frontline 19.

International Womens Day — Celebrating Struggle

Anthea Irwin takes a look at International Womens Day, then and now.

Not just one day in the year …

For me, and I think for many socialists (women and men), the way in which we deal with the relationship between class and gender is key to the development of our movement. Undoubtedly this relationship has provided us with frustrations and challenges, but it is also a site of tremendous possibilities. With International Women’s Day almost upon us once again, I would argue that concrete examples from this day, its inception, development and present manifestation, is a useful focus for us. They can aid discussions around how socialist women should relate to the socialist movement and the feminist movement, whether such movements even exist discrete of each other, whether we should call ourselves feminist socialists, socialist feminists or neither, and so on. And the SSP’s decision at our 2005 conference to mark IWD every year should give particular focus to our continuing encouragement and enabling of women’s political involvement. The key word here is “concrete”. Let’s ensure that we focus on activity and the gains of socialist women so that our discussions remain grounded and result in action.

IWD: the voice of Socialist women

As with any historical development, there are conflicting readings of where and how IWD started. However, many concur that it appeared first as National Women’s Day in the United States in 1909, and later as International Women’s Day in Germany and Austria in 1911. IWD arose in response to two main movements: the organization of workers culminating in Mayday celebrations to promote the eight-hour day for working men, and middle-class women’s suffrage movements. Even at its inception, then, the necessity for socialist women to identify a role for themselves in relation to their socialist male comrades and feminists is clear.

The regularity and success of the Mayday celebrations arising from workers’ organization in the late 19th century prompted the first congress of the second International in Paris in 1889 to recognise Mayday as an international workers’ holiday. Although women’s wages were, then as now, lower than men’s and they could thus only have benefited from organizing with their fellow workers, fewer women tended to get involved in Mayday demonstrations due to both concern over potential violence from the police and the gendered nature of trade union organization.

20 years later, women Socialist leaders in the United States and Germany created a “Women’s Day” to promote working women’s right to vote. Clara Zetkin, one of the key women in the movement in Germany and Austria, would have much to give to our discussions on class, gender and what it means to be a socialist woman. She was determined to play a role in the socialist movement as a whole and ensure that a voice was given to the particular situation of working class women. She quickly found herself debating the way forward with both other socialists and the women’s suffrage movement, much of the debate being around a recognizable theme: whether, in the fight for the emancipation of the working class as a whole, it was necessary in the short term to sacrifice some aspects and prioritise others.

The right to vote at that time was restricted to men who owned property, so there were two hurdles in the way of democracy and equality. The socialist movement broadly was arguing that it was more important to get rid of the link to property first and thus empower the working class; the bourgeois women’s movement in Germany believed that gaining the vote for even some women would be a step forward, so they promoted limited suffrage for women based on property; Clara Zetkin stood against both. She said in her speech to a socialist women’s conference in 1906: ‘proletarian women must rely on their own strength and on that of their class for the conquest of their full political rights’. For her the class and gender aspects could not be separated. She saw the class struggle as the overarching aspect, but women’s emancipation as an integral part of that struggle. Socialist (women) still debate this relationship between class and gender today, and I think we could do worse than look to Clara Zetkin’s words for a workable way to engage with both. In answer to some of her comrades who argued that placing any stress on women’s suffrage was divisive, she claimed that empowering women politically must be one of the central elements of any socialist programme. Without equal rights for women socialism couldn’t be fully achieved and, unless women had a political voice, many of these rights would be much longer in the gaining, if ever.

Who’s afraid of Sylvia Pankhurst?

The British establishment, clearly. Ask people who they associate with ‘the suffragettes’ in Britain. Who do they mention? Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the Women’s Social and Political Union. Some will also know of her daughter Christabel. But I’d bet few will have anything to say about Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s other daughter. There seems to have been some airbrushing at work with regard to her. Sylvia was a socialist and a quite inspirational character. She challenged her mother and sister continuously over how the women’s suffrage movement should be organized and eventually split from them. We can only imagine what personal pain such a decisive move must have caused her, and gives us pause for thought about the sacrifices of many of the committed socialists who have forged the movement before us.

For Sylvia Pankhurst, as for Clara Zetkin, socialism was the goal. She connected with and sought to involve the mass of women in fighting together for their emancipation. She challenged her mother and sister’s ‘top down’ approach. Although undoubtedly progressive women, they saw their role as advancing the cause for women, rather than uniting and advancing the cause with women. Their approach was to gain reform within the current system, and Sylvia’s insistence that the suffragette movement should link itself with other oppressed groups did not sit well with them.

The stark political differences in the family were seen most clearly in 1907 when the WSPU severed its links with the labour movement, and in 1914 when Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst declared their full support for the war, encouraged other women to do likewise, and abandoned completely the suffrage campaign. One of the very few organisations to maintain the fight for the right to vote during WW1 was the organisation Sylvia Pankhurst led: the East London federation of working class women. The futility of fighting for gender equality discrete of class equality is again clear: in Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s case, the fight was for concessions within a comprehensively unequal society, a fight that bowed to the establishment when it was seen to be in crisis. Sylvia had been clear all along that such a movement would never deliver equality for all women.

Women’s Day: national, international and revolutionary

Backtracking a few years to 1908, the US women’s movement was also continuing to fight for the right of women to vote. They did not support limited suffrage strategies, probably because US men’s right to vote was not linked with property. The movement was a broad one, and working class and middle class women tended to work alongside each other in organisations like the Equal Suffrage League and the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. That said, it was the socialist women active in this movement who took the lead, and introduced a Women’s Day as a focus for the movement. In 1908 the Socialist Party of the US established a Woman’s National Committee, and one of the Committee’s first acts was to declare that the last Sunday in February should be recognised as National Woman’s Day. The first celebrations took place the following year, on February 23rd 1909.

Clara Zetkin was instrumental in internationalising Woman’s Day. She framed a proposal for the second International Socialist Women’s conference in Copenhagen in 1910, calling for an International Women’s Day to campaign for the political and economic rights of all women. We are again reminded of the socialist stamp that was on IWD at all points in its development: its proponents realised that not only was the fight for women’s emancipation futile outwith the class struggle, it could only be short lived unless it was taken up by women across the globe. The first “International Women’s Day” was held on 19th March 1911, commemorating the 1848 uprising in Prussia which had broken down the semi-feudal system of rule. In 1913 it was celebrated for the first time on 8th March, the day on which it is still celebrated today.

1917 is a key year historically for IWD. Protests were building across Russia which would culminate in a revolution, and a protest on IWD was part of this development. Women were angry and frustrated at their pay and conditions and the fact that so much money and so many lives were being squandered in a war they opposed so, although no strike had been organised, the “bread and peace” march as it is known happened spontaneously and a mass of women added their voices and gave their support to the growing revolt.

IWD: a day of celebration?

“Celebrated” is the word most often collocated with IWD. But is it the correct word to use? Of course the political coming together of women is to be celebrated, and IWD can be a day to celebrate gains that have been made over the years since its inception. However, the few examples above are evidence that IWD was developed by women as an organisational focus for their struggle. It was used as a day to highlight continuing inequalities and injustices and rise against them, and on that day in 1917 women voiced the connection between “bread and butter” issues (literally) and international issues. The placement of focus in this regard is still a contentious issue among socialists today, and IWD 1917 arguably illustrates the alternative position - that the argument about “bread and butter” versus international is shortsighted or misplaced: the complex interconnectedness of the two makes that so. This article has only had space to remind us of a few of the highlights of IWD, but it has I hope made the socialist character of early IWDs clear. I think we lose sight of this at our peril.

Fastforwarding to 2006 and checking out the various IWD activities on offer locally, nationally and internationally this year, it is an understatement to say that the socialist character of IWD has become diluted. Understandably the pressures of women’s lives cause them to crave some time to themselves, but it seems that we could rename IWD “Individual Women’s Day” in some cases and to say this is out of kilter with its initial purpose is an understatement. Relaxation techniques, crafts, business advice … is this what we should be doing on International Women’s Day?

Challenging the shift to individualism

To me the shift in focus of IWD is a reflection of the shift that feminism and social theory more generally has taken. The postmodernists have landed and heralded capitalism as “the end of history”. No longer are “grand narratives” like Marxism relevant. No longer can we hope for any collective emancipation through progress. We’re all consumers now, not citizens. Our identity no longer has anything to do with something as passé as class; instead we are on some kind of individual mission, a neverending supermarket sweep of identity construction … except that the vast majority of people aren’t. The vast majority of people experience very real limits on what they wish to achieve in their lives, limits that can only be overcome collectively. Marxism is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Gender equality: ideal and reality

We’ve seen a similar trend with regard to feminism. So called “third wave” feminism heralds the fact that women have “arrived”. Girl power is us. All the gains have been made so women are free to “have it all”. They omit to mention that you would have to be some kind of superwoman to take any kind of advantage of it all. Or that the house of cards that is gender equality doesn’t take long to fall when you look at the details and remove those that don’t fit.

Like the fact that 36 years after the equal pay act, women still earn 20% less than men. This is due, among other things, to the fact that legislation alone can’t break down the norms and value systems that mean that women make up a majority of low paid workers. Why? Because jobs that have traditionally been seen as “women’s work” are undervalued in the job market. Caring professions, cleaning, catering. These are also some of the first to be privatised.

Women are also more likely to take time out or alter their working patterns to care for children, thus undertaking more part-time and casual work. Hardly surprising when childcare costs on average £150 a week - which would barely be covered by working full time on the current minimum wage. “Oh, but we support hard working families with working families’ tax credit” cry the New Labour hacks. Why not just raise the minimum wage to a human level then? Why should working people be forced to apply for top-ups to raise their wage to a liveable level? And who would want to with the recent news that, in spite of people pointing out that they were being overpaid, the problem continued, and now that it’s finally been recognised, who is responsible for recouping the losses? The people who had been overpaid in the first place.

From the cradle to the grave …

Even before women begin caring for their children their income is lowered. Maternity leave provision in the UK is some of the worst in Europe, the basic being 26 weeks at 90% of your wage and 26 weeks at £100. And when they enter old age, rather than receiving respect for what they have contributed to society via both paid and unpaid work, they receive a pittance of a pension. The pension level is low enough as it is, but women, for the two reasons stated above, that they earn lower wages and that they tend to spend less time in paid employment due to childcare, have lower entitlements with regard to both work and state pensions. “Oh but …” cry New Labour again. Sorry, no. The minimum income guarantee is not a guarantee. It only applies to those who wish to put themselves through the difficulty and humiliation of applying for it. Many of our pensioners have too little support and too much pride to do so.

IWD: a focus for action

So there is clearly a lot still to fight for. As a socialist woman it is clear to me that these gains, like those fought for and won by our sisters and their brothers over the years, can only be made through the class struggle. But it is still the case that women are underrepresented in that struggle. We may have won the right to vote decades ago, and a valuable gain it was, but an X on a page does not a democracy make. As long as there are fewer of us women involved in the struggle, in my opinion we have not been fully politically emancipated.

There are plenty of examples that we can look to from the present and the last few years of women being at the fore of struggle: Sodexho workers and nursery nurses on strike; doctors, nurses and mothers fighting to defend maternity provision; mothers and local residents fighting to save local primary schools. And a key example of the local / international link: the Justice for Gordon Gentle campaign fronted by his mother Rose. It is in situations like these that women develop politically and gain confidence, so we must ensure that we continue to support and work alongside women in struggle, both new and experienced. The SSP conference 2005 unanimously passed the ISM motion to mark IWD every year. Let’s make sure we put into action what we voted on. And let’s remember that marking IWD is symbolic of a much broader approach than doing something on one day each year. Let us, female and male comrades together, use IWD, as those who introduced it did, as a focus for our organisation, as an opportunity to see women’s political potential, hear their specific voice, and nurture both. The class / gender debate will undoubtedly continue, but in order to advance the socialist movement, it must be rooted in action.