Around Britain

Women’s Work is Never Done

Susan Pashkoff, Women’s Officer of Leyton & Wanstead CLP, looks at the contemporary relevance of International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day makes us reflect upon women’s status in our societies and whether positive changes reflecting the importance of women’s roles have occurred.

One of the lessons of the Covid Pandemic is the importance of women’s work in keeping our societies going. The pandemic laid bare how prevalent misogyny is in our societies. Worldwide, domestic violence against women increased during the pandemic. Lockdowns trapped women with their abusers. All forms of violence against women increased during the pandemic.

State violence against women takes many forms – attacks on the benefit system, our low incomes and poor conditions of work. The continuing failure of police and the state to support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and murder reflects deep misogyny, along with racism and disablism. We’re not only talking about ‘a few bad apples’.

Sarah Everard’s murder by a serving policeman, the use of Covid regulations to justify the police assault on her memorial vigil at Clapham Common, the police refusal to search for Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and the sharing of selfies of their bodies with other police was appalling. Misogynist police will not protect women.

One fundamental human right is women’s bodily autonomy. In Ireland, Argentina and Colombia, after years of struggle, women have won the right to legal abortion, albeit with conditions. But in Poland, anti-abortion laws have eliminated most women’s access. In the United States, if the Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion nationally in 1973, it will probably lead to 26 states banning abortion completely.

Women are predominantly employed in ‘key sectors’ of the economy that mirror the unpaid labour that women do in the home. We are responsible for cleaning, cooking, rearing and socialising children, caring for our families and extended families. As a result, women’s work is viewed as un-skilled and is low paid.

As became obvious to everyone during the pandemic, women hold up more than half the sky. If the capitalist system was forced to pay for women’s unpaid labour in the home, there would be less available for the creation of surplus value and profits in the economy as a whole. Despite the growth of women’s education, many remain trapped in traditional women’s labour. The exploitation of women’s labour keeps the system running.

Taking care of the family for free presupposes we are able to do paid employment. This often requires flexible working hours, part-time jobs – often several arranged around children’s schooling – and additional support from our families and communities. We need childcare support, after-school activities, and assistance in doing caring tasks that are socially defined, but treated as ‘natural women’s work’. Social reproduction is our ‘role’ simply because we are responsible for physical reproduction. Yet there is no reason why these tasks cannot be done by men. The need for flexible employment pushes women into the informal sector, earning money providing this work for wealthier women, but without employment or pension benefits.

The prevalence of this backward mentality means that although women’s work is essential to ensuring the economy keeps functioning, it is still treated as working for ‘pin money’. Women often find themselves stuck in part-time jobs in order to care for children and their families, making them more dependent upon state benefits and welfare. Changes in benefits or prices, impact us harder. Living longer than men with lower pensions means we live longer in poverty.

With all the clapping for carers and key sector workers during the pandemic, women may have thought this would lead to pay increases and more investment in child care and in the care sector. It took the pandemic to demonstrate how broken social care is, both for the workers in the sector and those getting support. Having to educate children at home and being forced to give up paid work made childcare suddenly relevant.

Recognising these contradictions in the economic and social system is one thing. But it doesn’t create change unless we fight for it.

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