By Esther Townsend
Challenging sexism as part of the fight to end women’s oppression should be a central part of the left’s activity, in the labour movement and in society.
Unfortunately the problem of sexism is sometimes poorly understood and met with indifference or dismissal by labour movement activists and even socialists.
When was the last time you saw the male general secretary of a UK trade union make a “barnstorming” speech about violence against women and sexual harassment in the workplace? Such issues are not considered central to the union organisation. Yet these are critically important social issues in their own right and ultimately affect how unions organise. If we do not tackle these issues we will not have united and effective class struggles.
The September issue of Women’s Fightback explored current issues of sexism (such as online sexism), and contains discussion articles on the arguments (such as the roots of male violence). Here I suggest some ways to fight.
Women getting together is a good start — we can think and discuss about how to tackle sexism, share experiences of what’s worked and what hasn’t, arm ourselves with the ideas, arguments and tactics.
It is vital if we want to be prepared to tackle sexism within our movement, including on the left. It will help us be prepared to challenge arguments such as the one that if we raise these issues, bosses or the right wing in the movement will use it to undermine our struggles.
Getting together collectively means we can remind ourselves we’re not alone. Sexism can feel very personal, but it’s rarely an individual problem — it’s indicative of a broader culture. As individuals we’re vulnerable to dismissive managers, poor reporting structures or a lack of confidence. By organising collectively we can stand up for our rights, and fight for change.
Learn our history
From the matchwomen of 1886, through the Ford Dagenham women workers of 1968 or Grunwick film processing workers in 1976-8, through to women workers fighting for decent pay and conditions, to save the NHS and public services, and to defend and extend our reproductive freedoms…there’s no shortage of inspirational examples of women collectively organising to tackle sexism, oppression and exploitation in society. We need to educate ourselves, and each other, about them.
Build fighting unions
Unions should be organisations for collective action. They should be democratic, political and rooted in their membership. Currently, after a long period of defeats, they’re bureaucratic and sluggish. So in many ways it is unsurprising that they are in no fit state to challenge sexism in society and they’re struggling to challenge it at work, or tackle it in their own ranks.
Most unions have fairly good policies on sexual harassment and violence against women. But policies aren’t action. Unions pass policy, affiliate to an external campaign, then feel they’ve “ticked that box”.
The structures of our unions should work for us! They should be open, accountable and democratic. We need clear processes through which women, and others, can raise issues, with training and support to help members and reps build the skills to use them.
Fighting for women’s rights and challenging sexism is central to shaking up the inactive and apolitical unions and making them represent the interests of the diverse working-class. And transforming our unions into political, fighting organisations is key to challenging the systemic basis of sexism in our workplaces.
Reorganise the left
Struggles of oppressed groups are inextricably linked with the fight for socialism. It isn’t automatic, but a working-class revolution and a society based on need not profit can lay the groundwork for human liberation. Without an uprising of all the oppressed a self-liberating workers’ revolution is impossible.
Yet despite this relationship, as with the unions, too often the left’s attitude to women’s liberation is dismissive, opportunist or too simplistic.
It is not good enough to just fall back on the classic socialist texts on women’s oppression, good as they are. Marxist theory needs to engage with more recent socialist feminist and other anti-capitalist feminist ideas. At the same time we need to connect a renewed and living theory up to the labour movement of today.
Workers and oppressed groups will not automatically unite — it’s the left’s job to argue against reactionary ideas and offer an alternative. It’s the left’s job to develop a movement which is as clear and militant about women’s oppression as about other issues, and inclusive and accessible to oppressed groups.
And it’s also the left’s job to be honest about its own problems and tackle them. We can start by fighting for democracy and accountability on the left, championing debate and discussion, and thinking harder about accessibility.
If the left is going to grow into a credible force, then it has to be serious about tackling prejudice internally and externally, and place liberation centre-stage.
Deal with sexists
Codes of conduct and safer spaces policies are vital. We need to be clear that sexism (or any other kind of discriminatory attitude), intimidation and bullying are not acceptable.
Our verbal responses to sexism will vary should depend on the situation. It could be tactful or sharper; we should if necessary ask someone to retract sexist comments. Depending on the severity and persistence (and willingness to reflect), we might ask someone to leave a meeting, or organisation.
But silencing and excluding people can’t be our first, or only, solution.
First, because the working-class, in particular oppressed groups, have a vital interest in upholding the principle of free speech.
Second, because “banning” people who hold sexist ideas is not straightforward. Sexist (and other oppressive) ideas are widespread in society and our class, amongst men and women too. We should strive for higher standards in our own organisations, but when someone is sexist in your workplace you don’t have the option of leaving or getting them to leave.
Attitudes don’t change overnight. Many people feel defensive at being challenged and engaging in discussion is difficult for everyone. We need a consistent commitment and flexible approach to discussion, argument and debate and to organising campaigns, meetings, and education (of ourselves as well as others).
When it comes down to it the strongest weapon the working-class has is solidarity. We have a strong interest in overcoming the divisions and prejudices that capitalism creates, and bosses exploit to make us angry at each other rather than them. When workers are in struggle this interest sharpens — we have to unite to win.
But unity doesn’t mean ignoring our differences — far from it. History shows that solidarity between men and women in struggle provides the arena to challenge sexism and change attitudes. The same is true of challenging other oppressive attitudes.
A labour movement which began a serious discussion about these principles could begin to sort out its problems and make itself fit to challenge exploitation and oppression in society.
Women’s Fightback are collecting people’s experiences of feeling and challenging sexism at work and in the labour movement. We’re hoping to gather information, share ideas and develop our ideas about how to Stamp out Sexism! Read more about the project and consider submitting your own story here.