The specific character of women’s oppression.
Woman’s fate is bound up with that of the exploited male. This interdependence arises from the exploitation that both men and women suffer, exploitation that binds them together historically. This should not, however, make us lose sight of the specific reality of women’s situation. The conditions of their lives are determined by more than economic factors, and they show that women are victims of a specific oppression. The specific character of this oppression cannot be explained away by equating different situations through superficial and childish simplifications.
It is true that both the woman and the male worker are condemned to silence by their exploitation. But under the current system, the worker’s wife is also condemned to silence by her worker-husband. In other words, in addition to the class exploitation common to both of them, women must confront a particular set of relations that exist between them and men, relations of conflict and violence that use physical differences as their pretext.
It’s clear that the difference between the sexes is a feature of human society. It’s also clear that this difference determines the particular relations that prevent us from viewing women, even in the framework of economic production, as simply female workers. Privileged relations, perilous relations – the net result is that women’s reality constitutes an on-going problem.
The male uses the complex nature of these relations as an excuse to sow confusion among women. He takes advantage of all the shrewdness that class exploitation has to offer in order to maintain his domination over women. This is the same method used elsewhere by men to rule over other men. They succeeded in imposing the idea that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by divine right, were superior to others. This was the basis for the feudal system. Other men have managed to enslave whole peoples in this way. They used their origins, or arguments based on their skin color, as a supposedly scientific justification to rule over those who were unfortunate enough to have skin of a different colour. That’s colonial rule. That’s apartheid.
We must pay close attention to the situation of women because it pushes the best of them to talk of a war of the sexes, when what we really have is a war of social groups and of classes that should simply be waged together, with men and women complementing each other. We have to say frankly that it’s the attitude of men that makes such confusion possible. That in turn paves the way for the bold assertions made by feminism, some of which have not been without value in the fight that men and women are waging against oppression. This fight is one we can and will win- if we understand that we need one another and are complementary, and finally, if we understand that we are condemned to being complementary.
For the time being, we have no choice but to recognize that male behavior – made up of vanity, irresponsibility, arrogance, and violence of all kinds towards women – can in way result in coordinated action against women’s oppression. What can be said of these attitudes, which can sink to the level of stupidity, and which in reality are nothing but a safety valve for oppressed males, who, through brutalizing their wives, hope to regain some of the human dignity denied them by the system of exploitation. This male stupidity is called sexism or machismo. It includes moral and intellectual impoverishment of all types, even (acknowledged or not) physical powerlessness, which often compels politically conscious women to consider it their duty to fight on two fronts.
To fight and win, women must identify with the oppressed layers of classes and society – workers, peasants and others. The man, however no matter how oppressed he is, has another human being to oppress: his wife. Saying this means, without any doubt, asserting a terrible fact. When we talk about the disgusting system of apartheid, for example, our thoughts and emotions turn to the exploited and oppressed Blacks. But we forget, unfortunately, the Black woman who has to endure her husband – this man who, armed with his passbook, allows himself all kinds of reprehensible escapades before returning home to the woman who, suffering and destitute, has waited for him with dignity. We should keep in mind, too, the white woman of South Africa. Aristocratic, no doubt materially satisfied, she is, unfortunately, a tool for the pleasure of the lecherous white man. The only thing these men can do to forget their crimes against Blacks is to get wildly drunk from bestial sexual behavior.
Moreover, there is no lack of examples of men, even though progressive, who live cheerfully in adultery, yet would be ready to murder their wives on the merest suspicion of infidelity. Many men in Burkina seek so called consolation in the arms of prostitutes and mistresses of all kinds. This is not to mention the irresponsible husbands whose wages serve only to keep mistresses and make the bars richer.
And what can be said of those little men, also progressive, who get together and talk lewdly about the women they have taken advantage of. They believe that in this way they’ll be able to measure up to other men and even humiliate some of them, by seducing married women. In reality, such men are pitiful and insignificant. They would not even enter our discussion if it were not for the fact that their criminal behavior undermines the morale and virtue of many women of great merit, who would have been highly useful to our revolution.
And then there are those more-or-less revolutionary militants – much less revolutionary than more – who do not accept their wives being politically active; or who allow them to be active by day, and by day only; or who beat their wives because they’ve gone out to a meeting or demonstration in the evening. Oh, these suspicious jealous men! What narrow-mindedness! And what a limited, partial commitment! For is it only at night that a disappointed and determined woman can cheat on her husband? And what kind of political commitment is that expects political activity to cease at nightfall, to resume only at daybreak?
And finally, what should we make of remarks about women made by all kinds of militants, the one more revolutionary than the next. Remarks such as ‘women are despicably materialist’, ‘profiteers’, ‘actors’, ‘liars’, ‘gossips’, ‘schemers’, ‘jealous’ and so on? Maybe this is all true of women. But surely it is equally true of men.
Could our society be any less perverse than this when it systematically places burdens on women, keeps them away from anything that is supposed to be serious and of consequence, and excludes them from anything other than the most petty and minor activities?
When you are condemned, as women are, to wait for your master of a husband in order to feed him and receive his permission to speak and to live, what else do you have to keep you occupied and to give you at least the illusion of being useful or important other than meaningful glances, gossip, small-talk, quarrels, furtive and envious glances, followed by malicious comments on the desire of others to be stylish and on their private lives? The same attitudes are found among men placed in the same situation.
Another thing we say about women is that, unfortunately, they are forgetful. We even call them birdbrains. But we must never forget that a woman’s life is taken up, even tormented, by a fickle spouse, an unfaithful and irresponsible husband, and by her children and their problems. Worn out by taking care of the entire family, how could she not have haggard eyes that reflect distraction and absentmindedness. For her, forgetting becomes an antidote to pain, a relief from the harshness of her existence, a vital part of self-preservation.
But there are forgetful men men, too – a lot of them. Some because of drink or drugs, others through indulging in various kinds of perversity while racing through life. However no one ever says these men are forgetful. What vanity! What banality! Banalities men revel in and that demonstrate the weaknesses of the masculine world. Because in a society of exploitation the masculine world needs women prostitutes. The women who are defiled and, after being used, are sacrificed on the alter of prosperity of a system build on lies and plunder – they are merely scapegoats.
Prostitution is nothing but the microcosm of a society where exploitation is a general rule. It is a symbol of the contempt men have for women. And yet this woman is none other than the painful figure of the mother, sister, or wife of other men, thus of every one of us. In the final analysis, prostitution reflects the unconscious contempt we have for ourselves. There can be prostitutes only as long there are “prostituters” and pimps.
Who goes to see prostitutes?
First, there are the husbands who commit their wives to chastity while they relieve their depravity and debauchery upon the prostitute. This allows them to treat their wives with seeming respect, while they reveal their true nature at the bosom of the lady of so-called pleasure. So on the moral plane prostitution became the counterpart to marriage. Tradition, customs, religion and moral doctrines alike seem to have no difficulty adapting themselves to it. This is what our church fathers mean when they explain that “sewers are needed to assure the cleanliness of the palace”.
Tben there are the unrepentant and intemperate pleasures seekers who are afraid to take on the responsibility of a home with its ups and downs, and who flee from the moral and material responsibility of fatherhood. So they exploit a discreetly located brothel as a treasure trove of liaisons without consequences.
There is also the group of men who, publicly at least and in “proper” company, subject women to vicious public attack. Either because of some disappointment that they did not have the strength of character to surmount, thus losing confidence in all women, who them became “tools of the devil”. Or else out of hypocrisy, proclaiming their contempt for the female sex too often and categorically, a contempt they strive to assume in the eyes of society, from which they force admiration on false pretenses. All these men end up night after night in brothels until, occasionally, their hypocrisy is discovered.
Then there is the weakness of the man who is looking for a polyandrous arrangement. Far be it from us to make a value judgement on polyandry, which was the dominant form of relations between men and women in certain societies. What we are denouncing here are the flocks of idle, money-grubbing gigolos lavishly kept by rich ladies.
Within this same system, prostitution can, economically speaking, include both the prostitute and the “materialist-minded” married woman. The only difference between the woman who sells her body through prostitution and she who sells herself in marriage is the price and duration of the contract.
So, by tolerating the existence of prostitution, we lower all our women to the same level, whether prostitute or wife. The only difference between the two is that the legal wife, though still oppressed, at least has the benefit of the stamp of respectability that marriage confers. As for the prostitute, all that remains for her is the exchange value of her body, a value that fluctuates according to what’s in the male chauvinists wallet.
Isn’t she just an object, taking on more or less value according to the degree to which her charms fade? Isn’t she governed by the law of supply and demand? Prostitution is a concentrated, tragic, and painful summary of female slavery in all its forms. We should therefore see in every prostitute an accusing finger at society as a whole. Every pimp, every partner in prostitution, turns the knife in this festering and gaping wound that disfigures the world of man and leads to his ruin. By fighting prostitution, by holding out a helping hand to the prostitute, we are saving our mothers, our sisters, and our wives from this social leprosy. We are saving ourselves. We are saving the world.
End of Part 3.