For over a hundred years, March 8th has been the day on which to commemorate the great struggles of working women for a better deal at work and in society. It is also the day to celebrate the contribution of women – some famous, many unknown - in the fight against oppression and for socialism.
It is traditional on this day to remember the early strikes of textile workers in America, of ’match-girls’ in England and of the working women of St Petersburg whose strike on International Women’s Day, 1917, set off the revolution that overthrew Tsarist dictatorship in Russia. There are also the great socialist fighters to remember – Rosa Luxembourg, murdered on the orders of Social Democrat leaders in Germany, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai. There are workers’ leaders like Mother Jones in the US who inspired mineworkers and their wives to fight the bosses without stint. This year is the centenary of the birth of Rosa Parks - the black woman in the racially segregated south of the US, whose courage in refusing to give up her seat in a Montgomery bus to a white person inspired a generation of civil rights activists.
Hidden from view
The number of women whose contribution to society is recognised, however, is extremely limited. Many statistics available now on the internet verify that the overwhelming majority of women in the world are confined to a life of toil in the home and in the field and factory. They have proportionately far smaller chances of achieving a basic education and far greater chances of being refugees or the direct victims of wars and civil wars as in Syria today. They are the overwhelming majority of the adults who bring up children on their own.
It is clear from the scarcity of women in photographs of world leaders – be it at G20s or Global Forums – that women are a clear minority even amongst the ruling elite. Even a feminist from the British aristocracy has been hidden from view for four centuries! Her ’crime’ was to argue that the women of her class should stand in line as equals when it came to inheriting family estates and accumulated wealth!
In the past it was generally only daughters of the rich, or exceptionally determined middle-class and working women, who were able to get an education and develop skills in the arts and sciences. Even when they did, recognition was late in coming, if it came at all. Last year, an ’edit-athon’ was organised by two British science organisations to try and redress the balance of Wikipedia entries internationally; women scientists tended to be either absent or accorded no more than a few lines even when their achievements were more significant than those of their much-mentioned husbands or male colleagues!
The way capitalism and class society has operated over the centuries has depended on holding most women in subjection and treating them as second class citizens. Their primary role has been to produce and care for the next generation of owners and workers and perpetuate the idea, with the help of myths and religion, of rulers and ruled...in society and in the home. Part of the ideology used to maintain this has involved cultivating humiliating images of women as only useful for reproduction, decoration and looking after men and their children or as sex objects.
Women’s rebellions against their double oppression have been the subject of jokes and comedies for centuries - from the sex-strike in Euripides’ ’Lysistrata’ to the ’bra-burning’ of the ’Women’s Liberation’ movement of the mid 20th century! Today’s media attempt to make fun of protests such as the ’Billion women march’ of 14 February and the recent ’slut-walks’ against victim-blaming that have taken place in different parts of the world.
Parties affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International participate in campaigns against sexism and chauvinism and for a better deal for women. In a number of countries CWI sections have taken the initiative in launching specific campaigns against gender prejudice and oppression. At the same time we emphasise how women’s oppression is rooted in the division of society into classes and the need to build the struggle to establish a different form of society - socialism.
In England and Wales, the ’Rape is no Joke’ campaign has been set up with the aim of countering a recent spate of politicians - of the ’left’ and right – as well as comedians - trivialising rape. In Sweden, there has been a vicious attempt by a group of internet users to belittle women as vulnerable sex-objects. The CWI-affiliated Ratvisepartiet Socialisterna has revived its campaign, ’Refuse to be called a whore’, to help young women counter this horrible form of harassment and humiliation.
In the past year, there have been significant mass demonstrations around the world on gender issues. The gang-rape and murder of the young woman student in India provoked an outpouring of anger about something which unfortunately happens to millions of women world-wide. Women from the oppressed caste dalits in India (known as ‘untouchables’) are often raped as victims of revenge punishment and the perpetrators go unpunished. The horrific statistics for rape in India are carried on the New Socialist Alternative website.
Members of the CWI in India and internationally participated in the many demonstrations in protests at the lack of action to protect women from rape. New Socialist Alternative campaigned for a safe environment for women at home as well as outside it – the need to combat the entrenched domination of men over women enshrined in law and tradition. They linked their demands with the need to fight for an end to the capitalist system itself that discriminates against and oppresses women. They called for People’s Defence Committees and also for the removal from office of top politicians convicted of rape.
While understanding why angry people on the demonstrations in India advocated such things as castration and capital punishment to deal with offenders, we opposed these measures.
In Ireland at the end of last year, CWI members were involved in organising the angry responses that spread round the world when Savita Hallapanavar died in a Galway hospital when she was denied an abortion which would probably have saved her life. The Socialist Party (Ireland) has also been a driving force in launching a new campaign called Rosa – for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity. It is holding an International Women’s Day protest on the slogans: ’Stand up for women’s right to choose’, ’Stop violence against women’, ’Rage against rape’ and ’Oppose austerity and the assault on the public sector ’.
Socialists can brook no compromise in the fight for free abortion on demand. They must fight to preserve and extend the rights now coming under attack in a number of countries.
One of the key demands in the programme for women advocated by the CWI has been for the right of all women to choose when and whether to have children. That means being fully in favour of freely available contraception, abortion and fertility treatment without the prohibition by the church, state or male partners.
Savita’s abortion was refused on the grounds that “Ireland is a Catholic country”. This is just one example of how some of the most reactionary attitudes towards women and other aspects of social life are ’justified’ by religious doctrine. Just this week, the annual UN-sponsored Gaza marathon has had to be cancelled because the Hamas-run Authority has reversed a decision to allow women to participate. Almost half of the runners who had registered to take part - international and Palestinian - were women. Last year a number of very determined women athletes faced deep-seated prejudice in their countries in order to compete in the Olympic Games.
In recent weeks, there has been a widely publicised case in Saudi Arabia of the brutal execution by beheading of a 24 year-old Sri Lankan maid. At the age of 17 she had been accused by her employers of murdering their baby. The publicity given to this case has shone a spotlight on the plight of literally millions of women forced into a form of often abusive domestic slavery in order to send a pittance to their families, mostly in poverty-stricken countries of Asia. More has to be done to campaign for the basic rights of these women, but removing the scourge of mass poverty in their home countries in their home countries is the task of the socialist revolution.
In the meantime socialists fight for every advance possible in relieving the suffering of women. Campaigns must be supported to stop the ’sale’ of hundreds of thousands of women and children across borders and into prostitution and pornography. In China we are in favour of the abolition of the one-child policy that deprives women and men choice in the size of their family. In Ethiopia, we support the heroic efforts of young women little more than children themselves travelling the country to urge the next generation to refuse to endure what they had to go through – female genital mutilation, forced marriage and violent sexual intercourse. The rate of FGM has indeed declined where campaigns have been conducted, but it will take dramatic political and social change to eradicate all the horrific indignities and physical harm that women and girls have to face around the world.
Late last year, 14 year-old Malala Yusafzai from Pakistan was flown to Britain for life-saving treatment. The Taliban had shot her in the head to try and put an end to her heroic campaign to get at least a basic education for girls. A new film called ’Girl Rising’ features similar girl-heroines to underline how giving girls an education helps them and their communities. Teams of women who volunteer to work in western Pakistan to vaccinate children against deadly diseases are also targeted and killed by reactionary Islamic fanatics.
The women of the CWI in Pakistan have organised many protests on the streets and in the workplaces as well as noisy and combative contingents on the May Day demonstrations. Recently they led the victorious strike of ’lady nurses’ in Lahore (see socialistworld.net).
Recent events in South Africa have inspired men and women worldwide who fight for a socialist alternative to the horrors of capitalism. The millions of workers there who have risen against the treacherous ANC government have many valiant woman fighters amongst them. Women in South Africa face one of the worst rates of rape and domestic violence internationally and live in one of the most unequal societies in the world. The newly formed Workers’ and Socialist Party has the potential to grow into a mass force fighting for nationalisation, democratic planning and a new form of society to end capitalist rule – a development that can inspire millions of oppressed people around the world.
It is not just in Africa, Asia or Latin America that millions of women suffer daily abuse and physical attack. It is happening on a horrifying scale in the most developed capitalist nation in the world – the USA. A feminist writer, Gloria Steinman recently pointed out that more American women have been killed by their husbands or boyfriends since 2001 than all the US citizens killed in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars put together.
In Spain, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a rise in domestic violence is exacerbated by cuts in public spending as well as the country’s ’machismo’ ideology that influences judges and social workers who should be taking measures to protect women from violent partners. There is not only poorer provision for women attempting to leave a violent relationship but cuts have been made to the programme meant to help men stop taking violent action against their partners.
As capitalism’s crisis deepens, women bear an unequal measure of the suffering it inflicts on working and poor people. The majority of the world’s jobless, homeless and hungry are women and their children. In Europe - North as well as South - genuine and hard-won welfare reforms are being annihilated by austerity budgets. Services are being slashed which have most assisted women as the primary carers of children and of elderly and sick relatives. Women’s jobs in the public sector, as well as welfare benefits, are being axed. In many ’developed’ economies, the lack of house-building and tighter rules on allowances for the poorest families is seeing millions of families homeless.
For purely economic reasons, young people without a decent income are staying at home with their parents, often along with their grandparents, adding to the daily burdens and strains that generally fall on women’s shoulders. Relationships are placed under enormous pressure.
What can be done to change things?
Since the earliest days, the sections of the CWI have continued the best traditions of the workers’ movement in championing the struggle for equal pay for work of equal value. Way back in the 1960s we covered the famous struggle of women workers at Fords in Britain, for example, now the subject of the film ‘Made in Dagenham’. Other campaigning work has taken up the issue of sexual harassment at work, most severe in the sweat-shops of the neo-colonial world, but a constant menace world-wide. We have fought, with some success, for domestic violence to be taken up by the trade unions; it affects the lives (and ability to be active in the movement) of so many of their members.
Over the years, in the USA, Europe and elsewhere, the struggles of women have achieved many improvements. In some countries, as the workers’ movement has receded, the situation has gone back. The austerity policies of all the major capitalist countries are now hitting the jobs of women, many of them in the public services on which they have depended to relieve them of some of the numerous tasks they are expected to perform.
Women have been to the fore in the strikes and demonstrations against cuts in Europe - be it in Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Belgium. CWI members have been fully involved in aiming to bring more and more women workers and young women into the ranks of our sections.
In the neo-colonial world, the everyday struggle to feed the family has worsened. Prices of basic foods have rocketed. This is a recipe for new social explosions like those we saw in the Spring of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt. Women have often been to the fore in these struggles too and are still prominent on the streets in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Millions of women in India stayed away from the factories, building sites and offices where they work to join the two day general strike in March against rocketing prices and misery wages.
A commentator in the British Guardian, Seamus Milne, welcomes the “historic shift” of women to the left as they have become more involved in the world of work. But ’left’ is relative in a world where no mass parties really stand for the interests of working class and poor people. Having more women in parliaments would also not necessarily lead to big improvements in equality of opportunity, pay and living conditions for women anywhere. Positive discrimination can give you more women holding positions but it does not, of itself, lead to policies that can change the fortunes of the vast majority of women in society. Women are still paid far less than men and must demand the full implementation of a policy of equal pay for work of equal value.
As we have known since the days of Catherine the Great, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher et al, having a woman at the head of the state was no guarantee against autocracy! Nor have female presidents in Brazil, Chile or Argentina changed the fate of the tens of millions of women struggling to bring up families in primitive conditions and in the sprawling shanty towns around the cities.
Women from the property and land-owning classes in Asia or Africa will not fight for an end to feudal relations – in agriculture or within the family including the degrading exploitation of women. Nor will they push for the end of female enslavement in garment sweatshops or on the fields or the bonded labour of children that adds to their wealth! Nor will women heads of state mean more progressive policies in relation to women. Nor does having a rich business-woman at the head of the IMF add to the wealth of working women. Nor does having a female head of a national trade union organisation make the urgent calling of national general strikes against austerity any more likely– be it Susanna Camusso in Italy or Frances O’Grady in Britain!
The right to flexible well-paid jobs, child-care, affordable and adequate housing, health and education free and on demand, are all the vital components for a healthy society. A shorter working week and the provision of good quality, public services would relieve much of the burden and stress which currently falls on the shoulders of women in the family in particular.
Fully sharing and easing all domestic tasks is only viable on the basis of a shorter working week for all and the socialisation of tasks currently undertake. Community provision of good, healthy meals and communal laundries can work only on the basis of a plentiful supply of machines and of chemical free fresh food along with rotas of short shifts for well-paid workers. This was the dream of the early socialists but it was thwarted by the lack of material development in the isolated economy of the USSR, particularly under the Stalinist dictatorship which usurped the revolution, ultimately paving the way for the restoration of capitalism.
The coming to power under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of a workers’ socialist government in Russia nearly 100 years ago saw the immediate passing of legislation aimed at establishing equal rights for women in relation to marriage, divorce, work and wages. Abortion was made free and available on demand as well as contraception. Equal rights were also established for homosexuals to counter the huge prejudices that had built up in society. This was the first government in the world to do so – something that is timely to remember in Russia today as Putin tries to eliminate all LGBT rights!
But capitalism, especially capitalism in crisis, is not able to provide what the overwhelming majority in society – the 99% - need. For women in particular, to escape oppression at work, in society and in the home a total socialist, transformation of society is more vitally necessary than ever. The conditions for the spread of socialist ideas and for revolution are growing - in southern Europe, in the Middle East, in China and perhaps, above all, in South Africa. The potential for the establishment of a federation of socialist states world-wide has never been greater.
Bosses and landlords, beware the anger of women against your system! Women of the world, fight for your rights! Join the struggle to end capitalist exploitation and look to a future society of harmony and prosperity - a socialist world!
For special International Women’s Day articles see the site of the Socialist Party (England and Wales) and further material on socialistworld.net