The recession means that women can’t have equal pay with men. Astonishingly, that is what the government body charged with safeguarding equality believes. The Equality and Human Rights Commission told the government this week that businesses should not have to undergo equal pay reviews as they would be too expensive. The government agrees. It is understood to have dropped the reviews from its forthcoming Equalities Bill after discussions with the bosses’ CBI organisation. Women’s pay is on average 17 percent less than men’s, and this gap increases to 36.5 percent for part-time women workers. And the divide is increasing. Yet there is more than enough money in the system to give women equal pay. The bosses are still raking in profits and the government can afford to throw billions at the banks.
Women in Britain have made great gains since the days of the Women’s Liberation Movement; females are now a permanent part of the workforce and have a degree of economic independence previously denied to them. Access to legal and safe abortion, however limited, has saved thousands of women faced with an unwanted pregnancy from risking their lives in backstreet abortions. Easier access to divorce and acceptance of relationships outside of marriage have enabled millions of women and men to make different choices about how they live together. Yet we are still a long way from liberation.
The Equal Pay Act was passed over three decades ago but the average wage for women is still around 18 percent less than men. A recent TUC report talked of a “motherhood penalty” and showed that women who have children are most affected by pay inequality. Many are forced into part time work, where the pay gap is at its greatest, as they juggle work with inadequate and expensive childcare. There are also many who want to roll back the gains we have made, and the right of women to control their bodies is still contested. Around 83 percent of the population support abortion being legal but the anti-abortionists have not given up. Their tactic is to target the small minority of women who need abortions, often in desperate circumstances, at the upper end of the 24-week time limit.
When it comes to the sexual commodification of women’s bodies it certainly feels like the clocks have turned back. Lap dancing is now big business and strip clubs are sold as a great night out for both women and men. Women who object are denounced as prudish or sexually repressed. But what is liberating about commercial sex sold for a profit? We fought hard in the 1960s and 1970s for more openness in society about sex and sexuality. Now capitalism wants to repackage it and sell it back to us as a commodity. The obsession with women’s appearance breaks new boundaries. Women are supposed to ape skeletal celebrities and aspire to be the mythical size zero, according to current trends veering toward perilous obsession. And if you can’t achieve the perfect body by going hungry you can always go under the knife. Cosmetic surgery is now mainstream with “breast enhancement” the most popular operation.
At the same time as women are encouraged to dress and behave like porn stars they are still seen as the custodians of morality. Women’s sexual histories, clothing and behaviour are still brought up in court in rape cases to suggest that the victim is in some way responsible for an assault. The result is that any women wearing what is in the window of Top Shop can be deemed to be asking for it. Today only 5 percent of reported rapes end in conviction. These attacks are being challenged by a new generation of activists. There may no longer be a Women’s Liberation Movement, but there are many young women, trade unionists, and activists who want to fight for women’s liberation. In colleges and workplaces across the country women are standing up against the tide of raunch culture and refusing to be defined by the sexist stereotypes peddled by the media.
The struggle for equal pay continues. Last year the Abortion Rights campaign has already mobilised many women who have never had to fight on the issue before. History has shown that the fate of women in society is tied to the fate of the working class. We have won the most gains when the working class has been on the offensive. We have never been in a better position to challenge our oppression as part of a collective – women are now half the workforce. But the fight must be for more than just equality under capitalism. Class remains the deepest divide in society, defining our health, education, housing, jobs and pay and even our life expectancy. Winning equal pay with men would be progress, but not victory. The top 1 percent of population own over 23 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent’s share is only 7 percent. Equal pay can still mean gross inequality between the minority and the majority. For socialists the fight for women’s liberation is part of a struggle for the emancipation of the whole of humanity.