International Women’s Day and the Struggle against Oppression

Climate change protesters, London (photo Paul Mattsson)

Women’s oppression is not new. It is as old as the division of society into classes. It takes many forms and so does the fight against it. It is significant that women who feel the urgent need for change have been to the fore in all the recent uprisings against dictatorial rule and for genuine democracy, be they in Algeria, Hong Kong, Chile or Lebanon.

For socialists, women’s fight for justice and emancipation cannot be separated from the struggle to eliminate all forms of class oppression and war. It means fighting against the remnants of feudal domination in some countries and the universal exploitation of human labour for private profit under capitalism.

Origins

The origin of a special day to celebrate and strengthen the struggles of working women internationally goes back to the days of heroic strikes and demonstrations by women garment workers in New York in the late 19th century. They demanded an end to horrific working conditions, poverty pay and child labour. In spite of police attacks, they heroically continued their struggle and organised trade unions. As Socialist Party Scotland relates in its special paper:

“Women took to the streets of New York on March 8th 1908, demanding better pay, shorter hours and the right to vote.

“It was in 1910 that an international socialist conference in Copenhagen, attended by over 100 women from 17 countries, unanimously passed a motion that established International Women’s Day as an annual event. Indeed, the mighty Russian Revolution in February 1917 was ignited by a strike and demonstrations of tens of thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd celebrating International Women’s Day and demanding ‘Bread and Peace’ and ‘Down with the Tsar!’”.

After the victorious overthrow of capitalism on October 25th of the same year, decrees were passed by the Congress of Soviets promising to transform the lives of working women. Equal pay for equal work was established, civil marriage and divorce, free abortion on demand. (They also decreed an end to the suppression of homosexuality). The door was opened onto a new life for working women and, as a poster of the time described it: “An end to kitchen slavery”.

As workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union faded with the rise of Stalin and the isolation of the revolution, the door slammed shut on women’s liberation from domestic slavery. Double and even treble oppression of women was renewed, even encouraged. In modern day Russia, President Putin has recently even annulled laws protecting women from domestic abuse. On 8 March he will utter platitudes about how much women deserve the traditional gifts of flowers and chocolates and go back to business as usual.

Neo-colonial world

It is no accident that there is more of a tradition of celebrating International Working Women’s Day in Asia and in Latin America. It was seen as an important day in the calendar of workers’ struggles against colonialism and oppression. But even across the globe, it has lost some of its meaning and is not tightly linked with the struggle of all workers against the system and for a socialist society. It has become non-political and commercialised.

It used to be traditional on the 8th March to honour the memory of the great socialist fighters of the past, prominent amongst them Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxembourg and Klara Zetkin. In Africa and Asia, great pioneer fighters for oppressed women’s rights are also neglected.

In the early 1920s, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, in Nigeria, founded a number of organisations and mobilised local market women for ‘picnics’ and festivals, coordinating resistance, not only against British colonialism but also against local traditional figureheads who enforced their rule and oppression.

In Tanganyika, in the 1950s, Bibi Titi Mohammad was a courageous leader of women in the fight against colonial rule. She adopted the methods of the Bolshevik women in Central Asia, using women’s cultural and economic networks to exchange information, organise rallies, sell party membership cards and raise funds for TANU’s fight for freedom.

In Pakistan, another country with proud traditions of struggle, supporters of the CWI have always celebrated the 8th March, often with colourful and lively demonstrations. This year, with the hope of attracting young women to the struggle for socialism, they are holding a series of special seminars on the significance of International Women’s Day.

Hundreds of thousands of women have been at the core of the mass movement in India against the hated Civic Amendment Act since the end of last year – not budging even when faced with thuggery and violence from the police and reactionary goons. But the most recent events in Delhi have been followed by the breaking up of protests country-wide and leave little or no chance this 8 March of celebrating women’s proud fighting traditions.

The political atmosphere in Sri Lanka also makes any sizeable public celebrations for IWD impossible. But, as members of the United Socialist Party have pointed out, there is no lack of reasons to fight against the super-exploitation of women’s labour – in the tea plantations, in the garment factories of the Free Trade Zones and abroad as slave labour in the houses of rich Middle Eastern families. Women’s labour brings in the bulk of the country’s export earnings and yet they have less than a couple of dollars a day to survive on.

‘Not one less’

In Latin America, 8 March is seen as the day to commemorate all those women who have lost their lives at the hands of partners as well as the state. In Chile, there have been horrific murders of women activists like Daniela Carrasco and Macarena Valdés. But the class fighters of Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Chile) report that some feminist groups are raising the idea that demonstrations on International Women’s Day should not include men. This illustrates the danger of identity politics – dividing women fighters from their comrades-in-arms, who joined together in recent battles to oust the Pinera regime.

In Argentina, reflecting the horrors of past dictatorships, women have played a big role in opposing the military. When they hold protests under the aegis of ‘Ni una menos’ (Not one less) they are thinking not only of the inaction of the authorities in tackling murders of women in the home but also of the numerous victims of army and police violence.

The ‘Non Una di Meno’ web-site speaks of plans in Italy for demonstrations on 8th of March (a Sunday) and strike action on Monday, 9th March. But the authorities have told them that holding demonstrations on the street is prohibited because of the Coronavirus. They say they will not be cowed just as workers in France do as their strike struggles continue.

Women’s fight in Europe

Gauche revolutionnaire, the CWI’s French section, is fully involved in that mass movement against pension ‘reform’. In their paper – Egalite – they explain just why women are angry and fully involved in the protests. Among other attacks, Macron’s scheme would penalise women for breaks in their career to have children. Women are also widely involved in the Gilets Jaunes movement that has continued for more than a year – camped out at roundabouts and marching on the regular Saturday demonstrations.

In Germany and in Austria, strikes involving women have taken place recently, in health and social services. One in Austria is a struggle for a 35 hour week. “It includes care workers of all kinds” writes a CWI member in Vienna, “Those looking after kids in schools, those in elderly care, care for the disabled, social workers working with asylum seekers. It is a predominantly female workforce but men and women strike together, of course”.

In Glasgow, in Birmingham, in Belfast and elsewhere – successful struggles on equal pay in public services have been conducted. Everywhere, socialist women are involved in campaigns for housing and against austerity budgets, at a local level.

Socialist Party (CWI) members in England and Wales have been involved in campaigns against discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender and identity where the issues have been taken up sensitively and energetically. They have begun to earn support in trade unions on these issues, as the campaign on making domestic violence a trade union issue was able to do in the 1990s. They have been energetically involved in a campaign called ‘Women’s Lives Matter’ which fights domestic violence and abuse, linking this to a struggle against cuts in public services and welfare.

In South Africa, CWI comrades have been at the forefront of a public sector workers’ movement demanding permanent jobs and a R12,500 minimum wage, where the majority of the workforce are women.

CWI members across the globe combine the struggles against women’s oppression with the fight of all workers against austerity and cut-backs and in mass campaigns for the building of new homes and new schools to relieve the daily pressures on their lives.

It has long been clear that women as heads of government in any part of the capitalist world are no more likely than men to push through policies to alleviate the special problems of women.

In Finland, all the main parties are led by women but, as a CWI member in Helsinki writes: “None of them, in government or in opposition, has ever taken a strong stand against neoliberal economic policies that so damage the lives of working class women”.

In Latin America, pro-capitalist heads of state, like Dilma Roussef in Brazil, Cristina de Kirchner in Argentina and now Jeanine Anez, in Bolivia, have all presided over the implementation of viciously anti-working class policies which make women’s life harder rather than easier.

Trump

In the US, of course, a notorious misogynist is still in power. But if Donald Trump is defeated in the presidential election this year, it will be celebrated by many millions worldwide. Victory for the Democrats may, possibly, safeguard the country’s abortion rights and see an improvement in health insurance and provision. But the party remains committed to carrying out the dictates of Wall Street and big capital and a Democrat president will frustrate the aspirations of the men and women who vote for change.

With the prospect of a deeper economic crisis unfolding in the course of this year in the US, in Europe and internationally, the massive increases in public spending on welfare, health services and education that are needed worldwide are not going to happen on the basis of capitalism. All this means that socialists who are concerned for the welfare of women across the globe have to build the forces of socialist change.

Every reform and step forward in terms of women’s and LGBTQ rights without discrimination is welcome. But where there is capitalism there is exploitation, oppression and suffering. Our capitalist world sees literally millions of men, women and children fleeing from their homes – most recently crowding at the border between Syria and Turkey and being cruelly turned away by Greek authorities.

Women and children constitute the vast majority of refugees and are so often the victims of rape by soldiers and police. They are fleeing poverty and war. One person every two seconds is forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. Seventy million are forced out of their homes in a year, half of them becoming refugees.

Weinstein in perspective

The ‘MeToo’ phenomenon has exposed just how widespread sexual harassment and rape are at every level in society – within the home and in the workplace. For many women who have literally suffered in silence, it has given them the confidence to seek justice. But sexual harassment and abuse are endemic in class society, based on inequalities of power and wealth. Only a joint struggle of women and men together will eliminate it, along with the elimination of capitalism.

The imprisonment, at last, of a rich and predatory film producer, Harvey Weinstein, has been welcomed as setting a precedent and proved that even the rich and powerful can be brought down. However, globally, only a tiny percentage of rapists are prosecuted.

Contrast this with the suffering of the millions of women who toil in the textile factories and the fields around the world, forced to accept daily harassment and actual rape at work to retain their meagre income. There have been strike struggles in a number of countries against sexual harassment at work – hitting back where it hurts…in the pockets of the bosses.

Last year, mineworkers at the LanXess chrome mine in Rustenburg – members of the NUMSA union – organised a strike and occupation in protest against the sexual harassment of a woman mineworker. Her manager was demanding sexual favours in exchange for a permanent job. This was a shining example of how workers can take up the issue of harassment and violence against women. It showed that workers have the power to force the removal of perpetrators from the workplace.

McDonalds workers in the US went on strike across ten cities of America on the same day. Google workers around the globe – from Tokyo to California via Haifa, Zurich and London – walked out on November 1st 2018 in protest at sexual harassment, gender inequality and racism.

Fighting harassment as an individual is next to impossible for working women; organising in a union and taking collective action is key. Trade union campaigns are also vital for protecting the rights of gay, bisexual and trans people in the workplace and in the community.

Equal pay for work of equal value is a basic demand for all trade unionists and socialist fighters, not just for women workers. Through strikes and campaigns, big advances have been made and, in many countries, the wage gap has been considerably narrowed. There have also been big improvements in maternity and paternity rights for those who need them. But in some countries of Africa and Asia, women who toil ceaselessly in the fields, the factories and their homes can expect little or no extra help before, during or after giving birth to their children.

A world to win

The right of women to freely choose when and whether to have children is denied them in every part of the world. It means fighting not only for abortion rights, as recently in Poland, Ireland and Argentina, but also for free fertility treatment, when and if necessary. It also depends on having the means available to house, feed, clothe and educate children – literally from the cradle to the grave.

Achieving all these advances demands resources far in excess of what a diseased capitalist system can provide. It demands a struggle for socialism. The fight to end the division of society into classes – oppressed and oppressors – can never be seen as something separate and apart from the struggle to end women’s oppression. It cannot be cross-class and it must be of working women and men together.

If you agree with most of the ideas set out here, send us your comments and questions and join us – the CWI – in the struggle for socialism worldwide.

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