Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Judith Orr - Sexism and the System, A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation

This, the most recent addition to Bookmarks' "Rebel's Guide" series, is slightly different than the earlier books. Rather than dealing with a revolutionary individual, it deals with an issue - the on-going struggle for women's liberation.

The author, Judith Orr is the editor the monthly magazine Socialist Review. She isn't a feminist in the strict definition of the word. The sexism of society, the oppression of women, isn't for Orr because "All Men are Bastards", rather it is because capitalism requires women's oppression.

In this context the systematic way that women are treated as second class citizens is actually beneficial to capitalism. For instance, by relying primarily on women to bring up children, to feed, clothe and look after the next generation, capitalism is avoiding the immense cost of socially provided child care. But it's not just financial - the family creates the ideological backdrop to capitalism - with women at home and men at work, and all the problems of the world being down to us as individuals.

The early chapters of this short book, re-assert the Marxist position on Women's oppression. Despite us being told that Marxism is purely about economic issues, Orr shows how both Marx and Engels understood that there was "nothing 'natural' ... about the way we live today". Indeed, for tens of thousands of years there were no class divisions, and women's oppression simply did not exist.

Orr looks at the way that the rise of class society led to the oppression of women, with the rise of more labour intensive forms of farming.

However, for me the strongest and most interesting chapters in the book are those that look at contemporary society. Orr rattles off some depressing statistics for a world where women are supposed to be equal. On average women earn "18% less than men". The UK's childcare situation is the "worst in Europe" and it's high price means that lowest income families are unable to afford it - "low paid women simply can't afford to work".

Simultaneously we have, as Orr shows, the rise of "Raunch" culture. The attempt to make porn mainstream, the rise of lap-dancing and children's clothing with the Playboy logo. She points out that this isn't new. Women's bodies have been used to sell all sorts of things for many, many years. The difference is that it is now "being sold to women as empowering".

All this means that real liberation for women won't come about under capitalism. The system that oppresses women doesn't benefit the majority of men, whose own lives are blighted by the distortions caused by capitalism telling us that the family is the only way that we can bring up our kids.

Judith Orr shows how in all struggles the ruling, sexist ideas in society, are challenged. She finishes her book by showing how the Russian Revolution introduced massive changes in the lives of women and men. Abortion and divorce on demand, socialised childcare and launderettes, equal employment rights between the sexes and paid maternity leave. That backward country, in the midst of revolution, civil war and famine made it a priority to tackle women's oppression.

So important was this that Orr points out that Leon Trotsky measured the success of Stalin's counter revolution by his undermining of these measures.

Ending the book with a quote from Engel's about how a socialist society would transform our sexual lives, Orr shows a vision for us all a truly equal society, were no one is excluded from enjoying life to the full simply because of they are the wrong sex.

Related Reviews

Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx


Unknown said...

Feminism is, by the "strict definition" about all men being bastards, then? I'd suggest you should get a better grasp of the breadth of feminist thought before reviewing books about it.

Also, the claim that women's oppression didn't exist for tens of thousands of years before "class society" is incredibly ambiguous - what is meant by class society, according to Orr? Does that mean capitalism, or does it also include feudalism, slave-based economies, etc? If you interpret it as the former, this claim is obviously false. If you broaden it to include all class-based societies, it may well be true by definition (if women were oppressed, they would constitute a separate class)...

iciclette said...

All the societies mentioned in rogue lettuce's comment are indeed class societies. The rise of class societies comes about when a society becomes successful enough to produce a surplus beyond what it needs to survive. A ruling class emerges as a small section of society organises to control that surplus for itself.

The point of Judith Orr's short book is to reassert the marxist understanding that the sexism inherent to class societies, is not inherent to human beings but is a necessary requirement to save money. It is also very useful to divide and rule.

The inadequacy of feminism as a tool to analyse sexism is that its theory of patriarchy does essentially boil down to all men are bastards who benefit from womens oppression.

If that is the case then working class women would never be able to stand with WC men to improve their lives or to defend conditions at work. If that were true then none of the campaigns by both men and women for equal pay and abortion rights could have become law.

Resolute Reader said...

Like all Marxists, Judith Orr would define "class society" as including any society divided into classes - broadly speaking, the producers at the bottom and the ruling classes at the top. Before the rise of such class based societies, women's oppression simply didn't exist - such societies required all of their members to partake in the hunting or gathering necessary to ensure the group's survival. Of course there may have been a delimitation between gender roles, but that isn't the same as the systematic oppression of the female sex by the male that characterises later societies.

More equal social organisation like this is visible amongst those small groups of humans that have survived into contemporary times.

As an aside, oppression isn't a definition of a class. Classes are defined by roles within society, rather than simply by the nature of your oppression.

Judith's book is a short introduction to these ideas. It is a vigourous attack on sexism, but it is more that that, it is a reassertion of the idea that we don't have to live in a world were women are second class citizens. There is, as I quoted, nothing natural about our modern social organisation.

Capitalism has taken the logic of women's oppression to the extreme. Women's bodies are now used to sell commodities, or have become commodities on a scale far beyond the way that feudal lords treated their wives.

Orr's book is an introduction to these important ideas and a argument that we can fight for a better world.

Unknown said...

You're right that classes are not defined by oppression per se. However, Orr's Marxist feminism tells us that women's oppression is economic in nature. And what do we call one group of people that are economically oppressed by another group of people? A class. Therefore according to Orr's feminism, women's oppression CAN only exist in a class-based society, because as soon as you have the oppression of women, you have a class-based society.

Again I say that you need to grasp the breadth of feminism before you make sweeping statements about it - there is no one "theory of patriarchy" that all feminists subscribe to. At best there are many theories of patriarchy, and at worst some feminists may not subscribe to any "theory of patriarchy". You can't lump all feminists together and try to define yourself out of the discipline in opposition to this straw-man monolith.

I just think this school of "Marxist feminism" is narrowly economistic and fails to adequately understand the nuances of both the rest of the feminist movement and the actual realities and processes involved in sex/gender/sexuality/etc. In contrast to this there are many Socialist feminists who openly acknowledge that "sexism" or "patriarchy" doesn't boil down to capitalism, and must be understood as a discrete but intertwined phenomenon.

Resolute Reader said...

There is much to reply to here. Firstly I think it is unfair to describe Judith Orr as a Marxist Feminist. In the early chapters of the book she clearly defines herself as not being a feminist, but being a Marxist.

Her analysis of where oppression of women comes from is rooted in the rise of class society - a standard Marxist analysis outlined for instance, in some of Engels' earliest writings. I don't think that we disagree upon this particular point.

Again, ignoring your use of the term Marxist Feminism to describe this particular strand of thought, I don't think it is right to call it "narrowly economistic". The person who posted a comment previous to mine clearly pointed out that this sexism is a very useful divide and rule tactic. Something the ruling class use to turn the oppressed classes against each other. In much the same way that homophobia or racism might be used today for instance.

As "iciclette" says, the problem with Feminism is that it boils down, at its simplist, to a theory of patriachy. There are of course many Feminists who have a class understanding of society who would describe themselves as socialists.

Ultimately though, Marxism is an attempt to understand to world as a whole and then change it, rather than a tool to understanding the particular nuances of the Feminist movement.

Unknown said...

It's not at all unfair to call her a Marxist feminist. While she may reject the term herself, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.
You, like Orr, seem to have a very blinkered view of what the term "feminist" means. The views she espouses are generally taken to be feminist views, and they are a specific type of feminism called Marxist feminism. If you want proof that this is a widely used term when summarising the views you and Orr express, see:

Feminism is a broad term which encompasses many theories and positions - liberal feminism, marxist feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, political lesbianism, etc. You can't lump these all in together as "Feminism" and find a common failing with them.

The idea that Marxism is an attempt to understand the world as a whole does not excuse it from having to understand nuances. If you can only ever understand things in very broad and inaccurate generalisations, you will never make a successful revolution. This tendency to simplify, to abstract, and to "switch off" when faced with nuances and complexities causes a massive amount of sectarianism, amongst other things.