Socialist and/or Feminist?

This year, 8 March marked a century of the celebration of International Women’s Day.  But aside from a few publications and websites of women’s movements, this event went largely unremarked in the mainstream press, and also in the public consciousness.

The idea of International Women’s Day was born in the socialist movement in the first decade of the 20th century.  Clara Zetkin, socialist leader and head of the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic party in Germany, proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day — to be known as a Women’s Day — to recognise the social contribution of women and to press for their demands.  As a socialist and an early (but not self-acknowledged) feminist, Zetkin saw this as part of a broader anti-capitalist movement that would also foster cooperation between women in unions, women’s organizations and socialist parties so they would unite and fight jointly in the class struggle for a more progressive society.

This suggestion was accepted unanimously at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910, which included over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, as well as the first three women elected to the parliament in Finland.

The first International Women’s Day (IWD) was honoured in some European countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland) in 1911 on 17 March.  Rallies were held involving more than a million people (both women and men), raising demands for women’s right to work and be given equal wages, to vote, to hold public office and to end other forms of discrimination.  The Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai described one of these rallies as composed of “one seething, trembling sea of women . . . certainly the first show of militancy (in Europe) by working women”.  The demands raised at those first demonstrations still resonate today: an end to imperialist wars; better social and economic conditions for women and children; controls on rapidly rising food prices.

In the United States, on 8 March 1908, socialist women and women workers from the clothing and textile trades in the city held a mass meeting for an eight-hour day and women’s suffrage.  But less than a week after the first IWD in Europe in 1911, on March 25 the tragic “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” in New York City in the United States led to the deaths of more than 140 working women, mostly recent migrants into the US.  This led to greater attention to working conditions and labour legislation for women, in the United States and other developed countries, and these also became important rallying points for the demands made for women on IWD in later years.

The reason that the date was shifted to 8 March is of great relevance for the global women’s movement.  In 1917 in Tsarist Russia, Russian women went on strike for “bread and peace”, partly in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in war.  The strike began on the last Sunday of February (which was 8 March by the Gregorian calendar used throughout most of the world).  The strike continued despite state repression and personal hardship endured by the women.  This was the catalyst for — and effectively became the first stage of — the Russian Revolution.  Four days later the Tsar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.  Ever since, IWD has been celebrated on 8 March not only to press for demands for gender equality, but importantly as recognition of the tremendous power that women can wield when they unite.

The association of IWD with broader struggles of working people has remained a critical part of its essence.  The slogan most often used on IWD was “Class struggle is women’s struggle — women’s struggle is class struggle!”  It was therefore very much part of the activities of trade unions and workers’ organizations, who recognised that women’s emancipation cannot occur within a social and economy system that denies the emancipation of workers in general, and vice versa.

But as IWD became more international (taken up by the United Nations in the second half of the 20th century) and even “official” in scope, this critical link between the emancipation of women and broader economic and social emancipation of all has often been sidelined.  This reflects a general tension that unfortunately still remains between feminism and other progressive Left movements — a tension that persists all the more because the Left is the natural and inevitable home of those aspiring to the liberation of women.

Women have been part of the working class since the beginning of capitalism, even when they have not been widely acknowledged as workers in their own right.  Even when they are not paid workers, their often unacknowledged and unpaid contribution to social reproduction and to many economic activities is absolutely essential for the functioning of the system.

However, it did take a long time for women’s struggles to be accepted as integral part of working class struggles for a better society.  For many decades, even after the first IWD was celebrated to highlight the demands of women, trade unions and other worker organisations tended to be male preserves, based on the “male breadwinner” model of the household in which the husband/father worked outside to earn money, while the wife/mother did not earn outside income and handled domestic work.

It has taken prolonged struggle and determined mobilisation to generate greater social recognition of the role of women as wage workers in different forms, as well as to bring out the crucial economic significance of unpaid household labour and community-based work that is dominantly performed by women.  Even so, it must be admitted that a major problem for many women activists has been the fundamental inequality in the alliance between feminism and socialism.  As noted by Donald Sassoon in his magisterial history of the European Left in the 20th century (One Hundred Years of Socialism, New York: The New Press, 1996, page 419), “It was accepted by socialists only on their own terms, namely that the social struggle between capital and labour was to be recognised as fundamental; the emancipation of women as women depended on the victory of the working class.”

Partly this reflected a concern that “bourgeois” feminism would distract from the critical question of class struggle, which is why even someone like Clara Zetkin could insist that socialist women should avoid cooperating with other feminist groups.  But the social reality of the experience of socialist countries in the 20th century has also shown that the breaking of gender stereotypes and domestic division of labour is not necessarily achieved through the dictatorship of the proletariat, even when significant strides are made in gender equality in other ways.

For socialist feminists, this has meant a dual and more complex process of struggle: the need to address and confront the unjust economic order that is expressed in class societies, and the simultaneous need to address and confront the constantly regenerated patterns of gender inequality and subordination that are expressed not just in economic terms but also socially, culturally and politically.  The complexity is usually made more intense because of the fact that the second type of struggle involves taking on not only opposing class forces, but also elements within parties, trade unions and other organisations of the Left.

The fact that this second kind of struggle is happening more and more in India and elsewhere may appear to be divisive of Left and progressive movements, but it is actually a sign of great vitality.  True emancipation obviously requires a politics that has shed its explicit and implicit masculinity, to pave the way for socialism for women and men equally.  For that reason alone, it is probably important for socialist men to remember and celebrate International Women’s Day.

Jayati Ghosh is Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Executive Secretary of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs).  This article was first published in MacroScan on 11 April 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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