On Dec. 6, 1989, a gunman targeted and killed fourteen women, injuring another ten women and four men at the École Polytechnique in Montreal in what is known as the “Montreal Massacre”. This horrific event brought the issue of violence against women into the public spotlight and many women’s rights groups pointed out that this was a symptom of systemic sexism, rather than the isolated actions of a deranged individual. While strides have been made in women’s rights since the 1980s in Canada, women remain unequal to men in almost every aspect of life. This is because formal equality under the law can never fully emancipate women under capitalism, which relies on the exploitation of women for unpaid labour in the domestic realm, and cheap “flexible” labour in the workforce.
25 years after the Montreal Massacre, violence against women is still prevalent in Canada and internationally. As we publish this article, the public is widely following the developments of the Jian Ghomeshi case, a former CBC broadcaster charged with multiple counts of sexual assault after allegations from 15 women surfaced. On the political front, two male Liberal MPs have been suspended from caucus following accusations of sexual assault by two female NDP MPs in unrelated incidents. While these news stories shock us because they involve public figures, violence against women is, sadly, a day-to-day reality of everyday women.
A Statistics Canada report titled “Homicide in Canada (2009)” found that,on average, a woman in Canada is killed every six days by her intimate partner. Another Stats Canada report found that in one year, 427,000 women over the age of 15 reported they had been sexually assaulted. At least half of all women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Aboriginal women are significantly more likely to experience all forms of violence as a result of the legacy of colonialism, driven by capitalist expansion. Women of colour, refugee women, women with disabilities, Trans women, and young women are the most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence.
Violence and harassment happens in the home, on the street, on our campuses, and in the workplace. According to a Stats Canada report, at least 23% of Canadian women have encountered work-related sexual harassment. The vast majority of physical and sexual assaults on women go unreported so the numbers are likely much higher in reality. Street harassment is a daily occurrence and is experienced by virtually all women. Violence and harassment are such a part of our daily lives it seems almost natural, but this is not the case.
Oppression of, and violence against, women is not ever-present throughout the history of human beings, but emerges with the development of private property and the class division of society. For much of human history, humans lived in egalitarian hunter-gathering societies, or what is known as “primitive communism”. Everyone had to share in the work to ensure the group’s survival and the different work tasks of women and men were valued equally. In fact, women were highly regarded for their roles in food-gathering and child-rearing, and their status was aided by the fact that families were traced through the mother’s bloodline, since without marriage and fidelity as a social norm it was impossible to be certain of a child’s father. The fruits of the collective labour were also shared equally in this period because the conditions for material inequality did not exist as food had to be consumed immediately. This all changed with the transition from hunter-gathering to agricultural societies.
The cultivation of land and farming of animals allowed for a surplus of goods — that is to say, more than can be immediately consumed — for the first time. Those who were able to produce more efficiently were eventually excused from labour and came to exploit others. Thus, we see the beginning of the class division of society into exploiter and exploited. Because men dominated the labour creating the surplus, women and their domestic labour came to be viewed as inferior. Family was now traced through the male bloodline so that property could be passed down to male heirs. The institution of marriage evolved to enforce fidelity of women so that the “legitimacy” of male heirs could be guaranteed. For thousands of years women were reduced to domestic slaves, the property of their husbands. Their enforced dependence on men, and cultural views about their inferiority that reflected this economic reality, made women vulnerable to the worst abuses.
Fast forward to the current epoch: capitalism. Capitalism, which relies on the exploitation of wage-labour of the working class for the profits of the bosses, drew women into the workforce in many parts of the world. This was a progressive step forward in a rather limited way. Now, women entered back into public life and, largely through the class struggle, have been able to win important gains in the advanced capitalist countries and some other parts of the world: the right to vote, the right to unionize, the right to divorce, paid maternity leave, legalized abortions (in select countries/states), and so forth. However, women are doubly oppressed under capitalism as unpaid labourers in the home and as wage-labourers in the workforce.
UN statistics show that while women do two-thirds of the world’s work and produce half of the food, they only consume 10% of the total wealth on the planet and own 1% of its property. In some parts of the world women remain the property of their husbands and suffer the most brutal violence imaginable. In Canada, women earn seventy cents to every male dollar; access to childcare is a major barrier to accessing higher education and/or full-time employment for many women. This economic inequality continues to leave women vulnerable to violence.
Cultural views about women and men also contribute to violence against women. Culturally, masculinity is often defined and taught to boys as having power over women. The hyper-sexualization and objectification of women in the media warps young men’s expectations of women and contributes to a culture that views sexual violence and rape as acceptable. This has also been compounded by the crisis facing many youth and workers in the present epoch of capitalism — the rise in debt, unemployment, and precarious work, along with cuts to social services and benefits. When combined with the deeply entrenched cultural norm of the male “bread-winner”, which is less and less possible to live up to, violence against women can serve as a means for men to re-establish a sense of power and control in their lives. This is in no way meant to justify violence against women, but rather to understand the complex historical and material roots of the problem.
Marx explained long ago that the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class. The capitalist class relies on sexism, racism, and all other forms of discrimination to divide the working class, preventing them from uniting against their common oppressor while driving wages down for all workers (and profits up for themselves!). Capitalism has created a society of want and greed in which human beings have to live a life of cut-throat competition in order to survive. The atomized nature of society and the dehumanizing conditions experienced by many under capitalism are deeply impactful to us psychologically and distort how we relate to one another, including how men relate to and treat women. The cultural views about women that perpetuate violence against them globally are a reflection of the economic and social organization of society — of the material conditions we live in. This is the reason why targeting societal views and media portrayals of women alone cannot end violence against women. The material conditions that divide men and women and workers from other workers will continue to exist as long as we live under capitalism.
Capitalism, which is driven by greed and competition instead of human need, cannot provide the material conditions required to genuinely establish equality between men and women as this would directly contradict this system’s profit motive. Thus, the emancipation of women from violence and exploitation is inherently tied to the struggle for socialism. By nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy under a democratic plan based on human need, the enormous wealth previously concentrated in the capitalist class’s hands can be put to use bettering the lives of the many.
A socialist plan of production would allow for universal daycare so no woman is prevented from pursuing education or a career; tuition-free post-secondary education with living grants; full employment with equal pay for equal work, and a minimum wage of no less than 2/3 of the national average so everyone could have a decent life; a shortening of the working day so everyone could participate in the running of society; and socialized domestic work, public eating houses, and equal maternity and paternity leave so domestic labour and child care would no longer fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. These are the conditions that would provide the material basis for genuine equality between men and women and remove the factors that have historically made women vulnerable to violence. Public ownership and control of the media and academic institutions would allow for content and curricula that challenges negative attitudes about women. As material inequality fades, so too does the toxic mentality it breeds and the violence that comes with it.
None of this is to say that women should wait for the socialist revolution and submit to violence and exploitation in the meantime. Marxists support any reforms that improve the living conditions of the working class. However we cannot have any faith in the management of our workplaces, the administrations of our colleges and universities, or our judiciary to prevent or address violence against women. Management at CBC did nothing to protect the female producer being harassed by Ghomeshi, and the Canadian Media Guild shamefully followed suit by trying to sweep the problem under the carpet. Unfortunately, this is the norm when women report harassment in the workplace. When they try to come forward, their lived reality of abuse is denied. Women who have experienced physical or sexual violence are too often told that they are somehow responsible for the abuse that they suffered. Management will go as far to slander and destroy the career of the female accuser in order to protect a man in a powerful position. It is understandable why many women choose not to come forward.
The situation is no better on our campuses. As many as one in five women experience sexual assault during their time as students, but the Toronto Star reports that only nine out of more than 100 universities in Canada even have policies to address sexual assault (20 Nov. 2014). Female students who try to speak out against sexual assault on campus get tied up in administrative red tape and often give up after their traumatic experience has been continuously trivialized or ignored.
What of our justice system? A report released by the Women Abuse Council of Toronto in 2006 documented numerous incidents of judges condoning domestic violence and even blaming women victims for bringing the abuse on themselves. No, we can only meaningfully address violence against women through collective action from below. If management or campus administration won’t act, the student and trade unions must campaign and organize until justice is served, including walk-outs with both male and female students and workers. Male and female youth and workers are both oppressed under capitalism, and unity of the working class is necessary to end oppression and exploitation of all people. Through the process of coming together in the class struggle, people’s ideas and attitudes change, including in relation to the role of women; the struggle unites us.
Ultimately, the emancipation of women can never be fully realized on the basis of a society where the great majority are dominated and exploited by the capitalist minority. In order to put an end to the oppression of women and all the forms of violence and exploitation, it is necessary to put an end to class oppression itself. Having freed men and women from the humiliating competition for material things, which distorts and degrades human relationships, the relationship between men and women will be free to develop and flourish under socialism on the basis of genuine equality.