Material Girls

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Lindsey German, Bookmarks, £12.99

I came into socialist politics in the early 1970s through the women's movement. At that time I remember a great sense of optimism about the possibilities for women's liberation. Legislation in the late 1960s to decriminalise abortion and homosexuality, and easier divorce laws opened up the possibility of much greater personal freedom. Anti-discrimination legislation and the Equal Pay Act promised equality at work. Issues such as rape and domestic violence for the first time appeared on the agenda as political issues.

Now three decades later when my daughters are young adults, women still earn less than men and the demand for free public nurseries has been replaced with the reality of £600 per week private nurseries. The hard fought for sexual freedom has been twisted and commodified as we see the revival of lap dancing clubs and soft porn.

It is this "stalled revolution" which is the theme of Lindsey's book, and the subject of the first three chapters where she looks at what has happened to sex, work and the family. This book is long overdue in documenting the lives of men and women in the 21st century. It is well researched and full of interesting historical detail as well as up to date cultural references. The personal is made political in a way that is accessible and interesting, but at the same time explains how these changes are underpinned by capitalism.

Lindsey looks at the birth of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and its demise a decade later. She argues there was a failure by most of the movement to integrate class into their analysis. This meant a retreat from the founding principles of the movement to transform the lives of ordinary women and a fragmentation of the movement. In looking at the revolutions of 1848 and 1917 the book looks at what is possible when the fight for women's liberation is tied into wider radical movements.

Two chapters take on arguments that socialists are confronted with. The first is that women have benefited at men's expense - the so-called crisis of masculinity. Lindsey rightly argues that the lives of ordinary working class women and men are distorted by capitalism and they therefore have common cause in fighting it. The second argument involves the hypocrisy of Bush and Blair trying to use the fig leaf of "liberating women" as an excuse for war. The myth that the "war on terror" waged in Afghanistan and Iraq has in any way improved the lot of ordinary women is completely dismantled.

The idea of women's inequality has been airbrushed out of many discourses. The reality of neoliberalism in Britain and the wider global economy means that there is an even greater polarisation between the few women who have benefited and the vast majority whose lives are even more difficult. The other side of this, Lindsey argues, is that the possibility for organising has never been better, and indeed women have been in the forefront of the anti-globalisation movement from Venezuela to India. The overall message is that combining the demands for women's liberation with socialism offers the possibility of a better world for men and women.

Lindsey German writes about Material Girls in this issue.