Capitalism, sexism and queerphobia’s social basis
By Jess Moore
There are social expectations on everyone, men and women, to act in particular ways based on our sex. This is bad for everyone because it’s stifling, but it’s worse for women and queers.
These gender stereotypes and roles put men first and women second:
- Women own less than 2% of the world’s titled land and make up 70% of the world’s poor.
- One in three women experience sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- Ninety-three per cent of sex offenders are male.
- About 93% of adult sexual assault victims are women.
- In Australia in 2008, women earned on average $196 per week less than their male counterparts, and were twice as likely to be underemployed than men.
- On average, in 2006, women spent nearly 34 hours a week on household work.
- Ninety-five per cent of people with anorexia are women.
- Women make up 71% of primary carers of people who are frail, aged or disabled.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury to women worldwide.
Gender roles also discriminate against queers:
- Young queer people are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.
- Nearly 25% of queer teens are kicked out of their homes after coming out to their parents.
- A study of gay, lesbian and bisexual adults showed 41% reported having been a victim of a hate crime after the age of 16.
- Forty-two per cent of homeless youth — many of whom have run away from home to escape violence — self-identify as gay/lesbian.
- In Australia, same-sex couples still do not have the right to marry.
Women and queers have not always been oppressed. Their oppression emerged hand-in-hand with the private ownership of wealth and the division of society into classes.
With the rise of the state, which came about to protect the interests of the ruling class, came the rise of the family as one of the key units for organising society. The means by which the first wealthy classes possessed and protected their private wealth was though the institution of marriage.
The family unit continues to play a central role in maintaining class divisions, enabling the rich to accumulate more and more wealth, and pass it on to their children, and ensuring that the poor remain poor.
Women became valuable property because of their role in producing the next generation. They became a source of wealth because they alone can produce new human beings and thus more labour power. So women, and the rights to their offspring, became the property of men. Women’s social role was increasingly defined as child bearer and limited to the domestic sphere.
Of course, early capitalists were keen to make quick profits by employing women and children for low wages. But this meant high child mortality and women having less time and energy to do all the unpaid labour needed to raise the next generation of wage slaves.
The capitalists soon learned that preserving the idea of women’s primary role being in the home was essential for maintaining profits.
A 1990 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that women’s unpaid work in the home — cooking, cleaning, washing and caring for children — is equivalent to 83% of gross domestic product.
The family reproduces the workforce the system needs at the cheapest price to the capitalist class. Imagine how much profit capitalists would lose if their workplaces had to provide childcare and food, for example.
Women are drawn into the workforce when extra labour is needed, such as in wartime. When the economic needs of the system change, women are sent back home “where they belong”.
However, because women’s labour is cheaper than men’s, there is a constant tension between individual capitalists’ constant search for extra profit and the capitalist system’s need to maintain gender roles in which women’s primary work is unpaid domestic labour.
In Australia and most other countries today, women are a permanent part of the workforce, albeit mostly as part-time and casual workers. Most working-class families depend on two incomes to get by and, as a result of the women’s liberation movement campaigns in the 1960s and ‘70s, there is far more acceptance of the idea of gender equality.
Today, instead of women in general being pushed out of waged work, they are forced to bear a “double burden” — as waged worker and unpaid domestic worker.
To ensure that the family unit continues to free the capitalists from having to pay for the maintenance of workers and the care of unproductive members of society (young children, the elderly and the ill), women’s responsibilities in the home must be reinforced as their primary role.
This is how lower wages, less job security and lower status jobs for women are justified. In turn, women’s subordinate position in the workforce, and the constant existence of a “reserve army” of women workers that can be drawn on at any time, helps keep down the wages and conditions of the primary wage earners, male workers.
Capitalism also strives to keep women in their place by selling the "beauty myth". Women are made to feel that they need to look like the made-up, airbrushed models in magazines and on TV.
They are pressured to pay to have body hair removed, for plastic surgery or to lose weight, even if it causes them ill health. Women are expected to pay for the right outfits, make-up, perfume, haircut, underwear and jewellery. It suits the capitalist system to turn women into objects, the expression of their identity into things they can purchase, and their self-worth into the unattainable.
Women aren’t allowed even the elementary right to control their own bodies. In Australia, abortion is still on the criminal code in most states.
To shore up the capitalist family unit, any expression of sexuality that is not connected, at least potentially, with procreation and the reproduction of labour power must be repressed by the ruling class.
Accepting gay, lesbian or bisexual practices as normal could lead people to conclude that the nuclear family is not humanity's “natural” state, and to challenge the roles assigned to women and the family by capitalism.
The development of capitalism and waged work opened up opportunities for queers to develop pairing relationships based on mutual love because they could be financially independent. However, by introducing laws criminalising “buggery” and “indecent acts” between men, the capitalist state ensured that such an undermining of the nuclear family could not happen easily.
Alongside the evolution of captalism, laws and “moral values” were developed to criminalise and label as wrong, dirty or unnatural almost every form of human relationship not conducted within the nuclear family.
Transgender people, who do not conform to rigid ideas about what it means to be “male” or “female”, experience social isolation and discrimination. Doctors often mutilate intersex people, who are born with atypical combinations of features that usually distinguish male from female, in an attempt to make them conform.
While the family can be one of the few sources of comfort and support for many under capitalism, it plays an important role in perpetuating the social norms that maintain the system. It teaches children to obey authority, respect their “superiors”, be competitive and “get ahead”. It teaches children the “proper roles” of girls and boys, and men and women. It represses and distorts sexuality.
The family can teach these norms a lot more effectively than any other institution because we are taught that this institution is “private” and “natural” and “holy” — in other words “off limits” to critics and pressure from the social movements.
Feminism and the fight for queer rights are about achieving complete legal, economic and social equality for all — in the “private” and the public spheres of life.
[Jess Moore is the national coordinator of the Australian socialist youth organisation Resistance, an affiliate of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, issue #815, October 28, 2009.]