SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 136 - March 2010

Still fighting for equality

100 years of International Women’s Day

The 21st century, we were told, belongs to women. Although, that was before the global financial system all but collapsed and we entered the deepest recession since the second world war. As we approach the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (8 March), ELEANOR DONNE assesses the progress women have made in society, and what the consequences of the current economic crisis will be.

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY began 100 years ago in times of economic crisis and workers’ struggles. Women had entered the workforce in ever greater numbers, driven by poverty and serving the demands of capitalism for low-paid casual workers. In Britain, the US, parts of Europe and Russia they were growing in confidence, demanding changes to their appalling living and working conditions, and calling for the right to vote as a means to achieve this. They often faced indifference or even hostility from the existing, craft-based trade unions. There were genuine fears at the way the bosses used women as cheap labour to undercut skilled male workers’ wages. Many of the union leaders were socially conservative and had adopted the ideology of the ruling class that women’s main role was as wife and mother, and that to pay them a proper wage would undermine the family.

Women, however, were a vital force in the more militant new unions organising unskilled workers. They added their voices to the growing demand for an independent political voice for the working class – a party of labour – and tied this in with the call for the right to vote. In the US, the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organised women and migrant workers.

In the advanced capitalist countries there have been significant improvements in women’s lives in the last 100 years: the right to vote and stand for office, legal rights, access to contraception and abortion and the right to divorce in most (but not all) of them. Women have entered the workforce, public life and the professions in a way which would have seemed unthinkable a century ago. In Britain, 70% of women now work outside the home, including mothers of young children. This has been significant in raising their confidence and expectations. This is especially true of middle-class girls, but many working-class girls also have expectations outside marriage and motherhood, of a good job and financial independence. The relative status of boys and girls has changed since the 1970s when grammar schools ‘fixed’ the eleven-plus exam to ensure that a higher proportion of boys were admitted. Girls are choosing in ever greater numbers to stay on at school and go to university. (In the 1970s, a quarter of graduates were women, now they make up half.)

The genderquake myth

THESE CHANGES LED to the idea towards the end of the 20th century that there has been a fundamental shift in society in favour of women – a ‘genderquake’. Taking stock as the millennium approached, many social commentators, even some veterans of the women’s movement of the 1970s in Britain and the US, concluded that feminism had achieved its aims, in the west at least. They were confident that a new generation of young women, inheritors of the gains won by past struggles for women’s rights, would grasp the opportunities open to them.

This ‘post feminist’ ideology, however, glosses over the glaring evidence that women, including young women, still face oppression. Women under 25 are most at risk of violence from a partner. Women and girls are bombarded daily with images from advertisements, magazines and MTV, showing them how they need to look to be successful in love and life generally. The message that women are judged more by appearance than what they do or think is still loud and clear, constantly played on by a multi-million pound ‘beauty industry’, undermining their confidence. Although opinion polls show that men increasingly accept that they should do their share of housework and childcare, they also show that this does not happen! Because of these unequal gender roles, in spite of the fact that British men work the longest hours in Europe, they still have more leisure time than women.

Liberal feminists were always prepared to limit their demands to those that could be accommodated within capitalism. They looked to Sweden and Denmark as the model of women’s equality. It is true that in these countries state-sponsored childcare, rights at work, maternity and paternity leave and pay have been far superior to provision here and in the US, and that these material benefits allowed women to participate in society and have a higher status, through school and beyond. The strength of the labour movement in Sweden and Denmark allowed them to win a bigger share of the social wage as their governments opted for ‘social partnership’ rather than outright class conflict. These countries were routinely referred to as ‘socialist countries’ in the labour movement here in the post-war boom years. This was not true. They still had market economies, albeit with a lot of state regulation. They had structural inequality and poverty and, like all reforms won under capitalism, these were not permanent, and were rolled back to some extent during the economic stagnation of the 1990s.

Socialists fight for every concession from governments and the ruling class, every legal right and concrete demand, however small, to improve the lives of women and the working class generally. But we have long recognised, as did the socialist pioneers of International Women’s Day, including Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg and the inspirational women in the Russian revolution, that the oppression of women is deep rooted and an essential part of a class society. It is clearer than ever as the global economic crisis bites that the struggle for equality and even more so for the true liberation of women and men also means a struggle to overthrow the current economic and social system.

Where the gender landscape has changed over the last 25 years this has been to a large extent determined by the needs of the capitalist economy. The ‘feminisation’ of the workforce came about not at a result of a conscious political movement or collective struggle – important in getting the Equal Pay Act implemented in 1975, for example – but because of the restructuring of British capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, manufacturing industry was cut to the bone. At least three million full-time jobs have been lost permanently since the 1970s as the decline continued under New Labour.

Whereas, in the 1950s and 1960s, married women tended to work once their children were older, and saw this as a way of affording ‘luxuries’ like a holiday, in the 1980s it was economic necessity that drove the change. In Britain in 1989, a family with one sole breadwinner was nine times more likely to live in poverty than in 1979. In 1988, two salaries brought in only 6% more than one salary in 1973, when adjusted for inflation. (Suzanne Franks, Having None of It) In two-parent families, women’s income now makes up a significant proportion of the household income, over half in 21% of families. The ‘family wage’ is a thing of the past.

Juggling work and family

BUT AS PART of the same neo-liberal agenda, public services, such as nurseries, care homes and social care, were cut and working-class and many middle-class women have been expected to take up the slack in the home at the same time as holding down a job. The Tory governments in the 1980s justified this cost cutting with ideology about the importance of the family and hypocritical attacks on working mothers even while their economic policies were driving the changes.

The ‘breakdown of the family’ is something which all politicians pontificate about. Tory leader, David Cameron, got into difficulties recently when he announced possible changes in tax allowances to promote marriage, then seemed to change his mind. As a former Tory chancellor, Ken Clarke, pointed out, it was the Tory government which scrapped these allowances back in the 1980s. Cameron might be interested to follow events in Japan, where the recently elected Democratic Party of Japan intends to scrap tax breaks for men with ‘stay-at-home wives’ in a piece of social engineering designed to ‘encourage’ women into the workforce. With their already fairly stagnant economy now back in recession, Japanese capital sees this as a way to increase productivity and profit.

This seems to be a departure from its previous approach advocated by political economist, Francis Fukuyama, of economic development with ‘Asian values’. Fukuyama maintains that the relative social stability of Japan and other East Asian countries is because they have "more strongly resisted female equality". Women in Japan, even highly educated ones, tend to leave work on marriage or certainly if they have children. Men work extremely long hours and are largely absent from the family home, so gender roles are currently more strictly defined than in the west. Of course, the new government has promoted the change as one which is to empower women, alongside a change in the law to allow women to keep their own name on marriage.

New Labour has been more careful in its use of ideology on the family than John ‘back-to-basics’ Major in the early 1990s, and has introduced laws to allow civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. Its main concern is the cost to the state of relationship breakdown. Divorce rates have increased significantly since 1967, when the no-fault divorce became possible after a two-year separation. In part, this is due to increasing pressures of life under capitalism, but it is also a positive development as women feel more able to end violent or simply loveless relationships. Although recent statistics show that divorce has fallen, this is misleading because it merely reflects the drop in the numbers of people marrying in the first place. Around one quarter of families are now headed by a lone parent, 90% of whom are women. Sex before marriage and divorce, which still carried some stigma right into the 1980s, are now widely accepted and practised.

Social attitudes to ‘non-traditional’ families, gay relationships and lone parents have become progressively less conservative, especially among women and young people. The ideological attacks are now concentrated on lone parents claiming benefit, who are now forced to sign on when their youngest child is twelve, and this will soon be seven. This policy, put forward at a time of near full employment, now looks not just unfair but utterly ridiculous when unemployment is nearly three million.

The importance of the public sector

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, SOMETIMES called intimate partner violence, is much more widely recognised as a social, not just a personal problem. However, because of a shortage of refuge spaces and especially the chronic shortage of council housing, women still find it very difficult to escape. Refuges already are forced to compete with other essential services for funding via local authority ‘supporting people’ budgets. If public-sector cuts go through at the level proposed by all three main parties they are at risk of closure. Socialist Party members and the Campaign Against Domestic Violence would resist any such cuts and mount a campaign to keep all services open.

The Economist, in December 2009, announced triumphantly that in the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and make up the majority of the US workforce, calling this "the rich world’s quiet revolution". But, in the richest country in the world, mothers still do not get paid maternity leave! Even the Economist’s upbeat appraisal had to acknowledge that the US and Britain have combined "high levels of female participation in the labour force with a reluctance to spend public money on childcare".

The idea that the private sector is better than public provision and that market forces will ensure that a need is met has been proven to be wrong from the National Health Service to the railways and the energy industries. The same is true of childcare, where in areas of high demand, such as central London, private nurseries have been able to charge much higher rates, pricing out lower-paid families. Tax credits only cover 80% of the cost and this is limited to a maximum figure. The number of places available is nowhere near what parents need and they end up with a patchwork of arrangements involving relatives and friends.

As wages have been driven down, more than a million people in Britain are working two or more jobs, two thirds of these women. These attacks and the driving down of wages and conditions at work were only possible after the defeat of the trade union struggles in the 1980s, with the labour and trade union leaders abandoning any idea of defending the interests of the working class. During the so-called boom, up to 2007 these ‘leaders’ sat back while the proportion of the GDP going to wages decreased and shareholders’ profits rose to unprecedented levels.

Trade union leaders have been in the pockets of the New Labour government for years and have acted as apologists for its attacks on pensions and wage restraint. In effect, they have allowed the government to kick workers, especially low-paid women, in the teeth while giving it a big fat cheque made up of our union dues. The civil service union, PCS, with a fighting left leadership, has been one of the few to mount a serious defence of members’ pay and pensions. The cuts so far will be as nothing compared to what is planned this year, whichever of the main parties wins the election. All have rushed to let the bankers off the hook, and transfer blame onto the public sector. Seventy percent of public-sector workers are women, and they are concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs. At least 10,000 jobs have been cut from local authorities, and 70% of authorities say they are cutting their budgets next year. Women will be affected by these as workers and service users. There is a mood of insecurity and anger, and workers are already taking action over the cuts from the single status deals.

The fight for real equality

IN THE EUROPEAN Union, women have filled six out of eight million new jobs created since 2000. Will a shrinking jobs market lead to tension as women and men compete for similar jobs? More men than ever are working part time and for agencies, especially young men. Now that their wages and expectations have been driven down in the absence of any fight by the trade unions, it is possible that some employers will see men as the cheaper option. And they get to avoid the expense and inconvenience of maternity leave and pay. There is evidence that women on maternity leave are being disproportionately selected for redundancy. An estimated 30,000 women per year are sacked for being pregnant, even though this it illegal. Trade unions must fight to defend women workers and not allow employers to undermine solidarity in the workforce.

Until recently, Iceland was fourth in the world in the numbers of women to men working, with 80% of its women in work. It also had one of the highest birth rates, at 2.1 children per family. Now, after the dramatic collapse of its banks and economy, and the knock-on effects of unemployment as more men than women are affected, it has shot to the top of the league. As a report says, this is "not because women have won but men have lost". We do not want equality by sharing out the misery. We have to send a message to the government, to the G20, and to our own trade union leaders that we will not pay for the bosses’ crisis.

In the traditions of the earlier socialist internationals, the Committee for a Workers’ International supports workers struggling against oppression in all parts of the world. We recognise that globalisation under capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of workers and the poor in the ex-colonial countries. Women make up six in ten of the world’s working poor, according to the TUC Women’s website. We salute the work of the members in our sister parties in Pakistan and India in their campaigns against the horrific levels of domestic violence in those countries, and other forms of women’s oppression. Any economic crisis will have a disproportionate effect on the poorest sections of society. The effect on women worldwide therefore will be devastating. For women in the ‘third world’, the capitalist system has proved incapable of providing even the basics, such as clean water, shelter and food to millions even during the ‘good’ years.

As the global economic crisis bites, it is now clearer than ever that the struggle for equality and, even more so, for the true liberation of women and men also means a struggle to overthrow the current economic and social system. In the process, many of the existing prejudices and assumptions, the ideology that plays a crucial role in reinforcing and legitimising women’s material inequality, will be undermined. A socialist society, where the economic resources would be owned and controlled collectively through a planned economy, could use these resources to provide services, such as decent childcare for parents who want it, socialised laundry services, cheap, good-quality restaurants, etc. Hours at work could be reduced with no loss of pay so that men and women could spend time with each other, their children and friends. Access to affordable housing and a decent income either through benefits or work would allow women economic independence and mean that ending a relationship would not lead to poverty and social exclusion as is often the case now. Ultimately, such a society would provide the opportunity to develop personal relationships free from the pressures, not just of poverty and overwork, but also from structural gender inequality.

The history of International Women’s Day


15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.


In the US, women garment workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day was observed across the US on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate on the last Sunday of February until 1913.


Inspired by the militancy of women in US textile mills, and recognising the need for the Socialist International to reach out to the most oppressed sections of society, Clara Zetkin (a Marxist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany – SPD), proposed that the second Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen organise an International Working Women’s Day. This was to highlight the particular oppression of women and honour their struggle for equal rights. Over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed the proposal, under the call: "The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism". (Alexandra Kollontai, A Militant Celebration, 1920)


International Women’s Day (IWD) was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination. Kollontai captured the militant mood: "Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women. This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament".

On 25 March, the tragic ‘triangle fire’ in New York took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disaster drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the US which became a focus of subsequent IWD events.


Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February with illegal meetings. They expanded their campaign in 1914, many facing imprisonment and exile as the demand for the vote in Russia was seen as an open call for the overthrow of the tsar and his regime.


The Socialist International disintegrated as most parties lined up behind their own countries’ ruling class on the outbreak of the first world war. Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg used IWD as a focus for anti-war rallies in 1914 and 1915, in spite of efforts at sabotage by their former ‘comrades’ in the SPD.


On International Women’s Day 1917, Russian women began a strike ‘for bread and peace’ in response to the death of over two million Russian soldiers in the first world war, and to demand an end to food shortages. They faced armed troops but persuaded them not to fire on the demonstrations and to join their struggle. The tsar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government was formed. The women’s strike started on 23 February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, 8 March on the Gregorian calendar. (After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar): "The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day, the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February revolution marks its beginning from this day". (Kollontai)


International Women’s Day and the Third International

By Alexandra Kollontai

The article below, written by the world’s first woman ambassador – for the new workers’ state, the Soviet Union – first appeared in Pravda on 7 March 1919.

IN THE 1860s when the first workers’ International began its great work of fighting for the emancipation of labour, women’s labour played only a secondary role in the economy. There was still no talk of a socialist movement of women workers. Even in the trade unions, women were an insignificant minority.

Therefore the First International’s [1] statements for recognition of equal rights for women were abstract in character. The struggle for women’s emancipation was not yet seen as an urgent necessity for the working class.

The Second International took a more defined position on the question of women’s rights. However, the policy of peaceful parliamentary action that tainted the Second International throughout its whole existence led the social democratic and labour parties to regard the working women’s movement chiefly as a struggle for political rights. The greater the role that women began to play in the national economy and the faster the growth of the number of women working independently, the more acutely did the social democrats face the question of how to mobilise this fresh, untouched layer of the population as voters. As early as the 1890s, the question of extending voting rights to women workers was incorporated into the programmes of many social democratic parties. And at the 1907 Stuttgart congress [2] of the Second International a resolution was adopted on the need to fight for voting rights for women. Working Women’s Day was established at the Second International’s Women’s conference at Copenhagen as a day of agitation for women’s suffrage.

The Second International went no further than this demand for the formal equalisation of women’s rights with those of men. It set aside women’s social liberation and liberation from domestic life until after the complete achievement of the socialist order.

The great Russian workers’ revolution solved the problem of political rights for women with one stroke. Working women and peasant women have now become full-fledged citizens of soviet Russia. The goal of International Women’s Day has been fulfilled.

Yet it is now, in the heat of sharp battle with the old, obsolete bourgeois world, that life presents the international workers’ movement with many new and urgent challenges in the fight for women’s emancipation. Women workers and peasant women enjoy the right to vote on a par with men. Nevertheless, despite this formal recognition, this right is nothing more than a means, a weapon for the fight against the conditions of life, the relics of capitalism, that oppress women. Women workers and peasant women are still very much domestic slaves, still chained to the bourgeois family, still objects of shameful commerce as unwilling prostitutes.

Among the large number of extremely important tasks facing the Third International is the task of women’s thoroughgoing emancipation. Today this question is no longer merely abstract and theoretical. Real life calls for action. Over the last half century women’s labour acquired enormous weight in production. The further planned development of the national economy and its productive capacity has become inconceivable without the assistance of women’s labour power. To use this power expediently in the communist economy, women must be relieved of their burdens and spared unnecessary, unproductive, and wasteful labour in housework and child-rearing. Building the new society demands that the living, fresh energy of women must be directed toward constructing life on new principles.

Instead of doing unproductive housework, women can play an enormous role in organising the new economic order; instead of educating the individual family, women can contribute greatly to strengthening and developing the beginnings of socialist public education. The new, Third, Communist International needs only to set itself the task of developing the entire breadth of women workers’ initiative in order to draw them into the cause of struggling for and building a new way of life and developing a new ethic, a new relationship between the sexes.

Therefore, ‘Working Women’s Day’ this year is not only a celebration of the outstanding achievement by working-class women – their acquisition of full equality in civil rights – but a day to project new tasks for the cause of the social and economic emancipation of women through the efforts of the Third, Communist International.

Comrades from the Third International must not forget that without the active participation of working women the rule of the working class cannot be stable and complete.

[1] The Internationals were organisations of socialists, Marxists, trade unionists, anarchists and other activists. The First International (1864-76) included Marx and Engels. The Second International (1889-1916) split apart over the first world war. The Third, Communist International (1919-43), set up in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, later became under Stalin a cynical tool of the Stalinist bureaucracy before being wound up in a deal with Britain and the US.

[2] Clara Zetkin moved this resolution which raised the importance of fighting for universal suffrage for women as well as men, including in countries where men had not yet won the vote.


The struggle for women’s equality and socialism

A selection of Socialism Today’s coverage over the years

The Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg

Socialism Today No.125, February 2009

On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the finest brains of the German working class and its most heroic figures, were brutally murdered by the bloodthirsty, defeated German military, backed to the hilt by the cowardly social-democratic leaders. A look back at Luxemburg’s inspirational, revolutionary legacy.

The Fight for Universal Suffrage

Socialism Today No.120, July-August 2008

As with all democratic ‘rights’, it took years of struggle before working-class people won the right to vote. And it required one of the largest mass mobilisations of women in Britain’s history to make that universal, in 1928. An article on the scale and nature of the struggle.

International Women’s Day

Socialism Today No.116, March 2008

Over the years, IWD has become commercialised, stripped of its radical message on women’s key part in the socialist movement. As a contribution towards reclaiming the day and its real significance, an outline of its origins and relevance today, alongside reports on the struggle for abortion rights worldwide.

A Woman’s Right to Choose: 40 Years since the Abortion Act

Socialism Today No.113, November 2007

The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion on social grounds as well as purely health grounds – a big step forward in women’s struggle for reproductive rights. Its introduction was a testament to the determined struggle by women in the labour movement and other campaigners. An assessment of its impact, 40 years later.

Violence against Women

Socialism Today No.99, March 2006

Significant changes have taken place over the past couple of decades, impacting positively on the position of women in society. Nonetheless, domestic violence, which is usually targeted against women, remains prevalent, and is linked to the roles that women play in capitalist society.

How Far Can the Moral Backlash Go?

Socialism Today No.89, February 2005

In exit polls during the 2004 US presidential election, the biggest group said that they were influenced by ‘moral’ issues (80% of Bush voters). And voters in eleven states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. What role have ‘moral’ issues played, and how far could right-wing politicians go in implementing the reactionary social agenda of the Christian right?

The New Sexism

Socialism Today No.77, September 2003

A recent ad for easyJet featured a pair of disembodied women’s breasts below the slogan ‘Discover weapons of mass distraction’. Is this a clever, humorous take on British and US imperialism’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – or a blatant sexist use of a woman’s body to sell air flights? Should we be amused or outraged?

Alexandra Kollontai: For Socialism and Women’s Liberation

Socialism Today No.73, March 2003

As a new generation of women in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements celebrate International Women’s Day, a look back at the life and ideas of the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, a pioneer of the struggle for socialism and women’s liberation.

Child Abuse, the Family and Society

Socialism Today No.50, September 2000

Against the background of tabloid sensationalism and vigilante attacks, the issue of child abuse is a social problem which cannot be tackled by simplistic populist slogans.

Women and the Family: After the Wall

Socialism Today No.43, November 1999

Three articles in our series on ten years since the fall of the Berlin wall: on the position of women in Russia; in the former East Germany; and on why women have borne a disproportionate share of the costs of capitalist restoration.

International Women’s Day

Socialism Today No.36, March 1999

Reports from correspondents in Brazil, Japan, Sri Lanka and the USA on the continuing worldwide struggle of working-class women for solidarity, equality and socialism.

New Labour’s Family Values

Socialism Today No.34, December 1998-January 1999

Despite government protestations that it is ‘not about lecturing people about how they should live their lives’, the use of the state to influence and shape people’s behaviour runs like a thread through New Labour’s family and welfare policy.

Women, Rebellion and Revolution

Socialism Today No.32, October 1998

In 1918, women in Britain won their first major victory in the struggle for the right to vote – an historic struggle which inspired thousands of women to fight against inequality and discrimination. But with women’s lives transformed by economic and social changes over the past few decades, how relevant is the movement for the vote to women today?

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