The economic crisis that is gripping the world is driving millions of people into poverty, and rolling back many hard-fought gains. One of the effects of this crisis has been to ratchet up the impact of oppression.
The divisions which capitalism has inherited, fostered or produced are accentuated, and the ruling class attempts to heighten these divisions in order to maintain its rule.
While capitalism did not create gender oppression, it has perpetuated it. This serves both to ensure that the cost of reproducing the next generation of workers is carried by individuals in the private family, and to divide and conquer.
At the same time, the laws of motion of the capitalist system also constantly undermine the family and the basis for the specific oppression of women.
The ideology of women’s principal role being a caregiver in the home clashes with the reality that the majority of women work for a wage outside the home. For working class women, this has meant a double-burden of underpaid work in the workplace and unpaid work caring for young children and the elderly, as well as a greater burden of daily labour maintaining the household. In Canada 60 per cent of women are part of the paid workforce, but comprise 70 per cent of part-time workers, two-thirds of minimum wage earners, perform two-thirds of unpaid caregiving work, and earn 70 cents per dollar of what men are paid (the extra profits go to the boss, while the pay gap is reduced with unionization). Canada’s gender pay gap is one of the highest in the industrialized world, higher than the US, and has grown despite more women getting higher education.
Yet not all women experience gender oppression in the same way. While wealthy women hire nannies and housekeepers and enjoy vacations, working class women increasingly scramble to stay afloat as governments cut social programs like childcare and healthcare, pushing more and more of the burden of care into the private home.
The ideology of women as mothers and caregivers is being ramped up blatantly by governments and employers everywhere as they try to make working class people bear the cost of the crisis.
In Alma, Quebec, where 780 steelworkers are locked out by the giant multinational Rio Tinto, the regional CEO Étienne Jacques told the media that the locked-out workers would soon come to their senses and accept the deep concessions the company is demanding because of the “wife influence factor”. He implied that the workers’ spouses and partners would soon pressure their men to get back to work. In response, on April 21st 200 women organized a “wife influence factor” solidarity picket.
In the face of these attempts by the 1% to push the burden of the crisis onto the 99%, a united movement of women and men, gay and straight, black and white can deal a blow to exploitation and oppression, and point to an alternative—a world run for human need, not profit.
If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the panel “Never going back: how women won abortion rights”