By Karyn Pomerantz, October 16, 2018
The Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice have opened a floodgate of women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment, building on the many recent accounts from the #MeToo movement. Kavanaugh’s arrogant behavior represents the entitled status of ruling class men who wield their power without consideration for anyone except corporate and right wing politicians. His danger extends beyond his individual actions to the realm of policy:
- support for the Patriot Act and torture,
- opposition to abortion,
- threats to end the pre-existing condition protection in the Affordable Care Act,
- support for the public charge policy that would deny immigrants’ use of federal benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, whether they were here legally or not
- support for the detention of immigrants years after they were charged with a crime no matter how minor,
- support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census.
His nomination represents the ruling class’ assault on the social safety net with Trump leading the way.
The hearings revealed how the power elite tries to shame and intimidate women into silence. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent (63%) of the people who are raped do not report the crime while only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported. One in five women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet over 90% of students do not report the assault. Sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships. Over 46 percent of lesbians, 75 percent of bisexual women, 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men reported forms of sexual violence (NSVRC, Statistics About Sexual Violence, http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf. Viewed 10-9-2018).
RACISM INCREASES THE DEGREE OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Racism has always been used to depict black men as hyper-sexual violent rapists (of white women) yet black men have a lower rate of rape than white men. (RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, http://rainn.org/statistics. Viewed 10-13-18). Among women raped, 17.7 percent were white and 18.8 percent are black. Native Americans have the highest rate of rape, twice the rate of any other groups (RAINN, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, http://rainn.org/statistics. Viewed 10-13-18).
While rape is one of the severest forms of violence, there are many other assaults on women’s health and well-being, that disproportionately affect black and Latinx women:
- High maternal and infant mortality rates
- Immigration policies of detention, deportation, public charge policies, and migration caused by severe poverty and violence
- Poor access to health care, abortion and contraception in many areas
- Economic exploitation by employers; women make 80 percent of white men’s earnings while black and Latinx women earn even less
- Economic exploitation in the home providing unpaid domestic labor
- No access to education and expensive school fees that push girls to engage in sex for money in many countries
- High rates of HIV
While the media highlights white middle class women in #MeToo, poor women working in fast food, hotels, and factories have joined efforts to prevent sexual harassment. USA Today reports that workers at McDonald’s filed a suit, and some city councils are passing policies against sexual violence (https://www.thetowntalk.com/story/opinion/2018/09/18/editorial-me-too-times-up-slowly-spread-hollywood-protect-low-wage-workers/1337140002/. September 2018. Viewed 10-13-18).
Legislative and electoral strategies cannot eradicate sexism; it is too profitable due to women’s lower wages and free household labor.
Women have long fought their oppression, demanding equal pay, education, health care, reproductive rights, and political participation. During the 19th Century in the US, women rebelled against slavery and organized for voting rights. Women in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills led the first strike to demand better conditions and wages. They played significant roles in the civil rights movement during the early and mid 20th Century, holding leadership positions in SNCC and CORE, two mass anti-racist organizations. Black women, such as Lucy Parsons, Louise Thompson, and Claudia Jones, advocated for socialism and communism and defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in the South in the 1930s. Many immigrant women led the union organizing drives in the garment, farmworkers and textile industries in the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.
In the newly launched Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollantai and other communists established communal kitchens and housekeeping to alleviate the burdens of domestic labor. Women also joined and led the revolutionary liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, and South Africa.
Hundreds of women teachers went out on strike in West Virginia in 2018 to demand funding for education and a living wage, and women are joining unions and struggles to raise the minimum wage in the Fight for $15 campaign. Recently, women initiated Black Lives Matter and MeToo!. More women have entered political races for local office since the Trump election. Hundreds of women protested Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court risking arrest to do so.
Racism Weakens the Women’s Movement
While the civil rights struggle inspired women’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the women’s movement marginalized and ignored the specific needs of working class and black, Latinx, Asian, and Native women. Racism weakened the movement for women’s liberation by separating women based on their racial classification and economic status, and choosing a more narrow set of demands and issues that appealed to middle class educated white women. This was not new.
White women suffragists threw black women under the bus in 1869. Trying to win support for voting rights from Southern Democrats, they excluded black women and their issues in their movement, prioritizing women’s issues over racial justice. The Fifteenth Amendment allowed voting for black men but denied this to women. Suffrage leaders Stanton and Anthony lashed out at black men, accusing them of illiteracy and the inability to understand political issues. (Men often accused women of the same problems). When Frederick Douglass offered a compromise that would allow voting for any excluded group, Stanton and Anthony rejected it.
The dissension broke the suffrage movement at this time, which was only renewed decades later. In 1913 suffragists led by Alice Paul and others organized a parade of 5,000 women down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to promote voting rights. Yet they relegated black suffragists to the end of the march! Using arguments popular through US history, they did not want to alienate Southern participants but they themselves held the same attitudes (Kendi I. Stamped from the Beginning. NY: Nation Press, 2016).
In 1963, Betty Frieden’s immensely popular book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed middle class white women’s oppression as free household labor and advocated for equal rights for professional women in the workplace. There was no acknowledgement of white and non-white working class women’s needs. She and other women established the National Organization of Women (NOW), and developed and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with demands for non-discriminatory employment opportunities, maternity leave, child care, abortion, and contraceptives. NOW, led by Friedan, proposed an electoral, legislative approach to winning the ERA that led to opportunistic compromises. ERA proponents eliminated many provisions in the ERA to gain wider support among state legislators. As it became clear that NOW did not fight for black women, many left the organization (Smith S. Women and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).
Don’t Trust the Liberals-Build a Mass Militant Movement
NOW’s reliance on electoral politics rather than building a mass movement doomed it to failure. It supported Bill Clinton who demolished welfare for poor women, advocated sexual abstinence, and opposed gay marriage. Obama extended the Hyde Act banning federal funds, such as Medicaid, to pay for abortions to the Affordable Care Act. Yet NOW and moderate women’s groups clung to the Democratic Party.
More radical women renounced this incremental strategy. They staged demonstrations against labor practices and cultural norms, such as beauty pageants, bridal showers and prevailing standards of beauty. The Boston Women’s Health Collective wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to teach women about their health, sexuality, and birth control, criticizing the medical establishment for medicalizing women’s conditions. The book addressed women in other countries and the racism experienced by US women. Thousands read the book; it is still in print today
Marxists condemned capitalism as the source of sexism in the United States and opposed US imperialist wars while the conservative leaders of the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal supported the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to liberate women there.
MEN AND WOMEN MUST UNITE TO FIGHT SEXISM
During the 1960s and 1970s, separatism of men and women became popular. Feminists accused all men as the source of sexism, blaming the “patriarchy” or male supremacy as the cause of women’s oppression. Many men adopted the ideology of male supremacy and the so-called ideal of masculinity, such as hyper-sexuality, aggression, and heterosexual orientation, traits used to justify sexual violence. Black men were seen as especially threatening to women.
Black women feminists opposed separatism, arguing that feminists needed to combat racism as well as women’s oppression. They developed the concept of intersectionality in the 1970s put forward by Kimberle Crenshaw (See blog post on Intersectionality, October 2018https://multiracialunity.org/2018/09/26/intersectionality-a-marxist-critique/, ), acknowledging that women (and men) experience multiple forms of exploitation, especially racism. While sexist practices, such as rape or fewer job promotions, affect all groups of women, black, Asian, Latinx, and Native women suffer much more. They could not ignore the effects of racism on men and women.
The Cohambee River Collective of black feminists led by Barbara and Betty Smith published the Cohambee statement that pledged their solidarity with black men:
“… we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand… we struggle together with black men against racism while we also struggle with black men about sexism.
These lessons can guide the current generations of young men and women to build an inclusive movement based on class: solidarity among workers and opposition to capitalism. Reject the Democrats and voting as the way out; they will only use us to preserve this system.”
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