Anti-apartheid campaigners frequently point out that South Africa’s blacks are 71 per cent of the country’s population, receive 17 per cent of the country’s income, and own only 13 per cent of the country’s land - and all because of an accident of birth. Recently, the International Labour Organisation pointed out that women are 50 per cent of the world’s population, do two-thirds of the world’s work hours, receive 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own less than 1 per cent of world property. All because of an accident of birth.
Discrimination on the grounds of sex is today a kind of world-wide apartheid. And even the arguments used against the emancipation of women have the same ring as the arguments against granting equality to blacks… chaos would result… they’re not ready for it… they’re not capable… they’re genetically different… they should know their place… it’s unnatural… it’s against the law of God.
Curiously, these are essentially the same arguments as were used in the 1850s against giving votes to the working classes, or in the 1950s against giving independence to the colonies, or in the 1980s against worker participation.
And if the arguments are essentially the same, it is because the central point at issue is also the same. Whether we are talking about the relationship between black and white in South Africa, or between developing and industrialised countries, or between rich elite and poor mass within countries, or between employers and employed, or between men and women - the common characteristic of such relationships is that they subjugate the needs and rights of those who do not have power to the privileges and indulgences of those who do.
The limitations of power
Such is the broad context of the struggle for women’s liberation. But although analogous to the other mainstream historical conflicts, the issue of female equality is unique in several ways.
First, the process of injustice towards women is set not only in the vast impersonal context of international economics or industrial relations. It is set also in the detailed and intimate context of home and family. And the relationship of oppression is characterised not only by careless brutality and callous disregard but also, in many cases, by love and tenderness and care.
This alone changes the possibilities for emancipation. For it tends to rule out several of the strategies by which other oppressed groups have traditionally and successfully sought redress. Women cannot so easily take to the hills and apply for arms to a super-power as a black independence movement might do. Nor can they easily withdraw their labour and draw on the solidarity of a trade union as an exploited working class might do.
It is unthinkable for a woman to stop feeding her child, caring for her family. It is the very degree of a woman’s indispensability which prevents her from translating it so readily into the power to win change. And so, ironically, women are less able to fight for their rights not because they have so little power but because they have so much responsiblity … they are more exploited because they are more exploitable. And to the classic cry of liberation - nothing to lose but your chains - women can only smile, for they know that the chains must be broken with care.
A second difference between women and other groups which have sought an end to injustice is the kind and degree of conditioning which comes a woman’s way. And the case could be made that conditioning is the foundation of all structures of injustice. Franz Fanon once said, speaking of the subjugated of Algeria, that ‘exploitation can only continue for so long without the tacit cooperation of the exploited’.
Mental conditioning is essentially about ‘knowing one’s place’. Traditionally the techniques of ‘keeping people in their place’ were crude and physical - administering a flogging to a black slave who showed insubordination, despatching a gunboat to a recalcitrant colony, deporting a worker who dared to join a trade union, imprisoning a woman in home or veil.
Such techniques are still prevalent - from Sharpeville to the Bay of Pigs, from ITT in Chile to the periodic ‘lessons’ administered by the Soviet Union to its Eastern European satellites, from female circumcision in Africa to the practice of purdah in the Middle East.
But such techniques are less and less successful and more and more unacceptable. More practicable - and more prevalent - is the process of mental conditioning which subtly persuades an oppressed group to internally accept its own oppression and thus pre-empts revolt and the need for repression. Large groups of people - be they black people, poor people, women, or even whole countries - have been made to feel inferior and so to accept their inferior position - to ‘tacitly cooperate’. It was in this context, for example, that the slogan ‘black is beautiful’ proved so peculiarly powerful. The attitude of self-denigration among black people was an essential condition of their economic and social oppression. Its uprooting was therefore an essential part of their liberation.
But no other form of mental conditioning can compete with the process of personal and social conditioning that is bestowed upon the female mind. Beginning with the colour of the tag which is placed on a baby’s ankle within seconds of uttering its first cry, it continues within the close context of parental action and reaction, is encouraged by friends and peer-groups, neighbours and grandparents, schoolrooms and playgrounds, buttressed by educational systems and religious orders, entertainment media and advertising agencies, and finally sealed by the expectations of the world at large.
Speaking of another oppressed group and another oppressive relationship, Paulo Freire has drawn attention to what he calls the ‘culture of silence’ which prevails among poor Indian and peasant groups in Latin America. Arguing that their conditioning goes even deeper than ‘tacit cooperation’, he suggests that the very consciousness that one can improve one’s own position, make decisions over one’s own life, has been extinguished. In such circumstances, the struggle for change has to begin with ‘conscientisation’ - a personal rediscovery of one’s own power and of the fact that injustice is not inevitable ordained but created by the actions of humans - and therefore alterable by the same means.
Freire’s argument is as relevant to the majority of the world’s women as it is to the peasants of Latin America. For however different the context, the ‘culture of silence’ also reigns over women.
Continually persuaded to see themselves as wives and mothers who are economically dependant upon the male partner, women feel that men are a basic ingredient in their self image, and will tolerate all manner of injustice, even physical abuse, in order to maintain that masculine presence.
Yet the conditioning of women to ‘know their place’ is perhaps even more subtle. For the self-image which women are given of themselves is not wholly negative. As a tiger is caged and then admired, in safety, for its beauty and suppleness, so women are denied independence and then praised for their feminine qualities. But the admiration tendered through those bars - and the security which they represent - can make the cage into the tenderest of traps, one from which escape is even harder.
Despite these differences, the women’s movement has enough in common with other liberation struggles to provide a rich historical experience on which to draw. Large among the lessons to be learnt is that victory in one battle does not win a war. It took the developing countries, for example, many years to realise that the winning of political indepedence in the 1950s and 60s was only the beginning of the independence struggle. Economically, they remained almost as dependent on the former colonial powers as they were when under direct colonial rule. Today, the Third World’s demand for a New International Economic Order is essentially a demand for economic liberation which will give substance to their political rights. ‘Independence’, writes the Pakistan economist Mahbub ul Haq, ‘is neither complete nor meaningful unless political liberation is followed by economic and intellectual liberation.’
Women face the same long road. Female suffrage was no more than a beginning, and like groups of workers or groups of developing countries, the hollowness of political equality needs to be solidified by equal economic rights. That is why the women’s movement in the industrialised countries today focuses so much of its attention on economic opportunities.
And progress is being made. New pro-female legislation has come on to the statute books. Sex discrimination acts, divorce rights, abortion laws and equal pay have all strengthened the legal position of women. Campaigns to protect women against sexual and physical abuse, have heightened public awareness of these problems. Such progress is vital. And it has been hard won by the many groups campaigning for greater equality.
But here too there is a difference between the battle and the war. Almost every industrialised country, for example, has introduced equal pay legislation during the last five years. But ‘equal pay’ is of limited value without equal work opportunity - and that is still a long way off.
Inequality in work opportunity is largely a reflection of a conditioned view of what is ‘women’s work’ or of the fact that most women already have a demanding ‘job’ looking after home and family.
There are two different ways of approaching this central problem of a woman’s double burden. The one is to campaign for institutionalised care for children - through day care and other centres which allow many women to go out and compete on equal terms with men. The other is to attempt to involve men equally in the responsibilities of caring for home and children so that both may then share equally in work outside the home.
At this point, children can no longer be peripheral to the debate. Indeed they are at the very centre. For the shape and direction of any society is fundamentally a reflection of the values of its participants. And as those values are so largely formed in the childhood years, the job of creating the physical, emotional and mental environment of the young child is one of the most crucial and most responsible tasks which any individual can be asked to assume. Acknowledging the importance of that task - and working towards the equal involvement of men in fulfilling it, is the path of genuine liberation. And it would be liberation for men, women and children as opposed to pseudo-liberation for the few at the expense of the many, of now at the expense of the future. Such an approach also steers the struggle back to basics - by involving parents in opposing sex-stereotyping in infancy, refusing to accept the bending of the twig into the boughs of discrimination.
The second lesson to be learnt from those who have gone before is the omni-present danger of co-option. The liberation of a select few is not liberation. Self-made men from the working class do become millionaires; blacks do now live in the houses of their former colonial masters; women are on the way to becoming presidents of multinational corporations. But this has little to do with ending injustice. Indeed it usually strengthens unjust structures by giving them a facade of liberalism, by enlisting the services of able minority of the oppressed in the cause of oppression, and by defusing the power of change through the co-option of its potential leaders.
As a strategy for maintaining injustice, co-option is proving increasingly popular. Even South African Prime Minister Pic Botha is now arguing that the only way forward for his country is through ‘the creation of a black middle class’. The United States already has a small but growing black middle class - but this has had little noticeable effect on the slums of Detroit. The United Kingdom already has a female political leader, but this has done less than nothing for the underprivileged. Many developing countries already have ‘independent’ leaders who work hand in glove with the Western interests which perpetuate the poverty of their peoples.
Tokenism can be accorded to one group and not to another. But justice is indivisible. Selectively applied, it contradicts itself. And that is why in the end the issue is not about women but about liberation itself. And the question which faces the women’s movement is whether it is about achieving numerical equality for men and women in each layer of the hierarchy of oppression, or whether it is big enough to attempt an end to oppression itself.
This special report appeared in the women - more to lose than their chains issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.