Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn’s “Working with Women” document makes many proposals which, if implemented, would mark significant gains in the struggle for gender equality. There is this and that problem with the demands, and it doesn’t go far enough. More fundamentally, however, it doesn’t come at women’s rights from a class-struggle or even a particularly labour movement-based perspective.
Corbyn recognises the significant and disproportionate impact of austerity on women’s lives. He calls for an end to, and though it’s not entirely clear I think a reversal of, cuts to vital public services, welfare and the NHS. He opposes attacks on tax credits and pledges to work towards universal free childcare. “Working with Women” highlights the dangerous impact of the cuts women experiencing violence and abuse, and the way in which cuts intersect with racism to marginalise migrant women and asylum seekers.
“Working with Women” also highlights the problem of women’s oppression and sexism across society — from Parliament, to the workplace, to the streets — and is clear about the need to tackle this.
Corbyn commits to a gender balanced shadow cabinet, and to working towards 50% of Labour’s MPs being women (up from 40% currently). He highlights the continued 19.1% gender pay gap: 27% of women earn less than the living wage (making up 57% of those on minimum wage) compared to 16% of men. Importantly, Corbyn argues not just for equal pay but for higher pay for all; we don’t just want equality of poverty but a levelling up of pay, working conditions and living standards for working-class women and men.
“Working with Women” also recognises the work of new, young feminists in fighting everyday sexism (from street harassment to police attitudes to women reporting assault and harassment). Suggestions to combat sexism include compulsory sex and relationships education; creating a ministerial role for women’s safety; a police hotline staffed by women; public awareness campaigns; and consultation on the idea of women only train carriages.
This suggestion has caused a minor media furore, with some labelling it “a fourteenth century solution”. That’s unreasonable; women-only carriages have been introduced in a number of cities in Japan, India, Brazil and elsewhere and have been welcomed by many women. But I’m unconvinced they’re the solution. In the face of daily harassment and assault claiming a women-only space can feel not only safe but empowering. But women-only carriages potentially play into the idea that sexual harassment is inevitable, all women can do is try to avoid it, and also in some ways put that responsibility on us.
They also wouldn’t address the issue that every year hundreds of women transport workers are attacked at work - they cannot separate themselves into carriages. On London Underground, these same workers are facing almost a thousand job cuts which will make them, and those using the tube, much less safe.
A better solution would be to increase numbers of staff (starting with wholeheartedly supporting and standing in solidarity with the workers’ fight to save the existing jobs) and for the police, and unions, to take harassment and sexual assault seriously and stop blaming women.
But Corbyn is trying to address a very significant problem — sexual offences on London’s Tubes and trains rose more than 32% to record levels last year. 43% of women between 18 and 34 living in London have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Something needs to change and it’s positive that Corbyn is open to discussion and is raising this important issue. It’s dishonest of the right-wing press to use this to hammer Corbyn when he is opening debate about how to tackle the issue.
In parts “Working with Women” is too vague. Corbyn will work towards universal free childcare, but how quickly? And the document could go further in arguing for the need not just to oppose cuts but to extend services (including beyond their 2009 level) and to defend and extend access to benefits. Tax credits are mentioned, as is the fact that the work women do in the home should be recognised and valued, but Corbyn doesn’t address the comprehensive system of benefits and support that would be needed for women to really make meaningful choices and when, if and in what ways, to work after having children.
In general the focus is on the importance of getting women into work — good, but there are serious problems of perspective. The document argues “there is huge waste to the UK’s economy when young women don’t fulfil their potential” and that “we could add 10% to our GDP by 2030 if we could equalise men and women’s economic participation”. Women’s employment is valued for the contribution we could be making to capitalism rather than for the independence and opportunities it can bring to our lives as well as our ability to organise.
The first measure of a lack of representation for women in decision-making is that men still make up 93% of executive directors of FTSE 100 companies and 86.5% of Chairs and Chief Executives. Does the fact there are more men called John leading FTSE 100 companies than women speak to the underrepresentation of women and sexism across society? Yes. Would the lives of most women be better if more women sat in these “powerful” jobs and positions? No. Women are not inherently more caring or understanding. Women who are CEOs of large corporations take home millions of pounds each year, but often don’t pay staff who work for the same company a sufficient living wage. We’re not looking for the wealth and power, currently held by a minority in our society, to be shared equally between a few men and women and the top, we want that power and wealth redistributed downwards across society, in the hands of the working class.
A related difference of perspective is how “Working with Women” primarily sees these reforms coming about. It’s good that the document mentions the significance of trade union recognition and collective bargaining. But it also suggests equal pay will be achieved by making companies publish audits, presumably to embarrass them into equal pay.
We need to foreground the absolutely central importance of union organising and the power of working-class struggle. It’s what we used to win the rights we have now (from equal pay legislation, to maternity leave, to even the right to vote) and will be fundamental to ensuring they defended and extended.
The Corbyn campaign provides a chance to bring together a newer, younger and more diverse feminism with a new class and labour movement oriented left. If we are to achieve the many positive ideas put forward by Corbyn’s “Working with Women”, and go further, we must take this opportunity to demand a renewed left, including a renewed movement of working-class women, both inside the Labour Party and outside in the broader labour movement.
Socialist feminists should seek to interweave women’s rights and workers’ rights demands, to build a labour movement-oriented feminist movement and feminist labour movement.