England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Sexism: where does it come from and how do we end it?

Around the world women and gender non-conforming people are rising up. Standing on the shoulders of heroic past battles for equal pay, laws against descrimination, the right to abortion, and others, today’s feminists are demanding something even bigger – an end to sexism. The mood on protests from London to Sao Paulo, from Cape Town to Melbourne, is that we won’t be satisfied with tinkering around the edges to ease the worst impacts of gender oppression – instead we declare this oppression is totally unacceptable and demand its obliteration. 

Socialists recognise that inherent within this is the potential for revolutionary struggle – because to end sexism in all its forms requires fundamental system change. So it is essential that a discussion takes place within the feminist movement about what type of change is necessary. We argue the need for socialist feminism, which fights for the socialist transformation of society, mainly because of our understanding and analysis of where sexism and the oppression of women in general come from in the first place.  

There is nothing natural about sexism or any form of oppression. Institutionalised inequality between different genders hasn’t always existed. For example, for the big majority of human history, people survived on the basis of hunting and gathering. Evidence suggests that in these societies men and women may have had different roles but these roles were not differently valued and so did not lead to different social status or standard of living. In fact there was not the possibility of significant material inequalities between any sections of these communities – because they could generally produce only enough for day-to-day subsistence and were unable to store any surplus in any case. They relied on the collective effort of the whole group to meet their basic needs. 

The origins of women’s oppression

The development of agriculture allowed a surplus to be consistently produced and stored for the first time, which led to a transformation of every area of life and the way society was organised. Fundamentally this was a development which thrust human societies forward, freeing people from total subjugation to nature. But, as Frederich Engels, collaborator of Karl Marx, wrote in his seminal book ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’: “The lowest interests – base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth – inaugurate the new, civilised, class society. It is by the vilest means – theft, violence, fraud, treason – that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority; today it is so more than ever before.”

The division of labour became much more complicated – not just hunting or gathering but agriculture, trade, shipping, handicrafts, money-lending. The population grew exponentially and began to live in areas more according to their trade than their tribe; while others migrated for work, meaning for the first time people living among peoples that were not their own. This changed the relationship of people to the land, which for the first time was claimed for ownership, and bought and sold. There were conflicts, war and slavery in the quest to produce and control more land and resources. The men in (initially elected) positions of power – traditionally mainly ceremonial, spiritual and sometimes military – were increasingly making decisions about the use and division of resources. More and more these leadership positions, along with material possessions, were passed to the nearest blood relation, establishing the earliest form of noble families. These families began to group together on the basis of their wealth and privilege, forming a class which gave itself legislative advantages and saw the means of producing wealth as their own property. 

Women tended not to be in leadership positions because of the importance of the military aspect of the role – meaning particular strength was prized – even more so as securing the best land and resources became more important. Due to the physical nature of agricultural work as well as it requiring being far away from the domestic setting for long periods, women tended not to do the bulk of this labour either. And at the same time the growing importance of inheritance – of titles and wealth – meant the need to be sure of bloodlines and parentage. This led to the development of various mechanisms to control women’s bodies and sexualities, and their subordination to men in the developing nuclear family structure, as well as in society at large. 

Gender oppression under capitalism

Society has clearly changed a lot in the millenia since most of these developments. But neither the division of society into classes, nor the systematic oppression of women, have been overcome – they have only been developed by each form of class society since. In some ways capitalism has brought about changes that counteract some of those described above. The myriad of jobs needed for a modern capitalist economy, as well as the development of services like childcare, and mass production of machinery to make domestic tasks easier, should theoretically mean that women workers can participate fully in production. We have won the legal right to equality, particularly in many Western countries.

And yet, even in relation to these rights, inequality remains rampant. Worldwide, 25% of parliamentarians are women. Women are paid 63% of what men earn. Capitalism benefits from gender oppression. It benefits economically through the unpaid labour women do in the home – thought to be worth £140 billion a year to the UK economy, for example – and the criminal underpayment of billions of women, particularly concentrated in low paid sectors like retail, hospitality, care and health. The system also benefits from the commodification of women and LGBTQ+ people’s bodies – through advertising, cosmetics and ultimately the sex indsutry. And it benefits from propagating divisive ideas that prevent the maximum unity of working class and young people in fighting for systemic change. 

It isn’t only because of these material benefits that the oppression of women persists though. When the dominant form of society has changed throughout history, it hasn’t done so in a total break. Remnants of the old remain within the new. The oppression of women that emerged as a byproduct of the development of private property became a fact deeply embedded into every aspect of human life – it developed its own dynamic. That’s why, while gender oppression has its roots mainly in women’s role as childbearers as described above, the resulting ideas from it impact all women and LGBTQ+ people. 

This has of course been influenced by the stage and needs of capitalism, but throughout its history, the system and its political representatives have reinforced gender oppression in a myriad of ways: paltry, if any, laws against gender violence and harassment; underfunding female-dominated jobs and services; propaganda from politicians about the responsibility of individual families to prevent anti-social behaviour; limits on trans people’s rights to self identify their gender, and access health services, etc. 

Where do individual’s attitudes come from?

But how does this systemic inequality and sexism impact on sexism at an individual level? Of course many people – increasingly so in fact – consciously reject this oppression and are repulsed by attacks from the capitalist establishment. But even then, none of us can totally free ourselves from the impact of capitalism on the way we view the world. 32% of people in Britain think that men need more sex than women, a third think physical violence has to occur for rape to be rape, and a third of men (and 21% of women) think it would not usually be considered rape if the woman had flirted on a date. These are totally unacceptable and wrong ideas which are slowly becoming more uncommon – but their continued prevalence, despite legal changes and vibrant movements asserting the opposite, shows that changing attitudes is not a simple matter. The ideas we hold – and behaviours that flow from them – reflect the type of society we live in. So while it is absolutely correct to challenge every individual instance of sexist behaviour, ultimately significant shifts across society – which must be our main focus – require us to fight for bigger changes. 

The main factor that changes ideas people hold is their lived experience. In 1987 48% of people in Britain said that they agreed with the statement “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family’ – in 2017 it was just 8%. One of the biggest reasons for this transformation of attitudes was the influx of women into the workforce. The proportion of women in the UK in full time employment increased from 29% in 1985 to 44% in 2017. Mainly, this was driven by the needs of capitalism, but of course the relationship between reality and ideas is two-directional. In simple terms, more women in work changes attitudes towards women working, which contributes to more women wanting to work, and so on. That’s why it is important to fight for legal rights and material resources that women need. Lack of childcare, jobs, pay, healthcare and so on can hold (especially working class) women back from being able to play the role in society they might otherwise like to, which in turn impacts on attitudes towards women. In turn, those attitudes are partly stoked by the establishment in order to justify the lack of resources and opportunities.

The impact of struggle

Another central element of the experience that can change attitudes is struggle. Mass movements against oppression can force very rapid transformations. For example, surveys have found a significant reduction in both explicit and implicit racist attitudes among white people in the US since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. Similar studies have found a reduction in dismissive attiudes towards sexual assault since #MeToo and one even reported that 51% of men claim to have changed their behaviour as a result of that movement. These movements have brought into popular consciousness a discussion about oppression, prejudice and inequality, and made people – especially but not only those who have actively participated in the protests – see things differently. 

Struggles over other issues, where people of all genders fight side by side, can also have a transformative effect. During the 1984-85 miners’ strike, many women participated in a key way, despite not generally working at the mines themselves – raising money, speaking at meetings, organising solidarity events. The shared experience of this heroic battle changed many of the men’s views of their partners, sisters, etc – and it increased women’s confidence to demand better treatment too. This is a key point for socialist feminists – working class unity and mass struggle is an essential part of the battle against backward ideas. 

But as explained earlier, even these movements have not been enough to anywhere near eradicate sexist ideas, which still have a huge impact on all of our lives – through sexual harassment and abuse, intimate partner violence, pregnancy discrimination, sexist dress codes at school or work, and many other ways. That’s because the system that underwrites these ideas remains intact. To really have the opportunity to end sexism once and for all, we need to fight to end capitalism. 

The example of the Russian revolution

In 1917 the Bolshevik party led the Russian revolution to overthrow Tsarism and put in its place a real workers’ democracy. They undermined the material conditions for sexism. And they changed the law – at a time when women in most other countries were still struggling for the vote, the Bolsheviks legalised divorce and abortion on demand and abolished marital immunity for rape (75 years earlier than in Britain!). They introduced equal pay for equal work, 16 weeks paid maternity leave, and the right for nursing mothers to work no more than four days a week and to have regular time off for breastfeeding. They set up day nurseries, public laundries and restaurants to relieve the double burden of employment and housework facing most women.

That’s not to say that these changes eradicated sexism – the old ideas didn’t disappear just because laws were changed. A popular Russian saying at the time was that ‘a hen’s not a bird and a woman’s not a person’. The Bolsheviks had to have big campaigns after the revolution on things like language and culture, trying to break down the hangover of backward ideas that still existed. Big efforts were made to involve women in decision making. In 1918, a national women’s congress was organised which discussed a range of issues, including sexist language. The congress voted to ban the word ‘baba’ (meaning something like ‘peasant woman hag’). Campaigns like these were necessary to stop cultural backwardness cutting across the progress of the revolution.

The opposite was true when the revolution went into retreat in Russia. Attitudes were hugely thrown back and in fact the Stalinist regime fostered and propped itself up with reactionary ideas. Many of the material gains were undone too – for example abortion was made illegal again in 1936.

The early experience of the Russian revolution shows just a hint of what could be achieved by socialist change, which would not immediately end all sexist ideas and behaviours, but would lay the basis for doing so. Today Socialist Alternative is active in all battles against the horrific oppression experienced under capitalism. But as socialist feminists we know we need to instill into these battles a programme that can win a socialist society, which would open the door to ending all oppression and exploitation and offering a future of plenty and freedom for all. 


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