by Karyn Pomerantz
The rash of sexual harassment charges has generated much attention and rage at women’s treatment in the workplace. Many of these charges have political consequences as they target many Hollywood Democratic Party donors and Republican and Democratic politicians. While mostly upper class women have come forward to accuse celebrities and politicians, sexual violence and abuse are common among all women.
Violence Against Women
Violence against women permeates society; 1 in 20 have reported rape and 1 in 5 reported other forms of sexual violence with Native American women experiencing the highest rates (Sexual Violence: Fact Sheet. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf. 2012. Viewed December 2017). It ranges from intimate partner abuse among same sex and heterosexual partners, sexual harassment of women soldiers to gang rape as a weapon of social control and warfare as in Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, Nigeria, and many other countries. A US study estimated that 2,000,000 women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Peterman A, Palermo A, Bredenkamp C. Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. AJPH June 2011). Much of this violence has a long historical precedent. Enslaved women were routinely raped by their owners to produce children (additional slaves) and assert domination. Whites often accused black men and boys, such as Emmitt Till, of raping white women to terrorize and lynch them.
Economic and Social Violence
Violence against women takes many other forms. Women around the world suffer severe economic conditions, magnified in the US for black, Latin, Native and Asian women by racism. Approximately 10% of white women (2015), and over 20% of black and Latin women in the US lived below the poverty line (2016). (National Women’s Law Center. Poverty Among Women and Families, 2015. https://nwlc.org/resources/national-snapshot-poverty-among-women-families-2015/, viewed December 2017). While the pay gap between women and white men is narrowing, it is still substantial: women’s average median income is 80% of white men’s but vary by racial and ethnic classifications: 54% for Latin, 63% for black, 79% for white, 87% for Asian, and 57% for Native women (AAUW, https://www.aauw.org/files/2017/09/TheSimpleTruthFall2017OnePager-nsa.pdf, viewed December 2017).
Other social and economic conditions also destroy women’s stability. Homelessness and unemployment endanger women’s security. Women have an official unemployment rate of 4.8% that ranged from 3.9% for Asian women to 7.8% for black women with white (4.2%) and Latin women (6.3%) falling in between.
The US has privatized childcare by making it the responsibility of families, primarily women. Women bear most of the responsibility for child and elder care with few if any affordable services available. There are few publicly mandated paid parental leave policies, forcing families to forego income after having children. Childcare can consume 10-50% of a woman’s earnings. In addition to lost income, women lose retirement savings, and society loses over $80 billion in lost wages when women opt out of the workforce to care for children. In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted Social Security but denied it to domestic workers who were predominantly black. This provision wasn’t repealed until the 1970s. Overall, women provide free domestic labor, managing households and multi-generational families, basically raising the next generations of the working class with no compensation and little respect.
Black women have always worked outside the family. While enslaved, they raised the children of their white owners. After slavery, they continued caring for other people’s families at extremely low wages. Black and Latin full-time child care workers now earn a median income of $20,000 per year, barely over the poverty line (National Women’s Law Center. Undervalued. https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/final_nwlc_Undervalued2017.pdf, viewed December 2017).
Women’s health services are under attack in ways we never imagined would occur in the 21st Century. Federal and state laws allow pharmacists to deny birth control to women based on their personal beliefs. Catholic hospitals and health care providers can refuse to perform abortions and provide condoms. New regulations require clinics to follow hospital standards to offer abortions, causing many to close. Some states have instituted waiting periods before women can have an abortion, increasing the expense when women need to travel and stay overnight in motels. These policies especially hurt rural women’s access to reproductive health care where there are fewer hospitals, clinics, and physicians.
Since the Supreme Court protected abortion in 1973, Congress has denied Medicaid coverage for poor women, and many state jurisdictions have passed restrictions on access to abortions. With the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, families will have poorer health and higher mortality rates.
US health policies also affect women in other countries. Globally, the US enforces the Hyde and Helms amendments that prohibit US funded organizations, such as USAID, from promoting and implementing birth control and abortion. Any attempts to do so result in defunding all of the programs paid by the contract.
While denying care, state governments funded approximately 60,000 forced sterilizations from 1905 to the 1970s, targeting women, men and girls deemed poor or mentally deficient. They primarily coerced working class immigrant, black, Latin, Native American, and imprisoned people living in southern states, Puerto Rico (33% of child bearing aged women), and California (20,000 operations) (Stern A. Sterilized in the Name of Public Health. AJPH. 2005 July; 95(7): 1128-1138, viewed December 2017). This practice continues today. The Center for Investigative Reporting documented involuntary sterilizations of 148 imprisoned women in California from 2006 to 2010. Detained immigrant women have also been sterilized.
Education is underfunded in poor neighborhoods. Gentrification is increasingly displacing poor families, causing disruption of community institutions and forcing long commutes to work and health care. Developers contribute to displacement as they build luxury homes and sports arenas often funded with public money that push families out of established neighborhoods.
Incarceration, disproportionately of black and Latin men, robs communities of bread winners and social support. Rates of anxiety and depression rise with higher incarceration rates among people not imprisoned. The pool of single men decreases making marriage less likely. Women often seek partners who can provide housing and support for their children, often leading to transactional relationships that involve risky sexual practices. In order to pay school fees and family expenses, South African children often seek “sugar daddies” who believe sex with virgins prevents HIV.
Sexist Ideology: Justifying Sexism
In order to justify these conditions, the elites create gender roles through education, the media, and religion that establish “appropriate” behaviors and attitudes for men and women, including people who are gay, lesbian and transgender. Female characteristics include passivity, weakness, and less control over emotions. Black women stereotypes include the highly sexed Jezebel and the caretaking Mammy. Advertisers use women’s sexuality to sell products, and women become commodified along with the goods they represent.
As admissions of sexual assault continue to mount, many friends are asking why men hate women so much. Politically, many argue that white men are the main oppressors in women’s lives. And it is true that white men hold the majority of all ruling class positions in the government and military. White men hold political positions, have higher rates of wealth and income, and work as CEOs of corporations. They run Wall Street and educational institutions, dominating higher paying occupations as well. It looks like men, white men that is, have huge economic and political advantages over women.
Capitalism Needs Sexism to Survive
Does this mean men benefit from women’s oppression? Do men cause sexism? Or does capitalism use sexism to generate profit through income disparities, free domestic labor, and violence to control women?
Oppression of women has existed for centuries. Under feudalism, women worked in the home producing goods for the family. When early capitalism developed, the factory owners forced the peasants off the land into squalid neighborhoods and dangerous work places. The rulers smeared women who rebelled under feudalism and industrialization as witches and killed 10s of thousands.
Capitalism could not afford to dispense with sexism. The money saved on unequal pay for equal work, keeping women in jobs with lower pay scales, and not paying for universal child care and maternity and elder care leave produces profit that enriches the ruling class of corporate owners and financiers. Women are expected to be “feminine,” agreeable, represent rigid standards of beauty, repress anger (especially black women), and shop. Men are allowed to fight back, “take charge,” and harass women. “Boys will be boys” often justifies and excuses sexual violence. These sex roles limit the ability of men and women to contribute to society and perpetuate harmful relationships and expectations.
These conditions serve the capitalists. While men and women live together, sexist stereotypes and practices drive a wedge between them creating mistrust and disrespect. This limits the potential for people to fight the system effectively. Black women workers experience the most oppression since they are attacked by racist and sexist practices. In addition, black men have been portrayed as rapists of white women, creating even more fear of black men.
In response, men and women have created organizations, such as Men Against Rape, to train men and boys to reject “masculine” traits of aggression and misogyny. Men and women workers need to unite against capitalism and the conditions it creates. While men make higher wages than women, they still suffer high rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, and low rates of higher education while also dying in wars. Movements for gender equality and transgender rights are loosening strict gender rules that may help liberate people from restrictive behaviors based on gender. However, to abolish sexism, we must remove its economic and political causes. That requires fighting for fairer wages, jobs, quality education, and unity among men and women workers in the home, workplace, and community.
Women have always fought back against this subjugation with black women leading the fight. Harriet Tubman rescued enslaved people, Lucy Parsons and Claudia Jones organized workers for socialism, Ida B. Wells attacked lynching, Diane Nash organized volunteers for Freedom Summer in Mississippi In 1964, and Angela Davis advocates for solidarity with Palestinians and prisoners. The list goes on including white, indigenous, Latin, and Asian anti-capitalist women who collectivized childcare in the Soviet Union, won the right to vote, and established the first working class government with the short lived Paris Commune.
In the 1960s, the “women’s liberation movement” developed on college campuses and among middle class, primarily white women, who wanted to end discrimination. They fought for abortion, contraception, self-help, women’s health, an end to stereotypes, and fuller participation in the workforce. Some advocated separation of men and women. Many of these demands served middle class white women. They did not include anti-racist demands, such as the abolition of forced sterilization, or recognize the more intense discrimination and state violence against black Latin, Asian, and Native women. They did not address the severe oppression of women in other countries.
In response, some black women developed a black feminist perspective. One important group was the Combahee River Collective (CRC) that published a Statement in 1977. (The Combahee River in South Carolina was the site of a raid led by Harriet Tubman that freed 750 people). CRC members distinguished themselves from the mainstream feminist movements in several ways: they had a socialist, class perspective on sexism, stressed the connections between gender, “race,” and class, and included antiracist campaigns as critical to their programs. They did not support separatism or women becoming bosses and politicians.
They embraced inclusion within the working class:
“…the CRC Statement was clear in its calls for solidarity as the only way for Black women to win their struggles. Solidarity did not mean subsuming your struggles to help someone else; it was intended to strengthen the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related and connected under capitalism.” (Taylor Keeanga-Yamahtta, ed. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2017).
Their work along with other anti-sexist organizers addressed individual aspects of sexism, such as intimate partner violence, while also elevating the struggle by identifying the end of capitalism and racism as critical to the liberation of the working class.
We need to build a stronger movement of working class people to challenge capitalism and create a society based on equality and contributive justice where all share their skills and ideas.