The history of women and their oppression has been well documented in literature. Several authors have explored the origin of women oppression. Women’s oppression has its roots in capitalism which has existed for many centuries (Stuart & Martin 1989). Their oppression is of course not unique to capitalism as it has been there since the colonial times and through the 19th century and 20th. However, over the past few decades, we have observed significant changes in capitalism which has impacted on the status of women. Many changes have been observed some of which are positive and others which take a more gloomy view.
In this respect, this paper explores how the recent changes in capitalism have affected the social and economic status of women. In particular, the paper considers how post-Fordism and neoliberalism have altered women’s socio-economic position. Changes such as industrialization, urbanization, internationalization, globalization and modernization will be discussed in detail. The paper will examine how the concurrent cultural shifts have interacted with these socio-economic transformations and determine what the overall impact of these different factors has been. An exploration of this topic will be incomplete without examining the origin of capitalism and the rise of post fordism and neoliberalism.
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History of capitalism and crisis of fordism
The origin of capitalism remains shrouded in the mists of history. Its exact birth date is speculated to be anywhere between the 14th century and the 17th century (Stuart & Martin 1989). Capitalism emerged from a feudal society and is linked to Europe’s economic system of the late 1700s (Price 2005). It is argued to have begun with the enclosure of common land used by peasants, and development of merchant capital and slave trade in western Europe (Price 2005). Rich landowners appropriated public land and made it their own private land, thereby creating a landless working class which provided the needed labour to develop industries (Harvey 1989).
Fordism, a regime characterized by mass production, emerged in the early 20th century. It became dominant in the advanced capitalism during the postwar reconstruction. It was characterized by the mass production of homogenous consumer products, use of rigid technology, increased productivity, rising income which is dependent on productivity, increased profitability and investments, and homogenization and intensification of labour (Clarke 1990). Fordism gave birth to the current phenomenon of ‘mass worker’.
The fordist regime adopted a set of cultural norms and values which continued to oppress women. The regime supported the male breadwinner model where women were seen as mothers and house wives while men worked in paid labour (Castell 1996). Gender relations under this regime required women to work without pay while the male subject was remunerated. However, fordist regime had its limits which were technical, social and economic in nature. Technical limits were mainly the exhaustion and the intensification of labour (Clarke 1990). The economic limits included decrease in profitability which was a result of the rising wages and declining productivity. Social limits were related to the growing demands of mass worker.
Post-fordism and neoliberalism
Given the crisis of fordism, a new form of ‘post-fordist regime’ emerged which was characterized by the growing differentiation of products, new technologies, more flexible production methods, and greater skill and flexibility, and increased involvement of women in paid labour (Burrow & Loader 2003). Post-fordism emerged primarily due to three main driving forces: internationalization, technology revolution, and as a result of the paradigm shift from fordism to post-fordism (Broomhill 2001). Introduction of the welfare system and the rise of women movement in the post-fordist regime led to the abandonment of the male breadwinner model and women’s financial independence (Broomhill 2001).
Several historical events have transformed the social landscape including technological revolution, demise of international communist movement and the collapse of Soviet statism (Castell 1996). Proliferation of technologies centred on information systems have reshaped the social landscape and accelerated the pace of development of the society. Moreover, the rise of globalization has led to a new form of relationship between states and economies (Castell 1996). All these changes have been driven and shaped by the neo-liberal thought.
Neoliberalism has led to the increasing globalization, decentralization, de-regulation of the market, organizational restructuring, growth and consolidation of transnational corporations, and ‘free marketization’ which has reduced the old state and contractual controls (Acker 2004). Furthermore, new forms of flexibility in employment relations including part-time and online forms of working have emerged, changing the working environment. Post-fordism and neoliberal policies have resulted in the feminization of labour and made men and women both similar in the public sphere (Broomhill 2001).
Impact on women’s economic and social status
These changes in capitalism have had profound yet contradictory impact on the economic and social status of women. While it has to a large extent improved women’s socio-economic status by undermining older forms of male dominance, it has to some extent worsened their life conditions (Beck et al. 2001). On the positive side, post-Fordism and neoliberalism have altered women’s socio-economic position and disrupted the settled economies that supported patriarchy structures.
Post-fordist relations of production have resulted in the inclusion of women in paid labour force. Neoliberal policies have increased flexibility in employment. These changes have changed the way women view themselves and challenged the patriarchic view of domination of women by the men (McRobbie 2008). And since domination essentially occurs through construction of reality, if the women subjects do not internalize patriarchalism, then its demise is just a matter of time. While some religion in some countries, especially Islam, continue to re-state the sanctity of the patriarchal family, its disintegrations is evident in many countries.
Women in many countries have joined the paid workforce and even conquered legal parity at work. However, their inclusion in the paid labour force does not necessarily imply that they were relieved of the burden of Partriachalism. It might be that despite working for pay, women still continue with their role of providing domestic and caring labour at home. Nonetheless, their liberation from oppression is clearly evident across the globe. The number of women in paid workforce has been increasing gradually over the years. Estimates indicate that women currently account for about 42% of the global workforce with majority of them employed in the health sector (75%) (WHO 2008).
Not only has their economic status improved, their social status has improved as well. Women are increasingly being seen as equals to men including in politics where they were essentially absent. The political system in many countries has opened up to female leadership. The participation of women in leadership positions and politics is clearly evident in the recent presidential elections in the US where Hillary Clinton contested against President Barack Obama. Many more women leaders have emerged all over the world with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia being the most popularly known in Africa, having won as the first ever female president in Africa. Others include the German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Prime minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and many more (Aguirre et al. 2012). The list is certainly endless.
In addition, the education system has become more open to the girl child including in fundamentalist countries such as Iran which have seen a growing number of women graduates (Castell 1996). The affirmation and recognition of women’s values, the growing women movements and critique of patriarchalism are some of the most important transformations that have contributed to the new status of women.
As women movements continue to fight for their autonomy and recognition of women’s values, the more has feminism diversified. A new frontier has emerged based on the notion of ‘degendering’ of the society which implies a society free from gender associations or rather one that moves beyond gender (Murphy 2011). This new frontier in feminism has superseded the old battles that existed between equality feminism and difference feminism. By mobilizing women to oppose patriarchalism and to defend their rights, feminism has transformed to the point of canceling the distinction between men and women (Sulivan 2007).
Men and women are now largely viewed as individuals with meaningful existence, liberating them from the patriarchic burden of responsibilities. This has certainly been very helpful in achieving a more equal society. Women’s role in the development of the economy is increasingly being recognized. Available evidence indicates women to be powerful drivers of economic growth. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found the high rate of women employment to be the driving force of the US economy. The study found that, if women had not entered the workforce over the last 30 years, the economy would have been 11% less.
Today, we see several institutions including the World Bank and the Department for International Development (DFID) campaigning for more involvement of women in economic development (Aguirre et al. 2012). According to the World Bank, encouraging the growth of women entrepreneurs is as sure way of fighting poverty. Women are poised to drive the global economy in the next coming decades. Estimates indicate that nearly 1 billion of women across the world might join paid labour over the coming decade (Aguirre et al. 2012).
While there seems to be a progress in women’s socio-economic status driven by post-fordist relations and the neoliberal policies pursued by the several states, some countries continue to follow partriarchalism. Despite its inevitable demise, some countries tend to still follow partriarchal lines which subordinate women under men’s dominance. A good example can be seen with Saudi Arabia. A woman’s place in Saudi Arabia is still in the home. Saudi women continue to walk in the shadow of their men. For example, despite their obvious presence, they are not allowed to participate in the public sphere (Hamdan 2005). They are viewed as non-existing in the public sphere and are silenced in public life. They continue to be subordinated to male individuals in both private and public sectors despite their qualifications.
While a progress seems to have been made with respect to their education, at the core of women’s education is sex segregation. Education in Saudi continues to support the prevailing gender structures, implying lower social status of Saudi women (Hamdan 2005). Perhaps more shocking news is the fact that Saudi Women are not allowed to drive. While religious reasons are generally given for denying women the right to drive, it is clear that their place is still in the home.
Also, even though many women have progressed economically due to their inclusion in workforce, only a few of them work in the management positions. In spite of the increasing number of women in workplace, many of them are concentrated in the lower-status occupations. For example, while the health sector comprise of 75% of the women workforce, they are concentrated n the lower status working either as nurses and midwifery personnel or as ‘caring’ cadres (WHO 2008). They are largely underrepresented at the managerial level and specialist categories such as dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.
Feminist critique of sexism seems to have given justification to new forms of exploitation and oppression. With more women joining the paid workforce, the ‘family wage’ model central to state-organized capitalism which viewed men as the ‘breadwinners’ and women as ‘home makers’ has now been replaced by the newer, more modern norm of ‘two-earner’ family (Fraser 2013). While this may sound like good news, the reality is that post-fordism and neoliberal ideas have resulted in depressed wage levels, increased job insecurity, exacerbation of double shifts and the increase in the number of working hours (Fraser 2013).
What was once the ‘family wage’ in capitalism has now been replaced by a low-waged work. Majority of their work has not really brought liberation rather a ‘tedious reality’ far from the perceived image of a working woman (Frank 1999). They remain relegated to lower positions at work. Even with many women being employed either in full or part-time positions, they are not getting to the ‘top’.
Also, where their role is clearly evident, women continue to suffer from some level of hostility and public disapproval. For example, when it comes to journalism, women have proved flexible and able to forge new approaches. Their adaptability to new approaches is clearly evident with their news coverage of the September 11 events, the overthrow of Taliban forces and the bombing of Afghanistan (Chambers 2004). Women journalists developed different angles in their approach to war journalism, thereby attracting more news audiences. Yet despite the critical role that they played, a heated public debate emerged about the risks of reporting in war zones. It is clear that despite their liberation from oppression, women are still defined in terms of men. As wives and mothers, women clearly continue to suffer from some level of hostility and public disapproval that men with families do not ( Chambers 2004 p.13)
In addition, some recent events have pointed to the renewed crisis of capitalism. There is currently a crisis of profitability which is facing capitalism. The profit rates are falling and many firms have been laying off workers. British capitalism is particularly in a crisis given its relatively weak position compared to other imperialist nations (FRFI 2013). The current focus on the growth of the private sector implies that priority has been placed on industrial development over social objectives. Workers wages have been cut to a massive extent and unemployment seems to be growing. Given this crisis, capitalism is now insisting on women returning to their traditional roles as domestic workers (FRFI 2013).
Neoliberal ideas contributing to sexism
While the recent changes experienced by capitalism seem to have contributed to the recognition of women as gender equals, recent developments continue to enact sexism. For example, many advertisements of today show nude pictures of women. What this means is that the male gaze is invited and encouraged as women continue to become objects of the gaze. Moreover, many clubs continue to feature young women stripping, lap-dancing and flashing out their breasts in public (McRobbie 2009). A hyper-culture of commercial sexuality seem to be growing, an aspect that is clearly a repudiation of feminism.
Even the young women journalists who through their education are ‘gender aware’ refuse to condemn such acts of commercial sexuality. It seems like the new female Subject is called upon by the society to withhold critique and to remain silent despite her freedom. Consumer and popular culture seem to be introducing invidious forms of gender re-stabilization by pretending to support female success yet tying the female subject to new post-feminist neurotic dependencies (McRobbie 2009). In order to be considered a modern sophisticated girl, the female subjects choose to withhold their critique despite their obvious image as sexual objects of men’s gaze.
With the progress seen with women’s socio-economic status, one might think that the feminists are happy to see the things they fought so hard to have come true. However, what has emerged is different from what was desired (Cornwall et al 2008). Neoliberal values seem to have created space under which women can be further oppressed and their core values undermined. The culture of neoliberalism has led to the idea of self-sufficiency and free choice. All that one has to do is to compete in the market place.
Some women have even gone to great lengths to make themselves acceptable to the world of work by performing cosmetic surgery under the illusion of having freedom choice to make their own decisions (Gupta 2012). Yet some of their work goes against their core values. Many women have ventured into the sex industry under the illusion of having control over their lives. They have chosen this kind of work in the spirit of freedom of expression of their sexuality and believe that the work is liberation from the drudgery of cleaning jobs (Gupta 2012). However, the so called freedom of expression is actually reducing them to the status of ‘commodity’ and as objects of ‘men gaze’.
Feminism which once fought for the liberation of women from oppression has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society (Fraser 2013). It has led to the notion of ‘freedom of choice’ which ultimately has given rise to prostitution. Feminists’ perspective on prostitution, however, is an interesting one. Feminists argue that prostitutes are social workers and have in fact used their social concepts to contend for decriminalization of prostitution (Sullivan 2007). Feminists have formed strong links with prostitutes resulting in advances in the area of prostitution law reform. The feminist position of the sex industry is one that empowers women as long as they choose to participate.
But what is progressive about women’s participation in prostitutionCan women really progress by becoming sexual objects and objects of male gazeWhat is revolutionary about legalizing prostitutionIn fact, legalizing prostitution just makes women to become sexual commodities. The fight against sexism that has long been fought for by feminists seems to have ended up again to encouraging it. The progress in women that we have seen so far will not continue if women continue to follow neoliberal ideology that values individual ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ over emancipation. Selling their bodies will not provide them with independence and empowerment that they seek but rather it will just reinforce male power and privilege.
Trafficking of women and children
Further, neoliberal ideology has led to the growing trafficking of women and children. This is particularly evident in Asia and the pacific region where human trafficking has grown to become a booming business. Millions of children in the pacific region are traded to work in brothels or sweatshops. Human trafficking has not grown by accident but as a result of free trade and structural adjustments brought about by neo-liberalism. Sex trafficking is currently a growing market in some parts of Eastern Europe, most notably Romania and Albania (FRFI 2013)
There is no doubt that the socio-economic status of women has improved following the recent changes in capitalism. This is evident in their inclusion in the paid workforce, their enrollment in eductation and increased participation in the public sphere including in politics. However, to some extent, these changes have painted a gloomy picture with regard to the status of women. A vast majority of them continue to occupy positions at the low levels of the organization. Also they continue to suffer from some level of hostility and public disapproval. Neoliberal ideology has led to their increasing commodification and increased trafficking of women and children. A hyper-culture of commercial sexuality seem to be growing, an aspect that is clearly a repudiation of feminism.
Nonetheless, a huge progress has been made. Today, there are many successful women in the capitalist society. In fact, many women seem to have embraced the capitalism and showed support of it due to their improved social and economic status. If their status is to be further improved in post-fordist employment, policy initiatives must address the issues of women’s employment, skills and training (Burrows & Loader 2003). Furthermore, there is need for public policy to challenge the polarized labour market that has emerged from post-fordism. Neo-liberal policies which support the development of a polarized market are socially divisive. Also, feminist scholars need to caution Women against prostitution. Selling their bodies will not provide them with independence and empowerment that they seek but rather it will just reinforce male power and privilege
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