19 March 2010
Sexism affects every aspect of our lives. We can’t help but be affected by the inequalities between men and women, and the stereotypes that arise from these inequalities.
It’s a common idea that all men benefit from women’s oppression. Anne Summers, for example, has argued that women’s lower wages benefit men by lowering women’s likelihood of participating in the labour force, and reinforcing their domestic role. Heidi Hartmann argues in her article “The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism” that men universally exploit and benefit from women’s domestic work in the home.
These arguments can only lead to confusion and disunity among the oppressed. In this article I will outline how the interests of both men and women workers are bound up together, and why fighting for these interests requires a struggle for women’s liberation.
Gender oppression is structured into the workforce – but working-class men don’t benefit from it
The source of women’s oppression under capitalism is not the individual behaviours or actions of working-class men, however sexist they may sometimes be. Rather, the source of gender oppression is the way in which capitalism exploits working-class women in the workforce and in the home.
The capitalist class gains from the oppression of women by systematically underpaying whole industries whose labour force comprises mainly women workers. Undervalued industries include aged care, child care, teaching, and health and community services – all traditionally female-dominated.
Women generally earn less than men, even when we compare people working in the same industry. Over her lifetime, the average woman will earn one million dollars less than a man doing the same job.
Women are now almost half the labour force – so these savings to the system are critical, especially in a period of economic crisis in which bosses are scrambling to cut wages.
Despite women’s increased participation in the labour force, they are still economically disempowered compared to men because they tend to work fewer hours and in less stable jobs. Women’s jobs are more often casualised, and women’s work is more often unskilled.
But to argue that working-class men gain anything from the systemic devaluation of women’s labour is nonsensical.
Suppose a man lives with his partner, a female child-care worker. He does not benefit from the fact that her job is undervalued and underpaid. Her lower wage means that they both have a lower standard of living.
The sexist structure of the workforce has an even broader impact than its immediate effects on individuals. Under capitalism, our labour power is a commodity, and our wages are subject to the price of this commodity on the market. Holding down the wages of one section of workers lowers the price of labour-power in general.
Historically, bosses and their representatives have used sexism to drive down women’s wages, and hence undercut men’s. This is why it’s ridiculous to suggest that men benefit from sexism because they earn more. This is completely misleading. The fact is that sexism drags down men’s wages as well.
The most class-conscious sections of the working class – male and female – have long recognised the benefits to all workers of equal pay. During the campaign in the Australian labour movement for equal pay in the late sixties and early seventies, it was the stronger and more militant unions, not necessarily the unions with more women in them, that made the best efforts to win this demand.
Women’s oppression in the family, and its effects on working-class men
The nuclear family, and women’s unequal role in it, interacts with and supports the gender oppression in the workforce.
For production to run smoothly, the working class must have their basic physical needs met. They also need to produce more workers – that is, to have and raise children. The upkeep and regeneration of the working class is an absolute necessity if profits are to be made.
Despite this, capitalists are not willing to invest capital in reproduction. In fact, they actively resist doing so. In March, when Tony Abbot proposed his parental leave scheme – to be funded by a levy on Australia’s top 3,200 companies – bosses and industry groups around the country were livid.
Overall, the working class itself bears the costs of housing, childcare and other regenerative needs, through the privatised nuclear family unit. For individual family members, this could mean performing domestic labour in the home, bringing in a pay packet to sustain dependents, or (usually) both.
It is the interaction between the nuclear family and the inequalities in the workforce that forms the material basis for women’s oppression.
Sexist ideology helps to bind working-class women into their gender roles as caregivers, mothers and nurturers. The inequalities in the workforce cement the fact of women’s unequal role in domestic life. Even for couples committed to gender equality, it makes sense for the partner with the highest earning power to keep working, and for the lower-waged partner to take time out of the labour market or postpone their career to work a casual job with more flexible hours.
It should be clear from this analysis that although the family gives rise to sexist stereotypes about women, it is not set up to serve the needs or desires of ordinary men. It is set up to further the interests of capital.
What about housework?
We can clearly see that all workers share the same overall interests in getting rid of capitalist exploitation. But surely men benefit from having their laundry done, having their meals cooked, and not being burdened with child care?
It’s true that while social trends show a gradual convergence of the amount of domestic work men and women perform, women still do more than men. An Australian Bureau of Statistics time-use survey in 2006 found that women spent, on average, double the amount of time spent by men on domestic work.
But this really doesn’t equate to a male “benefit” from women’s oppression. The types of domestic tasks where inequalities are the greatest mostly involve caring for children, which benefits capitalism – it has nothing to do with ordinary men. And when we factor in that the men in the survey worked longer hours in paid employment, over all, they had only about half an hour more leisure time than women did. This is hardly a situation of male privilege. The family is unequal – but this inequality doesn’t benefit men.
Sexual and psychological “benefits”
Nor do men benefit from the way in which women’s sexuality is constrained and stereotyped by capitalist ideology. Men are socialised to believe that they can demand sex from women; women are socialised to believe that being sexually pleasing to men is more important than their own desires. But this means the sexuality of all workers is restricted and stunted. Because of sexism and inequality, relationships are less fulfilling and sex is transformed from something that should be mutual into a commodity.
As well, the need to avoid being seen as effeminate affects men in a negative way. Anyone who has set foot in a high school would know that young men are under constant pressure to establish and re-establish their masculine credentials. Young men who fail to display an appropriate level of masculinity might be verbally and physically bullied. The fear of being seen as “feminine” also contributes to homophobia and to men repressing homosexuality or restraining their sexual and emotional expression.
The idea proposed by some feminists that men gain any kind of psychological benefit from being able to beat and rape women is particularly loathsome. Domestic violence dehumanises abusers as well as survivors. Studies of the demographics of family violence show that strong predictors are poverty, alienation and community breakdown.
That a minority of men try to alleviate their frustrations by abusing the women in their lives should never be thought of as an advantage. We might as well say that women benefit from the oppression of children, as it is women who are the most frequent physical and emotional abusers of children.
So who does benefit from women’s oppression?
Once we understand that the family is set up to service the needs of capitalism, and that the constant barrage of family-values ideology binds this structure together, it is easy to see that the ruling class are the only ones who benefit.
The needs of capital change over time, and with these needs, the organisation of the family changes correspondingly. For example, as the population of Australia increased throughout the 19th century, the colonial administrators and the ruling class began to consciously enforce the working-class family as a means of social control, and to stabilise the growing capitalist system. Caroline Chisholm had the interests of the ruling class in mind when she advised the British government:
“For all the clergy you can despatch, all the schoolmasters you can appoint, all the churches you can build, and all the books you can export, will never do much good without what a gentleman in that Colony very appropriately called ‘God’s police’ – wives and little children – good and virtuous women.”
Ordinary men had no say in being pushed into family units, and often resisted it. Contrary to some theorists’ arguments that men benefit from women’s role in the family, supporting a wife and children actually had the effect of lowering men’s living standards. The simple fact of the division of labour between men and women did not create a benefit for working-class men.
Furthermore, capitalism continually restructures the family, and sometimes almost rips it apart when it suits the needs of the capitalist class. During the two World Wars and the Depression, men were sent to die, or had to travel around the country in order to find work. Capitalism did not care to check with them to ask if they might prefer to be “serviced” by their wives. This shows that it is the needs of the system that govern our domestic arrangements – not the desires of working-class men.
In fact, men and women of the ruling class benefit from these arrangements, as ruling-class women also have a stake in the system and participate in the accumulation of profits. They share in the exploitation of low-waged women workers, and gain from unpaid domestic labour in the home. Their oppression as women means that they are restricted from participating in running capitalist production to the same extent as ruling-class men, but they still prefer to maintain the status quo rather than do anything to fundamentally challenge women’s role in the family.
After all, with enough money, many of the worst aspects of women’s oppression can be dealt with – ruling-class women can pay others (usually very low-paid women) to take care of children and do domestic work. And even in a country like the United States, where abortion rights are continually under attack in the most horrific ways, discreet and safe abortions are accessible for those who can afford to pay.
For this reason, working-class women and men form the only group that is capable of fundamentally challenging women’s oppression. Theories that attempt to identify “men” as the source or the beneficiaries of women’s oppression can only lead us to confusion and disunity. They do nothing to further the interests of workers, and in fact make it harder to unite.
We need to highlight the collective interests of the working class as a whole, and to show how an attack on one part of it is an attack on all. Divisions in the working class undermine this consciousness and make it harder to fight for our rights. So capitalism does its very best to foster all kinds of oppression to sow these sorts of divisions and thus divide and conquer the working class.
People swayed by arguments about male “benefits” would do well to remember the trade union slogan: “Touch one, touch all.” And male workers who think it’s okay to denigrate and trivialise women should think about how this weakens our struggle against the bosses who are our common enemies.