Women and the working-class struggle

The following is based on a talk presented at the Socialist Women’s Conference in New York City on Feb. 11, hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation. It appears in March 2007’s Socialism and Liberation magazine.

Our challenge at today’s Socialist Women’s Conference is to start from where we are—the problems we face as well


Peta Lindsay at Socialist Women’s Conference in New York City, Feb. 11.

Photo: Ben Becker
as the strengths we possess—and to chart a way forward. That is the challenge of leadership.

My talk today is about the first of those tasks: assessing where we stand. But the purpose is not just to cheer or to complain. I’m starting from the point of view that we need revolutionary change.

Let’s look at the society in which we live.

A society based on exploitation

We are always reminded that we live in the richest country in the world. But we all know that that isn’t the whole story.

There is some truth to the statement. The U.S. economy produces some $13 trillion worth of goods and services a year—by far the biggest economy in the world. By comparison, that’s three times as large as the next biggest economy, Japan, and 178 times the size of the Dominican Republic’s economy.

But we live in a capitalist economy. That means that the $13 trillion economy is not organized to meet people’s needs—housing, education, health care, jobs and all the other things we need to have decent lives. It is organized to generate profits for a tiny handful of super-rich corporate owners and bankers.

The $13 trillion economy does not mean the same thing for the super-rich as it does for you and me.

For the rich, the $13 trillion economy is great news—something of which they can feel proud. According to a Dec. 5, 2006, publication by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics of the United Nations University, three out of every eight of the world’s richest households are in the United States—even though only one in every 20 people in the world live in the United States.

But for the rest of us, that $13 trillion is something we will never see or feel in our daily lives.

Official government statistics admit that 38 million people in this country—about one in every eight—lived in poverty in 2005. For the government, that means that a family of three was living with a household income of less than $15,577 a year. You can do the math—if you pay $800 a month in rent, that leaves less than $125 a week to buy food for your child, pay telephone and electricity, clothing, not to mention so-called extras like health insurance, car payments and so on.

The American Community Survey in 2005 estimated that another 50 million are just scraping by. We’re up to one-fourth of all U.S. residents either living in poverty or just making it.

Those figures overlap with the 50 million people who live with no health insurance. Even those who have health insurance better stay healthy, because rising premiums and co-payments can tilt the balance for families living paycheck to paycheck.

Everything I described here becomes worse if you are Black, Latino or an immigrant. Not only are all the statistics worse—poverty, unemployment, lack of health care or education—you also face racism, police brutality, the threat of deportation or anti-immigrant violence by the modern-day KKK—the Minutemen.

I mention all these figures to remind us of the basic reality of life under capitalism: If you happen to be born to the rich, ruling elite, the system is working fine. If you are part of the working class—whether you punch a clock, get a salary or are unemployed—things are bad and getting worse.

So when we look for solutions to the problems facing women, we are starting from the fact that we live in a system that is rooted in exploitation—not just of women, but of the vast majority of the population, the working class.

Women workers hit hardest

But we also understand from the beginning that this exploitation is not distributed evenly, and that women are particularly hard hit.

Let’s go back and look at the poverty rates for women. If you look at the number of adult women living in poverty, the rate was 13 percent in 2005, compared to 9 percent for men. If you look at the more than 10 million women who are single mothers, the poverty rate jumps to 36 percent.

In 2004, women still earned only about 76 cents for every dollar men made for the same work, and the gap has been widening, not improving. If you look at the number of workers earning less than the proposed new federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—still a poverty wage, by the way—close to 60 percent are women.

About 90 percent of welfare recipients are women. That means that every new cut of welfare programs, every new requirement or restriction, falls hardest on women. So when Clinton passed his “end welfare as we know it” reform in 1996, more than half of welfare recipients were thrown off the program—and you know who was hurt most.

Or look at another crime of U.S. capitalism—the more than 2 million people in the prison-industrial complex. Over the last 25 years, the huge expansion of the system has meant a racist warehousing of the Black and Latino communities, primarily hitting young men.

But there has been another trend parallel to that one: the vast increase in the number of women in prison. The number of women in state and federal prisons has jumped from about 12,000 in 1980 to 107,500 in 2005. That number is actually rising faster than the rate for men.

I’m just highlighting a few of these facts so that we keep in mind that for every problem that the working class as a whole faces, it is a problem that we women face more severely. If the old saying about judging a society by the status of its women is true, then U.S. capitalism would be judged harshly.

Violence, sexism target women

We also have to keep in mind, though, that many of the problems we face as women fall outside the traditional bounds of capitalist exploitation—in other words, the exploitation of women as workers. One of the terrible realities of capitalism is that we face forms of special oppression that can be traced back to the overthrow of the matriarchy that coincided with the emergence of class society some 10,000 years ago.

For example, the statistics about rape and violence against women are staggering. It is estimated that 2 to 4 million women are battered by someone they know. Some 170,000 of those attacks require hospitalization. Four women in the United States die every day by so-called domestic violence.

Violence against women may happen on a one-to-one basis, but looked at in aggregate it constitutes a social problem of immense magnitude. This system of capitalist patriarchy, which promotes sexist stereotyping of women and keeps women in a perpetually vulnerable position on the economic front, makes it impossible to address the endless acts of violence against women within this system.

Or look at the problem of women’s control over their own bodies—the issue of reproductive rights. One of the tremendous gains of the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s was expanding our ability to decide whether or not to have children—breaking the chains of what had been presented for thousands of years as our natural role as vehicles for men’s procreation and enjoyment.

But even those rights are still under attack. Health care and reproductive health care are being eroded, not just in rural and remote areas but also in cities throughout the United States, by cuts in social services and threats to women’s health clinics.

According to a study conducted this past fall by social researchers, many clinics have been forced to close due to attacks and terror threats by anti-abortion right-wingers.

More than one-third of women 15 to 44 years of age, in 87 percent of counties in the United States, have no access to abortion services where they reside. About 31 percent of the U.S. cities have no abortion providers. Although the attacks have gone down since the height of terrorist threats on clinics, roughly 16 percent of women’s clinics report some form of violence.

In the state of South Dakota—although voters defeated a proposition that would have banned an abortion except to

save the life of the woman—a similar bill was just introduced in the state’s legislature in late January. If passed, it would provide for up to 10 years imprisonment for doctors who are deemed to have violated the anti-abortion law.

There are also the constant threats of violence, harassment and scapegoating of lesbians, gays and transgendered people. We should be clear that the root cause of anti-LGBT oppression and bigotry is the same sexist crap that is behind violence against women. So we stand with our lesbian sisters in all their struggles to live and love freely just as much as we stand with all LGBT people whose lives are in defiance against patriarchal oppression.

Finally, since I have been mentioning the kind of special oppression we face as women, we also have to take into account how our situation is affected by the other oppressions in class society—especially the racism against African American and Latino people that is built into the fabric of U.S. capitalism. Our sisters of color are struggling on many fronts and are sure to provide militant leaders in our common struggles ahead.

I have been going over the problems we face as women and as workers because we need to understand where we are in order to find our way forward. My main point is that the problems we face are completely tied to the capitalist system of exploitation and profits for the few. It is this tiny capitalist class that benefits from our exploitation—even the violence against women that keeps the working class divided and less able to carry out our half of the class struggle.

But it’s not all about problems. We are making gains, and those gains have to be part of our perspective in finding a way forward.

If you look at where we are in a historical perspective, we have won a lot. There are people in this room whose grandmothers were denied the basic right to vote in the United States, not to mention those who were prohibited from exercising their right because of apartheid Jim Crow laws in the South. There are people in this room whose mothers would have had to resort to dangerous back-alley abortions if they faced a pregnancy that they were not prepared to see to term for whatever reason.

Those gains came as a result of our strength and power as women. No one handed us those rights. We won them.

And more and more, we are playing a more decisive role as workers. Women are a growing proportion of union members—although we haven’t seen it yet reflected among the national union leaderships. More and more women are in the workforce.

To sum up, if we are going to find a way forward, we need to confront the capitalist system that is rooted in the exploitation of women and of the whole working class. As women, we face the problems of our class in an especially harsh way. And we face particular problems that working-class men do not experience, and if we don’t face them with a perspective of building unity against the common oppressor it will only harm our struggle.

But we are powerful. We have shown that despite all odds, we can produce leaders—leaders of women and leaders of men. To the extent that we can nurture that, that we have organizations that develop that power, we put revolution on the agenda—not just in our children’s lives, but also in our own.

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