Resolution Adopted at the 13th
World Congress – 1991
“What is at the bottom of the
incorrect attitude of our national sections? In the final analysis, it is an
underestimation of women and of their accomplishments. That’s just what it is!
Unfortunately we may still say of many of our comrades, “scratch the Communist
and a philistine appears.” To be sure you have to scratch the sensitive spots,
such as their mentality regarding women.”
(Clara Zetkin, Recollections of Lenin, 1919)
There are three possible
approaches in considering the importance of the real integration of women and
of the struggle against sex discrimination in political organizations and in
particular in our organizations.
First, from the point of view
of the class struggle, that is the general political struggle. The integration
of women is essential if we really want to achieve the unity of workers, of the
proletariat. We cannot ignore the situation of women. But in building real
unity of all the oppressed, we have to work with the various contradictions
that still exist among the oppressed under patriarchal capitalist domination,
resulting from women’s oppression and subordination. Today there is another
element — the increase in the number of women in the organized labour force, a
change in the social composition of the proletariat with a more acute
differentiation in the exploitation based on sex differences — but this is an
additional reason, not the fundamental one, for adopting an aggressive policy
to integrate women into revolutionary organizations.
Second, from women’s point of
view, our presence and effective participation in political organizations is a
fundamental aspect of developing our identification as revolutionaries. If we
start from the need to incorporate individual members, in practice, over the
long term, this identity is extremely weak if there are not a large number of
women as it can then only be created by male discourse. This is why we are not
talking about creating appendices to the revolutionary political project that
give women a space, but about a construction which also involves women, in
which the struggle against gender oppression is more than a programmatic
discourse, but the transformation of daily practice in the field of gender with
the development of the political elements necessary to transform society.
In such a perspective the
very presence of women, in both numerical strength and real political weight,
is essential because, together with the development of the women’s movement,
this is the only guarantee that the demands and needs of women will be present
with the radical dimension necessary to a revolutionary process. The experience
of revolutions in various countries demonstrates this clearly. However
liberated from patriarchy the male comrades are, any political organization or
project of social organization in which women are not represented on an equal
basis reproduces the forms of domination of women and their exclusion from
Finally, from the point of
view of the total socialist project that we want to develop, we cannot talk
about socialism only in male terms, in which women will remain in the same sort
of social division and roles, where they maintain a split personality and are
potential and daily victims of the power and violence of men.
We also have to respond to
the present situation in the workers’ movement and in society. There is an
organized pressure, a pressure from women, not only for the integration of
feminism and women’s demands, but also for a numerical increase of women in
political and trade union organizations. This stems from the pressure of the
organized women's movement and from the objective changes which have taken
place over the last decades in the social situation of women: at the level of
education, the integration in the labour market, the extension of contraceptive
means, some alterations in the structure of the family.
The bourgeoisie in various
regions, in Latin America, in Europe and probably in other parts of the world,
has been rather flexible and rapid in responding to the pressures created by this
new situation. It has tried to broaden the base of its rule by adopting some
aspects of feminist discourse and even by allocating some token spaces to
women. Despite the limits of such policies, they have been made more successful
by the weakness of our response. This is particularly so when, as in the
majority of the cases, we have limited ourselves to the adoption of a discourse
defending the rights of women without changing our political practice or
increasing the effective presence of women in the spheres of power in our own
The social democratic parties
have made progress in the sense of establishing quotas of women in their
electoral lists or in the party leadership bodies. It is true in general that
these measures have not been accompanied by radical demands for the social
transformations necessary to end women’s oppression. But it is also true to say
that they have been more daring in their proposals to increase the number of
women than most revolutionary parties and than our own sections.
We will attempt to briefly
explain the difficulties in women’s political participation and the obstacles
deriving from these.
In political organizations,
there is a general dynamic of exclusion of women. The “natural” dynamic is not
the presence or participation of women but rather the reproduction of the
social dynamic of discrimination and exclusion of women from public spaces.
First we can say that the
division between private and public continues within our political
organizations and our political vision itself. The social role attributed to
women — primarily within the family and in private reproduction — prevents
women from developing social and political participation on an equal footing.
This is also a central element in the construction of our personality: the way
in which we perceive the possibilities or absence of possibilities of entering
into public life. Women’s participation in political life demands a break from
their education and socialization in order to enable them to move into a space
which is not normally assigned to them. This division, taken at the level of a
party, implies that the male comrades have enormous difficulties in relating to
women as political beings and reproduce the way they divide between public and
private in their relations inside the party. For this reason we accept a
schizophrenic behaviour in which there is no coherence between public and
private life. This is a source of permanent tensions between men and women in
their relations inside a political organization.
The second question is
related to the sexual division of labour. It is obvious that the clearest part
of this division is the permanent allocation to women of domestic work, of
responsibility for the family and home. Although there have been some progress
in some countries, the bulk of domestic work and responsibility still falls on
women. For most activists this bourgeois ideology which forms the family
structures remains practically intact, essentially because of the privileges
and facilities it offers men in their political relations. This aspect of the
sexual division of labour deprives women not only of time for political
activity but also absorbs most of our personal, political and intellectual
Within parties this type of
division is reproduced in many ways. The women do the menial work, and the men
do the political work. Within political organizations we reproduce the same
mechanisms of depreciation of women’s work as in the labour market. It is like
the reverse of the tale of King Midas: whatever we touch is devalued. The best
example could be the different value given to organizational work when done by
men or by women.
The third point relates to
the continuation of patriarchal power established inside parties. This
patriarchal power, power of men over women, manifests itself by the maintenance
of an immense authoritarianism of men: women’s discourse is devalued, and must
be backed up by a man; in some cases, leaders use their position to obtain
emotional and sexual privileges from women.
These are some of the
elements that create this dynamic of exclusion of women from the political
Most women comrades agree
that they joined revolutionary parties to make a revolution that was both
socialist and feminist. This is why we want to build parties that are socialist
and feminist, and why we have put this discussion on the agenda as part of the
discussion on building the Fourth International. A combination of internal and
external, positive and negative, factors make it necessary to return to this
* The International as a whole failed to consolidate politically and organizationally the gains made in the debate on women’s liberation at the 1979 World Congress. There has been a general decline in the political level of debate and education in the sections, and a process of depoliticization particularly on the questions of women’s liberation. The debate on special measures was left unfinished and arrived at some mistaken conclusions.
* The sections were slow to
analyse the changing character in the workforce and what effect this had on the
political recomposition of the workers’ movement. While we were able to state
that in the current economic crisis women would not be driven from the
workforce, we tended to underestimate the significance of the ideological
offensive of the ruling class on questions of the family, reproduction,
sexuality and racism. Consequently, we were unprepared for their effect on the
* In several countries in
Western Europe and the United States a downturn in the mass activity of the
independent women’s movement has taken place, in other cases the women’s
movement, under the impact of the economic crisis, has moved to the right. All
too often the sections have reacted to these events by deprioritizing women’s
liberation work. But when trade unions are on the defensive revolutionary
organizations do not conclude that it is impossible to recruit working people.
And even when there is a downturn in the women’s movement or the feminist
current is weak, this is not an excuse to put our feminist goals on the shelf.
* In some countries in the
Third World there has been a massive process of women’s organization around
demands of the general struggle. When women from popular sectors began to
mobilize, at the same time several of our sections started to do broader work
both in unions and in other mass sectors that were on the move, amongst them
women. However, this implied an enormous pressure on the women comrades who
worked in specifically feminist groups to leave them because they were not
“mass” organizations. Faced with this pressure, many comrades abandoned work in
specifically feminist sectors, or left the sections. In this way, we lost
trained women cadre and later found ourselves without participation or very
often legitimacy in the feminist sectors of the women’s movement when they
began to move nearer to the mass movements and with a big backwardness in our
level of discussion on feminism both inside and outside our organizations.
In those cases where — on
making the turn to these mass women’s movements — feminism became secondary,
positive action measures were also weakened and women militants’ situation
inside the party suffered accordingly. There is also an organic discontinuity
in our organizations: sections have appeared and disappeared since 1979.
* In general, the sections
did not foresee these sorts of problems or think about how to help comrades to
confront them. We were not conscious of how much women developed out of their
direct experience as participants and leaders of the women’s movement and
therefore we did not take conscious measures to pass on those lessons and
skills to younger women members, especially as they were unable to obtain this
* In Western Europe we have
seen the development of young women as political leaders in youth
organizations. This indicates that positive action can have an impact on
changing the revolutionary party as well. Two factors explain the capacity of
revolutionary youth organizations to incorporate young women into leadership
structures. Most importantly, youth groups are constantly preoccupied with
leadership renewal. The search for new leaders places emphasis on conscious
leadership development. This sets the stage for allowing young women to think
of themselves as potential leaders and to receive the necessary training.
Second, young people’s
consciousness has been influenced by feminism and they have less need to cling
to past habits. Young women are more insistent on change, young men are at
least a bit more open to change.
In Third World countries,
young people constitute a considerably larger proportion of the population than
in industrialized countries. While the great majority of young women have not
been directly influenced by feminism, they have been brought up in a period of
economic and political crisis which has objectively presented them with a
situation where women are more present in public life than were previous
generations. Nevertheless, women continue to be subjected to the most brutal
forms of oppression. At the same time, a large number of children and
adolescents continue to have children themselves, which means their social and
political integration takes place in ways more similar to that of adults than
is the case for young women in developed countries. This is one of the reasons
why neither youth movements nor youth organizations in solidarity with the
Fourth International have developed. The development of young women as
revolutionary leaders generally occurs in the framework of the adult
organizations, which implies specific contradictions in their participation and
the need to pay particular attention to their development.
In addition, most young
people are freer of responsibilities than they will ever be again. This is
particularly true for women. Therefore the skills and attitudes gained during
this period of rapid change will be important for years to come. If women gain
political confidence as leaders in the youth organization, this can provide an
essential framework for advance in the revolutionary party.
* Many sections have decided
to adopt some form of positive action plan following debates over the lack of
full integration and\or loss of women members. These plans vary according to
each national situation. Examples include inviting women’s commissions to
Central Committee meetings, establishing women’s fractions on a national basis,
holding special educationals on women’s oppression, setting various targets to
increase women’s participation in leading bodies, holding special meetings
where women can discuss and monitor a positive action plan.
The efforts that have been
made in the last few years by some sections to change the situation using goals
or quotas of women in the leaderships (particularly at national level) have
* It is possible in the
majority of sections to considerably raise the number of women in leadership
bodies; there are women capable of taking on these tasks and if they were not
assigned to them previously it was because of the obstacles which existed.
* In the bodies in which
more women are incorporated than previously as a result of this mechanism —
insofar as this is accompanied by a discussion among them of the problems they
face as militants, and the party continues to build the movement — this can
improve the conditions for their political work. If more account is taken of
the need for women’s training, internal discussions on sexist violence take on
another tone and relationship of forces, their needs are legitimized as needs
for the leadership body (and not personal ones) in relation to meeting hours
and forms of discussion; our external policy on women can be discussed with
greater insistence and precision, etc. In summary, the conditions are created
for establishing a relationship of forces between women and men which create
conditions making it possible to change the unfavourable situation for women,
and thus help the positive development of the organization as a whole.
However, even in those cases
where women have been in a majority in leadership bodies, they have not had the
same power as the men. For example, they have lacked the informal networks and
political authority of the longer-serving men. The men still set the tone of
the meetings and determined the political agenda. Even when women were quite
numerous in the leadership, they frequently suffered from overwork and felt
less effective. They saw that they had less back-up within the organization
than the male comrades. Thus, positive action has not solved all the problems —
in fact it has often helped to identify new ones.
* In most Third World
countries where we have sections, women militants face additional types of
problems in their political work: parties prefer men to establish relations
with other parties because of misogynist traditions and sometimes justify
excluding women from leadership on this basis; the lack of acceptance of women
in public spheres; difficulties women face in fulfilling political assignments
because it is often dangerous or illegal to be out at night or to travel. In
cases of clandestine groups or where cultures isolate women’s lives to an
extraordinary extent or when the feminist movement is weak or not present at
all, as in many Third World countries, the difficulties of women militants
become greater. Also, recruiting women becomes more difficult.
* The general problems of
leadership functioning often find their sharpest reflection among specifically
oppressed layers within the party: women, youth, immigrant workers, members of
oppressed nations and races, etc. This reveals both an unhealthy process of
leadership selection and a weakness in finding ways to help members who face
specific social obstacles to their political development. Informal discussion
and collaboration between comrades to prepare meetings and decisions are
important aspects of collective working, but a process from which women are
usually excluded. Informal discussions with women comrades usually deal with
questions other than the political discussions and decisions to take. Even when
proposals are to be put forward that concern a woman comrade’s political
responsibilities or tasks it is not an automatic reflex on the part of male
comrades to consult with her.
* Given limited resources and
time pressures, sections often merely reproduce society’s sexual division of
labour. The criteria for selecting leadership are frequently biased against the
selection of women because it has an inbuilt set of assumptions based on a
“masculine” model that have not been consciously analysed. For example, when
women comrades are proposed for tasks, sometimes the limits on their activity
because they are mothers comes into the discussion. In the same discussion, on
proposing a male comrade for this task, the discussion does not take into
account that he has children, which may or may not limit his ability to take on
this task. Underlying this is the tacit acceptance that childcare falls on the
woman comrade, not on the male comrade. It is also common for there to be
stricter criteria for evaluating women, not only in terms of their political
capacities but also, in some cases, their personal behaviour.
These obstacles mean that
leadership selection tends to eliminate women from these responsibilities,
depending on the level of the leadership body: there are fewer women in local
leaderships than in the base; fewer in the regional than local leaderships;
fewer in the national than in the regional; and fewer still in the
international than the national.
Given the competitive
atmosphere in leadership bodies and a lack of self-confidence among women,
women in leadership positions who manage to survive are sometimes forced into
traditional “helping” roles, relegating themselves into seeking advice from a
male mentor with more knowledge and experience or ending up by taking refuge in
the technical aspect of their task.
* Political debates aimed at
discussing women’s problems and issues have often been hijacked for other purposes
or, alternatively, women have been forced to discuss their concerns within the
straightjacket of a factional framework, given that they did not have the power
or experience to transform the overall climate of the organization.
We have perpetuated styles of
debate that do not create forums in which genuine discussion can take place.
Instead of being able to move forward on the basis of these discussions,
debates become battlegrounds in which “winning” involves using forms of
psychological terrorism to “smash” your opponent. Faction fights often had the
effect of either demoralising women, causing them to withdraw from the
leadership, or encouraging women to adopt these norms of behaviour to “prove”
themselves equal to men.
This intimidating atmosphere
is also difficult for many male members to deal with but unlike most women they
try to overcome these problems by adjusting to the competitive mechanisms and
conforming to male leadership models.
Thus it is clear that a
central problem is the lack of collective functioning, which reinforces the
existing sexual division of labour. (Weakness in collective functioning is also
revealed by other divisions such as between youth and adults, workers and
intellectuals.) It is not always possible for women to challenge such forms of
functioning head on — in fact, it takes a great deal of leadership experience
to figure out how to organize a successful challenge.
* Women face specific
problems because of their day-to-day responsibilities and their social
conditioning. Of course women come into revolutionary parties from different
social and educational backgrounds, with different sexual orientations, and at
different ages and periods of struggle. Therefore they have differing levels of
experience, knowledge and self-confidence. Women do not always manifest their
lack of confidence by timidity — the opposite can occur. Placed in positions of
responsibility women can also react by becoming defensively aggressive.
But however individual women
have dealt with the sections’ leadership structures, the present structures of
the organizations indirectly discriminate against women. If we do not adopt and
monitor positive action plans, this process will only continue.
* An uneven consciousness on
the problems facing women has been a historical problem for the Marxist
movement. It has led to a different appreciation of feminism and what
constitutes “proletarian morality.” Issues such as sexual violence and
intimidation have not been fully discussed and resolved in our movement. But
the positive and negative experiences of several sections provide the basis for
our drawing some definite conclusions regarding unacceptable behaviour towards
women comrades and women in general.
* * *
Much that is said here has
general implications for party building and is not the exclusive experience of
women members. We would argue that a positive action plan represents a break
with spontaneist conceptions of party building. There cannot be a policy of
feminization without a worked-out project of building the revolutionary
organization as a whole. The debate around positive action can be used to
strengthen the whole organization, its apparatus, education and collective
Some conclusions flow from
a. The national sections need
to be alert to new forms of women’s radicalization and the political evolution
of debates in the women’s movement.
b. Sections need to stress
their socialist feminist goals more boldly.
c. Women in the sections need
to wage a collective battle, with the support of the whole organization, to
transform the way in which the sexual division of labour manifests itself
within the party.
d. Key to building a
collective leadership in revolutionary parties is an awareness of how the
sexual division of labour manifests itself. The only way that can be overcome
inside the revolutionary organization is through a monitored program of
positive action. The development of a collective leadership will not come about
spontaneously, but only through a series of thought-out proposals.
This section will outline some specific features of women’s past
involvement in revolutionary parties:
Under capitalism the rise of
the class struggle led to a rise in women’s self-activity and involvement in
radical and socialist movements. The founders of Marxism contributed certain
bases to a materialist understanding of women’s oppression. However, the
Marxist points of view in relation to women’s self-organization have evolved with
time according to the degree of pressure exercised by the mass of women, both
within the party and in society as a whole.
At the beginning of the
century, revolutionaries usually opposed the autonomous organization of women,
arguing that women need to be organized as communists. But as a way to get
around Bismarck’s repressive laws, socialist women in Germany organized
separately from men and a vibrant political movement developed. Certain
specific forms of women’s activity were maintained even when the law was
changed (for example, celebrating International Working Women’s Day,
publication of a women’s magazine).
Lenin, Clara Zetkin and other
leaders of the Third International discussed a broader approach, particularly
during the debates on the united front and work within colonized countries.
Specific measures to organize women workers included women’s departments of the
party and women’s journals. The backing of the international bodies of the
Second and Third Internationals was vital to combat backwardness in different
national situations. Special measures were adopted to organise women’s work in
the colonial world. (See Resolutions of the Third Congress of the Comintern,
Today we are committed to
organizing women around their own needs (economic, social, ideological). This
means building an autonomous women’s movement on a revolutionary basis. We
emphasise campaigns that involve masses of women in action and project the need
to build alliances with other social movements, especially working to deepen
the ties between the women’s movement and trade unions. In countries where the
majority of women first become active in their social sector, as in the Third
World, we emphasize mass action and the need to unite women as such around
their gender demands. We also seek to attract women to the revolutionary party.
In the past individual women
were prominent within a variety of revolutionary parties. These were primarily
intellectuals who led unconventional lives, the most well known being Alexandra
Kollontai and Rosa Luxemburg. Their biographies illustrate that the lives of
women revolutionaries were full of personal dilemmas. But they were forced to
make a stronger break with conventional morality and family life than male
revolutionaries of that time and place. Clearly one vital ingredient to their
survival as political people was the network of female friendship and support
Modern feminism has begun to
unearth information about the role of working class women in earlier socialist
and working class movements (for example, utopian socialism, the suffragette
movement, the German Social Democracy) but their participation was still much
more limited than the possibilities open to women today.
The changing pattern of
women’s lives, the continued entry of women into the paid workforce, the
influence of feminism, the greater cultural and political level of the mass of
women and increased access to fertility control make it far more possible today
to win broad layers of women to revolutionary parties, and to see them develop
as leaders, than ever before. Nonetheless, the stages of women’s lives and the
fact that women are still the primary child-rearers means that women are still
more often expected to make choices between being a mother and being a revolutionary
militant, not to mention taking a leadership role in the organization. We need
to do what we can to lessen the impact of the special problems women face and
convince individual party members through our practice that we are serious.
Our information on the early
history of the FI from this point of view is very limited but our initial
impression is that the downturn in the 1950s included a low awareness of
feminism. However a number of articles in the FI press indicate that a certain
level of understanding on the nature of women’s oppression existed, but there
was little discussion on the issue. Traditionally women in the FI were
“helpmates” who did the small organizational tasks that kept the sections going
during the hard times. Often they held fulltime jobs, assuming the role of
breadwinner, thereby providing the section with the possibility of paying their
husbands a meagre movement salary.
The rise of the second wave
of feminism had a big impact on the FI. Comrades in Canada and the United
States led the turn to the women’s movement, partly because the feminist
movement and the campaign for abortion rights developed there earlier than in
most other countries. As the result of women comrades’ involvement in a feminist
movement and as women were recruited to the revolutionary organizations from
that movement, sections developed a relatively high proportion of women
members. While the revolutionary parties of the pre-World War I socialist
movement never exceeded a female membership of 10%, in the 1970s a few sections
had more than 40% women members.
By the mid-1970s the sections
of the FI were plunged into feminist campaigns. Our international press
reflected strategic debates from the feminist movement and reported on new
research on women’s history. The International proved its usefulness in
promoting an international campaign on abortion rights. Women’s Commissions in
Europe, the United States and Mexico all contributed to the 1979 debate on the
political and ideological analysis that formed the resolution on women’s
liberation. The debate on positive action was concentrated in Europe, Canada,
the U.S.A., and Australia precisely because they already agreed on many basic
issues about women’s oppression, because there was a mass feminist movement in
these countries. Although in its analysis of the modern movement it reflected
basically the experience of the advanced capitalist countries, this text was
fundamental for educating comrades in the basic principles of feminism,
although the discussion remained uncompleted and the assimilation of the
principles laid out was partial and unequal.
Today, we have to revise some
of the conclusions of the discussion. It was dominated by an inadequate and
idealistic vision on the assimilation of our programme. We were not able to
consolidate in terms of organization what we understood politically, because
the document had an idealistic conception of the way in which men’s sexist and
heterosexist attitudes could be challenged and failed to analyse how they were
reproduced in different generations, including among revolutionaries. This
applies to all questions related to the family and sexuality — not only women’s
position but everything which challenges the heterosexual model, and to
religious prejudices — not the individual right to religion and faith, but
conservative traditions in relation to women.
The other weakness of the
document was to put forward the goal of full political, social and legal
equality of women as if it could be achieved by a spontaneous and gradual
extension of the rights of men. This idea did not take into account the dynamic
of exclusion of women from public spaces and of men’s privileges.
The degree of organization of
women in the FI at this stage was halted by the effects of the turn in some
sections, or by the ill thought-out and schematic idea of being “a useful
party” with mass influence in others, although women participated in both
processes. Additionally, one aspect of the turn to industry was to emphasize
sectors of the industrial working class that are overwhelmingly male. Combined
with the declining impact of the women’s movement, this led to a loss of women
cadre, particularly the layers of women recruited in the early 1970s.
Recruitment of women declined and the organization saw the work of women
comrades active in the women’s liberation movement as less central — leading to
the marginalization of feminism within many sections.
For the women who made the
turn into male-dominated industries, many faced problems of sexual harassment
and isolation from other women workers. Women who stayed in public sector
unions, or in “female” occupations, found their experiences ignored. There was
also a loss of prestige in many sections for those women who had led a mass
women’s movement but who no longer had such a strong base from which to
operate. Unless they could learn to operate in another milieu they were seen as
less valuable to their sections and marginalized.
A crucial error was ending
the International Women’s Commission in the International, especially given the
small number of women in the International leadership. Between 1979 and 1985,
at the same time as new sections were joining the International, there was no
collective reflection on the political questions posed by the women’s movement
in advanced capitalist countries or the rise in new opportunities, given
women’s self-organization in the semi-colonial world.
In several countries when our
comrades pointed to how women were discriminated against in political and
public life, they found themselves in a compromising position. Women faced the
same situation within their own party. If we are to build egalitarian and
revolutionary parties, we must overcome this contradiction and reflect the full
participation of women in our own internal life and public activities.
Pressure for formal reports
at the Latin American and European Political Bureaus led to reports on the
situation of women in Europe and Latin America and a self-critical resolution
on the Place of Women in the FI at the 1986 IEC. A document on Europe was
passed at the 1987 IEC and a report was given on Latin American feminism. A
report on Women in the Third World was also on the agenda of the 1988 IEC.
The principle of positive
action was revived in the 1986 debate. Both International and European
structures were established for the coordination of women’s work. Mechanisms
for advancing political analysis and coordination for the Latin American
sections were also agreed upon. But there is a discontinuity between the work
and theorization we did a decade ago and what we are attempting to launch now.
The women’s movement has changed dramatically. Today it is vibrant in places it
did not exist ten years ago, and vice versa. One question we must ask ourselves
is what kind of positive action is appropriate now?
A revolutionary organization
exists to organise the mass of the working class in alliance with the oppressed
masses to take state power and transform all social relations of exploitation
and oppression. It is this strategic goal which provides the basis for the
united action of members of revolutionary parties. The active involvement of
the working class in the revolutionary party is a pre-condition for even
beginning to attain these goals, as it is the decisive force for revolutionary
change. The hegemony of the working class must be promoted within the
Alongside this understanding
must go an appreciation of the changing nature of the modern proletariat. New
layers are becoming part of the proletariat both in the semi-colonial world and
in Western Europe. Most often these are specifically oppressed groups,
including blacks, women, oppressed national minorities — groups which the
organised labour movement often ignores. If revolutionary parties are blind to
colour, sex, nationality, caste and social or class position they will end up
reinforcing inequality. This would be like fighting to end inequality by failing
to liberate the motor force necessary to carry out the task.
Positive action for women is
not counterposed to developing proposals for any other specially oppressed
layer. In fact, women are often members of those other oppressed groups.
Therefore many of the reforms that women want to implement will enable these
other oppressed groups to play a stronger role in the party.
Positive action means taking
concrete steps to break down barriers to women’s participation in the political
life of the party. It means recognising the discrimination that women face in
society today. It takes into account the social differences between women as
well as recognises the oppression that is common to them as a sex. Positive
action fits best in an overall plan that takes account of the existing needs
and strengths of the organization. It needs to consider the party’s next steps.
It requires a conscious and self-critical approach to the history and
development of revolutionary organizations. It rejects the notion that these
problems can “work themselves out naturally.” Positive action measures are
“artificial” because we want to combat the “natural” tendency.
In the life of our parties
very often the forms of functioning and debating derive from the sexual
division of labour. The mode of functioning, the nature of leadership and the
style of work all operate on what is essentially “masculine” terrain. The
privilege of individual development is counterposed to collective work. What
prevails is a markedly greater value given to individual development, to
personal initiatives and competition to the detriment of collective work.
If we are to build a
collective leadership team that can incorporate the skills, insights and
experiences of the women cadre, we must find ways to cut across this unhealthy
division. Not only are skills are fragmented along gender lines, but those that
have been ghettoized into women’s sphere are overlooked and devalued, in the
sections as well as in the labour market.
Essential to the process of
developing leadership criteria is the necessity of identifying the variety of
leadership skills necessary for the organization’s growth, and not just those
skills that are seen as typically “male.” The truth of the matter is that the
stress on individual initiative and competition has too often produced a
battleground of contending forces rather than a coherent organization in which
debates and differences are resolved in an atmosphere of genuine respect. Both
the skills of abstract theorising and the skills of working collectively must
be integrated into criteria for leadership. These need to be woven into the
political fabric of the revolutionary party and learned by all, and renewed as
the leadership is renewed.
A further problem is the
different criteria for political evaluation, not only for the allocation of
work but for the individuals as well. This is striking in the case of positions
considered important when the situation of women is taken into account
concerning their having children or not, the way they live their sexuality or
other considerations which have a different weight when they apply to men or to
women. It is worth mentioning here that these prejudices also apply to
homosexuality whether male or female.
Thus it becomes vital that
the whole organization develop a commitment to challenging that reproduction of
the sexual division of labour, it is not possible to leave the task to
individuals or to the women only — but women will be a major factor in assuring
that we will reach our goal. It must be the whole weight of the organization
that pushes against the routinism and inertia of the sexual division of labour.
In addition, the symbols used
by political organizations are symbols of male power. Not only in terms of
language but of aggressivity, and of everything which is developed in the
representation of politics. It is very frequent to find an extremely
intimidating atmosphere in debates and discussions not only in the way they
take place but also because of the frighteningly large number of men which
always puts women in an extremely unfavourable relation of strength. This is
even more true when we have no means of fighting against social mechanisms of
discrimination against women be it in terms of crèches, issues linked to
maternity, times of the meetings, and all the other issues which make women’s
political participation difficult depending on their social situation. We know
very well that there are limits: political organizations cannot get rid of the
social differences that exist in society and this is all the more difficult the
smaller the organizations are. But this cannot be an excuse for not attempting
to find alternative ways of enabling women’s political participation.
We can say that the political
milieu is still marred by an atmosphere, behaviour and forms of relations which
exert daily violence on women. Whether in the use of language, in offensive
patronising, in manipulations, in psychological violence, fear is imposed by
certain forms of functioning or debate, including the physical and sexual
violence which is not absent in revolutionary organizations. And here, in
general we find the development of a type of patriarchal and sexist solidarity
among men which makes even more difficult to fight against this violence.
Another problem is the
undervaluing of feminist work. The weakness of our intervention in the movement
imposes great limitations on the feminization of our organizations. The
pressure of the movement is fundamental to alter the relations of strength in
favour of women. But the weaknesses or setbacks of the movement cannot be an
excuse for us not to participate in it, and even less for not developing
policies of effective struggle against discrimination in political
organizations. Our organizations cannot be so vulnerable that they change their
attitude to feminist work according to what happens in the movement. This type
of change has however a negative consequence on the militancy of women and
their decision to do or not to do feminist work, because this area of political
work has little status. It is evident that our militant activities are valued
on the basis of other elements and not by feminist work.
In addition, our
male-dominated parties produce political analyses that constantly miss out a
gender analysis. We can produce conjunctural analyses as if women did not
exist; we discuss revolutionary processes without women; we make general
political analyses of a given society as if women did not exist. On top of
that, women’s work remains treated as if it was only the work of women and not
of the party as a whole, including its leading bodies. Here again we can see a
very negative dynamic of neutralization and division of women which undermines
the building of our strength as militants.
The consequence of this
dynamic of exclusion means that women in general stay on the margins of the
general political project. And we feel on the margins because in fact we are.
Not because of any psychological problem specific to women, but fundamentally
because we pay a very high personal price to try to reaffirm our revolutionary
political identity every day when it does not exist inside our organizations.
This leads to a great loss of women cadres, who take much longer to be
replaced. And it weakens our intervention.
Part of this discussion
includes looking at the image our sections project. We want to make sure our
sections are attractive to women and provide suitable environments for the
training and development of women cadre. We can do this by considering our
• We need to have a profile
which clearly reflects our commitment to winning women to our perspectives.
This means utilizing symbols and heroes that incorporate women’s revolutionary
experiences, as well as covering issues from women’s perspectives — whether
this means discussing problems of everyday life, sexual politics and sexual
orientations, community or trade union issues, or international concerns —
developing women as educators, propagandists, writers, candidates and spokespeople
for the sections. It means developing collaborative relations with women who
are leaders of a variety of social movements, and making sure interviews and
statements by them appear in the party press whenever appropriate. That is, in
every way, the presence of women in the revolutionary process is affirmed.
• The party needs to
experiment with structures that can help to draw women sympathizers closer to
the organization. Women’s book clubs, educationals specifically designed for
women (sometimes involving men, other times only for women) or more
externally-oriented women’s clubs are all methods to be considered. In the
semi-colonial countries it has been useful to have workshops where the
relationship between women’s oppression and problems of daily life is
• The party’s
organizational structures and methods of operating need to be reconsidered in
the light of providing a supportive and collaborative atmosphere for women.
Above all, it means developing a political atmosphere in which members are not
made to feel “stupid” or intimidated, either by unwanted sexual advances,
sexual harassment or elitist attitudes. Central is the development of
non-factional styles of debate and a comradely spirit of working together. Such
an environment will reinforce women’s self-confidence and allow for growth.
• We also understand
that the size of the organization implies problems of a particular nature in
line with its growth. The smaller the organization the more difficult it will
be to identify the problems women confront as objective problems of a social
character. The growth of the party with a greater number of women means giving
greater attention to women’s special problems. This means changing our
educational methods, functioning and language, and also discussing the
importance of organizing childcare for meetings and external events of the
party. Independently of which collective solutions appear appropriate, it is
important to note that mothers and fathers need to be sure that their children
are being looked after properly. Ill-prepared childcare is just as disruptive
to our functioning as ill-prepared meetings.
The development of a policy
of positive action means the development of a general policy and not of
isolated measures. A general policy to fight against the “natural” dynamic of
exclusion. In that sense, it is obviously artificial since the “natural” means
the exclusion of women. Here we can say that the first condition lies with the
alteration of the relation of strength. To this aim we need not only to develop
a general programmatic and political integration but also to develop a
conscious policy to change our functioning, to ensure a fundamental policy of
integration of women in the leadership and leadership tasks. We, women and men
in political parties, have known for a long time that real changes do not occur
if there are no changes in the leaderships.
Added to this it is
fundamental for the building of the strength of women to be able to organise
internally in all the ways necessary to the various objectives of building our
strength: in numerical terms, in terms of the organizational conditions, of the
development of solidarity amongst women. Implementation of only one measure,
whichever it is, as the solution to the problem, has a limited effect.
However, it is important to
give some ideas on possible measures to be included in such a policy:
i. Creating and/or
strengthening women’s commissions in the sections.
ii. Strengthening bodies that
exist to organise the women’s liberation work in the International and
encouraging regional organizing among women in the FI.
iii. Regularly discussing
women’s liberation work on leading bodies and taking collective responsibility
for any problems that arise. Disagreements and differences among women will
emerge and should not be viewed as unhealthy. They do not have to be hidden
from the organization as a whole.
iv. Inviting members of
women’s commissions to discussions of the leadership if they are not members of
the relevant body.
i. Placing a high priority on
education, debate and analysis of women’s liberation issues for all members and
ensuring that some understanding of these issues is central to the criteria for
ii. Organising educational
events in which women play an equal or majority role. Ensuring that styles of
delivery are not so traditional that they discourage women and less experienced
comrades from participating.
iii. The European
schools/extended fraction meetings have been relatively successful given the
small resources put into building them and because they bring together comrades
who have experience in organising over a long period with younger comrades who
are today leading the youth organizations. The educational aspect of the Latin
American fraction meetings has been important in developing a common
understanding between the comrades of a certain number of theoretical and
political questions. This type of initiative should continue in these two
regions and be extended to others when possible.
v. The first international FI
women’s seminar was successful. We must ensure that the second is equally so.
i. Ensuring the press has
articles by and about women — and covers issues of particular concern to women.
Pamphlets and other publications need to have a feminist profile.
ii. Ensuring that we have
recruitment campaigns aimed at women.
i. Ensuring that women are
visible as leaders of the organization.
ii. Encouraging the
development of young women as political leaders in the youth organizations and
iii. Taking time to train
women in branches and national leadership responsibilities so that they feel
competent in the tasks they perform.
iv. Not overburdening a small
number of women with so many tasks that they become “burnt out” and are forced
to withdraw from activity.
v. Making knowledge of, and
interest in, questions of women’s liberation a criteria for participation in
General behaviour and
i. Having a code of practice
that specifically outlaws forms of sexual intimidation and violence.
ii. Avoiding sexist language
iii. Organising meetings that
allow for maximum participation through adequate preparation of chairing and
speaking procedures that ensure equal rights to all participants.
iv. Taking account of the
problems of parents with children in planning national and local events.
v. There is a need to place a
higher value on developing a convivial atmosphere in our political activity, e.g.
having socials at political events.
In relaunching the debate on
this question we have to be clear about the parameters of a revolutionary
organization. It is impossible to liberate women without overthrowing the
private property relations which reproduce women’s subordination in society.
Membership in a revolutionary organization is conditioned by this
understanding. No one particular form of organization can end the oppression of
Many comrades use this objective limitation to argue that “not
much can be done, women cannot be liberated without changing the social
structures and making the revolution.” We must reject categorically this type of
reasoning as being conservative and reactionary. Revolutionary Marxist
organizations, understanding material limitations, must adopt an attitude of
creating all the counter-tendencies possible today to existing oppression. We
do this in relation to the limits of the workers’ movement and racial
oppression. It also has to be done as regards women’s oppression.
organizations can take steps to reach out to women on their terms, look at
their political experiences and adjust their own functioning to make them as
women-friendly as possible. Women’s fractions, commissions and organizers can
help push this process forward.
In general the most positive
experiences and the most political discussions take place where the leadership
through the CC or the Women’s Commission has structured these discussions. The
idea of special women’s meetings to discuss political questions relevant to
women and to which all women in the organization are invited to attend, can be
a good model to promote the self-organization of women.
The leadership question is
one important aspect of the positive action debate. If approached without an
overall plan it will not address the problems of women throughout the
organization. We have to have objective criteria for leadership that guarantee
a real change in the composition and functioning of leaderships. Just as
political continuity is a factor in leadership selection, so is working in a
collective team, taking the lead in developing key areas of work, having earned
the political confidence of rank-and-file activists and comrades. When a
leadership constantly under-represents the number of women in the whole
organization it is a sign that the body itself is somewhat disfunctional. We
should aim for parity where possible but this should not be a rigid, inflexible
schema because women do not wish to reverse roles but to transform the workings
of the party. Where parity is not possible we should adopt targets to increase
women’s representation in relevant leadership bodies.
One suggestion for helping to
integrate new women onto leadership bodies is that they should be given time to
learn their new tasks and an opportunity to identify practices in the
organization they think need changing. This is best facilitated by women’s
commissions, fractions or a specific caucus meeting that can help to identify
such areas and organize report-backs to the relevant leadership bodies.
Leadership bodies need to be held accountable for the organization as a whole.
The aim of this document is
to restart the debate on positive action. In a sense, it comes ten years after
it should have been written. But it is not too late to crystallise
organizational as well as political gains out of an important period of women’s
radicalization, backed up by the self-organization of women and promoted by the
The women’s movement does not
have the institutional expression of the trade unions. We have tried to create
structures and an understanding inside our sections and the International so
that revolutionary continuity on the problems of women are not lost or
abandoned. In some countries the women’s movement has faced a downturn. But the
lessons are not lost for that country or internationally if the gains of modern
feminism are fully reflected in both our programme and our practice. It is only
by working through the proposals in all the sections that we will be able to
make an international balance sheet on this question.
It is worth restating the
positive nature of the policy which has been developed in the recent years by
the FI. A series of important measures have been applied, which are not however
sufficient. The central challenge which remains is that of obtaining this type
of policy in a more complete way inside the sections. By taking such special
measures, within the framework of unifying the party as a whole, we will not
only counter any philistinism among communists, but win and keep more women in
our ranks. This is central to ensuring that the political projects of our
organizations are collective projects of women and men.