Missing the point on Women’s Day

Posted on March 9, 2014


Saturday, March 8, was International Womens’ Day (IWD). And it was celebrated around 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 IWD website, sponsored by banks and energy companies BP and E-On maintains that “the tone and nature of IWD 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, school girls are welcomed into university, women… have real choices”.

As such, many trade unions joined with politicians and big business in hailing greater gender equality in parliaments, boardrooms, even the military, as the aim and success of IWD. 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 do not have real choices.

As the international trade union movement acknowledges, conditions in many parts of the world, especially for women, are as bad of not worse, than they were when IWD 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 IWD 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 IWD position was summed up in Copenhagen by the revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai: “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 IWD 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, garment workers all, perished.

The Triangle fire provided significant impetus to the spread of the IWD concept. And it was again garment workers, this time in Russia, who took the step that firmly entrenched March 8 as IWD. On that day in 1917 women 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 IWD, in a globalised economy with split second communication, the female half of humanity remains the most exploited section of those who sell their labour to survive.

Today the speed and reach of modern communications means that the message of IWD 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 — and worse — factory fires that have seen workers burned alive. The most horrific of these was in Bangladesh last year, a month after IWD: 1,134 of the mainly women workers are known to have died in the Rana Plaza blaze.

Perhaps it is this that should have been a focus for unions this IWD, just as the Triangle fire was for IWD campaigners in 1911.