Progress for women a result of struggle

This statement is based on a talk given by Peta Lindsay, 2012 presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, at a forum in San Francisco.

There is a vicious and intense attack on women’s rights going on across the country. The anti-women’s rights rhetoric has been ratcheted up to new heights in the course of the despicable, disgusting, sexist, racist , anti-LGBT, anti-worker—I could keep going with the adjectives—Republican primary campaign this year. It has been like a trip back in time, hasn’t it?

These four white guys—all of whom say that they want to get government out of people’s private lives—sure have a lot to say about what women should and should not be doing in our private lives.

Precisely because of the profoundly reactionary and truly creepy character of the Republican campaign, a huge gender gap has opened up in the polls, with a big majority of the women polled saying that they plan to vote for the Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, in the November election.

This despite the fact that the Obama administration and the Democratic Party in general have hardly been militant fighters for women’s rights. It is more that the other side is so backward, so overtly sexist, that it makes the Democrats look good by comparison.

President Obama has stated a position of support for women’s right to choose, and for including access to contraception in health care plans. Again, it’s pretty amazing that we have to consider these “progressive” positions in the year 2012.

But there is little beyond this.

Democrats’ role in erosion of women’s right to choose

In July 2010, Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services ruled that under the so-called Affordable Health Care Act, a woman with a pre-existing condition such as cancer or heart disease will not be allowed to purchase—with her own money—an insurance plan that covers abortion, except in the case of rape, incest or if carrying the pregnancy to term will endanger her life.

In December 2011, the same department announced its decision not to make Plan B emergency birth control available over the counter to women under 17 years old, despite the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration. Both of these decisions followed intense campaigns led by the religious right and the bishops of the Catholic Church. It was a clear capitulation by the administration to right-wing pressure against the interests of millions of women.

Here is an interesting statement from an article by Jodi Jacobson in Conscience magazine, the journal of the group Catholics for Choice.

“As a candidate, Obama said all the right things. As a president [he] has presided over the greatest erosion to women’s reproductive health and rights in the past 30 years, and a continuing degradation of our rights at the state level. Yet still he remains silent. Is Obama prochoice? Not by my definition.”

What does this tell us? That bourgeois politicians are not always completely sincere? I think most of us here knew that already. More importantly, it tells us that it is not the views of presidents or congresspersons or Supreme Court justices that are the determining factor in bringing about change—it is organizing on the ground.

In this case, we have a negative example of that—the right-wing, reactionary and anti-women’s rights forces are mobilized. And the truth of the matter is that the major women’s rights organizations in the U.S. have been largely demobilized because of their relationship to the Democratic Party, because they are part of the Democratic Party. They have counted on “their party” to protect women’s rights.

The Democrats took control of Congress in 2006; from early 2009 to early 2011, they controlled the House, Senate and the presidency. Since early 2011, they have controlled the Senate and Oval Office. Yet during that time, we have seen, as quoted above, “the greatest erosion in women’s reproductive health and rights in the past 30 years.”

That’s the real outcome of the strategy of relying on the Democrats

Millions would come out for women’s rights

If today, the National Organization for Women or the Feminist Majority called for a march on Washington to defend women’s rights, I believe that millions of women—and men—would be there. There is great anger all across the country about the assault on women’s rights. We hope that happens, but it may not. Why not? Because the leaders of the Democratic Party believe that such a mobilization might inflame the right wing. They believe that because the Republican primary season has been so thoroughly repulsive, that if they do not do anything too controversial, not make any big moves, they may be able to not only retain the White House for another four years, but maybe even win back the House.

How would that impact on the struggle for women’s rights? We do not have a crystal ball so we cannot predict the future, but we can look at the past six years and know that counting on the Democrats is a dead end.

In fact, nothing could change the political climate in regards to women’s rights faster than millions marching in the streets of Washington, D.C. It would reignite the mass women’s rights movement in cities, towns, campuses and workplaces across the country. And that movement is opposed by the leaders of both capitalist parties, regardless of their rhetoric.

The Democrats and Republicans are not identical. But both are defenders of capitalist interests. And the biggest threat to capitalist interests are the mass movements of the people.

Take, for example, the Occupy Movement—this movement spread across the country with remarkable speed, into thousands of communities and campuses. The largest Occupy mobilizations have been in many of the biggest cities in the country—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, Denver, Boston. In every one of those cities, the encampments were violently attacked—some more violently than others—and dismantled. And in most of those cities, the local administrations were headed by Democratic Party mayors and city councils.

The vital question for us today is: How can the liberation of women and of all working people take place in contemporary society?

Women have made progress through struggle

We start from the point of view that, like all oppressed sectors in society, women can make considerable progress through their determined fight for equality and by opposing sexism, racism, gender oppression and other forms of institutional, cultural and individual bigotry and discrimination.

The many gains that women have made include the right to vote, the right to reproductive control over our own bodies, the right to public education, the right to divorce and in some cases the right to child care, even the right to possess personal property. All of these rights are the consequence of fierce and determined struggles.

For instance, look at sexual harassment. That concept did not even exist prior to the women’s movement. It was something to joke about, male bosses hitting on female employees, or men verbally harassing a female coworker. Barnes v. Train in 1974 is considered to be the first sexual harassment case, although that term was not used. It is no coincidence that this happened in 1974 and not in 1964 or 1954. Women had become aware of their rights through the consciousness-raising process of the movement, and began to fight back with whatever tool they had, which in many cases were with lawsuits, either to fight against unlawful termination (because they resisted or rejected sexual advances) or to end a hostile work environment.

This also happened with the issue of domestic violence. It has existed for a long time, but the equation began to change when women started to organize against it, with feminists founding shelters and support groups for battered women. They began to pressure law enforcement to take domestic violence situations more seriously.

That is not to say that the way it is handled today is as it should be—there are a lot of contradictions in terms of how the state intervenes in a typically racist and sexist way. But there is much greater awareness in society at large, and certainly more support available for women who are trying to get out of an abusive relationship than there was before the women’s movement.

While we still have extensively documented unequal pay, the fact that women are now able to work in “non-traditional jobs” such as construction, as well as in professions such as law, medicine (other than as nurses), engineering, and so forth, is a product of the women’s movement. Similarly, until recently, we have taken the availability of contraception for granted, but this was a struggle that many courageous activists fought for, that people actually went to jail to win.

Women have also been in the very vanguard in struggles for all people, including the struggle for civil rights in the African American community. We have been leaders in the Latino, Asian, Arab and Native movements as well. Women have been in the forefront of the struggles against war and imperialism, and in every social movement.

It took 131 years from the ratification of the Constitution until women won the right to vote in 1920, and African American women and men living in much of the U.S. were denied that basic right until the 1960s.

It was clearly the mass women’s movement that arose in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the U.S. Supreme Court being forced to acknowledge a woman’s right to privacy and to control her body with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

This is important to remember as we face the possibility of further assaults on women’s reproductive rights by the current Supreme Court. We must continue to fight to win and retain our rights.

We do not reject the possibility that progress can be achieved by reforms wrested from the capitalists who control this country.

Under capitalism, reforms can be taken back

But we also understand that every reform that is achieved under capitalism is under constant threat of being taken back by the capitalists. We see right now that abortion rights and women’s health care rights are under attack. People have to fight tooth and nail to defend these rights, which are being seriously eroded not only in law but in reality as fewer and fewer women have access to health care. Today, virtually every reform that we as women have gained is under fierce attack.

The only way to truly protect the rights we have won and the rights that we urgently need to win—the right of every person to a good job, housing, health care, education, child care and a safe environment, a life free from discrimination and bigotry—is by getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with a system that puts meeting people’s needs first—socialism.

We need to build a movement that understands that the fundamental problems of our society have their origin in a system that allows 500 billionaires to have assets equal to the 3 billion poorest people on the planet.

We are fighting for a society where not only are we free to choose not to have children, but where we are free to choose to have children without shouldering that tremendous burden all by ourselves. Without worrying about health care, child care when we’re working, housing, food and education—a society where those necessities will not be the responsibilities of the individual but the most fundamental rights of all. We are fighting for a society that values and supports the lives of women and children, taking care of our needs, the needs of the majority and not only the needs of profit, the needs of the 1 percent.

This is the central message of the campaign that Yari Osorio and I and all the members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation will be waging in the coming months, in as many states and cities as our resources and human power can carry us. This is a very exciting and necessary campaign at a crucial time. If you agree with us that we need a new system, a socialist system, that guarantees the rights of women and all working people, if you agree that only a mass movement of the millions can achieve that goal, then we urge you to become part of our campaign. We urgently need your help and support.

Join us—together we can win.

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