2017 – a new movement for women’s liberation
International Women’s Day is returning to the radical social roots that inspired its foundation in the early twentieth century, and its rebirth in the 1960s and 1970s. Issues like poverty wages, abortion and contraception, attacks on social service provision, violence and femicide (murder of women both in the family home and the public space) are being challenged by mass actions. The placards and slogans of this movement identify patriarchy, capitalism, wars and racism as the enemy.
This new militant spirit is expressed in the mobilisations for an international women’s strike on March 8. The idea is that by “taking the day off” from women's paid labour in the workplace and unpaid labour in the home, the action will highlight the extent to which society relies upon women's labour whilst it disempowers and oppresses us.
This is the latest stage in a radicalisation of the women's movement that has been growing in recent years, often in the form of spontaneous mass actions involving working class women.
On April 18, 2016, the Indian city of Bangalore ground to a halt as thousands of women working in the city’s garment industry blocked the arterial roads in a largely spontaneous protest, not organised by unions or NGOs. Over 12,000 factories with 50,000 workers, 90 per cent of them women, exist on the outskirts of a city famed as the high-tech industrial capital of India.
These women earn a minimum monthly wage as low as 4,000 rupees, about £40. They often suffer from respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, ergonomic issues like back pain, mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and reproductive health problems triggered by poor diet and unhealthy working conditions.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all witnessed militant protests and strikes, not only over criminally low wages but also over factory fires and collapses. More than 1,000 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza building in Daka, Bangladesh, collapsed in 2013.
Women of the subcontinent suffer horrific levels of violence, rapes and beatings and so-called honour killings. During a BBC documentary about the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus, one of the rapists blamed Jyoti for “fighting back”. He said, “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
Autumn 2016 saw an escalation of women’s mobilisations. On September 24, thousands marched in Dublin, joined by Irish expatriates in demonstrations around the world, to put pressure on the Irish government to hold a referendum to repeal restrictive abortion laws. Abortions are prohibited under the Irish Constitution which grants a foetus the same citizenship and rights as a woman. Women face up to 14 years in prison for any abortion, even where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where the foetus cannot survive outside the womb due to a fatal abnormality.
On what they called “Black Monday”, October 3, Polish women took to the streets in a pro-choice demonstration during a day-long strike to protest against a proposed law criminalising abortion. The right wing government immediately withdrew the planned legislation. Afterwards, participants said they felt empowered as never before in a country where the all-male Catholic hierarchy exercises suffocating power and influence over social questions.
Then, on October 19, Argentine women reacted with one-hour strikes and rallies in response to the brutal rape and murder of sixteen year old Lucía Perez in Mar del Plata and police repression at the end of the National Women’s Meeting in Rosario on October 10. The women’s organisation Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses), linked to the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS) and the Left and Workers’ Front, has played an important role in the movement against violence against women, #NiUnaMenos.
The movement demands that governments, parliaments and judges take action against gender violence that takes one woman’s life every 30 hours. Pan y Rosas has supported the call for an international strike, urging the participation of the trade unions. They have spread the actions to Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Spain and France. Their slogan is for an international feminism rooted in the working class.
Argentina has its own Donald Trump in the person of President Mauricio Macri. He has defended piropos, suggestive sexual remarks to women, wolf-whistles etc. When Mayor of Buenos Aires he said, “women who say they don’t like it, and are offended by it, I don’t believe it. There is nothing nicer than a piropo, even if it’s accompanied by something offensive, if someone says ‘nice culo (arse) it’s all good.”
President Macri is presiding over severe cuts in state spending on social provisions that will leave women with the responsibility for the unpaid domestic labour of caring for the young, the sick and the elderly. The poverty which imprisons women in abusive relationships is magnified by the indifference shown by courts and police when called to investigate rape, domestic violence and sexual assault, in the home or on the street.
In Spain, feminists have researched and campaigned on the precarious character of women's work, looking at jobs ranging from domestic 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.
The election of a United States President who brazenly objectifies women, and has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, prompted an unprecedented worldwide demonstration of over six million women on January 21. This success led on to the plans for an international mobilisation on March 8.
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, has outlined the spirit she hopes will animate the 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 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 US government's endless promulgation of war and occupation, is not really addressing the actual issues that impact working-class women and their families.”
This indicates a welcome return to the original spirit of the revolutionary women who launched International Women's Day. They argued that it was the common exploitation and oppression experienced by the working class under capitalism which provided the universal character that could unite people of different nationalities, skin colour and religion in the struggle for equal rights and liberation.
The new movement explicitly rejects what it calls the “one per cent feminism” exemplified by the Sheryl Sandberg book Lean In, which essentially means middle class women pushing themselves forward for promotion 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.
Whilst 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 individual escape through the glass ceiling.
That is why Marxists have fought for over a century not just for equal pay and equal rights, but for the abolition of the unpaid labour in the home, where the slaveowner is the capitalist but the slavedriver is all too often the husband, brother, father or son.
The replacement of isolated unwaged labour within the family with collective provision of high quality childcare, education and health and social care is the only way that working class women can free themselves from the burden of domestic slavery and the sexist violence and oppression that protects this institution.
Capitalist society in every country rests upon the the exploitation of wage labour in the workplace and the unpaid labour of women in the home. In some countries, important victories have been won, but are now under attack. In most of the world, however, basic rights hardly exist and are at the forefront of revolutionary demands that working class men as well as women have to fight for.
The struggle against oppression always starts with the struggle to win limited reforms and to raise the consciousness of men and women within the working class to support them. But the nexus of economic, social and political repression, violence and exploitation that subjugates women, and makes working class men the beneficiaries of that subjugation, cannot be ended except by ripping up its roots deep within capitalism, class society and patriarchy.
For this reason, Marxists prefer the term “women's liberation” to “feminism” because women of the exploiting and privileged classes, who unload their childcare and housework onto proletarian women, so they can be CEOs or politicians, will not be part of the struggle for liberation, they will be in the camp of its enemy.
To build an effective new wave women’s liberation movement will require the mobilisation of working class women worldwide; as those with the greatest power as well as the greatest burden. It must mobilise alongside all the other oppressed and marginalised; 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 movement will be a movement of people of colour, especially in the west, where 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.
But to win, it will also be vital to mobilise male workers. Many already support women’s rights, but more can be won when women give the lead. Together, as part of a common revolutionary struggle, we will end domestic slavery and wage slavery.
Finally, the struggle against the social evils inflicted on women must be taken up within our own movement. From birth, men and women are conditioned to accept and reproduce sexist behaviour. Labour movement parties and trade unions, dominated by men, with notorious cases of sexual abuse and discrimination, are a reflection of the enduring power of sexist and patriarchal relations.
Sexism, and its cousin, homophobia, are the most deeply rooted and widespread prejudices. Overcoming them requires a consistent and conscious effort. Within all labour movement organisations, women, and BAME and LGBT people, need their own sections, or caucuses, in which they can mobilise to fight sexism, and organise to ensure that women play a full role in all areas of the organisation's work. They can also make sure that men are not exempt 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 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, “no socialism without women’s liberation, no women’s liberation without socialism” is as vital today as ever. Today's movement is one in which working class women will play their greatest role yet; for the first time in history they comprise a majority of industrial wage-labourers, and a majority in the semi-colonial world. This will give the movement the strength and dynamism to take the struggle for women's liberation and socialism to new frontiers in the years to come.