The Guardian 2 March, 2005

IWD 2005 — resist the onslaught!

Sexism, along with racism, is deeply rooted in capitalism. And while women now enjoy many rights that were won over years of struggle by both women and men, today we are experiencing a new onslaught against women's rights. This is coming from the mass media, employers, governments and sections of the church hierarchy. Whether it be abortion, wages, employment, education, politics, or other areas of society, any gains — and there have been many — are not permanent under capitalism. As soon as the extreme Right, the religious fundamentalists, employers or conservative governments see an opportunity to roll back women's rights they take it.

That is what we are witnessing today with Tony Abbott's push to criminalise abortion and remove it from Medicare. Single mothers are one of the prime targets for the government's social security "reforms".

Employers, for example, use and even foster racism and sexism to divide workers, to prevent them uniting as single, powerful force in defence of their own interests. By pitting worker against worker on the basis of sex, race or some other difference, employers can drive down wages and working conditions.

On International Women's Day it is appropriate to salute the work of the many women and men who have progressed the struggle for women's rights in various historic times.

Slavery

Looking back two centuries, African American women slaves were chattels — not people — to their owners. They were slave labour, generating profits for their owners and after working full time for barely their means of subsistence they were expected to be breeders and homemakers.

In the Deep South of the USA, the majority of female slavers were not house servants, but agricultural workers alongside their men folk. Conditions were harsh.

Pregnant women were treated little differently to other slaves in the fields as the following quote from 1844 illustrates:*

"A woman who gives offense in the field, and is large in a family way, is compelled to lie down over a hole made to receive her corpulency, and is flogged with the whip or beat with the paddle, which has holes in it, at every stroke comes a blister. One of my sisters was so severely punished in this way, that labor was brought on, and the child was born in the field. This very overseer, Mr Brooks, killed in this manner a girl named Mary. Her father and mother were in the field at the time."

Planters and farmers also hired out their slaves, with women and children forced to work in coal mines, iron foundries, as lumberjacks, in textile mills and elsewhere and even to replace horses.

While slavery as a system has long been abolished in the USA, small pockets still remain and in many of the poorest "third world" former colonies and many women are still severely exploited and abused.

Use of religion

The Scottish reformer Frances Wright (1795-1852) was the first to speak in public before a mixed assembly of men and women in the United States in 1828. In calling for women's equality, she said:

"We are here on the earth, and they tell us of heaven; we are human beings, and they tell us of angels and devils; we are matter, and they tell us of spirit; we have five senses to admit truths, and a reasoning faculty by which to build our belief upon them, and they tell us of dreams dreamed thousands of years ago, which all our experience flatly contradicts."

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stranton first called for the right to vote in the United States. She never enjoyed the right herself but her followers did. In 1885 she addressed the Women's Suffrage Association:

"You may go the world over and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman. There is not one which has not made her subject to man. Men may rejoice in them because they make man the head of the woman. I have been travelling this old world during the last few years and have found new food for thought. …

"Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, 'Thus saith the Lord', of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us that as Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of the woman, how are we to break the chains that have held women down through the ages? …

"Now I ask you if our religion teaches the dignity of women?"

Organised religion has played and, in some cases, still plays an important role in the oppression of women and in attacking secularism (witness the numerous interventions of the Vatican under Pope John Paul II).

In 1885 the American suffragist and writer Helen H Gardener wrote the words that ring as true today as they did then:

"I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world… I do know that women make shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun."

Of course, many progressive believers have come to reject the traditional role of religion in suppressing the rights of women and justifying exploitative societies. For some time, conservative forces within religious organisations have targeted these advocates of social progress. The papacy of John Paul II has been marked, among other things, by its assault on church leaders who have sided with the cause of the advancement of women and other oppressed people. The campaign against Liberation Theology in Latin America is notable in this regard.

The greatest unity of purpose must be built between these believers and the rest of the progressive movement in order to defeat the latest attacks on the rights of women.

*Quote from Angela Davis's excellent book Women, Class & Race, The Women' Press, London, 1992, p.9

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