Which women best epitomise IWD?

Posted on March 11, 2018


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. And it was celebrated mainly in a manner that would have caused apoplexy among the founders of IWD.

For the focus of what has now become a corporate-sponsored event is on those women who have reached higher rungs of the male dominated political, social and economic ladder. What the founders of IWD stood for was the very opposite: that it would be essential to remove the ladder to liberate all humanity.

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.”

To be true to IWD, it is women such as these who should be celebrated and their ideas debated. But, in many cases, we have little or no knowledge of them, or what they did and often suffered.

As Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill quite accurately noted: “History is written by the victors”. But it is also still heavily biased along gender, class and colour lines. Only in recent years has something of this begun to change.

Take nursing, for example, where Florence Nightingale is rightly feted for her founding of modern nursing during the Crimean War. However, Mary Seacole, a Jamaican “doctoress” who was hailed by soldiers and generals of the time, had to pay her own way to Crimea after being rejected by the British government, did sterling work — and was largely forgotten.

Within labour history too, women played often remarkable and now largely forgotten roles. None more so than Lucy Parsons of the United States.

Born as a slave in the state of Virginia and taken to Texas as a child at the time slavery was abolished in 1865, she became a radical writer, printer, publisher and orator. With the racist Ku Klux Klan rampant in Texas, she and her recently wed husband, Albert Parson fled north to Chicago in 1873.

He was a former soldier in the slave-owning Confederacy turned republican and socialist and one of the four “Haymarket martyrs” whose legal murder in 1887 provided the impetus for May Day. The couple arrived in Chicago as the first so-called Great Depression began, with mass unemployment and employers cutting wages.

She and Albert were active in the nationwide railway strike of 1877 that, in a series of conflicts, saw police and hired guns kill an estimated 100 strikers. It was in this environment that Lucy Parsons became known as an orator and pamphleteer, resulting in her being labelled by the Chicago police “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”.

When, in 1886 a general strike for an eight-hour day was called and met with violence, at least two strikers were shot dead. As a result, thousands turned up at a protest rally in the Haymarket Square. The police charged, a bomb was thrown at them and gunfire erupted. Four of the crowd and seven police were killed, some apparently by police bullets.

Under a “conspiracy” law Albert Parsons and three of his comrades who were sentenced to death were hanged. In a twist of patriachal irony, Lucy Parsons escaped arrest and a similar fate, apparently because she was a woman.

She continued to battle for the rights of all workers, including sex workers, courting harrassment and arrest and going on to help found of the International Workers of the World the the “one big union” known as the Wobblies” in 1905. She gave her last public speech at the age of 87 in 1941. Am I alone in thinking that she and others like her epitomise the true spirit of IWD?

Posted in: Commentary