Remembering the struggles & victories of women workers
For more than a century, 8 March has been the day to commemorate and celebrate the fight of working class and revolutionary women for a better deal and a socialist society. Its origins are in the struggles for equal pay and decent conditions amongst women in the USA in the 19th century.
On 8 March, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day, and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, 8 March, 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honouring the 1857 march, demanding the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labour. The police were present on this occasion too.
A conference in 1910 of socialist women involved in the Second International, adopted a proposal of the German revolutionary fighter, Klara Zetkin, to establish an International Women’s Day. Russian women began to observe this on the last Sunday in February, according to the pre-revolutionary Julien calendar.
In 1917 this was the day the working women of Petrograd literally started a revolution. In protest at rising prices and food shortages, they filed into the centre of the city, calling on all fellow workers to join them. This was actually March 8th according to the (Gregorian) calendar used elsewhere in the world.
’Down with hunger!’ ’Down with the war!’ Hunger was claiming the lives of thousands of children, along with those of older men and women, and the very sick and very poor. The First World War was claiming the lives of millions of farm labourers and workers at the front. The ’February Revolution’ of 1917, which threw off the yoke of Csarism across the Russian Empire, was the precursor of the victorious socialist revolution of October in the same year.
Gains and losses under capitalism
Nearly a hundred years later, the system to which we are told ’there is no alternative’ – capitalism – is undergoing the worst crisis probably in its history. For a while, in the 20th century, in many European countries and in the US, under the pressure of powerful struggles of the working class, capitalism was forced to provide health care, education and nurseries. During the boom periods, labour-saving devices for the home became affordable. The majority of women in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who labour without ceasing, and millions even within the more developed countries, have benefited from few if any of these advances.
In Europe and America, and to some extent in other countries, a layer of working women have been able to insist on equal pay, equal opportunities and flexible working hours. In the 20th century, chauvinist attitudes towards women and sexist advertising were also challenged with some success. In a capitalist world, ’male domination’ is part of the system – a legacy of the past that is a means of maintaining divisions and the super-exploitation of the working class. But the worst of its expressions can be combated by protest, especially where linked to the movement of a united working class against the bosses and their system as a whole.
Hardest hit by crisis
Today, in the context of capitalism in crisis on a world scale, the gains of working class and middle class women are under attack. Equal pay for work of equal value, where it has been won, has to be defended. If the trade union leaders do not put up a fight, this and other basic rights come under attack. Advances in the recognition of domestic violence as a crime and measures to relieve women seeking refuge from violent partners have been set back.
In the first wave of a crisis, male workers can be the first to lose their jobs while the lower paid women workers who are kept on in the workplace. But, as the crisis worsens and public sector jobs are slaughtered, women are hit hardest – losing their paid employment and seeing welfare benefits cut and social services slashed. It is no accident they are to the fore in strikes and general strikes across Europe and elsewhere.
Women are still the main home keepers. They do the most shopping, cooking, cleaning and caring for all the family members. This, in a crisis, means nightmare worries over the shrinking budget – falling incomes and rising costs. As publicly-funded services are cut, it means finding more hours and energy for the care of children, and of sick and elderly members of the family. Mass unemployment amongst young people is a major worry. Education opportunities shrink and cuts or non-existent benefits mean young people are dependent on their families. The burdens on working class families become unbearable and parents can be constantly fearful that unemployed teenagers will turn in on themselves or be drawn into alcoholism, drugs and petty crime.
In the course of the crisis hitting Europe, hundreds of thousands of families have been broken by evictions from their homes, by emigration of younger adults, by suicides and by the inability to care for the youngest and weakest. In Greece, desperate women unable to provide for their children are giving them over to state authorities in the hope they can care for them.
Little wonder that on the demonstrations in Greece, women are amongst the most vociferous. They do not want to see the clock turned back decades, to be confined to managing the family, torn by poverty, hunger, a new military dictatorship. They have nothing to lose but their future. A socialist programme of ‘No to the debt; no to the EU!’ is gathering support. The idea of revolutionary change and self-organisation, throwing off capitalists and bankers and planning society according to need and not greed – all this can be attractive to women – young and old. The alternative under capitalism is a nightmare.
It is women who suffer most from wars, civil wars, famines, natural disasters, land grabs and environmental degradation. They suffer most from reactionary religious practices like forced marriages, genital mutilation. But it is also women who suffer most from capitalism’s inability to develop economies for the benefit of all, instead of the handful of rich.
If, in so-called developed countries, longer hours at work put huge strains on family life, especially on women, in undeveloped economies, women do all the most onerous work in the fields. They are also the ones who carry water for miles across country. They, along with child labourers, are the most harassed and exploited workers in the factories and the mines.
As Care International points out on their web-site: 70% of the world’s poorest billion people are women and girls, two thirds of people who cannot read or write are women and in many countries, more women are likely to die in childbirth than get an education. In a world where the rich in every country are getting richer and the poor poorer, the fight to win women workers to the banner of socialist struggle and revolution becomes daily more urgent.
India and China
In countries like India and China, the majority of women and their children live in absolute poverty. A certain layer of society (about 300 million people in each case) has been raised from absolute poverty to a reasonable lower middle class existence. As the crisis hits, they are beginning to be forced back into the mire of poverty and homelessness. Some are beginning to fight back on the question of housing and the environment.
Workers – young men and women – who have been drawn from the poverty-stricken countryside into big factories have begun to fight against the long hours and slave labour conditions inflicted on them. In India, young workers at Suzuki Maruti, for example, have formed their own unions, taken strike action and won better pay and conditions. This gives them a better chance to feed, clothe and house their families and spend some time with them.
Young women in the hot-houses of China’s factories, sometimes work up to 12 hours a day. Recently they have been involved in important strikes. At Foxconn (which employs a million, mostly women, in China) suicide appeared as the only way out. The strikes of last year, however, won at least temporary improvements. Threatened mass suicides have again hit the headlines but the idea of mass struggle is gaining momentum. Revolutionary upsurges are rooted in the present situation in China and many women will play a vital role in leading them to partial and full victories.
Resentment is also building up in China against the regime’s rigid one-child policy. It causes great emotional and material suffering, especially for women. Some, who can find the necessary money, travel to Hong Kong to get round the rule and give birth in hospitals there. But they face not only the possibility of punishment on returning home, but also attempts by racists to whip up hostility towards mainland Chinese. CWI members in Hong Kong adamantly fight for women’s rights and also against all expressions of racism.
Women must have the chance to freely decide when and if to have children (and how many). As child-bearers, they can suffer huge emotional and material stress from both having and not having children. Socialists believe they should be able to choose to safely terminate pregnancies they do not want to go ahead with. CWI members across the globe have campaigned against religious bigots and other reactionaries who will not accede to the demand for safe, early and free abortion on demand. This must be seen as a right and not what the hypocritical ‘pro-lifers’ call ‘infanticide’! In Ireland, Socialist Party member of parliament, Clare Daly, has spoken out for abortion rights.
As the crises deepen, women – alone or with partners – will find it harder and harder to feed and clothe their children. If they need or want to limit the number of children they have (or to have no children) they should not be prevented from doing so by religious, state or financial restrictions on contraception and abortion. Women should be able to enjoy sexual relations without fear of unwanted pregnancy. They should also, on the other hand, be helped with problems of fertility, again, with the full assistance of the state.
Socialists need sensitively to conduct campaigns against forced marriages, rape, female circumcision. Religion is important to many people and they should have the right to practice whatever they wish as individuals, as long as it does not impinge on the basic rights of others. This includes the wearing of the hijab or even the burka. This right should not be denied to women nor should it be forced upon them.
In the past year, revolutions have been on the agenda. Throughout history – in France 1789 or Russia 1917, or on the streets of Tunis or Cairo, they can erupt over the basic demand for bread. They can finish by ousting Kings, Csars and dictators.
In the revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East, women have taken an important role in the battles on the streets and in the strikes which have brought victories. Young women especially have shown a fierce determination to win a different society than that prescribed by the dictators and also by reactionary religious fundamentalists.
The size of the task which remains to be completed, however, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt has been illustrated by the brutal attacks on women even in Tahrir Square – centre of the revolution. Women have organised important demonstrations in protests at this. In Tunisia, members of the extreme Salafist sect have been attacking relatively ’liberated’ women who work in the universities because they choose not to wear the headscarf.
A recent report on British TV showed that even a year after the revolution in Egypt, 90% of parents are still subjecting their daughters to vaginal mutilation – robbing them for life of the possibility of experiencing sexual satisfaction. There is a long way to go in the struggle for equal rights!
As long as capitalism survives, the exploitation and oppression of women will continue. One of its worst expressions is the gruesome practice of people trafficking, mostly with the aim of selling women and girls into forced prostitution. Campaigns against all forms of exploitation and oppression in present day society, and of discrimination on the grounds of sex, nationality, creed and sexual orientation, need the full backing of the organised workers’ movement.
Women must stay to the fore in all the struggles for reform as well as revolution. The CWI is bound to do all within its power to ensure this happens. Books, pamphlets and leaflets on the issues that most affect women are an enormous help. Meetings and demonstrations on particular issues – closures of nurseries, maternity units, playgroups – can attract women to the socialist struggle. They are already playing a vital role in the campaigns for youth jobs and in the strikes of teachers, civil servants and health-workers against cuts and austerity.
In Sri Lanka, women working in the Free Trade Zones have participated in strike action against the Rajapakse dictatorship’s pension reforms and won! In Pakistan an important strike of nurses was victorious. In Sindh province last year, CWI women organised an impressive and noisy march behind the banner of the “Progressive Female Health Workers Association”. (see the video here). In Kazakhstan, women play a vital role in the fight against housing evictions. In the USA and elsewhere, the ‘Occupy’ movements have seen women expressing great anger against bankers and the pampered and privileged 1% who dominate society under capitalism. The way in which ‘indignad@s’ is written in Spain – combining the feminine ’a’ ending with the masculine ’o’ – indicates a keen awareness of the importance of women and men being treated as equals.
On International Women’s Day, 2012, the CWI salutes the brave socialist women pioneers. It also looks to a new period of revolutionary upheaval opening up in which the CWI will be filled out and enriched by the recruitment of fearless women fighters.
The Bolsheviks who came to power under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, immediately opened the door on a ’New Life’ for women, as a famous propaganda poster of the time put it. On the basis of a nationalised economy, run by workers’ elected representatives, and an extension of the revolution to more ‘advanced’ economies where industry could develop more rapidly, the dream of life without drudgery at home and at work could be rapidly realised.
The rise of Stalin, the crushing of genuine socialist internationalism, slammed this door shut. Under the jack-boot of the dictator, life for women grew harder and harder – bearing, as they were forced to once more, the double burdens of long hours in the factory and inadequate provision of crèches, laundries, restaurants and recreational facilities.
New revolutions in today’s world take place against a completely different background. They will spread rapidly from country to country as they did just last year. Workers’ governments established through mass struggle today will have the task of reorganising and developing society on the basis of a far higher level of technology and science.
The workers – men and women – who make the socialist revolutions of the 21st century will fight tenaciously to prevent the old rulers from hanging on to power. They will also fight tooth and nail to prevent any figure like Stalin, or a privileged clique from stealing their revolution. On the basis of nationalisation and workers’ control and management, such vistas will open up for a future society – based on fulfilment of needs and wishes rather than greed and exploitation, that no one will accept the turning back of the clock.
We in the CWI will not stint until socialism is achieved world-wide. Such a society, achieved through public ownership and democratic planning and control, will at last be able to utilise harmoniously and cooperatively, every human being’s talent and every natural resource of the planet to the greatest benefit of all human society.
By Clare Doyle, CWI