Stop Violence Against Women! The history of International Women’s Day and some suggested lessons for us today
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Saturday, 8 March 2014
- Written by Sara Mayo
This unfinished essay is based on my ‘Stop Violence Against Women’ protest speech to celebrate the socialist and working class history of International Women’s Day and its lesson for our struggle at the Cardiff Feminist Network protest of the same name today.
Stop Violence Against Women! The history of International Women’s Day and some suggested lessons for us today
The theme of this protest today is 'Stop violence against women' for a reason – too many of us have personally experienced gender-based violence – be it physical, sexual, emotional, financial or psychological – and/or know women who’ve suffered it. We all know the chilling statistics here in Wales and England – two women a week are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. This constitutes nearly 40% of all female homicide victims (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005 cited by Women’s Aid website). Our struggle today, seen here in Cardiff in the enthusiasm and courage of the women (and their male allies) who marched last night for ‘Reclaim the Night’ and today for abortion rights and who gathered on Unite the Union’s protest against cuts and their impact on women is just a glimpse of what is to come: a rising of women. A rising not only against gender-based violence and the basic human right to control our own bodies, but to fight for our economic and social justice in all its forms. To fight against a system which, for example, denies us legal aid when fighting for access to our children when the abuser is rich, as I know one sister of ours currently faces. To fight against a system that means endless cuts to benefits, jobs and services. A system which means huge numbers of working class women rely on violent loan sharks to borrow money they don’t have at astronomical rates, even facing ‘payment in kind’ or rape, when unable to repay said debt (revealed at a recent training day for Citizen’s Advice Bureau). Our NHS is under attack through huge and longstanding cuts here in Wales, which we need access to when we experience the violence we suffer because of our gender e.g. Sexual Assault Referral Clinics, counselling services. Then there is the chronic underfunding of non NHS provided specialist services such as Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Aid, which has gone on for years.
I think we can trace our fight for women’s rights today through an unending chain of resistance across the world from Egypt to Spain to the US to Wales. A chain unbroken and extending over a hundred years of International Women’s Day. I think we have the right to know the history of International Women’s Day and what lessons it has for us today. It empowers us to know where International Women's Day comes from and who fought for it and it was working women fighting for their rights – to end poverty wages, endless working hours, unsafe working conditions, child labour, the right to paid leave, maternity rights, childcare, access to abortion and the right to join a trade union. For example, there was the heroic struggle of the mainly women and migrant mill workers’ strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Great struggles of working women like this were the direct inspiration of the founders of International Women’s Day. The world may have changed beyond recognition from a hundred years ago, yet the struggle against oppression, injustice and exploitation remains as urgent as ever. Many of the conditions these women were organising against remain very much in today’s workforce, including right here in Cardiff. The Lawrence workers went on strike partially over a 56-hour week, for example – a reality also for so many of today’s workers, many of whom are women. In addition to the key, inescapable question of class, oppression takes many forms: gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, to name some of the best known. Yet all are enforced by a global economic system called capitalism – private ownership of the economy organised for profit and not social and environmental need. Today, I focus on class and gender, which is not in any way to minimise any of these other forms of oppression because they are all burning issues our movement must challenge and educate ourselves on.
Born of women workers’ struggle in the US and Europe, IWD was proposed by socialists, in particular, Clara Zetkin at an international women’s conference preceding the Second Socialist International conference in Copenhagen in 1910. The conference voted for Zetkin’s resolution for an international women’s day and a year later, in 1911, the first one was held. Over a million participated in protests in Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. IWD was used as a mechanism to protest against the First World War from 1914 onwards. This is worth remembering today and the best way to continue in that spirit is to protest against war, whether in the Crimea, Iraq, Afghanistan or the apartheid and occupation of Palestine, to give just a few examples. Other key issues for IWD originally, some of which have already been listed, were the fight for universal suffrage (still an aim in many parts of the world!), equal rights (we’re still fighting!), no employment discrimination (women are still being sacked for being pregnant in Cameron’s UK In 2014!) and access to education and training (still a huge issue for millions of women and girls around the world).
Furthermore, it’s impossible to discuss IWD’s history without commenting on this day’s significance for the start of the February Russian Revolution (in the old Russian calendar, the day was 8 March): women factory workers in old St Petersburg came out on strike for ‘Bread and Peace’ to protest the carnage of the First World War and the chronic food shortages facing the Russian masses. This triggered a revolution which overthrew the Tsar four days later when he abdicated in response to these events.
Some might ask why these events are significant and relevant for us today. Yet I think some of the insights provided back then by activists still hold true today. For example, and forgive me for quoting a man at a feminist event, but the great American socialist Eugene Debs made this pertinent statement:
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of men and women who work all their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
There are socialists and left wingers out there who don’t think IWD is particularly important. This was also true 100 years ago. The fantastic socialist feminist Alexandra Kollontai argued against these views powerfully. For example, in 1913 she said:
’Women’s Day’ is a link in the long, solid chain of the women’s proletarian movement. The organised army of working women grows with every year...The women’s socialist army has almost a million members. A powerful force! A force that the powers of this world must reckon with when it is a question of the cost of living, maternity insurance, child labour and legislation to protect female labour. Alexandra Kollantai, Women’s Day’ February 1913, Pravda
What a message! We can take direct inspiration from it today. And what is the reality of women’s economic position in ‘modern’ 21st century capitalism? The following UN statistics sum it up in four key facts:
- Women are 50% of the world’s population
- Women work two thirds of the world’s working hours
- Women receive 10% of the world’s income
- Women own less than 1 % of the world’s property
Yet as the example of the Russian Revolution shows, precisely because of women’s double burden, they are more often than not at the heart of struggle.
And what is the state of the movement today? It is vital that the labour movement and wider protest movement puts the struggle against gender-based violence high on the agenda. Gender-based violence is a huge barrier for women to take part in struggle – anywhere in the world. This is seen graphically and horrifyingly in Egypt where right wing state forces at different stages of the revolutionary struggle have consciously used sexual assault and harassment as a divide and rule tool to stop women participating in protests and undermine a united struggle against poverty, unemployment and social and economic oppression in Egypt. Yet our Egyptian sisters courageously continue to organise and fight back. We can be proud of our internationalism – the recognition of women’s and working people's struggle across borders is a guiding principle of this day and our movement.
Furthermore, the above example of state-orchestrated violence is just one of so many internationally. War and state-orchestrated violence are used by governments as their method of maintaining their power and economic ‘order’ and enforcing submission, be it their own people or other nations'. No wonder then that violence against women is so normalised. The so-called personal nature of domestic and sexual violence follows the political. And political violence at the hand of capitalist states is used to enforce economic domination and dictatorship over the working class and poor across the world.
The labour movement is essential to defend and fight for our economic, social and political interests. But so too is the feminist movement. We need to work with each other, discuss with each and listen to each other and continue our longstanding relationship with each other – indeed, many of us are part of both already. It’s important to remember that so many of the historic gains won by women here came from by organising within the labour movement. Equal pay legislation was won by striking female Ford workers in Dagenham. Gender-based violence impacts all women, irrespective of class, and it’s great that women can unite to oppose it but ultimately, for the majority of us, we can’t limit ourselves to fighting to end this oppression on an individual basis, whilst ignoring the system itself. Trade unions have a powerful role in helping to combat violence against women and defending their both female (and male) members in this situation. Thanks to the work of socialists around the Campaign Against Domestic Violence of the early 1990s, for example, many trade unions here adopted policies to oppose domestic violence. But the work can’t stop there and many female trade unionists continue to champion women’s rights in the movement today... tbc
Sara Mayo, Cardiff Feminist Network and Cardiff County Branch Unison (both personal capacity) and Cardiff Left UnityAdd a comment
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Tuesday, 25 February 2014
- Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
I made the decision to go to the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity because it is rare to spend a day talking about women’s issues on the left and listening to women’s struggles, particularly on a national level and with such a broad section of the left. I began my day in the anti-racist workshop, having missed the preliminary session. I decided to go the anti racist workshop over the others, because I am on the Left Unity Anti Racist and Immigration commissioning group and I am a refugee caseworker. I think I went to the best meeting, but I knew this would be the case because I have inside knowledge about the layers of racism and sexism and how austerity is affecting people in BME communities in a structural way, as well as the communities having to deal with being blamed for the lack of jobs within wider society. However, this was the least attended meeting and most people in the room seemed to be involved and working within BME community organisations, so the discussion was between people in the know.Add a comment
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Friday, 24 January 2014
- Written by Kat (Cardiff / SC)
The 'We Want a Women's Mag' meeting was a great success, with a turnout of 23 women at a quick headcount and five men. Women in the room were from a wide range of left organisations, involved in campaigns, in their unions and unaffiliated and not one organisation dominated in numbers, which was refreshing. We really felt there was a regroupment of the left in women’s politics.
The day kicked off with a brief introduction: the aim of the meeting was to bring women across the left together, to share ideas about the publication and what we want to get out of it. The purpose of the publication is to create a space for women to express themselves, which was summed up brilliantly by a friend and comrade of mine: that 100% space means a dedicated space for more voices to be heard, rather than having to fight for space in a general interest publication. I think it is important to continue to write for other left publications and insist on women’s space within all publications, at the same time as creating our own space. As a Marxist, I think a class analysis of oppression is important, but we should not cut ourselves off from learning new ideas from women in the movement, so all women on the left are welcome to contribute to our shared voice. I think it is important to hear to voices of marginalised women, such as migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, because this is the area I work in and I understand how disempowered these women are and how little we hear of their lives and experiences.
We had a full and comradely discussion, with a wonderful collaboration of ideas and a sharing of our experiences in our workplaces, the unions and in the movement. It was interesting to hear what feminism meant to different people, with one comrade expressing that feminism for her was an old 1970's analysis, having grown up then, she felt 'liberation politics' was a better and new way of understanding women's oppression. A couple of us born in the 1980's, having left the SWP and the SP felt that the 'liberation politics' label is a tool that is used to beat women on the left in to conforming to a narrow understanding of oppression, which has cut us off from important feminist discourse. We shouldn’t forget what the feminist movement did for us, because it put women’s autonomy on the map, helped build women’s confidence and created safe spaces to work together. Women expressed that we should open up to 21st century feminist ideas and carry the voices of women fighting back now, whilst remembering the struggle our sisters fought in the past.
Women's intentions for our magazine varied, some envisaged a campaign publication for working class women, where others thought it should be something all women want to read, which includes healthy living and fashion pages, from a left perspective, and others a new way of ordinary women and not just theoreticians, coming up with new theory. Many women felt sexual violence should be covered in all issues of the magazine, particularly those of us who have experienced cover-ups of rape and violence in left-wing organisations, although some felt that these issues were covered adequately by the mainstream media, particularly in the Guardian. Some women expressed the need to hear the voices of low paid women, dealing with bullying from management, women on strike, and women in struggle. There was a suggestion that the left should be discussing the grooming of girls, such as the case of the girls in Rochdale who were sex trafficked, rather than leaving the reporting of this to the right wing media. These were all important ideas and we really got a feel for the energy and vibrancy of our project and a glimpse at a publication bursting with the lives, thoughts and interests of all women standing together in life and struggle.
We discussed women’s services and availability issues, sex education and healthy relationships, and that Women’s Aid are involved in educational workshops. We heard about the 1 Million Women Rise, bringing music and dance to Bristol, drawing attention to violence against women. Some felt we should have a charter to take to the movement and others felt this was restrictive. In the run up to the WW1 anniversary we could write about women in history opposing imperialist wars, such as Rosa Luxemburg. We should interview women in the movement, including women from BME communities involved in the United Family Campaign, cleaners successful in strike action for better pay and conditions, and open up a line of communication with Southall Black Sisters. We thought it would be great to hear the voices of women from Syria and other war torn countries writing about their region and experience, and we should include stories, music and art from revolutionary Egypt.
We discussed how we should use previous feminist magazines, such as Spare Rib, as a model to help set up the publication. A clear consensus was reached on the format of the publication - blog to send in content, website with PDF versions of the contributions, and a run of a print publication, depending on finance and events. The new editorial team is made up of volunteers, from a cross-section of organisations on the left, with skills ranging from editorial experience, ability to speak a number of languages, including Russian, Japanese and German and organisational experience. I personally felt that whilst skills are important in order to put our words in to practice, our politics and a commitment to organising are also essential components in the composition of the editorial board, and we should give room for skills to be learnt. The deadline for the magazine has not be set, but the editorial board will be meeting to discuss the next stage of the process, and we have a list of names and contact details of the women who would like to get involved, so we will be setting up an email list. If you are interested in getting involved, we have a Facebook page called We Want a Women’s Mag and the blog and the website will be coming soon so we will send out more details.
Finally, I would like to thank our five male comrades; Simon, for his technical support and minute taking, when we most needed it, James and Steven for standing by as crèche support workers for anyone who needed this facility throughout the day, and Arnie and Paul for their patience, support and thoughtful contributions. We really felt supported by you all.Add a comment
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Thursday, 7 November 2013
- Written by Kat Burdon-Manley
‘When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.’
This is the opening sentence of Russell Brand’s piece in the New Statesman, on revolution. When I first read the article on my break at work on a Friday, I was glad Brand was using his platform to raise issues that are very important to me. I too want social justice, the redistribution of wealth, and an end to exploitation. However, I also want an end to all oppression, so when women are so flippantly objectified and dehumanised by a throwaway comment, I am deeply hurt, in the most personal way.Add a comment
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Monday, 7 October 2013
- Written by Shanice McBean
This article was first published by Shanice on Facebook.
A reply to John Molyneux's article, History without nature? A response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson, in International Socialism.
The riot of Stonewall in 1969 marks a decisive reference point for the history of LGBT struggle. Pre-Stonewall there was a pervasive pressure for LGBT people to assimilate into the gender and sexual norms enforced by the nuclear family. These conditions meant a lot of LGBT people found themselves in heterosexual relationships that involved a feminine woman being the subordinate to a masculine man.
The Stonewall riot and the Gay Liberation movement (GLM) that followed created the conditions where rejecting the confines of assimilation became an act of political subversion. The popularisation of the camp aesthetic alongside bawdy and extravagant aspects of the GLM was a reaction to the repression concomitant to the previous period of enforced heteronormativity.
It was during this context of a backlash against assimilation that the diversity of sexual and gender identification became much more visible. The question of visibility is deeply connected to the history of LGBT struggle precisely because a major aspect of LGBT oppression is forcing the diversity of sexual and gender identities to become invisible. We can see this still today, where even Conservatives publically support same-sex relationship equality so long as that very same-sex identity becomes invisible; by dissolving itself into the heteronormative structure of the nuclear family through marriage.
The subsuming of LGBT identity to heteronormative structures (like the family) is a major way LGBT oppression operates under capitalism which means visibility is central to LGBT struggle under capitalism. This is why, despite the limitations, events like Pride are incredibly important. Crucially, this means left wing theorists on gender and sexuality need to actively refuse to contribute to the invisibility of LGBT identity.
What is the relevance of the question of visibility to John Molyneux’s International Socialism piece? The assumptions of his arguments inherently wipe out the very possibility of transgender identity. Molyneux’s main arguments work on the assumption that gender is not a social construct but is a biological reality that is influenced by society. Indeed he writes: "Race is not a scientifically valid or useful biological category in the way that gender is. The notion of distinct races really is a social/historical construction. The concept of distinct genders or sexes is not." This is revealing. Firstly, it confirms that his assumption is that gender has a strong biological element. Secondly, it shows he conflates gender with sex: ‘genders or sexes’. The consequences of this are incredibly problematic: if gender is simply a matter of biology then it follows people born with a male anatomy cannot then become women (and vice versa for people born with female anatomies). This wipes out the theoretical possibility and therefore denies the very existence of transgender people who, fundamentally, find they have a mismatch between their anatomy and gender.
If, on the other hand, gender is not solely but is partly a matter of biology then it follows transgender women/men can never truly be women/men because they will always be lacking that other necessary constituent of gender: biology. The understanding of gender as conceived in any correlative way to biology creates either the theoretical space for the non-existence of transgender identity, or, allows the space for transgender identity to be conceived of as less full or less real than cisgender identity. This line of thinking perpetuates the invisibility of transgender people and, I believe, we ought to call this kind of crude gender essentialism what it is: transphobic.
This seems quite contrary to common sense, though. It is universally acknowledged (at least in the 21st Century West) that there is some biological basis for gender. How can we reconcile the transphobic consequences of correlating gender with biology with the seemingly scientific pressure to suggest some basis in biology for our understanding of gender?
It is at this point we can go back to Molyneux’s quotation above: he says ‘gender or sexes’ as if the two words designate the same thing and are therefore synonymous. It is here that Molyneux’s ignorance on the issue is most glaring: there has, over many decades of thought into the subject, emerged a sharp distinction between sex and gender. This distinction is relevent in theoretical and philosophical discussion but is also becoming cemented scientific and sociological investigation - making the distinction not just a pretty abstract theory but a facet of reality.
The distinction is understood as follows: sex is denoted by the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ and designates biological categories. One’s sex is defined by hormones, genitalia, reproductive capacities etc. Gender, contrastingly, is social: it designates the role one plays in society, one’s aesthetic expression, one’s position in society relative to others, one’s social behaviour and is denoted by words like ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Sex does not give rise to gender: the two are ontologically autonomous.
It is this distinction that allows us to maintain the common sense assumption that there is some biological element worth considering here and the reality that trans people are fully the gender they identify with. By sex and gender being the subject of different spheres a necessary connection between the two is severed. You can have the biology of a male but fully be a woman (i.e. a transgender woman) or you can have the biology of a female and similarly fully be a man.
It’s worth stating here that as Marxists we believe that theory should be based on reality; not the other way around. It may seem to some that the gender/sex distinction was invented to solve the political problem of making trans identity invisible. This would be mistaken. We know that, objectively, transgender women/men are fully women/men. Some transgender people aim to - and some do - cement themselves within the world as the gender they are and then become understood by the world as being that gender. Therefore any theory that leads to the conclusion that transgender identity cannot exist (i.e. by fixing gender statically to biology) or cannot exist to the fullest extent of gender identity (i.e. by fixing gender to biology in some way) must be wrong. The gender/sex distinction is, then, not an invention but a discovery. There is something fundamentally different between biological anatomy (sex) and the socially constructed moulds we are forced to occupy (gender) and it is this coming apart of the two that means transgender identity is as real and true and full as cisgender identity.
Gender, then, becomes the oppressive moulds we are socialized into and who gets socialized into what role is determined by sex markers that signify what sex one belongs to. In class society this is most signified by the capacity for reproduction. What this distinction means is there is no inevitable or necessary connection between sex and gender. This circumvents the problem of making transgender people invisible but also circumvents the gender essentialism that justifies a lot of women’s oppression. It does this whilst also explaining why biology tends also to be a key consideration all the while remaining rooted as a description of the way the world is.
The discussion, however, does not end at this distinction. There is clearly a distinction between what we want to call sex (biological anatomy) and what we want to call gender (the social moulds that capitalism enforces to oppress us for its own ends). But the next question is a lot more radical; is the very categorisation of human beings by biological sex something timeless and inherent to nature? This is to ask the question of whether the very categorisation of people into biological sexes is itself a social construct.
Take for example categorisation based on race; before racism categorising people by their skin colour was no more sensible than identifying and categorising people by the shape of their ears. How much, then, is the demarcation between people who can reproduce and those who cannot a product of oppression rather than a natural line of division? While it is true that people with a womb can have children and people without cannot, this does not, as Molyneux seems to argue, mean that sex is ‘natural’. It is also true that black people can have brown skin and white people cannot – due to biology – but this does not mean the basis for race is natural. This question is very complex and I haven’t got the space here to fully explore it. The point is simply this: the notion that sex is categorisation superficially made in order to create pseudo-scientific justifications of oppression is not one that can be refuted by stating the obvious fact that there is one group of people who can reproduce and another who cannot.
Furthermore sex itself – and so the ability to reproduce – does not fit neatly into the male/female dichotomy. Some women are infertile, some men have wombs, and some people are biologically neither male nor female because they were born with an anatomy somewhere in between (i.e. intersexuality).
This raises a whole lot of serious questions for us. If gender and the categorisation of sex are both socially constructed then what is the explanation for the very strong pull in the direction of seeing gender/sex as solely or mainly biological? What is the creative political potential for subverting gender conventions under capitalism to undermine gendered oppression and heteronormativity? Why, if gender is constructed socially, does there seem to be behavioural continuities between women as a group and men as a group (a very good resource on this would be Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender where she systematically refutes the notion that behavioural continuity between the sexes is because of biology). There are many more questions that this topic raises than it answers and that’s why we need to discuss it; not regurgitate rehearsed and unresearched dogma where the sole purpose is to attack individuals, rather than genuinely and keenly seek a Marxist understanding of gender, sex and sexuality.
The image at the head of the article is an untitled photomontage by Linder, originally used as the cover to the Buzzcocks' Orgasm Addict, 1977.Add a comment
- Category: Women's Liberation
- Published on Wednesday, 25 September 2013
- Written by Admin
6pm 2nd October
University of London Union
Malet Street, WC1E 7HY
Hiliary Wainwright was one of the original authors of Beyond the Fragments and an editor of Red Pepper magazine.
Kate Smurthwaite is an activist and comedian.
Alison Lord is a member of the UCU trade union, the IS Network and Left Unity.
Beyond the Fragments was a pioneering text of the socialist-feminist movement first published in 1979. In several essays, the authors, Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Seagal, and Sheila Rowbotham, argued that self-organisation, horizontalism, and prefigurative politics was the central lesson of the feminist movement.
Speaking to the experience of, and disenchantment with, economistic and authoritarian socialism, Beyond the Fragments wove together influences from the feminist movement with central arguments of the radical new left.
Recently republished in a revised and updated edition, drawing on the experience of recent movements such as Occupy, Beyond the Fragments remains a key text for those concerned to re-evaluate anticapitalist politics today.
We are delighted to be able to invite you to participate in a discussion at University of London Union at 6pm on the 2nd October. We would also be particularly grateful if you could let your networks know about this event.
More on Beyond the Fragments -
“Beyond the Fragments”: I’m a socialist feminist. Can I be a radical feminist too?
After Beyond the Fragments
Beyond the Fragments: Autonomist Feminism
Beyond the Fragments
Beyond the Fragments has been organised by London Left Unity, a new project initiated by Ken Loach to create a new, broad, party of the left.Add a comment
- Response to some comradely criticisms
- Sexism in an age of austerity
- Statement on Twitter threats
- Len T: The ‘F’ word: a correction - Callinicos, Brenner and Ramas on women's oppression
- The ‘F’ Word: Marxism and women’s oppression today
- Toni M: Violence against women
- Creeping sexism
- Ian Beeching: We must embrace women’s gains on responding to sexual assault