Saturday, March 6, 2010

Women and Revolution: Renewing Socialist Feminism Today

(These are notes from a talk delivered at a Socialist Dialogue forum in the Philippines to mark International Women's Day.)

The women’s movement, the leadership, needs to start to talk about revolution and socialism again. The movement is subsumed by ‘advocacies, i.e. negotiating, through a series of compromises, for minor reforms within the existing status quo. Major issues of system-change and anti-capitalist alternatives are hardly addressed today.

Has the system delivered? For a minority, yes. For a majority of women, No! We have formal equality (anti-discrimination legislation, etc) but not real social and economic equality. The gap between women in the North and South widening. The class gap amongst women increased and continues increasing.

Why does the women’s movement need to start talking about revolution/system change? Because of the conjuncture we face today.

a. The system is in deep crisis. Economic: Greece, Portugal show the deep cracks, poverty is increasing. Socially: health, education, environment and human survival under threat. It’s not the time to play around the edges of the system. Now’s the time to challenge it.

b. Because we are witnessing the renewal of socialism in Latin America -- in Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba continues.

In the Philippines poor children die at three times the rate of the children of the rich, according to latest UN data. Under-five mortality rates are 66 child deaths to every 1000 live births amongst the poor, compared to 21 child deaths to every 1000 births amongst the rich. The largest wealth disparity for under-five mortality rates is in the Philippines, compared to any other country in the Asia-Pacific region. Child mortality is linked to the health and welfare of the mothers. Maternal mortality rates in the Philippines show little or no improvement and are unlikely to meet even the ‘less than minimum’ Millennium Development Goals. If there is one single reason that we need a comprehensive, modern reproductive health bill and RH program meeting international best standards and practice, this is it. A reproductive health program, which is free and accessible to poor women, which gives mothers a range of choices and educates them about these choices, saves poor children’s lives.

Also in the Philippines, we have supposedly progressed on gender and governance issues: we elect women presidents and have one of the highest proportions of women in Congress, compared to other countries in the region. And yet this has not translated into concrete gains for a majority of working and poor women. The system of elite rule that exploits and oppresses working and poor women is still in place. Women have entered the ‘masters house’ – Congress and government – but instead of throwing out the master, bringing down his house and building a new home for all, these women represent the master’s interests, i.e. the patriarchal system of elite rule. So the issue is not merely one of women’s participation, but one of genuine representation – in whose political social and economic interests, do these women govern?

There is (and never has been) an artificial divide between women’s issues and other issues. Every issue today, big and small, is a women’s issue. Poverty and the economic crisis, job losses and contractualization, health care and reproductive health, education, oil prices, corruption, governance, the illegitimate debt, war, militarism, violence, climate change and the environmental crisis – these are all women’s issues. After all, women are the ones who tend to be the hardest hit by these issues -- from the economic crisis, during which a majority of workers laid off in industries such as electronics are women, to climate-change induced disasters such as flooding, where the casualty rates tend to be higher for women and children.

So how society is organized and in whose interests? Who controls the political system? Who runs the economy? These are all issues that are extremely important to women. These are, in fact, life and death issues for women.

Socialist feminism in its broadest sense is an inclusive project.

· All socialist feminists would see class as central to women’s lives and women’s oppression. Some of us would see class as fundamental from the point of view of explaining the historical origins of women’s oppression, for example. Others refuse to give primacy to any one factor over the other.

· Women’s oppression, however, is not simply reduced to economic exploitation, i.e. the extraction of surplus value. This also applies to national/ethnic or racial oppression.

· All these aspects of society are inextricably linked, i.e. class is always gendered and ‘raced’.

We also need to focus on the inter-relationship between reproductive unpaid labor, paid labor and capital, and not so much on the separation of these categories, as we have done in the past. Capital, wants the lowest possible necessary labor. But, capital would like to expand -- unpaid necessary labor. While capital does not pay for this reproductive labor, it benefits by it. The more work that is done free in the household, the less the wage has to be. As the purchaser of labor power, capital gains from the unpaid labor of women within the household. And the more capital drives down wages and intensifies the workday for wage-laborers, the greater the burden placed on the household to maintain workers.

Women need to make a breach in the system of elite/capitalist rule. We need to link our immediate demands to system change and an end to elite rule. We need to have the perspective of mobilizing masses of women, not just our own base, but hundreds of thousands, to make a breach in the system. Latin America shows us that this can be done.

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