By Ana Oppenheim
Today, the world celebrates International Women’s Day – but not everyone is aware of its radical origins.
The first known “Woman’s Day” was organised in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America. The celebration went international in 1911, when German Communist Clara Zetkin proposed the idea at International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. While women’s suffrage was a key demand at the time, the ambitions of the movement didn’t end at that. The slogan was to be: “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.
As the day grew in popularity, it became appropriated by anyone and everyone. Today March 8th is used by companies to sell products and by establishment politicians to make tokenistic gestures. Nevertheless, the date still acts as a rallying point for feminist movements around the world.
In my home country, Poland, it’s a day filled with mourning and rage. In October, 30-year-old Izabela from Pszczyna died of septic shock after being denied an abortion. Her life was cut short by Poland’s draconian abortion law, recenly further restricted by our ultra-conservative government. Like we have for years, women will take to the streets to demand autonomy over our own bodies.
What gives us hope is seeing women around the world, rising up and winning. Recently, some of the most inspiring feminist victories have taken place in Latin America. In 2020, Argentina became the first major Latin American country to legalise abortion, following a decades-long struggle. Then Mexico and Colombia followed suit, lifting penalties for ending a pregnancy. In Chile, as in other countries across the continent, feminists have linked the fight for gender equality with the struggle against neoliberalism. The women’s movement played an important part in the campaign to replace the Pinochet-era consitution, and in the recent election of leftist Gabriel Boric as President.
In other parts of the world, women have also been coming together to show their strength and demand justice. Women played an active role in India’s recent farmers’ protests, which included one of the biggest strikes in world history and ended in a decisive victory at the end of 2021. This time a year ago, thousands of female farmers took part in marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes, highlighting the effect of Modi’s reforms on women.
In the UK, last year also saw a wave of women’s protests, following the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer. Her tragic story served as a painful reminder that our struggle for liberation is far from over. How many of us speed up and clutch keys between our fingers when walking home at night? How many of us anxiously instruct our female friends to text us when they get home? But even getting home doesn’t always mean being safe. More than two women a week die at the hands of a man, in most cases a current or former partner.
What is more, the pandemic has again reminded us that, regardless of the progress women have made in the workplace, the vast majority of the work at home still falls on us. According to the Office for National Statistics, during lockdown women took on two-thirds of the additional childcare duties, in many cases sacrificing their income as a result.
Neoliberal feminism has little to offer the majority of women. The Tories boast about having produced two women Prime Ministers, ignoring the fact that that the burden of austerity has overwhelmingly fallen on our gender: from public sector cuts disproportionately affecting women workers, to the underfunding of services such as childcare and women’s refuges, to Universal Credit increasing many women’s financial dependency on abusive partners. To the problem of gendered violence, politicians of all stripes simply respond with calls for more police – all while the Met tells women to “shout or wave down a bus” if threatened by one of its own officers.
Instead, we need a socialist feminism; one that doesn’t just elevate a select few women to positions of power, but that seeks to dismantle the structures of oppression. A single mother struggling to heat her home on a minimum wage won’t feel any warmer knowing that her boss is a woman. A victim of human trafficking who ends up abused in a detention centre won’t be any happier under a female Home Secretary.
We need an intersectional feminism that welcomes and recognises the needs of the most marginalised women, those who too often feel excluded from mainstream feminist spaces: whether that’s black and brown women, migrant women, our trans sisters or sex workers. The fact that our experiences are different doesn’t have to divide us; by listening and taking them into account we can more effectively stand up to our shared enemy: the patriarchy.
This International Women’s Day, let’s remember that we owe our hard-won rights to the tireless struggle – not just of the handful of women whose names we celebrate in history books, but the millions of ordinary women throughout centuries who refused to accept injustice. Let’s take inspiration from, and show solidarity with, feminist movements across the world. And let’s demand not just the integration of women into capitalist structures, but a radical transformation of society, for all of us.
Ana Oppenheim is a member of the National Coordinating Group of Momentum.
Image: Zhana Mitkova. https://thegreats.co/artworks/femme-furious, licensed under Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA).
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