? In addition to the demands we advance for basic democratic rights such as legal equality, abortion, and others, we put forward basically two axes of struggle.

1. We concretize our demands for socializing the domestic labor of women _ such as child care.

2. We demand preferential action programs for women in education, employment, job training, in order to break down the barriers that have kept women out of sectors of the economy traditionally restricted to males.

The fight for preferential programs, for affirmative action, plays a decisive role in effecting changes in consciousness on a mass scale. It undercuts the divisions and stratifications that are used to hold down the wages and working conditions of all workers. Male and female workers can be convinced that it is in their class

interest to fight for such demands.

Secondly, the fight for affirmative action makes both men and women more conscious of all the ways in which discrimination against women is built into this society.

Oppression is not an idea or a state of mind, it is a social relation. It has material consequences in unequal conditions of life and labor, and deliberate measures are needed in all areas to overcome the results of centuries

of oppression of women.

Thirdly, affirmative_action victories begin in the most fundamental way to undercut sexist attitudes toward women. As women break down the social barriers of their second_class status, they gain self_confidence. Men begin

to see their women co_workers as equal human beings. They learn to respect and judge women more as people and less as female sex_objects. That has a powerful impact on the attitudes and conduct of millions of men and women in their personal lives. Men do start sharing the housework.

It is by charting this kind of political course of mass struggle for affirmative action and other demands that we seek to break through the false consciousness that's engendered by the ruling class. It is along this path that we help the working class to think socially and act politically, and thereby become more class conscious.

Mass independent women's organizations have a vital role to play in helping to advance in this direction.

Their actions can converge with progress by vanguard workers in transforming the labor movement and forging the kind of working_class leadership that is necessary for women's struggles.


end of the areticle


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