Sunday, March 16, 2014

The history of International Women’s Day (part 2)

by Sara Mayo

Second part of my ‘Stop Violence against Women: The history of International Women’s Day’ article (based on my speech with the same title at the Cardiff Feminist Network IWD protest) (part 1 here)

International Women’s Day this year closely coincided with the 30th anniversary of the start of the great Miners’ Strike of 1984/84 in the U.K. This was the greatest battle of the working class in this country in living memory and a defining event for many of us, even those of us who were just small children at the time. The devastating consequences of the miners’ultimate defeat at the cowardly hands of the then Labour Party leader Kinnock and the TUC leaders who refused to call out the whole class in defence of the strike meant that our class here suffered an almighty setback – but we can take inspiration from the heroic struggle of working class men and women who fought for jobs, their communities and trade union and socialist principles and fight on today.

Furthermore, a key lesson for us today is the amazing role of women in this strike, women who showed just what they were capable of as they fought alongside their brothers, helping to put women’s rights back on the agenda too. During the strike the vital lesson of working class solidarity and collective action also helped to directly challenge sexism, racism and homophobia in the communities, raising consciousness and changing attitudes. A united struggle of working class women and men is absolutely possible – this is a key legacy of the strike.

Meanwhile, Thatcher may have been the first female prime minister in U.K. history, but she was no feminist icon and was instead a ruthless class enemy. Thatcher’s capitalist economic policies, in the name of ‘neo-liberalism’, have massively worsened the lives of working class women in particular, whilst her economic and foreign policies have devastated billions of lives around the globe.

Even worse,‘New’ Labour directly continued with her government’s policies and embraced capitalism whole heartedly, with Blair himself proud to be Thatcher’s heir in effect. For instance, one of the first acts of Blair’s government, following the Labour landslide of 1997, was to destroy free education at university by introducing tuition fees and replacing grants with loans. It was this issue which first got me politically active whilst a student, as I was in the first year which had to pay the fees when I went to university in 1998.

This policy has priced out many working class students from university education and means huge debts and hardships for those of us who do go. One of the horrifying consequences of both tuition fees (continued and increased under the Con Dems) and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance in England and cuts in Wales, has been the huge increase in the number of female students turning to the sex trade to help pay for their education, as research by the NUS has shown for example. Therefore, Labour’s capitalist policies as well as the Con Dems have massively compounded the worsening of women’s position and lead to a further increase in sexism, albeit already a structural feature of this system. This is on top of Labour’s many other economic crimes and, of course, the blood pouring from their war mongering policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine etc.

Today of course we face the brutal austerity of the Con Dem government, whose spending cuts for the working class are also implemented by both Labour and Plaid Cymru in Wales. We need a working class, socialist but also feminist alternative to all of these parties. But in the meantime, let IWD be a call to women everywhere to once again move into the streets, into the unions and into socialist, anti-racist and feminist struggle to get rid of this government and all governments internationally committing mass crimes against the working class, whilst allowing themselves and their capitalist friends to bask in incredible wealth e.g. 85 richest people as wealthy as the poorest half of the world, according to Oxfam.

However, I also need to issue a warning to socialists, anarchists and the labour movement as a whole; whilst it is right that we concentrate the blame on the system itself, that doesn’t lessen our own responsibilities to challenge sexism and abuse of women on our side. We need to learn from the feminist movement too; the dialogue between the labour movement and feminism needs to be a two way process. Women, especially young women, are increasingly sick of sexism and gender based violence and we will not wait until the revolution to sort it out comrades. We need action now. Fighting for women is not separate from the class struggle, it's integral to it. We cannot have a tokenistic attitude towards women’s rights. Nor can the labour movement look the other way and pretend it didn’t happen when perpetrators are exposed by survivor activists in the movement (There is also no reason to assume that the mainly female survivors are not telling the truth either, as the evidence based research of organisations such as Women’s Aid confirms). The labour movement has to strive with every sinew of its body to make it a safe space for everyone. If we don’t, we risk undermining the movement’s credibility and alienating women: we are 50% of the population and you NEED us to change society. Furthermore, of course we don’t think all men are capable of abuse but we do need our comrades to take a principled stand against gender based violence and sexism, wherever it rears its destructive and divisive head.

Fortunately, there are many socialists et al who understand this but we need to continue to educate activists on these points. It’s 2014 and not 1914, after all. Yet even over a century ago, we had the likes of Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollantai and today we need countless modern day Zetkins and Kollantais both here and around the globe. But we will not succeed if we can’t practise what we preach.

Finally, I think I’ve made it clear that class division is central to any understanding of how to change society and challenge women’s oppression. But all of us in the movement need to recognise how the different forms of oppression, be it racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia etc, are used as divide and rule tools by the ruling class to weaken us and we all need to recognise how the different forms of oppression must be tackled head on. We need to struggle to make our movement as inclusive as possible and champion the voices of the most oppressed within our class and wider movement, including the feminist one.

Sisters and brothers! IWD 2014 is an opportunity to take our message of solidarity, struggle and resistance to the movement and the world as a whole. Now is the time to fight back, build a mass movement with women at the heart of it and make history again.

In international socialist struggle,

Sara Mayo

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