Women on the Front Line: Rage Against the System

Issue section: 

Sally Campbell explains why women lead the fight against Blair and New Labour, while Tash Shifrin spoke to some leading activists.

Further down the page are just some of the women who are on the front line against Blair, war and capitalism. Recently we have seen movements arising with an unprecedented level of involvement by women. One of the most enduring images in the last few years will be the school students in Parliament Square on the day the bombing of Iraq started - young women, in their school uniforms, being dragged along by police because they refused to move. Women have been prominent at the World and European Social Forums that have taken place throughout the world over the last few years. When you think of anti-capitalist campaigners the names Arundhati Roy, Susan George and Naomi Klein come to mind.

Mobilising people

On the huge demonstrations that took place in Britain in the run-up to war, and after it started, women played a key role in mobilising people and taking to the streets. Now many of these are standing in the European and London elections on 10 June. Lindsey German and Salma Yaqoob of the Stop the War Coalition are both standing as Respect candidates and have been two of the most eloquent advocates of the anti-war movement. But there are many others. Well known journalist and former branch secretary of Durham NUJ, Yvonne Ridley, is standing in the North East. The treasurer of Nottingham Stop the War Coalition, legal aid lawyer and human rights activist Sulma Mansuri, is standing for the European Parliament in East Midlands. And the peace activist, author and treasurer of the Preston Stop the War Coalition, Sabiha Vorajee, is representing Respect in the North West.

Other action by women recently has brought the issue of the decline of public services to the fore, none more impressive than the Scottish nursery nurses whose recent all-out strike saw them marching from nursery to nursery throughout Scotland and building solidarity throughout the country. Today every picket line, every demonstration and every campaign sees women playing a crucial role, in a way that would have been inconceivable 20 or 30 years ago. How do we explain the prominent role that women play today?

It is important to bear in mind that women have never been passive observers of the class struggle. On the recent anniversary of the miners' strike one was reminded of the crucial role that women played in support of the miners and keeping the strike going for as long as it did. Other examples are aplenty, such as the Grunwick strikers in the 1970s or the Ford women machinists in the 1960s. Women such as the Suffragettes at the beginning of the 20th century or Eleanor Marx at the end of the 19th century have been crucial to the development of working class organisation and are rightly remembered for the important role they played.

Now, however, a new generation of women is taking the struggle forward. In part this is due to the changes that have taken place in the structure of capitalist society in the last 20 or 30 years. The image of the passive housewife never really reflected the reality for most women, but now it seems a million miles away from our experience. The neoliberal policies of governments throughout the world over the last 30 years have fuelled globalisation, driving millions of women into work. Advanced capitalism needs nurses, teachers, local and national government workers, and supermarket checkout operators. In most of these industries women workers are in the majority and, particularly in the west, many are in trade unions. That means millions of women earning wages and working in collective conditions.

This economic reality meshes with the achievements of the women's movement of the 1970s to bring about a massive shift in women's attitudes about themselves, and of society at large about equality and rights. Young women today expect to be educated - and indeed do better at school than boys. They expect to work and be financially independent. Contraception has given us greater control over our bodies and separated sex from reproduction. Women are choosing to have children later or not at all; two thirds of women with children now work, compared to less than half 30 years ago.

But this has been a contradictory experience. Childcare provision in Britain is abysmal - the average cost is now £7,000 per year. Recently announced government subsidies for 'nannies' will mainly benefit middle class parents, leaving most working mothers no better off. Women still overwhelmingly hold the responsibility for child rearing and, as such, must often work part time or take time off work to have children. This partly explains the fact that a woman's lifetime income is on average just 49 percent of a man's. Women also tend to be concentrated in lower paid jobs with poorer working conditions, such as retail and sales, or in public sector jobs, which have increasingly faced the neoliberal onslaught. The ravages of privatisation and the resultant crumbling services and low morale have thus hit women very hard. Female employees working full time earn on average 18.8 percent less than the average hourly earnings of male full time employees.

Anger against this goes some way to explaining why women have taken to the streets in huge numbers recently. But alongside this is the fact that the gains brought about by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s cannot be taken for granted. Blair's Britain, with its role models in Princess Di and Cherie Blair, has produced a continued backlash against anti-racism and anti-sexism. Just as we thought we'd seen the back of Loaded and FHM, with their circulation figures beginning to fall at the end of the 1990s, we get a resurgence of laddism in the form of Nuts and Zoo Weekly. Spearmint Rhino lap dancing clubs are becoming as ubiquitous as Dixon's. The right will always seek to claw back any freedoms and rights we have won, and so the movement for equality still has a long way to go.

Yet the prospects look good. Because of the prominent and militant role that women have played, the gains the recent movement against capitalism has achieved will not be given up lightly. There has been a seismic shift in the balance of class forces which can only lead to gains for women. But just as important is the issue of politics. Today's new generation of women has found itself in the front line against war and imperialism. Many are drawing the conclusion that the oppression and exploitation they face are a result of the system itself.

The women's movement in the 1970s was a great step forward for women's rights, but as it began to decline in the 1980s it separated off 'women's issues' from the movement as a whole. The result was simply to allow the movement to splinter into personal identity politics, which celebrated 'difference' but failed to see the potential for unity of a working class under attack from the right. This time the politics of the movement is different. The anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist nature of the current movement means we are starting from a much higher political level. The impetus is towards celebrating the unity of a global movement against capital and war. The tired politics of the 1980s have little influence on the women in the front line of the movement today. Our movement today is fighting not just for equality with men but for the liberation of all humanity.

Women on the Front Line

Mary Compton
President NUT (pc)

'On education, Blair has presided over an appalling Tory agenda - going further than they would have dreamed. He's gone further with the destruction of the comprehensive system than even Thatcher, but using the language of fairness and equity.'

Salma Yaqoob
Birmingham Stop the War

'Blair's scapegoated whole communities to divert attention from where it should be. Instead of a society based on respect and trust, he's fostered mistrust, hostility and suspicion between communities that has set back civil rights. Muslims have felt that in a very personal way.'

Janet Noble
Unison shop steward (pc)

'He's idealised Middle England and the whole idea that we put the family first, and any idea of collective or social responsibility is out the window. It's that middle class 'Me, me, me' attitude that sticks in my throat. And our kids get put on the scrapheap.'

Tahir Swift
Secretary, CND Orpington; director Arab Media Watch

'Give him a wig and a handbag and he'd look like Thatcher! Blair seems to despise ordinary Iraqis and despise his own voters here. He is a stain on history. He will go the same way as Aznar in the next elections.'

Yvonne Ridley

'Blair promised to help Afghan women. But what he's brought to Afghanistan is multi-choice porn channels, and the country is now number one opium producer. So his gift to the women of Afghanistan has been sex and drugs - and no liberation.'

Ellie Harries
16 year old school student

'He said "Education, education, education", but he's taken away student grants, and brought in tuition fees and top-up fees. Clearly students aren't his priority. It'll be our world when he's gone, but he's messing it up for us - and we'll all be in debt for years.'

Ghada Razuki
/b>Stop the War Coalition

'He's killed thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and put the boot into the firefighters in a way that even Margaret Thatcher couldn't have done. However I know that the anti-war movement in this country will finish Blair off. Good riddance.'

Liz Wheatley
Unison shop steward (pc)

'I work in the housing department. Every day I see people who are in desperate need of better public services. Yet we are told there isn't enough money. Clearly there is - it's just that New Labour would rather spend it on killing people, not on improving lives.'

Julie Christie

'New Labour has aligned itself with corporatism, which is of its nature anti-democratic. Predictably, this has led them into the arms of George Bush and into a complicity they failed to foresee with the torturers of Abu Ghraib - the grim culmination of privatisation.'

Decca Muldowney
St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, London

'My parents voted Labour in 1997 and my dad was so happy - he picked me up and carried me into the streets. People who voted for him have now been really betrayed. Blair's betrayed the labour movement and he won't be reelected.'

Joyce Sheppard
Women Against Pit Closures

'Blair's a Tory, and he's taken on the mantle of Thatcher. Education is one of the things I can't forgive him for - kids having to do Sats. In Doncaster we've got a lot of asylum seekers, and it's bad how the government has let the anti asylum seeker, racist stuff come up.'

Hilary Westlake
Theatre director

'It was not expected that New Labour would be as, and in many ways, more conservative than its predecessor. Education, health, transport have all suffered from privatisation. Also the 'special' relationship between Blair and Bush has led to British support for the atrocious US foreign policies.'