Women, class and socialism: The struggle for the emancipation of women in Ireland

Workers Party of Ireland (Think Left)

The working woman is first and foremost a member of the working class, and the more satisfactory the position and the general welfare of each member of the proletarian family, the greater the benefit in the long run to the whole of the working class.Alexandra Kollontai

If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.Inessa Armand

"The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.James Connolly


The economic structure of society is central to an understanding of the oppression of women and the struggle for women’s emancipation. The enduring exploitation and oppression of women continue to flow from a system of property relations based on the private accumulation of wealth and the appropriation of labour. The objective of this article is to provide a brief illustration of some of the conditions facing women in Ireland under capitalism. It is not intended as an exhaustive chronology of those conditions or the oppression and exploitation to which women are subject.

Early Challenges to the Oppression of Women

In the early nineteenth century women had few rights. They were regarded as the property of their fathers and husbands. They could not own property, had no rights over their children or control over their own bodies.

In 1791 Olympe de Gouges issued a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen and in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman advocated equality between men and women although she still clung to distinct gender roles and a firm division of labour. The English “liberal” philosophers, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, in a limited formal sense argued for equality.

William Thompson, who was born in Ireland in 1775 (and who in later life established the famous Ralahine Commune, was much admired by James Connolly and was read and referred to by Marx) published his Appeal of One half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men to Restrain them in Political and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery in 1825 in conjunction with Anna Wheeler. Thompson, who criticised Wollstonecraft for her “narrow views” and the “timidity and impotence of her conclusions” recognised the material basis of women’s inequality as springing from the capitalist mode of production.

The Marxist Response

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were firm advocates of the emancipation of women. In The German Ideology they explored the concept of the family as a social form corresponding to a particular mode of production. Engels, who had examined the issue of the impact of capitalism on women and work in The Condition of the Working Class of England, examined the development of the forces and relations of production and the resulting sexual division of labour in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. The economic basis of society influences the form of social relations. The oppression of women is a dimension of class power.

Since the emergence of capitalism there has been a division of labour between work and home. Labour performed outside the home was and is valued, while domestic tasks, including childcare, largely undertaken by women, were not. Domestic labour, of course, important as it is and while it permits family members - particularly men - to work outside the home, does not, of itself, produce profits for capital. This activity does not produce products intended for the sphere of social production and consumption.

Engels exposed the subordination of women through the lack of political rights, the denial of the opportunity for creative, financially rewarding and socially recognised and useful work and through exploitative bourgeois marriage as a relation of economic domination. Bebel, Lenin, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollantai and others, expressing and developing such ideas, believed that an independent wage would liberate women from the family as an economic unit and provide the preconditions for women’s emancipation.

Zetkin, recognising that there can be no human liberation without equality of the sexes, linked the oppression of women to the emergence of private property, emphasising the class-based nature of the women’s struggle for emancipation and the necessity for the overthrow of capitalism.

Although Clara Zetkin recognised that working class women had particular problems that needed to be addressed as women, she was vehemently against cooperation with the bourgeois women’s movement which she believed prioritised a battle between the sexes rather than class struggle.

In 1877 the Trade Union Congress in Britain considered that a woman’s place was in the home. In a Speech at the Party Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany on 16th October 1896 Zetkin, who vociferously argued for equal pay for women and who rejected the employers’ attempts to engage women on lower wages and opposed conservative forces in the labour movement who believed that women’s work should be confined to the home, declared: “The proletariat will be able to attain its liberation only if it fights together without the difference of nationality and profession. In the same way, it can attain its liberation only if it stands together without the distinction of sex. The incorporation of the great masses of proletarian women in the liberation struggle of the proletariat is one of the prerequisites for the victory of the socialist idea and for the construction of a socialist society.

Women and the October Revolution

Equality before the law is not necessarily equality in fact … The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women.V.I. Lenin

In the immediate period after the October Revolution Alexandra Kollantai, Inessa Armand, Anna Ulianova and others undertook the tasks of improving the conditions of women's lives and organising women within the party. The first All Russian Congress of Working Women took place on 16 November 1917. It was attended by 1,147 delegates, representing 80,000 women from soviets, factories, trade unions and youth organisations. The Congress resolved to establish a special commission for agitation and propaganda among working women. In 1919 the Zhenotdel (women’s department) was established, headed by Kollontai. It was committed to fighting illiteracy and educating women about the new rights which had been put in place for women after the revolution.

The Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 had declared important rights for women, equality under the law, the right to divorce, and the right to free and legal abortion. These gave women the right to control their bodies, their wages and property, maintain a claim to their children in the event of divorce, and to decide where they wanted to live, go to school, and to work.

While Marx and Engels had considered the question of household work and had contended that domestic labour needed to be transferred to the public sphere as a step towards the liberation of women, the Bolsheviks, following this lead, focused on the socialisation of housework to enable women to pursue an education or enter waged labour on an equal basis with men freed of the unequal burden of household labour, building communal public dining halls; laundries; day care centres and nurseries for children. In respect of child-rearing the Soviet state emphasised the importance of the role of the state in raising and educating children, by providing child-care facilities, compulsory free schools and provision for social welfare, thus relieving the burden imposed on women and which kept them out of paid work outside the home.

The Bolsheviks identified that only socialism could resolve the contradiction between family and work and that capitalism would never be capable of providing a solution. Lenin constantly raised the issue of housework which he described as “the most unproductive, the most savage, and the most arduous work a women can do” underlining that the emancipation of women lay not only in formal legal equality but the “wholesale transformation” of household work into socialised labour.

In October 1918 the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet ratified the Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship. Prior to this women had no rights accorded by church or state and women were, in effect, forced into a position of total subservience to their husbands. The Soviet Code abolished centuries of laws and male privilege and established equal rights for women under the law. It put an end to illegitimacy, ensured that women retained full control of their earnings after marriage and brought into effect far-reaching changes in the relationship between parents and children. The Code was framed within the context of a socialist vision of family relations with a strong emphasis on independence and equal rights and it was made clear that even this was only a transitional stage on the path of socialist construction. The new workers’ state freed tens of millions of working women and enabled them to participate in productive work and social and political life.

Developments in Ireland

In Ireland, in the period 1860-1900 there were a number of advances in obtaining rights for women. The Married Women's Property Act 1882 changed the law regarding the property rights of married women, permitting married women to own and control property in their own right. In the latter part of the nineteenth century women entered into the industrial workforce and the trade union movement. However, while women made important advances in this period the demands of working-class women were not to the fore.

In the early twentieth century a number of women were prominent in the struggle for the rights of women and labour, for example, Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Winifred Carney, Delia Larkin and Kathleen Lynn. As a result of the work of James Connolly, and the many women activists surrounding Connolly and in the Irish Citizen Army, fundamental social and economic issues affecting working class women were raised and placed in the context of the prevailing economic system, capitalism.

Connolly specifically perceived the necessity for working class men and women to work collectively in the struggle against capitalist exploitation and for the emancipation of women. He spent great effort documenting and exposing the appalling working and living conditions facing workers and he highlighted the particular conditions confronting working class women under capitalism. Connolly, like Lenin, strongly advocated that workers, including women workers, organise in trade unions to protect their interests and engage in political organisations to advance the struggle against capitalism. Women were welcomed into the Irish Citizen Army where they were encouraged to play a full role in the revolutionary struggle. Women linen workers were actively involved during the 1907 Docks Strike in Belfast and women went on to play an important part in the trade union movement in Ireland (often despite hostility from some men in the trade unions) particularly from the 1970s when there was a considerable growth in the number of women trade unionists.

The 1916 Proclamation proclaimed equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens and a large number of women actively participated in the Easter Rising and subsequently women continued their activities towards women’s rights in the Irish Women Workers’ Union, the Women’s Prisoners’ Dependants’ League, the Women’s Social and Progressive League and other organisations.

In 1918 women gained the right to vote and to stand for election to parliament. Winifred Carney and Constance Markievicz stood for election in the general election of 1918 and Markievicz was the first woman to be elected to the British parliament although she did not take her seat.

The social and political situation facing Irish women in the period after the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was difficult. Opportunities for women were diminished. The Irish government attempted on a number of occasions to exempt all women from jury service.In 1925 the government introduced the Civil Service Regulation Bill which limited the right of women to sit for competitive examinations in the Civil Service. In 1929 the Irish Free state introduced legislation (the Censorship of Publications Act) banning books and periodicals advocating “the unnatural prevention of conception“ and in 1935 the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act prohibited the sale, advertising or importation of contraceptives. In 1932 the Irish state introduced a marriage bar which required women teachers to retire on marriage, a bar which was later extended to the entire Civil Service. In 1935 the Irish government sought to implement laws limiting the number of women employed in any given industry and limiting the type of industries that could employ women, demonstrating systematic discrimination and a culture of exclusion against women in Ireland over decades.

The Irish Constitution and legal constraints on women’s freedom

The Irish Constitution of 1937 (Bunreacht na hÉireann), a document which was, and despite some amendment remains, profoundly nationalist, Roman Catholic and conservative, was drafted exclusively by men. It was strongly influenced by the Catholic Church and its religious doctrines on authority, the family, marriage, private property and church–state relations. Insofar as it provided any acknowledgment of women’s rights this was confined to political rights. Article 41 with its emphasis on the role (“life”) of women “within the home” in addition to its gender stereotypical and paternalistic undertones which implied that the natural situation for women lay in marriage, motherhood and the home, was used subsequently to justify direct discrimination against women. Article 41 also enshrined a prohibition on divorce.

The 1937 Constitution, in effect, institutionalised and confirmed the subjugation of women in Irish society and provided a legal and constitutional basis for continued discrimination against women which, despite various amendments, continues to this day. In 1938 the Women’s Social and Progressive League distributed an Open Letter to Women Voters of Ireland which raised, in particular, concerns about the deteriorating position of women under the 1937 Constitution. It was not until the 1960s that legislation removed differences in the rights of inheritance between men and women although divorce did not become legal in the Republic of Ireland until 1996.

In the late sixties and early seventies there were a number of campaigns concerning rights for “deserted wives”, widows and unmarried mothers, equal access to educational opportunity, contraception and violence against women. In that period there were several legislative changes which improved the conditions of women. The marriage ban for women in the civil service was removed in 1973 in the Republic of Ireland and in that same year a ruling of the Supreme Court made it legal to import contraceptives for private use, although, the sale, distribution and wholesale importation of contraceptives remained unlawful. In the 1970s legislation was introduced in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland which purported to prohibit discrimination against women and to ensure equal pay between men and women. Despite formal legal “equality” and legislative prohibitions on gender sex discrimination women in Ireland, north and south, remain under-represented in more senior positions in employment and political life. Although there were important advances, the introduction of these new formal legal rights did not profoundly impact on the lives of ordinary working women. Women were still treated as inferior and remained exploited and oppressed.

Capitalist societies are characterised by social and economic inequality, exploitation and oppression, with massive inequality in wealth between the working class and those who own and control society’s economic resources. While bourgeois women benefitted from changes to their civil rights, for example, the right to vote, to own property, to stand for public office and participate in the professions, the double burden of domestic labour and the exploitation of working women through wage labour continued to inflict misery and hardship on working class women.

Women and childcare in Ireland

Governments in capitalist society consider the right of children to pre-school education as an individual, family responsibility, as a cost for the bourgeois state. They transfer state responsibility for public and free childcare onto the backs of families who are forced to pay for the use of these services.

The Republic of Ireland has one of the most expensive and least accessible childcare systems in the EU. A recent OECD Report pointed to the very high cost of childcare in Ireland (the second highest in the OECD) as being a significant dis-incentive to take up work. Childcare in the Republic is a public subvented market model which is inaccessible to many, particularly young working class women who are denied an opportunity to prepare themselves for the workplace through education. This system has failed working class women. When public subventions to community crèches were cut during the course of the capitalist crisis the impact was felt overwhelmingly in working class communities which were already suffering the devastating effects of the crisis. As most parents who sent their children to those crèches relied on grants to help pay the cost they were unable to send their children to the crèche when the grant was cut. In some instances those cuts led to the closure of the facilities in poorer communities, while in other cases the cuts led to restricted opening hours and a reduction in the number of children attending the facilities.

In Northern Ireland child-care infrastructure is poorly developed and child care facilities are hopelessly inadequate. For many working women with children the only viable option is informal care with heavy reliance on older family members. The lack of adequate publicly funded child care facilities and the exorbitant cost of private child-care arrangements impose impossible limitations on the ability of many working class women to participate in paid work.

In Ireland childcare is a clear class issue. It impacts directly on working class women and their right to work. The public provision of accessible childcare is essential if women are to have equal access to the paid work. A series of official government reports acknowledge that childcare is the deciding factor regarding whether or not many women can return to work or education when they have children. Statistics reveal that women who do not work, or who work part-time for childcare reasons, do so because childcare is either too expensive, not available or is of insufficient quality. The lack of early childhood/childcare provision also impacts on the development of early childhood education.

Violence against Women

Violence against women and children, including sexual abuse, remains a major issue in Ireland and has to be understood in the context of a system, reinforced by religion, whereby the patriarch of a family was given the right to use force against women and children under his control. It also has to be analysed through the lens of the “macho” culture fostered under capitalism that feeds into violence against women. Capitalism creates and reinforces the conditions for oppression against women. Religions, and predominantly Roman Catholicism in the case of Ireland, affirms a male-dominated family structure which is oppressive to women and exerts control through denial of reproductive rights. The ongoing revelations of historical institutional abuse of women and children is another example of this.

SAFE Ireland – the National Organisation of domestic violence services has stated that for“the thousands of women and children living with terror of violence in their homes recession and austerity has not just been tough, it has been catastrophic.

According to a recent survey almost 400,000 women, between the ages of 18 and 74, living in the Republic of Ireland have experienced either physical or sexual abuse. At the same time, public expenditure for services combating violence against women and domestic violence has been cut and women are denied the practical assistance which they require including the provision of safe accommodation to ensure that they are safe and their rights respected. Violence against women impacts on all aspects of their lives including their health, education and ability to work and provide for themselves and their families. Evidence from Northern Ireland also demonstrates high levels of violence against women including murder and rape. Women are also subjected to sexual harassment at home, in public and at work and objectified as sexual objects both in pornography and in the mainstream capitalist media.

A Woman’s Right to Choose

In Ireland, north and south, the law does not recognise that a woman has the right to control her own body. In the Republic of Ireland the Workers Party of Ireland is actively engaged in the Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment to Búnreacht na hÉireann (The Irish Constitution). Barriers to reproductive rights for women are also barriers to full social, economic and political.

The Eighth Amendment equates a woman's life with that of a foetus. It effectively introduced a constitutional ban on abortion and denies a woman the right to an abortion even when her health is in serious danger. Article 40.3.3 was inserted into the constitution, by referendum, in September 1983. At that time the Workers Party of Ireland opposed the introduction of this new sub-section and argued that the amendment was legally unnecessary, anti-woman, sectarian and divisive.

Women must have the right to control their own bodies, including their fertility, and to pursue all reproductive choices. Economic, social, political conditions, and the related legislation must be guaranteed to enable women to choose if and when to have a child, to have the right to safe abortion without legal restrictions, within a comprehensive, exclusively public and free health system, with an emphasis on preventive healthcare. This is fundamental to any reasonable concept of gender equality in order to achieve political, social, and economic equality with men. The two states in Ireland regard women as second class citizens incapable of making their own decisions. Both states criminalise women, infringe their rights and discriminate against those women who cannot afford to travel to have an abortion. Criminalising abortion harms individual women with unwanted pregnancies but it also deprives women collectively of control of their fertility, leaving them open to disempowerment, violation of their physical integrity, disruption to and adverse transformation of their lives together with a profound loss of autonomy relative to men. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012 when she was refused an abortion although her life was in danger was an illustration that women in Ireland are still regarded as child-bearing vessels rather than human beings in their own right.

Although women can travel abroad to obtain an abortion this is not an option for many working class women, including migrant women and women on low incomes. Between 1980 and 2014 at least 163,514 women with Irish addresses registered for terminations abroad. Women travelling from Ireland to access an abortion, for example, in the UK, have to have their abortions in a private clinic. The procedure itself can cost between €600 and €1700 and then there is the added costs of travel and accommodation. Considering that 50% of women in Ireland earn €20,000 or less per year the cost of an abortion is prohibitive for many working class women living in this country.

The fact that almost one quarter of people on direct incomes earned less than €10,000 in 2013, while one third of this group earned less than €15,000, and that women represent 60% of all those who are low paid, make it is clear that for many working class women and families whose young daughters do not wish to continue with their pregnancies abortion is not an option on financial grounds. The fact that 87% of single parents are women and that there is a well-recognised high correlation between one parent families and consistent poverty underlines the discriminatory nature of Ireland’s abortion legislation.

A recent ruling of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland was a further blow to women and their struggle for equality and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. The decision that this was a matter for the Legislative Assembly and that “complex moral and religious questions” behind the issue should be determined by a legislature in a jurisdiction where it is clear that religious reaction trumps women’s rights and which at the time of writing cannot even agree to constitute itself, was a further attack on women.

In Northern Ireland the legislative and judicial routes to full reproductive rights for women has been blocked, reinforcing the fact that rights will ultimately only be won by struggle and agitation.

Current figures show that more than 700 women and girls from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales to terminate their pregnancies in 2016. This does not include those who travelled to Scotland or other European countries, or women who purchased abortion pills, because of their inability to travel.

It is a woman’s right to control her own body and to make her own reproductive choices. Women must be provided with free and safe abortion in their own country which, in turn, must include practical facilities to support women seeking an abortion and quality post-abortion care, enabling women to avail of free, full and safe access to abortion.

Anti- democratic forces have also sought to stigmatise and demonise women who choose to have, or who have had, abortions and who support the right to choose. These forces have subjected women to harassment and abuse. The reality confronted by women seeking to access an abortion where funds are not readily available, facing denunciation and abuse as they attempt to seek advice, travelling abroad at a difficult time in their lives, and being portrayed as “murderers” and “criminals” is a deliberate attack on women and the exercise of their rights. As socialists we assert a woman's right to have autonomy over her own body.

Unequal Pay and Low Pay

Despite the formal legal requirement for equal pay between men and women in Ireland paid work is not equal for women and men. There is still a significant gender pay gap. In Northern Ireland, for example, two thirds of those earning the minimum wage or below are women and women’s annual earnings are on average 33% below that of men. The poverty rate for pensioners is higher in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK with nearly half a million pensioners in Northern Ireland living below the poverty line, including fuel poverty. The gender pay gap widens even further into a gender pension gap, leaving many older women living in poverty.

Capitalism relies on the unemployed as a reserve army of labour to drive wages down, render employment precarious, and to deny workers the opportunity for effective collective action. It also condemns the long-term unemployed to a life of poverty, drudgery and misery which all too often brings with it physical and mental health problems, as well as other social problems such as substance abuse and crime. Communities where mass and long-term unemployment are prevalent are neglected by bourgeois and social democratic parties, and all-too-often seen as problems to be dealt with by the coercive apparatus of the state.

Where workers bear the burden of the systemic crisis of capitalism, the working class suffers a deterioration in living and working conditions, an attack on public health, education and social security systems and the erosion and elimination of hard-won workers’ rights and social gains and achievements. In conditions of crisis, women are often hit hardest, forced to accept poor working conditions which render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Recent developments, heightened by the capitalist crisis and imposed austerity, have brought a large increase in the number of people employed in precarious, low-paid work, a situation that disproportionately affects women. Increased unemployment, cutbacks in public expenditure, assaults on social rights and welfare benefits and increasing levels of economic and social vulnerability affect both men and women but disproportionately adversely impact on women.

Women and precarious work

Many women in Ireland are engaged in low paid work and have not had a pay increase in many years, many are employed in low-skilled, insecure and precarious employment, and many have experienced cuts in working hours and cuts in benefits while household expenditure has risen. In particular sectors such as social care, retail, catering, cleaning and hospitality many women are employed in circumstances where low pay and a lack of job security are the norm.

A much higher proportion of women work part-time, compared to men. Part-time women workers are more likely to be in lower skilled, lower paid roles in the private sector. Many women transfer to different jobs after having a child, often moving from full-time to part-time work, involving lower pay. The higher rates of part-time and precarious work amongst women has grave and enduring consequences for pension entitlements (for those workers who have a pension) and a consequent higher risk of poverty for women later in life. Women public sector workers who have had their pay frozen also have to work longer for a reduced pension.

Currently women are confronted not only with job losses but also with a perilous erosion in the quality and security of work pressing them into low pay. The capitalist states in Ireland encourage employers to create insecure jobs through legislation and financial incentives using the benefits system, partly to massage unemployment statistics, partly to facilitate the privatisation of public services and the super-profits of the monopolies. This is aggravated by the lack of affordable, accessible childcare and aggressive drives towards “flexibility” and casualisation, such as agency work, zero hours contracts lacking even basic workplace rights and the so-called “gig economy” where workers are compelled to work long hours to earn a living wage which further facilitates exploitation. The precarious nature of such work is designed to act as a disincentive to union organisation, to weaken workers’ ability to secure their rights and decent pay.

 Many women are compelled to “double job”, and many have caring responsibilities within the home and wider family circle, and will continue to do so until we can achieve full social and economic liberation through a revolutionary transformation of society. Presently, the delivery of care at home to the elderly, the sick and those with other forms of disability, is predominately carried out by women, and it is frequently unremunerated, underpaid and undervalued. Women are disproportionately in the least secure and lowest-paid jobs and they carry out most of the unpaid care work. In rural Ireland women are outliving men in a population which is living longer. There is, however, no infrastructure to accommodate this development. In rural areas, where incomes have plummeted and poverty rates worsened as a result of decline in the farming and the construction industry, many women have taken on extra work, often in part-time, low paid jobs.

Women and Poverty

Pay and terms and conditions of employment have been under sustained assault in both parts of the island. For example, average wages in Northern Ireland are almost £6,000 below the UK average, and fell in real terms by 6.9% between 2007 and 2013. Wages have been falling in real terms in the Republic since 2009, and it has one of the highest incidence among the OECD countries for the number of people earning low pay. The decline in wages and the worsening of terms and conditions is a systemic issue stemming from the nature of capitalism and the relentless drive for profit. Maternity leave and rights have been eroded on the grounds of flexibility, affordability and profitability through such devices as agency work and zero-hours contracts. Such developments and the attacks on social welfare provision have created unprecedented levels of homelessness.

The Irish government’s own figures released by the Central Statistics Office in 2017 demonstrated that over one in six people in the Republic of Ireland are at risk of poverty and that 105,051 people living in poverty in Ireland are in employment. The Annual Survey on Income and Living Conditions showed that over a million people in Ireland experienced deprivation in 2015 and that poverty in Ireland and deprivation rates are on the rise. The percentage of Irish people living in consistent poverty has increased.

Northern Ireland has higher levels of multiple deprivation than the rest of the UK with over a third of the population living on or below the breadline. There has been a significant decline in living standards, a situation set to deteriorate, as the cost of living continues to increase and as wages continue to decline and social security benefits are under attack. Two-fifths of people in working-age families in Northern Ireland who are in low-income households have someone in their household who is doing paid work.  In the Republic of Ireland 73.4% of those earning the National Minimum Wage are women. A high percentage of low paid women are the main earners in their household.

63% of lone parent households with one or more children in Ireland experience deprivation. People in lone parent households continue to have the lowest disposable income out of all households in the state. In the Republic of Ireland 86.5% of lone parent households were headed by women. In Northern Ireland 91.2% of lone parent households were headed by women. Research has indicated that single parent households lost proportionately more of their income compared to other households, as a result of austerity measures. This compounds the inequality experienced by women.

Women can only achieve real freedom, independence and equality when the gender pay gap has been abolished, when they have secured free child care facilities, proper health and social services, the right to choose to have or not to have children and to be trusted with their own reproductive rights and to have access to abortion services free of charge under the health care system, free education services at primary, secondary schools and access to university level – in a society where exploitation has been ended and the needs of women and all workers have been fulfilled and where the means of production have been socialised and where the working people who produce all wealth, own and control it.

Women and Class: A Framework for Change

Marxism-Leninism provides the theoretical, ideological and political framework within which women’s oppression and exploitation may be analysed, tackled and resolved. Theories of patriarchy which do not address the fundamental issues of class in women’s oppression, or more critically those designed to replace a class analysis, are unable to accomplish the liberation of women.

It is not biology but private property and the social institutions and social constructs of capitalist society which has led to the domination and oppression of women. Women do not stand apart from the class struggle. The double oppression of women and the inequality faced by them is a result not merely of legal constraints but arises from the material conditions of life. The elimination of class exploitation is an indispensable prerequisite for the liberation of women. In those circumstances, women are and must be active participants in the class struggle, organised on every front, demanding a social revolution with a fundamental change in economic and social relations, recognising that it is only through the abolition of that system which creates and perpetuates their oppression and the construction of a socialist society where the working class is in power, that true equality and the full liberation of women will be attained.

The current conditions confronting working class women, the overt and covert discrimination and abuse which they experience in everyday life, requires the communist and workers’ parties to increase the class consciousness of women workers, provide the theoretical and ideological framework for their struggles and inspire a vigorous fight for women’s liberation as an inseparable part of the battle for human emancipation, the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a socialist society.

Accordingly, it remains a central task of the international communist movement to immerse itself in the fight against the oppression and exploitation of women, to unceasingly develop and expand consciousness of women's oppression, to create the conditions for women to articulate, expose and challenge the cultural, economic, social and political manifestations of their oppression and to mobilise the greatest possible numbers of women in the struggle for their complete emancipation.

The words of James Connolly remain an inspiration:

None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of Labour.

But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.” (The Re-Conquest of Ireland 1915)