Today is International Women's Day, an international day inspired, like
May 1, by U.S. workers. The origins of this celebration is a
demonstration organized by women workers in the needle trades on March 8,
1908 in New York. Clara Zetkin, the German Socialist party leader moved,
at the International Socialist Congress in 1910, that this day become an
International Women's Day, dedicated to fighting for equal rights for
women in all countries.
It is fitting, in this seminar intended to examine the significance of the
manifesto, to remember this day. More than half of all the workers of the
world are women and, while it is true that all workers are exploited, we
know that working women have the lower wages and worse working conditions
in addition to being primarily responsible for the socially necessary
domestic labor that reproduces the new generations of workers.
I could indulge in a literal and postmodern feminist reading of the
Manifesto and ask, but what does it say about women? practically nothing.
Marx is obviously sexist because he refers to men only and writes very
little about women and what it says is related to women's position in the
family, not in the workplace.
But I do not read this document expecting a 19th century intellectual to
write with late 20th century political sensitivities or political
correctness. This is why I find charges of sexism as unproductive as
charges of "eurocentrism."
The Manifesto outlines the dialectics of capitalism as a mode of
production that produces simultaneously wealth and misery and in the
process tears apart all social relations until all that is left is the
cash nexus. This is a process that affects all propertyless workers,
regardless of gender and other characteristics. Much has been written
about the feminization of poverty but so much stress is placed on gender
as the cause of poverty that it is overlooked that gender has those causal
powers among propertyless, mostly working class women. Furthermore,
stressing the poverty of women we forget that, as most men and women tend
to come together and form households, a crucial correlate of women's
poverty is the poverty of men which tends to remain relatively invisible,
as if all men were powerful and in control of their economic destiny.
Marx writes, "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put
an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations..... it has torn away
from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation
to a mere money relation." Unlike Petras (see message sent by L. Proyect)
I do not interpret this as indicating a lack of "a clear understanding of
the importance traditions and social bonds preceding capitalism played in
creating social solidarity for confronting capitalism and sustaining class
consciousness." Marx was well aware of the importance of tradition but
did not romanticize it; in the preface to the Critique of Political
Economy he asks us to differentiate, when attempting to undersand
processes of social change, between changes in material conditions and the
ideological forms in which people become conscious of those processes and
conflicts. People engage in class struggles under all sorts of banners
often shaped by traditions and older forms of solidarity. But if we
romanticize them we overlook their oppressive dimensions. For example,
patterns of male domination are parts of the traditions within which male
workers fought for a family wage which was denied to women workers.
Capitalism has had contrdictory effects on the status of working women.
In comparison to the conditions 100 hundred years ago, millions of women
live better; they have more education, are able to control their
reproduction, they have employment and have attained some degree of
control over their lives. But these women are a minority and belong to
the dominant classes and to the more privileged strata of the working
classes. Reproductive self-determination is still controversial and not
attainable by everyone; and we know that the right to a legal abortion is
not available to poor women. And as tentative and contradictory the
advances in the status of women are in the "developed countries,"
especially in the U.S., in the "developing nations" the situation is
worse. Millions of women are still, to some degree, enmeshed in older
traditions that deny them their sexuality and control over their bodies,
in addition to denying them education and employment. Indeed, as Marx
pointed out in The 18th Brumaire, ..." the traditions of dead generations
weigh like nightmares in the brain of the living" and this is especially
true when we think of the patriarchal traditions that stand in the way of
women's and men's ability to come together in freedom , equality and
The capitalist processes outlined in the manifesto portend mixed blessings
for women but, underlying these contradictory results there are, in my
view, unquestioned advances with respect to the conditions of the past.
These advances are not universal and they cannot be, given the limits the
capitalist division of labor and class relations impose upon the advances
of any sector of the working population. But it is only in the process of
struggling for those rights that women can learn, in practice, their
objective limits and the need to transcend gender based politics and
return to the class based politics the Manifesto proclaims. In the
meantime, we need to continue celebrating the International Women's Day.
Martha E. Gimenez
Department of Sociology
Campus Box 327
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309