The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 38      October 11, 2010

Spelman students discuss
cosmetics and exploitation
(feature article)
ATLANTA—A lively exchange followed two presentations by Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, to students in the comparative women's studies program at Spelman, an historically Black women’s college here.

Bahati Kuumba, associate professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman, invited Waters to speak about the Cuban Revolution, socialism, and women’s liberation to some 50 students in her introductory class on women’s oppression. Immediately afterward, Kuumba invited Waters to give a presentation on Pathfinder’s book Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women to her class on Black women and their bodies. Initially planned as a 15-minute presentation and brief discussion, the class turned into an hour-long exchange on the struggle for women’s emancipation.

In both classes Waters explained that because the oppression of women was inseparable from the rise of private property and class-divided society some 10,000 years ago and remains indispensable to capitalism today, its eradication can only be achieved through revolutionary struggle by the working class with women playing a leading role.

Waters pointed to the social advances for women and blacks in Cuba following the 1959 revolutionary victory that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship there and brought Cuba’s workers and farmers to power. “Social relations, not biology or ‘human nature,’ are the source of women’s second-class status and social relations can be completely transformed. The social solidarity of the working class, not the dog-eat-dog foundation of capitalism, is what marks socialism,” Waters said.

A flurry of questions and comments ensued. What is socialism, and is Obama a socialist? Isn’t it “fair” that doctors get paid a lot more? After all, look at how long they have to go to school. If capitalism opened the door to integrating women into social production outside the family, is there more upward mobility for minority women under capitalism or socialism?

One young woman recounted that as an exchange student in Brazil she met young Brazilian doctors trained in Cuba who were not allowed to practice medicine in Brazil. Cuba has trained tens of thousands of doctors from around the world free of charge, with one and only one commitment: that they return home after they graduate in order to provide medical care in communities where they are most needed.

Waters explained that in many countries, including the United States, it is the professional medical societies that refuse to recognize Cuban degrees because Cuban doctors treat patients free of charge.

“Haven’t people in different countries tried socialism and communism and rejected them because they don't work?” one student asked.

“We live under capitalism,” said another. “You’re going to have to change people’s minds. How will you do that?”

Waters pointed to the “inevitable resistance we will all be part of” in response to the conditions being imposed on working people by the deepening crisis of capitalism. It’s through such struggles themselves, Waters explained, as in Cuba, that the exploited and oppressed begin to transform themselves as they see the revolutionary transformation of society as the only realistic solution.

“From our perspective, being raised in a capitalist society, capitalism ‘works,’” Lexi Smith, a member of the campus Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, said during the discussion. “But in terms of the equality we all actually deserve, it hasn't provided the answer.”

Discussion in the second class followed a presentation on Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women, a book that explains how capitalism plays on the second-class status of women and their social insecurities to market cosmetics and rake in profits.

Waters’s remarks touched a nerve and elicited a range of pertinent comments and questions from students.

“When I was in high school, I wouldn’t go out of the house without makeup,” said 19-year-old Samantha Russell-Porte. “Now that I’m older, I don’t feel like I have to do that anymore and hardly ever use anything but soap and water.”

“Why is it my family and relatives, not white people, who pressure me to use skin bleaches and straighten my hair?” asked another student.

Participants also discussed how many older women are obligated to dye their hair to increase their chances of getting a job, and the firing of a Black woman by Six Flags amusement park for wearing her hair in dreadlocks.

Waters explained that these are exactly the questions debated in Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women and why the fight for women’s equality is a class question, not just an issue of concern to women. She quoted from the article “The woman question and the Marxist method” by Evelyn Reed, which is in the book: “Beauty has no identity with fashions. But it has an identity with labor. Apart from the realm of nature, all that is beautiful has been produced in labor and by the laborers.”

Two days later Professor Kuumba joined Waters and others in a panel discussion on Marianas in Combat: Teté Puebla and the Mariana Grajales Women's Platoon in Cuba's Revolutionary War 1956-58, published by Pathfinder Press, at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History here. The book is assigned reading in Kuumba’s class on “Women and Social Resistance.”
Related articles:
Women’s liberation and the Cuban Revolution  
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