SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

International Women’s Day

Over the years, International Women’s Day – originally intended to mark the inspirational struggle of the half of the world oppressed because of gender – has been 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, ELEANOR DONNE outlines its origins and relevance today, while ANNE ENGELHARDT reports on the struggle for abortion rights worldwide.

MARCH 8th IS International Women’s Day. These days in most parts of the world this event has lost its political character and is often little more than a glossy promotional event for ‘woman friendly’ businesses and a vague ‘celebration’ of women’s achievements. It is worth reminding ourselves, however, of its roots in the socialist movement of the early 20th century, and the role it played as a focal point for the struggles of working-class women internationally, for better working conditions and pay, and for a political voice.

1908: Fifteen thousand women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

1909: In the US, women garment workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday of February until 1913.

1910: At the second Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) proposed the idea of an International Working Women’s Day to highlight the particular oppression of women and honour their struggle for equal rights, including the right to vote and stand for political office. Over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed the proposal that they should celebrate a ‘women’s day’ under the slogan: "The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism". (Alexandra Kollontai, A Militant Celebration, 1920)

1911: Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen in 1911, International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work and for training, to vote, hold public office and for an end to discrimination. The Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, captured the mood of militancy: "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". (A Militant Celebration)

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disastrous event drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the USA and became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events.

1913: Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913 with illegal meetings. They expanded their campaign in 1914, many facing imprisonment and exile by the tsarist regime. The call for the vote in Russia was seen as an open call for the overthrow of the tsar.

First world war, 1914-18: The Socialist International disintegrated as most of its constituent parties lined up behind ‘their own’ countries’ ruling classes on the outbreak of war. Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish leader of the German revolutionary movement, used International Women’s Day as a focus for anti-war rallies in 1914 and 1915, in spite of efforts at sabotage by right-wing leaders in the SPD. Luxemburg was assassinated in 1919 along with Karl Liebknecht, with the complicity of the SPD government.

1917: On International Women’s Day, Russian women textile workers began a strike for ‘bread and peace’ in response to the death of over two million Russian soldiers in the world war, and to demand an end to food shortages. They faced armed troops and crucially 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 had commenced on Sunday 23 February, according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. This day in the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was 8 March. (After the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, the Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar.)

Kollontai wrote: "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". (A Militant Celebration)

In many countries, especially those of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, International Women’s Day is still an official holiday. This is largely because of the significance of that date in February 1917 in sparking the movement that led to the Russian tsar being overthrown (known as the February revolution). Later, as Stalinism took hold and the progressive programme of the early Soviet state on women’s rights was rolled back, International Women’s Day was stripped of its revolutionary character, ending up as something like a cross between Valentine’s day and mother’s day when men honour their wives, girlfriends, work colleagues, etc, with flowers and small gifts!

Do we need International Women’s Day today?

IN THE ADVANCED capitalist countries women’s position in society and our rights generally have improved greatly since the first International Women’s Day events in the early 20th century and even since the International Year of Women in 1975. This has led some, even some ex-veterans of the 1970s women’s movement, to argue that women are not specifically oppressed any more. Others have even argued that men have lost rights in favour of women. Perhaps that is why there is now a semi-official International Men’s Day (in November in case you were wondering).

However, it is not the case that women, working-class women in particular, have achieved equality, let alone liberation, and in some parts of the world their situation has got worse. In the former Stalinist countries women face increased poverty, violence and sexual exploitation as the economies nose-dived with capitalist restoration, childcare and public services were slashed, jobs disappeared and society fragmented. In the ex-colonial world women make up the majority of the poor, and girls and women often face oppressive laws controlling their sexuality and behaviour.

The struggle against women’s oppression, the determination to change society that was the inspiration for the original International Women’s Day is just as vital today. Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai and others active in the Socialist International in the early 20th century understood that working-class women have the most to gain from getting rid of the system of capitalism and, in spite of the obstacles they face, can be the most determined fighters for socialism.

Bread & Roses

THE SONG, Bread and Roses, by the ‘working women of the west’ (1911/12), is associated in particular with the strike of women immigrant workers at a huge textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1911. With the help of the mass union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, in particular their full-time organiser, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, they won most of their demands for increased pay and better working conditions.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,

The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

The global struggle for abortion rights

THE ABORTION DEBATE has been stirring up the media-landscape again. However, while the abortion issue is being used as a political football in the election campaigns of Spain, Italy and the US, women worldwide still have to suffer the consequences of illegal and botched abortions, as well as the daily crimes of rape and domestic violence.

That women should have the right to choose does not only mean the right of abortion on demand but also reproductive rights in general, as well as their right to have choice in every single part of their lives. That includes free access to every kind of education, to good and equally paid jobs, childcare and also medical care.

However, these options for working-class women often lie behind obstacles like money, dependence on the husband or the family, on the state and religion. All over the world, women are faced with the fear of losing their jobs, houses, their children, even their lives.

Every year about 70,000 women die because of the consequences of unsafe abortion, 67,700 in neo-colonial countries. Of the 42 million abortions a year, over 20 million are under unsafe conditions and with unskilled personnel. The main reason for a high mortality rate is the strict laws on abortion and women’s right to choose, as well as the limited access to contraception that leads to unwanted pregnancies, and problems accessing affordable medical care.

More than one billion people live in poverty worldwide. The majority of them are women. The rightwing of the Catholic church demands a worldwide moratorium on abortion and argues that the right of life starts with conception, even comparing the abortion rate with genocide – in Africa every sixth child dies before the age of five, and every day 26,000 children die because of HIV/Aids or illnesses like malaria. In Zimbabwe life expectancy is only 37 years (in the period from 2000-05), a 14-year reduction since 1970. The main reason for this decline is HIV/Aids. Even the chance of a woman dying in childbirth in Africa is three times higher than in industrial states.

In Asia women often use abortion as a way of contraception, because medical access for contraception in most countries is hardly developed. Vietnam is recorded by the World Health Organisation as having one of the highest abortion rates in the world. "Every minute, 398 women become pregnant, 180 pregnancies being unplanned, and one women dies from the complications of pregnancy".* In Yemen only 22% of all births are attended by skilled doctors or nurses, which helps explain the high infant mortality in this country.

Legalised abortion

A LOT OF countries changed their legal frameworks between 1950 and 2007 and legalised abortion, although some of them have restricted their laws again since, and most of them do not allow abortion on demand. The progressive changes in legal frameworks were not made voluntarily, but pushed through by class struggles and mass movements worldwide.

The first country that allowed abortion was Russia. After the Russian revolution in 1917, the world’s first workers’ state was founded, and it gave the first impressions of how a society in which workers have power could look like. Russia’s economic backwardness and poverty were big obstacles to equalising and improving the lives of women. Yet in 1929 a report into the mortality rates of women having an abortion found a rate of "less than one-tenth of 1%", compared to the more economically advanced Germany, which had a mortality rate of 4%.

Under the growing influence of Stalinism, the abortion law was repealed in 1936. In 1956 abortion was legalised again but only up to twelve weeks of pregnancy. From that time, unfortunately, it became the common family planning method in the absence of the availability of good quality contraception.

In Britain, the law was changed in 1967 and abortion on request was allowed up to 28 weeks (reduced in 1990 to 24 weeks). It remains one of the most liberal abortion laws worldwide. The Abortion Act was introduced as one of many reforms gained in the years of the economic boom. More and more women became employed. Involvement in trade union struggle, economic independence and improvements in their living standards meant that they were not only successful in the struggle for abortion rights, but also for equal pay and sex discrimination legalisation.

In France and Germany protest movements of women at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s demanded the legalisation of abortion. In France, part of the campaign included dozens of famous actresses and artists saying to a major magazine that they had had a termination. The same campaign was brought up in Germany. Even the legalisation of abortion in 1972 in the neighbouring state of the GDR (Stalinist East Germany) put pressure on the West German government to liberalise the legal framework on abortion. A law was passed for termination on request up to twelve weeks. This was overturned a year later by the Constitutional Court. So today, abortion is legally only allowed after rape, incest or a few other circumstances. In practice, however, this limitation is not strictly applied.

Canada is the only country where, since 1991, no abortion law exists and a termination is regarded as a normal medical procedure.

Backstreet abortions

IN COUNTRIES WHERE abortion is illegal the mortality rate among women is generally above average, because of illegal and therefore mostly botched abortions. Skilled doctors are afraid of being punished and, although women fear punishment too, they are forced to search for a solution, trying to abort themselves or visiting dubious practitioners, putting themselves in danger of injury or even death because of bungling.

In South Africa the abortion law was liberalised in 1997, and between 1996-2000 the abortion mortality rate decreased more than 90%. In Brazil 250,000 women are admitted to hospital each year because of abortion complications, even though only 140 legal abortions were registered in 2004, after the law on abortion was tightened by the supreme court.

Women who can afford it try to abort in countries where it is allowed. For example, in 1971 specialist clinics were set up in the Netherlands and, from 1975, there were about 12,000 women from Belgium and 9,000 from France travelling there each year.

The number of Irish women who went to Britain to have an abortion increased from 261 in 1970 to 6,400 in 2000. Still today, abortion in Southern Ireland is only allowed under special circumstances, for instance, if the life of the mother is in danger. Even then doctors or nurses are allowed to refuse to give medical help.

Women fight back

IN 2003 IN Nicaragua, where over 80% of the population is Roman Catholic, women’s organisations launched a campaign called ‘I want to be excommunicated’. The reason was that a nine-year-old girl had an abortion with the help of three doctors after she had been raped. But the church excommunicated the parents and the doctors, and the case was brought to trial. Over 26,000 people signed the petition. Because of the protests the case was stopped by the prosecution. However, in 2006, the abortion law was tightened again and now does not allow abortion under any circumstances.

Pro-choice protests are taking place across Britain as right-wing MPs attempt to attack abortion rights. While in Italy, the most recent struggle concerning pro-choice took place on Valentine’s day when all over the country women protested after the police confiscated an aborted foetus at a hospital in Naples, falsely accusing the woman who was still in hospital that her termination had taken place outside the law. That took place while Silvio Berlusconi, other right-wing politicians, and the Vatican, announced that they support a moratorium on abortion worldwide. The protests were quite successful, however, showing that there is opposition to the positions of the political rightwing.

The main reason that abortion has returned as a current issue is that there is a lack of working-class movements at the moment. After the collapse of Stalinism after 1989, the leaderships of many workers’ organisations, like trade unions and workers’ parties, moved to the right. While there are no big workers’ organisations that we can use to fight back, the class struggle from above goes on to try to cut back every achievement of previous workers’ movements, including cuts in our rights.

Even the point that the ruling class has no solutions to the crisis in the economy, makes it feel in danger. On top of social cuts, cuts in healthcare, childcare, the privatisation of public companies and services, they produce a reactionary atmosphere against the rights of wage earners and especially against women.

* Abortion: A Worldwide Perspective, Colin Francome and Marcel Vekemans, published by Middlesex University Press (2007), £19.99. This well-researched book covers 82 countries.


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