One hundred years ago today, 99 women from 17 different countries attended the Socialist Women’s Conference held in Copenhagen in the House of the People. In this first part, we look at the origins of Women’s Day, the origin of women’s oppression in class society, how capitalism lays the material foundations upon which the question of women’s emancipation can be tackled as part of the struggle of the working class for the emancipation of the whole of humanity from class oppression.
“Class struggle is the women’s struggle! Women’s struggle is class struggle!” That was the slogan in the 1970s, especially of the Danish “Red-Stockings” feminist movement. Today, many smile a bit when hearing this slogan, but unfortunately there is not much to smile about. Women are still oppressed both in Denmark and the rest of the world.
On the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 8th March as International Women’s Day, it is appropriate to take up the women’s question for detailed discussion in the entire labour movement and among all young people and workers who seek a just society.
Many on the Left have rejected the ideas of class struggle. But as Marxists we believe that the oppression of women is inextricably linked to class society. The capitalists are using any divisions within the working class to attack the conditions of the workers. The fight against women’s oppression is a struggle for the entire working class, regardless of gender; the only strength of the working class is in unity and cohesion.
We believe that the linking of women’s liberation and the class struggle is crucial if we want to fight for gender equality and not least for the liberation of the whole of humanity. And yet women’s oppression still exists here in Denmark. A closer look at Denmark as an example, can inform us through the experience of the women’s struggle and the class struggle so that we can investigate the reason why, despite equality before the law, in access to education and work inequality still exists.
International Working Women’s Day
In August 1910 the socialist women’s conference adopted a proposal to hold a day of action for working women annually. In the first year, the day of action was held on a Sunday in March, but has since been established as the 8th of March.
The German Socialist Clara Zetkin, leader of the International Socialist Women’s Secretariat, convened the conference and proposed the establishment of International Women’s Day. 99 women from 17 different countries attended the conference held in Copenhagen in the House of the People in Jagtvej 69 (later known as Ungdomshuset).
One of the conference’s main issues was the struggle for women’s suffrage, that only very few countries had introduced. The Danish women won the right to vote for city councils in 1908 but only received the right to vote for parliamentary elections in 1915.
The resolution from Clara Zetkin states:
“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in each country, the socialist women in all countries shall organise a Women’s Day every year. First of all, the Women’s Day shall have the aim of achieving universal suffrage for women. This claim shall be in line with the socialist understanding of the entire women’s rights issue. The Women’s Day shall be international in its nature and must be prepared meticulously. ”1
The Conference decided that the demands for the day of struggle should be
- The struggle for women’s suffrage
- The fight against the threat of war
- The fight for care for mother and child
- The fight against price rises2
The first International Socialist Women’s Conference had been held in Stuttgart in 1907 as a prelude to the Second International Congress. In 1889 the second International was founded under the auspices of Engels. The German Social Democrats, who played a central role in the International, had established already in the 1890s a women’s secretariat headed by Clara Zetkin.
Until then there had been a relatively free flow between the labour movement and the women’s movement, which considered itself to be trans-political, but in particular was filled with petty bourgeois women. However, in 1907 the labour movement decided to put the issue of women’s suffrage at the top of the agenda and also to stop cooperation with the “bourgeois” women’s organisations and instead conduct its own campaign.
Now it was made clear that it was working class women for whom the Socialists fought and that the women’s issue could not be separated from the class issue and the fight against all oppression and for a socialist society.
Petty bourgeois women did not see the women’s question as a class issue, but believed that all women had the same interests across classes. For them it was about the right to vote, to education and, for example, the possibility of becoming lawyers and doctors. Marxists also struggle for full equality before the law and in education, etc., but we also explain that although equality before the law may be established this does not mean that oppression will disappear, as we have already seen. For middle-class women, it means they can have an education, become doctors, etc., but it does not solve the problems of the vast majority of women. Marxists are fighting, therefore, against this kind of petty bourgeois feminism, which does not see class antagonisms and capital as the enemy, but instead sees it as a common struggle for all women against male-dominated society.
Marxists are fighting for full women’s emancipation, but are against feminism, because it is a petty bourgeois school of thought that ignores class antagonisms. At the same time, we recognise that many good socialists consider themselves to be feminists, and we want to struggle together with anyone who will fight for women’s emancipation through socialism.
In Denmark, the trade unions and the Social Democrats took the same position as the International and in 1908 adopted the following:
There is only one labour movement. It deals with the education of the members and the socialist voters.
There is no room for separate women’s associations in the party. There is only room for women’s unions in trades without men and subordinate to the central organisation.
Women’s access to the party must be facilitated. They are to pay half the subs.
The women’s movement and women’s parties [independent of the party] are superfluous.
In 1914 the First World War broke out, and it also fractured the international socialist movement into two wings between the reformist and revolutionary, a split that was further deepened by the Russian revolution.
The reformists believed that you could reform your way to a just society by, for example achieving suffrage for all, fighting for higher wages, etc. They defended the capitalist society and merely wanted to change it gradually. On the other side stood the revolutionaries, among others Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, who explained that you couldn’t simply change society gradually. Any concession from the capitalists is a struggle and liberation cannot be achieved without changing society fundamentally. It was primarily the revolutionary wing, that after the Russian Revolution founded the Third Communist International, which maintained the celebration of the 8th March as International Women’s Day.
Seventy percent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor are women and girls3. Approximately 25 percent of men in developing countries suffer from anaemia due to iron deficiency, while this is true for some 45 percent of women. Iron deficiency means that 300 women die during childbirth every day4.
In developing countries barbaric conditions exist for women in many places. Women are sold as wives while they are still children. In Pakistan there are many examples of women disfigured by acid or even killed if they have violated the man and his family’s honour and it takes five female witnesses in a trial to cancel out one man’s testimony.
The French utopian socialist and philosopher Charles Fourier said “human progress can be measured in the woman’s progress towards freedom”. The conditions for women have fortunately become much better in the advanced capitalist countries. This is mainly due to the fact that economic development has advanced much further here, thus the conditions have improved and the culture has thus been raised to a higher level. But even though conditions have improved and although there is equality in law, there is still oppression of women and gender inequality. The case of Denmark is a good example of this and deserves a more in-depth analysis.
The Equal Pay Act was adopted in 1976 and since then the wage differential between men and women stagnated at between 12-19% depending on the profession5. It is probably a part of the explanation as to why men in both 1987 and 2001 spent more time on their jobs than women, and women spend an average of one hour more per day on household work than men (housework, taking the children to nursery, etc.). One would imagine that society has been moving forward and that the development of technology would mean more free time. Instead working hours in the home and in the workplace has increased for both men and women.
The search for more profit and increased competition on a world scale has led to the intensification of the exploitation of the working class, increased rhythms and productivity levels on the one hand, but has also led to the extension of working hours on the other. This is a world phenomenon deeply connected to the mechanism of capitalist production. At the same time the erosion of the conquests of the workers over the last three decades, the privatisations of social services and budget cuts to welfare have thrown upon the shoulders of the working class a bigger burden in guaranteeing care for their children and the elderly.
The men’s time spent on work in the home has increased by an hour since 1987, women’s by half an hour6.
Legally the woman is no longer dependent on men, but everyone knows that being a single mother is very difficult, both financially and not least in everyday life with work, the bringing up of the children and all the other practical tasks. So while the legal dependence has been abolished, there are still a thousand strings that bind the woman to the man and the home.
Traditionally, more women are unemployed than men and women have been used as a reserve army of labour, and during crises it is they who have been hardest hit. The current crisis is the first crisis in which we see that there are more men than women unemployed in Europe, and also in Denmark. But this will change. The crisis hit hard in private manufacturing industry, where it is primarily men who are employed. In the coming period we will see harsh attacks on welfare, that is, the public sector where many women work. When there are plenty of unemployed workers, employers will begin to hire men. (Who would hire a woman of childbearing age?) And many women will think that they may as well have some children instead of trying to get a job they can’t get anyway.
The women’s question is more than the measurable difference in salary, and who does what at home. The women’s question is more generally about the conditions of women and also an ideological and cultural question. There still exists a myriad of prejudices and bigotry against women. With the general decay of capitalism, there is also a brutalisation of culture, not least in the representation of women.
Oppression of women takes many forms around the world, because of the different economic stages and different levels of cultural development in the different countries. But women’s oppression, whatever its form has the same origin and hence the same solution.
The origin of inequality
Marxists are historical materialists. This means that we understand the evolution of humankind’s material conditions as fundamental. Engels explains in “The Origin of the Family, private property and the State” how women’s oppression is inextricably linked to class society. In early human history, humans could only produce just enough for themselves to survive with no extra surplus, and hence inequality could not exist at that time.
If a division of labour existed it was a division of labour between the sexes based on the biological fact that women for part of the time were tied to the “home” because of childbirth, breastfeeding, etc. The exact nature of the division of labour between men and women in early primitive society is not clear, but in line with the first development of the productive forces a division between the sexes emerged. The women’s task was, in addition to childcare, to gather roots, berries, etc. and especially to cook. The men’s task was to hunt, defend their territory in war, etc. Many studies indicate that the women’s role was crucial to survival and the women enjoyed great respect and the children were, for example, counted through the mother’s line (since the mother was the only parent one could be certain of7).
It is important to remember that that society in no way resembled the society we know today. While patriarchy is a society where women are oppressed, there is nothing to indicate that women oppressed men before patriarchy but rather that there was mutual respect. There was no family as we know it today with a mother and a father; instead families lived in clans or gens and the bringing up of the children was a joint task for all members of society.
Over time humans began to develop the way they provided for their basic needs. They began cultivating the land, fencing and raising animals. Humans began for the first time to produce a surplus beyond the needs of basic survival. It was a giant step forward. But it also meant that for the first time inequality began to emerge. Some began to have more than others, and with it arose class society. Besides the division of society into classes it also meant inequality between men and women. The work that had traditionally belonged to the man was what could create a surplus, and it gave the man a superior position. It also meant that the man now wanted to leave his property to his offspring. Thus the family line had now to go through the male, which also demanded monogamy from the woman.
“The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private property and the State).
The oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society, and thus the struggle for women’s emancipation is inseparable from the struggle against class society. The changes in the mode of production also led to the rise of the state, and with it ideas and forms of oppression also changed.
The foundation for the emancipation of women
Engels explains in the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State how it was in the world historic defeat of the female sex that women’s work lost its public character. At the same time he explains how capitalism for the first time changes this. Under capitalism the entire family is drawn into production, and while on the one hand it presents a double burden for women in both paid work and housework, so it is also lays the basis for women’s liberation. Through work woman becomes part of the working class and hence the class struggle.
“As regards the legal equality of husband and wife in marriage, the position is no better. The legal inequality of the two partners, bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.
“In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat. In the industrial world, the specific character of the economic oppression burdening the proletariat is visible in all its sharpness only when all special legal privileges of the capitalist class have been abolished and complete legal equality of both classes established. The democratic republic does not do away with the opposition of the two classes; on the contrary, it provides the clear field on which the fight can be fought out. And in the same way, the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, the Private Property and the State, our emphasis)
In Denmark, the women’s share of the labour force has increased from the late 1960s until today. After the Second World War there was a long recovery of capitalism, with an enormous development of production, expansion of the world market, etc., which allowed an expansion of welfare. The general relief from housework and the improved opportunities for childcare, care of the elderly, etc., made it possible for women to do paid work (Denmark has the highest ratio in relation to childcare in the world). At the same time it created a large public sector where many women were employed8.
The female employment rate in Denmark, i.e. the proportion of women of working age who work, rose sharply. In 1960 it was at 33.9%, whereas men’s was 83.6%9, but by 1981 it had increased to 70.8 per cent, while men’s participation rate was 86.8 percent. In 1998 the male employment rate dropped to 81.6 percent, while female employment had increased to 73.2 percent.
In 1967, women accounted for 800,000 in the workforce. The corresponding figure for 1998 is 1.3 million. The total workforce has in the same period increased from 2.3 million to 2.9 million10.
In comparison, the corresponding figures for the UK and the USA were:
1971 in UK: women 42.4%, men 80.6%11
1973 in the US: women 42 %, men 75.5%.
1990 in UK: women 50.3%, men 70.5%
1990 in the US: women 54.3%, men 72%
2008 in UK: women 56.2%, men 68.5%
And in Sweden the percentage of women in the work force was: 1975: 42%, 1980: 45%, 1985: 47%, 1990: 48%, 2008: 47%.12
Women’s participation in the workforce has laid the foundation for women’s emancipation, but only the foundation. The post-war recovery was an historical exception, and the crisis broke out in the early 1970s. Expansion of welfare more or less stagnated; the conditions of public employees were attacked year after year. Conditions deteriorated for children, the sick and the elderly, which has put enormous pressure on women in particular. Capitalism is not creating prosperity for working women or the majority of the world population. Only through a socialist society can we create the foundation for full emancipation.
Women’s struggle and socialism
Under capitalism the potential for the elimination of women’s oppression has been created and likewise the foundation for the abolition of all oppression has been laid. Capitalism was initially a progressive system, which developed the means of production to unprecedented heights. We can now produce enough that no one needs to suffer hardship, and inequality could be eliminated by considerably raising the standard of living for the vast majority. However, under capitalism things are produced for profit not human need. Under capitalism millions are thrown into unemployment, while the other millions are worn down; new technology is introduced to get people to work faster and sack the rest.
With a planned economy, we would immediately be able to increase production, and use the technology for the benefit of the majority. Working hours would immediately be lowered, which is a crucial step towards women’s emancipation. At the same time we would be able introduce a host of other things that could bring us closer to the emancipation of women.
Firstly, we would use the resources that are available to enhance public welfare, so workers and their children, the elderly and the sick get decent conditions. Additionally, we could use technology to remove more or less most of the housework. Robotic vacuum cleaners, washing machines for everyone, public laundries, civic restaurants, good, healthy and affordable food for all, meals in all nurseries, schools and all workplaces, renovated housing, public window cleaning, cleaning helps, and so on, would be just the beginning in the task of liberating humanity. Our present outlook is limited by our current situation; it will be up to our children and grandchildren to develop all those things that are useful for human emancipation.
But all this will not come automatically. It requires the expropriation of the capitalists, of the elimination of their private ownership of the means of production, i.e. the working class must take over the largest companies, and thus take over control of the key sectors of the economy. Today a small minority, the capitalists, owns the means of production, i.e. the factories, the machines etc. It is they who decide what and when to produce, depending on what they can earn a profit from. But in reality the wealth is created by the great majority, i.e. the working class who, every day have to go to work for the capitalists. The working class must take over the most important sections of the economy – which means in Denmark for example the 200 largest companies – so that it is the majority who will democratically decide what to produce, so a plan can be drawn up to take advantage as much as possible of the available technology and production, so that production can be raised and working hours lowered. Only thus can we remove everything that enslaves women and men to domestic work and many hours of work for others. Through a socialist plan of the economy, the real human potential of culture, science, creativity, etc., can for the first time be fully revealed.
After the Russian Revolution the new power, the Bolsheviks, took the question of women’s issues very seriously. The October Revolution for the first time allowed the broad masses to participate in politics.
“In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman. Ever since private property in land and factories has been abolished and the power of the landowners and capitalists overthrown, the tasks of politics have become simple, clear and comprehensible to the working people as a whole, including working women. In capitalist society the woman’s position is marked by such inequality that the extent of her participation in politics is only an insignificant fraction of that of the man. The power of the working people is necessary for a change to be wrought in this situation, for then the main tasks of politics will consist of matters directly affecting the fate of the working people themselves.” (Lenin, The Tasks Of The Working Women’s Movement In The Soviet Republic, Speech Delivered At The Fourth Moscow City Conference Of Non-Party Working Women, September 23, 1919)
The first thing the Bolsheviks did when they came to power was to establish full gender equality before the law. They introduced the right to divorce and abortion and civil marriages outside the Church among other things. But as Lenin explained, gender equality in law is far from enough. The development of production must then be used to create nurseries, schools, public kitchens, and invent machines to facilitate housework. Many of these things exist today, but firstly they are not available to alle and the quality of these services is under constant attack. As explained above, domestic work and work outside the home isincreasing for both men and women, while opening hours and the quality of childcare are going down.
Our vision is not one of sharing housework and wage labour, but of the elimination of all drudgery.
“No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.
“This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. But none of the bourgeois republics, including the most democratic, has dared to take even this first step. The reason is awe of ‘sacrosanct private property’.
“The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards a complete and actual emancipation of woman, her liberation from ‘household bondage’ through transition from petty individual housekeeping to large-scale socialized domestic services.
“This transition is a difficult one, because it involves the remoulding of the most deep-rooted, inveterate, hidebound and rigid ‘order’ (indecency and barbarity would be nearer the truth). But the transition has been started, the thing has been set in motion, we have taken the new path.” (Lenin, International Working Women’s Day, 1921)
But the Soviet economy was not developed enough to eliminate housework and the family – the family cannot be eliminated but must be replaced by something else. It was the backwardness and isolation of Soviet Russia, which created the basis for the taking of power in the Soviet Union by the bureaucracy with Stalin at its head, and it was on this basis that the Soviet Union failed to develop a new family type, and instead went back to the norms of capitalist bourgeois society. Instead of fighting inequality and oppression, the bureaucracy under Stalin needed to consolidate its power. With the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union there was a dramatic reduction in the freedom of Soviet citizens in general, and particularly of women. The right to abortion and free divorce was abolished, and working and peasant women remained chained to housework. Soviet Russia also had the most developed approach towards homosexuality, which was likewise reversed completely by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Planned economy is not viable without democracy, and the Soviet economy eventually collapsed, as Trotsky had predicted.
However, the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union is not a reason for rejecting socialism. What we saw develop in the Soviet Union was not socialism, but what was achieved in the first years of the revolution demonstrated that the revolution is an imperative first step that lays the whole basis of the emancipation of women and humankind.
“The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.” (Trotsky, From the old Family to the New, 1923)
This of course does not suggest that one has to eat in a civic restaurant, and that you are never allowed to cook, and public children’s upbringing does not mean that children are not going to be brought up by their families. What it means is that allcoercion is removed. You don’t have to shop for food, cook, wash up, clean and prepare packed lunches each day; but you do these things only if you want to. There will be nurseries, schools and leisure centres, hospitals, care for the elderly, etc., with trained staff who have time to do their work properly and continuously develop professionally while working hours will immediately be lowered.
We have obviously moved on further today with technological innovations, for instance, with washing machines, dishwashers, microwave ovens, etc. The aims of the Bolsheviks, compared to contemporary developments, were amazingly visionary. Just imagine what could be achieved today, given the current level of technology.
But how do we then fight for women’s emancipation? In order to answer that, we have to go deeper into the discussion on how inequality between men and women arose.
Biology and female nature
Biological differences between the sexes are often raised to justify all kinds of reactionary concepts, such as supposed differences in intelligence. These are also used to justify confining women to the four walls of the home, as if this were somehow biologically inbuilt. In reality, these ideas reflect material forces that have emerged as a result of the development of class society, where one class oppresses another.
Some argue that the basis of inequality between men and women is biological. This argument about biology can take several forms. Many feminists argue that women’s oppression is due to patriarchy that is embedded in men’s nature to oppress women. But, as Engels explains, the early history of humankind shows that women have not always been oppressed and in an inferior position to men. Hence there is no evidence that it is biologically built into men that they should oppress women as it is also generally not built into people to oppress each other. This way of thinking would also be a very pessimistic conclusion as then there would be nothing that could be done about it.
Others refer to “female nature”. The reference to so-called female nature is just as reactionary as the claim that women’s oppression is built into men. It is a view similar to those that try to say that socialism is impossible, because human nature is greedy, selfish, etc. The fact is there is no such thing as “human nature” fixed for all time. “Human nature” changes over time with the development of society. There is much more of a difference between Neolithic man and modern man than there is between women and men today. Just look at the difference between how women are expected to behave in a primitive African tribe and in the Western world today. Or just look at the difference between a girl raised in Hollywood or a small rural village in China. The difference is immense.
Ted Grant and Alan Woods in their book on Marxism and Science, Reason in Revolt, explain how human nature is a product of history:
“Marx and Engels explained that ‘man makes himself’. Human nature, like consciousness, is a product of the prevailing social and economic conditions. That is why human nature has changed throughout history, following the development of society itself. For the socio-biologist, human characteristics appear biologically fixed through our genes, giving sustenance to the myth that ’you can’t change human nature.’ In point of fact, so-called ‘human nature’ has been transformed and re-transformed many times in the course of human history (…)” (Reason and Revolt, page 329)
Well, but some will object, girls and boys do behave differently. Boys would rather play with weapons and cars and girls preferably with dolls. One mother recently replied on television to the question of why she bought girly toys for her daughter, “She likes pink so much, I believe it is genetic,” a simple version of the biological argument that one encounters everywhere in our society. This way of thinking can thus be used to say that the mother instinct is an argument in favour of solely women caring for the children and that therefore their place is in the home.
We are brought up differently
How do you separate biology and culture? Through several millennia there has been created a culture where a difference in the upbringing of girls and boys has been practiced from the day they are born. It is of course nothing that changes by itself, and studies show that it still happens in developed countries like Denmark and Sweden. It is built in to the culture in all countries because classes and inequality exist in all countries. Therefore it is impossible to say what the biological difference is in how boys and girls behave, if there is any at all. We believe that it isundoubtedly a difference in how girls and boys are raised and that it has an influence in the formation of their personalities. History shows that the way humans behave, the norms and values that are valued, do not depend on “human nature” but exactly on the material conditions we grow up under and are raised in.
A test described by Ann-Elisabeth Knudsen, associate professor in Danish language and psychology specializing in the development of children’s brains, shows how we treat children differently from their very infancy. In the experiment, a group of volunteers were asked to take care of a three-month infant for half an hour. The experiment took place in a room with hidden cameras. The child was deliberately dressed in gender-neutral clothing, so you could not tell if it was a boy or girl.
“After sitting with the child for a while, it becomes too much for all the test-persons (both men and women). They have tentatively started a game, but are clearly physically uncomfortable and awkward, and before the mother [of the child] comes back, all subjects without exception, pull just a little on the nappy to check the child’s sex! The relief is plain to trace subsequently in the video recordings, almost as if they expressed: ‘Oh, you’re that kind! ‘So now I know how to hold, talk and play with you’. It is thought provoking, especially considering that there are not really any physiological differences in the needs of a three-month old girl and boy. So the difference in our approach to the way we treat young children may be deeply dependent on our unconscious gender expectations “(Ann-Elisabeth Knudsen, Pæne piger og dumme drenge, 2002. Our emphasis. Our translation)
Ann-Elisabeth Knudsen’s basic point is that “brains evolve, as they are influenced to”. So when we treat boys and girls differently, their brains also develop differently. Fortunately, the brain develops throughout life and thus are also affected by their lives as a whole.
The experiment shows that girls and boys are affected differently from birth, and as explained above, “female nature” and “male nature” changes throughout history. With the changing influences, we alter the development of girls and boys. So there is no biological basis for saying that women belong in the home, don’t understand mathematics, or are otherwise inferior to men. Just as little as there is any basis for claiming that men have a biological urge to oppress women. Humankind evolves as it is affected to.
From birth girls and boys are met with different expectations, and in line with the general stagnation of capitalism, and hence cultural degeneration, this is not improving. The Swedish ombudsman recently condemned a toy catalogue from Toys ‘R’ Us for being too gender stereotyped. Just look at the nearest toy catalogue and see that the pages have become increasingly divided into pink and blue: pink children’s bicycles with handlebar baskets and child seats for girls and blue racing bicycles with flames down the sides for boys; dolls for girls and technical Lego for the boys.
As brain research shows, there is a huge potential for the development of humankind, regardless of gender, once all the burdens that are currently weighing on us, are eliminated under socialism. When humans’ primary concern is no longer acquiring one’s daily bread, then the energy can be used to develop the talents that each of us, men and women, possess.
A social construction?
Partly in opposition to these kinds of reactionary arguments, i.e. that the oppression of women is biologically based and thus natural, another school of thought in feminism, social-constructivism, arose. Social-constructivists correctly enough point out that a social construction of what gender is takes place and that it is not a priori biologically given. But social-constructivists deny not only that biology plays a role, but also that material factors have any effect. According to social-constructivists there is no material basis for women’s oppression.
Christel Stormhoj, Associate Professor at Roskilde University explains it thus:
“The gap between biological and social/cultural gender is dissolved. The body does not exist as a real object logically or temporally prior to its articulation […] it means that what is commonly called the biological sex, is seen as partly constituted by the discursive forms and thus as an effect […] Thus gender cannot be seen as based on […] a foundation of a material nature, which is external to the discourse.” (Stormhoj, ”Videnskabsteoretiske positioner i samfundsvidenskabelig, feministisk teori”, i ”Videnskabsteori i samfundsvidenskaberne”, 2003, Our translation)
Many left-wing youth have been attracted to these ideas because they categorically reject the biology argument, criticise the established oppressive norms and more generally challenge the powers that be. Many interesting social-constructivist studies have been made of how notions of gender are created. But as Marxists we reject social-constructivism as a theory that neither can explain nor change women’s repression.
Firstly we must ask ourselves: what is the basis of this social construction? To that question you get the answer: social constructions evolve from each other. Yes, but what was then the origin of the first construction, and why did the constructions develop in one direction and not another? The social-constructivists cannot answer that. Social-constructivism is basically an idealistic theory. Not understood as what one in everyday language understands as idealism, as beautiful ideals, but philosophical idealism, where history is explained as the history of ideas, and where the actions of people are explained from abstract thought and not material needs. In philosophical materialism, ideas and thoughts are also important, but they do not play an independent part separated from their material basis.
Thus the solutions become equally vague. If it is social constructions, norms and language that are essential and the material reality doesn’t exist, then the solution is to try to widen the scope of the norm, to show that it is possible to do things differently. This results in a lot of (often good) articles, studies and the like, demonstrating the oppressive norm and besides that different kinds of “social experiments” with various family and living-forms, as we saw for instance in the 1970s. Many of the experiments, as for example collective ways of living, had many good sides, as for example joint distribution of the housework, childcare etc., but they could not solve the problem of oppression in general and the oppression of women specifically, because they did not address the root cause of the problem, the material cause of oppression. The social structures, ideas, norms, perceptions have a material basis, as already explained by Engels in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”.
Marxism and consciousness
That Marxism is materialist means first and foremost that we recognize that the world exists outside and independently of our consciousness of it. The proof is that we can make experiments. Ideas, and thus notions of gender, constructions and the like cannot exist without a material brain that needs a body that in turn needs food and drink. The ideas and norms ultimately depend on the material basis. Marx explains the connection in the following way:
“The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life, conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” (Marx, 1859, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface, our emphasis)
It is the material that determines ideas and when the economic base changes the ideas also change. The above shows clearly that Marxism has absolutely no mechanical view of the relationship between the material and ideas, as many try to claim, and as some so-called Marxists through time in fact have done. Marx and Engels never had a mechanical view of the relationship between the economy and ideas. To make it absolutely clear, we have included the following quotation from Engels:
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the onlydetermining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” (Engels, 1890 Letter to J. Bloch)
Human consciousness is in fact deeply conservative. In normal periods of history (which represent the vast majority of time) it lags far behind the evolution of the material basis. On the surface it looks as if nothing is happening, that the workers will never go into struggle and accept all attacks from the bosses. But you cannot draw a conclusion on how consciousness and the class struggle develop based on how it all apparently looks on the surface at any given moment in time. It is this kind of thinking that makes some sectarians write off the working class as bourgeoisified. In a workplace there can be an apparent calm. The workers apparently accept all the boss is saying: they can’t say hello to each other, or they get fired, they have to work faster, arrive 15 minutes earlier to change clothes, stay half an hour longer, etc. And nothing happens. But one day the workers have had enough; they are not prepared to accept any more and they come out on strike. Often it is those layers who apparently were the most backward, who throw themselves the hardest into the struggle, as the Bible says: “the last shall be the first”.
Consciousness does not evolve in a straight line but by leaps and bounds. During a struggle consciousness catches up with the objective situation and moves forward apace. It is obviously not a straight line forwards. There are defeats, setbacks and turns both to the right and the left. It is the task of the Marxists at each step, no matter if it is a victory or defeat, to do what we can to increase the awareness of working-class of their own strength and draw the right conclusions.
There is a dialectical relationship between the material conditions and consciousness. It is people of flesh and blood that create history and change the world but they do so within the framework that the material conditions have set. When the material basis is transformed, eventually this changes the ideas, etc.
“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” (Marx, 1845, Theses on Feuerbach)
The vast majority learn through experience. As Marxists we must of course conduct an ideological struggle also against women’s oppression and any prejudices against women. But even though we repeatedly explain that we live in a class society and the need to abolish private property, only a small minority will consciously realise this because they have read a book or listened to a political speech. Only through struggle is the vast majority pushed to draw revolutionary conclusions. It is the same with the women’s question.
Women’s struggle is part of the class struggle
The difference between Feminists and Marxists is that Feminists put women’s issues either above or on a par with the class issue. Those who adopt the latter position see the oppression of women as being on an equal footing with class oppression, racial oppression, etc. (that is, those of them who actually recognise the existence of class oppression, which many of them also reject). Marxists, however, explain that class oppression is fundamental. That does not mean that it may not be harsher to be a poor black woman than a white male worker. It means that class division is the fundamental contradiction that all other forms of oppression revolve around. As we explained, the oppression of women originated with Class Society. The women’s question cannot be separated from the class question, as the class question cannot be separated from the women’s question. For the working class to be victorious this can only come about by going against all divisions. Women’s struggle and class struggle are two sides of the same coin.
With the most basic legal rights such as universal suffrage it becomes increasingly evident that women’s questions are class questions. The women of the bourgeoisie demanded equal rights to get the same education as men, defending their property on an equal footing with their men, in short, to share in their privileges. Working women were, on the other hand, allowed to share in the toil with their husbands, share the toil in the home with their men, experiencing the attacks and attrition from capitalism on an equal footing with their men. Of course we fight for all demands for legal equality between men and women, but we also maintain a class line and explain that any democratic progress cannot be other than a springboard to the fight against capitalism.
On the other hand, it is also clear that women’s struggle is an inseparable part of the class struggle. Capitalists do whatever they can to divide the working class. If they can get a group to accept lower wages this puts pressure on wages for the entire working class. If they can get a group of workers to look down on another group this divides the common struggle against the capitalists. The only strength of the Working Class is in unity across gender, race, sexuality, etc. It is therefore in the interests of the whole working class, including men, to fight the oppression of women.
Women’s issues are raised not only by the left wing, but are also used demagogically by the right wing. For example the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) has used women’s issues with racist rhetoric against immigrants in Denmark, where in words they claim they are fighting for the emancipation of women, but in reality propose one racist and oppressive action after another.
The struggle against forced marriages in Muslim families, for example, has been used as an argument for implementing the 24-years rule, which prevents family reunification for partners if one of them is younger than 24 years old. Apart from that, family reunification can only happen if the partners’ overall connection to Denmark is greater than their overall connection to another country, and if the partner who lives in Denmark can provide more than 60,000 Danish kroner (more than 8000 Euros) as a guarantee, and hasn’t received cash benefits or unemployment benefits for a year, and earns enough to provide for the partner. Last but not least, there is a demand that the joint residence has to have a certain size. All this is used as an argument to fight family reunification, which the law by the way has not prevented since the women are simply sent to another country to get married by force, with whoever the family has chosen.
In this context, women’s liberation has even repeatedly been used to legitimise the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan. Thus we can see how the bourgeoisie uses women’s issues to divide the working class and introduce all kinds of reactionary concepts.
Should women separate themselves from the labour movement or should they be an essential part of it in struggling for their rights? Any attempt to divide trade unionists and workers in general according to gender is reactionary and plays into hands of the bosses. Experience itself shows that once women start to organise in the workplace and fight for their rights, this cuts across divisions, unites men and women workers and strengthens both the position of women and the working class as a whole.
Unfortunately, petty bourgeois feminism has also crept into some parts of the labour movement, and despite good intentions, it has had harmful effects.
Many on the Danish left wing have put forward a demand for more women managers in Danish companies. But what does this mean? It changes absolutely nothing for the vast majority of women who are not going to become bosses. It makes no difference as to whether they should receive a 15% lower salary from a female or male boss, or whether a woman or a man fires them. It does not change their situation. One argument in favour of more female managers is that it has been shown to produce positive numbers in the balance sheet with women on the boards – it means in fact that they are drawing even more surplus value out of the workers. While female executives, professors, politicians get their homes cared for by an underpaid au pair girl, working women are pressured to the utmost by long working hours, shorter opening hours in day care services, etc. etc. Such demands help to blur the class antagonisms. Throughout history, the bourgeoisie have tried in many different ways to create a sense of “we stand together” and we are doing something to solve the problems.
The very tops of the black population in the U.S. get good positions to give the impression that the problems have been solved, while the remainder are held down. The election victory of Obama in the U.S. gave immense hope for change but it has not meant a change in circumstances for the vast majority of black Americans. Just as having Hillary Clinton as Secretary has made no difference to the majority of American women. Thatcher in England in the eighties and Angela Merkel in Germany today cannot be said to represent a step closer to women’s emancipation – quite the contrary.
Women’s issues have also been used to promote a right-wing agenda in the labour movement. One of the arguments for Helle Thorning Schmidt, the right-wing candidate in the election for president of the Social Democrats against Frank Jensen, was that she was a woman. The same was true during the last general secretary election in the LO (the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions), where leftist Harald Børsting won against the right wing Tine Auervig-Huggenberger.
Women at the top of the labour movement can just as well as men move away from the ordinary members and betray their interests and requirements. It is not the gender that determines whether a person can best lead the fight for women’s emancipation, but the person’s political stance.
Therefore, Marxists also reject any positive gender discrimination, as for example gender divided lists of speakers, special quotas in party leaderships, boards, etc. We reject special quotas and seats in boards reserved for women. This is often used by the right wing to promote their people against genuine class fighters. Political issues not gender must decide the majority in the leadership of the workers’ movement. We also reject all proposals like gender segregation of lists of speakers for conferences in the movement. It is ideas, not gender, which are crucial.
Besides the fact that these initiatives do not work and do not get more women on the podium, for example, they are also degrading towards women who are actually active, because they implicitly say that they are unable to express their own views, to fight for their own ideas and win seats on the basis of ideas and skills.
We oppose all these proposals because they divide the working class, men against women and vice versa. We fight in the entire labour movement for women’s issues to be taken seriously and discussed by all, both men and women.
Women’s struggles in the early days of the labour movement
Women have been part of the working class since the beginning of capitalism. And since then women have participated in the class struggle. The first strike in Denmark, involving women, took place in 1886, where 225 unorganised women at Rubens Steam Weaving mill shut down the works.
Today, women represent 49% of the members of the LO but for women to get organised has not been without its problems. And there are still problems. As the proportion of female labour in the market has increased so has also their degree of organisation and participation in the class struggle. Below is a brief outline of some important battles among female workers in Denmark and especially the lessons learned.
Many feminists reject the common struggle. They explain that the men in the labour movement were and are chauvinists, and that women must organise themselves separately, which has been a constant discussion since 1871 when both the Social Democrats in Denmark and the Danish Women’s Society was founded. There is no doubt that there existed and still exist prejudices within the labour movement, but history shows that through the common struggle, these prejudices can be broken down.
The striking women in Rubens Steam Weaving mill joined the Textile Workers’ Union and got strike support from them, but the strike ended in a defeat. The leadership of the trade union presented the defeat as an expression of “female nature”, that it was due to the fact that women were incapable of showing solidarity, had not understood when and how it was best to fight etc. It was the first but definitely not the last time that the union leadership in the Danish labour movement blamed the strikers themselves for the defeat. When women have been involved, female nature was always to blame. This happened, for example again later in the female plaque painters’ dispute in the 1970s, which we will come back to.
In the early days of the labour movement many unions were closed to women, although women accounted for approximately 20% of all industrial workers at the end of the1890s. In addition there were other forms of female paid employment, as for example maids. For many working families the woman’s income was very important and for female single parents it was crucial.
But although the women were generally more difficult to organise, partly because many worked from home and therefore were completely isolated, and indeed had enough to deal with both work and family commitments, the organisation grew steadily. At the end of the 1890s around 20% of female industrial workers were organised in trade unions, which were more than in most other countries.
From 1888 the Danish Social Democrats included in its programme, “The full emancipation of the humankind without regard to gender, race or nationality,” and demanded the same voting rights for men and women and equal pay for equal work. It did not mean that there was not and still is not any prejudice also within the labour movement and that the labour movement in many areas had a reactionary approach to women’s issues. But the feminist critique of the labour movement’s position on women’s issues misses the point.
Within the labour movement, the ideal that a woman should stay at home carried on all the way up to the 1960s. The man was considered the family breadwinner and the labour movement’s goal was thus to get him a salary, which made it unnecessary for the wife to work. Although in the real world a large proportion of working-class women could not afford to stay home.
Today it is easy enough to say that it was a progressive step that the women came into the labour market, but at the end of the 1800s onwards there was not much to strive for in the labour market for working class women. Women of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes could pursue careers as doctors or lawyers etc., while working class women could only hope for 10-15 hours of hard, heavy work. At the same time, there was no public childcare. Bourgeois women could solve the problem by hiring nannies, but for working class women it was a serious problem.
Feminists also accuse the labour movement of putting to one side the interests of women in favour of the skilled male workers’ interests, and as an example they highlight the discussion on the prohibition of working from home. In the early days of the labour movement many worked from home, as for example seamstresses. For many women this was the only way of making work and family responsibilities compatible. The unions fought for a ban, because it split up the working class and the home workers were poorly organised. The feminists opposed the ban and their response was that it shows that women must be outside the trade union movement. The Marxist answer to this is that the labour movement must put forward the demand for proper, safe and affordable childcare, a living wage and humane working hours for all.
As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto:
“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” (The Communist Manifesto)
We see how they stress the “proletariat as a whole”. There is no way around the labour movement. Women’s issues cannot be seen as separate from the question of class struggle. It is not just on the women’s issues that the leaders of the labour movement do not have a progressive line. Throughout history, the workers’ movement has been split along many lines. For example, skilled and unskilled workers have been played off against each other. Also, as we saw more recently in the spring of 2008 during the civil servants’ strikes in relation to wage negotiations, different groups of public servants, nurses, nursery workers, carers of old people, etc. were on strike for several weeks because they were dissatisfied with the wage deal that was being put forward. The leaders of some of the unions for public servants who were not on strike demanded in the media that the strikers should not get more than the proposed deal, since that would mean that their members would be dissatisfied. The leaders of the different unions on strike also fought each other; the leadership of the nurses’ union (DSR) for example put a lot of emphasis on the demand that the social and health care workers should not earn more than a nurse. The strike was an open-and-shut case for standing together across professions and demanding a higher wage for the low earning women’s sectors.
However, despite the fact that the leaders of the unions fought each other, the strike did lead to some prejudices being broken down. In line with the women becoming a part of the working class they also became a part of the struggle. It is through common struggle that unity across gender or religion etc. can be created.
In 1875 there was such a labour dispute, where it seemed that unorganised women would take over the striking men’s work, which changed the attitude of the tobacco workers’ union, and they realised that they also had to organise the women. The general secretary of the tobacco workers said after the conflict:
“By a regrettable misconception the female and male workers have hitherto stood hostile toward each other as competitors but also here Socialism had exercised its blessing Effect because we through the socialist doctrines reached the recognition that all workers are in solidarity, equal against the attacks from Capital. Of this doctrine, we also come to clarity on woman’s equality with the man, and therefore the woman worker for the same work must be paid in the same proportion as the man.” (Larsen I Arbejdernes historie i Danmark, 2007 page 376)
The strike of the female plaque painters in the 1970s
Throughout the 1960s, there were a growing numbers of so-called wild-cat strikes, i.e. strikes outside the officially recognised bargaining process. In many of these strikes, including in industry, women played an important role as in the Philips strike in 1954, where a majority of the employees were women.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s women workers through struggle raised demands for better conditions, higher wages and in several cases equal pay for equal work regardless of gender. In the 1970s new groups began to participate in strike action, primarily civil servants, the vast majority of whom were women. Nursery teachers, nurses etc. began to use strike action as a weapon.
One of the best-known and most important strikes among women in the 1970s was probably the strike among the female plaque painters at the Royal Porcelain Factory in 1972/73. It was a strike that became a point of reference for the entire working class, and which triggered huge solidarity from the rest of the working class, and which showed that women are certainly able to strike.
Approximately 150 plaque ladies, those who paint plaques at the Royal Porcelain Factory, complained about deteriorating working conditions, which meant a decrease in the piece rate. Factory management agreed to negotiate a new wage deal, but two weeks later terminated the agreement. The plaque ladies refused to work according to the old agreement, but would continue working according to the new one. They demanded that the factory should comply with the standard two months’ notice for termination of local agreements. Against this background, the factory’s management sent them home with the claim that they were on strike. The plaque ladies showed up at the factory every day and requested to be allowed to work under the new agreement.
The matter was taken up in the Labour Court, where the court agreed with the women’s claim that the factory had illegally rescinded the local agreement. The Labour Court sentenced the factory to pay a fine of DKK 20,000 for terminating the local agreement illegally, but at the same time it sentenced the plaque ladies to a penalty of DKK 72,000 for going on strike illegally a clear-cut example of the class character of the Labour Court.
During the strike the plaque ladies, who previously had not imagined that they could change anything, learned a lot and the women showed themselves and the rest of the working class that women can strike and in many cases lead the class struggle. The Plaque ladies met every day and discussed the strike, and many of the women who previously did not dare say anything in larger gatherings, began to participate in discussions. The Plaque ladies also organised a tour of other workplaces where this was possible and explained about their strike. At the workplaces the support was tremendous, both morally and financially. In total DKK 352,311 was collected, which at that time was a huge amount of money and the verdict in the Labour Court led to spontaneous collections across the country, which totalled an additional DKK 60,000.
The trade union and the LO led the negotiations in the Labour Court without involving the plaque ladies, and generally treated the women with incredible disdain. When the plaque ladies asked what professional arbitration was, they got the answer from their union representatives that it was “a room with a table and two chairs. […] Although we explained it to you, you would still never understand it.” (Thygesen, Erfaringer fra en arbejdskamp, 1974) The LO President, Thomas Nielsen commented to the press that it was the plaque ladies’ own fault that they had received such a large fine, and that they were “silly, stubborn and stupid” (Plattepigernes kamp, 1974). The tremendous support from the workplaces, on the other hand, showed that although the leadership of the trade unions treated the plaque ladies with disdain, this was definitely not the case with the trade union rank and file.
When feminists accuse unions of being dominated by men, they forget that there are huge differences between the leadership and the ranks. Generally the leadership behaves arrogantly towards members regardless of their gender, but mostly against marginalised groups. The task is to create unity among the rank and file against this fragmentation of the working class and thereby put pressure on the leadership, instead of helping to increase fragmentation.
The strike as such had nothing to do with women’s issues, but during the strike it also raised questions of that character for the women involved. One of the plaque ladies explains how this came about:
“I guess we had had it in us all the time that they should not be allowed to talk down to us, even though we are only girls – but it is only within the past year, that we have become really conscious. Not primarily as women but as human beings. Previously it was unthinkable that women could sit down and enter into conflict, but this is no more. We have been told from many places that they had not expected that a group of women could hold out so long without becoming enemies themselves. It is that old-fashioned view that men have of girls. But it contains the truth that it probably has been a bigger problem for many of the girls than it would have been for a similar group of men. There are many single mothers and in general many who have a lot on their plate.” (Thygesen, Erfaringer fra en arbejdskamp, 1974 page 66)
Many of the women saw that the conflict took place on three fronts, employers, unions and the home front. For single mothers, it was obviously hard to be involved in a dispute, but also many of those with partners had a difficult time when their men could not understand what the strike was about and complained about being neglected. For several of the plaque ladies the conflict resulted in a divorce. A strike often has far-reaching consequences, including personal ones for those involved and divorces, for example, are not rare.
It is certainly not unique, that when women go on strike, they acquire a very different conception of themselves as several of the plaque ladies described it, “they had woken up”, and it also changes the conditions in the home. Several women subsequently became active in the union. But a single strike will not solve the problems by itself; a general struggle against capitalism is necessary before people can truly be free. The following comment from one of the plaque ladies after the conflict shows well why this is:
“Now we got back to work. It was strange. I was filled with joy, but at the same time it hurt. I would be on piecework again. I was not supposed to think, not to speak or to act. I could not. I looked at my co-workers. Did they have it just as difficult? It couldn’t be true that we again had to be productive machines, without any opportunity to discuss and figure out all that we had been through.” (Thygesen, Erfaringer fra en Arbejdskamp, 1974)
The fight for equal pay
Equal pay was introduced in the collective agreements in the private sector in 1973 after years of pressure from women workers, in particular during strikes among female crane drivers in the shipyards and a joint campaign from trade union women and also the Red-stockings movement. The Women Workers’ Trade Union in Denmark, KAD, had over many years raised the demand of equal pay. They adopted this demand in wage agreements in 1945 and throughout the 1960s, and several trade unions, put equal pay on the agenda. More generally, in society there was a greater focus on women’s issues as part of the general process of radicalisation. Young people, especially middle-class women began to raise women’s issues and formed different groups that were jointly known as the Red-stockings movement. The Red-stockings from the beginning raised the demand of equal pay. On the same day as the Red-stockings first famous event took place, with bra-burning on Strøget [the main street in Copenhagen], they went to Tuborg Brewery and distributed flyers calling for equal pay.
The Red-stockings drew attention to this demand, but it was only when it was raised in the working-class movement by working women in the unions that it was possible for it to be implemented. In 1971 a group for equal pay was set up, attended by active trade union women from in particular the KAD’s Dept. 5 (industrial workers), the Red-stockings and possibly women from other groups. It was not KAD nationally that was involved, but the left wing in the union. The group organised a demonstration for equal pay and distributed 13,000 flyers in the large workplaces in Copenhagen, and women from several of the main workplaces got involved in the organising of the demonstration. The demonstration was held on February 8 1971, which was attended by several thousands and the female workers at Tuborg went on strike.
The demonstrations and generally an increasing number of illegal strikes, such as the plaque ladies’ strike, put the leadership of the trade unions under pressure and the KAD’s general secretary threatened after the collective bargaining in 1971 that, if equal pay was not introduced in 1973, the female workers would go on strike. The discussion on gender equality began to spread into the Social Democratic Party, and in 1976 the Equal Pay Act was passed. The fight for equal pay was successful because of the mobilisation among all the members of the labour movement and thus the leadership was put under pressure.
The Red-stockings raised some important debates, and many of the Red-stockings also played an important role in the labour movement. The Red-stockings Movement, however, continued along the feminist road with a separate organisation of women and a focus on “purely” women’s issues. The labour movement and some of the left wing were written off as lacking solidarity with women and only full of prejudices. It was probably partly true that there were still many prejudices which, for example, was clearly expressed by the LO General secretary Thomas Larsen, but history has shown that there is no way forward in separate groups outside the labour movement. Activities, no matter how spectacular they are and how much press coverage they receive, cannot solve any problems. The fight must be taken up inside the labour movement, in the trade unions and the workers’ parties.
Subsequently we have seen that the pay differential between men and women has not moved one iota. Adoption of equal pay revealed in reality only that the problem is much deeper rooted and cannot be solved by laws and agreements.
It appears that equal pay could once again become an issue during the next round of collective bargaining in spring 2010 in Denmark since several of the unions’ leaderships have suggested it as a key demand. This is certainly a positive step, however the biggest problem for the working class right now is unemployment, which is growing, and employers everywhere are using the threat of sackings to put pressure on wages and working conditions. There is a great danger that the demand for equal pay will be used by the employers to demand a minimum wage freeze and perhaps even reduce earnings for male workers. We must not accept this! It would divide the working class. We must demand that the employers immediately remedy the situation by implementing what was agreed in collective agreements and by law more than 30 years ago; equal pay for equal work!
Civil servants in growing wave of strikes
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of public servants are women, who began to strike on an equal footing with the rest of the working class in the 1970s growing wave of strikes. The Danish labour market is very segregated. Women for example constitute 75 per cent of the staff of municipalities and men around 66 percent of private sector employees1. The situation of women is closely linked to the situation of public servants. Throughout both the eighties and nineties, public spending had been heavily reduced, favourable terms of employment for civil servants were abolished, there was a wave of privatisations, and in general working conditions for civil servants were attacked. The number of children per educator or teacher, or elderly per family assistant, etc. increased.
This policy continued with the right-wing government from 2001 onwards. But from the turn of the millennium, the class struggle entered a new period and protests began to recover strength. The right-wing government conducted cuts mainly through local councils, and for several years this led to large movements. In autumn 2006 there was a strike among nursery teachers and others in numerous municipalities. The nursery teachers in the second largest city Aarhus was in the vanguard with a 4 week long wild-cat strike, and in the summer of 2007 a whole new group began to move. The social and health care workers began to strike for better pay.
In the eighteen month period from spring 2006, three demonstrations with more than 100,000 participants were held against cuts in welfare. It was not fighting spirit or courage that was lacking in these women and men, but leadership. The public employees’ unions would not support the strikes and not coordinate the strikes in the different municipalities, so the strikes were defeated, and the cuts continued.
In spring 2008 collective bargaining for public employees resulted in many weeks of strike action by nurses, nursery teachers and social and health care workers. The demands were “equal pay” and “a man’s wage to women workers.” But it was unclear what was meant. As explained above, the leaders of the various trade unions, both those on strike and those who did not strike fought each other. A graphic image was that at the same time on the same day there was a demonstration of the nurses at the Town Hall Square and a demonstration of educators at the square in front of Parliament. Once again the leadership of the trade unions decided to play one section off against the other. While the DSR nurses’ union raised the demand for equal pay, they made it very clear that equal pay applied more to the nurses than to the social and health care workers.
As for the plaque ladies, the strike meant a huge change for the women involved. Nurses went on strike for the first time in 1973 and said even then that they wanted to break with the idea of considering the job as a nurse as a calling and the Florence Nightingale avocation, something the strikers reiterated during the strike in 2008, now referred to as the end of being “nice girls”.
The strike effectively ended in a small defeat with a minimal wage increase, not because of the strikers but because of the leadership of the unions that were on strike. The leadership of the trade unions did not involve the strikers in decisions, because it would mean that they would lose control of the strike, and likewise they did not coordinate the struggles because they feared losing influence and because they did not see the struggle as a joint struggle, but a struggle to get as many concessions as possible from the same limited money in the state and city budgets. The strike should have been spread to other groups, not least the private sector workers, but that could have meant the strike spiralling completely out of the control of the leadership and a situation like the general strike in Denmark in 1985 could have arisen.
Firstly, it shows clearly that it is not the gender of the trade union leadership, which determines whether they will take the lead in the struggle or not. The leadership of the DSR nurses union is composed of 90% women, and it did not play a better role in securing a victory in the strike, than the leadership of the other unions. Secondly, during the strike another problem for the public sector workers, and thus a large group of working-class women also became clear. In reality, here it is the politicians who are the employers, but at the same time they disclaim any responsibility, and refer to “the Danish Model” that in Denmark trade union struggles and political questions are supposed to remain separated. But the fact is that they cannot be separated and especially not for the public sector workers. The fight for higher wages, better conditions for public employees and, not least, for equal pay is very much a political issue and cannot be resolved through the trade unions alone.
The labour movement leadership, both in the unions and the workers’ parties, the Social Democracy, the Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the Unity List, should together have presented the demand for a wage increase to remove the pay differential for all civil servants. That way they could have shown a clear alternative to the policy of the right-wing government. Another problem for public servants is that they really do not have the same weight to put behind their demands, as workers in the private sector. A strike is designed to hit the employers in the pocket, but when public employees strike, it affects no purses; on the contrary, it often affects children, the old and the sick. To avoid this problem the nurses for example always provide emergency staffing when they are on strike. That meant that even though all nurses were officially on strike during the strike in 2008, in many hospital departments more nurses were on duty than on a regular day because the emergency staffing provided more than the everyday staffing which is also reveals the crazy working conditions.
Civil servants cannot win the battle alone. They must appeal to and involve the workers in the private sector, which also has a large interest in achieving decent welfare services. The split between public servants and private sector workers should be overcome. Previously, the public and private sector agreements were negotiated simultaneously and the nursery teachers’ demand for a 35-hour working week for example played an important role in the general strike in 1985. Subsequently, they were split up so they negotiated separate contracts. We must call for all divisions to be removed both within the organisations and in negotiations on pay and conditions.
Forward to the emancipation of women!
Women have always played an important role in history, also in a series of revolutions from the beginnings of Christianity and Islam through to the French Revolution. The Russian revolution was started by Russian women demanding bread and peace on International Working Women’s Day. And today, although many of those who participated in the recent strikes have been disillusioned, and the present recession has in general led to a collapse in the number of strikes temporarily, it does not mean that nothing is going on beneath the surface. In each struggle the working class learns, whether it ends in victory or defeat. The current stalemate is only temporary, under the surface conclusions are being drawn. One conclusion is that the fight must now be fought politically, and one of the outcomes of the public servants’ strike has been a huge growth in the number of people joining and voting for the SF.
The working class is forced into battle again and again, and they will demand a leadership that will lead the fight in their interests. A struggle to change society is fundamentally necessary to create a socialist society. Then the foundations will be created for the full emancipation of women and the elimination of all oppression. Women’s struggle is part of the working class struggle for liberation.
It is up to the present generation to create a society based on genuine socialism where the emancipation of woman and humankind as a whole is possible. Throughout history, the women workers have demonstrated their courage and fighting spirit and played a crucial role in the fight for a socialist society, a society where we, in the words of Engels, go from “the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”
1 8 March: International Women’s Day, by Anette Eklund Hansen, Labor Movement Library and Archives 2001. Our translation from Danish
2 ”90-årsdagen – ‘ikke det samme som sidste år, James’” by Lene Kjeldsen, www.kvinfo.dk
3 The Danish Foreign Minister webpage: www.kvinder.um.dk
4 See world food programmes webpage: www.wfp.dk
7 Also an argument against those who claim that women by nature are monogamous while men are not able to be monogamous.
8 In regions and municipalities women account for approximately 75 percent of the workforce, while men account for approximately 66 percent of the private sector workforce. In the State men account for 58 percent. But there are far more employed in the regions and municipalities than the state. www.lige.dk.
9 Arbejdernes historie i Danmark 1800-2000
11 The figures for the UK are all from the Office for National Statistics and all figures from the US are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
12 Source: SCB