Britain: Socialist feminism, an idea for the 2020s
Yaara Cliff, North London Socialist Alternative
Women and men around the world will mark 8 March 2020 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 8 March 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’. 8 March 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. In the UK, the pay gap stands at 9% - which would mean an average woman would take home an additional £6,300 if wages were equalised.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 tended to increase the burden placed on women. In Britain, the devastating crisis in social care all too often leaves women forced to step into the gap, for example.
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 £18,000 over a lifetime.
Women are also three times more likely to experience common mental health problems. 52% of women have been victims of sexual harassment at work - the statistic for young women (aged 16-24) is 63%, with almost 20% of the perpetrators being managers or in a position of authority.
20% of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, with 85,000 women aged 16-59 who experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales alone every year. 90% of rape victims know their rapist before the assault.
Despite this data, most women in the UK don’t have access to a Rape Crisis Centre. Conviction rates for rape are amongst the lowest, with only 5.7% of reported cases ending in a conviction. Between 2010-2018, almost £7 million were cut from women’s refuges, and over 21,000 referrals to refuges in England in 2017-18 were refused due to insufficient funding.
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. Johnson and his entourage are happy to sell the already-crumbling NHS to the likes of “pussy-grabbing” Trump, meanwhile cutting funding to women’s refuges, welfare and the public sector as a whole with criminal austerity.
Women are hit the hardest by cuts of that sort, as there are more women employed in the public sector and also more women reliant on its services. So it’s of little wonder that women have been at the forefront of almost every struggle in the last twelve years since the onset of the economic crisis.
Under capitalism, we may win some victories - like free period products for school students, thanks to many demonstrations around the country - but we’ll never be able to win women’s liberation fully as long as the system is based around profit for the 1%.
What’s more, despite the overwhelming support that exists in Britain for, for example, women’s reproductive rights, it should not be ruled out that - especially if faced with a crisis on the economic front - a reactionary like Johnson could turn towards attacks on women’s rights as a way of attempting to shore up a social base for himself by stirring up bigotry.
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, such as in the form of Thatcher or May, did nothing for the fight to win women’s liberation. In fact, both these prime ministers 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 rich, 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 LGBT+ 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 austerity - which hits women hardest as both workers and service users. In Britain, Socialist Alternative is calling for and helping to organise the convening of conferences of resistance, to bring together trade unionists, community campaigners, climate strikers and other activists to discuss the next steps in the struggle against Johnson’s government. We say the trade union leaderships must take up this fight, organising mass demonstrations and protests and building towards generalised strike action, fighting to bring down this Tory government.
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.
This International Women’s Day, Socialist Alternative will be hosting a series of discussions, open to the public, with speakers who participated and led the struggle for women’s liberation around the world.
Come and discuss with us this International Women’s Day:
London - Bread and Roses a Socialist Feminist Convention
Sunday, 8 March, 10am-5pm Indian YMCA, Fitzroy Square
Featuring author and activist: Meena Kandasamy