Statement of Unity
As women, we have a common bond that cuts across all racial, ethnic, religious, class, national, age, sexual identity, and health lines. We have more in common as women than we have differences. From our common bond we can work for the worldwide liberation of all our sisters, of all women, whether they are currently aware of their oppression as women or not. To be committed to all women, we must recognize our unity with all oppressed people.
Underlying sources of all oppression
Exploitation and oppression are based on economics, not on any differences between groups of people. In RC we define oppression as the systematic mistreatment, reinforced by society, of one group of people by other groups. Oppression arose out of the apparent benefit to one group of enslaving another for its own material gain. Societies have advanced from slavery to feudalism to capitalism. Today we live in a world dominated by capitalism. Women’s oppression has been integral to almost all oppressive societies and today is integral to global capitalism.
How women became oppressed
As property and inheritance became important, a man’s control of property, and his desire to pass it on to “his” children, became the basis for controlling a woman. Women’s biological tie to birthing children, and the roles that developed from that, became the excuse, not the reason, for women’s oppression. There is not, and never has been, anything inherent in being female that could justify women’s oppression.
The roles of child bearer and mother have been essential to the survival of every culture, and of the human species. The important work of communicating traditions and perspectives and providing physical and emotional nurturing has often been assigned to mothers. In early developing societies, most women were not hunters or warriors for good reason. A group could lose many men and still survive as long as there were women to bear children. A large group of women, with a small group of men, could re-populate. In class societies, women’s work, particularly that of childbearing and mothering, was unpaid, and this became the basis of female exploitation.
The oppression of women
Women have been systematically robbed of the right to control our bodies and to exercise economic and political power. We have been seen and treated as less than human—as unintelligent, as dependent.On the one hand we have been “idealized,” to be protected and honored, and on the other hand seen as slaves or servants, to be beaten. We have been placed on a pedestal or beaten into the ground, but always as the property and under the dominion of men. We have not been seen as equals in strength, intelligence, and power. The domination by men continues today and ranges from vicious cruelty (sexual exploitation and physical violence) to subtle manipulation (such as making women feel we need to dress for approval and be “nice” in order to get minimal good treatment).
Class societies promote inequalities of every kind. In most class societies, there have been economic inequalities based on sexism, including women being expected to do the unpaid work of childbearing and mothering. Although the general characteristics of sexism have been present in all male-dominated societies, specific forms of sexism have changed with the evolution of class societies. Today a majority of the world’s females grow up poor and remain poor throughout their lives. Most adult women work two jobs. In the economic “north,”1 they do unpaid work in the home and devalued work in the wage-work force, for which they earn less than men. The majority of poor adults are women. Women constitute fifty-one percent of the world’s people and work two-thirds of the world’s working hours. They receive ten percent of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.
The institutions of female oppression
In most class societies, almost all, if not all, institutions (broadly defined) oppress women. Several well-organized institutions target women in particular. These institutions can have some positive functions, but they mostly play a role in perpetuating sexism. They include the sex and beautification “industries” and institutions concerned with marriage, reproduction, child-raising, and women’s work. Others, such as the “mental health” system, the education system, politics, and the media, are also fraught with sexist oppression.
In addition, there exist certain “mechanisms of sexism.” These include violence against women, sexual victimization, sexist mistreatment by men, social control by means of pharmaceuticals and psychiatric medications (more often prescribed to women than to men), and internalized oppression.
MECHANISMS OF SEXIST OPPRESSION
Mechanisms of sexist oppression reinforce, maintain, and perpetuate the oppression of women. Getting rid of them is part of liberating women from oppression and internalized oppression. The following are key mechanisms:
Violence is of particular concern to women. It is often accompanied by sexual and emotional abuse. Women are beaten by fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, sisters, husbands, lovers, and “friends,” as well as total strangers. When violence is not actually inflicted, there may still be the threat of violence. Almost all women have been physically abused by men. (It is important to remember that men are carrying out behavior that was directed at them earlier as victims.)
Invalidation is another tool of oppression. Women’s abilities to think and communicate are systematically invalidated. We are not encouraged to develop these abilities and are taught that we are both physically and mentally inferior to men. Because we have been so invalidated, many of us find it hard to feel sure of what we know, and to put it into words. We may feel unable to explain our thinking.
Sexist mistreatment by men
Our societies install sexist distresses on men. These distresses create mistaken attitudes toward women about our worth, abilities, and power. They play out2 in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that include degrading and humiliating women, treating women as intellectual inferiors, treating women as sex objects, sexually victimizing women, keeping women in subservient roles, belittling women, and sometimes killing women.
Internalization of oppression
Being targeted by oppression leaves women with patterned oppressive attitudes toward ourselves. Much of the ongoing damage done by sexism (and other oppressions) is the result of this internalized oppression.
To stay oppressed, a person has to be conditioned, by mistreatment and misinformation, to “accept” the oppression. It is not the fault of the victim that he or she accepts oppression. Systematic invalidation and mistreatment create distress recordings.
Constantly reinforced and restimulated, these recordings condition the victim to become discouraged and submit to the oppression. The distress recordings, which now include this acceptance, hold the oppression in place. They become socialized as group agreements within the oppressed group. This is internalized oppression.
To rid itself of oppression, a group must refuse to accept it. This is not as simple as it sounds. The depth and constant reinforcement of these distress patterns make the process confusing.
However, we do know how to get rid of distress recordings. We know that discharge works, and we are rapidly becoming more skillful at it. Allying ourselves with other oppressed groups also helps dispel confusion.
Oppressive societies set oppressed groups against each other. Because each oppressed group has been hurt by oppression, it can be restimulated into participating in oppressing the others. All human beings have been oppressed at some point—even those at the top of the hierarchy of oppressors—if not in some other way, then as children. When restimulated, the victim of oppression tends to move into the less painful oppressor role. In this way, oppression is unintentionally perpetuated. We can observe how oppression is passed back and forth between oppressed groups. People keep oppressing each other as they alternate between victim and oppressor roles.
EXAMPLES OF INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION AND MUTUAL OPPRESSION
Internalized sexism takes three general forms:
1) Individual women adopt oppressive attitudes toward themselves, for example, “I cannot do math,” “I deserve mistreatment,” “I’m not beautiful,” “I have no other choice but to have a child.” They struggle to feel equal to men. In fact, women are brilliant, loving, creative, cooperative, and powerful. All feelings or appearances to the contrary are the result of our having been hurt. Any stance other than complete self-appreciation buys into the oppression that was placed on us from the outside. We can regain our full pride in being women. We can be proud of our abilities to think, gather information, and understand the world. We can reclaim our pride in traditional women’s roles and at the same time take pride in having fought the oppressive, rigid definitions of those roles. We can systematically contradict the “cultural norms”3 that invalidate our basic human nature and our femaleness. We are all REAL women.
2) Women replay sexism at other women—by criticizing them, devaluing their importance, competing with them, disrespecting them, expecting them to assume subservient roles, and so on. In the grip of this internalized oppression, we target other women with the negative messages that were played at us. It is appropriate to fully appreciate ourselves; it is equally appropriate to completely appreciate each other. We can take full responsibility for our own lives. We need not compete with each other for limited resources. We are the resources. We can value ourselves and the unique contributions we make. We can love and appreciate each other, and regain our comfort in being physically close. We can do away with4 majority cultural standards of beauty and delight in the unique beauty of our femaleness, as well as our ability to think, to create, to love.
3) Groups of women (defined by race, class, sexual identity, age, ethnicity, and so on) oppress other groups of women. For example, because of racism and internalized sexism, white women oppress women targeted by racism. Oppression of one group by another keeps us from seeing our commonality, from seeing that the issues affecting one group affect the others as well. We need to commit ourselves to each other’s liberation. We need to learn to appreciate each other’s cultures, lifestyles, and gender identities. We need to attack the many oppressions that divide us from each other and commit ourselves to removing from our own behaviors and attitudes all traces of racism, anti-Jewish oppression, ageism, internalized sexism, classism, oppression of disabled persons, oppression of people with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and “Queer” identities, and so on.
In some parts of the world, the media promote the idea that sexism is dead. In fact, sexism is alive and active everywhere. As in every other period in the evolution of class societies, it has developed into new forms.
The following is a description of contemporary sexism. It applies mostly to sexism in the economic “north.” Women in the economic “north” still have much to learn about the reality of women’s lives in the more oppressed nations of the world. Input is needed from more and more women, to get a more accurate picture outside of Western bias and be able to give a more complete picture of sexism worldwide.
Overall, women’s lives have improved
Women’s lives have improved with each successive stage of society and of the women’s movement. In many places traditional patriarchal structures are collapsing. The traditional male-dominated family—historically a basic social unit—has changed greatly. There are fewer restrictions on women’s rights and fewer male prerogatives at women’s expense. Most women work outside the home. Women have achieved more access to education, and many more women are professionals. Women have also made progress in the areas of health, athletics, the arts, and politics, and in some religions.
Despite these gains, inequality persists. Violence against women has increased, and more women are poor. Because some traditional conventions (such as getting married if one is pregnant) have broken down, women with children often lack support and suffer economically. Although there is more equality in marriages than ever before, patterns of sexism and internalized sexism persist. Women still struggle hard against sexism in the home, in the workplace, in politics, in religion, in the health care system, and in every other major institution.
As people challenge sexism, oppressive societies resort to pretense, concealment, and deception in an attempt to obscure it. Young women are told that women are now equal to or even more liberated and powerful than men. “Northern” societies publicize the more overt sexism in the economic “south,”5 in order to make “northern” women’s lifestyles look good by comparison.
“New” forms of sexism are emerging. With the worldwide spread and domination of multi-national corporations, women, mostly those targeted by racism, now work at most of the low-paid, labor-intensive jobs. Multi-billion-dollar industries that specifically exploit women—such as the pornography, advertising, and beautification industries—have grown tremendously.
Advanced technologies and new consumer products generate “new” forms of sexism, and oppressive societies present these as “liberation.” For example, a “liberated woman” in some places is a woman with the right to “sexual freedom” and the right to buy a variety of consumer products that “enhance” or change her appearance. This new false “liberation,” which profits big business, has brought with it new struggles for women: anorexia and bulimia, the medicalization of feelings, violent media images and music, sexual addictions, and so on. There is a preoccupation with “sexual freedom” among some feminists in the economic “north.” The consumer culture has degraded the lives of all women. Sexism is far from “dead.”
We must eliminate racism
Racism plays the key divisive role in today’s world. We need to understand how racism divides all people from each other, and women in particular. We need to explore and understand the interaction of racism and sexism. Racism and sexism are woven together in each of the institutions (broadly defined) that promulgate sexism: reproduction, marriage, and child rearing; the economy; the beautification industry; and the sex industries. For example, the beautification industry oppresses white women, and also holds up “whiteness” as part of the standard of beauty, which oppresses women targeted by racism. Hurts related to race and gender affect all women. To achieve women’s liberation, we must challenge racism and completely eliminate it.
Women targeted by racism play an important role in ending sexism
Women who are targeted by racism constitute the majority of women in the world today. They fight a double oppression, racism and sexism, and usually fight class oppression (often including poverty) as well. It is essential that women targeted by racism make women’s liberation their own and assume a central role in the struggle to achieve it. To make this possible, the women’s movement must put at its center the elimination of both racism and sexism.
White women must free themselves from their oppressor role
To be liberated, white women must free themselves from their oppressor role in relation to women targeted by racism.
Unchallenged oppressor distresses keep white women separate from women targeted by racism and confuse them into settling for small reforms instead of true liberation.
Women everywhere are oppressed, but women also oppress and exploit other women. This phenomenon has an economic basis, and race plays a role. White women are pitted against each other by classism and other oppressions. Then, because of these hurts, they oppress women who are targeted by racism.
Since early times, a small group of women has acted as agent-of-oppression toward the majority of women. Women of the owning or propertied classes, themselves the property of ruling-class men (in order to bear their heirs and bring them status), have used other women as domestic slaves. An enslaved woman did the domestic work in her master’s house, served her master (including sexually), took care of “his” children, and also met the needs of the “mistress.” Women have been divided in this way not only in the early slave societies but also in feudal societies, under black slavery in the United States, and during some of the stages of capitalism.
Today women who are targeted by racism generally work at lower-paid, traditionally female jobs. Some of these jobs—for example, secretarial work and domestic labor—involve working for middle-class, professional, or wealthy women. (Women targeted by racism are not well represented in middle-class and professional jobs, and few of them are wealthy. However, when they do achieve these positions, they, too, tend to act out class oppression on their less affluent sisters.)
CONFUSIONS ABOUT SEXUAL FREEDOMS
Some recent confusions have distorted the struggle against sexism. In some societies, in the name of liberation and freedom (for young women, in particular), all forms of sexual activity have been endorsed, if not celebrated. In a few generations we have gone from societies that prohibit sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, to societies that assume the legitimacy of almost any kind of sexual activity, starting at a young age. Some good byproducts, such as women’s right to enjoy sex, have come out of these changes. However, hurtful, irrational behaviors are also being endorsed. Sexual “freedom” is not the same as women taking charge of our bodies and our sexuality. It is important that we clear up this confusion in order to organize for real liberation.
Global capitalism has intensified the economic disparity between the countries of the “north” and the countries of the “south.” The twenty percent of the world’s population that lives in the richest countries (in the “north”) receives nearly eighty-five percent of the world’s income and consumes a comparable share of its resources. The world’s poorest twenty percent barely survives on 1.45% of the world’s total income.
Poverty, racism, and sexism are interrelated aspects of the “north-south” economic division. The poor people of the world are mostly women, and children, who are targeted by racism. Although all women have to fight certain elements of sexism—for example, economic and political inequality, and violence against them as women—women of the “south” suffer differently from women of the “north.” Economic domination by multi-national corporations shapes all of women’s battles.
The internationalization of capitalism has led to a restructuring of work. The ways women are used as cheap labor have changed with the changing needs of successive economies. For the last two decades women have made up the majority of workers doing low-paid, labor-intensive jobs. Multi-national corporations have increasingly exploited these women, particularly in the economic “south,” and have reaped huge profits.
All forms of sexism harmful
Comparing and “grading” the sexism in different countries and societies is a mistaken activity and does not lead to more effective work against sexism. Although being killed for being a girl is obviously worse than being belittled for being a girl, we need to put our attention on ending all forms of sexist behavior, not on comparing the various kinds. A woman may, understandably, feel fortunate if a certain form of sexism is not acted out at her, but it makes no sense for her to feel superior because of it. All forms of sexism, along with the distress recordings that result from them, are harmful to all humans.
Governments of “northern” countries have compared and graded the different forms of sexism in order to justify racist military, political, and economic policies toward countries of the “south.” The governments of some “southern” countries (for example, India, South Africa, and China) have instituted policies supportive of, and in the interests of, women, but these are seldom publicized in the “north.”
Colonialism and struggles for national liberation
The majority of females worldwide live in the less economically developed nations. They also live in countries that have been colonized by another country or are being dominated politically and economically by the big powers (neo-colonialism). These women’s general and gender-related issues are deeply affected by these national struggles.
LIBERATING ALL PEOPLE AND ALL WOMEN
For the liberation of women, and all people, we need to take the following steps:
Give up acting like victims
We can give up acting like victims by
Acknowledging the ways that sexism has affected our lives
Deciding to no longer act like victims, and to assume full responsibility for our lives
Deciding to fight for women, as a group. We cannot wait until men, as a group, change their attitudes or until society changes on its own; we must take the initiative in freeing ourselves from the external and internal oppression.
Discharging the feelings of powerlessness that were systematically installed on us as children. We can assist each other to reclaim our power and assume our rightful places as leaders of our own liberation struggle, and of the world.
Invite men to join us in the fight to eliminate sexism and men’s oppression
Men are our natural allies. They can be welcomed as our allies in eliminating sexism.
We are diminished as human beings when we regard men as “the enemy.” Men’s sexist behavior and incorrect attitudes and ideas were forced on them by society. Men are, however, the tools of women’s oppression. Sexism separates men and women from each other. We can refuse to accept this and look forward to a time when women and men will be close, caring allies for each other.
Fighting men’s oppression is part of enlisting men as our allies.
Oppression keeps groups at odds with each other. Some women may need to temporarily separate themselves from men, to have the space to work on their restimulation. However, a policy of long-term separation amounts to acceptance of the oppression. To regard and treat each other as enemies only perpetuates the oppressive system.
Both sexes are needed to end sexism. Women cannot do it alone. We need to both lead in our own liberation struggle and lead men. For the lives of both men and women to go well, it is critical that women struggle to have equal power in our relationships with men.
Organize for immediate changes without settling for piecemeal7 reforms
We can direct our attention to the immediate battles of sexism and encourage women to become educated, speak out, and organize for change. We can organize forums in every community of women to enable each woman to look at how sexism has affected her life.
Sexism has impacted women’s lives in many ways, including through violence, rape, under-employment, limited incomes that put women at an economic disadvantage relative to men, poor and hazardous working conditions, poor health care, forced sterilization, unsatisfactory birth control methods, lack of birth control and other medical information, limited physical and intellectual education facilities, poor child-care facilities, inadequate support for older people and single parents, legal limitations on women, and unwarranted presumptions about our sexual roles.
Organize on worldwide female issues
As global capitalism increasingly dominates the world, certain issues are becoming increasingly visible: sexual trafficking of women, war crimes against women, pornography, the feminization of poverty, the spread of the beautification industry, the restructuring of the international female labor market, and female illiteracy. We need to find ways to unite women worldwide in taking on these issues.
Draft well-thought-out programs
Some women’s issues include hard-to-resolve contradictions: Although a fetus is a human life, women should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. Pornography should be challenged, but not by curtailing reasonable freedom of expression or causing unnecessary censorship. Women have the right to bear children, yet new reproductive technology may be unethical, and unwanted children (particularly in the economic “south”) may be exploited by oppressive adoption practices.
To resolve these contradictions, we need well-thought-out programs and a strong international women’s movement intent on ending sexism and liberating all women. We cannot let ourselves be confused when, in so-called democratic societies, women’s liberation is equated with “individual” freedoms. Different governments and political systems oppress women in different ways. The one-child policy in China is not necessarily more oppressive to women than is the lack of safe birth control in the United States. We need programs that are useful to all women, in all countries.
Work toward long-range goals
We need to work toward societies in which all women are treated with respect, are fully educated, are encouraged in our physical development, and can exercise control over our lives and bodies; societies in which we have complete support in bearing and rearing children, and in which all work is women’s work and “traditional roles” are equally shared by both sexes; societies in which love and affection are easily expressed, life-long commitments are common, and all women have a bond with each other as women.
We can use any current struggle to (1) educate and organize women and (2) give women space to think, discharge, and take power in our lives. We need to resist settling for small or piecemealgains. Oppressive societies will try to force us to accept less than everything. They will try to lure us into agreeing to compromises, with the “comfort” of small gains.
We can use struggles for immediate changes to improve our understanding of the long-range struggle, to develop an overall program for change, to strengthen our organizations, and to build wider unity.
Wide-world women’s movements have, for the most part, settled for piecemeal reforms. And even these—for example, affirmative action8 or a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—have had to be defended against continuing attacks. We need a program capable of transforming the institutions (in the broad sense) in which sexism is ingrained and largely unquestioned. Certain institutions—reproduction, marriage, and the raising of children; work and the workplace; the sex industries; and the beautification industry—incorporate particularly oppressive elements. Additional institutions that play oppressive roles include consumerism, educational systems, the health-care establishment, the “mental health” system, political systems, and religious institutions. We must also eliminate mechanisms of sexist oppression, such as violence against women, sexual exploitation of women, and oppression on the basis of gender/sexual identities.
To eliminate sexism, we will need to replace the present oppressive societies with rational ones. Only in this way can we achieve, for example, good childcare for all or an end to violence against women. To achieve rational childcare, we have to restructure work for both women and men. Because violence against women is an integral part of the general use of violence in oppressive societies, to end violence against women we must end the general use of violence—even in the military. We will continue to combat the particular manifestations of sexism, but for permanent and thorough change we will have to tackle all forms of oppression, and this means replacing oppressive societies with rational ones.
Women constitute the majority of the world’s people. We are one of the largest oppressed groups, and we overlap with every other oppressed group, except men. In spite of our oppression as women, we have retained certain open windows into humanness, for example, an understanding of the importance of social relations, and greater access to discharge. These windows give us an important perspective on basic social change and a capacity to pursue it rationally. With all its limitations, the international women’s movement has, in the last few decades, created a formidable international network. Women are well-positioned and challenged to play a leading role in transforming society.
Reprinted from our quarterly publication Present Time
No. 139, January 2005, pp. 27-34
No Limits for Women and Girls at the Women's March on Washington, January 2017