Tuesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD). It comes at a time of ongoing global economic crisis and when we, in South Africa, face further massive job losses, turmoil on the university campuses and in the labour movement.
Perhaps, as never before, has the real message of the founders of IWD been more pertinent — and more likely, at an official level, to be ignored. It is also a message that the labour movement and the protestors of today ignore at their peril.
However on March 8, when the day is celebrated around the world, it will be in a manner that would certainly have appalled the founders of IWD. Because the focus of this day has long been wrested from the labour movement that founded it and it now provides a distorted image of the original IWD intent.
On social media and in official circles, IWD is the province of affluent middle class women who tend to enjoy the patronage of the still male-dominated corporate world. Their aspirations are not liberty and equality for all, but free competition against men; they want only to remove the “glass ceiling” that prevents many of them from becoming corporate tycoons.
As a result, IWD is sponsored internationally by the corporate world exercising “social responsibility”. However, this is seen by critics as just another example of tax deductible public relations, this year under the IWD slogan: Pledge for Parity.
As the late guru of the free market, Milton Friedman, once made plain: doing good and the feel-good factor should never interfere with profits. He noted that any company director who prioritised social responsibility should be sacked on the spot.
He was right. In the context of our competitive, profit driven system, the maintenance and maximisation of profit has to be the priority. Which is why job losses are again mounting in the face of the ongoing global economic crisis and the collapse in commodity prices.
Corporate concessions to social responsibility have to be made, but only in order to ensure the degree of support and stability necessary to maintain, if not improve, profitability. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one in which profit remains king.
This is the antithesis of the intention of the 100 women delegates from 17 countries who, 106 years ago, laid the foundations of what they hoped would be a day that would highlight not just the cause of “women as housewives and mothers”, but support the abolition of “all privileges deriving from birth or wealth”. And, as a Russian delegate to that 1910 conference noted: “It is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman”.
The conference was held in the wake of the 1907 economic upheaval in the United States and when memories were still quite fresh following the 20-year stagnation that followed the 1873 crisis. Women were then — as they remain as a group today — on the bottom rungs of a ladder of exploitation.
But what the delegates of 1910 realised was that common cause had to be made between working women and men of whatever ethnic, religious or linguistic background if progress was to be made. Only with clear goals coupled with principled unity could liberty and truly equal opportunity ever be achieved.
It is a lesson that appears to have been lost, especially among most of the youthful university protestors and also within large sections of the trade union movement that for years have ignored the plight of many low paid workers. Significantly, among the university “outsourcing” protests, the majority of the low paid workers are, once again, women, many taking home less than R2 500 a month.
But then the minimum wage for domestic workers, almost exclusively women, is now set at a top rate of R11.44 an hour or R2 230.80 a month. And that is the minimum rate until the end of this year, with food price inflation rising steadily.
It is at this level that the issue of gender equality should be tackled. But, at the same time, deep-seated prejudices must be confronted wherever and whenever they emerge. That, in essence, is the real message of IWD.