Fighting for the same rights over and over

We were talking about the future of the women’s movement. It was back in the early ’70s, when the women’s movement was taking off, inspired by the civil rights movement. Except for me, everyone in the room was young. The question was asked, “Can we win full equality under capitalism? That way, capitalists would exploit everyone (men and women) equally!” Why or why not?

I took the bait and made a bold prediction. “No,” I said. As long as there is capitalism, there will be sexism and racism. The capitalists’ rule depends on dividing workers, not only to lower wages but also to maintain their power. They will never give up the tools they use to divide us. To win full equality, we have to get rid of capitalism and build socialism.

Nobody disagreed. But what we did not say then is coming back to haunt us. We did not say that the rights women win under capitalism are temporary. In general, we knew that the bosses would try to take back any of the rights we won. But we never expected to have to fight again for access to birth control and women’s right to choose. I, for one, am getting tired of fighting for the same rights over and over again.

Anyone of my generation (I am 87) remembers too well friends who suffered from botched back-alley or home-inflicted abortions. We remember the bleeding that would not stop and frightening trips to the emergency room. Added to the trauma was the daughter’s need to keep parents from knowing that she had been pregnant. We also remember the pale and worn-out women who, it seemed, had a baby almost every year. Under federal law, birth control was not legal until 1971. And for years after, access to birth control remained limited.

So the question must be asked, “Why?” We know that the powerful, selfish, greedy few who run this country don’t really care if some sperm cells get blocked so that they cannot make contact with an egg cell. They care even less about a fetus inside a woman’s abdomen since they just cut the funding for prenatal care and for health care for babies.

Why are they doing this? I can think of some possible answers. I am sure readers will have additional ideas that I would like to read in “letters to the editor.” The right answers, I think, will revolve around two words: profits and power. Extra profits come from the lower wages that sexism forces women to work for. The supposed average difference in men’s and women’s wages is 24 cents on the dollar. Multiply that by the number of women workers and it comes to megabillions.

The power issue has several aspects. The first is that women’s ability to function as citizens and workers is affected by their ability to control when and if they have children. The Nazi idea was to push women back to “Kitchen, Church and Children.” That’s KKK in German, very appropriate. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the Bushites exploited the phony “right to life” issue to divide the working-class vote. That gave them enough votes so they could go ahead and steal the elections.

The second aspect of the power issue is the serious division in the working class resulting from denying women’s rights. In 1964, I was fired from a job as director of technical writing. The company president said, “For what I’m paying you, I can hire a man.”

Based on my experience, I am confident that women and their allies will again win this fight for reproductive rights. But there will be more setbacks. Again women will die from botched illegal abortions. There is a fundamental lesson for women in this struggle. To win and keep our rights, we have to get rid of capitalism and build socialism.

We must also look at family rights when we fight for equality. About four in every five mothers of school-age children are in the paid workforce. Sixty percent of mothers with children younger than 3 are in the workforce. Where is the affordable, quality day care and after-school care for these children? During World War II, when the government wanted women to work in the defense plants, they opened a vast chain of preschools. That’s long gone. What is happening to the children now?

Beatrice Lumpkin ( is a founder and national executive board member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.