In a time of increasing political instability and tension that has given us Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s reassuring to see one old tradition reasserting itself against a global lurch to the right.
Returning to the radical social roots that inspired its foundation in the early decades of the 20th century, International Women’s Day has become the focal point for a new generation of militant women’s struggles around the world.
The new movement has emerged from the burgeoning resistance to attacks on fundamental rights launched by a host of reactionary governments. Campaigns to defend the right to choose, access to contraception and against official indifference to the murder, rape and sexual harassment of women have found fertile soil amongst millions of women who are saying “enough is enough”.
On the Asian subcontinent, the entry of millions of women into waged labour and particularly into industrial work has transformed the working class. In recent years, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have witnessed militant mass protests and strikes against starvation wages and appalling working conditions.
This experience of struggle, often having to overcome the opposition and inertia of male-dominated trade union leaderships, has given women the confidence to take collective forms of resistance learned in the workplace onto the streets to protest rape and gendered violence.
Women of the subcontinent are subjected to horrific levels of sexual violence; in many countries rape and honour killings are tolerated if not officially sanctioned. In Pakistan and India, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism and Hindu extremism in government has gone hand in hand with a sharp rise in attacks on the already limited social and political rights of women.
Europe too is experiencing a tide of social conservatism, with hard-won rights coming under sustained attack. Last September, thousands marched in Dublin joined by supporters around world, to pressure the government to hold a referendum to repeal a law that makes an abortion a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
In October, seven million women demonstrated in Poland in a pro-choice demonstration they called “Black Monday”, opposing the conservative government’s attempt to criminalise abortion. Participants spoke of feeling empowered as never before in a country where the all-male Catholic hierarchy exercises suffocating power and influence on social questions.
In the UK and across Europe in countries suffering under neoliberal austerity programmes, the social position of women is being undermined through the collapse in government funding for women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, with disproportionate numbers of women losing jobs in the public sector. Women are being made to take up the slack of a disintegrating welfare state, taking on additional care responsibilities for children and the elderly, as well as paid work.
In Spain, activists have researched and campaigned on the precarious character of women’s work and social lives, looking at a plethora of jobs ranging from domestic workers to sex workers, white collar and blue collar, and examining how part-time or fixed-term contracts, presented as suiting women’s “domestic responsibilities” in fact super-exploit and disempower these women, subjecting them to high levels of stress, anxiety, and illness.
This work reflects the efforts of those behind campaigns like #EverydaySexism that aim to highlight the real experiences of women who, in the West, are told that they have already achieved equality, but who continue to suffer intolerable levels of abuse in the home, in the street and in schools and workplaces.
Muslim women who suffer oppression at the hands of Islamist regimes or within culturally conservative and patriarchal societies are at the same time the victims of state-sanctioned racism or patronising and reactionary attempts to police their dress by bourgeois feminists.
In Latin America, Argentina has seen the renewal of the #NiUnaMenos movement protesting the epidemic of gendered violence that sees one woman murdered every 30 hours. In October 2016, a widespread one-hour strike and protest was observed in response to the brutal rape and murder of sixteen year old Lucía Perez and police repression at the end of the National Women’s Meeting in Rosario.
As elsewhere these specific protests against violence against women are part of a generalised resistance to a reactionary government. President Mauricio Macri is presiding over a savage austerity programme. His comments in defence of street harassment and cat-calling show that Donald Trump’s brazen sexism is far from being an aberration amongst bourgeois rulers.
All these movements are responses to particular local factors, but what they have in common is an awareness that rights once won have to be defended, and that mass collective action is the most effective route to winning and defending rights of women. Importantly there is a growing solidarity between these actions; increasingly protests are marked by simultaneous solidarity actions in different countries, helping to infuse the new women’s movement with a powerful sense of internationalism and unity from its inception.
The election of a US President with an appalling record of misogyny and sexual harassment prompted an unprecedented worldwide demonstration of over six million women on 21 January, paving the way for the return of mass actions to an International Women’s Day too long the preserve of sanitised commercial and political platitudes.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and a member of the US National Planning Committee for the International Women’s Strike, outlined the spirit she hopes will animate the 8 March mobilisation:
“For years, International Women’s Day has gone unnoticed or was depoliticised. Most people no longer even know that its roots lie in the struggle of women textile workers in the US — or that a mobilisation of women in Russia to oppose the First World War in 1917 was the spark for an uprising that led to the overthrow of the Tsar and set off the Russian Revolution. This March 8, we are hoping that women and those who support them will join together in political actions across this country to draw attention to the conditions of working-class women’s lives and the struggle needed to transform those conditions.”
“What I mean is that a women’s movement that does not take up a whole range of issues — racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant racism and bigotry, low-wage exploitation, the relentless attacks on the remnants of the welfare state, the U.S. government’s endless promulgation of war and occupation — is not really addressing the actual issues that impact working-class women and their families.”
The new movement explicitly rejects what it calls the “one per cent feminism” of the sort exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which essentially means middle class women pushing themselves forward for promotion and as “leaders” in business and politics. Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and the women CEOs sitting on company boards demonstrate in practice that equal opportunity or free competition for the top posts simply enables individual women to become responsible for and beneficiaries of the exploitation and oppression of their working-class sisters.
This indicates a welcome return to the original intentions of the revolutionary women who launched International Women’s Day in order to champion the common cause of women’s liberation with the struggles of all the exploited and oppressed people in society. Revolutionary Marxists like Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai insisted that it was the common exploitation and oppression of the working class under capitalism that provided the universal experience that could unite people of different nationalities, skin colours and religions in the struggle for social and political emancipation.
While socialists support demands for an end to all discrimination and march alongside women of every social class against sexual harassment and assault, our solution is based on raising the floor to collectively reduce inequality and oppression, not on encouraging individual escapes through a glass ceiling.
To build an effective new wave women’s liberation movement will require the mobilisation of working-class women worldwide; for example, the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia is assisted by the UK government’s support for the reactionary Saudi regime.
They must do so alongside lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, whose oppression is integrally linked to the oppression and exploitation of women and the hegemony of patriarchal relations. A 21st century women’s liberation will be a movement of people of colour; in the West, white workers will need to make special efforts to unite with black and ethnic minority women, especially those who are migrants or refugees, driven here by the imperialist policies of our rulers.
Sexism, and its cousin homophobia, is the most deeply rooted prejudice in existence. It requires a consistent and conscious effort to overcome its insidious reproduction within progressive and working-class movements. Labour movement parties and trade unions, dominated by men, with notorious cases of sexual abuse and discrimination, are a reflection of the entrenched power of sexist and patriarchal relations.
That is why women – like BAME and LGBT people – need their own spaces (sections or caucuses) where they can mobilise to fight manifestations of sexism within our movement, and organise to ensure that women play a full role in all areas of their organisations’ work, and that men are not exempted from the need for political education and activity in the service of women’s liberation.
A new movement, with working-class women and the racially and nationally oppressed at its heart, and with the methods of class struggle to the forefront, is absolutely vital, but it will need to link itself to the building of a new party of the working class. This party will have to be one whose socialism is founded on transcending capitalism and all forms of exploitation and oppression. In its fight to defend past gains and make major new ones, its aim will be working-class control, the power to veto the actions of the capitalists and to take over production and vital services. Preparing the transition to socialism in this way, however, will point to the necessity of seizing political power.
The slogan that asserts there can be no socialism without women’s liberation and no women’s liberation without socialism is as vital today as ever. The movement we are witness to now is one in which working-class women will play their greatest role yet, for the first time in history comprising a majority of industrial wage-labourers, and a majority in the semi-colonial world. This dual character will give it the strength and dynamism to take the struggle for women’s liberation and socialism to new frontiers in the years to come.