100 years of International Women’s Day

The 21st century, we were told, belongs to women. Although, that was before the global financial system all but collapsed and we entered the deepest recession since the second world war. As we approach the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (8 March), ELEANOR DONNE assesses the progress women have made in society, and what the consequences of the current economic crisis will be.

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY began 100 years ago in times of economic crisis and workers’ struggles. Women had entered the workforce in ever greater numbers, driven by poverty and serving the demands of capitalism for low-paid casual workers. In Britain, the US, parts of Europe and Russia they were growing in confidence, demanding changes to their appalling living and working conditions, and calling for the right to vote as a means to achieve this. They often faced indifference or even hostility from the existing, craft-based trade unions. There were genuine fears at the way the bosses used women as cheap labour to undercut skilled male workers’ wages. Many of the union leaders were socially conservative and had adopted the ideology of the ruling class that women’s main role was as wife and mother, and that to pay them a proper wage would undermine the family.

Women, however, were a vital force in the more militant new unions organising unskilled workers. They added their voices to the growing demand for an independent political voice for the working class – a party of labour – and tied this in with the call for the right to vote. In the US, the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organised women and migrant workers.

In the advanced capitalist countries there have been significant improvements in women’s lives in the last 100 years: the right to vote and stand for office, legal rights, access to contraception and abortion and the right to divorce in most (but not all) of them. Women have entered the workforce, public life and the professions in a way which would have seemed unthinkable a century ago. In Britain, 70% of women now work outside the home, including mothers of young children. This has been significant in raising their confidence and expectations. This is especially true of middle-class girls, but many working-class girls also have expectations outside marriage and motherhood, of a good job and financial independence. The relative status of boys and girls has changed since the 1970s when grammar schools ‘fixed’ the eleven-plus exam to ensure that a higher proportion of boys were admitted. Girls are choosing in ever greater numbers to stay on at school and go to university. (In the 1970s, a quarter of graduates were women, now they make up half.)

The genderquake myth

THESE CHANGES LED to the idea towards the end of the 20th century that there has been a fundamental shift in society in favour of women – a ‘genderquake’. Taking stock as the millennium approached, many social commentators, even some veterans of the women’s movement of the 1970s in Britain and the US, concluded that feminism had achieved its aims, in the west at least. They were confident that a new generation of young women, inheritors of the gains won by past struggles for women’s rights, would grasp the opportunities open to them.

This ‘post feminist’ ideology, however, glosses over the glaring evidence that women, including young women, still face oppression. Women under 25 are most at risk of violence from a partner. Women and girls are bombarded daily with images from advertisements, magazines and MTV, showing them how they need to look to be successful in love and life generally. The message that women are judged more by appearance than what they do or think is still loud and clear, constantly played on by a multi-million pound ‘beauty industry’, undermining their confidence. Although opinion polls show that men increasingly accept that they should do their share of housework and childcare, they also show that this does not happen! Because of these unequal gender roles, in spite of the fact that British men work the longest hours in Europe, they still have more leisure time than women.

Liberal feminists were always prepared to limit their demands to those that could be accommodated within capitalism. They looked to Sweden and Denmark as the model of women’s equality. It is true that in these countries state-sponsored childcare, rights at work, maternity and paternity leave and pay have been far superior to provision in Britain and in the US, and that these material benefits allowed women to participate in society and have a higher status, through school and beyond. The strength of the labour movement in Sweden and Denmark allowed them to win a bigger share of the social wage as their governments opted for ‘social partnership’ rather than outright class conflict. These countries were routinely referred to as ‘socialist countries’ in the labour movement in the post-war boom years. This was not true. They still had market economies, albeit with a lot of state regulation. They had structural inequality and poverty and, like all reforms won under capitalism, these were not permanent, and were rolled back to some extent during the economic stagnation of the 1990s.

Socialists fight for every concession from governments and the ruling class, every legal right and concrete demand, however small, to improve the lives of women and the working class generally. But we have long recognised, as did the socialist pioneers of International Women’s Day, including Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg and the inspirational women in the Russian revolution, that the oppression of women is deep rooted and an essential part of a class society. It is clearer than ever, as the global economic crisis bites, that the struggle for equality and even more so for the true liberation of women and men also means a struggle to overthrow the current economic and social system.

Where the gender landscape has changed over the last 25 years this has been to a large extent determined by the needs of the capitalist economy. The ‘feminisation’ of the workforce came about not as a result of a conscious political movement or collective struggle – important in getting the Equal Pay Act implemented in 1975, for example – but because of the restructuring of British capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, manufacturing industry was cut to the bone. At least three million full-time jobs have been lost permanently since the 1970s as the decline continued under New Labour.

Whereas, in the 1950s and 1960s, married women tended to work once their children were older, and saw this as a way of affording ‘luxuries’ like a holiday, in the 1980s it was economic necessity that drove the change. In Britain in 1989, a family with one sole breadwinner was nine times more likely to live in poverty than in 1979. In 1988, two salaries brought in only 6% more than one salary in 1973, when adjusted for inflation (Suzanne Franks, ‘Having None of It’). In two-parent families, women’s income now makes up a significant proportion of the household income, over half in 21% of families. The ‘family wage’ is a thing of the past.

Juggling work and family

BUT AS PART of the same neo-liberal agenda, public services, such as nurseries, care homes and social care, were cut and working-class and many middle-class women have been expected to take up the slack in the home at the same time as holding down a job. The Tory governments in the 1980s justified this cost cutting with ideology about the importance of the family and hypocritical attacks on working mothers even while their economic policies were driving the changes.

The ‘breakdown of the family’ is something which all politicians pontificate about. Tory leader, David Cameron, got into difficulties recently when he announced possible changes in tax allowances to promote marriage, then seemed to change his mind. As a former Tory chancellor, Ken Clarke, pointed out, it was the Tory government which scrapped these allowances back in the 1980s. Cameron might be interested to follow events in Japan, where the recently elected Democratic Party of Japan intends to scrap tax breaks for men with ‘stay-at-home wives’ in a piece of social engineering designed to ‘encourage’ women into the workforce. With their already fairly stagnant economy now back in recession, Japanese capital sees this as a way to increase productivity and profit.

This seems to be a departure from its previous approach advocated by political economist, Francis Fukuyama, of economic development with ‘Asian values’. Fukuyama maintains that the relative social stability of Japan and other East Asian countries is because they have “more strongly resisted female equality”. Women in Japan, even highly educated ones, tend to leave work on marriage or certainly if they have children. Men work extremely long hours and are largely absent from the family home, so gender roles are currently more strictly defined than in the west. Of course, the new government has promoted the change as one which is to empower women, alongside a change in the law to allow women to keep their own name on marriage.

New Labour has been more careful in its use of ideology on the family than John ‘back-to-basics’ Major in the early 1990s, and has introduced laws to allow civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. Its main concern is the cost to the state of relationship breakdown. Divorce rates have increased significantly since 1967, when the no-fault divorce became possible after a two-year separation. In part, this is due to increasing pressures of life under capitalism, but it is also a positive development as women feel more able to end violent or simply loveless relationships. Although recent statistics show that divorce has fallen, this is misleading because it merely reflects the drop in the numbers of people marrying in the first place. Around one quarter of families are now headed by a lone parent, 90% of whom are women. Sex before marriage, and divorce, which both still carried some stigma right into the 1980s, are now widely accepted and practised.

Social attitudes to ‘non-traditional’ families, gay relationships and lone parents have become progressively less conservative, especially among women and young people. The ideological attacks are now concentrated on lone parents claiming benefit, who are currently forced to sign on when their youngest child is twelve, and this will soon be seven. This policy, put forward at a time of near full employment, now looks not just unfair but utterly ridiculous when unemployment in Britain is nearly three million.

The importance of the public sector

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, SOMETIMES called intimate partner violence, is much more widely recognised as a social, not just a personal problem. However, because of a shortage of refuge spaces and especially the chronic shortage of council housing, women still find it very difficult to escape. Refuges already are forced to compete with other essential services for funding via local authority ‘supporting people’ budgets. If public-sector cuts go through at the level proposed by all three main parties they are at risk of closure. Socialist Party members and the Campaign Against Domestic Violence would resist any such cuts and mount a campaign to keep all services open.

The Economist, in December 2009, announced triumphantly that in the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and make up the majority of the US workforce, calling this “the rich world’s quiet revolution”. But, in the richest country in the world, mothers still do not get paid maternity leave! Even the Economist’s upbeat appraisal had to acknowledge that the US and Britain have combined “high levels of female participation in the labour force with a reluctance to spend public money on childcare”.

In Britain, the idea that the private sector is better than public provision and that market forces will ensure that a need is met has been proven to be wrong from the National Health Service to the railways and the energy industries. The same is true of childcare, where in areas of high demand, such as central London, private nurseries have been able to charge much higher rates, pricing out lower-paid families. Tax credits only cover 80% of the cost and this is limited to a maximum figure. The number of places available is nowhere near what parents need and they end up with a patchwork of arrangements involving relatives and friends.

As wages have been driven down, more than a million people in Britain are working two or more jobs, two thirds of these are women. These attacks and the driving down of wages and conditions at work were only possible after the defeat of the trade union struggles in the 1980s, with the labour and trade union leaders abandoning any idea of defending the interests of the working class. During the so-called boom, up to 2007 these ‘leaders’ sat back while the proportion of the GDP going to wages decreased and shareholders’ profits rose to unprecedented levels.

Trade union leaders have been in the pockets of the New Labour government for years and have acted as apologists for its attacks on pensions and wage restraint. In effect, they have allowed the government to kick workers, especially low-paid women, in the teeth while giving it a big fat cheque for political donations made up of our union dues. The civil service union, PCS, with a fighting left leadership, has been one of the few to mount a serious defence of members’ pay and pensions. The cuts so far will be as nothing compared to what is planned this year, whichever of the main parties wins the election. All have rushed to let the bankers off the hook, and transfer blame onto the public sector. Seventy percent of public-sector workers are women, and they are concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs. At least 10,000 jobs have been cut from local authorities, and 70% of authorities say they are cutting their budgets next year. Women will be affected by these as workers and service users. There is a mood of insecurity and anger, and workers are already taking action over the cuts from the single status deals.

The fight for real equality

IN THE EUROPEAN Union, women have filled six out of eight million new jobs created since 2000. Will a shrinking jobs market lead to tension as women and men compete for similar jobs? More men than ever are working part time and for agencies, especially young men. Now that their wages and expectations have been driven down in the absence of any fight by the trade unions, it is possible that some employers will see men as the cheaper option. And they get to avoid the expense and inconvenience of maternity leave and pay. There is evidence that women on maternity leave are being disproportionately selected for redundancy. An estimated 30,000 women per year are sacked for being pregnant, even though this is illegal. Trade unions must fight to defend women workers and not allow employers to undermine solidarity in the workforce.

Until recently, Iceland was fourth in the world in the numbers of women to men working, with 80% of its women in work. It also had one of the highest birth rates, at 2.1 children per family. Now, after the dramatic collapse of its banks and economy, and the knock-on effects of unemployment as more men than women are affected, it has shot to the top of the league. As a report says, this is “not because women have won but men have lost”. We do not want equality by sharing out the misery. We have to send a message to the government, to the G20, and to our own trade union leaders that we will not pay for the bosses’ crisis.

In the traditions of the earlier socialist internationals, the Committee for a Workers’ International supports workers struggling against oppression in all parts of the world. We recognise that globalisation under capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of workers and the poor in the ex-colonial countries. Women make up six in ten of the world’s working poor, according to the TUC Women’s website. We salute the work of the members in our sister parties in Pakistan and India in their campaigns against the horrific levels of domestic violence in those countries, and other forms of women’s oppression. Any economic crisis will have a disproportionate effect on the poorest sections of society. The effect on women worldwide therefore will be devastating. For women in the ‘third world’, the capitalist system has proved incapable of providing even the basics, such as clean water, shelter and food to millions, even during the ‘good’ years.

As the global economic crisis bites, it is now clearer than ever that the struggle for equality and, even more so, for the true liberation of women and men also means a struggle to overthrow the current economic and social system. In the process, many of the existing prejudices and assumptions, the ideology that plays a crucial role in reinforcing and legitimising women’s material inequality, will be undermined. A socialist society, where the economic resources would be owned and controlled collectively through a planned economy, could use these resources to provide services, such as decent childcare for parents who want it, socialised laundry services, cheap, good-quality restaurants, etc. Hours at work could be reduced with no loss of pay so that men and women could spend time with each other, their children and friends. Access to affordable housing and a decent income either through benefits or work would allow women economic independence and mean that ending a relationship would not lead to poverty and social exclusion as is often the case now. Ultimately, such a society would provide the opportunity to develop personal relationships free from the pressures, not just of poverty and overwork, but also from structural gender inequality.

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