You might think that feminism and the Left have much in common. After all, you could say that they are united by the fight for equality and the attempt to give a voice to those who lack privilege, whether on the basis of class or gender. Little wonder, then, that there was some surprise when Jeremy Corbyn announced his all male line-up for the “top” positions in the shadow cabinet. However, if I’m honest, I’m far from surprised. As far as I can see, the Left has always had a difficult relationship with women. Even Marx received criticism from his friend Engels for his single-minded focus on the accumulation of capital to the neglect of the accumulation of labour, that other all important “factor of production”, and something for which women need to be at the centre of any analysis. When it comes to women and the Left, and whether we are talking about the past or the present, the story is one of turbulence rather than harmony.
Take my grandparents for instance. My grandfather was a bus driver. He was also a committed socialist, one who staunchly believed in the trade union movement. To him, capitalism was a system that repressed the worker, and life involved a continuous battle between the capitalist and the proletariat, one in which the capitalist pushed down the wages of the workers, extracting the value of their hard labour. The rich, he thought, lived off the value created by the common working man. Like many of his generation, however, he failed to realise the great irony of his situation: that he was treating his wife in the same way he claimed that he was himself being treated by the capitalist system.
Both my grandparents worked full-time. As my grandmother used to tell me as a child, “Victoria, working class women have always had to work”. However, despite working full-time, my grandmother was also expected to take sole responsibility for all of the household chores and for raising four children. Like many women, she faced a “double shift” – the shift at work followed by the household shift at home. As was common for couples in those days, she received weekly housekeeping money from my grandfather, his contribution to the rent and the household bills. Since this only went so far, she topped it up with her own earnings and, where necessary, would take on extra work, such as cleaning jobs in the evenings, to make ends meet. The rest of my grandfather’s income was largely hidden, spent on himself, on things like cigarettes, bingo and other undesirables. Despite all of my grandmother’s earnings being directed to the family unit, this was not reciprocated: my grandfather was effectively siphoning off for his own purposes a good proportion of what he earned.
To many on the Left, including socialists like my grandfather, the class war trumped everything else. There was no particular need to worry about women. Feminists were told that class equality was to be achieved as the primary goal, after which gender equality would follow. Unfortunately, as communism has shown in practice, this was little more than an empty promise. Yes, women throughout Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe were recruited into farms and factories to help build the socialist dream. Even today, female relative to male labour force participation in Russia is higher than in the USA or UK, and, most of this is full-time labour. However, despite being in many ways equal within the workplace, the traditional role of women within the home went unchallenged. Domestic violence was all too common. Gender equality was, it seems, not something to be pursued for its own sake, only where it served the economy. Communism delivered a perplexing mix of both modernity and tradition, and it’s one that has left it’s mark today.
History casts a long shadow. Eastern Europe still falls behind Western Europe when it comes to attitudes towards women. When asked whether they agree with the statement that “tackling inequality between men and women is necessary to establish a fairer society”, less than half of respondents in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Estonia say that they “totally agree”. When ranked alongside other European countries, and with only one exception, all of the formerly Soviet bloc countries perform below the EU average. Whilst Sweden ranks in first place with a score of 74, and Britain ranks fifth place with a score of 60, Romania takes bottom place with a score of 35, with Hungary scoring 41 and Poland only slightly better at 44. There is a clear gap between the formerly communist countries and the others within Europe.
Even outside of the communist East, twentieth century policies that aimed to lessen income inequalities did not always deliver in terms of gender. As social policy expert Lynn Cooke has argued, countries such as Germany and Australia pursued greater income equality for men alongside a traditional male-breadwinner model. In the case of Australia, “family wages” for men placed women firmly within the home. Even here in Britain, Beveridge’s welfare state was constructed along traditional gender lines, with the assumption that women would be financially dependent upon their husbands. Attempts to reduce income inequality have often had the effect of shifting inequality into another dimension, or at least reinforcing existing inequalities that exist on other grounds, such as gender.
Interestingly, many studies reveal that those who most support gender equality tend to be either the most educated or the highest earning members of an economy, not the very people who, like my grandfather, most feel the effects of class inequality. Here, the EU Barometer, which considers public attitudes on a number of different dimensions, is revealing. When it comes to the statement “all in all family life suffers when the mother has a full time job”, 71% of those who regularly have difficulty paying their bills agree, compared with 57% for those who rarely experience such problems. This difference is not only present in Europe. In the US, the male breadwinner model is twice as popular amongst low income men compared with higher income men as the ideal family arrangement, despite the fact that they are in less of a position to deliver and that this is precisely the group experiencing most family breakdown. Similarly, the division of household work is significantly more uneven at the bottom of the income distribution than it is at the top. In the words of Isabel Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound, “the feminist revolution seems to have bypassed low-income men”. More generally, scientific research suggests that the most “sexist” men tend to be those who are performing relatively poorly in a society. In fact, a recent study of video game players found that the men abusing women online literally tended to be the “losers”.
Perhaps the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his life. Behaviour in practice reveals a lot more than behaviour in theory – including entrenched political beliefs. Many modern day politicians, including prominent men in the Labour Party, might do well to remember that.
That brings me back to my grandfather. The story is that only when my grandparents attended a meeting together to discuss his retirement did my grandmother finally realise the full extent of the discrepancy between what he had actually been earning and his “housekeeping” contribution. Needless to say that it must have caused quite an argument! Despite being a life-long socialist he had been treating his nearest and dearest in the same way he felt working class men were being treated by their employers. Fortunately for him, love conquers all, and my grandparents stayed together until death. Nevertheless, and as the famous feminist saying goes, “the personal is the political”.
Women have certainly done a lot for the Left. According to economists, the increasing size of the state and the growth of women’s rights is no mere coincidence. With votes for women also came an expansion of the state. Having for a long time been on the edges of the market, often in informal areas of activity, women have seen not only the good that the market can offer but also what it cannot provide. However, whether the Left has done enough for women – for gender equality – in return is less clear cut. Whilst there are certainly many on the Left who have campaigned hard for women’s rights, socialism does not have a monopoly on gender equality.