New insight on International Women’s Day

Posted on March 11, 2018


Last Thursday the world celebrated the 108th International Women’s Day (IWD). And 2018 is also the centenary of the first time that Britain — then a declining but still dominant imperial power — granted men and some women the vote.

It was at the end of the First World War and all men over the age of 21 and some women over the age of 30 got the right to vote. This year, marking the centenary, more than 3 000 British police and Home Office records about official actions against “votes for women” suffragettes were made publicly available.

Together, these events provide a much greater insight into not only the fight for the franchise and the level of political opportunism behind granting it, but also into the all too often forgotten role played by women workers. As such they cast a more critical light on the way IWD is now celebrated.

The release of the records shows dramatically the nature of the oppressive state; of how women campaigners were spied on, harassed, jailed and tortured. In the process, a question that has dogged women’s rights campaigners for more than a century is again highlighted: fight for gender equality in an hierarchical society or for equality for all.

At an official level, IWD today fits firmly into the first category. It is very much a corporate sponsored entity, focussing on female achievements in breaking through the “glass ceiling” in a male dominated system of bosses and workers.

This is the antithesis of the intention of the women who started IWD. As was noted at the founding conference in Copenhagen in 1910: “It is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman.” The aim was equal pay for equal work, and the vote, but only as part of the struggle for a truly egalitarian society.

Backed by the labour movement, the idea of IWD spread, but it was only in 1917 that March 8 was established as the official day. This followed the actions by Russian women garment workers who downed tools and marched out of their factory on that day. They were joined by thousands of other workers — and what became the Russian revolution began.

Since then, through a second “Great Depression”, a second world war and into the ongoing global economic crisis, IWD has been celebrated as the conditions faced by workers have ebbed and flowed, with women invariably worse off than their male counterparts. Today with the speed and reach of modern communications, everyone should be aware that the female half of humanity remains the most exploited.

But the focus of the official IWD is on those women who have “broken through the glass ceiling” to take on roles such as chief executives and prime ministers, helping to maintain and manage a system based on inequality. This is why the 2018 centenaries and the release of British police and Home Office records are so important.

The records reveal the crucial role played by women workers in a struggle for the vote that is largely portrayed as the ultimately successful battle of upper and middle class suffragettes. Above all, it makes clear the brutal extent to which an oppressive state will go until being forced to compromise.

Awareness of these facts makes clearer the decision by the British government to extend the franchise in 1918. Because there were a series of mutinies in 1918 and into 1919 by disgruntled British soldiers conscripted into an army often led by incompetent and arrogant upper class officers.

Simply put: the government, especially in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, was probably terrified that, unless some compromise was offered, workers and the soldiers drawn from their ranks, might take over. So all men over the age of 21 were given the vote, along with all women over the age of 30, subject to property clauses or if they had a university degree.

Radical women campaigners saw this — probably correctly — as an attempt to divide the ranks of those fighting for equal rights. For, as the now released records reveal, many of the women who played leading parts in the fight for votes for women were workers who sought real equality for all. Their role in the struggle faded in later years since they had neither the material resources, contacts nor literary ability to write and publish their own stories.

Much the same, although with a great deal more official pressure and censorship, applied to the mutinies of a century ago that were, to a large degree, obliterated from public discourse. But such histories are starting to emerge more publicly in this world of near instant communication.

It is something we should all welcome. It should also encourage us to question the ritualistic celebration that IWD has largely become. After all, many of the advances that have allowed some women to make a few breakthroughs into male dominated hierarchies were made possible by women workers whose goal was to abolish those very hierarchies.

Something to think about and time perhaps for the dominant male establishment to stop patting a few women, often all too paternalistically, on the back for joining them at the top of a pyramid peopled at the lowest level by most of the female half of humanity.