This column pointed out last week that ideologies and politics which deny the equality of men and women are growing stronger in today’s world despite women having gained unprecedented political rights and social acceptance for public activity.
There are two main reasons which sustain this opposition to women’s rights. One is a reaction from conservative, status-quoist forces who are trying to roll back the gains of the last century and more. It is easy to understand where this comes from. The other reason why the idea of equality between men and women has been questioned is because women still face prejudice, discrimination, violence and, most importantly, still have a grossly unequal share of wealth, income and power despite having gained political rights and access to all those areas which were barred for them.
This led many feminists to replace the idea of equality with that of difference. What they argue is that women and men are so different from each other, and their un-equal relation so basic to the human condition, that it is impossible to think in terms of equality. Kate Millet put this famously as “male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different.”
The radical feminist tradition argued that men would never give up their power and dominance, and therefore women would be better off cutting themselves off from men and building a life as independent of men as possible. While in the liberal climes of the West this led to radical feminism and other dead-ends, we can clearly see how easy it is for patriarchal and conservative groups in our countries to use this idea of difference to segregate women, to keep them inside the home “in a world of their own”.
Actually, if one looks back at the past it does appear that from the first dawn of civilisation, often even before that, women have been subjugated to men and denied an equal role in either political activity or economic rights. This observation holds true over space and time; human history appears to be based on a patriarchal power structure wherever and whenever we look.
It appears somewhat presumptuous that a new idea, the equality of women with men should now be considered the correct way of organising society when there is no precedence for this idea in human practice. Further, even with the granting of political equality women have still remained unequal.
Therefore, one may be pardoned to ask with incredulity, can men and women ever be equal?
This answer will always lead us into a trap unless we unpack the ideas and assumptions hidden inside it.
Firstly, when equality of men and women is demanded, it does not imply a denial of difference. What it demands is that in the public sphere men and women should be treated equally and should have the same rights. It also demands that forms of family, and other inter-personal and social relations, be reformed in such a way (and destroyed if they refuse to reform) which enables women to freely access this equality of the public sphere. It does not require of women to become same as men. Rather, it demands equality precisely because they are and will always remain different. Therefore, the positing of difference as an alternative to equality is a sham and an excuse to derail the demand for political equality.
Secondly, while a survey of history does indeed show the “eternal” nature of women’s subjugation to men, this is nothing unique. All written history has been a history of inequality, or as a famous unemployed German refugee and his more industrious friend once put it “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. They may as well have added that it is also the history of gender struggles!
Marx and Engels go on to add, “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
It was only with the dawn of the modern age, the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution that the first ideas of human equality was even imagined. While over the past two centuries much has been done to actualise this idea of equality, it is a project far from complete. While men have equal rights to each other, discrimination, prejudice and oppression are the daily lot of the large majority of men too. Therefore, this is not a situation specific to women but a larger question of actualising in material life the equality promised in political rights for all humans.
But while this does answer some of the questions, there are particular aspects of the man-woman relation which need to be addressed in their particularity.
Discrimination and oppression along class lines is an artificial construct of human society since there are no natural divisions between one human and another. This has been shown true not only by the political praxis of the past two centuries, but now increasingly by science too. On the other hand, discrimination and oppression along gender lines is based on real differences of body and mind. This gives gender discrimination an added edge.
The physical and psychological differences between men and women have been used to mark the lines of gender inequality and subjugation. This is a universal feature of gender discrimination and subjugation, irrespective of country and age, unlike class divisions, which, based as they are on artificial markers, vary greatly over time and space. While this has made patriarchy very similar in its structure all over the world, it has also made it that much more entrenched inside human experience.
So deep is patriarchy entrenched that even the most radical socialist revolutions have failed to break its vice hold on social practices and the family. While socialist revolutions freed women from the confines of the home and gave them wages and political rights (or not!) equal with men, these revolutions remained spectacularly male. Even in non-socialist countries, working class movements and left-wing politics, while doing much to better the conditions of women, have all failed to weaken patriarchy as a system of oppression.
It appears to me that the primary reason for this failure has been identified by Kate Millet when she observes, “. . . the service of an unpaid domestic still provides working-class males with a “cushion” against the buffets of the class system which incidentally provides them with some of the psychic luxuries of the leisure class.”
In my opinion, this is the key to understanding not only the continuation of gender discrimination inside socialism but also to understand the larger failure of the socialist models that existed. It is impossible for a communist, working class male to sustain his emancipatory politics when he is himself implicated in enjoying “the psychic luxuries of the leisure class”.
For leftist like me, therefore, not only are men and women equal, but more importantly, without actualising this equality the future of the entire socialist project is threatened with failure yet again.
This was published in The Post on 14 March, 2007.