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Why Socialists Join Feminist Struggles

This article  was based on a talk given by the author at the Toronto Vanguard Forum on January 11, 1974. It was published in two parts Labor Challenge, January 21 and February 4, 1974.

Lis Angus, was Executive Director of the Toronto Women’s Caucus, one of the first Canadian feminist groups, in 1971-72. In 1973 she was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee of the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière.

Why Socialists Join Feminist Struggles
Reply to slanders in ‘Other Woman

by Lis Angus

An article entitled “Infiltration of the Women’s Movement by the LSA/YS” appeared in the Nov.­-Dec. 1973 issue of The Other Woman, a Toronto-based feminist newspaper with cross-Canada circulation.

The article, signed “Ellen,” consists of a slanderous attack on the views and activities of the League for Socialist Action (LSA) and its sympathizing youth organization, the Young Socialists, in relation to the women’s liberation movement. It charges that women in the LSA and the YS intend to “in­filtrate, splinter and destroy” the women’s movement, and advocates that they be excluded from its activities.

It distorts and misrepresents a series of events in the women’s movement in an attempt to sub­stantiate these charges. The second article in this reply will set the record straight on number of these distortions.

Socialism vs. Feminism?

I want to take up here one of the more basic questions raised by this article. It attacks the LSA and YS on the basis that “theirs is not a feminist analysis nor do they sup­port a feminist revolution.” It continues: “They focus specifically on class struggle which is only one aspect of feminism; by saying that capitalism, not sexism, is the first enemy.

In other words, the Other Woman counterposes the struggle against capitalism and the struggle against sexism: it tries to imply that the struggle- for socialism and for women’s liberation are two separate and divergent struggles.

We disagree completely with this view. - Marxists have always sup­ported the struggles of women to win liberation; the YS and the LSA, as Marxist groups, have welcomed and supported what has been termed the “second wave” of feminism—the upsurge in women’s consciousness and women’s struggles around the world in the last five or six years. Women in the LSA and the YS have fully -participated in the women’s movement from the beginning, learning from it and helping to build it to the best of our abilities. For many of us it was our experience in the feminist movement that first led us to question the kind of society we live, in, and eventually brought us to socialist conclusions.

The Other Woman represents a current in the women’s movement which generally holds the view that all men are the oppressors of women—and that women must organize against all men to bring about a “women’s revolution.”

Women in the LSA and the YS have argued against this approach in the women’s movement, and have advanced another analysis of women’s oppression and how to end it—a Marxist analysis.

The Other Woman raises the spectre of “infiltration and manipulation” in order to obscure—and avoid dealing with the real political differences they have with the women the LSA.

This method has a name—it is called red-baiting. It’s purpose is to avoid having to confront socialist ideas by making women afraid to find out about socialism. It’s a kind of censorship on what ideas women in the feminist movement are allowed to hear.

What Kind of Analysis?

Just what is needed in a “feminist analysis?”

The only useful definition is: an analysis that helps women struggle effectively—that explains women’s oppression, what its roots are, how it is maintained, and gives some in­dication of how to end it.

These are questions that the Other Woman article does not even ask, let alone answer. Yet these are the questions that the women’s movement has been grappling with since its inception. These are the questions that give rise to the many differences of opinion and per­spective in the women’s movement.

Roots of Women’s Oppression

One of the first questions that any “feminist” analysis has to answer is: are women naturally inferior? Is it women’s biology—or society—that oppresses women? This is an important question—for if women’s oppression is biological, not social, then it is biology we must change, not society.

Marxists answer clearly—women are not naturally inferior. This answer is based on anthropological evidence of the earliest human societies, which reveals an important fact: women were not always oppressed. Up until a few thousand years ago, women and men functioned as social equals. Although this was no golden age, but a time of difficult struggles for survival of the human race, women were not disadvantaged by being women. In fact, women were the main producers and leaders of the community, and actually developed many of the basic skills that placed humanity on the road to civilization—agriculture, tanning, weaving, pottery-making and many others.

It was with the rise of class society the division of society into classes, rich and poor, owners and non. owners—that women were relegated to an inferior social position. In the same social upheaval that destroyed communal control of land, livestock, etc. and made these the private property of a small exploiting class, and which gave birth to a slave society, based on private ownership of human beings (both male and female). women lost their equal status. Not only slave women, but also women of the possessing classes became the private property of the men who owned them.

The Patriarchal Family

This subservience was enforced by the patriarchal family, which became the main institution for perpetuating the class divisions of society from one generation to the next. Women were relegated to second class status in society because it served—not the needs of men in general, as Other Woman would have us think—but the needs of the men who owned property.

“Monogamy” was enforced for wives in order to ensure that it was indeed the father’s son who would inherit his wealth.

With the destruction of communal society, the family also took on what had previously been a community obligation: care for those who could not produce—children, the sick, the aged.

The structure and the functions of the family have varied during the millennia of its existence. Its role has varied in the different stages of class society—slavery, feudalism and capitalism—and from one class to another. But the essential function has always remained the same. Like the state apparatus—the armies, police, laws, courts, etc.—the family is a repressive institution designed to serve the interests of the ruling classes in society. Because of the need to strengthen the family and women’s role in it, ­the myth of the natural inferiority of women has permeated the ruling ideologies of class society, including its religions.

Can women escape the effects of the family within the present society—for example by not getting married, by not having anything to do with men, by having a job outside the home, etc.?

No. Although these may make some women’s lives more tolerable, they are not the solution to women’s oppression.

The effects of the family are not just the subservient position of women within the family itself, but the fact that there are no alter­natives outside the family for the jobs assigned women within it. For example, there aren’t widely available child care centers, laundries, kitchens, housecleaning services, etc., because this society is organized on the basis of these services being performed in the family. Cheaply. At the least possible cost to the profit-makers. And because it is women who do these jobs, women have to be channeled into the role of wife and mother by denying them safe, ef­fective birth control and abortion on demand, by making it hard for women to get adequate job training, by reserving only the lowest-paid jobs for women and making promotions difficult for women to get—and by carrying on propaganda campaigns to convince women that they like this situation.

These are the restrictions that are making women angry today. More and more women are recognizing the contradiction between the lives they want and the lives this society allows women to lead. More and more women are prepared to fight the sexism of this society.

The cause of this sexism is the system that creates it and depends on women’s subordinate role to maintain itself: the class system, class society—the latest form of which is capitalism. It is this system which—the Other Woman to the contrary—must be ended if women are to liberate themselves.

What Kind of Revolution?

Marxists say that what is necessary to end capitalism and lay the basis for women’s liberation is a socialist revolution.

We do not believe that this society can be patched up to meet women’s needs, but that it must be entirely replaced by a socialist society. That revolution will be carried out not just by women—as Other Woman implies with the term “feminist revolution”—but by all the op­pressed, working together to destroy the power of the capitalist class that thrives on their oppression.

Women should by no means simply wait for .this revolution to solve their problems. Women’s struggles right now are very im­portant. They can win important gains, like the legalization of abortion. Through such struggles, women will learn how to struggle, will gain confidence in their own strength, and learn who their enemies and potential allies are.

Nor will the socialist revolution solve all of women’s problems right away. It will take time and con­tinued struggles to do away with not. only the institutions of women’s oppression, but also with the sexist attitudes that arise from these in­stitutions. The socialist revolution will lay the basis for creating a society that is not maintained by oppressing women. It will make it possible for the first time to create social alternatives to the services now provided privately in the family—like child care, laundry and cooking. It will be a profoundly “feminist revolution” in that sense. And the existence of a strong feminist movement will help carry through the tasks of completing women’s liberation.

Other Woman points out that “sexism can exist in non-capitalist societies.” True. It existed in pre-capitalist class societies, and it still exists in post-capitalist workers’ states like the Soviet Union and China. It must be pointed out that the Russian revolution made big advances for women—including wide-ranging legislation on .marriage and the family—which were only reversed with the bureaucratic deformation of the USSR under Stalinism. Trotskyism—the political current which the LSA and the YS represent in Canada—was born in the fight against Stalinism and its betrayals.

We see the struggle for women’s liberation and the struggle for socialism as -inseparably in­tertwined. One is not possible without the other. We do not see any contradiction between feminist views and socialist views. On the contrary, we have often said that the most consistent way to be a feminist and put feminist ideas into practice is to be a socialist and help fight for socialism.

Dangers of Exclusionism

Other Woman labels the Marxist analysis of women’s oppression as “not feminist” for only one reason—in order to define-women who are members of the LSA and the YS as outside the women’s liberation movement.

It underlines this intention by referring to our participation in the women’s movement as “in­filtration.”

But a policy of excluding women from the women’s movement on the basis of their ideas—or any other basis—is a very dangerous course to embark upon.

There are many different viewpoints and approaches within the women’s movement. This Is very natural and important for a new movement—particularly one which poses such fundamental questions as the feminist movement does.

Unity is very important for the women’s movement. But unity cannot be artificially imposed. It will only come about through open discussion and debate, and through the concrete struggles of women, which will put the many different views to the test.

Exclusionism can never solve the differences in. the women’s movement—it just makes them harder to clarify and work out.

Other Woman cannot avoid confronting the ideas of the LSA and the YS in the women’s movement by ­red-baiting or exclusion. In trying to use these rotten, discredited practices, they do the women’s movement a serious disservice.

Part Two

The Other Woman claims that the LSA is out to “divert the women’s Movement away from smashing male supremacism and all the attending evils of racism, classism, etc., and towards getting more reforms and basic civil liberties. They try to persuade women that as we get more freedoms such as abortion, day care centers, women’s studies programs, capitalism will gradually change and we will be totally free.”

Two points are made in this brief quotation. The first is that women will not gain their liberation through a process of gradual changes and-reform—that a fundamental change in society is required.

This point is absolutely correct. The Other Woman is simply wrong to say that the LSA does not hold this view—to state that our strategy is a reformist one. In the first article of this series, we explained the revolutionary strategy of the LSA and YS.

Where we disagree with The Other Woman is not on whether or not a revolution is necessary, but on what kind of revolution. We pointed out that it is a socialist revolution, with the working class as a whole playing the decisive role, which is needed before women’s oppression can be ended; and that The Other Woman’s concept of a “feminist revolution” ignores the nature of the society we live in and how it must be changed.

We pointed out that the struggle against women’s oppression is part of the struggle to overthrow the capitalist class and the in­stitutions through which it maintains its power. Thus, this struggle will play an im­portant role in the coming socialist revolution.

The second point made by The Other Woman is that concrete struggles for women’s needs are a diversion from the task of fundamentally changing society.

Nothing could be further from the truth. People will come to an understanding of the’ need for revolution only through struggles for concrete gains—for demands that grow out of their immediate needs. The fights today for repeal of the abortion laws, for child care or for equal pay, are part of the process through which women are coming to revolutionary conclusions.

It is through struggles like these that women will learn the power of collective action, and will gain confidence in their own ability to struggle and win victories.

It is in concrete struggles that women will learn who their enemies are, and how firmly they oppose women’s liberation. Women will find out for themselves that their oppression is rooted in the very structure of society; that although the government may be forced to concede certain reforms, women’s oppression can only be eliminated through changing the whole system.

And it is in such struggles that women will also learn where their allies can be found: namely in the working class and in other oppressed groups in this society.

Women will learn the Importance of carrying their own struggles independently of the ruling class ‘and its institutions—that they .cannot rely. on government com­missions, councils, ministries or government-­funded projects to carry women’s fights for them.

That is the process by which the LSA and YS see women radicalizing. But how does The Other Woman propose to unite women so that they can become a powerful force for change?

It doesn’t. The perspective it does offer—that of excluding points of view it disagrees with (like that of the LSA and YS) from the women’s movement—can only fragment women’s struggles.

The fight to legalize abortion

The Other Woman accuses the LSA of having “co-opted the abortion issue from the women’s movement.”

What lies behind this charge?

The LSA supports the abortion rights struggle, and LSA women have helped to lead this struggle. We support it not only because the struggle to win abortion rights is an important one for women, but because it is around this issue that opponents of women’s liberation around the world are lining up to fight. And it is around this issue that women have mobilized; since 1970, when the Abortion Caravan crossed Canada to lead a march of women in Ottawa, women have shown their willingness to act against this aspect of their oppression.

The LSA and the YS did not create this ferment around the abortion issue. We recognized it and acted to join and help lead this struggle. Far from co-opting the movement, we fought for a perspective of reaching out and involving more women in the campaign. We have consistently challenged all feminist organizations to participate.

What the charge of co-optation” covers up is the fact that supporters of the views ex­pressed in The Other Woman have abstained from the abortion rights struggle. They have remained on the sidelines, refusing to join one of the most militant and active tights for women’s rights—one which if defeated would constitute a grave setback to the entire women’s liberation movement.

Defense of Dr. Morgentaler

The Other Woman also attacks the LSA for supporting the campaign to defend Dr. Morgentaler, the Montreal physician who faces charges of performing illegal abortions. The article states that “doctors who have made thousands of dollars” from performing abortions for women should not be the em­phasis of the abortion campaign. “Because he (Dr. Morgentaler) is a man, he will-draw attention to the issue for the worst anti-woman reasons. He is not a hero for doing what is every doctor’s duty.”

These statements reveal a complete lack of understanding of what the prosecution of Dr. Morgentaler means for the women’s movement.

Who decided to focus the struggle for abortion rights around Dr. Morgentaler?

The LSA? The abortion law repeal movement? No.

That decision was made by the federal government and the Quebec Justice Department when they launched this prosecution.

The opponents of women’s right to abortion hope to deal a vicious blow to the women’s movement by convicting Dr. Morgentaler. If he is convicted, not only will safe abortions be much harder to get, but women’s confidence in their ability to struggle collectively and win victories will be severely undermined.

On . the other hand, a victory for Dr. Morgentaler would mean a victory for Canadian women. It would give women confidence in their ability to struggle—and spur on the fight to remove the anti-abortion law from the Criminal Code.

Much more is at stake in this case than imply the professional reputation and liberty of an individual doctor. In defending him, women are responding to one of the most vicious attacks they have faced in this country. It is a real test of strength, in which the anti-woman forces are lined up against the women’s movement and its allies.

But again we see The Other Woman and its supporters weakening the struggle by ab­staining from it.

Supporters of The Other Woman’s point of view have allowed the fact that Dr. Morgentaler is male—and their belief that women can have nothing to do with men—to blind them to the real implications of this case for women. The challenge before supporters of The Other Woman—as before all sup­porters of women’s rights—is to join the fight for the right of women to control their reproductive lives by helping prevent the victimization of Dr. Morgentaler.

Debate and discussion

The Other Woman raises some incidents which supposedly “expose” the divisive role of LSA women in the women’s movement. Two debates are cited, one in the Vancouver Women’s Caucus in 1970 and one in the Toronto Women’s Caucus in 1972.

Aside from the distortions and inaccuracies in these accounts, and the fact that only one viewpoint in the debates is reported, what the article really accuses LSA women of is arguing openly for our politics.

Apparently, what we argued for is irrelevant—since The Other Woman makes no attempt to explain what we said in these debates, much less answer our arguments.

What LSA women have consistently argued for is the perspective of building the women’s movement which was presented in the earlier part of this reply. In particular, we argued for democratic decision-making and non­-exclusionism in the women’s movement, and the importance of concrete struggles like the abortion rights struggle to draw increasing numbers of women into the movement and give them confidence in their collective strength.

But The Other Woman does not try to argue against these ideas—it attacks us simply for presenting them.

The Other Woman implies that it is debate which causes differences. In reality, the differences existed anyway; the debates simply brought the differences into the open and began the process of clarifying them.

This is a crucial process. The women’s movement can never be afraid of open discussion and debate or it will die.

Democracy and Leadership

The Other Woman charges LSA women with wanting to lead the women’s movement.

Certainly. We want to convince women to support out ideas and our approach—just as does anyone with any confidence in their ideas, including, presumably, The Other. Woman. Only the future will show which views prove able to win women’s support in life.

But The Other Woman suggests that leadership per se is a bad thing: the article says, “we do not build a movement along such hierarchial lines.”

We do not advocate a hierarchial leader­ship, but a leadership that is democratically elected on the basis of discussion and com­mon understanding of the tasks. In the ab­sence of such a democratic leadership, what develops is not egalitarianism but self-appointed clique leaderships which are not responsible to anyone. We have seen this happen time and time again in the women’s movement, undermining women’s confidence and the effectiveness of their struggles.

The Other Woman accuses the LSA of being undemocratic. In fact, it is their approach which is undemocratic—it proposes a women’s movement which allows no open discussion of differences, which operates with an undercover leadership, and which excludes anyone who objects to this perspective.

Male dominated?

The Other Woman accuses LSA women of belonging to a “male-dominated party,” and says, “YS/LSA women are controlled by male left thought and then use this thought to control other women.”

It is not clear whether The Other Woman feels that all women who have anything to do with men—and in particular, belong to organizations that include men—are “male-dominated” and should be excluded from the movement.

Does that mean that women in the political parties, or in trade unions, cannot legitimately be part of the women’s movement? What about women who are married to men? That approach would end up with a very skimpy list of candidates for the women’s movement.

Revolutionary party

Why do women join the LSA?

First of all, because the LSA completely supports the fight for women’s liberation; it explains the basis of women’s oppression and how the fight against it is interlocked with the fight to overthrow capitalism and construct a socialist society.

And secondly, because of the kind of organization the LSA is.

The Marxist movement has learned from experience that the task of overthrowing the capitalist rulers is a very big one. It needs to be organized and led by a revolutionary party that embodies the experiences and lessons of all the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and is composed of the best and most dedicated militants -who want to work together to lead the struggle for socialism.

Lenin—who built the Bolshevik party which led the Russian revolution—first developed the concept of such a party.

What the absence of such a party means was shown most recently in Chile, where despite the desire of the people for socialism, without a revolutionary party to lead their struggles, they fell victim to one of the bloodiest defeats in recent history.

The LSA is modelled on the Bolshevik party; its aim is to become the kind of party which can effectively lead the revolution in Canada.

The Other Woman accuses us of “recruiting women from the women’s movement.” We certainly do. We do everything we can to convince feminists of our socialist program, and to encourage them to join the LSA and YS—to make the most effective contribution to the struggle to liberate women and all humanity.

A ‘single fight’

The Other Woman says it is necessary to “understand the integral nature” of struggles around class, race, and sexuality, and “combine them into a single fight.”

We agree. Further, we feel that only a Marxist analysis can provide that un­derstanding; only a revolutionary socialist party can combine these struggles Into a single fight.

That is why we are both feminists and socialists. That is why me recommend to feminists that they join the LSA and the YS, to help advance the struggle for a socialist world and the end of all oppression—including women’s oppression.

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