Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Women's Oppression, Empowerment and Breast Implants

There is a link between the breast implant scandal[1] involving at least 400 women in Iceland and hundreds of thousands of women across Europe, and the 'Just Fearless, Women Empowering Women' conference coming to Reykjavik next week.

They are both sold as solutions to what’s wrong in women's lives but are the wrong answers to real problems.

Twenty years ago women had breast implants as part of reconstructive surgery after cancer or a few had implants because they worked in the porn industries. Now thanks to the rise of ‘raunch culture’[2] millions of women round the world are sold breast implants as the solution to the dissatisfaction they feel with their bodies. But 'ideas do not fall from heaven and nothing comes to us in a dream',[3] we have been bombarded with advertising images of ideal female bodies that mean most of us are too thin or more often too fat and we don’t have the right sized breasts. So we are sold the solutions from diets, exercise regimes, padded bras and then implants. The companies selling the cure for the insecurities they have helped create, including cosmetic surgery companies, do it for the enormous profits.  So it was inevitable that a company would eventually cut corners to save money and increase their profits. That company turned out to be Poly Implant Prosthese (PIP), founded by Jean-Claude Mas. Since 2001 his company has been filling implants with industrial-grade silicon suitable for mattresses which cost 1/8th of the price of medical grade silicon. This means that women with less money, working class women, got these implants rather than better quality ones.

The ‘Women Empowering Women’ Conference is selling the idea that we can fix our lives by starting a business. It says ‘this powerful summit dares women to tackle their personal and professional challenges, be FEARLESS, and plant their feet firmly on the path to success.’ In other words it’s made up of a bunch of motivational speakers, for whom this is a career in itself, plus local business women and the President of Kvenréttindafélag Ísland, the Icelandic Women's Rights Association, Helga Guðrún Jónasdóttir who used to be president of Landssamband Sjálfstæðiskvenna, the national Tory women’s network.

If they can get hundreds of women to pay 2.500 kr and more to pay 5000 kr to ‘meet and greet’ the speakers, then these conferences can be highly lucrative. This ‘empowerment’ is a poisonous idea that throws failure back on the individual as though we can all pull ourselves up if we really want to. It ignores class, access to capital/credit, personal disadvantages, financial crisis and cuts in social spending. It says if your business/life doesn’t work out as planned then it must be your fault - look how successful we all are.

The solution to the PIP scandal is relatively simple - the Government can pay for any women in Iceland who wants to have the implants removed and they can recoup the money from the surgeon who imported and fitted these implants.

The solution to capitalism feeding on and profiting from our insecurities can ultimately only be to get rid of capitalism. But right now we don’t have to stand for the relentless sexualised and sexist advertising nor the insidious ideas of right-wing women with something to sell.

[2] Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture
[3] Marxist philosopher Antonio Labriola 1966

Friday 13 January 2012

To Talk about Women's Oppression We have to Talk about Class

In my last post I wrote about the ‘developments in equality’ in the Althing. Women’s equality in Iceland has made great progress since the end of the 19th century but it was fought for by ordinary women and men not handed down by the ruling class.

The source of women’s oppression is much older than capitalism. Its roots lie in the development of class society before the Sumerians invented writing to catalogue their surplus food and tradable goods. It was the rise of class society that created what Frederick Engels[1] called ‘the world historic defeat of the Female Sex’. By which he meant that as developments in agriculture meant more labour was needed so women took on much more responsibility for raising children than they had previously had to. Then women’s lives were further restricted as private property developed to be controlled and handed over to the next generation.[2]

5000 years later under capitalism, the current form of class society, all women experience oppression[3] but that experience is mediated by class. Millions of middle class women around the world can liberate themselves by buying the labour of other women to clean their houses and care for their children. That is not an option for the thousands of millions of working class women, who know that ‘the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.[4]

Kolaburða - carrying coal
The Icelandic magazine Fjallkonan, which strongly supported women’s rights,[5] argued in 1885 that married women in Reykjavik had a slightly easier time than working women as they would not usually need to take the worst jobs. These jobs were collectively called Stritavinna - hard work, they included eyrarvinna - dock work, water carrying and Laugaferðirnar, the innocuous sounding laundry journey.

Eyrarvinna, loading and unloading ships meant carrying cargo, often sacks of coal. The men lifted the sacks onto the women’s shoulders and head, who then carried the load to the warehouses. Horses were apparently too valuable for this work. The worst of it, Fjallkonan pointed out, ‘was that women were only paid a third or quarter of the men’s wage yet they do the same work and as much as the men.’ ‘Nowhere in this country are conditions so like slavery as for the women in Reykjavik who do dock work’.[6]

For the laundry trips, women carried back-breaking loads of washing, in all weathers out to the hot springs, a round trip of several kilometres with no road. If the weather wasn’t dry then the washing would have to be carried back wet. The women also had to carry a tub, bucket, soap and food. Children who were too young to be left at home had to walk there too. There were at least two fatal accidents[7] when women slipped and fell into the boiling water yet a safety frame wasn’t put over the springs until after the turn of the century.

Another article in Fjallkonan[8] remembered the deaths and noted that a few krona spent on cement and a metal frame would save lives. Rather optimistically Valdimar suggested this penny pinching was because the Washers were usually women, but the treatment of deckhands proved the authorities were equally content for men to die, to save money, as much as women.

Anna Þorsteinsdóttir, died on her way home from the Springs, when she slipped on ice into a brook and weighed down by the washing pack on her back, drowned. Anna’s horrible death has been commemorated by artist Harpa Björnsdóttir in her sculpture, Fist [9] It's a clenched fist made of soap and plaster, raised to Anna and the memory of all the women who had to wash clothes at Laugardalur.

In 1907 a water carriers wage was 2 aurar[10] per bucket whether a man or woman. Each trip to a well was made with 2 buckets and it took 75 trips per day to earn 3 kr, theoretically a working wage.[11] However it was also common to pay for water carrying in food, clothes and alcohol.

One particular water carrier was called Gunna Grallari because she knew the entire Psalm book Grallarann [12] and sang it constantly whilst carrying water for Hotel Ísland and the chemist NS Krüger as well as cleaning their toilets. Despite being hard work water carrying was usually a job for those unable to stand harder work, so the young, old or unhealthy.

Ásmundur Sveinsson commemorated the water carriers with his extraordinary modernist sculpture Vatnsberi, made in 1936 which last summer was finally moved to the corner of Bankastræti and Lækjargata where the artist intended it should be.


It’s now close to the site of the well named Bernhöftsbrunninn, when Bankastræti was called Bakarastígur or Bakarabrekka, because of the Bernhöfts bakery built in 1834. Explaining the Town Council decision not to allow the statue to be placed centrally, Einar Magnússon commented that the authorities did not see why they had to take the piece seriously as it ‘didn’t represent anything seen by normal eyes’.[13] It’s an unintentionally illuminating comment from a class that wants work done but doesn’t want to see those who do it.

The progress working class women and men have made since has been by collective action, strikes and protests. In 1907 women in Hafnarfjörður working in fishmeal processing went on strike for higher wages and won after barely a day. This was probably the first strike by women in Iceland.[14]

But progress can be lost and if the financial crisis is paid for by ordinary people work will get much harder. As it is, Morgunblaðið reported last week that nurses in the acute wards at the hospital Landspítalan walk 12 km in a single shift. These women have far more in common with their male colleagues who also juggle shift working and childcare, than they have with Halla Tómasdóttir & Kristin Pétursdóttir founders of Auður capital whose mission is to 'feminise' banking.

Improved pay and conditions were fought for originally and they will have to be defended by working class women and men. In Britain on November 30th last year public sector workers made up the biggest strike by women in British history. If the cuts are defeated and working class women’s progress is advanced it’ll be because women of our class stand with working class men against all the women bankers, mangers and Prime Ministers of their class.

[1] Author of Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State
[2] Chris Harman, A Peoples’ History of the World
[3] This explains breast implants which I’ll discuss in the next post.
[4] Joan Violet Robinson, Economic Philosophy pg 45
[5] The editor Valdimar Ásmundsson was married to Briét Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, editor of Kvennablaðið
[6] 31st January 1885
[7] Soffía Ólafsdóttir died from burns after she fell into the spring 17th February 1894, also Kristín Ólafsdóttir 25th August 1898. Sbr. ÞÍ Prestþjónustubók Dómkirkjunnar í Reykjavík 1881–1898.
[8] 27th January 1900
[9] Laugavinna 2009 pg 56 of the book or 60 of the pdf online.
[10] 100 aurar = 1kr
[11] Íslandsdætur pg 126
[12] Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland: or, The journal of a residence in that island, during 1814-15..., Volume 1 ‘For upwards of two hundred years, the only    Psalm-book used in the Icelandic church was.. Grallarann.. which first appeared in 1594’. A new Psalm-book was published in 1801 but the Grallarann and its scripturally incorrect old psalms remained popular.
[13]ekki eftirlíking á því sem venjulegum augum sé sýnilegt’
[14] http://www.kvennasogusafn.is/index.php?page=artoel-og-afangar

Monday 2 January 2012

The Progress of some Women is not necessarily the progress of the Class

The majority of Ministers in the Althing are now women. The Icelandic Parliament also has its first ever woman Minister of Finance, Oddný Harðardóttir. Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is keen we should celebrate these 'developments in equality' in Iceland.
However the Cabinet reshuffle actually has far more to do with the Social Democrats’ determination to take Iceland into the EU which is opposed by Vinstrihreyfingin - grænt, (VG) the Left-Green Movement, most of the opposition in the Althing as well generally as those whose livelihoods rely on fishing or whaling.
Jón Bjarnason of VG has gone from the cabinet, as has Árni Páll Árnason of the Social Democrats (SDP) who is also against Iceland going into the EU.
Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, the Chair of VG who was Finance minister, has been moved to Agriculture and Fisheries. The right wing of the coalition is not able to stay in power without the VG, so they couldn’t get rid of him completely and Jón Bjarnason who was Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, has been highly critical of Steingrímur.  
In a nasty little aside a former SD MP, Anna Margrét Gudjónsdóttir has said Jón Bjarnason ‘should be disciplined for voting against the majority’. Presumably the Social Democrats didn’t have the nerve to have a current MP argue he should vote against his party’s own manifesto and his constituants.
The new Finance Minister, Oddný Harðardóttir, made an election film in 2009 arguing that as everyone needs a decent working life, her party would maximise work opportunities and to do this they must join the EU. With all the European States economies in crisis, she will now preside over more public sector job cuts and rising prices. Rather than promote equality, this government will hit women hardest with more unemployment and social care thrown back on the family.
When Jóhanna says these changes will strengthen the Government, she means its right wing. The real question is what is the Left Green Movement doing in coalition with these people?