On International Women’s Day, 8 March, Workers’ Liberty women in London helped organise a meeting to celebrate the original, militant tradition of the day. What tradition?
International Women’s Day — founded in 1911 as International Working Women’s Day — was first proposed by Clara Zetkin and other socialist women. It was a response to the 1907/8 demonstrations of women workers in New York demanding shorter hours, better pay, union rights and the vote, and to the “Rising of the 20,000”, a 13-week strike of women garment makers in 1909.
By 1917 it was well-established enough in the international labour movement to be the spark for strikes, mass protests and the start of the Russian revolution.
In other words, International Women’s Day was not, as it has become today, about generically “celebrating women”, charity cake sales, or holding hands with Cherie Blair across London’s Millennium Bridge. International Women’s Day has had the class struggle sucked out and been depoliticised. It is like any other so-called “special day” — Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day.
Perhaps the need for militant working-class women’s struggles has passed? In fact women workers are in low-paid, undervalued and precarious work, while most still also do many hours of unpaid work in the home.
The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion absolute poor are women; so are three quarters of the world’s 960 million illiterate. Worldwide, women’s wages are 20 percent behind men’s — on an optimistic count. There is not a country in which women have full equality with men, and in many inequality is deep and horrific.
The economic crisis since 2008 has seen a new wave of attacks on women’s rights, from the cuts and the rise of bigoted moralism in Britain to the danger of Islamist counter-revolution following the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East.
But we’ve also seen, in response, a revival of feminist organising and activism. Millions of women have been mobilised by protests in the UK, in the strike waves across Europe and the US, and in the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions.
Working women’s struggle was the focus of the 8 March meeting AWL women and others organised through Women's Fightback, and held jointly with the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Fifty women and men came together to discuss women’s situations and struggles from the UK to the Middle East. Sami Zubaida, Houzan Mahmoud and Diba Ali Kani spoke about women’s struggles in Egypt, Kurdistan, Iran and across the Middle East.
Janine Booth, of the AWL, and RMT national executive, spoke about the roots of International Women’s Day and used the example of her union to highlight the importance of challenging sexism in our workplaces and the labour movement.
Next year we should make sure there are meetings like this on a bigger scale and across the country.
It’s time to get back to the real meaning and purpose of International Working Women’s Day — it’s time to reclaim it for the labour movement and for working-class women.