Bringing more women to socialism

“Imaginings of a feminist, anti-capitalist future can only happen when women are incorporated into the movement in good faith and not as tokens.”

I first drafted the article republished below in 2017, when I was 18 years old and still filled with awe at the apparent successes of the left in the English-speaking world, writes Emily Robinson. The Democratic Socialists of America, which I was then still a member of, had recently cracked 10,000 members, and Jeremy Corbyn had fended off his first right-wing coup in the Labour Party. I wrote the bulk of this in Teviot Row House, the student union building for the University of Edinburgh, after a particularly frustrating discussion about slates for a local Momentum committee election. 

The title I chose at the time, “De-Dudeing Socialism”, is not one I would pick now. It was intended to smooth the rough edges of talking about feminism and women’s relationship to radical politics in an environment where such talk was equally derided as too liberal or too facile to be worth engaging with. It was intended, of course, to draw the attention of the exact men for whom tokenising women had become a political routine, to convince them that I was on their side and would ultimately not challenge too many of their ongoing practices. It is, then, no surprise that the line most people highlighted in the piece was not about my actual recommendations for making the left more hospitable for women, but about liberals forcing women to answer for men’s behaviour. Several years on, that particular brand of liberal antagonism seems to have largely petered off, making it all the more upsetting that so little has fundamentally changed for women in left organising (at least, I should specify, in Britain).

The recommendations I made nearly four years ago were largely crafted out of self-interest — they reflect the things that I, as a young woman on the left, wished were available to me. I was new to the left, yes, but I was already exhausted. Part of this reveals the taxing nature of life within the Labour Party, particularly on the Labour left; that year I was asked to run for at least five internal elections, despite having little genuine organising experience to recommend me and even less ideological proficiency. At the time, I was already cynical about what my responsibilities were as a woman on the left. I knew I was there first and foremost to fulfil quotas to allow men with better organising experience and intellectual training to do as they pleased. My duty as a socialist feminist was to be an embodied pre-emption of accusations of anti-feminism from liberals.

I am no longer in the Labour Party — I left after coming into greater contact with the pro-independence left and being exposed to iterations of the left that didn’t demand constant prostration at the altar of internal elections and petty factional warfare. Still, I never suffered any illusions about what left-wing womanhood meant; I never once expected women’s issues and feminist theory to take priority in my endeavours. Though I continue to struggle with my identification with the label ‘feminist’ and its relationship to the bourgeois movement, I have never renounced feminism. Instead, I fancy myself as having had multiple feminist awakenings, the most poignant of which also happens to be the most recent.

I was first introduced to the 1993 Dundee Timex Strike by my partner, a Dundonian by childhood and choice, when I was 20 and desperately searching for a topic for my undergraduate dissertation. The strike, in brief, was a dispute between workers and management at Timex’s Dundee plant in response to the company’s sharp anti-worker turn, including the rolling back of a litany of hard-won benefits and the introduction of a large number of redundancies. The strike is notable not just because of its status as a flashpoint in the fight against the rising tide of deindustrialisation and neoliberalism in Scotland, but also because the bulk of the workforce was women.

Timex strike

In my research, I came across a picket-line interview with two women strikers who expressed their frustrations with the machinations of trade unionism and the alleged inefficacy of the men who represented the striking workforce to the management. The women argued that had the union representatives (all of whom were men) included even a single woman, the dispute might have come to a more positive close in less time. They did not argue that the union’s demands were wrong, or too radical, or that the strike itself was wrong-headed, but they firmly believed that had there been greater inclusion of women that the outcome of the dispute might have been somehow different. 

Dulled imagination

That interview speaks to me, in no uncertain terms, of the dulled imagination of a left that does not fully incorporate feminist aims. These strikers’ desire for inclusion of women did not represent a conservative attack on trade union politics, but a yearning for different approaches to class struggle. When I first wrote the piece, I had only been exposed to feminism as a rather abstract concept, as an eagerness for equality accompanied by certain cultural signifiers restrained to the confines of capitalist society. In the intervening years, I have been made aware of the breadth and depth of feminist imaginations, from everything as abstract as a complete revolution of social relations to everything as concrete as better representation in industrial disputes. Imaginings of a feminist, anti-capitalist future can only happen when women are incorporated into the movement in good faith and not as tokens, and when men do not dominate the left wholesale, as in Dundee in 1993.

My brief training as a historian has taught me the folly of obsessing over the what-ifs of history, and I do not want to speculate on what the outcome of the Timex strike could have been if more women were involved –– nobody benefits from such speculation, least of all the women of Dundee who had to pick up the pieces and begin life anew once the cold heart of capital decided they were no longer valuable. But the anecdote does tether the unhappiness I articulated in my article to something greater than the concerns of a bourgeois student activist in the 2010s, to an ongoing (but not inevitable, not insurmountable!) problem on the left.

I am older now, equipped with stronger tools to express my feminist qualms, to make better references to theory and practice. I have no doubt that I could have sat down to rewrite this article, to couch my recommendations in sturdier language and on firmer theoretical ground, but no amount of sophistication can obscure the fact that my recommendations haven’t changed, that the exhaustion remains. So, despite its clumsy language and its perhaps overly-conciliatory tone, I have chosen to present this piece unchanged from the day I penned it as a reminder that the means of engaging women on the left haven’t changed, that women haven’t become more unreachable or more averse to leftism. We have it in our power to be feminists, we need only do it.

“How do we bring more women to socialism?” is a question I have been asked with increasing frequency in the past several months. At first, I assumed that people were asking me because of my unmatchable feminist cred, but later I realised it was because I was one of only one or two other women in the room. Still, I would try my best, stammering and stuttering my way through the question, because really, who was I to speak for all women?

But the fact that I’m so often asked this question speaks to the very nature of the problem: women in politics — not just left politics — are tokenized and asked to be the standard bearers of their entire generation, not simply to be comrades. Young women on the left bear an immense responsibility, they must fight the hard fight not only for socialism, but for socialist feminism, and for women at large. Where men aren’t forced to identify with an identity, they are instead allowed to speak only for themselves on issues, women are asked to speak for all of womankind when they speak out.

Then, when these socialist women leave the confines of socialist spaces, they are not only asked to speak for women and socialism, but also for the failures of socialist men. Women are asked to denounce sexism in the left movement ­– often sexism from men they have never met — lest they face accusations of internalized misogyny. When liberal feminists engage with socialist feminists, it is never on the issues of the day, but rather for the sake of hurling accusations against socialist men that women must answer for.

It is utterly exhausting.

I won’t cover for the sexist men in the socialist movement. I will not dismiss their wrongdoings; nor will I pretend that my comrades and I have never been the victims of sexist or misogynist behaviour instigated by our male comrades. The left undoubtedly has a problem with men who cannot behave. But is it worse than any other political movement? No.

Still, there are ways to reach out to women and make things easier for women already in the movement that ought not be ignored.

1. Feminism is a socialist issue, and women’s issues should not be ignored in favour of more “serious” issues. It’s not unusual to watch people on the left dismiss action on simple issues. Why? Lord if only I knew. Maybe it’s to fulfil the left’s obsession with needlessly overcomplicating things. Maybe it’s latent sexism. I neither know nor care, the problem exists and the answer is simple: don’t do that. Simple issues are no less meaningful than complex ones and can often be a helpful recruiting tool. If women see that socialist organisations are getting involved in educational fights, or in women’s health fights, they will be more likely to see utility in joining those organisations.

2. Don’t let men dominate discussions. It sounds obvious, hell, it is obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I see socialist groups making. There are simple and effective fixes to this, that, when implemented correctly flow so fluidly it’s almost impossible to tell that the men in the room are being decentralised. Strategies like taking stack are helpful because they help minimize moments of tokenisation (instances like, “Are we sure there aren’t any female-identifying people who’d like to speak right now?”) but also help to put the wider group at ease with one another.

3. Create a community. While this applies to left organising in general, I cannot stress its importance enough in helping to make socialist spaces palatable to women. Providing a system of resources and support to your socialist organisation will help encourage not only women but also the less timid left-inclined folks to get involved. Minor adjustments, like providing free childcare at meetings, ample notice for events, and accessible systems of redress for sexual harassment or gender discrimination can provide women with the comfort and security they need to turn out to socialist groups.

4. Don’t overwork your non-male members. If I had a penny for every organisation I’ve seen with three severely overworked non-male members and 30 very relaxed male members, I would be a very rich woman indeed. Things like all women shortlists are good, and truly a wonderful way to engage women, but if it ends up that your all women shortlists are made up of the same few women over and over, consider abandoning some of those fights until you have more non-male members to fill the slots. It’s a controversial suggestion, but if you’d like to prevent all your female members from burning out, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices while you work on the gender balance.

5. Mentoring is more beneficial than most realise. If you just rolled your eyes at that because it’s such a feature of liberal groups, trust me comrade, I feel you. But at the same time, having more experienced women available to mentor younger women can make a difference in helping women stick around. There are a lot of unique challenges women face when they make their way into the world of activism and organising, and having someone who has faced the same obstacles before to provide guidance is invaluable.

In the end, all the advice and brainstorming in the world can’t bring women to socialism. It’s incumbent upon socialists to make the case to women that we’re on their team, no one else can, and no one else will. The left faces a lot of challenges in the coming years, but a lack of women absolutely should not be one of them.

Republished from Republican Socialist Platfom

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