Putting the struggle back into International Women's Day

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Illustration by Sophia Zarders

Our celebration of women’s struggles begins by revealing the contrast between how capitalism has sought to commodify the event, and its origins in the fight against oppression. We then hear from activists around the world about their priorities in the fight for equality, respect and liberation. Interviews compiled by Jan Nielsen.

International Women’s Day has come a long way. It began as a militant, socialist protest against the inequality and exploitation endured by working-class women. It won the support of tens of thousands of working-class men and women, who marched and went on strike for the right to vote and equal pay. Today, it still has a radical edge in some parts of the world, but too often those radical origins are almost buried underneath a tide of tokenism and commodification.

The International Women’s Day website proclaims the slogan, ‘The world won’t listen unless women shout’. It is sponsored by Amazon. Harper’s Bazaar magazine advertises a “girl power hoop earring” for £170 and a “Girls just want to have FUN-damental Rights” T-Shirt, a snip at just £75. In its rapacious search for profit, capitalism will commodify anything, even protest itself.

Socialists are not about to surrender International Women’s Day to the corporations, not because nothing has changed for women but because so much more still needs to change. My mother married at 19 because it was the only way she could get access to contraception. She was a teacher, but she could not apply for credit in her own name because she was a woman.

When I was growing up, The Guardian carried a column, ‘The Naked Ape’ to highlight the gross sexism of those in power, the teenage rape victim guilty of ‘contributory negligence’ because she was hitchhiking, the rapist soldier spared a prison sentence because of his ‘promising career’ and the judges who were lenient to men who murdered their ‘nagging’ wives.

Women were ‘asking for it’ if they wore the wrong clothes or went to the wrong places. Rape within marriage was not a crime. It’s a long way from there to #metoo.

It took the experience of women’s self-activity in strikes and protests and determined, audacious and persistent campaigns by feminists and socialists to change how most people see issues such as rape, domestic violence and equal pay. All women, whether rich or poor, suffer from the oppression which is endemic to capitalism.

Socialists oppose that oppression wherever it raises its ugly head, but strategies for change cannot be built on the basis of uniting the businesswoman and her cleaner. A vocal female elite advocates ‘leaning-in’ and elbowing their way to a seat at the boardroom, using feminism as political cover for their neoliberal project of imposing austerity.

In contrast, the women who take to the streets to protest against gender inequality and sexual violence are those who bear the burden of that neo-liberal project, the low-paid workers, nurses, teachers, childminders and carers.
The success of female CEOs might irritate some men, but it is achieved on the backs of the working-class women who care for their children and clean their houses.

The system is structured around the privatised nuclear family and the huge amount of unpaid labour women perform for their kids, the constant, stressful and expensive juggling of childcare and paid work.

Under capitalism, every possibility becomes another demand: work, shop, come home, cook, clean, wash, talk to/read to/bathe your children (don’t forget the World Book Day outfit/PE kit/reading journal) – and if you feel stressed, just download a mindfulness app!

Collective women’s struggles can win hugely important reforms for women, and beat back the right-wing governments with their Trumpian fantasies of sexually-available yet compliant and obedient women. Socialists have always supported women battling for the equal right to vote and for equal pay, for control over their bodies and to be free of sexual harassment. Every step towards equality is to be fought for and defended, but only a massive reorganisation of capitalist society can offer working-class women the hope not only of equality but of emancipation.

This is not just a vague hope. Every great wave of international revolution has led to an outburst of women’s activism and male support for women’s demands. The European Revolutions of 1848 were led by women like the French socialist Jeanne Deroin, who fought on the barricades of Paris and was the first French woman to stand for a national election.

In Russia in 1917, a revolution sparked by women was led by women like Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand and Elena Stasova. Across Europe, women were central to the wave of revolt which ended the horror of World War One and granted women the vote. The Russian Revolution began the difficult process of creating socialised alternative to the nuclear family.

So forget the earrings and t shirts and celebrate International Working Women’s Day by fighting for equality and organising for socialism.


Poland: The movement has to take to the streets once again

One of the most pressing issues regarding women’s rights in Poland is the state of abortion laws. Individuals are only entitled to an abortion under three circumstances: if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health; if it was a result of rape; or if the foetus suffers a serious, incurable malformation. The only country in Europe with stricter anti-abortion laws is Malta, where it is banned completely.

Nonetheless, the minimal rights women have to abortion in Poland continue to be threatened. There is hardly any sex education in Poland and the introduction of such programmes by local governments is frowned upon. Obtaining the morning-after pill requires a prescription from a doctor. Finding a doctor willing to carry out an abortion is extremely difficult.

There is pressure on the conservative government to further tighten up legislation from the clergy, far-right movements and religion-influenced organisations. Ordo Iuris, a conservative anti-choice organisation, petitions for a complete ban on abortion and for women who seek them to be punished. One of its favoured tactics is to drive a van depicting horrifying images of foetuses captioned “STOP ABORTION” around Polish cities, emotionally manipulating the public into stigmatising pro-choice supporters.

The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, stated that he would be in favour of signing an act forbidding abortion regardless of the circumstances. This poses a threat to women’s safety, their health and dignity. Victims of rape would not be able to seek abortion and would be forced to continue the pregnancy. Women whose health, or even life, was threatened by the pregnancy would have to carry it nonetheless.

However, Polish women will not give up without a fight. In 2016, when tightening anti-abortion laws was first discussed in parliament, feminists of the radical left started a nationwide campaign referred to as the “Black Protest”. Women and men alike wore black to work or to school in order to show their support for women’s rights. Rallies were organised in cities across the country to fight for the right to abortion. Finally, women were victorious, as the legislation was rejected by parliament.

It is important to recognise that the battle continues to this day. The women of Poland are faced with societal disapproval stirred up by the right in power. But we are not ones to give up, and as International Women’s Day is approaching, I hope for Polish women to unite again to fight for what should be acknowledged by all of society as our fundamental right.

Olga Krawczyk, student


Glasgow: Equal pay... or we walk away

In 2006 Glasgow City Council introduced a new pay and grading structure that effectively downgraded jobs that tended to be done by women compared to those mostly done by men.

The Workforce Pay and Benefits Review (WPBR) was invented by the council but wasn’t equality tested. The low paid workers suffered the most — caterers, cleaners, janitorial staff, home care and education support staff; jobs which were done with pride and delivered by hard working staff, most of them women.

When WPBR was first imposed upon the workforce there were compensation payouts, but few of us knew or really understood what this was for. It was only later that we would come to realise the injustice of the scheme.

As people started, however, to get more details about the terms of the pay scheme, the trade unions and independent “no win no fee” law firm, Action for Equality (A4E) got behind the women of Glasgow and a long battle ensued. For over a decade the council fought at tribunal after tribunal against putting this right.

So, the women became stronger collectively, voices were united around the slogan “Equal pay or we walk away”.

The joint trade unions worked closely with A4E for the benefit of the “claimant groups” (each claim was an individual claim), and the workers were working closely to be heard, to be seen, to be VALUED. As the council had meetings inside the City Chambers we, the claimants, had demonstrations outside the City Chambers, always being clear about our intention to “walk away” if they didn’t sort out this mess.

In August 2017 the Court of Session declared that the WPBR scheme was indeed “not fit for purpose”. The claimants felt vindicated.

However, the story was far from over.

Glasgow City council had been Labour throughout the long battle, but it saw a change of leadership when the SNP took over, having pledged in their manifesto to “settle the women’s claims”. But this didn’t happen overnight. Meanwhile the women were getting weary of waiting for what was rightly theirs – up to 12 years of money robbed from them.

We’d given the employers chance after chance to sort this out. Enough was enough. We decided to strike to force the employers to pay up. Going on strike is not always an easy decision for the women doing the jobs they do – cleaning the schools, feeding the children of the city, caring for vulnerable people, and that’s on top of the difficulty of the lowest paid taking industrial action with no pay. But the strike was on.

We took two days of industrial action on 23/24 October 2018. The women of Glasgow became incredibly visible on those strike days. It had been said by the leader of the newly elected SNP council that these women didn’t know what they were striking for. Would that ever be said to men?

By early 2019 it was agreed in principle to settle the claims, and last summer claimants started getting their money.

So please be inspired all women in the workplace. You can be visible, you can be heard, and we must ensure that we are equally valued.

Lynne Marie O’Hara, Unison steward Glasgow


A mother, a shop steward and a fighter

I came to England 18 years ago and I have worked as a cleaner as long as I have been here. Life for working people in Colombia is very hard and for women it is even harder. We are treated like slaves by our employers, we have very few rights and there is much violence.

Being an immigrant worker in this country is not easy. People look down on you and they think you are nothing because you are a cleaner. We got together at work in 2014 and we took strike action to demand that the university take us in-house so that we could have the same rights as other workers in the university. We didn’t win the fight but we continued to recruit people to the union and argue for our rights.

In the summer of 2017 cleaners in Unison voted by 100 percent for more strike action. We all understood that it’s the only way to put pressure on the university to recognise the needs we have as workers. I am so proud that we won that strike because it means that we are now employed in-house, which means that we have proper terms and conditions with paid holidays and a pension. We now have many more women in the union because they know we are strong.

Women today are still second-class citizens and suffer from sexual discrimination, assault and violence and we have to fight against this. But I am still glad I was born a woman. I’m very happy that I am a mother, but I’m also a union member, a shop steward and a fighter for women’s rights. We can’t just simply be locked in the home. We can do so much more; we can be fighters for justice.

Consuela, Unison Steward


Chile: We will keep marching

Last year more than 350,000 people marched through Santiago on 8 March to celebrate International Women’s Day. This was the country’s first ever women’s strike. Most of the participants were young women with their partners, friends and family.

They were joined by NGO’s, civil associations, trade unions and Indigenous women, including Mapuche women in traditional tribal costume.

Many carried photographs of disappeared women murdered by the regime because they had wanted the same things that we want — a free and equal society.

Many of the slogans were about violence against women, the poor conditions that exist for migrants, equal pay, abortion rights, and against the discrimination that lesbians and transgender women experience daily in Chile.

It was a real celebration of the struggles of women but it was also an angry protest that is part of the general uprising against the damage caused to our lives by neoliberal polices in Chile. So it demanded pension rights, better housing, health and educational opportunities for our children.

We will be marching again this year in bigger numbers than ever because the equality we are demanding has still not been realised and we will not be silenced.

Valentina Pino, Chilean activist


Palestine The Occupation has militarised sexual violence

To be a Palestinian woman is to be filled with a deep strength passed down through generations of the women who have come before me and who have remained at the forefront of our resistance, all while enduring ethnic cleansing, an illegal occupation, apartheid regimes, countless human rights violations and the struggle for freedom in their own land.

It can often be overlooked that Palestinian women have been notoriously active in orchestrating popular resistance movements and navigating political conversations surrounding their identity and their right to exist.

Though we may often be painted through a western gaze as on the side lines of the resistance movement, the reality is that Palestinian women from a young age have learnt how to fight for our rights and articulate our struggle in a manner displaying immeasurable bravery, fearlessness and determination.

The dehumanisation of the Palestinians in occupied Palestine reflects and stems from the violence they face on a daily basis, with sexual violence and humiliation towards Palestinian women being popular tactics of the military colonisers.

Women as young as 16 who dare to stand up to the Israeli military occupation are often sexualised and dehumanised simultaneously – displaying the reality, that to be a Palestinian woman comes with the same international struggles of womankind, in addition to the brutal and racist oppression that comes with being Palestinian.

The strength and resistance that we hold flows through the cries and chants of our voices, the food of our culture, the customs we uphold and the values we cherish.

Palestinian women are graceful and gallant beings who carry the resistance movement on their backs wherever they go. We exist in the struggle, we resist in our living, and we will return in our land as the diligent and divine women we were born to be.


Join your union!

I work in a very male job and when I tried to raise things with management they didn’t listen to me. As a woman, I felt alone until I got involved in the union.

When we had a strike, we had big union meetings, and I never expected to get up and speak. But at one of them I surprised myself and stood up in a room full of men to argue why we should increase our strike action. After that I was elected as a rep. We won our strike for better pay.

Management take you more seriously when you become a rep. You get training and I’ve managed to get conditions improved where we work. You should try it. Don’t be afraid, just have a go — the men you work with will encourage and support you.

Ayodele, Unison Steward

I’m an activist in the union Usdaw, whose members work in retail and distribution. My workplace, as in much of retail, is predominantly women. We have taken up the challenge of building the union despite having to deal with bullying managers and sexism and racism at work.

Persuading low paid workers to join the union is not always easy. Many of my fellow workers are also from ethnic minority groups and experience personally the hostile environment created by the government.

So we decided to campaign at work around anti-racist campaigns. By taking up this issue it has been possible to create a debate around our experiences while explaining that racism and sexism divide us and weakens us.

The recognition that we all suffer under neoliberalism has helped build and strengthen the union. This meant that when we heard that the fascist Tommy Robinson was going to have a rally in the town as part of his campaign to stand as an MEP for the North West, a small group of us started to organise.

We spoke, many of us for the first time, at union meetings and campaign meetings. This resulted in around 250 delegates from our National conference in Blackpool joining local anti-racists and trade unionists to march to the sea front and hold the ground where Tommy Robinson wanted to have a rally. He didn’t show. As women we felt the power of organising across race and gender to score a victory for our side.

The importance of International Women’s Day is that it reminds us of all the struggles that women have been involved in historically but also the fights we still have to win alongside our brothers in the union.

Laila Hasan, USDAW Rep


When women's struggles went global

International women’s day was initiated at an international conference of socialist women in 1910, where the attendees had been inspired by the 1909 strike by women workers in the US, and agreed that there should be an annual celebration of the day on 8 March.

At the time, across the world, bourgeois women were mobilising working class women to support the demand for the right of propertied women to vote. While the 1910 socialist women’s conference supported the middle class women’s campaign for the vote, they felt the demand must be broadened out to include all working class women and men. German socialist Clara Zeitken termed this, “universal suffrage”.

They felt that rich women winning more political rights would not address the oppression and exploitation which the vast majority of peasant and working class women experienced at the hands of capitalism. The liberation of women must be part of the struggle of both women and men workers in the fight for socialism.

This vision was briefly played out during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Under the Tsar, women in Russia were treated like second class citizens. Women workers were paid much less than men, and sexual abuse was commonplace.

The First World War saw more women entering the workplace. Millions of men were dying at the front and there was barely any food in the cities. Then, on International Working Women’s Day in 1917 women textile workers went on strike, leading out the men. They demanded: bread, an end to the war, and land for the peasants. This sparked the revolution which toppled the Tsar.

However, even after the Tsar was ousted, the war continued and the conditions for workers worsened under the new Provisional Government. Revolutionary socialists in the Bolshevik party argued the revolution must continue, and that women workers must play a central role. Fighting alongside men, women peasants and workers were central to driving forward of the revolution. They helped to deliver the mass strikes and protests that culminated in workers seizing power in October 1917.

Under the new socialist state, women won historic gains: equal pay, divorce rights, voting rights abortion rights, property rights. Marriage laws were relaxed, and homosexuality was decriminalised. There was a flourishing of sexual experimentation and freedom.

After a mass conference of worker and peasant women in 1918, a special branch of the party the ‘Zhenotdel’ was launched which focussed on the political development and involvement of women workers. In the words of Bolshevik, and organiser of the Zhenhotdel, Inessa Armand, “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation”.

Today we have seen movements sweeping the world from Sudan to Chile. Millions have joined protests inspired by the student Climate Strikes. Wherever there has been mass struggle, women have been at the forefront. It is in these struggles that the origins of International Working Women’s Day can be seen and heard, with the class struggle at the heart of the fight for genuine liberation.

Emma Davis, author of A Rebels Guide to Alexandra Kollontai


This is a fight for authentic lives

In February this year a 43 year old man was sentenced to five years and eight months behind bars for the arson attack on a trans woman’s home. He had poured petrol through the letterbox and set her flat alight. This followed the man’s repeated harassment of her in the street and his insistence on calling her Steve. Many trans or non-binary person could tell you of similar terrifying experiences at the hands of transphobes.

Trans rights and trans lives have come under increasingly vicious ideological attack recently. In America this has taken place over “bathroom wars” and Donald Trump’s edicts on Trans people in the military services. In Britain powerful lobbies against the move to allow trans people to self-identify have ensured the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act have been kicked into the long grass, which will result in more distress and inequality for trans people. A recent study by Stonewall found that two-in-five trans people and three-in-ten non-binary people had experienced a hate crime or physical incident because of their gender identity.

We also know that lack of support from families and institutions, institutional prejudice by police and other authorities and isolation leads to higher rates of mental distress and attempted suicide among the trans community.

But trans people are not going away. While researching my book I discovered a hidden history of the role of trans and non-binary people in previous times and across many different cultures. Our history also contains inspiring examples of Trans people fighting back – the most famous being the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, to name just two, fought alongside lesbians and gay men and gave the police a good hiding, helping build the modern LGBT+ movement.

The fight for freedom, equality and the right to live an authentic life is a fight that should be central to any fight to build a different sort of society; one free of the oppression that permeates so much of capitalist society. That’s why I am proud to have been the first openly Trans person to sit on the executive body of one of Britain’s foremost teaching unions (UCU).

I’m proud that so many colleagues, students, fellow trade unionists and socialists supported me in a myriad of ways which made my transition possible. I think it’s also important to recognise that most feminists and women’s organisations today are trans inclusive because they understand that trans women don’t threaten women’s rights.

On International Women’s Day we celebrate all the struggles of women across the world fighting to win their liberation. We want a world where we are not judged by what we look like or what we wear and where biology is not our predetermined destiny. We all need to be part of this.

Laura Miles, author of Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation, Published by Bookmarks. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk


A bleak future under the Tories

Women, especially disabled women, have been severely affected by benefit and austerity cuts. Women over the age of 50 have borne the brunt of public sector cuts and having to apply for the indignity of Universal Credit.

The two-child benefit cap is affecting families with three or more children, plunging them further into poverty. Then there’s the heinous rape clause, an exemption from the two-child cap for women who have conceived as a result of rape. This forces victims of rape to endure further trauma, making women “prove” they have been raped in order to receive child benefits.

Women make up the greatest percentage of low paid work and zero hours contracts and need top up benefits to survive.

Disabled women have been affected by social care cuts, access to work support in the workplace, PIP and ESA cuts, lack of housing, especially disabled housing. Half of carers are women, but with cuts to carers’ allowance and carers pushed back into work, there aren’t the community services to support them. More women are turning to the sex industry to put food on the table.

The attacks that women face in the future are low paid and precarious work, meaning they are trapped in the never ending cycle of poverty. The rising pension age, cuts to health care and community support. With the managed migration to Universal Credit to begin in July, women in receipt of working and child tax credits and housing benefit will be pushed onto Universal Credit, with all the stresses and delays that brings.

Women are facing a bleak future under the Tory government unless we stand up and fight to kick them out.

Paula Peters, Disabled People Against Cuts


Anti-racism is at the heart of our struggle

As we celebrate International Women’s Day it’s important to remember that the day was set up to mark the struggles of working women. We hear so often about how much the previous generation has won but many of those gains are being pushed back, both here in the UK and across the world.

Trump as the leader of the free world is a proud misogynist who boasts about his sexual harassment of women.

In Hungary and Italy we have far right governments pushing a conservative vision of the family. Trump has led the way in pushing back women’s rights by encouraging challenges to abortion rights and blocking funding to Planned Parenthood women’s health services. His “global gag” order denies international aid to organisations that offer any abortion advice and services.

Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, led by Victor Orban, has shut down degree and postgraduate courses in gender studies. The party’s founder László Kövér declared in 2015: “We don’t want the gender craziness. We don’t want to make Hungary a futureless society of man-hating women and feminine men living in dread of women.”

In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro has closed the department for human rights and created a Department for Family Values headed up by Damares Alves who says, “we want a Brazil without abortion”.

Italian politician Matteo Salvini, a rising star of the European far right, is unashamed about his enthusiasm for rehabilitating Benito Mussolini’s fascist legacy. Salvini was proud to welcome the right wing World Congress of Families to the Italian city of Verona last year.

The congress aims to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society” and is virulently anti-abortion. Verona has gone on to declare itself “pro-life” along with a number of Italian cities. Although abortion is legal across Italy, is has become increasingly limited.

But things are not all bleak. Trump’s actions have created opposition. Huge demonstrations took place across the world following his inauguration.

Here in Britain, Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism have been able to push the fascists thugs off our streets and keep them out of mainstream politics in the North West campaign to stop Tommy Robinson’s electoral ambitions.

The attack on women’s rights is central to fascist and right wing ideology. But too often mainstream politicians weaponise our bodies and particularly the clothes we as Muslim women choose to wear.

On International Women’s Day I cannot think of a better way of honouring the day than building the resistance against racism and fascism. Hands off our bodies, Hands of our Hijabs, Hands off our rights.

Nahella Ashraf, Manchester