My second example is the Bangladesh garment fire. In April, we all remember, over 1000 women were killed in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. What we might not have focused on at the time was how the bosses used patriarchy and sexual violence to prevent those workers from organizing against the dangers before their deaths. But we can do that now.
Research by feminists and Marxists explain a lot about the way that gender subordination and sexual violence contributed to those deaths. First, all these women ended up in that factory because neoliberal reforms have transformed the countryside, forcing them to leave villages to earn the dowries that their families can no longer afford. This system of marriage was not some hoary hangover from a backward past but, as Peter Custers and others document, a patriarchal system that urban corporate elites enforce because it fills their sweatshops.
Once in the factories, these young women face a system of sexual violence that is used to weaken their ability to organize and that thwarts any genuine independence that could flow from work outside the home.
In 2003, Lourdes Pantaleon published a groundbreaking study of women workers in export processing zones in the Dominican Republic and found that 40 percent endured sexual harassment from bosses eager to keep a workforce quiescent. In a 2008 survey of female Export Processing Zone workers in Kenya, 90% reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job or been forced to provide sexual favors in order to get hired and stay hired. And this kind of exploitation is not a small part of the effort of the ruling rich to generate profit.
Here is how the Economist business magazine described the economic role of these women in 2006: “The increase in female employment has also accounted for a big chunk of global growth in recent decades. GDP growth can come from three sources: employing more people; using more capital per worker; or an increase in the productivity of labour and capital due to new technology, say. Since 1970 women have filled two new jobs for every one taken by a man. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the employment of extra women has not only added more to GDP than new jobs for men but has also chipped in more than either capital investment or increased productivity. Carve up the world’s economic growth a different way and another surprising conclusion emerges: over the past decade or so, the increased employment of women in developed economies has contributed much more to global growth than China has.
So the big point here is that we make a mistake if we begin our analysis of the problem of sexual violence by looking at it as a problem primarily caused by individual criminal, sick, or socially challenged men. Certainly, all of our efforts at mass education about rape culture, zero tolerance for sexual violence on campus, and the promotion of bystander intervention are important and necessary and should not be minimized in any way. This is just to say that sexual violence is much, much more than that. It is one of many tools of repression used in capitalist society to keep women subordinate and vulnerable economically in a way that benefits the elites.
We should begin to think about sexual violence and all the structures and regimes of this society that facilitate it as something other than residual backwardness and start to think of it in a way more akin to the way that we think of other tools used to divide and weaken the working class, such as mass deportation or mass incarceration.
The topic of mass incarceration leads me to my third telling incident, the publication of Beth Richie’s extraordinary new book: “Arrested Justice: Black women, Sexual violence, and the Prison Nation.” In “Arrested Justice,” Ritchie sets out to describe the way that the movement against violence against women, as it was reshaped in the neoliberal 1990s, has ill-served poor African American women.
One of her sample cases is that of a community organizer named Mrs. B, who upon failing to move out of Chicago public housing targeted for destruction and gentrification in time to suit the powers that be, became the victim of repeated rapes by a group of young policemen assigned 24-7 to regulate life in the project. Mrs. B. was vulnerable to the state because she lived in a neighborhood consciously depopulated by the banks and developers. Despite repeated efforts to get help from rape crisis centers and social services, the fact that she was asking them to confront rape by agents of the state that funded them, meant that they could not fit her victimization into their system. After years of struggle, Mrs. B. finally found an advocate and won a settlement from the Chicago Police Department, but she lives each day fearful of retaliation by the cops, the social service system, or some other arm of the Chicago governmental apparatus.
So those are my three examples. I am telling you these stories to make the point that outside of the violence in the home, in nuclear family units of one kind or another, from domestic partners or lovers—and, of course, the home remains the main site of violence against women—violence on the job and from agents of the state is a central issue for working women and poor women.
Violence comes in the nuclear family, in the workplace, in prison, and from agents of the state. It is this material reality—the enforcement of gender subordination to keep the system running—that fuels rape culture, that makes rape culture fundamentally acceptable, and that keeps rape culture deeply woven into our lives. Gender-based violence flows from a system that is maintained by our economic subordination.
Why is gender violence and rape culture on the rise today? I contend that the rise of rape culture cannot be separated from the fact that the corporate powers in this world are facing the most serious crisis of their system since 1929. Socialists believe that the employers are determined to recover the level of profitability they need by any means necessary.
At the moment, they are hoarding trillions of dollars that they refuse to invest in industries globally. Instead of providing jobs, they are sitting on those trillions until they can invest them in a manner that will give them a rate of return close to that of the 1950s. When they do invest, they invest in ways that yield primarily low-wage jobs of the kind justified ideologically by the myth that they are for young people just entering the job market or women who are partnered with someone making the real household wage. The whole pattern of current investment relies on our impoverishment.
Secondly, the corporate elites are demanding that governments here and all over the world dramatically cut social spending of any kind. Marxists call this cutting the social wage. In the U.S. they just cut $85 billion under “sequestration. They are getting ready to cut more. If you drive down the social wage—that is if you get rid of government pre-school programs, and health care for poor children, and cut social security for the seniors, and so on and so on—who takes up the slack? Well, women, of course, and it is work for which they are not paid.
If you privatize water in Bolivia to lower the social wage, who has to add an hour of unpaid labor to their day to carry it from a greater distance? Women. If you lower the social wage by making it more difficult for old people to get into a hospital, who finds more hours in the day to nurse them at home? Women. When women are forced to do unpaid labor in the home, they are vulnerable to having to take low-paid, part-time, and temporary jobs in the public sphere. When women feel forced to work on low-paying jobs, the bosses can use it to drive down the wages of the whole working class. Women’s subordination is not a fluke of the system. This is the way that capitalism uses gender differentiation to keep the system afloat.
Marxists refer to this crazy Catch 22 for women as the relationship between social reproduction and production. We argue that the capitalist system created a new kind of production, based on the horrific logic that corporate profits can only rise as our wages and standard of living go down. And along with that system of production goes a special kind of social reproduction.
In the capitalist system of social reproduction, the feeding, clothing, educating, nursing, and emotional caring for the majority of society—children, the elderly, all working people in fact, is thrown onto individual working-class households in a manner to reinforce elite capitalist rule.
Sometimes the powers that be push women to stay in the home, as they did in the 1950s. Sometimes they make it impossible for a home to survive without two wages, as they began to do in the 1970s, and they privatize some domestic functions such as laundry and fast food. They are flexible. But always, our work arrangements and domestic arrangements—on the broad social plane of course—are manipulated to increase profit and profitability for the capitalist class. And to enforce these profitable arrangements, they work hard to normalize and stabilize sexualities and gender identities that work with the system.
When you get down to the basics, all the highly profitable cultural degradations that we are enduring at the moment are designed to make it seem natural for women to be at the bottom of the heap. It is not a conspiracy per se. It is just that our subordination by the elites gives the green light to media portrayals and sexism in the culture at large.
The reality of our subordination and disparagement on the job, in the community, on the campus, and in the political arena, grows sexism in return. The introduction of anti-abortion laws in the majority of states blasts the message that women are too childlike, too irresponsible, or too evil to control our own bodies. Forcing poor women to get drug testing before applying for the meager benefits still available to help them raise their children signals that they are unfit mothers.
Federal think-tank pronouncements that blame poverty on non-gendering-conforming households in the Black community pathologize alternatives to the nuclear family. Predatory lending and the resultant foreclosures send the message that Black women cannot manage wealth. Throwing African American and Latino women into prison at the today’s rate—a rise of 747%—says that they are criminals actually unworthy of any of society’s wealth. Throwing people out of hospitals too early, with the expectation that women at home will take up the slack, transmits the notion that we are “naturally” of the disposition to replace the social wage with our compassionate and altruistic natures. Sexism is reinforced at every turn in this system.
The way out of this madness is creating a social order in which the wellbeing of children, the elderly, and, indeed, all working people is the responsibility of society as a whole. The way out of this madness is the creation of a social order in which the wealth we produce in the 40, 50, or 60 hours a week that we work, can go toward the social welfare of all. To create a movement that can win such a society, we have to break down the divisions among working people on sexual and gender lines. That means putting the demands not only for equal pay but for affirmative action for jobs from which we have been excluded, for full reproductive justice, for “Medicare for all,” and most, importantly for 24-hour child care, at the center of our fight.
In our current system, the gap between the hours worked by women in low-wage jobs and the hours of child care available condemns working women to victimization. Infant care can now cost more than sending a child to college. The gap between the hours a child is in school and most parents’ work schedules is around 25 hours a week. This condemns women and those responsbile for domestic labor to unending victimization. There is simply no way to eliminate the economic subordination of women and the victimization of all working class family units than demanding a program of full quality childcare.
This type of demand challenges the most basic workings of the capitalist system. But it also speaks directly to the fight to end violence against women. Such violence will not end without creating the conditions in which society as a whole takes responsibility for relieving the double and triple burden facing working women by making such child care available, and by curtailing the economic disparities that force women into dangerous liaisons, that force women to stay in abusive relationships, that force women into abusive employment situations, and to endure sexual victimization by bosses. There is no other way.
The movement against violence against women has gone through a number of mutations. During the deep social radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s, the rape and domestic violence movements relied on activist-volunteers who were acutely aware of the miserable reality of welfare state intervention, cop violence, employer abuse, and a discriminatory criminal justice system factored into the story. The movement that put tens of thousands of women and their allies in the streets was based on a radical vision in which all the instruments that maintained patriarchy, racism, and class society would be dismantled.
Sadly, that radicalization waned and U.S. capitalism began to experience new international competition and a falling rate of profit. Those who politically serve the corporations unleashed a concerted attack on working people, dubbed “neoliberal reform.”
It was not all the use of the stick, however. It also involved the use of the carrot. In response to the mass sentiment for women’s equality and safety, the Democratic and Republican parties agreed to give support to a system of institutions devoted to ameliorating violence against women. On the one hand, this led to the funding of some things we desperately need. But it came at a great cost because institutional aid to women suffering violence was interwoven into a general strengthening of the truly criminal “criminal justice system.” The Violence Against Women Act, whose provisions tie non-profits and social service agencies deeply into a project that puts a gleam on the most pernicious criminal justice system in the world, is a case in point. For those of you who would like to look at this history more closely, I suggest again Beth Ritchie’s book, which dissects the politics of this process with precision.
I want to conclude with the idea, then, that today’s movement against sexual violence can go one of two ways. It can begin to create the kind of broad, mass, militant movement of millions of women and non-conforming gender victims that is necessary to take on the capitalist offensive against women and working people. This in my mind is the only kind of movement that can win real concessions, all the while building up our independent power for a future assault on the system itself.
Or, we can succumb to the funds and logic of winning our safety through collaboration with the criminal justice system that is implementing the New Jim Crow, the New Jane Crow, the union-busting, the surveillance of activists, and so on. I think that viewed this way, the answer should be clear. I hope to join you in the streets soon to put the nation on notice that our tolerance for rape culture is at an end and that our eyes are on the prize of an end to patriarchy and the current system that sustains it.