It has been said that a society's level of progress can be measured by the position of women.
In the early years of capitalist development, all enlightened people, including many men in the ruling class itself, assumed that further progress in science, medicine, engineering and the industrial applications of technology--which were moving ahead at an astounding pace after the stagnant centuries of feudalism--would also bring progress for women. These developments would liberate them from stultifying drudgery in the home, allowing them to participate equally in society.
Over 150 years ago, women in the U.S. began organizing and fighting to tear down the barriers to their full and equal participation in social life. They demanded social, political and economic rights. They refused to be treated any more as men's property. The early women's movement was also strongly abolitionist and active against slavery.
The promise of full equality for women has grown all over the globe with the development of modern technology. For centuries, the only women who could even contemplate a life of learning, culture and relaxation were from the ruling class. Their relative emancipation rested on the oppression of servants, mostly women, who did the housework and raised the children. But today, with machines that wash, clean and cook, and with schools, kindergartens, day care and restaurants in abundance, all women could be emancipated.
There is no material reason holding women back from advancing to equal social status with men. Even a woman's biological role of bearing children can now be controlled. Women can choose when to have children or not to have them. Contraception and abortion are now generally safe medical options.
Yet tremendous barriers to freedom of choice remain. And they are social, not biological or medical.
In the U.S. today, after two decades of the most intensive restructuring of the economy and the introduction of sophisticated new technologies based on advanced scientific discoveries, women face a seeming paradox. An anti-scientific movement based on superstition and religious dogma has not only grown but is encouraging an all-out war against them.
Why is it that women's lives are now in danger from anti-abortion fanatics just at a time when safe, legal medical procedures could finally end the tragedy of botched self-abortions and kitchen table operations?
Many point to the medieval views of the Catholic Church and other religious fundamentalists as the problem. But that is insufficient. It fails to recognize what has happened within the capitalist class itself.
The capitalist class ascended to its ruling position in society in a struggle against feudalism--the ideas as well as the institutions. Bourgeois thinkers cleared away the fog of centuries and put ideology on a rational, scientific course. Even today, the bourgeoisie boasts of its pragmatism, which was progressive in relation to religious dogma.
These were not mere verbal debates. Bloody wars were fought in Europe and Japan as the rising bourgeoisie rallied the masses to struggle and free themselves from slavery to the landlords, the church and the aristocracy. In the course of these bourgeois revolutions, many of the old, encrusted, reactionary ideas were swept away. The feudal view of women--as mere "vessels" without even souls--was struck a mortal blow.
That was then. Capitalism has since moved from green to ripe to rotten.
The serfs were freed from the land only to become wage slaves in the burgeoning new industries. Woman's liberation from domestic confinement all too often became a ticket to exhaustion and frustration as she worked two jobs, at home and outside.
The early progressive stage of capitalism has been replaced by monopoly and imperialist expansion. The capitalist powers no longer fight wars of liberation against feudal reaction. On the contrary. They keep feudal rulers in place as they subdue whole continents for exploitation.
Who returned the feudal warlords to power in Afghanistan? Who props up hated royal families in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Who try to marry into the aristocracy? Who decided the Pope should be Time magazine's "Man of the Year" last month?
Deploring women's oppression in other countries, as many in the West do, misses the point. It is absolutely vital to understand that women are held down not just by local patriarchs but by the super-modern system of monopoly capitalism that dominates social relations on this planet.
The decay of capitalism, particularly the holocaust of two imperialist world wars, triggered workers' revolutions, first in Russia, then in China and other oppressed countries. In all these revolutions, women's rights were on the top of the agenda.
These states aspiring to socialism started from extreme poverty, but nevertheless showed the political will to guarantee jobs, child care, paid maternity leave and free abortions to all women long before such things were available in any capitalist country.
But this is a period of worldwide reaction, when many of the gains made in earlier workers' struggles have been set back. In formerly socialist countries like eastern Germany and Russia, women are in such a state of shock over their deteriorated position that the birth rates have dropped dramatically.
Capitalism is on the march against the masses everywhere--not with enlightenment or the promise of greater social well-being, but with a program of slashing every service to the bone, leaving workers at the mercy of the market just when jobs are disappearing and there is nowhere to turn.
Yes, people are scared and pessimistic about the future-- starting at the very top, with the people who run the system. This is not the young, confident capitalist class that believed its mighty industrial growth would provide answers for everything. The system can produce in abundance, but the abundance is bottled up while poverty and misery grow.
The richer the bourgeoisie gets, the more its grip tightens on all the wealth the workers have created, the more cynical it becomes about life and human society. And it imparts this cynicism to the rest of society.
This is the breeding ground for the growth of ideologies of despair, nihilism, hatred, racism, misogyny and homophobia.
The inability to translate the recent stunning advances in science and technology into benefit for humanity leads to fear of knowledge itself. Technology is seen as an uncontrollable juggernaut leading to destruction, rather than the servant of human endeavor. The rationalism of early capitalism is replaced by obscurantism.
Back we go to the legend of Eve and Satan's apple. Women and knowledge are the root of all evil.
Naturally, there are always demagogic capitalist politicians ready to manipulate the fear and turn it into attacks on those considered most defenseless. So the brunt of the right-wing rhetoric in Congress these days falls on women and their children, especially Black, Latino, Native and immigrant.
And the right-wing maliciously stirs the pot of anti-abortion hysteria, happy to assume a "pro-life" pose as it simultaneously attacks the meager programs that keep poor people alive. In the name of the family, it also denies spousal rights to gay and lesbian couples.
What social force exists with the potential to liberate humanity from this dead end? None other than the working class. This is the class that is increasingly made up of women and Third World people, the class that has no stake in capitalist property, the class that is suffering from the cutbacks, the downsizing, the robotization, the right-wing offensive.
It is the class that could be winning freedom from toil, from long hours and speedup, from hazardous jobs if it controlled the technological revolution. The working class will have to fight to wrest away from capitalist control the vast social wealth it has created. The only question is when.
Women belong at the forefront of this social movement, to defend their interests, to shape the future society, to make sure from the start that oppression in all its forms is swept away this time.
It's not enough to control our individual bodies. We must be in the vanguard of the next forward surge to restructure human society in the interests of the vast majority.
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