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Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation by Sharon Smith (Haymarket Books, 2005)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

24th June 2005

This new book, a collection of essays by American socialist Sharon Smith, is an excellent resource for anyone concerned with women’s liberation and an antidote to the mystification which permeates gender politics today. While it necessarily concentrates on the situation in the United States, its attention to the oppressions visited on women generally and which are especially relevant in Ireland – the denial of abortion rights and the dead hand of organised religion – make it a fresh and immediate read.

The five essays deal with distinct although overlapping subjects, so it will be worth examining each one in turn and trying to bring out the key questions.

Engels and the origin of the family

The first chapter deals with the roots of women’s oppression and consists largely of a defence of Friedrich Engels’ analysis sketched out in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), an early attempt at a materialist account of the issue which followed the anthropological studies of Native American society by Lewis Henry Morgan. This tied the rise of women’s oppression to the evolution of class society, with a layer of men gaining control of the social surplus and the family emerging as a mechanism for retaining that control. This historical trend is brought up to date with the consolidation of the nuclear family as a means of cheaply reproducing labour power.

Most socialist accounts of Engels’ theory restrict themselves to a largely uncritical defence of what the great man wrote over a century ago, so it is refreshing that Sharon reviews some of the debates in the anthropological literature and points out some of the weaknesses in Engels’ position. This is really the only rational way to proceed – the idea of present-day socialists following Marx and Engels’ line on gay liberation (see letter from Engels to Marx, 22 June 1869) hardly bears thinking about.

But the key issue is not whether this or that part of Morgan’s anthropological data is outdated, but whether Engels’ method and framework stand up to critical scrutiny, and they do surprisingly well. Until quite recently, much anthropological debate on gender was suffused with a casual sexism that simply assumed women’s subordinate position, often on tendentious sociobiological grounds. Nor can we have much confidence in the mystifications of feminist theories of patriarchy. Sharon quotes a few of the more outlandish – Susan Brownmiller’s view that women’s oppression stems from men’s physical ability to rape women, or Catherine MacKinnon’s position that the root of patriarchy is the porn industry (presumably this includes the lurid Roman murals at Pompeii) and the way to liberate women is to have more censorship. These idealist positions also posit a gender stereotype – men as violent aggressors, women as soft, nurturing, perpetual victims – which dovetail perfectly with sexist assumptions. By contrast, we can say that a materialist analysis of women’s oppression and its roots in class society provides us with both a coherent view of the problem and a realistic perspective for fighting it.

The struggle for abortion rights

Chapter two gives a powerful account of how abortion rights in the US have been rolled back since the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973. The anti-abortion campaign which became such a powerful force under Reagan has maintained and intensified its activities under Clinton and Bush, while the pro-choice camp has been characterised by its complacency and willingness to compromise. To be sure, Roe vs. Wade has not yet been overturned, but the almost total lack of access outside big urban centres, an ever increasing number of legal restrictions, Bush’s avowed intention of packing the federal courts with anti-abortion judges and moves towards a constitutional ban mean the situation looks bleak unless there is a massive mobilisation in support of safe and legal abortion.

Sharon correctly locates the anti-choice movement as an expression of the rise of the New Right under Reagan, and its attacks on women’s right to choose as of a piece with the rolling back of other gains of the 1960s like affirmative action, as well as attacks on the working class more generally. This allows us to see the decay of the pro-choice movement as resulting from the defeats suffered by the working class. This has relatively little to do with which corporate party holds power – Roe vs. Wade came under the conservative Nixon administration, abortion was legalised in California when Reagan was governor, while abortion rights were hugely eroded under the supposed liberal Clinton – and depends much more on the level of class struggle.

Sharon outlines how the pro-choice movement has dug its own grave by a reliance on electing Democrats. With their votes in the bag, the Democrats have been able to concentrate on appealing to the right. Clinton is a good example. In his 1992 election platform, he had promised a Freedom of Choice Act to enshrine the legality of abortion in law and leave it less open to Supreme Court intervention. Although Clinton won by a landslide and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for the next two years, the Freedom of Choice Act never made it to the floor of Congress, while the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment was renewed with the votes of Congressional Democrats elected on a pro-choice ticket. Worse, during the Clinton administration there was not a single national pro-choice demonstration. There have been several under Bush, culminating in the enormous March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC on 25 April 2004, but these have been almost entirely geared towards drumming up votes for the Democrats.

Sharon draws two conclusions from this. First, the pro-choice movement must be unapologetic and stop compromising with the right. Second, it must be a militant and activist movement, not dependent on a strategy of electing conservative Democrats like John Kerry. The relevance for Ireland, where abortion remains illegal North and South, religious conservatism is still a powerful force and pro-choice politicians are as rare as the dodo, is obvious. The only way we will ever get anything is by the road of militancy. The proof of this is surely the X case in 1992, when the Irish state placed a 14-year-old rape victim under house arrest rather than allow her to travel to Britain for an abortion. What helped Ms X and forced the government to change tack was no amount of liberal hand-wringing, but the angry young women who mobilised in their thousands in protest. That is the road of the future.

Whatever happened to feminism?

We then move on to a discussion of the decline of the feminist movement since its 1970s heyday. Much of this chapter focuses on how prominent feminists subordinated their own long-held beliefs in favour of becoming cheerleaders for Clinton. The Paula Jones sexual harassment case is held up as an example. The importance of Paula Jones lies not in whether she told the truth about Clinton, much less her conservatism and the support she received from rightwing bigots. There were two important statements made during this affair. The first was from the judge who threw out the complaint, arguing that even if Jones was telling the truth Clinton’s alleged behaviour was acceptable. This was such an obvious setback for women’s rights in the workplace that one would imagine feminists should have denounced it. But no, renowned feminist Gloria Steinem said the most important thing was to defend Clinton. Because, she said, Clinton was defending reproductive freedom (though he wasn’t in any meaningful sense) therefore women had to support him and Paula Jones could go hang.

This is symptomatic of feminism’s development over recent years, and Sharon has some fun with absurdities like Naomi Wolf praising female US soldiers in the Middle East as part of her “power feminism”, while Steinem says women can empower themselves by meditating on their future selves. But the truth is, as Sharon points out, that bourgeois feminism has always expressed the class interests of its advocates, and has been indifferent at best, hostile at worst, towards the concerns of working women. This was exemplified by the California Federal Savings and Loan vs. Guerra case in 1978, when the National Organisation for Women filed a “friend of the court” brief opposing working women’s right to paid maternity leave. In the context of a retreating working class and the general rightward shift in US politics, it really should be no surprise that bourgeois feminism should retreat into mysticism, lifestyle choices and “jobs for the girls”. It is clear that this debacle of feminism offers absolutely nothing to working-class women, who will have to struggle for their own interests, and who would be much better off allying with their class brothers than believing they have some meaningful bond with ruling-class women.

Women and Islam

The timely subject of chapter four is the place of women under Islam, or rather popular ideas about it. The essay is closely and cogently argued, but it really deals with two interlinked arguments, and it will perhaps clarify things if we separate them out.

The first is the issue of humanitarian militarism, and in particular the claim that the invasion of Afghanistan would liberate Afghan women from Taliban oppression. This is quite obviously a propaganda ploy – life for most Afghan women has changed little since the invasion – and it becomes positively nonsensical when applied to Iraq, where there has been an explosion of fundamentalism since the secular Saddam dictatorship was overthrown. The US Marines are not a women’s liberation army. The argument, put forward by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair at the time of the Afghan war, belongs with Hitler’s assertion that he was invading Czechoslovakia to liberate the Sudeten Germans from Czech oppression. It is depressing that so many on the so-called left have gone along with this bunk, but apart from that it can be easily disposed of.

The second issue, which informs the humanitarian militarist argument, is the idea that Islam is uniquely oppressive of women. Sharon argues convincingly that Islam is no better or worse in this regard than any other religion. Indeed the key point about religions is not an interpretation of what the holy texts say, but rather the uses to which they are put in society. The misogyny of much organised religion corresponds to its place in class society, so early Christianity was hugely popular among slaves in the Roman Empire – and among Roman women – but once it had exchanged its persecuted status for official recognition, Pauline conservatism came to the fore. Hence the Catholic misogyny that gave Irish women the Kerry Babies trial, the X case and women’s role in the family being enshrined in the Constitution. Which is precisely why any radical movement worth its salt in this country has to be an anti-clerical movement.

Many of the practices thought to be peculiarly Islamic are in fact culturally determined. Veiling of women was a common practice throughout the Middle East in pre-Islamic times, widespread among Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities long before it appeared in the Koran. Many of the Taliban’s more severe practices derive from the traditional seclusion of women in Pashtun tribal society and it contrasts with attitudes in Syria, where women gaining an education are a source of pride to their families. The role of religion cannot be separated from broader social conditions.

One event which has brought a lot of these arguments to the fore is the new law in France banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in state schools, which are required by law to be secular. While this has affected different religious groups – there have been disputes over Sikh boys wearing patkas – there is little doubt that the main target is France’s huge Muslim community, or that the law is intimately linked to the Chirac government trying to tap into racist sentiments.

Sharon takes a strong stance in favour of the right of Muslim women to wear hijab if they so choose, and in this she is correct. She is absolutely right to stress the question of scapegoating in the current atmosphere in the US, where anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, Middle Eastern immigrants are being interned and every mosque in the country is under surveillance. But while that is the right stance to take in America, arguments in Europe have been more complex. Large sections of the British left, and their Irish co-thinkers, have moved from defending Muslims from racist scapegoating to actively romanticising Islam. It is denied that hijab could conceivably be oppressive, and those who think otherwise are condemned for “giving in to racism”. (See Helen Shooter, “Can a headscarf be a symbol of oppression?”, Socialist Worker [UK], 4 October 2003.)

The debate in France itself is much more nuanced and interesting, and little understood by British or Irish socialists. Much confusion arises from the fact that most discussion in France has centred around the veil (voile) rather than the headscarf (foulard) which many people would feel fewer reservations about defending. One issue that gets very little coverage is the way this dispute plays out within the North African communities, where a strong secular tradition, particularly among Algerians, conflicts with the increasing strength of political Islam. Veiling is far from universally supported by French Muslims, and it is not uncommon in heavily Muslim areas for gangs of organised Islamists to physically attack women who they consider to be immodestly dressed. This is something that many of our own socialists prefer to ignore, finding it much more congenial to imagine a homogenous Muslim community united against the racist state.

As a result the debate on the French left has centred on the question of state bans. The Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (LO), which has refused to oppose the ban, has come in for a great deal of criticism on the British left – it has been alleged, dishonestly, that LO has aligned with Le Pen’s fascists on the issue – but its position is far from as terrible as outsiders assume. LO’s position owes a great deal to its large North African membership, and is very much concerned with fighting the growth of religious fundamentalism. LO, to its credit, has also made strong attacks on the power of the Catholic Church, something Chirac would never do. (See Sophie Gargan, “Pour les droits et la liberté des femmes, contre le voile à l'école”, Lutte Ouvrière, 24 October 2003.) But the stance of the majority of the Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire (LCR) differs with LO essentially on tactics – so, while the LCR opposes a state ban, it continues to describe hijab as oppressive. Those on the French left who defend hijab as such are a small minority who take their inspiration either from the British Socialist Workers Party or postmodernist relativism.

As far as hijab itself is concerned, it seems clear to me that the institution of hijab is oppressive. While I concede that many Muslim women freely choose to wear traditional dress as an expression of religious devotion or cultural solidarity, dominant interpretations of the Koran insist that women should cover themselves so as to avoid provoking male lust. (Lest it be thought that this is a Muslim mode of thought, remember it is not that long ago that the British courts would clear a man of rape if his victim was wearing a short skirt, on the grounds that she led him on.) This misogynistic position is imposed on women through intense family and community pressure – while many women wear hijab out of choice, many do so under duress, and not only in benighted Afghanistan. In disputes within Muslim communities, we should side with progressive elements against fundamentalists; we should defend the right to wear or not wear hijab according to choice; we should oppose scapegoating and state bans. It is not possible to impose liberation from above.

In this connection, Sharon makes reference to the experience of the Bolsheviks in Central Asia, who had to grapple with the contradiction between their national policy and their policy on women’s liberation. In many of these backward areas women were extremely oppressed, but the Bolsheviks were reluctant to try to impose reforms from above as this would have obviated the autonomy of the Central Asian republics. By trial and error they developed an approach of encouraging women’s self-organisation, which, being led by local women, was often quite cautious but able to pioneer activities tailored to local conditions. In the short lifespan of these initiatives their record was quite impressive, especially compared to what came afterward, Stalin’s disastrous unveiling campaign during the Third Period. No, liberation from above is not the answer, even when carried out by self-styled radicals.

The class struggle for women’s liberation

The book closes with an overview of the connection between socialism and women’s liberation. Enumerating the failures of bourgeois feminism, Sharon argues forcefully that only socialist politics can offer a way forward to more than a narrow, privileged layer of women. Far from being class reductionist as the feminists claim, socialism seeks to unite the vast majority of the population and, because workers’ unity is demanded by the objective conditions of the class struggle, socialists should oppose all oppression. Objectively speaking, working men do not benefit from the lower pay of working women. In fact, it undermines their own conditions. This underlines why socialists seek genuine equality for women and other oppressed groups.

But we also insist that true equality cannot be achieved under capitalism, which is why the struggle for women’s liberation has to be tied to a larger project of transforming society. Sharon illustrates this by giving an account of the pioneering steps taken in the early years of the Russian Revolution, as the new Soviet regime not only assured women full legal equality but attempted to transform their social conditions – for example, turning housework and childcare into communally provided services rather than those burdens on the individual woman that make working-class women, in James Connolly’s phrase, “slaves of slaves”. The amazingly ambitious work undertaken by Alexandra Kollontai and other Bolshevik women in the most difficult of circumstances is rescued from the obscurity it has tended to languish in since the rising Stalinist bureaucracy strangled the Revolution.

All in all, this is a book well worth the attention of socialists and of others concerned with women’s liberation. Its underlying thread – that opposition to class society is inseparable from genuine opposition to the various oppressions it engenders, that socialism and liberation are impossible without each other – is as relevant as ever. And it very effectively arms us with the necessary arguments and ideas to set about this business of ending women’s oppression.


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