"What is women's liberation? Aren't women free already?"
Women are not free. In the U.S., women make only 75 cents for every dollar men do; abortions are harder and harder to get because of the right-wing onslaught against a woman's right to choose; affordable child-care is no where to be found; rape, sexual assault, and eating disorders are far more widespread than they should be; and "welfare mothers" are the target of Democrats and Republicans alike.
So why are women oppressed?
It is not because of inherent or biological differences. There were societies in which women's oppression didn't exist. The Iroquious, for example, could only declare war if a woman's council voted for it. Instead of lifelong marriage, women could put their lovers' shoes outside their home, and the relationship was over. Children were cared for by everyone in the tribe, and it wasn't just the mother's individual responsibility.
Women's oppression today doesn't stem from male chauvinism it stems from the family setup and women's role in that setup. Women do the bulk of the housework and look after children, and we're told that this is their "natural" or "God-given" role. Since most people grow up in nuclear families, they take women's role in the family for granted. The people who don't fit in to the "normal" family scheme - gays and lesbians for example - are stigmatized and labelled "bad," "immoral," or "abnormal."
Big business encourages people to live in these families through the media and the legal system because the family serves a useful purpose: it puts the cost of rearing the next generation of workers on individual workers' families. The bosses don't have to pay for day care, food, or raising children, and workers who accept sexist ideas are weaker when they fight the bosses.
Most working people accept, and indeed, long for, the family. With no control over their lives or their life's work, the family seems to many to be a haven, a place where you can relax and be with those you love. But the family is often a prison, a hell, of spousal and child abuse. Abuse in the home occurs more often than not because of outside pressures and frustration or anger is taken out on the weaker family members. It's not the case that abuse in the home is mostly men beating their wives; surveys have shown that it is unemployed women who are most likely to beat their children.
The idea that the family is a haven will live as long as people have no control over their own lives, their work, and society as a whole even though most people's family lives are far from ideal.
Despite what the Republicans and the Christian Right say, the family and women's oppression have not always existed, and they have not always existed in the way they do today. In early human societies (see examples above) women lived in relative equality with men. They played an equal role with men in the process of production, and so equal rights were naturally accorded to them. Men and women formed partnerships with each other, but not individual households. The entire group -- village or tribe -- put in their fair share to produce what was necessary for the group to survive. Everyone was equally responsible for rearing children.
Because of the low level of technology, women couldn't control whether or not they would have children, and so jobs were often divided along lines of sex. Hunting tended to be done by men, while women tended to farm or gather. But this sexual division of labor wasn't rigid; sometimes, men would mind the children and women would participate in hunts. Furthermore, how much each sex could produce in its respective role was more or less equal.
But when the level of technology changed and the amount of wealth that could be produced dramatically increased, women's position in early human society change. Because of inventions like the heavy plow and irrigation systems, enough wealth could be produced by society so that not everyone had to spend the bulk of their lives engaging back-breaking labor in a field. A small minority could make a living off of the labor of others and play a role in directing, administering, distributing, and overseeing the production of wealth.
This division of labor between those who worked and those who lived off of that work eventually crystallized into the first societies with a class divide, between rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed.
The technological changes that produced the first class societies also led to the subordination of women. Why?
The old sexual division of labor was undermined and transformed by these changes in technology. The types of activities that produced surplus wealth - farming with heavy plows, irrigated farming, warfare, long distance trade - were typically performed by men because these activities were dangerous for pregnant women. (In those days, pregnancy was not readily apparent, so to preserve families and future children it would make sense not to allow women to engage in activities that might involve bodily harm or physical stress.)
For the first time in human history, all children were not treated equally; some were the children of the surplus-holding minority, others were the children of the exploited majority. Because of the division of society into haves and have-nots, the question inheritance of property or political office became the crucial question in sexual relationships. Women were forced into monogamous marriages and subordinated to their husbands so that there would be no question as to who inherited what.
The splitting of society into hostile classes was, as Frederick Engels put it, "the world historic defeat of the female sex." But it wasn't just women who suffered - the majority of men were forced to work, often as slaves, for the new ruling class. The subordination of women coincided, and cannot be separated from, the subordination of the majority of men.
For centuries people lived in families based around agricultural production. Marriage was very often permanent since the family was the center of production and every member of the family helped produce the necessities of life. When capitalism first arose, it transformed society tremendously. Production was torn from the home and put into the factory; production was no longer the concern of individual families working independently of one another, it was the concern of thousands of people working together (most of whom were total strangers). Because of capitalism, society could now produce enough to free everyone from lives of toil; communal kitchens (restaurants, cafeterias), free day care, and industrial laundries could free women from enslavement in the home.
This had a tremendous impact on the institution of the family.
Many capitalists preferred to hire women because few women had an independent livelihood and could be forced to work for less. Getting a job at a factory opened up the possibility of being financially independent from their husbands and/or fathers. Engels observed that this "turned the family upside down. The husband sits at home, tends the children, sweeps the room and cooks." Many women participated in strikes and the illegal trade union movement in the early days of the industrial revolution.
Wages and conditions in the early industrial system were absolutely horrible and many women and children were injured or harmed in these conditions. Those without families -- the elderly, young children, or the unemployed - had no one and nothing to fall back on. It seemed the only way to get a better life for everyone was to demand a "family wage" and the "protection of women" from the hell of the textile factories, which was the majory employer of female labor.
New legislation, combined with the increasing mechanization of the textile industry, pushed large numbers of women out of the workplace and back into the home, where they cooked, cleaned, and took care of the "bread winner" (the husband) and the next generation of workers (the kids).
The "family wage" was a myth -- only about 1 in 5 workers ever earned enough to up their family. The oppression of the new family under capitalism for working women was all too real.
The capitalists' profits depended on workers coming to work healthy enough to work, skilfull enough to operate machinery, and docile enough to obey foremen. It also saved them a bundle by making sure that these service were provided for free; that is to say, through the unpaid labor of millions of women. Responsibility and loyalty to the family also kept male workers from fighting back. Laws were passed to regulate marriages, divorces, births, and the socialization of children. Homosexuality and any thing else that interfered or deviated from the new family was outlawed and became taboo.
During the decades after World War II, capitalism experienced its most significant boom ever. The boom drew millions of women out of the home and into the work place; women today make up a permanent part of the workforce. Almost half of all women have jobs outside the home. This is crucial to women's liberation, because the workplace breaks women out of the isolation of the home, unites them with men and women, and places in their hands the power to stop the capitalist system and overthrow it all together.
The fight for socialism is tied inextricably to the fight for women's liberation because almost half (or more than half in some countries) of the working class is women. In a socialist society, raising children would be the task of the whole society; communal laundries and cheap restaurants with good food would eliminate much of the "women's work" that women do; and affordable day care would be provided so that women could have jobs and be full, equal participants in running society as their male comrades.
Women's liberation has only been on the agenda for the majority of women workers in periods of revolutionary upheaval.
In the 2011 Egyptian revolution, sexual harassment was all but unknown in the protests, strikes, and tremendous demonstrations that eventually toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. Salma El Tarzi, an Egyptian filmmaker who previously had never been political said this: “The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt.”
It was women textile workers who began the demonstrations on International Women's Day in 1917 that eventually toppled the Tsar. The Russian Revolution de-criminalized homosexuality, gave women the right to vote and the right to free abortion on demand, communal laundries and day care were provided, and divorce was made available because of the demand of either party. Not only did women win the right to vote in Russia, women were elected to cabinet-level positions for the first time in world history.
Because the revolution was isolated, and eventually defeated, the gains women made were taken away; under Stalin, homosexuality was re-criminalized, abortions were outlawed, and women were given medals for having large families.
So does that mean women have to "wait for the revolution" to make any headway? Far from it.
In 1936 in Flint, Michigan, women organized themselves into a Women's Emergency Bridge to beat back police attacks - and in the process, earned the respect of their striking boyfriends and husbands. Up until Britain's 1984 miners' strike, their union paper featured a 3 page pin-up in the middle. But when miners' wives and girlfriends became a central part of the year long fight to save their jobs, the pin-ups disappeared. Women gained confidence and joined men on the picket line and spoke out at meetings.
Socialists have historically been at the forefront of the fight for women's rights. International Women's Day - which used to be Working Women's Day - was first celebrated by the socialist parties of the Second International in 1911.
Struggle doesn't only give women more confidence to challenge their oppression - it makes it clear to male workers that they too have an interest in fighting sexism. And in a socialist society, after workers win the struggle for power, human relationships will be transformed. There won't be the inequality, poverty, powerlessness, alienation, and frustration that give rise to battering and rape. Women will be seen and treated as human beings, not passive sex objects.
"What will there be knew?", asked Engels.
"That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other consideration than real love, or refuse themselves to their lover from fear of economic consequences.
"When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody thinks they ought to do, they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion - and that will be the end of it."