Women’s lives under austerity

Christine Bird, in an article originally published in the Leeds publication Northern Star, discusses the realities of many women of lives under capitalism and austerity, arguing that things weren’t always this way, and they won’t be like this forever.

Sisters Uncut on the 20 June Anti-austerity march in London. Photo RonF/Flickr
Sisters Uncut on the 20 June Anti-austerity march in London. Photo RonF/Flickr

The Tory – LibDem coalition just gone was hardly at the forefront of the global struggle for women’s liberation. It professed itself to be generally in favour of equality, and even had Theresa May as its Home Secretary. She was, however, one of very few women to be found at ministerial level. Away from the dizzying heights of government and large corporations, women were particularly affected by various cuts to services. For example, more than 400 Sure Start Children’s Centres were closed in its first two years of office. These centres aimed to embody the best early years practise, based on research findings. They brought together a range of agencies, from midwives and breast-feeding support through to playgroups and high quality nursery care and education. They were built in some of the most deprived areas of the country – early intervention is recognised as the key to giving children the best start in life.

All governments, however, seem constrained in how far they support genuine gender equality. Even the mythical Labour government of 1945, which set up the welfare state, had its limitations in this regard. For example, families were assumed to consist of married couples, where the husband was the main breadwinner, and the wife was exempted from National Insurance (NI) contributions in order to stay at home and raise the children. If the woman then became a single parent, she would receive less in benefits due to her lower NI contributions.

There are good reasons why gender-based inequalities are common to capitalist societies, which are all about making profit. Blatant things like paying women less. And more subtle, but nevertheless profitable, motivations that divide in order to better rule us. If men and women believe that it’s in a woman’s nature to care for children, the sick and older people, then we’re much more likely to accept this as our role and not expect it to be decently paid work. This preys on our good nature in order to swindle us. Capitalism requires people in order to make profit. And people need looking after. We need food, clothes, medical care, education and such. If women can do a lot of this work for free, then so much the cheaper! In any case, even when it is paid, care work is viewed as less skilled, is valued less and earns lower wages than more traditionally masculine jobs such as skilled manual labour.

The traditional gender roles may suit some of us, at different times of life. And at others, they can feel oppressive. The isolating and depressive aspects of housework and child-rearing without social support are well-documented. Less widely discussed are the ways in which young boys are damaged by the expectation that they are stronger and need less care than young girls, all too frequently growing into angry and depressed men who are unable to handle their emotions. Not to mention how alienated some LGBT women can feel, with high rates of suicide amongst transgender teenagers in particular – up to half have had at least one attempt by their 20th birthday, according to one American statistic.

This latest Tory government seems set to trump even the last one in implementing measures that will negatively affect women in particular: cuts to the public sector affect both the pay of its largely female workforce, and the lives of the women who benefit – carers of all sorts who will find themselves less able to enjoy independent and fulfilling lives of their own; cuts to services supporting women experiencing gender-based violence; cuts to legal aid meaning women can’t afford proper representation in divorce cases. Even the seemingly woman-friendly policy of providing increased free nursery places is undermined by the lack of additional funding. Are (usually female) nursery workers to be paid less? Will they be less-well trained? Does the government imagine that young children do not require high quality education?

Faced with the mean and petty nature of these and other ‘austerity measures,’ it can be hard to think where to begin fighting back. There are sparks of resistance; marches against austerity, localised strikes for better pay, housing campaigns. But sometimes, we just need to remember that things weren’t always this way, and they won’t be like this forever. In the third century BC, Trieu Thi Trinh raised an army 1000 strong and managed to beat back the Chinese forces invading her homeland in Vietnam. She said, “I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, re-conquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom and never bend my back to be the concubine of any man.” This seems like as good a place as any to start.


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