Women's Oppression, Class and Capitalism

Published: 31/10/2009

by Sandra Bloodworth, Allyson Hose & Fleur Taylor


Why are women oppressed?    
Who gains from women’s oppression?
How can we fight sexism?    
Notes and Further Reading    


Women today are faced with a contradiction. In Australia and in other first world countries, we have achieved close to formal equality with men. In contrast with the recent past, there are no longer legal barriers that prevent women working after marriage[1], becoming a commercial pilot[2] or accessing an abortion early in pregnancy[3]. At the time of writing, a woman, Julia Gillard, has acted as Prime Minister, another woman, Quentin Bryce, is Governor-General and Queensland has a female Premier, Anna Bligh. At school, we are told that “girls can do anything” and it can seem as if there is no reason why this should not be true. Some people even question whether Western women suffer from sexism anymore.

But walk out your front door, and it probably won’t take five minutes for you to encounter advertising that shows the real worth of women to the system we live in. In many ads, women are trivialised in a sexual way to sell everything from cars to beer. Whether it’s a gratuitous display of women’s bodies (only the skinny ones, of course) to sell a product, or the message that a woman’s main calling is to be a humble doormat and mother, they are all equally demeaning. Even more demeaning is the way advertising features a vision of womanhood that has hardly changed for 150 years – cooking, cleaning, picking up after the family or simply being a decorative possession of some man.

Just seeing the sexism that permeates advertising and the media is bad enough – but women’s experience of sexist oppression today affects every area of their lives. For example, there remains a gulf between men and women’s experiences of sex and sexuality. We grow up learning that sex is something that women give and that men want and take. This distorted picture underpins outrages such as media cover-ups of rapes by footballers, which are routinely referred to as “sex scandals” or salaciously described as “group sex”, or the live-to-air interrogation of a traumatised teenage girl in August 2009 by revolting radio host Kyle Sandilands, in which he equated rape with her “sexual experience”.

The chill that runs down many women’s spines as they see brutal events being trumpeted through the media is not just a reaction of horror and sympathy for the women involved – although of course that feeling is present. It’s a chill of recognition – the knowledge that you just have to lightly scratch the veneer of “girls can do anything” to reveal the rotten core of misogyny and violence that is present in today’s society. Young women who are raped by footballers are accused by pigs like “life-coach” Damian Forster of “milking the situation for the associated prestige”.[4] Or Brisbane schoolgirls are directed (as they were in May 2009) to wear bike shorts or leggings to school dances and to avoid “overly revealing clothing such as very short, tight shorts or skirts or strapless, strappy, backless or plunging tops or dresses” in order to avoid being sexually assaulted![5] That same month in Brisbane, a man claimed, as part of his defence in court, that he raped his 14-year-old stepdaughter because she wore “skimpy skirts”.[6]

It is not just in individual examples that the limitations of the struggle for women’s liberation so far are evident. The bare facts about women’s lives show that real equality between men and women has not been achieved, not even in something as basic as equal pay – in fact the gender pay gap is widening. [7] Census statistics released in 2008 showed that the 17 per cent gender pay gap (the national average) opens up to over 30 per cent in some industry sectors, and that women working full time still only earn about 83 cents in the dollar compared to men.[8]

You may wonder how such differentials in pay are legal, given equal pay legislation. It’s true that exactly the same work done by men and women is paid at the same rate. But the jobs dominated by women, such as nursing, childcare, personal services and teaching attract a far lower wage than similarly qualified jobs that are dominated by men, such as plumbing, labouring, long-distance transport and higher education. As well, women are over-represented in casual and part-time work. Not only do these jobs bring home less pay, but they have been hard-hit by the changes to work laws under both Liberal and Labor governments (WorkChoices and the Fair Work system), which have slashed penalty rates and entitlements, and given employers free rein to cut shifts or demand people come in or work overtime without notice. Such hardship has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis of capitalism.[9]

Contemporary statistics about violence against women are shocking to read. One survey of 6,300 Australian women revealed that 23 per cent of women who had ever been in a married or de facto relationship had experienced violence from their partner, with younger women significantly more at risk than older women.[10] And surveys consistently show that a minority of men still believe it’s acceptable to hit a woman in some circumstances. A UK Home Office survey released in March 2009 showed that between 15 and 23 per cent of men thought it might be acceptable to slap a woman for nagging, flirting with another man or wearing revealing clothes in public.[11]

The barriers for women go all the way to the top of society. Among the top 200 companies listed on the Australian stock exchange in 2008, just four had a woman as CEO. The number of women in top executive positions in companies has actually declined in the last few years. Almost half of Australia’s richest corporations had no women in senior management at all.[12]

What causes this huge disparity between our formal, legal equality, and the reality of our day-to-day lives? Who benefits from sexism? What can be done to fight it? And is women’s liberation actually possible?

This pamphlet aims to answer these questions.



Why are women oppressed?

Women’s oppression under capitalism

Ideas about women that confine our importance to how good we look, and how many babies we can have, are deeply embedded in social and cultural traditions which stretch back many centuries before capitalism to the beginnings of class society. Oppression is an important element of class societies because the tiny minority who make up the ruling class that lives off the work of the vast majority can’t allow that majority to have a sense of their own worth. The majority must feel they can do little to change the situation. This has meant repression of sexuality, and in particular women. At the end of this chapter we will look at why women’s oppression arose with class society.

The particular gender stereotypes under capitalism are the result of a recent historical development – the nuclear family. The phenomenon of two heterosexual people living with their children, in a home that is not a productive unit in itself, but is separated sharply from the workplace, was a deliberate creation of capitalist social reformers during the mid-1800s.

The Industrial Revolution tore apart communal peasant life. In its place, the new capitalist system demanded a long working day, beginning and ending with the factory whistle. But as the infant mortality rate in industrial centres like Manchester spiralled higher, some capitalists started to fear that their supply of workers could be in danger. A spate of parliamentary enquiries led to new laws, which reduced the working day and restricted the work of women and children.

The newly emerging industrial working class could start to piece together some form of family life through this process. But the new form of the family was monitored and intervened in as never before. An ideology of family life, centred around a passive, obedient wife and her children, went hand-in-hand with new laws against drinking in public, under-age sex, prostitution, sodomy and vagrancy – all of which sought to restrict and confine the sexuality and freedoms of workers and young people, especially women.[13]

How does the nuclear family oppress women?

The family promises a haven from the pressures of work; a refuge where love is the driving force rather than competition and exploitation. Unfortunately, the reality is nothing like the promise, because the family is not separate or insulated from society. It does not exist in order to improve the lives of workers, but to ensure the orderly socialisation of the next generation of workers to be exploited with as little cost to the capitalist class as possible.

In the family, men tend to earn more, have more job opportunities, and their role in the paid workforce is valued more highly than work done in the home. Therefore, the relationship between women and men on which the family is based is from the very start unequal.

For the vast majority of families, the gender roles are impossible to escape. Even if both partners would like the man to take time off from paid work to look after the children, most families cannot afford to sacrifice the wage of the higher earner. In spite of the fact that 58 per cent of women in Australia work outside the home, the gender stereotypes are being reinforced, not broken down. Even the conservative Institute of Family Affairs has commented that, with women concentrated in part-time work and men increasingly working longer hours, even with the best of intentions, individual families find it virtually impossible to challenge the stereotype of the woman taking major responsibility for children.[14]

The 2006 Time Use Survey carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirmed that women still do three times as much childcare and housework as men on average. Women also spent far more time than men on shopping for goods and services, on voluntary work and on personal hygiene.[15] This was despite the fact that women’s labour force participation was 80 per cent of men’s.[16] The most recent estimate of the value of unpaid work in the Australian economy was $261 billion in 1997, which equated to 48 per cent of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[17] In other words, women carry a hugely disproportionate load of society’s unpaid and undervalued work.

This kind of inequality means that the stereotypes of man as the protector and provider, and woman as the caring, loving wife and mother, dependent on the man and devoted to her children, are to an extent based in the oppressive reality of family life. These stereotypes underpin the treatment of women as sex objects.

The construction of women as passive sex objects is reflected everywhere in popular culture, from advertising to the music industry, TV, films, and literature. The emphasis on monogamy and women’s role as mothers and nurturers lays the basis for the denial of women’s sexual needs. Men are encouraged to see women as, at best, the passive objects of their desires; at worst, not worthy of any respect or control over their bodies. They are also encouraged to see their “masculinity” as strong, aggressive, domineering, stoic and dismissive of sensitivity. Capitalism has a tendency to turn everything into a commodity, so sex becomes something for sale, and is therefore something that can be taken by the strong from the weak, which is reflected in prostitution, sex slavery and sexual violence.

Ideas that frame women as passive sexual objects are promoted and reinforced by prominent commentators like Bettina Arndt. In her latest book, Arndt claims that women are prone to having “fragile, feeble” libidos and so should take most of the blame for problems in heterosexual relationships. Instead of “rationing sex”, Arndt argues, women should “just do it” whether they want to or not. Her appalling conclusion is that “the right to say ‘no’ needs to give way to saying ‘yes’ more often.”[18]

In light of this it should come as no surprise that women often find it difficult to assert their own desires in personal relationships. One researcher into women’s sexual activity found that a majority of women in heterosexual relationships rarely experience orgasm, not because they are “frigid” (as the myth makers would have us believe) but because they cannot bring themselves to tell their lovers what they enjoy and need. The reason women gave for denying their own pleasure was very revealing. Most instinctively knew that the man assumed his role to be the initiator in all things sexual. To take away his control would be to undermine his confidence, and threaten the whole basis of their relationship.[19]

The expectations created by these ideas about the sexual roles of men and women mean that even confident, assertive women can feel that they need to deny or subjugate their own sexual desires. In her book Princesses and Pornstars, Sex Power and Identity, feminist author Emily Maguire writes about an interview she conducted with three young women who each initially appeared to be confident about their sexuality and comfortable with their “very specific lists of things they will and won’t do with their boyfriends”. But as the discussion progressed, a different picture emerged.

“These girls knew almost everything there was to know about sex. They knew how to perform sex acts they’ve never done and say they don’t plan to do. They knew where to get and how to use condoms, dental dams, lube and the morning-after pill. They comfortably use both the correct anatomical and crude slang terms for male and female genitals. But when it came to questions of their own sexual pleasure, they morphed into coy, 1950s wallflowers. ‘That stuff’s private,’ one said, her friends nodding at the floor.”[20]

This silence that surrounds female sexual desire is not just evident in this anecdote, other women have documented it too. In a groundbreaking study of teenage girls’ sexuality, US researcher Deborah Tolman writes about the

“socially manufactured dilemma of desire, which pits girls’ embodied knowledge and feelings, their sexual pleasure and connection to their own bodies, and to others through their desire, against physical, social, material and psychological dangers associated with their sexuality.”[21]

The teenage girls who participated in Tolman’s study overwhelmingly demonstrated that they had internalised society’s message that their sexual desires were problematic or dangerous – even in cases where schools, parents or peers demonstrated supportive and more enlightened attitudes to girls’ sexuality.

The landmark 2001/2002 Australian Study of Health and Relationships, which surveyed nearly 20,000 people about sexual experience and attitudes, found that although 79 per cent of women in heterosexual relationships generally found sex pleasurable (compared with 90 per cent of men), far greater numbers of heterosexual women had experienced “sexual difficulties” in the month preceding the survey. Fifty-five per cent reported lack of interest in sex, nearly 30 per cent had not had an orgasm, 27 per cent had not enjoyed sex, 20 per cent had experienced physical pain during sex and 36 per cent had been worried about their body image. As well, 21 per cent of women in the survey overall reported having been forced or frightened into unwanted sexual activity in their lifetime.[22]

Domestic violence research shows that the family is actually one of the most violent places for women to be. Most violence against women is from men they know or are related to.[23] In Victoria, a recent study showed that “intimate partner violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death of Victorian women under the age of 45 than any other of the well-known risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.”[24] Violence within families is estimated to have to cost the Australian economy $8.1 billion in 2002-03 alone, according to a report by Access Economics.[25]

The reality of the workplace backs up the inequalities and violence in the family. Women’s low pay makes it more difficult to leave a loveless home, often making them dependent on a male partner and emphasising men’s authority in the family. The concentration of women in the lowest-paid jobs means a lack of women who exercise authority, reinforcing men’s sexist attitudes and reinforcing women’s lack of confidence in their own worth. This affects every area of our lives, from the most public to the most intimate.

Women who are public figures are subjected to endless media discussion of their dress sense and their appearance. Women who are aggressive and confident are ridiculed or treated as threatening and domineering, for the same behaviour that is praised as “ambition” or “strength of character” in men. In fact, a recent study of male and female job applicants found that “women who present themselves as confident and ambitious in job interviews are viewed as highly competent but also lacking social skills. Women who present themselves as modest and cooperative, while well liked, are perceived as low on competence. By contrast, confident and ambitious male candidates are viewed as both competent and likeable and therefore are more likely to be hired as a manager than either confident or modest women.”[26]

Gender roles start from birth. The inequalities between women and men are reflected in the way women and men are socialised from the very beginning of their lives. Studies have found that mothers smile more at their male children when they’re active – doing activities like using building blocks and moving around – but smile more at their daughters when they are quiet and passive. Parents tend to interrupt their daughters more readily than their sons in conversation. Other studies show that adults respond in radically different ways to a child in the same circumstances, depending on whether they think they are male or female.[27]

The family plays a crucial role in teaching the accepted gender roles in society. It was most likely your mother, sisters or grandmother who told you to “sit with your legs together” and “be ladylike” or who showed you how to wear pretty dresses and make-up. Even when parents state that “girls are just as good as boys” or think they are being even-handed, the message about what girls do and what boys do comes through loud and clear when it is the mother who comes home from work and has to cook dinner, or it is the girl who helps load the dishwasher while her brother watches TV or has footy training.

The gender stereotypes so central to women’s oppression are so much part of the way we are socialised from the earliest age that discriminatory behaviour towards women goes largely unnoticed. Most research into the way people communicate has revealed that men initiate most topics of discussion, interrupt women more than they interrupt men, and generally dominate social situations. A study by sociologist Pamela Fishman found that, during 52 hours of taped conversations between three young married couples, 96 per cent of the conversation topics introduced by men were taken up, compared with only 36 per cent of the topics women introduced. Women asked 70 per cent of the questions in these conversations, indicating the work that women do in maintaining successful communication.[28]

These learned responses begin with our earliest communications with other human beings and are often treated as if they are purely psychological, or even accepted as representative of women and men’s different “natures”. But they cannot be understood outside the social circumstances that produce the inequalities between women and men.

Where did women’s oppression come from?

The fundamental difference between women and men – that only women can give birth to new life – is often used as evidence that women’s oppression is somehow natural or inevitable. But the most recent and reliable evidence of humanity’s origins suggests that women’s oppression is not inevitable, and it does not come from any inherited characteristics of men and women. And since is has not always existed, it can be challenged and defeated.

Modern humans may have existed in definite societies from as early as 200,000 years ago. From the fragmentary evidence available, we know that early humans made tools, had rudimentary language abilities and were socially organised.[29] There is no evidence from these early societies that women were oppressed.[30] There is some evidence, for example, from the earliest artworks made by humans, that women’s awesome power to give birth was venerated.[31]

Giving birth, like other human necessities and capabilities, has not been viewed in a monolithic or stable way through human history. Like death, religion and sexuality, women’s reproductive ability has been understood and organised according to the imperatives of the societies women lived in. Anthropologists’ studies of societies that existed before there was a division into classes show that women and men often had different roles. But such differences did not necessarily mean a lower status for women. Many pre-class societies have existed in which women had special authority, or in which family groups were organised around the wife’s family, rather than the husband’s.[32]

In 1884, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator and friend, published a path-breaking work called The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.[33] Drawing heavily on the writings of the early anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, Engels concluded that women’s oppression developed along with class society. While some of his factual conclusions were wrong, the central argument relating to what Engels called “the world historic defeat of the female sex” has been validated by later anthropological research.[34]

While human societies existed in relatively small groups and were able to produce only enough for subsistence, there was no social surplus and thus no material basis for social class or the oppression of any individuals or groups. Survival relied on cooperation and collective living. But around 6,000 years ago, human society made the tremendous productive leap into settled agriculture. For the first time, a society could store a surplus of production. For the first time, certain groups, families or individuals could control this surplus and potentially have a different standard of living from others. With this control came a certain amount of power and prestige.

This process took place gradually, but as advantage hardened into privilege and hierarchy, new concepts such as wealth, private property and state power came into being. Engels argued that this gave rise to the need for new ruling classes to control women’s sexuality, in order to determine their heirs for the inheritance of property. The need to control women of the upper classes led ultimately to ideas and laws which, to be effective, had to apply to all women, and so established the oppression of one half of humanity.[35]



Who gains from women’s oppression?

The statistics and academic studies referred to so far clearly show that women today live with oppression and inequality that prevents us from developing our abilities and enjoying life as we should. Our existence is defined by systematic inequality, and by rigid gender-role boundaries that materially affect our safety, self-image and well-being. But who is to blame for this?

It seems self-evident that men are the beneficiaries of women’s oppression – that’s why it’s such a popular idea. The unequal relationships between women and men in the family, the discrimination against women in the workforce, plus prostitution, and sexism in general, mean that men can buy sex, coerce their wives, lord it over the family, abrogate their responsibilities to their children, and yet be praised for their masculinity. Women who build a career or simply take time away from the family are likely to be accused of “neglecting the children”.

The idea that all men – from the Pope and the captains of industry, right down to your dad and the bloke next door – have a common interest in subjugating women is known as patriarchy theory, and it is still widely taught in universities as part of feminist thought.

Some feminists agree with Marxists that women’s oppression is centred in the family. However, Marxists disagree with feminists about who benefits from the family. Heidi Hartmann, who popularised the idea that the family was the result of co-operation between ruling-class and working-class men, argued:

The material base upon which patriarchy rests lies most fundamentally in men’s control over women’s labour power. Men maintain this control by excluding women from access to some essential productive resources (in capitalist societies, for example, jobs that pay living wages) and by restricting women’s sexuality. Monogamous heterosexual marriage is one relatively recent and efficient form that seems to allow men to control both these areas. Controlling women’s access to resources and their sexuality, in turn, allows men to control women’s labour power, both for the purpose of serving men in many personal and sexual ways and for the purpose of rearing children.[36]

However, there is a crucial difference between simply identifying the inequality between men and women, and identifying whose interests this serves.

Who does the family serve?

In capitalism, a society fundamentally divided by class, a tiny minority holds power over the vast majority through their ownership and control of the means of producing society’s wealth. It follows that the dominant ideas in capitalist society are ideas propagated by that ruling class and their supporters. Just think about who owns and controls the mass media, who owns the publishing houses, who sets the curriculum in schools and universities. Not surprisingly, many of the ideas disseminated through the media and publishing industries, and through schools and universities, are ideas that justify and reinforce the status quo – and that present the divisions in society and restrictions on women’s lives as natural and immutable.

When was the last Marxist explanation of the inadequate sex lives of couples published for mass distribution? But author Bettina Arndt was given wide publicity in the media to promote her book, which encourages men to think that they have the right to force their wives or partners to have sex, and says to women that they have no right to self-determination and autonomy.[37]

At an even more basic level than this obvious ideological framework, our ideas about the world are shaped by a system in which our right to work, our wages and conditions, the social services available to us (or not) are determined by whether capitalists can make a profit. Oppression is not just caused by the ideas in people’s heads. Inequalities and discrimination are structured into the way society is organised, and it is this which reinforces the oppressive ideas. The oppression is caused by the structures of capitalist society, not the ideas in the heads of the mass of people.

It is employers, not “men” in general, who fight to keep wages as low as possible. One way they do this is by targeting groups that can be paid less, or employed with fewer rights, such as women or migrants. It is employers and their managers who hire and fire in a way that keeps women at the bottom of the ranks, who deny maternity and paternity leave, who demand that men work long hours of overtime to reduce their outlay on extra staff. It is governments that refuse to provide quality child care for working-class communities. It has been government policies, both Labor and Liberal, combined with employers’ attacks on working conditions, that have made low paid, part-time or casualised work the norm for so many people, especially women. So it is those in power, both men and women, who have created the circumstances that entrench the gender stereotypes in the family.

During their first eighteen months in power, the Labor government headed by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard proved to be slavishly loyal to the economic and social legacy of John Howard and the Liberals. Despite Rudd’s government having more female ministers than any previous Australian government, there has not been one significant Federal initiative to improve working women’s lives. It is a striking example of how, under capitalism, parliaments govern, but they do not rule.

At the time of writing, Rudd’s much-hyped promise of paid maternity leave has been delayed until 2011. The childcare funding system set up by Howard, which virtually destroyed the community childcare sector, led to massively increased fees and turned looking after babies and young children into a multi-million dollar business proposition, remains intact. Gillard’s Fair Work Act has kept, and in some areas intensified, the hated WorkChoices industrial laws, which disproportionately affect women in casual and low-paid work through the cutting of penalty rates and allowances, and the increased powers of bosses to cut or extend shifts at short notice and sack workers more easily.[38]

The family is clearly not maintained – and argued for by ruling-class figures and institutions – in order to service working-class men. Since World War II, it has suited capitalists to employ married women in ever-increasing numbers. Did they ever consult working-class men about how that would affect the “services” to them? The whole history of the family under capitalism shows that it was considered by capitalists to be the best institution to feed, clothe and socialise working-class children at the lowest possible cost.[39] As stated earlier, the unpaid labour of women (and to a lesser extent of men too) in the family saved the Australian capitalist state the equivalent of 48 per cent of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product in 1997 (the most recent figures available).[40] That is why it is governments, and not “men” in general who appeal to “family responsibilities” to justify education fees, denial of a living wage to unemployed youth, cuts to health care and appalling facilities for the aged.

However, while the central role of the family is to rear children and provide a healthy workforce, socialised into appropriate, submissive behaviour, the family does also provide a place where workers aspire to rest, love, and recuperate from the dreariness of work. This dream ensures the continuing popularity of the ideal of the family, even though many choose to live in arrangements that differ from the stereotype of a man, woman and two kids, and despite the reality that increasing numbers of marriages end in divorce, and that many homes are anything but restful and loving.

And it is demonstrably the case that when it suits the needs of capitalism, men can be torn from the family with no regard for their needs. For much of the early history of white Australia, men did itinerant work separated from their wives and children. Men were sent off to fight in wars, and during the Great Depression were forced to roam the country looking for work. Their need to be “serviced”, or their supposed commonality of interest with ruling-class men, did not entitle male workers to remain with their families. Theories that argue that all men conspired to gain the services of women in the family cannot explain why working-class men accepted this treatment. If they could influence the establishment of the family, surely they could insist they remain in it?

In the process of invasion and the creation of a new capitalist state in Australia, the middle and upper-class people who argued for the family recognised not just the crude economic benefits of the family, but also its importance as an institution that could help stabilise the colonies.[41] Some of these people explicitly understood the important role it would play in establishing ideologies and social behaviour that would be a bulwark of their exploitative system. Caroline Chisholm was quite explicit about it when she began her campaign to establish the working-class family in Australia in 1847:

“For all the clergy you can dispatch, all the schoolmasters you can appoint, all the churches you can build, and all the books you can export, will never do much good without what a gentleman in that Colony very appropriately called ‘God’s police’ – wives and little children – good and virtuous women.”[42]

Chisholm played a much more significant role than any working-class man in pushing women and men into the constraints of the nuclear family. Leading feminists at the turn of the twentieth century “eulogised motherhood”.[43] Feminist writers themselves such as Marilyn Lake have documented how in fact, working-class men resisted attempts to force them to live the settled life of monogamous marriage.[44]

It is still the case today that some middle and ruling-class women play a more important role in perpetuating women’s oppression than most men, such as the women who lead the Right to Life campaign against women’s right to abortion, or commentators who wage war on the ideas of women’s liberation by arguing that women’s sexual autonomy should come second to men’s desires. But it’s not just right-wing demagogues who play a role in perpetuating women’s oppression. Sometimes the most insidious ideological attacks on women can come from those who claim liberal feminist credentials.

Dr Leslie Cannold, a prominent bio-ethicist and writer (who was named as one of Australia’s top 20 intellectuals in 2005), has positioned herself firmly on the side of the pro-choice lobby in ongoing debates about abortion. In 2007 she spoke out vehemently against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s condemnation of abortion, saying “There’s an ongoing message that abortion is a tragedy, when in fact what abortion really is a necessary back-up for women when they don’t want to have a child”.[45] Yet Cannold first gained prominence with the publication of a book that asserted that abortion is, inevitably, “a moral issue” that most women who have an abortion will have to grapple with, and that the pro-choice movement has let women down by disregarding this question of morality.[46] By placing women’s “morality”, or lack thereof, at the centre of her argument, Cannold simply adds to all the qualifications and limitations that are placed on women’s right to choose to have an abortion today.

How capitalism benefits from sexism

The sexism that permeates all of our lives creates direct benefits to the capitalist class. They get cheaper labour than they would otherwise get, which helps prop up profits, by paying women less and subjecting them to generally worse conditions than if women’s rights were recognised. Corporate submissions to a recent parliamentary enquiry into pay equity for women generally supported the idea of paid maternity leave – so long as workers’ taxes and not corporate profits were to pay for it![47]

Ruling-class women benefit from the oppression of working-class women as they too live off profits. For example, the Pacific Brands textile and clothing company closed down its Australian operations in February 2009, sacking 1,850 workers, many of whom were migrant women. At the time, Pacific Brands’ CEO, Sue Morphet, had just been awarded a 127 per cent pay rise, taking her annual salary to $1.8 million.[48]

How does women’s oppression benefit working-class men? In the family, it means a lower family income because of women’s lower wages and casualised work, it means inadequate child care, loss of income during and after pregnancy because of insufficient or non-existent maternity and paternity leave. Even in personal life, if men are influenced by the sexist, repressive ideas propagated about women, they are less likely to have satisfying intimate relationships with women in their lives. All of these factors drag down both female and male workers’ living standards and degrade the quality of their lives.

The institution of the family frees capitalists from the responsibility to pay for the hours of work needed to rear children to become compliant workers in the factories and offices which generate the employers’ profits. Ruling-class women, though they too suffer restrictions on their sexuality and career paths, are free from the worst drudgery of family life, as they employ working-class women to do their housework and child care.

There is another very important advantage which flows to the bosses from the sexism engendered by the family and inequalities at work, and that is the deep divisions sexism causes among workers. For workers to improve their conditions, to win reforms, they need collective organisation and struggle. Sexism makes it more difficult to build such struggles. If men think women belong at home, they can miss opportunities to involve women in the struggle where they are needed. If men are so used to telling sexist jokes and denigrating women that they make women feel unwelcome at a strike meeting, on a picket or at a demonstration, they make it much easier for their bosses to win. If women feel less confident of their rights, they are less likely to join a union, or to join a picket. It does not benefit working-class men to have women workers – who could be fighters in the unions – unorganised and under-confident. It benefits the bosses. So there are massive and obvious reasons why sexist ideas are regenerated and propagated, no matter what reforms women may win.

The capitalist class has a vested interest in maintaining and perpetuating women’s oppression because the role that women play in the family, and the work that they do outside the workplace, produces the most important commodity to the capitalist system, labour power. It’s through buying workers’ ability to work that capitalists ultimately make their profits, so they don’t leave the maintenance and reproduction of this human commodity to chance. This means that every aspect of workers’ lives, from their sexuality and personal relationships to the parenting and education of their children, has to be moulded and constrained according to the demands of capital. Attempts by capitalists to divide workers and to crush their spirit don’t just occur in working life, but by necessity permeate every area of life, because if workers were free in one area, they would arguably be much less inclined to accept the authority of capitalism in other areas. This disproportionately affects women workers, but the lives of male workers are also constrained and stunted by the priorities of capitalism.

Why do workers accept sexist ideas?

But if sexism is not in working-class men’s interests, why do they accept sexist ideas? For that matter, why do women accept so many sexist ideas?

The fact that we have so little control over our world – over the work we do, over what is produced, over things like financial crisis and environmental destruction – means that we generally accept the authority of the capitalist state and the rule of the bosses as inevitable. And in the everyday run of events this is true. The only way we can challenge their rule is by banding together with others.

Once the central idea justifying the exploitation by a minority of the majority is established, rejecting the ideas that support that system is very difficult for individuals in day-to-day life. The ideas of women being physically weaker, or naturally more emotionally aware than men, rest on a certain reality. The family demands that women play that role; their conditioning ensures that most women are physically less strong than men. In a similar way the dispossession of Indigenous people condemns them to terrible living conditions and alienation, which breeds substance abuse, which in turn is used to justify the racist stereotypes about them. So it can seem as though the actual situation of women backs up the sexism.

It may be the case, as some sociologists and psychologists argue, that denigrating those who are more oppressed gives the oppressed a sense of power. A man who comes home from a dreadful, boring, dangerous job, tired and frustrated with his lack of power, may get some satisfaction from taking it out on the woman with whom he lives, knowing it will be mostly accepted as his right. But this behaviour does not actually give him any real power. It simply reflects his powerlessness. The fact that it is lack of power, and not power itself, that leads to sexism and ultimately sexual abuse among ordinary people is reflected in the statistics of sexual violence. It is well known that levels of sexual violence towards women are high in Indigenous communities in Australia. Why? Precisely because of the racist oppression of their communities, the loss of land and culture, alienation, lack of jobs, and discrimination by police and authorities, all of which increase the sense of powerlessness.

This is not to say that all sexual violence against women stems from powerlessness. Vile sexual abuse also results from the power relationships created by our class-based, exploitative society. The power of employers and managers in the workplace gives them particular licence to harass women. A 2008 University of Melbourne study of 1,100 Victorian workers found that the incidence of sexual harassment increased ten-fold if a worker was employed casually or on a fixed-term contract.[49] The power the churches had over Indigenous children stolen from their families, or of pastoralists over Indigenous women condemned to domestic labour and sexual slavery on their properties until only a little over two decades ago, led to some of the most horrendous abuse recorded. In churches, the hierarchy of clergy over their charges gives them the power to abuse those in their care. Sexual abuse by screws is part of everyday life in jails.

The regular exposure of such violence emphasises how integral sexual oppression is to capitalism. In a society in which those in authority can use their position with impunity to use women and children as sex objects, it is little wonder that those who want to lash out against their own powerlessness and alienation mimic the behaviour of those in power and accept the ideas that justify it.



How can we fight sexism?

Sexism is in the air we breathe and has influenced every one of us, man or woman. So why are socialists confident that women’s oppression can be eliminated from human society?

When women’s oppression is understood as a part of capitalism, not as a product of human nature or biology, or a consequence of working-class men’s collusion with the capitalist class, there is hope for change. The social structures we have known from birth were not made by a god, nor did they appear by themselves. They were made by people to serve definite interests and they can be fought and changed. Struggles against capitalism can increase women’s confidence and lead to a questioning of sexist ideas.

Another reason for optimism in the struggle against oppression is history. Victories that have already been fought for and won remain with us today – like the right to vote, equal pay laws and abortion rights.

The Women’s Liberation Movement

Most of the gains which make women’s lives today so different from the 1950s were won by both women and men demanding and struggling for them. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s reflected a widespread desire for change in society at the time. It is no accident that there was an outpouring of women’s outrage. It grew out of, and was a part of, the other movements which swept the world during those times.

From student rebellions to gay liberation; from Prague to Paris in 1968; from the movement against the Vietnam War to the anti-apartheid struggle, society was in turmoil. The economic circumstances were different from the profound crisis facing capitalism today. The world economy had experienced the longest period of growth in its history in the years after World War II. Workers were materially better off than they ever had been. Yet the world lived in the shadow of the Cold War (the imperialist rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union), which caused devastating wars in Asia and Africa and threatened nuclear war against all humanity. In the US, South Africa and Australia, Blacks were second-class citizens – if they were citizens at all. Higher education was massively expanded, as the capitalist system required an ever more highly-trained workforce. Yet students new to university found the facilities overcrowded and outdated, and rebelled against teaching that served only to make them “raw materials for a machine”.[50]

There is a popular idea that people will only fight back when their lives become unbearable as a result of falling living standards. But the process by which people resist is much more complex. Lack of power breeds lack of confidence. But in the long post-war boom, rising living standards actually raised levels of confidence. The fact of the boom moved people to expect more from life than previous generations. But also, it became increasingly evident that capitalism had no answer to war, to racism or to the deadening numbness of working life.

One of the first signs of this recognition was the civil rights movement in the US. This in turn highlighted the need to struggle to others. Some Australian unions had for years campaigned for Aboriginal rights, highlighting the conditions on the Reserves where they were denied their human rights, fighting for equal pay and other rights in the workforce.[51] Then the US civil rights movement inspired mostly white students, and one Aboriginal university student, Charles Perkins, to organise a “Freedom Ride” from Sydney University around the outback NSW towns where anti-Aboriginal racism was rife. The new-found militancy put Aboriginal rights in the news and this led to increased anti-racist activity.

The Women’s Liberation Movement too arose from the contradictions highlighted by the boom. As women were pulled into the workforce in growing numbers, as more reliable contraception became available, and more women entered tertiary education, especially as teachers (pulled in by a shortage of teachers in an expanding education system), the idea that they should be content to be housewives and mothers began to come unstuck. It is not insignificant that it was working-class women, many of whom had been influenced by the Communist Party of Australia, and who had been union activists where equal pay had been an ongoing campaign for many years, who hit the headlines in 1969 protesting over equal pay.[52]

In Australia, workers faced huge fines for their union every time they took industrial action because of the anti-union laws of the right-wing Liberal government. It was no accident that in the same year that women chained themselves to buildings to demand equal pay, a million workers struck and successfully smashed the Penal Powers, as these anti-union laws were known. When one group shows that gains can be made, and solidarity is possible, it gives others increased confidence. This can be especially important in helping oppressed groups make their first move.

Out of this growing level of confidence and struggle in the late sixties, the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), after many years of struggle to unionise their industry and win safer working conditions, took the lead in urban environmental campaigns to save historic working-class areas and parks around Sydney. Their campaign in turn inspired environmentalists who took up their phrase “green bans” and applied it to their movement.[53] This all-male workforce became famous for their support for women’s struggles, in particular for the right of women to work in the building industry. They inspired activists with their bans at Macquarie University in defence of a gay student victimised because of his sexuality. None of this was simply accidental or merely episodic. It is the nature of class struggle to encourage ideas of solidarity, because workers find that without it, they can be defeated more easily by governments and bosses. Once solidarity has been won, workers’ confidence to assert their demands in all kinds of disputes can increase.

It is not simply that issues link up in a linear way. Qualitative changes become possible once the normality of everyday life and its subservience is broken. In the turmoil of struggle, all ideas that seem settled and undisputed come up for grabs. Once workers begin to take some control over their lives, their sense of powerlessness is weakened. This then provides the basis to examine long-held beliefs.[54]

There is no formula for how struggles will begin. The radical movements of the sixties and seventies were underpinned by the contrast between expectations fuelled by the economic boom and the reality of capitalism. Sometimes it is because of bitterness stored up against oppression, or attacks on living standards by bosses and governments, which drive workers into action.

And if in those struggles, workers don’t overcome the divisions caused by sexism, sectionalism, racism and homophobia, there will be no successful socialist revolution. Though the ideas of capitalism are dominant, and well grounded in people’s experience, there is a fundamental contradiction between the promises of capitalism and the actual experience of ordinary people. On the one hand there is the myth that all are equal before the law, the romantic idea of everlasting love in monogamous marriage, the emphasis on our “individuality”, to name just a few. But the class divisions in society make a mockery of these myths in most workers’ lives.

As with all the effects of capitalism, it is in the fight for reforms that a revolutionary movement will be built. So Socialist Alternative supports efforts by women to redress their inequalities in whatever way they can. We actively support and sometimes initiate campaigns against right-wing attacks on women such as Right to Life marches, or for rights such as access to IVF for single women and lesbians.

Socialists look for opportunities to win people to the idea that we can gain reforms by fighting, rather than by relying on politicians, or the benevolence of employers, or the supposed neutrality of the courts. In that sense, socialists don’t accept that fighting for women’s liberation always and everywhere involves so-called “women’s issues”. Strikes over wages, or the right to have a union, can just as easily lead to gains in consciousness which lessen the sexism women have to endure.

Activists who participated in the many picket lines during the late eighties in Melbourne to defend the BLF – who were facing deregistration by the Labor government – were struck by the heightened awareness of and opposition to sexism among these overwhelmingly male workers. Their years of militant industrial struggle had led to political discussion, contact with the left and a consciousness of oppression. Many young women activists who had not experienced an industrial struggle were similarly surprised at the Maritime Union of Australia mass pickets in 1998, when thousands mobilised to defend that union. At pickets where the overwhelming majority were at times male, women commented that they did not feel threatened or offended by the men. Sexist ideas, such as expecting women not to be capable of maintaining the picket lines in the event of a police attack, were openly argued against by the union leaders in charge of the mass pickets. Again, this was a combination of the immediate struggle and the fact that it drew in thousands of women, and a long history of involvement by waterside workers in political and industrial campaigns which had created a layer of activists with an understanding of the role of sexism and other oppressive ideas in society, and how to fight them.

So struggle is central to building a movement that can unite women and men in the fight against sexism. But socialists do not assume this is automatic. Sexist ideas are strong and exist in many varied forms. So being organised as socialists, developing an understanding of sexism, where it stems from and how to fight it is part and parcel of building on the opportunities that emerge when struggles break out. The intervention of activists to explicitly argue against sexism is still often needed. The difference is, we can get a hearing that in “normal” times might seem impossible, precisely because the need for solidarity can be stronger than any commitment to the horrible ideas of capitalism.

Are socialists feminists?

The Women’s Liberation Movement was not just about working-class women. Especially in the US, it was mainly made up of white, middle-class women. Many of the issues women face are similar across classes – sexual violence; the drudgery of domestic life; discrimination at work; the belittling and sexist denigration of women in popular culture; and the double standards that praise sexually active men, but condemn women who want to be sexually free.

In the midst of a world where fundamental change was on the agenda, and another world seemed possible, women found their voice. It was loud, rebellious and furious. Yet Women’s Liberation, like the other revolutionary movements of the time, was being raised aloft by the heightened class struggle of workers against capitalism. The rebellions of the late sixties in Czechoslovakia, France and Italy did not go forward to socialist revolution. Nor did the uprisings of workers and soldiers in the US against the Vietnam War and against racism. Gradually the ruling classes of the world were able to re-establish their control and authority.

As the prospects for social transformation became more remote, movements split and fragmented. It was now that the class differences within movements became pronounced. Whether we are talking about the civil rights, gay liberation or women’s movements, the trajectory was similar. Middle-class people within these movements could find some of their problems solved by capitalism. More jobs and career prospects became available, especially within government bureaucracies and academia. Better-off women, gays and Blacks could, to a degree, try to insulate themselves from the worst effects of oppression.

Theoretically, this middle-class accommodation to capitalist rule found its expression in the ideas of identity politics. Rather than emphasising the links between oppressed groups, identity politics suggested that each group should organise exclusive of others. Rather than seeing struggles of the oppressed as part of a general movement for human liberation, identity politics explicitly rejected such “totalising theories” as inherently oppressive. The focus shifted from radical action to “discourse analysis”. [55]

The Australian Women’s Liberation Movement had always had more of a working-class composition and orientation than the US movement. Its first national conference was held in August 1971 to coincide with a trade union congress. According to feminist historian Ann Curthoys, a participant in those heady days, “ideologically, at first, the socialist tradition was dominant”.[56] But the same class tensions split the movement here, as Janey Stone, a revolutionary socialist and women’s liberation activist wrote in 1978:

It might be possible to find issues which do unite women completely. But what for? To achieve their liberation … poor and working class women need a revolutionary change in their social situation, not unity with their class oppressors around illusory common interests. The autonomy concept is based on the idea that there are issues common to all women, and that these are the most important for women to organise around.

As an organising principle today, it is sterile and dead-end. As a political principle it is not only fragmenting and depoliticising – it is potentially reactionary.[57]

Recent events have starkly underlined how the class-blindness of feminism can lead to support for conservative and reactionary attitudes. In 2001, as George W. Bush rained hell on the people of Afghanistan, using the excuse of the 9/11 bombings, feminists rushed to embrace him for supposedly “liberating” the women of Afghanistan from Taliban oppression.[58] In the context of the “war on terror”, which has criminalised and demonised Muslims everywhere, the focus of some feminist writers on women who wear the veil has served to legitimise the racism that Muslim women experience on an everyday basis.[59] And a failure to confront the racism of the Australian state also led some feminists to support the Federal Government’s Intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in 2007, under which the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended and the army sent in to take over Aboriginal land in remote communities, supposedly in response to a crisis of sexual violence and child abuse.[60]

All women are not sisters. Some women participate in, and benefit from, the sexism of capitalist society. Calls for women to organise autonomously from men ultimately pose little challenge to capitalism. It is the oppressed and exploited finding ways to overcome the divisions that class society has imposed on us that really scare our rulers.

Waiting for the revolution?

Capitalism can only be defeated by revolution. But we do not think we have to wait around until after a revolution to make improvements in women’s lives. Sexism diminishes women’s lives right now, and makes it more difficult for women to get involved in political activity and maintain their involvement through life.

So it is imperative that socialists take a stand against sexism wherever we experience it. We argue for men to take down sexist pictures of women, we object to sexist jokes and we discourage those we work or live with from using sexist language. We discuss the problems of sexism, and how it affects even the left. We take steps to encourage women to play leading roles in campaigns and in our organisation, and defend their right to defy the gender stereotypes. We encourage male activists and socialists to gain an understanding of women’s oppression, how the gender divisions disadvantage women and how to stand up to sexism, not just in political meetings, but in the most seemingly personal aspects of life too. There is not much use in knowing all the theory about women’s oppression if a man behaves like a slob around the house, or doesn’t understand how sexism affects a woman’s experience of sexual pleasure and desire. These are necessary steps in order to ensure we are conscious of the effects of sexism in everyday life and the way it can constrain women’s involvement in politics.[61]



Capitalism is facing a systemic crisis which began in 2008 with the global financial crisis. The global scale of the economic devastation – of business failures, unemployment, homelessness and poverty – illustrates what an inhuman and unjust society capitalism is. At the same time, the environmental destruction of our planet continues at breakneck speed.

Our rulers have no answers to these crises. Even as their system is crumbling around them, their only thought is for how to crank their rotten, polluting, exploiting system along for another few months or years, and keep the profits rolling in. They are absolutely determined that we will pay for their crimes. They demand that we sacrifice our jobs, our wages, our social services, and our very lives so they can keep their penthouses and their yachts.

But the capitalists’ seemingly all-powerful rule depends on us. Without our labour and ingenuity, our skills and dedication and abilities, there is no wealth creation. The awesome power to change the world into a totally different place to live rests with the strength and unity of the working class. The capitalists know this better than we do. Their greatest fear is of a working class that has overcome the divisions and oppression it suffers, and which will no longer tolerate the stranglehold of a tiny minority over the world’s resources. The task facing us now is to turn their nightmare into reality.

Facing up to sexism, understanding what causes it and who our enemies are, is a key part of this task. Until capitalism is finally defeated, even our greatest victories against it will remain partial, and will always be subject to being rolled back or incorporated into capitalism.

Workers in Australia were among the first in the world to win the eight-hour day in 1856 – yet Australian workers now do more unpaid overtime and work longer hours than workers in any other developed country apart from the US.[62] This shows that the capitalist system can accommodate reforms and modifications, and even reverse them. Advances in women’s lives, and changing ideas about gender equality can also be accommodated by capitalism – and as contemporary society shows, sexism can be repackaged in any number of ways. The institution of the family, and the sexist ideas which underpin it, are vital to capitalist rule and will never be defeated while capitalism continues to exist.

To rid society of every aspect of women’s oppression, for women to be completely liberated, with control over our lives and our bodies, humanity will have to create a society in which there are no classes and therefore no exploitation.

There are countless examples of courageous struggles against oppression and for liberation that have been waged by men and women workers throughout history, whether victory seemed likely or not. These struggles have not won socialism, but many of them have transformed women’s lives and opened up the possibility of genuine liberation, inspiring future generations of women and men to continue the fight.

But it is not just the struggles and campaigns for women’s rights which have and can continue to improve women’s lives. Every trade union struggle has the potential to draw women into the unions, and the more organised workers are, the better placed we are to fight for everyone’s rights. Every stand workers take – for higher wages, for safer workplaces, for shorter hours or the right to have time off to care for family members – is directly relevant to women’s living conditions. And as we have seen, struggle does not only raise the need for solidarity and the possibility of challenging workers’ sexism; it also has the potential to lift women’s confidence in their own ability to fight for change.

Ultimately it will take a workers’ revolution to create the conditions for women’s liberation, so the struggle for women’s rights is not separate or distinct from that of the working class as a whole.[63] The fight for reforms today can build the kind of revolutionary movement we need for that revolution to succeed. And the more socialists there are arguing for solidarity, confronting sexism, involving women in the class struggle, the better placed we will be to win gains.

If the socialist analysis of sexism and women’s liberation presented here has connected with you, we urge you to use this area of agreement as a basis to continue discussions with Socialist Alternative, and consider how you can get more involved with us. Because every extra committed socialist can make a difference to the success of struggles, and to the fight for women’s liberation, both now and in the future.




[1] In November 1966 the Public Service Act was amended to permit married women to be permanent officers in the Commonwealth Public Service. See www.apsc.gov.au/media/ shergold080397.htm.

[2] In March 1980 the High Court of Australia affirmed that Deborah Wardley had to be employed by Ansett as a pilot. She became the first woman to fly for a large commercial airline. See www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/lawrpt/stories/s1147044.htm.

[3] In 1969 the Victorian Supreme Court affirmed in the “Menhennitt ruling” that abortion was not illegal if a doctor could say that continuing a pregnancy posed a greater danger to a woman’s physical or mental health than ending it. In the same year abortion was legalised by an Act of Parliament in South Australia on the same lines as Victoria. In 2008 abortion was removed from the criminal code in Victoria, allowing women to access abortion at any time until 24 weeks. After that she still has to have two doctors confirm that it is in her or the baby’s best interests. However in 2009 abortion is still restricted and potentially subject to prosecution in some circumstances throughout Australia, and the availability of RU486, the drug used for chemical abortion and widely available in Europe, is very limited – it is not simply a matter of a woman’s free choice about her fertility and her body. See www.aph.gov.au/library/Pubs/rp/1998-99/99rp01.htm.

[4] “When an elite footballer has sex with a girl…”, The Age, 12 March 2004. www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/03/11/1078594493554.html (viewed 10 August 2009).

[5] “Bike pants dress code for school dances to ward off sex” Courier Mail, 30 May 2009. www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,25557345-3102,00.html (viewed 10 August 2009).

[6] “Man blamed rape of 14 year old girl on her ‘wearing short skirts’”, Brisbane Times, 29 May 2009. www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/man-blamed-rape-of-14yo-girl-on-her-... (viewed 10 August 2009).

[7] “Women pay dearly as earnings gap widens”, Sydney Morning Herald,

29 August 2009, www.smh.com.au/national/women-pay-dearly-as-earnings-gap-widens-20090828... (viewed 2 September 2009).

[9] See the section on Labour and Earnings in the Year Book Australia, 2007, available at the Australian Bureau of Statistics website www.abs.gov.au.

[10] “Women’s Safety Australia”, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996, available at www.abs.gov.au. That survey defined violence as something that would be considered a crime in law, so the incidence of violence against women in relationships is probably even higher. A detailed summary of multiple studies of domestic violence can be found in the Topic Papers at the Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse website: www.austdvclearinghouse.unsw.edu.au

[11] For example, VicHealth “Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women” summary of findings available through www.vichealth.vic.gov.au; UK Home Office survey results: see www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article5875108.ece (viewed 2 August 2009)

[12] 2008 Australian Census of Women in Leadership, available at the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency website www.eowa.gov.au.

Chapter 1: Why are women oppressed?

[13] For a fuller explanation of how women’s oppression was remoulded and incorporated into capitalism in the transition from feudalism, see Lindsay German, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks, London, 1994. For the history of its transportation to Australia see Sandra Bloodworth, “The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory” in Socialist Review, No. 1, Bookmarks, Melbourne, 1990. Available at www.sa.org.au, under Publications/SA Pamphlets.

[14] Irene Woolcott and Helen Glezer, Work and Family Life. Achieving Integration, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, 1995.

[15] See Australian Bureau of Statistics website www.abs.gov.au; search “housework and child care”.

[16] See Australian Bureau of Statistics website www.abs.gov.au; search “labour force participation”. 58 per cent of women over 15 were part of the labour force compared with 72 per cent of men over 15 in 2006.

[17] 91 per cent of this unpaid work was household work, of which 63 per cent was performed by women. GDP is a calculation of the value of all economic activity in a society. See Unpaid work and the Australian Economy, July 2001, via Australian Bureau of Statistics website www.abs.gov.au.

[18] Bettina Arndt, The Sex Diaries, Why Women go off Sex and Other Bedroom Battles, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, 2009. p. 12.

[19] Rigmor Berg, “Sexuality: Why Do Women Come Off Second Best?” in Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns (eds), Australian Women. New Feminist Perspectives, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, pp. 165-168.

[20] Emily Maguire, Princesses and Pornstars, Sex, Power and Identity, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 72-73.

[21] Deborah L. Tolman, Dilemmas of Desire, Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 188.

[22] Australian Study of Health and Relationships, Summary findings, available at www.latrobe.edu.au/ashr/

[23] A 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on personal safety found that women are more at risk of violence in the home from men that they know. See the ABS website www.abs.gov.au; search “Personal Safety survey 2005”.

[24] This was the finding of a study by Professor Theo Vos and his team with support from VicHealth and the Department of Human Services in 2003, “The health costs of violence. Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence”. A summary of findings can be found at www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/~/media/ProgramsandProjects/ MentalHealthandWellBeing/DiscriminationandViolence/IntimatePartnerViolence/ipv.ashx

[25] The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy: part 1, A report prepared for the Australian Government’s Office of the Status of Women by Access Economics Pty Ltd, 2004. Available online at www.accesseconomics.com.au.

[26] Julie E. Phelan, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, and Laurie A. Rudman, “Competent yet out in the cold: shifting criteria for hiring reflect backlash toward agentic women”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 32, December 2008, pp. 406-413.

[27] Kay Bussey, “The First Socialization”, in Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns, Australian Women. New Feminist Perspectives, pp. 90-104. For further reading on the socialisation of women and the social construction of sexuality see the essays in the whole section “The Making of a Woman” in Australian Women.

[28] Pamela Fishman, “Conversational Insecurity”, Language: Social Psychological Perspectives. eds. Giles, Robinson, and Smith (Oxford: Pergamon, 1980), in The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. ed. Deborah Cameron. London: Routledge, 1990. 234-41. There is a great deal of academic research on this topic, some available through the internet. Some of the most frequently cited (for example, in university Communications courses) include Fishman’s research, and a study by Californian researchers Candace West and Don Zimmerman in 1975 and 1983, which demonstrated that men interrupted women much more than they interrupted each other.

[29] Chris Harman, “Engels and the origins of human society” in The Revolutionary Ideas of Frederick Engels, International Socialism Journal 65 [1994], p. 98. This article reviews Engels’ writings critically in the context of modern paleontological and anthropological knowledge. It is available online at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj65/harman.htm.

[30] The notion that women had always been oppressed was challenged in anthropological studies from the 1960s onward. For a summary of some of these studies, see Sandra Bloodworth, Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism, available at www.sa.org.au, under Publications/SA Pamphlets. For detailed studies which challenge the notion of women’s universal oppression, see Peggy Reeves Sanday and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough, Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1990. For a study based on an analysis close to that of Marx and Engels, see Eleanor Burke Leacock, “Women’s status in egalitarian society: implications for social evolution”, in Current Anthropology, no 19, 1978.

[31] For example, the Venus of Willendorf, an artwork from 25,000 years ago. See www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/

[32] Harman, op.cit. and Eleanor Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1981 are two more sources of accounts of egalitarianism in pre-class societies.

[34] See “Engels and the origin of the family” in Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Haymarket Books, 2005, for a discussion of some of the debates in the anthropological literature.

[35] Harman, op. cit., especially pp. 129-138, discusses a range of recent anthropological research, which tries to answer what specific features of early agricultural societies worked against women playing an equal role even within a nascent ruling class. For another argument against the idea that women have always been oppressed, see Sandra Bloodworth, Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism. Available at www.sa.org.au, under Publications/SA Pamphlets.

Chapter 2 – Who gains from women’s oppression?

[36] Heidi Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union” in Lydia Sargent (ed.) Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1981, p. 15.

[37] Bettina Arndt’s book The Sex Diaries, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009, received a great deal of uncritical publicity, including an editorial in The Canberra Times, www.canberratimes.com.au/news/opinion/editorial/general/women-need-to-sa...˚=1, and an article in Australian Women’s Health http://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/b/womens-health/3812/same-man-more-sex/ (both viewed 24 July 2009)

[38] “Labor’s work laws a kick in the guts”, Socialist Alternative edition 134, 2008, and “WorkChoices hits women workers harder”, Socialist Alternative edition 120, 2007, available at www.sa.org.au. See also www.tcfua.org.au/infopages/2343.html for a letter to Rudd and Gillard from the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.

[39] For a more detailed explanation of how the imposition of the modern nuclear family benefited capitalists, not working-class men, see, Sandra Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory.

[40] See “Unpaid work and the Australian Economy”, July 2001, via Australian Bureau of Statistics website www.abs.gov.au. These are the latest figures available.

[41] See Sandra Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory.

[42] Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne p. 291.

[43] Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, Marian Quartly, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble, Ringwood, Vic, 1994, p. 182. The authors are feminists who tend to blame all men for women’s oppression in spite of their own evidence of the historical role played not just by right-wing women, but by feminists in establishing the gender stereotypes and the family.

[44] Marilyn Lake, “The Politics of Respectability: Identifying the Masculinist Context”, Historical Studies, 22 (86), April 1986. Contrarily, Lake sees the establishment of the family as the “feminisation” of Australian society, and a victory for women over men!

[45] “Archbishop wrong on abortion: academic”, The Australian, 23 October 2007, www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22633679-2703,00.html (viewed 2 August 2009).

[46] Leslie Cannold, The abortion myth: feminism, morality, and the hard choices women make, Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

[47] Inquiry into pay equity and associated issues related to increasing female participation in the workforce, House Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, Parliament of Australia, 2008. View the submissions at www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ewr/ payequity/subs.htm.

[48] “CEO’s $1m pay rise ‘obscene’”, 27 February 2009, http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/ 757927/ceo-got-pay-rise-as-job-cuts-loomed (viewed 2 August 2009).

[49] Grant McArthur “Casual workers face sexual threat in workplace” Herald-Sun 13 September 2008, available at www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24336497-2862,00.html (viewed 2 August 2009)

Chapter 3 – How can we fight sexism?

[50] The quote references a famous speech by Mario Savio, a student activist at Berkeley (San Francisco) in the 1960s. See www.fsm-a.org/stacks/mario/mario_speech.html for the full quote.

[51] See Sandra Bloodworth Aboriginal rights and the trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s at www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/.

[52] In 1969, Communist Party activist Zelda D’Aprano chained herself to the doors of the Arbitration Court building demanding equal pay for women. Her inspiring autobiography documents the early years of the women’s liberation movement in Australia. Zelda D’Aprano, Zelda, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1995.

[53] Petra Kelly, the German environmentalist, returned to Germany from Sydney and proposed the new environmental party should be called the Green Party.

[54] For an example, see Sandra Bloodworth, Sweatshop Rebels – the Kortex strike, at www.sa.org.au under Publications/Labour history articles.

[55] For further explanation of the limits of identity politics, see Sharon Smith, “Mistaken identity – or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?” International Socialism Journal, Issue 62, Spring 1994. Available at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj62/smith.htm

[56] Ann Curthoys, For and Against Feminism, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1988. p. 80.

[57] Janey Stone, Perspectives for Women’s Liberation: Radical Feminism, Reform or Revolution? Redback Press, Melbourne, 1978, p. 10.

[58] See the statement from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan on the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, 7 October 2008, for the devastating effects of the occupation on Afghan women. It is available at www.rawa.org.

[59] The late Fairfax columnist Pamela Bone argued in 2004, in the context of a proposed French ban on Muslim girls wearing a headscarf at school, that it was an “affectation” for Muslim women in the West to don a veil or burqa. Bone, a renowned feminist writer, had also supported the invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, the journalist Virginia Haussegger, who also supports the war in Afghanistan (see http://virginiahaussegger.blogspot.com /2009/ 07/should-we-stay-in-afghanistan.html), has called for the burqa to be banned in Australia (http://virginiahaussegger.blogspot.com/2009/06/ban-burka-27-june-2009.html). For a Marxist response to such positions, see “Women and Islam” in Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Haymarket Books 2005.

[60] See Diane Fieldes, “Northern Territory intervention one year on” Socialist Alternative, edition 130 and Mick Armstrong, “Why middle-class do-gooders make the best racists” Socialist Alternative, edition 104, both at www.sa.org.au.

[61] Socialist Alternative has published a companion pamphlet to this one titled An Anti-Sexism Manifesto: the Rights of Women and the Responsibilities of Socialist Men, which goes into much greater detail about fighting sexism in relationships and in our day-to-day political lives. It is available from all our branches as well as via www.sa.org.au under Publications/SA Pamphlets, and we recommend reading it in conjunction with this pamphlet.


[62] ACTU, “Working hours and Work Intensification Background Paper”, 2003. See www.actu.asn.au/congress2003/papers/workinghoursbp.html.

[63] To see what a workers’ revolution would look like, read Workers’ Revolutions of the Twentieth Century; for the role of workers see Sandra Bloodworth, There is a Power in Every Land: the Modern Working Class. Both publications available at www.sa.org.au, under Publications/SA Pamphlets.


Lindsay German, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks, London, 1994.

Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Haymarket Books, 2005.

Lindsay German, Material Girls: Women, Men And Work, Bookmarks, London, 2007

Sharon Smith, “Mistaken identity – or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?” International Socialism Journal, Issue 62, Spring 1994.

The following pamphlets are available from Socialist Alternative bookstalls,
or at www.sa.org.au, under Publications/SA Pamphlets:

Sandra Bloodworth, Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism

Sandra Bloodworth, The Poverty of Patriarchy Theory

Sandra Bloodworth, An Anti-Sexism Manifesto: the Rights of Women and the Responsibilities of Socialist Men