The idea for this post came, not for the first time, from a conversation on Twitter. I want to develop what I said then. The question was asked .’what if giving women the vote, allowing them to study at university, allowing them access to the professions etc is simply a tool of the patriarchy, effectively making affordable concessions to bind women deeper into their oppression?’ This was not a rhetorical question. The poster was genuinely anguished by the thought.
To begin my answer I am going to go back thirty years to student days when I discovered the work of the late Edward (E.P) Thompson. Thompson was a historian and books like the Making of the English Working Class have become classics. In his book The Poverty of Theory he took issue with the structuralist reading of Marxism of Louis Althusser who was hugely influential in left wing academic circles back in the 1970s. Althusser’s vision of society was that of a closed system in which changes in one part would generate a change somewhere else to maintain the stability of the system. There was no way out and no way to envisage anything different unless of course, you were a Marxist theoretician at the Ecole Normale Superieure in which case you had access to knowledge denied to mere mortals trapped in false consciousness. Any gains made by working people were simply a way of making the system more stable and, therefore, of locking people more tightly into their oppression. The parallels with some types of feminist analysis should now be clear.
Thompson was much decried for his attack on the guru, usually in the pages of New Left Review, probably because he didn’t establish his intellectual credentials by using enough meaningless buzz words but the point he made is this: functionalist Marxism denies the reality of struggle. denies the experiences of working people. It also relies on a view of society that is too neat, has no jagged edges. The system we have may be capitalist but there are bits and pieces of feudalism floating around, there are also established practices that would fit into a socialist society of the future. The Althusserians always had a problem with England, a country that seemed to move from feudalism to capitalism without the basic courtesy of having a bourgeois revolution..
How does this relate to feminism? What the functionalists say could be siad about any radical change, any revolution Plus ca change plus ‘est la meme chose so to speak. I want to follow Thompson by suggesting that women’s struggle is real. The vote was not just given to us. It was won by brave women. Holloway Prison a hundred years ago was not a nice place. Force feeding was a horror that I don’t like to think about. Emily Davison laid down her life so that woman might have the vote. In this centenary year of her death all woman, indeed all who hope for a more just society should honour her memory.
The Suffragettes are sometimes decried these days as upper middle class ladies of leisure and snobs. This is unfair They were products of their times, just as we are. It is, of course, not only women from the middle classes who fought. Remember, too, the women of Dagenham, commemorated in film, or the women at Grunwick.
Women have come a long way in 100 years in having the vote, access to higher education, reproductive rights, the right not be raped by our husbands, equal pay, equal rights at work and so on. None of these things were conceded by the ruling class, or the patriarchy as gifts to keep us quiet and keep us in subjection. . They were won through struggle. The struggle has been real. It has been painful. We have a duty to carry it on.