INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day has come a long way since its origins in the struggles of working-class and socialist women at the beginning of the 20th century.
It is marked in thousands of events, marches, lectures, meetings, strikes and other activities worldwide.
As Vivienne Hayes of the Women’s Resource Centre warned last week, it can risk morphing into a corporate whitewash, a celebration of giant corporations’ progressive credentials that masks their role in the oppression and super-exploitation of women across the globe.
Each year brings discussion of which corporate gimmick is most cringeworthy. Last year, McDonald’s, a firm accused by trade unionists of failing to act on widespread sexual harassment, prompted head-shaking when it flipped its branded “M” to make a “W” in honour of the day.
This year the oil giant Shell, accused of complicity in what Amnesty International has called “horrific crimes” including the murder and rape of activists in countries such as Nigeria, changed its name for a day to “She’ll” to demonstrate its inclusive values.
It’s not just corporations but state agencies and tyrannies that get in on the act.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland was forced at the weekend to defend a controversial women’s day exercise that saw female staff nominate men who helped them in their careers.
In Saudi Arabia, where men may marry multiple wives but women can be stoned to death for adultery, changes to the law allowing women to travel without a male relative’s permission were trumpeted as an example of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dedication to equal rights.
Since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi we’ve seen fewer Hackney carriages patrolling London with bin Salman’s face emblazoned on them, proclaiming that “Saudi Arabia is changing.” But neither that nor the bloodshed in Yemen stops the Gulf kingdom using International Women’s Day to brag about its benevolence, finding a young consultant at the Ministry of Economic Planning to gush: “This International Women’s Day, Saudi women celebrate the new freedoms we have been granted. Thank you, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman!”
Yet for all the guff International Women’s Day is, for millions, a very serious matter indeed.
As the Communist Party’s Carol Stavris declares, women “at the forefront in uniting peasant co-operatives, trade unions and women’s homeworker organisations into militant forces fighting for better pay, employment conditions and women’s rights in the workplace” are challenging women’s oppression on many continents.
Millions marching across Latin America are highlighting the global femicide crisis, with the number of women killed by male violence on the rise across that continent. And it isn’t a “third world” problem: Office for National Statistics figures released last month showed the number of women and girls who fell victim to murder, manslaughter or infanticide in Britain last year was at a 14-year high.
The contrast between exploitative capitalist companies and governments adopting a feminist gloss and the coal-face struggles of women for safety, dignity, equal rights and liberation would not have surprised the founding mothers of International Women’s Day.
Pioneers like Clara Zetkin and Sylvia Pankhurst were part of the fight for a working-class, socialist feminism that would liberate all women from capitalism and clashed with rivals in the suffragist movement — led in Britain by Sylvia’s mother Emmeline and sister Christabel — who tried to divorce the fight for legal parity from social revolution.
But over a century later women are paid less than men, perform far more unpaid labour than men, are far likelier to receive harassment, intimidation and abuse when seeking to organise and are exposed to epidemic levels of lethal male violence around the world.
Women’s oppression is intrinsic to capitalism. The fight against it is the fight for a radical reshaping of our whole society.
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