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Returning women’s liberation to the heart of class politics

A far cry from today’s ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ agenda, International Women’s Day has its origins in the revolutionary labour politics of the early 20th century, SONYA ANDERMAHR reminds us

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, if the website devoted to it is anything to go by, is akin to a feel-good ad campaign promoting diversity and equality for all who identify as women. 

This year’s theme is — hashtag compulsory — #ChooseToChallenge and the blurb on the website runs as follows: “A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions — all day, every day.

“We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.”

“Challenge,” “gender bias,” “inclusiveness”: this is the language of the diversity agenda beloved of public bodies and corporates alike, which year on year expresses warm words about equality but delivers little in the way of change. 

The IWD 2021 website lists this year’s business partners as HCL Technologies and Medtronic (a digital and medical tech company respectively) and company supporters include the European Bank, Northrop Grumman (aerospace and defence technology) and McDonald’s. 

While it might come as news to the many of world’s super-exploited female workforce, we are told that: “Progressive companies around the world are actively supporting women’s advancement and helping to forge gender equality. 

“They value diversity and inclusion and lead the way when it comes to attracting and retaining female talent within their progressive workforce.”

From this spiel, it is clear that global business interests have “captured” IWD; by jumping on the equality bandwagon they have found an easy way of promoting themselves and purple-and-green-washing their figures on the gender pay gap. 

But, notwithstanding all this positivity, even their website acknowledges that gender parity will not be attained for almost a century! 

In the year of Covid, when we know full well that women in many countries have borne the brunt of the crisis in terms of loss of income and employment and a massive increase in caring responsibilities, suggesting that women’s rights have been set back decades, you would think they would have come up with something more directly relevant than “choose to challenge.”

This is a long way from the event’s origins in the revolutionary labour politics of the early 20th century. 

Women workers and trade unionists in the New York garment industry organised a strike march on March 8 1908 consisting of 15,000 women demanding shorter hours, improved pay and voting rights. 

The following year, a National Woman’s Day was held on February 28 to commemorate the 1908 strike. 

The great German socialist, Clara Zetkin, had long campaigned for a unique day to mark working women’s solidarity and in 1910 Zetkin proposed designating an International Women’s Day at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen. 

The proposal was agreed by delegates from 17 countries and the following year on March 19 millions of women turned out on the streets of Europe to demand their rights. 

Just a few days later, however, a fire rampaged through the Triangle garment factory in Greenwich Village killing 140 women workers, mainly from the Italian and Jewish immigrant communities. 

This awful event drew attention to their appalling labour conditions and led to the Bread and Roses campaign, which inspired a wave of strikes as well as future International Women’s Day events.  

Those women workers and strikers sang a song called Bread and Roses, which originated in a speech given by US women’s suffragist Helen Todd in which she called for “bread for all, and roses too” and was then made into a poem by James Oppenheim, which goes as follows:

As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children and we mother them again.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

This message was taken up once again by working women in Petrograd in 1917 on what had become International Working Women’s Day. 

The city was facing a fuel shortage and bakeries were out of action. Women had been queuing for bread but had to return to their homes and workplaces empty-handed. In protest, women textile workers went on strike. 

Vijay Prashad describes the events that followed: 

“Bread for our children” was one chant. Another was “The return of our husbands from the trenches.” Men and women from the factories joined them. They flooded Petrograd’s streets. The tsarist state was paralysed by their anger. These working women began the February revolution of 1917, which culminated in the October revolution of 1917 and with the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Red Star Over the Third World, p9)

Thus, it was the actions of women which triggered the events leading to social and political revolution. 

While International Women’s Day has held a central place in the socialist calendar ever since, it was not until 1975 that the UN officially recognised the event. 

Two years later, the general assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. 

Since that time, despite some significant advances in equality legislation, the capitalist world has largely paid lip service to women’s equality and key indicators such as the gender pay gap and women’s horizontal segregation in the workplace remain much the same as they were 50 years ago. 

Moreover, women across the global North and South still face massive material obstacles to equality. 

Women make up the majority of those toiling in the world’s sweated workshops as well as in the so-called sex trade. 

With femicide rates in Latin and South America at astronomical levels and reproductive rights under attack from Poland to Venezuela, and legislators in the United States still struggling to pass anti-FGM legislation in the face of opposition from reactionary elements, there is still a clear and pressing need for an international women’s movement. 

Actions across the globe by women in recent years go some way to meeting this need: the Women’s March held in cities around the world in January 2017 issued a warning to Trumpian-style institutional sexism; the International Women’s Day Feminist Strike that took place in 2018 saw millions of women stop work to protest against sexual violence and other forms of sex-based oppression. 

Last year, Indian women took a leading role in protests against new citizenship laws, which would adversely affect women and the working class, and women have also been playing a prominent part in the Indian farmers’ mass protests currently challenging the BJP’s grip on power.  

And in Poland, since last October, women have been mounting a mass nationwide protest movement against a near-total abortion ban in the country.

Yet all too frequently, when women try to assert their rights, they come under sustained attack, even, shockingly, from those who see themselves as advocates for the oppressed. 

Last month, in the run-up to International Women’s Day, an effigy of Carmen Calvo, deputy leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, was hung from a tree in a square in Santiago de Compostela, apparently by activists opposed to the fact that she signed the party’s statement affirming women’s rights on the basis of sex. 

It was surely no coincidence that the square’s name is Praza 8 de Marzo, which was designated in 2007 as a meeting place to commemorate violence against women. 

Far from being greeted with outrage by liberal institutions and media across Europe, this violent provocation against women has been met with silence. 

From all political parties, public bodies and governmental institutions, we need an unequivocal message that any kind of threat against women will not be tolerated. 

We need a renewed commitment to a women’s rights agenda on the basis of sex. 

And, most of all, we need women’s liberation put at the heart of class politics. 

So, on this International Women’s Day, rather than the raised hand of the diversity allies, let’s all raise a comradely fist in a red salute to women everywhere! 

Sonya Andermahr is a university teacher, UCU branch activist and Communist Party of Britain member.

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