Women’s oppression is inextricably linked to capitalism.
The widespread allegations of sexual assault leveled at Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, from an ever growing list of celebrity women and actresses, has pushed the issue of sexism into the forefront of the media like nothing before it. And unlike previous sexual assault cases, the unfolding Weinstein story shows no sign of fading from the headlines, anytime soon.
Yet the discourse surrounding Weinstein and the rampant sexism and misogyny that characterize not just Hollywood, but numerous sectors of life has, unfortunately, lent itself to shallow—and, frankly, predictable—liberal analyses of why sexism continues to pervade society.
I have a liberal friend, for instance, who, commenting on the scandal concludes merely, “Men suck.” Others have similarly chalked it up to “toxic masculinity,” or “male privilege.”
But these pithy buzz-phrases do little to elaborate on the social and economic conditions that create women’s oppression. If we are serious about ridding the world of sexism (as well as homophobia, racism, ableism, etc.), then we need to understand where oppression comes from. Only then will leftists have a political framework for how to dismantle such oppression.
First, let’s be clear: Weinstein’s decades-long history of abusing, humiliating, sexually harassing, and allegedly raping women is nothing less than abhorrent. The only thing more alarming than how long Weinstein was able to get away with his chauvinistic behavior, is how many seemingly progressive male Hollywood actors (including liberal stalwarts like, George Clooney and Matt Damon) turned a blind-eye to Weinstein’s womanizing.
The Weinstein scandal is augmented by the fact that the sitting president has his own long, sordid history of abusing, denigrating, and sexually assaulting women.
A year ago around this time, Trump’s now infamous Access Hollywood, “hot mic” video was leaked to the press, in which Trump bragged to actor, Billy Bush, about his penchant for grabbing women “by the pussy.”
By every conceivable rationale, the tape should have sunk Trump’s presidential campaign. Instead, he won. And while it would be a gross oversimplification to blame sexism (or, for that matter, racism), alone for Trump’s victory, it is undeniable that both forms of discrimination played some role.
“Many of Trump’s voters were not primarily driven by ‘whitelash’ or ‘malelash’ sentiments,” writes Naomi Klein in her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. “Plenty of them said they voted for Trump because they liked what he said about trade and jobs …”
But there’s a problem with these stories. You cannot cast a ballot for a person who is openly riling up hatred based on race, gender or physical ability unless, on some level, you think those issues aren’t important. That the lives of people being put in tangible danger by this rhetoric (and the policies that flow from it) matter less than your life and the lives of people who look more like you. You can’t do it unless you are willing to sacrifice those other categories of people for your (hoped-for) gain.
“To put it bluntly,” Klein adds, “a vote for Trump might not reflect active hatred, but there is still, at best, a troubling indifference behind the act.”
Trump, in typically hypocritical fashion, has condemned Weinstein’s actions, telling the press he is “not at all surprised,” about the revelations. When asked by a reporter how Weinstein’s mistreatment of women differs from his own, Trump just brushed off his Access Hollywood comments as “That’s locker room [talk].”
With repugnant misogynists like Trump and Weinstein (not to mention Bill Cosby, Bill O’ Reilly and Ben Affleck) in power is it any wonder Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale has spent 35 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list?
Marxism locates female oppression in women’s historically subordinate role within the family. Marx and Engels referred to the excess amount of housework women have traditionally been responsible for (cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, caretaking, etc.) as “unpaid domestic labor.”
And, while many families have made an effort to more evenly divide the household work in recent years (consider, for instance, one of the most lasting effects of the Great Recession: The rise of the “stay-at-home-dad”), surveys continue to indicate that the majority of domestic chores fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. This has remained the case even as women entered the workforce after the Second World War.
Capitalism also charges working-class women with the crucial, yet largely unacknowledged role of creating more workers. As author Sharon Smith writes of this role in her book, Women and Socialism: Class, Race, and Capital, “In capitalist societies, women in property-holding families reproduce heirs; women in working-class families reproduce workers for the system.”
The capitalist class has become dependent on this method of “privatized reproduction” within the working-class family because it lessens capitalists’ own financial responsibility for the reproduction of labor power, which is instead largely supplied by unpaid domestic labor performed primarily by women. The precondition for women’s liberation thus requires an end to their unpaid labor inside the family. This, in turn, necessitates a socialist transformation of society, which cannot be achieved gradually but only through a process of social revolution, in a decisive battle between classes.
In other words, no serious discussion of ending women’s oppression can ignore the system (i.e. capitalism) that creates—and, indeed, relies on–that oppression in the first place.
There is no biological or psychological evidence to suggest that men are naturally sexist. Nor, for that matter, is there anything inherently “toxic” about masculinity—though capitalism and the military certainly have a way of conditioning men to behave in aggressive, combative ways.
While the women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s won significant victories in advancing female equality, the feminist movement has stalled in recent decades, largely due to its co-option with what Socialist Worker‘s Elizabeth Schulte calls “trickle-down feminism.”
This brand of pseudo-feminism suggests that if we simply had more female CEOs, corporate managers, and executive directors, then the work of feminism will be complete. Trickle-down feminism holds up billionaire celebrity figures like Oprah Winfrey (net worth: $3.1 billion), Sheryl Sandberg ($1.57 billion), and Walmart heir, Alice Walton ($33.8 billion) as models working-class women should attempt to emulate.
But there is nothing truly radical about this form of corporate feminism. It is little more than identity-politics. While we absolutely should strive to level the playing-field between men and women, trickle-down feminism is aimed squarely at middle-class women–not the poor, or the struggling single-parents.
The media drumbeat over our supposed “post-feminist” era, Schulte writes, “rarely address[es] the concerns of the vast majority of women who are part of the working class.”
The media, Schulte writes,
measure the success of women at large by the success stories of a few corporate executives or political officials at the top–and argue that these examples of “having it all” will eventually trickle down to all women. The inevitable focus of these [post-feminist] articles and books is what women can do personally to succeed. (Italics hers.)
Should men do more, individually, to combat sexism in the workplace, among friends and in public, as liberal commentator, Alex Steed, suggests? Absolutely.
But we cannot limit our opposition to sexism to these interpersonal exchanges. All of us–women and men–must also “call out” the capitalist system that relies on sexist stereotypes and ideas to function. We must rediscover the language of radical feminists like Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Flynn, a labor activist in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in her autobiography, Rebel Girl:
A domestic life and possibly a large family had no attraction for me. … I wanted to speak and write, to travel, to meet people, to see places, to organize for the I.W.W. I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for this…
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