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From sexism to social reaction: contradictions within capitalism

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On 27 March, the IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research), a Brazilian public foundation, released a survey on “social tolerance and violence against women” that provoked massive outrage – especially across the social movements. According to the survey, almost two-thirds of respondents (65 per cent) believe that provocative clothing and certain behaviour justify rape and violence against women.

The reaction was instantaneous: individuals and groups of activists united in anger against the strong machismo and violence against women illustrated by the survey results.

However, it not true that all of these respondents are rapists or defend rape. What is most shocking is that the majority of the respondents who answered affirmatively were women. What does this research – and these alarming statistics – tell us?

The root of women’s oppression

We can’t begin to analyse or understand people’s behaviour in isolation from the socioeconomic system in which we live – capitalism. The oppression of women is linked to the development of capitalism.

Women first lost their power to take decisions in society thousands of years ago, when primitive accumulation began and out of which developed class society. Once there was a division of labour in accumulating a surplus and then a surplus to control, women were subjected to men and effectively lost their power to make decisions, their right to choose and their freedom. The material basis of patriarchy was reinforced through inheritance laws, which imposed monogamy on women to ensure children were of genuine lineage.

As it developed, capitalist society imposed a new reality onto women. The advent of the industrial revolution saw women forced into the factories, not by choice but because of the miserable conditions suffered by working class families. Precarious working conditions and extremely long hours were foisted on men, women and children alike.

However, woman shouldered an even greater burden, for their roles as mothers and homemakers remained unchanged – women may have entered the world of work, but men did not take on the private household tasks. The social “status” of women also didn’t change with the introduction of industry: historically subservient to fathers and husbands, now they were also under the thumbs of their bosses, many of whom sexually abused their female staff, regardless of age.

But many women organised and fought for their rights against these abuses. The mass uprisings of female workers corresponded with the mass movements of workers in general in the 19th century. They fought for better working conditions and a reduction in the number of working hours per day. While suffering severe repression, with many killed, the workers’ movement continued to surge forward.

The fight for the right to vote, emancipation in relation to men and other rights, flowed from the struggle for better working conditions. In some campaigns, such as suffrage, women workers and bourgeois women were able to join forces; however, in other campaigns, such as the right to a decent wage or against the drive to imperialist war in the early 20th century, the material interests of women from different classes meant they weren’t fighting for the same goals.

The history of women’s struggles is broad and rich, and it is important for activists to understand the key struggles that have led to the present day, including the Suffragette movement and the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Sexism yesterday and today

Yet, despite these heroic struggles, the social status of women is still narrowly tied to a sexist/patriarchal ideology. Capitalism, with its specific production and consumption characteristics, maintains the old social order in relation to women, relying on women’s unpaid labour within the home to reproduce the next generation of workers and, ultimately, more profits.

Under capitalism, a woman is seen as a mother, a consumer, the weaker sex and without the capacity or skills to do “masculine” jobs, which require technical expertise or a “level head”.

At the same time, almost every moment of every day we are bombarded by mass advertising, encouraging us to purchase products in order to achieve an ideal beauty. Our bodies are to blame for all the ills we suffer. We need to dress the body in lingerie, layer it in cream and shave off ‘unsightly’ hair; we must be thin, fragrant and eternally young.

In women’s magazines, we are instructed on how to use our bodies to please men. We are told that if we aren’t primped and preened in the right way, then the man – who embodies a higher political, social and economic status – will get “bored” and leave us for another woman.

It’s the same body that has to bear children, but only the right children at the right time and in the right quantity. Women today do not have control over their own bodies. In many countries women still do not have the right to abortion, even if the pregnancy is as a result of rape.

So although we are continually pushed into being seductive, sexy and attractive, if we are raped then it is our own fault.

In Brazil, our “tropical sensuality” is used to promote sex tourism. Our necklines, miniskirts and our hair are all used in the bourgeois press as evidence that we are present-day “succubi” ¹, luring men into having sex against their wills.

But rape has nothing to do with what we wear or how we act. What about Muslim women, who wear full burkas, who are also raped and violated? What about women in India, who suffer gang rapes in public places in front of others who do nothing to save them? Violence against women exists everywhere in the world.

And worldwide it is the woman who is blamed for the violence, whether it is rape, domestic abuse or verbal attacks. She is always standing in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes and provoking the men by just being there.

Social change

The IPEA research has provoked us into a deep reflection about these contradictions within capitalist society.

Because of sexism, working women face a double burden – in the workplace and in the home. The moral constructs of capitalist society are even tougher on poor women workers, who are continually beaten up in the press for not providing a stable home for their children, for being “bad mothers”.

Religion, in general, condemns women to further submission, especially the poorest and those with less education. The ideology of submission and guilt is so strong that women internalise sexist ideology and reproduce sexist ideas. Even in simple child's play, it is possible to observe the machismo: the doll, the pan, the broom and the little house.

The mass anger in response to the IPEA’s findings is a sign that people are starting to challenge these sexist preconceptions. However, we can’t change the macho character of capitalist society only by becoming aware of how it manifests itself. These cultural symbols, concepts and prejudices are so ingrained that even after the overthrow of class society we will have to continue to fight in order to break down the sexism built up over centuries by capitalism.

Since the advent of industrialisation, capitalism has imposed a new condition on women – as a worker selling their labour in the market – in addition to their role as domestic slave. From production to consumption, women are exploited by a socioeconomic system that reinforces the old patriarchal status of submission and oppression. Their bodies are to be used in accordance with the interests of Capital. Only with the overthrow of capitalism will women be truly liberated.

¹ Succubi myth: Feminine-looking demons invading the dreams of men to have sex with them, in order to rob them of their vital energy.