Stop Violence Against Women! The history of International Women’s Day and some suggested lessons for us today

Credit to Francesa Cunliffe for the amazing artwork

This two part essay is based on my ‘Stop Violence Against Women’ protest speech to celebrate the socialist and working class history of International Women’s Day and its lesson for our struggle at the Cardiff Feminist Network protest of the same name today.


Part I

The theme of this protest today is ‘Stop violence against women’ for a reason – too many of us have personally experienced gender-based violence – be it physical, sexual, emotional, financial or psychological – and/or know women who’ve suffered it. We all know the chilling statistics here in Wales and England – two women a week are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. This constitutes nearly 40% of all female homicide victims (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005 cited by Women’s Aid website). Our struggle today, seen here in Cardiff in the enthusiasm and courage of the women (and their male allies) who marched last night for ‘Reclaim the Night’ and today for abortion rights and who gathered on Unite the Union’s protest against cuts and their impact on women is just a glimpse of what is to come: a rising of women. A rising not only against gender-based violence and the basic human right to control our own bodies, but to fight for our economic and social justice in all its forms. To fight against a system which, for example, denies us legal aid when fighting for access to our children when the abuser is rich, as I know one sister of ours currently faces. To fight against a system that means endless cuts to benefits, jobs and services. A system which means huge numbers of working class women rely on violent loan sharks to borrow money they don’t have at astronomical rates, even facing ‘payment in kind’ or rape, when unable to repay said debt (revealed at a recent training day for Citizen’s Advice Bureau). Our NHS is under attack through huge and longstanding cuts here in Wales, which we need access to when we experience the violence we suffer because of our gender e.g. Sexual Assault Referral Clinics, counselling services. Then there is the chronic underfunding of non NHS provided specialist services such as Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Aid, which has gone on for years.

I think we can trace our fight for women’s rights today through an unending chain of resistance across the world from Egypt to Spain to the US to Wales. A chain unbroken and extending over a hundred years of International Women’s Day. I think we have the right to know the history of International Women’s Day and what lessons it has for us today. It empowers us to know where International Women’s Day comes from and who fought for it and it was working women fighting for their rights – to end poverty wages, endless working hours, unsafe working conditions, child labour, the right to paid leave, maternity rights, childcare, access to abortion and the right to join a trade union. For example, there was the heroic struggle of the mainly women and migrant mill workers’ strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Great struggles of working women like this were the direct inspiration of the founders of International Women’s Day. The world may have changed beyond recognition from a hundred years ago, yet the struggle against oppression, injustice and exploitation remains as urgent as ever. Many of the conditions these women were organising against remain very much in today’s workforce, including right here in Cardiff. The Lawrence workers went on strike partially over a 56-hour week, for example – a reality also for so many of today’s workers, many of whom are women. In addition to the key, inescapable question of class, oppression takes many forms: gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, to name some of the best known. Yet all are enforced by a global economic system called capitalism – private ownership of the economy organised for profit and not social and environmental need. Today, I focus on class and gender, which is not in any way to minimise any of these other forms of oppression because they are all burning issues our movement must challenge and educate ourselves on.

Born of women workers’ struggle in the US and Europe, IWD was proposed by socialists, in particular, Clara Zetkin at an international women’s conference preceding the Second Socialist International conference in Copenhagen in 1910. The conference voted for Zetkin’s resolution for an international women’s day and a year later, in 1911, the first one was held. Over a million participated in protests in Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. IWD was used as a mechanism to protest against the First World War from 1914 onwards. This is worth remembering today and the best way to continue in that spirit is to protest against war, whether in the Crimea, Iraq, Afghanistan or the apartheid and occupation of Palestine, to give just a few examples. Other key issues for IWD originally, some of which have already been listed, were the fight for universal suffrage (still an aim in many parts of the world!), equal rights (we’re still fighting!), no employment discrimination (women are still being sacked for being pregnant in Cameron’s UK In 2014!) and access to education and training (still a huge issue for millions of women and girls around the world).

Furthermore, it’s impossible to discuss IWD’s history without commenting on this day’s significance for the start of the February Russian Revolution (in the old Russian calendar, the day was 8 March): women factory workers in old St Petersburg came out on strike for ‘Bread and Peace’ to protest the carnage of the First World War and the chronic food shortages facing the Russian masses. This triggered a revolution which overthrew the Tsar four days later when he abdicated in response to these events.

Some might ask why these events are significant and relevant for us today. Yet I think some of the insights provided back then by activists still hold true today. For example, and forgive me for quoting a man at a feminist event, but the great American socialist Eugene Debs made this pertinent statement:

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of men and women who work all their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

There are socialists and left wingers out there who don’t think IWD is particularly important. This was also true 100 years ago. The fantastic socialist feminist Alexandra Kollontai argued against these views powerfully. For example, in 1913 she said:

’Women’s Day’ is a link in the long, solid chain of the women’s proletarian movement. The organised army of working women grows with every year…The women’s socialist army has almost a million members. A powerful force! A force that the powers of this world must reckon with when it is a question of the cost of living, maternity insurance, child labour and legislation to protect female labour. Alexandra Kollantai, Women’s Day’ February 1913, Pravda

What a message! We can take direct inspiration from it today. And what is the reality of women’s economic position in ‘modern’ 21st century capitalism? The following UN statistics sum it up in four key facts:

  • Women are 50% of the world’s population
  • Women work two thirds of the world’s working hours
  • Women receive 10% of the world’s income
  • Women own less than 1 % of the world’s property

Yet as the example of the Russian Revolution shows, precisely because of women’s double burden, they are more often than not at the heart of struggle.

And what is the state of the movement today? It is vital that the labour movement and wider protest movement puts the struggle against gender-based violence high on the agenda. Gender-based violence is a huge barrier for women to take part in struggle – anywhere in the world. This is seen graphically and horrifyingly in Egypt where right wing state forces at different stages of the revolutionary struggle have consciously used sexual assault and harassment as a divide and rule tool to stop women participating in protests and undermine a united struggle against poverty, unemployment and social and economic oppression in Egypt. Yet our Egyptian sisters courageously continue to organise and fight back. We can be proud of our internationalism – the recognition of women’s and working people’s struggle across borders is a guiding principle of this day and our movement.

Furthermore, the above example of state-orchestrated violence is just one of so many internationally. War and state-orchestrated violence are used by governments as their method of maintaining their power and economic ‘order’ and enforcing submission, be it their own people or other nations’. No wonder then that violence against women is so normalised. The so-called personal nature of domestic and sexual violence follows the political. And political violence at the hand of capitalist states is used to enforce economic domination and dictatorship over the working class and poor across the world.

The labour movement is essential to defend and fight for our economic, social and political interests. But so too is the feminist movement. We need to work with each other, discuss with each and listen to each other and continue our longstanding relationship with each other – indeed, many of us are part of both already. It’s important to remember that so many of the historic gains won by women here came from by organising within the labour movement. Equal pay legislation was won by striking female Ford workers in Dagenham. Gender-based violence impacts all women, irrespective of class, and it’s great that women can unite to oppose it but ultimately, for the majority of us, we can’t limit ourselves to fighting to end this oppression on an individual basis, whilst ignoring the system itself. Trade unions have a powerful role in helping to combat violence against women and defending their both female (and male) members in this situation. Thanks to the work of socialists around the Campaign Against Domestic Violence of the early 1990s, for example, many trade unions here adopted policies to oppose domestic violence. But the work can’t stop there and many female trade unionists continue to champion women’s rights in the movement today.

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Credit to Elise Hendrick for these excellent photos

Part II

International Women’s Day this year closely coincided with the 30th anniversary of the start of the great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 in the UK. This was the greatest battle of the working class in this country in living memory and a defining event for many of us, even those of us who were just small children at the time. The devastating consequences of the miners’ ultimate defeat at the cowardly hands of the then Labour Party leader Kinnock and the TUC leaders who refused to call out the whole class in defence of the strike meant that our class here suffered an almighty setback – but we can take inspiration from the heroic struggle of working class men and women who fought for jobs, their communities and trade union and socialist principles and fight on today.

Furthermore, a key lesson for us today is the amazing role of women in this strike, women who showed just what they were capable of as they fought alongside their brothers, helping to put women’s rights back on the agenda too. During the strike the vital lesson of working class solidarity and collective action also helped to directly challenge sexism, racism and homophobia in the communities, raising consciousness and changing attitudes. A united struggle of working class women and men is absolutely possible – this is a key legacy of the strike.

Meanwhile, Thatcher may have been the first female prime minister in UK history, but she was no feminist icon and was instead a ruthless class enemy. Thatcher’s capitalist economic policies, in the name of ‘neoliberalism’, have massively worsened the lives of working class women in particular, while her economic and foreign policies have devastated many millions of lives around the globe.

Even worse, ‘New’ Labour directly continued with her government’s policies and embraced capitalism wholeheartedly, with Blair himself proud to be Thatcher’s heir in effect. For instance, one of the first acts of Blair’s government, following the Labour landslide of 1997, was to destroy free education at university by introducing tuition fees and replacing grants with loans. It was this issue which first got me politically active while a student, as I was in the first year which had to pay the fees when I went to university in 1998. This policy has priced out many working class students from university education and means huge debts and hardships for those of us who do go. One of the horrifying consequences of both tuition fees (continued and increased under the Con-Dems) and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance in England and cuts in Wales has been the huge increase in the number of female students turning to the sex trade to help pay for their education, as research by the NUS has shown for example. Therefore, Labour’s capitalist policies as well as the Con-Dems have massively compounded the worsening of women’s position and lead to a further increase in sexism, albeit already a structural feature of this system. This is on top of Labour’s many other economic crimes and, of course, the blood pouring from their warmongering policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc.

Today of course we face the brutal austerity of the Con-Dem government, whose spending cuts for the working class are also implemented by both Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales. We need a working class, socialist but also feminist alternative to all of these parties. But in the meantime, let International Women’s Day be a call to women everywhere to once again move into the streets, into the unions and into socialist, anti-racist and feminist struggle to get rid of this government and all governments internationally committing mass crimes against the working class, while allowing themselves and their capitalist friends to bask in incredible wealth e.g. 85 richest people being as wealthy as the poorest half of the world, according to Oxfam.

However, I also need to issue a warning to socialists, anarchists and the labour movement as a whole: while it is right that we concentrate the blame on the system itself that doesn’t lesson our own responsibilities to challenge sexism and abuse of women on our side. We need to learn from the feminist movement too; the dialogue between the labour movement and feminism needs to be a two-way process. Women, especially young women, are increasingly sick of sexism and gender-based violence and we will not wait until the revolution to sort it out comrades. We need action now. Fighting for women is not separate from the class struggle; it’s integral to it. We cannot have a tokenistic attitude towards women’s rights. Nor can the labour movement look the other way and pretend it didn’t happen when perpetrators are exposed by survivor activists in the movement. (There is also no reason to assume that the mainly female survivors are not telling the truth either, as the evidence-based research of organisations such as Women’s Aid confirms.) The labour movement has to strive with every sinew of its body to make it a safe space for everyone. If we don’t, we risk undermining the movement’s credibility and alienating women: we are 50% of the population and you NEED us to change society. Furthermore, of course we don’t think all men are capable of abuse but we do need our comrades to take a principled stand against gender-based violence and sexism, wherever it rears its destructive and divisive head.

Fortunately, there are many socialists and others who understand this but we need to continue to educate activists on these points. It’s 2014 and not 1914, after all. Yet even over a century ago, we had the likes of Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai and today we need countless modern-day Zetkins and Kollontais both here and around the globe. But we will not succeed if we can’t practise what we preach.

Finally, I think I’ve made it clear that class division is central to any understanding of how to change society and challenge women’s oppression. But all of us in the movement need to recognise how the different forms of oppression, be it racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, etc, are used as divide and rule tools by the ruling class to weaken us and we all need to recognise how the different forms of oppression must be tackled head on. We need to struggle to make our movement as inclusive as possible and champion the voices of the most oppressed within our class and wider movement, including the feminist one.

Sisters and brothers! International Women’s Day 2014 is an opportunity to take our message of solidarity, struggle and resistance to the movement and the world as a whole. Now is the time to fight back, build a mass movement with women at the heart of it and make history again.

In international socialist struggle,

Sara Mayo

 

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