Why feminism?

Anna Fisher provides a brief introduction to feminist theory, the connections between patriarchy and capitalism, and masculinity and militarism, and why feminism is important to Left Unity.

Within feminism there are a number of strands. I draw on the writings of a number of important feminist thinkers. However, what I have included and left out is a personal view and I do not mean to suggest that it represents the only way of looking at these issues. The ‘Further reading’ section at the end provides a list of my sources.

Systems of oppression

“Karl Marx was one of the first theorists to explain that ideology is not a free-floating set of ideas, but rather a coherent system of beliefs that are purposely and carefully created by the elite class to promote their interests. Using their ownership of key cultural institutions, the elite then set about distributing these ideas until they become the dominant ways of thinking.” (Huffington Post 2014)

Feminism is not about demonising men – it is about understanding systems of oppression so that we can change them. So what do we mean by a “system of oppression”? A system of oppression is a set of interrelated forces that press down on people who belong to one group (such as women or people of colour) and effect their subordination to another group (such as men or white people).

One of the key characteristics of life as oppressed people experience it is the double bind. This limits the options that are available to a person in such a way that each option exposes the person to penalty, censure, or deprivation. For example, if a young woman is sexually active, she risks being called a “slut” and is considered unworthy of respect. But if she is not sexually active, she is likely to be called “frigid” or “uptight” and to be harassed by men to “loosen up”. If an older woman dyes her hair and wears makeup, she is ridiculed for “trying too hard”, but if she doesn’t, she “has let herself go”. If a woman goes back to work after giving birth, she is plagued by judgement that she is an inadequate, unnatural mother. If she gives up work, she is plagued by suggestions that she “sits around all day doing nothing”, is a gold-digger sponging off her husband (if she has one) or a scrounger on the state (if she doesn’t). And if anything goes wrong, it’s always her fault, no matter who was actually responsible. And so on. On and on.

Life for oppressed people is confined and shaped by interlocking forces that are impossible to avoid. Marilyn Frye uses the analogy of a bird cage to explain how it works and why it can be so hard to identify the forces as a system. When you are close up, you may wonder why the bird doesn’t just go around the bar that is in front of it, because on its own no single bar traps the bird. It is only when you move out and look at the whole arrangement can you see that it is the configuration of the bars that traps the bird. Together the bars form a system of oppression.

When we consider the forces that press down on a woman, the forces that mean that she is censured and belittled and found fault with and blamed no matter what choices she makes, we see that these forces are nothing to do with her individual merits or shortcomings. Instead they are to do with her membership of the group female (or her membership of the group Black, if we were to look at racist oppression). In many ways it is easier to recognise the system of racist oppression because of the relative separation or segregation of Black and white people (and perhaps because the group Black contains men), and similarly for class oppression.

The fact that women are dispersed across all social classes, ethnic groups, and geographical areas makes it harder to identify the structures that press down on women as a group. Attempting to assimilate colonised people (for example, by forbidding the use of their own language, removing their children, destroying their traditional ways of life, etc.) has been a regular feature of colonisation for this very reason – it makes it harder for the colonised people to see their oppression as the social construction that it is and to identify with a collective struggle.

For women, the cage is women’s place as a function – that function being the service of men – not only housework, sexual service, and the bearing and rearing of children, but also “being nice”, “being attractive” and ego service (encouragement, support, praise, attention). Virginia Woolf brilliantly captured the essence of women’s function as “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”.

The details vary across geographical locations, race and social class, but everywhere women serve men and nowhere do men serve women in anything like the same way.

Women generally comply because they are raised and socialised in the system and the penalties for not complying can be heavy, submission can be essential for her very survival. Women’s submissiveness is then taken as proof of women’s inherent inferiority. The same dynamic can be observed in other oppressed groups.

But men are oppressed too, right?

“Women are oppressed, as women. Members of certain racial and/or economic groups and classes, both the males and the females, are oppressed as members of those races and/or classes. But men are not oppressed as men.” (Marilyn Frye)

When we say that women are oppressed as women but men are not oppressed as men, we are not saying that men don’t suffer or they don’t have feelings. What we are talking about here is the systematic oppression of certain groups that people are born into.

As a white person, I was raised within a racist society and educational system and as a child I was taught racist stereotyping and other hateful concepts, which was an assault on my humanity. Erasing this racist conditioning is a lifelong and continuous personal effort. It is important to recognise this. But is that oppression? Not in the sociological sense and to suggest otherwise would obscure the very real oppression that Black people experience. For example, Black people are constantly measured against some mythical white standard of “normality” and found wanting, lesser, because “white” is the racist standard for what is human, and all the practical and material injustices and inequalities that follow that – from the international trading agreements that systematically disadvantage developing nations to the way society reacts to the exuberance of youth, seeing it as “high jinks” when the youth is white and as proof of criminal or violent tendencies when the youth is black, and everything in between and beyond. On and on.

Similarly, the oppression of women affects men and limits men’s humanity. But that does not mean that men are oppressed as men.

The bars of the cage form a barrier to the people outside the cage, but the bars have a very different meaning for those inside it. For the people inside, the cage encloses, restricts and confines. For the people outside, it provides liberty and greater opportunities – by reducing competition from those inside the cage, for example.

Some men may want one of the supportive roles generally assigned to women and when they discover it is almost or totally closed to them, they may complain that they are oppressed by “sex roles” and may even suggest women are keeping them out. But the barriers are created and maintained by men to keep women in their subordinate place and the culture and economy firmly in male hands. This benefits all men, even those who bump up against the barriers, by ensuring their classification and status as superior and their right to higher pay and sexual access to women.

Understanding male privilege

“Denials which amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully recognised, acknowledged, lessened, or ended.” (Peggy McIntosh)

The corollary to the oppression of one social group is the unearned advantage of the dominant group. This unearned advantage is generally referred to as privilege. Peggy McIntosh in her pioneering 1988 essay on the subject tells how she was pondering men’s unwillingness to recognise their male privilege whilst sometimes being prepared to acknowledge women’s disadvantage. Recognising that the hierarchies and systems of oppression interlock and intersect, she realised that there must also be a phenomenon of white privilege which was similarly denied and protected. She then embarked on an exercise to identify and list some of the practical advantages that her white privilege granted in her daily life. After listing 46 points, she paused to make some observations.

“Some privileges make me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers which others suffer. Through some, I escape fear, anxiety or a sense of not being welcome or not being real. Some keep me from having to hide, to be in disguise, to feel sick or crazy, to negotiate each transaction from the position of being an outsider. Most keep me from having to be angry. [I was] given cultural permission not to hear the voices of people of other races. (Peggy McIntosh, again)

She realised that people of colour were made to lack confidence and to feel uncomfortable and alienated in direct proportion to how white people were made confident and comfortable. She realised that her whiteness protected her from many kinds of hostility, distress and violence and that she was being subtly trained to visit those same things on people of colour. She told of her reluctance to look at these uncomfortable truths and she came to see that just as most of her oppressive behaviour was unconscious, so is most men’s oppression towards women unconscious.

It is painful to let ourselves see how the advantages of a social group to which we personally belong come at the expense of the people in one or more other groups. It is also painful to let ourselves see how the systems of oppressions in which we are caught up damage both the winners and the losers. But if we want to build a better world, we must face these uncomfortable truths.

“In some groups, those dominated actually become strong through not having all these unearned advantages and this gives them a great deal to teach others. Members of so-called privileged groups can seem foolish, ridiculous, infantile or dangerous by contrast.” (Peggy McIntosh, again)

The unearned advantages conferred on the winners in these systems of oppression often contribute to a sense of entitlement – the feeling that we are entitled to our unearned and unfair privileges, that they are ours by right, rather than coming at the expense of another social group. And when the barriers are removed to reduce oppression and the unearned advantage, people in the dominant group sometimes feel that they are being attacked and fight for the barriers to be replaced. This is sometimes called the backlash. Together all of these forces make challenging and changing systems of oppression difficult.

So what is patriarchy?

Allan Johnson in his classic work, The Gender Knot, defines patriarchy as a society that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.” Let’s look at each of these key characteristics in turn.

  • Male dominance – This means that men disproportionately occupy positions of power and authority, which leads to power differences between men and women. As a result men get larger shares of income and wealth and get to shape the culture so that it serves men’s collective interests – for example, by controlling the content of films and TV and by handling rape and sexual harassment cases so that the victim rather than the perpetrator is on trial. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that all men are powerful or that no women are powerful.)
  • Male identification – Men are considered the standard or the norm and society’s key values are associated with men and masculinity. As a result, men are seen as superior and whatever men do is seen as having higher value. For example, occupations primarily done by men are paid more than those primarily done by women.
  • Male centeredness – Men are the primary focus of attention in most contexts. For example, men dominate conversations by talking more, zoning out and interrupting when women speak, and men generally control the context of the conversation. When women suggest ideas in meetings, they are often ignored until a man suggests the same thing and he gets the credit.
  • Obsession with (male) control – Male control – or as Marilyn French calls it “power over” – is the core principle around which not only patriarchal social life but also men’s inner lives are organised. As a result, patriarchal societies are hierarchical and revere power over other people and nature.

These forces reinforce each other at both the individual and collective level. Individual men’s focus on themselves and women’s focus on others (especially men) reinforce male-identification and male-centeredness. This in turn reinforces male dominance and makes it easier for individual men to concentrate on protecting and enhancing their own status.

If men were naturally superior to women, there would be no need for force or violence to enforce the system. Male violence is used not only to keep women in a state of fear but also as a way for individual men to enhance their personal sense of dominance and superiority and hence his sense that he is a “real man”.

The subordination of women

“The oppression of women occurs through sexual subordination. It is the use of sex as the medium of oppression that makes the subordination of women so distinct from racism or prejudice against a group based on religion or national origin. Social inequality is created in many different ways. In my view, the radical responsibility is to isolate the material means of creating inequality so that material remedies can be found for it.” (Andrea Dworkin)

Andrea Dworkin showed that sex is a key part of the mechanism by which women are oppressed and this makes the oppression of women fundamentally different to the oppression of racial, ethnic and other social groups – although the way sex is used to oppress women of colour and working class women is particularly vicious.

In Against the Male Flood, Dworkin identified four elements in the subordination of a social group:

  1. Hierarchy – There’s a group on top and a group on the bottom. The bottom group has less power and fewer rights and resources than the top group and is treated as inferior to them. “Women are physically integrated into the society in which we are held to be inferior, and our low status is both put in place and maintained in the sexual usage of us by men; and so women’s experience of hierarchy is incredibly intimate and wounding.”
  2. Objectification – Members of the bottom group are treated as things, as instruments, commodities and/or property for the use of those on top. “Objectification is an injury right at the heart of discrimination; those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms; their humanity is hurt by being diminished.”
  3. Submission – Those in the bottom group typically comply with the wishes and self-defined needs of those on top – doing so is essential for their survival. This is then used as proof of their inferiority and sub-humanness. “The master, not able to imagine a human like himself in such degrading servility, thinks the servility is proof that the hierarchy is natural and that the objectification simply amounts to seeing these lesser creatures for what they are.”
  4. Violence – Committed by members of the top group against members of the bottom group is routine and systematic and is seen as right, necessary, inevitable and natural. When directed by men at women, “the violence against women is seen to be done not just in accord with something compliant in women, but in response to something active in and basic to women’s nature.”

Dworkin goes on to show that pornography is a key mechanism in the subordination of women. When feminists talk about pornography, they often use Rebecca Whisnant’s definition of pornography: “sexually explicit material that makes dominance and inequality sexy”. So we are not just talking about sexually explicit material, but about sexually explicit material that eroticises dominance and inequality.

Pornography, Dworkin says, is:

“Women turned into subhumans, beaver, pussy, body parts, genitals exposed, buttocks, breasts, mouths opened and throats penetrated, covered in semen, pissed on, shitted on, hung from light fixtures, tortured, maimed, bleeding, disembowelled, killed. […]

It is rape and gang rape and anal rape and throat rape: and it is the woman raped, asking for more. […]

It is the conditioning of erection and orgasm in men to the powerlessness of women; our inferiority, humiliation, pain, torment: to us as objects, things, or commodities for use in sex as servants.”

She says that if pornography were done to human beings, it would be recognised as atrocity, but because under patriarchy male is “human” and female is “other”, pornography is classified as entertainment, a civil right, freedom of speech.

Approximately two decades after Dworkin wrote this powerful essay, photos of US military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison entered the public domain. The abuse was immediately recognised as atrocity – because the prisoners were male. But although some commentators drew comparison with what is done to women in pornography, pornography is generally seen as harmless and not as the atrocity that it is.

So pornography is both propaganda and practical violence against both the women and children used in its creation and the women and children on whom it is acted out. This is of pressing concern now that pornography has moved from the shadows into the mainstream and through the Internet and smartphones is now widely available to children. In 2011, the average age of first exposure was estimated at 11 years. This is the average age that girls begin puberty and a year before the average age that boys begin puberty.

Being exposed to pornography so young can be considered a form of child sexual abuse. It grooms our boy children for a life of using, taking and pimping. It grooms our girl children into accepting a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own.

Patriarchy and capitalism

Patriarchy is a relatively recent development in the long history of the human race. For most of the million plus years of our existence, human societies were egalitarian and cooperative. Patriarchy emerged about 6,000 years ago in the Middle East (and at different times in other regions of the world). Capitalism on the other hand developed in Western Europe in the early modern period (from about 1500 AD). So clearly patriarchy preceded capitalism.

The transition to patriarchal social organisation was marked by violence as the older men (the fathers) took control of resources that were previously shared, and subdued and controlled the women. The development of capitalism involved a parallel process in which elites took control of land and resources previously shared (the enclosure of the “commons”) and subdued the ordinary people. Capitalism can therefore be seen as a logical extension to patriarchy and we cannot understand the one without the other.

The development of capitalism was messy and violent as the elite set about transforming the largely self-sufficient peasants into a controlled and controllable work force from whose labour they could make a profit. Initially the stealing of the commons on which the ordinary people, particularly women, depended was vehemently resisted and in many places women led the resistance.

Sylvia Federici in her excellent book, Caliban and the Witch, which traces the history of this transition from a feminist point of view, has shown that in the early stages of this transition the political authorities condoned, if not encouraged, violence against poor women as a way of controlling rebellious young men. During this period gang rape became common and the perpetrators had impunity – provided the women were poor. At the same time prostitution was institutionalised throughout Europe. As a result, not only was class antagonism redirected at women but the class solidarity of the anti-feudal struggle was undermined. (Federici, p47).

This was followed by two centuries of brutal witch hunts that were accompanied by widespread misogynistic propaganda, the expulsion of women from crafts and the loss of their old knowledge passed down through generations of herbs that could not only heal but reduce fertility and of gentle birthing procedures. As a result women lost such independence that they had, their rebellious spirit was broken and they were driven into economic dependence on men, who had also lost their independence and had become dependent on employers. Women became reproductive machines turning out new workers on which the capitalist economy depended but their reproductive labour was now defined as non-labour. (We see that this is still true when mothers of young children are asked, “Do you work?”)

The previous mutual, symbiotic, relationship between men and women was replaced by a harder, more vicious relationship. Men got to have power over their women and children as if in compensation for the loss of their old independence.

Although individual men sometimes fought to save their women from the witch hunts, with one exception (in the Basque region) there is no record of men uniting to resist the persecution of women.

Federici says (p189), “there is no doubt that years of propaganda and terror sowed among men the seeds of a deep psychological alienation from women, that broke class solidarity and undermined their own collective power. […] Just as today, by repressing women, the ruling classes more effectively repressed the entire proletariat.”

This was taking place in Europe at the same time as the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of its peoples, the beginning of the slave trade and subsequent colonialist expansion in Africa and Asia. Methods of control learnt in the witch hunts were exported to the colonies and methods of control learnt in the brutal suppression of the colonised people were introduced in the control of women and workers at home.

Maria Mies and others have shown that the capitalist system is dependent on the continual patriarchal exploitation and subordination of women and colonised peoples and the viciousness increases in every crisis of capitalism. It is no accident that in the current major crisis in capitalism we are seeing an enormous industry develop based on the crudest exploitation of women’s bodies in prostitution and pornography and in the development of the renting of poor women’s wombs for babies for the rich.

Masculinity and militarism

“We see no policy concern over masculinity. Given the massive incidence of male violence, its cost to the state, its implications for security and the damage it inflicts on the quality of life, this is an absence like no other. It can be explained only as a political incapacity in those who wield patriarchal power to pathologize one of its age-old means of coercion.” (Cynthia Cockburn)

In classic feminist theory, masculinity is seen as the learnt behaviour of male dominance and femininity as the learnt behaviour of submission to that dominance. Feminists do not see masculinity and femininity as innate but as socially constructed roles.

Under capitalist patriarchy, masculine sexuality is a relationship of power over the sex object. Many men experience violence as erotic. Countries that are militarising (like Israel) or that need to justify vast military budgets during peace time (like the UK and US), boost masculinity by tacit tolerance for violence against women and overt fetishization of football and similar masculine sports that reinforce men’s notions of themselves as warriors (Cockburn).

“War […] gives birth to new class elites or strengthens existing ones. It produces racialized identities, deepening the differentiation of ‘peoples’. It also […] affirms men and masculinity in a powerfully effective mode. It produces woman as prize and possession, as baggage and as slave.” (Cynthia Cockburn)

Any analysis of war that excludes an analysis of masculinity and patriarchal capitalist gender relations is bound to be inadequate. Similarly resistance to war and militarism without challenging masculinity and patriarchal power is bound to fail.

Practical feminism in Left Unity

“To revere power above everything else is to be willing to sacrifice everything else to power.” (Marilyn French)

I have tried to show in this article how a feminist analysis is vital if we are to understand the mechanisms that capitalist and patriarchal institutions use to bind us and blind us. To effectively challenge these institutions and transform society we need to work on several levels at the same time:

  • Emotionally – We need to acknowledge the damage that has been done to each one of us through the interlocking systems of oppression that work to alienate each of us from our humanity and each other and that serve to reduce our capacity for collective resistance. We need to work towards better ways of relating – those of us who are winners need to be prepared to give up our unearned advantages and those of us who are losers need to unlearn the survival strategies that sometimes work to keep us in our place. We need to understand that this is an ongoing struggle, that we need support each other in this, to challenge each other when we slip back, to believe that the struggle is worth it and that change is possible.
  • Intellectually – We need to continue to educate ourselves about the systems of oppression that are used to divide us from our humanity and each other. We need to use this knowledge when developing policies and campaigns and remember that the winners in the systems of oppression invariably have blind spots about the impact of policies and their own behaviour on those on the other side of those systems of oppression.
  • Practically – We need to devise strategies for resistance to all forms of oppression and work towards the full inclusion and participation of all. We need to actively listen to those in oppressed groups and encourage their full participation. We need to actively work to change our patterns.

Left Unity has a number of key provisions in its constitution that aim to facilitate this:

  • Reserving 50% of places on all elected national and regional bodies for women in the understanding that the male dominant system is self perpetuating and that without a provision such as this men invariably dominate in a mixed environment.
  • A safe spaces policy which aims to promote a culture of inclusion where all of us, including women and members of other oppressed social groups, can feel comfortable, contribute and be heard, and which asks everyone to recognise the interlocking systems of oppression in which we are all situated and to work to change the unhelpful patterns of behaviour in which we have all been socialised.
  • Caucuses for women, Black people, LGBTQ and disabled members and young people. These aim to provide a space and forum for members of these traditionally oppressed groups to facilitate their collaboration in developing analysis, policies and campaigns that address issues that particularly affect them and to examine other policies and campaigns for blind spots, etc, and also for mutual support and solidarity.

These provisions do not in themselves overcome the oppression that women and other oppressed groups face. However, they provide building blocks to fight against these systems of oppression, with support from Left Unity as a whole. They also allow the organisation to develop a vision of ‘another world which is both possible and necessary’ based on feminist, antiracist and socialist principles.

I call on all members of Left Unity to support these initiatives and to understand that they are a key part of our collective project of resisting the current world order and building a new and egalitarian one.

Further reading

To submit an article for the 'Discussion & Debate' section of our website please email it to info@leftunity.org


19 responses to “Why feminism?”

  1. micheline says:

    Dear Anna,
    What a wonderful, carefully crafted article. I agree with it all.
    And of course there is the internalised oppression to deal with too, where we set up our safe caucuses and so on, and then proceed to attack and compete with each other. I think we are in this for the long haul! Thanks so much for this.

  2. Stew Morris says:

    A very comprehensive and very thoughtful & referenced analysis. Sadly though, one very unlikely to gain any traction within the UK population as a whole. Most males would reject most of it. A sizeable (enough) minority of females will side with THEIR male. If LU is to get anywhere it needs to stop highlighting the concerns of individual (though sizeable) groups. This almostimmediately creates division. Treate all beings equally and break down the contructs of free market capitalism. Love one another truly, and we will achieve our aim

    • Ian McNee says:

      Stew: you’re right that the analysis set out here is not shared by the majority of British people. However one of the main purposes of Anna’s piece is to help those of us active in Left Unity to understand the nature of women’s oppression so that we can better tackle it – whether in our own attidudes and behaviour, that of others or more broadly: tackling wage discrimination in our workplaces, defending and extending women’s control over their own bodies (abortion rights, etc.).

      Most of us come to Left Unity more or less understanding of some areas of politics & society that we have experience of. The great value of contributions like Anna’s here is that we can learn from one another and as an organisation better understand the political issues that we face and be more effective in bringing others with us and making positive changes in the real world.

    • Brigitte Lechner says:

      I doubt the article was aimed at the UK population as a whole but rather at the membership of a party that purports to be feminist and environmentalist as well as socialist (I hope anti-racist will be added at some time in the near future). Patriarchy is the name given to a social system which can also be understood as male hegemony. It clearly isn’t understood by a lot of people even in the LU. Otherwise men (and women)in the party would grapple a lot harder with the implications of male (and white) privilege hegemony entails and stand up to be counted instead of trotting out the tired old line about creating division. How this article creates division in a party that identifies with feminism totally mystifies me? So, yes, let’s love one another truly,get sorted and stop churning out platitudes.

  3. Jacob says:

    I fully support proposals for reserving 50% of elected seats on national and regional bodies in left organisations for women. We live in a patriarchal world and such measures are an important means of changing this.

    I am a bit worried about the idea of identifying war as ‘male’ though. I remember from the 1980s how some feminists blamed war on men or maleness. I could never really believe this. After all Margaret Thatcher was PM at the time and we had the Malvinas conflict, the shoot to kill policy in the six counties of Ireland etc. Looking at history it has always seemed to me that it is the nature of the system people worked under that determines how they will act as opposed to their gender, class or race identity. Think of Elizabeth I, Golda Meir etc. Surely saying that women must have equal rights to attain positions of power does not mean we have to believe that women have super-human powers to rise above the nature of the social and economic system that has brought them to power.

    I would suggest that it is the economic and political structures that lead to war, not gender.

    Of course if you achieved socialism and the whole thing was run by men, then it would not remain socialism for very long, as clearly there would be no equality but that is a slightly different point.

    The whole idea that war is a male thing looks increasingly anachronistic as we see more and more women serving in the armed forces-Israel was a bit of a pioneer here, ironicially. The main cause of war in the modern world is imperialism. Campaigns against machoness and aggressive masculinity have my full support but I doubt they will do much to stop the increasing numbers of wars that blight the planet. The real value of such campaigns is in stopping male bullying and dominance within relationships and in the workplace (and yes within Left organisations too!) The fight against sexism is vital for so many different reasons but if we do not identify the real causes of wars then we will never be able to stop them.

    • Brigitte Lechner says:

      You response reminds me how confusing things get when language gets in the way, Jacob. Of course women wage war, are aggressive and some are killers too. The danger of reducing patriarchy to men are great. It comes about because patriarchy is a social system in which the male gender is privileged in the way white people are privileged in a racist society. It means that what men and boys say, think, do or experience is disproportionately more important than what women and girls do, think, say or experience. Men are also disproportionately located in positions of great power and influence. Proof of this is readily available in the media, films, schools, news, advertising, etc. I therefore entirely agree with you that it is economic and political structures that generate war. But if these systems are based on patriarchy and are thus driven by male hegemony then men will be implicated. I personally think that men need to look to themselves and discover how they help perpetuate this system. At present, there is many a good man who says ‘that’s not me’ or ‘I wouldn’t do that’ and walks away safe in the knowledge it has nothing to do with him. Well, it does. This even applies to women, by the way, because the patriarchal mindset forms in all of us.

    • Anna Fisher says:

      Dear Jacob

      The article flies through a lot of material – I wanted to give an overview of some key feminist thinking and why it is relevant to us in Left Unity, and the section on masculinity and militarism is particularly condensed. So you may want to go back and read the article again. If you do, you will see that nowhere do I blame men for war. What I do, is draw a connection between masculinity and militarism, and between masculinity and violence in general. And I explain that masculinity is learnt behaviour – it’s not synonymous with men or maleness. And because it’s learnt behaviour, it can be unlearnt too. That’s what feminism is about – changing society or attempting to change it so that it can be fairer and our grandchildren can have a hope of living in a world that hasn’t been destroyed. But because we have internalised the values, the revolution has to start within us. All of us, women as well as men, need to do this inner work.

      And of course you are right, you can find examples of women who have led countries into war. But to my knowledge, all of them were isolated in male-dominated patriarchal institutions – i.e. institutions that were based on masculine values. I don’t know of an example of women en masse having serious political power on their own terms since the rise of patriarchy. Imperialism, like capitalism, arose out of patriarchy. I believe that if we are to be successful in challenging imperialism, militarism and capitalism, we need to challenge patriarchy.

      And as I say, it is painful looking at the world as it is and our part in the continuation of it. It is easier to say – the problem is over there, it’s nothing to do with me. But it is to do with each one of us. We need to see how we are being manipulated right down to how we think of ourselves as men and women. There’s no doubt in my mind that a successful revolution is going to take great personal courage.

      Best wishes


  4. Ian Townson says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that if it had not been for the rise of feminism in the 60s and 70s the Left would not have taken the oppression of women seriously.Even so there is a lot of work to be done so that we have a clear understanding of how men oppress women and how capitalism, the latest stage of patriarchy, continues to privilege the role of men over women. Anna has gone a long way to explain in clear detail much of this dominance of unexamined entitlement by men and the reverse side of women’s unchallenged submission to that entitlement. This isn’t a question of men beating our breasts and crying ‘Mea culpa’. Guilt never solves anything. But there is a clear pathway to be followed in changing our behaviour as in the Safer Spaces policy and the women’s caucus will ensures a voice for the voiceless. But also we need to think of all the obstacles that bar the way to women’s equality. Those original demands of the women’s liberation movement which were later taken up by the Left have still not been fulfilled. Such as:

    1. Free abortion and contraception on demand and an end to pornography/prostitution. This would free women from arbitrary decisions by the male-dominated church and state on women’s right to control their own fertility and put an end to the use and abuse of women as commodities and commercialised sex objects.

    2. Socialised child care and housework. This would remove women from the role of housewife, mother and child carer in the powerless and ‘inferior’ domestic sphere and allow greater access to the public sphere which is overwhelmingly dominated by men.

    3. Equal pay – it’s particularly galling that decades after the legislation has been passed this still has not been acheived. Male obstructionism?

    I am sure there are many other things I haven’t mentioned but as you can see there is a lot of work still to be done to even reach base camp as far as women’s emancipation is concerned.

    • John Penney says:

      I’m a bit bemused by your demand 2 for ;

      “Socialised child care and housework. This would remove women from the role of housewife, mother and child carer in the powerless and ‘inferior’ domestic sphere and allow greater access to the public sphere which is overwhelmingly dominated by men. ”

      Surely the objective of a society liberated from patriarchy is for both men and women to fully share the responsibilities of both child care and housework – particularly the overwhelming majority who live in family groups ?(however broadly the ever-shifting modern form of “family” is defined). The early pioneer Israeli kibbutz model of collective child rearing by a community has proved very problematic as I understand it. Most parents, and certainly most women I have met, surely wish to have a very major role in the rearing of their own biological children. A lot of women surely don’t want to be “removed from the role of mother” – not in terms of having a close ongoing daily relationship with their child/children during their critical formative years at least. A socialist society should surely enable women (and men) to make unpenalising different lifestyle choices throughout their lives to suit their wants, and young children’s needs for close parental contact.

      Universal high quality free workplace and community nursery provision , and long paid parental leave rights can do a lot to relieve the burden of childcare responsibilities from both men and women. But at the end of the day if the only way women can get into a “level playing field” in job competition and access to the “public sphere” with men is to lose the right to spend major quality time with their children is to “socialise ” childcare, then men wont have made any changes to their traditional “male-model” lifestyles at all.

      Similarly , how on earth does one “socialise” housework ? The money value of housework to social reproduction can be recognised and rewarded certainly (“wages for housework” – for men and/or women) – but to fully “socialise” housework – suggests that we all live in collective barracks and the cleaning and cooking tasks are all done for wages by full time “housework workers” !

      I think that element of your demands need to be a bit more thought through if they are to appeal to real people.

      • Ian Townson says:

        Agreed. I think by ‘socialised’ I meant ‘shared’. True to form I expressed this in a cack-handed way. Your comments said it far better than I did. Learning all the time.

      • Ian Townson says:

        Also I have to say I would have thought better of your comments had I not felt that they were a raging rant rather than a closely reasoned argument.

  5. Jacob says:

    Is capitalism really the latest state of patriarchy? I am not pretending to be an expert on ancient history here but I wonder just from looking at the modern world if this is the case. Patriarchy, as I understand it, is the rule by men. So is the argument about patriarchy that only a struggle between all women and all men (minus a minority of altruistic feminist allies, presumably) can end capitalism? The traditional Marxist idea is that only the struggle of the working class can end capitalism. The problem is that capitalism gives relative privilege to certain groups, especially white Europeans and men. This creates divisions which must be overcome in order to create a unified working class, hence the vital importance of fighting racism, sexism, imperialist chauvinism etc.

    Is it really plausible that socialism will come from some huge apocalyptic struggle between one half of humanity and the other half, as opposed to the struggle between a large majority of wage earners and a small minority of capitalists? Again, I’m not trying to sell a political line here, lacking expertise, but I think it’s an interesting question.

    • Anna Fisher says:

      Dear Jacob

      As I see it, patriarchy and capitalism are so intertwined that they can’t be separated. They feed and reinforce each other. And I think one reason socialism has failed has been that this has not been understood. So we need to struggle against both of them. That doesn’t mean that all women have to fight all men. Not at all. The point is that we are divided right now. The scale of male violence against women is enormous and mostly the authorities condone it or turn a blind eye. This is no accident. It is part of the establishment’s divide and rule strategy (probably not a conscious conspiracy). It is a huge assault on our solidarity, on our ability to resist and put up a collective struggle and our ability to actually create an alternative more egalitarian world.

      So we need to change how we relate to each other. We need to ensure that within our movement we never turn a blind eye, that we always hold those who abuse power to account. It’s a different kind of revolution. Think of the catch phrase of the women’s liberation movement, “the personal is political”. To me that means that in sexual politics, political power is acted out in the personal realm, between men and women in their personal relationships and it also means that when we change the way we think and relate on a personal level it is also a political act. It means men doing some of the housekeeping and nurturing tasks within Left Unity that women have traditionally done and women putting themselves forward for elected positions are revolutionary acts.

  6. Jacob says:

    It may well be that it was men who started the concept of war back in pre-history. It’s a bit of a myth that wars start because men need an outlet for their anger or their ‘masculinity’, however. Men find the idea of killing just as horrible and unnatural as women do. Whatever roles society imposes on us, men deep down have the same set of emotional responses to things that women do. Wars happen for economic reasons. Governments find ways of getting people to overcome their natural fear and hatred of war by creating an exaggerated sense of threat (Blair’s dodgy dossier before the Iraq war, Hitler’s racialist paranoia etc.) In these circumstances both men and women can be convinced that war is unavoidable. It is true that up to now society has been such that men have tended to be a lot more likely to be soldiers than women. But it’s not like we men have much choice over war or peace. As we all know, it has been the elite that have decided on when to fight wars, not men sitting down as a general body to decide the issue.

    • Anna Fisher says:

      Dear Jacob

      I would say, try not to take it personally. As I say this stuff is really painful to look at, because it’s like a web we’re all trapped in (which is very convenient to the ruling class). It’s painful for me as someone who is passionately anti-racist to look at how some of my unconscious behaviour contributes to perpetuating the racist culture that I so abhor. But if I won’t look at it, the possibility of making more than superficial changes to that racist culture becomes quite hopeless.

      The approximately 6,000 of patriarchal rule has been full of wars and violence and there is evidence that there was a time before patriarchy when wars were rare or unknown. This is a fact. Now if you scroll back and look at Allan Johnson’s definition of patriarchal society, you will see that one of the key features is obsession with control and power over others and nature – and this obsession is a core principle of not only the culture but also men’s inner lives as they are constructed under patriarchy. I think this is key and is a key aspect we need to change. As you say wars are ostensibly fought for economic and imperialistic reasons defined by the ruling class. But what is behind those economic and imperialistic reasons? Why are they willing to sacrifice everything that is valuable for those often very dodgy economic and imperialistic reasons? To me the core principle of obsession with control and power over is key.

      And as you say men find wars distressing too. And the fact that wars traumatise the young men who fight in them is one of the terrible truths of war. I say again, feminism is not about demonising men. It is about understanding the systems of oppression in which we are trapped so we can unravel and resist them.

      Best wishes


  7. Eleanor firman says:

    You make some great point in your article but your comment here:”As you say wars are ostensibly fought for economic and imperialistic reasons defined by the ruling class. But what is behind those economic and imperialistic reasons? Why are they willing to sacrifice everything that is valuable for those often very dodgy economic and imperialistic reasons? To me the core principle of obsession with control and power over is key….

    I don’t agree obsession with control and power is innate to men (if that’s what you’re suggesting). All our behaviour is distorted by patriarchy and class relations but to assign certain characteristics absolutely to one gender or other, amounts to a biologist explanation!

    As a marxist feminist I want our social lives (or reproductive labour) to develop the kind of generality that the category ‘labour’ has, eg we see all different kinds of work as fitting the description ‘work’, so I want a society where all different kinds of family arrangements and human relationships are treated automatically as normal and natural – not just the nuclear family and female passive/male active straitjacket. for this we can’t deny that men are as capable as women of being kind, warm, nurturing etc. which isn’t to say we stand aside when their conditioned behaviour hurts people – absolutely not!
    The trouble is, being open to men’s feminist potential is counter-intuitive – it’s not what we experience every day, and there’s no escape from it.

    There’s a lot of marx that’s worth looking at vis a vis the way social formations reproduce themselves which we’re tied into. All his work is a close examination of what lies below the surface and – clearly, you’re strong in that area so maybe you’d want to take a look? Maybe try Grundrisse, if you’re interested (online at marxist.org).

    • anna says:

      Dear Eleanor

      I am bemused by your comment because in the same paragraph as the bit you quote I say “this obsession is a core principle of not only the culture but also MEN’S INNER LIVES AS THEY ARE CONSTRUCTED UNDER PATRIARCHY”. Like Jacob, you seem to want to put words into my mouth! Nowhere do I say that this is innate to men and the whole thrust of the article is that it is learnt behaviour and we can change our learnt behaviour.

      Indeed Marx provided incredibly valuable analysis and insights and I recognise this with the quote at the start of the article. However, he had blindspots too and my article was trying to show how feminist analysis complements his analysis. You might want to try Maria Mies’s ‘Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale’ which explains this brilliantly.

      Best wishes


  8. Jacob says:

    Dear Anna
    Awfully sorry, I had no intention of putting words in your mouth which is why I did not personally address my posts to you. I think I was making some more general points rather than just points about what you were saying. We both seem to agree that gender roles are socially conditioned and not down to some eternally present biological imperative.

  9. anna says:

    Dear Jacob

    Apologies to you also. I’m very glad we’re on the same page here, though. My aim in writing the article was to give a glimpse of the very large body of feminist scholarship that is out there and how it can help us understand the world as it is. Of course everyone won’t agree with anything, but I hope it makes us think more critically about how much of what we take as just how things are is actually constructed. Once we see that, we can begin a process of change.

    Best wishes


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