This is the ninth part of our series of articles on some of the basic politics of Socialist Labour for discussion by its members.
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal.’ So says the American Declaration of Independence. But what about women? Formal equality was part of the ideology of early capitalism. More importantly, the birth of the modern socialist movement made women’s equality a feature of all progressive movements.
As with racism, so with sexism – all manner of unfounded conservative ideas have been used to justify women’s subordination to men. All come down to the stupid argument that differences inside our underwear mean women should be paid less and treated as second class citizens. There is a whole history of legal discrimination against women. In some societies, women were considered the property of their fathers and husbands. In Britain adult women only gained the vote in 1928. In the 1930s, women who were civil servants or teachers had to give up their jobs if they got married. These were the ideas that dominated colonised countries.
Today, in the industrialised states, at least, most legal barriers to women’s equality have been removed. But this has not really made women equal. Women still earn significantly less on average than men. Even though family organisation is changing, women still do more housework than men. Above all, women still have primary responsibility for bringing up children. Yet, more perhaps than any other sphere, women’s history shows that real change is possible.
Until at least the last century, women spent years devoted to child-bearing and rearing. Lacking effective contraception, they bore large numbers of children and died younger than men. Modern birth control has cut family sizes and helped lengthen women’s lives and immensely enlarged both the reality and possibility of women’s freedom – at least for some women.
Two generations ago most working class women stopped working for wages when they got married. Being a ‘happy housewife’ was the best they could expect from life. World wars, and capitalism’s inexhaustible demand for labour, changed that. Today, globally most married women go out to work, this is largely also true in Nigeria.
Women won a wave of reforms through the women’s movement in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially in the industrialised countries. Capitalism’s brute realities, however, prevented more victories. The main burden of having and bringing up children, something which benefits the whole of society, falls heavily on women.
Even in the best communities in the world, advances in equality for women have slowed down in the past 20 years. The pressure of increasing working hours, reductions in availability of free contraception, the continued illegality of abortion and the lack of proper nursery provision have all had their impact. As socialists, we have a responsibility to campaign for such reforms.
In Nigeria, girls and women suffer far more oppression than in many countries. Girls still suffer less access to education than boys. In some geo-political zones less than half of girls even attend primary school. Nearly half of girls may marry before they are 18 and face years of child-bearing as few have access to modern contraception and abortion is still illegal (although it is common).
Half of women work, but more work in the informal sector than men. It is not illegal for women to be paid less than men or to be discriminated against in workplaces. Most senior positions are filled by men and there are very few women in the National Assembly. The increase in casual or temporary work in recent years may have increased the opportunities for discriminating against women.
Real equality of pay and opportunity are still far off. Women still walk in fear-of insecurity and of physical attack. The results of a survey published by NOIPolls in 2019 suggested that up to one in every three women in Nigeria could have experienced at least one form of sexual assault by the time they reach 25 years old.
We still have to get over the view that a woman’s worth depends on their physical characteristics – their beauty or what they look like. Feelings of worthlessness, revealed in high levels of depression, suggest how millions of women still need a real sense of their own empowerment. Girl children need to brought up and educated to realise that can be as intelligent and powerful as boys.
Enlarging women’s freedom and equality can only enrich men’s lives too. History shows that nothing about relations between men and women is fixed. Women, and men, can look forward to a day when completely new answers will be found to the questions of freedom and equality for all.
We’ve come a long way, but the best is yet to come. New generations will look back at our world with horrified amazement, from a vantage point where genuine women’s equality will be so obvious that our age will seem as barbarous, as indeed it is. But this will not just happen! All socialists, women and men, have to campaign for a fairer society where everyone is treated with respect. We have to make any form of sexism, discrimination against women and girls and related issues a thing of the past.