31 December 2023 355 hits


Sexism means that, on the personal level:

  • a 35-year-old Los Angeles textile worker, a wife and mother of three, works a 50-hour-week for $200 and then labors another 30 hours a week in her home without pay as cook, laundress, and nurturer;
  • a 20-year-old single Indonesian woman earns a wage of $40 per month in an electronics factory that hires only women;
  • a 60-year-old Mexican grandmother rises early six days a week, makes tortillas for her family, and then puts in another ten hours making tortillas and selling them in downtown Taxco;
  • a 42-year-old New Jersey homemaker and mother of four finally leaves her husband after repeated beatings, but loses her house and ends up with her children in a welfare motel full of drug dealers and prostitutes;
  • a 10-year-old Sudanese girl shrieks in pain as her aunt, wielding a razor, cuts off her clitoris;
  • a 35-year-old Canadian accountant snaps at her underpaid El Salvadoran nanny while she angrily ponders how her own boss shrugged off her suggestions at work;
  • a 58-year-old Russian agricultural worker mumbles her resentment that she has to do heavy manual labor while her male co-workers have been trained to operate tractors and receive considerably more pay;
  • a 24-year-old pregnant Chinese agricultural worker, having just learned that she is carrying a girl, wonders whether her in-laws, in need of a male grandchild to help support them in old age, will pressure her to have an abortion and try again for a boy;
  • a 40-year-old Haitian immigrant to the U. S. , recently divorced, realizes that he never took the time to get to know his children, and that now it is too late to build a relationship with them;
  • a 50-year-old waitress, exhausted after eight hours on her feet, wearily fixes dinner while her husband, also just home from an exhausting day, puts up his feet and has a beer. She could be from any country.

On the statistical level, sexism means that:

  • female Korean workers make 51% of men's wages;
  • of the 188 workers killed in the May 1994 Thai Kader Industrial Toy Company fire, most were young women;
  • between three and four million women in the U. S. are battered by their partners every year;
  • several million women die every year in the world from illegal abortions;
  • largely because of prostitution and polygamy, over 10% of the population of Uganda--some __ million people--is dying of AIDS.
  • in 1991 and 1992, 6. 7 million female fetuses were aborted in India when it was learned that they were female.

From the above examples, we can conclude that sexism comprises both practices and ideas. It relates to the work women do--whether they're paid a wage or not. It is present in a range of societies--capitalist, socialist, formerly socialist. It signifies women's inferior status in relation to men and, at times, their violent victimization by men.

Sexism is both the practice of superexploiting women workers and the ideology of gender dualism and male supremacy that justifies this practice.

In this pamphlet PLP will present a communist analysis of sexism. We shall argue that sexism, while often felt in the most intimate aspects of our lives, is rooted not in "human nature" but in capitalism's drive to benefit from the grossly underpaid, and often unpaid, labor of women. We shall point out that sexism hurts working- and middle-class men, both materially and psychologically, and they have a direct interest in fighting it. We shall also argue that only communism--the abolition of classes--can put an end to sexism. The fact that socialist societies have failed to emancipate women is proof not that sexism is not based in class society, but, on the contrary, that only the complete eradication of wages and classes can lead to equality between women and men.


Ruling elites would like us to believe that men's possession of superior social status is a function of their innate superiority. Various patriarchal religions--Islam, Christianity, Judaism--teach that God has ordained men to rule over women. Right-wing social "theorists" argue that women's subordination is derived from men's greater strength and aggressiveness.

Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, for example, argues that child-rearing is not a role socially assigned to women but a "natural" function.

Anthropological evidence, however, indicates that women's oppression is not a function of "nature" but is instead closely linked with the rise of market societies and class divisions. Hunter-gatherer societies--the types of social formations in which practically all humans originally lived, and do so for tens of thousands of years--are largely egalitarian. There may be a division of labor based upon gender: among the Inuit of the Arctic, men conduct the seal hunt, whereas women make clothes from skins; among the Mbuti of Zaire, hunting is carried out largely by women beating the bushes and men holding the nets. But because the entire social unit is engaged in labor that is necessary for the group's survival, there is no devaluation of "women's work. " Indeed, often the tasks undertaken by women--gathering nuts and fruits, hunting small game--are more crucial to the group's survival than the big-game hunting undertaken more exclusively by men.

Moreover, in most hunter-gatherer societies, the division of labor is not rigid. Among the Mbuti, women and men can change roles in the hunt. Among the Innu (also known as the Montagnais-Naskapi) of Canada, women would work for hours without interruption smoking deer hides while their husbands cared for the children. While women in such primitive communalist societies carry out biological reproduction, there is no separation of "home" and "work," and all labor is seen as productive activity. Furthermore, power is shared on a gendered but egalitarian basis. When Iroquois warriors wished to carry out raids, they had to get the approval of the women, who could supply or not supply food for the expedition as they chose. Women routinely have enjoyed full respect in communalist societies, which have been organized along matrilineal lines (that is, in which kinship is determined by descent on the mother's side).

Communists do not want to romanticize the life of hunter-gatherers: a life close to nature is harsh in many ways. Moreover, the model of "separate but equal" characterizing gender relations in many communalist societies is foreign to modern notions of social equality. (In many hunter-gatherer societies, gods are Great Hunters and goddesses are Great Mothers. )But it is important to be aware that most of human history has been lived in an egalitarian mode. The vast social gaps between classes, genders and races in present-day society--which to many of us seem as "natural" as the air we breathe--are actually of relatively recent appearance and short duration.

As societies become more settled and capable of producing surpluses, however, the differences between "men's work" and "women's work" become more significant. In times of scarcity one tribe raids another and carries off its surpluses--and its women, who take on value by virtue of both their gathering and their child-bearing (and hence labor-producing) capacities. In most societies the first slaves were captured women. Moreover, the kinds of surpluses typically amassed by men--herds, pelts--are more readily exchanged in trade. As a society moves away from the production of use values for subsistence, then, and toward the production of exchange values for trade and profit, the gendered division of labor previously based upon mutual agreement becomes increasingly coercive. Women work for men--whether husbands or owners--rather than for a group in which they are equal participants. As Engels pointed out in On the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, class society becomes patrilineal, then patriarchal (that is, characterized by male rule), as wealthy men come to insist that their assets be passed on to their own children.

The link between women's subordination and class hierarchy emerges most dramatically in places where colonizing powers encountered societies that were either communalist or at least less rigidly stratified. Anthropologist Eleanor Peacock, for instance, notes that the fur traders and Jesuits were shocked by the sexual egalitarianism of the Innu and instituted patriarchal order by issuing payments only to male members of the tribe; it was only then that cooking and cleaning became institutionalized as women's work. While previously the !Kung San women of South Africa had spaced their children widely and foraged freely, after their families were settled on profit-producing cattle stations they became economically dependent on their wage-earning husbands and home-bound by large families.

Colonizing Europeans, accustomed as they were to women's subordination, clearly viewed equality between women and men as a threat to the "brave new world" they wished to establish around the globe. But we should be aware that in many places they encountered class societies where sexist inequality was already firmly entrenched. In India, for example, women performed unpaid domestic labor long before the arrival of the British. Among the Yoruba of West Africa, it was not just Europeans but also local male entrepreneurial capitalists who displaced women traders and undermined their authority. It was the growth of class society, and not just the arrival of European colonialism, that deprived women of economic autonomy and social status.

Sexist inequality in precapitalist societies, while pervasive, has taken quite different forms. In Islamic countries, most women have been kept behind the veil and in the home; men do not even permit them to go to the market. Among the Yoruba, by contrast, women have for centuries functioned as traders--even though the commodities and trade routes they control have become increasingly less central to the economy. In Vietnam, women have traditionally performed heavy work in the fields, whereas in Cuba their agricultural work has generally been light and sporadic. What the range of tasks grouped as "women's work" reveals, then, is that the sexual division of labor has little to do with the intrinsic nature of any kind of work. It is the fact of the label "women's work" that matters, for this dismissive categorization enables the superexploitation of vast numbers of female producers.


While sexism clearly predates capitalist society, capitalism reinforces--indeed promotes--sexism every day because it profits enormously from sexism. And while certain aspects of male dominance in various countries--e. g. , India, China--can be traced to survivals from earlier modes of production, the main reason for women's continuing subordination here as everywhere is their continuing subordination to capital. Some college-educated women in industrialized countries may have gained greater economic and personal independence in the past century. But for the vast majority of the world's women capitalism has meant more degradation and harder work. The liberation of women is inseparable from the destruction of capitalism.

Women as Waged Workers

Since the beginnings of capitalism women have worked for wages as part of what is known as the "formal sector" of the economy. The "dark satanic mills" of the textile industry in England and the United States were originally staffed by women (and children) laborers working up to 16 hours a day under horrific conditions. In recent decades, however, there has been an explosion in the use of women workers in factories all around the world. Some 70% of the workers in the Mexican maquiladoras (factories close to the U. S. border) are women, as are some 80% of the workers in the Asian electronic industry. In Indonesia and the Philippines, women workers--usually young unmarried women--work for pay that is often less than subsistence. In Java, young women jute workers, even if they live at home, do not make enough to cover lunches, clothes and bus fare to and from work. Korean women in electronics factories in a few years often wear out their eyes peering into microscopes and have to return home or seek other jobs. Haitian garment workers can earn as little as 14 U. S. cents per hour, with no fringe benefits. Governments throughout Asia and Latin America ban unions and legislate the terms of women's employment, effectively acting as pimps to the johns of international capital.

Capitalist corporations justify their superexploitation of the world's women by arguing that these women's wages are marginal to their families' earnings. Never mind that more than half the male workers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, are unemployed or underemployed, or that one-third of the families are in fact headed by women garment workers: the view of women's waged work as secondary to their "real" function as housewives permits, indeed justifies, the gross undercompensation of women's work. Moreover, corporations invoke stereotypes of women's presumably "feminine" essence to rationalize women's assignment to routine, exhausting tasks. A Malaysian government advertisement to international corporations boasts of the "manual dexterity of the oriental female"; INTEL in Malaysia proclaims that its female employees are "more disciplined and easier to control" than men. Exploitation of the labor power of young women of color offers higher yields than any other industrial investment in the world today. The conjunction of racism and sexism is, from the standpoint of capital, unbeatable.

There has also been a global explosion in sex tourism; somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 young women from desperately poor rural families sell their bodies to wealthy male tourists in Bangkok alone. Many young female landless peasants driven to the cities in China's brutal return to "free market" capitalism can make a living only through prostitution; international and local businessmen are happy to hire their services. For millions of women around the world, capitalism means selling not only their labor power, but their bodies, in order to survive.

Women as Unwaged Workers

Important as the superexploitation of women's waged labor is to the contemporary capitalist economy, this is only one facet of women's profitability to capital. For the majority of the world's women work hard but receive no wages at all. More than half of the world's work is currently expended in the "informal sector" of the economy, that is, the self-employed production of handicrafts and foodstuffs for the market. In Latin America, 60% of urban workers are not proletarians (wage-earners), but peddlers, traders, and craftsworkers. Most rural laborers are in fact "semi-proletarians" who work for wages but also have to farm the land and engage in petty craft production to eke out a livelihood. But informal-sector female employment is not restricted to the so-called "Third World. "Many U. S. women workers supplement their meager wages by working many extra hours as "representatives" for Amway or Avon. The "family wage" (the wage one worker earns to support an entire family) has always been more of a myth than a reality for most of the world's male workers. But in recent decades capital has paid below-subsistence wages to more and more workers, both male and female. It is understood that non-wage-earning members of these workers' households--overwhelmingly women--will find a way to supplement the family income: hence Guatemalan women's production of purses and tablecloths, Indian women's weaving of lace mats, U. S. women's door-to-door hawking of soap and perfume.

From capital's point of view, such production is simply an extension of a woman's household tasks, undertaken in her "leisure" time. And, given the "housewife-ization" of women, many women also see their own work in this way. Peasant women in Oaxaca, Mexico, refer to their petty commodity production as an extension of their householding activities: not "trabajo" (work) but "ayuda" (helping out). That such a use of women's "free" time results in a 16 to 18 hour workday is conveniently overlooked. From a technical standpoint, capital does not "exploit" these nonwaged workers, since they--or their husbands--usually market their product themselves, either to a consumer or to a middleman. Clearly, however, the existence of these "invisible" nonwaged informal sector workers--who, often working with their children, can bring in more than half of the family's annual income--allows capitalists to pay waged workers much less and thus increases the surplus value they gain.

Women's work is profitable to capitalists not just in the formal and informal sectors of the economy, however, but also in the home itself. For the great majority of the tasks that can be classed as "housework"--cleaning, shopping, cooking, laundering, mending--are essential to producing, on a day-by-day basis, the labor power (of both female and male workers) that creates surplus value for bosses at the point of production. Moreover, the various functions associated with child care--from help with homework to visits to the park to plain old "babysitting"--are, while often pleasureable, clearly "work" that is necessary for producing the next generation of laborers. Since most housework and childcare tasks are performed by women, in their status as housewives women actually work for free for the capitalists as daily and generational producers of labor power. But because this work is done in the home and is seen as part of a woman's "natural" function, it is not, in fact, usually seen as productive work. It is in fact invisible.

Women's work in the home is, then, productive activity, and not simply an extension of their "reproductive" role. Or, to put it another way, reproduction is production, insofar as both modes of activity create value. Again, as with women's nonwaged work in the informal sector, it cannot be precisely said that capital "exploits" women in the home, insofar as housework and childcare do not create surplus value. But it is capitalism that turned the definition of "work" into "wagedwork" to begin with: throughout most of human history work has had nothing to do with money. Clearly capital would have to pay waged workers a lot more if all the tasks involved in producing labor power were turned into wage-earning jobs! That wealthy people themselves have always viewed housework and childcare as "productive" tasks is shown by the willingness of the rich to pay workers to cook, launder, shop, and clean house for them, as well as to take care of--even "mother" and at times breastfeed --their children. What is apparently a "natural" expression of "reproductive" femininity for working-class women is apparently not required for the bourgeois woman in her "reproductive" role.

It is relatively useless to debate whether women are paid low wages because they are viewed as housewives or whether they are treated as housewives because they receive lower wages than men outside the home. The main point is that capitalism, building upon developments in earlier forms of class society, has managed to destroy the domestic economy in which men and women together contribute use values toward the community's survival. Around the globe capitalism has created dual spheres: a "public" world of work, where proletarians, both male and female, exchange labor power for wages; and a "private" world of the home, where women--regardless of how many hours they have worked in the formal or informal sectors--presumably fulfill their biological and spiritual destinies as nose-wipers and floor-scrubbers.

Women and the Welfare System

Particularly in the U. S. , there has recently been a vicious sexist (and racist) assault on welfare recipients. Women without partners who are trying to raise children are stigmatized as irresponsible, stupid, and sexually promiscuous. The "problem" of welfare is seen as the "problem" of the welfare recipient.

What is obscured in the fascist attack on poor mothers is that it is capitalism that has created the welfare system. AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) is a way of getting that sector of the workforce which is employed to pay for sustaining--and raising the children of--that sector of the workforce which is condemned to be unemployed. When the government designates 7% unemployment as "normal" and the Federal Reserve continually raises interest rates (and thus cools down the economy) whenever unemployment goes much below this level, it is pretty clear that many millions of U. S. residents are meant to be unemployed. The problem is not that welfare recipients lack the drive to work; the problem is that there are no jobs--much less the kinds of supports (decent health insurance, day care, etc. ) that single mothers need if they are to raise their families.

The bosses set up, and still need, welfare. Originally it was a way to enable a certain sector of the employer class to hire very poorly paid male workers (e. g. , hotel, restaurant, and other service workers) and have their children--sometimes born out of wedlock--supported through other workers' taxes. Until fairly recently, the U. S. economy has had jobs of one kind or another available to the largely marginal work force coming out of these welfare families. Recently, however, with the fluid movement of capital across national borders, U. S. capitalists have no real need for this sector of the population. They can hire workers in Indonesia for much less. They would just as soon most welfare recipients dropped dead. Hence the current drive toward welfare "reform," by which is meant cutting and eventually eliminating welfare.

While the bosses no longer need welfare recipients or their children as workers, however, they still need them as scapegoats. At a time when millions of U. S. workers are losing their jobs, their benefits, and their former wage levels, welfare recipients supply a convenient target for the anger and frustration of that segment of the working class which is still working. The sexist and racist stereotypes that have been pouring out of the mass media are rooted in this effort to deflect workers' hostility from the bosses to mothers who are without partners and without waged jobs. Lies are spread that welfare recipients stay on welfare for many years (whereas the average stay is two years); that they have large families (whereas the average welfare family size is 1. 9 children); that they are mainly black (whereas about the same number of white and black families are on welfare). It is no accident, moreover, that one of the main targets of Charles Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's recent racist pseudoscientific tract The Bell Curve is welfare recipients.

Welfare recipients are not "pathological"; capitalism is.


Some people might grant that women are superexploited under capitalism. But they might still object that men and women just "are different" in fundamental ways that go far beyond the obvious anatomical differences between the sexes. They might also say that men benefit from sexism.

Communists disagree. We think that it is not male "nature," but the way that both men and women are socialized in a society based on maximizing profit, that leads some men to oppress women. We think, moreover, that men do not benefit from women's subordination, even though some men enjoy certain advantages that function as bribes to bind them to the existing class system. Communists see sexism as a class question and argue that it is directly in the interest of men and women of the working and middle classes to fight sexism.

Violence Against Women

Some would cite male-against-female violence as proof of an intrinsically aggressive--and oppressive--male nature. There is no doubt that violence against women is one of the most grotesque features of human interaction in class society. In traditional Vietnamese society, men could take concubines, but unfaithful wives were trampled by elephants. Chinese women for centuries had their feet bound to signify their subordination to men. To this day millions of adolescent girls undergo cliterodectomies (that is, removal of external genitalia) in parts of Moslem Africa to guarantee that they will experience little or no sexual pleasure, and thus be "faithful" to their husbands when they marry. But again, violence against women is not just a "Third World" problem. In the United States, domestic violence is rampant: the single most common cause of women's ending up in hospital emergency rooms is battering by a spouse or partner.

Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people in the world accept such manifestations and levels of violence as normal. Some men, attempting to justify their own or their friends' brutal practice, argue that it's "natural" for a man to beat "his" lover or wife--even that doing so makes the relationship sexier. Some women, while hating men for what they do, cynically agree that violence is intrinsic to men. The fact that male violence against women occurs in all segments of society, moreover, is sometimes cited as proof that this practice is not based in class oppression, but in "maleness" as such. Communists argue that men's violence against women--while often apparently unrelated to economic issues--is in fact inseparable from men's perception of women's subordinate social positions as both waged and unwaged producers. If women, no matter how hard they work, are viewed and valued as second- or third-class contributors to a family's welfare, then men can assume that their superior earning power entitles them to power and authority. The primary models for human relationships in class society, moreover, are models of dominance and hierarchy. Bosses--whether Chinese landlords, African heads of state, or Italian capitalists--relate to "their" producers as masters to underlings. In dominating women within the family, men simply reproduce the main form that "difference" takes in society at large.

Furthermore, while men's violence toward women creates disruption and instability in many homes, it is a source of great stability to capital, insofar as it encourages male producers, however exploited and oppressed, to think that there's someone they too can kick around, that "a man's home is his castle. "Domestic violence is a safety valve for capital, siphoning off vast amounts of middle- and working-class men's frustration and anger at their own subordination and alienation. Moreover, it reciprocally strengthens capitalism by teaching children very early that inequality and oppression are "natural": if they witness patterns of hierarchy and brutality between their parents, they grow up expecting to find these in society at large.

The main form of human relationship in class society is possession, and the dominant mode of interaction is coercion. While slavery is out of date in all but a few places in the world, wage slavery is the order of the day. At least for the time they labor in the office or factory, workers are essentially "owned" by their bosses. Moreover, they are essentially coerced into labor; if they do not work, they are "free" to starve. Small wonder, then, that love--or what is called love--so often takes the form of possessiveness, and that struggle manifests itself as force. Men may take advantage of their (generally) superior upper-body strength and higher energy hormones when they brutalize the women they live with. But male anatomy and hormones are not the causes of present-day male violence; capitalism is.

How Men Are Hurt by Sexism

Some might concede that male violence against women both reflects and strengthens a hierarchical and coercive social order. But they might nonetheless maintain that men benefit from women's subordination. After all, they generally make higher wages than women. While it is true that in different parts of the world women make somewhere between 50% and 75% percent of what men earn, this does not mean that men gain from that differential. Men's wages are held down precisely because women's are especially depressed. If a woman makes $3. 60 a day sewing baseballs for Rawlings in Haiti, it makes it all the easier for other U. S. -owned Haitian industries to hire men at, say, $4. 50 a day; the few elite families who own 44% of Haiti's wealth laugh all the way to the bank. The differential between male and female wages serves mainly to divide the working class and hurts all workers. If male workers buy into the notion that women's work is worth less than their own, they are not only making it easier for bosses to superexploit women; they are also making it easier for the bosses to exploit them.

But, some might argue, even if men do not benefit from sexist pay differentials on the job, many husbands, fathers, and brothers still have someone to do housework for them. If a man and a woman both stagger home from work, and if she then starts cooking and doing laundry--and helping kids with multiplication tables at the same time--while he flips on the TV and has a beer, isn't he gaining from the situation?

In one sense, yes: there's nothing enjoyable or fulfilling about washing sheets and scrubbing pots. To the extent that husbands or fathers shoulder such tasks off as their wives' or daughters' "natural" domain, they get more leisure time for themselves. (In fact, the average husband adds about five hours a week to a wife's domestic workload. )By treating the women they live with as domestic servants, men become complicit with capitalism's systemic inequality and, in particular, with the ideological rationalization for paying women so little for the work they do. The few privileges that a man gains from having a woman perform various personal services for him are thus greatly outweighed by the losses he experiences from the fact that (1) his daughter earns less than a subsistence-level wage as a maquiladora worker; (2) his wife earns so few dollars for all the hours she puts in as a "self-employed" Amway distributor; (3) he himself has just been reclassified and taken a big pay cut because his boss now assumes that every adult in the modern family of the 1990s is working. Men's entrapment in the notion that women's work is less valuable than their own--and that much of it should be performed for free, for "love"--is one of the principal barriers to their understanding their own exploitation.

There needs to be an out-and-out struggle against sexism in the ranks of the working class. Without such a struggle, it will be impossible to make a revolution. Men workers must recognize that women are and have always been leaders in the struggle for emancipation of the dispossessed--from the abolitionist Harriet Tubman to the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai to the many women currently leading garment factory organizing internationally as members of PLP. Sexist behavior will not be tolerated in the ranks of the revolutionary movement we are building. Any man who considers himself a fighter for the working class is practicing complete hypocrisy if he does not participate fully and equally in the domestic production taking place in his own home every day. To lift a hand in violence against a female member of his class is, moreover, to commit a counterrevolutionary act.

Sexist Culture as a Reinforcement to Male Supremacy

While men should be struggled with sharply around issues such as domestic violence and domestic labor, violent and oppressive male behavior is reinforced daily by the mass culture of capitalist society. Our world is full of images that reinforce the notion that women are inferior and should be owned and dominated by men. Take the typical liquor ad gracing an urban billboard: a woman in an evening gown with a deep cleavage smiles seductively next to a bottle of vodka. Some might contend that displaying the half-clothed body of a young woman beside a bottle of liquor does not signify her inferiority. But this use of the woman's image objectifies her sexuality. She is--visually at least--made "available" to all who gaze upon her. She is, moreover, linked to the vodka as an object of possession: if you buy the vodka, you also get the woman, or at least a happiness comparable to what her actual presence might bring. (The "you" here is assumed of course to be male; women join in the gazing game by narcissistically identifying with the model. )While male images are also commodified--that is, turned into objects for sale--by advertising, rarely are men reduced to their bodies, or body parts, the way women are. If this is not inferiority, what is?

Mass culture barrages men and women with negative representations of gender that shape sexual desire along the lines of oppression, violence and possession. Pornography brutally objectifies women, much of it associating the most satisfying sexual intercourse with rape and other forms of violence. Some music videos feature half-naked women gyrating and crawling at men's feet. Male rappers frequently link asserting masculinity with insulting women. Many movies promote highly stereotyped images of male toughness and female passivity; even movies featuring supposedly emancipated women characters allow the camera plenty of shots lingering on the female anatomy. Stores sell Wonderbras for women and "I hate bitches" T-shirts for men--and fine plenty of buyers for both. Romantic songs depict the highest happiness as either possessing or belonging to the "loved" one.

Both women and men are constantly being urged to objectify themselves along the lines of gender dualism, that is, the notion that women and men are fundamentally different, and in fact defined in opposition to one another. How often do we hear the phrase, "the opposite sex"? To be female is to be not-male, and above all to be male is to be not-female. Capitalist corporations make big profits from consumer items devoted to reinforcing gender identities--from G. I. Joe and Barbie dolls to sports cars and fur coats. Moreover, capitalism as a system is ideologically shored up by the dissemination of the notion that women and men are just plain different--and that women are inferior to, and dependent on, men.

Women clearly bear the brunt of this sexist dehumanization. Women who enter into relations with men often encounter violence, abuse, and endless labor; women who are celibate by choice or circumstance are often derided as "old maids" and seen as "not real women. "Sometimes women even internalize notions of inferiority to the point of damaging themselves and other women. It was women who bound their daughters' feet in traditional China and who to this day wield the knife cutting off the young girl's clitoris. Many women tell their friends and daughters to accept male violence as part of woman's lot in life. But men are also hurt, psychologically as well as materially, by the assumption that they should assume the "dominant" role. If women are stereotyped as natural nurturers, men are supposed to be involved with their children's upbringing as rule-makers and rule-enforcers. The average father of a newborn, it has been shown, hold his baby less than one minute per day. Some men may feel relief that their wives take responsibility for helping kids with their homework; actually, they are missing a valuable opportunity to be close to their children. The emotional isolation from their children that many men experience--and that they often come to regret too late in their old age--is directly traceable to dichotomized notions of what mothers and fathers "ought" to be and do. Furthermore, many men are repelled by the grossness, even violence, of locker-room banter and wish to talk about their emotions--with the women in their lives, with male friends--but have not learned the most basic vocabulary for doing so. The rigid categories of gender into which men and women are pigeonholed in capitalist society inhibit full human development in men and women alike. The great majority of men and women have a common interest in doing away with a society that produces such barren and alienated human relations.


Under "ordinary" capitalism, we have been arguing, women and men have a vital common stake in fighting sexism. As capitalism moves deeper and deeper into fascism, however, the fight against sexism becomes a matter of life and death.

The Nazis used sexist ideology as a crucial component in solidifying their political base. "Male" and "female" were rigidly dichtomized in Nazi propaganda. The Nazis preached "Kinder Kuche Kirche" ("Children Kitchen Church") as women's proper domain; established stud farms in which especially "beautiful" young women were chosen to bear the children of officers of the Reich; and--for German women--criminalized abortion. The Nazi high command was notorious for their bisexual carousing, but, as a matter of public policy, gay men and lesbians--who clearly did not fit into the official Nazi gender categories--were declared enemies of the state and exterminated in huge numbers. As part of the Nazis' biological doctrines of race and nation, women and men were reduced to their biological "essences" and, when found wanting, wiped out.

It is important, however, not to view fascism as a past historical phenomenon restricted to Italy and Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. Fascist regimes have thrived on almost every continent in the twentieth century, and most formerly "liberal democratic" countries have entered into a fascist phase. While anti-black and anti-immigrant racism are in some ways the "cutting edge" of the contemporary U. S. movement into fascism, sexism is playing a crucial role. The attack on affirmative action portrays both women and people of color as leeches on the body politic--when actually these programs, in giving a certain limited "advantage" to some women, blacks, hispanics, etc. , have helped to sustain--or at least halted the slide--of the wage levels of all workers. The current promotion of "family values" and the attack on abortion rights are baldfaced attempts to reinforce male supremacist ideology and subdue women's demands for equality on the job. The "family values" campaign--sponsored by the Republican right, but catered to by the Clinton Democrats--supports an increasingly authoritarian state by claiming as its model the "natural" patriarchal family. Those who do not conform to this model are not "real Americans. "

Moreover, the recent rise in homophobic assaults--which are rarely punished--and the various moves to rescind homosexual civil rights are part and parcel of the almost hysterical gender dualism fostered by fascism. The climate of fear and prejudice built up around AIDS, and the drive to reduce spending on AIDS--conveys the Nazi notion that some people--sexual "others"--are spreading disease and unworthy of life. Homophobia here supplements racism: while most "second wave" AIDS cases involve not white homosexual men but blacks and latinos of both sexes, the homophobic disgust whipped by the Pat Buchanans and Jesse Helmses blends into a racist disregard permitting and justifying massive neglect. Clearly the placement of gay men and lesbians in the economy of capitalism is different from that of women as a group, insofar as the former are not as such subject to sexist superexploitation. "Homophobia" and sexism" are related but by no means equivalent phenomena: the former is ideological, whereas the latter is both ideological and material. Nonetheless, capitalism in its fascist phase does all it can to encourage workers to think in terms of categories that divide them from other workers: race versus race, nation versus nation, gender versus gender. To the extent that homosexuals call into question the dichotomous gender categories dualism that sustain sexist ideology, they are the targets of increasingly vicious sexist attack.


Some would argue that, even though women are clearly oppressed and exploited under capitalism, societies which supposedly emancipated workers from class exploitation did not free women from various forms of exploitation and subordination. Women cannot and should not look to communist parties to free them in the future, it can be argued, because communist parties have not freed them in the past. Women are oppressed by both capitalism and patriarchy--that is, male rule--and any movement for women's liberation cannot rely exclusively upon the eradication of class.

Communists in PLP do not agree with this position. We think that women's subordination is caused by class society, and class society alone. While socialism failed to emancipate women, it also failed to emancipate the working class: the two failures are inseparable.

This is not to deny the very real initial achievements of socialism in the arena of fighting sexism. In China, Vietnam, and Soviet Asia, socialist revolution meant that practices such as foot-binding, bride price, child and contractual marriage, polygamy, wife-beating, and veiling were immediately made illegal. According to the 1950 Chinese marriage law--which coincided with the Land Reform Act--women attained equal rights to own property. In the USSR, divorce became readily available after the Bolshevik Revolution (and some millions of women flocked to take advantage of it!). Tens of thousands of women in the Soviet East took part in ceremonies to burn the foul, hot, heavy horsehair veils that symbolized their possession by their husbands. In Cuba, the 1970 marriage law stipulated that men and women equally share child-rearing and domestic labor. In all socialist countries, abortion was--at least for a while--made legal and free, and prostitution was almost entirely eliminated. Under socialism, in other words, centuries-old oppressive practices were instantly wiped out by law. Many "rights" for which women were--and in many cases still are--struggling in capitalist "democracies" were treated as women's unquestioned human inheritance.

In addition, some important steps were taken toward reorganizing the economies of socialist societies so that women could enjoy in practice the freedoms and rights guaranteed by law. In the USSR, day care centers were established at factories, offices and collective farms so that women could breastfeed and care for their children during the workday. In some places community dining halls were set up, and certain domestic chores--e. g. ,laundry--were socialized. The most dramatic steps toward eliminating "women's work" in the home were taken during the commune movement of the late 1950s in China, when 90% of rural women joined the waged work force because nuclear households were for a time essentially dissolved and virtually all household tasks were socialized. During the Great Leap Forward, 4,980,000 nurseries and kindergartens were set up in rural China, along with 3,600,000 public dining rooms.

Yet socialism ultimately failed women. Women never participated fully in political life in socialist countries. While active on the local level and significantly present in secondary leadership, women numbered fewer and fewer the higher the level of political responsibility. In 1976 there was a total of some 197 Politboro members from the Eastern European countries, Albania, and China; of these, only 10 were women. In the same year, the USSR had 75 top government posts; none was filled by a woman.

Despite women's shouldering guns and undertaking many "men's" tasks during the period of insurrection, moreover, work quickly fell back into being ordered--and compensated--along gendered lines, even if the content of the gendered categories at times altered. In the USSR, older women were streetsweepers, and heavy manual work in the fields was done by women, whereas men tended to drive the busses and operate the tractors. The popular Soviet image of the smiling young woman driving the tractor was a myth: females never totaled more than 4% of the total number of tractor drivers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Soviet male agricultural workers earned on the average 25% more than women. At the same time, the health care professions--including the job of doctor--became highly feminized. As a consequence, however, being a physician in the USSR became no great shakes: by the 1970s doctors (mostly women) started at wages only 2/3 those of skilled workers (mostly men).

The payment of unequal wages to women and men for comparable work in socialist countries was compounded by a retreat from the commitment to socializing domestic labor. At the height of collectivization in the USSR, no more than 30% of worksites had daycare centers and dining halls. These were attacked only to the most profitable enterprises: the primary purpose of such facilities was to maximize production, not to lay the basis for new relations between women and men and new forms of the family. The Chinese experiment in socialized domestic labor collapsed along with the rest of the commune movement in the early 1960s. The argument advanced in defense of the cutback in socialized domestic services was that it had proven too costly to pay wages to workers to produce the labor power of other workers--that is, to do what women had previously done for free. Besides, it was said, grandmothers were available for child care in the home. But these cutbacks inevitably meant that women were increasingly given mixed messages under socialism. On the one hand, they were urged to participate as waged workers in the formal economy. On the other, they were not being given the support systems necessary for such participation. Women were essentially being told that they should work full-time for pay and then part-time for free.

Even the equal wages paid to women and men in a few lines of work did not establish full equality, for women were not paid when they took time off work--as they routinely did--to tend to necessary domestic tasks. Women's domestic labor in the home became once again uncompensated and therefore invisible. While cooking a pot of borscht for a neighborhood dining hall had been viewed as productive--that is, waged--labor in the USSR of the 1930s, by the 1950s this was see not as a public productive task but a private reproductive one. Not surprisingly, the inequality in men's and women's earnings was accompanied by an inequality in the amounts of leisure time they enjoyed in socialist countries. In Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, women were reported to have elven hours a week less leisure time than men.

Gender inequality persisted after socialist revolutions partly because sexist assumptions were deeply rooted, especially in men. "A hundred women are not worth a single testicle" was a Vietnamese saying many hundreds of years old. Some men reacted violently to the prospect of losing control over the domestic services of their wives. After 100,000 Bukharan women burned their veils on International Women's Day in 1927, hundreds were murdered by their husbands or fathers. In 1950-51, tens of thousands of young Chinese wives who demanded equality in their marriages either were murdered by their husbands or committed suicide after being socially ostracized.

Another reason why socialist countries never eradicated sexism is that none ever undertook a concerted campaign to call upon men to shoulder their part of the burden of domestic labor. Revolutionary movements from Mozambique to Vietnam featured the poster-figure of the young woman bearing a baby in one arm and an AK-47 in the other; none, however, promoted the icon of a young man in the same posture. During the period of socialist construction in Vietnam, "new cultured families" were held up as models, but they were praised for their harmonious relations and their commitment to raising socialist-minded children rather than for setting examples in sharing household tasks equally. In the USSR of 1944, women who had ten children or more were honored by entry into the "Order of Motherhood. "In 1974, a Soviet study announced that women's presence in the home with children under the age of four was an absolute necessity--a "finding" that, needless to say, called into question the nation's entire network of daycare centers.

But the main reason for the persistence of male dominance in socialist societies was not feudalistic survivals or the recalcitrance of men. The primary reason sexist attitudes could not be rooted out was that women's productive work was not being valued equally with that of men. Cuba could legislate till the cows came home that men and women were to be equal partners in domestic labor. But as long as Cuban men worked in "men's" jobs and earned substantially more than their wives or daughters, it was impossible to convince them that they "ought" to wash shirts and do dishes. The Chinese government can proclaim against female infanticide; but as long as a male child promises to be a better compensated earner than a female, and thus a better support for his parents in their old age, the murderous practice will persist.

Moreover, as socialism moved away from egalitarianism and back toward market capitalism, women's unwaged labor in the revived informal sector of the economy became increasingly important to the subsistence of the working class. In agriculturally based socialist economies, the private plots that provided families with food for subsistence--and, increasingly, with commodities for petty exchange on local markets--were tended almost exclusively by women. In villages following ujamaa (communalization) policies in socialist Tanzania, for example, married women still tended plots owned by individual families, while their husbands received wages for work on the communal farms and even marketed the surplus product of their wives' domestic labor. Under socialism, in other words, Tanzanian wives saw little change in their position in the relations of production.

It could be said, indeed, that socialist accumulation--that is, the production of the surplus needed to jumpstart socialist economies--took place largely off the backs of undercompensated women working in the formal economy and uncompensated women working in the informal economy and in the home. Even under socialism women continued to experience sexist exploitation. It was not failures in governmental propaganda or the tenacity of traditional attitudes, but continuing material inequalities between the valuation of men's and women's labor, that guaranteed women's continuing subordination to men.

Socialism failed women, then, not because proletarian revolutions did not address "patriarchy" along with class oppression, but because they did not eradicate inequality. Bent upon above all developing the productive forces and committed to eliminating wages and producing for use only in an ever-receding communist future, socialism places primacy upon accumulation over the social relations under and through which accumulation takes place. Because of this tragically mistaken priority, socialist societies have not simply slowed in their advance toward, but have in fact at this point entirely backtracked away from, the movement toward communist egalitarianism. Retaining wages as a means of compensating workers for the work they have done and of motivating them to do more, socialist societies have lapsed into the essentially capitalist practice of equating productive work with waged work in the formal sector. While they have made attempts to exhort men to view women as their equals, these societies have never recognized all necessary human labor as labor that is equally productive and equally valuable. The consequences of this failure have been devastating, for men and women alike.


Socialism failed to emancipate women, but communism will succeed. Women do not need separate organizations to guarantee that their interests will be safeguarded in revolution--after all, the Bolsheviks and Chinese Communists had such organizations, and women still got the short end of the stick. What is needed is an international, multiracial party consisting of women and men that is uncompromisingly committed to communism--that is, complete equality. PLP is that party.

Communism Versus Socialism

Through a critical analysis of how twentieth-century socialist movements have been derailed and destroyed, primarily through their own internal weaknesses, PLP has determined that fighting for socialism is a waste of time and effort. It is necessary to fight from the outset for nothing less than a society in which women and men work not for wages, but out of commitment to the collective--that is, for communism. They will produce not for exchange, for there will be no money: they will produce for use. While this program may sound utopian, we should remember that throughout most of human history people have in fact lived in this way--although in primitive, undeveloped societies that were at the mercy of nature. It is only class society that has destroyed people's incentive to work voluntarily and cooperatively in ways that fulfill the needs of both the individual and the group; it is only class society that has made money the sole means of compensating and motivating labor. The great majority of the world's people have it in their interest, however, to live without wages and without social hierarchy. We don't need the bosses or their money.

No matter what skeptics may say, only communism can abolish sexism. Women's superexploitation and subordination are directly linked to the predominance of exchange-production over use-production under capitalism. Much of the work women currently do consists in creating things and performing services that people need--but never getting paid for doing so. Women will continue to be domestic slaves, superexploited workers, and second-class citizens as long as capitalism lasts, for capitalism is happy to have them just where they are.

It is only under communism that all production will be for use, and all socially necessary labor recognized as productive labor--and therefore that the stigma currently attached to "women's work" will be removed. This is not to say that, in the first stages of communism, there will not have to be rigorous ideological struggle to break down the traditional sexual division of labor. Both women and men will be used to doing things in the old way. We will have to use all available aspects of the cultural apparatus--movies, videos, books, the visual arts, sports, social clubs, and of course the schools--to demonstrate how poisonous sexism is for the entire working class. But--unlike the comparable ideological struggles sporadically undertaken under socialism--this struggle will be materially sustained by the abolition of any difference in compensation--that is, in any different payment for men's and women's work. All work will be unwaged. As communism develops, then, there will be no material basis for differentiating between "women's work" and "men's work"; there will only be human work, divided between the sexes in egalitarian and creative ways that we can only begin to imagine. There will be no more division between "public" and "private" spheres. And, as a consequence, there will be no dualistic conceptions of "male" and "female" that set the mold for human development--no superiority and inferiority, no dominance and submission.

Communism Versus Feminism

The feminist movement, while attracting to its ranks many energetic and honest people committed to ending women's subordination, does not effectively fight sexism. Indeed, because it posits that not capitalism but something in men is the cause of women's oppression, it usually turns women and men against one another. Lacking a class analysis, it proposes that all women have more in common with one another than bourgeois women have with bourgeois men, and working-class women with working-class men. Feminism only leads anti-sexist fighters back into the arms of capitalism.

Feminism takes up important issues, but in a counterproductive way. Anti-pornography feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, for example, legitimately point out how pornography degrades women and fosters violence against them, but they build the illusion that capitalist governments can pass laws that will safeguard women--even though, as we have pointed out, violence against women is one of capitalism's most important safety valves for channeling and controlling working- and middle-class men's alienation. Moreover, some anti-pornography feminists--e. g. , Dworkin--demonize all male desire for women and treat all heterosexual intercourse as rape. Pro-choice feminists, while legitimately resisting the fundamentalist religious right's attack on abortion, treat the issue of abortion in individualistic and middle-class terms as a woman's "right to control her own body. "This strategy separates abortion rights away from other aspects of reproductive health care of equal importance to working-class women--contraception, prenatal care, maternity benefits--and turns a working-class public health issue into a right-of-privacy issue. It is perhaps no accident that the logo of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) is the Statue of Liberty! Finally, equity feminists--that is, feminists such as those in NOW (National Organization for Women) seeking equal legal and economic treatment for women--ignore capitalism's systemic need to superexploit women's labor, both paid and unpaid. Equity issues often turn out to be "glass ceiling" issues concerned with the small percentage of middle-class women who face discrimination in professional and middle-management jobs. The millions of women who toil in mostly-female garment and electronics factories are untouched by the demands of equity feminism. Even the demand for "comparable worth"--that is, equal compensation in female-coded jobs--leaves untouched the vast arena of work performed by women in the home for free, as well as women's participation in the unwaged "self-employed" (informal) sector of the economy.

Feminists may come away from United Nations-sponsored conferences abuzz with celebrations of global sisterhood. But all the "women of the world" do not have the same interests. New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who is presiding over vicious welfare cuts to unemployed women and lay-offs of women state workers, has nothing in common but biology with the women whose lives she is helping to ruin. The woman president of Turkey who recently sent in the Turkish army to destroy Kurdish "strongholds" is the enemy of all oppressed Kurd workers and peasants, women as well as men. The list could go on.

If the great majority of the world's women are to be freed from the massive sexist exploitation and oppression that they face, their slogan must be not "women of the world unite," but "workers of the world unite. "

Join PLP to Eliminate Sexism

Progressive Labor Party, which is organizing around the world, stands for complete equality between women and men. In the area where we are most developed, the United States, women and men occupy positions of equal importance and influence within the organization, at all levels. In areas where we are less developed but growing rapidly, such as India and Mexico, we carry forward an uncompromising struggle to bring women into all levels of leadership. Knowing that no one in capitalist society comes to the communist movement free of sexist ideas and attitudes, we struggle around issues of sexism in a collective way. But the struggle is sharp; communists do not tolerate sexism in word or deed.

PLP works hard to organize women workers, who, as both females and proletarians--and often as people of color as well--are frequently the most class-conscious and militant fighters. PLP's international concentration in the garment industry is largely a concentration among women workers; this organizing will not succeed unless garment workers and their families understand the nature of sexism and fight it tooth and nail--both on the job and in their personal lives. But we do not call upon women to form women's caucuses, nor do we have any special women's groups within our own ranks. As the foregoing analysis shows, we believe that sexism hurts men and women alike, and that therefore it is best fought by women and men together.

The great majority of women and men have only their chains to lose, and a world to win.