Major Transition and Upheaval--The Impact on Women

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #909, June 1, 1997

Here we continue a series of commentaries by Bob Avakian on some features of the imperialist economy and how different sections of the people are being affected. This is part 6.

I want to speak to another important social contradiction and how it is finding expression now--the position and role of women in society. We've made some analysis of important changes in the position of women, in the U.S. in particular as well as in a more global dimension, and I think it's very important to continue digging more deeply into this, in terms of significant changes in the economy and how this expresses itself in the superstructure, politically, culturally, ideologically.

The contradictions involved with the role and position of women in the present period (as I have said) are extremely explosive. The ruling class in the U.S. is obviously trying to mitigate and contain this contradiction--or, rather, to prevent it from moving in the direction of a radical revolutionary explosion. As we pointed out, that was part of the whole Clinton presidency--the move by the ruling class to put, and then to keep, Clinton in office after 12 years of Reagan-Bush. Among other things, this was a conscious move to try to cool out things around abortion in particular and around this general contradiction of the role and position of women in society--trying to prevent the radicalization of large sections of middle class women in particular.

On the one hand, the changes in the economy--in the U.S. but also in other imperialist countries and in the Third World--have brought many more women into the work force, of necessity. One of the distinguishing features in the world today--which we need to do more investigation of--is the "feminization of wage labor." There are a lot more female wage laborers in the Third World than, say, a few decades ago.

And within the U.S. there is a tremendously significant phenomenon: the "traditional family"--the family with the husband as the sole "breadwinner" and the wife as merely the good "helpmeet" to her husband and mother to the children--that family is materially out, in terms of being the dominant family relation. This is giving rise to all kinds of social, cultural, political and ideological expressions, among different strata, taking different forms. And there's a lot of confusion around all this too. A lot of people are searching out different directions, in terms of sexual and family relations and arrangements.

At the same time--and this is what makes this contradiction so explosive--the bourgeoisie very much needs to aggressively assert "traditional values" and, to a large degree, traditional relations. I say "to a large degree" because we shouldn't think that there is a "solid, monolithic unity" within the ruling class on this, or that it's the prevailing position within the ruling class to actually, or literally, try to push women back into the position they were in back in the '50s or before. That's not actually possible materially at this point. And I would even say that the Christian Fascists--while they promote all the traditional values associated with that role for women and while they would even uphold women who play the "traditional role" as models--don't really think it's possible to push women as a whole back into the traditional role of only being a housewife and a "helpmeet" to their husbands.

The "Traditional Family"
and Reality

There is a sort of built-in irony here. In a way it is similar to certain "Mothers in the Fatherland" discussed in Claudia Koonz's book. In Mothers in the Fatherland Koonz analyzes the experience of women-- and, more particularly, the women in the ranks of the Nazis--in the `30s and `40s in Germany. She brings out that there was this built-in contradiction of the Phyllis Schlafly types in Nazi Germany: here they were promoting these traditional roles but they weren't playing those roles themselves. They were out there being aggressive political organizers for the Nazi cause. They weren't sitting in the home just dealing with the kitchen and raising babies and all the rest of this. But the ultimate result when they did succeed in that case--when the Nazis did firmly consolidate their position as the ruling party--is that the Nazis pushed a lot of these women back into the "traditional" roles that they were advocating! So there was kind of an interesting and ironic twist on that experience.

But in the present reality that's not going to happen--it's not really possible to do this with the masses of women, particularly in the U.S. today--in fact it would further undermine the "traditional family" (the "nuclear family" of husband-wife-children) to do that, since in most cases that family now depends on two incomes, not just one (not just the man's).

The Christian Fascists are fascists, but the U.S. today is not the same as Nazi Germany in the 1930s and `40s. To cite an example that illustrates this in a very dramatic way, the Nazis ran their war production factories on a single-shift basis for almost the entire war. They did not even go to round-the-clock shifts for their war production until very late in the war. This enabled them to maintain and reinforce the "traditional family"--and in particular the "traditional role" of the wife/ mother in the family--even in the midst of WW2. Things like that are not going to happen with the present-day economic and social relations. Women "staying at home" and just being wives and mothers cannot be the dominant form today, even the dominant form of the "traditional" ("nuclear") family.

Actually, as a number of people have pointed out, the so-called "traditional family" arrangement, where the wife does not work outside the home, has by no means always been the dominant family arrangement throughout history--even in the history of the U.S. Although for a few decades after WW2 it did develop as the "model" among the middle class in the U.S. in particular--given the character of the U.S. economy and the world economy, and the position and role of U.S. imperialism in world economics and politics, during that time.

Today in the U.S. they are not going to be able to create such "traditional family relations" in all aspects, and particularly not with regard to whether women work outside the home. I don't think that is the resolution that the ruling class is going to seek materially--where most women go back in the home and don't work. That's not the way the economy works now. It's not even in the interests of the ruling class. But socially, ideologically and politically they are going to try to aggressively reassert and reinforce many things associated with that "traditional role," so even if the women are working outside the home, they still are going to be cast in a certain role and the ideology around that is going to be reinforced. And it is being reinforced right now. Women are attacked all the time for things like leaving their kids at home while they work, not being "proper mothers" because they are devoting too much time and attention to their work, and so on, even while most women today are compelled to work.

The Impact of Islamic Fundamentalism

This has some aspects of similarity with the Islamic fundamentalists and their ideology and program. Where they come to power, as they did in Iran, they try to graft the superstructural forms that correspond to their ideology onto the economic reality that they are dealing with. They don't literally try to go back to the economic and material conditions that existed at the time of the prophet Muhammad. That's not possible, so they don't try to do that.

(Well, recent experience in Afghanistan shows that this statement, too, is relatively but not absolutely true. When extreme-extreme Islamic fundamentalists seized the capital, Kabul, within the last year, they actually did try to shove women back into an economic and overall social position that corresponds to production and social relations typical of Muhammad's time. But it remains to be seen whether these fundamentalists can make this stick--or even whether they can hold onto power in Afghanistan, at least without compromising with other forces and, along with that, likely compromising on their extreme forms shackling of women.)

The development of Japanese imperialism is also instructive in this regard. When more advanced Japanese capitalism developed in the latter part of the 19th century, they had the Meiji Restoration and they basically grafted the feudal superstructure--or significant survivals of feudalism in the superstructure--onto the substructure of a capitalist society, on top of a capitalist economic base. And much of that has remained down to today. One illustration of this is, of course, the role of the Emperor in Japanese society today. And I remember being in Japan on the way to and from China, in the early 1970s, and seeing this very dramatically--seeing aspects of feudal culture and customs --particularly with regard to women. And still today in Japan they have this whole thing where, for example, women in public are supposed to speak in this very artificial voice, and apparently it has become a big scandal that there is a prominent newswoman in Japan who has spoken in her regular voice--it seems this has created all kinds of uproar. These are examples of significant aspects of--or remnants of--feudalism in the political-ideological superstructure being grafted onto a very advanced capitalist-imperialist economic base (and incorporated into what is, overall, a bourgeois superstructure that serves that capitalist-imperialist economic base).

In the Third World generally, there is not a capitalist economic base, but there is an economic base that is different from classical feudalism, and different than the kind of patriarchal societies that existed at the time of Muhammad. So, as a general rule, forces like the Islamic fundamentalists are not trying to reinstate what existed in the time of Muhammad, or even a classical feudal society in all its forms, because they can't. Yet and still, socially and politically and ideologically, and to a certain degree economically, they are trying to cast women in certain roles. For example, I remember how, a couple of Olympics ago (in the Seoul Summer Olympics, I believe), in the opening procession, the Iranian delegation didn't want to have anything to do with the procession because women marched in it. So, while they are not trying to change all the underlying economic relations to conform to their backward-looking stuff in the superstructure, they are trying to enforce a lot of this reactionary stuff in the superstructure.

Well, this contradiction is obviously a very explosive one, and one that is strategically in our favor, in these Third World countries, and also in imperialist countries like the U.S. But we have a lot of work to do in relation to this, in order to fully realize and maximize this strategically favorable aspect and how it contributes to and strengthens the overall revolutionary struggle.

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