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Sexism and the system: Women speak out

Originally published: Counterfire on March 10, 2024 by Counterfire (more by Counterfire)  | (Posted Mar 13, 2024)

For International Women’s Day, Counterfire asked women activists their views on the state of the struggle for women’s liberation. We are publishing a selection of answers over the weekend.


C: How can we campaign for liberation?

K: When Counterfire first asked me to answer the questions on this survey, my first thought was, I can’t possibly speak for the needs of over half the world’s population. We’re such a diverse group! While women’s oppression is generalised throughout the globe, it can manifest itself so differently across social classes, countries, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and so on. But that, of course, is the point. We need to collect the views of women with a wide range of experiences to formulate demands that build maximal unity and can win.

A welcome development in the mainstream women’s movement over the past few decades in the U.S. and UK has been a shift from a one-size-fits-all understanding of women’s issues (read: overwhelmingly issues concerning white, middle class women), to proliferation of the notion of intersectionality—the idea that an individual woman’s experience of oppression varies based on her race, class, and other social factors. This understanding is critical for broadening the movement. Demonstrations for abortion rights in the U.S. are far more diverse now than they were when I was there in the nineties and noughties, and they demand a wider range of reproductive health services.

Too often, however, intersectionality has been used to argue the opposite case: that unity across differences can’t be achieved. As seen through the lens of identity politics, intersectionality has been viewed as a kind of points-based system in which common interests are shared only with those suffering from the same or same number of oppressions. Those with fewer oppressions are viewed as more privileged. This not only divides but confuses. When Kamala Harris, Angela Rayner or Suella Braverman play various degrees of defense for Israel while Palestinian women cry out for baby formula, how do we understand their actions?

We must have a movement that sees oppression as a feature of imperialist capitalism and distinguishes between those who play a role in propping it up and those whom the system is grinding down to whatever extent. To move towards winning liberation, we need to highlight the inequalities, and share the experiences, but then use them to build genuine solidarity among all those who are being ground down…men too!

C: Which women inspire you?

K: I am especially inspired by women who excel in male-dominated fields. They are an eternal reminder that it is not biology that holds us back. I was in awe, for example, to discover several years ago that John Coltrane’s wife Alice was herself a brilliant jazz composer and musician. Her whimsical and eclectic album Journey in Satchidananda is standard fare on my Spotify. And while we’re on the subject of music, the testosterone-fuelled hard rock genre doesn’t usually bring many women to mind either. That’s why every time I hear the Wilson sisters of Heart belt it out over a five-piece amplified set, it always brings out the feminist in me.


C: What do you think are the main challenges that women face today, and how should we take them up?

J: Patriarchal oppression, shown by mansplaining, dominating and manspreading in all aspects of our lives, including counterfire meetings. Also middle-class white liberal women who ride on the backs of working class women.

C: Which women, past or present, particularly inspire you?

J: None, really, I don’t see how the role of individuals is relevant when we know change is achieved by collective effort, not by so-called inspirational women. So many women’s lives have been hidden in history. Why do we focus on the few?

C: Why are we still having to fight for women’s rights more than one hundred years on, and how can we make International Women’s Day more powerful?

J: Too much reliance on the patriarchy and their needs at the expense of working-class women. We can’t make International Women’s Day more powerful until we women are able to have more of a say.

C: How can we campaign most effectively for women’s liberation?

J: Stop allowing men and middle-class women to dominate and ensure there is a balance of participation in meetings and activities rather than just listening to the same voices. Also, we need to recognise the oppression of women globally and ensure we are not perpetuating patriarchal oppression but supporting regimes that are misogynistic. There’s no point in liberating men if we leave women still oppressed!


C: What do you think are the main challenges facing women today and how should we take them up?

L: We are living through an increasingly challenging time in the UK, where millions live under the poverty line and the cost of living crisis continues, while the government attacks workers’ rights and cuts vital public services. The last 14 years of Tory rule, along with repeated economic crises and an epidemic have affected everyone, but women do tend to face particularly severe difficulties in harder times.

In addition to the gender pay gap, which is 7.7% in the UK, women face a variety of challenges in the workplace: although the female employment rate has risen since last year, it is still lower than the male employment rate. Women also tend to work more in part-time or precarious positions, and health, wholesale and retail are all industries dominated by women—all industries that tend to be either dramatically underfunded (like in the NHS) or precarious (like retail).

Austerity has had adverse effects on women. For instance, it is often women that do the majority of childcare, and labour in the home more generally (housework, chores etc). Cuts to a variety of public services, such as community and youth centres, nurseries and so on mean that women must take on additional childcare responsibilities while also working.

Sexism also remains a prevalent issue in the UK, and manifests in a variety of ways. Obvious forms of sexism, such as sexual violence, inappropriate jokes and so on can come from anyone: think of the stereotype of construction workers wolf whistling at a woman passing a building site. Sexism from the state also remains a serious problem. Sexism in police forces, such as the Met, has gone unchecked for a number of years, with disastrous consequences: an independent report recently found that the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens could have been avoided, as Wayne Couzens should never have been allowed to become a police officer.

C: Which women, past or present, particularly inspire you?

L: Women activists today build on a centuries long tradition of women’s involvement in revolutionary struggle. Women have been centrally involved in a variety of movements, from the Peasant’s Revolt to today’s Palestine movement. Around the world, women have formed critical parts of national liberation movements, revolutions, labour movements and more.

I am most inspired by the women around me and in my case the majority of these are other socialists. The last few months have been especially powerful, and as I have demonstrated for a free Palestine with some very inspiring woman comrades, either veteran campaigners or brand new to the movement. The Palestine movement has radicalised many thousands of people, and it is very moving to see women of all backgrounds and all ages marching on the national demonstrations and more.

C: Why are we still having to fight for women’s rights more than one hundred years on and how can we make International Women’s Day more powerful?

L: Despite making lots of advances towards women’s liberation and equality in the last hundred years, we still have a long way to go. The establishment poses a barrier to real equality, especially given the Tories’ growing hostility to resistance, whether this comes in the form of strikes, protest movements or direct action. This will probably continue under the Labour party if they form the next government.

International Women’s Day was created by socialists, but has been hijacked by the establishment with cynical attempts at painting over the cracks, instead of recognising that women’s equality can only come through serious change to the way we organise society.We should continue to organise strikes, demonstrations and rallies for International Women’s Day, reminding people of its radical history. The Stop the War initiative is a good example of this: a day of action for Palestine on the 8th of March, paying special attention to the struggled faced by Palestinian women.

C: How can we campaign most effectively for women’s liberation?

L: The best way, if not the only way to win women’s liberation is through radical change. We can campaign for this by campaigning for a socialist future, and by putting the argument that women’s liberation is very much winnable. This can only come through a mass movement of working people, fighting for change.

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