Winning Women’s Rights: A question of reform or revolution?

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Two days after the re-election of the Howard Government on October 9, Radical Women hosted a discussion about how to achieve women’s liberation. The election outcome injected a new sense of energy and determination. While participants had encountered gloomy voters, shattered and demoralised by a fourth Howard Government, all had met others who had decided it was time to become part of the solution. Below is an edited version of the talk presented by Radical Women Organiser, Debbie Brennan.

Given the election results, I couldn’t think of a more timely occasion to discuss tonight’s topic. While much of the electorate moved leftward, the government accelerated to the right. With Howard back in the saddle and his Christian fundamentalist Family First mates alongside him, there’s no question that the “family values,” union bashing and racist regime is about to gain momentum and make life total hell for all working people, especially the female half. The social movements in Australia and internationally will have to get their act together. A radical vanguard women’s movement is central to this question. I’m dedicating this talk to the fight we have ahead of us.

Tonight’s discussion is based on a document, written over 30 years ago by a founder of Radical Women, Clara Fraser, Which Road towards Women’s Liberation: A Radical Vanguard or a Single-Issue Coalition? In the early 1970s, just after the ’60s revolts which swept through the United States, Fraser took a hard look at the crisis of leadership in the movements, especially the women’s movement. Her analysis is a must for radicals to study as we prepare for today’s onslaught.

Movements yesterday and today. My first experience in the social movements was as a trade unionist in the late1970s and ’80s. The battles in the New South Wales Teachers Federation were huge. I struggled alongside other rank-and-file activists to get the elected officials to back workplace-led fights instead of undermining or ignoring them. Seniority rights and the conditions of casuals were some of the burning issues for women teachers, and getting the union to address them turned me into a militant and a feminist.

A more recent experience was the International Women’s Day (IWD) Collective in 2004. Radical Women and others had to put up a real fight to name sexism alongside racism and war as things we oppose, and for reproductive rights and queer rights to be included in the demands. This was a collective in which the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) within Socialist Alliance vigorously opposed these inclusions. Contradictory and, unfortunately, very familiar.

Nearly a century ago, IWD spawned a liberation movement with the potential to transform the world. In 1917, IWD in Russia ignited the world’s first socialist revolution. Women took their revolutionary demands for peace, land and bread onto the streets. Yet today, our rights to reproductive choice, equal pay, job security, personal safety — in other words, our right to be independent, equal and leading participants in society — are under the fiercest attack ever. If our Russian sisters could crack open the foundations of an oppressive feudal giant and be central in building towards a socialist society, what is stopping us?

The problem lies in the politics of single-issuism. Clara Fraser defines this as “the process of crossing class lines and watering program down to a broadly acceptable minimum plank in order to construct an all-inclusive coalition that can achieve a particular demand or reform.”

Women’s Lib. Australia’s first women’s liberation group was founded in Sydney in 1969. It came out of the social upheavals of the1960s that shook the world. Similar groups formed in Melbourne and Adelaide and then in cities around the country. Together they made up the Women’s Liberation Movement.

This movement critiqued the division of labour that segregated women into the lowest paid jobs and connected this to women’s role in the family. It was a time of theoretical exploration. The movement produced an unprecedented volume of theoretical writing around these issues. The explosion of ideas was reflected in the demands of Australia’s first large IWD marches in 1972. They included the right to work, addressing women’s unpaid labour at home and the right to be in well-paid occupations. Other demands were for equal pay, equal opportunity at work and in education, free childcare and pre-school activities, free, safe contraception and safe, legal abortion on demand.

A favourite chant at the 1972 Sydney march was: “Men like birds; birds live in cages. They have done for ages, on second-class wages. Women’s Liberation’s going to smash that cage. Come join us now and rage, rage, rage!” The poster featured an image, inspired by Angela Davis, then a U.S. African American revolutionary in prison facing a possible death penalty.

IWD in early ’70s Australia was radical, militant and internationalist. It was freed from the shackles of Stalinism, which until then had kept IWD celebrations respectable and low key. The new IWD organisers confronted the cornerstones of sexist oppression under capitalism and made the connections with heterosexism, racism and class.

But there were weaknesses. This fresh and vibrant Women’s Liberation Movement had no program, and it rejected structure as a male hierarchy thing. Without office bearers like an organiser, executive or finance director, no one was accountable or responsible for making sure that decisions were carried out. Without a program, it offered no channel for the rage and no vision of how to smash the cage and make a new world. It couldn’t last the distance.

A movement tamed. Without an agreed program, the movement could not prevent the co-option which started in 1975 with the UN Decade of Women. In that year, the Whitlam Government funded the largest-ever IWD marches. Across Australia, IWD in 1975 looked great. But government funding has strings attached, and those strings always end up as a noose. Co-option has tamed many a leader lured by the perks and ideology of reformism. Movements have been transformed from movers and shakers for world change into respectable, non-threatening Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) trapped within the framework of the status quo. From the co-option of union femocrats like Jennie George to the NGOising of women’s struggle into government-funded service providers, we’ve seen this phenomenon played out time and time again.

Without a program, no movement can withstand attacks when government turns conservative and withdraws funding — not just to IWD but to everything women have won through hard struggle, from health centres and refuges to free education and Medicare. From 1976, Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership, a full-on recession and an anti-feminist backlash combined to fragment and tame the women’s movement. In 1978, debate over whether bread-and-butter, class and race issues should supersede lesbian rights, sexuality and patriarchal relations in personal life, pitted women against each other and the movement turned on itself.

IWDs of the 1980s felt the impact. Sydney’s demands in 1982 were very narrow. They were reduced to support services for victims of domestic violence, rape laws that put responsibility on the perpetrator instead of the victim and an end to discrimination against lesbian mothers in child custody battles.

There was also a major argument among marchers over the positioning of a banner saying “Dead men don’t rape” directly behind the lead IWD banner. Separatism was growing as an ideology in the feminist movement.

Joyce Stevens, author of a history of IWD in Australia, says that official recognition of IWD plastered over the sex, race, sexuality and class contradictions in women’s lives. IWD remains as a call to struggle, but the women’s movement, such as it is, has effectively abandoned this. While public servants observe March 8 with IWD screen savers flashing up on their computers and parts of the corporate world hold IWD breakfasts, Melbourne’s IWD march this year attracted just 200 people. Only a handful of feminist organisations participated in the collective. One reason is the years of DSP attempts to control IWD and its refusal to work collaboratively with other feminists. But equally responsible is the feminist movement’s degeneration into single-issuism. We’ve seen the idea of “sisterhood” popularised as a way to conceal the multiple oppressions faced by women and blur the class line. The connecting of oppressions in the early 1970s gave way to a strong separatist current, the portrayal of women as victims and the replacement of organising with the notion of a women’s “culture.” This is why Clara Fraser says that the single-issue is a dead-end issue: “It always ends up smack against the wall. True, it is large, but it is also, invariably diffuse, ambiguous, contradictory, deceptive — and mercurial.” As we’ve seen with the women’s movement, it ends up as a deflated balloon.

The women’s movement today is a mixed bag. It is comprised of bourgeois feminist organisations such as Emily’s List, the Women’s Trust and the Women’s Economic Think Tank as well as radical feminists whose cultural separatism has led them into isolation. Then there are the NGOs, for example the Centres Against Sexual Assault or International Women’s Development Agency. They all share a belief that, in one way or another, women can win equality and freedom under this capitalist system — either by reforming it or separating from it. The ruling class gives this part of the women’s movement respectability, because its single-issuism is safe for the system.

The road to liberation. But there are also socialist feminists, like Radical Women. We understand that women will liberate ourselves only by uprooting the profit system and replacing it with a socialist communal society which has no economic basis or necessity to keep anyone down. We do not see women’s emancipation as a single-issue reform but as a revolutionary question, which demands a vanguard organisation — one that gives revolutionary leadership. To us, theory is primary: it’s our guide to action. Program is our lifeline: without it, there can’t be the effective and consistent organisation that is required to bring this system down and create a new one.

Clara Fraser wrote Which Road towards Women’s Liberation when RW was just three years old. RW started in 1967 as an autonomous organisation for women wanting to bring on worldwide change. In those heady days of revolt in the U.S., the male “leaders” of the movements treated women activists as second-class. Our founders were women from the Old and New Left, who were serious about revolution and would not stand being used as secretaries, sandwich makers and sex slaves. They had already studied and battled over the big questions of the day: is women’s emancipation separate from, or integrally connected to, the questions of race and class? Is it a matter of psychology or politics? In RW’s first year, differences ended up in splits. But this theorising as a prerequisite for organising gave us our experience and longevity. We’re here, 37 years later, with a very rich and recognised international history of vanguard leadership.

Which Road towards Women’s Liberation outlines four cornerstones of RW’s program, which are timeless — and critical for the battles we’re about to face under a newly re-elected Howard Government.

One is that women’s liberation can only be won by a movement of radical women. It’s been socialist women, educated by Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and Lenin’s On the Emancipation of Women, who have pioneered movements for radical change — from the founding of International Women’s Day to initiating mass actions around abortion rights, free childcare and affirmative action. Issues that liberals, NGOs and governments have since taken up were first pushed by a handful of women radicals. Women have been radicalised and inspired by this leadership. It takes a core of leaders to plan and organise. Without this leadership, any movement disintegrates into either single-issue liberalism that tail-ends the lowest level of consciousness, or develops into ultra-left sectarianism, which stands apart and disconnected from people’s thinking. When women’s liberation is led toward the centre, it turns into its opposite: reformism, which, as Fraser points out, always becomes an enemy of working class and minority women. “Women’s liberation,” she says, is therefore “a revolutionary question, and must be, first and foremost, a movement of women revolutionaries.”

A second cornerstone is that because women are oppressed on multiple levels, our liberation is a multi-issue question. Working women’s exploitation in the workplace connects us to the class struggle. Add to this our political, legal and cultural oppression in society. A third level is racism. Quoting Fraser again: “[T]he ‘woman question,’ by its very nature, is both a class question and a special sex question, a race question and a special sex question, or simply a special sex question (where the woman is neither wage earner nor ethnic minority).” We can add sexuality and disability to this equation. So women’s liberation is both independent of and interconnected with the class, race, sexuality and other struggles. It’s this interconnection of struggle that gives women a vanguard role in the general revolutionary movement. The opposite to a vanguard role is to either subordinate our struggle to the “higher” class struggle — the classic self-sacrifice demanded of women — or to work for women-only rights, in other words separatism.

A third cornerstone is that our tactic for mass action is the united front. We work in, and call for, alliances around issues, based on principled and common agreement. RW’s involvement in Socialist Alliance’s electoral work, in the IWD Collective and our initiation of a campaign demanding free quality childcare and employer-funded paid maternity leave, are some current examples. A united front, which we promote as a way to build mass actions and raise consciousness, is different from a popular front. A popular front is about diluting program and handing over power to the liberal bourgeoisie for the sake of popularity and numbers. An example of the latter is the Victorian Peace Network which kept Palestinian speakers off its anti-war platforms so not to offend Zionists and is now in a state of paralysis by its refusal to defend the Iraqi resistance. Radical Women will not compromise our programmatic integrity. Says Fraser, “We anticipate an eventual permanent united front of radical women, and simultaneous with this, a permanent, nationwide regroupment of radicals in a new and vigorous revolutionary party.” We’re patient and tenacious.

The fourth cornerstone is that “the supportive or affinity-group character of a woman’s liberation organisation should be a result and effect of its primarily political nature, rather than its central reason for existence.” How many of us have come across the latter? As Fraser says, “All the sympathy and empathy and sexual solidarity in the world can’t substitute for a clear-headed ideological understanding of the causes of oppression and the psychological reflex within ourselves.” Groups which are based on soul searching and intimacy reinforce the sexist stereotypes of women as innately subjective and inward looking and men as objective and outward. I like the solidarity that comes with being a member of RW, but that “affinity” and mutual support comes from our shared goals and experiences. It’s irreplaceable.

This brings me back to what we face right now. We’ve all talked to people over the past two days; we’ve heard their fears and expressed our own — not that RW ever had illusions in the Labor Party! But revolutionaries know that crisis creates opportunity. So it’s time we roll up our sleeves. People are looking for answers. RW has not only solutions but 37 years of tenacity and experience. For women who share our ideas, there’s a golden opportunity — to join us! Radical women belong in Radical Women, and the world needs more Radical Women leaders! And there’s nothing more satisfying than channelling our rage into building a movement with the power to break the cage!

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