Responses to the rise of the women's movement

Divisions rapidly appeared inside the capitalist class over how best to respond to the new rise of women's struggles in order to blunt their impact and deflect their radical thrust. 

Lip-service from the capitalist rulers

After initial attempts to dismiss the women's movement with ridicule and scorn, however, the prevailing view within the ruling class has been to give lip service to the idea that women have at least some just grievances. There have been attempts to appear concerned-by setting up some special government departments, commissions, or projects to catch women's attention, while working assiduously to integrate the leadership of the women's movement into the accepted patterns of class collaboration. In most countries, the ruling class was forced to make a few concessions that seemed least harmful economically and ideologically-and then steadily tried to take them back. 

In each case the aim has been the same, whatever the tactics-to contain the nascent radicalisation within the framework of minimal reforms of the capitalist system. 

In many industrialised countries, there have been moves to expand maternity benefits by extending leave, raising the percentage of pay women receive while on leave, or by guaranteeing work after a maternity leave without pay. In other countries, governments have extensively debated the justice of promises for equal pay laws, or liberalised divorce laws. 

Under the pressure of women's mobilisation and organisation most governments have introduced a series of legal reforms on women's rights-anti-discrimination laws, equal rights legislation, and even the notion of affirmative action programs in some form. However, these laws have generally had little practical impact on the daily lives of the majority of women. 

In Australia, such moves have led to legal judgments against individual cases of discrimination after long, exhaustive and protracted courtroom battles. In some cases these legal rulings have backfired on the victims of discrimination, leading to further harassment and notoriety which has distressed and damaged the woman complainant even though she may have won her case. In most cases the lack of major penalties and the individual case-by-case approach has meant that the impact of such rulings has been minimised. The one major exception to this general situation was the Jobs for Women campaign where 34 women took on BHP in a class-action suit against discrimination in hiring. What was unique in this case was that it did not rely on the legal process alone but was the basis for an active campaign over a 10-year period until the case was won. 

Affirmative action and equal employment opportunity guidelines, while set in place in the public sector and in the large private companies, have proved very little more than a monitoring assessment procedure of the level of female employment across sectors and promotional levels. There are no penalties for non-compliance with raising participatory targets. At best such projects have raised awareness of discriminatory employment and promotion practices. 

The increased public consciousness about discrimination against women has led both conservative and liberal bourgeois parties to engage in wide-ranging tactics to win over women voters. And indeed there has been a shift in women's voting patterns as their social and economic situation has changed since World War II-their votes have tended to shift toward liberal (including Social Democratic) parties and away from the conservative parties. 

Bourgeois parties across the spectrum have responded by increasing the number of women standing for office. But as governments are formed the number of women who have achieved cabinet or executive positions has been minuscule. 

While liberal parties have played the most lip service to issues specifically affecting women, the feminist ideas and concerns have also had an impact on the most conservative parties. 

In Australia, the coalition between the conservative Liberal and National parties has been strained by the question of women's rights-particularly by the question of women's right to work as unemployment rates began to rise. The liberal split from the Liberals, the Australian Democrats, has shifted leftwards during the 1980s. This shift has been reflected in the Australian Democrats' adoption of policies supporting many of the demands raised by the women's liberation movement and their promotion of women to their parliamentary leadership. 

However, when it comes to social programs that would have immediate and significant economic impact-such as the expansion of cheap, high standard, child-care facilities-the gains made by women have been virtually nonexistent. Capitalist governments and bourgeois politicians have made abundant promises. But as the long-term capitalist economic crisis has deepened, cuts to the already limited child-care facilities have been some of the first to be made. These have been accompanied by other cuts to areas traditionally viewed as private-those involved in the reproduction and maintenance of labor, driving back many health and community services into the unpaid sector of domestic labor. 

The far right and abortion access

One of the most significant gains made by the women's liberation movement has been a substantial expansion of access to legal abortion. In more than 20 countries there has been a marked liberalisation of abortion laws. 

In every country where women have made measurable progress toward establishing abortion as a right, it has rapidly become clear that this right is never secure under capitalism. Real reproductive choice, particularly abortion, isn't guaranteed under capitalism where access to legal abortion is viewed by the ruling class as a necessary evil rather than as a guaranteed personal choice by the woman concerned, backed up by health service alternatives, information and counseling. 

Wherever women begin to fight for the right to control their own reproductive functions, the most reactionary defenders of the capitalist system have immediately mobilised to prevent that elementary precondition for women's liberation from being established. The right to choose is too great a challenge to the ideological underpinnings of women's oppression. 

However, it is politically important to see clearly that far-right organisations such as "Laissez les vivre," "Oui a la vie," "Right to Life," and "Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child," which are linked to xenophobic, clerical, racist, or outright fascist currents, are nourished by official governmental policies. They function as fanatical protectors of the status quo, attempting to appeal to and mobilise the most backward prejudices within the working class and petty bourgeoisie, and they render a valuable service to the rulers. But without the backhanded-and sometimes open-encouragement of the dom- inant sections of the ruling class, their role would be far less influential. 

The clearest indicator of this is provided by the attempts in the USA to erode access to abortion and reverse the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling which recognised a woman's constitutional right to abortion. Federal and State governments and courts have eroded this constitutional right by reducing the period of pregnancy in which an abortion can be performed, or by limiting women's right to decide (giving greater power to parents or partners, demanding parental permission for minors, etc), and by restricting access to health services or cutting back funding to the health system in order to make access to abortion difficult. The opposition of the Reagan and Bush administrations to women's right to abortion and the weakening of this right by Supreme Court judgments, has been combined with and encouraged a fanatical grass-roots mobilisation by extreme sectors of the "Moral Majority" and evangelical churches, taking the form of arson attacks on abortion clinics and mass pickets to physically prevent women from entering them. 

In Australia, restrictions on women's access to abortion have taken the form of repeated attempts to pass legislation taking abortion out of the public health insurance scheme; attempts to limit the time period when abortion is available; or attempts to limit abortion facilities to hospitals by trying to get rid of clinics, particularly feminist ones. These attempts have been defeated due to widespread public pressure focused by pro-choice mobilisations. 

Response of Social Democratic parties

The emergence of the women's liberation movement has posed a profound challenge to all political currents claiming to represent the interests of the working class. The Social Democratic parties especially were taken aback initially by the rapid development of a significant radicalisation that did not look to them for leadership. 

The Social Democrats' responses to the women's liberation movement have varied from one country to another, depending on the strength of the movement, its impact upon the working class, and the Social Democrats' own proximity to responsibility for the government of their own capitalist state. But in every case the reflexes of the Social Democrats have been determined by two sometimes conflicting objectives: their commitment to the basic institutions of class rule, including the family; and their need to maintain or strengthen their influence in the working class if they are to contain working-class struggles within the bounds of capitalist property relations. 

The rise of the women's liberation movement forced the Social Democrats to adapt to the changing political situation. The year 1975 in particular gave rise to a flurry of position-taking, partly in response to the initiatives of the bourgeoisie in the context of International Women's Year. 

Even though Social Democratic parties officially have been reluctant to recognise the existence of the independent women's movement, individual women members have often participated actively in the new organisations that emerged. 

Faced with a growing women's movement in Australia in the early 1970s, the Whitlam Labor government attempted to win political support by granting subsidies to numerous small projects initiated by the movement, such as women's health centres and refuges, introducing supporting mothers pensions, removing tax from contraceptives, and putting in place a three-year schedule for the introduction of equal pay for work of equal value. While these moves were not major in economic terms, they served to temporarily draw the attention of women away from the inadequacy of their overall policies (on abortion and child care, for example) and helped the ALP to project itself as a "pro-woman" government. Responding to their success in wooing the women's vote, anti-discriminatory and equal opportunity laws were established by State Labor governments. 

The ALP and the trade union bureaucracy have actively sought to integrate feminists into the institutional framework of bourgeois reformism, producing changes that appear as the natural evolution of a "democratic society" and thus blurring the role and combativity of women in winning these changes. Women's advisory committees have been set up and many of the early women's activists have been incorporated into the governmental and union bureaucracy as upper-level management, researchers, and advisors. While these "femocrats" have been long on speeches for women's equality, in practice their lack of executive power and their respect for official policy has put real limitations on their activity. 

Many feminists have taken the fight for equality into the ALP so that today affirmative action policy guarantees women access to preselection as candidates in proportion to their overall numbers in the party. Positions held by women in the ALP officialdom have also increased although not in the same proportion. These "victories" have been won at the cost of the fight for the implementation of social policies to improve the situation of the majority of women. 

While loudly proclaiming their commitment to easing the burdens of working-class women, the Social Democratic parties have not hesitated to impose the austerity measures demanded by the bourgeoisie. The record of the Hawke Labor government, elected in 1983, has provided a graphic illustration of this. 

Through its Accord with the ACTU the Hawke government embarked on a decade-long austerity program that cut wages and living standards across the board. The Accord was sold on rhetoric about the need to address the plight of lower-paid and the traditionally ignored sections of the working class, women workers in particular. Cuts in real wages were thus to be traded off against improvements to the "social wage," i.e., social and welfare benefits and tax reforms. 

Under the various versions of the Accord over the years, welfare, health, education, and child care services have all been massively slashed. These austerity measures have been implemented under a rhetorical veneer of seeking "social equity," of improving the lot of the disadvantaged, particularly women. Yet during this period the decline in real average wages has been in the order of 25%. 

Trade union bureaucracy

The period since the emergence of the women's movement has seen big shifts in the practices and attitudes in the trade union movement. It took much longer for the trade union bureaucracy to respond to the demands of women workers than the ALP. It was only in 1977 that the ACTU adopted a charter of demands for working women and appointed advisory committees at the ACTU and at State Trades and Labor Council levels. Reforms to policy affecting women slowly followed from this point on. National cases for maternity leave and later parental leave were negotiated and an anomaly case for comparative wage justice was won by nurses. There was an increased awareness of women's right to work and the barriers to women's promotional opportunities, and particular health and safety problems like repetitive strain injury were taken up by particular unions. Even the recognition that abortion access is an industrial issue has been affirmed. As the pressure for part-time work has increased, proportional working conditions and job security guarantees were set in place in many white- collar areas. 

Questions such as child care and the socialisation of domestic work, and affirmative action programs for women have been raised with greater frequency in the union movement. In some cases women have explicitly posed these demands in the general framework of the need to break down the traditional division of labor between men and women. 

By raising these issues, women workers call into question the reformists' attempts to maintain a division between economic and political issues and otherwise limit whatever struggles develop. They help the working class to think in broad social terms. 

As women try to win the union ranks and leadership to support their demands, they are obliged to take up the question of union democracy as well. They have to fight for the right to express themselves freely, to organise their own commissions or caucuses, to be represented in the union leaderships, and for the union to provide the kinds of facilities, such as child care during meetings, that will permit women to be fully active in the workers' organisations. 

The right for women to organise themselves into separate committees and women's structures has been recognised by some union leaders as ways to increase union membership and respond to the particular needs of women workers articulated through these bodies. Others have seen such organisations as ways to marginalise and thus ignore women's demands. But the gender segregation of the workforce, the growth of the tertiary sector, the growth of the new information technology and the increased unionisation of traditional white-collar areas such as banking, the public service, welfare services, nursing, etc., have led to an increase in the number of women joining unions at a time when male union membership has declined dramatically. 

On the other hand, the Accord's restrictions on strike action, its trade-off method of bargaining, and its emphasis on tripartite negotiations between the employers, the government and the unions has led to a real decline in working-class activity, including the struggles of women workers. Many of the gains won by women in the industrial arena remain limited in their impact because the will to fight to have them implemented across industry has been eroded. Enterprise bargaining will further erode these gains. 

The restructuring of industry, the trade-union movement and the industrial relations system has weakened the unions as organs of struggle for the moment. This weakening of the unions has been masked by phrases championing their heightened awareness and commitment to women's equality. Thus, while the living standards of women workers have been reduced under the Accord, the ACTU has paraded the increased representation of women on its executive as evidence of major advances by women unionists. 

Impact on the Communist parties

From the 1930s on, after the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated its control of the USSR and transformed the parties of the Third International into apologists for the policies of the Kremlin, defence of the family as the ideal framework of human relations has been the line of most Communist parties throughout the world. This not only served the needs of the bureaucratic caste in the Soviet Union itself but coincided with the need to defend the capitalist status quo elsewhere. Openly reactionary theories on the family began to be promoted by the Communist parties in the West when the new family code was introduced in the USSR in 1934 and abortions were prohibited in 1936. 

However demagogic they may have been at times concerning women's double day of work, the demands raised by the Stalinised CPs were most often proposals to rearrange things so women had an easier time meeting the tasks that fall on them in the home. From better maternity leaves, to shorter hours, to improved working conditions for women, the fight was often justified by the need to free women for their household chores-rather than from them by socialising the domestic burdens women bear. The other solution, which they sometimes proposed, was to demand that men share the work load more equitably at home. 

But the rise of the women's movement, the attempts of the bourgeoisie to capitalise on it, the responses of their own ranks, all compelled the Communist parties to modify and adjust their line. Even the most hidebound and rigid followers of the Stalinist bureaucracy, like the Communist Party of the USA, were forced to abandon some of their most reactionary positions such as opposition to an equal rights amendment to the constitution. 

The deeper the radicalisation, the more adroitly the CPs have had to manoeuvre by throwing themselves into the movement and adopting more radical verbiage. This has particularly been true of those CPs in the imperialist countries that sought to demarcate themselves from the Soviet bureaucracy from the late 1960s on in order to widen the base of public support-the so-called Eurocommunist parties. However, this shift did not involve a turn by these parties toward revolutionary politics. Rather it involved a systematic codification of the reformist orientation imposed on the Communist movement by Stalin in the mid 1930s. 

The Eurocommunist CPs let their women members engage in public discussion and develop scathing condemnations of capitalism's responsibilities for the miserable status of women. But when it came to program and action, their approach to women's liberation duplicated their opposition to a class-struggle fight for other needs of the working class. Theses parties were ready to shelve any demand or derail any struggle in the interests of consolidating or preserving whatever class- collaborationist alliance they were working for. Thus, despite the Italian Communist Party's formal shift and decision to support the liberal- isation of abortion laws, in 1976 the PCI parliamentary deputies made a bloc with the Christian Democrats to kill abortion law reform because it was an obstacle to advancing toward their "historic compromise" with the latter. 

Moreover, there was often a conflict between the positions taken by the CP locally-where they sometimes expressed support for struggles to establish child-care centres or abortion- contraception clinics-and the actions of the CP nationally-where they supported austerity measures to cut back on such social programs. 

The discrepancy between the formal positions of the Communist parties and their class-collaborationist practice brought about some sharp tensions within those parties and in the trade unions they dominated. This was especially true because the absence of internal democracy within the CPs deepened the frustrations of many women who began to see the contradictions between their own personal commitment to women's liberation and the line of their party. They had no way to influence the positions of their organisation. 

Organisationally, too, the Communist parties were forced to adjust. In a number of countries the Stalinists formed their own women's organisations after the Second World War. Faced with the new radicalisation of women, they invariably tried to pass these organisations off in the eyes of the working class as the only real women's movement. The independent movement threatened their pretense of being the party that spoke for working-class women, and their initial reaction was to deepen their sectarian stance. 

Communist Party of Australia 

In Australia, the Eurocommunist evolution of the CPA leadership led to a series of splits and to different orientations toward the women's liberation movement by the forces that had constituted the CPA at the beginning of the 1960s. 

The Maoists, who formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1964, and the pro-Moscow current which constituted itself as the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971 maintained the traditional Stalinist approach to the "woman question," i.e., defending the family system and seeing women's equality as being guaranteed through working-class struggle rather than through the independent mobilisation of women. Women's struggles are seen by them as limited to the economic arena-as women workers or women's auxiliaries to support their husbands in struggle. 

The CPA itself, however, shifted its position in the mid 1970s. It made a deliberate orientation to women's liberation activists. However, it failed to overcome the legacy of its Stalinist miseducation. 

The CPA leadership continued to identify Leninism with Stalinism, and as it moved to distance itself from its Stalinist past, it rejected its formal adherence to "Marxism-Leninism." The economistic conception of the class struggle (and the opportunist orientation to the trade union bureaucracy and the ALP) the CPA had inherited from Stalinism was retained as the central core of its political practice. But around this central core it added an eclectic mass movementism to its political orientation-a shopping list approach in which the struggles of women, Aborigines, gays, for peace, for environmental protection, etc., were seen as separate from each other and from the working-class struggle against capitalism (which was identified with trade unionist struggles). In relation to women's liberation, the CPA leadership rejected Marxism as an inadequate theory, as "outdated class reductionism" and accepted various bourgeois feminist theories of the origin and nature of women's oppression. 

This theoretical shift was mirrored organisationally. The CPA became organised sectorally. Women were organised in women's collectives rather than into all arenas of the party's activity and work. This had the effect of marginalising the question of women's liberation within the CPA, absolving the CPA leadership from educating all the party's members, particularly those in the trade union movement and leadership, on the need to take women's liberation seriously. 

With the coming to office of the Hawke Labor government, the CPA's opportunist eclecticism became the means for providing a left apology for the ALP-ACTU Accord's austerity program. Indeed, key leaders of the CPA in the trade union bureaucracy were involved in drafting the original Accord document, and they were often the key promoters of it in the unions, using the argument that "well-off" male workers should hold back from wage demands to let women's wages catch up. 

In seeking to defend its support for the class-collaborationism embodied in the Accord, the CPA leadership developed a right-wing version of gender politics by arguing against "the old-time unionism of mobilisation and struggle" and supporting calls for a "feminist incomes policy" explicitly aimed at increasing women's incomes at the expense of men's. 

New political formations

In response to the decline in the credibility of Social Democratic and Stalinist reformism, new centrist and radical-democratic political formations emerged in the l980s. The West German Green Party is probably the best known and most developed example of this trend. 

Peace, anti-nuclear, environmental, and women's liberation activists, as well as many smaller community-based movements and a substantial layer of left socialists, formed the Green Party as an electoral alternative in opposition to the right-wing evolution of the Social Democracy in West Germany. The German Greens' electoral success strengthened moves to construct similar parties in other countries, but these tend to have less of a base among activists in the social movements and have more of a single-issue appeal around environmental questions. 

Where Green political formations have elaborated political programs on a range of social issues they have often incorporated many of the demands raised by the women's liberation movement. However, their lack of a revolutionary perspective and their tendency to see social change being achieved purely through parliamentary means has made them susceptible to opportunist deals with Social Democracy. Where, as in Germany and in Tasmania, the Greens have entered into such coalitions or "accords" with the Social Democrats they have alienated their activist base and undermined their credibility even as a parliamentary alternative to Social Democracy.