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
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 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
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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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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