Women in the age of austerity

Celebrating International Women’s Day: 8th March

All women, except perhaps some of the very richest, experience some or all of the following: poverty, austerity, war, gender-based violence, reaction, migration (both economic and forced by war, repression or torture), environmental despoliation and crisis, writes Felicity Dowling.

The repression of women goes back to classical civilisation, but the current crisis in capitalism is writing a very violent chapter in this repression. Across the world, there are millions of women involved in many different struggles, including amongst them the women’s march in response to Trump’s Election, the Polish Women’s ‘Black Strike’ in October 2016, the world wide action against violence against women in November 2017, the 2013 Indian women’s strike against rape, and the “#metoo” hashtag. Each generation has been affected, young women and older women have all been involved in struggle. The #metoo hashtag became a viral sensation. Many young women are very determined to fight back against sexual harassment, and other social issues. Young women started the fightback on London’s housing crisis. Women are under attack but are prepared to fight back.

Women are workers both in the formal and informal economies; their work is waged and unwaged. Women’s struggles are with the employers for decent wages, dignity and safety, with those who despoil society, and disrespect the members of their community and disrespect and despoil its assets. Women also provide care and nurture which allows the family to get to work, and to recuperate from work. Women struggle also for safety for themselves, and for their children from gender-based violence and sexual assault from men. The danger comes from partners, from random men and from organised sexual exploitation both in peace and war. Women must win in struggle the right to independence and dignity in society, equal to men. The struggle for the end of patriarchy and the struggle to end capitalism intertwine.

Even in wealthy societies, the care of children and adults requiring care and day-to-day nurture, and housekeeping largely falls on the shoulders of women, most of whom also have to go to work. Attitudes to misogyny, strict gender roles, the acceptability of gender-based violence and attitudes towards having children, change when resources are directed to childcare support, good services for the elderly, good resources for those with ill health, and resources directed to supporting the dignity of people with disability, and other societal responsibilities.

Repression in war

Sexual violence, which was once a foul collateral damage from war, is now weaponised, used as a form of genocide presenting as extreme mass sexual violence. “Bring back our girls!” the world demanded, but our girls have yet to return. This violence recalls the most brutal experiences of colonisation, and is exemplified by, from amongst many, the violence against the Yazidi women and the current attacks the Rohingya are suffering as I write this.  The Peshmerga Women’s battalion are music of the future, in their physical response to such violence. It would be wrong to ignore the Palestinian activist teenager Ahed Tamini who dared to slap an armed Israeli occupying soldier.

Internationalism is crucial

Women are both a key part of the modern workforce, and play a key role in all aspects of social reproduction. Across the world, repression takes many forms, and each form has its own distinct approach to the repression of women.

New economic situations can resort to ancient ways of oppressing women, like the witch-hunt in Papua New Guinea, where the witch-hunting, murderous attacks, robbery and torture of women, publicly blamed for ill fortune, have arisen in the areas affected by globalisation and neo-liberalism, not in the traditional areas.

Each form of repression develops tools to oppress womenfurther. This can be from damage to the aspects of society which protect social reproduction, some from sexual and gender-based violence, some by forced impoverishment, some by reactionary policies on LGBTQ rights, and some from worsening racist policies and hate crimes.

At the core, the systemic oppression of women is linked to gender-based violence and responsibility for raising children and caring for others.

Gender-based and intimate partner violence is a real and present danger to women across the world, as many studies and many personal accounts demonstrate. In countries with legislation against this, the situation is still serious. Austerity has seen the destruction of services for women including most of the Women’s Aid Centres and Women’s Refuges. The fight-back in Doncaster has been heroic.

Social reproduction

Human society requires human work and effort to produce some level of goods. However, society is also organised to reproduce and maintain the population, through pregnancy and at birth, and all the care and nurturing of individuals and social relationships and through this society itself. Capitalist economics tends to ignore the study of such work, and indeed most often considers humans involved in this work as unemployed. Famously, Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations whilst ignoring the meals and nurture Margaret Douglas, his mother, provided throughout his life.

Women do most of this social reproduction, but attacks on the right to do this vital work damages all humanity. For this necessary work to continue women, children and elders must have some level of social protection. The breakdown of these protections opens the gates of hell, such as the witch-hunt, mass kidnapping of women and children, and organised sexual exploitation of children. By the nature of this social reproduction work, wealth, knowledge, the arts, and social assets are accumulated and protected; and other social assets like communal land tended and developed. The ruling class are bent on expropriating this wealth.

Robbing the commons

Capitalism and even feudalism has raided such communal wealth, robbing the commons. Robbing the commons dates, in the UK, back to the enclosures and highland clearances and in the colonised world to the arrival of the East India Company, the Spanish Conquest or the Atlantic Slave Trade. This robbing of socially owned and created wealth has a long and varied history. Robbing the commons creates social crises.

Examples of this crude and repressive primitive accumulation can be found in different ways in different parts of the world but they share the same goal of robbing the socially accumulated, socially owned wealth. This has many modern forms. Structural adjustment, as applied in the global south in the late 20th century; austerity, for example, in Europe in the post-2010 crisis era; the ‘gangster capitalist’ expropriation of the immediate post -Soviet era; the current deregulation of national monuments and tribal land to allow resource exploitation in the USA. Examples are to be found throughout the capitalist world.


Women and children are inevitably in the front line of such struggles to defend communities, and social wealth. The social movements in South America are another example of resistance. It is not accidental, that women have carried more than 80% of the damage done by austerity. The UK government has brought back the childhood diseases of poverty by its attacks on women and through them on children. A far greater proportion of women’s wages and other incomes are directed to children than is the case for men. Impoverished mothers mean impoverished children.

Post-war settlement

The post-war settlement conceded some rights to workers and major gains were made, but these gains have not been maintained. The introduction of neo-liberalism, globalisation, re-structuring, austerity and de-industrialisation, and most recently the post-banking crisis assault on workers have all stripped away layers of rights for workers and for women.

As capitalism becomes less stable, as profit from production falls, primitive accumulation becomes more attractive, the forces of patriarchy become more toxic. The deployment of misogyny, sexual violence and discrimination facilitates the robbery of common or socially held wealth and allows its redirection to the control of the rich.

Migration as part of robbing the commons

Migration is part of this. The receiving country gains from the social, educational and work capacity of the arrivals. For the individual migrant it can be a positive experience. Even within a sending country, the value of their people can be commodified. Migrants are de-facto a good for export. Some countries have exploited their women (whose importance in society is way beyond just their capacity to work for wages), to work abroad to send home remittances. The Philippines has a government department specifically to facilitate this work. This means grandparents raise many children. In Moldova, where similar patterns exist, there is a problem of children left to raise themselves, with money sent home, with all the dangers such a situation involves.

Migration – a key feature of this era with an estimated 60 million people on the move – may be seen as a form of robbing the commons, this time robbing the society of the wealth and contribution of the workers, female and male, forced to migrate for work. Money sent home in no way compensates for the live presence and care of a mother, a father, or, in some areas, a whole generation of working age people.

The 21st century model of capitalism requires major centres of population, drawing people from the countryside to the huge global cities, and the parallel creation of centres of wealth and peripheral areas of poverty. This process damages society; in the areas of mass unemployment caused by it, crime and violence become part of life, inflicting different damages on women and men, on young and old.

An estimated 60 million people were on the move in 2017, one of the largest ever movements of population, driven by many different forces. Migrants risk life and limb, rape and assault.

Each section of the global working class has experienced fresh damage from the strength of the bosses versus the weakness of workers organisations and militancy. Austerity has increased the proportion of the GDP which has gone to the bosses, with workers losing out. In all of this, women have suffered especial damage. In post-Soviet Europe, the situation for women has gone from equal pay, free education, accessible childcare, housing rights and decent pensions to precarious poorly paid work, few trade union rights and new levels of exploitation with all of the previous gains lost. In the most severe cases, like Moldova, the extent of the social breakdown is extreme.

Women in China

The situation in China is distinct and different. The burden of migration to the new factories falls on young women, who cannot take their children with them, and if they do, those children are not eligible for education and health care. Children may be left with grandparents; but grandparents age. The one child family policy, and social preference for boys, introduced both gender selective abortions and girl children (and occasionally second boys) not being registered, and so are not eligible for education or health care. The weight of elder care has weighed heavily on women. The elders have fewer grandchildren, and especially fewer female grandchildren, available to help. More women are deciding not to have babies in this situation.

Birth rate is in decline as a result of economic development, better health and fertility education and availability of contraception. Across the world women are deciding not to have babies without proper social support. The birth rate is in steady decline. Mainland China, Taiwan, China Macao, China Hong Kong, Singapore, Republic of Korea, Moldova, Bosnia, Portugal, Spain and Hungary, top the leaderboards for decline in fertility.

China has seen significant reduction in poverty with 500 million people lifted out of extreme poverty, falling from 88% living in poverty to 6.5%, with an increase in longevity. These are huge gains, and they seem to be persisting. Inequality is still a problem. “Surveys show that in 1990, the annual income of female urban dwellers was about 77.5 percent of that of their male counterparts. The ratio declined to 70 percent in 1999 and 67.3 percent in 2010.” For other China stats see http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-china.

Sectional differences

Race, age, disabilities, migration status, LGBT status, culture, religion, poverty, employment status and class, all produce different experiences for different women. There are common themes, and some shared struggles. Solidarity between different struggles is needed. Struggles and campaigns that ignore the different reality for different women can weaken the struggle. Sectional campaigns are still needed.

The rule of the rich

A golf cart load of men control nearly half of the world’s wealth and the extremes of inequality are intensifying. Socialist theory indicates that workers have the power through collective action, including their industrial power, to overthrow the power and repression of the capitalist system. “All wheels stand still at the workers will” is the old slogan. Workers have built up patterns, traditions and organisations of resistance to capitalism and successfully, if temporarily, overthrown capitalism. There would have been no Russian Revolution without the women. No defeat of fascism without women. No Chinese Revolution without women. No overthrow of colonialism without women. No end to apartheid without women. Women workers have played key roles in such struggles and been instrumental in many victories large and small.

Fields of resistance to today’s capitalism have been both industrial and community based. The Marinka Miners, shot for striking, made solidarity links with the women service users from the urban areas. Where industry has been destroyed and the factory is no longer a focus of shared work and shared socialising, much of the solidarity building now has, perforce, to be community organised. John Maclean the great Scottish socialist called on workers to strike in support of rent strikes and their action in doing so was successful. Such backup for social solidarity is now hard to find but must be rediscovered if, for example, the NHS is to be saved.

 The power of the working class is not in the west

The new working class areas in China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and more, have huge numbers of women working in factories, and in the home as piece workers. Women play a big role in traditional workers’ organisations like trade unions. The work done in organising home-based workers in Pakistan by the Federation of Home-based Workers is inspirational. The struggles in South America, linked through the social forums, saw real power. In the UK women make up a majority of trade union members, yet the unions remain male focussed and themselves have histories of sexual violence and are far from bastions of women’s liberation and sexual safety.

The 20th century was one of convulsions. The 21st century has its own convulsions and women are in the midst of them. The perils faced by women inevitably damage the lives of their children. Human society depends on the work of caring, or social reproduction, traditionally done by women and some men. There is no golden age in the past, but we are facing a particularly brutal attack on the circumstances of life of those humans unable to take part in paid work. Work under capitalism is very circumscribed, time-managed, profit-orientated and sometimes bad for human health and wellbeing. Virtually every human will at some point face being unable to take part in the world of capitalist-organised work whether from age or disability. We all start as children and many of us are privileged to experience old age. This is a brutal attitude, experienced most brutally by those with physical or mental illnesses or disabilities. Care for other humans, an intrinsic part of human society, is damaged by capitalism, as part of the super-exploitation of the workforce.  Attacks on women and the care role in society damages society as a whole as well as the individual women and girls

Gains in the 20th century

In the 20th century women of all/each continent saw some improvements in some aspects life. Whilst not universal, these various improvements included gaining the vote, the end of colonial rule (which affected women and girls in particular ways), the lasting benefits in terms of equal pay, pensions, and housing. Progress in sexual and gender liberation came in part out of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of fascism. The introduction of contraception, access to abortion, some degree of education for some women, improvements in maternal and infant mortality, the ending of legislation that had permitted particular aspects of male control over their wives and daughters, all built considerable gains for women, and also men.

It is a fundamental right of women, and men, to choose consenting sexual partners, to have the right to control their fertility, and to decide to try to have or not to have children. The workers’ movement has long supported such rights. The Russian revolution for the first time made such rights law. “Beginning in October 1918, the Soviet Union liberalized divorce and abortion laws, decriminalized homosexuality, permitted cohabitation, and ushered in a host of reforms that instigated a red sexual revolution.”[1] Many of the gains were lost to Stalinism but the full extent of the gains was only seen when they were stripped away by the re-establishment of capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The impact of the Russian Revolution though, was felt throughout the world. Another world was possible. It had flowered briefly in Russia.

There were improvements, like equal pay (at least a notional right) and safer working conditions in the unionised workforces. More women entered the formal workplace. Women’s incomes improved. (Statistical recording of poverty is fraught with political bias and obfuscation. However we need to use the statistics, querying them as and when we can, to gain a clear picture).

Improvements in health care and education continued in some places, though notably not in the United States. The maternal death rate averaged 9.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births during the years 1979–1986, but then rose rapidly to 14 per 100,000 in 2000 and 17.8 per 100,000 in 2009. In 2013 the rate was 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, with some 800 maternal deaths reported.

Overall, there were significant improvements in maternal and in infant mortality but it was far from universal.

Maternal mortality

By 2017, the world maternal mortality rate had declined 44% since 1990, but still every day 830 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.[3] According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2017 report, this is equivalent to “about one woman every two minutes and for every woman who dies, 20 or 30 encounter complications with serious or long-lasting consequences. Most of these deaths and injuries are entirely preventable.”

Inadequate care during pregnancy and delivery was largely responsible for the annual deaths of an estimated 303,000 mothers and 2.7 million newborns in 2015.”

Environmental protection has also improved. Rivers have been cleaned up, and environmental protection has brought back wildlife and removed many workplace and community based environmental hazards, often after years of campaigning. Each of the gains is now at risk. Environmental crime by big business, be it logging, mineral extraction, the taking of land for bio fuel, animal feed and commercial food production is widespread and uncontrolled. Women lead the way in fighting fracking in the UK and other countries. Climate damage also impacts on women.

The gains of the ruling class

Since the financial crisis, the ruling class have significantly increased their wealth. The richest 1% of people own more than half of the world’s wealth. “The world’s richest people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increase from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn)”, according to Credit Suisse’s global wealth report published on Tuesday. “The share of the top 1% has been on an upward path ever since [the crisis], passing the 2000 level in 2013 and achieving new peaks every year thereafter,” it stated, and “global wealth inequality has certainly been high and rising in the post-crisis period”.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000 (£7,600). Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth.” (Guardian, Nov 14th 2017).

Women lose most

In 2017 “For the first time since the World Economic Forum’s records began in 2006, the global economic gender gap is widening again.” Women continue to be poorer than men across the globe and work longer hours. “Whilst four of the 62 richest people in the world made their fortunes in high street fashion, between 2001 and 2011 wages for garment workers fell in real terms. The majority of these low paid workers in this industry are women” (Oxfam).


At the primary level, 61 million children are out of school (a global out-of-school rate of 9%), 32.1 million of whom are girls (53%). Where out-of-school rates are higher, the gender gap tends to be wider. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 21% of children are out of school – 23% of girls do not go to school compared to 19% of boys. Girls are also more likely to be completely excluded from primary education: fifteen million girls will likely never enter a classroom compared to 10 million boys. However, women are more educated than ever before and are deeply involved in all liberation struggles.


795 million people were undernourished globally in 2014-16. 60% of the world’s hungry are women, nearly half the deaths of under-5s is attributable to malnutrition. 155 million children suffer from stunting of natural growth from malnutrition. Women are the most affected by food shortages, they organise the feeding of families and they are 43% of the agricultural workforce. More food production is now taken into the market rather than being subsistence farming used to feed the people who grow the food. Fluctuations in food prices drive social unrest and struggle. The problems are greatest in Asia. It is an entirely solvable problem, though the solutions look very difficult under capitalism.

Repression in the heart of the beast

More women in the US have joined the formal workforce, but with less social support than in other advanced countries. Such is the degeneration of social conditions in the US that the age of death has begun to decline for men and women. Women traditionally live longer than men but experience poor health and more disability than men. The working class as a whole experiences poverty, repression and pollution. There have been periods of improved living standards, improved education and greater freedoms, but we are far from improving at the start of 2018. These experiences are common to men and to women but women get less wages, less inheritance, less health gains.

The political repression of women under Trump requires more space than I have here. Women gained the right to have abortions, but not the right to have children or have those children supported, as children are in other countries. US women now face losing the right to have abortions too. Men’s laws controlling the childbearing of women take different forms in different countries, but are a feature of all repression. A president of the USA who is a groper and a misogynist presents a threat to all women, and shows the fragility of all our gains.

Ideas around the role and responsibilities of women are a focus of crucial neo-liberal ruling class propaganda, and the propaganda of the fundamentalist religions: “the sphere in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, where bourgeois ‘hegemony’ was reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy.” (Gramsci, quoted in Heywood 1994: 100-101)

Prostitution and ideology

Currently, ideas are being created around the commercial opportunities arising from the full commercialisation and development of sex as an industry. Sections of neo-liberalism, of the very rich, are driving to establish a fully commercialised prostitution industry. In some countries, this is well underway. Debate about it rages through the Left and through feminism, leaving the utter horrors of real life prostitution un-tackled, and leaving the women involved to pain, addiction, abuse and limited life span. The reasons men give to use this kind of exploitation are many and varied and they presumably convince themselves that these women are not worthy of respect. The situation though shows the stark contrast between the power of men and women. This topic can only be briefly mentioned here, it is massively contentious, but it serves to show yet another aspect of women’s oppression.

Sexual violence is mainly comprised of male-on-female attacks, yet it is women who are expected to manage their behaviour. Typically, women are warned to protect themselves and to limit their activity when there is a violent sexual abuser: “I shouldn’t have walked across the field”, “She shouldn’t dress like that”. Young women have responded with ‘slut walks’, ‘reclaim the night’ movements and more. “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, Yes means yes and no means no”.

Why then do men act in this way?

Our answers will be found in considering abuses of power, weaknesses in laws and law enforcement, in mind-sets created through the media, unchallenged traditional attitudes, and women left dependent financially for their own livelihoods and for the livelihoods of their children and dependents. We need to consider Gramsci’s points:

Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously ‘born’ in each individual brain: they have had a centre of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion-a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.” (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks)

Practically we need to consider Federici’s points. Federici argues that in the world of wage work, where essential reproductive work is unpaid and the unpaid worker is dependent on the wage earner sharing his income, finding ways to force people to work unpaid is a source of violence. The wage earner requires the work to be done, and is lost without social reproduction, so acts like an overseer over the people who work on social reproduction without pay. Men are not homogeneous. Many men play good roles in social reproduction and hate the oppression of women as powerfully as they hate racism and war, but such men, like the women too, have yet to overcome the power and violence of the misogynists and of patriarchal capitalist hegemony.

Women are now a large part of the formal workforce, largely without losing their role in social reproduction. In cities, modern society outsources some social reproductive labour, like cooking. This work is still mainly done by women, but not within the family structure. Richer societies and richer individuals buy in these services. In the UK, there are more domestic servants than in Victorian times (Rosie Cox, The Servant problem, 2006). Across Europe, this reproductive or caring work is often unrecognised, and the women involved have few rights so poor women leave their own communities and provide for richer ones. In many jobs where women are employed, they are expected to deploy emotional labour in a way not expected of men.

“In a work context, emotional labour refers to the expectation that a worker should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings in order to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job. Emotional labour also covers the requirement that a worker should modulate her feelings in order to influence the positive experience of a client or a colleague.”(Guardian, 8th November 2015).

Women’s rights are a field for neo-liberal and reactionary politics too

Socialists, trade unionists, women’s rights campaigners, feminists, community campaigners and environmentalists are not the only people who speak and write about feminism and women’s rights. Such is the power of the drive for equality and social and sexual justice for women, it is also a field of work for neo-liberal ideology. Neo-liberal feminism can be used to divide distract and disempower. Many NGOs play a role in this too. Modern methods of political and social control include the media and big charities and NGOs. The same people move from work in the media, to politics, to the big charities, to NGOs and to big business. HelleThorning Schmidt, previously prime minister of Denmark, is just one example, David Miliband another. We needs must make use of some of the data generated by big charities and NGOs; I have quoted work from such organisations in writing this, but the links some charities and NGOs have with power elite must not be ignored. Caution is required, especially when divisive ideas are posed.

The Media

The media are a clear and present danger to women in many ways, not just the sexual assaults of Weinstein and co, but roles in the presentation of women in film and television, in many aspects of social media, and in the gutter press. Women are assaulted physically time and again on screen. Women are also denied agency and frequently given the question “what do we do now?” signifying the agency of men. The growth of pornography on line has become another way of sexually exploiting women and children, and incidentally damaging boys and men.

Social media

Social media has become a good organising tool for women, but it has also become a forum for appalling sexual abuse and serious threats. Women who tweet risk serious abuse. Female MPs were sent thousands of abusive emails and Diane Abbott MP received half of them, more than all the Conservative and SNP MPs combined. Reading these abusive texts, lays clear the racism and sexism around in the UK at the moment.

Socialist feminists in 2018 face many struggles

Again, Gramsci’s idea of “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” serves as a guideline. We see war, racism, reaction, austerity, the abuse of women, the abuse of children and abuse of the environment, clawing back rights for LGBTQ people, the abuse of people with disabilities, but we have huge potential support to change the situation. Struggling for women and children’s rights is, in part, self and community defence, but is also part of demanding a better world. Struggling against austerity helps ‘recreate the bounds of solidarities, communities of resistance’ (Federici).

If you want to change the world stand with the women.



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