At its very beginning, in the early 20th century, International Women’s Day - the 8th of March - was a day of struggle for working women. Nowadays it has largely been hijacked by the capitalist establishment as a ceremonial and sometimes highly commercial affair. Much has happened over time, providing welcome proof that women’s oppression can be fought and pushed back, but despite this, the oppression rooted in society continues. Indeed, in the past years many earlier conquests for women have been lost as a result of the crisis of capitalism.
“We did it!” exclaimed an editorial in The Economist magazine on 2 January 2010. In some way this business journal wants to celebrate that in 2010 women will account for half the labour force in the U.S. This does mark a step forward, but since when did “we” include The Economist? The rising proportion of women in the workforce is neither the result of increased welfare spending or greater male responsibility for household work. The US has the lowest level of investment in childcare and parental leave in the western world, and the state has not even signed the UN Declaration on Women’s Rights. It is rather that the economic crisis has predominantly knocked out jobs in industries such as motor vehicles, so that male unemployment has risen to 11.2 percent while the female rate is 8.6 percent.
100th anniversary of international women’s day
It is true that most of the new jobs in recent years have gone to women. In Europe, these account for six million of a total of eight million new jobs since the year 2000. But this reflects a form of increased exploitation of the working class as a whole. Most of these are insecure, part-time, temporary jobs involving unsocial working hours etc. that typically mean lower hourly rates of pay but more stress and illness. Capitalism has always made use of and had an interest in preserving sex discrimination, with low wages for women meaning more profits.
The last thing women’s rights activists around the world can do for the 2010 International Women’s Day is take a rest. The situation is very serious and the events of the last year call for an answer to the question: which way forward for women’s struggle?
For the first time ever there are now over 1 billion people suffering malnutrition in the world, one in six of the human race. Women have for a long time accounted for 70 percent of the world’s poor. The Asia-Pacific region has most of the world’s hungry; 642 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Women and girls hit first by crisis
The children’s rights organisation, PLAN, identifies the following effects of the world economic crisis:
- Young women - millions of workers in the informal and export-related sectors - are the first to lose jobs. Seven out of ten workers sacked in the in the Philippines are women.
- The sums sent home by migrant workers - remittances - have fallen sharply and migration has been reduced. Women working in ’domestic service’ abroad are returning home. The World Bank estimates that the flow of remittances to developing countries fell by 7.3 percent in 2009.
- Loan facilities from “micro-financing” and other projects, that were supposed to help women out of poverty by doing home-working, have decreased
- When the crisis hits parents’ finances it is first and foremost girls who are taken from school and thrown into housework, domestic work or factories. Over 100 million girls are already working as child labourers worldwide (ILO).
- Infant mortality rates are increasing, and this affects girls more than boys. An estimated 50,000 more African infants died last year due to the crisis.
- • More women and girls are trafficked and forced into the sex trade. This was the tragic outcome for many women who lost their jobs during the Asian crisis of 1997. The first “industry” to bounce back was the sex industry. In Jakarta, two to four times more women became sex-workers in the year after the crisis. Capitalism knows no boundaries when it comes to inventing new markets for its business. Everything is turned into “commodities”, including bodies and emotions. A form of sex trafficking is the trade in brides. In some countries the drastic consequences of women’s oppression mean that part of the female population has gone “missing” due to gender selective abortions. This is the case with the so-called one-child policy in China, where 118 boys are born to every 100 girls. 50,000 women from poorer provinces or countries are sold for marriage each year in China. More than 10,000 women are sold by families living in dire poverty in Vietnam for marriage or prostitution in China (See [link|http://www.pbs.org|www.pbs.org).
Whatever there is a shortage of, becomes a luxury under capitalism. Paradoxically, the phenomenon of polygamy is recurring among rich men. It happens that businessmen from Hong Kong, with constant trips to Guangdong take a second wife among that province’s poor migrant workers.
Deadly toll of climate change
Women also suffer most from another major crisis which has developed as a direct result of capitalism - the climate crisis. Atmospheric warming as a result of 150 years of industrialisation, carbon emissions and pollution, will be an important theme for this year’s 8 March demonstrations worldwide. According to the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, women and children run a fourteen times greater risk of dying from natural disasters than men. In the Asian tsunami of 2004, 70 to 80 percent of those who perished were women. After events like earthquakes and hurricanes, with few resources, poor women have less chance of getting aid or compensation and are at greater risk of subsequent infections when caring for the elderly and children.
Already global warming is causing a significant additional burden on women in the neo-colonial countries in particular. It is they who must walk farther and farther in search of drinking water. It is they who do much of the farm work which becomes more and more onerous in the areas affected by drought or floods.
On International Women’s Day last year (2009), the militant women of the farm workers’ network ’Via Campesina’ expressed their anger against imperialism’s deforestation and the threat to Brazil’s biodiversity. In Brasilia, hundreds of women occupied the Department of Agriculture. In Rio Grande do Sul, 700 women occupied land belonging to the paper company, Votorantim Cellulose, and eucalyptus plantations were sabotaged. In other places, mining companies, sugar cane plantations, the paper multinational, Stora Enso, and large estates were occupied. In Espirito Santo thousands of women took over the harbour in Portocel and sabotaged a large amount of pulp exports. Deforestation is responsible for 20 percent of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions globally. The forests must be given protection immediately. But the failure of world leaders at the UN summit in Copenhagen means there is not even a binding agreement on measures to stop climate change.
Life under capitalism gets worse for working and poor women
For decades, the “solution” to oppression and poverty routinely served up by the world’s politicians and economists has been more development of market-geared economies - more capitalism! If only the poor countries open their economies up to international capital, then in time they will reach the same living standards as in the West - such is the mantra of neo-liberalism. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With its crises, capitalism has condemned itself as a system. Global financial agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, with a decisive role within the international capitalist system, have generally continued to demand deregulation and spending cuts in healthcare and education as conditions for providing loans to countries hit by the crisis. As if it was not deregulation that increased the exposure of these countries to the international financial crisis in the first place.
It is estimated that foreign investment in developing countries fell by a third last year. Similarly, continual reliance on market-based “solutions”, such as the trade in carbon emission rights has only resulted in greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise. New attacks on already down-sized welfare systems mean that the crisis is hitting ordinary people even harder. In Ukraine, the IMF suspended its last loan payment in protest against the country’s parliament deciding to raise the minimum wage by 25 per cent. In most countries of course “the minimum wage” means women’s wages. In Latvia, the government has obeyed the dictates of the IMF and foreign creditors, with the result that the government sector wage bill has fallen by 40 percent, and half of the country’s hospitals have been closed.
The biggest question for women in many parts of the world in the immediate future will be the struggle against truly historic cuts in welfare that governments are planning. Where they exist, publicly funded health care, elderly care, childcare, pensions, parental and sickness insurance, student grants etc., have all been very important reforms that have especially benefited working class women. Unpaid domestic work has partially been taken over by society, enabling women to take employment and become less economically dependent on men. But never before have the world’s politicians been forced to adopt such massive rescue packages as last year, to save the capitalist financial system from collapse. The trillions of dollars in aid to the banks must eventually be paid back and, as long as capitalism remains, we can be sure the directors who caused the crisis will not be the ones to pay. Instead, the burden of payment will be placed on the shoulders of women, workers, the elderly, the young and the sick.
Any idea that capitalism as it develops leads to sexual equality is easily disproved by looking at the countries with 150-200 years of capitalist development. In Sweden, which ranks as one of the most equal countries and is considered to have a relatively well developed welfare sector (although this has been scaled back sharply over a period of more than two decades), women in full-time work do not earn more than 83 percent of men’s wages. The labour market is extremely gender-segregated with women mostly in the public sector, where wage growth has been slowest. Sweden has the highest proportion of notified rapes per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe, and, together with Britain, tops the league for the lowest proportion of reported rapes that are prosecuted (only 13 per cent). These are clear examples of how apparently ’progressive’ capitalist state perpetuates women’s subordination.
The oppression of women has its origin in class society which has existed for well over 5,000 years. There was a long drawn-out change from primitive communism under which land, tools, homes, were held in common by everyone to private ownership. The ’monogamous’ family developed as a surplus developed in society that could be appropriated. Personal wealth, however meagre at first, needed to be protected from ’outsiders’. The family became an institution for men to control property and exercise power in society. The word “family” comes from the Latin “familia”, and means “the whole number of slaves belonging to one master.” In China, under the emperors, for example, the binding of women’s feet was a common practise among the families of the privileged. As the proverb explained, this was “not to make them as beautiful as a curved bow, but to restrain women when they leave the home.”
Capitalism is also a class society that has developed and continually adapted the oppression of women to suit its needs and the demands of modern production. In today’s family, male dominance is still manifested. Women account for the vast majority of unpaid housework. This covers emotional labour - the care of children, the old, partners - and involves arduous tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry. The four walls of the home are often an arena for men’s violence against women. Amnesty International has estimated that still at least one in three women worldwide are beaten, forced into sex, or exposed to abuse during their lifetime.
The dominance of the male in the home has long been used as a mechanism for instilling in women and children the idea of submission to authority. It has been challenged and changes have taken place in many countries but it still runs through much of society. Girls and boys have generally been brought up differently because of social pressure and surroundings. This even became a business idea of modern capitalism when the department store was born in the 19th century, and the bourgeois ideal of womanhood was created, with women made into objects. Fashion, beauty and advertising are mega industries that have a huge economic stake in perpetuating the idea that you are not a “real” woman without spending a considerable amount of time and money on “improving” your looks.
The male sex is still considered by most societies to be superior to the female, regardless of what anti-discrimination laws exist. A boy learns early in life to be proud of his gender, while a girl is supposed to hold herself back. A guy who is interested in typically “girly” things risks being called gay. Homosexuals understand early on that their sexual orientation can give them a lower status in society and make them vulnerable to attack. Around the world, words related to women and sex without love are used as swear words.
Sexual oppression haunts women in the world throughout their life and one of the most important requirements for women’s struggle wherever it takes place is “the right of women to their own bodies.” Rapists are driven by the idea that they are entitled to take a woman under their control. Although most men distance themselves from violent abuse, sexual harassment is something most women have experienced. When the proportion of women in the workplace falls , and when the pace of work increases, so trade unions report that sexual harassment also rises.
A woman’s right to her own body also covers the right to abortion. World-wide, 70,000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions. 40 percent of the world’s women live in countries where abortion rights are severely restricted. Even where abortion is legal, unsafe “backstreet” abortions continue to be carried out, for example in India, because, for many women, professional healthcare is too expensive. Free access to contraceptives and sanitary supplies are also important demands. In Uganda, many girls are forced to leave school when they reach the age of 13, because they cannot afford to buy menstrual products. Women are often held back psychologically not only by feelings such as fear of being raped, a sense of shame over their body, physical suffering during pregnancy and labour etc.. In rich and poor countries alike, they are often denied real sexual pleasure, which has an adverse effect on their health. (Genital mutilation through female circumcision, carried out in Europe, as well as Africa and elsewhere, is only the most gruesome illustration of this form of discrimination.)
Origins of International Women’s Day
The decision to hold a yearly International Women’s Day in order to strengthen the fight for all women to get the right to vote was taken in 1910. The call came from the Women’s Conference of the Socialist 2nd International in Copenhagen that year, with 170 participants from 17 countries. The initiative came from Clara Zetkin who was active in the German and international labour movement. She had already for many years been the chief editor of the Socialist Women’s Association’s journal, Die Gleichheit (Equality), with a circulation of 112,000. She tirelessly campaigned for women to organise themselves. For male party colleagues she explained, “only in conjunction with the proletarian woman will socialism be victorious”. Zetkin said that while socialists supported the bourgeois women’s demands for justice, working women must organise themselves in their own organisations along class lines. This proved to be completely right. To win women’s suffrage (the right to vote) required working class methods of struggle.
International Women’s Day was originally known as “Working Women’s Day”, and was celebrated on a different date each year in the early spring. It was not until 1921 that the Communist International, once again on Zetkin’s initiative, decided the date should be 8 March each year. This was also to pay due notice to the fact that the 1917 Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day - 8 March (but 23 February according to the old Russian calendar). On that day, 90,000 women textile workers left the factories in a spontaneous strike for bread and peace, which then grew in scale and did not subside until the Czar was overthrown. The revolution continued and in the workers’ and peasants’ seizure of power in October 1917 gave a fantastic boost to workers and women around the world. Revolutionary Russia was the first country in the world to give men and women equal rights within the family, women’s suffrage, the right to abortion, the right to civil (non-religious) marriage and divorce, the prohibition of sexual harassment, rights for LGBT people, and eight weeks maternity leave. The revolution introduced municipal childcare, laundries and public canteens even if the resources to maintain them were always too small.
Urgent struggle for socialism
The main lesson from the century that has passed since the first International Women’s Day is that the pace of change is far too slow. We cannot afford to wait another 100 years. How many millions of women will be raped, will starve, or die from natural or climate-related disasters and wars in the meantime? The most important lesson from the past year is that we cannot have any confidence in an economic system that goes into crisis at regular intervals, and where many of the gains won through struggle are constantly being wiped out. We are not impressed that more women become directors or ’bigwigs’, if this system, based on huge class differences and a majority living in poverty, continues.
Hence the need for a socialist programme for women’s struggle, pointing in a revolutionary direction, for the overthrow of capitalism. In a democratic socialist society where ownership and control over the economy and state power is in the hands of the workers, the poor masses and the women, there would be ample resources to invest in effective measures that would transform women’s lives. Alternative economic and social relations in a socialist society would lay the basis for eradicating sexism and rendering the idea of separate gender roles out-dated as women’s oppression itself was brought to an end.
A revolution can only succeed if women are at the forefront. Last year, 2009, it was the women of Iran who were perhaps the most courageous fighters internationally. They have continued to be a large part of the mass protests against Ahmadinejad’s dictatorial regime, even uncovering their heads and marching loudly in demonstrations of both sexes. Decades of anger against oppression is boiling up in Iran and the movement is far from over, but to overthrow the regime more class-based workers’ struggle is needed.
Women make up at least half of the world’s working class, and workers everywhere need new socialist parties, fighting trade unions and combative community movements involving working class women to take the struggle forward. We must never allow sexist attitudes among men to divide and weaken the struggle.
Despite the fact that one hundred years has passed and liberation has still not been achieved for women from their double oppression, it is inspiring that the revolutionary and socialist traditions of International Women’s Day survive and continue to exercise an important influence in bringing together and strengthening those who are fighting capitalism and oppression in various parts of the world. This is needed, and is ultimately the road to victory.