Alternative title: I’ve Got Tits And I’m In Your Trade Union.
I saw a comic earlier on Facebook, by an artist called Suzy X, which perfectly encapsulated something I’ve been pondering for a while.
If you’re a fan of Vice or its sister site Broadly, you might have seen the article they published on the “brocialism” phenomenon (x). Essentially, a brocialist is a man with right-on leftist politics but a dodgy set of morals when it comes to women. It might sound silly and, to be fair, I laughed at the article while reading it.
I stopped laughing when I realised that it was all too familiar. It’s often difficult for people who are fighting a cause – such as resisting class-based oppression – to recognise oppressive actions in themselves and their activism. As they focus on one area of privilege, they may lose sight of others. We see this in “white feminism”, which erases the nuanced experiences of women of colour and fails to address intersectionality. If you bring up issues of intersectionality in certain circles, you may be accused of pandering to “identity politics”. In this same way, leftists who also happen to be feminists, like myself, get a lot of flack for “dividing” the movement.
Obviously class is an important indicator of social privilege – I’m not suggesting that we should abandon it altogether – but women and DFAB people have an important role to play within the left. In fact, I’m of the opinion that class should be incorporated more into feminism. Women’s experiences, particularly if they are wives and mothers with families to support, are intimately connected with working-class issues or disadvantages associated with a low income background. For example, as shown in a study by UNESCO in Ethiopia and others by UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa, poverty is the main barrier to girls’ and women’s education. Girls are traditionally entrusted with domestic tasks such as fetching water. If the only source of water is far away and requires a time-consuming journey, this results in more girls being late to or absent from school. There is also a stark lack of “gender-sensitive” teaching; therefore, girls grow into women who don’t know how to protect themselves from STDs. UNICEF have stated: “Educated girls can better protect themselves against HIV, trafficking and abuse. Educating a girl also means that as a woman, she is empowered and more likely to participate in development efforts and in political and economic decision-making. Women who went to school usually manage to increase the household income.” When women are educated and empowered, it holds benefits for their families and even for whole communities.
An example closer to home (at least for me!) is the impact de-industrialisation has had on family life for working-class people, right here in the UK. Historically, men from predominantly working-class have participated in “skilled” work, i.e. they learned a trade or took on a job manufacturing a specific material/product. In my area, our main industry throughout the nineteenth century and much of the early twentieth century was chain-making. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, our industries and the communities that had grown around them suffered. There are lots of reasons for this, but the actions of Margaret Thatcher and the war her government waged on trade unions were primarily responsible. For people outside the UK, you probably won’t be aware of the major turmoil that occurred during Thatcher’s stint as Prime Minister, when thousands of miners (mining being a job rooted in the working class) participated in strikes during the 70s and 80s. In an article for New Statesman, Owen Jones specifically linked de-industrialisation with the changing status of masculinity in our society: “…what it means to be a man is in a state of flux. Deindustrialisation, undoubtedly, is a fundamental reason. Britain’s economy has been increasingly emptied of skilled industrial jobs. Take manufacturing: while 5.6 million people worked in the sector in 1982, only 2.6 million did last year.” When men lost their jobs as a result of mass de-industrialisation under Thatcher and the legacy of privatisation that followed her, it placed greater pressure on women to provide for their families, and areas of England, Scotland and Wales remain poverty-stricken. You’ll find that the poorest areas are those that historically thrived due to industry.
Women are not just passive victims in class war. Our foremothers have fought to find a voice and a platform within the left, which is why it angers me so much that we should have to reaffirm our place in the movement. In 1930s Spain, the anarchist organisation Las Mujeres Libres fought to empower working-class women. The women of the Spanish anarchist movement felt marginalised. They were laughed at when they tried to contribute during meetings and this made women hesitant to speak up. This angered Mujeres Libres because the movement was supposed to oppose and ultimately abolish all forms of oppression and social hierarchy. They put an emphasis on a “double struggle”, in which they could pursue both women’s liberation and social revolution. In order to give working-class women the best opportunities to participate, they organised childcare services and schools. They also developed literacy courses, social studies classes and medical training. I love the story of Mujeres Libres, purely because of how brilliant they were at meeting the specific needs of the working women they supported. The scenario was similar for Clara Zetkin, a German socialist activist and an advocate for women’s rights. She too held the opinion that women were not allowed to participate equally within the left. She presided over the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic party from 1907 onwards and she founded International Women’s Day in 1911, although she had been involved with the women’s movement in Germany since 1874. Becoming a cultural icon in the former German Democratic Republic, streets and parks bearing her name can still be found there.
And the women of the left are still fighting. Even within feminism, there are leftist movements: socialist feminism, Marxist feminism, labor/labour feminism. There is even a movement called transnational feminism, exploring how capitalism and the patriarchy intersect in order to exploit women.
I refer to The Left a lot in this article, although I don’t mean to suggest that everyone with a left-wing viewpoint is part of some homogeneous mass. What I generally mean when I use the term The Left is leftist activism and the platforms where this takes place. When I say “women struggle to find a platform in the left”, I mean that very few of today’s prominent socialist thinkers are women. That’s a problem. We’re not lacking in vocal socialist women because women don’t understand politics, nor is it because women are politically apathetic. In fact, we’re not lacking socialist women at all. Speaking as a feminist, I know what it’s like to get shouted down, on the internet and in real life. Therefore, I can confidently say that the issue is that so many men continue to exclude women from conversations about class or refuse to acknowledge sexist bias in their own actions.
This is not to suggest that we are somehow worse than the right (FYI: that’s not the case). But it is more hypocritical of us if we’re seeking equality of the classes whilst remaining blind to other struggles.