Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Judith Orr - Sexism and the System, A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
This, the most recent addition to Bookmarks' "Rebel's Guide" series, is slightly different than the earlier books. Rather than dealing with a revolutionary individual, it deals with an issue - the on-going struggle for women's liberation.
The author, Judith Orr is the editor the monthly magazine Socialist Review. She isn't a feminist in the strict definition of the word. The sexism of society, the oppression of women, isn't for Orr because "All Men are Bastards", rather it is because capitalism requires women's oppression.
In this context the systematic way that women are treated as second class citizens is actually beneficial to capitalism. For instance, by relying primarily on women to bring up children, to feed, clothe and look after the next generation, capitalism is avoiding the immense cost of socially provided child care. But it's not just financial - the family creates the ideological backdrop to capitalism - with women at home and men at work, and all the problems of the world being down to us as individuals.
The early chapters of this short book, re-assert the Marxist position on Women's oppression. Despite us being told that Marxism is purely about economic issues, Orr shows how both Marx and Engels understood that there was "nothing 'natural' ... about the way we live today". Indeed, for tens of thousands of years there were no class divisions, and women's oppression simply did not exist.
Orr looks at the way that the rise of class society led to the oppression of women, with the rise of more labour intensive forms of farming.
However, for me the strongest and most interesting chapters in the book are those that look at contemporary society. Orr rattles off some depressing statistics for a world where women are supposed to be equal. On average women earn "18% less than men". The UK's childcare situation is the "worst in Europe" and it's high price means that lowest income families are unable to afford it - "low paid women simply can't afford to work".
Simultaneously we have, as Orr shows, the rise of "Raunch" culture. The attempt to make porn mainstream, the rise of lap-dancing and children's clothing with the Playboy logo. She points out that this isn't new. Women's bodies have been used to sell all sorts of things for many, many years. The difference is that it is now "being sold to women as empowering".
All this means that real liberation for women won't come about under capitalism. The system that oppresses women doesn't benefit the majority of men, whose own lives are blighted by the distortions caused by capitalism telling us that the family is the only way that we can bring up our kids.
Judith Orr shows how in all struggles the ruling, sexist ideas in society, are challenged. She finishes her book by showing how the Russian Revolution introduced massive changes in the lives of women and men. Abortion and divorce on demand, socialised childcare and launderettes, equal employment rights between the sexes and paid maternity leave. That backward country, in the midst of revolution, civil war and famine made it a priority to tackle women's oppression.
So important was this that Orr points out that Leon Trotsky measured the success of Stalin's counter revolution by his undermining of these measures.
Ending the book with a quote from Engel's about how a socialist society would transform our sexual lives, Orr shows a vision for us all a truly equal society, were no one is excluded from enjoying life to the full simply because of they are the wrong sex.
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx