An International Women’s Day message

2014-03-09 14:00

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which was celebrated across the world, mostly in a manner that would have the founders of the day spinning in their graves.

The history of this day has its origins in the labour movement and this has largely been lost or distorted. What began as a struggle for human emancipation has today become yet another commercialised celebration of specific gender improvements within the status quo.

The major International Women’s Day website, sponsored by banks and energy companies BP and E.ON, maintains that “the tone and nature of International Women’s Day has, for the past few years, moved from being a reminder about the negatives to a celebration”.

This is because there are “female astronauts and prime ministers, schoolgirls are welcomed into university [and] women?...?have real choices”.

As such, many trade unions will join politicians and big business in hailing greater gender equality in parliaments, boardrooms and even the military as the aim and success of International Women’s Day.

But the fact that some women have broken through “glass ceilings” to claim equal status with men in no way reduces the wage and welfare gap, the horrendous conditions under which millions labour or the fact that most women don’t have real choices.

The international trade union movement acknowledges that conditions in many parts of the world, especially for women, are as bad, if not worse, than they were when International Women’s Day was first mooted.

That was back in 1910 at a conference of working women in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

The conference was inspired by a winter-long strike two years earlier that included a defiant march through New York’s garment district by 15?000 mostly immigrant women. They demanded better pay and conditions, childcare facilities and the right to vote.

The right to vote was also taken up, especially in Britain, by suffragettes. These were mostly women from upper and middle class backgrounds, frustrated by their social and economic situation.

The Copenhagen meeting distanced itself from them.

The difference, as the International Women’s Day campaigners saw it, was between supporting human liberation or pursuing the self-interest of an elite.

It was a difference starkly illustrated in South Africa in 1930 when local suffragettes won the vote for white women while supporting the removal of the qualified franchise that then still applied for black men in the Cape Province.

The International Women’s Day position was summed up in Copenhagen by the revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai as such: “It is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman.”

The aim had to be equal pay for equal work and the vote – but only as part of the struggle for a truly egalitarian society. This position was adopted by the labour movement as a whole. So in those days of much slower communication, the first International Women’s Day was staged in several countries in March 1911.

Within weeks of those first international demonstrations, news spread of a fire in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York. The doors of the factory had been locked “to stop pilfering and illegal breaks”, and 123 women and 23 men, all garment workers, perished.

The Triangle fire provided significant impetus to the spread of the International Women’s Day concept. And it was again garment workers, this time in Russia, who took the step that firmly entrenched March 8 as International Women’s Day.

On that day in 1917, female workers in a St Petersburg factory downed tools and marched into the street.

Thousands joined them – and what became the Russian Revolution had begun.

Since then, through a depression, recessions and war, the conditions faced by workers have ebbed and flowed, with women invariably worse off than their male counterparts.

More than a century after the first International Women’s Day, in a globalised economy with split-second communication, the female half of humanity remains the most exploited section in labour.

Today, the speed and reach of modern communications means that the message of International Women’s Day reaches far and wide. It is mainly a message that ignores the reality of all but a small minority of women who have become, in the words of Kollontai, “masters” in various fields.

At the same time, there have been many factory fires that have seen workers burnt alive. The most horrific of these was in Bangladesh last year, a month after International Women’s Day, when 1?134 of the mainly female workers are known to have died.

Perhaps this is what unions should focus on during International Women’s Day, just as the Triangle fire was for International Women’s Day campaigners in 1911.

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