[Editorial Note] This discussion paper was presented at a symposium <Women’s liberation from a socialist point of view> which was held August 31, 2018, by . Amid the expanding and strengthening struggle for women’s liberation in S. Korea, it explains socialist women’s liberation theory, distinct from feminism.
On May 19, 12,000 people gathered at a rally at Hyehwa Station to denounce the gender-biased investigation of spy camera porns. The number of participants increased to 22,000 on June 9 and to 60,000 on July 7 (all estimated by organizers). Until a few years ago, rallies that deal only with women’s oppression were quite unusual, except for the Women’s Day rally, which was held on March 8 every year. It was even harder to imagine tens of thousands coming to the rally. In today’s discussion paper, I am going to point out why women are now taking to the streets and what the driving force in their struggle is, and explain women’s oppression from a socialist point of view. In other words, I would like to talk about socialist women’s liberation theory.
Ⅰ. Why did S. Korean women take to the streets?
1. The movement against women’s oppression is expanding and strengthening.
Women are taking to the streets with various demands, including the proper punishment for spy camera porns. For example, A rally demanding the lift of abortion ban in Gwanghwamun on July 7 showed considerable force and energy, with 1,500 estimated by police and 5,000 estimated by organizers, though it didn’t amount to the massive number of participants in another rally denouncing spy cam porns held at Hyehwa Station, which was held on the same day. Women have also persistently protested againt sexual violence and sexism at work or school since the MeToo movement initiated in S. Korea earlier this year. Often these women get attacked in school or in workplace or online just because they call themselves feminists, but they have responded to such attacks with dignity.(The Korea Women Link held a round table on April 19, under the title of “We won’t give in to backlashes on feminism,” in which participants collected and announced the cases of denouncement, attack, violence that took place in the workplace and schools. While there were many cases(24) that “backlashes” made them daunted, more participants(27 cases) also told that they felt more confident as feminists after such backlashes.) In the first place, “backlashes” are taking place for the very reason that more women are interested in gender issues than in the past and expressing their opinions more actively on social media, in the workplace and at schools.
Undoubtedly, it is understandable that many activists feel concerned about current women’s movement in S. Korea, as the number of feminists that claim ‘women’s rights should be the first priority’ or ‘we care only for women, and other oppressed groups’ rights are not our concern’ are increasing. For example, some feminists were half-hearted or against protecting Yemeni refugees on the pretext of Korean women’s fear and safety. Still, it is hard to conclude that this kind of “women-first” stance itself is gaining public support from women. It should rather be interpreted as a result of the expansion of the women’s liberation movement to those who have never learned progressive discourse before. In short, the expansion and reinforcement of the current women’s liberation movement are showing the possibility of new people flowing into the movement and becoming the leading agents.
2. The fundamental driving forces in the expansion of the movement against women’s oppression
(1) Women’s oppression has long been unresolved and accumulated until now
The fact that women’s oppression has been accumulated steadily without being resolved in S. Korean society is an essential driving force in itself. It was not until 2015 that the word ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ came to be on everyone’s lips and the women’s oppression became main social concerns, but women’s oppression had long been severe, even before then. Violence against women, such as sexual violence and domestic violence has been prevalent. Such violence has not been taken seriously enough, and victim-blaming has been severe. Women are the overwhelming majority of those who sell sex services out of poverty. Abortion ban has long deprived women of their rights to self-determination. Gender wage gaps still exist. The percentage of non-regular workers is higher among women than among men. Popular culture describes women only as passive beings or sexual objects and urges them to be obsessed with their looks.
In particular, Ilbe began to draw attention from the media in October 2012, and their online verbal abuse and criminal conspiracy against women had emerged as social issues. It was only then that the word “misogyny” virtually replaced the word “sexism.” The fact that the word “misogyny”, which has a stronger sense of tone, became the generic term for women’s oppression suggests how severe the daily discrimination and violence against women had been. As it were, women’s oppression was reaching the limit, and it was not surprising that in 2015 with ‘#IAmAFeminist’ hashtag on social media and the appearance of an online phenomenon of “Megalia,” the women’s liberation movement ignited.
(2) The lives of many young women: becoming tougher and tougher as the objective contradictions of capitalism deepens
And behind the fact that women have come to feel more painful about this repressive reality, there is the fact that the lives of many women have become tougher due to the deepening of objective contradictions of capitalism. That is especially true for young women in their 20s and 30s, who are now entering the women’s liberation movement.
Since the global economic crisis in 2008, global capitalism has continued to remain in recession, and the objective contradictions of capitalism around the world are still deepening. Korea’s economic situation cannot be good either. Claims that the Korean economy is entering a recession have been made public since the first half of this year. According to the July 22 Yonhap News Agency article titled “The signs of a downturn? The inventory turnover ratio for manufacturing companies is the highest since the Asian financial crisis,” the manufacturing inventory rate index in May (which divides monthly inventories by monthly shipments and the year 2015 is 100) was 108.7. It was the highest level since the 2000s, and the average manufacturing operation rate also dropped, which raised further concerns. Also, export growth remained in 0 percent range, while facility investment fell 6.6 percent, a nine-quarter low.
In particular, according to the KOSTAT’s survey of the labor force, the unemployment rate for those in their 20s stood at 9.1 percent as of June this year. According to the June 3 article in the Kyunghyang Shinmun, “Hungry young people, who are part-timers worrying about meals,” the average monthly income of young people under 29 is only 1.82 million won. The average monthly income of households under the age of 30 and among the lowest 20 percent is 781,000 won, according to data released by KOSTAT in 2017. Even debt has increased to include a 154.8 percent jump in debt for young people under the age of 30 in the seven years since 2010.
For young women, the situation is even more difficult. As of November 2016, the unemployment rate for women in their 20s stood at 7.3 percent, which was followed by media reports that it was “the worst since 1999.” And even now, things haven’t got much better. The unemployment rate for women in their 20s was 7.9 percent in June 2017, and the current figure for June 2018 is 7.8 percent (the KOSTAT’s survey of the labor force). Moreover, according to the Korea Women’s Development Institute, the ratio of irregular workers out of all jobs for young women is 35.4 percent. In other words, one in three working women in their 20s is a non-regular worker. In addition, a survey of 593 female members with job search experience at the job recruiting website ‘Incruit’ found that 93 percent agreed that “women’s job barriers are higher than men’s in our society,” and 72 percent said ‘yes’ to the question asking “whether they have ever been disadvantaged as women while seeking jobs.”
Ostensibly, the problems of sexist culture, crimes against women, and other forms of gender violence, which have recently raised in the women’s liberation movement, seem to have less to do with economic and material life difficulties. However, one of the backgrounds behind women’s anger about such problems is the reality in which material survival itself is not easy at all. It is also revealed in the hashtag case of “#This_Is_women’s_room,” which spread around social media in early February 2017. The hashtag began when a photographer promoted the publication of a photo book titled “House where a woman lives alone,” in which a female model posed with sexual implications inside a room. At first, women who were living alone began posting photos of their actual living places on social media with the hashtag, protesting the sexual objectification of their own living space. More and more women, however, began to unveil their various experiences as ‘a woman who lives alone.’ Many of them were viewed as sexual objects easy to ‘conquer’ just because they were living alone. Some were exposed to the threats of sexual assault or rape as they were living alone in dangerous neighborhood. Others even expressed anger about the fact that they have no choice but to choose rooms with higher rents and deposits for their own safety, even though they have tight budget.
While the main target of anger was a sexist culture that sexually objectify women’s living space, if women could enjoy decent living space with basic security, this hashtag wouldn’t have spread this much.
The monthly income distribution of single-person households (as of 2016) tells a lot. 29.5 percent of single-person male households had an average income of less than 1 million won per month, compared with 56.9 percent for single-person female households.(it is not just the problem of women in their 20s and 30s, as the proportion of single-person female households is the highest among those in their 60s or older.) With the cost of various tuition, housing, living expenses, and job preparation, and the fact that they have to live as a low-paid non-regular worker even after getting a job, women feel that the burden becomes heavier because they are women. It became the beginning of awareness and anger.
For sure, women who take part in the movement might not think that their lives are tougher because of capitalism. Most women participate in the movement in order to get rid of sexist culture, root out crimes against women and at least to get equal treatment with men. However, behind the fact that they feel more painful about such gender discrimination and women’s oppression, there is a situation where material survival itself is unstable, and the objective contradictions of capitalism are deepening.
(3) The Candlelight Protests and Park Geun-Hye’s ouster made people confident
Women’s resistance, which began in earnest in 2015, has continued to expand and strengthen. Another driving force of it was the Candlelight Protests and Park Geun-Hye’s ouster, which became an opportunity for peoples to have confidence that they stepped down a president. In fact, after the Candlelight Protests, many people were ready to turn their school, workplace and other life sites into “Gwanghwamun Square.” it was in this context that women’s oppression in daily life became an issue and especially “MeToo” movement spread
Citizens, who with the largest-ever Candlelight Protests created a historic event making the impeachment of an incumbent president real, are bringing their experiences from the square to daily life. … after the impeachment, citizens are no longer silent about the injustice and unfairness that has arisen in all sectors of society. … Many say that the recent “MeToo” fever rocking Korean society is also at the extension of the Candlelight Protests and impeachment experience. Analysts say that a broader consensus on justice and human rights and the spread of a culture that speaks together against injustice have made “MeToo” possible. “It would have been more difficult to make those accusations when the authoritarian culture was in a place like in the previous administration,” said Shin, a 31-year-old office worker who participated in the Candlelight Protests. “It seems that a sense has settled in our society as a whole that those in power should be punished if they did wrong after the Candlelight Protests.
– Yonhap news agency, ” [one year of Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment] ‘political maturation’ of the citizens … No silence in injustice and unfairness” March 8, 2018)
In short, people desired to expand democracy in daily life and change their lives substantially after the Candlelight Protests and Park Geun-Hye’s ouster. Therefore, women are not allowed to pass on what they would have done to themselves if they had done so before. To raise a voice and gather one’s people in one way or another became natural. Asiana Airlines’ female flight attendants took courage to say no more sexual harassment of Chairman Park Sam-Koo and began a public debate on sexual violence in the workplace. At Sacred Heart Hospital in Chuncheon, where the media coverage of “a talent show” of female nurses caused a stir, the number of union members who cooperated with the hospital declined after the news broke, and the number of members of the Korean Health & Medical Workers’ Union(KHMU) surged from 10 to 307. Far from exhausting, the momentum of the movement against women’s oppression continues to be powerful, because women who have gained confidence are not stopping their struggles in their daily lives and at work.
Ⅱ. Women’s Oppression, as explained by socialist women’s liberation theory
When we talk about women’s oppression, such as gender discrimination, sexual violence, the word ‘feminism’ is relatively familiar, whereas ‘socialist women’s liberation theory’ sounds strange and awkward for many. socialist women’s liberation theory, which I will introduce from now on, refers to the position of socialism on women’s oppression and liberation. The most prominent characteristic of socialist women’s liberation theory is that women’s oppression are understood in the overall framework of changes and developments of productive forces and relations of production
Production refers to a labor process in which humans can act on nature and change it to obtain the means necessary for them to live. For production, direct producers and means of production (including labor subjects and labor instruments) must be combined, where the degree of productivity varies according to the level of labor power and the efficiency of the means of labor, which are called productive forces. On the other hand, the relations between humans in the production process is called relations of production. In today’s capitalist society, for example, wage laborers, who are direct producers, relate themselves with the means of production as employed by capitalists who own the means of production, where the relationship between workers and capitalists may be regarded as a relationship of production. It can be said that relations of production are formed in response to the productive forces.
So how do these concepts relate to women’s problems? If one looks at the underlying cause of women’s oppression, it is easy to understand why socialist women’s liberation theory regards material production as important.
1. What is the root of women’s oppression?
(1) Why is the root of women’s oppression important?
As we have seen earlier, one of the fundamental driving forces in the movement against women’s oppression is the contradictions of women’s oppression, which has been accumulated in Korean society. Then we should ask when and why it happened. One should know the cause to solve the problem, and above all, we can imagine a society where women’s oppression has disappeared only when we recognize it as a historical product.
Many feminists have tried to answer this question about the root of women’s oppression. One of the most representative was the explanation using the concept of “patriarchy.” “Patriarchy” was initially used in anthropological terms. It became the central concept which designates oppressive social structures for women by radical feminists such as Kate Millet. No satisfactory answer, however, was given as to why “patriarchy” emerged. The explanation that men abused the possibility of women becoming pregnant and having children could not be an answer because it wasn’t able to explain the period when women lived equally with men while still becoming pregnant and having babies. Other feminists said that there was a collusion between male workers and male capitalists. They expelled female workers from workplaces and made them housewives, dedicated to housework and rearing children, which led to structural discriminations against women in labor markets. Nonetheless, the reason why male collusion came to exist and why it was women, not men that were expelled has never been explained. A story that capitalism uses patriarchy to divide and rule workers according to their sexes was criticized as it fell into functionalism.
However, Engels provided a framework to explain the emergence of women’s oppression in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” which was modified and supplemented by later-generation Marxist anthropologists.
(2) The Origin of Women’s Oppression
① a society where men and women were equal
Many anthropologists have found that social relationships, including gender relations, were equal in hunter-gatherer societies and in early agricultural societies(‘primitive communism’ societies). In 2014, a book of anthropology from Oxford University also stated that “[S]mall-scale hunter-gatherer communities … in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects.” (Sandra Bloodworth, “The origins of women’s oppression–a defence of Engels and a new departure,” Marxist Left Review No.16 Summer 2018.)
There were indeed some divisions of labor between men (hunting) and women (gathering). However, this was not social oppression, such as today’s unreasonable sexual divisions of labor. At the level of productive forces that did not develop labor means, medical knowledge, etc., such division was an adaptation to natural and objective conditions. Above all, women played more than men did in social production, as foods from the gathering, which mainly women did, were more than men’s in food production. Because of this, women in the communities enjoyed equal status as men. It is also an argument that many anthropologists, including Eleanor Burke Leacock, have found in their participation observation studies and is being accepted widely in anthropology.
② the change in the characteristics of sexual divisions of labor due to the development of production
However, as production forces had developed and heavy agriculture had emerged, changes in agricultural techniques occurred, in which old agricultural instruments(hoes and digging-sticks, etc.) were replaced by new ones(plows) which needed more muscularity. At the same time, it was not necessary to restrain childbirth as early agricultural societies gradually settled down, unlike foraging lives of hunter-gatherers. So women spent a lot of time pregnant or nursing. Due to the changes, women have gradually become secondary to men in social production.
These sexual divisions, in which men serve as the primary food producer, and women are mainly responsible for the pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing in the home were to be oppressive to women necessarily, unlike the previous divisions in which both women and men were equally involved in social production itself. In short, as productions developed and heavy agriculture emerged, the sexual divisions of labor changed in a woman-oppressive manner, which is the underlying cause of women’s oppression.
③ the appearance of class antagonism in history coincides with the appearance of women’s oppression.
At the same time, the development of production resulted in the emergence of surplus products and private ownership, which led to the rise of class and the state. Since the primary food producer was male, it was also male that produced most of the surplus. Accordingly, the ruling class gave men, not women, the responsibility of directing the production and consumption of household units to dedicate surplus products to the rulers. It reinforced a ‘patriarchal’ structure in an anthropological term, in which older men in the household control the production and consumption of family members.
(3) women’s oppression under capitalism
Women’s oppression that emerged with class antagonism at the same time has changed its forms historically. In particular, as capitalism had come into being, the forms of women’s oppression and family underwent a significant change. While it is difficult to see women treated as explicitly inferior to men in the legal realm, the lives of many women are still tricky. According to the Korea Women’s Development Institute, for example, the gender wage gap in South Korea was 36.8 percent based on average monthly wages and 30.7 percent based on hourly wages last year, while the proportion of low-wage workers among men was 13.6 percent, compared with 31.2 percent among women. Women are more likely to find low-paying jobs even if they get jobs, and even if they work as much as men, they get paid less. Also, women have long been pressured to take charge of housework and upbringing under the model of “the man who supports the family, the woman who cares for the family and raises the child.” Even women workers suffer from the prejudice of “the person who comes out for a side meal.” And those have been phenomena not only in South Korea but also in other capitalist societies such as the United States and Europe. How can the causes of those gender wage gap, sexual divisions of labor, and women’s domestic work and child-rearing on behalf of women be explained?
To track the roots of these problems, we need to take a brief look at the situation in Britain in the early industrialization era when capitalism began to be established. From the beginning, only men worked for wages, and women were exclusively responsible for household chores and childcare. Capitalists employed women and children, as well as men, and all the members of a family, including children, often engaged in wage labor. The wage level was so low that the working family could barely manage to live without a whole family working. It was not until the mid-19th century that protective legislation was made to limit the employment of women and children, and a family wage system was established, which was to pay male workers on the premise that they were breadwinners. It is necessary to look at why men (not women) were supposed to earn wages as family wages and to support their wives and children(the male breadwinner model). (From below, I referred to the article of Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas, “Rethinking Women’s Oppression.”)
① The situation of the workers at that time: the need to have children and raise them properly
Workers’ wages were meager at the time. All working family members had to work for more than 12 hours a day, and in many cases, 14 to 15 hours of wage labor, including commuting and meal time, to make ends meet. Therefore, child labor was also necessary. The income earned by children’s work was essential for parents’ aging survival in the absence of a significant welfare system for the elderly. Besides, infant mortality rates were high. In conclusion, from the standpoint of the workers at the time, it was advantageous to have more children than to have fewer.
However, if women had to participate in factory labor on a full-time basis, it was difficult to give birth and raise their children properly. “Women had to go back to the machine immediately after giving birth. The baby ate porridge, not breast milk. Those who care for children who are too young to work have fed their children with opium-based drugs to keep them calm.” (Lindsey German, “Women and Marxism”) When a mother worked in a factory, the alternative to breastfeeding was to feed cow’s milk or leave her baby to a nanny who lived far away, the former increased infant mortality rate, and the latter caused the consequences of not feeding properly because of taking on too many children. Therefore, even before the adoption of the protective legislation, better off mothers already tried to raise and work at the same time by doing part-time work, domestic work, seasonal work, and boarding work rather than a full-time job.
In short, from the workers’ point of view at the time they had to have children and raise them properly and to do it was impossible in the situation of all family members except newborn babies working long hours in factories. Then there was a pressing need for any member of the family to be excluded from long hours of labor.
② Women became inferior Labor force in Capitalist Production.
With the introduction of capitalist production, women’s groups, the majority of whom have menstruation, pregnancy, and fertility potential, have become inferior labor force on the part of those who control the means of production. Even in hunter-gatherer societies and early agricultural societies where women’s oppression didn’t exist, women had menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth alike, but it didn’t make women as an inferior labor force in their participation in social production. The reason was that participation in social production was compatible with the need for women to take a rest for menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, and early upbringing (feeding, etc.). Even during the feudalism in the middle age when women’s oppression already existed, whereas the overall labor intensity was very high, it was possible for peasant women to take a rest for menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc. there was exploitation, but the labor process itself was under the control of the craftsmen and the domestic workers themselves.
But the capitalist relations of production have the hallmark of taking away this control of the production process from the workers. As capitalism progressed manufacture to modern industry and formal subsumption of labor turned to real subsumption, workers had to fit their works to the rhythm of the machine. In this situation where capitalists control the production process according to the rhythm of the machine, no female worker couldn’t rest to do such things as breastfeeding, etc. when needed them most.
Even with the same large-scale production using machines, it would be possible for workers, not capitalists to take control of the production process, and that production is carried for human needs, not for profit. Then workers can solve the problems by controlling the velocity of the machines, taking paid menstrual leave and maternity leave(for both parents), socializing the burden of childcare through free daycare, etc., and reducing overall working hours. But capitalists who produce for profit act differently. Whatever the conditions of the workers, the velocity at which the machines operate should be as fast as possible. In other words, the capitalist relations of production conflict with the need for human biological reproduction, such as pregnancy and childbirth, as opposed to pre-capitalist relations of production.
Therefore, women, the majority of whom have menstruation, pregnancy, and the possibility of childbirth, were considered as an inferior labor force by capitalists. It should be noted that this was not because the capitalist had a sexist ideology of “women are inferior to men” or because he had carried out ‘his interests as men’, but rather because he was extremely sexually-blind. Whatever the sex of the worker, whether or not the worker had menstruation, pregnancy or childbirth, the capitalist didn’t care, and there was no reason why he would bother to provide a break, paid menstrual leave, maternity leave and shorter working hours. Paradoxically, because of the very nature of this capitalist production, women had become inferior labor force compared with men.
③ why male and female workers demanded family wages and protective legislation
The demand of the English working class, in the early 19th century, was first and foremost a reduction in working days for all workers of all sexes, but the power of the working class at the time was not strong enough to push that demand through. That resulted in a strategical change, which was to require a reduction in the working hours of children so that the working hours of adult workers could also be indirectly shortened. But the bill passed in 1833 by Parliament allowed manufacturers to use children in relays, which keep adult work for long hours. After some of these failures, The Short-Time Movement finally demanded the reduction of working days for female workers in the 1840s. The movement was successful due to several factors: “the force of its organized campaign, Tory-Whig conflict, the trade depression of 1847, which temporarily weakened the textile masters’ resistance to the measure.” Eventually, the “10-hour law” restricting women’s labor was passed.
As the changes of demands of workers have shown, the reason that workers called for protective bills which restricted the working hours of women as their demands is not that capitalists and male workers shared same interests of women excluding from the workplace and confining in the home as some feminists insist. At that time, both male and female workers had to choose between working long hours and failing to nurture their next generations properly, and reducing the working hours of women so that they took responsibilities for housework and child-rearing. The reason why the wife, not the husband, remained at home is that first, the husband cannot do pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and secondly, women already became an inferior labor force on the part of the capitalists.
The demand for family wages should be viewed in the same vein. In the article “Class Struggle and the Persistence of Working-class Families,” historian Jane Humphries suggested that workers at the time demanded family wages to prevent a fall in total family wages. In those days, wages tended not to increase in proportion to the number of family members participating in wage labor, as capitalists fixed wages to levels for a family to live with barely. Therefore, it was more advantageous for the survival of working-class families to have only one family member work, and the rest do housework and receive family wages. It is an oversimplified view to think female workers were victimized unilaterally by male workers.
In short, the demand for family wages and protective legislation was the best that the working class could do in a situation where the capitalist relations of production and the need for human biological reproduction clashed each other and considered the power relations of the classes at the time. This choice may be critically assessed, but it does not make sense at least to explain it, as some feminists insisted, that ‘Because of their interests as men or their sexist ideology, male workers joined hands with capitalists to exclude female workers from the workplace and to confine in the home, which was an example of male solidarity that transcends class.‘
④ why the distinction between so-called women’s jobs and men’s jobs was established
As we looked at earlier, women had become inferior labor force under capitalist production, which tended to make women have weaker bargaining power than men. In the case of young, unmarried women living with their parents, they managed to think they would work until before marriage, so their motivation to raise wages or go up to skilled jobs, or their attachment to their workplaces, was not strong. In the case of married women with dependent children, they were generally widowed, or the husbands’ income was unstable. It was challenging to move around in search of a better job, which forced them to have weak bargaining power. They also lacked the time and energy to organize themselves for the struggle because of its responsibilities to housework.
In other words, the distinction between “women’s jobs” and “men’s jobs” was established not just because of sexist ideologies, but because in these circumstances the female workers met its needs, especially when capital needed workers with weak bargaining power. In the United States, for example, 60 percent of teachers were men in 1840, but after 20 years the proportion of men decreased to 14 percent. The key reason was that women’s wages were cheaper. The New England textile industry, on the other hand, was for women. However, when female workers began to unite and fight in the 1830-1840s, employers replaced them with Irish men and boys, because they were willing to work on the wages that female workers were paid. Between World War I and World War II, the economy was in a boom, and new industries such as automobiles, aircraft, electronics and food processing began to emerge, which were located in new areas rather than in conventional industrial zones. Most of these areas lacked workers, and it was none other than female workers who filled the vacancy. Capitalists in the new industrial sector hired a large number of female workers because they needed cheaper semi-skilled labor than expensive skilled labor (Linsey German, “Women and Marxism”).
Both women’s oppression and class oppression emerged at a similar time due to the common cause of the development of production. The gender wage gap and sexual divisions of labor among female workers under capitalism today also confirmed that the gender-blind nature of capitalist production itself was a more important cause than the sexist perception of capitalists or male workers. So by searching the underlying causes of women’s oppression, can we see that material production is hugely significant to understand women’s oppression, which feminists so far has taken relatively less attention. Implications of this point will be further addressed in the following sections.
2. The relationship between women’s oppression and other oppressions
The relationship between women’s oppression and other oppressions is now a matter of intense debate within the Korean Women’s Liberation Movement. So far, the structure of debate has been formed between (somewhat extreme) identity politics versus intersectionality.
(1) the limits of identity politics
As briefly mentioned earlier, there are those who argue that ‘women’s rights should be the first priority’ They explicitly reject the claim that women must fight in solidarity with other oppressed groups and non-women can also fight against women’s oppression, considering it as yet another women’s oppression.
For instance, the “Uncomfortable Courage,” the main organizing group of the rally against denounce gender-biased investigations into the spy camera porns, limited participants to “biological women” and drew a line with other activist groups. This trend can be seen as a rather extreme form of “identity politics.”
The limitations of identity politics are being discussed not only in S. Korea but also in the United States. Since the late 1960s, identity politics have been the mainstream in the U.S. minority movements. Now, many voices are saying that identity politics has resulted in docile movements that not only fragment the struggle but also allow the ultra-right to exploit it; and that they have omitted and concealed the class issue. It is not difficult to find such cases in S. Korea, either. For example, among the protesters’ demands to the rally are the appointment of women in police chiefs and high-ranking government posts, such as judges and prosecutors. Also on July 17, media reports said the “Inconvenient Courage” decided to meet with officials from government ministries to continue discussions, and even agreed to keep the discussions not open to the public for the time being at the request of the government. While the slogans are extreme, it’s a moderate force ready to cooperate with the liberal government whenever conditions and opportunities are given.
After all, identity politics may facilitate the incorporation of the system of a few elite women, but it does not create a society in which many women liberated themselves truly. Therefore, the “women-first” identity politics, which seems to be gaining power now, is hard to last long. It may give women some reliefs for a while. However, there are crucial limitations in resolving deep-rooted women’s oppression, which is why many ordinary women are now taking to the streets.
(2) Intersectionality: failing to get further than the mechanical coupling of various oppressions
Many feminists who realize the limits of identity politics are paying attention to the discourse of intersectionality. Intersectionality means that women are not under the same kind of oppression, but that there are people who are at the intersection of oppressions, such as women’s oppression, racial oppression, and class oppression. Thus, in the 1970s in the United States, groups such as the Combahee River Collective and Bread and Roses, which are regarded as pioneers of intertextuality, came to claim that for all women be freed truly, they had to take issue with racial oppression and class oppression, and fight capitalism and imperialism either.
However, when looking at the practices of the two groups, which are cited as “pioneers of intertextuality,” the reality is that they have not been able to put forth a powerful action against all oppressions. The typical problem was the neglect or misunderstanding of class oppression. According to the feminist recollections of those days, there were ways of thinking that by correcting their behaviors as the middle-class women and put their privileges down they can fix the class issues, which led to consumptive quarrels among the members. The situation is not so different today that Linda Gordon who is a feminist that see intersectionality as positive, says “Of particular concern in reducing the potential of intersectionality as a concept is the neglect of class inequality.” It is another example that Hillary Clinton used the concept of intersectionality to avoid economic inequality issue which Bernie Sanders raised.
The reason why intersectionality reveals its limits in practice is that it does not account for multiple oppressions in a single holistic and unified theory. If all it says is just that women’s oppression, racial oppression, and class oppression are equally important, they are mechanically combined only on the assumption that each oppression exists separately. Then it becomes difficult to understand the unique nature of each oppression, failing to address any oppression adequately.
(3) the explanation of socialist women’s liberation theory on the relationship between women’s oppression and other oppressions
To explain various oppressions in one holistic and unified theory, one must first question the underlying cause of each oppression (which is a question that both identity politics and intersectionality do not ask). It was for this reason that we looked at the underlying cause of women’s oppression.
The underlying cause which women’s oppression occurred is that with production having developed and heavy agriculture having replaced earlier agriculture, the nature of sexual divisions of labor had changed oppressively; and class oppression, as well as surplus products and private property, had emerged at the same time and the same reason(the development of production). The key to organically combining the two oppressions without making the mistake of regarding particular oppression as secondary, saying for example that “women’s oppression is derived from class oppression” is to see things according to the framework of the development of productive forces and relations of production. The separation of the gender wage gap and sexual divisions of labor, pressure on women for housekeeping and upbringing, which many women feel now as their skin, can also be found in the characteristics of capitalist production itself.
As looking at the underlying cause of women’s oppression, we can confirm that Marx was right when he said in the social relationship between humans that “what they are …… coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” Then we should recognize the issues of women’s oppression along with other oppressions, including class oppression as a whole amid the development of productive forces and the concomitant development of relations of production. As mentioned earlier, The reason why feminists did not give a clear answer to the origin of women’s oppression is that it is difficult to recognize this in terms of feminism. socialist women’s liberation theory sees relations between various oppressions that one should recognize the specific natures of each oppression, and organically understand multiple oppressions in the overall framework of the development of productive forces and relations of production.
This position can play a significant role in putting the goal of women’s emancipation on a realistic basis, not merely on ethical grounds. For example, let us compare the sexual divisions of labor in the present capitalist society with the society in which the first women’s oppression appeared. At the level of productivity in the age of transition from earlier agriculture to heavy agriculture, the difference in average muscle strength between women and men was challenging to overcome, which provided a cause for women to be a secondary position to social production. But in today’s society, it is inconceivable. There is still an average difference in muscle strength between women and men. However, as capitalism evolves the rapid development of productive forces, the production methods that use muscle power have been replaced mainly by those by machinery, etc. It’s not easy to imagine what men can do and women can’t do. Indeed, capitalism has made it possible for women to participate in social production massively. It, of course, can not be denied that whereas the participation of women in social production is not a women’s emancipation in itself, as it is for capitalists to exploit more surplus value, it is an essential foundation for abolishing sexual divisions of labor.
So that makes it possible to say the following: not only ‘sexual divisions of labor are not right because women and men have to be equal,’ but also ‘the material basis of sexual divisions of labor has been and will disappear with the development of productive forces. Let’s push these changes more thoroughly.’ Here’s the strength of socialist women’s liberation theory, which understands the relationship of various oppressions, including women’s oppression, in the holistic framework of the development of productive forces and relations of production.
Ⅲ. What should the socialist and progressive forces do for women’s liberation?
Women’s oppression has accumulated to an unacceptable level, and as people became more confident after the candlelight struggle, the women’s liberation movement is strengthening. It means that there is a continuing possibility that new people will flow into the movement and become the leading agents. Many of those now entering the women’s liberation movement are being attracted to the identity politics that says ‘women’s rights should come first.’ However, the approach of identity politics won’t last long, as it cannot abolish women’s oppression, which was the reason that they first came to the streets. This discussion paper demonstrated why socialist women’s liberation theory can be an effective means of abolishing women’s oppression.
1. We must actively fight against women oppression.
The socialist movement is, above all, a movement to abolish all kinds of exploitation and oppression of human beings. Therefore, it is imperative that we should actively take part in the struggles for women’s rights and for the eradication of women’s oppression such as abortion ban, digital sexual violence such as spy cam porns, and sexual violence in daily life disappear. However, it is not just a matter of principle or moral that this point should be emphasized. The women’s liberation movement is currently expanding and strengthening, and even those who had not been interested in social issues before are now flowing into the movement. So this is a critical moment when the movement is likely to develop significantly. Therefore, it is especially important for us to participate in the movement and try to radicalize these people.
2. Socialist and progressive forces must establish and internalize socialist women’s liberation theory to reorganize themselves.
Today, most people, including socialist and progressive forces, use “feminism” and “women’s liberation” as synonyms. However, in this discussion paper, I made a distinction between the two concepts. Although the feminist movement has an overwhelming position in women’s liberation movement in S. Korea, in fact, feminism is just one of many lines we can choose to achieve women’s liberation. For sure, there are various and disparate currents in feminism. However, as explained and analyzed in part 2 titled “women’s oppression, as explained by socialist women’s liberation theory,” the claim that the relationship between women’s oppression and other oppressions must be recognized in a holistic framework of productive forces and relations of productive has never been accepted by any feminism, whether it be liberal kind, radical kind, or socialist kind. In other words, socialist women’s liberation theory is a distinct idea, independent from feminism. Both feminism and socialist women’s liberation theory aim to liberate women, but the latter takes its own line when it comes to how to achieve this goal of women’s liberation.
So far, this discussion paper has showed how socialist women’s liberation theory can provide the explanation that feminism cannot provide, and why it is required. Nevertheless, the socialist and progressive forces themselves are failing to formulate socialist women’s liberation theory until now. There are prevalent attitudes of talking about socialism in other matters but not even mentioning socialism in women’s issues, or being uncomfortable with dealing with women’s issues from a point of view other than feminism. Activists who belong to ‘socialist forces’ think it is natural to organize feminist book clubs or study groups, but never even imagine explaining women’s oppression from socialist point of view, let alone studying socialist women’s liberation theory.
Today with new people flowing into it, the women’s liberation movement is undergoing radical changes and new questions are being raised. For them to cope with the changing situation, socialist and progressive forces must overcome passive and conservative attitudes and must firmly establish and study socialist women’s liberation theory. In other words, they must reorganize themselves.
3. By clearly speaking up for socialist women’s liberation theory and introducing it to the public, we must organize new people for socialist women’s liberation movement.
Right now, the existence of the socialist women’s oppression theory, distinct from feminism, is not well known to the public. However, as has been emphasized several times, in the trend of expansion and strengthening of the women’s liberation movement, new people will flow into the movement. It is necessary to clearly speak up for socialist women’s liberation and introduce it to those who are curious about the underlying cause of women’s oppression and the relationship between women’s oppression and other oppressions. If we carry out such efforts steadily, new people for socialist women’s liberation movement will be organized.