The oppression of women is woven into capitalism's economic foundation, through housework because it is necessary for reproducing labor power extremely inexpensively, and through capital's exploitation of "the feminine" in order to secure increased profit in production. But the oppression of women also contributes to maintaining the bourgeoisie's political and ideological rule. One aspect of this is the self-image that women's oppression forces upon women: as weak, contemptible and inferior. The phenomenon of oppressed groups adapting the picture that their oppressors paint of them has also been recognized in other contexts. The civil rights movement in the USA in the 60's coined the slogan "Black is beautiful", not primarily to influence whites, but to convince themselves. The blacks were also used to perceiving black as ugly. People who see themselves as inferior will not usually rebel.
I will not be discussing this aspect of the issue here. I will instead write about how the oppression of women ties the male portion of the working people into the execution of the bourgeoisie's power. Ordinary men participate in the domination on behalf of the rulers.
The oppression of women gives all men a number of real, objective advantages. As we have seen, it allows the man to secure a share of the resources sufficient to avoid under-nourishment in situations where utmost need prevails. No insignificant advantage! Baby girls also run a greater risk of infanticide than baby boys in parts of the world where this is still one of the methods of keeping the number of children down.
Already from birth, the baby boy gets a larger share of the material and non-material resources that are available. In places where food is scarce, boys get more than girls. In our part of the world they get more expensive Christmas presents instead! Often boys receive more schooling. In places where all children go to school, the boys get more of the teacher's time and attention.
Men have a head start in the battle for good and well-paid jobs, and in the battle for positions in politics and organizational life. They receive personalized service in the home, and they have the advantage of being cared for in adulthood as if they were still children. In private and public life it is men who are the object of the greatest attention. And, in all contexts, men set the terms for interaction with women.
Simultaneously, the men of the working people are the victims of class oppression. Among poor peoples in the third world this oppression threatens their very lives. In our part of the world they are exploited and oppressed, they are broken down by toil and unhealthy working conditions, they are pacified and turned into lethargic voters, the power over their own class organization - the labor movement - is usurped, and they are used and then brutally discarded when they are no longer profitable enough.
In general, it is in working class men's interest to unite with their female class comrades in order to overthrow the bourgeoisie's rule. But it is difficult to unite with those one oppresses, both because one has difficulties in seeing them as "worthy" partners in an alliance, and because the alliance to some extent demands that one gives up privileges. The oppression of women divides the working people, and makes them less dangerous for the bourgeoisie.
But not only that. Through the oppression of women the bourgeoisie enlists men in the working class as assistants in holding half of the working class down. This makes it more difficult for the female portion of the working class to rise up, and it makes it more difficult for the male portion of the working class to rise up because they waste their energy holding their female class comrades down. The American feminist Bell Hooks puts it this way (1981):
"Men are encouraged to phobically focus on women as their ENEMY so that they will blindly allow other forces - the truly powerful de-humanizing elements in American life - to strip them daily of their humanity. The select groups of patriarchal women (who support and uphold patriarchal ideology) and patriarchal men who shape American capitalism have in fact made sexism into a commodity that they can sell while at the same time brainwashing men to feel that personal identity, worth and value, can be obtained through the oppression of women, and that is the ultimate weapon by which patriarchs keep men in states of submission."
And last, but not least, the oppression of women makes the male portion of the working class see through the eyes of the bourgeoisie. They adopt part of the bourgeoisie's values and views on humanity, they become incapable of seeing through the full depth of capitalism's degradation and oppression of people.
The working class and the labor movement in Norway have a long and tragic history of dissention between women and men. Here, too, contradictions between the sexes initially take on obvious forms, later appearing in a more disguised manner
The typographers were the pioneers of labor organization in Norway. In spite of this, it was in graphics that one of the first and most bitter fights between female and male workers took place - the fight between the female typesetters and the male typographers. (The account below is based on Andersgaard, 1977.)
The type-setters were unskilled and poorly paid. They were used by the owners of the printing works to force wages down (even back then, the owners of capital knew how to exploit "the feminine"). But the typesetters' wages and working conditions were nonetheless enough of an improvement over conditions in typical women's industries that the women were determined to fight to hang onto their jobs.
This conflict was, for the most part, directed towards their male co-workers, the typographers. The typographers reacted to the role the typesetters had in keeping wages down, and tried to get the women out of the branch. For example, in 1902, the editors of the journal of the typographers trade union wrote the following (as quoted in Andersgaard, p. 38):
"It's those in skirts who create such conditions (working conditions, A's note) - they crawl and teem in all the crannies of Gutenberg's holy halls. /.../ There is great demand for servant girls, so the girls need not starve if they put away their T-square. But for us men it is harder! Few of us can cook and scrub, something we most certainly will have to learn; because that will be the end to it - if no change comes in the existing conditions - that we will witness the depressing sight, of typographers standing at the stove, while the wife and daughters work by the letter case."
This was, however, not the only opinion that was expressed by the male typographers. During some periods another view dominated, the socialist view. This was influenced by Marx and Engels' policy in The International Workingmen's Association which stated that women's paid labor was a social advance. It was not women who should be opposed. It was the capitalistic system which was responsible for women being used as men's competitors. This line of reasoning also had practical consequences, and a temporary agreement was reached between the type-setters and the typographers. But the typesetters retained a deep skepticism towards the male typographers throughout the entire conflict. One expression of this was that the typesetters, unlike other organized working class women, opposed special measures for protecting women, which they considered a means of weakening women in the competition for jobs.
The most well-known, and bitter case of this dissention between male and female workers was the controversy over married women's right to work in the period between the two World Wars. In 1925 the Labor Organization's Trade Congress (The Norwegian Labor Organization (LO) is the central organization for trade unions, dominated by the Labor Party (social democrats), translator's note) voted for the following resolution (all quotes are taken from Lønnå, 1977, p. 151):
"The trade congress obligates the union-organized laborers and their representatives, to counteract both man and wife taking permanent work, in those homes where it is not necessary for the family's existence."
In order to "secure" their own workplaces in difficult times, the male workers who followed the social democratic policy of the leadership of the Labor Organization (LO), joined the employers against the women. This was probably possible because most workers did not see it as a means of securing "the workplaces of the men" but as a means of securing "the family's existence". The status of the married woman, not as an independent economic person, but as an appendage to the family, was so taken for granted that few questioned the sacrificing of the female workers.
Lønnå states that part of the background leading up to the 1925 resolution was that the LO-majority were fearful of the communist policy in the fight against unemployment. This policy consisted of taking concrete action at the workplaces. "In this situation the resolution to hinder married women's employment represented for some workers an alternative to a policy of resignation, while the leadership could accept it as a harmless attempt to act," says Lønnå (p. 155).
That some of the social democratic union representatives cooperated deliberately with the employers, is illustrated by this speech, which was held by the foreman of the Chocolate and Sugar Workers' Union in 1932 (the policy of barring women had been practiced in his union since 1926):
"Our greatest strength in this question is that, when it comes to other demands that we want put through, we are met with the greatest resistance from our employers. But on this issue I would dare to say that the conditions are the opposite, because on this issue the employers must admit, and have admitted, that we here are faced with a social question that it is primarily up to us to put in order."
According to Lønnå, getting married women out of the workforce would have had very little practical effect on unemployment among men. In 1930 the census showed that there were 101,568 unemployed in the country. The married women who might be dismissed numbered two to three thousand. Married women made up a very small portion of the labor force. In addition, in a substantial number of jobs it was out of the question to replace women with men, for example as mid-wives and cleaning women.
Was LO aware of this? Lønnå shows that those debating the issue in the 1928 Oslo City Council were aware that the practical consequences were minimal. Nonetheless, they passed a resolution that married women would not be hired in the county, and that married women would be the first to go if there were layoffs. The resolution was carried with votes from the Labor Party and some from the Right.
Why did they support a resolution that they knew would not have significant practical consequences for improving male unemployment? Lønnå quotes the types of arguments that were used in the debate. For example, one Norwegian newspaper, Arbeiderbladet, wrote:
"It has happened that wives have driven up to their jobs in their husband's private car. /.../ This has created massive and justified indignation among all the unemployed providers."
The proposer in the council justified his suggestion with the fact that married women did not need their work. When they worked anyway, it seemed "... offensive and difficult for the many good people who struggled for their food and had no opportunity to work."
In other words, the resolution in the Oslo Town Council had purely symbolic significance. This is a typical example of a group of people being cast in the role of scapegoat, and thereby diverting dissatisfaction from the real causes. The practical consequences were that the Labor Party shielded the capitalistic system by focusing the fury on the married women who were immoral enough to work though they had a "provider". Because people could see the poverty and need with their own eyes, because women's role as "supported" was so taken for granted, and because they were offered few other clear alternatives for action, the attack on married women was accepted. The women of the Norwegian Labor Party were expected to accept the role of scapegoat as an act of solidarity towards the men of their class. Wiig (1984, p. 53) quotes Einar Gerhardsen (Norwegian Labor Party, Prime Minister for many years in the post WW II period, translator's note), who in 1983 stated the following:
"Yes, Werna had to quit working when we got married in the 30's. She had a good permanent job at Samvirkelaget (a cooperative grocery, translator's note), and she didn't really want to quit. She wasn't dismissed either. But it was inconceivable that she could keep the job, since she was married to one of the party leaders. Man and wife shouldn't both have a job when unemployment was so massive."
As the 30's proceeded there were difficult battles in LO and DNA (Norwegian Labor Party, translator's note) about married women's right to work. Not to mention the fact that working women themselves began to answer back. At last, near the turn of the year 1936/37 the other side won through, and the 1925 resolution was overturned. A new resolution was composed which stated "... the right to work shall be equal for all, men and women, whether married or unmarried." But this resolution did not say that the resolution of 1925 was fundamentally incorrect. The decision to stop barring married women from the labor market came because times had improved somewhat and it was no longer deemed necessary.
Therefore, resistance to married women's employment had not disappeared. It turned up again with the German occupation. A large union like The Trade and Office Workers' Union, with many female members, laid off the women who worked in the organization already on April 9th. And in June 1940, the board of representatives in LO passed the following resolution:
"The Board of Representatives would like to point out the distribution of labor possibilities that are available so that we can avoid, as far as possible, firing workers. This pertains to limiting overtime - and piecework, double jobs and conditions where several members of a family are in moderately well-paid work. In these extremely difficult questions the individual labor unions will make their decisions taking into consideration economic conditions and a general feeling of solidarity."
Later that year, LO followed up with practical guidelines on how one should go about pressuring married women out of work.
As far as I know, there have been no such resolutions in LO bodies after the war. Though, after the war, things were very different. There was heavy demand for labor power in the reconstruction of the country, without this leading to any serious attempts to get women into paid labor. (See Wiig, 1984.) On the contrary, the 50's were the housewife's era of glory.
The ideology that women had only a conditional right to work did not die. The story of the strike at Våler Skurlag in 1975 illustrates this, and it is the only "wildcat" strike I know of that had the full support of the company's management!
Våler Skurlag was a lumber company where both men and women worked. Våler Skurlag was owned by Norske Skogindustrier, the country's largest timber concern. In 1975, the concern had 2,800 employees and a turnover of nearly one billion Norwegian Crowns. Norske Skogindustrier consisted of 12 production units and 21 industrial corporations within lumber manufacture, celluloid, chipboards and timber. The management at Våler Skurlag had decided on the acquisition of new machines which would make 13 workers superfluous. Våler Skurlag was a key industry in Våler, there was little other work in the community. The alternatives for those dismissed were either unemployment or commuting. What happened? The male workers went on strike to force the company to sack the women instead of the men. The justification was classical: that the men were the breadwinners of the family and needed the jobs more (though several of the women were single providers).
The company's management supported the male workers. This is how the second in command of the men's "action committee" put it (Schau & Akerholt, 1978, p. 86):
"Question: Did you meet often? During the workday?
Answer: Every day - most of the day. Some with the local union (club)leadership and some alone. We got full pay for this.
Question: What did management think of you? How did they react to the strike?
Answer: They thought it totally justified."
The conflict at Våler Skurlag drew a great deal of attention. When LO interceded, it resulted in negotiations where the seniority principle was followed for firing. Some men, and some women had to go.
Obviously, the result could have been different if the male workers at Våler Skurlag had fought against the company to try to prevent firing, instead of focusing on the women. Norske Skogindustrier was a large and wealthy concern, they would have had no difficulty in sustaining 13 jobs at Våler Skurlag. Now the result was a conflict between male and female workers instead of a conflict between the workers and the management. The company succeeded in achieving their main goal: cutbacks in the labor force.
In 1986 we had the so-called "Hillesland case". Four women in a small company on Karmøy were sacked for "social reasons", they were married and supported and could therefore manage without a job. Seniority rules were set aside. The four women decided to fight, and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where they lost. The firing of the Hillesland women was within the company's jurisdiction.
The legal situation in Norway on this point is ambiguous: on the one hand we have the equal status law. On the other hand we have a Supreme Court verdict which defines the company's jurisdiction in a way that in reality makes it legal to fire women because they are married and "supported".
As if this wasn't frightening enough, one is also confronted with the labor movement's helplessness and lack of involvement in the Hillesland case. The LO leadership's attitude was that the case was not within their jurisdiction since the four women were not organized at the time they were dismissed! The Hillesland women received some statements of support and money from union chapters and organizations, but reactions to the Supreme Court ruling were very tame. Though a number of large unions had national meetings the autumn the verdict was pronounced, only the Local Government Worker's Union broached this issue and passed a protest resolution (initiated by delegates who were also AKP(ml) members). There was no talk of protest actions or large demonstrations.
Another case which demonstrates the dissention between the female and male workers is the fight for the 6-hour workday. It was the organized women's movement, and not the labor movement, which initiated the fight for a 6-hour workday. The women from the trade unions, who were conscious of women's rights, quickly followed suit. The 6-hour workday was seen as a means of strengthening women's position in working life and society: as time budget studies show, time is in short supply for double-working women. Shorter workdays are necessary if most women are to have the opportunity to work full-time. Equal working hours for women and men also give women a better starting point in fighting for an equal division of housework. Shorter workdays are necessary if women are to have spare time, and the opportunity for political and social participation.
The social democratic leadership in LO, and in most of the unions, fought against the demand for a 6-hour day from the onset. The demand was systematically placed in opposition to a lower retirement age and longer vacations, and the women who supported a 6-hour day were accused of lacking solidarity. Among ordinary union men the demand was received in different ways: with lukewarm benevolence, with a lack of interest or with support for the LO-leadership's policy that retirement age should be given higher priority.
It is not a coincidence that the social democratic leadership in LO has always promoted the policies which are the most hostile towards women. This does not mean that these types of policies do not have a foundation in parts (or maybe large segments) of the male members. But it is LO leaders who systematize them and turn them into policy. When seen in light of the LO leader's class ties and functions it doesn't seem so very curious. LO leaders belong to the bourgeoisie, and their function is to ensure class tranquility so that the capitalist's hunt for profit can continue undisturbed by protests from the workers. Dissention between female and male workers weakens the working class, and makes it easier to establish class peace, and thereby also the rule of the bourgeoisie. When LO's leaders promote this dissention, it is a natural part of their bourgeois policy. Since the male portion of the working class also has certain objective advantages from the oppression of women, it is not very difficult to convince them about this policy.
Several statements from the Iron and Metal Union's foreman Lars Skytøen in the fall of 1986, illustrate how a leading social democrat, whose base is in the nearly exclusively male membership, brings up one anti-women proposal after the other. One of Skytøen's statements was about shortening the workday in the public sector. This was resolved in the tariff negotiations of 1986, the workweek was reduced to 37 1/2 hours. In the public sector many workers had their lunch break included in their work time. Skytøen felt (in agreement with the employers) that they therefore should not be included in the reduction of working hours. He argued that the point of the reduction was to equalize the workers and the public servants. Therefore, if working hours were shortened in the public sector, then public servants would still have a shorter workday.
Vast numbers of women work in the public sector. This is where we find a large segment of working-class women. They are subordinate personnel in medical institutions, in routine clerical work, in cleaning etc. These are Skytøen's "public servants". By attacking their right to a shorter workday he is attacking those who need shorter working hours most.
In the public sector we also find a large number of poorly paid women. Another of Skytøen's statements in 1986 concerned pay raises in the public sector. Skytøen was afraid that the public sector would become "pay leaders", which would breach with principles for a healthy economy.
Skytøen's third statement was about the right to strike. Skytøen claimed that small, irresponsible unions should not have the right to strike. When one looks at tariff negotiations in 1986 one can guess which union he was talking about. One of them was probably CAF, the catering employees' union, a women's union which went on strike demanding to receive the same wages as men who were hired by the operators. Another was perhaps the teachers' union, also dominated by women, who both went on strike and protested adamantly against forced arbitration when this was decided. A third could have been the nurses' union, also a women's union. They, too, went on strike in 1986.
In their form, none of Skytøen's statements are an attack on women. But their content particularly affects women because they are directed towards conflicts that are very important for women in the working class and in the lowest portions of the petty bourgeoisie. The same thing happens when the male dominated Iron and Metal Union, who are always the first in line in tariff negotiations, accept, without a backward glance, a low general increase because they "will catch it up in local wage increases". But Iron and Metal's general increase becomes the directive for the low paid women's unions as well. These unions have little chance of gaining much in local negotiations.
In the fight about married women's right to work in the period between the wars, women were singled out as something distinctive, this distinctiveness was used against them. Today, LO's policy is marked by the opposite: the distinctiveness of women's position in working life is ignored, and their special problems and demands are ignored. Siri Jensen (1986, p. 37) puts it this way:
"Women are made invisible behind words like employee, low paid, and county workers. Women's situation is a non-issue. But between the lines it's always: as employees we are all equal. If women come in, there shouldn't be any special treatment. They should abide by the terms that are already established: men's terms, Harriet Andreassen (prominent trade union leader, translator's note) was asked in an interview on International Women's Day (March 8) if she felt that the leaders in LO worked particularly with women's interests in terms of a 6 hour workday. The answer is typical: We work for our members."
"We work for our members" is no new standpoint for the leadership of LO. In the heat of the conflict about women's right to work, in 1936, female textile workers suggested that a separate women's committee be started in LO. This was rejected. One should not have divisions into "a woman's and a man's organization, in LO everyone is treated equally" (Lønnå p. 166). The leaders of LO could say this while they simultaneously had adopted a policy which kept married women out of paid jobs. There is a traceable line from this type of "equality" to the LO leaders current opinion of women. When consideration for the distinctive qualities of women can mean strengthening women's situation, the distinction is ignored, and they speak of "equality" which only serves to hide women's special problems.
The fact that the bourgeoisie leads the working classes' largest and broadest protest organization, the labor movement, is one of the means of maintaining the rule of the bourgeoisie. It is a part of the bourgeois democracy's "soft dictatorship", which makes it unnecessary to resort to open violence and the use of force. The LO leadership's women's policy must also be seen within this perspective. Infecting the working classes' own organization with male chauvinism is an effective way of dividing the working class, and of pacifying both men and women in the struggle against capitalism. Male chauvinism is an integrated part of the LO leadership's class co-operation policy and their defense of the capitalistic system.
This is important to understand, both for women and men. If one primarily judges the male chauvinism in LO as behind the times, old geezer attitudes, one is underestimating it. This type of attitude can lead to one equating leadership attitudes with the attitudes of the rest of the male membership, as with the 1986 March 8th banner in Oslo: "LO - a brake on the women's movement - crush the old geezers' power". It is no doubt true that many of the ordinary LO members have old-fashioned geezerlike opinions, like Lars Skytøen. But the ordinary member .and Lars Skytøen have different objective interests. Lars Skytøen's geezerly attitudes correspond with his class interests. This does not hold true for the ordinary members.
If one does not consider the special role that LO leadership has in maintaining and advancing male chauvinism, bringing the women's movement and the grass roots of the labor movement closer to each other will be a difficult task. This has great strategic importance for the working class and women. An alliance of this nature is a threat to the bourgeois leadership in LO, and thereby also against one of the tools that the bourgeoisie uses to rule.
The oppression of women makes women a different sort of people than men, a different sort - not quite a full-fledged person. This also makes it difficult for men to experience fellowship with women and to identify with them. For example, this is the answer given by an English schoolboy when he is asked who in his class he least wants to resemble (Stanworth, 1981):
"Male pupil: I don't know, let's see (sorting through cards with names of classmates) Oh, one of the faceless bunch I suppose. They seem so anonymous. Probably one of the giggling girls, let's pick one. Linda, she's disgusting. Yes, Linda.
Interviewer: Is that because she's disgusting?
Pupil: No, but she just seems to be immature. She doesn't contribute much to the class. She stands for everything I dislike."
This is a typical answer in Stanworth's study. Young Norwegian boys also have problems seeing positive qualities in girls. They have problems describing girls as individuals with decided characteristics at all (Ericsson, Lundby and Rudberg, 1985, p. 53):
"Kåre: (What do you like about the girls in your gang?) Like about the girls in the gang? (Yes) Nothing in particular. Don't like them particularly. They're just there. (Yes, are they cool?) Yeah, they're okay, yeah.
Ola: Like? No, just that they're there. No, I don't particularly like them. Well, I like them, but ..."
For Kåre and Ola, as well, the girls seem to be a part of the "gray masses". As people, girls and women are blurry. They disappear behind a stereotypical category. And this category is ascribed a number of primarily, negative characteristics (it is enough to remind you of the dictionary of synonyms long list of invectives under the entry "woman").
What happens when people are erased as individuals and instead become a part of the despicable "gray mass"? Myrdal (1986) provides an example of this. He quotes an episode from Bertrand Russel's autobiography, where Russel and his pregnant wife Dora are subjected to press photographers in Yokohama. Russel writes:
"At that moment I was shaken by the same wild passions that Anglo-Indians must have felt under the Mutiny, such as white men surrounded by a coloured riotous population must feel. Here I learned to realize that the instinct to protect one's own family against being mistreated by people of a different race, is the wildest and most passionate feeling man is at all capable of feeling."
Because of Russel's racist prejudices the press photographers in Yokohama become something other than simply annoying press photographers. They become a version of "the yellow danger", a threatening, inhuman mass without human characteristics. The mutiny that Russel refers to in his text is the Sepoy uprising in 1857, a national revolt against British colonization which was crushed with inconceivable cruelties and massacres. But the humanist and pacifist Russel identifies himself with the British murderers. They are people to him, he can understand them. The Indian rebels are non-human, non-personal, just like the Japanese press photographers in Yokohama.
These kinds of stereotypes, this kind on un-individualizing, creates and maintains social distance. It can have hideous consequences. Christie has analyzed the relationship between prisoners and guards in concentration camps for Serbians in Northern Norway during World War II. What was the difference between the Norwegian guards who became murderers and abused the prisoners, and those who did not? One important difference lies in the way they perceived the prisoners (Christie, 1982, p. 67):
"Most typical was, perhaps, that they (the abusers) did not come close enough to the prisoners to experience them as fellow beings. /.../ They were unable to see the prisoner's behaviour as a reasonable answer to an unreasonable external situation. The prisoners became a gray mass with partially incomprehensible, partially evil, partially dangerous characteristics. Only one thing was any use against them:Force. The other jailers saw more. After a while the prisoners became something more than a mass, one or the other human characteristic became clear, they became individuals marked by a horrible situation. But that was enough. Where the person became visible, the jailers again came under the direction of their usual value system."
When a group of people become a stereotype and are deprived of their individuality in other people's eyes, then it becomes easier to oppress them and abuse them. Violent pornography and so-called "snuff movies", in particular, show how far this mechanism can lead to the "usual norm system" being put out of function. These films are intended to sexually excite average men.
But violent pornography is just one extreme in a long line of more or less gross abuses, physical, emotional and social, which average men commit against women. The negative stereotypes of women as gender representatives make it easier to commit these types of abuses. It creates social distance to women, women become something it is difficult to identify with, one cannot put oneself in their situation.
Making individuals faceless members of a stereotypical social category, can, of course, be used as a kind of defense mechanism in the oppressed classes' and groups' fight against the superior power. "Male chauvinist pig" is one of the stereotypes that the women's movement has created. But the oppressed do not have the same power to define as the oppressors. In our society men are individuals to a much greater degree than women, women are a sex to a far greater extent than men. Rousseau's viewpoint from the second half of the 1700's has not lost it's validity:
"The man is a man just at certain moments, the woman is a woman all of her life ... everything perpetually reminds her of her sex." (See Viestad 1982).
The more the working-class men are affected by the negative stereotypes about women as gender representatives, the more useful they are as tools to keep women from that same working class down. In this way, the bourgeoisie gets average men to do their job for them.
When Peer Gynt visited Dovregubben's Hall and was to marry Dovregubben's daughter, the trolls wanted to give him a little cut in the eye. This cut would ensure that he stopped seeing the world through human eyes, and would instead see it in a troll's perspective. Women's oppression gives men from the working class this kind of "troll splinter" in the eye.
In my office I have two posters. One is Sonja Krohn's poster from AKP (m-l)'s women's conference in the fall of 1986, "We are the owners of tomorrow". The other is made by Klassekampen's (Class Struggle, Norwegian daily newspaper, translator's note) artist "M" prior to a meeting about "The changing male role" organized by Kvinnefronten (The Women's Front) in Elverum, also in the fall of 1986.
The artists that made the posters are associated with the same political milieu. The themes they illustrate are closely related, they are two sides of the same debate. But the posters express two very different things.
Sonja Krohn's poster for the women's conference expresses pride, joy and strength. It shows a woman who is rising up, stretching her arms towards the light, a woman who is totally conscious that she "owns tomorrow". "M"'s poster shows a male figure who is both sad and ridiculous. He has a facial expression like a sorrowful St. Bernard, and the entire figure is in the process of shrinking or collapsing into a wet spot.
I think that the two posters are a good illustration of the dominating frames of mind in the political milieu from which they arose in the fall of 1986. The women are charging forward and feel proud and strong. The men become frightened and insecure and feel that they are shrinking.
This makes a statement about an important source of men's pride and strength in our society. Women carry men's pride and strength on their shoulders (Ericsson, 1986):
"Men benefit greatly from women's practical work for them: that women use their heads thinking about all of daily life's small and large events; that women associate with men in a way that perpetually gives men signals that they are the most important; that women support men's illusions about their lives; that women support men emotionally; that women evaluate their actions according to the consequences the things she does or doesn't do have on the man; that women do not take for granted that they have rights - it all depends on whom it affects; that women take responsibility for the resolution or smoothing over of conflicts - no matter who creates them. Because women do all of this it is also possible for the man to develop a number of the positive characteristics that give him confirmation as a man: he can be interested in the 'big' things, because others take care of the small; he can be self-secure because someone always assures him that he is important; he can stand up for his rights, because others waver; he can speak 'straight from the heart' because someone else will tidy up after the conflicts he creates; he can appear secure and independent because someone perpetually automatically turns up to fulfill his needs for support and care."
A change in the interaction between the female and male role can give men the feeling that the ground is shaky beneath them. One of the central aspects of the very identity of "man", is having power over women. The opposite of a real man is a henpecked husband. The henpecked husband has no power over women.
Today's male identity is dependent upon women being oppressed. This is so taken for granted and unproblematic in many contexts that family therapists accuse women who, in their opinion, adopt too much power in the family of "removing their husband's genitals". When the man, in turn, gets back at his wife, he, is acting in a manner that "shows he has balls" (Haley 1971, p. 114 and 117). Power, then, lies in the genitals.
Bell Hooks (1981) gives a convincing (and heartbreaking) analysis of how this affected the black movement in the USA in the 60's. The fight against racism, and for the black's rights and human dignity was, as Hooks relates it, also a fight to strengthen the black men's power over "their" women. Part of the degradation of the black man was that he was deprived of the right to rule over black women, he was "unmanned". Bell Hooks quotes the author Richard Wright who in the novel Long Black Song lets the hero, who has just killed a white man yell:
"The white folks am never gimme a chance! They am never give no black man a chance! There ain nothing in yo whole life yuh kin keep from em! They take yo Ian! They take yo free dom! They take yo women! N then they take yo life!"
The fact that male chauvinism also finds expression among black men is, in itself, not all that curious. It is more tragic when a movement for freedom from racism simultaneously becomes a movement to strengthen black men's power over another oppressed group, the women, as Bell Hooks described. Bell Hooks also quotes another author, one of the black movement's most notable poets, Amiri Baraka. In a section in the play Madheart Baraka glorifies violence against women as a means of strengthening the black man's pride and dignity:
"BLACK MAN: I'll get you back. If I need to.
BLACK WOMAN (laughs): You need to, baby just look around you. You better get me back, if you know what's good for you you better.
BLACK MAN: (looking around at her squarely, he advances): I better? (a soft laugh) Yes. Now we are where we have always been (he wheels and suddenly slaps her crosswise, back and forth across the face.)
BLACK WOMAN: What??? What ... oh love ... please ... don't hit me. (he hits her, slaps her again.)
BLACK MAN: I want you woman, as a woman. Go down. (He slaps her again) Go down, submit, submit to love and to man, now and forever.
BLACK WOMAN: (weeping, turning her head from side to side): Please, don't hit me ... please ... (she bends). The years have been so long, without you, man. I've waited ... waited for you ...
BLACK MAN: And I've waited.
BLACK WOMAN: I've seen you humbled, black man, seen you crawl for dogs and devils.
BLACK MAN: And I've seen you raped by savages and beasts, and bear bleach-shit children with apes as fathers.
BLACK WOMAN: You permitted it ... you could do nothing.
BLACK MAN: But now I can (he slaps her ... drags her to him, kissing her deeply on the lips). That shit is ended, woman, you are with me now, and the world is mine."
This part of Baraka's play is gripping, appalling and tragic. It represents the dreams of a black, militant man who wants to free himself from racism's oppression and degradation and unite himself in love with a black woman. But his pride is dependent upon her subordination. Only after he has power to rule over her, can love arise between them.
The "troll's splinter in the eye" can hardly be more clearly illustrated. Because there are so many similarities between women's oppression and racism's mechanisms and ideology, it becomes so very obvious that the black man in Baraka's play adopts the ruler's picture of the world: dignity and greatness are dependent upon whom one has beneath one. How can real emancipation from racism's inhumanizing be possible on this kind of foundation?
In our society perhaps pornography is the clearest expression of men's dreams about the subordinate women. Porn has become a gigantic industry and a powerful ideological tool for the spreading of a degrading view of women. When many men persist in claiming that fighting porn is fighting against sexuality, this tells us something about the "troll's splinter in the eye". The fact that one becomes big and manly by oppressing and degrading other people, women, is so obvious that it is impossible to see it.
He who oppresses another, cannot himself be free, said Marx. He was referring to the British working class' relationship to the oppressed nation of Ireland. But the bourgeoisie's view of freedom is another: only he who oppresses another, can himself be free. And the bourgeoisie's freedom as a class is based on just this, the oppression and exploitation of the working class. Through this they free themselves from the everyday toil, and acquire material, cultural and political freedom that is unknown for the majority of the population.
This is the same view of freedom that has been expressed in this section of Baraka's play: only he who has the power to oppress another, can himself be free. And in our society part of the common man's "freedom" is built upon the oppression of women.
But it is a limited and perverted freedom, of an entirely different nature than the one that Marx spoke of. The problem is that the oppression of women contributes to the transfer of the bourgeois view of freedom to the men of the working class, and make it difficult for them to break with these terms. Thus the "troll's splinter in the eye" strengthens the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin created the expression "useful idiots". But he was referring to people who let themselves be used by others in conflict with their own true interests. Under capitalism ordinary men are raised to be useful idiots for the rulers, in the sense that they allow themselves to be used to keep their female class comrades down.
This occurs because the oppression of women gives ordinary men a number of objective advantages. But these advantages have a high price. The price is division in the working class. It must be paid by male workers helping, through their male chauvinism in the labor movement, the bourgeoisie retain the leadership of their own fighting organization. It must be paid through social distance between men and women of the working people. And it must be paid through men getting bogged down in the bourgeois view of humanity and freedom, they get a "troll's splinter" in the eye making it difficult for them to see that a society which is liberating must be built upon totally different premises than the present one. Through all this, men of the working people undermine their own class interests.
Obviously, it is women who pay the greatest price for the oppression of women. But men pay, too. Bell Hooks has said it this way:
"Being an oppressor is as demeaning and inhumanizing as being a victim. The patriarchy forces fathers to behave like monsters, encourages husbands and lovers to become rapists in disguise, teaches brothers to be ashamed of caring about us, and denies all men the emotional life which could have been a self-affirmative force in their lives. The old understanding of the patriarch as someone who deserves respect and honor, has outlived itself in the developed capitalistic world. The patriarchy is only a subtitle under imperialistic capitalism, which is the dominating system. Men don't serve their families and local communities as patriarchs, they simply serve the interests of the state."
With this in mind "M"'s poster about the male role meeting in Elverum becomes doubly sad, no matter how humoristic it is. The picture of the man who shrinks away from the forward march of the women's movement, shows how our society's gender system blocks our view and makes it difficult to imagine a new way to be a man which is liberating for both sexes. Many men experience it as having the unpleasant choice between being an oppressor or a zero. In experiments with this type of "avoidance-avoidance" conflicts, as psychologists call them, (the choice between two negative alternatives) the animals in the experiment usually just freeze up until the experimenter gives them an electrical shock which is more unpleasant than both of the unpleasant alternatives. The women's movement might, for some men, feel like this electrical shock. It is a challenge, for both women and men who want to fight against the existing gender system, to free the man from this forced "choice" situation. This can only happen through practical battle which makes it possible for men to experience that they not only have privileges, but also substantial amounts of heavy chain, to lose.