It is estimated that, at the present rate, it will take 40 general elections before women are equally represented in Parliament. Perhaps it was this, along with statistics showing women's pay falling far behind that of men, which prompted Harriet Harman to announce a new equality law to end discrimination in June. The stark inequality between women and men in wages, work and conditions has been highlighted, not eradicated, by the "quiet revolution" which now sees more than 12 million women in the workforce. Meanwhile, sexual freedom is all too often misrepresented by lap-dancing clubs or scenes of binge drinking women than it is by confident, strong and independent women. It wasn't meant to be like this. The women's movement, which took off 40 years ago, promised a new world for women. Women's biology would no longer be their destiny and women fought for the right to be equal at work, at home and in society. Women's liberation began in the US against a background of mass movements for black civil rights and later black power, against the Vietnam war and the student movement. The term "women's liberation" was consciously adopted in identification with the national liberation movements against colonialism taking place around the world.
So, from the start, the women's movement identified with radical change. Many of the students who came from the northern states to campaign for black equality in Mississippi and elsewhere in the south were women. They endured often very dangerous conditions and were part of a brave and idealistic generation. The feminist academic Lise Vogel was probably typical. She came from a middle-class Jewish communist family. Her parents' worries when she was growing up were "money and McCarthyism." This is how she describes her experiences in the south in the early 1960s. "I got far more out of being in Mississippi than I ever was able to give back. In the end, I knew that I had participated in history, that what we did made a difference and that I had been tried and not found wanting." Yet Vogel and many women like her had become disillusioned with the movements by the late 1960's because they felt that women were sidelined or ignored and that issues of what came to be called women's oppression were either not recognised or were ridiculed. At one conference in 1967, where women tried to raise issues of women's liberation, the future feminist writer Shulamith Firestone was told by one man: "Move on, little girl, we have more important issues to talk about here than women's liberation." A popular slogan of the US movement against the draft to Vietnam was "girls say Yes to guys who say No."
Little wonder that a movement for women's liberation emerged and, by 1968, was holding meetings, publishing papers, organising activities all aimed at full equality for women and prepared to adopt militant tactics to get it. The movement spread to Britain where the first conference was held in Oxford in 1970. Here, the movement developed in a different way. It was more influenced by the left and the trade unions and took up strikes from its inception. The fight for equal pay by the Ford women machinists in 1969 and the night cleaners campaign led by May Hobbs were the two best known. In Britain, the 1960s and early '70s also saw major legislative changes which liberalised society and benefited women. There were laws on abortion, divorce, gays, equal pay and sex discrimination. More women were going out to work, a layer of young women was going into higher education and women were more in control of their bodies with major changes in contraception. Attitudes also changed. It became more acceptable for married women to work, for children to be born outside marriage and for couples to dispense with marriage altogether. Heterosexuality began to be challenged as the norm. The women's movement highlighted and campaigned around diverse issues including abortion, equal pay, domestic violence, rape and images of women. But the advances made by the left and working people in those years didn't last.
The second half of the 1970s saw a series of defeats and the decade ended with the historic election of a woman prime minister, but one committed to policies which would attack working people in general and working-class women particularly hard. The late '70s also saw the splintering and often disintegration of the women's movement, most spectacularly in Italy but also in Britain where the 1978 conference broke up in disarray. Many of the changes in women's lives which began in the '60s have turned out to be permanent. Women are present in the workforce in unprecedented numbers and there is much greater openness about sexuality and relationships. But women at work are also differentiated by class, with an important and successful layer of women employers, managers and higher professionals who have benefited from a limited opening in a man's world, but who have shown little sisterhood with their working-class counterparts. Working mothers' conditions are under attack as women are expected to compete with men in a workforce characterised by flexibility, long hours and low wages. Alan Sugar once asked a woman on the Apprentice about her plans for having children and the US feminist, now Democratic Party senator, Dianne Feinstein supported the overturning of a law reinstating women after maternity leave on the grounds that "we want to be treated equally … now we have to put our money where our mouth is."
At the same time, a number of gains are under attack, with attempts to reduce the abortion time limit, a shamefully low level of conviction for rape, the acceptance of lap-dancing clubs. Women's liberation has been turned on its head, so that anything goes as long as women are prepared to accept some of the worst conditions. The ideology of women's equality has been traduced by right-wing politicians such as Sarkozy or Berlusconi who accept women cabinet ministers so long as they conform to sexual stereotypes. Benefit cuts are sold by the new Labour government in the name of doing something for women and families. The bombing of Afghanistan is justified in the name of liberating oppressed Muslim women. Women's liberation led to a challenging of ideas and assumptions, which changed much about society. Yet, the limits of liberation are clear today. Women's liberation did not sufficiently confront the structures of oppression and, especially, the roots of women's oppression that lie in class society. So, feminism became an ideology that spoke to and for the women who could make it in a man's world. Meanwhile, millions of working women around the world have seen their lives worsen in the past two decades as they try to juggle increasingly stressful work with the demands of children, home and family.
This basic contradiction has never been resolved and cannot be until the wealth of society is used not for wars, Trident or luxury lifestyles of the super-rich but for creating resources which allow decent child care and an end to the double burden which women face. That means challenging the way that our society is organised and the class basis on which it is organised, not just arguing for more women in certain areas, welcome though that is. Today, women are a key part of the unions and are prominent in movements such as the anti-war movement. They play much greater roles in public life and have achieved many things that previous generations would have thought impossible. But, if we want real equality, then this time around we have to see socialism as central to women's liberation. And the division won't just be about gender but about class.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.