Socialist feminism: An idea for the 2020s


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Women and men around the world will mark March 8 as International Women’s Day, with demonstrations, marches and celebrations. The run-up to this occasion presents an important opportunity to examine its history and discuss the necessary next steps in the fight for women’s liberation.

International Women’s Day started as a socialist day of struggle, taking up the pressing demands of working women. Most prominent among these was the call for universal women’s suffrage.

In 1857, workers in New York City marched for equal pay and decent conditions. Their actions were broken up by police, but 50 years later, working-class women and men were still struggling all over the globe, demanding the right to vote and an end to child labour, among many other things.

Such actions prompted the discussions held in the women’s conference of the Second International, which represented a coming together of delegates representing mass socialist organisations around the globe. This conference voted to call the first International Working Women’s Day in 1910.

The initiative rapidly saw March 8 become a global day of struggle. Seven years later, it was on this day that St Petersburg’s female textile workers walked out on strike, beginning the tremendous revolutionary movement that overthrew the Tsar and took the first steps on the path towards October – when workers took power.

In the recent period, non-socialist and in some cases blatantly anti-working-class forces have attempted to co-opt International Women’s Day. Some have tried to turn it from a day of struggle into a day to celebrate female CEOs or so-called entrepreneurs, even if the companies they run employ thousands of low-paid women workers on poverty pay.

Others have attempted to use the day as an advertising opportunity – marketing products supposedly symbolising female empowerment or encouraging men to buy gifts for the ‘woman in their life’. March 8 even started being observed by the United Nations in 1975.

In the last decade, however, the original spirit of International Women’s Day – that of determined and militant working-class struggle – has begun to be reclaimed. We’ve witnessed a wave of international workers’ struggles and even revolutions, from the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring all the way to huge revolutionary movements in Sudan and other countries today.

Women’s movements were not neglected, and we have increasingly seen International Women’s Day reclaimed as a day of action, amongst other important movements around the globe.

At the start of the decade, the international Slutwalk movement blew up, with women all around the world protesting victim-blaming and rape culture. This movement started an important discussion about sexual assault and gender-based violence, and the realities of life for women under the current capitalist system.

The decade ended with a new eruption of struggle on this issue, this time on a wider scale. The #MeToo movement began on social media in 2017, but by 2018 it was being manifested in workers’ action. Significantly, workers in Google and McDonald’s paved the way with brave industrial action to fight against gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.

But there’s still a long way to go. More than 150 years after the first marches for equal pay, men today take 75% more in wages than women globally. To this day, women are still the main performers of unpaid labour in the home, the value of which is estimated at US$10 trillion around the world. Austerity measures and privatisation have also tended to increase the burden placed on women.

Under capitalism, there are also the additional costs that being a woman incurs in our world. For example, the average spend for women in Britain for their periods is approximately $35,000 AUD over a lifetime.

Women are also three times more likely to experience common mental health problems. More than half of all women have been victims of sexual harassment at work – the statistic for young women is closer to two thirds, with a huge proportion of the perpetrators being managers or in a position of authority.

Around 20% of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. 90% of rape victims know their rapist before the assault.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that more and more women are realising that, under capitalism, women’s liberation will never be fully achieved. The ruling class will always prioritise short-term profit over the security and living standards of all working-class people, including women.

Under capitalism, we may win some victories, but we’ll never be able to win women’s liberation fully as long as the system is based around profit for the 1%.

Liberal feminist ideas, such as simply increasing female ‘representation’, in parliament or the boardroom, may sound nice in theory. But in practice, having a female prime minister has done nothing for the fight to win women’s liberation.

We have numerous examples where female prime ministers have presided over a worsening of living conditions for the majority of working-class women. That’s because the most important factor determining their political approach was not their gender, but rather the class interests they represented: those of the capitalists.

We can’t expect pro-capitalist women to represent the majority of us, who are working class. We need to fight for real equality and for a system that will be built around our security and happiness rather than profit.

This fight has to include working-class men, women and LGBTIQ+ people – we’re all hurt by the inequality this system creates. And what’s more, because of the economic role workers play in society – producing and distributing all of society’s goods, providing its services – workers have tremendous potential power when organised collectively.

That’s why looking back, towards the socialist origins of International Women’s Day, can point us in the right direction for the struggles faced by working-class women today.

Crucial to achieving real and lasting change for women, is that the workers’ movement, and the trade unions in particular, take up the struggle for women’s rights and against gender-based violence.

This must be linked to a fighting strategy to end cuts and wealth inequality – which hits women hardest as both workers and service users. We say the trade union leaderships must take up this fight, organising mass demonstrations and protests and building towards strike action that has the aim of winning real change.

As part of this, the unions should organise to mobilise workers in the struggle for an end to sexual harassment at work, and for workplace rights for victims of gender-based violence. They must participate in the discussion on the liberation of women and play their crucial and necessary role in bringing it about.

Real and lasting women’s liberation will only be possible on the basis of a fundamental reorganisation of society. Capitalism benefits from women’s oppression – whether through the super-exploitation of women workers or the unpaid labour millions of women carry out in the home.

But a socialist society – one in which the major monopolies that currently dominate our economy are taken out of the hands of the rich and instead owned publicly and controlled democratically – could be very different.

A society based on need, not profit, and on working-class solidarity rather than division, would lay the foundation for a transformation of the position of women within society, and an end to all the myriad forms of oppression which capitalism generates and perpetuates.

By Yaara Cliff

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