by Eman Khaleq
Any increase in awareness of rape and violence against women can only be attributed to the efforts of the organized women’s movement.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that one in four women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. Researchers also discovered that for nearly 70 percent of women who were victims of some type of intimate partner violence, it happened for the first time before age 25. Sexual violence, stalking and intimate partner violence are widespread in the United States but are rarely ever addressed.
Violence against women rooted in class society
The origins of violence against women can be traced to the “world historic defeat of the female sex,” as 19th century German socialist Frederick Engels called it.
Before the emergence of patriarchy and class society, there was a time in which humans did not know of any exploitation, whether it be of man by man or of woman by man. This period was known as matriarchy. This does not mean women were superior to men, but instead there was an absence of male supremacy and the line of descent was established through the female, not the male.
Engels referred to this stage of society as “primitive communism” because the means of production were primitive, based on hunting and gathering, but the social group worked together as a whole to ensure the survival of all its members.
The supremacy of one sex over the other began with patriarchy. Patriarchy emerged with the development of an economic surplus, as humans began to engage in farming and animal husbandry. Over many generations, men, who controlled the herds, sought to ensure the line of inheritance to their own sons—instead of to the wife’s family. At approximately the same time period, the first class societies began to take shape, based on slavery.
For the first time, a human being could be the property of another human being. Women and children began to be seen as the property of men. Women’s sexuality was put under strict control to ensure that the children they bore were “legitimate”—that is, were the children of the husband.
No such limits were put on men’s sexual behavior. It is in these long ago days that we can trace the beginning of violence against women. If a woman “belongs” to a man, then it is his “right” to force her to have sex or to physically abuse her.
Throughout the history of class society, women have been oppressed. Their lives and interests are subjugated by the ownership of private property and the thirst of the ruling class to increase exploitation and maintain domination.
The emergence of private property marks the transition from the formerly cooperative relationship between man and woman, based on communal ownership of property, into one of the subjection of woman to man based upon private ownership of property. From this point on, women were viewed as the property of men and stripped of equality.
Today, sexism is present throughout our social, cultural and political life. We must not forget that it is the capitalist system that perpetuates this legacy. Women’s ongoing subordinate position in society, at home and on the job, originated in the rise of class society.
It has been compounded today by cuts in welfare benefits, child care and health care as well as by racism. Women continue to be subjected to violence and exploitation in capitalist society.
Karl Marx’s theory of alienation refers to the capitalist system’s ability to create contradictions between things that are naturally in harmony. We can see how this plays a role in the ongoing problem of violence against women from their intimate partners.
Working-class family members must work numerous tireless hours, selling their labor power in order to live. With the difficulties of affording adequate housing, health care, child care and education, frustration and stress arise. In fact, research indicates that as unemployment increases, so do rates of domestic violence. Violence against women is a reactionary response to class oppression and an attempt to exert physical control over what men believe is their property.
One of the reasons a woman may remain in an abusive relationship is because she lacks the ability to be economically independent. In a country where women now make up more than half of the workforce, wage disparity is still a reality. Today, women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar and African American women make 69.6 cents, while Latinas make 59.8 cents to the dollar earned by a man. This wage disparity is a source of super-profits for the capitalist class.
While today elected officials and law enforcement will speak out publicly against domestic and sexual abuse, it was not until relatively recently that laws were passed prohibiting domestic violence and marital rape. In 1882, Maryland became the first state to pass a law that makes wife-beating a crime, punishable by 40 lashes or a year in jail. Only in 1945 did a California statute state that any husband who willfully inflicts upon his wife corporal injury in a traumatic condition is guilty of a felony.
In 1976, Nebraska made marital rape a crime, but until 1996 only 11 states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia completely repudiated the marital rape exemption. Seven states (Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah) recognize a marital rape exemption unless the parties are separated. Illinois and Mississippi retain total exemptions for marital rape. In California, a husband can be prosecuted for aggravated or first-degree rape, but still retains immunity from prosecution for “lesser” attacks.
Socialism leads the way for women’s liberation
As opposed to the oppression and exploitation of women under capitalism, socialist countries empower and grant women equality.
Cuba has made important strides in attempting to eliminate sexism. The constitution outlaws discrimination based on gender, race or sexual orientation. Reproductive rights are guaranteed. Women have access to contraceptives and abortion. They have access to top-quality prenatal and obstetric care as well as maternity leave.
Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the United States. All Cubans have access to education, and the majority of doctors, teachers, researchers and scientists are women. Women are 47 percent of the workforce. (Federation of Cuban Women Report, Beijing 2000)
Across pre-revolutionary China, women formed mass women’s associations such as the one in Kinhua’s village. Kinhua, or “Gold Flower,” was forced into an arranged marriage despite her love for another man. Her husband and father-in-law routinely abused her.
In 1945, a representative of the Red Army came to the village and called the women together to form a women’s association.
They created a people’s court for women. Abusive men were tied up and forced to face large meetings where women could testify about their abuse. The associations also guaranteed that abusive behavior did not continue.
One of the first major laws passed by the Chinese government following the 1949 revolution was the Marriage Law. This law outlawed paying for wives, polygamy, concubines, child marriage and interference in the remarriage of widows as well as guaranteed the right of divorce to both parties. By the next year, there were over 20,000 divorces, almost 80 percent of which were initiated by women.
The new government also placed special emphasis on campaigns to raise women’s literacy. In 1950, many cities reported that around 95 percent of illiterate women workers were attending classes.
The same applies to the 1917 Russian Revolution, the first revolution where the working class successfully took power and held it. In some of the first legal acts of the new revolutionary government, women gained rights that they didn’t have in the capitalist world including the right to vote and to abortion on demand. The Bolsheviks abolished the old laws that enforced gender inequality. The new laws passed were designed to give women economic, social and sexual rights.
The need for a fighting women’s movement
Women’s liberation has never and will never come from the ruling class. Women’s associations, like those that emerged in China, need to be formed and solidified here in the United States to overthrow the oppressive ruling class that sets laws, creates contradictions and strips women of equality. We need to unite with our brothers against the ruling class to end inequality, economic disparity, social oppression and violence against women because a woman’s place is at the head of the struggle for the liberation of all humanity!
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