The women's liberation movement builds from the gains of the earlier struggles by women at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
The first wave of feminism
With the consolidation of industrial capitalism in Europe and North America throughout the 19th century, increasing numbers of women were integrated into the labor market. The gap between the social and legal status of women inherited from feudalism, and their new economic status as wage workers selling their labor power in the market, produced glaring contradictions. For women of the ruling class, too, capitalism opened the door to economic independence. Out of these contradictions arose the first wave of women's struggles aimed at winning full legal equality with men. The major focus of this civil equality was the question of suffrage.
Among those fighting for women's rights were different political currents. Many of the suffragist leaders were women who believed the vote should be won by showing the ruling class that they were loyal defenders of the capitalist system. Some linked the suffragist struggle to support for imperialism in World War I and often opposed the right to vote for propertyless men and women, immigrants, and non-whites.
But there was also a strong current of socialist women in a number of countries who saw the fight for women's rights as part of the working-class struggle for the abolition of voting based on property qualifications and mobilised support from working- class women and men on that basis. They played a decisive role in the suffrage struggle in countries like the United States, Britain, and Germany. They also raised and fought for other demands such as equal pay and contraceptive services.
In Australia, women's right to vote was much more tied to electoral manoeuvring by bourgeois parties at the State level rather than large-scale mobilisation of women. Women received the vote in South Australia and Western Australia in the 1890s. Negotiations to establish federation led to the adoption of universal franchise by 1902 in the Commonwealth. The other States lagged behind, but by 1908 women had the vote in all States.
The leading organisational force advocating women's enfranchisement across Australia was the Women's Christian Temperance League, whose main activity was directed toward changing the morals of the working class and restricting drinking hours. Specific suffragist groups were established only in NSW and Victoria. These groups in turn divided along political lines. These political divisions-between the conservative parties, the Labor Party, the small socialist groups within and outside the ALP, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — continued as women mobilised around the conscription issue during the First World War.
Women's suffrage, following or sometimes accompanying universal male suffrage, was an important objective gain for the working class. It reflected, and in turn helped advance, the changing social status of women. For the first time in class society, women were legally considered citizens fit to participate in public affairs, with the right to a voice on major political questions, not just private household matters.
Through struggle, women in most advanced capitalist countries won, to varying degrees, several important civil rights-the right to higher education, the right to engage in trades and professions, the right to receive and dispose of their own wages (which had been considered the right of the husband or father), the right to own property, the right to divorce, the right to participate in political organisations and the right to stand for public office.
Even though the underlying cause of the subordinate status of women lies in the very foundations of class society itself and women's special role within the family, not in the formal denial of equality under the law, the extension of democratic rights to women gave them greater latitude for action and helped later generations see that the manifestations of women's oppression lay deeper.
Post World War II period
The basis of the second wave of feminism lies in the economic and social changes of the post-World War II years, which have effected deepening contradictions in the capitalist economy, in the status of women, and in the family system. To varying degrees the same factors were at work in every country that remained within the world capitalist market. But it is not surprising that the resurgence of the women's movement today first came about in the most advanced capitalist countries-such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain-where these changes and contradictions had developed the furthest. These factors included:
- a. Advances in birth-control technology.
Advances in medical science and technology in the field of birth control and abortion have created the means by which masses of women can have greater control over their reproductive functions. Control by women over their own bodies is a precondition for women's liberation.
While such medical techniques are more widely available, reactionary laws, reinforced by bourgeois customs, religious bigotry, and sexist ideology often stand in the way of women exercising control over their own reproductive functions. Financial, legal, informational, psychological, and "moral" barriers are fabricated to try to prevent women from demanding and exercising the right to choose whether and when to bear children. In addition, the limits placed on research due to capitalist profit considerations and sexist disregard for the lives of women, have meant continuing health hazards for women using the most convenient methods of birth control.
This contradiction between what is possible and what actually exists affects the lives of all women. It has given rise to powerful abortion rights struggles, which have played a key role in building the women's liberation movement internationally.
2. Labor market participation.
The prolonged economic boom conditions of the postwar expansion significantly increased the percentage of women in the labor force.
For example, in Australia in 1950, 19% of all women 15 to 64 years of age were in the labor force. By 1975 this had doubled. Between 1960 and 1975, nearly two-thirds of all new jobs created were taken by women. Working women accounted for 20.5% of the total labor force in 1901; 22.8% in 1954 and 41.8% by 1991. Equally important, the percentage of working women who were married increased dramatically, from 12.5 in 1933, until today when over half of all mothers with dependent children under 14 years are in the workforce.
As the influx of women into the labor force has taken place, there has been substantial change in the degree of wage discrimination against women. In many countries this differential between the sexes has actually widened. In Australia the right to equal wages wasn't won until the late 1960s and the plan to implement the shift was phased in between 1972 and 1975. But equal pay only applied to "work of equal value" and was interpreted in the narrowest way to mean only identical work. So this hasn't meant that women's wages now equal men's. Sixteen years on, the average female wage is 33% lower than the average male rate. Even where women work in comparable jobs with men their earnings are 5-6% lower.
While gender differentials in over-award payments is a factor, inequality of wage levels are primarily because the increased employment of women has not been spread evenly over all job categories. In nearly all countries women represent from 70-90% of the work force employed in textiles, shoes, ready-to-wear clothing, tobacco, and other light industry-that is, sectors in which wages are lowest. Women also account for 70% or more of those employed in the service sector, with the great majority of women occupying the least remunerative positions: secretaries, file clerks, health workers, teachers in primary schools, keyboard operators.
In Australia, the sex segregation of women by industry group into the three major areas of clerical, sales and services is the highest in the world. Women's work in these areas is not valued at an equivalent rate to the work of men in similarly skilled, predominantly male industries. And estimates of future employment growth continue this trend-tomorrow's worker will be a female, working part-time in the private services sector of industry.
There has been further work force segregation within Australian industry in this period. Shortage of labor led to the massive immigration program from the late 1940s onward. Increasingly, non-English speaking immigrants have moved into the unskilled areas of work in both traditionally male and female-segregated industry. The failure of the labor bureaucracy to combat the discrimination faced by non-English speaking immigrant workers, particularly women workers, has weakened unionisation and led to greater wages differentials and erosion of conditions in areas predominantly employing these workers.
Women are further disadvantaged in promotional opportunities and career paths. Until the late 1960s married women could only occupy temporary positions in the public service. Since State and Commonwealth public services provided many of the clerical opportunities for women workers, and promotion depended on length of permanent service, women were highly under-represented in the medium and upper levels of the occupational hierarchy where higher rates of pay apply. Other factors such as discriminatory hiring practices and interview techniques for promotion exacerbated the gap in wages.
Despite their growing place in the work force, women are still forced to assume the majority, if not the totality, of domestic tasks in addition to their wage labor. This has led to a significant increase in part-time work by women-either because they cannot find full-time employment, or because they cannot otherwise cope with their domestic chores in the absence of cheap quality child care. But part-time work invariably brings with it lower wages, less job security, fewer working condition benefits, and less likelihood of unionisation.
Increasingly, since the early 1970s, employers have moved to lower labor costs, erode conditions and increase productivity. This has led to a decline in full-time work and a massive growth in part-time and casual work. These moves have disproportionately affected women workers and their wages. Men form 59.8% of the paid workforce, but they hold almost 70% of full-time jobs; 51.9% of employed women work part-time, i.e., women account for 78% of all part-time workers.
The growing proportion of women in the paid work-force has had a strong impact on the attitudes of their male fellow workers, helping to break down sexist stereotyping. This is especially true where women have begun to fight their way into jobs in traditionally male-dominated industries from which women were previously excluded.
But women workers still face many forms of discrimination and sexist abuse-promoted, organised and maintained by their bosses. Their fellow workers are often not aware of these, and/or are imbued with backward, anti-woman attitudes. The labor bureaucracy blocks the use of union power to overcome many of the special obstacles women workers face-such as lack of maternity leave, health hazards, discriminatory job practices, and harassment by foremen and supervisors who use their control over jobs to sexually pester women and try to pressure them into sexual relations.
3. Educational levels..
The rise in the average educational level of women has further heightened the contradictions. As labor productivity increases and the general cultural level of the working class rises, more women complete secondary education. Women are also accepted into institutions of higher education on a qualitatively larger scale than ever before.
Yet, as the employment statistics indicate, the percentage of women holding jobs commensurate with their educational level has not kept pace. In all areas of the job market, from industry to the professions, women with higher educational qualifications are usually bypassed by men with less education. Moreover, throughout primary and secondary education, girls continue to be pushed-through required courses of study or through more indirect pressures-into what are considered women's jobs and roles. For example, while women outnumber men among university undergraduates in Australia today, women are still concentrated in the arts faculties rather than in science, engineering and commerce.
As women receive more education and as social struggles raise their individual expectations, the stifling drudgery of household chores and the constrictions of family life become increasingly unbearable. Thus the heightened educational level of women has deepened the contradiction between women's demonstrated abilities and broadened aspirations, and their actual social and economic status.
4. Changes to the family.
The functions of the family unit in advanced capitalist society have continually contracted. It has become less and less a unit of petty production-either agricultural or domestic (weaving, sewing, baking, etc.). The urban nuclear family of today has come a long way from the productive farm family of previous centuries. At the same time, in their search for profits, consumer-oriented capitalist industries and advertising companies seek to maximise the atomisation and duplication of domestic work in order to sell each household its own washer, dryer, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, etc.
As the standard of living rises, the average number of children per family declines sharply. Industrially prepared foods and other conveniences become increasingly available. Yet, in spite of the technological advances, surveys in a number of imperialist countries have shown that women who have more than one child and a full-time job must put in 80-100 hours of work per week-more hours than similar surveys conducted in 1926 and 1952 revealed. While appliances have eased certain domestic tasks, the shrinking size of the average family unit has meant that women are less able to call on grandparents, aunts, or sisters to help.
With all these changes, the objective basis for confining women to the home becomes less and less compelling. Yet the needs of the ruling class dictate that the family system be preserved. Bourgeois ideology and social conditioning continue to reinforce the reactionary fiction that a woman's identity and fulfillment must come from her role as wife-mother-housekeeper. The contradiction between reality and myth becomes increasingly obvious and intolerable to growing numbers of women.
This contradictory state of affairs is frequently referred to as "the crisis of the family," which is expressed in the soaring divorce rates, increased numbers of runaway children and rising reported incidence of sexual abuse of children and domestic violence.
Cracks in the privacy of the institution of the family have opened up as women have become more confident and more self-assertive. Physical and sexual violence within the family has been challenged. Women's refuges, youth housing, and rape crisis centres have been established but are far from adequate to cope with the demand for their services. Laws and legal practices concerning rape in marriage and domestic violence have and are being put in place.
While the brutal degradation of women in the family has been opened up for greater scrutiny, the family system itself has not been abandoned:
*There has been a shift to serial monogamous families, that is, couples who marry, then divorce, then marry a new partner. So monogamy becomes relative to the current partner and the children from such relationships are linked to several family units.
*There has also been an increase in the number of non-married cohabiting couples and of children born outside of marriage. The capitalist state has sought to reintegrate these relationships within the family system by establishing the legal category of "de facto relations," i.e., de facto marriages.
*While the number of single parents, mostly women, with children has dramatically increased, through restrictions and cutbacks on state subsidised social services such as child care the ruling class has kept them within the family system, with women still carrying out the unpaid domestic labor of child-rearing. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women living in poverty, a phenomenon known as the "feminisation" of poverty. Some 80% of adults classified as living below the poverty line are women.
Greater democratic rights and broader social opportunities have not "satisfied" women, or inclined them to a passive acceptance of their inferior social status and economic dependence. On the contrary, each achievement towards equality exposes even further ways, often in quite subtle forms, that sexist barriers operate in capitalist society.
The initial development of the women's liberation movement served only to emphasise the depth and scope of women's oppression. Even those with many advantages in terms of education and other opportunities were, and continue to be, propelled into action. The most oppressed and exploited are not necessarily the first to articulate their discontent.